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.”

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“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?”

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“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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To Mile 60

(This is part six of a story about an ultra-marathon-runner who bets his legs he can beat a horse in a hundred mile race. For now, Jonas is ahead of the horse.)

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2019

BEEP. Mile 51: 11:52 / 6:48:51.

Hermes’ compression-sleeve was a lifesaver for my left knee. The knee ached without a sleeve ever since I broke my leg cross-country skiing as a Wisconsin teen, but I hadn’t worn a sleeve this morning because the only one I owned was cotton. After just twenty miles it would’ve rubbed my knee red-raw. Hermes’ compression sleeve was silky nylon. The man knew how to live.

“Drink.” Whitney gave me the hose to her water-backpack. My mouth was still dry from twenty miles with hardly any liquid. As I chugged, Whitney put something in my palm. “Swallow these.”

It wasn’t my place to ask what she’d given me. I just swallowed them.

“That’s two ibuprofen and a salt tab,” she said. “You’ll thank me for the painkillers, and hyponatremia is a death-null. You’re already acting confused.”

BEEP. Mile 52: 8:11 / 6:57:51.

“Can’t too many meds cause kidney-failure?” I asked.

“If you win a million bucks tonight, you can buy as many kidneys as you want from the Bronsons,” said Whitney. “If you lose, you’ve got bigger problems than your kidneys.”

I gulped. As we ran into the shade of trees, a chill ran down my spine. “Change the topic, squire.”

“You just finished two marathons in under seven hours. Nice job.”

“I don’t want to think about running.”

“What have you explained so far to Thog, the caveman?”

“Just cars and crosswalk-signals.”

“Airplanes are usually good for a few miles,” said Whitney. “Explain airplanes.”

“Well, Thog, do you know about birds?”

Whitney smiled. “Thog know bird. Thog eat bird.”

“Have you ever wanted to fly like a bird, Thog?”

“Why Thog want that?”

“You could fly up high to see where all the animals were hiding. You could drop rocks on enemy tribes. You could spy women from afar to take back to your cave—I’m sure flying would be a hit with the ladies.”

“Ooh. Thog want that,” said Whitney. “Tell Thog about airplane.”

BEEP. Mile 53: 8:03 / 7:05:05.

I felt the ibuprofen kicking in. It didn’t help my aching legs much, but it helped. Whitney was right to worry about hyponatremia, too; low salt-levels could make me cramp or even hallucinate. “Well, Thog, I already explained cars, remember? An airplane is like a car that can fly like a bird.”

“How Thog get one?”

“Ooh.” I bit my tongue. “It’s harder to get an airplane than a car. Airplanes are expensive.”

“Eckspensif?” asked Whitney. “What that?”

“You know, you have to trade a lot of berries and animal skins and stuff for an airplane.”

“Oh. Thog have many berry and animal skin. Thog trade for airplane. Bring many woman back to cave.”

“The tricky thing is, though, piloting a plane is a lot harder than driving a car. You’ll probably have to get a license, or something.”

“Lie…sense?”

“I mean, you gotta prove you can fly without crashing and killing everyone aboard.”

“Ooh. Scary. Thog reconsider.”

Whitney and I laughed. My cheeks were red. “I missed running with you, Thog.”

“I’m glad to see you again, Jonas.” Whitney pointed up through the branches above. “You should tell Thog about helicopters next.”

I looked up. I’d prayed the helicopter flying overhead was a hallucination. “Alphonse.”

BEEP. Mile 54: 8:09 / 7:13:14.


Kevin paced around his car, smoking a cigarette and swearing. Hermes napped across the back seat. The sixty-mile flag fluttered in light breeze.

“…Finally!” Kevin waved both hands in the air.

Hermes opened his eyes at the buzz of an approaching aircraft. “What’s that?” A plastic craft the size and shape of a bird of prey hovered before Kevin and gently set a pizza-box on the dirt.

“I’m friends with a guy who runs a start-up delivering stuff by drone. I figured we couldn’t get Jonas’ pizza into the estate any other way, considering the hassle we had at the gate.” Kevin opened the pizza-box to check its toppings, then gave a thumbs-up to the drone’s camera. “Pineapple-olive, just like Jonas ordered. Eeugh. Well, it’s his shitty pizza.” Kevin showed the drone’s camera both sides of his credit-card. “Christ, who orders a cheeseless pizza? Pretentious pricks, that’s who.”

Hermes watched Kevin inhale the last of his cigarette and blow the smoke at the drone as it took off. Hermes pursed his lips. “You don’t seem to like Jonas very much, huh, Kev? Why’d you want to come here and help him?”

“Jonas and I go way back, back to high-school cross-country. But he was always a pretentious prick. Always ragging on about skiing and the Wisconsin countryside and crap like that.” Keven sat in his car’s driver’s seat with the pizza-box in his lap. He used his smartphone to add a tip onto the delivery. “If he wins a million bucks today, Jonas better pay me for the pizza. It costs two hundred bucks to deliver like this. And he got it cheeseless, the pretentious prick!” Kevin lit another cigarette and puffed.

“Why do you smoke, man?” asked Hermes.

“Calms me down,” said Kevin, apparently unsarcastically. “Don’t tell me you’ve never smoked anything, hippie-beard.”

“Nothing legal,” said Hermes. “I just mean, as a cross-country runner, I figured you’d worry more about your lungs.”

Kevin reclined his seat. “Spare me the speech, dude. I’ve heard it all before.”

“Bet you have,” said Hermes. “I heard it all the time when I was drinking myself to death.” Kevin tapped ash from his cigarette. “When I was Jonas’ age, all I did was drink and run, but I only really learned to love running after I quit drinking. Got better at it, too.”

“I’m not like you weirdos,” said Kevin. “I don’t run ultras. I run on a treadmill in my air-conditioned basement, three miles at a time, three times a week. The treadmill doesn’t care if I smoke.”

“Running is running. Don’t Run to Live, man, Live to Run.”

“If that kinda thinking got Jonas into this situation, he should’ve just settled for living.” Kevin puffed his cigarette. “Should’ve just left the Bronsons alone.”

“I’m just saying, you could really… Uh…” Hermes pointed skyward. “Hey. Look.”

Kevin shaded his eyes from the sun. A helicopter was flying toward them. “Huh,” said Kevin. “Must be Alphonse.”

“Do you think it’s coming clos—” Hermes’ words were blown away by the helicopter landing abruptly before them.

“Good afternoon, gentlemen!” Alphonse Bronson stepped from the cockpit. “I suppose this is yours?” He tossed the drone onto the dirt. It was mangled and torn.

“Whoa!” said Kevin, “Did you fucking shoot it?

“No, I didn’t. My helicopter-pilot shot it.” Alphonse saluted back to the helicopter as the blades spun down. “Your drone was in my private airspace, and my pilot has an itchy trigger-finger regarding invasion of my privacy.”

“It’s not a government spy, crackpot! It’s a pizza-delivery bot!

“I see. Please, forgive me.” Alphonse bowed, sweepingly. “I’ll pay for the drone, but I hope you understand I don’t want any unauthorized visitors on my property, flying or otherwise. If you’re hungry, please, call me and I’ll have a trusted estate-agent bring you something more sophisticated than a pizza.” He passed Hermes a business card.

“The pizza’s not for us,” said Hermes. “Jonas asked for it specifically.”

Alphonse blinked. “Oh.” He pat his gaudy military jacket’s pockets for a minty metal toothpick. “May I see it?”

“Excuse me?” Kevin pulled back the pizza-box. “Hell no.”

“Please excuse my abruptness. I’m fascinated by athlete nutrition,” said Alphonse. “What pizza-toppings does an ultra-runner order? Maybe my horses could learn a lesson from Jonas.”

Kevin raised an eyebrow.

“There’s really no need for suspicion,” said Alphonse. “I assure you, I’m not nearly nefarious as the media portrays me. The Bronsons aren’t a photogenic family, but we’re much more personable in person.”

“It’s pineapple and black olive,” said Hermes, “and cheeseless.”

“Cheeseless!” Alphonse clapped. “How intriguing!”

“Yeah, I’ve met lots of runners who say cheese makes them nauseous,” said Hermes. “They don’t do dairy on a run.”

“You know, when I was young, my father took me to Italy. I learned that cheeseless pizza is perhaps the most historically authentic,” said Alphonse, “and definitely delicious!” Kevin rolled his eyes. Pretentious prick. “But how might a runner eat a whole pizza mid-stride?”

“Jonas is hungry enough to eat a horse,” said Hermes. “It won’t take him long to finish this. Maybe he’ll walk for a few steps to scarf it down.”

“Is the pizza cut into squares,” asked Alphonse, “or are slices more convenient?”

Hermes shrugged. “It doesn’t matter.”

“The things you perceive not to matter might matter most!” said Alphonse. “My father always taught me—”

“Fine you pretentious prick!” Kevin opened the box. “It’s cut into slices, okay?”

Alphonse kicked the bottom of the box. The pizza flopped onto the dirt. Alphonse stepped on it and smeared it with the heel of his boot.

Kevin stared at the pizza. “You asshole!” He rolled up his sleeve and approached Alphonse. Alphonse just smiled and pulled a pistol from his jacket. It was silver and had horses engraved on the handle. “What the fuck.”

“You visit my property at my mercy. I don’t approve of flying-machines intruding to deliver mysterious pizzas—especially flying-machines with cameras.”

“We don’t want any trouble,” said Hermes, with his hands up. “Mr. Bronson, sir, would you please send us a pizza with pineapple and black olives but no cheese? For Jonas.”

Alphonse put the gun back in his jacket. “I’ll see what I can do.”

“You’re a dickhead!” said Kevin. “Aren’t you supposed to be riding a horse right now?”

“My best jockey’s on the job.” Alphonse climbed back into his helicopter. “You’ll see her soon enough, as she streaks by.”


BEEP. Mile 55: 7:59 / 7:21:13.

“Anyway, Thog, that’s what helicopters are all about,” I puffed. Whitney’s pace was demanding but manageable.

“There it is again.” Whitney pointed up at Alphonse’s helicopter. “Maybe he’s spying on us.”

“I wouldn’t doubt it.”

“I can’t believe he switched out for a jockey,” said Whitney. “I read all about the Bronsons when I was researching Georgie Masawa. Alphonse seemed like the kinda guy who’d wanna do things himself, if only to gloat.”

“He flipped me off,” I said. “He said he was injured when his horse brushed against a branch, and he was eager to show me the band-aid on his middle finger.”

“Pathetic,” said Whitney. “He can’t even give the bird himself. He has to blame his horse.”

“Yeah.” I chuckled. “I don’t need any help to flip someone off.” I raised my middle-finger at the helicopter. “Take that, Alphonse.”

“Careful,” said Whitney. “If he’s really spying on us, he might take that personally.”

“You think he’s that petty?”

“From what I’ve read, no one is more petty than Alphonse Bronson.” Whitney passed me the hose to her water-backpack. “You know that better than anyone.”

I sure did. I grit my teeth.

BEEP. Mile 56: 8:02 / 7:29:15.

“Let me talk to Thog.”

“Thog here.”

“I told my friend Whitney that racing the horse was a corny attempt at romance,” I said, “but that’s not it. I have a grudge against Alphonse I couldn’t put off any longer.”

“You’ve told this story to Thog a hundred times,” said Whitney, “but Thog is happy to hear it again. You’re good at telling it.”

“I broke my leg cross-country skiing when I was fifteen,” I said. “If I ever wanted to ski again, I needed surgery my family couldn’t afford.”

“Mm-hm, mm-hm.”

“We heard about a big charity event in Colorado,” I said, “sponsored by the Bronsons. The Bronsons had an awful reputation, but if they were funding a charity event, maybe they weren’t so bad. So I went, and they gave me a crutch for free. I just had to run in a charity race.”

“How’d that go?”

“Alphonse offered free medical-care for life to every kid in that race except last place. As the kid on a crutch, it came down to me and the girl in a wheelchair.” I took a deep breath. “I would’ve been nothing but thankful if I’d just gotten the crutch, but taunting me with the possibility of getting my knee back, good as new—it wrecked me. I still see the girl in the wheelchair when I close my eyes. She beat me by meters.”

BEEP. Mile 57: 7:48 / 7:37:03.

“Thog understands,” said Whitney. “The Bronsons have hurt a lot of folks. You’re among an elite crowd, including Georgie Masawa.”

“I know.”

Hoy, hoy! Outta the way!”

Whitney and I heard galloping hoof-beats. Champ streaked by us, full-tilt.

Yah! Yah!” shouted the jockey. The hoof-beats became quiet in the distance ahead.

“Oh my god.” My knees quaked.

“It’s okay,” said Whitney. “Don’t panic. The horse won’t always be behind us, or ahead. Races are about change.”

“No, it’s not the horse.” I held my head in my hands. “The jockey was her, Whitney. The girl in the wheelchair.”

“You’re hallucinating, Jonas. She could have been anyone.”

“I’d know the back of her head anywhere.” Now I led the pace.

BEEP. Mile 58: 7:32 / 7:44:35.

Whitney sped a few steps ahead to slow me down. “Drink.” I drank from her water-backpack. “Swallow.” She ripped open a silver packet of running glop. I slurped it down: peanut-butter. “Drink.” I drank from her hose. “We’re closing in on that mountain.”

“Yep.”

“Is there another flag at mile sixty, to choose which way we run at the fork?”

“Yep.”

“Have you looked at maps of this place?”

“Yep.”

“Does either way, left or right, avoid that mountain?”

I puffed. “Nope.”

“Then save your gas, Jonas. The fork’s the jockey’s. Let her choose. You’ll choose at mile eighty, I promise.”

BEEP. Mile 59: 7:15 / 7:51:50.

I let myself slow down. “Thanks, squire.”

“Think about your pizza.”

“Ooh.” I salivated. “Kevin’s such a snob about pineapple on pizza, but I can’t get enough.”

“The combination of savory and sweet is old as cooking,” Whitney concurred, “and you never know what tastes good after sixty miles until you get there.”

“Nah. I’ve been praying for that pizza since mile five,” I said. “I hope they could get it into the estate.”

“I hadn’t thought about that.” Whitney put a hand over her mouth. “I should’ve asked for your pizza-order before we came in.”

“I need that pizza, Whitney.”

“There they are.” Whitney pointed ahead. Beyond the trees, beside the flag at mile sixty, Kevin and Hermes waited in the car.

BEEP. Mile 60: 8:04 / 7:59:54.

Hermes made a gesture for Whitney I couldn’t see. “Jonas, do some stretches and check where the jockey tossed the flag,” said Whitney.


“It’s not good, Whitney.” Hermes brought Whitney behind Kevin’s car.

“What? What’s wrong?”

“Alphonse stopped by.” Hermes opened the pizza-box in the back-seat. The pizza was mushed and dirty.

“Ah. Shit.” Whitney put her hands on her hips and breathed through her teeth.

“That ain’t half of it, sister.” Kevin tossed the destroyed drone before her. It was still smoldering. “Alphonse is packing heat. We called the police, but they said Alphonse is legally justified shooting down drones in his private airspace. Who’da thunk.”

“Okay. Okay.” Whitney covered her mouth. “I’ll handle this. Get another pizza to mile seventy. It’s uphill the whole way, so it’ll take us a few hours.”


The jockey had tossed the flag left, and I was glad. The trail right was steeper.

“I’ve got bad news,” said Whitney.

“I’ve got good news, so lemme go first.” I pointed left. “The jockey chose the shallower path. Champ must be getting tired.” I grinned. “She was just galloping past to freak us out.”

“There’s no pizza,” said Whitney.

I looked at her dumbly. “Huh?”

“Alphonse stole your pizza and gave it to the jockey. She ate one slice, and the horse ate the rest.”

My blood boiled.


2014

Sandra knocked on the door. “You sent for me, sir?” There was no response. The door was ajar, so Sandra peeked into Alphonse’s bedroom. Alphonse was bundled up in blankets in the fetal position. He waved a finger to tell Sandra to come closer. Sandra rolled her wheelchair to his bedside.

“My father died this morning,” said Alphonse.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Sandra.

“He said I hadn’t made anything of myself.” Alphonse coiled into a tighter ball. “He still thought himself a bigger man than me.”

Sandra tutted. “Well, he raised you. If he considers you a failure, he must’ve failed as a father.”

Alphonse considered. He sat up, still wrapped in blankets. “Yeah. That’s right!” He turned to Sandra. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. If he calls my aspirations twisted, he has only himself to blame. And now, without him holding me back, I can be a real Bronson!”

“Exactly, sir!” Sandra clapped. “Let’s celebrate! Do you have any jockey-juice? If I can stand, we’ll tango!”

“Yes, lets!” Alphonse opened a drawer on his nightstand. He passed Sandra a syringe which she injected into her thigh. Then she stood from her wheelchair as if she never needed it. “Come here!”

Sandra had practiced dancing ever since she first tried jockey-juice. She and Alphonse danced around his bed. “What’s the first thing you want to do, now that your old man isn’t around?”

“The same thing I’ve done all my life,” said Alphonse, “dwarf my father’s legacy! My father made millions, I’ve made billions. My father raced glue-horses, I breed champions.” They wheeled around the room. “Anything he did, I’ll do with ten-fold the grace!”

“Yeah! That’s the spirit!” Sandra let Alphonse dip her. “Show your daddy who’s daddy!”

Alphonse kissed her on the lips.

Sandra grunted and pushed him away. “Whoa! Hey! I didn’t mean it like that!”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Alphonse adjusted the cuffs of his gaudy military jacket. “I just thought—My father… was a father, and I thought you meant—I thought you were volunteering to make me a father, too.”

“No, no, no.” Sandra sat back in her wheelchair; Alphonse had diluted the jockey-juice, and she felt it wearing off. “I’m sure you’ll find the right woman to carry the Bronson genes.”

Alphonse looked out a window over the estate, and, sighing, shook his head. “I think I’m the last of my lineage. I can’t imagine meeting a suitable receptacle for my seed.”

Sandra breathed in relief. Some lucky lady dodged a bullet.

“No, I know exactly how to put my father’s memory in its place.” Alphonse smiled at the sun. “I’ll follow in his footsteps and beat a modern Georgie Masawa. Maybe I’ll run him to death, too.”

Sandra bit her lip. “With all due respect, sir, if you follow in your father’s footsteps, you’ll always be a step behind.”

Alphonse paused and turned to her. “I understand what you mean, but there’s a little more to Georgie Masawa than the history books tell. There’s room to improve on my father’s ambition.”

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The Bucket

(This story won the Most Excellent Prose award from the College of Creative Studies at UC Santa Barbara. I’ve edited it since then, and I think it’s much improved.)


My colleagues at the lab thought my nightly vomiting was a symptom of alcohol poisoning. I would have shared the hypothesis, except I regurgitated eyeballs.

I don’t recall swallowing eyeballs, mind you. With optic nerves dangling like spaghetti.

And twitching! I typically vomited into a toilet and flushed the eyes before the horror set in, but after a midnight joust with a bottle of gin, I heaved into an orange, plastic bucket in my closet, where the eyeballs struggled like fish flopping for the water. When I regained consciousness in the morning, the eyeballs had died trying to escape under the closet door.

I elected not to take them to the lab, my reputation already strained, so I turned to the meager equipment of my apartment. According to my bathroom scale, the weight of the eyeballs exceeded five pounds, yet I’d lost little mass myself. I must have conjured the eyes from my stomach.

For a while, I could not look at liquor without imagining the eyeballs I should surely vomit.

Then a spontaneous rendezvous with a fifth of whiskey forced my hand. I puked six eyes and a pair of lips into the bucket. The lips squirmed like drowned worms into the shape of a mouth.

“We gotta talk, Arnold.”

I slammed the closet.

After staging a coup on a few more shots, I mindlessly returned to the bucket. Two more eyeballs, six more lips. My throat’s last spasm threw an ear onto the pile.

“Can I call you Arnie?”

“Please, don’t talk.”

“Your universe isn’t fully developed, so this might be hard to take. Trust me, the eyeballs were the quickest way to communicate. Hey, it’s not polite to stare, don’t give me that look.”

“Oh god, I’m smashed.”

“Hey, lucky guess. Our universes are on a collision course.” I moved to close the closet, but the lips interrupted. “Pick up that ear, Arnie, it’s hard to hear ya.”

“Please, no.”

“Into the ear, Arnie. C’mon.”

I leaned into the bucket. “Go away. I don’t want this.”

“You need my help. I won’t get into details, it involves trans-dimensional mathematics, and you Stage One guys aren’t usually hot on that. Can you even make Quantum Foam?”

“What?”

“Okay, time for a crash course. Not literally, I hope,” murmured the lips. “Universes are bubbles. Our bubbles are about to bash. This ain’t my first rodeo, but I think you guys are gonna pop.”

“Who are you?”

“Look, you’re bright enough, I’ll level with you. I’m not a person. I’m a reality. The whole thing. Consciousness is mostly fabricated, so lots of realities develop self-awareness. We call that Stage Two. Whole ecosystem out there, Arnie.”

“Uh…”

“Yeah, trippy, huh? There we go: call me Trip.”

“Trip.”

“Quick learner. Anyway, you guys won’t survive Stage One if you pop now, okay? Gotta work with me here, alright?”

“This is too much.” I slumped on the carpet. The world blurred in my vision.

“I’m not as mobile as I used to be, but your reality is pretty spry. If you pass me the reins to your universe for a bit, I can jettison some of your space-vacuum. Push you guys out of harm’s way. Dig?”

“How do I… What do you mean?”

“I’ll need your universe’s address. Know it off your head?”

I shook the whiskey. Only a tablespoon remained in the bottle. I drank it. “…Can’t say I do.”

“You know Physics?”

“Some. I’m a chemist. I mostly study alcohols.”

“Find a Physicist. They’ll know if anyone does.”


The next morning, I fumbled my way to the physics department.

“Arnold? Are you drunk?”

“Not yet, I just…” I pushed my wire glasses up my nose. “You don’t happen to know the universe’s address, do you?”

“…What?” They squinted from behind their desks. “Little early to be hittin’ the sauce, Arnie.”


Some bourbon made me consider gifting Trip a fresh load of facial features. “Sorry, they don’t know what you mean.”

“No prob, it was a long shot. I didn’t know address in Stage One either.” He somehow bit his lips at the bottom of the bucket. “There’s an equation for it, but you can only really solve it at Stage Two or Three…”

“…I can do equations.” I felt bile rising in my throat. “What’s the equation?”

“Nah, nah, it’s too complicated. You guys don’t even have Quantum Foam, no way you’ve got the computing power. Hey, you’re lookin’ a little green, Arnie, you gonna chunder?”

“I can hold it down.”

“Then have another drink. I can’t calculate your address from here, I gotta send you a Neuron Pod. Be careful with it, I’ve only got about eighty-six billion. These are Stage Three tech, Arnie.”

The brown bottle’s last drops trickled from its neck to mine. I gagged on the odor. “What’s a Neuron Pod?”

Trip surprised me by licking his lips with a tongue from under the pile of eyeballs. “You ever study biology? Get to mitochondria?”

“Yeah.” I doubled over the bucket and opened my mouth, but nothing came out. Saliva dribbled between my teeth.

“They’re like mitochondria. Sub-realities, distinct from me. Gotta delegate, that’s Stage Three. Outsource your computation. Find some Stage Zero podunk reality and convert its mass to brain matter. One Neuron Pod is like a septendecillion human brains. Smart brains, too, like yours, Arnie. Alright, here it comes!”

Huge, like a cantaloupe. It shouldn’t have fit in my mouth, let alone my throat. The eyeballs watched it flop into the bucket. The lips smiled.

A Neuron Pod was a brain with a hagfish mouth and chattering needle-teeth.

“Trip—What do I do with this?”

“It’s looking for your address. Just keep it safe.”


Friday night. Party night. In a dark alleyway, I popped the cork on two-dollar wine. Grape foam spilled onto the dirt.

I put the Neuron Pod on a trash-can lid. The needle-teeth were the worst part, like a sex toy from hell. “Can you talk?”

The needle teeth chattered.

“Answer questions?”

More chattering.

“What’s Quantum Foam?”

The brain’s needle-teeth shifted and clattered, filling the alley with heinous clicking. Almost… speech. After a quick drink of wine—like fermented olive oil—I held the Neuron Pod to my ear. “Tiny… universes.” The queer, snapping voice had a thick accent from somewhere eldritch.

“Can you elaborate?”

“Quantum Foam is the primal fabric of the multiverse… Each bubble is a universe beginning in Stage Zero, the absence of conscious thought…”

When I put down the wine, the bottle was two-thirds empty. “I’m not drunk enough. All this stuff about our universes colliding, it’s all real? We’re going to pop?”

“…You are left with an ultimatum: be annihilated by the ballistic force of a careening reality, or entrust my Master with your universe.”

“Well… You’ve known him for a while. Is Trip… trustworthy?”

“My Master is… Stage Four.”

“Four? What does that mean?”

The brain squirmed on the trash can lid. “…Stage One universes contain sentient beings. Stage Two universes have attained consciousness themselves… Stage Three is marked by the assimilation of Stage Zero universes. Stage Four is… the enslavement of Stage Three universes.” The hagfish mouth went silent.

“Enslaving universes? Sentient universes?” I looked at the brain. “When Trip said you were ‘Stage Three tech,’ he meant—You’re saying Trip enslaved eighty-six billion sentient realities, and you’re one of them?”

“Yes…” The Neuron Pod flopped off the trashcan. When it hit the ground it almost burst, brain-folds expanding with juices. The hagfish mouth puckered. “Kill me.”

I poured the rest of the wine down my neck.

“Please…”

I smashed the bottle against a wall.

“Kill me…”

I threatened the Neuron Pod with the bottle’s broken neck.

“Please…”

“I… I can’t.” I dropped the broken bottle. “If I kill you, Trip will just enslave my reality instead. You need to help me.”

The hagfish mouth took a deep breath. The brain’s folds inflated.

“We need to make Quantum Foam.”


I poured a shot of Scotch. “Need a drink?” The Neuron Pod twisted, which I interpreted as a ‘no.’ I downed the drink. “Okay. Okay.”

When I opened the closet, lips, ears, and eyes spilled out. Trip’s shifting eyeballs had toppled the bucket. “Hey, hey, Arnie! What’s the good word? That old Neuron Pod got your address yet? Might take a while depending on the cosmological constants in your reality.”

I put the Neuron Pod on the floor. “What next?”

“Well, ordinarily you’d hafta swallow that thing, but our universes are close enough I can toss you a Synapse Cable. You feel like hurling, Arnie?”

“I’m pretty sober right now.”

“Well, either you’re gonna hafta swallow that Pod, or you’re gonna hafta start drinking so I can throw you this Cable.”

Ignoring the shot glass, I drank from the Scotch-bottle. The nausea set in instantly. With one animal-like retch, I felt a strand jump up my throat and catch on my teeth. I pulled the strand until a whole rope of meat and fat dangled from my jaw. The Synapse Cable was two inches thick, plugging my esophagus.

“Put it in,” said Trip.

I waggled the meat-rope near the Neuron Pod. The hagfish mouth slurped the frayed ends and locked on with needle-teeth.

“Ah, perfect. I’m getting your address now…”

For a few seconds I choked on the Synapse Cable. The Neuron Pod contorted and flexed in concentration.

“Hey, you’ve got a cool little reality… No wonder you’re still Stage One, with quantum particles like this. These photons are worthless… And your Planck Temperature! How do you get anything done?”

I nodded. It was all I could do.

“You did good, Arnie. Your universe was almost a splat on my windshield. Just gotta get you outta the way…”

He paused.

“You…” The eyeballs turned to me. “Hey, did you give me the wrong addreeeeeaaaugh!”

The lips flopped on the floor. Eyeballs burst into spurts of blood.

“Aaaaaaugh! God, no, what did youuuuooooaaaaaugh!”

The Synapse Cable retracted down my throat. The Neuron Pod detached, letting the meat-rope whip through my esophagus.

“Are you trying to kill me?! What did you do?!”

“Sorry, Trip.”

“Aaaugh! I can’t—”

“We made Quantum Foam, Trip.” I massaged my neck. “We made new universes.”

“It was trivial to check the infinite realities… for one whose cosmological constants were a perfect snare,” clicked the Neuron Pod. “Of course… if you intended to merely jettison vacuum, as you expressed… your connection to the entrapping universe would be harmless… Your pain indicates, as we suspected, that you intended to subsume this universe into your own… Or perhaps enslave it, as you did with me and my compatriots…”

“Now you’re being slurped like a noodle in soup,” I muttered, lying on the carpet.

Eyeballs, lips, and ears shredded as if stuck in a storm of razor blades. Without lips, Trip’s voice echoed from my throat like shouts in a deep cave.

“Arnie, Arnie, c’mon, I’m sorruuughhh make it stop Arnie please I’m begging you—”

I covered my ears. “I can’t, I can’t—”

“Your address! Give me your address, let me escape, before it’s too late!”

“Not even if I could.”

“Then—then—”

Nausea pumped my guts.

Fingers from my throat pried my teeth open.

An arm stretched through my mouth.

“If you yak me into this universe, I can survive! You need to vomit harder than ever, Arnie, right now!”

The arm grabbed the Scotch.

“I’m close enough, Arnie, I can escape to your universe, but it has to be right now—”

The arm sank back into my stomach. The neck of the bottle stuck down my throat, pouring liquor into me. I tried to scream.

“Now, Arnie! Now now now!” I couldn’t pull the bottle away from the hand in my throat. I flipped on my belly so the bottle didn’t pour down my neck. “No!”

Two arms opened my jaws wide. One flipped me on my back. The other grabbed the bottle and spilled it in my mouth.

I groped the floor for something, anything.

A glass beaker.

I smashed the bottle with the beaker. Scotch soaked the carpet.

“No no no no!”

The arms in my mouth pat the damp floor.

“No, no, no…”

The arms slid down my throat until the fingertips brushed along my tongue.

“No…”

I struggled to my knees, teeth clenched, salivating through my lips, holding myself.


For twenty minutes, I puked. No eyeballs, no limbs, just ordinary stomach contents. I spent the night cleaning vomit and broken glass. “Hey. How are you feeling now?”

The Neuron Pod deflated. “I am well… Thank you.”

“You sure?”

“My torment is at an end… The enslaved Stage Three realities have been released. It is over.”

I threw the vomit and glass into the trash. “And our Quantum Foam…”

I opened my desk drawer.

Milky sand so fine and smooth it could have been liquid, like cream for coffee. Each infinitesimal speck was a universe. One grain had swelled like a pearl. “That’s Trip’s trap, huh?”

“My old Master used the technique to do away with bothersome realities.” The Neuron Pod observed the foam with its eyeless gaze. “I am impressed with your ability to synthesize Quantum Foam. You have a knack for it.”

“It wasn’t that hard,” I said, “since you gave me the directions. It’s just chemistry.”

The hagfish mouth made a toothy smile. “Chemistry is vital for a healthy Stage Two universe.”

Back

Homer VS the Machine, Part One

(This is part nine of a fantasy series starting here. Today Homer the minotaur must defeat a dwarven computer at table-war to protect the planet from actual bloodshed.)


Over centuries, the dwarfs had eaten their corner of the continent to a flat, lava-pocked landscape. At night the glowing magma-pools spat back at the cold, dark sky. Homer warmed himself by a red-hot pit. Radiating heat made his goggles sear him, so he took them off.

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The human embassy was walled off with stalagmites gnawed into shape by the dwarfs. Dwarfs hid behind the spikes to watch Homer through their eyeless helmets. Homer checked his pockets. He had a brass card he’d received as a gift from Ebi Anago, nephew of the emperor of the seafolk.

Homer dropped the brass card in the magma pit. Immediately a gnome crawled from the liquid rock. This gnome’s fresh body was marble-white and crackled as it cooled. “Greetings. I represent seafolk trading services. How may I help you this fine evening?”

“Uedding.” Homer mimicked donning a necklace. “How much?”

“You want to buy a seafolk wedding necklace?” The gnome cocked his head. “Who is it for?”

“Gween.”

“A royal wedding necklace would cost a fortune,” said the gnome. “Forgive me for doubting you have the funds on hand.”

“Ebi Anago.” Homer snapped his palms like lobster claws. “Frend.”

“You know Sir Ebi Anago? Excuse me.” The gnome sank into the magma. After a few minutes, a magma bubble popped and the gnome emerged once more. “The esteemed Ebi Anago is grateful to hear from you, and sent me with this token of appreciation. He says this is more appropriate than a necklace for a surface-dweller’s wedding.”

The gnome pulled open his own torso like a chest of drawers. Inside sat a ring fit for a human’s finger, with a band of not gold, nor silver, but some shining blue element. Atop were three dark sapphires.

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“Ebi Anago hopes this demonstrates the eternal gratitude owed you by all sentient beings for your assistance securing sovereignty for the wild wastes. But if it does not please you, he would gladly replace it and fall upon a sword in shame.”

Homer took the ring.


In the human embassy, Aria shook wrinkles from her new white dress. The black glove she wore over her burnt right hand barely fit through the delicate sleeve. Gnomes held a tall mirror for her. Despite the attempts of ten tailors, her arms and legs were still too long for the dress. She felt like an elven brood-mother, twenty feet tall and spindly thin. “I don’t like it at all,” she told her gnomes and royal guards. “Anthrapas wore a dress, but that’s not me. Would a military uniform be queenly enough?”

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“I suppose it’s up to you,” said Sir Jameson, “but Anthrapas never dressed like that.”

“I’m queen. I’ll wear what I want.” Aria smeared off her make-up with her black glove. “Everyone out. I’m changing again.”

Aria appreciated her bedroom more when it was empty. The human embassy in dwarven land was adorned with luxurious crystal chandeliers, but smelled like rotten dwarfs.

Aria sighed and looked back into the mirror. “Maybe I could wear this just during Homer’s battle, to prove I’m queenly.” She tried to walk; her heels speared her dress’ hem and tore it. “Uugh. No.” She kicked off her shoes and stepped into her boots. “They’ll have to take me as I am.”

Someone knocked at the door.

“Come in.”

Homer stooped to slip his horns through the slim doorway. “Arra?”

“Hey, Homer.” Aria stuffed all her make-up into a drawer. “I’m glad to see you. Ever since I became queen, I’ve had to talk with just royal guards and gnomes. And—eugh—dwarfs, and elves. How are you? Are you ready for your match? The first to ten points decides the fate of the planet.”

Homer looked her up and down. “Dress.”

“I hate it,” said Aria, “and not just the dress, I hate all of it. It’s just like Anthrapas to leave me all the heavy lifting.” She tied her hair in a ponytail. “She knew me too well. I’ve gotta be a great queen, not because I care, but because failure would humiliate me. I’m too prideful not to give it my all.”

“Nod alone.” Homer lifted his goggles and presented the wedding ring.

pict4

Aria Twine caught her knees before they buckled. “N-no.”

Homer didn’t recognize the disbelief on Aria’s face. Maybe she just didn’t understand. “I lov—”

“Don’t say it.” She struggled for balance. “Oh god, this is wrong.”

“Arra?”

“No, no, no… I’m so sorry.” She couldn’t keep her hands from trembling. She turned away. “I’m a human and you’re a—it’s just not right, Homer. You can’t love me like that. I was—” She shook her head. “I’m taking advantage of you, Homer. Like a beast of burden.”

Homer pointed to her black glove. “Burned your hand.”

“I burned my hand for me, not for you.” She cried onto her white dress. “Homer, you’re an intelligent, emotional animal. Don’t you deserve to love someone who isn’t just using you? I can’t do this. I just can’t.”

Homer looked at the ring. He left it on Aria’s dresser. “Gift, then.”

“Homer!” Aria chased him to the door, but Homer was already gone.


Homer wasn’t sure where he was running—just away from the embassy, away from the dwarfs, and away from any life he remembered. His breaths became fog banks in the night, clouding his vision and his mind. He tore off his vest and pants and goggles. His hooves hit the hard earth, and his back hunched forward until he bounded over the ground like a wild animal on all fours. Propelled by the vacuum left in the pit of his stomach, he finally left the jagged dwarven mountains behind and entered the wild wastes.

The full moon cast his shadow across the shifting terrain: icy plains, then baked deserts, then grassy hills, then gaping craters. He navigated not by starlight or compass, but by red madness at the corner of his eye. Even without knowing what he searched for, he knew when he found it.

A rectangular hallway protruded from the earth. Hewn of solid stone, the hall led into the darkness of an underground labyrinth.

pict5

The door was large enough for Homer to enter at full height without hitting his horns. His hooves recognized the cobblestone floor. A fork in the hall ahead split into two paths both leading deeper into the dark.

Scents made Homer recall buried images. Curving corridors. Sloping stairwells. Facades, forks, branches, and ladders. For every month Homer had lived on the surface, he’d previously wandered a year in the maze. It called to him.

What had the surface ever done for him? He felt the scars on his chest. At least the maze would host more minotaurs for company. Whenever Homer had met another minotaur, they had kindly shared their food and their maps of the maze.

He smelled minotaurs even now. Where? He sniffed left and right at the fork, but the scent was strongest behind him, at the maze’s exit. Homer jogged back to the surface; maybe his new minotaur friends had escaped the maze just recently.

There they were, lying in the grass. He’d missed them in the dark: a male, a female, and a child.

Their heads were missing. Their bodies were warm.

They reeked of dwarfs.


“Homer?” Three gnomes lounged by the dwarven magma pits, just far enough away that their dresses didn’t catch fire. “What are you carrying?”

Homer slung the three minotaurs onto the ground. “Dwrfs.”

“Oh dear.” The gnomes inspected them. “You think dwarfs killed them? We are supremely sorry. There is no law against killing animals in the wild wastes, not until the sovereignty of the wastes is ratified.” Homer pointed to the boiling pit behind them. “You wish to burn them?” Homer nodded, shoulders quivering. “Homer…” Two gnomes held Homer’s hands. “Only gnomes are rejuvenated by magma.”

Homer nodded. He knew that already. He dropped the three bodies in the pit. Fire spread across their dried fur like burning grass. The bodies slowly sunk.

“There was a time gnomes knew sorrow. The whole collective gnomish consciousness could cry and cramp in anguish.” The gnomes removed their dresses to join Homer by the pit without combusting. “I say this not to diminish your pain, but to say that although centuries have passed since that time, we understand. If I were still capable of emotion, I would feel such agonizing empathy for you that dormant demons might split open the earth to rip me limb from limb to end my suffering.”

For a minute the only sound was bubbling magma.

“Make no mistake, Homer, emotions are perhaps the most powerful force in the universe. These scars will shape you, but, they do not constitute you. You are more.”

A gnome gave Homer his goggles. Homer put them on.


The Mountain Swallower’s throne room was ten times larger than the whole human capital, and had enough seats for armies. Dwarfs filled the northern half the room around the Mountain Swallower’s vacant throne. Their eyeless helmets watched the other races enter. The elves fluttered in with the humans, and then gnomes wheeled in the seafolk trapped in their glass tanks.

Emperor Shobai wiped morning dew from his tank with a long crab leg. His wife floated beside him. At Shobai’s direction, the gnomes wheeled them to the eastern side of the room beside Ebi Anago and Sir Hitode, the lobster and starfish commanders. The centaur, sphinx, and harpy took seats beside the seafolk, each bowing to the other races in whatever manner they were able.

On the western side of the room, Madam Commander Victoria took the center chair to represent the elven queen many miles away. Stephanie sat beside her, pouting.

Humans sat on the south side. Harvey and Jennifer waited for their queen.

pict6

The Mountain Swallower’s footsteps echoed and shook the room. Their voice shattered the air. “Shobai.”

The seafolk emperor released bubbles from his maw.

“Victoria. Standing in for your queen?”

Victoria nodded.

“Beasts.”

The centaur, sphinx, and harpy nodded.

“The human queen is absent,” said the Mountain Swallower. “A pity she won’t witness the end of the world.”

The room stirred. Emperor Shobai tapped his gnome on the shoulder. “The emperor is concerned about your intentions today,” said the gnome. “Could you clarify your aim?”

The Mountain Swallower didn’t move. “When we defeat the minotaur, we will be freed from the treaty limiting us to table-war. We will wipe out all other life and restore our kingdom to its former glory. Before you protest, recall that dwarfs have never violated the law. Our means justify the end.” The Mountain Swallower barked at the door. “Enter, minotaur.”

Homer’s goggles and strong jaw seemed like a stone statue’s, as if he were carved from a mountain. He sat at the war-table with a bag of brass cards and figurines.

The Mountain Swallower leaned forward in their throne. “How sad that the dwarven race’s final challenge is scarred and disfigured.”

Homer considered words carefully, and eventually decided his mouth wasn’t adequate. He put his hand on a gnome’s shoulder. “I’m not your final challenge,” translated the gnome from Homer’s finger-taps.

“Mm?”

“And you’re not my final challenge, either,” translated the gnome. Homer organized brass cards on the table. “You’re just another fork in my path.”

The Mountain Swallower laughed. It was ear-splitting, like a violin played with a steel wool bow. “Such arrogance,” it whispered. “Bring the machine.” The room flooded with shadow. Gnomes had covered the windows—these gnomes had limbs gnawed off by dwarfs.

The machine was no longer merely a silent dwarf. It was a box five feet wide, five feet thick, and ten feet tall, covered in dwarven relief. The box wore a skirt of gnome arms, palm out, fingers spread, ready for input and output.

Its front face was decorated with minotaur skulls.

pict7

“Inspired by your success, we briefly experimented with minotaur brains. We’ve concluded your heads are best as ornaments.” The Mountain Swallower beckoned their gnomes to deposit the machine opposite Homer at the war-table. “This box has one thousand gnome brains wired together. It is unbeatable.”

Homer grieved over the minotaur skulls. Their horns curved up like the trunks of broken trees. The bony smiles reflected in his dark goggles.

“The first to ten points will decide the fate of the planet, minotaur,” said the Mountain Swallower. “Let us—”

Homer interrupted through his gnomish translator. “When I win five points in the first round, I want your helmet.”

The Mountain Swallower chuckled. “Ha! And when my machine wins five points in the first round, I claim your goggles. Begin the match!”

Twenty gnomes poured from the stands. Some were bare, others in elven dresses, others decorated with jewels. The dwarfs’ gnomes stumbled out half-blind, feeling with hobbled arms and legs. One gnome stood on the table. “The minotaur may choose the location of the first battle. Oh…” Homer gave the gnome a brass card. “The battlefield is chosen.”

“Gnomes!” shouted the Mountain Swallower. “Tell our machine where the war will be!” Gnomes surrounded the machine and matched the disembodied hands around the circumference. The gnomes conveyed the location to the machine, and the machine buzzed and hummed. A brass card popped out a slot detailing the army the machine would bring to battle. A gnome pulled open a drawer on the machine and retrieved two figurines: a dwarf and its ballista. The gnome aimed the ballista exactly as the machine dictated.

Homer took a figurine from his bag: Scales, the icy dragon. Scales had hatched only a year ago, but Aria’s prescribed diet of elven insects had built him into a massive beast who breathed blizzards.

The gnomes swiftly built the table’s terrain. Black spires and sandy wastes were signatures of dwarven territory.

“Over before it even begins,” said the Mountain Swallower.

Homer nodded in agreement and put his dragon on the table.

pict8

“The game starts,” said a gnome.

“Ennd.” Homer extended a hand. “Hellmet.”

The crowd murmured, perplexed. A gnome met Homer to inquire digitally. “He says inspecting the battlefield’s physical location will prove he has already won.”

The Mountain Swallower barked. Ten dwarfs picked up a gnome each and hustled from the throne-room. “Don’t waste my time, minotaur.”

As minutes passed, humans and elves chatted and pointed at the machine. The seafolk traded their gnomes from tank to tank carrying conversation between them.

“Homer, are you okay?” Jennifer pat his shoulder.

“We’re all here for you,” said Harvey.

Homer shook his head. “Arra?”

Jennifer sighed. “We don’t know where she is. She’s probably busy with queenly duties, but I can’t imagine anything more important than this.”

“Mmm.”

The dwarfs reentered and tossed their gnomes onto the table. “Upon closer investigation,” said a gnome, “there is a deep hole in this exact spot, underneath your units.” He dug with his hands. “It was disguised with thin branches and leaves smoothed over with brown dust. The hole is lined with sharp, pointed sticks.” He dropped the dwarf and ballista into the pit. “Five points to Homer.”

pict9

Seafolk bubbled in their tanks. Humans and elves cheered.

The Mountain Swallower’s teeth barely parted. “Cheat!”

Homer shook his head and matched hands with a gnome. “Homer says he dug the hole himself last night.” Homer took Scales’ figurine. “Would you protest the death of your armies if you commanded them to swim into the sea? You lost because of our adherence to physical accuracy.”

The Mountain Swallower rapped the stone throne. “…Very well,” it said. “You win the first round.”

Homer extended his hand. “Hellmet.”

The lord of the dwarfs paused, teeth together, then pulled off its helmet.

pict11

Under the helmet was the lipless and misshapen, but unmistakable, face of a gnome. The Mountain Swallower tossed their helmet onto the war-table. The audience was silent. The Mountain Swallower explained for the stunned mortals:

“There was a time gnomes and dwarfs were the same. When the earth was born, we were born with it.” All the gnomes in the room nodded in agreement. “We ate rocks. We craved gems. He enjoyed the heartbeat of hell. The earth was ours and all was right.”

Homer took the helmet and looked into its face-plate.

“But soon, we had siblings. The seafolk were first, cretinous, chitinous creatures scuttling in the depths. Then the land bore humans, elves, and animals. We despised all these lifeforms for daring to invade our existence. We thought we would never be rid of you parasites. But then, a thousand years ago,” said the Mountain Swallower, removing a gauntlet, “between the inner mantle and the core, where heat and pressure blurs the line between reality and the immaterial, we found them.”

The Mountain Swallower raised their bare forearm. It was scarred as if by a branding iron in the shape of a twisted screaming face.

“Nameless demons from beyond the pale. This is the demon with the great black axe.” They removed another gauntlet to show another scar. “Who wielded the great black sword.” Under the chest piece were many more intricate wounds. “Whose great black whip cracked the continent. Who bore the great black spear. The twin-headed monster with great black twin-headed flail. And their leader with a great black trident.”

pict12

Homer squinted at the dwarf’s chest. Symbols from hell burned their rocky skin to charcoal. The scars circled like chains or snaking serpents.

“The demons were trapped in that hot, dark place by unknown entities from bygone eons. Their fiendish intelligence soon convinced us: if we freed them, the earth would be ours again. We made deals with each one, and with each deal the demons grew, until they blotted out the sky.

“True to their word, the demons wreaked havoc on the surface. Humans, elves, and seafolk all struggled to kill them, then to subdue them, then to flee from them, and then, finally, to merely survive them.

“But soon we realized our mistake. The demons’ footsteps, and their malicious laughter, shook the planet to its core. We were hurting our own mother. The demons had to be stopped. But we had already given ourselves to them, and were therefore powerless against them.

“But the planet reacted as if consciously. The core cracked, and we were split into gnomes and dwarfs. Only dwarfs were saddled with the pacts they’d made, and gnomes escaped those promises by ejecting the natural greatness of our race.”

The Mountain Swallower leaned forward.

“A thousand years ago, we were Eden’s members. The sensation of being primordial, and being connected by magma to all sentient beings—I lost that. And gnomes, poor gnomes, are the only creatures who can globally commune through magma, and regenerate their injuries, but they don’t enjoy it. Dwarfs aren’t afforded those luxuries, even being more deserving for the crosses we bear.

“But the demons were powerless before the gnomes, who were unburdened by desire. When the gnomes were finished renegotiating our pacts, the demons were barely bigger than beads. The gnomes also organized a treaty limiting the surface-world to table-war. For our own safety, we dwarfs conceded to that treaty. Until today.” The Mountain Swallower stood tall and folded its arms. “Today our machine defeats table-war and binds those demons to our whim once more. Today the earth reclaims its chosen race.”

Homer bit the helmet. His flat, bovine teeth worked the metal until it tore. He threw the helmet on the ground and stepped on it. “Negst round.”

pict13

The Mountain Swallower beckoned three dwarfs to remove a panel from the machine. They rearranged gnome brains, twisted screws, and filed brass cards. “Minotaur, my machine is improved and will not lose again. Would you accept another wager?” Homer glared at the lord of the dwarfs. “If you earn even one point this round, I’ll give you all the wealth of the dwarfs. If you earn nothing, I’ll take your goggles to replace my helmet.”

Homer nodded.

“As loser of the previous round, the dwarven machine has the choice of battlefield,” announced the gnomes. They surrounded the machine to let its skirt of hands tell them where the next battle should be. The map they built on the table had sinister, burnt-black trees jutting from the ground.

While he waited for gnomes to finish the map, Homer wondered if the machine was watching him. Was it blind like a dwarf? Maybe the gnomes informed its skirt of hands of Homer’s every movement.

Homer snapped from wonder when the gnomes put a figurine on the table: a giant squid, like the one Madam Victoria had used in the battle against the harpy. The harpy gasped, and Homer realized it was in fact that same squid: in official table-war canon, the squid’s corpse had rested here since that battle. “What happened to my homeland?” squawked the harpy. “It looks like a cemetery, bukawk!”

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“It is a cemetery,” said the Mountain Swallower. “Your battle was a bloodbath.”

If the gnomes put any figurines on the table at the machine’s behest, Homer didn’t notice them doing so. This made him anxious. Homer won his first-ever table-war using undead skeletons, so he reasoned the squid might be his main antagonist. He put six men on horseback onto the table.

“That match begins,” said the gnomes. “Homer has the first move.”

Homer held up four fingers and moved them in a circle. The gnomes made four of his horsemen trot circles around the squid; the horses left flames in their wake. “My Night Mares!” whispered Jennifer to Harvey. “Good choice!” The squid’s corpse was ringed by fire.

pict15

The machine was silent. For a moment Homer wondered if the machine even realized a battle was underway. Then the gnomes made the squid wriggle. The Mountain Swallower laughed. “I suspected my machine would infest the table with dwarven grave-worms. Ordinarily we consider them pests for filling cemeteries with fragile, worthless zombies, but when you won your first match with skeletons, we learned the value of the undead.”

Homer frowned. “You sah my madch?”

“Of course,” said the Mountain Swallower. “Dwarfs can’t communicate through magma, but I can still know anything any dwarf knows, and I relay my knowledge to my machine. Observe.” The Mountain Swallower bit the head off the nearest dwarf and swallowed without chewing.

The squid clambered toward the ring of flame. Homer muttered. “Firr.”

“I’m sure your fire could contain my squid,” said the Mountain Swallower, “as old corpses are hardly hardy. Let us see what my machine has planned.”

As soon as the lord of the dwarfs finished speaking, gnomes extinguished the ring of fire, and even the manes of Homer’s Night Mares. “It’s raining,” said a gnome.

Homer grabbed that gnome by the shoulder and asked, with gnomish finger-taps, “Did it really just start raining in the harpy’s homeland?”

“No,” said the gnome, “but the harpy’s real homeland is not a cemetery, and cemeteries rain quite often. The machine surely predicted this, having a thousand gnome-brains. Anything we know, it knows.”

Homer gnashed his teeth.

The gnomes made the squid lumber toward the Night Mares, bind them in tentacles, and eat them and their jockeys. “Check brasses!” Homer seethed. He raised two fingers, for the two Night Mares who hadn’t run circles around the squid.

The gnomes reviewed the Night Mares’ brasses. “These two Night Mares are not carrying jockeys,” they said for the audience. “They are carrying mannequins stuffed with poison.”

The Mountain Swallower’s teeth parted. “It is toxic to squids?”

“It is,” said the gnomes, “but not squids who have already died. The squid remains reanimated. Zero points to the minotaur.”

Homer’s fur stood on end. The human audience behind him murmured at the maze of scars revealed on his back.

“This is the first time in the history of table-war that a commander has ended the battle with more troops than it began with,” said the gnomes. “So, for the first time in the history of table-war, we award nine points to the machine.”

The floor around Homer cracked.

A labyrinth erupted around him, showering the room with debris and tossing the war-table into the air.

Commentary
Next Chapter

The Elf VS the Dwarf

(This is part seven of an ongoing fantasy series starting here. Last week, Aria Twine reached into a fire trying to save a melting metal figurine from the traitorous human Thaddeus. Her minotaur Homer beat an elf at table-war without the figurine anyway. Now Aria has to confront Thaddeus before the queen of humanity.)


Aria wished she could revel in Stephanie’s defeat, but rage distracted her. She never knew she could feel this angry at a human like Thaddeus. She clenched her left hand; her right hand was bandaged and misshapen.

A gnome approached her on the bench outside Queen Anthrapas’ throne room. “Ms. Twine, I have come to change your bandages.”

“Not now,” Aria grumbled. “I’m waiting for the queen to call me in.”

Nevertheless, the gnome took her right hand and unwound bandages. “The queen sent me, ma’am. This will only take a moment.”

Aria shook her head. “My minotaur is hundreds of miles away, probably worried half to death without me. How could the queen make me come back to human lands n-ow!”

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The gnome took the bloody bandages. Aria’s hand was red, withered, and covered in coin-sized blisters. She squirmed on the marble bench as the gnome poured cold water over her palm. “You need physical therapy to prevent scarring. Burns on the hand can—”

“I get it, I get it.” Aria covered her eyes as the gnome wrapped her hand with fresh bandages. “Can I go now?”


Queen Anthrapa’s marble throne-room was as sterile as Aria’s new bandages. Thaddeus polished his jacket’s buttons with his own freshly bandaged right hand.

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Thoughts wrestled behind the queen’s tired eyelids. She rubbed her aching temples. “Aria. Thaddeus. Both of you contacted me at the same time with the same story. Thaddeus, tell me what happened again. Aria, be quiet.”

“Like I said, Queen Anthrapas, your majesty, it was terrible.” Thaddeus agonized over his bandaged hand. “I knew Aria might sabotage her minotaur. She’d already sold imps to the elves, hamstringing me and Harvey in the tournament; who knows Aria’s true intentions? I followed her to elven lands, and sure enough, I saw her melting her minotaur’s best game-piece, the silver dragon, after stipulating only accurate figurines could be used.”

With sarcastically arthritic effort, Queen Anthrapas gestured for Thaddeus to continue.

“Thinking quickly, without regard for personal safety, I reached into the flames and grabbed the figurine! But, too late. It was already half-melted.”

Aria made fists with both hands. Her right palm burned. “I see,” said Queen Anthrapas. “Thaddeus, do you know the outcome of the minotaur’s board-game? Don’t say anything, just nod or shake your head.” Thaddeus shook his head. “Homer won. Five points to zero.”

“Thank goodness,” said Thaddeus.

“Cut the act.” Queen Anthrapas silenced him with one hand. “If Twine had sabotaged her minotaur, she’d’ve done it right and her minotaur would’ve lost. Thaddeus, this is your last chance to confess to treason.”

Thaddeus shrugged. “Even if you don’t believe my story, there’s no way you could prove me guilty. It’s my word against hers.”

Anthrapas nodded. “Gnome.” The marble doors opened and a gnome entered holding ragged bloody bandages.

Thaddeus gripped his seat.

The gnome held the bandages for Queen Anthrapas to inspect. She sighed. “When you both contacted me with the same story, I knew the real perpetrator would try to brand themselves on an identical figurine after the fact. So I preemptively branded the dragon—the real dragon, Scales.” The bandages had distinct patterns of blood in the shape of Anthrapas’ seal. “The perpetrator bought Scales’ figurine at a hobby shop. It was authentic enough to feature the dragon’s latest brands.”

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“You branded my dragon?” Aria huffed.

“Whose bandages are these?” asked Anthrapas. Her gnome pointed to Thaddeus.

“There’s an explanation,” said Thaddeus. “Aria must have realized you’d do this and—”

“There was a time,” interrupted the queen, “I’d have you drawn and quartered. Each quarter would be fed to a different wild animal. Then I’d personally burn your intestines and strangle you with them.” Thaddeus soaked tears with his bandages as two royal guards flanked him. “That time is gone—not long gone, but gone. Maybe I’ll just bring you to the great black sword outside my window. I’ll tie both your legs to different horses and whip them so they run on either side of the blade. It would be quick.”

“Forgive me, Queen—”

“You’re nobility, aren’t you? Your parents own land. Maybe I should donate the territory to the wild wastes. Or the elves. Or seafolk. Or dwarfs.”

“Please, just—”

“Or maybe,” she said, “Humanity’s Path to Victory should choose your punishment.”

Aria chewed her lips. “You branded my dragon.”

“It’s my dragon, Aria. Get over it.”

“Well, elves always need more shortlings.” Aria watched Thaddeus sweat. “Trade him for dragon fodder to make it up to me.”

“I’ll consider it.” Anthrapas waved Thaddeus away. “Guards, escort him to the dungeon. Gnomes, follow them out.”

The throne room suddenly emptied. Aria had fought a hundred table-wars here, and had never seen it empty of even gnomes and guards. The queen and Aria sat in silence. Beneath the marble floor, magma gently bubbled.

“Shall I leave?”

“You shall not.”

Aria stayed. The setting sun shined through the window, and the great black sword in the distance cast shade over the queen’s face. She sighed and released tension from her shoulders. “Twine, close the window.”

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“Yes, ma’am.” Aria rushed to a long hooked pole near the back wall, and used it to close heavy drapes. Only flickering from the underground magma lit the throne room.

“I’m getting old, Twine.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am?”

“Don’t play dumb.” Anthrapas felt the bones in her hand, and pushed blue veins over her knuckles. “I watched Emperor Shobai take his throne decades ago. I’ve lost track of my age.”

“You’re ninety-seven, ma’am.”

Aria expected a rebuke, but the queen just watched the flickering magma. “For decades, my council of nobles has wanted me to declare a successor. Hubris, I suppose, kept my hand. Humanity grows impatient for my retirement or my death.”

“I’m not eager for your death, ma’am. You took me in when I was just a kid.”

“You’re it, Aria. You’re queen when I croak.”

“What? No!” Aria shook her head. “I don’t want to be queen!”

“You’re slippery, Aria, but I’ve got you good.”

Aria spoke through her teeth. “I never wanted this.”

“But I always did, and you walked right into it.” For the first time Aria could remember, Anthrapas laughed. “I was worried when your game-piece was assassinated and you left to live in a shack, but you rode back to me on a minotaur. I didn’t even have to nominate you to my council of nobles; they recommended you after Homer beat Ebi Anago.”

“I refuse.”

“You reached into fire for humanity. You can’t refuse.”

“Of course I can.”

“Legally, yes. But you, Twine, I know you can’t refuse.” Aria looked away. “We both win. You seek personal glory. I seek humanity’s safety. Now your glory hinges on humanity.”

“I didn’t ask for that responsibility,” said Aria. “I like table-war. I like raising monsters. I never did it for humanity. I reached into fire for myself.”

“You can still back out,” said Anthrapas. “My council could choose another.”

Aria paused. “Who… who is the council’s next choice?”

“Thaddeus.” Anthrapas laughed until she coughed and choked. “He’s noble blood. He’s not bad at table-war. He’ll gladly accept, if it means he’s not sold to the elves.”

“But he’s awful. He’s a scumbag.”

“So you suddenly care?”

The magma cracked and spat. “…You win. I’ll be queen.” Aria sat. “You beat me, and I didn’t even know we were playing. But now, Homer needs me.” She crossed her arms. “I haven’t seen him in days. Where is he?”

“I had Sir Jameson escort him to the baked caldera,” said Anthrapas. “It’s contested territory on the elven/dwarven border. The Mountain Swallower’s champion has challenged the elves for the land; as the tournament front-runner, Homer should see the dwarven champion in action.”


Homer sniffed smoke which dimmed the sky. The flat, featureless horizon was quiet ash. The audience of elves somberly filled benches in the impromptu arena.

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“When are the dwarfs coming?” complained Sir Jameson. “If they declare table-war, they should at least have the decency to show up.”

“They should arrive shortly.” Quattuor sat patiently. “Dwarfs are many things, but never late.”

The elves clapped for an elderly elf scowling her way to the table. Her hair was in a tight bun to make her look tall—almost five feet—but her nose was raised even higher. “Llf?” asked Homer.

“The elf is Madam Commander Victoria. Her first tournament match was against Thaddeus, and she won handily. She was meant to fight the sphinx next, but she postponed that match to defend the baked caldera.”

“They should just let the dwarfs have this place, to be honest,” said Sir Jameson. “What an eyesore.”

“If dwarfs claim it, they will be a step closer to the elven capital,” explained Quattuor. Homer smelled the dwarfs before he saw them. Their stench attracted buzzards, and elves covered their noses. Dwarfs filed into the arena. Their clanging coal-colored armor covered every inch of skin. The first dwarf in line wore thicker, brighter, silver armor; this dwarf’s teeth were black. “The Mountain Swallower,” whispered Quattuor to Homer.

The Mountain Swallower’s voice made the scars on Homer’s chest itch: “Fight.” The king of the dwarfs sat opposite the elves in the arena. More dwarfs surrounded their leader leaving one lone dwarf, their champion, sitting at the central table across from Madam Victoria.

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Homer sniffed. He pointed at the dwarven champion, and tapped Quattuor on the shoulder. “What’s he say?” asked Sir Jameson.

“The dwarven champion does not smell as foul as an ordinary dwarf,” said Quattuor.

Jameson chuckled. “The smartest dwarf ever is the first one to figure out how to bathe.”

Victoria summoned five gnomes in pink dresses. “Have you no gnomes?”

The dwarven champion said nothing.

“I’ll need more gnomes to help set my figurines.” Victoria pointed to Quattuor. “I’m borrowing you.” Quattuor obediently joined the other gnomes powdering the table to make it look exactly like the baked caldera in miniature. Then they helped Madam Victoria arrange her army of elves.

The dwarven champion placed three figures on the table: a dwarf, a catapult, and pile of stones.

“Are you serious?” Victoria stood on her chair to see the dwarf’s side of the table. “Is that all you’ve got?”

The dwarven champion raised one hand. Quattuor matched fingers with the dwarven greave to communicate in gnomish. “These are all their figurines,” confirmed Quattuor.

Victoria sat and admired her army. “This will be easier than I thought. For a moment, I might have been worried.”

“So sure?” The Mountain Swallower stood. Its crumbly voice made shorties cry. “A wager, then. If you win, you’ll take my helmet. If you lose, I’ll claim a gnome.”

Homer’s fur bristled. Sir Jameson put a hand on his shoulder. “The elf has this in the bag, big guy. And it’s only a gnome anyway.” Homer shook his head so hard his horns almost hurt someone. He pointed to his eye and drew his thumb across his jaw and across one shoulder. “Huh? Oh, right—you rescued Quattuor from dwarfs, all beat-up and abused. But gnomes don’t care that dwarfs cut off their limbs, and a magma-bath fixes them right up. You know that.”

Homer puffed.

“I accept your wager, Mountain Swallower.” Victoria’s army was arranged with precision befitting an experienced commander. “I offer the dwarven champion the first move.”

The dwarf raised another hand and another gnome jogged to join Quattuor in translating. The two gnomes struggled to keep up with the dwarf’s rapid finger-tapping. “Assistance, please,” called Quattuor, and all six gnomes clustered around the dwarf messaging each other. They tapped information onto the dwarf’s shoulders, too, which Homer found disturbing. He couldn’t imagine sending different signals with both hands while receiving different responses with both shoulders.

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After thirty seconds, the gnomes broke formation and surrounded the table to show how the dwarf loaded its catapult with stones and launched them. Gnomes debated the effects of wind on the payload to make every stone follow a perfectly simulated arc.

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“Slow down,” said Victoria. She allowed the gnomes to move the stones to their zenith. “Stop there. My elves clear this area.” The gnomes moved the elven army to make an empty circle where the stones would land. “Easy.”

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The stones landed in the empty circle and ricocheted in all directions. “Your troops cannot react in time to the ricochet. The closest are stoned to death.” Gnomes scooped out figurines in an annulus of impact. “The next closest survive with debilitating injuries.” Gnomes knocked down elves in a much larger ring.

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“What!” Victoria braced herself against the table. “You expect me to believe each of those rocks killed one elf and wounded two more?”

“I do not expect you to believe it, ma’am, but it is true.” The gnomes meticulously demonstrated the path of each stone individually. “While you consider your next command, the dwarf is reloading its catapult.”

Victoria surveyed her surviving troops. “I surrender,” she decided. “The remaining elves retreat. I suspect we’ll need them to fight another day.”

“The baked caldera is mine.” The Mountain Swallower stood. “I claim this gnome, the one with no dress. Dresses catch in my teeth.”

“Oh, dear.” Quattuor nodded to Homer and Jameson. “Perhaps we’ll meet again someday. Tell Ms. Twine I said goodbye.”

“Speak not.” The Mountain Swallower ate Quattuor’s head.

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Homer bellowed as the Mountain Swallower chewed Quattuor’s shoulders and arms. The sound, like crushing gravel, made Homer’s fur bristle and showed the maze of scars on his chest. “Calm down, Homer.” Jameson patted Homer’s knee. “Dwarfs eat rocks, so gnomes are a delicacy, like fine cheese.” The Mountain Swallower finished with Quattuor’s legs and feet. “We’ll buy a new gnome from the elves.”

“Rrr!” Homer stood with enough force to knock over the bench, toppling Jameson and some dwarfs. “Rrarrr!”

The five gnomes in pink dresses stood between Homer and the Mountain Swallower. “The wager was accepted and the dwarven champion won. The Mountain Swallower’s actions are admissible.” The Mountain Swallower licked its teeth. Its tongue was blue and gray.

The ground pulsed around Homer. Dust puffed up like wild animals were bursting from shallow graves. Elves scattered. Homer lifted the bench above his head. “Homer, this is your last warning!” said the gnomes.

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Homer smashed the bench over the dwarven champion. The coal-colored armor cracked and hard green gnome-brains spilled out. False teeth fell from the helmet. Homer dropped the broken bench. “Nno smell,” Homer explained.

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Gnomes and elves gathered around the armor. “Their champion’s a fake!” said an elf. “The dwarfs cheated!”

The Mountain Swallower laughed. This rare dwarven laugh was like distant thunder rolling over ruins. “Ask any gnome—that pile of brains is a legally registered dwarven commander.”

The gnomes didn’t bother matching fingertips. “This dwarven commander was obviously registered under false pretenses, but is nonetheless registered.”

“Don’t act surprised. Dwarfs have built war-machines since the dawn of time,” said the Mountain Swallower. “Recently we’ve experimented by decapitating gnomes for their cold, calculating brains. When you beat the nine-brained seafolk, Ebi Anago,” it said to Homer, “we decided to wire up ten brains at a time.” More brains slopped from the dwarven champion. “We’ll add more if we like.”

“This is a flagrant breach of the intent of law.” Victoria pointed at the broken champion. “No one could beat ten gnomes at table-war, not if they can cripple armies with a handful of stones!”

“Nonetheless, it is registered,” said another gnome. “A registered commander can only be disbarred from play because of their own death or the death of their game-piece, or for violating the treaty. This ‘dwarven’ commander has done none of those things. Speaking of which,” he said, turning to Homer, “ordinarily you would be ejected for assault, but in these extenuating circumstances, we allow you to remain a commander.”


Aria didn’t wait for her carriage to stop before she jumped out and ran for the arena. “Jameson!” She waved for him with her bandaged hand. “Where’s Homer? What happened here?”

“Homer’s cooling off somewhere.” Sir Jameson flipped a toppled bench. “You need a new gnome; the Mountain Swallower ate yours. Homer got mad and smashed the dwarven champion, who’s apparently some gnome brains wired together. Look what Homer did to this dust! He was so angry this just sort of… happened!”

Aria slid her boot to trace a maze drawn in the dust. “I feel you, Homer. I really do.”

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Commentary
Next Chapter

The Circular Pangolin

(I wrote this in 2017 and it won second place at UCSB’s 2018 Most Excellent Prose competition! I was inspired by an anthropology class where we learned about pangolins, small armored mammals often compared to armadillos. In Mary Douglass’ classic anthropology book Purity and Danger the pangolin stars in Lele rituals despite being “always spoken of as the most incredible monster of all” for its peculiar physiology. Douglass’ examination of religion’s paradoxical fascinations made me imagine my own weird fantasy pangolin cult.)

Circular Pangolin

In the desert you’re always leaking. When you’re out of sweat, and you’ve pissed your last drop, your sanity seeps into the sand. Clouds drift into the drought just to die. Only curled-up critters can handle the caustic heat. Them, the cacti, and the cultists.

Townsfolk call me Doc because that’s what I am. I used to have a nurse named Fernando, but Fernando lost his mind, so I lost Fernando. I spend most of my days reminding townsfolk to hydrate, but sometimes I get to stitch someone together, or cut them open, and they’d better hope I care to sew them back up when I’m done.

Night’s the only time you can take a decent walk, so one full moon I staggered out with a bottle of tequila. I liked to circle the farms drinking until the dunes looked like waves and I could pretend I was lost at sea. That night, before I could enjoy myself, a cultist confronted me on my porch.

The junior cultists came to town on moonless nights to beg for food. They wore black, hooded robes and slippers made of old rubber tires, and sunglasses, and scarves. That’s how I knew this particular cultist meant business: he (she?) wore the full rubberized regale. His black rubber bodysuit had footies an inch thick. I couldn’t see eyes through his dark glass goggles. He unzipped his fetishy face-mask to talk. “Doc, we need help.” Having spoken, he zipped his mouth shut.

“I’ve got plans tonight.” I shook the tequila. He just motioned for me to follow. “C’mon, cactus-herder! Can’t you even tell me what’s wrong?”

He unzipped again. “God is leaking.” And, zipped.

Well, what can you say to that? I brought my first-aid kit and followed him over the dunes.

We walked hours over the sand. Dunes looked like arctic tundra in the moonlight. Ordinarily I’d never venture so far from town, but the cultist seemed to know the way. “How do you navigate out here?” The question wasn’t worth unzipping; the cultist just pointed at the sky. His rubber gloves were so thick his fingers could barely bend. “You can see the stars through those thick goggles?”

He nodded.

“Doesn’t that suit get uncomfortable?”

He nodded, vigorously.

“So what’s it for?”

He unzipped, and I never thought I’d hear something so sane from that black mask: “In the desert you’re always leaking.” And, zipped.

When we crested the next dune a sandy caldera opened before us. Junior cultists scrambled from cactus to cactus like bats sucking nectar from flowers. They cut limbs from cacti to replant and propagate the species. They wrapped wax paper around red blossoms to preserve pollen. They sliced fruits and pulled down their scarves to lick the liquid which dripped. Not one member of the strange congregation revealed an inch of skin under their tunics and rubber.

I heard my guide unzip as he led me through the throngs. “Avoid eye contact with the students. Life-essence leaks at every opportunity.” And, zipped.

“Is that all you folks drink? Cactus-juice?”

Unzip. “The cactus is like all organisms: it transmutes foreign substances into its own flesh. But the cactus doesn’t lose what it drinks. We drink the cactus to become like the cactus. We don’t lose what we drink.” And, zipped.

We walked past scattered huts made of animal skins draped over long bones. I thought twinkles in the huts were stars, but realized they were glints off voyeuristic sunglasses and goggles. The huts’ inhabitants looked away when I noticed.

“What do you eat? Cactus?”

Unzip. “We grind cactus into a paste. This paste sustains us without causing us to urinate or defecate.” And, zipped.

“How do you fuck with these suits on?”

Unzip. “To do so would be unthinkable.” And, zipped.

“Now that’s no way to live.”

Deep in the caldera the sand was pebbly and coarse. Past the last of the huts more rubber-suited figures like my guide stood across the pathless path. My guide unzipped. “I am not holy enough to go further. You must approach the caldera’s center alone.” And, zipped.

Another rubber guide unzipped. “Stomp and shout when you reach the center. A holy man lives there whose renunciation leaves him almost totally senseless, who therefore has not lost a drop of essence in a decade. His sacred potential is so great, a cut in his robes would beam like the moon. He will lead you to God.” And, zipped.

“Okay, okay. I get the picture.” The sand below was rocky and steep. I put my first-aid kit in my lap and descended the slope on my ass. “What’s the name of this holy man?”

Unzip. “To utter it would tarnish its purity.” And, zipped.

I climbed down into the caldera longer than I thought was possible. The depth dimmed the moon and the stars. The sand turned into stones turned into rocks until the ground was paved with boulders. I finally came to a place where the boulders sloped upward in all directions, so I reckoned it was the center. I stomped and shouted at the dark.

Movement rumbled from the dark: a silhouette I thought had been a boulder stood up and lumbered toward me on a gait restrained by thick black rubber. The holy man looked like an inflated cartoon character with outlines eight inches thick on all sides. His rubber gloves allowed only the barest use of his fingers. His rubber helmet was spherical with a mere pinprick for breathing and no other orifices.

“Listen,” I started, then, realizing he probably couldn’t hear me, amended myself: “If you can, I mean, listen. I’ve been more than cooperative.” The holy man managed to move his arms to twist his helmet so the pinprick for breathing was aligned with his left ear. I spoke quickly so he wouldn’t suffocate. “Just show me what I’m here to do.”

He swiveled his helmet back to breathe. Slowly as dunes roll over the desert, slowly as stars roll over the sky, he shifted weight from one foot to the other to walk. I followed, wondering if I could roll him to his destination faster than he would waddle. He led me to a gap between boulders in the ground. The gap was just large enough for someone to spelunk. I prayed it would not be necessary.

The holy man tugged my collar. “What? No clothes allowed underground?” He nodded, somehow, and I unbuttoned my jeans. “Am I here just because you don’t fit down the crevasse with your dumb rubber suit?” He shook his head. “Well, why am I here, then?”

The holy man drew letters in the air with a bulky glove. He spelled, “because you’re the best, Doc.”

I paused on my descent into the ditch. “Fernando?” I covered my mouth. “Sorry. I’m not supposed to say your name, am I?”

The holy man pat my head, and he pushed me downward.

Deep in the crevasse the age of the air weighed on my shoulders. I lowered myself ledge by ledge while holding my first-aid kit with my teeth. The ditch was so dark I had no clue how deep it ran. More than once I cut my soles on black cacti. I realized I didn’t know whether I was approaching God’s wound, or climbing inside it. Either way, the innermost lacerations would need to be sutured first.

After a duration whose length I couldn’t guess I felt nothing below me but cacti. I bouldered left and right but still felt sharp spines below. I whimpered, having no strength left to climb from the crevasse. I cursed myself for following cactus-herders.

When my strength gave out I fell. My back cracked cactus fronds and three-inch spines stuck me like a porcupine.

I landed in an empty cavern. I hardly remember falling, or how long I fell, and only recall waking nude and bloody. The walls of the cavern were dimly lit by shelves of glowing fungi.

I crawled to my first-aid kit. I started by injecting painkillers, though it felt counterproductive to puncture myself more. Then I set to work plucking each spine with tweezers. When I plucked my left arm bare it was polka-dotted with pox-like perforations. Before plucking my right arm, I examined my surroundings. The cave rocks were bigger than the boulders in the caldera above; they were sheets of stone slotted together like plates of armor.

Behind the glowing fungi, the walls were subtly transparent. I shuddered when I looked deeper: human figures were frozen in stone like bugs preserved in plastic. Some stood at military attention. Some sat with crossed legs. Some were balled in the fetal position. I turned away to pluck spines from my flesh.

When I was finally spineless I packed my first-aid kit and walked around aimlessly. Maybe God would transport me to the surface if I patched him up, but I didn’t find anything Almighty, just more rocks and fungi. I wandered to the walls for guidance. “I don’t suppose you frozen folks know where to find God, do you?”

“They already have.” The voice boomed from everywhere. I felt stones beneath me rumble and writhe. “I did not hear you come in. Welcome, Doctor.”

“What kind of God can’t feel someone crawling on them?”

“I feel everyone crawling on me,” said the earth. Rocky plates unfolded like flower petals with only more petals underneath. Sliding sheets of stone threatened to crush me, but I found a safe spot to stand: the center was stationary like the eye of a hurricane. The surrounding rocks bunched up like a bundt cake. When it finally finished moving, it looked like a circular pangolin wrapped around me.

“So.” I brushed stones with my fingertips. “Where does it hurt?”

Stone sheets rustled. Plates parted like elevator doors. More plates behind them parted vertically. More plates behind them parted diagonally and pure white light leaked through a slanted slot. “Prepare, Doctor. This will not be a sight for which your vision is accustomed.”

“Tell me what happened.”

“I cannot.”

I donned sterile gloves and ran a finger along the shining slot. The circular pangolin’s inner light showed me the shadows of bones in my finger. “I can’t help you if I don’t know what’s wrong.”

“The holy man said you were the best available for sewing someone up.”

“It helps if I know what cut them open.”

The circular pangolin’s plates contracted. “I harvest mana from ether. The astral planes resist me with a hazardous…” It searched for a word. “Exoskeleton.”

“You cut yourself cactus-herding?”

“Metaphysically speaking.”

“Lemme take a look.”

The innermost plates parted and the brightness increased ten-thousand-fold. I couldn’t tell the difference between opening and closing my eyes, so I closed them and covered them with both hands. This hardly dimmed the light, and I felt utterly transparent. I wondered if my thickest bones still cast shadows or if the light penetrated even my pelvis and femurs when I walked into the rocky armor. I heard the stone sheets close behind me like air-locks. I felt labored breathing from all directions. The floor was warm and wet. I blindly felt for walls.

“So, why am I naked?”

“My inner light would disintegrate your clothing. The holy man will guard your garments.”

My hands brushed a warm wall. “Is this you?”

“It is.”

“Am I close to the wound?”

“You’ve been walking inside it.”

I considered the contents of my first-aid kit. “I didn’t bring enough anti-bac.”

“It is not necessary.”

“We can’t leave foreign objects when I sew you up. It’ll getcha whatever the metaphysical equivalent of an infection is.” In the blinding light I had to assess the wound by touch. I could barely brush both sides of the laceration with my arms outstretched. I couldn’t reach the top of the wound even jumping with my hands above me. I walked hugging the left wall to gauge the laceration depth: the left wall ended twenty paces from the deepest portion of the wound. I’d found the pangolin’s real flesh: even under plates of stone armor, its skin was a foot thick and covered in hard, sharp scales the size of my palm.

“Doctor, what is your professional opinion?”

“I need to perform debridement.” I tugged a loose scale until it popped off. “The astral plane burned your tissues. I have to remove the char.”

I used the scale to cut dead flesh from the walls and floor. The circular pangolin contracted mysterious musculature to bring the roof within reach, too. I was blind in the impossible light, but I knew which flesh to flay because the dead flesh was dry. Each time I brought a new armload of dead flesh from the wound, my old pile of dead flesh was gone. I suspected the pangolin ate them. I estimate the debridement took eight hours in total.

“Now I’m going to sew you up,” I said. “I’ll start by suturing the deepest parts of the wound.” I carefully opened my first-aid kit so each instrument remained in position. I felt where I expected needle and thread. I blindly, painstakingly threaded the needle. When I tried to pierce the pangolin’s internal flesh, the needle snapped. “Damn!”

“What?”

“You’re tough.”

“But you removed flesh with my scale!”

“I can’t sew with a scale.” I felt the wet floor for my first-aid kit and searched for another needle. I pricked myself on a cactus spine. “Ow!” It must have slipped into my kit in the fungus room. “I might be able to work with this.” I tied thread to the spine. Just as I suspected, the spine pierced the pangolin’s innards easily. The pangolin rocked and rolled; I struggled for balance mid-suture. “Stay still!”

“It hurts!” The circular pangolin squirmed as I sewed a zig-zag at the back of the gash. I retreated and tugged the thread taut.

“Just twenty more times, big fella.”

The pangolin groaned, but subsequent sutures were swifter. Soon enough I poked the cactus spine through the full foot of thick skin and pulled the whole wound shut. My roll of bandages was barely enough for a courtesy-wrap. “I’m afraid that’s all I can do.”

“Thank you, Doctor.”

I felt my way back to the stone-plated outer walls. “Can you open up your armor and let me leave?”

“But Doctor, you haven’t claimed your reward.”

I turned to the circular pangolin. Its light was brightest along the sutured wound, so its edges were shaded and I saw its silhouette. It stretched like a serpent into the infinite distance. “I just wanna drink myself to sleep in my own bed.”

“You’ve rendered unparalleled service to me,” said the pangolin. “You must join my highest order.”

“You mean the folks frozen by the fungi? No thanks.” I pried at the plates. “Let me out!”

“But you must have some reward,” said the pangolin.

I gave up opening the armor. I wasn’t leaving without a gift. “How about…” I searched the bloody floor. I collected the scale I’d removed and stowed it in my first-aid kit. “How’s that? Can I go now?”

“Thank you, Doctor. Yes, you may.”

The plates opened.

I couldn’t see anything as I walked out because my eyes were adjusted to the bright light, but I felt a cool evening breeze. The plates closed behind me and sunk under the sand, leaving only the bulge of a new-born dune. When my eyes adjusted to the dark I found myself a quarter-mile from town, and my clothes were folded beside me.

I haven’t seen any cultists since then—at least, not on purpose. On new moons junior cactus-herders come to town to beg for food, and when they do, they stop by to pay respects. Not to me; I have to let them worship the razor-sharp pangolin-scale.

I asked, one time, “why do you want to see it? This is sharp enough to cut through the thickest rubber suit.”

The junior cultist pulled down her scarf and said, “you can only worship what you fear. It’s the only way to keep yourself from leaking. In any case, this scale touched the skin over the muscle connecting the bones around the heart of God, and therefore it gleams like the moon in my eyes.”

Whatever floats their boat. I use the sharp edge for whittling.

But I always carry the scale when I step out at night to drink. It reminds me to climb the new dune the pangolin left bringing me home. There I drink tequila until the dunes are waves and I’m lost at sea.


(I think this short story conveys the meaning of Akayama DanJay in 2% as many words. If you liked it, why not follow me? I try to post something every week.)

Back

Homer VS the Elf

(This is part six of an ongoing series starting here. Last time, Homer the minotaur won a board-game against a lobster. Today he’ll have to beat an elf.)


Homer and Aria stood before Queen Anthrapas’ throne. The elderly queen was slumped casually with her head on one hand. “I congratulate you on your victory.”

“Thank you, your majesty.” Aria bowed. “It wasn’t easy.”

“I wasn’t talking to you.” Anthrapas pointed at Homer. “Even the best commanders have trouble with seafolk. Good work. Now, to business.” She gestured to Sir Jameson at the back of the room.

Jameson took Aria by the shoulder. “I’m sorry, Aria. You need to leave for a few minutes.”

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“What? No.” Aria shrugged him off, but Jameson took her wrists behind her back. Homer moved to protect her, but Quattuor stood between them. “Get off me! I’ll see myself out!” Jameson followed her and shut the door behind himself.

“I’m sorry about this,” whispered the queen. “Aria always wants her way, and she doesn’t mind causing international incidents to get it. I have to make sure she’s not using you for self-interested reasons.”

“Yuzing?” Homer shook his head.

“Your next match is against an elf,” said the queen. “An elf killed Aria’s game-piece. I’d hate for her to delegitimize your match for personal reasons by, say, overstepping her boundaries in anger. Therefore, I forbid you and Aria to meet again until after the match.” Homer furrowed his brow; his forehead wrinkled against his goggles. “You and I are not yet done. Enter, ambassadors.”

The doors opened. Royal guards escorted three figures into the throne room: a centaur (whom Homer recognized from the wild wastes’ border wall), a bent man with scrawny red wings whose clawed feet scratched the floor, and a big blue cat who seemed too squat for her length.

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“Centaur, harpy, sphinx.” The queen glared at each in turn. “If the creatures of the wild wastes want to participate in the tournament to prove their sovereignty as an independent nation, you’ll have to assuage my concerns.”

“Oh, come on! We’ve got a border wall and everything!” The centaur whinnied and rapped his hooves against the floor. “Why do other nations get to divvy up ours and play with the pieces?”

The harpy squawked. “Elves and seafolk already gave us tournament seats! Bukawk!”

The sphinx purred. “There are more animals in the wild wastes than there are humans, elves, and dwarfs combined. We deserve representation.”

Queen Anthrapas pointed to Homer. “We’ve already got an animal in the tournament. Would you want his seat, or would you make me give up another? The tournament would have two humans and four animals.” She pointed her thumb down. “Homer, choose one of these beasts to capture for humanity’s army. Only the other two will be seated in the tournament.”

“What!” The centaur stamped. “You can’t keep kidnapping us! That’s the whole point!”

Homer pointed to the sphinx. “Why?” asked the queen. “The centaur or harpy would be better in battle, surely? A centaur could carry two men on his back. A harpy could fly above the battle and return with intelligence.”

Homer tapped gnomish onto Quattuor’s shoulder. “But sphinxes are notoriously clever,” translated Quattuor. “Homer would rather take the sphinx to the stable than fight it at the table.”

The sphinx’s fur bristled along its spine. Anthrapas nodded. “Relax. I’m just testing the minotaur. He’s clearly allied with humanity. If the elves and seafolk have already agreed to do the same, I concur in relinquishing one of my tournament seats to the wild wastes. My lowest-performing commander will be booted; I think it’s Thaddeus.”

The centaur, harpy, and sphinx bowed to her in whatever way their shapes allowed.

“Homer, leave,” said the queen. “I must test Aria, too.”

As Homer left the throne room, Sir Jameson escorted Aria before the queen. Homer made himself turn away from her.

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“Take a good look.” Outside the throne room, Thaddeus leaned against a pillar. His smug smile and doofy hair made Homer’s blood boil. “You’re never seeing Aria again. Queen Anthrapas won’t let you two in the same country once I testify.”

“Saddeuss.”

“You and Aria shouldn’t’ve crossed me.” He turned up his collar to enter the throne room. “Thanks to you, Anthrapas is giving my tournament seat to a sphinx. How embarrassing! But you’re an animal, too, aren’t you? Aria’s far too compassionate toward creatures to be trusted in the tournament, with so many monsters involved. I’ll bet I can get her executed if I play my cards right.”


In the front carriage, Homer read wooden cards with his fingertips. “Can you really read those?” asked Sir Jameson. Homer nodded. “I can’t read gnomish to save my life. Who are those cards?”

“Llfs.” Homer sketched high elves and shorties with a piece of charcoal on a scroll.

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“I hate escorting elves around Queen Anthrapas’ castle. They’re always pulling tricks, like filling my boots with jam. Where are your brass cards, by the way? And don’t you have figurines to play with?” Homer pointed to the carriage behind them, where Aria and Quattuor had all the official metal material. “We’ll have to wait for your gnome to bring them to me for inspection. You know I can’t let you and Aria see each other, or pass notes.”

Homer nodded. His goggles reflected the passing trees. The elven capital was like a forest and a jungle combined. The hot humidity left dew on Homer’s horns. It smelled like dizzying elven pheromones.

“I bet I know why Aria’s double-checking your figurines,” said Jameson. “Ten years ago she lost her status as a royal commander when an elf killed her game-piece—I think the elf was named Stephanie. Before the game, Stephanie switched out all Aria’s brass cards. When Aria used those cards to declare her army, she immediately lost: her rank was infiltrated by elves who assassinated her own game-piece—it didn’t matter that Aria’s figurines showed which units she’d intended to play. So for your upcoming match, Aria’s stipulating that figurines physically match the descriptions on their cards. That’ll protect you from elvish tricks!”

The carriages wound around trees fifty feet thick and hundreds tall. Vines like boas snaked down the bark. Falling leaves drifted like hang gliders. Under the canopy, the sunlight was dim enough for Homer to remove his goggles. He put on his eye-patch.


Elven shorties led Homer to his private room carved into the side of a tree. The walls were lined with translucent pipes pumping sap and water. The shorties showed him how to drink right from the walls, but Homer was more interested in the shorties themselves. They hardly seemed the same species as high elves, and never wore lace wings.

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Someone knocked at Homer’s open door. “Permission to enter?”

“Guattuor.”

Quattuor entered and gave Homer a jug of cold water. Homer drank thirstily. “That’s from Ms. Twine, and Sir Jameson has already inspected it for national security purposes. Ms. Twine and I are still corroborating your brass cards and figurines. Ms. Twine demanded from the elven queen that your opponent follow the same stringent procedures. Your match will be scrutinized for authenticity.”

Homer nodded.

“The queen of the elves extends her invitation,” said Quattuor. “Please report to her crystal hall.”


The largest tree in the forest had massive doors guarded by two shorties. They apparently knew Homer had been invited, as they both started opening the door. It was a little big for them, so Homer helped.

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The crystal hall was so brightly lit, Homer searched his pockets for the goggles he’d removed. He could hardly see five feet in front of his face, but smelled pheromones thick like soup. From the back of the room called a voice: “Homer, isn’t it? So glad to see you.” The voice was motherly like a hearth. “Approach, please!”

Homer stumbled, almost blind in the light, until he bumped a wall. The wall was patterned with octagons and squares. Each shape capped an alcove filled with blue-green goop. In some, Homer saw dark elven eggs. In others, shorty larvae ate the goop they’d been born in. The comb covered the walls, floor, and ceiling of the crystal hall.

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“Don’t let my children distract you, Homer. Come here!” The elven queen was twenty feet tall but thin as an ordinary elf. She was noodly, spooled over her throne in immobile opulence. Uniquely among elves, she had real, luxurious wings which cushioned the throne under her. They were red with angry black eye-spots, offsetting the queen’s disarming smile.

Four high elves climbed their queen to massage her limbs, helping her overworked heart.

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“Sit, Homer, please. Would you like some sap?”

Homer sat on the floor. “Zab?”

“Oh dear.” An attending high elf covered her queen’s smile so she could chuckle politely. “You hardly know human customs, and here I am, expecting you to know your way around elven ritual. I should have warned you: it’s impolite to turn down offers of sap.”

Homer scratched his chest. “Zab.”

“Bring us some sap, please.” An attending high elf skipped out of the hall. The queen noticed Homer investigating the octagons and squares underneath him. “The octagonal chambers are for high elves,” she explained. “The squares are for shorties. The square chambers are smaller, so their larvae molt into smaller elves.”

Homer quizzaciously pointed at the elven queen.

The queen laughed. “My larval chamber was this whole crystal hall. Every brood mother has their own crystal hall, but mine’s biggest. That’s why I’m the tallest, and why my pheromones make me queen.”

Homer nodded.

“That’s the power of elven society: my subjects worship me on a cellular level. Your table-war opponent tonight is a high elf named Stephanie, but her patriotism means your opponent is, symbolically, me.”

“Zdefany?” Homer felt the scars crisscrossing his chest.


“Stephanie?”

“Oh! Aria Twine! Fancy meeting you here.” Stephanie had expertly zeroed in on Aria from across the elven arena built into an enormous tree-stump. “I thought you’d never want to visit ever again!”

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“Buzz off,” said Aria. “And remember! If any figurines on the board don’t properly represent their brass, we’ll start the game again! No tricks!”

“Gosh, Aria, you sure are strict.” Stephanie put a hand to her chest. “Don’t you know I never pull the same trick twice?”

“Good.” Aria surveyed the crowd. There were no dwarfs (thank goodness) but too many elves. A few seafolk observed from murky tanks. “Homer won five points in his first match. Beating you is just his next step to winning the whole tournament.”

“I won my first match with five points, too, Aria.” Stephanie giggled. “Poor Harvey.”

“Harvey didn’t have a silver dragon. Let’s see how elves handle a blizzard. And Harvey’s a geek anyway, Homer whupped him easy.”

A voice made Aria jump: “Thanks, Twine.” Harvey slumped on a wooden seat. His glasses were fogged with humidity, and his shirt was dripping with sweat from pit to pit. “Stephanie killed my birds with imps. I don’t suppose you know how she got those?”

Aria puffed. “If there are no tricks tonight, Homer has this in the bag.”

“Speaking of ‘in the bag,’” said Stephanie, “are you sure Homer has all his supplies?”

“Of course. I personally checked every brass and every figurine. My gnome is sending them right now.”

“But your gnome gives them to an impartial human representative for inspection, right?”

“Um… Yes.” Aria blinked. “Sir Jameson.”

“Oh, if only some human were eager to stab you in the back…” Stephanie skipped toward the center of the arena. “I’m setting up my side of the table. I’ll say hi to Homer for you!”

Aria gripped her seat.

“Who’s she talking about?” asked Harvey. “What human would betray Humanity’s Path to Victory?”

Aria shoved elves as she fled the arena.


“…So, you see, shorties are the only males. All high elves are female, but only brood mothers are fertile…”

Homer nodded, pretending he understood. He couldn’t have responded if he wanted to; his teeth were glued together after two servings of sap. It was painfully sweet.

“Homer, dear, are you feeling alright?” The queen sent high elves to fetch more sap.

Homer wavered and looked at his hands. “Aight,” he managed.

“Can I show you something, Homer?” The queen pointed out the crystal hall’s doors. “You can’t see it from here, but imagine a demon’s great black trident stabbed in the forest.” Homer had already seen a great black ax and a great black sword, so he could imagine the trident. He sipped more sap as it was offered to him. “And far past that, in the swamps near the elven-dwarven border, there’s another weapon. A flail with two spiked heads.”

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“If you double-count the two-headed demon with its two-headed flail, three of the seven great demons attacked elven lands. I’m physically unable to leave my throne, but I know my land, Homer. Humans don’t even share a border with dwarfs. Only elves have the right to vengeance against the Mountain Swallower. You can understand why I had to drug you.”

It took five seconds for Homer to catch on and turn to the queen.

“A spoonful of sap will knock out a human in minutes. For you, we quadrupled the dosage.” When the queen smiled, her teeth were needle sharp. “Isn’t it almost time for your match?” On jellied limbs, Homer loped for the door. He tripped down the steps. “Best of luck!” said the queen.


Aria sprinted up four steps at a time around a tree. She panted and pounded against Homer’s door. “Homer! Quattuor! Are you in there?”

Silence. She put her ear to the floor to peek under the door.

Thaddeus had started a fire and was melting Homer’s figurines.

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Aria bashed the door with her shoulder. WHAM. “You little brat!”

“Go away!” Thaddeus threw kindling and figurines into the fire. “You had this coming!”

Aria threw herself against the door again. WHAM.

“You think you’re special, Twine?” Thaddeus prodded the kindling with a fire-iron. “You almost stole my tournament seat for your minotaur. Now I’ve lost my seat to a sphinx. It’s obvious why Anthrapas would boot me instead of your minotaur—he’s not playing at all, he’s just your pawn! You’re cheating my nobility its due glory!”

WHAM.

“You even gave him humanity’s silver dragon.” Thaddeus held the figurine in his trembling hands. “It could be mine. It should be mine! But you let that bull carry it for you.” He dropped the dragon in the fire.

WHAM. The door popped off its hinges and Aria’s left shoulder dislocated.

Thaddeus stood between her and the fire. “Go away!” She shoved him with her right arm. He pushed her back. She punched him in the jaw so hard she broke two fingers on her right hand. Thaddeus fell and didn’t get up.

Aria knelt by the fire, held her breath, and grabbed the half-melted dragon. “Aaaugh!” She threw the dragon from the fire. Molten metal scalded her right palm. “Nnng—” She pressed her palm on the cool, mossy wall and shuddered.

“You’re crazy!” Thaddeus squirmed toward the dragon figurine.

Aria stomped her boot on his back and pinned him to the floor. “Anthrapas is gonna hang you for treason!”

“Who will she believe,” asked Thaddeus, “you or me?”

“Quattuor!” Aria yelled loud as necessary to call the gnome from the next room. “Did you really give our figurines to this brat?”

Quattuor collected the remaining figurines from the floor. “He intercepted me on my way to Sir Jameson’s room, and he was qualified, so technically—”

“Cancel the match,” said Aria. “This is blatant espionage.”

“I cannot. No gnomish laws have been broken.” Quattuor put the figurines in a bag. “Destroying or doctoring brass cards is illegal; only gnomes may officially alter them. But figurines are outside our adjudication. For example, I have seen you represent a dragon on the table with a roll of tape. Of course, for this match, you demanded only accurate figurines be used, so most of Homer’s game-pieces are ineligible.”

Aria cried into her burning hand. “I’ll contact Anthrapas before I come to the match,” she said. “Just get Homer his gear.”

“I cannot,” said Quattuor. “You know Queen Anthrapas has banned you from sending messages to Homer before the match. Technically, this bag still hasn’t been approved by a qualified human representative yet.”

“Take it,” said Thaddeus. “I approve.” He stood and wiped dust from his red jacket. “I melted all the good stuff anyway.”


Homer burst through the doors of the arena. In his haze he couldn’t remember why he’d come, but he was determined to find the table in the center. The humans in the crowd clapped respectfully. The elves howled sarcastic cheers as Homer missed his chair and splayed on the ground.

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Quattuor offered him his bag of brasses and figurines. “Just in time. Any longer and your absence would officially count as surrender.”

“Zab.” Homer struggled to his knees. “Gween.”

“I’m sorry?”

Homer managed to sit in the chair. He tapped a message in gnomish on Quattuor’s shoulder, but didn’t know the pattern for elvish sap, or the name of the queen, or how to say he was drugged.

“I’m sure he’s fine.” Stephanie giggled behind a hand. “Let’s start the match!”

When Homer saw Stephanie he made fists and took off his goggles. The audience gasped at his pink eye-socket. “If you’re ill,” said Quattuor, “you could surrender.”

“No,” said Homer. More gnomes scrambled over the table, building the map. They wore pink elven dresses.

“I was right to let Aria take you,” said Stephanie. “You’re more useful losing to me than you could ever be as one of my game-pieces.”

Homer ignored her and poured his bag of brasses and figurines onto the table. He deflated, seeing most figurines mostly melted. His dragon was defunct.

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Even Stephanie jumped when Homer swept brass cards and figurines off the table. His fur rose and anxious steam puffed from his nostrils. “Oh, no,” said Stephanie. “Did something happen to your big, bad dragon?”

Homer bit his hand between his thumb and forefinger just to stay awake and focus on his few remaining figurines. His rising fur revealed a maze of old scars. He gave Quattuor one brass card, tapped a message to him in gnomish, and collapsed. He lay motionless on the floor.

“Homer says he does not surrender.” Quattuor put Homer’s brass card onto the table and found its figurine. “Let the game begin.” The chattering audience of elves watched gnomes finish the map. Seafolk bubbled in their tanks.

Soon Aria arrived with her right hand bandaged by helpful gnomes. Sir Jameson meant to ask her what was wrong, and why Quattuor hadn’t given him Homer’s figurines to inspect, but her sour expression shut him up. She didn’t recognize the figurine on Homer’s side of the table; she’d packed a huge variety of game-pieces, and his was too small to see.

“My opponent can move first.” Stephanie giggled.

Gnomes prodded Homer’s body. “The first turn is yours, ma’am.”

“My fifty elvish archers take aim from afar.” Gnomes marked the trajectory of arrows from the model forest to Homer’s only figurine. “These shorties are trained just to shoot. They could hit an insect a mile away!”

“They have,” said Quattuor. “Homer brought this beetle to battle and you blasted it.”

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“I win, then?” Stephanie beamed.

“You could choose to end the game here,” said Quattuor, “but your final score would be tarnished. Homer’s beetle was brimming with eggs, and its offspring will infest the area. Of course, only the table would be infested, not the actual physical region it represents, but it would impact your score.” He corroborated with other gnomes. “You would win three points, the minotaur, zero.”

“Ew.” Stephanie watched the gnomes replace the beetle’s figurine with a thousand scattered eggs eager to hatch. “Well, for a perfect five points, my shorties stomp on the eggs.”

The gnomes bunched into groups to debate with tapping fingertips. “Unfortunately, your units aren’t quite quick or thorough enough: some eggs hatch before they can be smashed. The larvae are poisonous; twenty of your units develop a fever. The rest of your units consider abandoning the scenario.”

Stephanie glanced at Aria. “I suppose you had a hand in this, Twine?”

Aria jumped from her fixation on the table. She held her bandaged hand. “You’re a riot, short-stuff.”

“I gotta hand it to you, the eggs are a tricky gimmick,” said Stephanie. “Gnomes! One of my archers has a vial of pheromones which he now uncorks. I got this from my lovely queen!” The gnomes showed how every elf on the table perked up immediately when they smelled the vial. “Now my shorties obey my order, fevers or no fevers. Speed up the table. They’ll comb the area for as long as it takes, just to be safe.”

Three gnomes joined hands in a triangle. The rest set upon the table. Whenever one tired, they hopped off the table to replace one of the three in the triangle. The gnomes worked so quickly it seemed the figurines marched across the board under their own power. Stephanie’s troops cut and burned tall grass to destroy eggs and larvae. They beat branches from trees and bashed every leaf. They turned every stone and found larvae already becoming pupae.

“Pause!” shouted Stephanie. “That’s enough. How long was that?”

“Two months,” said a gnome, “and not long enough. You missed some larvae who dug deep underground. Black beetles crawl up from the dirt. If you end the battle now, the infestation will still cost you points, and your units are diseased. Your final score would be one.”

Stephanie blushed. “My archers shoot down beetles as they emerge. How long would it take to dig deep enough to kill the last of those pupae?”

“There is no way to know, ma’am.”

She rapped her fingers on the table. “We’ll flood the area. Are there any bodies of water near this map?”

“In fact, there is a river.” Gnomes carried a second table into the arena and set it beside the first. They extended the map to show a powerful river rolling mere miles away.

“We’ll start irrigating immediately,” said Stephanie. “It shouldn’t take more than a few weeks if we open another vial of pheromones.”

All the gnomes joined hands; water-dynamics seemed to require their full combined attention. Finally they returned to the table and showed how trenches diverted the river. Stephanie pointed exactly where she wanted to flood the map to drown any underground pupae.

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“All done.” Stephanie saw nowhere a beetle could be. “What’s the verdict now? The minotaur’s got no game-pieces, and I’ve got all of mine!”

“Actually,” said a gnome, “most of the elves on the table are dead.” Gnomes collected figurines and marked their brass cards as deceased. “The match began on today’s date in September. Three months have passed on the table, making it December. Some of your units have died in the snow; some have died of their diseases. Even your survivors will collapse unconscious when you run out of pheromones. We can award you no points. Having demolished your army, Homer lost only a beetle and its offspring. Five points to the minotaur.”

Homer snored on the floor.

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