“Finally, once you two have the orb, get back to the boat and return to the base.” Conrad the Conqueror looked at his agents with his teardrop-shaped eyes. His gray, bulbous head swelled above everyone in the room, two of his four thin tentacles resting halfway across a wide table.
Everyone else stood or floated around the table: Sawn, the living buzzsaw; Terrent, the bratty kasdde kid; Czar Spiest, the monster-sized ghost ball; Wrodin, the war machine; and Sal, the snake.
“Upon your return you will wait for the others,” Conrad said. “The next phase will then commence. Do you have any questions?”
Terrent raised his arm from his round, green shell. “Can we stop for nachos on the way?”
Conrad glared at him. “Ask me that again and I will tape you up inside your shell.”
“I dunno, I think it’s a reasonable question,” Sal said, rubbing his wide cymbal-shaped head with his tail.
“Yes, but you’re an idiot,” Conrad said. “Any real questions?”
“I have one! That is, I mean, I think you forgot something, or rather, someone . . .”
“What?” Conrad looked around the room.
Against the steel wall of the meeting room there hung a video screen, on which live video feed showed a searing red rocky volcanic shaft. Baked stone surrounded a magma pool, out from which rose a red mass of magma. A black, blinking spot watched the meeting from a video screen on the volcano’s rock wall.
“Me! Cagnorm. You know, the one who can erupt a volcano at a whim.”
“This plan doesn’t require you to erupt the volcano,” Conrad said.
“Yeah, but you paired everyone together: Terrent and Czar Spiest, Sawn and Sal, you and Wrodin . . . except me. What do I do?”
“Nothing,” Conrad said. “You’re stuck in that volcano. You can’t leave. You don’t have a part in this mission.”
The heat of the volcano and magma around Cagnorm normally soothed them, but it did nothing to alleviate the heat of their anger. Cagnorm shook in the pool.
“Wha—buh—I’m shocked! And not because I don’t get a part in this plan; I haven’t had anything to do practically since you gave me life. What’s the good of me getting life if I don’t have a life? Stuck in this volcano day in and day out, never a thing to do. I would love to burn up those slubes who have always gotten in our way. Why don’t you just chase them into the volcano? At least then I’d have someone to talk to. Do you know, I cherish these meetings when I can–”
Conrad muted the video screen. “Why are my agents such idiots?”
Czar Spiest’s capsule-shaped eye glared at Conrad. “We can hear you, you know.”
“I stand by my statement.” He pounded the table with a tentacle. “Now go! Initiate the plan. If that clod of magma wants something to do, I’ll give them prisoners every day once this planet is under my control.”
* * *
“And a little appreciation would be appreciated once in a while,” Cagnorm continued. “I mean, sure, I may have failed to kill any of our enemies, but . . . Hey! Hey, wait! Where are you going?” Conrad and the others left. “I’m not done! Don’t ignore me. Please? I just want someone to talk to.” Cagnorm looked down. “How would you like it if you had to spend day in and day out in an empty cavern with nothing but rocks and extremely unconversational matter identical to you except–”
“Are you still talking? Conrad muted the monitor quite a while ago.”
“Huh?” Cagnorm looked up and saw the ghostly Czar Spiest on the screen. “Oh! Hey, Czar Spiest. Did you get tossed off the mission too?” Cagnorm jittered, splashing magma about. “We could talk together! We could bond! I’m sure we have lots of things in common. We . . . We’re– We . . . We’re both forms of matter other than solid. Um, sometimes. Or– or maybe–”
“Calm down,” Czar Spiest said. They lifted a key ring in their oversized, shapeless arm. “I just came in here to grab my motorcycle key. You’re acting like the most desperate thing in the world for conversation.”
Czar Spiest floated away. Cagnorm stared at the empty room as if time had stopped. They couldn’t believe Car Spiest said that.
“That’s because I am the most desperate thing in the world for conversation!” the magma monster screamed, their words echoing off the wall.
Cagnorm moaned. “Not even talking to my own echo is going to make me feel any better today.”
“Hey, what am I, chopped liver?”
“I think melted liver would be more appropriate,” Cagnorm answered.
“Right. You’re the chopped liver around here. You’re completely ignorable, over in the corner where no one sees you.”
“I’m not in the corner. I’m in the middle.”
“Of a volcano. No one would want to come here. You can’t leave, you can’t help, and your extreme heat would just get in the way. Why would anyone hang out with you?”
“Oh, leave me alone. Talking to my own echo is making me feel even worse.”
“You’re the one who keeps bringing me here.”
Cagnorm stopped talking. The echo faded, and the only noise was the bubbling of the magma. They shuddered. They couldn’t just leave the place to silence. That also made them depressed. They needed something to talk to.
With a shout Cagnorm quivered. The volcano quaked and grumbled like a stomach ready to blow. The wall broke apart, chunks of rocks crashing around the magma pit. Cagnorm stopped shaking the volcano and looked at the fallen rocks. With a magma tentacle they piled the rocks together. They built three piles, each with a larger rock balanced on top. With a mere flick of magma, Cagnorm carved a smiling face into each of the top rocks.
“There. I’ll call you Rocko, I’ll call you Stonie, and I’ll call you Leaflet.”
The rock people made no response.
“So how’s the daily grind been, Stonie? Did Grahamvel give you the third degree at work? Not that it bothers a hard-skinned guy like you.”
The rock people made no response.
“And Leaflet! I hear you just got accepted into Igneous U. Congratulations! I’m sure you’ll make your folks proud.”
The rock people made no response.
“What about you, Rocko? Did you ever get a call back from Sedimentary?” Cagnorm asked.
The rock people made no response.
“I’m sure they’ve just been busy with work. Don’t worry, it’ll work out; they’re totally into you.” Cagnorm leaned some of their mass close to Leaflet and whispered in a voice so loud that it almost broke the etiquette on what constituted a whisper, “I don’t actually think it’ll work out. I’m just saying that to make them feel–”
Leaflet toppled into Rocko and Stonie, causing all three to collapse into the pile of rubble that they really were.
Cagnorm stared at the rubble.
“Yeah, okay, fine, you were bad conversational partners anyway.”
Maybe some fellow magma would be friendlier. Cagnorm surrounded regular magma and pushed it up, trying to build it into a person-shape. The magma slid down and remained inert.
“Gaddfern it,” Cagnorm said, one eye drifting around their body, “I wish this magma held together better like me.”
The magma monster looked at the surrounding rock wall. Something more solid was needed for company. Cagnorm blasted a stream of magma at the wall. The scorching magma melted through and slowly carved the bottom half of a circle. Cagnorm then carved two smaller holes above the arc and filled the carving with magma.
“A happy face!” The wall of the volcano now had a glowing, smiling, though oozing, face carved into it. “Hello, happy face! How are you? You certainly do brighten my day. I mean, my day is already kind of bright, since I give off a low amount of light myself, but you help fix my depressed–” The magma melted through the face which collapsed.
Cagnorm screamed. “What am I doing? I’m talking to things that fall apart and can’t talk with me. I need something like myself. I’d never fall apart! Twitch, twitch.”
The magma monster’s eyes swirled all around their body as they grabbed a rock with a magma tentacle. “Let’s make another of me.” They smacked the rock into themself repeatedly. “Ow! Ow! Ow! No pain, no gain. Ow! Gotta split myself in half. Ow! Ow! I can do this. Ow! Ow!”
They kept hitting themself for a while.
Eventually the rock melted in Cagnorm’s grasp. Their body throbbed along with the bubbling magma, and they groaned. “That didn’t help.” That only gave them a pounding blobache, and what they needed was a splitting blobache. “Not liable to have another me around, I guess.”
They sat in the magma pool, staring at the bubbling liquid fire. There had to be some way they could make a friend. They had stone, they had magma, which was really just liquid stone, and that was all they needed to make life, wasn’t it? Maybe not, since that was what Cagnorm was made of, and they didn’t have a life. No, they couldn’t create a friend. Cagnorm looked up and lifted a magma tentacle.
“That does it! I’m sick of being alone. I’m going to do it. I am going to find a friend. I am leaving the magma pool!” Cagnorm roared and wailed as they stretched several magma tentacles out of the pool and grasped the dry rock. They pulled their mass out of the pool and into a tunnel leading out of the volcano.
Like an amoeba, Cagnorm oozed through the jagged rock tunnel. The passage grew cold the further they went. Soon the only significant heat source was Cagnorm, but that was heat leaving them, not being absorbed. Regardless of the lack of heat, all of Cagnorm’s thoughts were directed at finding a friend to talk to. They emerged from the volcano, the sky overcast and the ground dry and barren. They grew colder; a light wind felt like a great chill to the magma monster.
Cagnorm’s movements stiffened. It became harder to move, but they dragged themself forward. They had to find a friend. They had to find someone to talk to. They had to . . .
Duth_Olec: They had to be crazy.
Wally_Plotch: Cagnorm’s cooling off. They’ve been outside of the magma pit too long. They’re going to harden into rock.
Duth_Olec: Well, them’s the breaks.
Wally_Plotch: And Cagnorm might break after they harden.
Cagnorm kept going. They needed a friend. Everything around Cagnorm was slowing down. The world blurred and darkened. Plates of rock formed on them, contracting their vision. One eye went dark. But Cagnorm didn’t stop—they had to find a friend. They had to find . . . They had to . . . They . . .
* * *
Darkness. Cold. Nothing.
* * *
Red light flooded into Cagnorm’s vision, and gloppy heat flooded into their body. They screamed, melting. “Hot!” They moaned—that’s what they needed. Hot liquid all around them. Relaxing . . .
Cagnorm looked around—they were back in the volcano’s magma pool.
“I see you’re awake.” Conrad watched the magma monster through the video screen, leaning back in a chair big enough for his petit body but nearly obscured by his giant head.
“Oh, it’s you,” Cagnorm said, looking away from the monitor. “How did the mission go?” Not that Cagnorm cared. Conrad didn’t care about them, after all.
“Terrible. It ended in failure, and notice of our presence is ever-growing. Things are certain to only become more difficult.” Glaring at Cagnorm, he added, “Meanwhile, my agents are apparently killing themselves.”
Cagnorm spurted up as they remembered their foray outside. They turned back to the monitor. “Wait a minute . . . You put me back in the magma pit. You saved me from dying! You really must be my friends to care enough to keep me alive.”
“No, not really,” Terrent said, leaning into the edge of the screen, brow furrowed, “we just figured–” Conrad shoved him off-screen.
“Don’t think we’ll do it if you become suicidal again!” the war machine Wrodin shouted from somewhere off-screen. “We can’t have pathetic wash-outs in this army. If you’re going to suicide, do it as a suicide bomber in a blaze of volcanic glory.”
Cagnorm splashed in the magma pool, singing, “I have friends, I have friends, they love me and don’t want me to die, I have friends . . .”
Conrad muted the monitor. “Idiot.”