Sludge Thompkins in: The Nefarious Lair of the Mutant Bubblegum Lizards!
rating: +20+x


[BEGIN ARCHIVED TRANSMISSION]


At the bottom of the dusty basin about a half mile away, I can see what the contract meant. Partially, at least. Those are definitely lizards. Around a dozen. Not your garden-variety skittering autotomizing cuties, though. These are terror lizards. Big, mean, crocodilian bastards, the kind that looked at the sweltering, moistureless Alabama Desert and said to themselves, yeah, this seems perfectly livable. The shortest one is about twenty feet long, not including the tail, and probably weighs about three thousand pounds. Big mouths, with bigger teeth. And are those… yeah. Spikes. Very shiny, almost like crystals, glittering up and down their spinal ridges and gathering into an undeniably useful wad of sharp at the end of their tails. What fun. Satan broke out his rhinestones and superglue for this one.

We’re high up on a rocky outcrop of some kind, upwind and out of sight, so they’re mostly just fighting amongst themselves in the sand, completely unaware of me and my crosshairs.

Without taking my eye out of the scope, I ask, “Hey, Kate?”

A woman’s voice somewhere behind me replies, “Yeah?”

“You said this was lizards, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Just… regular lizards?”

“No. I just said lizards. There was more, but you may recall scampering off to buy more armor piercing ammo the instant the word ‘lizard’ left my mouth. Daisuke and I got to actually read the entire document. Because we like being prepared. Isn’t that right, Daisuke?”

A much deeper male voice, somewhere else behind me, snorts like a bull.

My attention goes back down the scope for a minute. The lizards are carrying on, attending to lizard business. I don’t know how long they’re going to stay here before they move on to greener lizard pastures.

“Okay. Does it say anywhere in the contract why these lizards are rainbow colored? They look like they’re made out of fucking ice cream.”

“Close. They’re made out of candy.”

I lean back and unthread my rifle’s sight cable plug from my eye socket. There’s an electrical pop in my head and a split second of static, then my right eye’s vision resolves. I turn around. Kate is looking at me with mild disapproval, and Daisuke is stifling laughter.

My palm thumps the side of my head a few times, making a clang clang sound. “Sorry, sand must have gotten into my audio intake. They’re made of what now?”

She blinks her bright blue eyes once, leans back against a rock, and pulls her gigantic sword into her lap. “Candy. That’s one of the reasons this one is paying more than usual. Normal terror lizards are bad enough, but apparently they get a lot harder to kill if they trade their scales for taffy. Most weapons just sink right in, and there’s a report in here saying they regenerate. Just like you, Sludge. But sweet, instead of… you.”

I turn my head to look back down into the basin, then narrow my ocular shutters at her.
“Well why are we here, then? They should have just sent a battalion of eight-year-olds. They’d have these things eaten in fifteen minutes.”

“It’s the other way around, sadly. The doc says this hive has already eaten a few people from a nearby settlement. Including three kids. That’s why we’re here.”

What a world. “Do we know why candy has suddenly decided to take revenge for everything humanity’s done to it? In the form of a hive of terror lizards?”

Daisuke speaks up. “I talked to a local about it. There was a blue wave a few months ago, and it shifted a leyline underneath an old abandoned candy factory. It got buried in sand when this place dried up, so people forgot about it. I guess some lizards buried down into it, made it home, then got spliced with all the leftover candy when the leyline moved under ‘em. They’ve been harrassing the border colonies out here ever since.”

“… That’s a new one.”

I turn my face up at the sky.

The first sun, the yellow one, I’m not that concerned about. Could stand to turn down the goddamn temperature a bit here, but as far as irritants go, pretty minor. It’s got a decent enough track record so far, as I understand it, so I’ll withhold my criticism.

The blue one, however, gets a fist shake and a scowl. Smaller, dimmer, and just off to the side of its more competent brother, it looks like it’s staring at me. Like it knows what it did this time. For all I know, maybe it does.

I huff a sigh out of my filtration vents. “Any indication of how many we’re dealing with?”
Kate shakes her head. “Not really. Moving forward, we should assume there are dozens. We don’t know how long they’ve been living in those ruins.”

“Shit. Can you get us in there? That’s a lot of sand.”

She sighs, and wipes some dust off her face. “Sand is easier than dirt or stone. It’s a long way down, but I think I can manage it.”

I nod. “Okay. How are we doing this? Formation?”

Kate lowers her thermal visor over her eyes. “It’ll be narrow down there, so I’ll take point. Sludge, you stay rear, keep your eyes open and hold fire until Daisuke gives the word. Daisuke, between us, and say something the instant you pick up on any lizards. If we keep close and zone properly, this shouldn’t be a problem.”

She stands and brushes some desert off her coat. Daisuke follows suit. I don’t want to be left out or anything, so I get up and slide my rifle onto the magnetic rack on my back.

Time to get to work.

Seeing as how it’s gonna take a half hour or so to get down into the valley and this is my first time actually using my new autorecorder chip, I should probably give a breakdown on my two compatriots. And me, I guess. Just in case we get torn apart by taffy lizards in the dark and someone finds my intracranial relays a few hundred years from now.

The stringy woman with the wheat-blond hair and hawkish features is Kate. She’s an earthmover, and a pretty powerful one. Most earthmovers are as predictable as the dirt they commune with - pull the ground out from under you, the classic seismic stomp move, you know, stuff right out of a DnD rulebook. But Kate decided to buck the trend and pick up a sword instead. Looking at her, you wouldn’t guess that a wiry 130 pound lady would be able to lift a knife as long as a man, let alone swing it. You’d also be surprised as hell when she uses her magic to swing it hard enough to slice boulders in half.

Kate and I have been friends since we were kids, often to her chagrin, and she’s the closest thing this gaggle has to a leader. She’s steely, sensible, and doesn’t take shit from anybody without bifurcating them first. Good brain in her head, with a knack for planning and strategizing, but like with anything else made out of metal, a bit stubborn and inflexible sometimes. She’s the sister I never had. Well, the person that replaced my last sister, at least.

The big bearded bear in the padded armor is Daisuke. You’d expect him to be some kind of biomutant or meathead with how huge he is, but he isn’t. He’s a telepath, which automatically makes him one of the most dangerous people you or I have ever met. And I don’t mean “telepath” like he can casually listen in on your thoughts if he squints his brain real hard - I mean if you don’t have an anti-thaumic rune array carved into your skull or the mental discipline of a battle-hardened kindergarten teacher, Daisuke can make you… do things. Dance a jig, stand on your head, fork over your wallet. Jump off a roof. Eat your own gun.

Fortunately for me, Kate, and the rest of humanity, Daisuke is basically the reincarnation of that fat, laughing Buddhist monk guy you see statues of sometimes. He is legitimately a gentle giant, and doesn’t have a mean-spirited or vicious bone in his entire body. The only things he cares about are good food, good beer, giving hugs, and being nice to people. Frankly, if it weren’t for his muscles and terrifying psychic powers, I think he would have been eaten by something a long time ago. Me and Kate met him a few years back, homeless, on account of him constantly giving away his own money to people that he thought needed it more than him. He doesn’t love our job, but admits that it’s better than where he used to be. And without his talents and grounding presence, Kate and I probably would have ended up right there with him.

And then there’s the third guy.

See that messed-up pile of scrap metal with the unnecessarily large sniper cannon on its back? The weirdo in the heavy metal power armor, with the spray-painted warning decals and faded “BIOHAZARD” stickers and the helmet deliberately forged to look kind of like a vague facsimile of a human skull? With glowing green eyes and a mouthful of cartoonishly sharp teeth? Who’s wearing a ragged dust coat over his armor, for some reason? That cybernetic freakshow with the irresistible aura of gentlemanly charisma and a sack of medical waste where his heart should be?

That’s me. Hi. My name’s Sludge.

Why do they call me Sludge, I almost certainly hear you asking? That’s kind of a long story. In short, it’s just what I am. My mutations have turned my body into a toxic, carcinogenic, and bacterial bag of hell that’s too weak to walk on its own and so hilariously poisonous that if you left me in a gutter in the middle of a town, the whole place would be a dumping ground for half-melted corpses within the span of a week. If I gave you a hug, you’d look just like me within about five minutes, and you’d be a puddle five seconds after that.

That’s what the exoskeleton is for. Technically not an exoskeleton at all - it’s an endosuit. Not designed for my protection (I can regenerate from nearly anything), but for everyone else’s. I’m under Tribunal mandate to keep it on at all times, under pain of immediate execution by incinerator. Think of it as kind of a wearable prison. Makes life awkward in some ways, but hey, I can’t walk without it, and it saves everyone around me from a swift, agonizing death from about nine hundred simultaneous infections.

My readouts are throwing a few warning lights in the corner of my vision as we half-walk, half-slide down the hill of bone-dry scree. Coolant system’s working double time in this heat, and it’s only gonna get worse if there’s fighting. Going down into the sunken ruins is, you know, probably a death sentence, but hey, at least we’ll die in the shade.

Alright, maybe I’m being a bit dramatic. I’ve just got the pre-fight jitters. The three of us have tackled groups of nasties more threatening than a few dozen terror lizards. At least terror lizards are too stupid to use explosives and automatic firearms. And they’re magical, but they can’t throw magic. At least… not as far as I’m aware. The day terror lizards mutate in just the wrong way and the first terror lizard wizard is born, humanity is absolutely, unequivocally fucked.

God, let today not be that day.

I bought the wrong ammo, too. Probably should have listened to the entire contract instead of getting all excited at the prospect of more giant reptile target practice. Punch rounds aren’t gonna be a lot of help against lizards made of fucking caramel. Thankfully I still have a couple cans of digpop shells left. Those should work. Honestly I haven’t met an organism magical or otherwise that can survive a six-inch exploding spike in the chest.

While I’m busy thinking about how fun bullets are, my foot goes wrong on the sand and slides out from under me. I crash flat onto my stupid metallic face with a muffled wham.

Kate and Daisuke stop when they hear the noise, ready to kill - Kate’s hundred-pound blade swings to the ready, and Dai draws his handgun, eyes glowing a horrible cloudy white above his dust mask.

Then they see that it’s just my clumsy ass, on my belly and trying to get up, sand pouring out of my eye sockets like a weeping metal mummy. My knees keep slipping in the grains and I can’t find my balance. God I love not being completely in control of my own body. Life’s a real kinetic fucking adventure when walking on anything other than pavement is an exercise in probability and how fast I can recalibrate my fucking gyroscopes.

My two friends relax and help me get back on my feet, having to work together. Daisuke gets under one of my shoulders and puts his beefy back into it, while Kate extends a hand and focuses her magic, lifting with her brain and making my steely carcass much lighter than it would be ordinarily. I weigh more hundreds of pounds than any semi-human has a right to. If these two weren’t here, walking through the desert wouldn’t get me anything except buried until the Old South turns into something other than a desert. Just a few thousand years under the sand, no big deal. Look, I even wore my own coffin!

Years ago, they would have laughed. They used to, because this kind of thing happens to me more than you’d think, and people falling over is always funny. But after a few years the novelty wore off, and now I’m pretty sure they just feel sorry for me. They’ve never said as much, but I can see the looks on their faces whenever the topic of my sad mutated life comes up. Uncomfortable microexpressions are easier to notice when your eyes are video cameras.

Believe me, you’ve got to be pretty low-down when other mutants start pitying you.

I shake myself off, sand falling from every injection port, coupling, and crevice I have. I should have worn more than just a coat. Too much longer out here and my joints are gonna start locking up. I’d take on an entire hive of terror lizards by myself, right now, if it meant I didn’t have to deal with five more minutes of fucking sand.

On the move again, we’re forced to switch to headset comms, because the wind in the valley makes it impossible for us to hear one another without shouting, and shouting near a nest of terror lizards is a great way to transmute yourself to lizard shit in a hurry.

Dai’s voice crackles in my ear, “Doing alright, Sludge?”

I nod reflexively, even though both of them are walking ahead with their backs to me. “Yeah, I’m freezy peach. Hopefully we’re out of this sand before I turn into a statue with the world’s most upsetting prize inside. How about you two?”

Kate comes back, “I feel about the same as you do, honestly. This sucks. We should have looked at a forecast before dragging ourselves out here.”

“Does the wind ever let up in this place? Feel like the weatherwalkers out here must have the easiest job in the world. ‘Hot. Sandy. Wind. That’ll be fifteen bucks.’ Gee, thank you, Nostradamus. I’ll hang on to my cash, thanks.”

Daisuke stops walking. “Stop.”

We stop. When the telepath says stop, you stop.

Silence, for a second or two. Then Kate says, “What is it?”

The big man’s eyes are glowing again. “… Lizards. That way, over the dune.”

He points west, not toward the group I was watching earlier.

Kate: “How many?”

Daisuke: “Too far, I can’t tell. But a lot, for the signal to be this concentrated. And… downward. Not level with the surface. Buried.”

Me: “Must be the ruins.”

Kate: “Let’s get over this dune and see if we can spot the entrance. They’ve got to be burrowing down from somewhere.”

Climbing sand dunes is way harder for me than going down them. Down is easy - you just have to shake hands with gravity. Up means the sand has the height advantage and is trying to swallow me with every step. And gravity is always on its side, for some reason. I thought we had a goddamn understanding, gravity.

After some ponderous and graceless scrambling, we get to the crest of the dune and see what there is to see.

And before our eyes all around, for miles and miles, is a surprise that the three of us never would have predicted - it’s a fucking desert. Hooray. Wall to wall, horizon to horizon, it’s just sand dunes and two punishing suns. A few harder patches of baked earth that haven’t quite gotten with the granular program yet, but that’s it. Hell, in most deserts you at least get a few diehard shrubs or crunchy gray trees or something, but… this is Alabama. The only reason anything would live here is if it already got kicked out of everywhere else. Hell, Florida has more biological activity than this godforsaken wasteland, and the Everglades are so radioactive that they’ve been boiling for the last five hundred years.

That said, there is a spot about a half mile to the West that’s weirdly flat, and raised slightly. Like a little mini-plateau.

“Looks like we found our factory.”

Kate kneels down and puts a palm on the sand. My shock sensors pick up a rumble that’s too subtle for me to feel with my flesh. She stands again.

“Yeah. Big hollow space, hard walls under the sand. That’s it.”

Daisuke: “Can you feel an entrance?”

“Yep. There’s a stable tunnel on the far side. Let’s hit it.”

And hit it we do. I’ll spare you the details of our forty-minute overland slog through the sand. Here, you can play along at home - find a fistful of something gritty and unpleasant, mash it into your face, then go climb in an oven with a running hairdryer and you’ve got a pretty accurate representation of what the trek was like. Riveting, yet comfortable. By the end of it I’m begging for a cold beer and a cigarette followed by a swift death. If I were still capable of sweating I’d be doing it so hard that all my organs would be on the outside by now.

We come to the tunnel. It’s definitely a tunnel, a little ways up on the western rise, punching into the darkness of the earth and looking for all the world like a dead man’s throat. But it’s… not exactly what we expected.

I recoil slightly from the opening and turn to the other two. “Ugh. The fuck is this pink shit? It looks like used bubblegum.”

It’s spilling out of the tunnel like a giant deformed tongue, and coats the walls in a film of goopy, awful mess that I don’t want anything to do with. All the way down, as far as I can see.

Kate shrugs. “You’re the one with a spectrochemical analyzer bolted to your brain stem, smart guy. You tell us.”

I shudder in my armor, approach the gunk, and stick a finger in it. The taster circuits set to work immediately, and a bunch of data flies across my vision. I scroll through it quickly, looking for the pertinent bits.

Pulling my finger back out, I reply with a sigh, “Let’s see… we’ve got some long proteins, plasticizers, polymers… polysaccharides. Basically everything in a chemistry textbook that starts with a P. Some resins. Waxes. Sucrose, regular ol’ sugar. And a hefty amount of, uh… what looks like a dilute combination of mucosal proteins and serous fluid.”

Kate raises an eyebrow at me. “So…”

“So I was dead on the money, to my eternal despair. It’s fucking bubblegum. Freshly chewed. Nothing toxic. Just really goddamn yucky.”

Daisuke nods, hand on beard. “Good material for nest-building. Already using their unique mutations to their advantage. Fascinating.”

I shake my head. “Yeah, let me know if you’re still feeling appreciative when you’re ankle-deep in this shit.”

Kate draws her sword. “Nothing for it. We’ve dealt with worse things than gum. And hey, at least it isn’t sand, right?”

I scoff. “Every cloud has a disgusting pink lining.”

She continues, “Weapons out. I’m up front. Sludge, behind me, Dai after. Dai, save your energy, I’ll handle radar.”

Dai frowns. “Are you sure?”

“They’re covered in goo, but the place is still full of trillions of very tiny rocks. I’m in my element. If a lizard farts, I’ll know about it.”

I snort. “What a curse.”

Like three complete idiots walking directly into the mouth of an enormous beast, we walk directly into the mouth of a tunnel that looks awfully similar to that of an enormous beast.

And, almost immediately, it’s too dark to see. People never think about light when going on expeditions like this. I think it’s movies. It’s always so bright everywhere in movies. We did not bring a Hollywood quality lighting crew on this mission. Mostly because the general Hollywood area stopped playing nice with spacetime a while back. That and they would have given away our position. We’re professionals.

Kate stops abruptly, pink filth oozing around the soles of her boots.

Her electronically-processed voice murmurs in my ear, “Alright, it’s dark as fuck in here. I can still feel the shape of the sand, but this is suboptimal.”

I can see in the dark. It’s one of the benefits of being a biomechanical sin against nature and the gods that made it.

“I can see. But Dai can’t.”

Dai’s smile is audible. “Nope!”

“I can turn on the high beams. But that would give us away about as fast as anything.”

Kate shakes her head. “I’d rather not. Dai, are you alright moving forward in the dark?”

“Of course.” He puts a hand through a tear in my coat and around one of the two hoisting rails on my back plate. I have no idea how he did that without being able to see. “I’ve been provided with a firm lead. Onward and downward.”

We descend further into the belly of the earth. It doesn’t take long for the passageway to widen and twist in different directions - all completely coated with sticky, damp gum. The color starts to change, though. From solid pink to other pastel candy colors. Yellows, blues, greens, oranges and reds. It’s the slimiest rainbow ever. Despite the branching paths, Kate seems to know exactly where she’s going, and I don’t question it.

Near the end of one particularly wide tunnel, almost forty yards down from surface level, Dai’s hand comes off my back. We stop.

His breathing is heavy and labored, and his eyes are leaking luminous white mist.

“Two… things, that I think bear discussing.”

Kate turns and sighs exasperatedly. “Shit. I’m light on my feet, and I’ve been using the sand without thinking about it. Moving through this shit is probably exhausting for you. I didn’t even think about it.”

Still smiling, Dai replies, “Easily the worst terrain… we’ve ever been through. I’m surprised my boots are still on. And it’s getting deeper as we go. Each step is like… training with resistance bands.”

He holds up a hand. “Also… there are at least two dozen terror lizards, that way.” He points down the tunnel. “Must be a gathering den for them. But I don’t think they’ve noticed us yet.”

The lights in his eyes go out, and he braces himself on his knees.

Kate nods. “Alright. Catch your breath, Dai.”

I offer, “I could carry him.”

“What?”

“He needs to save his strength for the fight. If he shows up winded, he won’t be any use. Mechanized sabaton’s on the other foot down here, missy. I don’t have any problem moving through this stuff.”

She frowns. “You’re not going to be able to shoot with a 350-pound psychic in your arms, Sludge.”

“And he’s not going to be able to live if he can’t take more than one step every seven seconds without herculean effort. Either way, mobility is fucking shot down here. Our only hope of coming out of this with all our blood still inside our bodies is to either lure these things outside where we can walk around freely, or find some kind of bottleneck where we can funnel them toward us and not get surrounded or outmaneuvered.”

She nods. “I was thinking the same thing.”

“No you weren’t.”

Well you can’t prove that, can you. Hang on a sec.”

There’s another very quiet earthquake, with Kate as its epicenter.

She huffs a tired breath. “Okay. This passageway leads a good ways forward, then dumps out into a large chamber. Wide. Probably the factory floor. I’m betting that’s where these things are congregating. You can carry Dai up to the opening, and that’s where we’ll make our stand. Once we open fire, their only choices will be crowding a narrow passage with us at the other end, or running. We win either way.”

One of my pneumatic cylinders hisses. This is how mutant cyborgs express doubt.

“We’re all gonna die, aren’t we.”

She pats my metal cheek sarcastically. “With that attitude, yes, we are. Cheer up, Sludge. There’s murder to be done. You like murder.”

Sigh. Yeah. Yeah, I do.”

“Alright. Then let’s go and get it.”

I stomp my way over to Daisuke, who’s smiling just like he always does - beaming at me like a gigantic puppy. He holds his arms out and bats his eyelashes at me. I’m bionic and strong and all, but Dai’s still a hefty lad. My hydraulics and flex interlocks whine at me when I haul him off the gummy floor.

Now carried aloft in my loving arms like a freshly rescued princess, he remarks with eyes sparkling above that completely unironic and beard-covered smile of his, “Surprisingly gentle! Beneath all that scary armor must beat a tender heart after all. I had no idea, Sludge.”

Daisuke fails majestically at letting anything embarrass or discourage him. He’s either a gullible sap or a sage of infinite wisdom and dignity, and after all these years I still can’t really tell which.

“Yeah yeah, don’t get used to it, loverboy. You just focus on, uh… focusing.”

“As you wish, Sir Sludge.”

With Dai up in the air and mobile again, it doesn’t take us long to reach the end of the passageway. I don’t need night vision to be able to tell that it empties into a huge chamber - the sound of everything changes, and there’s that subtle difference in air pressure that comes when you open a door. It’s like stepping into a yawn. There’s a ramp heading down onto the old factory floor, which by now is entirely sand and slime. If there was much equipment left in here, it’s all gone, other than a few scattered pipes and vats of stuff. Not much to break up the space. Open sight lines.

We stop, right before the room, all that silent darkness hovering right in front of our faces.

I set Daisuke back on the ground. He faces his back toward the way in to hide his glowing eyes and whispers into the audio channel, “I count… twenty-six lizards in this chamber. Lying in small groups, not all together.”

“That’s not that many.”

Kate taps the tip of her sword against my chest. She can do this from ten feet away, because her sword is ridiculous. “A non-zero number of two-thousand pound hungry, gelatinous, regenerating terror lizards is too many, Sludge. Do you have that many shots?”

“Two cans of exploding shells. That’s two dozen rounds. Assuming you and Dai actually manage at least a single kill each, that should be more than enough.”

She snorts. “Pack of smokes says I get more than you.”

I haul my sniper cannon off my back and into my arms. My electronic eyes run over it like it’s a newborn baby.

Honestly, it’s unfair saying that this is a gun. “Gun” conjures mental images of revolvers and hunting rifles. Y’know, toys. For children. Calling this thing a gun is like saying that getting run over by a tank would be “itchy”. This device weighs more than most men and fires shells so heavy that you could kill someone just by throwing one at them. There are more moving parts and individual circuits in this weapon than there are in a nuclear power plant, and the only reason it’s not a crime for me to own it is because regulatory commissions don’t want to be seen crying in front of their friends. If I put on roller skates while holding this thing I become legally indistinguishable from artillery.

This is not a gun. It’s not even a weapon.

It’s a catastrophe with a trigger.

My mom made this gun for me, and I love it almost as much as I love her. Some kids’ moms make them sweaters, or cookies, or chronic emotional trauma. My mother is one of the most gifted gunsmiths in the American Federation, and when she found out what my mutations had done to me, she made damn sure I’d have a weapon so ludicrously powerful that nothing and no one in their right mind would ever try to fuck with her baby boy ever again. My mother sometimes has difficulty with the notion that you can’t just shoot all of life’s problems in the face, but her heart’s always been in the right place, and I love her to death.

I come out of my momentary hypnosis and reply to her, “I won last time, you know. And most times before that. Big gun versus big sword is kind of a bad matchup.”

“I’ve got the terrain on my side this time. Narrow space. I bet they’re gonna close in, and once they do you’ll be about as useful as an overloaded forklift.”

Dai interjects, “We are in a very dangerous situation, in which we could easily die if we do not work together.”

Kate rounds on him. “Not everyone had their sense of friendly competition surgically removed when they were toddlers, Dai.”

Yeah. Why don’t you go sniff a flower, Siddhartha.”

There’s a split second of hanging silence, then the three of us quietly gag on our own laughter for a minute. Pre-combat giggles. It happens more often than you’d think.

Kate wipes an eye and continues, “Okay, let’s start the show. Same formation as that time with the mushroom goblins. Dai can’t move around effectively with this slop everywhere, so the two of us should keep close and hold the heat off him. Dai, how many of these things can you borrow at once?”

He pulls a burly-looked sawed-off from inside his coat and hums pensively. “Hmmm. They don’t feel like particularly adept thinkers. I could comfortably hold four, maybe five or six if I pushed myself.”

“That should be enough, don’t break a sweat or anything. Have them line up at the mouth of the tunnel and do traffic control while Sludge and I take their coats and serve drinks. Sludge, pick your favorite and open fire when you’re ready.” Kate swings her enormous blade up and crossways in front of her, ready to kill.

A shiver goes down what’s left of my spinal column. There is no more beautiful phrase in the English language than “open fire”.

I pan my gray-green night vision over the lightless, dripping cavern, and see lizards at the far wall across from where we’re standing. Minding their own business, sleeping, crawling over one another. At rest. Massive, slimy, and in an upsetting riot of crayon colors that no self-respecting normal terror lizard would ever be caught dead in.

I like you the best, Lemon-Lime. You’re a big sucker. And such a refreshing color scheme! Time to go all over the walls.

I rest my death engine in the crook of my elbow, place the crosshairs on Lemon-Lime’s forehead, and pull the trigger.

There’s a sound, louder than the thud of Artemis’s greatbow. It buckles the support beams of the old warehouse for the first time since the seismic storms that buried it. The shock compensators in my shoulder hiss like a basket of vipers.

Lemon-Lime retires from being a lizard. The hypersonic injection bolt encounters as much resistance as you’d expect from a wad of magically animated taffy and replaces the lizard’s amygdala with a quarter-pound of Mama Thompkins’s finest home-cooked explosives. The creature’s head lights up the entire warehouse like a flashbulb for one glorious instant - then there’s nothing but the faint sound of mutant candy flesh splattering down in all directions like a summer afternoon meat drizzle, and the beautiful bell-like ringing in the ears that can only come from the sweet dispensation of detonation.

The spent shell leaps from its chamber, tumbles through the air, and sinks into the ground with a metallic thunk.

There’s a citrusy smell, and I can’t help but laugh.

God, does it feel good to kill again.

The massive, slavering lizards lounging around the cavern start suddenly at the explosion, but it takes them a few seconds to even realize what’s going on. That’s a shame for them, because I only need a few seconds to send half a canister of shells downrange and return seven more lizards to their bastard idiot maker. Each one detonates like a bag of wet confetti with a firecracker in the middle. Some of them explode so good that I can see their bones. They’re made of rock candy. What trick will God play on us next, I wonder?

I keep firing, but these things can see in infrared, and they can hear. They’re not smart, but they’ve got senses, and it doesn’t take long for our cover to be blown. Terror lizards mutate a lot and there are as many regional variants as there are colors in the rainbow, but they have one unifying attribute - pure animal aggression. They’re meaner than a hungover rattlesnake and they’ll eat anything warm. My reactor is hot as hell right now and the other two are made of living meat, so, we’re found out pretty quick.

In scant seconds, they’re on us, scrambling up the loading ramp in a tidal wave of slimy, furious taffy, mouths the size of small boats sawing needle teeth at us.

Kate’s standing furthest ahead at the door, massive sword held samurai-style up by her right ear. Dai’s to my left. His eyes start to glow as he raises his shotgun.

I fire one more shell at the oncoming lizard wave, toward the bottom. The blast trips some of them up, but the ones behind just slither right over them.

My can’s empty. Lots of lizards are dead, but even more are stampeding toward us. I have to reload.

“Reloading!” I disengage the spent can - it thuds to the ground, blackened and smoking.

Gritting her teeth at the advancing avalanche of monsters, Kate shouts, “Great timing, Sludge!”

Dai fires his shotgun into the lizards, which accomplishes absolutely nothing. The pellets hit like snow striking the radiator grille of a speeding truck. He snorts and raises a hand.

The biggest six lizards at the front of the pack stop, like they just realized something important. These bastards are so big that they take up the entire loading ramp and none of the critters behind them can climb over.

Their eyes are glowing with white mist.

All six push off the ground with their forelegs and about face, slamming their three-ton oozing bulk down on the ramp with a seismic wham. They turn on their families without an instant of hesitation, cleaving through the smaller lizards’ heads and necks with jaws like sharpened hydraulic presses. Sorry, folks. You work for us now.

This gives us a bit of breathing room, but some of the more focused lizards in the rear manage to squirm past their betraying fellows and keep coming.

The can of explosive shells slats into my cannon’s loading breach with a click-CLACK so sonorous and beautiful it might as well be church bells. In seconds they’re going to be too close for me to fire without turning Kate’s ribcage into a butcher shop storefront, but there’s a window. A window is all a good sniper needs. I blast away, calling down the thunder of the gods and reaping the holy whirlwind. Red, blue, purple and green - candy slime and burning shrapnel go flying in all directions.

Dai’s mental hijacking and my righteous fusillade aren’t enough to stop them all. Six or seven three-thousand pound candy crocodiles slip through bear down on us. Dai can’t move and I’m near-useless at close range - if they get to us, we’re deader than the zombie biker overlords of Necro-Paris, but without the cigarettes and cool motorcycles.

Kate starts dancing.

Honestly, when Kate starts to kill, it’s hard to parse that that’s even what it is, at first. People aren’t supposed to move that fast. Giant pieces of metal aren’t supposed to move that fast, unless they’re attached to an engine. Her enormous blade flicks through the air like a dry yardstick, so fast I can barely process it. It divides the air so completely that on some strokes it breaks the goddamn sound barrier, making little thunderclaps as she strides to and fro. Her eyes are closed. She’s not in her own body anymore - her mind is inside her blade, and it moves as her will does.

While I’m trying to find a goddamn target, Kate’s arm blinks out of existence for a fragment of a second and a terror lizard flies apart, its head riven in half down the middle like an invisible guillotine just passed through it. The sand boils up from beneath the layer of bubblegum and spreads out under her. Her heels push off it and the sand carries her faster than her own legs can. She flits from one end of the ramp to the other - a distance of forty feet - in an instant, to split a jolly-looking strawberry-kiwi lizard in half at the spine, just before it could get its claws into my armor. The sand carries her back and forth, and her blade takes lizard after lizard to whatever world comes after this one.

Between my opening bombardment, Dai’s brain thievery, and Kate’s superhuman swordswomanship, the three dozen or so sugar monster lizards all die like animals at the hands of an expert hunter. That’s us. We’re the expert hunters in this goddamn subterranean hellpit. Maybe next time the world will think twice about cooking up some horrible freak abominations with us around. It probably won’t, but a mutant can dream.

I run an internal diagnostic on me and my gun before disconnecting, just in case. Everything’s green. I unplug the sight cable from my eye, collapse the barrel, and slot the huge thing onto my back.

Kate and Dai are cleaning up. Dai makes his six puppets kill each other after using them to stomp all over their former allies’ remains, and Kate beheads the last one standing. Dai’s sweating a bit and breathing heavily, but he doesn’t look any worse for the wear. Same with Kate. Good thing we finished up when we did - if there were too many more of these things, I think we might’ve been in big trouble.

Kate pulls her respirator down and lights a smoke. “Agh, fuck.”

“What?”

“Some of these bastards are regenerating. Look.”

She points to a few of the dismembered or exploded corpses all around her. Some of them are twitching, and I can see skeins of bubblegum taffy flesh trying to knit their severed body parts back together. The noises these things are making are almost beautifully disgusting.

Kate walks back to the rear of the ramp, away from the corpses, and says, “Can you burn these? All our work is gonna be for nothing if they just pull themselves back together.

I nod. “Sure thing, boss. Let me have one of your smokes though.”

She hands me one. There’s a pneumatic tssss as my jaw drives disengage slightly without breaking the pressure seal in my suit. I slot the smoke into a little rubberized aperture between my “teeth” on the right side, and re-engage the jaw clamps. There’s another hiss. This port is supposed to be used as a way for me to hose water and nutrients into my suit without opening it and infecting everything within shouting distance, but it also happens to just be the same diameter of an average cigarette and my lungs still work, so lucky me.

I take a cigarette lighter out of a thing on my belt (closer to a blowtorch so my stupid metal hands can actually use it) and light up a small thin tube on my right wrist. A little tongue of blue flame appears with a tiny whoomp. You might have thought I was going to light the smoke with it. You’re half right. I point my fist at the several piles of squirming half-dead terror lizards.

Something in my wrist that feels like a muscle (but isn’t) engages, and there’s the undeniably weird sensation of some of my internal fluids running up my chest, through the shoulder, and into my arm.

A fat firehose’s worth of burning napalm explodes from the nozzle and douses the broken monsters in a sticky inferno. The pressure rocks my arm back a bit but I keep it on target, sweeping it back and forth a little until every bit of rainbow gunk is coated in flame. I close the valve and the firestream stops. I hold up my wrist and use the pilot light to start my smoke, then pinch it out. Job done, I puff contentedly, smoke huffing out of the vents in my neck and collarbone.

The cavern glows red-orange, and fills with the hissing shrieks and gurgles of things that don’t want to die but are definitely going to do it anyway.

You know how the human digestive system produces methane? Which is flammable? And you remember how I said my body is a horrible poisonous wreck? Well, without getting into all the gory details, I shit napalm. Literally. I almost wish I was joking, but I’m not. Okay, it’s not exactly napalm, but it’s a complex mixture of polymers and hydrocarbons similar to napalm and I said I wouldn’t get into the details. Make fun of me all you want, but I guarantee you my digestive byproducts make a way better weapon than yours do.

“Thank you, Sludge.”

“Anytime, milady. How much did you say this job was worth?”

“Twelve thousand.”

A vent on one of my shoulders makes an appreciative whistling sound. “Hot damn. Not bad for an afternoon’s work.”

She laughs and shakes her head. “What are you gonna get?”

Me? I’m gonna get me an airplane with big guns. Then I’m gonna fly all around the world and find a place that isn’t a landfill. Then I’m gonna land and never take off again. That’s what I’m gonna get.”

She smiles, knowingly. “Yeah? I’m gonna get a mountain. An entire mountain, somewhere in the Rockies. And I’m gonna put a house on top of that mountain, and start a smithy. I’ll make swords and tools for people and they’ll buy them without batting an eye. What are you gonna get, Dai?”

“I’m going to get a bottle of Old Guardian barleywine. It’s the stuff of legends, made by an ancient brewmaster in California hundreds of years ago. They say it has magical powers - one sip, and all your ills are cured. Two sips, and you’ll never be hurt again. Three sips, and the world will break upon you forever. No one’s ever found more than broken bottles, but with four thousand whole dollars? I’ll be able to find it, no problem.”

The three of us are quiet for a moment, then we laugh. It’s a running joke after we finish a job. You’ll never have enough money to buy your way out of a shit world. We know that. But sometimes it helps to pretend that if we got enough, maybe we could.

We stay near the bonfire of the terror lizards we killed so well, catching our breath and smoking despite the fact that one of those actions eventually destroys the other. We’re still mostly human - we can’t help it.

Kate flicks her cigarette onto the pile of burning corpses (because that’s what piles of burning corpses are for) and brushes her coat off. “Well. We should probably get out of here before that fire eats all the oxygen. We’ve got a long march back.”

Dai mutters, “I hope we get back before it’s too late. I want to eat at Rita’s before she closes.”
The two of them turn about and take the first steps down the way we came.

“When are you gonna just ask Rita out, Dai? We all know you like her. And I’m pretty sure she likes you.”

“I’m shy. And don’t be silly, you don’t know she likes me.”

“I’m pretty sure that’s what all the free burgers mean. A real businesswoman wouldn’t give away so much food to someone she didn’t like.”

“I thought that was just her acknowledging a loyal customer.”

“It’s her acknowledging that she wants some of that big D if you know what I’m sayin’, huhuhuh.”

Katelyn. That’s so filthy.”

Their voices start to recede down the tunnel. I haven’t turned around or thrown my smoke. My ocular implants whirr quietly as I zoom in on the darkness of the far side of the cavern.

I can see something standing there.

Looking through all the fire and smoke, I wasn’t sure if I was seeing anything at all. Even with infrared vision, there isn’t much light in here. But the fire brought a lot with it. And there’s something over there.

It looks like a person. Or it’s person-shaped. The resolution on my night cameras isn’t as great as I’d like it to be, so it’s fuzzy, but I’m pretty sure that’s shoulders and a head. No hat, no clothes or weird angles. Can’t make much out besides that. Only barely noticeable with the new shadows the fire’s throwing all over the place. Just standing there, in the dark, at the far end of the cavern. Just standing there.

Completely motionless.

Maybe it’s just a trick of the light. This place is full of ruin and collapsed concrete and entirely coated in a layer of goddamn lumpy bubblegum. Maybe it’s nothing.

I speak into the comm circuit, “Hey.”

They both stop. “What?”

“I think I see something.”

I can hear Kate roll her eyes. “Be more specific, Sludge, there’s lots of things.”

“A guy.”

“A guy?”

“Yes, dammit. He’s just standing there, on the other end of the cave. Over in the corner, a bit away from the wall. Can’t make much out. Get over here.”

“It’s probably just a shadow or something, or the body of one of the villagers these things killed.”

“Bodies don’t stand up on their own. Unless they’re hollow men.”

All the whining immediately drains out of Kate’s voice. “Hollow men don’t come this far south. Don’t fuck with me, Sludge.”

“Just get over here and fucking look so we can get this over with. If it’s a hollow man we’re already dead, so it’s not like it matters.”

Dai interjects, “We should make sure, Kate. We don’t want to leave anything undone. Maybe it’s a survivor.”

She sighs, and the two of them slog their way across the gum back over to me. Kate pulls out a data cable and a portable screen and plugs one end into my neck. I send my vision through it so she can see what I see.

First she hems, then she haws. Dai is silent.

“I dunno. I guess it could be a person. But why would they be standing still like that? If they’re not dead you’d think they’d want to be anywhere other than here. There’s no way they can’t see us with this fire.”

I cut the feed and Kate puts the electronics away. “Well, thankfully we brought a specialist. Daisuke, me old chum?”

The big man nods. “Just a moment.” He closes his eyes, but shimmering white mist leaks out from between his eyelids like antigravity tears.

Then he opens them.

His mouth opens too. It looks just like a scream, but nothing comes out.
Daisuke’s knees give way and he crumples into the slime of the floor, totally motionless.

Kate’s beautiful blue eyes, paralyzed wide in fear, meet my glowing green ocular implants, and we allow ourselves just the briefest moment to bathe in the waterfall of total fear.

Three. Two. One.

I speak first. “Run. I’ll hold it off.”

“I’m not leaving Dai.”

“We promised, Kate.”

“I don’t care.”

“Kate, we pro-”

I don’t fucking care, Sludge, I’m not leaving him.

Trying to sway Kate is like trying to melt through a bank vault by licking it.

She continues, “I can’t carry him anyway. You go.”

“Fat chance, lady, I’m right fucking here.”

“Fine.”

She hefts her sword off her shoulder. I can hear it thrumming a quiet tone - ready to vibrate through flesh, bone, and steel.

I haul my cannon from my back. The barrel unfolds and magnetizes with a ka-clank as heavy and final as the drop of an anchor. I change the half-spent digpop can for a can of punch slugs. Not wasting explosives on something that might laugh at them.

She sighs. “Let’s kill.”

Very dramatic, very confident. There’s just one problem.

No visual on target.

I mumble, “It’s not fucking there anymore, Kate.”

Whatever it was, the shape in the corner, is gone. There’s nothing but shadows and sticky walls now. Deleted itself. Not nothing, then.

“Then find it.”

My spectroscanner rises up from my right shoulder and unfolds, spinning like a weathervane in the dark. The feed unreels across my vision. Blank. Not even a heat signature. The thing’s gone. I’m not even sure how I would know - I don’t know what I’m looking for.

“Nothing. No heat. No smell. No radiation.”

Her face is stuck like a fly in glue, looking at nothing. Listening.

“Fuck.”

“What?”

“Movement. Across the sand. Soft. Can’t tell from where.”

“You can’t tell?”

“It’s just something the sand is telling me. Shh. Wait.”

We wait. Four seconds. It’s just dark in a big quiet, with only the light and sound of the burning napalm to fill it. It’s doing a bad job.

“The fuck am I waiting for, Kate?”

She shakes her head, like there’s a cobweb on her nose. “Motherfuck. It’s too vague.”

I’m not looking at her. My eyes are scanning all around. Still trying to find the thing that isn’t there anymore. That may not have been there at all. “Okay. We need to get out of here. Now. I’m going to pick up Dai. You keep watch.”

I turn around to start the process of getting Dai into my arms, the sound of my limb actuators loud and echoing and absurd. Kate turns her head, for just a second, to check the way we came in.

Or maybe she and I just felt the same thing.

Between us and the way out is something that looks like a person. It’s not a person, but it looks a little like one. Imagine a person. You’ve probably got a pretty decent idea of what those look like, unless you’re a being from another world that also happens to know Ainglish.

Now make it so the imaginary person is made entirely out of molded wet bubblegum. Pink, or magenta. Glistening. Lumpy. You might want to stop the imagining process now. That’s okay. But as long as you’re reading this, you’re coming along on a ride with ol’ Uncle Sludge. And this train don’t stop.

At first it seems like the Gumboy was made without arms, but that’s not quite true - there are lumps and divets along its chest like it had its hands touching its collarbone. The way a man lying in a coffin does. But they fused there. It’s standing, but bent slightly, looking down. Either in some sort of pain, or ashamed.

There’s not much face there, so it’s hard to tell.

Its feet aren’t distinct from the floor. They’re fused there too, into the slime. It looks like the Gumboy could have sprouted right up from the ground. Maybe it did, when we weren’t looking.

I do not like what that says about the room we’re in.

With a flick of my brain, my spectroscanner dish snaps to the thing and starts bombarding it with every kind of electromagnetic radiation I know how to make, because I am not a timewaster. I need data and I need it now. I would probably get more data if I got my taster circuits on the thing, but I am not about to go over and shake Gumboy’s hand. Who knows where it’s been?

… I get no data. No useful data, at least. Gumboy does not emit heat. Gumboy does not emit alpha, beta, x-ray, gamma, or any other kind of radiation. Much, much worse, Gumboy appears to eat every flavor of sight I have - he’s fucking opaque to everything. That doesn’t even make sense. That’s just gum and some magic, isn’t it? Isn’t it? I’d give my entire spinal cord for a thaumoscope right now, but I’m pretty sure there are only two or three of them in existence. What are you, Gumboy?

He’s not telling. He’s mostly just standing there. Was that a twitch, in the shoulder? Could have imagined it. Maybe I’m imagining all of this. That would be nice.

My starboard shoulder camera sees Kate flick her eyes to my head, unsure of what to do. I turn my head a little toward her, to let her know I see her looking at me, and also to indicate that I don’t know what the fuck to do any more than she does.

You know what? Fuck it. Live bold. I can afford it - I’m pretty sure my body forgot how to die a while ago.

The power channel opens and my external speakers make a subtle click, followed by a fading crackle-hum.

“Hello?”

The word echoes into the dark, thin and processed.

My speakers suck. My armor is so stuffed to capacity with all kinds of electronics and servos and nonsense that they couldn’t find room for a halfway decent sound system, so my “normal” speaking voice always sounds tinny and washed out, like a cheap loudspeaker. Here in my helmet I sound mostly like a person who’s had bronchitis since they were born (thanks, mutations), but no one else has been able to hear my real voice in about twenty years. Kate’s probably forgotten what I used to sound like, without all the labored wheezing and electronic filtering.

None of that matters at the moment, though. Even less, because Gumboy does not visibly react to my greeting.

Well. We can’t just fucking stand here forever. Kate will die of thirst (well, boredom first, probably) and my reactor will eventually give up. In around five years, if I stay very still.

I shut my speakers off and say over the radio, “Well, I tried.”

Her voice is low, unsure of whether Gumboy can hear her under her mask. “Oh, there’s still plenty of shit we can try.”

“I think we should try to be friends with it.”

Her eyes swivel, but she can’t get her eyes on mine without moving her head, which she seems unwilling to do. I don’t blame her. “The fuck are you talking about? It knocked Dai out from across the room.”

“Maybe it was just defending itself. You and I both know that getting telepathy’d doesn’t feel great. It hasn’t attacked. Maybe it’s just curious.”

“That’s a lot of fucking maybes, Sludge.”

Yeah, well, it knocked Dai out from across the room, so forgive me if I’m willing to exercise a little caution. And besides, look at this guy. He’d be a hit at parties.”

She sighs. “Okay, master diplomat. Go nuts. But make it quick, my arms are getting tired.”

I hiss a sigh out of my collar vents. School did not teach me negotiation tactics. Or anything else. Because I have never been inside a school. Books are for people with money, and besides, guns hit harder.

Speaking of which, I demagnetize and replace mine. I’m not sure if this thing knows what guns are, but in case it does, I’m not about to start a friendly conversation with a humming 1.5 inch vehicle-class Gauss cannon in my arms. First impressions are important. We, uh… may have just murdered all this thing’s… pets? Family? So, I guess we’re on impression three or four by now. Never too late to make amends!

I take a few steps toward Gumboy. Slow, patient ones, not aggressive, with both my hands up. Because I have latent suicidal tendencies, apparently. He’s about ten feet from me. Doesn’t move or react to my approach. My feet make miserable squishing noises on the not-ground.

Up closer, Gumboy is… bad. I do not like him. If I saw him in the street, I would point and laugh, vicious and grateful to finally see someone that has it worse off than I do. Homie barely has a face. Those might be eyes. Maybe? They’re dark holes in the approximate location of eyes. No mouth or nose or anything. He looks like someone started making a figure of a person out of freshly-used bubblegum but gave up most of the way through once they took a step back, came down off the drugs, and realized what they were doing. I hate that he’s pink. Pink is a stupid color for something so ludicrously psychic it can turn Dai’s brain off at two hundred paces.

Small too, compared to me. Compared to my armor, at least. Like a lot of things with me, calling it “armor” is a little inaccurate - it’s like a wearable tank. The thing’s seven feet tall and weighs almost a ton with all the biosis containment systems and weaponry and whatnot. And little ol’ me, nestled in its heart like a fetus that decided to quit and start its own program, sprouting wires and connectors that no one’s touched in years. Gumboy’s about the size of my real body. Maybe five feet tall, and scrawny-thin, almost bony. I wonder if he even has bones. I still do, but they’re soft and they break all the time.

My speakers come back on, volume low. “Can you understand me?”

Gumboy just stands there, still looking somewhere at the ground, still a little bent and hugging his own chest like his wife just died in front of him.

“Did those lizards belong to you? Friends, maybe? Or pests? Good news if the latter, huhuhuh.”

I have no fucking clue what I’m doing.

“If the former… sorry. We didn’t know. You didn’t say anything. Kind of like how you’re doing right now.” I throw a thumb over my shoulder. “While I’m at it, sorry about our telepath giving you a spook. I hope you didn’t scramble his egg too bad. We’re very fond of him.”

Nothing. I kneel down a little bit to see if I can get any information at all from Gumboy’s semi-face. But it’s like trying to read Russian or some other dead language while extremely drunk. You might think you’re getting somewhere, but there’s nowhere to get.

“Is there anyone you’re fond of, buddy? Not sure if that’s too personal, but hey, can’t blame a guy for trying to find common ground, right?”

Gumboy’s head moves up a little. Like he’s trying to look at me. But not at my face. Not the face everyone else looks at. He’s looking at my chest. In the containment unit where my real face is.

I’m aware of the connector pins in my brainstem. They’re hot, and sharp. They were very insistent in telling me that I wouldn’t feel anything. A man with green hands and gleaming eyes raises a starlight syringe to the sky and says, “No, the subject exhibits far too much neurodegradation already. You’ve got plenty of things to worry about, Sludge, but pain isn’t going to be one of them.” I am beginning to suspect that they were lying to me. This memory doesn’t even make sense. Sludge wasn’t my name when I was on the table. That was twenty years ago. I was a person, with a person’s name. I’m not sure where I am.

That is an image of my sister. You’re not supposed to be able to see her, or know who she is. No one can see her anymore. She went underground before she had the chance to decide who she was going to be. I tried to follow her, but I wasn’t strong enough. Trying to dig down to her, but my fingers splinter even against soft earth. Forearms snap like wet branches, spikes of brittle bone erupting through skin as porous and soft as old cake. Too weak. The earth is her fortress now, she is finally protected from me. We both got boxes. I can carry mine with me like the shell of a snail. Hers is too heavy.

“Sludge?”

That’s Kate. I know who Kate is.

I’m standing in some fucking mutant ruin, and I’m crying. I’m crying even though my tear ducts haven’t worked in decades.

Gumboy is gone. Where did you go, Gumboy? You made me remember my sister. I have to set you on fire now.

I turn around.

There’s Kate and Gumboy. Standing together like they’re old friends posing for a picture. Kate’s still holding her sword out in front of her, on guard as ever. But she’s frozen still, eyes wide, mouth open in a scream that wants to come out so bad that it went and caused a traffic jam somewhere in her throat.

Gumboy’s a bit behind her, looking the same as he always does. Oh, that Gumboy. What a silly guy. There’s a wet pink tendril, like if a vine was also a tongue, that’s sprouted out of his shoulder meat. It’s slithered up the back of Kate’s neck and split in half. Both halves have wrapped around her face, across her cheeks, and inserted themselves into her eye sockets. Not violently - they’ve flattened and slid in under her eyes like pink tapeworms, pushing the seeing orbs only slightly upward to grab at something behind them. Maybe plucking her optic nerves like the strings of a guitar.

Kate is having a difficult time moving her eyes, because they’re not used to sharing an orbit with other objects. She tries to look at me, but can’t quite get there. Tears are streaming down, running over the tentacles on her cheeks and leaving silvery trails in the firelight. I don’t think she’s allowed to talk to me right now, but that’s alright. I have a feeling I get the gist. Facial expressions can say a lot, you know.

Oh, Gumboy. You always were such a prankster. Your early work, with my dead sister and everything? Priceless. Peak comedy. Really. I laughed so hard I cried. But I’m not so sure about this joke. I don’t know if I like this new direction you’ve gone in.

You’re hurting my friends and now I am going to fucking kill you.

It’s just a rule I have. You couldn’t have known, honestly. Don’t take it personal.

The rising electric hum and heavy metal clank of my gun coming together in my hands is of great comfort to me, like a familiar song. No time to plug in the targeting cable. Iron sights. Gumboy’s freak mutant head nestles right in on top of a bright green post marker. Hundreds of things both human and otherwise have had their heads in exactly this spot at one point or another. Not a single one of them has ever lived. Neither rain nor wind nor armor plating nor distances of up to two miles have ever stayed these sacred shells from their targets.

I’ll give it to you, Gumboy - you weren’t exactly the hardest monster to hunt, but you were definitely one of the creepiest.

Farewell and fuck you.

Boom.

The gun’s vents cough a cloud of exhaust, and the shock compensators in my shoulder reset, hissing gas from between the plates. I heft the cannon into one arm, its smoking barrel reaching toward the sky like a flagpole raised in victory.

Gumboy’s head no longer qualifies as such. It’s more of a sad pink donut, with scorched edges ripped ragged by a ten-pound depleted uranium slug moving through it at Mach 3. Can’t really call that a head anymore, by most technical and linguistic standards. That’s just what happens when you fuck with Sludge Thompkins, baby. You get your head certification revoked by a bullet the size of a fucking cucumber. Try harder in the next life, you freak piece of shit.

… But of course, this is human existence, we’re talking about here. It just wouldn’t be what it is unless God hated each and every one of us with infinite passion and grace.

Skeins of gossamer gum flesh thread themselves across and through the aperture where Gumboy’s brain might have been at one point. They start to knit, like they’re being worked on by a team of invisible spiders. The stuff flows like water, and before my cameras Gumboy is looking as great as he ever has.

Okay, I’ll admit, the kid takes bullets about as well as I do. Not bad. I can respect a freak with an amount of resilience.

Fine. Bullets were just the appetizer. Main course is gonna be a bit hotter.

I put the gun away, thud to the left to get an angle, and spark my left wrist igniter, lining up the nozzle right on him. He’s standing just far enough from Kate that I can drown him in burning jelly without hurting her.

A little bit of the hot stuff drips from the hose, runs down my knuckles and falls to the ground, like a particularly eager bit of anatomy that I won’t be specific about.

Try me, baby, I’m hot and ready to blow.

“Last chance. Pull your shit out of her and slither away, or you’re going on the grill with your friends over there.”

Gumboy doesn’t move. No part of him movies, and neither does Kate. Doesn’t even turn his head to look at me, the disrespectful little bastard. I’m being threatening. I don’t do this very often and I like people to at least shit their pants a little to honor the occasion. Talk about anticlimactic.

The hair-thin instant before I open the valve and blow six gallons of two-thousand-degree load all over this creep, the tendril twitches slightly. Then it reels back into Gumboy’s shoulder, and Kate falls to the ground like someone cut the rope on a bag of hammers.

I take a few steps toward her, but I don’t lower my arm. Because Gumboy hasn’t slithered away like I told him to, and I’m just not a very trusting guy. I kneel down to inspect her, while keeping one camera right on him.

Kate’s awake, but she looks disoriented. Eyes seem fine, if red. Not seizing, pupils normal.

“Hold still for me and lie back, I’m taking your vitals.”

She stops moving quite as much, lying on her back and only trembling a little bit. I take my right hand and plant it on her, fingers a bit around her neck, palm on her chest, letting the taster circuits get a good look at her. My medical subroutines arrive in my head and brush off their labcoats, shining their stethoscopes and ready to work.

Sinus rhythm elevated, but even and within tolerance. Blood pressure normal. Norepinephrine and glucocorticoids consistent with extreme fear. I don’t blame her. No toxins jumping out at me. She’s rattled, but fine.

“Let me up, I’m gonna fucking kill that thing with my brain.”

Yeah, she’s fine.

I take my hand off her and she sits up, shaky at first, but more steady as she stands, turning to face Gumboy. Her sword levitates out of the gummy ground all by itself and eases itself into her right hand. I can feel shaking, somewhere deep in the earth below me.

She growls, “This bitch is about to go Richter.”

There are still tears. But they shine above a mouth full of human fangs, bared in seismic hatred.

Before she has a chance to do anything, Gumboy sinks into the ground like someone diving into a shallow pool. Just gone, in a blink and a half.

He sprouts up again further away, on the other side of the pile of burning taffy lizards. Still facing us, still not moving.

The ground begins to wave, like ripples after a fat guy jumps off the diving board.

The waves of running pink rubber glom their way over the dead burning lizards, dousing the flames and bringing darkness back into the cavern. I immediately turn on the high-beam spotlights in my shoulders, because fuck that shit.

All the lizards are gone. Absorbed into the gum - not a trace left behind. The ramp down onto the old factory floor is as smooth as it was when we came in.

Gumboy stays right where he is, for just a moment, bathing in the harsh white lights. Then he melts back into the floor again, nowhere to be seen.

I’m beginning to think Gumboy might actually be a little bit bigger than his appearance suggests.

Kate throws some words into the echoing dark. “Okay. As much as I’d like to collapse this place into the desert beam by beam, I think we need to get the fuck out of here.”

I turn to look at her. She’s still shaking, but rock solid, using her defiance as glue to keep herself held together.

“Can you walk?”

“Yeah. Grab Dai and let’s go.”

I go over and heft the big sumo wrestler into my arms. My knee servos hiss and spit at me, angry at having to do this twice in one day.

There’s still that shaking in the earth.

“Kate? Is that you?”

She’s walking backwards toward the entry tunnel, keeping an eye on the area around me in case something springs out of the dark. “Is what me?”

“The tremor?”

She stops still. “No. No it isn’t.”

I start toward her, very eagerly. “Yeah we need to get the fuck out of here.”

Kate turns and runs, with me keeping pace right behind her. We don’t waste any time, and it doesn’t take that long to reach the exit now that we’re not worried about stealth. The shaking gets worse and worse as we near the opening, though. And the candy slime on the walls and floor begins to swirl and shift, like the guts of some colossal beast. Almost exactly like the guts of some colossal beast.

Running at full tilt, we burst out of the damp, dark tunnel and into the blessedly blinding, sandy desert air. We don’t even stop as we nearly tumble ass-over-skull down the dune to the bottom of the valley, barely keeping our footing at all. I trip a few times, but Kate drives support poles of compacted sand up under me whenever I’m about to spill, keeping me upright.

We just run. We run until we can barely make out the shape of the old candy factory at the bottom of that valley, hidden under the sand. I spare a look back before we take the turn back to town, though.

That tunnel, with the entrance that looks like the throat of an enormous beast. Suspiciously like the throat of an enormous beast. I can see something standing there, right on the tip of its tongue. A skinny little figure, arms crossed over its chest. Facing me. Maybe even looking at me, across half a valley of heat and dry earth. I feel a hot, sharp stab right in the base of my neck.

I blink as I’m running through the wind and sand, to clear some grit from my lenses. And it’s gone. Back down into the dark.

In the bounty hunting trade, they say that any job you come back from is a job well done. And for my whole life, I’ve agreed. Why not, right? We got out. We’re alive.

But there’s something in the back of my mind that tells me this job might not be done with us yet.



[END TRANSMISSION]



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