Wallow stood in the doorway, the room glowing around him like sunlight at dusk from the ambient light of the hall. Catbug curled into a red and blue ball in the bed in the corner of the room, covered in a small purple blanket. The little half-cat, half-insect creature had stayed up for the entire all-night marshmallow roast and dance mixer. It had grown very late, or very early, and Catbug purred quietly as his eyelids fought to stay open. Wallow waited a moment, gushing over the cuteness of a sleeping cat, but he had to get back to work cooking up a big breakfast for tomorrow. All-night dancing makes for a hungry morning crowd. Before leaving he gave Catbug his customary bedtime ritual words:
"Goodnight. Sleep tight. Don't let the Lobe-Eaters bite." The door shut quietly behind him as he left.
All was quiet save Catbug’s breathing and all was still but for the occasional flicks of his wings. Catbug, a nearly perfect sphere tucked into the blanket, twitched and huffed as he dreamed. His were simple dreams, full of play and chasing and the simple animal instincts of his wingless, speechless, four-legged mammal cousins.
In the middle of one dream where he was ten feet tall and laughingly chasing cows through a field of pink, ripe strawberries, something felt entirely un-dreamlike. He woke and rubbed his eyes. It was still dark in the room when he opened his eyes fully, but one of his catlike senses told him something was not normal. As far as he could tell he was alone. Neither Impossibear nor any of the other animals were nearby, but something had certainly awoken him. He got on all fours and looked around.
The room had been a storage closet once and except for the additions of Catbug and his bed it still was. Incomprehensible machines and gadgets covered most of the floor and filled nooks, shelves, and corners from wall to wall, but like so many things in the hideout they usually beeped and hummed, or at least glowed. The ones in the room were strangely dark and silent. Catbug consulted his memories of similar times the hideout had gone dark, times when they lost power or had accidents or been under attack. There was no smell of smoke, no stinging heat of lasers firing overhead, and no screams of unspeakable terror so he concluded that someone had shut the power off. He wondered if that someone was in the room now, cloaked in the folds of shadows, looking at him with hungry, alien eyes. Then his stomach growled in hunger and his instincts took over.
"Catnap-time over," Catbug announced, saluting to no one in particular. "Proceeding to lunchtime." Lunch should consist of hamburgers and strawberries, he thought with the lingering taste of the dream in his mouth, or perhaps to simplify things strawberry-flavored hamburgers. He flew through the door, which had opened even without power, shaking off the feeling of being watched as his hunger propelled him to the kitchen.
"Lunchtime, lunchtime," Catbug sang as he hovered down the hall. It was dark in this part of the hideout as well, with the lights out and none of the green and blue and red glowing buttons. Catbug looked through the window to see that it was still dark outside. Night had again fallen over Mars. Most of the windows were shuttered, cutting off all but the faintest traces of the city’s reflection on the lake’s surface.
There was a spot of marshmallow still stuck to Catbug’s fur and he picked at it, thinking that he could probably have at least another one or maybe four marshmallows with his strawberry burger.
He rounded the corner to the kitchen singing.
"Lunchtime, lunchtime, or maybe dinnertime."
The kitchen was dark with the scent of meat in the air. Across the floor lay scattered slices of cheese and bread. Wallow sat at the table in the darkest corner of the room which was on the complete opposite side from the stove where he should have been standing. How was he going to prepare food sitting down on the job like that?
Catbug alighted on the ground beside the table. The kitchen should have been the warmest place in the whole hideout, full of the smell of butter and fried onions, and with an air slightly tangible like a mist of olive oil and gravy had recently passed through. It was cold now. Catbug prodded at a thin slice of meat on the ground. Cold cuts. That was distressing. He liked his food hot. He would have to make Wallow prepare him something warm on the double.
Climbing into the seat across from him, Catbug faced his food provider.
"Lieutenant Catbug reporting in for Operation: Feed Catbug." He saluted.
Wallow did not return the salute or make any motion to signal he’s seen or heard Catbug. Maybe he was having a wallownap, Catbug thought. He waited a few moments longer, but it looked more and more likely that he was going to have to prepare the food himself.
“This, ladies and gentlemens, is what we call the worst-case-scenario,” Catbug said to himself.
He flew to the stove area. There were a lot of buttons and switches built into it, and the counters were covered with all kinds of gadgets. One of them must make the food dispense and one of them cook it. He just did not know which ones. Frowning, he began to experiment by flipping switches and turning knobs and pressing the buttons. Nothing happened on the stove, but from the far side of the kitchen came a stirring. Barely perceptible, the air shifted.
"Mission status report,” Catbug continued. He held a twirling spaghetti fork in one hand and an egg steamer in the other. “I have uncovered strange alien artifacts. The professor will want to see more."
Something came to life as Catbug made a mess of the stovetop. Something that had lain dormant reared its head and pulled itself up to its full height. A large, orange mass took a step across the kitchen floor. It reached out a large, long arm toward the bug. The bug hummed and sputtered machine noises as he waved around a pepper grinder as though it were a toy rocket. Then a hand came down, steadily, forcefully, and turn the stovetop switch to medium heat.
Catbug swung around, cheeks puffed and wings fluttering with delight to have his food provider awake and ready to serve him lunch-maybe-dinner.
"Commander Wallow, Operation Feed Catbug is in peril. Recommend we go to warp speeeEEEYYAAAAAAHHH!" Catbug screamed. Something else screamed. Where there should have been a happy, tea-sipping, animal-loving Bravest Warrior was instead a slobbering, saliva-stained, rambling husk of a figure. And it was screaming with a voice that did not belong to anything of this world. Its eyes had sunken and turned grey. Its skin lay covered in scraps of uncooked lunch meats and plastic wrap. Its tongue hung limp out its open, bellowing mouth.
Wallow had become a Lobe-Eater.
"Wallow!" Catbug flew back several feet to the furthest corner of the room, a tiny space atop the refrigerator. The large orange warrior lumbered toward Catbug, arms outstretched in brain-hungry zombie fashion.
“Buhhh,” the Wallow-shaped thing moaned. Slices of bologna and cheese slid down its face, leaving greasy slime trails. Its chest and arms were splattered in ketchup and mustard, mimicking the blood of innocent humans and non-humans alike.
The hair along Catbug’s spine rose in terror. A Lobe-Eater. Wallow had told him stories about these creatures. They lived at the bottom of deep lakes, just like the one the hideout sat in. They only came out on moonless nights, just like tonight. And they crawled into your head and slowly nibbled at your chewy lobes until you became a horrible monster whose only thoughts were of hunting down more lobes.
"Gahhh, buhhh" it moaned with a voice reminiscent of, but unlike Wallow’s voice.
The monster lumbered slowly toward Catbug, leaving a sticky trail of condiments in its wake. Wallow looked as if he had been attacked white rummaging through the fridge. Catbug imagined the monster slithering along the floor, crawling up the wall, and perching above the fridge, ready to strike its prey when it was most vulnerable. He pictured the thing, a horrifyingly unthinkable creature with thirteen legs, five eyes, and skin like the bottom of Chris’s feet after he had slept in his space suit. His imagination had put the creature in the same space he was hiding in and he twisted around to be sure there weren’t more.
While he had his back turned a hand reached up and over the top of the fridge and tried to grab him. Catbug pushed himself further into the back corner, wondering what to do. Whenever monsters attacked it was a job for the Bravest Warriors, but the Bravest Catbug.
The Bravest Warriors! Chris! Beth! Danny! They was brave Bravest Warrior for sure. Catbug knew they would come up with a plan, some way to stop this monster. But they could be in trouble. Catbug imagined Chris lying unconscious on the floor, trapped inside a box sinking slowly to the bottom of the lake, Lobe-Eaters crawling all over his body. Beth could be walking down the hall with a Lobe-Eater slithering along the ceiling, waiting to pounce. And Danny could be fighting off dozens of them this very moment, outnumbered and about to be overwhelmed. The Wallow-thing was mere feet away from reaching Catbug, struggling to climb up the cabinets with its uncoordinated limbs. Slow as it was, it was making progress. Catbug had to think fast. Everything relied on him now. He would have to be brave. If that’s what it took, he would have to become a Bravest Warrior.
So, filled with new drive and daring, he launched himself out into the air and over the Lobe-Eater’s slow grasp, somersaulted off the ceiling, and flew out the kitchen door and down the hall. He had been brave and he’d escaped, but tears began to fill his eyes and blur his vision as the realization that Wallow was already beyond saving hit him like the snap of a wet towel. Brave as he had felt in that moment with adrenaline rushing through his system, now he was feeling much less sure of himself and his half-formed plan. It was already too late for one of them. Wallow’s stories never talked about anyone coming back from being a Lobe-Eater. Catbug stopped to wipe the tears away. When he looked up he was in front of the holojohn. It was occupied. It was also unlocked.
A low moaning seemed to come from inside. Catbug tiptoed up to the door to hear better. His ears twitched as they tried to recognize the sounds they were hearing.
Catbug was the end result of genetics steadily perfecting themselves into the sharpest, sneakiest, most cunning hunter in the galaxy and ever seen. He was a pinnacle of science and nature and every sense in him told him not to open the door. Under the circumstances there could have been anything on the other side and no reason to take such a risk. The smart thing would have been to leave, to get to somewhere safe, and call for help.
So of course he opened the door.
Once opened, Catbug saw what he hoped he wouldn’t see. Chris lay prone on the floor, face in a small puddle of overflowing water from the sink, toilet paper stuck to the bottom of his boot. His face looked strange, twisted as if in a manic smile. Crouched over him was Beth. Or, what had once been Beth. She had the sunken features of a creature bent on tasting the juicy tastiness of lobes. She, too, was now a Lobe-Eater.
Not-Beth flashed a lifeless glare and bared its teeth at hearing Catbug’s gasped exclamation. The monster opened and closed its jaw, trying to speak. Instead of words came gargled sounds, guttural noises like that of wild animals. Catbug backed away from the door, looking helplessly at Chris. But he had not been careful to watch where he went and backed right into something large. Then he felt a hand grab him from behind. Wallow had Catbug in a chokehold and was squeezing hard. Catbug struggled fiercely to escape, writhing and wiggling with all his tiny bug might. When that seemed ineffective he opted for the only thing he could do. He bared his feline fangs and bit down.
Wallow howled in pain and in that moment Catbug was free. He flew up to the ceiling, panting, looking up and down the hall to see where he could run to. He was tired, and his heart pounded a mile a minute, but for moment, while up near the ceiling, he was mostly safe from the monsters’ reach. He just needed a moment to think about what to do. As long as they were focused on him they were ignoring Chris. He could lure them away and maybe find some way to get back and wake Chris up. That is, if it wasn’t already too late.
But Catbug did not have the chance to form a new plan. While he wondered whether to run for the living room or the garage to lure the monsters away something stirred from within the holojohn. A blue gloved hand grabbed at the door frame and a tuft of blond hair poked through. Chris held his other hand to his head and moaned as if in pain. He walked unsteadily, weaving from side to side until he stood just behind Beth and Wallow.
“Uhhh,” he said. “Gahhh.”
Then he raised his head up and Catbug saw the lifeless, soulless eyes of a monster. It was too late for Chris.
“Gehhh,” it said.
“Get. Get bug. Get the bug.”
Wallow and Beth, responding in some primal way to Chris’s speech, picked up the words and repeated the chorus. Get the bug, they all chanted as they swiped at the air and advanced toward Catbug who, despite himself was backing away in horror. Flying backwards, he bumped his head on the lintel of the garage door and fell to the floor with a soft thud. The trio of monsters tried to grab at Catbug’s arms and legs, mouths agape and drooling.
Without looking Catbug dashed as fast as his wings could take him to the garage. Some kind of spaceship had to be there, a rocket car or a solar jetpack, hoverskates even. Anything that could take him away quickly.
The garage was almost completely dark, but even so it felt open, exposed, and clearly empty of getaway vehicles. Someone had been lazy and parked in the driveway, which was so typical. Catbug tried opening the garage door, but the button simply pressed in without any effect. With that escape route out he pressed the button to close the door to the hideout, but it too was out of order. All he could do now was hide.
There was no much in the garage, but Catbug found a small space behind the washing machine and squeezed himself through the gap. It was dusty and surprisingly full of socks and underwear. Catbug buried himself in the unwashed laundry and thought very quiet thoughts. Then came the sounds of footsteps, heavy thuds upon hard metal floor. He could smell deli meat in the air. Catbug closed his eyes and thought even quieter thoughts.
“The bug,” he heard them say. “Get the bug.”
Things became very quiet then and time seemed to come to a standstill. Catbug’s hunger for his strawberry burger returned. The longer he waited for the Lobe-Eaters the more his thoughts began to wander. He thought about the dance mixer: Wallow deejaying while Danny dominated the dance floor, as usual, and even Chris shaking his groove thing a few times with a lot of coaxing from Beth. Impossibear had eaten so many marshmallows, most of which were Catbug’s, and they had chased one another around all night fighting over them. Catbug had fallen asleep hungry and had dreamed of food. His instincts, now that the immediate danger had subsided, pushed him to eat, eat, eat.
The sounds of the Lobe-Eaters had long vanished. It was probably safe for Catbug to sneak out and maybe grab one of those cheese slices on the kitchen floor. There might even be some marshmallows left in the pantry. Slowly raising his head over the edge of the washing machine, socks stuck to him with static acting like domestic camouflage, Catbug looked around.
Standing still like statues, shoulders hunched over, saliva spilling out of their mouths like some macabre fountains, the Lobe-Eaters were still in the garage. To his left was the Beth monster, to his right and blocked the way back to the hideout was Chris. Then he looked up and only an arm's length away now Wallow the Lobe-Eater loomed like a giant. The giant grinned.
It swiped and only Catbug’s superb reflexes kept the blow from landing. Catbug slithered back into the space behind the washer. He had been inches from becoming a monster like them. But it wasn’t over yet. Wallow stood on top of the washing machine, howling and clawing at the open space that was too large for his gloved hand to fit through. The washing machine began to make a horrible tearing metal sound then rumble and shake as the other two monsters tried to tear it away from the wall. Catbug tried to think of something to do. He pulled at the drain hose, hoping by some miracle he could remove it and fit crawl to safety through the pipes. The banging and clawing intensified with Wallows glove only inches away. The washing machine hose came loose, spilling water everywhere, but it was no use. There was no way Catbug could fit through such a small hole. There was nowhere else to run to.
Catbug closed his eyes.
And then, nothing. No howling monster cries. No feeling of hands grabbing and carrying him. No sense of an alien creating burrowing into his eat and wrapping its tendrils around his brain.
He opened one eye. He opened both eyes. He was still behind the washer, but the monsters had gone. Careful to look in all directions, he peered over the washing machine again. There was a new figure in the garage now, standing framed in the door, glowing like some kind of angel.
It was Danny.
"What's going on in here?" He was wearing a welding mask and holding up a blowtorch in one hand and a sack slung over his shoulder in the other.
"Lobe-Eaters!" shouted Catbug. “Run!”
All three of the monsters were focused on Danny. Lobe-Eater Chris lurched forward and fell into him, arms flailing without comprehension of what they were doing, landing with one hand into Danny’s pocket and the other poking him in the ear.
"Ouch. Okay, enough of this." Danny pushed Chris off him and put the blowtorch down. He pulled a scanner device from his coat a pressed a few buttons. The lights came on. Not just the lamps, but all the various colored buttons and dials and screens all over the hideout came back to life.
“And another thing,” came Chris’s normal voice. “Wait. What's going on in here? Why am I on the floor? And why is there a date stamper in my hand?"
"Woops, that's mine thanks,” said Danny, taking it from Chris’s hand. “I uploaded all your higher brain functions into the computer for the extra processing power. I needed it for my latest invention. Plus you were all getting whiny about my workshop anyway."
Catbug climbed on top of the washing machine and began to lick himself clean. Somehow, someway, things were back to the way they always were. All the sense of loss, the existential terror, vanished like morning fog. The Bravest Warriors were back, shouting at each other, but they were back. Catbug purred.
"Danny, your workshop smells like dinosaur feet and everything you make in there ends up trying to kill us," said Beth, her arm outstretched for maximum scolding capacity.
“I smell like dinosaur feet,” said Wallow, wiping condiments off his gloves. “And bologna. I don’t remember anything. What did we get up to?”
“Just a few side effects,” said Danny as he rummaged through the sack he brought. “Nothing to worry about.”
"This has gone too far, Danny." Chris had got to his feel and was speaking with his authority finger at full wag. "You can’t take over people’s bodily functions like that. We’re a team and a team – wait! Is that—" His eyes widened and began to twinkle.
"You mean you finally—" said Beth, eyes full of constellations.
"Can't breathe! Too excited!" shouted a galaxy-glazed Wallow.
"You all mocked the idea, said it couldn’t be done, said it would break the fabric of reality if it could be done. Behold, ye of little faith! The Trans-astro-dimensional-asterizer! Or, T.A.D.A. as I call it."
"I call it fantastosaurus rex!" shouted Wallow.
"Now we can stream movies from the hideout’s computer from anywhere in the galaxy!" screamed Beth. “From any alternate timeline!”
"Movie night!" The Bravest Warriors all jumped up for a group high-five. Then everyone rushed to the living room and leapt onto the sofa.
"I've got the perfect flick to start things off," Danny turned the remote control to the TV and flipped through a long list of channels until stopping on…
“Return of the Lobe-Eaters,” said Chris with reverence oozing from his voice. “The director never finished it because of the outbreak of gravity pox on planet Beambaum where they were filming the last scene.”
“I scanned the timelines and found one where the movie was finished.” Danny pressed play and they all leaned in to watch.
Meanwhile, Catbug had wandered to the kitchen and was looking for something to eat. In the back of the refrigerator he found a bowl of unspoiled, uneaten chocolate pudding. Carrying it back to the living room he took a seat on the back of the couch next to Beth. Catbug was not what you would call a deep thinker. He did not dwell on things once they had passed. Now that everything was back to normal the last hour had mostly faded from memory. But one thing still seemed unresolved.