The Big Cheese

(This is the last part of a story starting here.)


“You told me yourself, Scumdaddy,” said Julia. “There are only two kinds of life-forms: the kind which eats their parents, and the kind which eats their young. To quit hurting kids—kids like me and Sasha over there—you’ll need to eat your parents.”

The Scumbug bubbled. “I don’t even know who my parents are.”

“Not my problem. You told me it was a metaphor anyway.”

“Julia!” The mother seahorse disembarked her spaceship with her husband. “Maybe we can help, Mr. Scumbug, sir. The galaxy is only so big; we can find where you came from. What’s your first memory?”

The Scumbug boiled. “I woke up in my scrambag with amnesia. I didn’t know where I’d come from, or where I was going, but I was stuck. I was stuck in the Big Empty in a giant cluster of Easy Cheese. I didn’t even know how to operate my scrambag.”

Julia blinked. “You told me your scrambag was your egg.”

“Well, yeah, metaphorically, since it’s the location of my first memory. Anyway, all I had with me were my lumps. My kids.”

“How did you know they were your kids?” asked Sasha. “You had a bunch of little lumps and you assumed they were your kids?”

“At the time they looked just like me,” said the Scumbug. “Big blobby masses. When I got hungry, I blorped on, and it crunched into a lump like this. Then I just couldn’t stop myself from eating all the rest, too. Then I had nothing left to do but learn to operate the scrambag.”

“…And… how do you operate the scrambag?” asked Julia.

The Scumbug shrugged by making blobby shoulders. “Thinking, mostly. I thought my way back to the galaxy. For a while I searched for the poor sod who got me trapped out there. Never found a clue about them, though.”

“…Back to the galaxy?” said Julia. “You said this was your first memory. What makes you think you’d ever been to this galaxy before?”

“I had an urge,” said the Scumbug.

“Okay,” said the mother seahorse. “So you were in an egg. And you had an urge to come to the galaxy. And then you left the egg.”

“The metaphorical egg,” clarified the Scumbug.

“I think it’s more literal than you intended,” said the mother seahorse. “I think you were born by the Big Empty. Maybe your parents are Easy Cheese.”

The Scumbug burbled. “I don’t look like Easy Cheese.”

The mother seahorse’s husband shook. “Maybe you’re not done being born yet. Seahorse-fetuses get pumped from mother to father. Maybe Scumbugs get pumped from Easy Cheese to the center of the nearest galaxy.”

The ambassador laughed. “You survived giving birth, Mr. Seahorse. Maybe the Scumbug is more like a wasp-larva injected into a caterpillar, and the galaxy isn’t meant to live long enough to see what it turns into.” Julia made sure the ambassador remembered she had the laser-gun under his chin.

“No, no. That… that doesn’t sound right.” The Scumbug blorped its scrambag. It drifted upward, out of the lunar office, into the black sky.

“Where are you going?” asked Sasha.

“I’m gonna eat Easy Cheese until there’s nothing left of it, or nothing left of me.”

“Hey.” Julia pushed the ambassador into the center of the office. “Take this guy, too. Show him what it really means to be cheesy.”


The Scumbug never returned. Eventually the night sky changed from black to dark green, but it was hardly noticeable.

The seahorses took Julia, Sasha, and the giant spider to Italy, where a horrified restaurant relinquished all the pasta they could stomach. Sasha said noodles were nice, but she preferred the algae she had back on her home-planet. Julia was glad to get her spaghetti, but knew no noodles could replace the childhood she’d lost.

Everyone in the restaurant with a smartphone took pictures of the seahorses and giant spider eating noodles. Earthlings knew aliens existed, having entered the galactic theater a decade ago, but their ambassador had sheltered them from the supposedly evil alien overlords. They’d never seen a spider devour ravioli with quite such insatiable fervor.

When those photos were posted on ButtBook, commenters realized the teen beside the spider could only be Julia, the ambassador’s kidnapped daughter. As the photos grew in online popularity, it became easier and easier for Julia to track down her old friends in the comment-sections.

In the coming months, Julia and her old friends met in person for the first time ever. They got along just as well as they had a decade ago, sharing stories about the cheese they’d had to deal with on Earth or in space. Her friends were glad to meet seahorses and a giant internet-famous spider.

Then Sasha and the spider returned to space with the seahorse mother, also never to return. The seahorse father lived on the moon as Earth’s ambassador. Julia ignored him, as she’d lost her taste for space-politics.

Instead, she started a noodle-restaurant. The restaurant became very popular because of Julia’s famous story of being kidnapped and dragged across the cosmos, but really, she just wanted to make noodles, even if they didn’t fulfill her. Noodles filled her, and that was enough.

Julia always wondered how much her speed-sickness was impacting her perception of time. As soon as she had a schedule to follow at her restaurant, she felt months pass every time she blinked. Time slid by. She was quite old when the Scumbug contacted her on a warm summer night.

She was halfway through a bowl of linguine when the dark green sky grew light green spots which orbited like the lumps in the Scumbug’s blob. The lumps vibrated at her, and a voice emanated from the spot across Julia’s table. “Julia!”

“Leave me alone, Scumdaddy.”

“I’ve eaten all the Easy Cheese in the whole universe,” said the Scumbug. “It turns out your ambassadaddy was right. Easy Cheese injects Scumbugs into galaxies to make them into more Easy Cheese.”

“I don’t care.”

“But you helped me, Julia! I’m the first Scumbug to ever resist eating the galaxy to eat the universe instead, uniting all galaxies across the cosmos in a golden age of—”

“Leave it to Mr. Seahorse. He’s Earth’s ambassador now, on the moon. I cook noodles.”

The light green circles bobbed. “But I want to make you Queen of the Universe.”

“Why?”

“Because you helped me learn not to abduct and indoctrinate children—to rule the universe with a lighter touch.”

“Then you know how and why to leave me alone.” Julia slurped linguine. “I’m not one of your kids anymore, Scumdaddy. I’m 74 years old.”

“Is that old for a human?”

“Yeah.” Julia twisted her fork. “You took ten of those years. And with the speed-sickness, you’ve taken most of my time ever since, too.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Leave me alone, Scumdaddy.” When she said it, Julia couldn’t help but smile. She loved how much that name annoyed the Scumbug. But it had never driven it away from her.

The light green orbs in the sky merged with the dark green surroundings. Julia finished her noodles, checked ButtBook, and went to bed.

THE END

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Empty Nest

(This is part five of a story starting here. Honestly, I really feel like this story has gotten away from me; read my commentary here.)


The mantis ship shot across the cosmos. “Wow,” said Julia, “we’re accelerating way faster than Scumdaddy ever did.”

The spider worked the control-panel, pressing buttons and pulling levers with seven arms at once to set a course for Earth. “We mantoids build quick ships.”

“And the Scumbug isn’t known for speed,” said Sasha the seahorse, spinning in her chair. “It thinks high-tech gizmos are too Cheesy.”

“When we first met,” said Julia, “Scumdaddy told me aliens swim to space, naked. Is that true?”

“Well, yeah,” said Sasha. “You’ve seen me swim to space. A few times.” Julia looked at her blankly. “When we first met, I was underwater. Then I swam to space to meet you. You watched it happen.”

Leaving a pond ain’t swimming to space.”

“Where does space start, then?”

“Above all the air!”

“You can’t swim in air, though.”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m saying!” Julia shook her head and pulled out her cellphone. “Forget it. Where are the power-outlets? Is there wifi on this ship?”

“What’s wifi?” asked the spider.

“It’s like spray-cheese from Julia’s home-planet,” said Sasha. “This ship’s got spray-cheese, right Mr. Spider?”

“Of course,” said the spider. He poked a button and the spaceship’s interior walls were illuminated with projections of colorful bouncing orbs.

“…Spray-cheese?” asked Julia.

“Yeah,” said Sasha. “I haven’t used spray-cheese since I was an itty-bitty seapony. The Scumbug hates spray-cheese.”

“Then I’m interested, but what is it?”

Sasha waved one of her little tentacles. From her point of view, her tentacle appeared to impact one of the colorful orbs, and the orb bounced like she had hit it. The spider hit it back toward her, and Sasha hit it back toward him. “The whole universe is the Big Cheese, right? So you can spray your cheese at people, and other people can spray their cheese at you. It’s all virtual.”

Julia bopped an orb. “Um. Is this all there is?”

“You’re right next to me, Julia,” said Sasha. “I don’t need to spray cheese at you. But watch this.” She grabbed an orb by holding it between two tentacles. “Any more seahorses out there?” she asked the orb.

She tossed the orb from the back walls of the spaceship through the front windshield. The orb disappeared into black space. Just as quickly, another orb shot through the windshield to the back walls. The spider poked it, and the orb decomposed into text. “Neat,” said the spider. “You got a hundred curds-and-whey.”

“…What does that mean?” asked Julia.

“Watch,” said Sasha, “there’s more coming.” Two more orbs of different colors arrived from deep space onto their back wall. “See? We sprayed cheese at them, they sprayed cheese back at us.” Sasha bopped an orb.

The orb said, “You’re far from home for a seahorse!”

“That’s an insightful comment,” said Sasha. “I’m giving it a curd.”

“That’s a total curd,” said the spider to Julia.

Sasha bopped the other orb. It said, “Can I see your ovipositor?”

“Uugh,” said Sasha, “these guys are everywhere. Whey!”

“Yeah, that’s a whey,” agreed the spider.

“Oh, I get it,” said Julia. “It’s like thumbs-up and thumbs-down on ButtBook.” She gave her friends a thumbs-up.

Sasha and the spider just looked at each other. “What is she doing?” asked the spider.

“I have no idea,” said Sasha. “Some human thing.”

Another orb flew onto the back wall. Julia tapped this one to open it.

“You’re in a mantoid-ship,” said the orb. “I heard mantoids are searching for Julia. Any sign of her or the Scumbug?”

“Uh oh.” Sasha reached for the orb, but hesitated. “What should we do? That’s a hitman working for the Big Cheese. If they know Julia’s aboard, they’ll want the bounty!”

“We’ll tell ’em the truth.” The spider took the orb between three legs and spoke to it. “We mantoids ate our elders. We younglings aren’t interested in Julia’s bounty anymore.”

Before the spider returned the orb to the windscreen, Julia added to its message. “But what does she look like? Maybe we’ve seen her.” The orb shot to deep space. It returned with an image of Julia sitting beside Earth’s ambassador. Julia compared the photo to her reflection in the windscreen. She felt her stomach sink. “Nope. Haven’t seen her around here.” Julia returned the orb, but her photo stayed on the back wall.

“Wow,” said the spider. “You humans grow fast, huh?”

“Well…” Sasha tapped her little tentacles together. “See… The Scumbug thinks sleeping-pods are Cheesy. Julia and I both have speed-sickness. Her more than me.”

“…Speed-sickness?” asked Julia.

“When you travel above light-speed,” said Sasha, “weird things happen to your perception of time. You get patient. Too patient. If you get really speed-sick, you can age to death in the blink of an eye. Most people use sleep-pods toskip long journeys.”

Julia shivered. “The Scumbug mentioned something like that. It’d felt like we’d left Earth maybe days ago, but the Scumbug said we’d been gone for weeks and weeks.”

“We’ve got sleep-pods aboard,” said the spider. “We haven’t accelerated enough yet to need them, but… Julia, it’s gonna take us looong time to get to your home-planet, and if the Scumbug is slower than us…”

Julia cradled her face. “How long have I been off Earth? How many months?”

She wasn’t sure how her translator was conveying the word ‘month,’ but both Sasha and the spider looked down. Julia knew the scale of her journey was in years.

The spider tapped the control-panel to bring up a dictionary on the back wall. “It’s going to take us…” It used another three legs to use a calculator on the control-panel. “…Six months to get to Earth. How much slower is the Scumbug?”

Sasha used the calculator, and then the dictionary.

“Give it to me straight,” said Julia. “How many years of my childhood did I lose up here?”

“…Less than a decade,” said Sasha, “I think. But one decade is the closest unit of time your language has.”

Julia wiped a tear from her cheek. “Maybe I’ll get back to Earth in time for my eighteenth birthday.”

A red alert appeared on the windscreen. “Uh oh,” said the spider. “Approaching spaceship!”


“Approaching spaceship, sir,” said the seahorse. “They’re disembarking now.”

“Send them in,” said Earth’s ambassador.

A horrible octopus-monster burst down the office-doors holding a laser-gun in each tentacle. “Thought you could hide on the moon, huh?! No one escapes the ultra-squid! Surrender the child and be subjugated to the Big Cheese!”

“Julia’s not here!” said the ambassador. He didn’t even have any bodyguards.

“Then you’ll tell me where she is,” said the ultra-squid, pointing four lasers at the ambassador’s head, “or I’ll let your planet replace you with an ambassador easier to intimidate!”

“Will you pay the standard fare,” asked the seahorse, “or do you want the deluxe package?”

“Um.” The ultra-squid pointed the other four lasers at the seahorse. “What?”

“Julia’s bounty is over five trillion units,” said the seahorse. “For one trillion units, we’ll give you exclusive information about Julia’s location. For another trillion units, we’ll also promise not to give this information to the hit-man of your choice.”

The ultra-squid narrowed its siphons. Strange calculations clicked in its slotted eyes. “…Julia’s bounty is so high… because she’s worth nothing to you… and you’re inflating the appearance of her worth… to profit off hit-men trying to kidnap her?” The ambassador nodded and put a shushing finger over his smile. “…But… you’d only do that if Julia could never be captured,” said the squid, “and anyone sensible enough to realize that woul—”

“—would get invited to the zoo!” The ambassador flipped a switch under his desk. The floor lit up. Beneath a thin sheet of glass was a whole warehouse of wild animals.

The ultra-squid flinched.

“Don’t worry! This isn’t just a death-threat,” said the ambassador. “I actually want you to join in on the death-threat! Beneath you is my cadre of bodyguards, working professionals just like you, whose work-ethic and entrepreneurial spirit aligned with my values. They can kill you, or you can join them, and get a cut from the saps who fall for the ‘deluxe package’ shtick.”

“…You drive a hard bargain,” said the ultra-squid. “I could kill your whole cadre of bodyguards, but as long as you’re profitable, I’ll join your squad.”

The seahorse breathed a sigh of relief while the ambassador shook a tentacle with both hands. “You and the rest of the bodyguards share from a twenty-percent cut of the net profit.”

“Now it’s a forty-percent cut,” said the ultra-squid.

“Deal,” said the ambassador. “Leave the way you came in and take the stairs down on your left.” The seahorse led the ultra-squid through the busted-down doors.

On returning to the desk, the seahorse shivered. “Eeeugh. That was close.”

“Think it’ll buy it?” asked the ambassador.

“Buy what?”

“The zoo down there. I said those were professional hit-men to scare the squid, but they’re just a bunch of animals I shipped up from Earth. Will the squid realize?”

“Sir, I don’t think you understand what’s about to happen.” When the door opened into the zoo downstairs, the ultra-squid entered tentacles-first and ate an entire angry grizzly bear.

“Whoa!” The ambassador watched blood pour from the squid’s beak as it ate a rhinoceros starting at the horns. “Hit-men don’t get along, do they?”

“I’m afraid you doomed your zoo when you told the squid it would need to share,” said the seahorse. Soon the zoo was empty except for blood, the giant squid, and its laser-guns. “Sir, I think it’s time for me to stop working here.”

“What? But we’re making so many units!”

“That’s really the problem,” said the seahorse. “This kind of brinkmanship is profitable until it explodes. I’m tapping out.”

The ambassador stepped between the seahorse and the busted-down doors. “When you first came to me, you promised you’d help humanity survive in the galactic theater.”

“You don’t need my help anymore,” said the seahorse. “You’ve got the squid now.”

“But the squid’s a hit-man! I need someone with your interpersonal skills. Can you give me contact-info for more seahorses?”

“Sir.” The seahorse shook his head. “I was sent to help Earth because seahorses are a friendly folk. None of us would join this situation if we didn’t help give birth to it.”

“That’s right!” said the ambassador. “You started this escapade! You can’t abandon me now, can you?”

The seahorse gave a pitiful smile. “Two conditions.”

“Anything, friend.”

“I want a raise.”

“Done.”

“And I want better escape pods.”

“I’ll think about it.”


“Hey, that’s the scrambag!” said Julia. “That must be Scumdaddy. Or part of Scumdaddy, maybe.”

“It’s trying to contact us,” said the spider. “Should I accept its messages?”

Sasha pat Julia on the back. “The Scumbug won’t let you go back to Earth. Maybe we shouldn’t listen?”

Julia gestured to the spider. “Can we, like, abduct the scrambag? Beam it aboard?”

“I could swoop over it and catch it in the cargo-bay,” said the spider.

“Make it so.”

G-forces slung the trio through the cockpit. “Got it!” said the spider. “Here, take a look.” He displayed security-footage from the cargo-bay, where one of the Scumbug’s lumps was disembarking the scrambag.

The lump rolled to the security-camera. “Julia! I know you’re in here!”

“Can it hear us?” asked Julia.

“If you want.” The spider pointed to a little red button.

Julia pushed it. “Hey, Scumdaddy.”

“Julia, you know better than to go back to Earth! Earth is dangerously Cheesy! My other 19 lumps must be worried sick about you. Turn around right now! We’re going back to the Big Empty.”

Julia pushed the button again. “I’m a big girl, Scumdaddy. Earth should be scared of me.”

The lump grumbled. It tried all the cargo-bay’s obvious exits—doors, air-conditioning vents, escape-pods—but they were all locked or too small for the lump to fit through. “You don’t know what you’re talking about, Julia.”

“No, Scumdaddy. You don’t know me. I’ve got a laser-spaceship and loyal crew—friends, Scumdaddy. And I’m gonna introduce them to my friends back on Earth, and feed ’em all noodles.”

“Your friends don’t love you like I love you, Julia. I’m the only one really loyal to you. Did you know, to beat the mantoids, I took six jobs for the funds to assemble a space-laser? I don’t like technology like that Julia, but I got Cheesy for you. I’m the only one you can depend on!”

“Your translator’s buggy,” said Julia. “It must not have a word for loyalty. You obviously don’t know what it means.” Julia released the little red button and whispered with Sasha and the spider. They both scurried to the cargo-bay. Julia pressed the little red button. “Here’s loyalty.”

Sasha and the spider chased the Scumbug’s lump away from the scrambag and into a corner. The spider leapt upon the lump and clutched it in all eight legs. Sasha dragged the spider and the orb to an organic-looking sphincter on the wall. “Hey! Wait! No!” said the Scumbug. “Sasha, was I really so cruel to you that you’d take my scrambag and chuck me into space?”

“You weren’t cruel to me, Scumbug,” said Sasha. “But I know you can handle it, and I want to try spaghetti.” She and the spider crammed the lump through the sphincter and out of the ship. “It’s gone, Julia.”

“Excellent.” Julia played with spray-cheese orbs on the back wall. “Scumdaddy won’t stop chasing us, but without the scrambag, it’ll at least take a while.”

The spider looked over the ship’s control-panel. “We’re moving fast enough that we should probably use the sleeping-pods.”

“Ooh, cool,” said Sasha. “I’ve never used a sleeping-pod before.”

Julia’s brow bent in disappointment. “But… I was having fun spraying cheese with you.”

Sasha laughed. “When we wake up on Earth, we can teach your human-friends to spray cheese.”

“But I’ve got friends here,” said Julia. “I’ve never had a slumber-party before. I want to have six months of slumber-party with you.”

Sasha and the spider looked at each other and smiled. They sat beside Julia and started bouncing orbs across the back wall.


The seahorse sweat. “Approaching spaceships, sir.”

“Ooh, a few at once?” The ambassador straightened his tie. “Tell them we operate first-come-first-serve.”

“Um. Sir.” The seahorse showed him the glass tablet of visualized information. “I’m afraid these spaceships belong to hit-men who are already our clients, sir. I fear they may have come to register complaints.”

“Uugh.” The ambassador waved a hand. “Send them in. If they cause a ruckus, the ultra-squid will escort them from being alive.”

The seahorse hesitated at the door. “You know, sir, that the ultra-squid is only loyal to you while you’re profitable. If it thinks there’s more money in—”

“Send them in.”

Ten aliens stormed into the office. Each looked like a different dangerous animal in a way which would be difficult to describe all at once. “You!”

“Me!” said the ambassador.

An alien pounded the ambassador’s desk with two crab-claws. “You said Julia was captured by the Scumbug!”

“She was.”

“We’ve found the Scumbug,” said a lobster-thing, “and it doesn’t have Julia.”

The ambassador shrugged. “Someone else must have found the Scumbug first. Oh well! You should’ve bought the deluxe package to keep the information to yourselves.”

An alien like a swordfish parried the ambassador’s shrug with a turned-up nose. “Give us one reason not to smear you across the walls and let another ambassador take over.”

The ambassador smiled. “Because you haven’t seen the zoo.” He flipped a switch under his desk.

The glass floor lit up to show the zoo under the office. The ultra-squid climbed the walls with its suckers and burst up through the glass. Three of the alien hit-men fell through the floor and splatted on the zoo floor.

“Kill ’em,” said the ambassador.

Instead, the ultra-squid wrapped three tentacles around the seahorse and scrambled out of the office. “Help!” shouted the seahorse, but the ultra-squid took him into his spaceship and left the moon. “Phew,” said the seahorse. “Thanks. I owe you one.”

The squid operated the controls with eight tentacles. “You owe me more than one. Way, way more.”

“Yeah, yeah. Like we agreed.” The seahorse took out his glass tablet and transferred hundreds of billions of units to the ultra-squid’s account. “Leave me near Galactic Center. I’ll get home from ther—”

“Get in the escape-pod.”

“Um. Okay.” The seahorse got in the squid’s ship’s escape-pod.

“Bye.” The ultra-squid fired the escape-pod into space.

The seahorse was smushed against the floor by the velocity. He laughed. “Oh, I am so glad to be outta there!”

The escape-pod was immediately caught in the cargo-bay of Julia’s mantis-ship.


The other dangerous-looking alien hit-men approached the ambassador’s desk. “Any last words?”

The ambassador swallowed. “Would you believe that I’m actually a robot?” An alien like a hammerhead shark shook a decisive ‘no.’ “Yeah, you’re right. I’d never pass up the chance to commute to the moon.” He sighed. “I guess I always knew the seahorse would betray me. Would any of you nice hit-men consider betraying the others and taking the seahorse’s spot?”

Before the aliens could respond by tearing the ambassador apart, the ambassador’s cell-phone beeped. He raised a finger to ask the aliens to pause took his phone from his shirt-pocket. He had a thumbs-down on his latest ButtBook post.

From Julia.

“…Julia’s got wifi. She’s near Earth!” he said. “The bounty’s back on, and only if I’m alive!”

“Julia?” The aliens all checked their own glass tablets. She’d spray-cheesed them a photo of herself in the scrambag. The moon and Earth were visible through the scrambag’s transparent walls. “She’s here!”

All the aliens scrambled for the office-exit, mangling each other along the way. The hallway to their spaceships was filled with blood and giblets. Alliances were made and betrayed quicker than it took their seat-belts to click.

The surviving alien hit-men flew toward Julia in the scrambag.

From the opposite side of the moon, the mantoid ship ambushed them and evaporated them in a laser-beam.

Julia crash-landed the scrambag on the moon to smash into the hallways of the ambassador’s private offices. She marched up to the ambassador’s desk with a laser-gun. “Ambassadaddy.”

“You always were weird,” said the ambassador, with his hands up.

“Gimme your phone. Mine’s low on battery, and about a decade obsolete.” The ambassador shakily gave her his phone without further comment.

Julia opened ButtBook and logged into her account. She scrolled through ten years of posts from her friends. “No way—Sam dated Becky? And they’re married?” She gripped the phone tightly through her tears. “I had to miss all of this, all because of you!”

The ambassador shook his head. “Actually, Julia, I invented ButtBook. Everything you’ve got is because of me. I’m not rich for nothing—I connect people to their friends!”

“When it’s profitable, you connect people to their friends. When it’s profitable, you chuck a girl into space.”

“And it was profitable!” The ambassador tapped his phone’s screen to show Julia his financial reports. “The galactic theater is the most easily bamboozled mark since a pigeon at the park! I just con aliens into thinking they’re in on a con! You could be in on the con, too, Julia!”

Julia shook her head and kept her laser-gun pointed at the ambassador’s chest. “You’ve got nothing I want.”

“I’ve got almost ten trillion units! I’ll give you half. You’ll go back to space and hide like a fugitive princess. No one will know where you are, but I’ll keep selling the lie that the Scumbug’s got you. That lie will further fund your royal lifestyle.”

Julia cocked the laser-gun. “I’ve got another proposal.”


“Hey, are you the Scumbug?” The nineteen lumps of the Scumbug ignored and brushed past the spaceships flying by. “Where’s Julia?” asked another spaceship.

“I don’t have Julia,” said the Scumbug. “I’m starting to realize I never did have Julia.”

Hit-men kept swerving near in their spaceships, seeing the Scumbug without their target, and absconding. The Scumbug ignored them.

“Hey, are you the Scumbug?”

“What do you think?” said the Scumbug.

“I think you’re missing a lump.” The spaceship ejected the Scumbug’s twentieth lump.

The Scumbug blorped it up and become whole again. All twenty lumps became up-to-date on the situation. “Oh. You’re the seahorse’s wife.”

“Uh-huh.”

“You found my lump for me because your husband met Julia’s crew.”

“Uh-huh.”

“And you’re here to—”

“If you know so much, then shut up and grab on.”

The Scumbug blorped up the spaceship, but left holes for the engines to propel them through space. “Thanks,” said the Scumbug.

“I’ve got children aboard, just so you know. So no funny-business.”

“How many?”

“About a hundred.”

“Awww.”

“My hubby said you’re really attached to yours. Julia.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Why don’t you have a better spaceship? Even your scrambag is pretty slow.”

“I can split into twenty lumps. I’ve never needed to move fast. I can be everywhere at once.”

“But you’re willing to hitch a ride.”

“I’ve suddenly got one single place to be.”


The ambassador swallowed. “Okay. What’s your proposal?”

“I’m Earth’s ambassador now.” Julia pressed the barrel of the laser-gun on his chest. “You’re just my father, for whom I care very, very deeply.”

The ambassador looked left and right until he realized what Julia meant. “You mean—”

You get to be the fugitive royalty,” said Julia. “Alien hit-men can chase you across the universe to intimidate me.”

The ambassador shook his head. “The whole Earth is on my side, Julia. I can take you down and replace you with another little girl—maybe one of your ButtBook friends. I don’t go where I don’t want to.”

“Maybe you want to go to space, Ambassadaddy. I met all kinds of nice aliens out there. Aliens who became close friends of mine.”

“I’ve got friends on Earth, and I don’t need any new ones.”

“You don’t understand.” Julia snapped her fingers. The office-doors smashed open. The spider clambered in. Over the months of space-travel without hypersleep, it had grown larger than its mantoid mother. It filled the whole office. “My friend here will chuck you into lunar orbit unless you leave the solar system and never come back.”

The ambassador gulped. “You make a compelling offer.”

Yet another spaceship crashed through the ceiling. The Scumbug unblorped it. “Julia! Sasha!”

Sasha the seahorse pushed her way into the office through the tangle of spider-legs. “Hey.”

“You two are coming with me right now!” said the Scumbug. “I’ve finally learned the lessons I need to raise you into adults without Cheese!

“You’ve already Cheesed us up!” said Julia. She considered pointing her laser-gun at the Scumbug, but used instead used its barrel to shush the ambassador, who looked like he might insert a word edgewise. “Scumdaddy, you raised me to be a fly a spaceship and not take lip from anyone, not even alien hit-men—not even you!

“But that’s not how I meant to bring you up! You’re going back to the Big Empty and I’m trying again!”

I’m the Big Cheese!” said Julia. “You wanted to kidnap a kid before someone else kidnapped them first, right? I’m not that kid anymore!”

The Scumbug’s lumps flocked to Sasha. “Sasha? Do you feel the same way?”

“Honestly, Scumbug, sir,” said Sasha, tapping her little tentacles together, “I’d really like to try spaghetti.”

“I raised you from childhood. You’d leave me for noodles?

“Uh-huh.”

The ambassador turned his face so Julia’s laser-gun poked his cheek. “If you don’t mind me saying, Mr. Scumbug, Sir, from my perspective here, the only difference between you kidnapping Julia and, say, Germa the Gerbil kidnapping Julia, is that I was able to profit when you did it.”

“Well said.” Julia plugged the ambassador’s mouth with the barrel of the laser-gun. “Scumdaddy, as long as you don’t understand you’re part of the Big Cheese, all you can do is try to leave the Cheese and fail. And when you fail, you eat your kids, even though you’re trying not to.”

The Scumbug collected its twenty lumps in its center. “But I don’t know how to do anything else.”

“You told me yourself,” said Julia, “there’s only one other thing to do. Eat your parents.”

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Home to Roost

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


“Tada!” The Scumbug’s one lump scooped enough gray sandy dust from the tiny planet to reveal a body of water the volume of a koi-pond. “Meet your new friend Sasha!

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“Um.” Julia squinted skeptically at a seahorse the size of a large dog. “She’s a little… wet?”

“And you’re a little dry,” said the seahorse.

“I found Sasha after running a job on a water-planet,” said the Scumbug. “She’s an orphan like you, Julia. I adopted her to try keeping someone alive out here in the Big Empty.”

“Hi.” Sasha the seahorse splashed Julia. Julia wiped her dress. “The Scumbug says you’re worth two trillion units.”

“That’s why aliens keep coming to kidnap me,” said Julia.

“Well, no aliens out here.” The seahorse waved her little appendages at the empty sky. “We’re totally safe.”

The sky in the Big Empty irked Julia. The Milky Way was so distant it looked like a single star. “Safe and bored. What’s the wifi password, Scumdaddy? I wanna text my friends.”

“Julia, shouldn’t you get to know your new friend, Sasha?”

“My old earth-friends will wanna meet my new seahorse-friend. You promised me wifi, Scumdaddy.”

“I did not. Your earth-friends are Cheesy. Sasha here was raised in the Big Empty so she’s nice and fresh.”

Julia stood up and walked away. In ten steps she was on the planet’s antipode where she sat with her legs crossed.

“Um.” The Scumbug’s lump rolled to her. “Julia, work with me here. I thought you’d be happy to meet someone relatively your age.”

“Why’d you kidnap me if you’ve got a sea-daughter already?”

The lump’s thin blob bubbled. “I could adopt as many kids as I want. It wouldn’t be too hard to fill a whole flaybo-planet with seahorse-orphans. But you’ve got a bounty, Julia. Saving you from the Big Cheese really means something.”

“So I’m a trophy, then?”

The Scumbug sighed and rolled away. It said something to Sasha the seahorse, who sank into the tiny planet and poked up through the sand next to Julia. “What’s wifi?”

Julia crossed her arms. “It’s how I talk to my friends on Earth. We fought our adopted daddies together. They were like my siblings.”

“Oh. I used to have friends and siblings.” Sasha brushed sand from her flesh-frills. “We seahorses are born by our fathers in clutches of thousands.”

“Yeah, I’ve seen that happen.”

“My parents died, so my clutch had to work together to survive. It’s not easy out there for a bunch of little seahorse-babies.”

“I bet.”

“My siblings died, or got separated from the clutch. Eventually I was all on my own. The Scumbug took me here where it’s safe. Come join my clutch, little sis.”

For the first time since she’d entered outer space, Julia smiled. “Maybe we can make this work.”

“I’m glad you girls are getting along,” said the Scumbug. “Now Julia, let’s see if I can get something like wifi running.”


On the border of the galaxy, on the edge of the Big Empty, eighteen of the Scumbug’s lumps waged combat against the mantis-ship. The ship fired lasers which boiled the Scumbug’s blob. The Scumbug blorped up asteroids and flung them back.

The Scumbug vibrated some lumps to send a message to the ship’s pilot. “Are you one of Lady Mantoid’s sisters?”

“I am,” she beamed back alongside a volley of lasers. “You can’t protect Julia forever. We mantoids have always lived near the Big Empty. We’re not afraid of Easy Cheese. We’ll find her in there.”

“Are you really so desperate for two trillion units?”

“It’s up to two-point-five,” said the mantoid, “and there’s a bottomless ocean of units behind that.” The mantis-ship opened some hatches and vicious bugs poured out into space. “You want a piece of that pie? You’ve already got the girl.”

The Scumbug blorped up the bugs and digested them in its blob. A few of the bugs survived long enough to grab at the Scumbug’s lumps before they disintegrated. “No one gets Julia’s pie. Not while I have anything to say about it.”

“Have it your way.” So many bugs poured from the ship that the Scumbug couldn’t digest them all fast enough. The bugs linked like army ants to rip the Scumbug’s lumps out of its blob. The bugs dragged the lumps into the mantis-ship.

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Inside the mantis-ship the bugs dumped the lumps into a cargo-bay. More bugs rolled the lumps up stairs to the cockpit where an alien operated a hundred levers. She looked much like Lady Mantoid but crimson red. “Tell me, Scumbug. You always say you don’t hurt kids. How can you justify disintegrating my brood like that?”

“If you order them to charge into my blob, it’s not me killing them when they dissolve. You kill your own kids using me as a knife.” The lumps spoke by vibrating. “I’ve never been abducted quite like this.”

The red mantoid laughed. “When I was just one little bug in a great big brood, my mother kidnapped you whole. Do you remember?”

“I remember.”

“I remember too,” said the mantoid, redundantly. “You were impossible to restrain when you still had your blob. You killed my mother and escaped.”

“I remember,” said the Scumbug.

“My brood and I learned that our elders were imperfect. Instead of dying for them we matured and ate them alive.”

“I remember,” said the Scumbug.

“So know this, Scumbug: you are not dealing with my mother who doomed herself. You are dealing with her daughters who have learned from her mistakes.”

“And I learned from mine.” One of the Scumbug’s lumps flipped inside out, expelling a dark pellet. “I made sure you doomed your brood, too.”

“…What the hell is—” The mantoid squealed as the dark pellet consumed the floor of her cockpit. “Easy Cheese!”

“I thought you said you weren’t afraid?”

Everything the dark pellet ate became more dark pellets. The mantoid started eating the pellets, and ordered her brood of bugs to join, but they weren’t fast enough to outrace its hunger. The dark pellets ate the spaceship, and when there was no spaceship left the dark pellets ate the brood. “My sisters will know of this!” said the red mantoid.

“I’m sure.” The Scumbug’s lumps drifted aimlessly. “Here comes my ride.” The nineteenth lump flew from the Big Empty with the scrambag. It rejoined the blob and used it to pluck the other lumps from among the dark pellets.

The red mantoid screamed as the dark pellets ate her legs. As quickly as she ate the pellets, the pellets twice as quickly ate her. “I’ve spread my pheromones a thousand light-years! My siblings are already on their way!”

“I’ll kill them too.” The Scumbug blorped up the red mantoid and crunched her corpse into its lumps.

The Scumbug opened its scrambag and filled it with six lumps and some blob. The remaining lumps chucked the scrambag faster than ever before toward the center of the galaxy.


“This ain’t wifi.”

Julia smeared slime off her phone’s screen, but the Scumbug’s one lump smeared it back. “It’s the best I can do. What’s missing?”

Julia sighed. The Scumbug’s slime was lit up with tiny bio-luminescent pixels to make a screen with excellent resolution, but no meaningful content, just trippy patterns. It looked a little like the Scumbug was imitating the phone-games it had seen Julia play. “There’s a website called ButtBook,” said Julia. “On ButtBook I can see my friends’ latest photos and comment on them. Get me ButtBook. I want to know what’s happened to my friends on Earth.”

The phone’s slime changed color to show a picture of Earth’s ambassador’s bodyguard covered in kittens and puppies and slime. “I saw this on Earth,” said the Scumbug. “There you go.”

“I want pictures from my real friends. I haven’t seen them in months, Scumdaddy.”

“I can’t get you the real ButtBook. That’d be Cheesey.”

“You can’t do anything right!” Julia stormed off again to sit on the antipode. The Scumbug sighed and rolled to Sasha the seahorse, who swam through the planet to Julia.

“Hi,” said Sasha. Julia turned away. “The Scumbug is trying its best. If its whole blob was here it could make you a phone as big as you want.”

“You’ve never used ButtBook in your life.”

“It sounds like a really good internet-thingy. It’d be nice to see photos of my clutch’s other survivors.”

“See? You get it.”

“But Julia, you’re my clutch now! And I don’t need photos of you, you’re right here!” Sasha hugged Julia.

Julia pouted. “My friends and I used ButtBook to conspire against our daddies. If we didn’t stick together, our daddies would’ve abused us more than they already did. Scumdaddy doesn’t want you or me to see anything Cheesy because it’ll show how bad we’ve got it on this tiny dirtball.”

“You wanna go back to the giant dirtball with all those evil daddies?”

“Yeah—because I had friends on that dirtball.”

“You’ve got friends here!”

Julia’s lower lip quivered. “If you’re satisfied keeping me on this dirtball you’re not my friend!”

“Hey! Hey!” The Scumbug’s lone lump rolled over. “Be nice, Julia! Soon you’ll learn how good you’ve got it here!”

Julia kicked the lump so hard it orbited the little planet. “Oh, now you’ve done it,” said Sasha.

“Young lady!” The Scumbug’s lump flailed its thin layer of blob trying to return to the planet’s surface. “When the rest of my lumps get back you’re in time out!

“A time out where? I’m already on a godforsaken rock!

“I made this godforsaken rock for you!

Julia flipped the Scumbug the bird with both hands and blew a raspberry. The Scumbug blew a raspberry back by rippling its blob.

White webs showered from the black sky and draped over the Scumbug’s lump.

A spider the size of a dachshund dropped onto the tiny planet. It took the dangling webs and swung the Scumbug’s lump into deep space like a hammer-throw. The flying lump shouted: “Julia! Sasha! Run!”

Sasha sank into the water. Julia ran, but there was nowhere to hide on the tiny planet. The spider chased her down and showered her in sticky webs. “Hey! Lemme go!”

“I did it!” said the spider. “I got the girl!”

Julia tried breaking free but the spider added more webs. “Are you one of Lady Mantoid’s kids?” she asked. “Or maybe one of her sisters’ kids?”

“Shut up!” The spider webbed her mouth shut. “You’re staying right here until my momma collects us. She sent a whole lotta bugs into the Big Empty, but I’m the one who found you!”

Sasha the seahorse burst from the sand and dragged the spider underwater. The spider bit and scratched with its spiky legs until Sasha released it back onto the surface. “You’re so dead when the Scumbug gets back!” she said to it, nursing bleeding wounds.

“Ugh! I gotta dry off.” The spider splayed out its eight legs. “Your Scumbug is busy fighting my momma and aunties. And I’m not afraid of death anyways! Hundreds of my broodmates have already died searching the Big Empty for Julia, and they died proud!

Sasha squinted but kept her distance. “Really?”

“Mm-hm! And thousands more will come next! If enough bugs flood the Big Empty, we survivors will make a path straight here safe from Easy Cheese.”

“Wow.” Sasha splashed the spider with water. “You’re like Julia, then. Your species is eaten by its parents.”

The spider squirmed away from Sasha’s splashes. “My momma wouldn’t eat me, cuz I’d die for her!”

“That’s what it means for your parents to eat you,” said Sasha. “It’s a metaphor. You live for them.”

“Nah, see, momma lives for us! For all her kids!” The spider looked at the black sky in wonder. “She told us that when she was a young little bug in a brood, her momma treated them awful. So they ate their mammas and the brood matured into adult mantoids who would never be cruel to their kids!”

“But your momma sent her brood to die looking for Julia.”

“Mm-hm, and we agreed to because she’d never be cruel to us!”

“But that is the cruel thing.”

“Now you’re talking nonsense.”

Sasha blinked. “Oh.” She looked at Julia. “This is why we need ButtBook.”


At the center of the galaxy, the scrambag joined a light-speed bazaar orbiting a black hole. The six lumps disembarked the scrambag to wander through neon stalls. To be in the bazaar was to be direct contact with the Big Cheese, bartering goods and services with the entire galaxy at once.

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The Scumbug found a digital billboard of jobs. The billboard’s attendant was a broccoli-stalk made of eyes. “Can I help you find anything, sir? Um, ma’am? Um, sludge?”

“My private residence is under siege,” said the Scumbug. “To drive away the infestation I’m gonna need some firepower, maybe two trillion units of it. I’m looking for jobs in, say, assassination, or intimidation. I’ve always been good at those.”

“There’s a kidnapping at 2.6 trillion, but I suspect competition is stiff.”

“I don’t need all two trillion from one errand. Gimme some odd-jobs.”

The eye-broccoli bopped the billboard with its optic nerves. Job-openings swirled front-and-center. The job-descriptions came with photos of aliens: a lizard, a blowfly, a hummingbird. “Here are three ambassadors who need to be assassinated for four hundred billion units apiece.”

“I’ll take those.” The Scumbug grabbed the job-descriptions right off the billboard as glass tablets. Three of its lumps each took some blob and accelerated in different directions. “What else?”

“Here are three life-forms who need to be intimidated or otherwise brutalized for three hundred billion units apiece.”

“That mark is a little young for me.” Two lumps took the other two job-descriptions and absconded. “One more, come on.”

“How do you feel about body-guarding?” A job-opening floated to the Scumbug. The photo was of a familiar-looking seahorse. “Two hundred bi—”

“I’ll take it,” said the Scumbug’s lump. It grabbed the job and left for Earth in the scrambag.


The seahorse sighed with relief at his glass tablet—someone had taken the job. Then he shivered with fright at his glass tablet—a call from Lady Mantoid! “Incoming call, sir.”

“Let’s talk,” said Earth’s ambassador. Lady Mantoid’s face appeared on the tablet. “Looking radiant, ma’am.”

“I’ll have Julia soon,” said Lady Mantoid. “I first enlisted my sister Crimson Mantoid, knowing she would fail. The Scumbug killed her with Easy Cheese. This inspired more of my sisters to join the cause seeking vengeance. They’ll bring Julia straight to me.”

“Glad to hear it,” said the ambassador. “And, um, you won’t let anyone kill us, right? Because then the bounty would be off.”

“Believe me, I’m protecting you and your planet very carefully. Very. Carefully.” Lady Mantoid hung up.

“Phoo.” The ambassador loosened his tie. “It’s always stressful talking to her.” The seahorse just shivered. “What’s Easy Cheese? Any relation to the Big Cheese?”

“Um. It’s a substance which fills the space between galaxies. It actually makes up the bulk of the observable universe, but it’s invisible under most conditions. This makes intergalactic travel basically impossible.”

“How do you kill someone with Easy Cheese?”

“Easy Cheese makes everything it touches into more Easy Cheese.”

“Like a flesh-eating amoeba?”

“On the subatomic level. Lady Mantoid’s species can eat Easy Cheese, but they harvest just a little at a time. The Scumbug must have gotten the drop on her.”

The ambassador smiled. “Let’s remember that’s an option. Just because Lady Mantoid is useful at the moment doesn’t mean we won’t ever want her out of the way.”

“Don’t worry sir,” said the seahorse, “I know exactly what you mean.”


“Wait. So you’re saying seahorse-parents don’t make their clutch fight to the death on their behalf?”

“Nuh-uh,” said Sasha to the spider. “We have errands like collecting algae for dinner.”

“Speaking of which?” Julia gave Sasha an empty stone cup. Sasha descended into the water and brought Julia a fresh cup of algae. “This stuff’s not bad.”

“It’s a family recipe,” said Sasha. “Do you have any family recipes, Mister Spider?”

The spider thought. “We harvest Easy Cheese sometimes. It’s free and there’s plenty to go around, but it tastes awful.”

“Try this.” Julia gave the cup to the spider.

The spider lapped at the algae. “Eh. Better than Easy Cheese.”

“You guys gotta try noodles,” said Julia. “On Earth we have spaghetti with tomato sauce, and fettuccine alfredo.”

“I don’t even know what those words mean,” said Sasha.

Julia smiled. “You will.” She leaned forward and Sasha and the spider leaned in to hear her. “Spider-friend, bring your brood here and we’ll tell them all about ButtBook and spaghetti.”


The Scumbug-lump in the scrambag tapped the seahorse on the glass tablet’s job-description. This initiated a video-call. “Your wanted a bodyguard?”

“Don’t come too close!” said the seahorse. “Lady Mantoid is somewhere in this solar-system. She’s the reason I want protection.”

“Yeah, I detect her on Mars. I’m hiding behind Neptune. The job-description says you’re on Earth’s moon?”

In Earth’s moon, and—hey. You!” The seahorse shrieked. “You’re the Scumbug!”

“Well, part of it. About five percent.”

“Have you come to kill me?”

“I came to be your bodyguard.”

The seahorse looked in all directions. He was in a private office where Earth’s ambassador could not hear—hopefully. “You want to guard the adviser to the guy kidnapping the little girl you adopted? Why should I trust you? You’re planning to kill us all!”

The Scumbug’s lump sighed. “Right now most of my lumps are protecting Julia from a bunch of mantoids. They’re the only species which can explore the Big Empty enough to bother me. I plan to use the body-guarding salary to kill the mantoids. That sounds like all our problems solved at once.”

“There are so many ways you could solve all our problems at once,” said the seahorse. “You could bring Julia to Earth and collect the bounty! Julia would be home and you’d be richer by trillions of units.”

“I don’t want units. I want Julia to be safe. Julia isn’t safe on Earth.”

“Then you could reveal the big secret,” said the seahorse. “You could tell the Big Cheese that Julia isn’t actually important to Earth’s ambassador. The bounty would evaporate and then no one would be after Julia.”

“But then the Big Cheese would be after someone else and I’d have to adopt them,” said the Scumbug. “That’s my whole point here! I want to save a kid from being eaten by the Big Cheese!”

“But… then Julia’s being eaten by the Big Cheese because you choose!

The Scumbug’s lump shook. “No. The Big Cheese makes its own decisions and I just react to them.”

“You are the Big Cheese.”

“I’m fresh. I’m separating Julia from Cheese like I’m separated.”

“But you’re not separated.”

“I will be.” The Scumbug’s lump bubbled its blob. “If I separate Julia I separate myself.”

The seahorse sighed. “You know, I shouldn’t try to correct you. If you’re willing to be my bodyguard, I’m willing to pay you. I’ve made a profit on Julia’s kidnapping and it would be nice to survive long enough to enjoy that profit alongside my kids. I guess I can see where you’re coming from.”

“I am not like you!” said the Scumbug.

“Good, I’m a coward,” said the seahorse. “Hold on, I’m getting a call from Lady Mantoid. I’ll let you listen in so you know what you’re dealing with.” The seahorse carried the tablet to the ambassador’s office. “Incoming call, sir. You know who.”

“Put her on.”

The seahorse touched the tablet and it screamed. “Aaaaaaugh!” screamed Lady Mantoid. “They’re eating me! They’re eating me!”

“Are you alright, ma’am?” asked the ambassador.

In pain, Lady Mantoid flailed and knocked her tablet’s camera to show her dire situation. Her own brood was eating her legs. “Did they learn this from you, Ambassador? You won’t get away with this!”

“Hoo boy,” said the seahorse. He ended the call and hid the tablet in his flesh-flaps. “Well, that’s that.”

“What happened?” asked the ambassador.

“The mantoid species only matures by betraying its elders. The brood which replaces her probably won’t maintain her bargains with us.”

“Damn. Well, we’re still the only people in the galaxy who know the location of the most valuable little girl in the universe. Assassins will keep coming after us and we’ll keep charging them for her location. They’ll go after the Scumbug and die. Or, they actually get Julia and return her to us to split the bounty.”

The seahorse thought. “Maybe we can skip some dangerous steps. If we convince the Scumbug to return Julia, we can split the bounty with it.”

“Can we contact the Scumbug?”

“After Lady Mantoid attacked us I sent out a request for a bodyguard. Who should apply but the Scumbug? I have it on hold right now.”

“The Scumbug wants to kill me. It would’ve if I hadn’t been a robot.”

“That was when it thought Julia had value to Earth. Now the Scumbug knows her value is your illusion. Remember I said the Scumbug had incomprehensible morality? Julia only has value to the Scumbug if she has value to the Big Cheese. It needs you alive.”

The ambassador squinted. “Okay… Yes. Okay! The Scumbug returns Julia to her home-planet, to someone who values her very dearly, and everyone gets some units out of it.”

“Tell it just like that. Maybe you’ll be more convincing than I was.” The seahorse took the glass tablet from its flesh-folds. “Oh. It hung up. Oh! It declined the job-offer! Sorry.”

The ambassador shrugged. “We’ll stick to plan A, then. Any assassins after us?”


The Scumbug’s larger portion with thirteen lumps had fought the mantoid spaceships for so long it lost track of time. It managed to destroy some spaceships by blowing them up with asteroids or throwing Easy Cheese in their exhaust-ports, but the mantoid spaceships boiled the Scumbug’s blob with lasers, evaporating it into useless steam.

“Ah, you’re back.” The thirteen lumps welcomed back five lumps from different directions. The lumps, having completed jobs, returned with mechanical parts worth hundreds of billions of units. “There’s still one lump missing, and it’s got the scrambag. But this should be enough.”

The Scumbug shielded itself with an invisible cloud of Easy Cheese as it put the mechanical parts together. The mechanical parts, combined, were a giant laser.

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The Scumbug prepared to fire its laser, but hesitated and vibrated a message to the spaceships. “I’m assembled a weapon which will disable your engines. I’ll board you and kill all the adult mantoids. I’ll leave your little bugs in a flaybo planet. They’ll take good care of ’em for you.”

But suddenly even the spaceships which weren’t on fire were eerily still.

“Hello?” vibrated the Scumbug to the stationary spaceships. “Is anyone aboard?”

“Hello? Hello?” replied a ship. “Ah, there we go. You just push the little red button, everyone.”

“Oh. Hi!” said another ship.

“You don’t sound like adult mantoids,” said the Scumbug. “Maybe you’re their little broodlings?”

“We’re the mantoids now,” said the bungs. “We’ve eaten our elders.”

“We’re leaving,” said more bugs. “We don’t care about whatever you and the old ones were fighting about.”

The Scumbug watched all the mantoid spaceships move sporadically as the bugs learned their controls. “I can still take you to a flaybo planet,” said the Scumbug. “They’d accept you as jeorbs and tell you a nice story.”

“Why would we want to do that?” asked a broodling.

Said another, “We’ve lived near the edge of the galaxy long enough to know flaybos are boooring.”

“Your elders wouldn’t have told you this,” said the Scumbug. “Mantoids and flaybos are from the same evolutionary branch. You’re controlled by stories just like a jeorb. Your elders told stories which made you into do their bidding. You’ve begun maturing by eating them. You’ll finish maturing by eating each other. The survivors will have their own broods they tell their own stories for their own ends, until they in turn betray you. You’d might as well live as a jeorb.”

The bugs laughed. “We’ve learned from our parents. We’ll be nice to each other, and if we have a brood, we’ll be nice to the brood too.

“I hope you’re right,” said the Scumbug, “but I don’t think you can learn kindness in your endless cycle.”

“We can learn outside that cycle, too,” said the bugs. They pointed their spaceships to the stars. “Julia gave us the idea!”

The spaceships took off faster than light. “…Julia?” The Scumbug drifted into the Big Empty. “…Julia! Sasha!” Faster and faster, it weaved through Easy Cheese.

It finally found the tiny gray planet. Orbiting impotently at great distance was the lump it had left with Julia and Sasha. Reabsorbing that lump, the Scumbug became aware of what it had missed. Julia, Sasha, and a spider were headed to Earth in a mantoid craft.

The Scumbug moved fast as possible—which was not very fast without its scrambag.

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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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Table of Contents

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.

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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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