The Writers Voice
Ibhib the Gunner of Longville stormed me up from my den.
He had scoured about the catacombs of Beauburg for the best part of a week. He wanted to know my whereabouts so he had inquired left and right. He made then a spectacle of himself and came to blows with a couple of batmen. He did them in; he did, and drank their blood. Fickle! Then he took his time walking along the banks of the underground river and had a fling with the swarthy broad Brunhilde. He had a mouthful of her and gave her such a thrashing that she hollered 'til there were cracks in the vaults of the galleries where the stiffs lay dormant.
I closely followed Ibhib with my feelers. I couldn’t trust scoundrels like him. I hadn’t seen him ever since Moreaugarin had given us the slip. The Gunner had not changed a bit. Maybe his belly heaved a little over the belt. A flimsy haze shimmered over his eyes. The scales on his strong chest seemed to have become rusty in some places. And his joints creaked, poor wretch! Well, the old space hound’s luck was running thin…
When I heard the clang of his iron scales I put out the torches in a hurry. Killed the engines. Pulled out my own iron from my chest. Then I lay in wait.
“Freeze where you are!” I screamed.
Ibhib sneered, baring the silver spades of his teeth, and croaked something. I didn’t believe him. His nostrils were flaring. His chest was heaving. He rolled his eyes. His soul seemed to carry a heavy burden. Through a crack in his shoulder I saw the muzzle of his gun…
It’s useless to wait. I fired a volley. The peeling walls resounded. The echo of the boom rolled to the surface and died in the tubular streets of Beauburg. The Gunner?
Hah, hah! He played that dirty trick of his. Caught all the bullets between his silver teeth and spat them back at my head. I extended my hairy paw of a hand and Ibhib rushed out of the dark and hugged me, roaring with glee.
I thought he would break my spine. He was carrying his age well, the bum!
“Well, Max! Aren’t you getting moldy in this place?” Ibhib asked, flapping his drooling lips.
“Nope, not yet,” I said with a chuckle.
“And how’ s the racket coming?”
“Stop ranting, you stinker. You’d better tell me your business here. What’s the big idea?”
“Well, are you up in dough?” the Gunner asked and scratched behind his flagging ear.
“No, I’m rather hard up. Not even two nickels to rub together.”
“I’ve got a job for you.”
“Spit it out, don’t keep me guessing.” I said and whisked out a bottle of hard stuff from my cache.
“I met Moreaugarin.”
Well, that topped it all! That addled-brained scholar? Was that the reason for Ibhib’s coming thither and scouring the catacombs? Fat chance, old man. “Go look somewhere else,” I snapped at him. “We should have slashed Moreaugarin’s throat when we had the chance! The cheat said he’d give us a lot of money. We sweated our guts out on Mars. We worked ourselves to death combing the QET Galaxy in search of that toad with silicon brains. The one who stole planet Earth to add to his collection. We ended up empty-handed. When we finished the job, Moreaugarin came and said that he had found immortality and could be reborn from a single drop of blood or from his own footprint, even if it were one hundred years old. I know what these end-of-the-century scholars are up to, Gunner. They’d like to give us the go-by!”
“Now, what can I say? The man said this time we’re sure to hit the jackpot. Ever heard of ancient-light diamonds?”
“Some rumors, yes,” I said and rubbed my hands. “What about them?”
“Well, this Moreaugarin claims he knows where they can be found.”
“Don’t be so bloody stupid! An amphibian from B’ol Solar system told me that these diamonds are far beyond the edge of the cosmos, about fifteen thousand light years away. What then?”
“Listen, Max, this is the set-up. Moreaugarin showed me one of those stones and guess what. I took it to the jeweler’s at Grazzelli’s in Blue city. Cuts quite a figure in his field, you know. Well, he says the stone is genuine. Then he takes a gun from a drawer and says he will prove it…”
“Well, he puts a slug through his head! Moreaugarin and I get splattered all over with his blood and brains. And then Grazzelli comes to life. Moreaugarin just touches his body with that stone and…”
“You’re a liar!”
“The other thing is, Moreaugarin said that Pilgrims arrived in some spot on the Earth…”
“Big deal. I heard that one from a sea-devil!”
This is an age-old story. One million years ago these Pilgrims destroyed civilization on Venus. By treason, perjury and crime. Pilgrims were sonorous beings born from the primeval sound of the Universe. They carried the walls of the Ideal City beneath their mantles of ancient-light. The Venusians couldn’t resist temptation. They wanted to become immortal, too. Abjured their creed. Left their temples to neglect and decay. Next they stoned their priests. Then they marched together in the City. Yet the Pilgrims’ plan failed. The Venusians’ rage burst out all of a sudden. The walls collapsed under the canon fire and it took the Venusians just one autumn to butcher one another…
“Do you know what happened next?” Ibhib asked and took a slug from the bottle.
“You tell me.”
“These Pilgrims wanted to become masters of all the worlds in the Universe. They travel from place to place hoping to find a spot to their liking. After they had destroyed the Venusian's civilization they salvaged part of the walls of the Ideal City and squeezed through one of the hundreds of “worm holes” crossing the Universe.”
“So where'd they stop?” I asked impatiently.
“Somewhere near here. On planet Terraria.”
“That imperfect copy of the Earth, right?”
“Right. But they couldn’t build their Ideal City there. The gravitational field was unstable. Now and then, which is quite often, a strong temporal vortex changed the geographic position of the settlements. Garbage and other refuse dumped from the Earth appeared on the beaches in Terraria. Out of that putrid heap all sorts of unimaginable beings came to life and they continuously changed the entropy index of the planet…”
“Listen to me…”
“Wait. I’ll be through in a moment. The Pilgrims got to…”
“To the Earth.”
“That’s it, Max boy. The Earth. The walls of the Ideal City are made of ancient-light diamonds.”
“And we grab them, right?” I shouted eagerly.
“Moreaugarin splits the stuff with us.”
“Look here, Gunner, do you trust him? I don’t. I suggest that we play his game up to a point then in some way or other we get rid of him.”
“We thought about that.”
“Well, there are others: Brulla, the man with the talking parrot and a barrel organ, Ploto the butcher from Venus, Vlasko the Trumpeter, Gargarelli the Philosopher, Totora the Circus man, and one thousand other rogues, just the best of the whole lot.”
I joined them. I had nothing to lose but my life. Seeing only the bright side of things, the boys in the gang were as playful as kittens. At the break of day we set off to Moreaugarin’s fabled castle. It lay beyond the high piles of radioactive waste, on the edge of the ocean. We had the colly-wobbles with hunger when we got there. We nearly broke down the gates of his castle. Moreaugarin the serpent treated us gently. Easy does it. Soft spoken. Honeyed eyes. Tricks we all knew…
He gave a speech. Without losing any of his
starch, he showed us he still had the fab gift of gab. He was perched on that
funny-looking machinery puffing out sulfurous clouds. You’ll never see the like
of it again so no one knew whether it was a scarab, a mechanical octopus, a
demon of plastic, glass and metal or only a chimera.
Moreaugarin walked stiffly up and down the bridge deck and shouted at the top of his voice.
“Welcome, my lions! My tigers! My brave fighters! I remind you that occult forces are trying to bring shame to my name. My scientific genius is not acknowledged. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals sued me for allegedly experimenting on a brontosaurus, which I reactivated without their approval. Hah, hah, hah! Moreover, they even want to saddle the nuclear bomb on me. But forget those pygmies! We’ll show them good and clean, tigers! Quite soon! Swellings? Spittles? Booming farts? Vomit? We’ll dump them all … and now, listen to me carefully! The Ideal City was brought to Earth. By Pilgrims. Intruders from beyond the cosmic horizon. They laid their hands on Its walls and carried It all over the Universe. We shall free It.”
That was nice. Soul lifting you may say. But we all really wanted to know how much of it would be ours. Moreaugarin began fuming. He gave us a piece of his mind. He said:
“You ignorant pitiful bums! Can’t you get it into your thick heads that you will be the Deliverers of the City? In the name of the Cross, we shall fight, my tigers! The Ideal City belongs to man. He was born in It millions of years ago. He was banished from It. He was robbed of the City when he was still unable to speak. It is I, Moreaugarin, who will free It again! We’ll do it together, my knights!”
That was pushing a little too far. Knights. We were all weathered soldiers who had fought planetary wars. That was more to the point. We kept weapons hidden in our bodies. We could say we were fallen angels, perhaps. Casual passers-by. Whereas, deep down, we were beasts. Downright frightening. In short, the Knights of Apocalypse!
“Look, Moreaugarin, you say we should go on a crusade?” Brulla asked him halfheartedly as he was stroking the ruffled feathers of his talking parrot. “What about the diamonds?”
“Hah! Moreaugarin laughed. “Is immortality itching you?” Now I see what you mean! You’ll be immortals. That much I can promise. You’ll ride through the centuries by my side!”
“Hold on a minute, don’t burn yourself out. You gave us the slip once before!” Totora the Circus man bleated out, making faces. “We want to know the price. That’s where it hurts. The clink of money is the real tune for us. Then we shall see about immortality. The crux of the matter is, what’s in for us if we slaughter the Pilgrims?”
“Oh, what a pity! God poured a drop of spirit in a whole barrel of hogwash! Look at yourself, poor Totora! You’re festering with pus! We shall cure you by fire. I’ll burn you with the hot iron. I’ll give you money. But glory? Did you think of that? We shall deliver the Ideal City! We shall throw Its gates wide open. So God’s sheep will drink the ancient light. On your knees, you good-for-nothing bums!”
We all fell in the dust, filled with shame. Moreaugarin stepped on a pedal and a green RAY hurled into the sky. The air sputtered. Oh, God, that scholar was going to hoodwink us again. We were hopeless. We’d bought ourselves a lot of trouble, for sure. We were his puppets. He could strangle us. Or break our heads open, fumble inside and suck up our vital fluids. Or he could slash open our chests and play with our hearts and make them sing by driving in his fingernails. We were mesmerized. Fallen in the trap. All hope of escape gone.
We went aboard Moreaugarin’ s battle cruisers and started crossing the ocean, on and on, to the walls of the Ideal City.
Near the Horn of Africa we sank a pirate’s ship already cut to ribbons by a pack of cuttlefish, which had been doing a spate of foolish things for the last hundred years. We took on supplies in Gibraltar and lied to the people telling them we are going to fish for whales in the Far North. Well, the Americans, the Russians and the Spanish and the English got wind that something was afoot. Even the Genovese had an inkling. Add to that the people beyond Tibet. Others on a nuclear submarine followed us, as they wanted to take part in that terrible crusade, too. We laughed in their faces, cracked our chests and pulled out our heavy artillery and sent them flying. Poor Earthmen! How could they fight the Pilgrims if they had no idea how to shift time phase and tune themselves in on the frequency of the Ideal City? We had to conquer it, first to get our pay, then to rebuild it in the holy lands.
“Hey, can you see anything?” Moreaugarin kept shouting at the man in the crow’s nest from early morning 'til late at night.
“Just a desert of water!”
For a while we used the sail, keeping our store of coal for the great battle.
“Ship ahoy!” Vlasko the Trumpeter yelled like a madman one morning.
We rushed to the steel bulwark, gazed at the expanse of blue sea and shouted at the mechanics to stop the wind blowing from the stern pumps to fill our sails.
“This is heavenly,” Moreaugarin called out, spraying the waters with his green ray, and hit the boat.
“Oh God, it’s a monk!” Bloto cried and burst into tears.
The monk was barely breathing. He had a wiry tangled beard. He'd eaten nothing for days. His boat carried a strange device. He spoke in whisper.
“I’ve been voyaging for years with a secret yearning. I would like to record God’s voice: I implored Him to say one word to me. A single word. But He will not. I have records with me. And a gramophone. Yet, I won’t lose hope. If you give me some food I shall wish you every success, my sons.”
Hmm, this skinny monk was worth his salt, he had the hang of what we were actually after. But how? Could life in the desert waters have taught him to read others’ souls?
We swapped gossip. Gave him some food. He ate ravenously. Then he explained how he worked his device. Like this and like that. He was giving us half-truths. My friends, the crusaders, stood rooted to the spot. The monk kept talking us into listening to some waltz, or a tango or a conga. To ease the creases in our brows. To forget the business of war. But how did he know that deep inside us we had weapons that the eye could not perceive?
“We are at the end of our rope,” I said looking him straight in the eyes. “Let’s call it a day and we’ll talk again tomorrow, Your Holiness. Wouldn’t you like a soft bed?”
He agreed. His eyes sparkled. He mumbled something under his breath. Leave him; I couldn’t sleep anyway.
I heard him at midnight. He tiptoed noiselessly on to the deck under the moonlight. He went to the stern. Fumbled in the dark. I watched him closely. I saw him taking out his gramophone, going through his records and choosing one of silver. He had no sooner placed it on the turntable than I jumped out of my hiding place like a bobcat. The other bums were sleeping soundly. Moreaugarin’s snoring could be heard from well beyond the Polar Circle.
“Your Holiness, did you not fall prey to sleep?”
“Oh, is that you, boy?” the monk mumbled in embarrassment. “I was just taking a walk. I thought I heard a voice. It might be God’s, I thought, so here I am.”
“It is not God’s voice. It is the whales’ song, Your Holiness.”
“You may be right, my son. Wonderful work, this song!”
“If you say so,” I said with a sneer and felt for my chest. “Um, just what monasteries are…”
I stopped in mid-sentence. The monk placed the gramophone needle onto the record and some angel music began, flowing above the waters. I felt blood bursting out of my mouth and nostrils. I collapsed among the barrels full of fish. I nearly fell into the water. The sounds turned into poisonous arrows. My feet, shoulders and palms were bleeding.
I managed to rise to my feet. My head was swollen to the point of bursting. I cracked my chest and fired a volley of red-hot bullets, ripping into the gramophone.
“Treason!” Ibhib the Gunner was shouting as he came galloping like a storm, dressed in his underwear.
“Pirates!” Gargarelli the Philosopher yelled as he began throwing swords of fire through the air.
“The enemy! Ploto the Butcher hollered as he ripped at everything in sight with his steel claws.
The monk had vanished. Moreaugarin hugged me and pinned a medal on my chest in an ad-lib ceremony. He kissed both my cheeks and promoted me to Rear Admiral.
Later on, Moreaugarin and I each lit a cigar and talked while the bums were again sleeping and snoring loudly.
“Rear Admiral,” said he “do you believe in fate?”
“I don’t like to waste my breath with flub dub.”
“Can’t you feel the liberating spark burning in your guts? Hasn’t your spirit ever yearned for the ancient light from the beginning of the Universe? What will you do when millions of people pour through the wide open gate weeping with happiness once they have regained the Ideal City?”
“I don’t know. I…I’m afraid to find out…”
I spoke no more. We were sailing through troubled waters. One of the pilgrims had tried to kill us. Perhaps by now they had prepared bubbling craters and heaps of asteroids to stop our march, to slay us and throw us into the sidereal chasm.
“What will you do with your diamond?” Moreaugarin needled me as he was puffing billows of smoke from his silvery cigar. “Will you swallow it to become immortal? And then, how will you use your immortality? Well, boy? What, then, Rear Admiral?”
The scoundrel! He was trying to sound me out. The sneakiness in him was coming out again. He wanted me to give him my diamond. Oh, the selfish glutton! I laughed in his face.
“Why shouldn’t I be immortal myself?”
“You are naïve. You should have been prepared for that long ago. It won’t be easy. As soon as you swallow the diamond you’ll never die. That’s what I’m asking…”
“Will you sell it to me? I plan a memorable experiment. And I lack one diamond.”
Oh, God Almighty! What a scamp he was. What a groveling wretch. Moreaugarin had no intention of liberating the Ideal City and offering it to the people. Oh, he had tricked us with fine words! I vented my spleen on him and I went to sleep.
I tossed in my bed all night. In the morning, as we were sailing past floating icebergs we set our watches for a one-second hop. Our armor clanged. We fell into formation on deck. We knelt and crossed ourselves. The great moment was coming.
Ibhib the Gunner pulled my sleeve and drew me aside to show me a pouch full of money. He breathed out a sigh.
“Max boy, let that immortality dream go. What do you care? Look here, we have all sold Moreaugarin our share of the diamonds. Go sell yours while the going is good. Good money for the wet days ahead!”
I hit him so hard on the back of his head rust fell off the scales of his armor. I pulled his flapping ears and, seething with fury, I slapped him on his trap. Cheap phony! I knew better than let myself be sold to Moreaugarin.
“We shall see, Gunner! I’ll make up my own mind!”
The battle began. Heavy mists descended from the sky. There was snow. Blocks of ice fell on the deck of our battle cruiser. The Pilgrims fought like devils to the death. We chopped them to pieces. Ibhib pulverized them with his temporal gun. Vlasko the Trumpeter slaughtered them with their own songs that he turned to dynamite. Moreaugarin was yelling above the din.
“For the Ideal City, fight on! Nice doing, my tigers, let us liberate these ancient-light walls, which gave birth to the human being. Hurray!”
Well, this did not square with the situation. He was playing it off-key. The air was trembling. Crackling. Moaning. The frozen waters began to boil off steam. The orange sun was detailed against the blue sky. A sickly looking star hung high above all this.
“Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!” Ibhib shouted, pulling faces to Moreaugarin.
“In the name of the Cross!” Ploton roared.
Then there was silence over the wide expanses buried in deep white snow. It snowed for hours. We gathered at the foot of the Ideal City and started to clean our armor. The spotless walls were shining blindingly. Moreaugarin looked for a dry patch of high land to exhort the sinners anew. He kept looking at me because he knew he had to give me ancient-light diamond. The other ruffians did not care about me. They were already stewed to the gills with booze and were singing bawdy songs. True blooded sidereal hounds.
“Thank you, tigers of mine!” Moreaugarin began. “My knights….”
No one was listening to him so he gave up the rap and taking out his dagger he started scraping the walls of the City.
I followed him. He roared madly at me.
I told the Gunner to let you rot in your den, Boy! I never liked you!”
“Moreaugarin, you promised you would give those walls to the people.”
“Oh, yes, you’re impassioned. Romantic. Melancholy. How could you be a true sidereal hound? You’re
a double dealer, Maxim, that’s what you are!”
“You are as ignorant as dirt,” Moreaugarin said, pursing his thick lips. “I said, I said, I promised… Knowledge, my dear fellow, is above all else…. Knowledge…”
“I hate you!” I screamed and the sidereal chasm swallowed my desperate words.
I pelted him with my hatred. I told him to get off the walls and return to Beauburg…
“Don’t be a spoilsport. How could you ask me to do that? I must have all the diamonds. You’ll give me yours, won’t you? I’ve got money. I sold the Ideal City to the toad with silicon brains in the QET galaxy. For solid money. He went crazy at the idea of having it. We’ll play the old game and cheat him. That wouldn’t be the first time for a bum like you. Am I wrong, Max? Have you forgotten you’re a fickle creature, an outlaw hiding in the catacombs? You’re nobody! How can you compare yourself to Moreaugarin? Hey boy, don’t stunk, will you? You would break me to pieces, that I know, boy!”
“I’ll kill you one of these days, you cheater. You and that toad!”
Moreaugarin howled and chased me with the green ray from the machine, which whirred down from nowhere.
“Oh, boy, you have a lot to learn. We are different beings. Take my head if you can, come on, do it! Ha, ha! Good-bye, my boy, good-bye!”
And gone he was. Wrapped in dark blue smoke. Gone was the Ideal City…
At dawn the next day we were again in Beauburg at the edge of the ocean. We cast the anchor and lay basking in the sun; we were exhausted. Sunlight made the anchor chain twinkle. Reddish sparkles played on the crests of the onrushing waves. The burns had started shooting crap – old habits die hard – and wound up fighting and trussing like madmen.
I threw my armor into the ocean and stayed awhile on my knees to watch it sink. I lay on the warm sand and fell asleep and dreamed of the ancient-light walls of the Ideal City. Through the haze I could make out Moreaugarin’s figure. I called out to him. I felt I could kill him in my dream. I opened my chest a crack and pulled out my gun.
The report of the volley shattered my dream and my soul. Moreaugarin stumbled and fell. Face down in
a puddle of corrupted blood. I ran up to him to cut off his head and take it as
a bounty. Kicking the
body, I turned it face up. Ready to sever his head, I shuddered and froze. I was
looking at my own face.
English Translation by Gabriel Stoian
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