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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The Scrambag

(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.”

“A flaybo?”

“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?”

“Uh-huh.”

“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?”

“Yeah.”

“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?”

“A bake-sale?”

“That doesn’t have the political connotation I’m looking for.”

“A fundraiser?”

“Does ‘fundraising’ imply the inevitability of physics?”

“Nuh-uh.”

“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?”

“You know.”

“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?

“Uh-huh.”

“Are you homeopaths?

“What?”

“Never-mind.”

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?”

“Sir?”

“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.”

“Wh-What?”

“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?”

“Why?”

“I don’t think my kids should see this.”

“See what?”

“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?”

“Everyone.”

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 profitNow 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.”

“Like what?”

“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?”

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“No.”

“Okay, get out. Wait. What air you breathe, kid?”

“Um. Earth-air?”

“So, nitrogen?”

“…Maybe?”

“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.”

“And?”

“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?”

“Yeah.”

“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.

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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.”

“Heard what?”

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.”

Germa deflated.

“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.”

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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.”

“Why?”

“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.”

“How?”

“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.

“…Scumdaddy?”

“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.”

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“…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.”

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Table of Contents

Daddy, Daughter, Scumbug

“I’m not gonna lie and pretend this’ll hurt me more than it hurts you, but it is gonna hurt me. A bit. I don’t like pickin’ on the little guy, ya know?”

The bodyguard cried and wretched on his gag. He rolled in his bondage, thick iron chains. He was in a circular clearing in a cornfield. He spat out the gag, one of his own socks. “What are you going to do to me? Who are you? What are you?”

“I’m the Scumbug,” burbled the Scumbug. The Scumbug was greenish ooze, like swamp-sludge—about 600 gallons, over 6000 pounds. A host of objects cluttered its interior. One of those objects—a large wooden crate—moved through the Scumbug’s membrane and flopped wetly onto the cornfield. “From beyond the stars I’ve brought your worst nightmares, buddy.”

ch1-1

“Oh god, oh, please!”

“Earth should’ve kept to itself. Now you gotta deal with me. I combed your whole planet for the most awful animals your monkey-ancestors ever met. If you don’t answer me, I’ll sic them on you.”

“What do you want! What do you want!”

“Where’s the ambassador who represents Earth?”

The bodyguard sobbed. “I can’t tell you.”

“Then suffer.” The Scumbug tore open the crate with abominable amoeba-strength.

“No, no! I—Umm.” From the crate, a flood of puppies and kittens mobbed the bodyguard. They playfully licked his nose. “Scumbug?”

“Save your pleas. I’ll fish your broken body from the beasts when you’re ready to talk.”

“Uh. Okay.” Bunny-rabbits hopped by. “Is this your first time on Earth, Scumbug?”

“Yeah. Until humanity entered the galactic theater, this solar system was off-limits. Now…” The Scumbug extended a pseudopod and plucked the bodyguard into the air. The kittens bat at his dangling shoelaces. “Where is the ambassador?”

“I won’t tell you.”

“Last chance,” said the Scumbug. “Tell me or I’ll chuck you back to the ravenous beasts.”

“I’ll take my chances with the beasts.”

“Are you sure?” The Scumbug hung the guard near the rabbits. “You’re not… um… terrified?”

“Of course I am,” said the bodyguard. “Please don’t throw me to the bunnies, I beg of you, spare mercy.”

The Scumbug sighed, somehow, deflating in disappointment. “It’s always tough to interrogate a new species. Are any of these animals intimidating?”

“I’m afraid not.”

“Not even these?” The Scumbug held the bodyguard above the crate to peer inside, where a pile of piranhas had dehydrated to death.

“You were close with those ones, actually,” said the bodyguard.

“Fine. I’ll do it the old-fashioned way. I’ll cut off one of your legs, ask you again, and if you don’t answer, I’ll cut off your other leg.”

“Oh, lord, please, no!”

“Quit whining. Legs grow back.”

“No they don’t!”

“Really? How about fingers?”

“No!”

“Can’t you grow anything back? I’m trying to let you off light here.”

“I’ve heard… um…” The bodyguard knew he shouldn’t say this, but couldn’t stop himself. “…Nipples grow back.”

The Scumbug vibrated. “Don’t foist your fetishes on me, freak. Tell you what: fess up where the ambassador is or I’ll cut off your head. Then you’ll be just a sad little coconut, rolling back to your friends to tell them not to mess with the Scumbug.”

“…Humans don’t live as just a head!”

“Oh, you guys are pathetic!” The Scumbug smashed the bodyguard on the ground. The hoard of adorable animals scattered into the corn. “Don’t make me blorp you up! Where’s the ambassador!”

The bodyguard sobbed. “What are you alien assholes gonna do to his daughter?”

The Scumbug said nothing.

“You’re after the bounty, aren’t you? Why do you alien assholes want the ambassador’s daughter? She’s eight!

“You’re pretty tight-lipped, bud,” said the Scumbug. “If I had your children, do you think you’d be so cocky?”

“Don’t you dare threaten my kids, sicko! I don’t even have any kids!”

“That’s exactly why the Big Cheese wants the ambassador’s daughter,” said the Scumbug. “The Big Cheese knows it could blow up your planet before you’d surrender, but with the right child-hostage you’ll be under the thumb. Earthlings are more useful as slaves than debris.”

“Then you know why I can’t tell you where to find her.”

“And you know why you gotta tell me,” said the Scumbug. “I’m humanity’s only friend right now, and with friends like me, hoo boy, you’d better hope you never meet your enemies! Now.” The Scumbug smashed him against the ground again. “Where is the ambassador?”


The ambassador pushed up his glasses. He and his daughter sat at a desk in a darkened office. Behind them were four armed guards. Before them was alien who looked like a man-sized seahorse. “It doesn’t look good,” the seahorse bubbled.

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“Lay it on me,” said the ambassador.

“The Big Cheese upped the bounty to two trillion units,” said the seahorse. “My sources know of at least two hit-men out to capture your daughter. They were spotted in your solar system.”

“Don’t worry, Julia.” The ambassador pat his daughter’s head, but she just played disinterestedly with her smartphone. “Who are they?”

“The first is an awful mammalian-type, Germa the Gerbil.”

“A mammal? If we can milk it, we can kill it.”

“The other is Lady Mantoid, an infamous insect.”

“I swat flies for breakfast.”

“Don’t take these professionals lightly,” said the seahorse. “Both want the bounty for your daughter’s capture, but if capture seems unlikely, they’ll assassinate your daughter instead, just so no one gets the bounty. In fact, if one captures your daughter, the other might kill you so the girl is worthless to the Big Cheese.”

The ambassador cocked his head in smug disbelief. “Why? You said the Big Cheese wants my kid for leverage over Earth’s representative.”

The seahorse shook his head. His snout bobbed. “Not leverage the way humans understand it. You think the universe is a game with Earth and the Big Cheese on opposite sides. In reality, Earth is one of the paltry tokens with which the game is played. The Big Cheese placed the bounty to teach you your place. Whether you or your daughter live or die is beside the point. The galactic theater is a hell you know nothing about.”

Julia tapped her phone.

“What do we do?” asked the ambassador.

“We wait,” said the seahorse. “This secure location is still secret. Our sources are spying on Germa the Gerbil and Lady Mantoid. If either advances on our location we’ll deploy the appropriate countermeasures. We can show the Big Cheese that Earth isn’t just a paltry token—it’s a token so paltry that it’s more trouble than it’s worth.”

There was a knock at the door. The seahorse turned to see there was no door in this office.

“Ah, that’s my ringtone.” The ambassador pulled out his phone. “Oh. One of my bodyguards is video-calling me.” He tapped the screen. “Hello? Holy crap, what happened!”

The bodyguard was black-and-blue in a hospital bed. “I’m sorry, sir. They know where you are. They beat it out of me, and threatened my parents. I can’t believe they let me live.”

“Who?” asked the seahorse. “Describe your alien assailant. Were they mammalian, like a furry nightmare?”

“No,” said the bodyguard.

“Then it’s not Germa the Gerbil. Were they sleek and chitinous, with chattering mandibles?”

“No,” said the bodyguard.

“Then it’s not Lady Mantoid. What did they look like?”

“They were a pile of sludge. It called itself the Scumbug.”

The seahorse screamed and jumped from his chair—it had three floppy legs. “We’re doomed!

The ambassador turned off the video-chat and chased the seahorse flailing around the room. “Don’t panic! This is the safest bunker humanity’s best scientists could build!”

“Where’s the escape-pod?” The seahorse scrambled on the walls. “Open it! Now!”

“Don’t!” said the ambassador to his armed guards. “You said it yourself: the Big Cheese will decide if humanity’s worth plundering based on our reaction to his goons. If we take the escape-pod right away we’re spineless.”

“Would you rather be spineless or dead?” asked the seahorse.

“I don’t mind dying.”

“It’s not just your own life you’re wagering,” said the seahorse.

Julia looked up from her phone. “We have to take that risk,” said the ambassador. “Tell me about the Scumbug. It knows where we are. Can it get here against the whole might of Earth’s military?”

“The Scumbug likely won’t realize there is a military opposing it.”

“We’re at the bottom of the Marianas Trench. Can it survive this deep in the ocean?”

“The Scumbug won’t notice the water, either.”

“Well, can the Scumbug get through sixty bank-vault-doors guarded by the most highly trained—” A sizzling sound interrupted the ambassador.

“Oh, please, open the escape-pod, I’m begging you!”

The ambassador and his armed guards looked around the room for the source of the sizzle. “Um. Sir?” A guard pointed to the ceiling, where a solid metal circular vault-door was starting to glow.

“Open the escape-pod for Charlie-Horse over there,” said the ambassador.

A panel opened on the wall. The seahorse jumped into a closet-sized space and coiled into the fetal position. “Ambassador! Your daughter!”

Julia looked up from her phone. “Should I get in the escape-pod, Ambassadaddy?”

“No, Julia. Stay right there.” The ambassador pulled a pistol from his jacket pocket. “It’s take-your-daughter-to-work day.'”

The vault-door melted.

ch1-4.png

The Scumbug dripped through the ceiling shining like the sun. The armed guards opened fire, but the bullets shot right through. The Scumbug splashed over them like a wave. The guards screamed, burned, melted, and died. “Hello sir.” The Scumbug released the red-hot magma it had carried. “Did you know your planet is filled with this stuff? It’s a security hazard if I’ve ever seen one.”

“Get in!” shouted the seahorse. The ambassador and his daughter stayed still. The seahorse shut the panel, sealing himself in the escape-pod.

“I was expecting you, Scumbug.” The ambassador walked behind his daughter and pointed his pistol at the Scumbug.

“Also, did you know humans drown? Why are you hiding under all this water if you drown? I asked a couple people, but they didn’t tell me. They just kept bubbling. You guys have weird interrogation-resistance techniques.”

“You can tell the Big Cheese mankind won’t be pushed around.” The ambassador stuck the pistol in his daughter’s right ear. “You want the two trillion units, don’t you? If you move to kill me, I’ll kill her and then myself. You’ll get nothing.”

The Scumbug burbled.

“Humanity won’t be bullied. We’d rather die here and now than give in to the Big Cheese.” The ambassador pulled the pistol’s safety. Julia stared down the Scumbug without moving an inch, as if her thumb was stuck to the screen of her phone. The Scumbug had no eyes to stare back, but its surface bristled with heightened awareness. “Leave my office, Scumbug.”

The Scumbug swung a pseudopod slimmer than piano-wire and cut off the ambassador’s head. Nuts and bolts and shrapnel flew from the decapitation. The ambassador slumped, a pile of broken machinery.

“Huh. That’s new.” The Scumbug rolled over to the ambassador and blorped the whole guy up. The ambassador floated in the Scumbug, and his arms and legs popped off. “Oh, I get it. He’s a robot. I’ve killed robots before.” The Scumbug swelled, then contracted to the size of a tombstone. The Scumbug’s contents were crunched until only twenty fist-sized lumps remained. Then the Scumbug expanded to its usual size. “Kid? Where’d you go?”

The escape-pod panel clicked closed. The Scumbug crawled to it.

“What’s your name, kid?”

“Launch the escape-pod,” said Julia.

“I’ve been trying since I closed it,” said the seahorse.

“I disabled the escape-pod before I came in,” said the Scumbug. “That was, like, the first thing I did. I don’t know kittens from puppies, but escape-pod-disabling is rookie assassin stuff.” The Scumbug oozed through the razor-thin gap between the panel and the wall to pry open the escape-pod. The panel clattered to the floor.

Seeing the Scumbug, the seahorse shook. With a gut-wrenching grunt he spurt ten-thousand young from his stomach. Tiny pale seahorses quivered.

“…You got lucky, daddio. Take your kids and scram.” The Scumbug scooped the seahorses out of the escape-pod, then contracted to fit into the pod beside Julia. The Scumbug snaked oozy limbs into the circuitry and reconnected some wires. The escape-pod rocketed up into the bottom of the ocean. “I’m the Scumbug. What’s your name?”

ch1-5

“Julia.”

“Your daddy turned out to be a robot.”

“I’m adopted. But that robot was controlled by a real guy, the guy who adopted me.”

“Well, I’m adopting you now. You’ve been double-adopted.”

“Octuple-adopted,” said Julia.

“Oh. Is that normal on Earth?”

“Nope. When Ambassadaddy heard the Big Cheese would put a bounty on his kid, he adopted me because I’ve been passed around so much. He figured I wouldn’t mind being kidnapped. Or, at least, no one else would mind me missing.”

“That’s… really sad.”

“All my parents tend to die,” said Julia. “Maybe that’s why Ambassadaddy had a robot. He knew adopting me put a target on his back.”

The Scumbug shivered. “Are you making this up?”

“This wasn’t the first time one of my daddies pointed a gun at my head,” said Julia.

“…Was it the second?” Cryptically, Julia did not answer, but raised her eyebrows and looked away.

The escape-pod shot out of the ocean into the sky. A military jumbo-jet swooped down from the clouds and caught the escape-pod in open bomb-bay doors. A soldier opened the escape-pod and saluted. “Are you safe, Ambassad—oh my god!” The Scumbug swallowed him and digested him, and everyone else on the jet.

“This ride will do for now. C’mon, kid.” Julia sat in the co-pilot’s seat while the Scumbug flooded the rest of the cockpit. “Julia, right? If I could break into your bunker, Lady Mantoid and Germa the Gerbil could’ve done it in half the time. I’m taking you somewhere more secure.”

“Where?”

“I’m not sure yet. Saving kids from the Big Cheese has been a hobby of mine for a while, but I’ve never gotten this far before.”

“That’s not very reassuring.”

“Then we’re going to Neverland, baby.” The jet steered up toward the sky.

Ten minutes passed. Julia kicked the Scumbug’s surface. It was like viscous water. “When you said Neverland, did you mean we’d never get there?”

“This spaceship is awful. How long does it take human vehicles to leave the atmosphere?”

Julia laughed. “This isn’t a spaceship, it’s an airplane!”

“You mean… humans invented a vessel that can only go where there’s air? But why?

Julia shrugged. “There’s air everywhere we want to go, usually.”

“Okay, well… We’ll get high as we can, then we’ll go the old-fashioned way.”

Julia kept kicking the Scumbug, making it ripple slowly. “What even are you, Scumdaddy?”

“I’m begging you, please don’t call me that. I’m an alien. Humans entered the galactic theater a few Earth-weeks ago, so now all us space-folks are swinging in.”

“Enter the galactic theater? What does that mean?”

“The Big Cheese ignores most sentient life that keeps to itself, within a few tens of millions of miles. Your ambassadaddy burst that bubble and broke your egg. The Big Cheese wants to scramble that egg.”

“Why?”

“It’s how you make omelettes, isn’t it?”

“No, it’s how you make scrambled eggs.”

“Look, kid, in this big ol’ universe, there are two kinds of life-forms: the kind that eats their kids, and the kind that eats their parents. The Big Cheese thinks Earth is a tasty little youngin’.”

“What kind are you?”

“See these?” The Scumbug swirled the twenty fist-sized lumps within its volume. “I was born with kids, and I blorped ’em up. I got that allll outta my system.”

“…So, if you’re no longer the kind of life-form that eats their kids, then now you’re the kind of life-form that eats their parents?”

“No. There are three kinds of life-forms: the kind that eats their kids, the kind that eats their parents, and me, the Scumbug. Now close your eyes.”

Julia closed her eyes. “Why?”

“To keep calm. We’re high as this vehicle can take us.” The Scumbug bubbled up Julia and her co-pilot’s chair. “I’m taking you to a safe-house in another solar-system, and we’re going the old-fashioned way.”

“What does that mean?”

“When humans first went to space, did they use spaceships? Did they use airplanes?” The Scumbug raided the munition’s bay for explosives. “Of course they didn’t. They swam to space with nothing but their birthday suits.”

“I don’t think that’s true.”

“Really? It’s how every other species first gets to space.” The Scumbug blew up the jet’s payload. The jet detonated and the Scumbug was thrown into orbit. “Humans are weird.”

ch1-7

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Play DüKKA!

Dukkha is the dissatisfaction intrinsic to existence.

DüKKA is dukkha’s dorky younger cousin who steals your tiles in my mobile-game, available now on the Google Play Store! (It’ll be on IOS someday, maybe.)

It’s free and it’s fun. Outsmart DüKKA for control of the board’s center in a jaunty metaphor for our meaningless lives.

I think the ‘easy’ and ‘medium’ difficulties are TOO easy, but I want to add a ‘custom mode’ where you can change the rules. Under some rule-sets, ‘easy’ and ‘medium’ might be the only way to stand a chance.

I also want to add a harder difficulty. ‘DüKKA’, the hardest difficulty at the moment, has an interesting flaw. Can you exploit that flaw to get 100 points when DüKKA only has 60?

I’m working on a video for my YouTube channel about all the pretentious philosophical bollocks behind this silly puzzle-game where the AI mocks your mortality. If you’d like to see it, subscribe!

The Aftermath

(This is the eleventh and final chapter of a story about an ultra-marathon runner who bets his legs he can win a race against a horse. Jonas crossed the finish-line first, but that’s not enough for Alphonse.)

cropped-cardfront2-4.png

2019

After an emergency-room sponge-bath and some morphine for my torn-up leg, I fell into coma-like sleep. I woke on a king-sized bed under a chandelier, completely alone.

I prepared for the onset of accumulated aches and pains, but somehow felt as good as I possibly could after an ultra. Even my left knee was sewn back together. My patella rolled like new. Frankly I was surprised they didn’t stitch my missing finger back on, too. The knuckle-nub was just nicely bandaged. “Hello?” I sat up and looked around. This was no ordinary hospital: marble columns supported a vaulted ceiling. I heard a bubbling hot-tub. “Is anyone here?” No nurses or attendants were near to advice me.

On the nightstand stood a bottle of champagne. I couldn’t read the French label, but it tasted expensive to me. I drank a quarter of the bottle before testing my body-weight on my left foot; the knee didn’t disagree. I limped to the hot-tub, shrugged off my medical gown, and sank right in. The bubble-jets melted my bones out my pores.

Who paid for this? Maybe Alphonse ponied up my million bucks and the hospital transferred me to the hoity-toity wing—but I doubted it. Alphonse wouldn’t pay so eagerly.

I finished the champagne before Whitney walked in. “Jonas! You’re awake!”

“Hey Whitney! Did you bring me some ice-cream sandwiches?” I offered her the last drops from the bottle. “Get in the hot-tub! The bubbles are on!”

“You’re talk of the town,” said Whitney. “You made the 11 o’ clock news nationwide. Everyone knows about Georgie Masawa’s corpse, too. You didn’t tell me you found a body at the time, and I’m kind of glad you didn’t. Would’ve put me off my stride.”

“Awesome!” I splashed at her. She backed away from the hot-tub and I knew she wasn’t in the mood for games. I drank the last drops of champagne myself. “How long have I slept?”

“About 36 hours.”

“I could use another 36.”

“Sorry to hear that, because we’ve got business.”

“Where am I? Whose champagne was this?”

“I’ll get to that,” said Whitney. “Alphonse is suing the pants off everyone in spitting distance. You. Me. Hermes. Kevin. Everyone.”

“For what?”

“Anything he can think of. He’s charging hundreds of people $10,000 for every mile they traveled in the estate, even the news-crew in that helicopter.”

“Geez.”

“Alphonse is also suing our publisher preemptively. He doesn’t want us writing a book about this. The publisher paid for you to be treated here, and for your champagne. How’s your knee?”

“Better than ever.” My left knee never felt so strong even before my boyhood skiing accident. “So do we need, like, a lawyer, or something?”

“Nope. The publisher wants to handle the lawsuits, too. Their legal-department is negotiating with Bronson’s right now. It sounds like there’s gonna be one catch-all mass-settlement. Alphonse might pay out for the dangerous conditions of his estate, and mutilating you, and all that.”

“Good. Sounds like I’m not needed.” I tilted the empty bottle hoping for another drop. “Can you ask the publisher for more champagne?”

“Ask them yourself,” said Whitney. “We’re meeting soon to discuss the trial.”

“Ugh.” My quadriceps protested when I pulled myself from the hot-tub.


The hospital staff lent me a wheelchair for my tired legs and Whitney rolled me out to a limousine. The chauffeur, in tuxedo, opened the door for us and supported me on their shoulder as I stepped into the back. I recognized the three other passengers.

“Hey Kevin. Hey Hermes.”  Whitney sat beside me. “Hey, you. What are you doing here?” Sandra was across from us with her arms folded, silent.

Kevin slapped my back. “How are you enjoying your million bucks, Jonas?”

“Um.” I looked at Whitney. “Where is that money, anyway?”

“Alphonse hasn’t coughed it up and doesn’t want to.”

“What’s his excuse?” I asked.

“He’s got thousands,” said Whitney.

“Fuck that,” said Kevin. “If he’d won, he’d demand Jonas pay a million bucks, for sure.”

“Uh. Yeah.” I shivered. “For sure.”

“I’ve never ridden in a limo before,” said Hermes. “Your publisher must be loaded, Whitney.”

“I’ve never met them before,” said Whitney. “Kevin knows them.”

Kevin shook his head. “Nuh-uh. I know of the publishing company, as a business. I’ve never met anyone in person. I get phone-calls from representatives.”

“So… Who are we meeting?” I asked. “A team of lawyers?”

No one in the limo said a word. Sandra smirked.


A sixty-flight elevator up a building downtown opened to an office with dark glass windows. Behind a mahogany desk, Craig smoked a thick cigar. “Come on in and take a seat, unless you brought your own.”

“What the fuck,” I said, “I know you!” Whitney pushed my wheelchair alongside Sandra’s as we all entered the office. “You and I bet booze-money over nudie cards at Alphonse’s casino! Aren’t you Craig, the helicopter-pilot?”

“I’m a lot of things,” said Craig.

“I’ll say,” said Kevin. “Three days ago I knew you as an ex-military drone-geek on an internet forum. Who the hell are you, really?”

“I really am an ex-military drone-geek, Kevin. I’m just more than that, too. Thanks for plugging my delivery-business on your blog. Sit down, and drink up, if that’s your style.” Craig poured himself a little brandy. Sandra rolled up for a shot. “We’re here to celebrate. Congratulations on the race, Jonas.”

I wanted a shot, too, but Whitney held back my wheelchair and I figured she was right to do so. “Craig, right?” asked Whitney. “Is it just a coincidence that you published our book and you work for Alphonse?”

“Mmm… Let’s say it was in the stars I would be your inside man.” Craig ashed his cigar and looked at us over his sunglasses. “Kevin, Alphonse says you owe him over ten million dollars.”

“I know, it’s such bullshit,” said Kevin. “He’s charging me ten grand per mile I drove in his estate, plus a million bucks for each photo-set I posted online.”

“Hermes, Whitney,” said Craig, “you each owe Alphonse more than half a million. Hundreds of people are being charged up to 200,000 apiece for running to meet you, Jonas.”

“I wonder if Alphonse will let them pay with body-parts,” said Sandra. She raised her eyebrows at me and I shuddered. I thought only Alphonse and Whitney knew I’d wagered my legs, but of course Craig and Sandra knew too.

“That won’t be necessary, Sandra,” said Craig. “We just need to play our cards right. I know more about Alphonse than anyone but his father, and Father Bronson is dead. I’ve negotiated Alphonse to an assailable position. I need all of you on my side to tip the scale.”

“Didn’t you betray Alphonse at his most desperate moment?” asked Kevin.

“Boy, he was furious! But we both have secrets to keep, and that let me strike a deal. We’ll meet in court to determine what’s owed to every involved individual in sort of a class-action lawsuit. You might make more money than just your race-winnings, Jonas.”

“Oh yeah? How about this?” I raised my left fist, flipping him off with my middle finger’s ghost. “You were in that helicopter when Alphonse fucking mutilated me. You watched him do it. Your goons in leather grappled me.”

“The goons are gone, and that event is our Ace.” Craig opened his leather jacket and half the room almost vomited. Sandra yawned. “Alphonse gave me your finger, toothpick under the nail and all.”

My finger had half-mummified and smelled like a corpse. “Holy shit, dude!” said Kevin.

“This toothpick heard most of the race,” said Craig. “Alphonse thinks I deleted the audio record but I didn’t.” He grabbed the middle finger and depressed the toothpick’s ruby handle with his thumb. The toothpick screamed my scream.

“Alphonse—” I sputtered, “—take the finger!”

“Beg!”

“Please!” A gunshot. Craig pressed the ruby handle again to cease reenacting my trauma.

When my neck’s raised hair settled, I managed to speak. “Okay, you have evidence Alphonse is a twisted sicko. Let’s skip a civil suit and lock him in the slammer.”

Craig tutted. “It’s not that easy, Jonas. Like you said, I watched all this happen. If we run for the end-zone, Alphonse will spill some dirt and destroy my credibility. You won’t stand a chance on your own. Alphonse can make anything and anyone disappear unless I’m here to wrangle him.”

“Then wouldn’t Alphonse spill dirt right away, destroying your credibility?” asked Whitney.

“No!” said Craig. “I know enough about Alphonse to go down swinging. Revealing our connection is the nuclear option, and there’s no telling who’d go down in the crossfire. Five hundred people might end up paying fines with body-parts, including everyone in this room. I’m not joking. This trial has got to be a controlled demolition.”

“What does that mean?” asked Kevin.

“Alphonse almost certainly has his own copy of the toothpick’s audio-record,” said Craig. “As long as we let him think he’s controlling the narrative, we’re at truce. When he digs himself a deep enough hole, I’ll have a clear shot at his vitals. I can detonate him at a safe distance.”

“You’re making this sound like a death-match,” said Hermes.

“Damn straight,” said Craig. “I’ve watched a Bronson collapse before. If we can’t defuse Alphonse, we want this to be an implosion.”

“I’m in,” said Sandra, “and you’d be in, too, if you knew best. Without this settlement there’s no telling how bad it could be. If we’re in this together, we’ll do better than break even.”

“Hell, I’m in.” Kevin shook Craig’s hand. “You seem to know what you’re doing.”

“I don’t think I’ve seen half a million bucks in my life,” said Hermes. “I couldn’t begin to pay. I guess I’ve got nothing to lose.”

Whitney rubbed my shoulders. “What do you think, Jonas?”

I wished I was more drunk. “You got me into this, Craig. In Alphonse’s underground casino, you and your goons buttered me up into racing Champ.”

“And you won,” said Craig. “Let’s keep winning.”

“Jonas.” Sandra shook the arm of my wheelchair. “You said you pity me, and I get it. I pity the horse, too! But there’s no pitying Alphonse. Let’s bury Alphonse, crutch-kid.”

I swallowed. “I’m in.”

“What’s the plan,” asked Whitney. Craig cracked his knuckles.


The courtroom was packed. As I limped through the audience, I recognized Danny and Debra and a few other folks who ran with me. Whitney led me across the bar to join Craig, Sandra, Kevin, Hermes, and a man and woman I didn’t know. “Who are they?” I whispered to Whitney.

“That’s investigative-journalist Naira Nightly and her camera-guy Mike Mann. They filmed your news-spot. Alphonse says they owe him a hundred bucks for every frame of video they recorded in the estate.”

To our left, Alphonse sat with his lawyer. Alphonse’s broken arms were repaired good as new, just like my knee. He wore his gaudy military jacket and sucked a minty metal toothpick. His lawyer wore a pastel yellow suit and had blonde hair, expensively cut. He typed on a laptop. Craig bumped my elbow. “That’s Alphonse’s top lawyer, Lloyd. The rest of his legal team is probably video-chatting on that laptop from across the country.”

“Where’s our legal team?” I asked.

“I’m it, baby.”

“All rise for the honorable Judge Fairfax,” said the court clerk. It took me a moment to join the rest of court in standing for the judge, a portly man who already looked fed up. Judge Fairfax took his seat. “Please be seated,” said the clerk.

Fairfax smacked his gavel. “Court is now in session. Alphonse Bronson, stay standing.” Alphonse remained risen. “I watched that news-spot about the race, Mister Bronson. There were many concerning elements.”

“Assuredly,” said Alphonse, bowing, hand over his heart.

“Don’t interrupt,” said Fairfax. Alphonse soured. “That news-crew over there uncovered a corpse suspected to be Georgie Masawa, who disappeared in your estate when you were a young boy. You’ve denied our requests to collect the body to perform an autopsy. Correct?”

“Yes,” said Alphonse. “I ch—”

“Don’t interrupt,” said Fairfax. “With your permission or without, we’ll recover that corpse. More immediately pressing, the news-spot reported the poor condition of your horse. You wore spurs—”

“Spurs are entirely legal,” said Alphonse’s lawyer Lloyd.

“—spurs with long pointed tips, spurs which got you banned from multiple riding associations, spurs which you jabbed inches deep into your horse’s gut. A local veterinarian also said he personally inspected your horse and determined it was delirious and unresponsive. At the finish-line, two hooves were totally missing. I almost threw up seeing that.”

Lloyd interjected again. “Bronson-brand cutting-edge medical-technology makes such injuries irreverent.”

“I’d like to examine the results of those technologies,” said Fairfax, “but Alphonse, you won’t let us see the horse, either.”

“Champ wants to rest,” said Alphonse, “and out of the goodness of my heart, I’m leaving him alone.” I wondered if Champ was already glue.

“The veterinarian said your ‘goons in leather’ accosted him and spray-painted his face and his favorite tank-top. Many people in your estate said they felt menaced by this ‘biker gang.'”

“You’ll have to take that up with my head of security.” Alphonse grinned, knowing Craig wouldn’t confess to the role.

“Regardless, these events happened and you acknowledge they happened. You agreed to pay 6.6 million dollars for fines related to animal abuse and zoning violations, and a replacement tank-top.”

“I’m glad to make things right.” Alphonse bowed again, this time sweepingly. “May we begin to make our case that I’m owed more money than that?

“Go ahead,” said Judge Fairfax.

“I think questioning the ultra-runner, Jonas, would be illuminating,” said Lloyd.

“Hell yeah.” I stood to take the stand. “You better cough up some dough, Alphonse. I won the race.”

Alphonse smiled and let Lloyd speak. “Jonas, we could spend all day explaining why your victory was illegitimate, but more importantly, Alphonse is owed money regardless.”

“Not a penny from me,” I said. “Alphonse charges $10,000 per mile but he waived that for the race.”

“Aha. So you knew of the charge,” said Lloyd.

“Of course. Everyone knows.”

“Aha, indeed, aha. That means everyone in this class-action lawsuit knew they would owe Alphonse money when they set foot inside the estate.”

“He opened the gates,” I said.

“And they passed through those gates knowing they would be charged. The estate is no charity. Alphonse is calling in the tab. Over five hundred people owe over $200,000 apiece. The bulk is owed by Naira Nightly and Mike Mann, who recorded and released video footage knowing it would cost them. I assume their studio will pay on their behalf.”

Judge Fairfax stroked his fuzzy black beard. “Mister Bronson, does anybody actually pay these exorbitant rates?”

“Of course,” said Alphonse. “My typical guests are more esteemed gentlemen, mostly business-associates who enjoy discussing deals on horseback. They pay for every meter of every mile, even for their arrival and departure by helicopter. Those fees keep the estate in tip-top condition. So you see, when Tom Dick and Harry in the class-action suit claim they felt ‘menaced’ or ‘endangered’ on my property, despite my more than thorough security, I’m the financial victim, and demand compensation.”

“Tom, Dick, and Harry?” Craig flipped a few papers at his desk. “Alphonse, do you know who Tom, Dick, and Harry are, and why they’re included in this suit?”

“No, and expecting me to know the names of my intruders is unreasonable.”

“Tom, Dick, and Harry were three preteens who disappeared in the late 2000s,” said Craig. “They were last spotted near your front gates. Their parents requested I add them to the class-action suit in honor of longstanding theories that the boys died somewhere in the Bronson Estate. You and your father refused to reveal security-footage or admit rescue squads to conduct a search. Then you electrified the gates and put up barbed wire.”

“Objection—” said Lloyd, but Alphonse silenced him by raising one gloved hand.

“If you want to question me, Craig, why don’t I take the stand?”

“Why don’t you?” Craig gestured for Alphonse, and I returned to Whitney’s side.

“I know of those conspiracy theories,” said Alphonse as he sat. “Just another example of how we Bronsons are notoriously portrayed in bad light. Some kids go missing in the tristate area and I’m expected to open my estate and share private footage. Let me tell you something—if those kids had climbed the gates, and did die on my property, then the parents shouldn’t come to me for evidence, or for an apology—they should come with payment for the time their kids spent on my land.”

A groan rolled across the court. Craig smiled. “Only the time? Or could Tom, Dick, and Harry be charged for anything else?”

Alphonse relished the audience’s seething. “As a matter of fact, there might be additional fees. For example, disturbing a topiary-bush could incur a botanical-repair fine. I take pride in my pristine estate.”

“Are you charging any of the five hundred quote-unquote intruders for property-damage?”

“I wish,” said Alphonse. “Tree-branches were broken, grasses trampled, and strategically-placed rocks turned and overturned, but I cannot attribute the damage to anyone in particular, so I must cover the restoration myself.”

“Did Jonas do anything of the sort?”

The court was silent, but up close, I saw lightning crack between Craig and Alphonse. Craig coyly stared him down, daring Alphonse to reveal unscrupulous behavior. Lloyd nodded no, no, no, but Alphonse eventually grinned, which I recognized as the nefarious concoction of a spin. “As a matter of fact, Jonas wrecked havoc across my estate.”

“How do you know?” asked Craig.

Alphonse showed the judge his minty metal toothpick. “Jonas accepted wearing a toothpick which recorded the race with an audio receiver. He dropped it around mile 75 when he went off-course and lost his finger. Isn’t that right, Jonas?”

I swallowed. Telling the truth, that Alphonse had taken my finger, would endanger Craig, and without Craig, we might have less than nothing. “That’s right,” I said. Whitney squeezed my hand.

“It wasn’t easy to retrieve that toothpick,” said Alphonse, “like finding a needle in a haystack the size of Rhode Island. But its audio captures Jonas disturbing my property! I’m charging you for it, Jonas.”

“Can we hear that audio?” asked Craig.

Alphonse beamed. “Lloyd?” Lloyd sighed and brought Alphonse the laptop. Alphonse clicked and typed, hunt-and-peck. “This is Jonas filling his water-backpack from my river.” The laptop played the sound of the stream around the 30-mile mark. “This is him drinking it.” The laptop gulped. I remembered the bitter taste. “This is him deciding my water isn’t good enough, and dumping it on a cactus patch.” The laptop splashed. “That water was chemically treated to sparkle photogenically. You stole my water and you killed my cacti, Jonas. You’re going to pay, for this and for a hundred other things.”

“But you’ll pay right back,” said Craig. “Please, play the audio of Jonas losing his finger. Let’s see if your estate’s hazardous conditions are at fault, and if you owe Jonas medical expenses.”

“Ha!” Alphonse selected a file. “Let’s hear, shall we? To set the scene, Jonas and Whitney are both hallucinating and Whitney has removed her top.”

Whitney blushed while the laptop spoke our voices. “Hey, what’s that?” it asked as her. “There’s another fork in the road.”

“Maybe it was Alphonse, trying to trick us into going the wrong way,” it said as me. Alphonse chuckled.

“You’re hallucinating, Jonas.” Kevin squinted at the telltale clip of an audio edit.

“I don’t think I’m hallucinating right now. Doesn’t this zigzag in the dirt look like a—” Then my voice cut off, replaced with the sound of me sliding down a ditch next to a skeleton. Alphonse had edited together miles 76 and 69.

Alphonse stopped the playback. “Jonas lost his finger because he and his lady-friend went off the trail. He was probably distracted by his topless waif. Can I be blamed?”

“Can we hear any more?” asked Craig.

“No,” said Alphonse. “The fall also corrupted the toothpick’s audio. We’re lucky to have what evidence there is.”

“And where is this toothpick now?” asked Craig.

Their eye-contact was electric. I worried I was close enough to be zapped. Alphonse leaned on the stand. “I sold it to you, Craig! My trusty helicopter-pilot.”

The court murmured, and Judge Fairfax rubbed his temples. “You, Craig, are Alphonse’s helicopter-pilot?”

“I am,” said Craig.

“And head of a publishing company?”

“Mm-hm.”

“And you run a drone-delivery service? And you shot down your own drones?

“I’ve got fingers in lots of pies.”

Judge Fairfax sighed, resigning himself to a tedious fate. “I knew this case would be complicated. So, Craig, where is this toothpick?”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Alphonse. “The toothpick’s audio-record was wiped by the head of my tech-security.”

Craig grinned. “And who is that, sir?”

Alphonse pondered. “I can’t remember. I recently fired most of my help” I knew Alphonse and Craig were tiptoeing around dirt, but I think Alphonse had genuinely forgotten Craig’s many roles in the estate.

“Maybe they’ll come forward later,” said Craig, as an oblique threat. “For now I’d like to talk to my friend Sandra.”

“By all means.” Alphonse descended, and court-security helped Sandra take the stand from her wheelchair.

“I’ve been Alphonse’s best jockey for years now,” said Sandra, “so I know all the horseshit. Where to fucking start.”

“Language,” said Judge Fairfax.

Sandra rolled her eyes. “Alphonse has factories where he grinds cheap horses into glue.”

Lloyd raised a hand. “This is publicly known and irrelevant to the trial.”

“When racehorses lose, he grinds them into glue, too,” said Sandra.

Lloyed kept his hand raised, and when the audience quieted enough, he spoke. “It’s still irrelevant, and besides, when you eat a hamburger, you know a cow went into it. When you eat jello, you know it’s made of bone. When you use glue, you worry an animal was needlessly harmed, but there’s no worry with Bronson! Bronson glue uses every part of the horse! Not an ounce of harm goes to waste!”

“Not an ounce of jockey, either,” said Sandra. “The losing jockeys have their organs harvested and sold on the black market. There’s a rumor among his staff Alphonse has two livers.” Alphonse chuckled. “What he can’t sell, he grinds into a paste we call ‘jockey juice.’ I took it all the time. It let me walk.”

Now Alphonse laughed. “What a story! I tell you, Bronson medical-technology is second to none and has achieved marvelous miracles, but is there any evidence of the wrongdoing you suggest?”

Lloyd spoke before Sandra could: “How could Alphonse possibly pull off the organ-harvesting operation you claim? It’s baseless and preposterous.”

“Nah, it’s easy,” said Sandra. “Alphonse and his billionaire buddies train folks on the fringe like me into jockeys with nothing to lose. How many people go missing every year? I bet some end up in glue.”

“This is just slander,” said Lloyd.

“I’m afraid I have to agree,” said Judge Fairfax. “Ma’am, do you actually have any tangible proof of these claims? It seems like there should be plenty.”

The casino,” said Sandra.


A warrant was quickly drafted. Alphonse graciously and generously allowed select few to enter his estate free of charge. Craig piloted one helicopter ferrying Sandra, Whitney, and me, while Alphonse and Lloyd followed in another police-chopper with two officers.

Whitney leaned on the window. “This side of the estate isn’t half as pretty.”

“I kinda like the desert charm,” I said.

“How often did you run here?”

“Every weekend. Totally hammered, too.”

“Oh, Jonas.”

“There it is!” Sandra pushed me aside to see through the window. “That’s the bunker!” She prepared her wheelchair.

“Don’t get your hopes up,” said Craig.

We all landed near the cement bunker. Alphonse stepped from the police-chopper and shouted over the helicopters’ roars. “Let’s see if there exists such a fabled casino!”

“Let’s.” I led the group to the bunker and typed a code onto the keypad. It blinked red. “Um. I guess he changed the pin.”

“Or maybe you never knew the pin, because this casino is a fantasy,” said Lloyd.

Alphonse brushed me aside and typed the code himself. The bunker clicked open. “Officers?”

The police-officers opened the steel door. Gone were the silk curtains and chandeliers. The walls and stairs were stone lit by flickering LED. Below was a concrete room full of canned beans.

“Nothing at all!” said Alphonse. “Just my personal safety-bunker!” The officers rubbed their mustaches. “What a bizarre allegation—a casino on my property! How ridiculous!”

“I’m disappointed,” said Whitney. “I wanted to see that casino. You made it sound pretty lush.”

“It was.” My stomach twisted. Had Alphonse disintegrated the casino in a day and a half?

“How’d you do it Alphonse?” said Sandra, but Craig just shook his head and blew bubblegum.

The officers descended into the bunker and we all followed. Craig carried Sandra in her wheelchair down the stairs. “Well, I don’t see a casino down here,” said one officer.

The other officer examined a can of beans. “What’s this bunker preparing for, Mr. Bronson?”

“You don’t have to answer that,” said Lloyd.

“The bunker is for whatever may come,” said Alphonse. “I appreciate safety, but I don’t put much stock into conspiracy theories.”

“Neither do I,” said Craig, “but a bunker is a good thing to have. Have you checked the thickness of the walls to ensure safety against nuclear strikes?”

Alphonse shrugged. “Yes.”

“I’ll check again.” Craig produced from his leather jacket a handheld device like a tiny metal-detector. “This is a ground-penetrating radar. It makes maps of subterranean areas. It’ll make sure the outer walls of your bunker are built to last.”

Alphonse bit his lip. “You didn’t mention this in the warrant,” said Lloyd, but Craig waved the device definitively and gestured for the officers to look at its screen.

“See?” said Craig. “This bunker isn’t safe at all. It’s over a huge, hollow cavern.”

Alphonse shook. “My my. Thank you for alerting me. I’ll deal with it on my own time.”

One officer took the radar. “The cavern below us has some precise corners, Mister Bronson.”

“Doesn’t this remind you of Vegas?” said the other. “It looks like Caesars Palace.

Alphonse clenched and unclenched shaking fists. “Entirely coincidental,” said Lloyd, “and even if there were a casino down there, it was discovered via unlawful means, and as fruit of the poisoned tree—”

“Alphonse invited us onto his property without condition,” said Craig. “No rule against ground-penetrating radar.”

“Get out!” shouted Alphonse. “All of you, out!” Lloyd palmed his face as Alphonse chased us back to our helicopters.


Alphonse was so humiliated by the incident that he reappeared in court on Lloyd’s laptop, video-chatting from the veranda of his mansion in the estate.

Judge Fairfax reviewed Craig’s radar-map of the casino. “Is this, in fact, a casino, Alphonse?”

“It could be a peculiar cave,” said Lloyd. “In any case, Alphonse has already paid 6.6 million dollars in fines. Let’s finish this civil case before considering some fantasy criminal one.”

“It’s a casino!” said Alphonse, over the laptop’s speakers. Lloyd groaned. “A little social gambling is perfectly legal in the district! I don’t make a dime from my associates except my fair winnings, and the fee for their footage in my estate. It’s no business, just friends who enjoy the aesthetic of a casino. Jonas, every weekend for four months, you ran to that casino, correct?”

“Uh huh.”

“Then you owe me for the privilege! Each time you visited the casino, you ran twenty miles on my property. You owe me $320,000.”

“You invited me to your casino.”

“And you came knowing of the cost.”

Judge Fairfax ran his hands through his hair. “Alphonse, if you charge an entry fee, it’s not social-gambling!”

“Many elements of that are debatable,” said Lloyd.

Judge Fairfax slammed his gavel. “Jonas, in the casino, did you gamble money?”

“Yes.”

“A lot?”

“Not personally. I tried not to lose more than fifty bucks at once. But I heard the billionaires bet whole horses.”

“And Alphonse,” asked Judge Fairfax, “did you report your winnings on your taxes?”

Alphonse said nothing. “My client’s taxes aren’t up for discussion,” said Lloyd.

Sandra shouted. “He launders the money by pretending to sell glue!

The court was silent. Judge Fairfax cradled his face. “Mister Bronson.”

“Yes?”

“I’m trying to make sense of what I’m hearing. You’re widely known as a successful glue-manufacturer who controversially uses animal-products. Now I’m to understand that not only do you source those animal-products from the losers of races you host in an illegal gambling ring, but also, no one even bought the glue?”

“No, no! You’ve got it all wrong!” said Alphonse, but Lloyd typed a private message to him on the laptop.

Perhaps that statement could be called partially accurate, in a technical legalese sense,” said Lloyd, “but it’s hardly the matter at hand. If you want to bring criminal charges against my client, do it later. And there’s still no evidence of organ-harvesting.”

“You’re fired,” said Alphonse.

Lloyd pushed up his glasses to see Alphonse on the laptop. “I’m sorry?”

“Your attitude makes me look guilty. Get out of here.”

“You fired the rest of your legal team,” said Lloyd.

“I’ll represent myself.”

Lloyd’s lower lip trembled, then stiffened. He glared at Alphonse like this wasn’t the first disagreement they’d had. “Alright. Goodbye.” Lloyd packed some folders into his suitcase and left the laptop on the table when he stormed from the courtroom.

Judge Fairfax rubbed his eyes. “Oookay. Let’s take this from the top.”

“Jonas,” said Alphonse, “you owe—Hold on. You. Lady. Yes, you in the front row! Turn the laptop toward Jonas.” Debra turned the laptop. “You owe me your legs, Jonas! And so much more.”

The whole court gasped. Alphonse played another clip from the toothpick, my agreement to wager my legs around mile 40. Whitney and Hermes squeezed my shoulders, but Kevin was just flabbergasted. “Dude. Seriously?”

“What else could I have done?” I said. “He said he’d take 40% of my legs if I quit the bet.”

Kevin grunted. “You’re lucky I bothered saving your ass. Literally, I saved your ass.”

Alphonse stopped the recording. “Jonas, you put your legs in the pot, and I won the race. You’ll pay.”

Naira Nightly stood so quickly her chair fell behind her. “We broadcast Jonas winning the race from two different angles on national television. Half the people in this courtroom witnessed it firsthand!”

“He had to win by some duration,” said Alphonse.

“Yeah,” said Mike Mann, “and your horse didn’t cross the finish-line for twelve minutes.”

“But Jonas had to win by several hours,” said Alphonse. I felt fire in my fists. “I mentioned, at the time, some police-officers stopped me for three minutes around mile 98, but there were other delays. For example, I had to wait for Jonas at mile 40 to inquire about gambling his legs. That was at least an hour lost! And, by the way, those police-officers will pay $40,000 each for intruding on my land. So will that meddling veterinarian.”

“You rat!” I pointed across the court. “You weren’t waiting for me at mile 40! You said you stopped because you injured yourself and were swapping with Sandra!”

“Oh?” Alphonse leaned close to his camera and his face became large on the laptop. “That part of the audio-record is missing. Do you have any evidence to back up your claim?”

My feet were weak. My knees knocked.

“We might,” said Craig. “Alphonse, you said the head of your tech-security wiped the toothpick’s memory before you gave it to me.”

“Mm-hm.”

“Alphonse, I am your tech-security.”

Alphonse blinked and backed away from the camera. “Wait.”

“I managed to recover that audio. In fact, there’s more audio on the toothpick than you let on.”

Wait.

“Maybe we should play the whole thing for the court? It’s only thirteen hours or so.”

“Craig!” Alphonse shouted so loudly he clipped his microphone. “You can’t share that evidence until we have access to it too!”

“Who’s we?” asked Craig. “You’re alone, Alphonse. Do you want to discuss this over coffee?”

Judge Fairfax slumped back in his chair. “I need a recess anyway. I’ve got a headache.”

As the court cleared up, Craig punched my shoulder. “Mountain King. Your check’s in the mail.”


“I’ll buy the toothpick from you,” said Alphonse.

Craig smiled and sipped some tea. Alphonse had boiled the water himself; it was the finest culinary art he could handle now that he’d fired all his help. The seating on his mansion’s veranda was luxuriously adjustable beach-chairs. “How much will you pay, Alphonse?”

“I produce the toothpicks for ten thousand dollars each. I gave that one to Jonas for free. I bought it from Jonas for ten thousand dollars. I gave it to you for free. I’ll buy it from you for twenty thousand. It’s more than fair.”

Craig laughed, just once. “Ha.”

Alphonse hadn’t touched his tea. “Forty thousand.”

“Alphonse.”

“Eighty thousand.”

“Alphonse, I own a sixty floor office-building in every country worth dirt. Every floor of every building does something unrelated, but they all report to me. I made eighty thousand bucks last year working as your helicopter pilot, and I half-assed that. You didn’t even remember my name, but I owned all those men in leather. I owned some of those tuxedos walking around your casino, too. You’ll have to do better than eighty thousand dollars.”

Alphonse’s mouth hung open as he gathered words. “What do you want?

“I want your military-jacket. I want your pistol. I want your estate. I want all your assets. And I want your body, Alphonse Bronson. The whole thing. Head to toe.”

Alphonse cleared his throat and straightened his back. “Why would I give you one percent of that? Do you know something I don’t know about the audio on that toothpick?”

“No, I just know how the public would react,” said Craig. “That’s never been your strong-suit, has it? You’re the kind of guy who can put needles under someone’s nails and wonder why no one sits with you at lunch. If the court hears your cackling after you shot Jonas’ finger off, it won’t matter if there’s proof you harvested organs. You’ll be underground before you’re dead.”

“I’ll drag you down with me.”

“You’ll try, but I’m mist. I can be gone in an instant. You don’t have those kinds of connections.”

“Yes I do! I’ve got—”

“You had me, Alphonse. I was your go-to guy. See that’s your problem: you only remember the names of your enemies, but you didn’t know I was one, so I was invisible. You know nothing about me, but I know everything about you. You can’t disappear. You get to barter with me.”

“Oh.” Alphonse’s eyes widened. “Okay, I’ll give you the jacket, the pistol, and ten million dollars.”

“Alphonse.” Craig chuckled. “I’m not just selling you a toothpick here.”

“I have to pay for Jonas’ finger, too?”

Now Craig burst out laughing. “No, Alphonse, I’ll give you the finger! You’re buying your dignity! I want your jacket, your pistol, your estate, your assets, and your life. It’s a small price to pay for what remains of the name ‘Alphonse Bronson.’ You’ve messed up. I’m your only way out with a scrap of esteem.”

Alphonse spent a long time biting his fingernails, pleading, and not drinking his tea. Finally he wiped tears from his eyes. “Okay, Craig.”

“Okay?”

“Take it all. Just leave my dignity.”

“Here.” Craig opened his leather jacket and gave Alphonse the finger with the toothpick stuck in it. “The audio dies with you.”

Alphonse smeared his sobs away and surrendered his gaudy military jacket. Craig put it on. He made it look good. “What are you going to do to me?” asked Alphonse.

“Now that I own your body? Anything I like.”

Alphonse swallowed. “Are you going to harvest my organs?”

“No, no–though I would like to count your livers. See, Alphonse, you’ve done too many strange drugs to trust your organs. What’s in those toothpicks, anyway?”

“What are you going to do to me?” Alphonse asked again.

“I might make you into glue. Let’s go.” Craig led Alphonse through his mansion into a back-entrance to the casino by way of the horse paddocks. As they walked, Craig listed factual statements. “You have conceded the race to Jonas and the class-action lawsuit to me. Your estate is now a non-profit nature preserve. We’ll find Tom, Dick, Harry, and Georgie, and your lab-boys will help perform the autopsies. We’ll confirm your father’s biggest cock-up. He was a lot better at hiding his shame than you, Alphonse, but you helped me dig up Masawa’s murder.” He led Alphonse to the glue-grinding and jockey-harvesting machine, covered with an unsuspicious tarp. “Get in,” said Craig.

Alphonse, clutching the toothpick to his chest, climbed into the big metal box. Craig shut the hatch behind him. “Um.” There was a TV in the box with Alphonse, tuned to the news.

“Get comfy. You’ll be here a while,” Craig said from outside the box. “Don’t worry—I’ll bring you food and water, and I’ll move you somewhere more hospitable when this is all over. I just thought the box would be poetic.”

“Craig! What are you doing!”

“Alphonse, you’re not worth glue. Your estate is gorgeous. Your jacket is gaudy. But your pistol? This is a work of art, Alphonse. This is the real prize. Do you know why I came to you offering my skills as a helicopter-pilot and security expert? Do you know?”

“Um. I thought it was to exchange your service for currency.”

“Your father and I were born the same year, Alphonse. I know because we met in the early fifties, when we were both eight years old. We met because my father was a diplomat, and your grandfather was a diplomat, of sorts.”

The TV in the box showed Alphonse news about the trial. “Diplomats of where, exactly?”

“I’d like to know!” said Craig. “I was one of the few survivors, and as a child at the time, my memory is hazy. It was either South America or South Africa, or maybe Eastern Europe. What matters is, it’s my father’s pistol, Alphonse.”

“Well, now you’ve got it back. Congratulations!”

“He brought this pistol to meet your grandfather because he heard rumors, Alphonse. Rumors your granddad was a de facto dictator through military power and assassinations. The gun did not keep my father safe.”

“What happened?”

“Your grandfather shot my father dead with this silver pistol, in front of me, and he tried to shoot me dead, too.” Craig lifted his shirt. Alphonse couldn’t see it from inside the box, but Craig had an old scar across his belly. “He dumped me in a river, Alphonse. I woke up with some local native tribe.”

“…The Masawas?”

“Georgie was a babe at the time. The tribe helped me escape the country while your granddad tore it apart to cover up his crimes. My father’s murder was the beginning of the end for your home country.”

“So in the race’s last moments, you betrayed me by refusing to bring Champ Junior back across the finish-line.”

Craig laughed. “Alphonse, my betrayal was planned the moment the first shithead crawled from the ocean onto land. I sent Champ Junior across the finish-line to stop you! I convinced you to race Jonas with a book I published! At the charity-race which produced Jonas and Sandra, I made that sadistic donation to tempt you! Did you even remember betting on Jonas as a child? You’d remember if you actually read the book, Alphonse, because Whitney wrote about you. Destiny foretold that Jonas would race the horse, and Sandra would ride it.”

“You couldn’t have planned every minute detail!”

“Pfft! If I told you I arranged Jonas’ boyhood skiing-accident, you’d have no choice but to believe me.” Craig examined the silver pistol’s hilt, embossed with horses. He pressed one horse’s eye and the hilt opened. There were cold-war era electronics inside. “My father put an audio-recorder in this pistol. It recorded his own murder, my attempted murder, and the next six weeks. We’ll see exactly what your ancestry did.”

“If your beef is with my grandfather, why are you doing this to me?

“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe it’s the organ-harvesting. Maybe it’s the horse-grinding. Maybe it’s because I don’t like your breath after all those toothpicks. But I promise you, Alphonse, the public will never hear of you again, and won’t learn another tidbit about little baby Bronson. But they, and you, and I, will hear this pistol’s record. What was your granddaddy so ashamed of that he destroyed his country to escape it? Let’s find out, Alphonse.”

Craig left Alphonse in the box. Alphonse sat in front of the TV and watched the news.

Outside the paddock, Craig walked along the horse-stalls. They were all empty except for one, which he opened. Champ and Junior followed Craig in walking freely onto the estate.

THE END

Commentary
Table of Contents

Phoenix Wright and Moving On

Jonas and company engage in a trial to determine whether Alphonse gets paid or pays out. If Alphonse can’t keep his mouth shut, he’ll lose everything.

I’m not a lawyer. I don’t even know any lawyers personally. Luckily, accuracy is hardly relevant to courtroom-drama. Fudging it is probably more exciting than the real deal.

Have you ever played the video-game Phoenix Wright? I haven’t, but I’ve watched those boyish nimrods The Game Grumps play it, and it’s exactly what I’m talking about. Phoenix Wright is a defense-attorney in a world of cartoonish mystery. In court he spars with the prosecutor using a system of legality which only vaguely resembles reality. The law is flexible because Phoenix Wright is in a game, and a game is supposed to be fun even if going to court is usually like pulling teeth.

Likewise, I’m not concerned about realism in this court-case, just making a compelling back-and-forth. I want Alphonse to lose for his inability or unwillingness to understand how others perceive his actions, and his simultaneous egotistical attachment to his public image. I also want as few new characters as possible, so I limit myself to Alphonse’s lawyer Lloyd and Judge Fairfax, both of whom have limited roles.

And, uh, that’s a wrap. Thank you so much for reading all this way (about 40,000 words total, a proper novella!). I’ll periodically reread and edit this story; I think Jonas’ and Whitney’s relationship needs some work, and I should probably learn more about horses eventually. My writing motto is “First get it down, then get it right.” Let me know if you have any comments, or noticed any plotholes, or anything like that.

Eventually I’ll start a new writing project, but I’m not sure what it’ll be quite yet. I’ve got a few ideas bumping around.

In the meantime, why not try reading another story, or checking out my YouTube channel?

Stay frosty, and don’t bet your legs unless it’s a sure thing!

Table of Contents

Video: Forking Hell

Today’s video is about this kinda fork-shape. Boo!

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The fork shows up in episodes of Black Mirror, but I also think it’s emblematic of the mindflayer in the new season of Stranger Things. Basically everything is an org-chart if you squint hard enough.

Back

To The Finish

(This is part ten of a story about an ultra-marathon runner who bets his legs he can beat a horse in a 100-mile race. Let’s see if Jonas keeps his feetsies, but first, a flashback.)

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2018

In the front row of the underground-casino’s racetrack, Craig and Alphonse watched ten horses vie for the finish-line. Sparse spectators cheered for first-place. “The winner was one of mine!” said Alphonse. He bought Craig a beer to celebrate. “Do you have any steeds to wager?”

Craig laughed. “I’m no cowboy, sir.” He sipped his beer. It tasted like a million bucks. “Unless you mean the chopper. I bet my helicopter could outrace any horse.”

“Maybe, maybe.” Alphonse slapped Craig on the back so hard he almost lost his sunglasses and cap onto the racetrack. “But you’d better hold your helicopter—it’s why I hired you, after all! Where’d you get the wheelie-bird, anyway?”

Craig nodded and sipped more beer. He drank with infinite patience. “I have some connections from my stint in the military.”

“Oh, right!” Alphonse drank a shot of liquor which could have bought a car. “Which war were you in, again? Vietnam?”

“Something like that,” said Craig. “Have you picked a human to race your best horse, sir?”

“Not yet,” said Alphonse. “I need the perfect patsy.”

“I’ve got just the guy.” Craig took a hardcover book from his jacket. “His name is Jonas. He’s an elite ultra-runner whose name is suddenly on everyone’s mind.”

Don’t Run to Live, Live to Run,” read Alphonse from the cover. “What makes you think he’s the one?”

“Read the book,” said Craig. “Jonas’ girlfriend left him for cheating at an ultra-marathon. He’ll beg to redeem himself for her by racing the horse. Invite him to the casino and we’ll win him over with a nudie deck and some free drinks.”


2019

BEEP. Mile 93 (91): 11:10 / 14:59:59.

Whitney ran alongside me. Ten strangers ran ahead and behind us, and more arrived every few minutes. They each slapped me on the back but I didn’t appreciate the sportsmanship. I’d finished ninety miles alone or with Whitney, and that’s how I liked it. Now I couldn’t get away from company. The news-chopper’s light cast shadows around us. Was their footage live? Or would my fate be released as a documentary?

I licked pizza-sauce from my chin. Even after scarfing a pizza and a half I was still starved. My stomach was bursting and I was hungry. I lost over a hundred calories per mile, so I was still thousands in the hole no matter what I ate. When I finished this race I’d eat like I was expecting quintuplets.

“Let’s see,” I said aloud, to no-one. Whitney was the only one who seemed to hear. “If I burn more than a hundred calories per mile, I’m over nine thousand down. Each of those pizzas is two or three thousand calories, and I’ve had like ten of those silver packets of running glop—those are a hundred apiece. So I’m three thousand calories out, at least.”

“What do you want to eat?” Whitney passed me silver packets of running-glop, but I turned them down.

“I want ice-cream,” I said. “I want ice-cream sandwiches hand-fed to me while I soak in a Jacuzzi, with bubbles.”

“You’re almost there, Jonas. Just a few more miles.”

“Hi!” Danny and Debra approached from ahead and flanked us. “We’re back!”

“Great,” I said.

“How far ahead’s the horse?” asked Whitney.

“Less than two miles,” said Debra.

“You know, the strangest thing happened,” said Danny. “The first time we saw that horse, I swore it was black all over.”

“Uh-huh,” said Whitney.

“But now it’s got two brown hooves.”

“I told him he’s seeing things,” said Debra. “Like when he leaves for work with mismatched socks.”

“That happened once, Deb.”

BEEP. Mile 94 (92): 9:12 / 15:09:11.


At the front gates, six men in leather jackets revved their motorcycles. One shouted at the crowd of spectators through a megaphone. “Hey! Everyone! Eyes over here!”

The crowd turned. Only about half remained at the gates; the rest had entered the estate.

“We’re the safety crew,” said the man with the megaphone. His friends shook orange spray-cans. “There’s lots of opportunity for unfortunate accidents around the Bronson Estate. Our job is to make sure nothing bad happens to you. Please, for your safety and the safety of race-participants, mind the orange lines.”

The six men in leather revved their engines and rode single-file through the throngs. They spray-painted behind them so an orange line cut the trial in two.

“Okay, this is getting ridiculous,” said one bystander in a tank-top commemorating the Winter-2018 Biannual Colorado-Veterinarian-Association 5k. He pulled out his phone. “I’m calling the police.”


Craig’s phone rang. With just one hand on his helicopter’s controls, he prepared to put the phone on speaker for Sandra and the other men in leather to hear. “Listen to this! Every phone-call within a mile of the Bronson Estate goes through me. I screen 911 like a hawk to keep Alphonse’s shenanigans off the radar. It’s priceless!”

“Hello, is this the police?” asked the caller.

“That’s who you dialed, isn’t it?” Craig’s friends in leather giggled. Sandra held the elbow of her broken right arm. “What’s your emergency?”

“I’m at the front gates to the Bronson Estate and things keep getting worse. Aren’t you keeping an eye with this situation?”

“Enough to know it’s a nonviolent gathering on private property,” said Craig. “Doesn’t sound like an emergency to me.”

“But—”

“Wait a sec.” Craig put the caller on hold and turned to Sandra—he seemed confident piloting the helicopter with his back turned. “What’s up? Isn’t this funny? Are we bothering you?”

Sandra shook her head disbelievingly. “What’s your angle, old man? What are you doing?

“You’ve worked with Alphonse for a few years. You know he runs an underground casino and harvests organs to sell on the black market, and stuff like that. The law’s not on our side, Sandra.”

I work for Alphonse,” said Sandra, “but do you work for Alphonse? We all saw that news-chopper follow Jonas, and we all heard you lie to Alphonse about it.”

Craig smiled. “Craig works for Craig. Until now that meant working for Alphonse and keeping my ear to the ground. Tonight it means putting my feet up and letting the river carry the Bronsons away.” He popped the cooler. The others in leather dug around the horse-feet for two cold cans of beer amid the ice. They cracked them open and gave one to Craig and one to Sandra’s unbroken left arm. Craig sipped. “You in?”

“You broke my arm,” said Sandra.

“Following Alphonse’s orders. Gotta keep up appearances,” said Craig. “You told Jonas Alphonse pushed you off the horse, and you were right. Join the mutiny.”

Sandra drank the beer. “I’m in.”

“Welcome to the club, Sandra.” Craig poked his phone and spoke to the 911 caller. “Hello sir! I’m about to transfer you to the real police. Tell them whatever you want, okay?”

“What? But then who are y—”

Craig poked his phone again and the call went through.


Alphonse wrapped the reins around his wrists. Champ hadn’t quite adjusted to his new hooves. Perhaps he’d accidentally added or subtracted a few millimeters when replacing the appendages.

Ahead he heard rumbling engines and saw headlights. Six men on motorcycles were painting an orange line along the trail. Runners had to jump out of the bikers’ way. “Just six miles left, Boss!” one called.

“Bless you, gentlemen.” The bikers in leather made hairpin-turns to roll alongside and behind Alphonse. “Do the spectators know they must stay on their side of the orange line?”

“They’d better.” A biker revved his engine and onlookers knew to be scarce.

“That’s the spirit,” said Alphonse.


BEEP. Mile 95 (93): 8:58 / 15:18:09.

My GPS watch was drowned out by the other runners’ constant chatting, but I reluctantly enjoyed the waterfall of sound behind the mob. Three hundred feet rhythmically hit the dirt. I didn’t feel like one man. I was member of an amoeba.

Or maybe I was hallucinating again.

“Hey, you!” Whitney pointed at the latest runners to join us. “What’s the news from the front?”

“Huh?”

“The horse! How far ahead?”

“Oh, uh, yeah. About a mile.”

“They spray-painted me!” A woman turned to show a line of orange paint across her shoulder-blades. “Some guys on motorcycles said I was in the horse’s way or something, and they spray-painted my back!”

“They split the trail with paint to keep people away from the horse,” said the latest arrival. “You can see the paint starts just ahead.”

“Not a bad idea,” said Whitney. “Everyone out of Jonas’ way!”

BEEP. Mile 96 (94): 9:02 / 15:27:11.

“More than that!” I said. “If you can’t keep quiet, scram far enough I can’t hear you.”

The mob of runners murmured, but moved. The loudest talkers ran ahead or walked a while to stay behind. The runners around me zipped their mouths. Freed from voices, I ran a little faster.

Whitney kept up. “Bitter much, Jonas? Maybe I should shut up, too?”

“No. I need to talk to Thog.”

“Thog here.”

“I’m enlightened, Thog. I don’t care if I win a million bucks. I don’t care if I lose my legs.”

“How come?”

“I get to stop, but the horse doesn’t. If Alphonse wins today it’ll whet his whistle and he’ll want to win tomorrow, too—and if he loses today he’ll want to win even more.” I panted through my teeth. “Look at all these people. They won’t let this end. Champ will race for the rest of its life, and its kids will race, too.”

“You can’t run angry, Jonas.”

“I’ll run angry or not at all.”

“It’s Live to Run, not Rage to Run.”

“That’s backwards,” I said. “Anger is easy. Self-actualization is hard.”

“You don’t see angry lions chasing antelope across the Serengeti. Just hungry lions. You’re dehydrated, Jonas. Take a drink.” I drank from the hose of her water-backpack. “Win or lose, you’re headed for an elite time. You might finish a hundred miles in under sixteen hours.”

BEEP. Mile 97 (95): 8:54 / 15:36:05.


Kevin wasn’t sure if he should be frustrated or giddy. At the front gates to the Bronson Estate the crowds were so thick he couldn’t pull off the service-road. “Look at all these people!” He honked.

“How’d they get here so quick?” asked Hermes. “You posted those photos just hours ago. These folks must live nearby.” He rolled down his window and shouted at the spectators. “Hey, let us through! We’re race-staff!”

The crowds slowly parted and Kevin parked his car some distance from the front gates. “Jonas will be here soon,” he said, unbuckling his seat-belt.

“We can only hope,” said Hermes, shutting the car door after him.

Red and blue lights lit them from behind. Kevin and Hermes turned to see a police-car cruising toward them, led by a man in a tank-top commemorating the Winter-2018 Colorado-Vet 5k. “Did you hear that, officers? They said they were race-staff!”

A cop with a mustache leaned out the shotgun window. “Is that right, sirs?”

“Uh. Yeah.” Kevin shook the officer’s hand. “What can we do for you?”

“One question: what the hell’s going on here?”

“Man versus horse,” said Hermes. “Alphonse Bronson is on horseback racing a famous ultra-marathon runner, and those front gates are the finish-line.”

“That explains the crowd,” said the officer at the wheel. “Who are these hooligans on motorbikes I’m hearing about?”

“Alphonse’s gestapo,” said Kevin. “They took Jonas’ finger!”

“Um. What?”

“Yeah, check this out!” Kevin showed the officers Polaroids of Jonas holding the mile-80 flag in blood-stained hands. The officers gaped, aghast, and retched.

Hermes nodded. “I told the 911-responder about it the second time I called, but they didn’t sound like they’d send anyone. I’m glad you came.”

“The… second time you called?” The officers turned to each other. One spoke to a walkie-talkie. “We need backup at the Bronson Estate.”


“Back up, back up!” The men in leather revved their bikes’ engines to make bystanders move aside. Alphonse made Champ trot off the trail into secluded wood. “Clear out! Champ wants some privacy!”

“How far behind is Jonas,” Alphonse asked the closest biker.

“A mile and a half. You’ll win this easy, Boss.” The bikers took makeup kits from their leather jackets and hid Champ’s injuries with coal-black cover-up.

Champ strained to raise a leg for makeup on a cracking hoof, and Alphonse inwardly whimpered. “The new feet aren’t compatible. I shouldn’t have showcased my medical ingenuity.”

“Nah, the feet are fine,” said a biker concealing spur-marks. “You were just off by a little, see? This leg is a tad longer, and that leg’s a tad—” Another biker punched his shoulder and pointed to Alphonse, who was silently fuming. “But Champ’ll get used to it.”

“I should hope so,” said Alphonse.

“Hey! Get back!” A man in leather raised both hands to ward off spectators, but shrank and scurried back to the group. “Guys, it’s the cops.”

All the men in leather groaned. “Quickly, quickly! We’ve prepared for this!” Alphonse tossed his silver pistol to his gang, who hid it in a nearby bush. Alphonse checked his Rolex. “Ah ha! Good evening, officers!”

Three cops stepped off their motorbikes and marched to Champ’s side. “We’ve had reports of all kinds of hooey, Mister Bronson.”

“Hooey is right!” said Alphonse. “I assure you any misconduct is exaggerated. You know we Bronsons aren’t a photogenic bunch.”

“You can carry on in a minute,” said an officer, “but we’ve heard you and your men might be packing illegal arms.”

For a moment Alphonse panicked about Jonas’ mutilated finger in his military-jacket’s breast-pocket, but sighed in relief when he remembered he gifted that finger to Craig. The officer was referring to weaponry. “Frisk us if you must, but make it quick.” Alphonse dismounted. He and his men put their hands against tree-trunks while the officers patted them down.

“You don’t let people into your estate very often, Mister Bronson.”

“It’s a special occasion.”

“Folks along the trail said your men in leather menaced them.”

“Racecourse-safety demands assertion. Surely you understand, as officers of the law.”

“Did you cut off Jonas’ finger?”

“Of course not,” said Alphonse, not lying. He’d blown off the finger with his pistol.

“Your men seem very interested in makeup, Mister Bronson.”

“That’s their business.”

“I like a little blush,” said a man in leather. “It brings out my eyes.”

Finding no firearms, the officers gave each-other thumbs-up. “Okay, sirs, you’re good to go. Although, that horse doesn’t look so great; are you sure it can handle the last few miles?”

“Of course, of course!” Alphonse mounted Champ and checked his Rolex. “Officers, could I ask a favor? You occupied us three minutes, by my watch. Would you agree, approximately?”

The officers shrugged. “Sure.”

“Then it’s only fair Jonas must finish three minutes before Champ to win the race,” he reasoned. “I hope I can count on your testimony, should the need arise.”

“Sure thing. Just keep these people safe, okay?”

“Why, that’s what the orange lines are for! Everyone will be fine if they stay on their side.” Alphonse watched the officers mount their motorbikes and take off down the trail. The men in leather instantly retrieved his silver pistol. “Finish that makeup. Quick!” The men in leather hastily made Champ presentable. “We can only hope we’re not interrupted again.”

“Hey! You!” A man in a tank-top commemorating the Winter-2018 Colorado-Vet 5k ignored the orange lines and strode right up to Champ. “I’m examining your horse.”

“Champ is fine! The picture of health!” Alphonse slapped Champ on the side and Champ didn’t react. “Trust me, I’ve raced horses for years!”

“And I’ve been a veterinary horse-specialist for years. Allow me a second opinion.”


BEEP. Mile 98 (96): 8:45 / 15:44:50.

“Jonas, look.” Whitney pointed at some guy running next to us.

“What about him?”

“A mile ago, he was one of those who ran ahead to talk. Now you’re passing him. You’ve run almost a hundred miles and he’s run less than twenty, but you’re leaving him in your dust.”

As we passed him, the guy pumped a fist. “You’ve got this, man!”

“Wow,” I said. “Honestly, I don’t feel ready to outrun anyone.”

“You might outrun me, soon, too,” said Whitney. “These 48 miles have seriously wrecked me, Jonas.”

“What, really?” For the first time I saw in her face a feeling I knew well: she was bonking, hard. “You’ve paced me on plenty of hundos, Whitney. You’ve never had trouble keeping up—even when I’m pacing you, you exhaust me.”

“I get to prepare for those hundos,” said Whitney. “I get warning—not a surprise phone-call when you’re thirty miles in. I ran an ultra last weekend, Jonas. I had all-I-could-eat sushi last night, and I ate all I could. I’m not in shape to pace you. I was hardly able to join you this far.”

“But… I don’t want to run the last miles alone.”

“Then catch the horse, Jonas.” Whitney fell behind. I ran on.

BEEP. Mile 99 (97): 8:37 / 15:53:27.


“This race is over.” The vet pointed to Champ’s feet. “I don’t know what you’re trying to pull, here, but this horse isn’t in any condition to take another step. Is this makeup?” He wiped a cracked hoof and his finger came back blackened. “Despicable.”

“Yes, yes, I know.” Alphonse tapped a leather jacket’s back with his boot. The man in leather understood, and brought another man behind the vet. “I think my men would like to speak with you, doctor.”

“Huh?” The vet turned and the men in leather lay hands on his shoulders. “Hey!”

“We told you,” said one, “crossing the orange line is very dangerous. Shall we escort you somewhere more secure?”

“Yes you shall,” said Alphonse. The men pulled the vet into the dark woods.

“Whoa! Help!” The vet kicked and pushed, but the men in leather overpowered him. “Where are you taking me? What are you doing?”

One man cocked his shoulder to sock the vet in the jaw, but his phone rang. He checked the caller-ID: it was Craig. “Take over for me,” he said to his partner. “Hey, Craig?”

“Howdy,” said Craig. “I forgot to tell you, we’re on mutiny-mode. Don’t let Alphonse get your hands dirty.”

“Gotcha, Boss.” Before the other man could clock the vet, the man with the phone signaled for him to stop. Instead he presented the vet with an orange spray-can. “You see this?” He shook the can. “We told you not to cross the lines. Now you gotta pay the price.” He sprayed the vet in the face, then zigzagged the paint across his Winter-2018 biannual Colorado-Veterinarian-Association 5k tank-top. “Now scram. We don’t wanna see your ugly mug again.”

The men in leather kicked the vet onto the trail a hundred yards back, then rejoined Alphonse. “He won’t bother nobody, Boss.”

“Excellent.” Alphonse grit his teeth. “But he’s not wrong. My horse is in dire straights. You,” he said to a man at random, “bring Champ Junior to the finish-line. That will give Champ something to run for.” The man mounted his motorbike and took off. Alphonse started Champ down the trail. “That damned vet. He cost us more time than the police, and since we disposed of him, we can’t even penalize Jonas for the delay!”

As soon as Alphonse mentioned Jonas, he heard a roaring helicopter and an electronic beep.

BEEP. Mile 100 (98): 8:43 / 16:02:10.

I only saw Champ for a moment, out of the corner of my tired eyes, but cheers of the runners around me promised I had the lead.

Alphonse spurred Champ’s ribs and trotted alongside me. “Jonas! I wondered if we’d meet again before my inevitable victory.”

I didn’t even look at Alphonse. “Save it for the finish-line.”

“This helicopter above us isn’t one of mine,” said Alphonse. “I suppose the man in charge of my airspace must have his hands full.”

“I bet he does.”

“You should know, Jonas, some kindly police-officers delayed me for three minutes. You’ve got to beat Champ by that much.”

Bystanders groaned in protest, but I was far beyond anguish. I’d resigned myself to Alphonse’s scheming. “What happens if your horse doesn’t finish the race at all?”

Alphonse chuckled. “That won’t be a problem.”

“Don’t laugh,” I said. “I’m running your horse to death. And I’m winning.”

BEEP. Mile 101 (99): 7:37 / 16:09:47.

I wish I felt confident as my words. Beyond just an ultra-marathon’s fatigue, angst echoed from my belly-button down. I couldn’t help but wonder if these were the last sensations my heels would ever feel. Would I wiggle my toes much longer?

“You know, Jonas, I happened to overhear, around mile sixty-something, you fell, and your girlfriend helped you to your feet.”

“Uh-huh.”

“In some races, that would disqualify you.”

“Uh-huh.”

“You’d better finish this last mile under your own power,” said Alphonse, “or else—”

“Oh my gosh!” said a runner behind us.

Champ lost both black hooves—they sloughed right off. Underneath, Champ had red, stringy, bloody, fibrous mass. Champ slowed to a walk, even when Alphonse jammed the spurs an inch deep. “Move!”

“Thank God.” I walked beside the horse. “Hallelujah, I’m saved.”

“Like hell!” Alphonse and Champ strode their fastest, but I outsped them with an easy gait. “Remember, Jonas, you’ve got to win by three minutes at least! A millisecond less and I’ll take your l—” Alphonse noticed about fifty runners within earshot, and recalled the helicopter above. Could it hear him? “I’ll take the race, Jonas!”

“Jonas!” Whitney jogged around motorcycles to run beside me. “Don’t just walk. Let’s move!”

“Whitney!” I jogged with her and we left Champ behind. “You said you couldn’t pace me.”

“I had to puke up some sashimi,” she said, “and I didn’t want to hold you back. Come on, you can gain three minutes over a mile.”

“What a love-story.” Alphonse reached into his jacket. “Here’s another.” I worried he’d pull out his pistol, but he had just a silk hankie. He held it to Champ’s nose and Champ trotted faster, just behind us. “My secret weapon. Champ has a child—a promising young race-horse who’s waiting for us at the finish-line, and whose scent is on this kerchief. The promise of their reunion will speed us along.” It didn’t seem to help; Champ was hardly cognizant.

“Ignore him, Jonas.” Whitney and I pulled ahead of the horse. It hurt like rebar driven up my heels and through my hips.

But was it enough? “I have to win by three minutes.”

“Just beat Alphonse across the finish-line. Fuck up his photo-op.”

“I don’t think I’m gonna make it.”

“Breathe, Jonas. The horse is far behind.”

I tried. Along either side of the trail, hundreds of onlookers shouted and cheered, but I could hardly hear them. My blood pulsed panic. I was about to lose my legs. I was about to lose my legs.

“There’s the finish,” said Whitney. I saw the estate’s front gates. All around me, roaring crowds urged me on. I felt their cheers like wind at my back.

Then everything went to hell.

It didn’t even hurt at first. I just heard a soft wet tear and felt cold fabric slide down my left leg. I saw my agony in the eyes of sympathetic spectators before I felt it myself.

For the last few miles the ice-pack around my left knee was the only thing holding the leg together. Now it split, and the compression shorts couldn’t keep me from crumpling on the dirt like a jenga tower.

“Jonas!”

My left knee hyper-extended a hundred eighty degrees, so my own foot kicked my gut. I was fifty feet from the finish-line and I’d flamingo’ed myself.

Alphonse and Champ were less than a quarter-mile behind.

Whitney and twenty other onlookers moved to help me, but I pushed her away and the audience stayed back. “Stop! You can’t help!” I crawled for the finish-line on three limbs, dragging my left leg behind me. From behind the finish-line, paramedics brought me a stretcher, but I shouted. “Don’t touch me!” Thirty feet to the finish, I heard the horse’s gallop.

Phones and cameras flashed: everyone at the finish-line took photos except Hermes, who covered his face in concern for me, and Kevin, who filmed me with a vintage lens, and Sandra and Craig, who just watched coolly. Craig’s subordinates in leather led a black horse, smaller than Champ but identical.

Champ’s approach was unbearably loud. I had twenty feet to crawl.

Fifteen.

Ten.

When Champ was loudest I knew he’d overtaken me.

Then he was suddenly silent. He’d stopped on a dime.

Alphonse shot off the saddle, twirled through the air, and rolled across the finish-line, breaking both arms. If I were racing him, not the horse, this would have been his victory.

I crawled the last ten feet to join him on the other side.

BEEP. Mile 102 (100): 11:09 / 16:20:56.

The crowd went wild, but I flopped on my back to watch Champ.

I saw immediately why the horse had stopped: Champ Junior had crossed the finish-line to meet his father. Champ, having no reason to take another step, did not.

Craig pat me on the shoulder and handed me a beer. “Nice race, Mountain King.” I dropped the can and it rolled away. I and Alphonse were fixated on Champ.

“Okay, let’s get you two on stretchers.” Paramedics moved to collect Alphonse and me, but Whitney fended them off. “Hey! What’s your problem, lady?”

Kevin filmed my wretched leg. “Jonas, you won!”

“Not yet.” Alphonse wrangled a broken wrist to check his Rolex. “Two minutes and twenty seconds,” he said. “Champ’s got two minutes and—and fifteen seconds, now, to finish the race.”

“Are you joking?” said Kevin. “Jonas won—we all saw it!”

“Shh, shh, shh.” I beckoned for Kevin to keep quiet, as if his voice might attract Champ across the finish line. “Shhhh.” Champ settled on his knees to be nearer his child. I sighed in relief.

“Craig.” With broken hands, Alphonse pulled Craig’s pant-leg. “Bring Champ across the line.”

“No!” said Whitney. “If no one can help Jonas, no one can help the horse!”

“But I could bring Champ Junior over the finish-line,” said Craig. “No rule against that. And then Champ would follow.”

“Yes!” said Alphonse. “Quick, Craig! Less than two minutes left!”

Craig didn’t move. He just kept his arms crossed, with a giddy smirk that Alphonse couldn’t see while lying on the dirt.

“Craig! Sandra!”

“He hears you, Boss,” said Sandra, “and so do I.”

“What are you waiting for!” said Alphonse. “I’ll pay you! What do you want!”

Hermes gave me the last of my second no-cheese pineapple-olive pizza. I ate ravenously while Alphonse begged. Then I drank Craig’s beer, despite advice from Whitney and the paramedics. It was ice-cold.

Alphonse whimpered. His Rolex counted down the last minute, and Champ didn’t move an inch. Even the news-copter, espying from too close, couldn’t buffet him away.

I gestured for the paramedics. “Take me away. I’ve seen enough.” Whitney joined me in the ambulance. “Does the emergency-room have a hot-tub?” I asked.

“We’ll get you a warm sponge-bath,” said a paramedic. “You smell like you need one.”


2018

Jonas was recovering from a long run in a hot bath with a cold beer. Whitney knocked on the door. “Come in!”

Whitney sat by the tub. “Good news about the book!”

“Oh? Yeah?”

“We’ve got a publisher!

“No shit?”

“Remember Kevin, from high-school cross-country? Kevin has connections in the entertainment industry, and a publisher contacted him asking about us! They think books about ultra-running are hot right now. They can even get us into The Great RaceThat’ll be worth writing about.”

“Wow.” Jonas slumped deep into the water. “Congratulations.”

“You helped!” said Whitney. “I really couldn’t do this without you. I think the publisher reached out because you won that hundo last year.”

“You’re the best runner in this bathroom, and you’re the only writer.”

Whitney smiled. “Actually, you might look like the writer after this. The publisher said listing you as the author would a good business-move. I agreed to ghost-write in your name.”

Jonas sat up. “But—Whitney, no!”

“It’s fine!” Whitney lay him back in the water. “I mean it when I say I couldn’t do this without you.”

“But it’s your book!”

“Listen,” said Whitney. “Kevin said the publisher’s got a plan. They think the book will be really successful, and even more successful if it has your name on the cover. It’s all just marketing.”

Jonas blew bubbles. “Okay, I guess. If it’s for you.”

The Aftermath
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