“Yeah, that’s some clog,” the plumber said. She pulled the metal–and–rubber snake out of the bathroom sink. Marisella wrinkled her nose at the gunk sticking to it. Whatever it had caught on in her drain had warped the metal and torn away bits of the rubber.
Marisella asked, “Can you fix it?” and, more softly, “Will it cost much?”
The plumber smiled at her. “Not a thing, hon. This one is Management’s liability. They’ll pick up the tab.”
Well, that was a relief.
The plumber had a crinkly, friendly grin. And crisp short hair, and broad shoulders. Three of her knuckles were tattooed with the letters “T,” “O,” “Y.” She was definitely Marisella’s kind of girl.
Marisella sat on the lip of the bathtub to watch the plumber work. “I tried three bottles of that drain clearing stuff, but no go.”
The plumber shook her head. “That stuff doesn’t work. Not on what’s in there.” She squatted down and reached into the tool kit at her feet. She pulled out a metal flask, unmarked. “What you wanna do, you see, is induce the new generation of sink throat monster that’s growing too big for its comfy home in your drain there to motivate downwards and out into the larger sewer system; then to the river, and if it wants to go farther, to the ocean.” She stood and unstoppered the flask. A fine thread of silver smoke lifted from it. “You can’t kill these babies,” she said, “but at least this one is still small enough you can encourage it to move along.”
“What’s your name?” Marisella asked, mesmerized by the flexing of the plumber’s forearms as she opened the flask.
“Dot. Slide a few inches farther away, please, hon. Not that I’m not enjoying your company, but the goop in here can dissolve flesh, and I would hate to splash any of it on you.”
“Oh, of course.” Marisella wondered how many teams Dot played for, and if any of them were hers.
Dot started carefully glugging the stuff in the flask down the drain. It was a viscous purple fluid. It smelled like dried shrimp, and it glowed. Dot said, “Problem is, of course, that getting them out into the open sea only goes so far. Glups—that’s what Management finally decided to call them—keep growing indefinitely. They’re not sure how many of them are lining the ocean and river beds. Probably fewer than they think; it looks like the bigger ones eat the smaller ones.”
That got Marisella’s attention. “What?” She sidled past Dot’s firm waist and luscious behind in its baggy work dungarees. She went and stood in the bathroom door.
“Yeah,” said Dot. “We figure that’s what preserves their immortality; eating a creature that doesn’t die, but that can be eaten, digested, and incorporated into its host.”
“You say Management sent you?”
“That’s right, and you’re lucky they called us when they did.” She took a phial out of the toolbelt slung low around her belly. “When they get too big for the drains, these little devils can sometimes decide to come up instead of down. Wouldn’t want a glup coming at you while you’re sound asleep in your cozy little bed.”
“It’s a king,” Marisella told her absent–mindedly. There was something grainy inside the phial, like ground black pepper. “What happens if they come up instead of going down?”
Dot peered at the grains and gave Marisella a reassuring smile. “Well, you’re never going to find out, are you? I got you.” She uncorked the phial and poured the grains in after the purple goo. She continued, “Our planet’s waters are drying up. Glups drinking it all. That’s what the politicos like to say. Truth is, we aren’t helping, what with our having created global warming and all. We’re just making the cycle go faster. Whoops!”
Marisella yelped. A slim black thread was wriggling out of the drain. It slapped against the inside of the sink basin and started questing around blindly. It reached for Dot’s wrist. Dot shook it off. She bent and pulled something out of her tackle box that looked like the offspring of a plunger and a bottle of holy water. By then, five more fighting threads had wormed their way out of the drain.
Dot said, “All right then, baby. You wouldn’t go down, so I guess it’s out for you.” She enjoined battle. It seemed to involve alternately squirting and plunging with the mystery tool. In between, she huffed at Marisella, “Because it is a cycle, you know? Took Management long enough to figure out that when a planet has been totally consumed by glups until all that’s left is a planet–sized knot of them, their collective heat ignites them. They become a sun. Ah, you little devil, you! Anyway, those particular suns eat other stars. The digested star stuff is pushed to the bottom of the singularity well, where it generates more planets. And so the cycle continues. There’s something in there about the heat death of the universe. Maybe that’s where it all ends. But maybe it’s just the largest glup of all swallowing everything and shitting out new beginnings.”
She’d beaten back all but one of the threads. She yanked with her gloved hands at that one. Slowly, she began pulling whatever was at the end of it out of the drain.
“Don’t worry about splashing. The black stuff neutralizes the purple stuff.”
“Yeah. Done this a million times. Well, three times, anyway. Management thinks it’s having some success with a project of breeding new forms of tardigrades. Those things are so tiny! Don’t let that fool you, though; they can survive boiling, freezing, and vacuum. We’ve found them on comets arcing in from deepest space.”
“Maybe that’s where they came from in the first place. Maybe tardigrades can kill our glups for us. Though I’m not sure it makes sense to kill them.”
Marisella nodded. “Glups are the engine of the universe.”
Dot laughed, joyous and belly–deep. “Exactly. You understand me.”
With a pop and a triumphant, “Ha!” from Dot, the thing from Marisella’s drain came free. “Here we go; okay if I dump it into this toothbrush mug?”
The glup had curled a thread around Dot’s finger. Marisella had to help her snip the thread. The monster fell wetly into her blue ceramic toothbrush mug. She and Dot contemplated it. It pulsed once, making the mug quiver as though it’d been filled with mercury. Dot said, “It barely looks alive, doesn’t it? Don’t worry; the purple stuff will keep it pacified.”
With two fingers, she peeled the curl of black thread from her glove, popped it into her mouth, and swallowed. Marisella felt her own throat working in response. “What’re you going to do with it?” she asked Dot.
“Ocean. It’s only 45 minutes to the beach. Maybe one of its bigger cousins will take care of it for us. Or vice versa.”
“I can take it there,” Marisella blurted.
“You’re sure? You’d have to do it within a day or two, before the suppressant wears off.”
“I’m sure.” She wasn’t. She just knew she didn’t want to let the glup go right away. Marisella’s head was swimming. She thanked Dot, offered her some cold water. “It’s filtered,” she said. “And it’s from the fridge.”
Dot slugged back a glass of that, no ice. She and Marisella exchanged numbers. “So you can call me,” Dot told her. “You know, in case you need anything.” Marisella just nodded and escorted her out. She’d probably call Dot sooner or later. She just had too much on her mind right now.
Marisella went back into the bathroom. The baby glup lay curled on itself in her toothbrush mug, exhausted.
Such a simple shape it had. Slimy greenish–black, shiny and uncomfortably, organically slug–shaped. It had gone all bumpy and dull, and it seemed to be humming; vague notes almost too low for Marisella to hear. A small, sad eye materialized out of the mass of it and stared glumly at Marisella.
Marisella didn’t care if she were part of a greater plan. Life was too good. There were hot butch plumbers around, and so many new things to try. She didn’t want to die, not ever.
Dot said that whatever consumed an immortal glup became immortal.
She took a deep breath and picked up the mug. It was heavier than she expected.
Raw, or stir–fried with some nice onions, maybe in a cream sauce? Maybe invite Dot to dinner?
She took the glup to the kitchen.
(Editors’ Note: “Can’t Beat ‘Em” is read by Amal El–Mohtar on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 13B.)
© 2016 by Nalo Hopkinson