(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!”
“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.”
“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.
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 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.
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.
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.