The Monster on West 73rd

First time in New Warped City? Read this.

New Warped City. When the first modulation hit everything changed, even the name.

The effects weren’t localised to Madhattan, or the Eastern Seaboard or North America or Earth. There’s no-one to tell anyone how extensive the modulation was. Science needs stability, lenses need precise curves, computers need logic.

The nights are dark in New Warped City and when the corkscrew moon isn’t dimly glowing you can finally see the stars, but you can’t recognise any of them. In the black sky there are clusters and voids, great blue and green sweepings of light, ripples, spirals, godawful confusions and nonstellations. Every night a wedge of an entire galaxy, cut like a piece of sparkle pie, sweeps overhead, disintegrating in a fear almost audible.

As above, so below. Nothing escaped the modulation.

New Warped City

Tentacles are not so awful when they sprout from someone you love. The current human occupants of Madhattan have grown used to them. Many of their loved ones have them. They can make a warm embrace a life-affirming experience once you get over the ick.

Tentacles not attached to loved ones, however, are awful. Giant tentacles reaching out of the dead windows of a burnt out building that echoes with unearthly moans, are an awful problem. For the people in the vicinity of West 73rd, who didn’t want to go the long way around to fetch water from the wormhole down on 75th, it was a problem grown past ignoring.

“Old Tom got got,” said stout Alice, one of those steadfast matriarchs that would skin a man as calmly as a rat, all the while sneaking pieces of squidgeon to the kids. She was standing with Phyllis at a safe distance at the end of the block and across the street, where they could just see the windows and glimpse the occasional inky tip of a tentacle peek out from within. Old Tom’s screams still played in her ear.

“Was only a matter of time,” said Phyllis. “He’s been slow since that void bit his leg.”

Voids, those instantaneous bubbles of non-existence, of a size to take a single leg were rare. They tended to range large or tiny. Even rarer for one to appear in the same space as a person punting an angry squidgeon out of their lean-to. Old Tom’s luck was so bad that being snatched off the street and dragged through a window to be audibly dismembered by a monster was not unexpected.

“Yah. But it’s getting bigger. It’s going to grow out of that shell,” said Alice.

Phyllis crossed her arms and sat back on her rear leg, unconsciously bracing herself for the decision to come. She settled her skirts like the modest human tripod that she was before speaking. “Then there’ll be trouble, what with its taste for human flesh and all now.”

“Yah,” said Alice.

“Can’t say we’re not part to blame for that.”

“Yah. Us and Tom,” said Alice and crossed her arms, the top pair, and placed her hands, the bottom pair, defiantly on her hips. “Guess we get that Bleeker guy in.”

“The rat lover?”

“Who else do you know?”

Phyllis scratched at the waistband of her skirt like something crawled there. It felt to her that any man that preferred the company of rats should be denied the company of humans. “Anyone?”

“He’ll get it done.”

Time passes.

Nathan had to bite Bleeker’s left ear to wake him.

“Someone’s outside, Bleeks,” he whispered.

“You bite me?” said Bleeker, his dream, fed by old pictures of brick homes, green lawns and fruit trees, fading.

“Didn’t break the skin. There’s a couple of ladies outside.”

Bleeker sat up, rubbed his beard, found nothing new in residence, and peered around the van for his overalls.

“Ladies?”

The van was sitting on its wheel rims inside the shell of a travel agency. Getting it in there had been a triumph for Bleeker, a hand winch, and mutant strength.

“Fine ladies,” said Nathan. He chuckled as he scampered off the pallets of the bed base. Bleeker would be disappointed when he discovered they were fine stern old ladies bearing an axe and a crowbar.

“Where’s my overalls?”

“You’re wearing them.”

By the light bouncing through the wire mesh in what used to be the windshield, Bleeker found the denim shirt he was wearing the day before, still half buttoned, pulled it on over the tape around his ribs and slid the overall straps onto his shoulders.

“Where’s your hat?” he asked Nathan.

“The last thing they want to see is a rat in a hat.”

“They’re probably expecting it. And a speech from you, too.”

“I ain’t saying nothing to them. And I’m staying out of sight.”

“They can hear us talking.” Bleeker raised his voice. “Can’t you, ladies?”

From the other side of the rear doors came Alice’s scratchy “Yah.”

Unmistakably a voice that had seen a lot of years and in those years a lot of stress, strain, terror and related shouting. Bleeker glared at Nathan.

“Fine ladies?”

Nathan chuckled, three fast squeaks, as he climbed up the crowded shelves that lined the walls of the van. He sat back against the head of a parking meter from where he could watch the proceedings, stopped light from bouncing off him, and became a shadow.

Bleeker pulled the bent piece of rebar that served as a lock out of its holes and pushed the doors open. Bright sun was falling out on the street and the rubble opposite. It was a beautiful day, between him and which were interposed two of the oldest, sourest women he had ever had the joy to meet. They were armed, but relaxed in that way that only people who have spent a lifetime bludgeoning every threat into submission can relax in Madhattan, and who knew innately that Bleeker was nothing to worry about. Maybe it was the bright orange beard that put them off, or the wide grin, because they were wrong.

“Look at you two! You’re so adorable,” cried Bleeker. He pointed at the four-armed one. “I’m going to call you Grammy.”

“No you’re not,” said Alice.

“And you,” he pointed at the three-legged one, “I’m going to call you Gran-gran.”

Phyllis giggled. She had come prepared to dislike this rat loving Bleeker fellow, but the red hair, the smile, the chest… A look from Alice and she pulled her smile down into a dour curve.

“So, Grammy and Gran-gran, what has you pounding on my door so early in the day? Please tell me it’s not that tentacled monstrosity on 73rd.”

Alice made a point of slowly and clearly introducing herself and Phyllis by name, because that is how it is done and she was nobody’s Grammy. Grandma Hugs to a couple of the cutest dumplings in this godforsaken city, but to no-one else. They waited with pointed gazes until Bleeker caught on and returned the introduction, skipping Nathan, but Phyllis’ eyes were darting around him, looking for the rat he was rumoured to be seen with.

“We’ve come about the thing on 73rd,” said Alice.

The performance had begun. Hearing the address broke something inside Bleeker. With a cry of “Oh, Grammy!” he collapsed onto the rear bumper and put his hands to his shaking head, like he was trying to resist a nightmare.

“It’s started taking our people,” said Phyllis, turning the crowbar over in her hands.

“How many, Gran-gran?” said Bleeker without looking up.

“Just Old Tom,” said Alice, an axe in her bottom pair of hands. The top right hand scratched behind her ear. “He was missing a leg. A void bit it. Left him a bit slow on the flat.”

“Even slower going uphill,” added Phyllis. “Not very productive.”

“Can’t you just tell people to keep their distance?” said Bleeker, looking up at them.

“It can reach near across the whole street now,” said Alice.

“The whole street? The whole street?” cried Bleeker, stretching out fistfuls of beard. “You come to me now, Grammy? When it can reach across a whole street?”

It wasn’t Bleeker’s best performance, but Nathan could tell by the quick glances and raised eyebrows the two women were sharing that they were buying it.

“It got big fast,” said Alice.

“Real fast,” said Phyllis.

“And now it’s real dangerous,” said Bleeker, smoothing down his beard.

“It’s taking our people,” repeated Phyllis.

“Yeah. Grammy. Gran-gran. It’s sad. Real sad. I’d like to help. But I’m in the monster disposal business, not the suicide business. I’m sorry I can’t help you,” said Bleeker and he stood, stepped up onto the bumper, and reached for the doors.

“A person would have to be crazy,” he said and pulled the left door shut, “to take on a monster that size.”

He reached for the right door and was pulling it closed, slowing as the opening narrowed, yet the women did not bite, nor did they plead for his aid. They stood implacable. Phyllis’ expression appeared thoughtful, but she was digging a piece of breakfast out from under a broken tooth with her tongue.

Now there wasn’t enough distance to create the dramatic slam. He closed the door. Nathan leaned in from the shelf, turning off his shadow.

“Too soon, Bleeks. The dramatic exit comes after their first offer,” he squeaked in his ear.

“Dammit,” whispered Bleeker, eye to a peephole, watching Alice running a thumb across her axe blade and twisting a pinky in an earhole at the same time, looking like she had all the time in the world. “They’re cute as hell, but I got spooked by all those arms and the axe.”

“Want me to talk to them?”

“Nah. I got this.”

He pushed open the doors and gave them his biggest, bushiest smile.

“I want to say no, but you two remind of my dear old Grampy-grans and I couldn’t sleep at night knowing I had abandoned you two sweet ladies to unspeakable danger.”

“So you’ll do it?” said Phyllis.

“I will vanquish the beast.”

“So you can sleep at night?” said Alice.

“Yesss.”

“That’s much cheaper than we expected,” said Phyllis.

“That’s not…” said Bleeker, looking back into the van at Nathan, grimacing for some help.

“We accept your offer,” said Alice and stepped forward with a hand out to shake and seal the deal.

Nathan groaned. It was always up to him in the end, wasn’t it? Humans already hated his kind and here he was, making the situation worse for his people, one client at a time. He jumped to Bleeker’s shoulder and ran down the outstretched arm to the hand. Thankfully, when Alice spotted him heading her way she snatched back her hand. Weakness, thought Nathan. She just missed out on a bargain.

“His beauty sleep is just one of our terms,” said Nathan from Bleeker’s palm. The old broads were wrinkling their noses, but they weren’t walking away.

“This is my business partner, Nathan,” said Bleeker.

“I, on the other hand, sleep just fine,” said Nathan. He re-positioned Bleeker’s thumb so he could lean nonchalantly upon it with one hand while he inspected the nails of the other, rubbed them against his fur, inspected them again. Yep, this human job, their human time, was secondary to his rat hygiene. He returned his attention to them, smiled, and just as they began to shift and twitch, continued.

“But killing monsters isn’t cheap. We need compensation for risking our lives. I don’t know how highly you value your lives, but ours don’t come cheap.”

Time passes.

The first stop was the camp. It wasn’t particularly large or wealthy or fortified. It was no Apthorp, no Belnord, but it was a practical camp full of hard working practical people who had no interest in warlords, peacequeens, or starvation. They respected sweat on the brow, pragmatism as well as stoicism, and drove the lazy, the idle and the lame from their company. When required, they pragmatically and stoically caved in the heads of the lazy, the idle, and the lame. Someone like Old Tom, who had toiled for decades, a solidly productive fellow, helping the camp amass their winter stores beyond his own needs, well, he deserved the chance to prove himself still able and capable. But he couldn’t outrun the tentacle, could he, despite Alice and Phyllis wishing him the best and cheering him on as he fled their raised axe and crowbar.

They had liked Old Tom. Phyllis had been quite close to him. That’s why they had decided to try the tentacle run instead of bludgeoning him themselves. It was a mistake. The last words from Old Tom’s mouth had been unkind, his vehement stream of tightly interleaved expletives and insults had ended in a scream, which was followed by many more pouring out of the empty windows for far too long, making the two women tisk at each other. Old Tom had not been so stoic after all.

Like the people in it, the camp was not much to look at. It was situated in a vacancy left behind when the modulation event bent local space, curving the buildings outward like drooping flower petals. Gravity had taken over after that, dragging down where it could brick and concrete slabs that expected to be stacked neatly and vertically, creating avalanches of apartment and office fittings. Since then, the voids, the random, hungry voids, had chewed away at what was left. One massive void, rare as straight teeth, collapsing with a deafening crack that shook the ground for blocks, cleared the space the camp now sat in. Despite the slumping and crumbling that followed, as well as the decay, and yet more voids, you could still see the silhouette of that large bite cut into the fallen buildings.

In the camp there were fewer of the ubiquitous blue tarpaulin lean-tos and more low huts made from car panels and appliance shells industriously separated, flattened and joined with wire. If there was one thing to set the camp apart, it was that it didn’t smell so bad to Bleeker. All the people though, moving around so close to each other, sleeping just a thin wall away from each other—it made cold fingers run up the back of his neck. At least they didn’t stink.

“Yar,” agreed Alice. “We don’t take to mess. And there’s a hole in the middle of the camp that drains the place and where we throw the trash. It’s got a lid that keeps the smell down.”

The giant void had left a perfect divot in the ground, like the 9 iron of the gods upon the fairway of heaven, and at its lowest point it had cut through into a service tunnel of some kind.

Phyllis added, “Someone’s gotta prod it with a stick sometimes. If it hasn’t rained for a while.”

Nathan could see the women were proud of their drain hole, it being their camp’s point of superiority, and were warming up to exposit lengthily upon it. He pinched Bleeker through the shoulder of his denim shirt and whispered a quick “Business!”.

His squeak brought him back into Alice’s attention and she paused, mouth open with more details about the drain hole on the verge of spilling out. Bleeker jumped in.

“Nice hole, Grammy. Great hole. Where’s the monster?”

They were led to the intersection of 73rd and West End where Alice had them wait while she directed Phyllis to peer around the corner.

“It was around that blue wreck up there where my brother got grabbed,” said Phyllis over her shoulder. Bleeker stepped out to get a view of the street.

“From out of that white building on the other side,” said Alice. “The arm shot out like a whip, got Old Tom around the waist, waved him around a few times and then pulled him in.”

She re-enacted the snatch with her own arm, the upper right one, waving her fist around like she had caught a batfly and it wasn’t giving up.

“Nah. It was more like this,” said Phyllis, and began waving her arm in a figure eight, emphasising each downswing like she was beating sense into two dull heads.

“There was more twisting,” said Alice, demonstrating the motion. “His arms and leg were flailing.”

“It was all. About. The swings,” said Phyllis, settling down into a strong tripedal stance and adding more emphasis to the downstrokes. Now she appeared to be slinging paint from a brush.

Bleeker turned his head to arch an eyebrow at Nathan. Nathan rolled his eyes, but it was hard to tell on account of the colour of the rat eye, so he had to tilt his head back to convey his feelings. Way back.

“Looks brutal either way, grans” said Bleeker. “Anyone else been attacked since then?”

The women dropped their arms.

“Nope,” said Alice.

“But we’ve been keeping away,” said Phyllis.

The hulks of cars and vans, rusted, dented, chewed by voids, sat at the kerbs where they had been parked at the time of the modulation event. Bleeker stalked around the closest ones, bending over to look under them, sticking his head through the empty windows to search their interiors.

“It’s up that way,” said Phyllis, pointing down the block. Alice slapped her hand down with two of hers.

“He knows that.”

“Aha,” said Bleeker and wrestled open the crumbling door of a Lexus sedan. He pulled out a tyre rim. Rims were a fundamental building block of life on Madhattan. Plentiful, useful, they served as fireplaces, seat bases, steps; stacked into columns they became structural supports, dropped on heads from a window they became a weapon of defense.

“Who left a completely decent rim in there?” wondered Phyllis.

“A fool,” said Alice, and they both tisked.

Bleeker walked up the street towards the tentacle building. The women followed.

“Can we have that rim when you’re done with it?” said Phyllis.

“Sure,” said Bleeker.

“It is technically ours,” said Alice. “Technically” was the magic word you used to make something true.

“The whole street is ours,” said Phyllis.

Bleeker stopped and set the rim upright in the middle of the street.

“So, technically, the monster is yours, too?” said Nathan from his seat on Bleeker’s shoulder.

“Technically,” said Alice, scrunching her nose at a rat using the magic word against her. “I guess.”

Bleeker gave the rim a kick and set it rolling and bouncing monster-ward. It made a good racket, the metal rim against the hard surface of the street, a grating, metallic clattering that reverberated between what was left of the buildings.

“There’s movement,” said Nathan, spotting a flicker in a window.

Bleeker moved up and to the side of the street for a better view of the building’s facade, trailed by Alice and Phyllis, their axe and crowbar at the ready.

The rim kept rolling. It was in front of the building and wasn’t slowing.

“Good kick,” said Nathan. “But I don’t think the thing eats rims.”

“I was hoping we’d get a better look at it,” said Bleeker as the rim made its way down the block.

From out of a second storey window there came a gushing, black and shiny as oil. It didn’t spill onto the street, but turned and stretched towards the rim. It was a tentacle and it moved fast. It swept up the rim, and withdrew in an instant.

Bleeker and Nathan both gave a long whistle. They harmonised out of habit.

“It’s got quite a reach now,” said Alice.

Nathan sat down on Bleeker’s shoulder and stroked his whiskers. The monster was indeed monstrous. He wondered if he could renegotiate their fee.

“Black and shiny,” said Bleeker. He turned to the women. “You didn’t tell me the tentacles were black and shiny.”

“Tentacles are tentacles,” said Alice. “Besides, you didn’t ask.”

“Is black and shiny bad?” said Phyllis. People in the camp had green tentacles, brown tentacles; Chiver had pink ones growing right out of his stomach. Black and shiny ones seemed almost pretty to her.

“Very bad,” said Bleeker. “It’s back!”

The tentacle, or one like it, snaked out of a different window, higher up. The end was twisted, and it waved sinuously in the air for a moment before whipping towards them, releasing a dark shape in their direction, sending everyone scattering. The missile hit the wall behind them and fell to the ground with a clank. They looked at it. They looked back to the tentacle, but it had withdrawn.

On the ground was a grey ball of metal, its surface a confusion of creases and lines. Alice nudged it with her toe.

“You ruined our rim,” she said.

“Technically,” said Nathan, “your monster ruined it.”

Time passes.

On their way back to the van they discussed strategy.

“We just need to think this through,” said Bleeker. “When you were negotiating with Grammy you said payment was for ‘if’ we kill the monster, right? You used ‘if’?”

Nathan, who was pacing from Bleeker’s ear to his shoulder and back again, slapped the lobe of the man’s ear.

“Of course I said ‘if’.”

“Then we’re fine. We’ll just not do it.”

Nathan slapped the lobe again.

“But you jumped in with a ‘definitely’. ‘We’ll definitely kill it for you, Grammy’ you said. ‘There’s no monster we can’t kill, Gran-gran’ you said.”

“Dammit. I need to learn some humility. I guess we’ll have to go away for a while. Until it eats them.”

For the rest of the walk, while keeping a wary eye on shadows and doorways and empty windows, they debated where they would go, how long until it would be safe to come back, and if an even larger monster, grown huge on an entire camp, would make it impossible to return.

Bleeker wanted to head uptown, out of Madhattan, and find a house with a yard, maybe some fruit trees, maybe some distant neighbours. Nathan wanted to head downtown, past the Midtown Rift. Bleeker was against that.

“It’s all super freaks and dragons down there. We’ll be enslaved or baked to a crisp.”

“I’m pretty super,” said Nathan. “And you’re pretty freaky. We’d fit right in.”

“I’m going to miss Grammy and Gran-gran.”

They approached the travel agency with caution, peering from the middle of the street through the entrance, then stepping closer, looking for footprints and drag marks in the dirt and debris left scattered in the entrance just for that purpose. The van itself looked untouched. The chains stitched through the back doors like a heavy suture were in place and as they stepped closer they could see the wads of paper balanced in the links had not fallen. No-one had tried to break in while they were away. Not through the back doors. The rest of the doors were welded shut and the windows had been filled in with panels taken from other cars.

“Looks clear,” said Bleeker, reaching into the side of his overalls, to the band of nylon tape wrapped around his waist, and wrenched it around until the key that had been hanging from it was at hand. “I still say uptown and out.”

“Downtown’s closer.”

Their security precautions were for naught. Bees buzzed out of their hiding places as Bleeker fiddled with the doors. He was grabbed and pinned face first against the van. Nathan scurried down into a pocket.

The head bee hovered by Bleeker’s ear. “Where’s our money, man?” Its breath stunk of mead and clover cigarettes. It dug one of its black fingers into Bleeker’s shoulder for emphasis while the bees that held his wrists pulled his arms out further.

“Is that you, Buttercup?” said Bleeker, trying to turn his head. He got a slap in the face.

“Buttercup’s out. I’m Daisy.”

“We had an arrangement with Buttercup,” said Bleeker. The arrangement had been to move the van into this building under darkness and hope the bees didn’t find them. At least not until they could pay them back for the acid honey fiasco.

Daisy slapped him again. It was like being whipped across the face with a cane.

“Like I said, Buttercup’s out. He stung a guy. A guy who didn’t want to pay his debts. A guy like you. You want to get stung?”

“No,” said Bleeker.

“Cuz I’ll do it,” said Daisy. “I’ll sting you right now. Right in the head.”

“He’ll do it!” chimed in the bees at his wrists, ankles and knees.

“I’ll do it,” said Daisy, moving in so close Bleeker could feel his mandibles against his ear. “Sting you for the hive. Teach you a lesson. Get my name up on the wall.”

“No-one needs to sting. Or get stung,” said Bleeker. “We’re going to pay you.”

“Well then pay us already,” said Daisy.

“It’s just we’ve gotta do a job first.”

Daisy buzzed and the bees let go of Bleeker and flew into formation behind their leader. Bleeker rubbed his wrists and turned to face them. Nathan stayed where he was. He didn’t like bees. He didn’t want to face them unless he was armed.

“What’s the job?”

“Killing a monster.”

“What monster?”

“The one on 73rd.”

The bees flew in a circle, tittering.

“We’re not getting paid, boys,” said Daisy.

“It’s nothing we can’t handle.”

“It’s nothing you can’t handle?”

“Yeah. And after we handle it, we get paid and you get paid.”

“Is that the deal is it? Boys, let’s show this clown some sky.”

The bee thugs buzzed in and grabbed Bleeker again. Instead of pinning him against the van they lifted him into the air and carried him outside and up, and up, above the buildings. Bleeker whimpered and his hands opened and closed around nothing.

Daisy danced in front of him. His expression was impossible to read, but his flat cap was pushed down low over his faceted eyes. He meant business.

“Interest has been mounting, man. Interest and search fees and collection fees.”

The roofs below were polka dotted with void bites. He closed his eyes. Nathan’s claws had pierced his shirt and they brushed against his chest as the cluster of bees and man was pushed around by the wind.

“You’ll get paid. We’ve got a good deal worked out on this monster.”

“Maybe you’ll move again. That was cute.”

“We won’t move. Promise.”

“What are you getting paid?”

What were they getting paid?

“Nathan?”

Nathan muttered from his hiding spot and Bleeker repeated it to Daisy, item by item, starting with bags of dried squid and ending with flattened metal plates cut from cars. Between the food and the supplies they would have been set for months. By his math it was much more than they owed the bees.

“It’ll do for a start,” said Daisy, who used a different kind of math, one that priced continuing to live based on ability to pay.

“For a start?” began Bleeker, before remembering he was hundreds of feet up in the air. “Sure, for a start.”

“Alright, boys. Let’s bring them down.”

Bleeker gasped as the bee on his left arm let go and the rest lurched to take the extra weight.

“Slowly, Honeysuckle, slowly. You wanna ruin the deal or something?”

They still dropped him. Six feet to the debris-littered floor of the travel agency. A little foretaste. Bleeker felt he’d rather be stung. It would be fast and it would take out Daisy. Nathan might escape.

As Bleeker dusted himself off and patted his pocket to feel Nathan kick at his hand, still alive and unhurt, Daisy circled and lit another clover cigarette.

“I’m not going to pretend I trust you, Bleeker. You’re the kind of guy who’d live in the sewer with those stinking chudlets just to get out of a deal. Honeysuckle’s going to tag along.”

Nathan pounded his feet against Bleeker’s chest. So much for that plan. The chudlets under West 88th thought he was a god.

“Aw, boss,” said Honeysuckle.

“Just as an observer, right, Hon? Win or lose you report back.”

Honeysuckle bobbed in submission.

“And if he makes a run for it pop him.”

Honeysuckle’s mandibles twitched. “Yes, boss.”

“That’s a bee. We’re outta here.”

Daisy flew out towards the street, followed by the rest of the bee thugs, who took the opportunity to buzz past Bleeker, blurred wings fanning his hair back, the gleaming black barbs of their stingers perilously close to his nose. They circled out in the street a few times then zoomed upwards and out of sight.

“Goddam bees,” said Nathan, climbing up out of the pocket, out of the overalls, and back onto Bleeker’s shoulder.

“Watch it,” said Honeysuckle.

Nathan flapped his arms and floated into the air. Look, he was saying, I can fly just like you, and maybe that implies I can sting, too.

“Guess we better work out how we’re going to kill this thing then,” said Bleeker and returned to opening the van, Nathan drifting through the air in pursuit of his shoulder. Honeysuckle took up position on the roof of the van to commence his unblinking surveillance of the pair.

Time passes.

“You could help with the cart,” said Bleeker, turning to address Honeysuckle. The cart was made from two bicycles chopped down and lashed together, a bed of palette wood separating them. Piled on the cart were ropes, chains, a sledgehammer, an axe, a shield made from a dishwasher door with seatbelt straps, three small plastic jerry cans, two red, one milky white, each half filled with a mix of siphoned petrol, kerosene, and mineral spirits; lengths of rebar sharpened to a point at one end, others formed into hooks and some of those hooks bound together by wire to form grapples; a large bag of shredded rags tied into bundles; an orange hardhat; an ancient hockey mask, its white plastic mottled with scuffs and cryptic stains; a pair of black catcher’s leg guards; a stack of buckets—it wasn’t a very impressive assemblage.

Honeysuckle made a rude gesture accompanied by a harsh buzz of his wings.

“You heard the Boss. I’m just an observer.”

When they trundled up to the outskirts of the camp Alice and Phyllis were unimpressed by the cart and implements of monster hunting, and unsettled by the presence of Honeysuckle. No-one wanted bees getting mixed up in their affairs. Nathan noticed their glances at the bee and then at each other.

“Don’t worry about Honeysuckle,” he said, doing his best to make them uneasy. “He’s just here to see we get paid.”

It was a misrepresentation, but implying he and Bleeker had organised bees working as contract enforcers could only help. Phyllis’ sullen expression backed up Alice’s growled “We don’t have anything to do with bees.”

“Let’s keep it that way,” said Nathan. Honeysuckle’s buzzing ran up the scale, like a Spitfire accelerating into a strafing run. He wasn’t backing up Nathan, he was thinking about stinging Alice. She would be quite the swatter with those four meaty arms.

She changed the subject. “How’re you going to kill the monster with that stuff?”

Bleeker wasn’t sure himself. The monsters they had dispatched so far being less building-sized and more dumpster scale. Except for the squirrel roach, maddened by the same mod that twisted its body. That had been a pretty small monster. Small but fierce. They’d had to kill it twice then set it on fire, follow the burning creature across three blocks, then roll a minivan on top of it. They weren’t sure it was dead but they called the job done and collected payment. The rest had been tentacled and clawed monstrosities, mouths with limbs, dumb as rocks and relentless as death. Like the thing in the building. Except a strategically inserted piece of sharpened rebar had dealt with them.

“Probably stab it,” he said. Phyllis nodded. That was a method she could get behind. “Maybe set it on fire.”

“Don’t know about that,” said Alice. “Might set it running. Don’t want a flaming monster hitting our camp.”

“They won’t use fire,” said Honeysuckle. Sure, he was just an observer, but he was there to ensure the bees got paid. That wasn’t going to happen if the camp caught fire. And he didn’t want to be anywhere near fire. The smoke made him woozy.

Nathan wasn’t going to let a bee tell him what to do. Again. “We’re not ruling out fire,” he said, “but we will do our best not to set the monster on fire, and if it does happen to end up on fire, we will, again, do our best to direct it away from the camp.”

There followed an awkward standing around. Bleeker and Nathan were in no hurry to face the thing. Alice and Phyllis had never hired a monster hunter before and were unsure of the process. Honeysuckle settled onto the edge of the cart, licked his hands, and smoothed down the fur around his eyes. It was nice being the best looking one in the room for a change.

Phyllis coughed, shifted her three feet, nudged Alice discreetly with the toe of her back foot.

“Well? What are you waiting for?” asked Alice.

“Yeah, I haven’t got all day,” said Honeysuckle. He took off from the cart and hovered in the air in the direction of the monster.

Bleeker blew out some air and picked up the handle of the cart. He turned his head to look at Nathan, who showed him his teeth in a grim smile. Bleeker nodded and started dragging the cart back the way they had come.

“Hey!” shouted Alice stepping forward and pointing with her axe towards the corner. “The monster’s that way.”

Bleeker turned around, walked backwards dragging the cart. “Going to find a back way in, Grammy. Sneak up on the thing.”

“Have the payment ready!” called Nathan, his voice a thin screech that stung the ear. “You don’t want to stir up the bees!”

They crossed over to the next block, ignoring the looks of stragglers on the street. They had a bee with them. No-one was going to interfere with that. They made their way down 72nd, examining the ruined buildings, looking for a way through to the centre of the block, from where they could access the monster’s building from the back.

What they found was a tunnel that had once been an alley, but the modulation event had curved the buildings either side in upon each other, their bricks, walls, furniture and inhabitants suddenly and permanently interpenetrating. From the outside all that was visible, besides the curved lines of bricks and windows, was the arch of the tunnel, black and pointed as an ace of spades.

The path was as twisted as the walls, but they got the cart through and into the confused space of the inner block. The rear of the monster’s building was up ahead. It was intact, though its bricks and windows showed a gentle S-curve running from ground to rooftop, as did the buildings it was abutted between. Filling the space behind the building was a cone of rubble two storeys high, its slopes of rebar-studded concrete ended at a pair of busted fire doors that hung from their hinges.

Bleeker sat on the edge of the cart, scratched his side, and surveyed the situation. He spoke quietly out of the side of his mouth to Nathan. “There’s a back door right there.”

“It’s not going to be that easy,” said the rat. The pile of rubble bothered him. It reminded him of the ant nest he had snuck into with his friends, before he got modded. Poor Archie never made it out. The ants had let them walk in, had let them get deep into their tunnels. “Especially getting out.”

Bleeker had a vision of striding in, following a tentacle to the body of the beast, plunging a harpoon of rebar into it, some squealing and thrashing, and walking back out. “We’re not making anything from this job. Let’s do it quick.”

“Maybe we find another a way in,” said Nathan. “Seems too obvious.”

Bleeker started to speak, “Nah—”.

A tentacle slid out of the fire doors, reached out over the cone of rubble, and dropped a lump of concrete the size of their cart onto the pile. It created a small landslide that sent layers of debris tumbling and spilling around the doorway. The tentacle brushed them aside like they were crumbs. Then it stretched out along the ground like a long dark shadow and was a still for a moment. Its tip arched and tapped against the ground. It curled back on itself and scratched here and there, then stretched back out again.

”Let’s find another way in,” whispered Bleeker.

They ended up abandoning the cart after loading Bleeker up with whatever they could strap to him and clambering over a collapsed wall two buildings over, into a dark utility corridor where the buzz of Honeysuckle’s wings sounded ominous.

“I can’t see jack,” said the bee, bringing up the rear.

“You can wait outside,” said Bleeker.

“And let you pin-eyed freaks run off? Yeah, right.”

Bleeker bounced his shoulder under Nathan. “Lead the way, buddy.”

Nathan launched himself into the air like a brown dart, except the arc his path followed went upward, not downward, and he began to glow.

“Pfft,” said Honeysuckle. “Now I can barely see jack.”

“You worried about tripping?” said Bleeker, as they followed Nathan. There was a perfectly circular patch of black cutting through the wall and the floor at the end of the corridor.

Honeysuckle wasn’t worried about tripping. He was worried about bumping into a wall, maybe damaging a wing and having to walk out or, worse, losing his hat.

The black circle was a void bite that led into the next building. They wound their way through rooms and holes and corridors, up fire stairs, down fire stairs, finding the holes that would lead them closer to the monster.

At last, over Honeysuckle’s buzzing, they heard the wet rumble of the monster’s breathing.

“Definitely a big monster we’re dealing with here,” whispered Bleeker, putting out a hand for Nathan to land on. Nathan reduced his glow until he was illuminating only the faces of Bleeker and the bee. The bee’s eyes sparkled as it drifted up and down.

“I’ve got a plan,” said Nathan.

“Mine is we run in screaming,” whispered Bleeker, bringing the rat up close to his face, “you’re flashing, the perfect distraction, it’s startled, tentacles going everywhere, you’re dodging, I’m harpooning, it dies.”

“Nice plan,” said Nathan. “I like it. Here’s mine. We sneak in.”

“Smart,” whispered Bleeker.

“Honeysuckle stays here where his buzzing won’t alert the thing and get us killed. You harpoon it. Maybe two or three times just to be sure. It dies. We walk out the front door. Victory dance, etc.”

“That’s a good plan,” whispered Bleeker, “but I seem to be the only one in it.”

Nathan patted his nose. “Bleeks. I’ll be right there with you, ready to give it the old razzle-dazzle if it goes for you.”

It wasn’t much of a plan, but monster hunting was more of a seat-of-the-pants affair. Monsters were unpredictable, ultimately unknowable. You can reconnoitre. You can plan. But maybe you mis-counted the number of stingers. Maybe it can fly. Maybe it farts chloroform. Maybe its skin is so tough a rebar harpoon can’t penetrate it. So many maybes that only being headstrong and foolish can overwhelm them.

Bleeker divested himself of all unnecessary gear. He was going in with harpoons in each hand. He peered into the darkness in the direction of the breathing noises. Just him and the harpoons, running between whipping tentacles, aiming for whatever malignant body they sprouted from, inches from death, centimetres away from being squeezed to paste, millimetres away from being torn limb-from-limb.

“Here’s an idea,” he said. “How about we fire bomb it instead.”

Nathan sucked air through his teeth and floated up to Bleeker’s eye level. “Indoors? Fire? Might not be good for us. Might set the thing running. If it breaks out of here we’ll never catch it. There goes our payday and here comes the bees.”

“No fire,” said Honeysuckle. Just the thought made his spiralled tongue tighten and cramp.

“Dammit,” said Bleeker.

They’d done this enough times that Nathan knew what he was thinking. He was thinking it, too.

“The bees are for sure, Bleeks. That monster’s a maybe.”

“You bet you’re blunt ass bees are for sure,” said Honeysuckle.

“Keep out of it,” said Bleeker. Goddam bees. Taking his dream home. He put down a harpoon and picked up an axe. Let’s see how that dismembering monster likes losing limbs. “And stay here. We don’t need your buzzing giving us away.”

Honeysuckle pushed his cap forward so it came down low over his eyes. No mammal was going to tell him what to do. He crossed his front of pair of arms. “Hey! Daisy sent me to observe, I’m going to observe, ya chumps.”

“Fine,” said Nathan. He’d had enough of the bee’s attitude. “Buzz right along. Alert the monster. Then we’ll go see Daisy and tell him you’re why he’s not getting paid.”

Honeysuckle dropped to the ground and stood up on his back legs. The top of his cap was just above the belt loops in Bleeker’s overalls. “Fine, I’ll walk.”

“Bees can walk?” said Bleeker.

“Bees can walk?” mimicked Honeysuckle. He pulsed his wings in disgust. “We can walk. We just don’t like animals looking down on us.”

He pushed past Bleeker, stumbled, twisted, and ended up wings against the wall. It was impossible to read his expression, being a bee, but he jerked the bee equivalent of a thumb in the direction of the monster.

“What are you waiting for? Lead the way.”

Cursing bees under his breath, Bleeker followed Nathan’s floating beacon towards the monster while Honeysuckle brought up the rear. They had a few more void bites to climb through, but the darkness gave way to a glow. It was brighter than they expected. Nathan returned to Bleeker’s shoulder and went dark.

As they reached the final hole and peered into the basement lair they understood why. The monster had gutted the interior of the building. The pile of rubble they had seen was built from the interior floors and walls, all of which had been torn away to create a cavernous space filled with a frightening number of tentacles.

Shafts of yellow light from every window slanted across the empty space to paint the back wall. Tentacles flickered as they swayed through them. Tentacles in bright beams and shadows picked at the edges of broken floors. Tentacles straight and unmoving reached into the corners and up to the roof and out to the walls. Tentacles peered out of the windows. One fat tentacle disappeared out of the bright gap at the base of the rear wall.

In the centre, where the eye was naturally led and the tentacles naturally started, was a dark lump. From the dark lump extended a thick wedge of spreading flesh, like the body of a giant slug but twice the size of the van they called home.

The sounds of breathing were coming from a wide tube of black skin on the side of the wedge, just behind the lump. Its dripping edges flapped and slapped against each other like the end of a broken balloon, producing the rumbles and wet noises that had guided them here. The damp breath blasting from it reached them. The warm mist collided with Bleeker’s face and clung to it. It was heavy with the stink of what Bleeker would later describe as a decayed meat and boiled egg vomit.

He knew a weak spot when he saw one. Without bothering to put down the axe he hefted the rebar harpoon. Nathan dug his claws into the overall’s shoulder strap. Bleeker took two fast steps and hurled the harpoon with all his mutant strength. It flew across the empty space and directly into the tube as it opened for another monstrous exhalation. It disappeared from sight.

More foul mist washed over them. Nathan gagged and spat. “Times like this I wish a rat could vomit.”

The skin tube flapped and slapped, exhausting another stinking breath.

“Huh,” said Bleeker. “Nothing.”

“Pfft,” said Honeysuckle. Harpoons were for cowards afraid of a close-quarters fight to the death. Of course, that was the problem with bees. Every fight was a close-quarters fight to the death for them. It made them so unreasonable when push turned to shove. Despite his aggressive opinion, this wasn’t Honeysuckle’s fight and the dark lines sweeping across his visual field were making him nervous.

Bleeker had been hoping for a lucky shot, hitting something vital, like a heart or a brain, that would let them turn around and walk back out, job done. At the very least he was expecting a reaction. He was ready for that, axe in both hands, his weight on the balls of his feet, ready to dance. This was…nothing, not a twitch out of any of the dozens of tentacles. But that was monsters. Random aliens popping out of random wormholes or random mods mutating random creatures—they’re never going to do what you want.

“Guess we’re going to have to do this the har—”

Nathan found himself in mid-air with four clawfuls of denim thread.

Honeysuckle was gone.

Bleeker was flying through space, pinned against the edge of a tentacle by acceleration alone, and it was coiling to get a grip on him as the bright rectangles of the windows streaked by.

The hollow building filled with wooshings, whistlings, and deafening cracks as the monster’s limbs twisted and whipped in its fury. The noise carried down to the corner where Alice, Phyllis, and most of the camp gathered.

“Seems to have started,” said Phyllis.

“Yah,” agreed Alice. “Haven’t heard sounds like that before.”

“Wonder how he’s doing.”

“Well, he ain’t screaming,” said Alice with a reluctant nod of respect.

“Oop! Spoke to soon.”

Bleeker couldn’t help it. The world was a blur. Acceleration was pushing his eyes back into his skull. He was going to die, smooshed against a wall like a piece of rotten fruit because of gangster bees. Screaming was the perfect expression of his mood and it also roused the tendrils lying under the tape around his ribs.

With a flick he was released, hurled towards the interior of the facade. There was not enough time to close his eyes or stop screaming. The world flashed.

“Lookee,” said Phyllis, as Bleeker shot out of an upper window, smacked into the building opposite, rebounded onto the street, bounced twice, his axe clattering away, and laid still. The only movement was the ruby red tendrils extending from out of the sides of his overalls and dancing around him, tips bent, turning, like a nest of snakes disturbed and desperate to strike. They had burst through the tape in time to reach out and absorb the impacts, but their stringy musculature was connected to his ribs. Heavy and modded as those were, it was a moment or two before he could get air into his lungs and sit up.

“Bit soon to be sitting down!” shouted Alice as Bleeker scratched at his beard and tried to spot his axe through the tendrils.

At her voice he looked over and saw the gathered crowd, with Alice and Phyllis at the front.

“Grammy! Gran-gran!” he called and waved at them. It was so nice they were out there cheering for him. A bunch of the tendrils braced themselves against the road surface. He was stood up and set onto his feet. They paid attention when they wanted to.

“I’m not his damn Grammy,” muttered Alice for those in earshot.

Phyllis thought the dark red tendrils were prettier even than black ones, so smooth and lithe she could almost feel their gentle prods, their caresses.

“I’m not your Gran-gran,” she whispered and crossed and uncrossed her front legs. She hoped he would survive.

Alice yelled down the street. “What are you doing?”

Bleeker pushed the tendrils aside so he could see better. There was his axe.

“We’re winning!” he called back. Before he could bend over two tendrils had picked up the axe and brought it to his hand.

“It’s a bit of a beast! Pretty tough!”

The damn tendrils, helpful for one moment, went wild again. The crowd looked aghast, pointed, but Bleeker ignored the tendrils.

“So we’re doing it the har—!”

The street leapt away into the dark.

Nathan was little more than a glint of tiny eyes. He was doing his impersonation of a shadow again, making what scattered light there was reluctant to bounce off him. He floated across the rubble strewn ground, behind ridges that used to be walls and the rough stumps that used to be columns, looking for a weak spot. There was a wide slit at the front of the lump the tentacles grew out of. It had an extensive puddle, almost a pond, in front of it. He couldn’t tell if the orifice was meant for things to go into it or things to come out of it. He floated up higher, staying between the beams of daylight. If Bleeker would get back in here it might be a good point to attack.

As if summoned by Nathan’s impatience, Bleeker came screaming in through a window, struggling in the coils of a tentacle. Most of his tendrils were braced like ruby spokes around him, holding back the coils, protecting him from being crushed. The rest were joining him in attacking the flesh of the monstrous limb. His arms were free and he was chopping with his axe, opening the thick dark skin that held him, while tendrils pierced and punctured the skin. Bright purple blood, glowing and smelling of rotting grass, flowed out of the wounds, coated the axe head and sprayed from the tips of the aggressive tendrils.

The tentacle had enough. It dropped Bleeker. He fell eight storeys to what had been a sub-basement floor. His tendrils halted him without his feet touching the ground and scuttled him into a dark corner.

“One down,” said Nathan into his ear. “About sixty to go.”

“Isn’t there an eye I can stab instead?” said Bleeker.

“No eyes that I could see. There’s an orifice.”

“No. No orifices,” said Bleeker.

“Didn’t seem to have any teeth.”

“No.”

“It was leaking a lot of fluids.”

“The axe is working. I’m going to keep using it.”

While the air was filled with the monster’s writhing limbs, the floor was mostly clear. If you kept your head down, stayed low and moved fast, you could get right up to the side of its body. Bleeker did just that, scooting across the open space on a blur of tendrils, with Nathan on his shoulder, directing him to a spot where the tentacles were less thrashy.

The monster jerked as the axe bit into a tentacle that stretched out to a side wall. Between blows of the axe the tendrils pushed into the cut, ripping it open. In seconds the tentacle collapsed, sliding down along the wall, falling to the ground, colliding with other tentacles along the way.

Bleeker turned his axe to the next one. It reached out in a straight black line for the centre of the facade. Three blows and the fury of the tendrils brought it down. The monster started rocking side-to-side.

Directing his tendrils like ice picks, he climbed up the slick body of the monster towards a thick tentacle standing straight up like a tree and reaching to the ceiling. He swung his axe and when it connected a shudder ran through the flesh under his feet. He swung again and the tentacle began to soften and slump away from him. A large chunk of concrete exploded against the ground beside the monster. Light burst in from overhead.

“I think that was a load bearing tentacle,” squeaked Nathan.

Another chunk of roof fell, crushing a tentacle underneath it. Cracks appeared in the facade and the walls, like daylight was trying to break in and destroy the joint.

“This is bad!” shouted Nathan.

The whipping tentacles dropped to the floor and the monster rose up upon them.

Bleeker grabbed Nathan as his tendrils drilled into the flesh underfoot.

“Hang on little buddy!”

There was a moment of stillness where they could feel the monster vibrating and shifting as tentacles pressed themselves against the ground and tensed, then it sprang forward, pushing through the collapsing front of the building as the roof and walls caved in behind it, obscuring the monster and its riders within a cloud of dust.

A cheer went up from the crowd of campers. The noise and dust had to signal the death of the giant beast, right?

In a smooth glissando the cheers climbed the registers into upper scream territory as the monster galloped out of the dust cloud, the orifice at its front opening, peeling back to reveal a silver eye as smooth and perfect as a mirror.

The campers fled, Alice bringing up the rear, Phyllis way out ahead, trampling a tripedal path through the slow, two-legged mob. She may have used her crowbar, but only to hook people out of the way or lever open a gap in the pack. In their panicked state they all headed en masse for the safety of their fragile homes and the monster followed.

“Watch out Grammy!” called Bleeker, not that Alice could hear him over her own screams of terror. Stoicism, as a philosophy and as a lifestyle, was on hold for now. Screams, she would later declare, were weakness leaving the body.

“Oh no! Grammy!”

The monster galloped over her and she fell out of sight. For Bleeker, she was dead. And this enraged him. Nathan felt it. He was getting squashed in his fist. The tendrils felt it.

Bleeker tossed Nathan into the air, where he hovered for a moment before darting behind Bleeker’s shoulder, and as the monster stood over the huts of the camp, sending roofs, walls, people, tyre rims, and cooking pots flying, he took his axe in both hands and attacked the flesh at his feet. Half the tendrils held him down, curling like fish hooks into the skin, the other half deflected tentacles.

Purple blood welled up around his feet. A new noise came out of the breathing tube. A rhythmic groaning. Bleeker kept chopping. He had to reach a vital organ if he kept at it.

He swung and the axe clanked off an obstruction. In the bright pooling blood was the end of his rebar harpoon. How had it worked its way there? He turned over his axe and attacked it with the flat edge on the back of the axehead. He hammered it and hammered it until it disappeared into the flesh. Then he chopped away the flesh and hammered it deeper until it jammed.

He wiped the sweat from his eyes. In the second he stopped to look around a body went flying through the air. A pair of legs sticking out of a black coil kicked frantically.

With a jump, lifted up high and then pulled down hard by his tendrils, he put all his mutant strength into the swing of the axe and brought it down on the shining end of the rebar. The obstruction gave way. The harpoon vanished into the meat of the beast, leaving a clean cylindrical hole. The monster shuddered. A stream of purple blasted out of the hole, spraying ten metres into the air before gravity made it arc, disperse and rain down.

The tentacles collapsed. The monster fell to the ground, crushing more huts. The screaming stopped, but it didn’t become cheers or even sighs of relief. It became the stunned silence of survivors trying not to hope the disaster was over, just in case it wasn’t. More of the same was too unbearable to contemplate.

Time passes.

One corner of the camp had escaped the rampant tentacling that had wrecked the rest of the area. Parked there were the three carts holding the agreed payment for killing the monster.

“You’re not having them,” said Alice, panting. Being a bit slow and very lucky had landed Alice behind the monster, outside the camp, and able to get most of the way down the block before she heard the commotion cease.

Bleeker wrung purple blood from his orange beard and hair. The exhausted tendrils hung from his sides.

“But Gram-”

Alice brought her axe and her fists up, which made his tendrils stir like angry snakes. She thought better of attacking him. He had more appendages. Instead, out of a fist she popped three fingers in his direction.

“No Grammy. No payment. No nothing. Look at the camp!”

The camp was a mess. It was mostly under a giant creature that would soon start to rot and attract vermin. Its purple blood was draining every so slowly down the hole they were so proud of.

“Gran-gran?” said Bleeker hopefully. Phyllis seemed more interested in her crowbar. Alice wasn’t going to let her forget about her panicked run over the crowd. She couldn’t help it she wasn’t as brave as Alice.

“The deal was,” said Nathan from Bleeker’s shoulder, “that we wouldn’t be responsible for collateral damage.”

“This ain’t collateral damage,” said Alice, sweeping her axe across the remains of the camp and the people pushing hut walls back up, starting to fix things. “This is a disaster.”

The standoff was interrupted by the buzz of Honeysuckle, dust coated and coughing, flying in to hover next to Bleeker and Nathan.

“Ahem,” he said, taking off his cap and banging it between his front claws, producing a cloud of dust that his wings blew over Alice and Phyllis. The mammals were waiting for him to speak, as they should. He put the cap back on and gave his eyes a quick lick so he could see better.

“Nice work. That was a helluva monster.”

“Thanks,” said Bleeker.

“Looks dead. Is it dead?”

“It’s dead,” said Nathan.

“Let’s get the pay off and get out of this dump before it starts to smell. Ladies?”

“We ain’t paying,” said Alice, crossing all her arms so the bee could see them. How much did she outweight him by? And out-reach him?

“I get it,” said Honeysuckle, buzzing around the group in a slow orbit, checking out the camp and the monster. “I get it. I get where you’re coming from. The monster messed up your hive. Yeah? Just look at the place. On top of that, the monster’s no longer a problem, right? Then there’s the fact it didn’t take these guys very long to do the job, did it? And look at them. Not a scratch on them. It just seems unfair to have to hand over those carts, I take it that’s the payment, yes, under the circumstances.”

“That’s about right,” said Phyllis.

“Yeah. I deal with your type all the time,” said Honeysuckle. “They’re welchers, Nathan, Bleeker. Damned welchers. Got no time for welchers.”

He raised his voice. “Have we boys?”

From the rooftops around the camp a hum was heard and from their hiding places hundreds of bees rose into the air.

Honeysuckle waved his cap around his head and pointed it at the carts. The bees flew down in a stream and began grabbing items, sometimes in groups of two or three if it an item was heavy, and carried them off, heading uptown.

Alice and Phyllis had nothing to say. You might fight a bee, and you might win if you’re lucky or have enough arms, but you don’t start a fight with bees, plural.

“Come on, fellas,” said Honeysuckle. “Let’s get out of here.”

Bleeker wanted to stay and win back Grammy and Gran-gran’s affections, but Nathan recognised the wisdom of having an escort away from Alice’s glower and her shifting axe. He pulled Bleeker’s earlobe. “Come on, big guy.”

They walked out of the camp, stepping over the odd tentacle draped in their path, with Honeysuckle at Bleeker’s shoulder and a squad of bees overhead as escort.

“I sent some guys to get your stuff,” said Honeysuckle. “It’ll be waiting for you at your van.”

Bleeker muttered thanks. He was suddenly tired. The tendrils burned through a lot of energy when they were active.

“Also, there’s a bunch of junk in your deal we can’t use. Dried squid. Pies. Pfft. You animals are animals, eating each other. You can have all that junk.”

“So we’re even now?” said Nathan.

“Even?” said Honeysuckle. “No-one’s ever even with bees. I’ll be seeing you around.”

He emitted a hoarse coughing, the bee equivalent of laughing, and flew off.

“We gotta get out of this town,” said Bleeker. His ribs were starting to ache. He was hungry and thinking of pie. Maybe Gran-gran made one of them.

“Go live in a little house,” said Nathan.

“Yeah.”

“With some grass and some fruit trees.”

“Yeah.”

“Make our own pies.”

“We could.”

“Dry our own squid.”

“Uh.”

“Sew our own clothes.”

“Eh.”

“Gather food and fuel against a winter.”

“Ugh. Fine. Then we gotta do something about the bees.”

“I’m working on it, Bleeks. I’m working on it.”

The End

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