Water cascaded in glittering black drops from the moisture soaked ceiling and splashed into a lifeless and muddy pool that smothered the cell floor. The repetitive echo sustained by the thick air merged with other fading phantoms and against the poignant silence was unchallenged in it’s reign. A lone baleful light crackled in the damp air and cast a wandering matrix of shadows through the interwoven bars. They crept over the rippled pool, slithered up the walls, delved into and deepened faults in the stonework before pouncing onto a body, swinging slowly clockwise and suspended from two chains that hung from the hidden depths of the ceiling like great grasping tendrils.
Been in worse thought Spiff, hmm, well actually, probably not. ‘Oh well, stiff upper lip old chap,’ he announced to the listening walls. He surveyed the situation.
It was a small room. Larger than a very small one, and not quite up to being a big one. Noticing the chill, Spiff realised that he’d been stripped. For what purpose he could not ascertain, and probably didn’t want to even if he could, though the rest of his body appeared to be intact. He breathed a small sigh of relief.
And so did the person next to him.
‘Erk!’ gasped Spiff who had believed this equivalent of an Air Aeroflot toilet to be quite empty. He swung his head to the source of the sound and saw nothing.
Other than a pair of feet.
Raising his head slowly, promoted moisture trickling down his sculpted features, Spiff consumed the image of a withered thing, suspended even higher than himself. ‘It’ had the appearance of something that predated even this tomb like chamber and bore an apparel that apparently came from Rags’r’us13. ‘Hallo their old withered thing type personage of dubious personal hygiene!’
‘Hallo yourself young sprig of legends yore and yet to be’
‘Erm. Yes, hello,’ said Spiff, not sure as to what fruit the conversation would bear if all replies where of such a flamboyant nature. Spiff looked about, there was nothing else interesting to look at, speak to, smell, or scratch, so he opted to continue.
‘So, what did they put you in for then old timer?’ enquired Spiff.
‘In for (mad cackle) done for, more like. Four score and four light-bulb replacements have I been here, abandoned to the circular company of my thoughts. I dangle here, I dangle there, but never shall I go elsewhere (cackle).’ His rasping laugh brought forth a torrent of phlegm that arced from its lofty heights and dived towards Spiff. Being unable to command control of his numbed arms, and possibly swing out of the mucus onslaught, Spiff was drenched in it. He decided not to try and make him laugh again, though with an obvious madness quotient that would be better appreciated in secure accommodation of the softly lined wall variety, he wagered it would be difficult.
‘Been here some time then? Eh? Old chap?’
The ragged twitching body became still and the straggly mop of hair, usually seen hanging under the rear end of a sheep, bowed to look down upon him.
‘(Cackle) A way must be found, the circle has been broken and a new path lies ahead.’
Spiff decided to catch up on his lost whistling time and engaged in a ditty from one of the long, but not totally forgotten pre-invasion singers, Levis and his classic, ‘Cell-Room Melody.’
‘Young man, for I know our tale is entwined, you are the beginning and I must be at the end. For I am tired, and I seek sanctuary from the dark nemesis that you will come to know, and I have always known.’ What in the gods is he gibbering on about thought Spiff as he hummed the chorus.
‘When you leave here, find the one known as The Yeldarbian, he will show the way that you must take (cackle, cackle).’
Barking mad thought Spiff.
The cackling reached a crescendo and then terminated with a screaming, almost unintelligible:
‘Mark my words… Find the Yeldarbian…’
His body shook with the effort required for the final spasmed word, ‘SPIFF!’
Jolting from his high frequency concentrations, Spiff, stunned at the announcement of his name stared up at the old man.
Or rather, where he had been.
Two lone chains swung and clanked together, chiming their dance. He looked around and scanned the cell. There was, as perhaps there always had been, no one there.
Spiff shrugged his shoulders and decided to try some chin-ups.
Clambering from the sleep of a thousand years or perhaps just a particularly late Saturday night, Sod forced one, shortly followed by the other encrusted eyelid open. Lazy thoughts drifted to his upper consciousness and attempted to convince his body that it really was worth jump-starting.
But, something was wrong.
His legs were too long, and he was covered in fur, in the most unusual of places. And he was cold too. His arms wrapped around his bulging torso and wondered just whose body they were touching. ‘Aargh!’ he erupted from the sleeping position and hopped around, striking the alien body that had attached itself to his head.
The skin was grey, lifeless and so taut, he could see each individual muscle fibre, every vein, and yet even the veins seemed unusual. Perhaps there had been a rethink on their design during his sleep? What was different about them? Then he had it.
They looked dried.
Another unknown thrust a mirror before him. Still accustoming his eyes to the light, it was nothing more than a dark blur, yet the mirror…
The image was clear, and it burnt into the depths of his mind. He had grown, was a man, and a hairy one at that. Yet at the same time, the hollowed eyes, the lacking flabby bits… What kind of a man was he? He didn’t look very well.
A dead one, projected an unwanted thought not of his own devising. Sod spun and lashed out, attempting to push away the dark looming figure and managing with surprising ease. It slumped to the ground with a groan and at last, his eyes returned from their short holiday. He saw a man (aren’t there just lots of them about right now), perhaps approaching his middling years, certainly his waist was anyway and he was encased in a tweed suit of fine and well-crafted cuts. A brilliant kerchief of finest white and emblazoning a woven trail of diamond specks portrayed the undeniable. This man was wealthy, though not enough to afford a dietician. His hair though not receding was certainly skulking off a bit at one side and the deep flashes of white that streaked through the still dominant darker shades gave him an air of importance and wisdom. Here was a man who with age would have the respect of car mechanics and salesmen who so often sneer upon the un- knowledgeable and monetarily frustrated young.
‘I am glad to have you back with us, in the land of the living so to speak. Although I am sure you will soon change that…’ he spoke with calm reassurance and with the hidden darker undertones of a lawyer, recording every word of a conversation so he can bill you for it. ‘…Master.’ He added.
‘Master?’ repeated Sod quietly, dumfounded, though he knew who it was before he spoke it.
Sknarf, Klaus and Rafe sat shackled in triangular formation and, it has to be said, uncomfortably close together. Each was in a thoroughly foul mood and the shoe deep squirmy mud that made suction noises each time one of them moved didn’t help.
Neither did the guard.
The lumbering shadow of a troll marched backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards with unrelenting strutting efficiency, eroding that same long patch of flooring and getting a little bit lower with each thousand years.
‘I’ve got to scratch,’ said Rafe.
There was an uncomfortable pause.
‘…Where?’ asked Sknarf tentatively, ‘No don’t answer that!’ ‘Look, just shift the chains over here a bit.’
‘Wouldn’t need to scratch, if you washed more… at all.’
‘I don’t need to wash I’ve told you that before. I prefer to allow the body’s natural cleansing process do what it was designed to do.’
‘Smell?’ suggested Klaus.
‘Okay Rafe, I’ll ease a bit closer.’ There followed numerous un-lady like suction noises as the gelling mud oozed and reformed about Sknarf as she shifted her behind through the mud. You had to be careful, this mud had a habit of shooting quickly into any gaps.
Scritch. Scratch. Scritch.
‘Aaaaah!’ Rafe sighed, the scratching complete.
‘Can’t believe we’ve been reduced to this,’ muttered Sknarf. At least the end should be swift. I daresay it’ll be beheading; and probably not even a warm blade at that.
‘Hey guard, when dey gonna judge us?’ called Klaus to the marching machine.
‘NO SPEAK PRISONER,’ bellowed the guard without slowing his frantic pace for an instant. He began rattling a baton off every second bar. He’d been told prisoners hated that in aggression school14.
‘Friendly chap eh?’ said Rafe. ‘Mud, mud, mud. Sometimes I think that this whole planet is just made of the stuff,’ moaned Rafe as he flicked off a small wriggly creature that was becoming affectionate with his knee, ‘least it’s organic I s’pose…’
The wriggly thing went flying and skimmed across the mud. It wriggled in a wriggly fashion, futilely trying to burrow into the slippy substance.
Ah well, thought Rafe, at least the wriggly things don’t like the mud either. It was at that moment that a wise saying came to Rafe.
‘The desperate man uses what comes to hand.’ What a useless saying, he thought. He thought some more. Mud! he mused, that’s it. He scooped a handful of the gelatinous substance and took careful aim.
Spiff meanwhile decided it was time to check out of the Hotel’d’Grime. His whistling repertoire temporarily exhausted, he could think of no other amusement to keep him occupied for the rest of his sentence, so the obvious came to mind.
However, as his hands were still suspended from the professional version of a kiddies paper chain, he decided to break out instead. Swinging his legs small distances at first, but with a gyrating movement like a dubious tabletop dancer, he was soon sailing the whole length of the chains locus.
They creaked rhythmically under the strain.
It was exactly as he had planned. The years of corrosion in this damp environment, though not weakening the chain, had seriously rusted where they fastened to the crumbling architecture.
He swung forward, at racing velocity and jerked the chains at the peak stress point. Admittedly, he hadn’t calculated the effects to an adequate number of decimal places, but, hey, he was only a simple man and fortunately, Lady Luck was beaming down upon him, with rather lustful eyes and so, he timed it just right,
The supporting beams wobbled, bent, splintered and then crashed down in a torrent of dust and slime covered rocks. Spiff somersaulted out of the way in one graceful motion and skidded to a land with but a few hairs out of place. Just not good enough old chap he thought as he adjusted his plumage to its crusade following perfection.
A mighty timber crashed to the ground within inches of his feet. Spiff’s ears reached out into the silenced and waited for any response.
There was none.
Satisfied, he hoisted the beam to his shoulder with the ease of a ball bearing shot putter and began casually ramming the heavy steel door; whilst of course, whistling a happy little tune to pass the time.
The mud landed with a mud hitting stone type sound just an instant before the trolls expansive foot made contact. ‘Waaargghh!’ he called out in shock as the foot just kept on going. Its upper body now finding itself unsupported, it did the only decent thing; and fell. The ground shook as the troll landed with the grace of a wardrobe and though not damaged, was certainly stunned; the troll, not the wardrobe.
Rafe leant forward and gnashed.
At the second bite, his teeth caught the keys, which were dawdling through the air, in an exaggerated slow arc.
‘Well done Rafe!’ exclaimed Sknarf. She was truly impressed. Rafe had committed a violent act, well, she supposed, the mud had done the really dirty work.
Saliva dripping down the key set, Rafe attempted to straighten his body and bring the keys to a state where one of their shackled hands could reach them.
‘Ugh, der all wet,’ cried Klaus, who now released the locks, with a lingering pause before undoing Rafe’s, whilst attempting to keep physical contact with the keys (and Rafe) to a minimum.
The drop in pressure about their wrists signalled freedom and the group extracted themselves from the embracing mud with a symphony of ‘glurps.’
‘Were free—’ they cried, unlocking the cell door.
A shadowy someone entered from a neighbouring cell, or seemingly from the sound, through the wall.
Normally, there would be a brief interlude here just to prolong the agony of the reader who is undoubtedly on the proverbial edge of their proverbial seat in wondering who the shadowy someone is. Sometimes, though, you’ve just got to say, ‘What the hell!’
‘Spiff!’ they cried in unison.
The unfortunate troll who took the knockout blow from that pile of mud was just beginning to stir. He sat up and received the business end of Spiff’s boots as he burst from the adjoining room.
‘My friends, thank you for the welcome. But, I apologise, you must excuse me for a second.’
Pulling back a mighty fist, Spiff slammed it into the quietly stunned troll in an almost absent mindedly and quite gentlemanly-keep-the-force- to-a-minimum manner.
‘Uuuurgh.’ The troll slumped back down. Small yellow birds twittered about his head and twittered.
‘Sorry about that chaps. Now, where was I?’
Spiff looked genuinely bemused, then he remembered: ‘Ah yes, thank you all for rescuing me, if it wasn’t for that idea of your to incapacitate old troll’y here, we’d be more imprisoned than the ‘Let’s Be Nice to Everyone’ movement.’
Three soft plops followed, which sounded just like chins hitting the deck.
The cross hair bobbed and swayed erratically with each surge of the heart as the gunner struggled to bring her harsh breathing to bear. A slender arm bore its heavy burden with grace and gradually, patiently, steadied the aim of the oversized cylinder that pointed innocently at the valley far below. Innocently perhaps if it weren’t for the series of crossed out skulls painted along its length; and the new skull in preparation. The aim swept down like a raptor from the heights and settled upon one of a group of heavy munitions freighters, huddled like a colony of sleeping seals, reflecting the flickering stars off their polished frames. From here, it tip-toed across a bulbous gun metal grey body and finally came to rest on a round and light swallowing porthole. There it stayed, a long finger curled, tensed and ready at the trigger.
‘BEEP BEEP!’ chirped a happy little device with all the subtlety of a klaxon at a funeral. It was particularly proud of this timing achievement which was possibly the crowning glory of its little oscillating quark-clock life. Amongst other fantastic tales it could recount to future generations with shinier and more numerous function-less buttons, it would surely have to tell again and again the time when it signalled the start of ‘The Battle for Planet Reginald.’
With a barely seen movement, the digit flicked across the light beam trigger.
A crimson streak of flame erupted from the cylinder and raced towards its soon to be a non-target. The recoil kicked back into her shoulder like that of a particularly nasty camel15, but she held her ground, barely, and managed to conjure a wry smile as the inevitable approached, or rather, got further away.
‘Quick, the goggles Ma’am,’ advised an earnest young soldier, clad in rather excessive amounts of jungle camouflage that made him shine out against the milky rocks.
‘No, I think I will watch this with my own eyes thank you private.’ The private withdrew the offering of his pupils and placed them back in their rightful sockets.
‘This has been far too long in planning to miss any of it.’ She turned to the small ensemble that crouched behind here. Most had triple thick ultra black lenses on, a few had ear protectors. All had their heads between their knees.
‘Today we strike a blow against the Empire. No longer will Zod be able to abuse us with impunity. Well, actually, he will, but at least we’re going to make it a bit more difficult for him. Long live the rev—’
The world went white.
The streak had continued its way, swooping and weaving between watching silent and sleeping buildings, pausing at the occasional traffic light and then diving deeper down through valley walls, gaining ever more velocity and shattering the air. Too late, the translucent green force-field flickered into action, its towering hemisphere managing only to sever the vessel in half. The remainder sputtered onwards carried by its immense and now un-powered momentum. In a flash, the shell blew apart and an army of separate missiles ran for cover in multiple pre-programmed directions, with the majority continuing to their original destination in a lazy free-fall…
The world went white.
The impact came with a boom that fractured the universe and issued a consuming circular shock-wave of blazing amber that swallowed and vaporised the ground it caught. The valley walls shook seconds later as the sound caught up and was followed by yet more retina melting flashes that burnt the sky as each warhead either found its target or was caught in the resulting broil. Towering jets of white flame reached to the heavens in staggering columns of plasma and beneath which the valley lay in a forced shadow.
The munitions freighter that had been the focus of the attack, only now weakened. It was composed of a material alleged taken from some strange alien world and was deemed impervious to almost anything; that anything had just been found in the fury of a gigatonne weapon. Tracing cracks spread across the hull, widening, joinging until in a nano flash, it blew apart, hurling great flakes tumbling and burning into the. Alarms sounded briefly before being engulfed and only a handful of assault ships made it airborne, the stragglers sucked down and torn to shreds. Only one thing survived the growing inferno, and that was the cargo.
Its crafted cells split and multiplied, reforming, growing, nurtured by and consuming the plasma of materials that flowed freely about them; they were unstoppable. It was an exponential reaction, and one designed to never ever stop until each hiding atom of life had been completely devoured. They represented the ultimate weapon and could chomp their way through a planet quicker than the Tandoori starved at a ‘eat as much as you want Indian cuisine night.’
It had been given its first unintentional test.
Glowing spheres of bio-matter populated the blackened and charred land left by the receding fireball, and spread towards those lands bounded by the force field and the no longer sleeping innocents beyond. It took but a minute for them to consume the remains of the base; by tomorrow, all that would be left of Planet Reginald, would be a vacuum.
‘Now—and quickly, before it reaches the outskirts.’
Five squadrons of sleek and dangerously curved impulse attackers bore down towards the remnants of the base and its strategically placed population. Moralistic warfare had evolved to a stage that military protagonists were unwilling to attack anything that had a civilian aspect. The result? Zod’s Empire placed all military bases at the centre of large and densely populated cities, in effect protecting the military and vice- versa. To some extent, this worked.
Brilliant streaks of light strafed and gunned down those lurching vehicles clawing their way to safety. The battle was half hearted, and the victors were obvious; and had better-looking ships too.
A wide disc shaped craft sped in behind the patrolling fighters and glided down towards the centre of the growing tumult. There it hovered, with only a slow and steady hum indicating the power required for such a feat.
A glowing section opened in its great domed hull shaped in classic fifties saucer style; at any second one expected to see a green spindly thing with wobbly antenna demand world domination. It was close though, and the second most likely scenario occurred. A death ray, or something pretty darned close ray spat crimson death on the bio-mass below and cut swathes through it, breaking it into manageable chunks; chunks which promptly vanished.
‘Congratulations Ma’am,’ spoke not only a clean-shaven, but possibly waxed officer in the process of extracting his head from his knees. ‘An unmitigated success. Quite brilliant, to combine the functionality of a death ray and transporter—‘
‘But Ma’am—,’ said another, ‘Where did you transport it to?’ She smiled for the first time in long moths and nodded to a subordinate; of which there were thousands. He scuttled forward and placed a small cube on the bare rock. A holo map of the galaxy sprung mu and surrounded them in its size. Lady X pointed and huided the focus as it zoomed and rotated to identify… Drydos; The Empire’s shipyard and largest single military installation in the entire galaxy. A chap with feathers in his cap smiled; a first for military etiquette.
‘This planet Ma’am is ours, and it would appear so is a most productive future.’
She looked at the vast chasm beneath them and the columns of smoke that rose to the very brink of space. Hundreds of square kilo- meters had been destroyed; uninhabitable now for a hundred millennia.
‘Yes, but if we have to practically destroy every planet to release it from the Empire’s bondage we won’t have much left at the end.’
She looked to the stars.
‘There has to be a better way…’
‘So,’ said Sod, annoyed at having to wait for his story line to be resolved, and by now shouting, ‘what in the name of bleepity bleep happened to my body?’
‘A most disagreeable and regrettable set of circumstances, my master,’ spoke the respectable gentleman with an air of deep homage in his voice. He continued:
‘You will of course recall the sinking of our ship, ‘The Sea Sponge,’ and subsequent immersion into the chill sea?’
The memories began to seep back to Sod’s mind. He remembered jumping over board and even a bit of the drowning that followed. Involuntarily he found himself holding his breath as he imagined once again being dragged deeper and deeper into the smothering sea until the blackness overwhelmed him. Him and Houdini.
‘Ah, that was a close one… how did we escape that then eh?’ Sod grinned, amazed at the skill of his unconscious body to make it safely somewhere.
A sad frown crossed the man’s face.
‘You didn’t, my master.’
He spoke now with slow deliberate and long ago chosen words to ease out the killer blow so there was no chance of it being misus you carn.
‘You snuffed it, my master.’
Sod puzzled over this. He was dead, and yet evidently, still enjoyed the dimensional restraints of existence. This wasn’t the after life, at least he hoped not, more like the after birth he thought, looking about the dismal dripping cavern he occupied.
‘So… I’m dead.’
‘Yes my master, you’re dead.’
‘Yes my master, you are dead. Terminated. Desauced. Pickled. Without existence. Snuffed out. No longer with life. A bit on the dead side. Ceased to be.’
A slow nod was the only reply.
‘But… but, I had so much more to do, I was only a child having a bit of revenge!’
‘Indeed my master, which is why I took such extraordinary measures. I felt the universe still had a great deal to learn from you.’
‘Extraordinary? Measures? Took?’
The man melted before Sod’s eyes, attained a pulpy formless shape and then grew mighty sweeping wings, a long neck and flaring Plesiosaur and a variety of other features not usually found on people approaching the mid point of their lives; or at least the ones who avoided habitual opium snorting.
‘So, Puff, what have you done. I see at least you’ve perfected your changing abilities,’ he said dryly.
Great winds bellowed rhythmically and the soft chest heaved as the dragon reached its fully inflated appearance.
‘You were dead, my master. And I brought you back, yet I knew of your desires and realised they could never be realised as a child. You had to be in your prime. Or at least, someone else’s…
My skills were lacking, undeveloped, and took time… a great deal of time before I was at the stage where I could… resurrect you.’
‘How long exactly, is a great deal of time?’ inquired Sod.
The head swayed, the eyes closed in deep thought.
‘How long?’ he persisted.
‘Three hundred years, give or take a few, mostly give, call it four hundred really.’
Sod recoiled in shock. He’d missed military school for sure. Indeed, the school was probably gone too.
‘Actually, if you take into account all the digits, you’re getting close to five, six hundred.’
Sod gaped at him.
‘Then there’s the leap years and the occasional orbital adjustment. Let’s say a thousand years.’
Sod’s tongue lolled about in shock.
‘So… whose body is this then?’ he said, prodding it remotely.
‘A poor fisherman who was unexpectedly dragged off his boat and drowned in similar circumstances to yourself, my master.’
‘Well, you didn’t have someone holding you down, but apart from that… similar. You’re both dead. That’s pretty similar. He was the closest match to the way you would have appeared in adulthood, all I did was… infuse the body with your spirit. And of course, said the magic words.’
‘Magic words?’ Sod should have known better than to ask.
‘So, lets get this straight.’
‘Straightening, my master.’
‘I’m a thousand hundred year old boy, who has possessed the corpse of a fisherman, drowned by my own pet dragon. I’m now… undead and…?’
‘Immortal?’ prompted Puff.
‘Oh good, immortal. Indestructible also I suppose?’
Puff thought a bit. ‘Not quite, but pretty near on. You need to exchange bodies every few decades. The body will wear out- you however go on. Stronger and stronger.’
‘Anything else I should know?’
‘That about sums it up, my master.’
‘Cool story to get me back I the book, eh?’
The two stood in quiet contemplation.
‘So what did you do for all this time, your certainly a lot bigger than that pathetic little dragon I found… five hundred thousand days ago.’
A proud smile rendered itself on the dragon and a flash of long jagged and gleaming white teeth were enough to convince Sod that this was now a formidable beast, one certainly to be polite to, even if it was your pet.
‘I needed time for my skills to develop as I said, and so I returned to the mainland- and in particular Slimy Bay -where I made my way through a variety of careers and lives. I am now you might say, a dragon of the world, a pillar of the community; and town mayor. Not that it’s much of a town now. A metropolis really, fifty million people of every race and persuasion imaginable. A sprawling mecca of technology, art and strange sexual diseases; you’d like it. And then of course, there’s space travel; but we’ve only just discovered that, but still you can travel to one of the moons…’
This was all getting a bit much for Sod, who felt like he had just been told his sister was actually a flair wearing horse rustler called Bronson with an unusual romantic affection for cattle and a nasty habit of spitting globs of black mucus.
‘Oh yes, and your sister…’
Sod gaped yet more.
‘I brought her back too.’
‘My sister, didn’t know I had one.’
‘You didn’t. At least not until you died. I think your parents still longed for someone to go to military school and get the education you never wanted. I took here when she was in her prime and preserved her. I thought you’d like some company.’
‘And is she dead too?’ asked Sod.
‘No, not dead, just merely waiting…’
‘Holy shit Puff, this is a lot to take in you know!’
Sod flumped to the ground and sat staring at his naked hairy feet. ‘My parents! You didn’t?’
Puff shook his head.
‘Well, small mercies there. They’d probably still want me to go to that bleeping school.’
A sudden chill shock crossed his face.
‘Houdini! How could I forget! Where’s Houdini?’
‘Regrettably my master, his small frame could not withstand the shock of inheriting another body. And I couldn’t, not in all these years find a rat silky enough to replace him. He is gone. I’m sorry.’
Rage bubbled in Sod’s body, or rather, the person’s body that was now occupied by Sod, but we’ll avoid details like this for the rest of the book; it just gets confusing.
‘I’ll get them for this. Them all.’
‘They? My master.’
‘Everyone; the universe. They’ll pay for Houdini.’
‘Ah. I was hoping you would say that.’
The mighty form turned and a clawed limb pointed to a distant portal, from which sunlight cascaded in.
‘Your fleet awaits Milord!’
‘Yes milord, amazing what one thousand years of compound interest can accrue. I took the liberty of purchasing the latest in hi- technology warfare. I hope you don’t mind travelling to Slimy Bay via the hyper tank?’
‘Cool! Oh, but ditch the sister.’
14 A sort of primary school for trolls.
15 All camels are actually nasty and exist in a permanent state of dis-temperament, wouldn’t you if you were never able to scratch your back? Now imagine two of them.
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