“Flapman, tell me the story.”

Super Patriot Boy, he who sought the story, lay still in the narrow cavity of his BrixDyne Corp. FrostiSnooz Model 6 sleep/storage crèche. The crèche was a gleaming white cylinder, and in the dark room, its industrial precision jarred against the organic crags and ridges of the stone walls. His request was spoken to the cool, still air, and he had no way of knowing if it had been heard. A few green and yellow status lights along one side of the interior of the capsule, indicating that the occupant was technically alive, cast a warm glow on Super’s head, pale face, and bare chest.It was at this point every evening that he looked least corpse-like, his face molded in a nearly natural expression of excitement and anticipation, and his hawk-beak nose cast softer shadows over his thin lips and angular cheekbones. The thick restraining strap that crossed beneath his sunken sternum and over both of his spindly arms seemed less restrictive at this time of night, and Super enjoyed pretty decent circulation. The flag he always wore wrapped around his waist lay slack, but its 238 stars and its red and white stripes clasped his thighs like a memory of a more civilized age. It was a vivid simile, Super thought with satisfaction, even if it was uncomfortably intimate and even if he wasn’t entirely sure what “civilized” meant.

Of course, the serene pose was not entirely voluntary. Super’s bald skull was immobilized by the crèche’s locking arms: four extensible, hardened-alloy rods, the ends of which fit precisely into the two shallow receptacles embedded in each side of his head. Every night, Super felt the arms make contact with the sockets and extend their notched connecting pins with a solid click, and every morning, he was awakened by the familiar sensation of his skull being pulled in different directions as the pins withdrew, freeing him to face the horrors of the day. Around his ankles were cuffs made of the same unyielding alloy. And every night, once he was cozily clamped in and ready for the gas, his eyes darted left and right, searching for signs of Flapman.

Other than the crèche’s telltales, the chamber was unlit, and Super could only barely make out the textures of the ceiling’s rough-hewn stone meters above him. From time to time, dark shapes scuttled silently across his field of vision. Mostly, these didn’t worry him, as long as he didn’t detect the jerky wriggle of a crickjaw or hear the lilting call of a murderbat that had somehow evaded the traps that surrounded their home.

Super didn’t like crickjaws or murderbats or really about anything that tried to get into the Grotto, which was where Super hid from the outside world. Everything in the world wanted to turn you into a blood meal or live inside you or reanimate you or something, and it was a little exhausting and scary in Super’s experienced view. Flapman always said, “Eh, don’t worry about it. If that thing gets inside you, we’ll just torch you and start over tomorrow.” They’d had to start over many times, so Super knew that Flappy had a point, even though Super was pretty sure that he hadn’t enjoyed the torchings or other ways of starting over. That’s what Flappy had said, anyway.

He could hear the deep hum of the ventilation system as it took the air from the outside world above and forced it through a gamut of filters, photo-plasma surfaces, graphene laminates, and exotic matter detectors. Super liked air a lot more than he liked murderbats, but he was still glad that it had to go through all those things before it got to him lying here in the Grotto. Around here, even the air tried to kill you pretty frequently. The outside world was a terrible place—Super knew that the universes were determined to kill him for good. But the Grotto was deep under the scorched, godsforsaken earth, and Flappy had told him that no one but the Overloards knew they were there. Which made sense since the Overloards knew everything.

Super heard scraping footsteps to his left and strained futilely against the locking arms to turn his head, his eyes bulging a little as they tried to find the source of the noise. A faint chiming commenced from the crèche’s monitors as one of things that was currently in Super’s chest began pulsating faster. It was probably his heart, he thought, since he wasn’t being torched. The scraping stopped and a huge, hulking shape loomed over him. Super saw the outlines of broad shoulders and a long, rectangular shadow rising out from between them where the head should be.

Super let out a mixed breath of relief and anxiety. It was Flapman. Super liked Flapman more than air and was more afraid of him than he was of murderbats. The chiming slowed but did not stop.

“Hi, Flappy! Are you going to tell me the story?” said Super to the dreadful shadow.

The rectangle leaned in toward Super’s fixed cranium until he could finally see Flapman’s terrible features in the glow of the status lights. The face stared, unmoving, into Super’s eyes—the fixed expression didn’t surprise Super, of course, because the face was drawn in black ink on a large paper grocery sack. It was crude and horrible: a wide, grinning mouth, barren but for two, peg-like buck teeth. The nose was a fat U with no nostrils, and the big, oval eyes were roughly cut out and topped by grim, scribbled blocks of simulated eyebrows. The face leered eternally, staring into the depths of Super’s soul with the frozen look of one who has not merely known but also embraced and likely groped madness. It radiated a sense of hidden menace, and Super knew that another, more terrible face lay beneath the false one.

A low voice came from the bag. The voice was rough and ragged, like that of someone after a long night of cheering at a sporting event or a long weekend of screaming in a darkened basement room with tile floors and a drain. Super wondered what a “sporting event” was.

The voice said, “The fuck you mean, ‘a story’? What am I, your fucking mother?”

Super grinned and giggled. Flappy was always so funny and nice to him, except when he was being scary. Which, Super admitted to himself, was most of the time. At any rate, he knew Flappy was joking now because Super had told him many times that his mother was Tau Black clone-stock from the Slow Nest Project and his father was a glass pipette with an internal diameter of 1.5 mm. So obviously, Flappy wasn’t his fucking mother. Even so, Super liked Flappy better than their Grotto-mate, Gibson, who made Super feel dumb and made him do things that he didn’t want to, like organize the beans or bait the CHUD traps (or worse, empty them) or go outside to see if it was a conventional or a nuclear debris cloud today. Super often considered doing bad things to Gibby, and he had named Gibby’s kidneys Lefty and Merle. Merle was gonna get it first.

“Please, Flappy. Before the gas,” pleaded Super.

The face on the bag glared mockingly at Super for a moment and then retreated into the shadows. Super heard a rustling of fabric, followed shortly by a slow, faint series of metallic rasps and clicks. Had Super’s arms not been securely restrained, he would have clapped his hands with joy—as it was, he could only let out a blood-curdling, nearly-animal-yet-unnervingly-human shriek of joy, to the echoes of which he patted his hands feverishly on his be-flagged thighs like flippers made of baloney.

Super knew that the sounds coming from Flappy’s direction meant he was loading up his vape, and if Flappy was loading up his vape, Super was going to get a story and not a slap on the groin—or at least not just a slap on the groin!

The bagged horror reappeared in Super’s field of vision, grotesque and inscrutable. Super watched as Flappy raised his large and elaborately crafted vape to the mouth-hole of the bag and inserted it deep into the grinning chasm and the abomination that resided beneath. The vape was a heavy, carved pewter, and the end facing Super was fashioned into a gaping skull with a single, central eye. In the eye socket was a small, red light, whose glow flared as Super heard a long draw of breath and vapor. The pipe stayed unmoving in that dreadful hole, until at last, the eye dimmed and Flapman withdrew the vape, followed briefly by a billowing, fragrant cloud pouring equally through mouth and eye-holes.

“Flappy, please! Story! Story! Stor—”

“Shut it,” Flapman snapped. Super shut it, but only for the moment their routine required. Flapman tapped the vape on his knee, pretending to consider a story, though both of them knew exactly which story it would be—there really was only one story, after all. But that was all part of the game. Super strained forward in anticipation, his wiry arms pulling against the restraining strap as he grunted and wheezed once more between gritted teeth, “SSS-T-T-T-T—-ORYHEEEeeee….”

Flapman indulged this last bit of enthusiasm, letting Super enjoy the moment. He stretched it out as long as he could, ostentatiously adjusting a dial on his vape. He raised it again, thought the better of it, and set it on the instrument tray next to Super’s bed, rattling a number malevolent-looking tools. As he leaned forward toward Super, the light of the telltales deepened the worn and ancient-seeming creases of his bag. And then, suddenly, Super was not looking at the dark eyeholes but at what lay beneath.

For one terrifying moment, Super could see Flapman’s true eyes. He felt it then—the pressure building quickly behind his cheekbones and at the base of his naked skull, as if his head had been flooded with molten metal that was intent on explosively burning its way out. Super tried to scream, but his brain was on the verge of total combustion, and no sound emerged from his gaping mouth. A number of sphincters threatened failure and his eyes bugged horribly as the pressure swelled. His back tried to arch in agony, but he was held down by the restraining strap.

Flapman leaned back to resume his seat, and his eyeholes mercifully returned to darkness. The burning pressure in Super’s skull abated instantly. It had lasted only a few seconds, but what is time to one with a skull full of molten metal? Super exhaled sharply and his hands slowly unclenched—all sphincters had maintained integrity, though some low-level seepage was probably to be expected. Super’s muscles visibly relaxed, and he sunk back into the thin cushion at the bottom of the crèche.

“Eh, sorry about that,” said Flapman unsorrily. This wasn’t the first time this had happened, and at least this time, Super’s head hadn’t detonated. Flapman wasn’t in the mood to mop tonight.

“Bbglbbshhshhgggggggahhhhhh,” Super blubbered as his neurons rebooted. His bloodshot eyes still vibrated rapidly in their sockets as tears streamed down his cheeks. After a few moments, consciousness returned, and Super blew a last, impressive snot-bubble. Flapman took that as a cue that Super was ready for the story.

He began as usual. “It was the fucking time machines.”

Super’s motor control was slowly returning, and he knew his line: “They-buh buh-fucked it all-buh up-buh?”

Flapman responded as he always did. “They totally fucked it up.”

Super sighed with contentment, and even as his brain recovered from near-explosive-disintegration, he whispered, “I love that story.” He closed his eyes as Flapman reached out to touch the side of the crèche. A curved, transparent canopy extruded itself from the body of the capsule and quickly sealed Super in for the night. Flapman could just make out a muted hiss from within as the small space filled with gas. He continued to watch silently for a moment, until the telltales next to Super’s peaceful, ugly face turned, one by one, to red.

As he turned toward the chamber’s exit, he murmured, “They fucked it all up.”

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