A new adventure in Michael Moorcock's 'End of Time' Universe
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Rebel at the End of Time
By Steve Aylett
Serif BooksCopyright © 2015 Steve Aylett
All rights reserved.
In the Golden Age
In Which the Duke of Queens Creates a Scene
Regina Sparks flew over a lion-coloured desert in a monoplane of clear glass. Birthing from the horizon was a pyramid of fitted gold, confetti crowds already gathering about it. She viewed the landscape through large jet eyes without whites. Her friends looked like a scattering of paste jewels.
The glass cross drifted to hover over the crowd, turning slowly. Regina's large black mouth curved into a smile as faces turned up to her. She flipped the plane sideways, settling it softly on the rise of a dune. Remembering to cease the engine sound and the spinning of the 'propeller', as she had learned to call it, she stepped down from the replica craft. She was an elfin negative of snow-white skin patterned with black tattoos of twisted vines. Her bare feet padded through roasted sand.
As she looked for the Duke of Queens, the guardian to whom she was so devoted, Regina spotted Bishop Castle's huge headdress swaying above the crowd. He was soon lost amid posturing gallants and beaked babies. The party was a throng of snouts, wings and tails. Here was a living totem pole of sullen expressions, there a large fleshy dice with a smile on each side. Though free to choose their form by whim, caprice or professed philosophy, the oldest among Regina's neighbours chose to be human, with only minor variations. Some still trailed fashions which were almost spent: coloured shadows, bone companions, magnified heads and the 'hell' word used without context. What would replace these was yet to be seen – perhaps today a new notion would strike them all as fresh, or at least as something they hadn't tried for the last thousand years. It was often necessary, at the End of Time, to have a short memory.
The Iron Orchid emerged from the crowd like a ship's figurehead from a mist, resplendent in a dress of bacon, marmalade and black satin. 'Lady Miss Zebra,' she said, 'no party of the Duke's is complete without your two-tone presence.'
Regina smiled. 'As you can see, sweet Orchid, I've changed my patterning – stripes are tired, I now favour these lively vines, you see?' She turned once around, twisting her head to admire her own inked nakedness.
'So you do, Regina. Does it taste the same?'
'I don't know.'
The Iron Orchid bent to lick at Regina's breast. 'Cinnamon, ashes and human flesh.'
'Exquisite, my heart.'
'Is that your Napoleon?' Regina asked the Orchid, gesturing to a short fellow in a crimson uniform. The man took one bite from a cupcake and then hurled it to the floor, shouting at the sky with declamatory gestures.
'Yes,' said the Orchid. 'The most voluble of the three in my collection, I think. He weeps sometimes, for his lost empire.'
'He is possibly the real one?'
'Perhaps. He believes so, of course. I keep them in separate sections of my menagerie.'
Whisper Terrible floated down on a chicken-shaped weathervane which he straddled like a fairground horse. Landing, he dismounted the metal silhouette. Before they could go to greet him, Doctor Volospion strode over to them followed by a bone companion. The saturnine Doctor had conceded nothing to the theme and posed in his customary blue and purple brocade gown. 'Welcome, permanent bloom, and most white shade of pale. I look forward to the Duke's new extravaganza. What will he dream up next, I wonder?'
Though the Duke of Queens was universally admired for the scope and originality of his invention, it was generally acknowledged that he overdid things in terms of monumentalism. His scenes were also regarded as being somewhat impersonal and static: mere spectacle. Regina felt obliged to go to her guardian's defense. 'Uncle is throwing himself heart and body into this spectacle, Doctor Volospion. He has been about it several weeks in historical research.'
'I have seen pyramids before, somewhere.'
'Do you know what they are for?'
'Being tall,' he said vaguely, turning to gesture at the monolith, 'like that. And pointed. Perhaps pointing up at something in the sky.'
'It was more in the manner of a machine,' Regina told him. 'For processing the death of kings.'
'Kings?' Volospion's sharp features became sardonic. 'A try at immortality, then, through a grand building project. Their methods clearly didn't work. I can't remember the name of a single king.'
Volospion's bone companion leant in at his shoulder and whispered, 'This too shall pass. And remember you are butter, man.'
'I'm getting a bit sick of these,' Volospion muttered, and touched a purple power ring on his left hand. The skeleton evaporated.
'Let us wait to see what the Duke has created for us,' said the Iron Orchid. She was being kind to Regina. 'The pyramid is impressive. And precise.'
'You are right, Madame Orchid,' Volospion conceded. He always looked rather stiff and uncomfortable when doing so. 'Let us wait and see.'
They walked through the crowds toward the pyramid base. Guests were still arriving – one in an air barge shaped like a swordfish, another in a basket under a balloon done up like an eyeball, and yet another rode in upon a giant haltered crab, the clacking claws of which caused alarm and laughter. Some dispensed with the illusion of requiring a vehicle and flew in without one, or blew in as a vapour and reconstituted with a small sonic thump. The Iron Orchid's son, Jherek Carnelian, arrived in a palatial river boat with a big turning side-wheel, a steam funnel, picket fencing and its own ghostly river which tapered out a few yards behind it. The floating palace drew cheers from the assembly. 'He learned about these things from Krill,' said the Iron Orchid, watching the strange craft, 'but I can scarcely believe such ... "zippy steamboats" really existed. Not in so elaborate a form.'
'Yet by rights the bumblebee should not be able to carry its own weight,' commented Volospion, pointing to the whale-sized bumblebee which was carrying Pastor Bulbous in to land. 'I suspect we are not equipped to judge the physics of the past.'
Jherek, startling in a suit of white duck, plus white hair and whiskers, walked down a ramp and announced ceremonially, 'Dang my buttons if I aint editor of this barge!' He was immediately surrounded by chattering admirers. Regina wondered when she and Jherek would make love again, or have a long conversation. He was so busy with projects, such as his search in the old cities for platters of ancient cow-eating songs. She sighed and resolved to move on.
As Regina, the Iron Orchid and Doctor Volospion approached the base of the pyramid steps, they were joined by Lord Jagged of Canaria, resplendent in a cloak of gold leaf decorated with the repeated image of a beetle. Atop his pale head he wore a gold pyramid in honour of the Duke's theme. On Jagged it managed to look stylish.
'And what is the significance of this pest pictured on your cloak, Jagged?' Volospion asked immediately. He had long put himself in competition with Jagged, and that Jagged appeared oblivious to the contest irritated Volospion the more. 'Some obscure jest or reference you ache to spring directly into our faces?'
'Oh, the scarab, you know,' said Jagged, pirouetting a hand in the air, '... in honour of the theme.'
Their silence signaled that nobody knew the connection, and it seemed to Regina that Jagged seemed momentarily fazed.
'I speculate,' he told them, and returned to his usual assurance. 'I symbolise. The desert, dryness, this massive casing for the flying spirit of the dead. I chose an image I felt distilled these matters.'
'Since it requires explanation,' stated Volospion, 'it clearly fails to do so.'
'You are right,' Jagged said, with a slight bow. 'It is obscure.'
Volospion did not seem soothed by Jagged's easy surrender, but they were all distracted by the discovery of a table laden with bowls of bone shingle, popcorn, forest manna, blueberry pies, mutton saddles, starfails, canvasback ducks, head milk, lipstick, mako wine, black umbrella tea, galore bulbs, calories, sea grapes, compass cake, creme broulee, chrysolites, chains, quinces, bliss tongues, pandora flan, blushed snow, planetnut, amps, coleslaw, flame curd, matamata soup, anleesh, ebon root, pink lemons, skate, flaming puzzlash, sugar moss, pearl tails, ginger, plutonium, cloudberries, wing stew, skedaddles, salt, sevens, meatloaf, weasel coffee, turnovers, almanacs, gapdog, neverlegs and barley. 'No flying fish?' asked Regina.
'Too much trouble,' Lord Jagged said.
'You can weight them with anchors.'
'The planetnut is very good,' called Bishop Castle, who stood nearby. 'It goes pop in your mouth like a good curse.' He picked at his crenellated teeth.
'Argonheart has outdone himself,' declared the Iron Orchid. 'Where is he?'
'He left in shame,' Lord Jagged told her, 'claiming the spread is a disappointment – a varied jumble without focus or theme.'
Whisper Terrible listened from the other side of the table. He had a sort of narrow bird head which ticked this way and that as remarks caught his attention.
'Such is life,' said Doctor Volospion.
'Is it?' asked Jagged without weight or emphasis. 'In any case, for Argonheart Po a meal is art, not life.'
'So it is for us all,' called Bishop Castle. 'Do any of us actually need to eat? I can't remember.'
'I recall going several decades without food,' Volospion said. 'I simply adjusted myself regularly, and made sure I was all there. Yes, food is art. And the spread before us does lack focus. Argonheart Po has earned his shame.'
'Perhaps he wished to feel it?' Regina suggested. 'The shame?'
'If so,' said Volospion, 'he went about it the right way.'
'He's a perfectionist,' shouted Bishop Castle. 'Try the smashed vampire crab, it's superb.'
Whisper Terrible spotted the trace of a skycloud which resembled an armchair, and flew away without flapping his thin arms, as though sucked up.
Revelers shared gossip as they milled before the golden slope of the pyramid. The sheer faces on either side of the broad central steps were of such a high polish that they held alchemised reflections of the guests, stretched and tapered toward the building's point. The Duke of Queen's features warped across this massive mirror as he floated up to Regina's group. He was resplendent in draperies of flaming ochre and a pillbox hat of royal purple and Mars orange rested upon hair which was a tangle of gold wires. His sensitive face was transformed by eyes and teeth of mirrored metal. His spade-shaped beard, too, was a gilded mirror and the effect was striking.
'Uncle!' cried Regina, throwing her arms about his neck and kissing him so hard that his hat was knocked to a tilt. She backed up to admire his costume. 'It's perfect! Is everything prepared?'
'It is,' he smiled.
'Plans and stratagems, eh Duke?' said Lord Jagged amiably. 'This triangular castle is a fine backdrop.'
'Far more than that, my friend,' the Duke replied mysteriously. 'Ah, I see you have adopted the sign of the scarab – most appropriate.'
Bishop Castle yelled from the buffet. 'It's some sort of pagoda. But it's all filled in solid, Duke – with that golden stuff. What's it for?'
'Your question is a good one, oh crossed gamepiece,' replied the Duke, then spoke in a more level tone for Regina's group. 'This ridiculously large tapered thing behind me is a pyramid, a sort of storied shrine, part of the ancient Ass Tech culture which Principal Krill and Brannart Morphail agree occurred before the age of the Bird Reich and the Kali Yuga, more or less.'
'Krill and Morphail agree on so little, it must be true,' remarked the Iron Orchid, flicking a stellate snow spider from her shoulder. 'Don't you think that's a good sign, Lord Jagged?'
'It may be,' nodded Jagged without emphasis.
'So this raiment I'm wearing,' the Duke went on, 'is that of a king from a time of empire, all culpable in glory. Li Pao explained some of it, and also helped to compose my speech. What did he say about it?' He was thoughtful. 'Ah yes, he said that there were flaws built in to the civilization – to make it more interesting I suppose. Apparently expansive, it was really a creature belted and restrained from its natural shape. And they felt they could make amends by a sort of ritual blood magic. They would kill the king.'
'Are you sure they killed the king?' Jagged asked mildly.
'Well it would hardly make sense the other way around, would it? The king would be killed as a suitable offering to the gods. I intend to immerse myself fully in the part.'
'I don't understand,' said Volospion somewhat irritably. 'Is this to be a lecture?'
'Far from it,' said the Duke excitedly. 'I will perform what was once known as a "sacraface". I am ritually killed upon the summit of this pyramid of mine, then conveyed downward into a coughing chamber within, and a gigantic golden replica of my face emerges from the front of the building. This sacred face makes the surrounding land fertile, a jungle grows up around the edifice, and the entire scene becomes the stuff of legend.'
'I am sure you hope it will be so, Duke,' muttered Volospion.
'Oh now, don't scoff, Volospion,' said the Iron Orchid, throwing him a slight frown. Then she beamed kindly at the Duke of Queens. 'I find the Duke's "sacraface" most compelling. Perhaps finally we will all follow the fashion and be dead in gold, one and all.'
'One of us should remain alive to resurrect the rest, my hardest of perennials,' mentioned Lord Jagged.
'Ah! Of course. Well, Mongrove never participates. He'll notice our absence eventually.'
'You are to set a fashion, Uncle,' Regina whispered to the Duke, who smiled broadly.
But Lord Volospion had overheard. 'Yes indeed, Duke,' he remarked. 'I'm sure there has never been a more entertaining way of lacking inspiration.'
'What?' The Duke was confused.
'Ignore him, Duke,' said the Iron Orchid, who felt Volospion had finally crossed the line. She looked the Doctor in the eye. 'The Doctor is still smarting from his own recent project, merely.'
She was alluding to Volospion's creation of a village of live people made from pellucidant jade. The entire population of this glassy hamlet had immediately set about the Doctor with scorching volleys of sarcasm, none of which he had understood. He had turned to Lord Jagged to transcribe their ripe revelations, thinking to show off his grand creation in the process. When Jagged explained some of the puppets' arcane terminology, Volospion's humiliation was complete.
'I stated only what was on my mind,' he said now to the Iron Orchid, and then turned to the Duke of Queens. 'But, my apologies, Duke. I am sure you understand the frustrations which attend creativity, from time to time.'
Baffled, the Duke gave a slight bow. 'Indeed. Well, friends, I go to prepare. As should you all,' he added dramatically, and then swept away, disappearing behind a far corner of the golden edifice.
At his explanation of the pyramid scheme, the party-goers speculated that he was trying for a new subtlety. 'Compared to his pre-Kali Yuga New York this "pyramid" is quite small,' the Iron Orchid muttered to Regina. 'Perhaps a fifth of a mile high?'
'And he has taken the criticism of impersonality quite literally in the notion of absorbing himself into the structure. Am I correct?'
'I will merely say that my regal guardian has planned several weeks toward this spectacle,' Regina told her. 'He has spent much of that time in Principal Krill's Silence, deep in research. Did you see him, as excited as a boy – as excited as I have seen your son Jherek become before hosting a party. It is good to see my dear Duke so taken up.'
'His tendency to architectural gigantism may have changed,' stated Doctor Volospion, 'but his attire is still as gaudy as a rocket crab.'
'Come, my dear.' The Iron Orchid steered Regina away from the group. 'Let us stand by the fizzing well.'
She breasted forward like a Faberge galleon, leading Regina to the stained glass well in which bioluminescent portions of jigsaw puzzle flushed and flitted like fish. The Orchid glanced back to see that she and Regina had not been followed. 'Doctor Volospion is doing his best, but is more competitive than usual for reasons I do not at present understand. I'm sure your sensitive guardian's party will be a spurting success.'
'And there is a part in it for me.'
'I am to perform the sacraface upon him, with a ... a. ... Well, one of these.' She twisted her power ring and a broad swathe of flashing anzac metal swelled in her hand.
'A giant knife?'
'Yes. There is another word, but I have forgotten it. See how sharp? I push that end into his belly and catch some of the juices in a bowl. There are some words I must say, and then he goes down into the pyramid. It will be very touching.'
'How long does he wish us to leave him dead?'
They were interrupted by a few sky valves which floated by, bloviating tunelessly. The two women were set to gazing aimlessly around the gathering.
A man passed in front of the sliming frame, a scintillating golden scaffold which dripped permanently with vinyl blood. To Regina's eyes accelerated colours instantly branded the stranger against the scene. She would later think he had appeared at the Duke's party as if signaling her. This was how things began to be changed.CHAPTER 2
Containing a Misunderstanding and an Execution
His hair and stubble pronounced the contours of his face like a martial helm, and in this form his face advertised itself as a living icon. Its combined wildness and symmetry suggested fiercely directed power. Wearing a red snakefruit jacket and purple leather pants, he was intently examining the very air around him. An occasional look of appalled disgust flinched across his face as he stalked through the crowds. He seemed to be his own shadow, a thing of brooding, brewing rage.
The Iron Orchid regarded the phenomenon in blank astonishment. This did not accord atall with the customary scattering of stancing lordalikes, pullulating aliens and fashionable phantoms which composed society at time's end. 'Who is that?' she asked.
Excerpted from Rebel at the End of Time by Steve Aylett. Copyright © 2015 Steve Aylett. Excerpted by permission of Serif Books.
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