Rumo and his miraculous.., p.54
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       Rumo: And His Miraculous Adventures, p.54

           Walter Moers
 

  The alcohol had a soothing effect. Tykhon marshalled his thoughts. He consigned his fears to the bottom drawer of his mind and fished out the spirit of research. Why should the problem be insoluble? Alchemy tackled the seemingly impossible. He downed another little vial of alcohol. You grew into a job, so it was said. If he succeeded he might become one of the most influential alchemists in Hel, so to work!

  Tykhon jotted down countless ideas in his notebooks during the days and nights that followed. Viruses, acids, bacilli, bloodworms, cellivores, Red Death bacteria, blackleaf, green scabies, Grailsundian influenza – every disease, deadly poison and dangerous life form went down on the list. Which pathogens had which effects when coupled with which toxins? The permutations were endless, and combinations of an increasingly aggressive and lethal nature came into being. Tykhon Zyphos was drawing up a logarithmic system of death.

  After completing his theoretical research he got down to practicalities. In the following days and weeks his laboratory became the centre of a strange phenomenon. All the small animals within a radius of half a mile – cats and dogs, rats and mice – disappeared. At the same time the district took on a new smell. The air became filled, day and night, with a mysterious, cloying odour that emanated from Tykhon’s laboratory, which was piled high with the cadavers of the unfortunate creatures on which the alchemist had carried out his experiments.

  Tykhon blended pathogens like an artist mixing paints, and he did so with great ingenuity. No one before him would have thought of attacking an organism with the Black Death and deadly Grailsundian influenza, only to infect it with Grey Cholera as well. No one had ever combined Zebra Leaves with extract of nettle-rash and the spores of Paralytic Leprosy. Having gone to those lengths, thought Tykhon, why not go a stage further and amalgamate the unspeakable results of these experiments? The outcome was so horrific that his white hair turned black within a week and he wasted away to skin and bone. He recoiled in terror whenever he happened to catch sight of himself in a mirror. Day by day, he was becoming more like the thing he’d been instructed to create: a living death.

  The Subcutaneous Suicide Squad

  After a few months the deadline set by General Ticktock drew ominously near. Tykhon Zyphos had succeeded in developing a disease that would, he believed, meet the general’s requirements. It was not only deadly; it took over where death left off. After the infected person had expired in frightful agony, the viruses continued their work in a dogged and relentless manner. They destroyed every last cell in the corpse until it was entirely decomposed and ceased to exist. Tykhon had been astonished to observe this process in the case of three cats, which completely disintegrated within twenty-four hours, leaving behind no trace – not so much as a single whisker – of their existence.

  ‘This disease should be just General Ticktock’s cup of tea,’ thought Tykhon. ‘I shall call it the Subcutaneous Suicide Squad.’

  Only one problem remained: the disease could not be isolated. It was catching, and catching in an uncontrollable way. Physical contact was unnecessary. It left the annihilated cadaver in the form of a vapour and, like an army raiding one town after another, sought new fields of operations for its destructive activities. Moreover, it was as unpredictable as a horde of savage warriors, because it sometimes broke off its work of destruction and arbitrarily attacked another body – as Tykhon had perforce observed in the case of his laboratory animals. When experimenting with the disease he himself wore airtight protective clothing complete with an artificial oxygen supply, and he felt convinced that he would soon have tamed it to his satisfaction. He had even added something to his monstrous virus: an exceptionally virulent and truly revolutionary element unique in the world of diseases. This additional surprise he intended to present to General Ticktock as a gift, secretly hoping that it would enable him to rise still further in the court alchemists’ hierarchy. All that remained was to make the Subcutaneous Suicide Squad die in company with the body it had infected.

  Tykhon was just pondering this final problem when there was a knock on his laboratory door. It was two of General Ticktock’s soldiers, who instructed him to report immediately.

  There was no point in arguing, he knew, so he packed up his papers and a syringe filled with the deadly virus, and went off to see the general.

  The demonstration

  ‘How far [tick] have you got with your work [tock]?’ General Ticktock demanded when Tykhon Zyphos appeared before him, knees knocking.

  ‘I’ve developed a deadly disease of unprecedented potency,’ said Tykhon, ‘but—’

  Ticktock raised his hand.

  ‘No “buts” [tick] in my presence! Never say “but” or “no” or “impossible” [tock]. Each of those words carries [tick] a death sentence.’

  Tykhon bowed his head.

  ‘Show me this disease! [tock] Do you have it with you?’

  The alchemist drew nearer and produced the syringe. ‘One drop from this syringe is enough to infect one person. The whole syringe would suffice for a hundred, but …’

  He bit his lip, but it was too late.

  ‘I warned you [tock],’ said General Ticktock, taking the syringe. ‘That was [tick] one “but” too many.’ He seized Tykhon’s arm with his other hand.

  ‘One drop [tick], you said?’

  Before Tykhon realised what was happening to him, Ticktock had plunged the needle into his arm. He carefully injected one drop into the alchemist’s bloodstream and released him.

  ‘Pardon my [tock] impatience,’ said General Ticktock. ‘Now show me what your disease [tick] can do.’

  Tykhon suddenly grew calm. It rather surprised him how quickly he’d come to terms with his death sentence.

  ‘What do you call [tick] this disease of yours?’ asked General Ticktock. ‘Or haven’t you [tock] given it a name yet?’

  ‘I’ve christened it the Subcutaneous Suicide Squad,’ Tykhon replied.

  ‘An excellent [tick] name. Scientific [tock] and military at the same time.’

  ‘Thank you,’ said the alchemist.

  ‘But it’s taking [tick] its time,’ the general said impatiently.

  Tykhon suddenly felt dizzy and his knees buckled – the first sign that the virus was taking effect.

  ‘It’s just starting,’ he said. ‘Some subjects it kills in a day, others take a week to die. In my case it seems to be working exceptionally fast. May I sit down?’

  ‘No,’ said General Ticktock. ‘Sorry, it’s [tick] nothing personal. I simply want to study the symptoms [tock] carefully. So it starts in the legs?’

  Tykhon Zyphos was denied even that little favour: permission to die sitting down. This was the moment when he decided not to tell Ticktock that the disease was communicable. He wouldn’t tell him about his surprise present either – the insidious little peculiarity with which he had armed the virus. No, Tykhon Zyphos would take his secret to the grave because it was his only hope of revenge. The general himself would be immune to the Subcutaneous Suicide Squad. If Tykhon died now, the virus would probably decay within an hour because Ticktock, being a machine, could not be infected and there were no living organisms in the vicinity to which the disease could transmit itself. It was possible, however, that one out of all the pathogens in the syringe might get a chance to thwart the general’s plans. Tykhon had given them the necessary equipment. He was leaving behind an army too small to be seen but powerful enough to defeat the strongest foe.

  Smiling for the last time in his life, the alchemist uttered his final words.

  ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘it starts in the legs.’

  General Ticktock spent the rest of the day watching Tykhon Zyphos die. Sure enough, the alchemist had created something that attacked and destroyed every form of life without any perceptible effort, silently and without mercy. Tykhon looked as if he were being devoured from within and simultaneously peeled from the outside. The general watched him writhing on the floor, screaming horribly and racked with convulsions. He saw his face rob
bed of colour until all that remained was skin grey as stone; saw his skin tear like parchment and disintegrate into ashen flakes; saw his hair drop out, closely followed by his teeth, tongue and eyes; saw his flesh wither away, his cheeks fall in and the bony countenance of death emerge.

  ‘May Hel and all who dwell there be destroyed from within just like me,’ was Tykhon Zyphos’s last conscious thought.

  It was incredible, General Ticktock told himself. What an achievement! He turned away, shaking his head and looked at the syringe containing the Subcutaneous Suicide Squad. What a loss! But what a profit! He had lost a genius but gained a merciless, invisible army.

  The capital of Netherworld

  Every part of Netherworld had a smell of its own, Rumo reflected. The stalactite cave in which he’d encountered Skullop the Scyther reeked of oil, the Fridgicaves of snow and stagnant water, the Nurn Forest Labyrinth of mouldering leaves and blood, and Deadwood of poisonous black toadstools. The Vrahok Caves stank – unsurprisingly – of Vrahoks, whereas Stonewater Grotto was pervaded by the pleasant aroma of limpid spring water trickling through pebbles. But the gigantic cavern he was now entering with Yukobak and Ribble had a smell that defied description. Rumo could detect a multitude of scents – more than he had ever smelt all at once, more than he had on his arrival in Wolperting or at the annual fair. He could smell Hel, the capital of Netherworld.

  Discounting the Fridgicaves, the cavern at whose centre Hel was situated was the biggest Rumo had seen in Netherworld. It was several miles high and its roof, which reflected the city’s fitful glow, formed a yellowish dome overhead.

  The environs of Hel were a jumble of narrow ravines and elongated valleys, volcanic faults and dried-up river beds, and all the rocks were blackened by centuries of urban pollution.

  ‘What’s your plan?’ asked Ribble.

  ‘Yes, Rumo,’ Yukobak chimed in, ‘what’s your plan?’

  ‘I’d be interested to hear it,’ said Dandelion.

  ‘You do have a plan, I suppose?’ Krindle insisted.

  They were expecting too much of him, thought Rumo. A plan? He would have preferred simply to march into the city through the main gate, torch in hand, rescue his friends, then burn the place to the ground. How much he missed Smyke’s presence at this moment! If anyone would have known how to rescue hundreds of prisoners from a well-guarded enemy city, it was Prince Hussein Banana’s former minister of war.

  ‘We’ll make our way through the sewers to the city centre,’ said Rumo. ‘Then we’ll see.’

  ‘We know all that,’ said Yukobak. ‘I mean afterwards, when you’re inside the city, the only Wolperting at liberty among thousands of enemies. What’ll you do then?’

  ‘Yes,’ said Ribble, ‘what then?’

  ‘I think that’s a fair question,’ said Dandelion.

  ‘You don’t have a plan, do you?’ asked Krindle.

  Rumo didn’t answer.

  ‘I don’t think he has a plan at all,’ Yukobak whispered to Ribble.

  The patrol

  Their trek to the Coalwater Cascades proceeded without further incident – until they bumped into a patrol in a dark ravine. It consisted of five soldiers of the Netherworld army mounted on a smallish Vrahok some thirty feet high, which was lumbering along the narrow defile.

  Rumo had scented and heard the monster a good while before, so he and his companions managed to escape detection by hiding in a cleft in the rocks. As the Vrahok plodded past, whistling asthmatically, Rumo saw that one of the soldiers was holding a torch and another dangling a bottle in front of it on the end of a pole. The creature’s long antennae were lashing the air and exploring everything in its immediate vicinity, its retracted trunk hung just below its weirdly glowing blue stomach, and its joints creaked at every jerky step.

  ‘What are they doing with the pole and the bottle?’ Rumo asked when the patrol had gone by. ‘Is that how they steer the beasts?’

  ‘Vrahoks are blind and deaf,’ said Ribble. ‘Nothing exists for them unless they can smell or feel it. The alchemists have succeeded in developing more and more sophisticated perfumes designed to coax them on or send them to sleep, whichever. The contents of that bottle probably smelt like putrid pork and the Vrahok is following it. They’re pretty stupid beasts, Vrahoks – like most creatures whose main direction-finding aid is their sense of smell.’

  Rumo eyed Ribble sternly. ‘On we go!’ he commanded.

  Above the Coalwater Cascades

  It was several hours before they finally reached the rock face that overhung the Coalwater Cascades.

  ‘I can’t see a thing!’ Yukobak grumbled. ‘One false step and we’re done for!’

  Even Rumo was feeling dizzy. There was no handrail and the steep, narrow flight of stone steps led down into a black void. It was too dark to see the falls themselves, but they could be heard thundering down into the depths. Spray came billowing up from below, covering everything and everyone in a layer of soot.

  ‘Feel your way down the wall,’ Ribble called, ‘and watch out for missing steps. It’s not far to the entrance to the sewers.’

  ‘How far is not far?’ asked Yukobak.

  ‘About a mile,’ Ribble replied.

  Hugging the wall, the trio descended with the utmost care, Ribble in the lead. The steps were not only uneven, narrow and unprotected, but wet and overgrown with slippery moss. The lower they went, the louder the thunder of the falls and the denser the clouds of dark spray.

  They couldn’t see the Coalwater Cascades until they were only a couple of hundred feet above them: three inky black torrents that spurted from the rock face and plunged into the depths, where the sooty spray engulfed them. Rumo pressed still closer to the wall. ‘Where’s the entrance?’ Yukobak shouted. ‘Where are the goddamned sewers?’

  ‘Straight ahead!’ Ribble shouted back. ‘Only a little further.’ Descending a few more steps, they came to a doorway hewn into the rock.

  ‘The sewers!’ Ribble announced like a proud host welcoming them to his private domain. The smell issuing from the doorway could have put a Vrahok to flight.

  In the bowels of Hel

  Rumo, Yukobak and Ribble were standing in a shallow stream of soot-stained water, dimly illuminated by a light source secured to the wall of the tunnel. It was a glass vessel with a phosphorescent jellyfish imprisoned in it.

  ‘A jellyfish torch,’ Ribble explained. ‘They’re hanging everywhere. Phosphorescent jellyfish are immersed in liquid nutrient and continue to dispense light until they die. That’s what I call progress. In my day this place was black as the ace of spades. We had to make do with candles on our helmets. If a drop of water fell on them you’d had it.’

  He looked around.

  ‘We must go that way,’ he said, pointing to the left. ‘That leads to the main sewer.’ He waded on ahead with Rumo and Yukobak at his heels.

  ‘What’s that nasty smell?’ Yukobak asked.

  Ribble indicated the dark stream. ‘Down here it’s the soot that stains the water, but on the upper levels it’s, well, you know …’

  Yukobak instinctively withdrew one foot from the water.

  Ribble nodded gravely. ‘We must take great care. Most of the creatures down here are as primitive as their surroundings, if you know what I mean.’

  ‘What sort of creatures do you mean?’ asked Yukobak.

  ‘Well, Dungivores, for example. Sootsnakes. Octopods. Giant Nippers. Multibrachial—’

  ‘What’s a Dungivore?’

  ‘A big, hairy creature with six legs.’

  Yukobak shuddered. ‘And it eats …’

  ‘Yes, and that’s not all,’ said Ribble. ‘As you can imagine, any creature that has to live on dung is far from being a delicacy.’

  ‘What a disgusting place!’ Yukobak said angrily.

  ‘It’s not so bad,’ Ribble told him. ‘The water’s always nice and warm, and you sometimes make the most amazing finds. It’s incredible, the things people throw away.’ He pointe
d down a side tunnel. ‘That’s the way to the city centre.’

  The rearguard

  It was the most hideous creature Rala had ever seen. Constantly mutating, it folded parts of its anatomy outwards, sucked other parts in, put out tentacles or spikes, opened snapping mouths, then closed and swallowed them again, contorted its skin into wrinkles and furrows, changed colour incessantly, exuded clouds of dark slime, turned transparent, then black as pitch, and produced a series of monotonous clicks from somewhere inside itself. But the creature’s most surprising feature was its ability to swim against the current. Rala had seen no other organism in her bloodstream capable of doing that.

  ‘What’s that?’ she asked Tallon. They were hiding in a capillary in her left lung, and it was from there that she’d seen the weird creature approaching along a side vein. A moment ago it had looked like a lump of raw meat; now it was almost completely transparent.

  ‘I don’t know,’ Tallon replied, ‘but it looks dangerous.’

  A detachment of six white corpuscles came drifting along on the stream of plasma and barred the intruder’s path. It halted just in front of them, assumed the shape of a spindle and changed colour every time it clicked: green, grey, pink, green, grey, pink.

  The creature emitted a gurgle and extended four tentacles tipped with claws. Seizing two of the corpuscles, it tore them to pieces like so much paper and tossed the fragments away. The other four it dissolved into an inky black cloud.

 

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