Edition 1: Toxic Sludge by Tom Ribas and Lee Lackey
When waste takes over, it’s left up to the animals to preserve the forest. Will Rat, Frog, and Badger be able to defeat The Sludge and save the world as we know it? A fantastical story of a future where our filthy past finally catches up with us. SY
In a hollow den of glass and steel, blue and black shadows spread across holes and hallways leading down divergent paths; they stood exposed under rows of effulgent fluorescent lights.
Badger motioned to hurry, dark eyes darting. Dim esoterica on the walls stretched to the edges of his abnormally keen vision, panes revealing no signs of the enemy. He held the machine gun tight in his piebald paws; he smelled vividly the acrid stench of pollution.
“I’m trying.” Rat’s claws clattered and fumbled against the primitive electric lock on the metal crate. Her eyes were wide and frantic; she knew what would happen if they were to be caught. Sweat formed and ran down her nose, on the palms of her hands, onto her fingers, making them slippery. The other two shifted in place the longer they were forced to wait. Every second that passed made them more and more afraid.
With an audible click and hiss, hydraulic rams moved inside to open the crate and show the stash of ammunition within.
“Got it—I got it.”
The three hurriedly filled satchels strung around their bodies; they grabbed plastic ammo casings in all colors and sizes in a desperate scramble, taking by the handfuls, taking as many bullets as they could get their grasp on, as much weight as they could possibly carry. They knew little about why the things were made or why they were left here, in the core of mortal danger; they knew next to nothing about this place and the reasons it existed. They didn’t want to know.
Together, they made haste down monotonous corridors and nameless doors, in escape from the center of an artificial nightmare, keeping to the darkness along the sides; they kept far from surveillance scanners and eyes that pried, that watched. The entire facility was watching, waiting.
Their shadows elongated and distorted as they moved. They passed branching halls leading nowhere. They worked from memory, ignoring sector markings painted in red and serial enumerations, Badger in the lead taking them towards the exit—what they thought was the exit. They felt the familiar fear of walking the passages, inhabiting a space they had no place being, possessing no desire to press their stay any longer. Badger came to a halt, slowly held out an arm to stop Rat and Frog.
He smelled the stench powerfully now; his graying fur began to prickle in expectation. Experience told him it was nearby.
Brown eyes peered further into the dark, further down the corridor. In the gloom, Badger could make out the outline of a figure shaped like a man, with two arms and legs, holding nothing: no clothing, weapons, or gear. It stood stock still, unmoving, without sound, facing either their direction or away—it was impossible to tell, because its face was just an empty, featureless mask.
“Caustic Guard, down that way,” Badger whispered.
Frog rumbled, “I’ll do it.”
Before the others could speak or protest, the massive amphibian slid smoothly to the other side of the hallway, against the darkness, climbing with adhesive suction pads all the way to the ceiling. They watched the frog crawl suspended upside-down, then disappear deeper into the shadows.
Frog came close enough to see the Caustic Guard below, in greater detail: an inhuman soldier watching with an unseen sensory apparatus for intruders, sentient with the full awareness of the Hive Mind. Its skin, if it could be said to have skin, was a purplish-pink ooze that gently shimmered and swayed.
Frog crept slowly until he was directly above the Sludge-man, quietly probed his belt, and produced a small silicon disk, wafer-thin and nearly undetectable. He moved to attach it above the guard; quickness almost made the him drop it and catch the attention of the Guard. He flinched, caught it with his other hand. He stopped a moment, breathed, and forced himself to calm his nerves, to focus, slow the sweat building on his fingertips that would make him lose his grip. The usually fearless soldier took time to take the operation slow. When an electric blue light flickered on the disk it was set; a steady pulse reverberating through the steel walls of the hallway, traveling both directions to confuse the guard that something natural was about—a small creature, like an earthworm, that had unthinkingly burrowed into the deeper levels of the complex and was rapping against the walls. The guard flew off into the dark, away to kill the vermin in accordance with its ingrained orders.
Exterminate and propagate.
Frog quickly climbed down and joined the others; they headed right. There were no lights along the way, and they relied solely on ambient flickers and Badger’s eyes.
Again they were forced to come to an abrupt stop. Rat’s were wide; they heard the noise coming from a set of double doors to the left. The false acoustics of the facility made it sound like something moved right beside them—there arose growing squawks and screams of a hybrid monster spliced from a menagerie of every animal in creation; from the room came avian chirps, insectile chitterings, mammalian barks, and other unnaturally integrated sounds. They knew what was behind the doors. The technology powered by the Sludge was performing base experiments on the wildlife to better its understanding and elimination of it. The three could do nothing about what was there; that was the painful reality they shouldered as they continued on and the hellish sounds dwindled into the distance.
The air smoked and stank when they were outside, in the open where the sludge factory lay like an overturned waste barrel, spilling into rivulets of purplish-pink muck. Where there had once been creeks and streams, now there ran networks of viscous fluid that extracted everything from the land and left nothing but arid, cracked Earth. The waste barrel had once been smaller, but flowed outward, propagated, and built upwards for the sole purpose of producing more of itself—the design and its operation worked perfectly: factories of sludge pumps formed, production vats and sluiceways erected skyward; it continued to drive through the rest of the forest and take more, controlled by the single unceasing desire of the Hive Mind and its blind impulse to proliferate and destroy.
They stopped at the banks along a river of sludge. It burbled and flowed; the collective consciousness was sidetracked, concerned with the apportionment of further territories to take immediate notice of three guerrillas standing by its edge. The only other life form in the empty clearing were phantoms of vapor-ghosts that swirled about bare trees lying outward, stripped of all greenery. A light mist formed above that part of the forest, a dank fog mixed with the gases of pollution that billowed from the smokestacks above the factory, diffused through the air they breathed every day and night—they could feel the pollution steadily driving them crazy, driving them mad with rage, pain, frustration, and fear. They felt the coming shower of acid rain in the night.
Badger paused, motioned to a crossing of rocks leading to safety, and beckoned them to follow.
Wind and rain beat against bracings along the upper-story floors of Badger’s burrow. The walls of dried clay and mud cement were durable but old. Across were daubed whorls of grime, mold, and splashes of bracken rising to the highest reaches of the fortification; below, they heard the incessant click of the weather against barricaded windows.
The living room looked Spartan, etched and cleaned into a civilized living space. Piles of ammunition lay against the furniture, spanning a spectrum of every caliber, type, function. Rat ran her paw through a pile of .45 caliber bullets, dropped them into the center where her legs were folded on the floor.
Her head was down, the hood of her rose-colored shawl draped over to conceal her visage; feeble light covered the room in small spheres from illuminated glowworms. They could see, but still the dark pressed at the sides.
She rubbed the bullets with a stone-ground mulch made from an alkaline herb. The basic content reacted on contact with the acidity of the Sludge, and then—boom.
Frog sat on the couch, poured a drought from a bottle into a glass tumbler.
He said, “Continued exposure to toxic sludge causes genetic breakdown and random permutation of recessive alleles.”
He sounded like he was reciting from a textbook. “Mutation from radiation sickness and poisoning leading to degenerative weakness and persistent brain damage. Brain damage: that is key.”
Badger looked up from his work, preparing bullets and loading them into a pistol magazine. He stared, sensing something forming but not knowing what to do about it.
“But we never stop fighting,” said Frog. He took a swig of his drink.
“Victory until death.”
A dry whisper came from the other side, from underneath Rat’s hood: “…Shut up.”
Frog’s glassy and unfocused eyes glanced to her side of the den. He blinked. “What’d you say?”
Rat dropped the bullet so it clanked back to the pile in her lap, and looked up; her face was a grimace of anger and gritted, sharp teeth.
“Don’t you see? There is nothing left. It’s all been destroyed. It’s just us. When it has taken the forest, everything will be gone—all except us. And what are we? Damaged. Dried up. There is no hope. There is no victory. We will have to leave just like the others, to wait and bide our time a little longer until it finds us and puts us out. Perhaps we’ve been stupid, not to just run like the others, all this time.”
“Oh, I do not think you mean that.”
“Why not? Maybe we should have run.”
“You can run all you want, but I am still right here. You see that, clearly.”
“You run from the truth.”
Frog threw down his glass and stormed off his seat. He crossed over and knocked something onto the floor, a piece of furniture it was too dark to see. Badger put down his bullets to stare noncommittally.
Frog said, “You see this, right here, now? Carry on—this is exactly what the Sludge wants; it’s what it always counted on. It likes when you talk this way, think this way, give up and just embrace the light of nihilism, of subservience. That is what it has been counting on from the day it was first created, the only way that it can win. We give up, we stop fighting, we come to recognize that the greater power and cease to struggle.”
His eyes were blazing. “But I am what it fears. I am what it had never counted on—one who managed to survive the long way from the deepest parts of the degenerate swamps, to emerge victorious where none were meant to survive, and to carry and fight in this struggle; one single animal who has never comprehended the meaning of defeat is unable to understand the word ‘failure.’ I will never stop. You can go if you want, you do whatever you like—go Kapo, serve the Caustic Guard, join the mass migrations that fled to their meaningless deaths. But don’t worry; I will still be right here, Sister. I’ll never stop. The Last, the Unshakable, the Victorious.”
He added, a mite sarcastically, “May Gaia smile on those who struggle.”
“The Sludge is not of the forest,” said Rat. “It does not follow your—or anyone else’s—rules. It cannot be destroyed.”
Frog waved a hand dismissively. “Get over yerrself, Sister. You ain’t the only one who’s lost.”
Unaffected, Rat’s words were clear: “No one has lost like I have.”
This produced a silence awkward in its longevity. Badger was watching the altercation quietly, unsure of whether to intervene or what to say. Their leader, the last of his line, the aging veteran of their war, he had stood up to the Sludge longer than any of the now-wasted animals that had fought alongside him. He was their wise strategist—they looked to him for guidance. His fur and skin had been burned and tarnished by continued contact with the acid, he had breathed in the fumes working above the production vats and he had been the first to organize a resistance cell against the Sludge. He had seen so many others like the idealistic Frog and the bitter Rat die—what would he say to them? He had to say something. They were the only survivors, the last of their species, still fighting an unwinnable and unending war long after their brothers and children were all dead.
In a voice like dry leaves and hardened pebbles, Badger said, “Sometimes patience pays off.”
It didn’t seem like enough, couldn’t be right, but had at least defused the situation, and the silence that followed was less weighted down with tension. Frog sat back down. There continued the sound of bullets clinking while they worked, the whistle of rain from above. His words were not good enough, they lacked the necessary power and wisdom, but still they hung in the air like a rusted, solid glyph.
Two figures, seen dimly on the forest floor, amorphous and alert, and emitting the faint stench of the Sludge.
Badger stared. I’ll be damned if that isn’t Caustic Guard. It felt wrong—what were they doing this far from the complex?
The smell thickened. Badger couldn’t see any difference in the movements of the sludge-men below, and he carefully watched from behind the aged log he used for cover. What’s going on?
Something dripped and smoldered into the wood by his arm; he saw it before he smelled it sizzle and burn through the wood. He jumped instinctively, ducked and rolled to retrieve his assault rifle from the ground as a gangly, sinewy, purple-pink monstrosity fell from the canopy above. It collected and congealed with arms reaching out towards him, in a demonic entreaty to demise; Badger let loose with a flurry of bullets that blasted holes all throughout the body, dodged just quickly enough to avoid the acidic splashes that flew from the dispersed corpus.
He didn’t stay to watch it die; he was already running through the brush to get to Frog—he had to tell him that the recon mission failed and they were now in serious danger. The Guards from below were following, more approached at the sides. They appeared from all around the forest, circling tight to create a kill zone; Badger smelled them coming nearer. He could feel their sickness. Why are they so deep in the forest? There was nothing here to ambush.
Unless the target was Frog.
Badger ran onto a moonlit path between rising, steeple-shaped rocks to both the left and right. It was silent, then a rustling stirred from the thickets of grass around the stones; green tussocks parted and two Guards slid into attack, arms raised and fists molding off to eject globules of sludge.
Badger fired on both and a glob stung him in the arm; it burned, but he couldn’t stop, just kept going. He could handle the pain.
The Sludge communicated with its extensions, sent signals down its synaptic spines, drawing its appendages closer into an encircling trap. His claws clattered on strips of bark and clumps of moss, climbing the heavy bole of a tree up to the understory level where he saw countless Guards advancing, their bodies glowing in chemical luminescence. Badger leapt across neighboring trees, found the lookout spot and walked to the end, overlooking a wide vista of the complex; he searched for Frog, but he wasn’t there. There was a sleeping bag, some uneaten rations, binoculars—but there was something wrong about the binoculars. They weren’t melted or absorbed the way the leavings of a Sludge attack usually were; they were broken, snapped in half by something strong.
Then he saw the light from below, approaching from the proximity of the complex, a lurching streak of a red LED lancing through the undergrowth in haphazard steps—Badger knew exactly what it was. It was—
–a knock at the door. Three sharp raps on the outer wooden panel at the base of their burrow, the proper signal to admit entrance.
“Frog?” Rat looked up in the dark, towards the sound.
He was earlier than usual. Rat lifted her rifle, edged to the wall, and peered into a spyhole connected to a tube of mirrors running above the hatch. She saw a figure standing outside, beyond the doors, still, quiet, dark-enshrouded in the rain. Rat recognized the familiar bulk, musculature and gear of Frog. She pulled the switch to let him in.
There was a clang as the door angled upwards and open. With no light near the entrance it was too dark to see him enter. “What happened?” asked Rat. “You were not supposed to come—”
The figure rushed forward and punched a weighty fist into her mouth. She spat blood, fell to the floor, and the rifle clattered down.
It came closer; she didn’t have time to think about pain or shock–she immediately grabbed for the rifle, but the attacker kicked it across the room. She backed away on her hands and knees.
The thing stumbled against something it was too dark to see. Rat seized the moment and bashed a wooden chair over its head. She retrieved her gun from the floor; and the silhouette advanced further. It isn’t animal—it’s unstoppable. Just like the Sludge.
She held the rifle in both shaking paws, backing as far as she could into their small kitchen, until she was pressed against the wall.
It walked into the light underneath an overhanging glowworm light. Frog, his familiar size and face, distorted and twisted by the Sludge, uncharacteristically emotionless, his usually clear white eyes flowing with a menacing purplish-pink stare. He’d been infected by the Sludge, was now its unthinking minion, and would stop at nothing to kill them. She knew–
–what it would do. The red eye glowed brighter as it sighted Badger; it emerged, a robotic gauntlet of metal knives and sharp edges, moving briskly on many legs in quick, spider-like movements. A Hunter-Killer. Instantaneously, it opened fire with the chain gun mounted on its scorpion tail, tearing the branch he stood on into so many splintered shards.
Badger flew as soon as he recognized what is was—he‘d known it was coming, knew the destruction that would be blazed by this machine. The machines it built to send after them and raze their homes were sucked from minerals in the soil, recombined and reconstructed into perfect crystalline patterns, strong, lightweight, and perfect. Everything the Sludge threw at them came back, twice as strong. He leapt from branch to branch, bashing through foliage in a desperate rush to escape. He couldn’t fight it directly. The HK moved as gracefully and quickly as he did across intertwining columns and arches between trees, sharp hands and feet sticking to the bark easier than Badger’s claws.
The red eye of the HK tracked Badger’s movements with clean infrared imaging, following his hurried flight to plot a trajectory seconds into the future: a ruby-red laser licked out from the eye and seared across the night air, slicing by Badger and cutting into a trunk three inches deep with a sawdust smell.
The laser singed Badger‘s fur—he hurried as fast as he could to get away, but the robot moved too fast, too relentless. He was already losing steam. The HK zeroed in; Badger took a stand from the ground, rounds bursting from the assault rifle aimed right at the heart of the machine: a jar of purple-pink fluid it held in its center, connected to a number of wires radiating outward. The binary electrons of the robot flowed through the chemical to pick up the instinct for Sludge replication, before transmitting orders to its body parts and kill programs.
A series of knives wrapped around the fluid cylinder like a skeletal rib cage, deflecting the bullets from Badger’s gun. It would be impossible to shoot the heart unless he was closer—and close was exactly where he’d be killed. The laser flared out again and struck his rifle; the gun blazed orange-white and Badger immediately dropped the hot metal, dove away from what came next: an explosion and shower of broken metal from the ruined weapon, scattering fiery shrapnel. He–
–screamed, “Don’t come any closer! I’ll shoot! I’ll kill you!”
Frog’s mouth opened and what came out was wrong and grotesque, fueled by the voice of another entity. It closed in, said, “THERE IS NO PURPOSE. DO NOT RESIST. YOU WILL ALL DIE. YOU WILL ALL BE EXTERMINATED. YOU WILL ALL DIE.”
Rat pressed against the wall; there was nowhere left to run—she fired once at the Frog-thing and the shot blasted a chunk from its shoulder, a gout of purplish-pink blood gushing from the incipient wound. Still it advanced. Nothing stops it—It does not die.
It continued to speak with the unnatural voice of the Hive Mind: “YOU WILL ALL DIE. YOU WILL ALL SUFFER. THERE CAN BE NO RESISTANCE. THIS IS YOUR END. YOU WILL ALL BE EXTERMINATED.”
Rat fired again, and again, and again, spraying sludge-blood all over the kitchen. The thing slowed, but still crept closer. “YOU WILL ALL BE KILLED. YOU WILL ALL DIE. YOU WILL ALL BE EXTERMINATED.”
She fired the rest of her remaining bullets, and the final one blew the head clear off the thing’s neck. She—
–was pinned against the tree, caught between two branches. The HK raced along the ground and neared in for the kill–this must be the end; he couldn’t move, he couldn’t run away. He had no weapon. He smelled ozone and sawdust as the laser swept in his direction and cut through branches; he felt the heavy branch under his feet break, slip away, and was left suspended in mid-air, holding on with only his hands.
With a crunch the red eye winked out of commission as a heavy branch smashed down from above. It lay in dismantled parts. Dead.
He’d known that was coming, too: mechanical cunning and flawless efficiency held little against lived experience.
He didn’t have time to reflect on the victory. Rapidly, he took off back towards the burrow, through the brush; he had to get there in time to warn–
—Rat inched to the body lying on the floor, bleeding its sludge blood over the den. It didn’t move, half-hidden in shadow, unmoving and nonthreatening. Is it dead? She neared the corpse, clutching her rifle assiduously, the wide-eyed expression of fright still not escaping her face.
She couldn’t see the carnage, but the final shot had killed the monster, and removed any remaining sentience. Kill the head and the rest will follow. What was once their comrade and most trusted ally was now truly gone, and the zombie-mimic possessed by the Hive Mind no longer active.
The extent of fear now elapsed, the full weight of a harsh reality descended heavily onto her shoulders. She slumped to the ground. Weakly, she began to sob.
A giant, a god, in a plastic suit that revealed nothing of its shape or inner form, stared through a blank, reflective pane of glass. There was nothing there to scrutinize: no eyes, no nose, no lips; nothing to tell what it thought and felt. If it thought and felt. Rat and Badger watched from hiding places, and felt the seismic vibrations build through the forest and heard the rumbling sounds of its approach, growing louder. They felt the touch of fear rise greater, greater than their exploits had ever taken them in before.
It came on a lumbering, diesel-powered vehicle, with great outward teeth on which were stacked rows upon rows of steel drums, just like those of the Sludge complex, marked with a telltale red symbol: three broken circles melded into an ominous ring. The machine arrived in the center open arbor; they heard the leaves and twigs and grass crunching underneath its heavy feet, then a shift as its engines powered down to quiet. It stood by the entrance to a dark cave, a hole tunneling down into chains of interlocking caverns. The toxic barrels were to be dropped in there, left to spill and rot and fester forever, infecting whatever life may live therein, buried at the bowels of the earth.
The man dismounted the machine and approached the other end, into the center of the copse, checking the barrels. And they were ready. The man was in the right spot for the ambush to begin.
Rat fired the first sniper shot from the trees; Badger lit the fuse that commenced to spark the way down the trail leading to a cache of every explosive material they owned. With his other paw, he pulled hard the rope that went taut and stretched directly behind the towering leg.
A firestorm of mixed combustibles erupted in its path; the man showed of traces surprise, visible even underneath the layers of drab polyethylene armor—one of those responsible for the Sludge had for a fleeting moment felt the fear the animals lived with every day, had questioned its survival in the real way they had for as long as memory served. This suicide mission might fail, they might all die, but for once they would have finally brought the war home to its source. It was impossible to permanently kill the Sludge—every dissected limb regenerated back into the collective whole—but this had a new, unprecedented impact. If Frog were here, he would have enjoyed this. It was his idea.
The giant’s legs stumbled two steps backwards, hit the rope and stretched it tighter against the incredible weight; Badger heard it strain as fibers frayed. It snapped like twine and the trap was rendered useless, along with the many embedded hooks, barbs, and snapping metal clamps hidden in the grass.
That left only Plan B: Badger took off running while Rat kept firing down from above, around the giant’s head, aiming for the faceplate to break its vision or throw off its balance. The giant was waving his arms above his head but only appeared mildly inconvenienced. Badger came to the heel of the massive foot leading higher; he jumped, grabbed on, and left the earth behind as the leg lifted into the air.
He started to climb; the wind rushed by in faster currents; the ground underneath swirled and bucked as the man made sharper movements. If this attack failed, the mission was lost, the war was over and they would be systematically slaughtered. The man was doing something—he didn’t know what. It was possessed by another mind and unreadable through the suit that concealed its image. Were the man to notice him crawling up his leg, the result would be certain death; if he fell, he would die. He couldn’t so much as slip. The leg rose higher as the giant moved faster.
The gunfire was just an echo in the background, consuming none of Badger’s attention; he slowly fought to pull himself up. The bullets did little more harm than bee stings, caused no more than slight irritation and confusion, but it was a distraction that kept him alive in the seconds that mattered. He was grateful for the sound of the shots as he moved, for Rat’s Dexedrine focus holding back the enemy as much as she could.
But then the gunshots stopped.
Badger didn’t know if Rat had been detected or if she had to stop firing. It could be anything—the giant spotted her, or she was forced to fall back.
Or she had been killed. If she was dead, then he was dead, too, as was their short lived and ill-fated attempt to achieve some kind of victory.
The giant was moving more resolutely, more determinedly–this is bad. He’d be found if the shots didn’t carry on as before. He snapped his head to the side and yelled into the comm device on his wrist, straining from his jittery position to bark into the speaker in a sputter of sweat and spittle: “Rat! Rat! Come in, Rat! I’m not there yet! I need you to hold it back!”
There was static on the other end, then a voice that was uncertain and paralyzed. “I…I can’t…” Rat said.
Badger couldn’t tell if Rat was injured; it was possible that she was bleeding to death, or was just too terrified to speak. Every minute that passed brought the giant closer to finding them.
He clicked on the device. The giant was coming closer to finding them; he could feel it. Calmly, he closed his eyes, then opened them again.
He said, “Rat, this is where our journey ends. You’ve fought well, you’ve fought harder than can be expected of any animal, but I need you to one last thing for me. That thing below you is just another living creature, just like us. There is no need for fear, no need for awe. It can be killed, just like us, it can be made to feel pain; I can already feel its muscles tighten in fear, underneath this plastic sheath it wears, in expectation of what is coming for it. I need you to fire one last shot into its head, to put it out of misery forever. Do that, and everything you’ve done before will not have been in vain.”
“Do it, Rat! NOW!”
In his mind’s eye, Badger could see Rat brace herself up, pick up the rifle in both hands and aim a perfectly-placed shot at the monster looming closer to her. The single bullet blasted down the long barrel, went wild, and slid a scraping streak diagonally across the man’s vision faceplate, glanced sideways before ramming home into the weighty tire of the forklift. The blowup of released compression nearly threw the man off his feet; he stumbled forward and the teeth of the vehicle collapsed as its support was knocked out from under. Metal barrels clanked and rolled over the clearing.
Badger hung by one claw. The man was moving less now; he’d regained his other handhold–the human-sized explosion must have fooled it into thinking there was now a greater attack underway, one the size of itself. As an effective guerrilla tactic they had made the enemy think they were larger than they were. Badger climbed faster, nearing the destination; the folds of plastic furrowed above like canvas in a thunderstorm. Steadily he climbed higher.
The man finally had found its prey in the tree; it grabbed the source of its frustration and rage and yanked it down. It took hold of Rat and pulled her struggling form into its heavy and dangerous grasp.
He was now there; he had arrived at the spot. The base of the spinal cord, which once severed would take the body into a state of death paralysis. There was no way of knowing whether this would work, but it was their last chance. Badger pulled an extended dagger from his belt, sharpened over time and made from stones rent from the earth—it was older than him, older than the forest, as old as Gaia.
The man was crushing Rat to death in his hands.
With every ounce of strength in his body, Badger shoved the knife deep, as far as it could go, thrust far through plastic skin and all the way to where the flesh would be, where it could do real damage. It would be made to feel pain.
The wall he scaled shook, and stiffened violently; Rat’s body fell and Badger could see the light from the sun sneaking around the tip of the vertical plane above, coming in flashes. The sheet of plastic was frozen in place, and began to slant backwards, as a shadow grew to his side. He was slipping and falling while the body careened, desperately trying to grapple the slick fabric speed-burning his paws. The shadow emerged greater and expanded to consume everything in sight; the wall collapsed; he tumbled down and struck to the earth with a spastic jolt.
He crawled over himself and raised an arm, backing away, trying to ward off the incoming mass descending from above. The legs buckled and gave out like crumbling Ionic columns; the immense creature fell to the earth with a great, thunderous crash and upwelling of dirt clouds. Badger lay unbelieving, alive, arms still raised, lying in the narrow space between the man’s legs.
Dust cleared. Then silence. Badger was left in the clearing alone with the dead, inert body of a giant.
They had done it.
Not trusting the scene before him, Badger stood, saw he was intact, and walked the length of fallen trunks lying dead in the dirt. He rounded the foot, and there was the body of Rat, broken by the fall. Her neck was twisted; she was not moving. Badger took a few minutes to gaze at the corpse of his comrade. She would have to be buried next to Frog, two great heroes who had carried the Resistance longer than anyone. Anyone except himself.
He continued circling the fallen man. When he reached the very end, where the head had struck a rock when it landed, he saw the expansive faceplate shattered into a web of intertwining cracks. Badger stared at the glass like a mural screen before him, confirming once again that the god was in fact dead.
And then, after a few moments, he watched in surprise and revelation as purplish-pink muck began to seep from the cracks in the glass.
It grew thick, coursing in runnels that pooled around the giant’s head. Badger stood, captivated, and stated the obvious, mostly to himself, “He is made of the Sludge.”
They came from their great cities, with great signs and buildings that only they could create, surrounded by the opulence of a world they had envisioned for themselves, one to suit their great ideals and incredible aims. They had roads, factories, medicines, and electricity to make their lives better; they had escaped the confining stasis of the natural world to make a world that was better. That was purer. It contrived the physical necessity to make the Sludge, their waste in its most distilled and toxic form, and store it away somewhere where it would do the least damage. It was necessary to create some small and nearly invisible pocket of decay if a great society were to persist, and survive upon its shoulders. Something or someone must suffer for great things to be achieved.
But no men would follow on that day.
“We are all our Sludge,” Badger said, and the forest listened.
Tom Ribas and Lee Lackey are the founding members of the Houston-based writing collective “The Mad Hatters.” They write spec-fic, but secretly yearn to be Harlequin romance writers.