Slipping from his limp grasp, Zod’s raised and bejewelled goblet fell briefly to clatter against the cold stone floor. Its viscous contents gurgled forth and spread like a feeding stream to the pool of thick inky liquid already forming between numerous sprawled and occasionally twitching bodies. With glacial speed, he toppled forward.
The ultra-white marble shook with a dull thud* for the last time as Zod joined the rest of his party, and the rolling cherry tomatoes, as they hissed and dissolved into the noxious black pool.
The conclusion became unavoidable; Zod had expired, was no more, and had most likely gone off to pay for his sins in a non-credit card environment.
In short, Zod was dead.
A ragged trail of lightning slashed across the storm-shocked and battered night sky and revealed through its bruises, three precarious figures. They clung to and pressed close against a black serrated rock face and, bracing themselves against the pummelling forces of nature, each prayed that what looked like a million foot drop below would stay right where it was.
‘Ooh maan!’ cried out the lowest in many ways member of the party as his hand was crushed, again, into a shard of the behemoth that was Mount Spiky. His protests though, were drowned and the roaring wind made a mockery of his frustration and pain.
How had he gotten into this mess? Dodgy personal hygiene had certainly played a role, and a disturbing desire for galactic peace and harmony had certainly helped. However, right now the only place he seemed to be going was straight into the bowels of doom; and the smell was getting worse.
And so, he thought, the current situation, where, with the life expectancy of that parachutist who took his son’s rucksack by mistake, Rafe found himself trapped beneath the clumsiest pair of feet this side of a drunken caterpillar
Scrunch, went various bones, introducing Rafe to lots of new sensations he’d rather of not met.
‘Sorry, Rafe… again,’ called a soft and melodic voice as the owner of the offending boot deftly sprung to an alternative foothold… Rafe’s other hand.
A more stressed being would have cried out, ‘Holy bleep!’ Rafe though, impaled to the rock as he was and with impressive chilled out optimism, opted for ‘least I’m not gonna fall now, man.’
Little did he know the cruel and devious plans the author had in mind.
It could’ve been likened to a cheese; a billion tonne heap of cheese. But you’d be mad if you did, though it was riddled with holes, more even than your average Ford Cortina; and not one was unoccupied. In the utter oxygen starved heights lurked, or loomed, or perhaps a bit of both, Zod’s palatial chambers and afforded panoramic views of the northern hemisphere; and gave Zod the ideal vantage point for the occasional spot of peasantry*. Closer to the ground dwelt the sprawling consumer wastelands of the Mega-Malls and then deeper still and burrowing almost to the planet’s core was the galactic prison; playfully named by its inmates… well, actually no one knows what they call it because once in…you never get out.
Forgotten screams littered these forgotten levels as consumers and other lost souls alike pleaded to be shown to the checkout; though as all knew, there was only one guaranteed way out of ‘The Spike.’
And so, back to Rafe and his companions, or actually just his companions, whom having surmised Mount Spiky to be invincible to any kind of attack bar planetary collision, sought the ubiquitous ‘Back Door.’ A design flaw inherent and often deliberately included in all fortresses, simply to give the good guys a chance…
Sknarf exhaled harshly, her breath ragged and desperate like a chain-smoking pentathlete after signing the entry form. The climb had tired her after barely ten ticks, and now with both legs shaking she cursed herself for not appreciating comfortable chairs more throughout her life. A sudden howl of chill wind clawed to dislodge her grip and brought her senses sharply to focus as her tumbling dark curls lashed about wildly. She cursed, swept back the offending hair, and forced another step. To call Sknarf’s follicle plumage ‘hair’ was an insult, for Sknarf had hair. With texture like a whispering moonlight breeze and a silky shine, that would empty the accounts of shampoo advertisers, its beauty was only outshone by the brilliance of her eyes. Again, to call them eyes… another insult, for Sknarf had eyes that shimmered like limpet pools in the caverns of eternity; but possibly without the limpets, or even perhaps, just limpid. Anyway, Sknarf was a beauty with a petite figure that boasted tight muscles but which still couldn’t lose that soft bit of flesh that had reserved a permanent table just around her belly button. Yes, food was a passion for Sknarf, and one that too often sought to overwhelm her. Fortunately though, her other love, an unrequited one, kept her first in check- and miserably- in a lifelong diet…
The natural leader, like the first sheep into the abattoir, Spiff skipped from rock to rock, dimly aware of the danger but thinking, what the heck! With chiselled features that made rocks everywhere dive for the concrete mix and a long and curling sweep of dramatic blonde hair, Spiff had won the heart and a good deal more of more than one fair damsel. Yes, Spiff was a man’s man, but more often, he was a woman’s. With his athletic physique, over generous, verging on the moronic grin and an endless supply of witty and irritating anecdotes, Spiff made the ideal hero- or talking puppy. Except, he wasn’t a hero in any way, and indeed often pointed this out himself, at length; exceeding length. Yes, modesty was Spiff’s middle name, and though Spiff Modesty Laser-Blazer Thar She Blow’s Raygun was an unusual name even in these times, it was by no means a ridiculous one and Spiff always kept his feet firmly on planet realism. Here was a man who never cared for power, glory, or soft furnishings, though each to a sickening amount had found him. Peering upwards into the onslaught of wind that suicidally hurled itself down from those icy peaks, he imagined, no, definitely did see a ledge.
It could be another trick of the night though, he thought, but it would take more than a few rabbits popping from someone’s shorts to get past Spiff; again. Shooting a glance back at his dedicated companions and finding them yet further behind, he realised they wouldn’t last much longer. The back door had to be found; and certainly before dawn broke, when Admiral Plesiosaur would begin the rebellions main assault. Unfolding a withered map from his well-stocked utility belt, Spiff attempted to analyse it as it fluttered and squirmed in the storm. It was a map they had paid dearly for, as Zod’s house had few traitors and even fewer that actually bothered with the rebellions. Well, that was the official line at least. The truth was, that the hierarchy was overflowing with back- stabbing, blackmail, and assassinations. It was just that everyone was so busy with internal treachery that no one had time for outside* interests. Spiff’s perfectly manicured finger traced the path they had attempted to follow. Like the trail left by a slug as it meanders home from a night on the rocks, their climb had not been a straight one. Yet, they were almost there. However, precisely where ‘there’ was, was a still bit of a rough guess, though Spiff reckoned, a short Westward hop and that would be it. Again, ‘it’ wasn’t too well defined either. Folding the map back up, he saluted solemnly as a sign of a respect to the brave and unknown cartographer and headed off East.
Wise, forgiving, dead, gentle, and compassionate; these were all words that could have been used to describe Zod, though only one of them was true. He was a man publicly loved by all or at least all that enjoyed keeping their limbs intact and privately by any with the morals of a primary school offal vendor. With his mane of tar black hair, 24-carat teeth and assorted muscular implants that bulged beneath a polished wooden tan, Zod was either the living embodiment of a God, or a cast member from Nebula Watch. However, to imply that Zod had ever ‘lived’ was a bit of a take on reality, for Zod, as we shall discover, was a bit… well completely actually… undead.
At first glance, he appeared to have it all, and it took a second, more considering one to see that he really did have it all. The third one, a long and careful study by a team of professional glancers, brought to one's attention immeasurable wealth, entire planets crammed full of exotic foodstuffs, whole racial classes of female companionship and at least a dozen changes of body.
At this particular instance though, Zod’s excesses had caught up with him, in the same way as the act of swallowing a grenade does. Manifesting itself as a healthy enthusiasm for fermented yeast excrement, Zod, after years of trial runs had finally hit the big one; a stupor so terminal, it could have been used to stop trains.
However, who could blame this sculpture of manhood, this bastion of sleaze, this pinnacle of excess for the odd… weakness? Well, quite a few could actually, for Zod you see, ruled an Empire; and a big one at that:
Now, we’re not talking about your typical piffling couple-of-century, cross-continental empire here, y’know who’s only accomplishments are the odd victory over some bone toting savages, the installation of public sanitation, an equally sanitised public, or the development of some rather trippy glorified counting devices. No! Zod’s Empire was one that spread to the stars in a galaxy wide plague and held within its sway more mind- swellingly advanced races than you could shake an interstellar sized stick at. As for durability, the Empire was now in its one-hundredth millennia and unfortunately for most, showed no signs of entering that quiet reflective period beyond middle age, otherwise known as death. Life in all its multi-limbed, pink tendrilled, blamonge skinned and bug-eyed forms were more prevalent and varied, than that present at a Cyber-Goth nightclub’s Hawaiian T-shirt night. As such, it was, is, and probably always will be a noisy, smelly, and unspeakably bizarre place, where a weekend stay still bore more resemblance to being drowned in a coffin-full of landfill secretion than anything else. Indeed, so undesirable was it that the single highest professional suicide rate came from the tourism blurb writers. Moreover, the best they could come up with was typically a reworked variation on ‘a hot-pot of lively and energetic cultures, where large groups of stylishly clad young people are always keen to talk and discuss your monetary affairs.’
The Empire was a chaotic place at the quietest of times and was felt best appreciated from a distance; preferably, an orbital one. Some even went as far as to suggest that the very best view could only be obtained only through a blackened child’s telescope from some distant and unheard of galaxy, though how this opinion ever got back is a bit of a mystery.
As probably cannot be imagined, ruling this interstellar jungle was a challenge beyond the means of most mortals; and any that did try would find their mortality severely challenged.
Zod ruled this galaxy with an iron fist the size of a planetary core, and as the culmination of a thousand lifetimes of dictatorship, he felt a certain type of utopia had finally been achieved in his reign. Unfortunately, that utopia extended about as far as Zod could comfortably stroll and so therefore, this left the galaxy’s other schmillion inhabitants somewhat frustrated, and increasingly curious as to why each successive emperor always kept the name ‘Zod.’
An outspoken and short-lived philosopher once suggested that ‘no tyrannical power could keep an imprisoned population by force of arms forever, and that no greater force than freedom exists.’ Zod acknowledged this and knew it to be true but found the definition of ‘forever’ to be flexible enough for his needs.
All this was about to change, though for the sake of suspense, lets suppose it isn’t.
Rufus stroked his considerable chin and whilst staring serenely in one direction, eased another pair of cards from under ‘the conveniently placed rock,’ and merged them with his already burgeoning paw. His two alert companions that depressingly comprised his command had just been paid and unfortunately for them, as they were gifted with the mental powers of a waxwork, stood to lose everything Rufus had just paid them. He surveyed his variety of cards with one eye, whilst allowing the other to roll off in the direction of his ‘lads’ to see if they noticed his dodgy dealings. Assured that no one was home, the eye trotted back; it wasn’t good, even with the ten extra cards. Rufus decided to change the rules.
‘A pair of two’s, a five and…’ he paused for the knockout blow,
‘The Lucky Leper!’
The astonishment beheld was underwhelming.
Flingding and Boglet exchanged bewildered glances. Even for Securi-Orcs, they were of below average intelligence and, indeed, the rocks they sat on could probably whip them soundly at the nought times- table. With a resigned shrug, they surrendered another portion of their ill gotten* gains and marvelled at the stupendous and repeated luck of their Captain.
‘I dunno how you do it Cap’n…’ marvelled Flingding, as he threw down five King Zod’s and The Unicorn. ‘I just keep gettin’ all me cards the same’ he muttered morosely.
Rufus made a quiet strangling croaking sort of sound.
‘Well… that would’ve been a good hand Flingding, had we not changed to the Southern version of Red Dog Shuffle—‘
‘—But Cap’n,’ asked Boglet, ‘I thor we woz still playin’ Snip?’
‘Snip! Oh good, we're playing Snip again,’ yipped Flingding excitedly ‘Where am I anyway?’
‘No, no lads. We’re playing Black-Back remember, where the hand with the most cards belonging to anyone with an ‘R’ in their name wins. Remember?’
There were grumbles of quiet and confused acknowledgement. Like a classroom being taught pan-dimensional algebra, neither wanted to be the first to admit they hadn’t a clue as to what was going on, or that they were really meant to be in Biological Fermentation II instead. Flingding and Boglet admired their Captain. He steered them at every opportunity to the riskiest jobs that no one else would take. A real glory hound. Why, even now, as the forces of the ‘highly mysterious and not to be revealed for at least a few chapters,’ Lady X waited to attack the main gate, Rufus, decided that instead his company should guard the little known ‘Back Door.’ In case of a surprise attack, you see.
Genius! they thought.
Putting on his best conciliatory grin and failing like a shark trying to smirk, Rufus swept the shiny beads that passed as Orc currency towards him and into a small pile.
‘Y’know lads, one day, with practice mind, you might just get as good as old Rufus here… Took years though.’ He wagged a clawed finger scornfully.
‘Good at what Cap’n?’
Ignoring the usual stupidity, Rufus, with a dramatic gesture, split the pile in half and returned the smaller section.
‘Tar Cap’n,’ replied the pair in unison.
‘Tell you what Cap’n, this time nothing or double … me lucks gonna change,’ spurted the newly determined Flingding. Reaching into some untapped reservoir, he produced fresh beads; quite a sum, as beads go. Which they don’t in most places, incidentally.
Rufus gave the bet an air of deep consideration and, leaning towards the smouldering fire, sought to aid his decision with a large chunk of smouldering Thing?. With the other claw he subtly reached out and then munched whilst considering the offer and the new cards. ‘All right lads, just one more game then eh? I don’t want to take all your wages now, do I? After all, I’m yer boss!’
‘We don’t mind Cap’n. It’s for our own good,’ they yipped. Rufus grinned his toothy best.
‘Rafe old chap, grab my hand man,’ yelled Spiff, barely heard above the banshee wind. ‘You’ve almost made it!’ he lied.
‘No I’m not, Rafe. Just a few more yards to avoid your eternal doom, now come on there’s a good chap.’
The strain was beginning to show on Spiff’s face and Rafe slowly and inexorably slipped was slipping from his moist palms. Looking at the drop and little else, Rafe feverishly clung on though the need for some plot excitement was surely weighing heavily on his mind.
‘Right, that’s it…’ Spiff was facing the inevitable. Rafe would fall.
‘Sknarf! Wind the stretchy rope round my leg… and tight mind!’
Sknarf sprang forward, wrapping one end with excessive care about Spiff’s tensed ankle and wound the other about a sturdy looking stump of rock*.
Spiff let go.
Rafe’s stunned face and bulging Ping-Pong eyes bore into Spiffs with an ‘I’ll never forget this you bugger,’ type look as his arms swung furiously clutching at handfuls of air.
He began to accelerate.
In the same instant or possibly less, Spiff had rolled to the underside of the ledge, and, tensing great muscles against the surface, propelled himself in a downwards dive. The speed was just enough…
The stretch rope came to its limit with an abrupt crack, recoiling in a tonsil-extracting jerk, which would have blacked out a lesser hero. Still, Spiff managed to reach and with one mighty swoop caught Rafe with whatever came to hand. The two, linked now inexorably flew back, up, beyond the ledge, paused shortly in weightless bliss and then plunged back down.
Landing on all fours, panther-esque, Spiff immediately bounded to his feet, lunged to catch Rafe—and missed. With a thump not entirely dissimilar to that generated by a penguin flung from a skyscraper, Rafe didn’t do much for a long while.
Minutes of silent mouthings ensued, followed eventually by, ‘You.. Bleeper… could… have grabbed me somewhere… else!’ he cried in short gasps.
‘Sorry old chap, it was the only thing to do.’ Spiff dusted himself off, detached the stretchy rope and handed it back to an awe-struck and gibbering Sknarf.
‘Quick thinking there m’dear, if it wasn’t for that idea of yours to use the stretchy rope, Rafe here would be deader than a necrophiliacs address book.’
Sknarf, still shocked from the suddenness of the experience was at a loss for any sort of meaningful reply, except perhaps a burbled ‘Erk!’* ‘Come on Rafe old chap, none of this pain stuff now. You’re a soldier, man… Well, let’s be honest, your not really. But if you were, you’d say ‘by the Gods Spiff, baste my bleepocks with honey an shout DINNER TIME BRUNO if I don’t want to do that all over again.’’ Spiff pulled the crumpled form to its unwilling feet and gave him a proud pat that jarred Rafe’s teeth to their badly laid foundations. Rafe, still clutching his groin, wheezed at him violently. Spiff wandered over to the tunnel wall and began to examine it with zeal. However, as Zeal wasn’t around, he searched by himself. ‘Hmm… rock looks like it’s been excavated within the past… ten thousand million years.’ He took a small chisel from his utility belt, tapped off a chunk, and sniffed at it.
‘Yup, definitely rock. No doubt about it.’
He strolled into the cage and examined the smoother tunnel walls. ‘Hmm… different structure. Looks fused. Machine drilled I’d say and probably an atomic shifter too. Operator was left-handed and wore uncomfortable underwear. Remarkable technology, for the age. Doesn’t smell much though.’ Spiff stomped off down the tunnel and soon disappeared into the shadows.
‘Right. That’s it, I’m outta here, man,’ Rafe began to drag himself back to the precipice edge.
By now, familiar with such action, Sknarf grabbed him in one well- rehearsed movement and heaved his hominid form, still scrabbling at the dust, after Spiff.
‘Noo! Noo, he’s a lunatic man… woman, we're all going to die. No, we’ll die but he’ll live! He sniffs rocks for bleep’s sake! Noo, Noo!’ The howls and figures faded away, only to be observed only by a spatially challenged creature with little yellow wings and an orange beak. It was stuffed, and so didn’t really have an ability to act on the events it had just seen, but, if it was asked to say something, just one word that summed it all up, it would probably be:
They found him kneeling next to and groping the rock passionately at the end of the tunnel. Except it wasn’t. If it hadn’t of been for Spiff’s extensive experience in millennia-old stone masonry they may well have missed the tell-tale signs of a hidden door and walked straight on past it—into the wall. He waved his hand over what seemed to be an inset pebble and found it to be just that. Then, finding a more promising candidate he tried again. Gradually, the rock deformed and melted in a stunning display of plate tectonics and at length produced a glassy amber pad. It was triangular shaped, had a yellow smiley-faced holo-image rippling above its surface, and had a distinctly old fashioned look about it. ‘Probably not been used since the excavation,’ said Spiff, who now turned his attentions to the pad.
‘—Looks like an Igneo Sensi custom job, generally not very popular these days…’ Gesturing to Sknarf and Rafe to come closer, he highlighted the object of interest with a mini-torch fresh from his utility belt, and continued:
‘You see… the owner would speak a well-established phrase into the pad… here… and the door would pop open upon recognition. Problem was, this design was notorious at ignoring emotions. Result? Fire lapping at your toes and the door won’t open until you can talk in a sensible manner. Bit of a downer really. You’d think old Sensi would have tested it.’
‘What? Setting someone on fire and seeing if they could open the door?’ asked Rafe sarcastically.
Spiff ignored him.
‘Of course, say the wrong password and it would also activate the automatic defence systems… like thi—’
‘—Actually, no. That’s not a terribly good idea now is it Spiffy dear,’ said Rafe.
Spiff mused for a bit and then, sweeping back his hair, pressed an ear against the pad. His, I might add.
‘Ah-ha, I thought I could hear voices. Three of them, and they’re having a fight I believe… Listen’
Sknarf and Rafe knelt next to the cold rock frame and listened. Neither could hear a thing.
‘All of my cards appear to correspond at the symbolic level, old chap. Therefore, I surmise, according to the agreed upon dictum of yore and subject to suitable altercations depending upon the geographical variant and solar dependency of game-play, that this hand is surely capable of amassing superior enumeration, and hence, defeats yours.’ ‘I must apologise my distressed companion and card combatant. The contents of mine own hand leaves your own in a state of wanting.’ ‘But surely, my more knowledgeable superior, this is at odds with our established dogma?’
‘My dearest captain. My learned colleague and I believe you to be misdirecting us up the proverbial path bordered by a mixture of suburban fauna and shrubbery.’
A not insubstantial amount of commotion followed, sprinkled with the odd but excruciatingly polite guttural utterance. Spiff assumed a deep and thoughtful position for a brief moment and then leapt up like a squirrel on speed.
‘Sknarf, any of that… gum of yours left?’
Sknarf explored her pack and produced a carefully wrapped blob of grey goo. She handed it slowly and with sweating palms to Spiff.
‘Everyone stand back… and then some.’
Spiff dried the wrapper and pressed the gum gently against the lock. He took a large number of slow steps back, took careful aim with his ornate, extremely antique and slightly modified duelling pistol and… KERZZAP!
A bolt of neon green light crackled and arced through the air sending rapid heat waves pulsing outwards about it, distorting and bending the air and vaporising beyond doubt—the gum.
There was a long pause.
‘Sknarf. This time, the explosive gum.’
A flash of brilliance and the tunnel end, cave door, whatever, blew in, out, or possibly everywhere and left a great gaping door shaped blackness in its wake. The echo continued to shake the walls for far longed than was dramatically necessary and gave the distinct impression that the mountain was just overacting again.
Then it became nice and quiet again.
‘Do you think we may have been heard?’ squeaked Sknarf. Clouds of dust billowed out from the darkness towards them and curled about their feet. There was a terrible feeling that something had been unleashed, and Rafe didn’t think it was a small dog.
Ignoring any feelings of fear, which of course he didn’t have, Spiff marched bravely into the smothering darkness, his torch wavering uncertainly at the onslaught of its nemesis.
Spiff was gone.
‘What the…’ Sknarf bounded off in the direction of the ex-Spiff.
The intelligent reader by will now have surmised that Sknarf had met the same fate as Spiff and that undoubtedly Rafe is next.
‘Oh no I’m not,’ he determinedly.
Rafe peered into the gloom and then spun around and around, checking all possible directions for the great gnarled hand that he just knew was about to drag him off.
Not a sound.
‘All right!’ he announced to the faceless perpetrator. ‘I’m just going to go now. No need for further violence. I mean we’ve all got to eat, and it’s not your fault that means us… me… Expect you’re a bit full up now anyway? …Hmm?’
Great drowning buckets of silence.
As nonchalantly as possible, Rafe turned and began to wander with laboured slowness up the tunnel, whistling an insanely happy tune* as he went.
Just as expected, a gnarled hand reached out from behind.
Rafe spun around just in time to say, ‘Ah H—’
‘That woz a great idea Cap’n,’ slobbered Flingding between chews on a strip of dried V’ribigasaur. ‘We’re sure to get a… poo… prom… kicking for this!’
His mother, Zod curse her infernal grossness, had always said he’d amount to nothing, and although she would be eventually proved correct, for the current moment, Flingding could dream.
‘Esh, they didn’t expect us to land on their ‘eads at all did they Cap’n,’ said the equally excited Boglet.
‘No lads. They didn’t.’ Rufus shook his head. ‘But next time, when I says jump, I means feet first. A’right me lads?’
Flingding looked at Boglet.
Boglet looked at Flingding.
‘One thing still puzzles us Cap’n,’ they both chorused in unison. Rufus looked at them. At times, it seemed to Rufus that some strange mental bond linked the two, though obviously not a very strong one.
‘Wassat then me lads?’
‘Why’d we catch them?’
‘Well lads, I’ve told you before y’know. Were takin’ da prisoners straight to da Emperor and from there… well, lets not discuss that bit just yet… Purrit this way lads, it’ll be burgers all round at Mac Zod’s tonight!’
‘Hurrah! Hurrah!’ they cheered.
The maintenance lift was reserved for those menial tasks in Mount Spiky that no one else would lower themselves to do. At first, robots had been used, but their delicate circuits eventually seized up with the mind rusting monotony of it all. Only the refuse of the gene pool, the really weird stuff, the sorts of creatures that small villages would chase out of town in torch parades were fit for the maintenance lifts. Them, and Orcs. Rufus beheld the lift panel and wondered what disease he may catch if he touched it. Then, with inspiration, he took Flingding’s paw and tapped in the access code. All one digit of it; a long number in Orcdom.
A distant and faint clank was heard.
Flingding and Boglet fidgeted with excitement.
Air could be felt rushing out from under the lift door as something whirred its way towards them. With a suitable and sudden silence, the something stopped.
The doors opened.
The three Orcs gasped and stepped back in silent horror. Boglet vomited on Flingding and then Flingding onto Rufus’ boots. It was to be expected thought Rufus. The lads had seen action, they were hardened creatures of battle, to a degree (about 1º?). But nothing, nothing could prepare an Orc for this.
Rufus stepped forward.
‘Sorry… I think we’ll catch… the next one’
The lads had gone beyond the chunky stuff and were now onto dry retching. He quickly pressed the button.
‘All right. Byeee,’ squeaked the sole occupant of the lift.
The denizens of Zod’s Empire are many and varied. However, not many surpass the sheer vileness of the Rabbitors’; a race of small and quivering pink, fluffy, body-snatching vermin that conquered numerous races by infiltrating under the guise of children’s playthings. Rufus leant against the closed door and sighed with deep relief. ‘Let that be a lesson to ya lads… not everythin’ looks as good as an Orc.’
Spiff was the first to wake and the first to discover the wondrous pain in his head. He also, regrettably, was the first to find himself bound by weighted elektrocuffs that buzzed aggressively with each shift of his body. However, the pain and the cuffs all faded to insignificance when, with horror, Spiff noticed something that almost made him cry out; there was a tear in his new ultra-camo espionage shorts. Swelling anger rose in his veins and his eyes bore into the backs of his indubitable abductors like laser rifles, though not quite 'like' enough.
Faint groans announced the arrival of Rafe and Sknarf back to the world of the conscious to which Rafe at least seemed ungrateful. ‘Oh maan,’ he sighed as his hands instinctively travelled to a head that felt like it’d just absorbed its third consecutive vineyard of wine. This action was efficiently followed by violent and stabbing arcs of electricity that issued from the cuffs and lashed about his body to spasmodic effect. With a roll of his eyes and a fading ‘ooh… maaan,’ he slumped back into the corner and promptly passed out.
Spiff continued to stare at the rip in his shorts; and schemed as the lift screeched and shuddered to a very not-the-sort-of-thing-you’d-expect- in-the-future type of halt.
‘GOODBYE. I WAS RODGER. YOU HAVE NOW ARRIVED AT YOUR WISELY CHOSEN DESTINATION…’ announced a voice, tinny and irritating, ‘…AND OF THE MANY HIGHLY EXCITING PLACES WITHIN YOUR PERSONAL PERUSAL ZONE, MAY I RECOMMEND A SHORT TRIP TO THE EMPIRICAL SUITE. ONLY ONE LEVEL UP AND—‘
‘Shurrup,’ hissed Rufus and then whispered harshly, ‘we got prisoners ya fool, don’t tell them where’s they is!’
‘—BUT, BUT—‘ persisted the embedded personality.
Rufus placed a smothering paw over its smiley-faced speaker and muffled all further protestations.
‘I said… shurrup.’
‘MMPH MMPH, MMPH etc…’
At length, this dwindled to nothing.
‘You be quiet now?’ asked Rufus in the same way that a much larger person usually asks a smaller one if their facial contours require the attention of some professional decoration.
After a long heated and seething pause there was a brief acknowledgement.
Rufus removed his paw slowly.
‘BUT… CAN I SAY JUST ONE SMALL THING GUYS?’
‘Short,’ grunted Rufus.
‘WEELLL… I JUST WANTED TO SAY TO YOU GUYS THAT I HOPE YOUR DAYS WILL BE FILLED WITH MANY MORE SUCH FUN PACKED VERTICAL JOURNEYS, AND THAT… SHOULD YOU TAKE THE NEXT LEFT…’
‘THEN IT’S BUT A QUICK WALK TO EMPEROR ZOD’S SUPER SECRET CHAMB—‘
Spiff watched, as the barrel-bodied being he would never know, as Rufus repeatedly and with a lifetime’s experience of well-rehearsed violence, pounded the source of the voice into oblivion, and then some. Each determined blow shook the lift panel until at last, it gave in. A few limp sparks, a just-out-of-warranty crackle and then the electronic innards of the lift personality spewed itself onto the floor. Said innards landed with an unceremonious squeak and looked up at Rufus accusingly, whist rubbing its bottom.
‘Well, that’s blown it! I hope you’re proud. This is organic technology you’ve damaged here y’know,’ squeaked the imp.
Rufus and friends stared goggle-eyed at the small creature glaring at them with its arms firmly folded, whilst behind them, the lift doors silently opened.
Well spun actually, and then slammed his wrists together. There was a retina searing flash like an exploding miniature sun and the sound of bodies falling heavily; three to be precise, and one squelch.
Spiff jumped up and shook his cuffs loose.
‘C’mon chaps, up, up, up! No time for lingering. I think we’ve been taken right where we want to go.’
Spiff bounded out of the lift and promptly vanished beyond the next right turn.
‘Do you think he’ll untie us too?’ groaned Rafe.
They found him standing next to and examining closely a sign with a small amount of text and a large amount of gold, shaped into the form of a giant pointing hand.
‘Squigglian script if I’m not mistaken. Smart move that,’ murmured Spiff to himself.
‘Smart move?’ spat back Rafe in determinedly non-stressed vibes, ‘what are you on about man?’
‘Hmm… Oh, Sorry. This,’ he pointed at some text that looked like random collections of intestinal spaghetti. ‘Writing all the directions in an obscure alien dialect so that potential infiltrators can’t find their way about. Known only to four tongue-less tribes of the Squ’I’gg’loo swamplands y’know… and only then on Tuesdays. I studied them briefly.’
‘What, Tuesdays?’ asked Sknarf between hinting gestures with her bound wrists.
‘Bleeping Squiggluvian bleeping script!’ cried Rafe, ‘what are you on? And how did we escape all those Orcs? And… what was that flash? And… what’s the capital of Sri Lanka?
‘Oh that,’ Spiff replied absent-mindedly. ‘Just common sense. Little known defect of the ’85 model cuffs. A sharp pronounced bump of the power capacitors induces overload. If you hit them… just right. The flash isn’t fatal—unless perhaps you swallowed them, but it’s enough to induce mild terminal shock. Simple textbook stuff; schoolboy physics.’
Rafe stared in a void manner of disbelief and slowly shook his head, though it felt someone was shaking it for him.
‘So where are we then Spiff,’ injected Sknarf in an adoring manner.
‘Well, m’dear. This sign, when translated, obviously shows a sense of humour. Probably only meant to be read by the multi-lingual droids they have here.’ He drifted off again, deep in analysis.
‘And? What does it say!’ cried Rafe.
‘Well, it says… ‘Bad guys, this way ?’ We’ll have to take its word for it. Zod could be anywhere from this junction.’ Spiff smiled happily at them. He was enjoying this and padded off in the direction of the sign to enjoy life some more.
‘Plastic logic man… plastic logic,’ seethed Rafe and plodded on.
Clickity clack went Spiff as he merrily skipped down the hallways of the most dangerous figure in the galaxy.
‘Spiff, the lack of guards?’ inquired Sknarf.
‘Well… I mean, doesn’t it seem a bit… y’know…’
‘Like a bleeping trap man!’ hissed Rafe.
Spiff halted in his tracks. ‘A trap? Hmm.’ His forehead wrinkled slightly in thought, and one could almost imagine rusty cogs and levers trundling about inside.
Not content with laughing in the face of danger, Spiff often preferred to tickle it in the ribs whilst nonchalantly slapping a ‘I wear women’s undergarments’ notice on it’s back. This cavalier attitude to the perils of life was bringing Spiff under the scrutiny of Fate, which constructed increasingly elaborate mechanisms to catch him out. Unfortunately for Fate though, Blind Luck had some hard credits on Spiff…
‘Well, if it was a trap, then it’s a pretty obvious one; and so therefore, ipso-facto, it can’t possibly be one.’
Spiff resumed marching.
At length, they came to a pair of looming and polished Solidicium doors, which loomed loomily over them with surfaces so glassy and smooth that light barely managed to gain purchase. A small banner in the intergalactic language, Servo-Sprout, clung bravely to the blackness. It read, ‘Vrzzig Zig*’
‘So, do we knock?’ asked Rafe with a touch of sarcasm.
‘Lord man! This is Zod’s lair, the Emperor of the galaxy. He must have a schmillion Orcs behind this door just waiting for the likes of us. Why don’t we just shout ‘Yoo-hoo, Emperor Zod, do you quite mind if we pop in and kill you, only we don’t want to barge in and inconvenience you, so if now isn’t a good time?’ And while we’re at it, why don’t we provide our love tackle on a dish to save him the bother of cutting them off? Eh?’ Spiff completed this loud outburst, enough to alert even the deafest with a contemptuous snort. Rafe's just not getting the hang of this espionage business thought Spiff.
‘So what do we do then?’ asked Sknarf.
Spiff stepped forward, cracked all ten knuckles and absorbed himself in the search for a locking device. After numerous minutes, this was deemed to have failed. He then searched for hinges; and failed. Next, he was onto listening to the surface in an effort to detect any change in the magnetic flux density, and then, failing even this, rapped on the door loudly.
The doors parted and glided open*.
Silence poured out in great floods.
‘Hmm, no one seems to be in,’ boomed Spiff and marched in, covertly slamming both doors wide open and obliterating in the process, the last pair of Utuvian plasma sculptures in existence. Polished marble spread like crisp snow past rugs, sculptures, stuffed monarchs and paintings from an endless variety of crushed worlds, and came to a stop by a curving balcony that shimmered with the fading rays of moonlight. This perfectly reflecting floor caused at least one member of the trio to shift her stance and drew attention to the unusual decorations. It was then that they noticed.
‘That’s a bit odd, isn’t it?’ asked Rafe.
‘What is?’ replied Spiff.
‘All those people. Sort of deadish people.’
‘But, how can you tell they’re dead?’ asked Spiff.
Rafe stared at the disjointed and dissolving limbs that were gradually sinking into a strange dark liquid that had spread itself across most of the floor. ‘I don’t know. It just doesn’t seem the sort of thing live people do… Y’know… to dissolve.’
‘Oh, that! That is a bit odd isn’t it?’
Rafe looked at the exotic and pretentious nature of the clothing and the gravitationally challenged physiques, ‘This must be most if not all of the royal court. Well bits of them at least.’
Spiff stepped forward and tentatively examined the nearest body. Froth, bulging eyes and a bit more froth. ‘Hmm… Looks like time delayed acid poisoning to me,’ stated Spiff expertly, ‘either that or a really good party.’
‘Time-delayed?’ asked Sknarf from behind a shielding hand.
‘Yes m’dear… liquid manifests itself as something innocent, say, this wine—’ Spiff downed the contents, ‘—and then, ten minutes later—‘
‘Spiff!’ shrieked Sknarf, ‘The wine…?’
‘Hmm? Oh that’s fine now, poison neutralises within a few ticks of being exposed to air. Should be quite harmless now.’
‘Yeah, but you just drank a dead man’s drink,’ said Rafe with a look of horror.
‘Or woman,’ said Sknarf.
‘Does it matter?’ said Rafe with frustration.
‘It does if you’re the one that’s dead.’
Rafe shook with frustration.
‘Any sign of Zod then?’ asked Sknarf.
Spiff began turning bodies. Some were so decayed that their organs fell out as he lifted them. ‘You just stay there m’dear and keep your little eyes averted. No scene for a lady, this.’
Rafe stared silently at the pair of eyeballs rolling about the floor. ‘Think I’ll just check the er… balcony for any er… hidden… things?’ he suggested.
‘I think this is him,’ whispered Spiff.
The untarnishable gold teeth, the black gown of nightmare and the badge saying, ‘ZOD,’ all meant that it could only be one man.
‘So, is he dead?’ asked Rafe.
Spiff considered the gap between his neck and shoulders.
‘Rats,’ said Sknarf approaching the body, ‘we can’t make him plead for his life now!’
Spiff for the first time ever seemed more than a bit perturbed. ‘My whole life was leading up to this moment, when I would finally be able to squeeze the life drop by drop from this… monster.’ Spiff walked to the balcony, pulled back the veil and stared forlornly into the still star pimpled heavens.
‘So… he’s dead,’ repeated Rafe.
‘Yes, he’s bleeping well dead, man!’ spat Spiff as he marched impatiently across the balcony.
‘But can we be sure?’ said Rafe.
‘Yeah… you’re right! Maybe we should just kick him a few times just in case.’ With a sudden gleam and renewed vigour he ran back to the moribund monarch and swung back a great foot.
‘I wouldn’t do that if I were you,’ said a voice, slithery- like a snake soufflé.
The figure, unmistakable, undesirable and impossible, oozed forward, his features still cloaked in shadow, but familiar none the less. Spiff, at a loss for words, again for the first time, eased his foot down and slowly, reached for his pistol.
* A sport popularised by Zod and enjoyed by practically anyone who lived above ground level and involved the participation of at least one high calibre zap-stick and any number of street bound peasants.
* At the last Empire survey, over fifty rebellions were noted to be currently active. With demands ranging from the usual ‘freedom for all against the oppressive Zodist dogma (except those that already have their freedom of course, hang ‘em high)’ to the downright bizarre and possibly insane ‘alsation and haddock crossbreed society,’ rebellion was seen almost as a way of life. So much so in fact, that there was a six-month waiting list for organised public suicides. Invasions were fully booked up until Zodmas
* all wages paid in Zod’s Empire are usually ill-gotten.
? Thing: A small or possibly large creature with any number of legs or tentacles. But possibly neither. Found in various environments, it prefers humid jungles on the verge of ice flows where it’s uncertain lack of fur is either a hindrance or help. Usually encountered in unimaginative story telling. Likes cheese.
* It actually wasn’t sturdy at all and only blind luck kept it in the ground. Indeed, one hundred and fifty years later, it was to cause the unnoticed demise of the hermit known only as ‘Malcolm The Temporary Character,’ whom after many years of silent meditation, one day, chose to rest on said rock. Such a pity that a vow of silence was eventually broken with such language… as he fell to his death.
* The word of choice for a wide variety of circumstances.
* The tune was actual reminiscent of that late twentieth century production, often featuring an animated amphibian, a pink porcine given to corpulence and co-starring a strange creature that could only be described as having a nose like a hose.
* Translation: ‘DEATH TO THE LUCKY.’
* Consideration should be given at this point to the artisan who made such fine hinges. Creaky doors are so often a pivotal point in stories such as this, revealing our hero at an inopportune moment. These well oiled hinges however presented no such problem.
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