January is the abandoned parking lot of the Gregorian calendar, with its scant sunlight and skulking wolves. And Chapter 3 brings us to the January of the Cromulent Zone, an abandoned parking lot. It’s an Ouroborean metaphor that Flapman might enjoy if he were awake or interested. And such a circular metaphor would also resemble the circular Chronoballer, if metaphors had stained upholstery and a decent sound system. Please enjoy Chapter 3 of Magnificent Bastards of the Apocalypse.
The Chronoballer, the very last time machine on the planet, was a heap of shit. To be fair, it had been manufactured by Flogistics Tempotechnics Corporation in 2278, so if one considered that it was a little over three hundred years old, that it was still a heap of shit at all was a point in its favor. And considering that every other known time machine had been searched out, confiscated, and melted down in the fires of the Great Caldera of Bârr Okh-Duba Mä, the Chronoballer was a fucking miracle. Strictly speaking, the Chronoballer was an FTC Solantera Sport with etalon dampers, full Schwarzschild tunneling, twelve cup holders, and matte-black, machined Exantium trim. Three hundred years ago, it had been a sight to behold. Six meters across, the gleaming silver sphere would have made quite an impression as it moved through the Earth’s atmosphere toward its jump point, reflecting the brilliantly lit cities on the planet’s night side. In its day, the Chronoballer had probably been the nuts, before untold millions of time jumps had skull-fucked reality.
Of course, that had been when there were brilliantly lit cities. And a night side. And something like regular reality.
On watch in the idling timeship in the year 2614, Flapman thought that, yep, reality was good and skull-fucked, and the Chronoballer was definitely not the nuts anymore. As he sat back in his G-chair, Flapman absently smoothed a crease in his bag, pleased with the originality of his metaphor. Metaphors were fine, though he preferred similes. He had, however, never liked the part of the job he was currently performing—waiting for that sneaky little shit, Gibson, to get supplies. It was better than scavenging and Cthulhu knew they needed toilet paper, which the tentacly god had pointed out to Flapman in a recent dream-visit.
It was going to cost them, of course, in either bartered goods, negotiated labor, or some of their dwindling supply of precious Beaks, the attractive and razor-sharp currency of the Cromulent Zone. Dealing with CostLo always carried the risk of being forcibly entered into their Frequent Shopper program, which involved a subcutaneous implant and some dangerously high voltage, but Flapman was looking forward to not having to use handfuls of gravel to get that fresh feeling every morning.
Flapman looked at the chronometer on the ‘Baller’s console, happy that his gravel would soon be freed up for other tasks of hygiene. But for now, he was stuck here in this shitbox because no one would deal with his kind. Not that he could blame them; he just wished the accommodations were better. His deadly eyes stared out redly from the crude holes cut into the heavy paper. It’s not that he liked shopping, but he didn’t trust Gibson to select the right degree of grit. And being an outcast in a world full of abominations didn’t do much to elevate his mood. And neither did this ship.
The Chronoballer was, in Flapman’s estimation, just another corroding artifact in this awful, fucking corrosive world. If they were being completely honest, it was a functioning time machine only in the sense that it was once a time machine and it still functioned a little. Its time drive suffered the same interruption as all the others those many centuries ago and no longer worked. But it’s sub-dimensional engines were completely intact, which made it unique in this world and provided some consolation for its otherwise deplorable condition.
The ship’s now-dull, pitted surface barely reflected the stark glare of sodium-arc lights as it sat in CostLo’s Exurban Vehicular Esplanade. Inside, the cabin’s lighting was up to help him stay awake, and he tapped his fingers on the stained and fraying covering of the seat’s arms. It occurred to Flapman that the original purchaser had had shitty taste. The interior of the Chronoballer was not in any better shape than the outer hull. But while the Solantera Sport package included a sweet, aggressive vibe on the outside, whoever had taken this off the lot three hundred years ago had cheaped out on the cabin: standard cloth seating surfaces, vinyl and plastic cowling, faux-walnut accents. Flapman was bewildered that anyone would want their vehicle to look like fake nuts.
There was, indeed, nut-brown everywhere—the cheap fucker had gone with browns as the color scheme, all of which had faded over the centuries and was now just gray-brown. And that which had not been originally brown had turned one or another shade of organic puce. And as Flapman was acutely aware, the comfort features of the ‘Baller were just as bad. The fucking G-chair actuator wasn’t even posture-sensitive; he actually had to talk to the fucking thing out loud to get it to reconform. It was like the Stone Age in here. And fuck all if he wanted personalized lumbar support. Just thinking about it made his back hurt. You’d think one would have wanted to enjoy a little luxury as one fucked up the space-time continuum. At least the sound system was decent.
The G-chair’s ancient mount squeaked as he swiveled away from the control cluster and spit through the mouth opening of his bag, hitting an empty sausage can on the carpeted deck with a solid plink. It was all bullshit—this shitty boat and this shitty shopping fortress. Flapman didn’t care what image the marketing hacks at CostLo wanted to project: the fucking “Exurban fucking Esplanade” was a goddamn, fucking parking lot. Flapman leaned back in disgust.
Over the cabin’s speakers came the silky, vile voice of the CZ’s most notorious underground political rabble-rouser, Dick Schnidlips. Broadcast from the bottom of a 50-meter-deep oubliette, Schnidlips’s daily radio show, The Hour of Sour, was strictly forbidden by the Overloards as a reactionary wasteland of paranoia, bigotry, disinformation, bald-faced lies, crippling stupidity, screeching outrage, staggering hypocrisy, feeble-minded dot-connecting, and leering conspiracy mongering (which, to be fair, was usually spot on). Naturally, it was massively popular, and Flapman agreed with Schnidlips in every respect, and knew in his deepest being that the world had gone to hell because of the bleeding-heart leniency of the Overloards, who steadfastly and stupidly refused to sterilize the planet and start over from scratch, which everyone with any sense knew would solve all of the problems.
Not everyone saw eye-to-maniacal-eye with Schnidlips, of course. His ideological opponents in the muckraking media pointed out that his self-proclaimed title as an underground provocateur was merely a literal truth. Schnidlips refused to back down, however, and the discouraged critics huffily resubmerged themselves into their marshy lairs, muttering that his oubliette was in a neighborhood with declining property values and very little charm. But he was impervious to their scorn and proclaimed proudly that if his oubliette had come with a porch, it would have a couch on it.
Flapman nodded in stern agreement with Schnidlips’s shrill and fantastical accusation that Oligarchess Cheryl kept a ghost in her pocket and that the citizens of the CZ had a rightful expectation that their rulers would not harbor the restless souls of the departed in any kind of pouch or hidden compartment. Flapman hated ghosts, but he hated those who gave them refuge even more. And like Schnidlips, Flapman was certain that this was the first move in a plan for Cheryl to enlist the Phantom Realm in a hostile takeover of the CZ. It was obvious if you thought about it.
Satisfactorily outraged, he waved the sound system off and swiveled back to the ship’s instruments and did a perfunctory check of the Chronoballer’s operational condition.
The control cluster combined 2-D and holographic information, as well as a sophisticated touch- and gesture-sensitive interface, in a central command superstructure. It was the only impressive aspect of the Chronoballer’s interior: glowing navigation controls, status indicators, and environment telltales provided a comprehensive report on each aspect of the Chronoballer’s situation, which was “currently in a parking lot and not streaking majestically through the ether.” Gesturing lazily, Flapman scrolled through the baffling volume of data to kill time. The versatile heads-up holography responded both to gesture and eye movement, which would be extremely useful in other cases, but as the ship was merely using up precious antimatter while a dork of questionable utility sought out a supply of wipe, these sophisticated instruments mostly just lit up the cabin.
As expected, all of these advanced instruments told Flapman that the exterior was as tight as a murderbat’s upper sphincter. Or maybe it was the lower sphincter. Whatever. You know, the good sphincter. Flapman was nothing if not conscientious about security; like he needed some random monstrosity sticking a pseudopod into the cabin and really fucking up his day.
Not that the day was that great to begin with. Here he was in the last functioning time machine on the planet (fine, he admitted to himself: semi-functioning), and it was parked next to a Kart Korral somewhere in the otherwise dark, empty hectares of asphalt that buffered the domains of two of the belligerent Retail Powers. This was technically CostLo territory, but when it wasn’t hosting consumer indoctrination assemblies disguised as craft fairs, it was the bloody ground of the eternal conflict between CostLo and MaxMart. Fetid pools of orangey light dotted the flat landscape as far as Flapman could see, revealing long, cross-hatched lines of faded and peeling paint. He knew that out of sight in the darkness were deep trenches, immense barriers of razor wire, and a very large number of buried landmines. Now deserted, the endless rows of parking guides crossed the asphalt plain like ugly sutures closing up the wounds of war, and the Chronoballer sat on it like a boil.
The lonely Kart Korral no longer sheltered shopping carts, as CostLo customers were now forced to carry their goods in great bundles strapped to their backs, marching smartly under the watchful eyes of the Customer-Service Enforcers. But someone or something had fortified this empty Korral with a combination of sheets of corrugated cardboard, plywood scraps, Bunyip fur, possibly a Reptiloid carcass, and other, unidentifiable shit, i.e., clumps of literal feces of unknown, possibly inter-dimensional origin. Assorted, desiccated rubbish and debris were scattered about the Korral, but it had the look of an abandoned hovel. It was probably a sniper’s nest, though, thought Flapman. But for all the violence and crafts this lot had seen, the DMZ that separated the CostLo Bulk Security Concern from the Confederated Maxmart Discount City-States was currently quiet.
But Flapman was always wary when it came to CostLo, Maxmart, and their ilk. The Retail Powers had begun to assert their dominance two centuries ago in the bloody Rollback Wars, as inter-dimensional incursions had, bit by bit, unraveled not only the physical but also the social fabric of the world through a combination of city-devouring beasts, ecological catastrophes, political retardation, and organic vego-terrorism. In the power vacuums that followed, the Big-Boxers sought to consolidate control, first exterminating local mom-and-pop businesses with a combination of below-margin pricing, surgical drone strikes, and localized bioweapons. Flapman had heard tales of entire, gentrified downtowns obliterated in an explosive maelstrom of artisanal candles, hemp satchels, and locally-roasted, fair-trade coffee beans. Flapman thought that this was not an unmitigated tragedy, and he imagined viewing the burning neighborhood while enjoying a cup of extra-extra-dark coffee and a light contact high in the soft glow and lavender scent of molten wax.
Later, after the mighty Discount Princes had herded the bargain-seeking consumer population into residential hives, they slowly strangled the nation’s cynicism, leading to un-ironic brand loyalties and the violent allegiance to corporate identities. Finally, the Powers carved up the country into a network of independent and mutually hostile low-cost, membership-based dukedoms. Since then, the cultures of the various Retail Powers had diverged in interesting and terrifying ways, but they had two things in common: a dedication to low, low prices and an unwavering desire to destroy the other Powers. But the roiling boil of all-out war had become a simmering of small-scale conflicts since the Overloards had cowed the City-States.
Despite the violent predilections of the Retail Powers, Flapman knew that the Esplanade was probably as safe a place as there was in this horrifying world, but you never knew when a commando raid or tactical nuke strike between two or more of the Powers was coming. CostLo and Maxmart were constantly on the edge of going hot again, so Flapman kept an eye on his instruments in case they needed to hop. The Chronoballer was equipped not only with the singularity-based Alcubierre drive that made dimension skimming possible, but it also sported an array of Regspace propulsors that could move the craft very, very quickly.
So if Maxmart sent in one of its blue-smocked death squads or if some Kaiju motherfucker like Ograh or Shangtraiqqlp showed up, Flapman could blast his bagged ass out in a jiffy. Of course, Gibson was out there somewhere, but if shit went pear-shaped, Flapman knew he wouldn’t spare that dork an extra second. He’d be fucked if he was going down for some Baseline human, even if Gibson did know how things worked.
As he waited, Flapman patted his robe pockets hoping to find his vape pen, but he had apparently left it back at the Grotto. Yesterday had been a bit rough, even by the standards of this awful, awful world, and a good vape would really have hit the spot. He thought again of Super’s death the previous day and yet another rebirth. He knew that Super’s resurrection cycle would be finished by now, and he wanted to get back to the Grotto to make sure it went smoothly. Most of the time, he was essentially the same ol’ dumb Super Patriot Boy, with his revolting face, stupid expression, and inexplicable loyalty to an extinct society that he didn’t understand in the least.
But while the process was miraculous, it could also be unpredictable. The FrostiSnooz was way past warranty these days; every once in a while, something would go wonky and Super would come back with no torso or thumbs growing out of his eye sockets or some other horrible defect. If that was the case, Flapman would have to kill him all over again and restart the process. And sometimes, it did even weirder stuff. Flapman would never shake the memory of a resurrected Super that was half-regular-Super and half-macaroni-and-cheese. Flapman had never been sure where the ugly man ended and the nourishing, creamy snack began. But it had been a deeply disturbing and even deeplier delicious experience.
The whole thing raised questions about why one would want a resurrect-able clone in the first place. After all, they were cheap and basically disposable, but in the end, Flapman didn’t really give a shit. Reasons were for suckers. In any case, Super had probably basted long enough already and was up to the usual Super Patriot Boy nonsense. He hoped that Super wasn’t fucking shit up back there; that kid had good intentions, but his flag didn’t go all the way up the pole, so to speak. And fuck all if the Overloards called—one of these days, Super was going to be too busy snorting protein powder to answer the phone, and Flapman was going to go home to a smoking crater and one fewer person in this universe that he didn’t want to murder all of the time (which was, perhaps, the totality of his standard for friendship).
Imagining the fiery death of Super Patriot Boy, Flapman might have shed a tear at that moment, if his demonic eyes had housed tear ducts or if he had possessed any emotions other than contempt and undiluted hatred. He recalled the day, many years ago, that he found Super Patriot Boy frightened and shivering in the burnt-out bay of an ancient Orange Julius. His skeletal, be-flagged form waved an old blender in front of him in a feeble defensive display, as if Flapman couldn’t disarm and explosively disintegrate the fucking turd with a casual tip of his bag. Under normal circumstances, Flapman would either have ignored the whimpering shit or killed it because the whimpering was irritating. As he had looked over the remains of the countertop, he had weighed the entertainment merits of obliterating the wretch.
But something about the pathetic anachro-nationalist prompted him to drag it kicking and screaming back to the Grotto. Maybe it was the little of bit of aggressive derision in its eyes, or maybe Flapman had felt a faint intimation of the savory morsel Super would one day become. Whatever. It had probably been a mistake anyway, but it was too late now. He just hoped he wasn’t going to have to pick bits of Super out of his stuff when he got home. The kid was a giant pain in the ass, but Flapman was nearly sorry that the little fucker was going to die again horribly sooner or later. Oh well.
Thinking about stuff exploding was making him hungry, and he rose from his creaking seat to see if there were any cans or pouches in the “rear” of the cabin. The deck-space was circular, so of course, “front” and “rear” were merely a matter of convention. Like so many other things in the world, the accepted orientation of the ship came down to food. All the food they owned tasted like ass, so where they kept it became the “rear.” Flapman liked to think of it as the “Poopdeck.”
But the Chronoballer was too small to have a galley (it was a sport model, after all, not one of those recreational time-whales that had once been popular amongst retirees in that long-gone world), so he’d have to eat whatever was back there right out of the container. Not that it bothered him, but heating up preserved edibles would at least have helped him pass the time while Gibson finished his errand.
And where was that dweeb, anyway? Haggling with CostLo was usually pretty straightforward—you didn’t. Their prices were pre-negotiated to provide the greatest value to its wide array of member organisms and embodied consciousnesses, and they strove to make their shopping experience as hassle-free and non-incendiary as possible (while reserving to itself the prerogative to exercise strategic and tactical violence, as was reasonable for an armed, autonomous retail domain). Plus, attempts to price-match were usually met with a combination of disdain and stun batons. In other words, this should have been a pretty quick in-and-out. Gibson didn’t have a formal membership chip at the base of his skull, though, so he had to rely on his negotiation skills to get what they needed. Flapman supposed that one day soon, CostLo would probably just send him on to Calorie Reclamation.
As he returned to the control cluster with a pouch of passion phroot RealPhroot Rephresher™, there was an urgent chiming from the LIDAR. Flapman swept the bottom of his robe under him as he slid fluidly into the G-chair and moved his hand over the surface of the cluster, bringing up the sensor display in the air in front of him. Something large and fast was moving through the atmosphere toward his position. He slurped from the pouch and then set it into the crusty drink-holder, where it slumped and contributed some of its sugary contents to the existing strata of organic stains.
The readout was providing only the most basic kinds of information for the moment: speed, trajectory, and estimated mass. He quickly considered the possibilities, all of which presented varying degrees of violent, bodily harm. Whatever it was, it was big. But not Kaiju big, which was good because fuck that shit.
So, a ship.
Not CostLo or Maxmart, he thought. They’d be either hailing him or blowing him up by now. Possibly a Wizard Army troop carrier? He hoped not. Those fucks were randomly aggressive, unpredictably nasty, and unwaveringly hygienic. Like, pristine; you could eat off one of those wizards. Flapman had done it once, and it was indeed the cleanest surface off of which he had ever eaten. He had found it tricky to fit an entire table setting on a single wizard, especially when it was struggling with the duct tape.
But Flapman didn’t think this was a Wizzie craft. Whatever it was, it was moving in a reliable vector, not the physics-defying jitterbug that indicated a thaumaturgical drive, and that vector was bringing whatever-it-was straight to the Chronoballer. Flapman quickly punched jump coordinates into navigation in case he had to book it. The other ship was close enough now that if it meant to blow the shit out of him, it probably could—so any escape for the Chronoballer relied completely on the other crew’s incompetence. He gestured over the cluster and the hovering image changed to a wide, exterior view.
At first, Flapman could only see asphalt and a single star, which was weird because the thick, poisonous atmosphere usually concealed the sky. He tried to remember the date, and wondered if it was time for the annual atmospheric evaporation, but there was no indication of planet-wide vacuum outside. He watched, scanning the blackness above the horizon for others like it, but he saw none. Suddenly, the star flared from a dim pinpoint to the bright, streaming blue of a fusion tail. This was apparently enough for the computer to agree that this was a ship, which the display helpfully labeled as “Unknown Craft”.
Flapman flipped a middle finger at the display and grabbed at his phroot pouch. He tried but couldn’t make out the shape of the vessel that was producing that spectacular column of plasma. The ‘Baller’s sensors were having no better luck, which indicated that the ship had exceptional cloaking, but obviously, that jet was an overt signal to him. It was as if the flame appeared out of thin air, emerging from the blackness like a cosmic geyser. Flapman liked similes. They were the lifeblood of the active mind. Which was a metaphor, but even that could be as satisfying as a good Hosing session. Flapman watched the ship approach in a rapid arc and then abruptly disappear from view as its fusion drive stopped, leaving only the blackness of the night sky. But after a split second, four smaller jets of light appeared just above and away from the ‘Baller. Landing thrusters.
As the craft approached the ground, the glare of the Esplanade’s sodium-arc lights finally revealed the ship. It was a nearly-perfect black, windowless, and the shape of its hull was angular and blade-like, built for speed. Its skin was completely smooth; no visible seams or joints marred the flawless material. Its stealth surfaces were suppressed, so Flapman knew that it had wanted him to see it. Just before making contact with the asphalt, its landing gear extended gracefully, like clawed fingers grasping at the earth (he nodded with satisfaction at that flourish), which threw chunks of pavement into the air as it gouged the surface. He knew exactly what he was looking at now. Flapman rubbed the back of his head through the bag, making a rasping sound as the paper ran under his fingers and over his terrible head.
He blew out a long breath—he knew this ship: the Dark Sizzler. And it was bad, bad news.
He took one last slurp from the pouch and then reached under his seat. His hand groped about, brushing aside spent pinecone cores, an old AA battery, possibly a severed finger, and an empty food tin before he finally found what he wanted. A slender but sturdy handle, heavy in all the right ways. Yes: Ol’ Smashy. Flapman closed his hand around cool metal. Just feeling its weight in his hand made Flapman more confident about the coming encounter, like an old friend at his side.
Ol’ Smashy was a Crassus Hardware Model 3: a 20-ounce, solid steel hammer with a custom spiked knuckle grip. It was a uniform black except for the face and claw, which were shiny with long use. As he hefted Ol’ Smashy, he thought of the hundreds of skulls, faces, sternums, fingers, genitals, kneecaps, eyeballs, and tentacles they had smashed, crushed, clawed, punched, and punctured over their long years together. You can keep your plasma rifles, rail-guns, and energy blades, Flapman had often thought. Those weapons were for sucks—impersonal and overly complicated. There was nothing simpler, more intimate, more reliable, and more satisfying than bringing Ol’ Smashy’s smooth, murderous head down on the top of a skull a dozen times.
Flapman fitted his fingers through the knuckle grip and closed them around the handle. As he rose from his seat, he gestured at the control cluster with his free hand. He heard the mechanical chunk of powerful servos moving and then the slight rush of air as the Chronoballer’s door slid down and away from the hull. He stepped off the central control platform toward the dark, curving rectangle that had opened in the ship’s side. Flapman straightened his bag as he and Ol’ Smashy paused in the hatchway. The curve of the door had reconformed into a flat ramp leading down to the parking lot.
“It’s smashin’ time,” Flapman said aloud, and then was suddenly glad that no one else was around to hear his embarrassingly lazy catchphrase. Every time he said it, he vowed to compose something better, but it was hard to find time to write. It was so easy to get distracted in this world by all of the things that wanted to destroy, consume, transmute, or proselytize him. He thought that he should probably find a remote cabin somewhere in the Behaunted Wastes, quit this bullshit job, and really put the time into writing a solid, badass catchphrase. Lately, he’d been toying with a more modern feel. Something like “It’s hammer time.” He promised himself that he’d work on it.
At the bottom of the Chronoballer’s ramp, he stopped and moved Ol’ Smashy behind his back as he evaluated the situation. Flapman knew that this could get very ugly very quickly. Twenty meters in front of him was the Dark Sizzler, a black weapon, silent and menacing. He was in no hurry—the Sizzler was superior in every way but one, and he knew that he was almost completely at its mercy. Unlike the Chronoballer, it wasn’t an inter-dimensional craft. But the Sizzler was armed to the teeth: it was equipped with heavy-particle beam cannons, near-C mass weapons, and the usual array of nukes and nano-goo jets. In other words, the Sizzler could almost certainly kill him before the ‘Baller could jump. So he’d wait for a face-to-face and see if he could talk his way out or let Ol’ Smashy negotiate a civilized agreement.
As he thought this, the Sizzler’s ground lights suddenly came on, bathing the Esplanade’s surface around the ship in a sharp, white light and making Flapman squint beneath his bag. He tapped Ol’ Smashy against his back unconsciously, waiting for the Sizzler’s occupants to show themselves. Against the glare, Flapman saw a circular aperture iris open in the ship’s flank and a set of steps extrude itself from the material of the hull. Very slick, actually. It was difficult not to admire the hardware, even though he’d be happy to blow that fucker and its crew right the fuck up if he ever got the opportunity. A familiar silhouette appeared in the opening, pausing for a moment before advancing down the steps.
The figure stepped into the light as it reached the asphalt, and Flapman felt a well-worn hatred rising up in him. His knuckles whitened as he squeezed Ol’ Smashy’s grip.
“The fucking Bolshevik,” he growled.