Rumo and his miraculous.., p.55
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       Rumo: And His Miraculous Adventures, p.55

           Walter Moers

  More clicks issued from the creature’s interior, this time several of them in quick succession. It mutated into a five-pointed grey star, then split into two identical stars that floated side by side in the plasma, changing colour simultaneously.

  ‘It can reproduce itself,’ said Tallon.

  Another half-dozen of the clicking creatures swam down the vein, joined forces with the twins, assumed the same stellar shape, divided in half and formed up in two ranks. Then they all swam on together against the current, destroying everything in their path.

  ‘We’d better get out of here,’ said Tallon.

  The Subcutaneous Suicide Squad had invaded Rala’s body and promptly, ruthlessly set to work.

  The thanatometer falls

  General Ticktock was bewildered. For the first time in his life he had done something dictated by an emotional impulse, not by will-power.

  He had dispatched Tykhon Zyphos’s Subcutaneous Suicide Squad through the Metal Maiden’s circulatory system and into Rala’s bloodstream – only a single drop of it, but he knew from personal observation what havoc a single drop could wreak. How could he have lost his self-control in that way? His action was irrevocable. It was a sentence of death against which there could be no appeal.

  All his work, his ambitious plans, his grandiose scenario of death, had been wrecked by a lapse of self-discipline. Without Rala the Metal Maiden was just a lifeless heap of scrap! Never again would he furnish her with as noble a partner as the death-defying Wolperting!

  Yelling and cursing, he desperately manipulated the controls. More of this, more of that! He flooded Rala’s organism with life-preserving extracts, electrified it, heated it, strove to fortify it with all the alchemical substances available to him. Then he glanced at the thanatometer. It had already fallen below sixty.

  General Ticktock bellowed nonsensically at the Metal Maiden, commanded the Subcutaneous Suicide Squad to withdraw at once, pounded the machine with his steel fists and left deep dents in its leaden exterior, wrenched valves and tubes out of their seatings. Alchemical extracts and acids, toxins and gases went spurting and hissing across the laboratory, filling it with their acrid stench. Whole bunches of copper tubing were seized and hurled at the wall. General Ticktock was in the process of destroying the Metal Maiden with his own hands.

  Suddenly, in mid-frenzy, he stopped short.

  He took another look at the thanatometer. The needle had fallen and was still falling: fifty-one, fifty, forty-nine …

  ‘Who,’ General Ticktock demanded, looking around as if in search of a culprit, ‘who was [tick] responsible for this?’

  He groaned like a wounded beast convulsed with agony. He couldn’t possibly watch Rala die. Her pain was transmitting itself to him and becoming his own. What had wrought this change in him – what had rendered him so vulnerable? He ventured a last glance at the thanatometer: forty-five, forty-four, forty-three …

  No, he couldn’t bear it! The general tore his eyes away, wrapped himself in his cloak and fled. Dashing out of his tower, he vanished into the gloomy alleyways of Hel.

  Sewer hazards

  By virtue of their warmth and humidity, the sewers of Hel harboured the most varied flora and fauna, not only in Netherworld but in all Zamonia. No Overworld jungle or artificial habitat could rival their diversity, which extended to the microscopic domain. Fat Suckersnails covered the tunnel walls in their thousands. There were breathing mosses, phosphorescent mushrooms, Witch’s Hat Toadstools, Dungflukes that squelched around in brackish water, poison ivy that grew as one watched, ants that shone in the dark and Dripticks that fell from the tunnel roofs like rain. Phosphorescent jellyfish had escaped from their glass vessels and fanned out in all directions, glowing in a wide variety of colours. Rumo was constantly engaged in ridding his fur of creatures that stung or sucked blood.

  ‘Without my helmet I wouldn’t have lasted three days down here,’ said Ribble, proudly patting the funnel on his head. ‘I’ve seen people dissolve into pus after one bite from a Suckerfoot Spider.’

  Yukobak had pulled his cloak over his head. ‘You might have mentioned that before you brought us here. Falling down the Coalwater Cascades might almost have been preferable.’

  ‘That’s not a very nice way to die,’ Ribble told him. ‘They fall straight into molten lava and turn to steam. You’re steamed first, then roasted and finally asphyxiated by poisonous gases.’

  ‘How much further is it to the theatre?’ Rumo asked.

  ‘Not very far. Two or three miles.’

  ‘Where are the prisoners housed?’

  ‘The Death Theatre gladiators are kept in single cells,’ Yukobak told him. ‘The younger, stronger ones, that is. The prisoners that aren’t considered so dangerous – mainly the older ones – are accommodated in a building right beside the theatre. It’s a big communal jail. That means there are two prisons you’ll have to crack if you want to release all the Wolpertings.’

  There was a distant rumble. A swarm of phosphorescent moths flew into the air.

  ‘What was that?’ asked Yukobak.

  ‘A pipe burst,’ Ribble replied. ‘If we’re lucky, our tunnel won’t be swamped by it.’

  ‘And if we’re unlucky?’

  Ribble shrugged.

  ‘Who guards the Theatre of Death?’ Rumo asked.

  ‘Oh,’ said Yukobak, ‘only several platoons of Bluddums armed to the teeth, plus the Copper Killers. No one you can’t handle.’ He laughed hysterically.

  ‘There’s another way of looking at it,’ said Ribble. ‘Although there are plenty of guards, their attention will be focused on guarding the prisoners and protecting the king. They won’t be expecting an attack from outside, least of all now that the Copper Killers have assumed overall responsibility for guarding the Theatre of Death.’

  ‘There you go again!’ cried Yukobak. ‘One Wolperting versus a whole city, and he doesn’t even know his way around there? It’s utter madness!’

  ‘He’s right,’ said Ribble, looking at Rumo. ‘You don’t stand a chance. You can still change your mind.’

  ‘I’m not turning back,’ Rumo said quietly. ‘I’ve got a casket to deliver.’

  ‘Yes.’ Ribble sighed. ‘So you already said.’

  The dying world

  The battle for Rala’s body wasn’t a genuine contest but a war of conquest, which the invaders had won the moment they appeared on the scene. It was a wholesale massacre, the organised mass execution of opponents incapable of self-defence. The Subcutaneous Suicide Squad had come to conquer, not to fight.

  Whatever part of Rala’s bloodstream she and Tallon fled to, it was piled high with dead or moribund organisms. The clicking of the enemy troops was omnipresent – it even drowned Rala’s heartbeat. The monstrous, misshapen viruses were patrolling everywhere. There was scarcely a vein they hadn’t penetrated.

  Rala and Tallon eventually decided to lie doggo among the mountains of dead and dying corpuscles. From there they watched impotently as the tireless invaders went about their grisly work.

  ‘Where else can we hide?’ Rala asked, and her voice had never sounded so faint.

  ‘I don’t know,’ said Tallon. ‘They’re everywhere, and there are more and more of them.’

  It was long since the all-powerful intruders had encountered any resistance. They continued to reproduce themselves, dividing again and again. One virus split into two, two into four, four into eight and so on, creating an ever-growing, irresistible army of lethal automata.

  Whatever organisms the members of the Subcutaneous Suicide Squad didn’t directly hunt or kill, they poisoned with clouds of acid or ripped apart with their spines and claws, boring holes in their venous flesh. Corpuscles fell in droves, and Rala felt a little more of her strength and will-power drain away every time one sank lifeless to the ground.

  ‘This is the end,’ she said. ‘It won’t matter how hard I resist or where we hide. The battle is lost. When they’ve killed the last little bit of me, I s
hall die too.’

  ‘I tend to be over-optimistic, as you know,’ said Tallon, ‘but this time I’m afraid I must agree with you. I’ve never met such destructive power.’

  ‘What happens afterwards?’ Rala asked.

  ‘Hey,’ Tallon replied, ‘that’s a surprise. You don’t want to spoil it, do you?’

  ‘Will we be together?’

  ‘Yes, we will – but that’s one surprise less.’

  ‘I’d have liked to tell Rumo I love him.’

  ‘It’s a bit too late for that, my girl.’

  ‘I can’t hold out any longer,’ Rala whispered.

  ‘Then let go,’ Tallon told her. ‘Simply let go. The place you’re bound for can only be better than this one.’

  A shower of dying corpuscles slowly descended on them, fluttering like withered leaves. A last faint tremor ran through Rala’s body, a gentle sigh escaped her, then she lay quite still.

  ‘Rala?’ said Tallon. No reply. She didn’t stir.

  It was time for Tallon to go – he had no further business here. Soon, very soon, the world around him would dissolve. The process had already begun. Rala’s body would decay, cell by cell, until it was reduced to dust, then her spirit would be free at last.

  Tallon had done his utmost to delay this moment, but unfathomable forces were at work here. Rala’s was an unprecedented form of death – one that might have been created especially for her. No one had ever been attacked by more ruthless and powerful enemies, Tallon felt sure, and never had anyone defended herself more gallantly than his Rala.

  Tallon quit this dying world. He vanished in a way beyond the power of any door or wall or Metal Maiden to prevent. He went as only a disembodied spirit could have gone, already looking forward to the time when Rala would hunt comets at his side.

  The snooper

  There was no sunrise when a new day began in Hel, no paling moon or dawn chorus. The city remained as dark as ever, for day and night were indistinguishable. All that marked the dividing line between them were twelve deep bell notes that rang out across the city and made flocks of bats take wing in alarm. A Hellian day was twice as long as a day in Overworld, and the day that had just been rung in was destined to be a very special one. Friftar knew this because he had planned it down to the smallest detail.

  It wasn’t mere chance that took the king’s chief adviser past General Ticktock’s tower on his way to the Theatre of Death. Friftar was worried. One of the inmates of the Vrahok Caves had been attacked and injured – one of the biggest, what was more. Who would be capable of such a feat, he wondered, and who could have cut off part of such a beast’s trunk? Friftar had taken certain precautions. The Vrahoks were being guarded round the clock and the sentries on the city gates had been reinforced. At present, however, his greatest source of concern was General Ticktock.

  Friftar had now to pluck up enough courage to present the general with the king’s demand that he fulfil his responsibilities and resume his regular attendances at the theatre. He would not make it sound like an order or even a request; he would gift-wrap it nicely. He intended to convey the impression that he had personally staged today’s sensational contest, which was to be the climax of the present series of Wolperting contests, as a favour to the Copper Killers’ commanding officer.

  Friftar’s heart was nonetheless beating faster than usual, as it always did when he had to face the general. Even Gornab was more predictable than this crazy mechanical monster. Whenever they spoke, Friftar felt like a snail crawling along the edge of a razor blade.

  He was about to knock on the tower’s copper door when he noticed that it was ajar. This was unusual. Doors were never left unlocked in a city like Hel. Friftar called the general’s name loudly several times. No answer. Could he be asleep? No, impossible, machines needed no sleep. The general was obviously out.

  Friftar giggled nervously to himself. This was an irresistible invitation to do some snooping! He couldn’t afford to pass up such an opportunity. Perhaps he would discover something with which to discredit his hated rival in the king’s eyes.

  Pushing the door open, he went inside. He usually employed other people to perform such missions. What a thrill it was to perform one himself! He wondered what a machine’s home environment would look like.

  Ticktock’s tower was dimly illuminated by a few smoking candles, the little windows being covered with thick curtains. A smell of lubricating oil and metal polish hung in the air. There were weapons, of course. Swords, rapiers and sabres of all kinds, hiltless blades of every size, axes, spears, daggers, scythes, halberds, throwing stars – all were lying higgledy-piggledy on tables or arrayed against the walls. Nothing but weapons, tools and mechanical odds and ends. Cogwheels and screws, nuts and bolts, pliers and spanners. No chairs, no bedroom or kitchen, but any number of mirrors of every conceivable size. Naturally! Such was the lifestyle of a machine that never had to eat, sleep or sit down. When alone it tinkered with its works or admired its own reflection. Friftar stifled a laugh.

  He climbed a broad flight of black marble stairs to the next floor.

  ‘General Ticktock?’ he called again for safety’s sake. ‘Hello?’

  No answer. In he went!

  Friftar found himself in the Metal Maiden’s chamber. He held his nose, the smell that had hit him was so strong. What in Gornab’s name was this place? A laboratory? A torture chamber? Although Friftar had expected a murderous machine’s interests and predilections to be mainly of a morbid nature, he was astonished that the general should have secreted such an antiquated instrument of torture in his private quarters. It was almost endearingly old-fashioned of him! However, Ticktock had obviously brought the Metal Maiden right up to date, technologically speaking. All those tubes and valves – how they gurgled and hissed, roared and pulsated! The apparatus had recently been used, but why had some of the tubing been destroyed? How had the doors of the machine acquired all those dents? Someone had played havoc with it. What was in all the metal hoppers? Above all, what was inside the Metal Maiden itself? What terrible secret was he on the track of?

  There was no alternative: Friftar simply had to open another two doors – the ones in the front of the Metal Maiden. Drawing a deep breath, he swung them back as slowly and cautiously as he could, quivering with pleasurable anticipation at the possibility that something horrific would reveal itself to his gaze.

  The microscopic invaders

  In obedience to the irrevocable laws which Tykhon Zyphos had laid down for their benefit, the soldiers of the Subcutaneous Suicide Squad, having successfully completed the destruction of Rala’s bloodstream, were proceeding to destroy the rest of her body as well. They wanted to eliminate every last cell of it before emerging into the open and seeking a new fortress of flesh and blood to conquer. They did not realise that they were imprisoned within the Iron Maiden’s metal casing.

  However, fate ordained that her lead-sheathed doors should open wide, and standing outside was another body, another fresh, healthy organism. Having largely completed its work inside Rala, the Subcutaneous Suicide Squad was eager to embark on a new mission.

  So Tykhon’s microscopic warriors fanned out, deserted Rala’s veins, forced their way through her arterial walls, muscles and epidermis, and emerged from her body in order to conquer Friftar.

  A sudden chill

  The king’s chief adviser had been prepared for any kind of horrific sight when he opened the Metal Maiden, so he was doubly surprised – indeed, almost moved – to see a female Wolperting inside. Was she asleep? Was she dead? Had it not been for all those fine needles – had he himself withdrawn them from her body when opening the doors? – she would have created a thoroughly peaceful impression. What a pretty creature!

  Why had he never seen her before? She looked as if she might have acquitted herself well in the Theatre of Death. Why had General Ticktock kept her from him and the king?

  He felt her pulse. Yes, she was dead.

  ‘Oh!’ he groaned sudd

  A spine-chilling sensation had assailed him, a breath of cold air from the dead Wolperting. It seemed to penetrate his every pore, infiltrate his body and freeze his blood. He felt alternately hot and cold, dizzy and nauseous, his knees buckled and sweat broke out on his brow. He struggled for breath, his heart raced and he had to cling to a doorpost or he would have slumped to the floor. The underside of his skin prickled as if hundreds of ants were crawling through his veins.

  ‘Oooh!’ he groaned again.

  Then the sensation subsided. His strength returned and he was able to release his grip on the doorpost. He breathed deeply and mopped his brow, staring at the dead Wolperting in dismay. What had he just experienced? Did these creatures possess certain powers even in death?

  Friftar dashed out of the torture chamber and ran down the stairs, then out of the tower and through the streets of Hel, trying to shake off he knew not what. He didn’t stop until he was outside the Theatre of Death. He looked up at the walls, which were faced with black skulls. Ah, the theatre! The scene of what would doubtless be the most exciting fight he had ever staged!

  This thought reassured him. He was still feeling a trifle unwell, but the forthcoming spectacular contest would be bound to banish the last vestiges of his malaise. It was high time to begin the systematic annihilation of those unpredictable Wolpertings.

  A historic spot

  Although Rumo and his companions were still wading through Hel’s slimy sewers, they had clearly left the oldest sector behind them, with its organic structures, obtrusive fauna and curious flora. The channels here had been dug out by tunnellers. Rumo could see brickwork and plasterwork, and the authorities were clearly at pains to keep the walls free from weeds and vermin.

  ‘We’re now in the civilised part of the sewers, so to speak, immediately below the city centre,’ Ribble explained.

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