Magnificent Bastards of the Apocalypse: Chapter 1

IMG_2183Please enjoy this fully fumigated and strained presentation of the complete Chapter 1 of Magnificent Bastards of the Apocalypse. And don’t forget to read the Prologue, which provides essential indoctrination and induces the requisite state of wretchedness.

Chapter 1

It was Scavengeday, second day of the week, so Super, Flapman, and Gibson emerged from the Grotto to see what goodies they could find or haggle for or steal out in the ruined world. The entrance to the Grotto was hidden under a collapsed parking garage near the city’s waterfront. Or at least what used to be the waterfront of what used to be the city. There really was no city, per se, anymore. Nor was there an ocean now. Instead, there was the Cromulent Zone—stretching from the entire eastern third of the hemisphere and continuing across the dry ocean basin, until it reached its limits against the Atlantic Mountains—the only portion of the Earth that was not utterly uninhabitable. They were in the northern part of the ravaged planet, and though they had heard rumors that some life continued its miserable existence south of the wobbly equator, they thought it was probably nonsense.Outside of the CZ was something that was no longer Earth—it was other, which was a term that really told one nothing about the characteristics of the broad swath of planet beyond the Great Barrier Fence, which on the other hand, was a term that was self-explanatory. Some said that the world beyond was a massive and unbroken sea of lava, which was totally plausible—even likely—but didn’t differentiate the unknown portion of the planet from such prominent features of the CZ as the Infernal Rift, or the Western Lava Lakes, the Central Magma Desert, or the Southern Slag Cataracts. And that was boring.

So most accepted that the world outside of the CZ was composed entirely of poisonous skeletons and acid, which was cool. The known world that harbored the existence of all creatures, on the other hand, was merely an arid waste, a jumble of ruins, a scorched and smoking landscape, a hostile territory populated by even hostiler beings, a hellish region where death openly strutted and evil plotted its inevitable victory. Gibson had once called it, “Canada as the gods intended.” Super didn’t know from Canada, but the Cromulent Zone was home, and that was terrible enough for him.

Today was unusually pleasant, though, and the pale disc of the sun could just be discerned through the swirling masses of volatile, caustic atmosphere, and breathing caused only a little bronchial inflammation (and no bleeding at all!). Gibson had said that the Kaiju counts were reasonably low today, which was nice because none of them had a desire to die in a flash of radioactive breath or to be annihilated under a massive foot or to become a protein source for some unspeakable embryo today. The plague beacons were currently dark, and even the batons of the Securitoria, the robotic flatfoots that kept the rabble in line, seemed a little softer. In other words, a perfect day for shopping.

The surface was bustling with activity on this lovely, low ambient-toxicity day, and though they saw a number of organisms that they would normally murder, they respected the Scavengeday universal truce as they traversed the crumbling asphalt of the shattered city center. Baseline humans, Wizard Army reconnaissance units, bloboplasms, unidentifiable monstrosities, and even the odd Reptiloid likewise upheld the temporary peace. Nothing was eating anybody else, and even the Craxk-head sitting on the pavement, staring deeply into his own mind under the influence of that powerful drug, was safe today. Of course, Super knew that once the klaxons signaled the end of Scavengeday, he and everyone else would be fair game. This was about as close to harmony as the Cromulent Zone ever got, and everyone seemed to enjoy not being slaughtered. There would be time enough to kill or be killed on Carnageday or Shunday or Ambushday or Tacoday or Half-taco-half-ambushday—really, any of the eleven days between now and next Scavengeday.

The trio walked together easily, but despite the brief moratorium on lethal violence, each remained vigilant—there were plenty of things out here that thought the rules just didn’t apply to them. Only a year ago, they had run into the Nine Mothers on a Scavengeday. She was a quasi-individual, coadunate monstrosity that prowled the Fens and whose disapproving gaze sucked the life-force of any organisms unlucky enough to encounter her trans-dimensional passive-aggression. They’d managed to escape, but Super had had to sacrifice his pet monkey, Archduke Chuckles, in order to facilitate their getaway. Fortunately, the Mothers had fallen for the oldest trick in the book: screeching decoy primate. There had been a terrible trade-off, though. Now the Archduke worked for the Mothers, and Super had heard that he had become a real bastard. Really, he’d never been that nice anyway, despite the name, which Super supposed had been a bit of wishful thinking on his part. Monkeys were natural bastards. The difference was that His Grace now had some formal training and some motivating guilt. So they stayed out of the Fens these days.

As they crossed a wide, relatively rubble-free intersection, they passed a group of feral Baseline humans, who as always, looked ragged and afraid. They glanced up from rummaging (in garbage cans! Super rolled his eyes—those had been exhausted for ages) and stared warily in their direction. One of them must have lost either her glasses or her completely rational fear of everything because she raised a hand at them and stood up. She was wearing an outfit of layered dry-cleaning bags, belted at the waist with a daring braid of multicolored twist ties, and she wore calf-high boots of pink, fiberglass insulation. It was a sweaty, itchy, and completely stunning ensemble, and Super felt a pang of pity-lust, which was the most beautiful kind of lust. She opened her mouth, which had only a few scabs and many of its original teeth, and got out, “Hell—” before her eyes were drawn to Flapman’s own drawn eyes and terrible, nearly-toothless mouth. She emitted a frightened yelp and scurried toward the shelter of a dilapidated gelato cart. This precipitated a brief but furious escape by the rest of the troop, who whooped and screeched as they scattered. Super shrugged, and turned to follow Flappy and Gibby, who had already lost interest. Feral Baselines offered little else but weapons-grade BO and double rabies, so they didn’t bother even trying to rob them.

Super Patriot Boy, as always, wore only his starred and striped flag wrapped around his narrow waist, some jaunty sport sandals obtained during a recent Scavengeday foray, and a frayed and fading tricorn hat. His devotion to whatever dead and nearly forgotten nation the flag represented was as quaint as it was puzzling, but neither Gibson nor Flapman questioned Super’s sincerity, even though they could barely remember what the nation had even been called. Chimerica or Ameridocious or Second Amendment or something. Whatever. It had been just as destroyed as everything else had.

Super walked with a loopy, disarticulated gait over the chunks of concrete, assorted rubble, and the corroding hulks of hunter-killer gunships that littered the landscape of that primeval pedestrian mall. He was careful not to step on any broken glass or corpses, and he moved in random patterns that were half the result of intercortical delamination and half an effort to avoid Morlock burrows. Beside him, the monster Flapman drove his enormous feet in strides so ardently malevolent that other scavengers steered wide arcs around him. He wore a flannel robe in red plaid, which was open and swung loosely with each step and beneath which he wore a dingy t-shirt. His pants, what might have once been the loose cotton pants of an institutional inmate, were stained and worn thin. His bag wobbled on his shoulders and seemed in constant danger (to every other living thing) of falling off. But the leering face stayed put, seemingly by magic, no matter how angrily Flapman moved.

Gibson walked ahead, scouring the landscape for useful items. He was easy enough to pick out against the backdrop of small fires, abandoned ruins, slagged girders, and overturned food trucks. His thin frame was clad in a skintight bodysuit of wince-inducing yellow that, when it crossed into one’s view, overwhelmed all other visual stimuli. Super had long thought that Gibson must be like a beacon to predators, but the searing hue seemed to function like the warning colors of a noxious insect or a young venture capitalist, broadcasting its terrible taste to the world. His insectoid appearance was intensified by a dramatic set of bulging ocular implants whose lenses appeared to shimmy and swirl in the sickly light. Not only did these enhance his vision by extending its sensory range to both extremes of the electromagnetic spectrum, but it also gave him neurological access to the AI Transglomeration’s Bonanzasphere—a separate universe of data generated entirely by that breakaway computer civilization—though his puny human brain could endure only the barest glimpse of its quantum labyrinth.

But out here in the real, horrible world, his ocs were most useful in detecting threats and determining responses: he had access to incredibly accurate CHUD migration models and Kaiju distribution maps, and he could spot a plague-shambler at four klicks. Obviously, they gave him an absurd advantage in scavenging, and he constantly pointed and directed the other two to objects in the ruins. Occasionally, he spotted something of interest—a rusty nail, an ancient gummi animal, or a brittle and faded issue of Cranny Fancy—though just as often as not, he left his discoveries where they were after inspection. Gibson had a virtually complete set of Cranny Fancy as it was, though he held out hope that he would someday come into possession of the elusive special edition from volume eight, Clefts, Cracks, and Crevices: Theory and Practice. He longed to see what mysteries were revealed in its rumored 172 pages, but he acknowledged that its existence might only be legend.

Flappy and Gibby trudged ahead a bit, so Super paused for a moment to rest. As he scanned the area, he saw a pack of bird-like Kobalga emerge warily from the crumbled brick entrance of a sagging Banana Republic, dragging as many pairs of chinos as they could with their tiny, prehensile winglets. Super knew that “chinos” were something that primitives of bygone eras once used to cover their lower bits before the adoption of more practical and stylish alternatives like flag-kilts and banner-thongs. Now, such things were merely fodder for the Kobalga, the bite-sized scavengers of the timeworn and passé wardrobes of the demolished past.

Super wasn’t sure how the Kobies survived almost exclusively on a diet of Supima® cotton, but it sure made them delicious. It was forbidden to eat one another today, this most sanctified day of the week, so Super resisted the urge to grab as many as he could and stuff their sweet, crunchy bodies into his mouth hole. He was tempted, though—Kobies were becoming increasingly scarce as the supply of quality textiles dwindled in the wild. He’d recently seen a few sad specimens gnawing disconsolately on an acrylic cardigan, which while soft and insulating, pilled terribly and imparted to their delicate flesh unpleasant notes of discount apparel.

He watched them go, barking and chattering on about garment-dyed foodstuffs as they went. But the sight of those tasty, sartorially-sensitive morsels had piqued Super’s appetite, so he reached down into a recess of his flag-kilt and discretely produced a plump pinecone. Hanging back for a moment, Super felt it was safe to take a covert bite. He had pilfered the snack from the Grotto’s secure storage, and if Flappy spotted his noshing, Super would get the hose tonight. Super shivered. He had yet to prepare a new Hosing Song, so if he was caught with his prize, he could expect an especially bracing PSI.

With a furtive glance, Super crunched through the arid, sapless scales of his delicious tidbit and vigorously worked his jaws to process the dusty and scrumptious cellulose. His powerful esophagus forced the lump of fibrous matter down into his stomach, where his gastric juices would toil for days to render the non-nutritive particulates into something of an excretable texture. Super’s eyes closed with pleasure as he savored the forbidden conifer-fruit, and he stashed the remainder back into his flag, where it would serve as an abrasive reminder of bodily gratification.

As Super’s GI tract began its labor, Super’s brain reflected upon its world, and Super’s legs carried all of him toward where Flappy and Gibby rummaged through the detritus of innumerable apocalypses. Flappy’s bedtime story had it right: the time machines had fucked up everything. Gibby had told Super how it had happened and happened and happened, but Super didn’t really understand it. Time travel was very confusing, and whenever Gibby tried to explain it to him, it made him feel dumb and then he wanted to murder something, and by something, he meant Gibby. Gibby was smart, though, and knew how stuff worked. And Flappy had said not to snuff him yet, so Super hadn’t. But, oh, he wanted to! Yes, Super did!

So whenever Gibby tried to teach him stuff, Super thought about how much he liked round. There was an elegant simplicity to round. It could cover anything from corpulent to cylindrical to plump to voluminous—even to fleshy or bulbous. So versatile! Not like succinct (Super hated succinct). He liked both to feel and to see round, and he wished that there was some way to smell it. Round would probably smell comforting and motherly, like a warm and cocooning Petri dish or the subtle domesticity of a dry-bath incubator in the clone hives of his infancy. It wouldn’t smell at all like this world, though, which was how Super knew that the world wasn’t round. Maybe it had been once, but not now. Gibby had said it was different long ago (or at least there had been a reality, once, that was different), but the time machines had changed it. Changed it and changed it and changed it and changed the changes into other changes. Super did not like change, either—not as bad as succinct, but almost. He was willing to judge adjectives on a case-by-case basis, but in general, Super didn’t trust nouns.

In the back of his mind, though, a few shriveled neurons always paid attention to what Gibson said despite the best efforts of the rest of Super’s brain. Super had been trying unsuccessfully for years to kill those neurons, but they were tough mothers. So despite his efforts, he knew that once there had been millions of time machines, and that these had been the recreational vehicles of the lost past. And these millions of time machines made millions upon millions of time-jumps. Every one of the countless time-jumps wrought new changes with the careless and thoughtless acts of the jumpers: a changed algebra grade, a casually discarded banana peel, the assassination of a historical figure, the negligent murder of a butterfly, the malicious mass-slaughter of weasels. Each jump changing the timeline over and over and over again. And Gibby had said that many of those time-jumps by the old machines had punched holes in the dimensional barrier between their own universe and other, more terrible realms. The casual violations of the Arrow of Time’s progress had wrenched open doors that should have remained closed, had torn rents in the fabric of space-time. As the time ships had bludgeoned cracks in supra-dimensional space, not only had infinite alternative timelines been squeezed out of reality’s womb, but sometimes abominations from other worlds had also come through the universe’s birth canal. At least, that’s how Gibby had put it.

Super had noticed that Gibby liked to use metaphors based on the violent creation of openings and orifices, which Super supposed had something to do with that stack of magazines Gibby kept hidden under the plasma cutter. Gibby had said that the time travelers had ruined the world (or at least this one). But now, there were no more time machines, except the one Gibby had arrived in all those years ago, the Chronoballer. They had all suddenly stopped working—stranding millions at whatever moment in the timeline they had jumped to. Maybe some of those people had wound up in timelines where everything was great, but that wasn’t this world. No, Super and Flapman and Gibson all lived in a Hell-on-Earth that they mostly just called “Earth” for short. But Gibby wanted to fix things, and he said that after the world was fixed, they could call it whatever they wanted. Super thought that “Meaghan” was a pretty name.

Super finally caught up to Flappy and Gibby, who were both rifling through a kitchen drawer, tossing aside useless items and occasionally pocketing something. Super wasn’t sure where the kitchen had gone or why the drawer was in a collapsing bus shelter. Things were pretty mixed up these days, and bus shelters were just the tip of the iceberg, which was something that didn’t exist anymore. He had never really known if they were shelters for buses or from buses or what a bus was, but he knew he should stay away from them at night because Flappy said that’s where the omni-species sex festivals happened. This intrigued Super, but as he approached, he had to avoid a number of surprisingly large pools of bodily and unholy fluids around the shelter.

He hoped all the participants had been following the appropriate biosafety protocols laid out by the Overloards’ Department of Virulence and Workplace Surveillance, especially the recommendation to employ a level-3 biocidal mister (even if many complained that they couldn’t feel anything if they used one). Super wondered if there was a biocidal missus, and he was a little uncomfortable with the binary assumptions of that patriarchal terminology; a more inclusive biocidal seemed warranted given the diversity of sex-organ morphology represented at these parties.

Super approached the shelter, lazily kicking an ancient skull out of the way, which landed with a nauseating splash in one of the pools of fluid. Flappy looked over, the face that was frozen on his bag somehow communicating contempt.

“The fuck you been?” Flappy growled. Touched at Flappy’s concern for his well-being, Super felt a warm glow spread through his chest, and he looked around to see if anyone was targeting him with a cheap energy weapon. That off-brand stuff they peddled at some of the less reputable Retail City-States had a tendency to defocus and just slowly roast you. If you wanted to punch a neat hole through something, best to go with a specialty label, like Allied Laser Systems or Exploderator.

Super shrugged and wiped his huge nose with the back of his hand. “I saw some Kobies, but I didn’t eat them because it would be bad. And then I thought about my monkey, and now I’m here,” he answered the bagged horror.

Flappy turned away, shaking his bag. Gibson said, “Well, try to keep up. I don’t want to have to pry your corpse out of an egg sac or de-recruit you from the Burgher Boys or anything like that. Try to stay focused.”

“OK, Gibby,” said Super as he imagined jabbing the business end of a sharpened toothbrush into Gibby’s brainstem. He wished Gibby would give him a bit of credit. Nobody had had to pry him out of an egg sac for months, and Super would never think of joining the Burgher Boys. They were just one of a hundred paleo-Libertarian gangs roaming the wastes, and he had significant reservations about their particular liberal-individualist conception of the social contract. They also wore flag-based tunics, which clashed irreconcilably with Super’s assumptions about what the flag should be covering.

“And be careful,” Gibby added. “There’s all sorts of nasty stuff in here. I just about picked up a demonic vegetable peeler, and last thing I need is for you to provide a new corporeal vessel for some denizen of Hell just because you thought you could scratch your ass with something interesting.” It was an excessive explanation, and in answer, Super picked up the first random thing he saw, which was a Captain Longitude Signature Series directional anti-personnel mine, and scratched his ass with it. It was not possessed, it turned out, so Super waved it defiantly in Gibby’s direction and then tossed it over his shoulder. The mine bounced on the rubble a few times and settled harmlessly next to a dented and half-empty barrel of Anderson’s Genital-Ovipositor Hypoallergenic Lube. Super thought that he’d grab the mine (and maybe a handful of lube) on the way out if no one was looking.

Super made a half-hearted effort at some scavenging in the shelter, tossing aside a dead delivery drone and a bit of cyborg under-carriage, but he was becoming bored. He knew that the end of Scavengeday was coming soon, and once the klaxons sounded, they’d all be fair game for the endless variety of bloodthirsty and bonethirsty and skinthirsty monsters that occupied the world. They had come the long way, skirting one of the larger Fortified Communities on the way here, and if they didn’t get started back soon, they were in trouble.

Super thought that maybe they could cut through the Whispering Pines Fortified Community and make the trek shorter. The FortComms were the heavily armed housing developments that were scattered about the Cromulent Zone. They were really nice places with something called “grass”, high-performing schools, restrictive membership requirements, and favorable Baseline-to-abomination ratios. Of course, they were heavily protected, and summary execution for unauthorized visitors and guests was established in their residential covenants right alongside regulations on acceptable paint tones and minimum plasma cannon wattages. It would be a risk since Whispering Pines kept their Securitoria on the lowest restraint settings, but once they were through the minefields, it was pretty clear sailing back to the Grotto.

He wandered over toward Flappy, who was digging absently through an unpromising pile of debris. Super hoped that Flappy was getting antsy too—it was time to go. They’d been on the surface for a long time, and even if it was Scavengeday, it wasn’t safe. He felt the wind pick up, sensing it first as a shift in the prevailing smell of souring effluvia to the acrid scent of the Infernal Rift, which though it was hundreds of miles to the north, came hand-in-hand with a northerly wind. But he soon felt it on his bare back, a warm—and warming—breeze that ruffled his flag-kilt. It wasn’t often that something in this awful world felt good, but this did. It probably meant that something terrible was about to happen. That just seemed to be the way that the world worked.

As he enjoyed a soothing updraft, he was jolted back to the moment by Flapman’s gravelly voice. “Super! Watch your ass!”

Super’s head swiveled wildly right and left as he attempted to get his buttocks into view with the urgency Flapman’s order demanded. He lifted his flag and forced his torso downwards between his legs, but he found that at best, he could see only a suggestive silhouette.

“Behind you!” shouted Gibson.

Super realized that he had once again been misled by Flapman’s love for figures of speech, and upon realizing the metonymical nature of the directive, Super wished that Flapman operated on a more literal level of expression. Super had an innate impulse to follow Flapman’s instructions, and he did so quite precisely, which was never clearer nor more gymnastically demanding than when Flapman told him to go fuck himself.

Finally, Super spun to see what horror had crept up on him, and his eyes darted in all directions, looking for the usual suspects. But he saw neither CHUDs, nor Reptiloids, nor plague-shamblers, nor fallout-wolves—not even a common Clonedrone. Instead, twenty meters away at the base of a ruined coffee shop, Super saw a very large hole where moments before there had been none.

It was now clear to Super that the warm air and bituminous scent were not actually carried from the Infernal Rift but were being emitted from the hole, which was slowly growing as he watched. Chunks of pavement at the hole’s margin crumbled and fell in, enlarging the hole moment by moment. Now, other scattered refuse and rubble teetered and disappeared into the blackness: a rusted parking meter, an ancient, mummified barista, a Staxxcon M-48 assault unicycle. Super wished he had seen the unicycle earlier—it looked like fun, and he would have liked to try out the grenade launcher. A missed opportunity, it seemed.

The three of them backed away. They all knew what it was: a Worm Hole. Sadly, it was not the good kind of worm hole that just sucked you in, spaghettified your fundamental particles, and shot them out in a random, but almost certainly better, part of the galaxy. Nope. They would have welcomed the occasion, but it was not to be.

So, rather than being an interesting and useful Einstein-Rosen Bridge, this Worm Hole was a hole caused by a worm. Super reluctantly appreciated the clarity of the term. He also reluctantly acknowledged that somewhere a mile or so beneath them, an Olgoi-khorkhoa was on the move, consuming bedrock as it tunneled back and forth deep beneath the surface. The Olgoi-khorkhoa were gigantic worms that, as far as Super could tell, were pointless creatures that did nothing but eat rocks and carve subterranean burrows that collapsed on themselves as the creatures passed. They were huge, and they consisted only of a giant mouth and a giant asshole with 70 meters of worm in between.

The massive invertebrate moved at a glacial pace, munching and undulating throughout its one-thousand-year lifespan. As the enormous, hermaphroditic annelid ingested the crust in its path, its bulging, intestine-of-a-body processed the rubble, turning it into a blistering, super-heated gas from which it extracted energy in order to continue the cycle of undulating and munching and digesting. Very much like a minor character from a Camus novel, thought Super. Through the course of a year, the motile gut-segment filled itself with a volatile and scorching mix of vapors, which the worm then ejected from its mighty anus in an annual hot fart that burst forth from the earth and destroyed all in the immediate vicinity.

Thus, each worm could be expected to emit somewhere on the order of a kilofart during its stupid and unprofitable life. One might perceive the energy potential of these emissions and the possibilities of harnessing this immense power for the enrichment and improvement of the Cromulent Zone (after all, a kilofart is valued at approximately 7.94 petajoules!). But, sadly, the energy was released over the course of a millennium, it appeared completely randomly, and there were only four known Olgoi-khorkhoa (the one beneath them was probably Shaun, though Chris was known to stray this way from time to time; Pat and Taylor were infrequent visitors). In short, there appeared to be no plausible means to exploit this energetic flatulence.

Super felt a little sad as he watched a catastrophically explosive and completely pointless worm-fart-chute opening next to him. This would be a bad death.

“RUN!” Flappy shouted, but the other two were already scampering away from the bus shelter as fast as they could. The temperature of the air was changing rapidly from warm to broiling as the main payload pushed toward the surface and heated the air. They were probably only seconds from being vaporized unless they found some kind of shelter. There was really only one choice, one thing that might shield them from the insanely hot gas about to erupt from the Worm Hole, and they knew it. The choice was so awful that had they taken even a moment to consider its implications, they most likely would have preferred being devoured instantaneously by the fart-plasma racing toward the opening in the earth.

The pool of unholy fluid before them was unusually large, easily four meters across, and if it was deep enough, it might just provide enough of a barrier between themselves and the hot gas that they could survive. They had all noticed it earlier on the way into the bus shelter; it was hard not to. This one was so big that it certainly had to be the result of a Reptiloid mating swarm, though there had no doubt been some adventurous dabblers involved. The mixture of effluvia that filled the pools had practically magical temperature stability (probably some Wizard input, as it were), and if they could remain submerged in it for about ten seconds without going insane, they might just make it. Super reached the edge of the pool first and skidded to a stop. He had made the terrible mistake of thinking about what it was they were about to immerse themselves in, and naturally, he had some misgivings about committing to this course of action. He turned at looked at Gibby, who, in seeing Super halt, also considered the benefits of instant, burning death.

But Flapman was on a full run behind them, and he was not burdened with doubts. He extended both arms, each hand connecting solidly between the shoulder blades of the others. He shouted, “Into the spunk! NOW!”

Both Gibby and Super toppled into the pool and Flapman followed, holding his bag on his head with one hand. They hit the surface with more of an organic glug than a splash, and the fluid burbled as they sank into the nacreous goo. Instantly, there was a roar from the Worm Hole, and a geyser of searing plasma erupted from the mouth of the hole at supersonic velocities. The orientation of the tunnel below ran at a diagonal from the surface, so the cataclysmic jet sprayed out and away from the old coffee shop. The bus shelter was obliterated, it debris blasted away in a moment, and the jet stretched itself upward. As it rose, it scorched the atmosphere at its edges, accelerating it locally to hurricane force. This blew through each building along its vector, incinerating an unlucky flock neo-vultures along the way, each huge body exploding in a gout of flaming guts and feathers.

At last, the hellish inferno-fart waned, and the fortunate/accursed three emerged from their pool of safety/deranged horror. Gibson and Super rolled out and onto their hands and knees, each vomiting and heaving enthusiastically. Flapman pushed himself out unhurriedly, and while the other two were occupied with expelling any trace of the gods-forsaken fluid from their bodies, he turned his back to them and removed his bag. From a pocket in his dripping robe, he pulled a plastic pouch. He pulled it apart in a motion, and extracted a neatly and compactly folded paper sack, which he then snapped open with a practiced flip of his wrist. He placed the new bag over his ruined head, the already-cut eye and mouth holes dark and menacing, and turned back to his retching companions.

Gibson had already stripped off his skinsuit and was using it, turned inside-out, to wipe away the abhorrent stuff from his naked body. Super sat despondently on the ground, grabbing handfuls of whatever debris was handy and rubbing it on his skin. His flag was nowhere to be seen, and Flapman supposed that it lay at the bottom of the revolting pool. He quickly peeled off his own soaked clothing and stuck it into a plastic garbage bag; he’d wash it all when they got back to the Grotto—no way he’d ever find a robe this comfy again.

He was about to ask Gibson if he wanted to salvage the skinsuit when a new rumble came from the now-enormous Worm Hole. They all looked up in alarm, three naked idiots at the mercy of a merciless world.

“It’s a two-bagger!” screamed Gibson. This was rotten news, indeed. A two-bagger occurred when during the course of an Olgoi-khorkhoa outburst, the channel was momentarily blocked by a huge, collapsed chunk of the Earth’s crust, which was subsequently dislodged, allowing the eruption to continue with renewed pressure. The ground beneath them shook and then suddenly stopped as the obstruction was launched from the Worm Hole with an ear-splitting roar. The enormous boulder came at them like a 400-ton worm-fart-powered-bullet, which was precisely what it was. As it spun through the air, it passed both Flapman and Gibby by a wide margin, but it hit the sitting Super Patriot Boy squarely. The massive stone pulverized him instantly, then skidded and bounced along the surface, leaving a long and glistening streak of gore for fifteen meters. It all ended in a motionless mound of tissue on the rubble, far beyond which the boulder finally came to a stop.

Flapman and Gibson stood in dumbstruck nudity, looking at the streak and the mound of mangled Super-flesh. “Well, fuck,” Flapman said.

The gas that had propelled the lethal boulder was exhausted, though no doubt the whole area was now unstable. The building housing the coffee shop had buckled, tilting a roof-top cistern from which a stream of water now poured down to the crumpled pavement. Gibson walked gingerly over to where Super had been sitting before the boulder had annihilated him. He bent to the ground, retrieving the pair of sport sandals that had been knocked off of Super’s feet by the force of the boulder. He slipped them on and looked to where the boulder lay in the distance.

“That’s gneiss,” Gibson said, pointing.

Flapman turned and stared for a moment. “What’s gneiss about it? You don’t know schist.”

“Yeah, well I know basalt-and-battery when I see it.”

“Fine. I’ll granite.”

They both laughed. There are times when only geology can get you through the horror.

Gibson bent again, rising this time gripping Super’s disembodied left arm by the wrist. Without another word, he walked over to the stream of water coming from the coffee shop’s roof, and stuck Super’s arm under it, rinsing away the combination of dirt, blood, and deviant-goo. Once it was reasonably clean, he turned and handed it to Flapman, who swung the arm over his shoulder. Silently, they began the long walk back to the Grotto.

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