Rumo and his miraculous.., p.46
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       Rumo: And His Miraculous Adventures, p.46

           Walter Moers
 

  ‘You command me to? So be it, Your Majesty.’ Friftar bowed and the king flopped back against his cushions in relief.

  The royal adviser congratulated himself on his presence of mind as he hurried to his quarters. It had been a near thing. If the king had yielded to a foolish whim and installed General Ticktock in a post he himself had vainly plotted to obtain for years, it would have been a dire setback. He now had the general where he wanted him: in the theatre with all the other balls he was juggling there. The only question was, how much longer would he manage to keep them all in the air at once?

  Ticktock puts on weight

  From the moment he gained Gornab’s confidence, General Ticktock’s power increased almost daily. But unlike Friftar, who was constantly expanding his spider’s web of intrigue and espionage, the general expanded himself in the truest sense.

  He consulted every armourer in Hel, summoned the city’s expert military engineers and weapons technicians, and got them to show off their latest inventions. Then he selected whatever appealed to him: a new blade, an assortment of special arrows, a miniature crossbow, sinews of precious metal, polished teeth of laminated steel, a glass dagger filled with poison. All these acquisitions were incorporated in his metallic body. He grew day by day, in breadth as well as height, as his innards filled up with ever more sophisticated weapons. His arms and legs became longer, his chest more voluminous, his back broader, his weight more prodigious. When General Ticktock trod on them, flagstones splintered beneath his feet.

  The arsenal concealed inside him represented the latest state of Hel’s weapons technology. His left eye could fire micro-arrows impregnated with anaesthetic or deadly poison, according to choice. His fingertips were fitted with blades that could be fired and then retracted on wires. His chest contained bellows filled with a highly inflammable mixture, which he could spit with great accuracy. Insidious weapons were hidden all over his body. He regarded himself as an ever-growing military work of art, a perpetual motion machine capable of infinite expansion. Time, decay, disease, wear and tear – those factors played only a subordinate role, if any, in Ticktock’s scheme of things. To him ten years were the same as a hundred, a hundred the same as a thousand. He had to allow for a bit of rust, a worn-out joint or two, a few defective nuts and bolts, an occasional burnt-out alchemical battery, but all his components could easily be replaced with spare parts of ever-improving quality. Time was on General Ticktock’s side. New alloys were being perfected, weapons becoming ever more effective and sophisticated. He looked forward with pleasurable anticipation to the technological advances of the coming centuries. Whenever a useful innovation came along he would acquire it and have it installed in his own insatiable frame. No one would be able to stop him in the long run, but for the moment he would have to compromise. He was still a dwarf compared with the Ticktock of his dreams. Much as he would have liked to crush the hideous king of Hel with a huge mailed fist and trample his people underfoot like insects, he could yet not afford to do so. In order to achieve his aims he would have to fall back on the wearisome methods of diplomacy.

  He often wondered what differentiated him so clearly from his Copper Killers – what had rendered him so superior to them and placed them under his command. Although he obeyed no one, he knew there was something inside him that spurred him on, some mysterious thing he looked for in his mechanical interior. He suspected that alchemists had implanted this mysterious motor in him at birth. It wasn’t an alchemical battery or a steam-powered machine; it was something that could think for itself, something that never slept or rested, never paused or came to a standstill. This mysterious something was for ever tormenting him with questions. ‘How can I grow bigger?’ it asked, or ‘How can I become more powerful?’ or, ‘How can I inspire more fear?’ But the central question around which Ticktock’s thoughts revolved was ‘How can I kill more efficiently?’.

  He had already murdered in countless ways, employing every conceivable kind of weapon, poison and mechanical device as well as his bare hands. No one knew more about killing and dying. Intent on learning more about death, he had gazed into the eyes of all his victims as they breathed their last, and had seen things that made him a leading authority on the subject – indeed, if such an academic qualification had existed, General Ticktock deserved a degree in thanatology. He had discovered that pain, however agonising it had been, evaporated at that final moment. But where did it go?

  If he really wanted to know every last thing about dying he would need more time. It wasn’t a question of his own time – that he had in plenty, being immortal – but of the wretchedly short space of time in which his victims died. Once initiated, the process of dying was irreversible and completely beyond his control. This had always riled him. One minute he was master of life and death; the next, another more powerful authority had taken over and was dictating the rules of the game. He would so much rather have prolonged the dying process for days, weeks and months!

  But fate had led General Ticktock to Hel, and this evil city held the answer to his most pressing question: How could he kill more efficiently? Strange as it may sound, the answer to that question was love.

  The Metal Maiden

  It is always dangerous to underestimate evil persons and suppose them to be immune to love. The ability to love is not a prerogative of the good but may well be the one thing they share with the evil. As for where Cupid’s arrow strikes home, this often depends on its target being in a particular place at a particular time. In General Ticktock’s case the place was the workshop of a Hellian weaponsmith who also manufactured instruments of torture and execution machines.

  The general had come in search of some new playthings for installation in his body. The weaponsmith had laid out various novelties on a bench, among them some pliers with diamond-edged teeth and a gilded circular saw blade that could be hurled like a throwing disk.

  Ticktock inspected the pliers. They were so effective that one could even have used them to dismantle a Copper Killer – indeed, even himself. Then he weighed the circular saw in his hand. It could have felled an enemy like an axe felling a tree. Both were splendid weapons.

  But Ticktock, being in a surly mood, was hard to please. Reluctant to be talked into buying something, he preferred to poke around in the workshop at his leisure. After he had peered into every corner of it the weaponsmith showed him into a large, gloomy storeroom that he called his graveyard. Ticktock got him to light a torch and illuminate the mound of discarded scrap metal it contained. Then his eye was caught by something in the far corner. It resembled a sarcophagus standing on end. The general was extremely interested in coffins, of which sarcophagi were a sort of artistic refinement, so he made for it and the weaponsmith followed with the torch. The nearer they got to it, picking their way through the clutter of metal, the more excited Ticktock became. No, it wasn’t a sarcophagus. He thought he knew what it was: something he had heard a great deal about but never seen before. He couldn’t understand how anyone could have let such a treasure go to rack and ruin. He felt as if he had discovered a priceless diamond in the midst of a rubbish dump, for the object in question was a genuine Metal Maiden.

  A Metal Maiden was an instrument of torture and an execution machine combined. With its lifeless eye sockets and gaping mouth, the specimen confronting General Ticktock resembled a crude suit of armour or a ghostly apparition in everlasting agony. Its outer casing consisted of thick grey lead, but all the screws and embellishments were of copper. Let into the front of the Metal Maiden were two doors that could be folded back. The interior was capacious enough to hold a sizeable body, and welded to the inside of the doors, Ticktock was delighted to note, were dozens of long, thin blades made of copper. If an offender were placed in the Metal Maiden and the doors closed, the blades would pierce him from head to foot. That was the actual function of this machine, the weaponsmith knowledgeably explained: to perforate a body in the most ingenious possible way. The difference between execution and torture,
he said, depended on the speed with which the doors were closed. Victims beyond number had expired inside this Metal Maiden, he added in a disparaging tone, so the hinges squeaked abominably and the blades had become so encrusted with blood over the years that they weren’t a pretty sight. He intended, he said, to have the antiquated contraption melted down.

  General Ticktock killed him on the spot for this outrageous lack of respect. Applying a fingertip to the back of the weaponsmith’s skull, he transfixed his brain with one of his retractable blades. The lifeless body slumped to the floor at the Metal Maiden’s feet – which was where it belonged, in the general’s opinion. How had the man dared to describe her as old and unsightly in his presence? Ticktock eyed the Maiden approvingly. They had so many things in common. Like him, she was made of metal. Like him, she was capable of killing in painful and ingenious ways. From now on they would kill together.

  The general uttered an exultant cry that shook the smithy to its foundations. He had fallen in love for the first time in his life.

  As good as new

  Having installed the Metal Maiden in the torture chamber in his tower, General Ticktock ordered his servants to remove all the other instruments of torture. Away with the rack! Away with the garrotte! Away with the thumbscrews! Their very presence was an affront to the Metal Maiden. He need never employ such primitive aids again. Then he proceeded to clean and restore the Metal Maiden with his own hands. He began by ridding the blades of blood. Whose was it? How much had they suffered and for how long? Who had used the Maiden before him? Suppressing a pang of jealousy, Ticktock burnished the copper fittings with abrasive paste. How beautifully they shone! He oiled the hinges, polished the other components and tightened all the screws. Finally, he inspected his handiwork. The Metal Maiden was as good as new.

  Thoughtfully, he circled her. Something was missing, but what? Mobility? Animation? No. He did not plan to install the sort of machinery that ticked away inside himself. He liked the Maiden just as she was, silent and motionless. For all that, something was missing. Ticktock circled her again and again, inspected her from every angle, opened and closed the doors. At last it struck him: the Metal Maiden must become more deadly, not more animated.

  An impossible task

  General Ticktock summoned Hel’s leading alchemists, physicians and engineers, and informed them of his plan. The Metal Maiden was to become the most beautiful, luxurious and ingenious killing machine ever built. Not a mobile machine like himself or the Copper Killers, but one that would always stand in the same place, here in his tower. Even the word ‘machine’ was a misnomer, being too crude and technological for the delicate functions the Metal Maiden would perform in line with his wishes. She was to become an artistic instrument equal to the demands and capabilities of the greatest virtuoso of death, namely himself. He wanted a hydraulic and pneumatic system of ducts controlled by valves and stopcocks. He wanted tubing of all gauges, down to and including hollow needles the thickness of a hair – thinner than any that had ever been manufactured before. He wanted elixirs and poisons, drugs and extracts.

  The assembled scientists and technicians scratched their heads and exchanged puzzled glances, but they didn’t dare to argue. With uncharacteristic forbearance General Ticktock realised that he would have to go into greater detail.

  ‘My first requirement [tick],’ he began, ‘is that the blades inside the Metal Maiden be replaced with long, thin, hollow needles [tock], and that these be attached to an elaborate system of copper tubes and hoppers [tick] outside her. I wish these tubes and hoppers to have, circulating within them [tock], a wide variety of alchemical fluids.’

  The scientists longed to know what fluids the general meant, but they forbore to ask.

  ‘I want to be able to inject these fluids [tick] into the bloodstream of any victim the Metal Maiden pierces with her needles [tock]. I want complete control over his chemical constitution! I want valves and stopcocks [tick], pumps and filters! I want to play on organisms [tock] as I would on a musical instrument!’

  Some of the alchemists began to grasp what the metallic general had in mind.

  ‘Where the fluids are concerned [tick], some must be lethal poisons, others life-prolonging alchemical extracts [tock], algetic acids, herbal brews, or animal secretions – drugs of the most diverse kinds. I want belladonna juice! I want [tick] opiates dissolved in alcohol! Valerian, arsenic, spirit of melissa, liquid caffeine, tincture of [tock] thorn apple! You alchemists [tick] are to concoct entirely novel, even more effective potions! Some that accelerate [tock] the onset of death and others that delay it. Some [tick] that inflict pain and others [tock] that alleviate it. Some that intensify [tick] the fear of death a hundredfold – that plunge the brain [tick] into a state of the most terrible confusion! I [tick] want a potion that induces a sensation [tock] of hysterical euphoria!’

  The faster the general ticked, the more aware the scientists became of his mounting excitement, the urgency of his demands and his determination to have them fulfilled.

  ‘I want [tick],’ he cried, ‘to develop a machine [tock] that will enable me [tick] to control death! If I succeed [tock], dying will no longer be [tick] a natural process but [tock] an art form!’

  General Ticktock concluded his harangue and submitted each of his listeners to a piercing stare. ‘I want [tick] the impossible,’ he said at length, lowering his voice, ‘and I want it [tock] in double-quick time.’

  The alchemists, physicians and engineers hurried off to their laboratories and workshops, and worked harder at their appointed tasks than they had ever worked at anything in their lives. What the general had asked of them was insane. He might just as well have commanded them to render themselves invisible or build a machine for manufacturing gold. They worked day and night for months on end, employing all their expertise and expending more energy than any of them had ever summoned up before. General Ticktock’s regular visits to their workshops and laboratories contributed to this. His mere presence was enough to make them find solutions to seemingly insoluble problems and transform their exhaustion into unflagging vigour. After six months the unthinkable had been achieved: the Metal Maiden had been completed to General Ticktock’s entire satisfaction.

  The art of killing slowly

  However, operating her in practice proved far harder than he expected. To his growing chagrin, the ensuing experiments compelled General Ticktock to acknowledge that art – including the art of killing – was a capricious thing. The first victim to be imprisoned in the Metal Maiden died the moment the needles pierced his body – of sheer fright. The next three survived for only a few minutes because, in his excitement, Ticktock overdosed them with stimulating substances: they expired of heart failure. Although he gradually learnt to restrain himself, none of the Metal Maiden’s captives survived for longer than an hour.

  This much he did realise: that the Metal Maiden was a sensitive instrument whose method of operation he would have to master by degrees and that his victims, too, were sensitive organisms that could not simply be swamped with drugs and toxins.

  But his guinea pigs were also partly to blame. They died because they wanted to die. All of them sought to escape from the Metal Maiden as quickly as possible and the quickest way of escaping from her was to die. However many restorative drugs Ticktock injected into their bloodstream, imprisonment in the Metal Maiden seemed so terrible that they all preferred death. He procured a supply of the most hardened warriors, scarred veterans who would have fought on with cloven skulls or arrows riddling their bodies, but even they survived for no more than a day or two and their coarse oaths desecrated the Metal Maiden’s body. If he really wanted to fathom the secret of death, Ticktock would have to obtain some considerably tougher guinea pigs. He wanted to prolong the dying process for weeks and months. Possibly, even, for a year.

  It took another dozen experiments to bring the truth home to him. The Metal Maiden was like a violin without strings, that was the problem. The body of the instrument
and the brilliant performer – himself – were there, but the instrument itself lacked a soul. This noble and extremely complex machine deserved an inmate of the same calibre; only then would it bring forth the kind of music General Ticktock dreamt of. It was pointless to go on soiling his precious Metal Maiden with blood, he decided. Better to wait until a worthy test subject fell into his hands.

  The new gladiators

  To seek a soul for the Metal Maiden among the inhabitants of Hel was as futile as seeking a lamb in a wolf pack. Ticktock nonetheless ordered his spies to comb the city for suitable material, but none of the candidates they garnered from its lanes and alleyways fulfilled his exalted requirements.

  He came to the conclusion that he would have to go to Overworld in person to find a suitable victim – or victims – and was just preparing to set off on this expedition when news reached him that the latest crop of prisoners from an Urban Flytrap had arrived in town. It was his job to submit all new gladiators to personal inspection and assess how much of a threat they represented to the king’s safety. Although convinced that no prisoners could seriously threaten himself and his Copper Killers, he performed his wearisome duty on this occasion, too, and went to inspect the newcomers.

  They had been abducted from a town named Wolperting. That didn’t make them sound particularly menacing – more like a bunch of country bumpkins. Friftar’s peculiar decisions were an everlasting puzzle to Ticktock, and he couldn’t wait for the day when he would take the mad king’s chief adviser and rip the heart from his palpitating body.

  Ticktock didn’t inspect all the prisoners, only those who had been housed in separate cells in the Theatre of Death. The older and weaker specimens had already been weeded out and were leading an uneventful existence in a large prison nearby, where they could move around in relative freedom.

 
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