By D.A. Madigan
Suspended in the air, thirty feet above the once heather-thick floor of a secluded mountain valley located somewhere in the high Himalayas, bare yards from a series of overlapping, perfectly circular rings of guttering flame and streaming smoke delineating freshly blasted artillery craters: a great white furred gorilla, strangely clad in a harness of leather straps and pouches, with jeweled gold spangling hairy earlobes and knobby, blunt fingers, rage-bloated red eyes possessing an unsettling spark of intelligence.
Twenty feet away, also hanging helplessly in mid-air, a man – tall and well muscled, hair a black thick crop atop his long head, dark eyes filled with an anger to rival that of the great white ape’s, or even mythical Jove’s, anthracite skin a startling contrast to the anthropoid’s snowy fur; wearing the ragged remnants of once-tough cotton fatigues and a soot blackened pair of well worn, beautifully cared for leather boots.
Pulsing in the ether around the two – the palpable thoughts of The Bodiless:
We know nothing, and care nothing, for the conflicts of outsiders, the strangely silent voices reverberate directly in the brains of both combatants. But you have brought your combat to our ancestral home, and the fury of your mutual hatred fills the mindscape, causing us discomfort. We would have an end to it.
The gorilla stiffens, clawing the air in frustrated outrage. “You dare not interfere with me!” it bellows through a surgically enhanced larynx. “I am the White Pharaoh! My will is supreme!”
The black skinned man masters himself, visibly. A sidelong glance at his nemesis, hanging in midair as helpless as he. Then, in a voice with its anger merely a well throttled thread – “I had thought this area deserted of all intelligent usage. I… regret my mistake. Release me, and my companion, and we will settle our differences elsewhere.”
No, the eerily soundless voices come again, like rushing waters in both their heads. We will not do this thing. You have come among us, unwitting or not, and you have done offense to us. We will hear your justifications for this, and make a resolution. You who call yourself the White Pharaoh – speak of your interest first.
“I should not have to justify myself,” the ape rages. “But very well! The White Pharaoh has never known shame. Fourteen thousand years ago, I ruled the Great Polar Empire your histories now name Egypt. This was before the Roaring Cataclysm, and my will was absolute law across the surface of the globe! When my priests came trembling before me, they advised that they could see, through their arts, the beginnings of the black rot starting to form on my brain. It was, they claimed, incurable.”
As the ape tells his tale, visible images – palpable renderings of his ancient memories, perhaps – form in the air around him. The human suspended in the air nearby could clearly see a throng of dark brown skinned men in odd headdresses and robes, with crystal studded staves in their hands, kneeling before a massively muscled, utterly hairless albino man sitting on a high throne.
“It was, in fact, not incurable,” the ape continues. “Using the Flesh of Ra, an artificial brain was fashioned for me exactly duplicating my natural organ. Due to the regenerative properties of Ra’s Flesh, that new brain was immortal and indestructible. Bodies might wear out, but the brain could be easily transplanted into new, young, strong forms taken from my subjects.”
The images become a swirling riot of churning figures -- weeping priests, if such they were, begging their massive ruler to alter course – loyal soldiers, armed with some sort of energy projecting wands, cutting the priests down with heat rays, until finally a few cowed survivors agree to comply with the will of the Pharaoh.
The Flesh of Ra was a divine artifact, remaining from the Days of the Gods, a lump of glowing clay barely the size of two fists placed together. Small pieces could be pinched off and used for miraculous cures – placed in wounds, the treated flesh would heal completely and over time even fully regenerate – ruined eyes, punctured lungs, even severed limbs would regrow themselves fully, while the original mass of miraculous lifeclay would also, over time, replenish itself of the small amount removed. But the White Pharaoh had demanded the use of all the Flesh of Ra, every bit, for his immortal artificial brain – and in enforcing his will, he had doomed countless others to misery, suffering, and death, down through the generations of man…
The ape went on: “Even the Roaring Cataclysm could not kill me, although my Empire was reduced to ruins and my loyal followers became a secretive cult. Through the ages my loyal priests have continued to secure new bodies for my mighty brain. Until two thousand years ago, when abruptly all human bodies began to reject my newly implanted brain, sickening and dying within hours of the transfer. My priests theorize that mankind had gradually evolved just enough that my brain was no longer compatible… but they discovered that a rare white gorilla from the interior of the lower continent was an excellent receptacle now. Since then, I have had these gorillas bred in secret to continue to house my supreme immortal mind. As I have roamed the world wreaking my will upon all around me, seeking that submission and awe which was only my just due as the only remaining Son of the Gods, I have frequently encountered short sighted and foolish resistance from these modern humans, who have little reverence for their proper divine masters. That one – John Commander -” – here the great albino gorilla hurled a look of brutish contempt at the dark human hanging near to him – “has become my most pernicious of foes, since we first met in Cambodia, twelve years ago.”
The dark man closed his eyes as the images around the gorilla changed again. Had he watched, he would have seen the ancient golden Temple where he and his wife had first encountered the White Pharaoh, along with a squad of the Pharaoh’s mentally controlled white gorilla thralls. The Commanders had been there seeking historical relics, not wealth; the White Pharaoh had been looking for a long lost sepulcher containing traces of a radioactive element once much used as a power source by the Great Polar Empire he claimed to have ruled in prehistory. The great king ape had been much taken by Talia Commander’s beauty; she and her husband had fought furiously, but in the end they had both been captured. Talia had submitted to the white furred monstrosity’s advances to secure the freedom of her husband, and John Commander had been released in the jungle, miles from the Temple, heartsick and furious. By the time Commander had hacked his way back through the bush, the Temple had lain abandoned again – the sepulcher smashed and empty – except for the torn and ravaged body of Talia Commander.
“In our first encounter,” the ape continued to growl, “I drew blood from the black brute, and subsequent analysis showed that Commander was a genetic oddity – a physical atavism, one whose body could accept the implantation of my great brain. Further, his own flesh would respond to the Flesh of Ra my brain is composed of, becoming effectively immortal, as well. His body holds the key to my immortality – as a human, not as a white furred beast! I will have his flesh, as is proper and fitting for humanity’s rightful ruler – and you dare not interfere!”
You who are known as Johncommander, the strange voices came again. Have you aught to add to this account?
John Commander growled, as bestially as ever the White Pharaoh had. “Nothing to add to what we have seen,” he forced out, through gritted teeth. “That monster raped and murdered my wife. I have pursued him ever since, even as he, apparently, has pursued me. I have long wondered why, in our past encounters, he has not killed me when he has had the chance, and now I know… but I care not for his psychotic fantasies. I merely want him dead…at my hand. And I ask nothing of you but the opportunity to avenge my wife, somewhere far from here, where it will not disturb your ancient peace.”
So, the voice came, after no discernible pause. Both your motivations for intruding here are base – earthly, fleshly, material – things we, who abandoned our bodies ages agone, have long since forgotten and thus cannot adequately judge. Yet the long furred one’s arrogance offends us, and damage has been done to the place where rest our former bones. We are inclined to see some repayment for this, and also inclined to grant the dark, furless one’s request, for it has been respectful. So – we will dispatch you both to a distant place, an arena where each of you will be equally disadvantaged, where you may resolve your difficulties however you choose. When one of you no longer lives, you will both be released to the outer world once more.
“You have earned my enmity!” the White Pharoah roared. “I will break Commander on the wheel of my wrath, and then return, and rip all of you to -”
Time and space swirled together where both figures hung in midair.
And then, there was silence in that land, besides the crackling of nearby flames.
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, and 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 bandanna 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 Adventurer’s 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,” 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,” 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 jasper. 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 for so long?”
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…”