A Dish Best Served Cold
by D. A. Madigan
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
On a steep, snowy crag — two bodies, immobile.
In the dim light of some phosphorescent fungus, John Commander shivered. He had no idea how long he had been in this dark, damp hole. His explorations were far from complete, nor could they be otherwise — there was a strip of hard, sandy rock, on which these glowing mushrooms grew, and a bay of cold, dark water, stretching off into the inky shadows. That, and a great wall of rock behind him, and nothing but darkness above.
Somewhere, Commander knew, the White Pharaoh lurked. Somewhere, along this seemingly endless stone shore. The ape was surprisingly sneaky for one of its bulk. Commander wondered what the Pharaoh was taking sustenance from in this place. He himself had caught several pallid mollusk-like creatures while wading in the shallows here; they had tasted foul beyond imagination but had not poisoned him. In fact, the vile-tasting flesh seemed to be sustaining his strength.
He was constantly hungry, but not appreciably weakened. He had not slept, but felt no real exhaustion. It could not have been more than hours since the Bodiless Ones had dispatched him here, but it felt like months.
Commander finished arranging the head-sized blob of seaweed atop the slumped cairn of rocks. Fishing in his pocket, he took out a bandana he knew to be red in normal light. He tied it carefully, hoping to simulate his own thick thatch of hair. He had draped his torn fatigue jacket around the central boulder. The lack of covering made him shiver, but if he could lure the great king ape into his ambush, it would be worth it.
If he could not, he feared he would die here. Commander had faced many hazards in a life of adventure, both with partners beside him and alone. He had bested many enemies — Ajax Swagger, the air pirate, with his great airborne battleship made of anti-gravity metal; Zynea Quayne, the golden-skinned jungle beauty who had sought to displace Talia in his affections; the Y’ruth, slavers from outer space who had sought to add him and Talia to their gladiatorial stables; Daemon Drumm, so called King of Dreams, whose drug-induced nightmares Commander had nearly never forced himself awake from; and even Jack Wheedler, an evil doppelganger from a bleaker Earth than Commander’s, who had promised him an alternate-world version of his beloved Talia if Commander would merely let Wheedler take his place on this Earth long enough to murder several of Commander’s most beloved friends.
But always for the last twelve years there had been the White Pharaoh, skulking, scheming, stalking, even as Commander had stalked him in return. Their infrequent clashes had always led to bloodshed but never to any final resolution.
Now Commander finally understood why the emperor gorilla had indulged in such complex machinations and created such elaborate, even Byzantine-seeming schemes to trap the Nubian adventurer: he needed Commander’s body intact and unharmed. It was an advantage Commander had never known he had — until now. And he hoped it would be enough...
Now, with a skill inculcated by a lifetime of peril, Commander slipped soundlessly backwards into the impenetrable darkness just beyond the pallid glow of the fungus. If the White Pharaoh was nearby and saw the simulation Commander had rigged, and assumed Commander was sleeping... Commander, from only a few yards away, exhaled in an artfully simulated snore. His hand tightened on the sharp shard of granite he had found when he had first arrived.
There was a crash of movement behind Commander. He whirled!... too late. Great gorilla hands were already closing on his throat, lifting him effortlessly into the air, hurling him towards the nearby shoreline of the lightless sea.
“I will drown you like a rat,” Commander heard the king ape snarl, “and then, when we are both released, I will have my brain implanted in your body. Then I will find these Bodiless Ones and wreak their destruction, as well. I do not know how, but my priests are wise in the ways of the spirit, and will provide the necessary means. And then—”
But Commander heard no more. Thrust beneath the surface of the frigid lightless tarn, all he could hear was the thunder of his blood in his veins, as he strained to hold his breath, even as the White Pharaoh tried to crush it from his throat. Doubtless the Pharaoh was counting on the Flesh of Ra to regenerate any incidental damage he might do to Commander’s body while murdering him—
Incredible cold, unutterable darkness. How long had they been there? It felt like months, he was always hungry, but never grew weak. He never slept–
On a steep, snowy crag — one body abruptly stirred. Frost crystals crackled as it sat up and opened its eyes; inches of snow slipped like sand from its chest.
It began to crawl towards the second body, limbs ablaze with the pain of returning circulation.
From a holster at his waist, John Commander drew his pistol. If the bullets were too cold to fire, he could still use it as a club...
“I would surely have died,” Commander said quietly to a rapt audience gathered around his table in the Adventurers Club dining room. “I had never been able to best the White Pharaoh in any of our conflicts. His desire to capture me alive and unharmed had always let me escape him — barely — but in physical combat, I simply was not his equal. And if his intellect was truly 14,000 years old, as he claimed...” The dark-skinned adventurer turned one hand up, laconically indicating the hopelessness of his situation. “My only advantage was his inability to master his own emotions. His kingly arrogance, and his violent temper, were his undoing.”
“I don’t understand,” mused Gwendolin Harper, who had led an expedition to the hollow lands surrounding the Earth’s core and whose beautiful companion, Geela, was a former princess there. “How did you realize it was all just a mental projection?”
“Yes, yes,” said Mahomet Jones, whose own fortune was derived almost entirely from his recovery of the Living Ruby of Khakartet from its ancient Lemurian tomb, “what was the clue? Merely that you had not slept? Surely you could not rely on any sense of time’s passage, in a lightless subterranean cavern...”
“The Bodiless Ones had great power,” Commander said. “But they themselves had stated that they had long forgotten physical existence. It struck me, as I was ‘drowning’, that somehow transmuting the physical matter of our two living bodies through miles of earth and rock showed a mastery of physical existence, and the complexities of functional biology, incompatible with what they had said. Yet they had no reason to lie, we were completely under their dominion.”
Commander paused, puffed at his cigar, then went on. “And then again, I had a similar experience a few years ago, fighting that King of Dreams japer. Since childhood, I have always had the ability to awaken myself from a nightmare once I realized I was dreaming. That ability saved my life when I understood that Drumm must have drugged me. It let me force myself awake, even against his soporific serums. Once I questioned the reality around me, I realized instantly that this, too, must be a dream, or a dream-like state.
“I forced myself awake, and found that the Bodiless Ones had merely moved us, doubtless through simple psychokinesis, to a mountainside just above their valley. They had put our bodies into suspended animation for the few moments it would take us to resolve our conflict in mental battle.”
Commander rubbed his upper lip. “It was the greatest physical exertion of my life, crawling over to that gorilla in a just-awakened body,” he said. “And yet, at the same time, it was nearly effortless, such was my relief at finding the truth of my situation... and my furious desire for revenge.”
“And now that you have it,” wise old Maximus Merlin asked, nodding sagely at the large glass cube squatting on the table across from Commander, “are you satisfied? Has this long-pursued retribution been the fine, savory dish you anticipated?”
Commander smiled, a ruthless, nearly vicious smile that caused a brief shudder to pass like a breeze through the small crowd around his table. “Oh, yes,” he whispered. “Oh, yes...”
He stared hungrily at the decapitated, white-furred head embedded in the transparent crystal cube, its visage a mask of horrified rage. The fur on one side was bloodied and torn, where something had apparently bludgeoned it repeatedly.
“And if I find I do tire of it in this form,” Commander added, relishing the words in his mouth, “well... I can always break open the cube and start sticking pins into an immortal brain...”
Copyright © 2009 by D. A. Madigan