Faithless vs. Yello – Sun to Me/The Race mash-up…
The surface of the river ahead of us erupts with the gunfire of all three barrels in the speedboat’s turret. A rickshaw and its flying carpet making a low pass explodes into splinters, followed by a spitting fireball from its stock of napalm cocktails.
“Get down!” shouts General Lissima.
We hurtle through the fireball as it rapidly burns itself out. Ace twitches at the controls, to dodge a flaming coolie-hat as it spins past his head.
The General hefts her own chain-gun, and takes care of another flying rickshaw as it pulls along the port side.
“Behind you…!” I yell, as a third draws parallel on the starboard.
Cutthroat Liss keeps her eyes on her current line of fire, but her apparently independent alien tentacle shoots out backwards, straight through the side of the latest rickshaw, fatally piercing the pilot. Then it cracks like a whip, causing the pilot and his vehicle to disintegrate.
The flying carpet, unleashed, flaps quickly into the sky.
“Stop that rug, Mr. Slaughter!” she yells, as her tentacle retracts. “The flying carpet whisperers will learn of our position!”
Carvery aims the turret guns upward, and another volley of deafening fire rips the unfortunate magic carpet to shreds. There is a smell of singed wool on the breeze.
“Crispin, those are your grandfather’s men!” I say, grabbing his arm. “Why are they attacking?”
“It is a clash of different cultures,” he says. “Nothing is personal. When one has alchemy but no technology, and the other has technology but no alchemy – without formal and incorruptible trade management, the world will always lapse into a betterment Tug o’War. These are merely the casualties of poor commerce.”
“I get it,” Ace chips in, steering us around a burning tree-trunk floating downstream. “It’s like they’re both saying ‘Who Moved My Cheese?’”
“And assuming the other one did it,” Carvery agrees, between shots. “Blaming with extreme prejudice.”
“Quite correct, gentlemen,” Crispin nods sagely, although I have no idea what they are on about.
“And whose side is she on?” asks Luke, jerking his head towards General Lissima, while still strapping on his other waterski.
“Half on my mother’s side – a distant cousin, or some such.” Crispin waves a hand around vaguely. “The other half – who knows?”
“He means, whose side in the war?” I hiss.
“Oh.” Crispin contemplates a moment. “I think the answer is still the same.”
“Wheeeeehh!” Luke leaps from the bows of the boat, and is soon surfing energetically in our wake, dodging bullets and flaming cocktails.
“That’s the spirit, Mr. Lukan!” Cutthroat Liss approves. “Everyone should be having fun!”
And she blows two more rickshaws out of the sky.
“I am having fun,” shouts Carvery.
“Me too,” Ace agrees, steering for a moment with his knee while rolling a cigarette. “Especially watching her playing with that watering-can.”
General Lissima just chuckles, as she aims the massive chain-gun again. The barrels roll and the muzzles spit bullets relentlessly. The air hanging above the river is filled with smoke, rickshaw sawdust and cut pile.
Corporal Punishment has stopped praying, and joins Crispin and Homer and me as we sit in a row on top of the still-unconscious Justin Time.
“Are you all right?” I ask him. “What was that you were quoting just now?”
“Incantation Seventy, Miss Bellum,” he says. “An unnamed spell, but the purpose is clear to all who study them.”
I glance in frustration at the dormant clockwork hand, clamped around my wrist. It’s like it has a mind of its own. Rather than me being able to control it, I’m starting to worry that its reticent powers could mean the reverse is the case.
“Are you sure there’s nothing in that book about this?” I persist. “I’m certain Mr. Dry Senior was implying that they are connected in some way.”
“Oh, everything is connected, Miss Bellum,” says Corporal Punishment. “You have to recognise that not everyone can be bothered to wait for prayers to be answered, although they still go through the motions for appearance’s sake. They go to confession, they make the obligatory sacrifices. But the heavens can wait, they say. Here on Earth, time is money.”
“Whffft?” says a muffled voice, and our seat shifts a little. “I knew it! You are selling me for spare parts!”
“Your parts are safe, Mr. Time,” Crispin replies. None of us makes a move to get up, and Homer tries to wriggle into a more comfortable spot between the rickshaw pilot’s hamstrings. “Except perhaps from Mrs. Time.”
“Hah, never marry a virgin!” Justin Time grumbles into the deck beneath his whiskers. “They are always hiding something. A homicidal tendency, a drunken father, a taste for human flesh, a tattoo of Jedward, a financially-crippling designer handbag habit…”
“A big alien sucker tentacle?” I suggest, hoping no-one has noticed my burning flush at the mention of tattoos.
“Oh, that not be so bad…” Justin mumbles. “Except she always getting it out in public, like the trollop that she is…!”
“What is she, Crispin?” I whisper, while Justin continues to rant under our collective buttocks. “And your mother, begging your pardon? I mean, I know I’m not a fully-qualified Forensic Anthropologist yet, but I’ve never seen…”
“I thought you knew, Sarah Bellummm.” Crispin sounds genuinely surprised. “The Sirens are well-documented.”
“Ohhh…” I dredge my memories of early schooling in history and Greek mythology. “I think I recall – but tentacles were never mentioned…”
“Of course,” says Crispin. “No-one who came that close survived to describe the tentacles. They traditionally kill their mates after fertilisation. Or sometimes just for fun, nowadays. Civilisation has a little to be grateful for.”
“Ah.” I gulp.
I glance at Ace Bumgang, wondering if he knows how lucky he is to be alive.
Should I tell him?
No – maybe I’ll spare him the horror. For now…
After all, there might be a more opportune moment for him to be thankful to be alive, and in my company…
“It looks like we are out of the Friendly Fire zone,” Crispin observes, intruding a little on my own thoughts of future human fertilisation. “We are nearly there.”
The sound of gunfire and screaming of rickshaw pilots has ceased. I risk a peek over the side.
“Wheeeeehh!” Luke hollers happily, skipping over the last of the wreckage on the waterskis behind us.
The jungle has thinned out, and thank goodness – the littering of sacrificial corpses on the riverbanks is no more.
Instead, a scattering of rude wooden huts denotes villages, with women in saris beating clothes against flat stones, men in make-do diapers beating bony cattle and elephants with sticks, and children in nothing at all beating monkeys at Who Can Make The Best Silly Face.
“They look so peaceful,” I remark.
“Yes. The Ten a.m. Lounge is among the most benign,” Crispin agrees. “Not exactly neutral, but as close as can be estimated to neutral. The only conflict here is the Cult of Atum, and the renegade General Foramen Winslow.”
“Is he dangerous?” I ask.
“He is psychotic,” Crispin admits. “But of the type it is best to humour his delusions, for that is the only way to stay alive in his company.”
“I will drop you off here,” Lissima Domina announces, as we approach another small jetty. “I have to take my wayward husband back to my ship.”
“To the mothership?” Ace queries.
“Back to Hell!” screams Justin, and is knocked unconscious again by an alien tentacle-wielded knife-butt.
“Just a regular old ship, Mr. Bumgang,” she says, smiling. “I can’t be having my naughty spouse running around on dry land. Not even to see his Playbunny Boy girlfriend. Leave the controls to me.”
Rather reluctantly, Ace and Carvery leave their posts. Luke is also sad that his ride is over so soon, letting out a sigh, his skis sinking below the surface as we decelerate.
Corporal Punishment helps Homer to his feet, and Crispin offers me his arm.
“Shall we, Sarah Bellummm?” he says.
We step ashore.
General Lissima’s boat turns and roars away again, back downstream into the jungle.
If anything, it is even hotter here than in the jungle. There is less shade, and the ground underfoot is closer to sand and dust than to mud. A few scrubby shrubs cling to the ground between the huts and shacks, but anything green has been stripped from them, by the livestock and the scavenging monkeys.
“Serves you right,” says Carvery, as a chattering, boisterous monkey picks his pocket, and promptly Tasers itself.
Not for the first time, I’m glad I didn’t attempt that route.
“This way.” Crispin gestures towards a dried-out track, marked out either side with bird skulls on sticks. Their feathers are strung between, on lengths of frayed old string.
It doesn’t seem to be a great indicator of this Cult being a peaceable one…
As we trek further, occasionally a piece of coloured paper flutters in the dust, or is caught against the scrub.
Luke picks one up.
“‘The winter of our discontent…’” he reads. “What is that – some sort of war propaganda?”
I rescue another, caught in a strip of bark.
“This one just says ‘Alas…’” I add.
“They are prompts, Sarah Bellummm,” Crispin replies. “The discarded notes of Cult sermons.”
“Not one of those self-appointed preacher cults?” says Ace. “That’s it, I’m not drinking anything they serve here. It’ll be a suicide by cyanide cult.”
The ramshackle buildings ahead are arranged around a square, the tallest, facing us, shrouded in a heavy red-and-gilt curtain. As we approach, we see an elderly gentleman, in a white turban, totter across the quad with a tea-tray to knock on the door of one of the lower buildings, which has a golden star on its door.
On the breeze, I swear I can hear a piano, and the sounds of someone practising their scales…
“Your early morning call, General Winslow, sir!” says the tea-vala gently, rapping again on the door.
“Early morning call?” repeats Carvery. “It’s ten a.m!”
“Do not let them hear you making light of the time, Mr. Slaughter,” murmurs Crispin. “They are a delicate sort in the Cult of Atum.”
The distant voice accompanying the piano clears its throat, and starts afresh.
“Ta-ra-ra boom-dee-ay! My knickers flew away!”
We exchange looks.
“They went on holiday! They came back yesterday! Ta-ra-ra boom-dee-ay…”
Ace twirls a finger perpendicular to his ear.
The door with the golden star on flies open, and out storms a whiskered, well-built, middle-aged man in a string vest and khaki shorts, sporting a uniform peaked cap, and brandishing a cane.
“I heard that, you naughty boy!” he roars, with an impressive voice that you knew was born to enunciate, not just speak like any old commoner. “I also heard you singing your scales with Doh-Ray-Me-So-Farty! You are lucky I have not had my first cup of tea or I would be right over there to give you a good hiding, yes I would! Tea-vala! In my cabin now! And bring extra sugar!”
“Right here, General Winslow, sir!” The tea-vala picks himself up from behind the door, having kept the tray and its contents miraculously upright, and follows him back inside.
“We are fortunate,” Crispin remarks. “It looks like a regular rehearsal day. On matinée performance days, the General has been known to execute both leads and their understudies before brunch.”
“Ah, maybe that’s what this is for,” Luke remarks, handing over another of the slips of paper he has been collecting as we walked. “‘Casting for female lead and understudy. Must have good legs, high-C, and dance.’ What is a high-C?”
“It’s what Homer’s got, since the operation,” Ace points out.
“You could audition, Homer,” Carvery suggests. “Then we’d have a man on the inside.”
“They’ll be none the wiser to that,” Luke agrees. “So long as they don’t look too closely at his high-C.”
“Goooood.” Homer hops up and down excitedly, and turns begging eyes on his brother.
Crispin’s manly shoulders sag.
“Yes, yes,” he sighs. “We can play along, Homer. It may buy us a little time in which to find out if they have any real intelligence on the river-god Atum’s recent actions, or if the Cult is merely a front for the General’s Broadway ambitions.”
“Did somebody say Broadway?!”
We turn around. A skinny young woman, with chestnut-red braids, clutching a cello case, looks at us like one big hopeful question-mark. She wears big honest spectacles and a very Amish-style pinafore dress, a cross between Anne of Green Gables, and Corporal Punishment’s dream librarian pin-up.
“Are you talent scouts?” she breathes. “Is this The Jungle’s Got Talent, Get Strict With Me audition tour?”
“Ah, now I see how the General finds his recruits,” Crispin remarks. “Where are you from, Miss…?”
“My name is Summer… well, it’s the name I’ve chosen since I ran away from the nunnery on the mountain, where I was called Sister Jaundice. And the best I got there was second fiddle in the nuns’ orchestra, for the children’s Sunday School choir. What I really want is to play on Broadway, join a conservatory, study at Juilliard, perform under Andrew Lloyd-Webber…”
I feel my hackles rising, catching me unawares as the bespectacled drama shrimp makes big eyes at Crispin’s expensive black suit.
Am I… am I getting jealous…?!
“I think you’ve come on the wrong day, my friend,” Luke interrupts, patting Homer reassuringly on the back, and I realise I’m not the only one feeling threatened. “Today we are auditioning for dancing girls.”
“Oh.” The big blue eyes resemble Shubunkins lost in goldfish-bowls. “I can tap-dance…”
“Strippers,” Ace cuts in.
“And Playbunny Boys,” adds Carvery.
“Ohhhh…” Now, Summer Jaundice looks decidedly less hopeful. “Don’t dancers need musicians?”
“We’ve already got a pianist,” I say.
“Gonnne,” says Homer, looking down at himself through the grass skirt, wistfully.
Luke pats him on the back again.
“Man, that’s something you dead white boys just gotta learn. Use it, before you lose it.”
The invisible pianist in question starts up on cue, with an off-key rendition of ‘Anything Goes’… but by the reaction from the General’s cabin, it is quite clear that Anything definitely does not Go as far as musical talent is concerned.
“That is one of my favourite songs and you has just ruined it, my lovely boy!”
The General bursts out of the gold-starred door again, this time armed with a revolver, his other hand holding a half-finished mug of tea. He marches across the square to the far side, kicks open the door to the dormitory opposite with his 13-hole Army boot, and empties the gun into the unseen room beyond.
The chorus of ‘Anything Goes’ ends with an open-ended B-Flat, by the sound of it struck heavily with the forehead.
“Wow,” Summer Jaundice gasps. “The judges are really harsh!”
“We still have a pianist.” I catch hold of Crispin’s arm possessively, remembering his Franz Ferdinand in the restaurant last night, and what nearly happened on that piano before the power-cut…
“Not dropped off yet, Sarah Bellummm,” Crispin confirms, coughing modestly.
A second door in the dormitory opens, and a completely different figure steps outside to light a cigarette, her blonde tresses in big rollers, wearing only white stockings and an oversized khaki shirt.
“Now that’s the competition you’ve got to worry about, Homer,” Carvery remarks.
The strange woman turns and stretches, revealing a Playbunny tattoo on one lithe hip.
“I hope you has been rehearsing, Miss December!” snarls the General, sipping his tea and scowling.
“Cynthia,” she corrects him. “Only creeps call me Miss December. Creeps and creepy boyfriends, anyway.”
“We has got a big day coming up! Entertaining the troops! I will not be having you lazy boys and girls spoiling it by sloppy rehearsals and coming down with the mumps and all turning up dead like last week! Poor old tea-vala spent the intermission sewing arms and legs back on instead of serving the tea! And Miss February has already cried off sick with the jungle bottom and called her agent to pick her up and still makes my life a misery with the long-distance phone-calls about her luggage not being returned! Now – what has we got here then?”
And the scary General turns towards us, and strides over.
Instinctively, we all salute.
“Here to audition, sir!” pipes up Summer, as foolhardy as she is desperate, apparently.
“Has you got a bikini in that cello case?” the General barks.
“Just a cello, sir!”
“Then I hopes you is good at ironing shirts and peeling spuds!” he shouts. His eyes move on to me, looking at my back-to-front field hospital scrubs. “What has happened to you, Sonny-boy? Did they sew your head on backwards?”
“No, sir! Got dressed in the dark, sir!” I’m too scared to correct him as to my gender.
“Well, at least you is honest as well as dimwitted. We can always use more medics. Can you tell a hand from a foot?”
“As long as it is not on a monkey, sir!”
“Good!” His gaze crosses over to Ace and Carvery. “What is up with you two Pansy-boys? Run away from the Navy, have we? Fancy a bit of singing and dancing instead, do we?”
“Oh, the uniforms…” Carvery looks down at his. Ace is still shirtless. “We’re not absconders.”
“Nah,” Ace joins in. “We’re strippers.”
I swear, my lungs contract all by themselves. I so do NOT need that image in my mind while trying to stand to attention in front of this terrifying and allegedly deluded man…
“Ah,” the General muses. “Chippendales, eh? Well, I hear there is some market for that, especially among the other lovely Pansy-boys we has got here. And I see you has brought along some exotics. Something for everyone, whether they is into spear-chucking or limbo-dancing, no doubt. Looks like we can put on quite the variety show with all of you circus freaks here today…”
…And then his eyes level with Crispin’s.
For a fleeting moment, there sees to be almost a spark of recognition – of FEAR – in the General’s eyes…
But then just as quickly it is gone, and the glassy stare of madness returns.
“And what is you, errand-boy?” he growls. “A looky-likey act?”
“Yes, General,” says Crispin, smoothly. “A lookalike act.”
“Who plays the piano,” I squeak, before I can stop myself.
Fortunately, the General has priorities other than insolence.
“Good,” he says. “I believe I has an opening for an ivory tickler.”
And he turns away, heading back for his cabin.
“Yes,” Corporal Punishment remarks, as the rest of us all breathe freely again. He strokes the long carved bone inserted through his nose thoughtfully. “I can see his opening from here.”
Windsor Davies and Don Estelle from It Ain’t Half Hot Mum sing ‘Whispering Grass’ 🙂
More mindless mayhem: The Zombie Adventures of Sarah Bellum
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