Yeah, I’m hyping the crap out of my new book. If you like this story, you’ll probably like the above book. If you don’t like this story, erm, you’ll still probably like the above book, ’cause it’s, uhm, totally different and stuff. I feel like Gil from “The Simpsons”.
This was posted on this site during the Joomla days, and somehow didn’t make the transition over to WordPress. It falls into two genres I like: Planetary Romance and what I call The Banality Of The Fantastic, the latter being my own name for stories set where the “fantastic” element, the thing which makes it a fantasy or SF story, is seen as simply part of the background noise of the world by the inhabitants. We talk to people across the world, we travel from continent to continent in hours, we are speak a command or make a gesture and get answers to everything from “Where is the nearest pizza joint?” to “How many videos are there where two cheerleaders, one a redhead, one asian, make out with each other and then the pizza guy joins in?” (“Two miles” and “integer overflow error”, respectively.)
Rogue Planet: Fortress At The Top Of The World, was intended to not be deconstructionist, revisionist, satirical, etc. This piece, however, was intended to be something of a respectful and loving satire, or at least humorous, as it deals with the aftermath, generations later, of Earth’s contact with an alien world full of wild technology and beautiful alien princesses. This concept has a lot of potential for deeper exploration; as with so many of the settings I sketch out in very broad strokes, this is one I’d like to revisit if I have the time. I also wrote it six years ago, and I humbly submit my writing’s been getting generally better over time, but I wanted to present it as-is. If it looks like it might see print, I’ll make some editing passes, but for right now, it fits my site’s motto of “Free, and worth it!”
The First Adventure Of The Fourth Streak Derrick
Richard (“Streak”) Derrick (the Fourth) had no idea why he was needed at the coronation of Empress Alazarra Of Dragornos, but it seemed like a good idea to go. Generally, when the potentate-to-be of an entire world sends you an invitation (delivered by a glistening, muscular, mountain of a man garbed in ceremonial armor), you accept.
It was all purely symbolic, of course. Ever since the 1930s, Dragornos had been ruled by an elected Parliament, a governmental system set up during the occupancy which had followed the alien world’s abortive attempt to conquer the Earth. When Overlord Zarg had been killed by Richard’s great-grandfather, political order was maintained when his daughter, Zareena, claimed the throne and then promptly gave supreme power to Streak Derrick the First…who in turn handed it over to the League of Nations and let them take over the business of nation building. It was in all the history books.
But Great-Grandpa Derrick was long dead, and Grampa Derrick got himself killed in the 1950s trying to live up to his father’s reputation, and Pa Derrick was a neurotic, alcoholic mess, and so it fell to the fourth to bear the name to show up and perform whatever empty ceremonial function might be required of him. He assumed he’d get the time off work.
It would be fun, he tried to tell himself. See Dragornos. Look at all the places he’d only seen in old photo albums (most of them in black and white, some of them even taken by his great-grandmother back when she was a news reporter swept up in the biggest story of the last century). Dragornos was supposed to be beautiful – mountains of blue crystal, rivers of liquid flame, cities older than any on Earth, but still alive and inhabited. There was no logical reason to not want to go.
Sighing, trying to put his thoughts in order, he walked to the balcony. From it, he looked down ten feet to the parking lot of the condo complex he called home. He considered, for a moment, the vast wealth of Dragornos. Vaults full of gems. Rare and exotic lifeforms, from wood harder than steel to flowers which made music as the sunlight played on them. Life-size statues of a thousand former Overlords, each one forged of solid gold.
And my great grandfather never thought to grab a piece of the pie for himself. No, the first Streak Derrick had been content to accept a small diplomat’s salary and serve as a symbol of Earth, a hero the Dragornosians could look up to (and a living reminder that he had taken down their former Emperor). And so, three generations down the line, his sole descendant worked an office job, supplemented with an ever-dwindling trickle of income from interviews and public speaking gigs, dredging up memories from when he was five and passed-down family legends.
No sense being maudlin, he thought. This coronation gig should bring the media roaches out of the floorboards, and be good for enough residuals afterwards that I could probably make a dent in the mortgage on this place. He sighed, then filled out the invitation and signed it. A thought struck him. He went to the small box he kept of the heirlooms not squandered over three generations of waste, and took out a thick, heavy, ring, adorned with a pattern of swords and lightning bolts. He then melted some blue candlewax onto the thick parchment of the invitation and pressed his great-grandfather’s sigil upon it. There. That ought to impress them. The Dragornosians placed a lot of store in pomp.
He was glad the return envelope was prepaid; postage to Dragornos was a bitch.
It was a three hour flight to JFK and then a six hour flight by “Aether-cruiser” to Dragornos. Richard was somewhat hesitant about boarding the alien craft. It was a tremendous finned ovoid covered with silver and gold tubes, all leading to massive engines which looked like they could rip free of the ship if they ever fired at full strength. The uniforms worn by the crew were equally non-reassuring; they were both skimpy and militaristic, and seemed to belong to a much earlier era; it was akin to seeing a Roman centurion at the joystick of an F-14.
Tradition, he reminded himself. Dragornos runs off it; the changes made by his great-grandfather only worked because he’d found ancient records of the old Parliament which had existed before the Emperor’s came, and because the Dragornosians had a tradition of conquering heroes imposing their will on the populace. Cunningly working within their cultural paradigms, Streak Derrick the First had created a peaceful, democratic society out of a warlike, imperialist, one in only a few years. There was an old political cartoon Richard had seen once, from 1939, showing an idealized (but only slightly) figure of his grandfather, strangling a zatharg with his right hand and a figure labeled ‘The Old Way’ with his left. Dashing hero and canny politician, all in one package. His great-grandmother had been a person of equal skill and strength, even within the limits allowed to women in the 1930s…that was probably why the marriage ended up not working out.
And there it was – Dragornos City, capital of Dragornos, located on the great River Dragorn. (The Dragornosians were notably short of imagination in their placenames). It was as wondrous as he’d always imagined; mile-high megatowers scraping the sky, a dark cloud of flying, buzzing, vehicles surrounding it, buildings of silver and chrome and gold and crimson creating a blinding glare as the craft approached.
The spaceport was, well, a bit shoddy. Seen from the air, it was amazing, but close up…not so much. The frescoes were worn and chipped. The thick, rich, carpeting was notably thin in spots, faded in others. Handrails were loose. Lastly, the McDonald’s built clumsily over the bones of a traditional Dragornosian café served the worst fries Richard had ever had, and the mountains of gold lame added to the customary uniforms of the waitstaff simply didn’t work well at all.
Richard was greeted at the exit, a wide marble hall, by a typically barely-uniformed guard, who was, in a tradition new to Dragornos, holding up a clumsily lettered signed reading “Streak Derrick 4”. Richard nodded to him feebly; the guard performed a quick and crisp bow, then grabbed Richard’s bags and marched off. Richard struggled to keep up with him as he strode briskly towards the waiting aero-car.
The flight into Dragornos City was smooth and mostly uneventful. Dimly, Richard wondered what Streak Derrick The First would make of the place now, festooned with neon and advertising. A caricature of old Overlord Zarg happily swilling Pepsi glared from one of the highest towers. From terror of the cosmos to advertising icon in a few short decades, joining such former nightmares as Napoleon and Julius Caesar as pallid jokes.
His quarters, located in the south wing of the Imperial Palace, were extraordinary. The slow decay seen at the spaceport had not yet infested the palace, or at least not this part of it. The bathtub alone, Richard thought, was bigger than his whole apartment. The bed could hold an entire orgy (and almost certainly had) with room left over for a buffet bar. The rug was so plush Richard half-feared being lost in it. A selection of drinks and rare delicacies had been made available. Also available were two servants, both female, whose salaries evidently did not allow them to purchase any clothing beyond underwear. Skimpy underwear.
Richard idly wondered if they were waiting around for a tip.
“Uhm….I think I’m good here, thanks.”
The two looked at each other, then at Richard. One spoke. “We are assigned here in order to provide you with whatever you might desire, honored one.”
Richard flushed. There was very little doubt what they meant. There was certainly a great deal of temptation, most of it clearly displayed. What happens in Dragornos City, stays in Dragornos City, came the thought… Richard tried to come up with a good excuse to send them away…but he kept failing, possibly because their breathing was disrupting his thoughts with tremendous efficiency. What was that old joke about men only having enough blood to…
The door burst open. A woman ran through it, and Richard’s mind (that part of it which was still functioning) instantly forgot the servants. If they were the Northeast Iowa Corn Festival Beauty Contest First- And Second- place winners, the newcomer was Miss America. Tall, thin but not skeletal, with waves of onyx hair flowing down her back, wearing a gown seeming woven out of rubies, she ran through the door, breathless, and flung herself at Richard, almost knocking him directly onto the orgy-sized bed (a prospect he did not fine entirely, or even slightly, unwelcome), and spoke, in a voice of husky desperation. “Streak Derrick! You must save me!”
Richard rolled his eyes, then grabbed the woman by the shoulders. “Right. Who put you up to this? Am I being filmed?” He looked around for the hidden cameras. “This is going on Fox, isn’t it? Or is it that Kutcher jerk?” He spoke to the room at large. “Really funny, guys. I’ll play along. I could use the residuals. You can just edit this part out, okay?” He then released the woman and tried his best to look as he imagined his ancestor must have. “Why, of course I shall save you! For I am…” he paused and struck the best heroic pose he could. “Streak Derrick….the Fourth!” He tried to suppress a chuckle.
Then the gunfire started, and it stopped being funny.
Richard had heard of atomo-blasters, of course. Like most Dragornos technology, they simply didn’t work on Earth….some sort of radiation in the atmosphere or what-not, he couldn’t remember the details. He had never seen one used in live combat.
The first shots went wild, setting fire to the thick rug and the rich bedcovers. Other blasts followed, turning the room into a maze of fire and smoke. Richard saw one of the servant girls turn and try to run for the door. A beam struck her, and her flesh burned and peeled away, leaving behind a blackened wreck which was once a human being. The only thing keeping Richard from vomiting was the utter certainty he’d die if he did.
The woman who ran in grabbed his arm. “Please! You must do something!”
He looked around. Smoke stung at his eyes. The door held whoever was shooting at them, and the very real fires burning clearly out of control dispelled any notion this was staged. No way would anyone expose themselves to this level of liability. So that left…
He shrugged. Somehow, Great-grandpa always survived this kind of thing.
He shifted to grab the woman by the waist, yanked a non-ignited blanket off the bed, and, holding it in front of them, charge the window, hoping he was right and that they weren’t too high up. His hand, partial exposed to the glass, was torn up as they passed through it, but the blanket kept the worst of it away. He let it go as they fell, and looked down, hoping land was not at all far away.
As it turned out, this was a vain hope.
The ocean water hit them like a wet sledgehammer.
Sputtering, his entire body feeling like it had just been sunburned, Richard broke the water. The woman was floating nearby, not apparently moving, but clearly breathing. A beach was just visible. Far above him loomed a cliff, and above that the towers of the palace.
Seeing no obvious alternative, he began to swim for the shore, holding up the woman’s body. To think that all that lifeguard training at Camp Wickamackee might actually be paying off….well, I did it to impress girls, after all…
As they reached the shoreline, the woman coughed and returned to consciousness.
Richard helped her stand. “We’re on the beach below the city…not sure how to get back up. Uhm…do you have a name?”
She looked at him like he’d just slapped her.
“Of course! I am…”
“Alazarra.” He said, flatly. “Of course you are. I’ve seen your picture in the paper a hundred times, I should have recognized you…”
She sniffed. “The flat images of your Earth papers do not capture my essence properly.”
Richard had to agree. Bedraggled, soaked, slightly cut from their passage through the window, her gown-of-rubies torn and matted in all the right places, she still radiated beauty and command.
“So…I suppose here is where I ask who those people were and why they’re trying to kill you?”
Alazarra wrung water out of her hair. “They were agents of the Scarlet Legion.” She gave him a look which indicated that ought to explain it all. Richard gestured for her to continue. Her brow furrowed at this, but she went on. “They are…reactionaries. That is the word in your language, I think. They wish to restore the old ways. The days when the Overlords ruled.”
“So why attack you?”
“I am the ending of the House of Zarg. There cannot be a new Overlord while I live.”
Richard shook his head. “That makes no sense. I’m sorry, but if they kill you….what then? They just prop up their new Overlord, and suddenly 60 years of parliamentary democracy go bye-bye?”
She sneered. “You do not know our kind, Streak Derrick of Earth. To your people, tradition is something old and cobwebbed, a thing to be brought out and shown about on your feast days. To us…tradition is our blood. It is what makes us Dragornosian! This parliament rules only because a loophole was found in the old traditions. Provide an alternative, and my people will rush to it madly.” She paused for a moment to think. “You must stop them.”
Richard blinked. “I…I must stop them?”
She nodded. “You are Streak Derrick.” That seemed to be all the explanation she needed.
“The fourth! I’m an accountant.”
She tilted her head.
“Accountant…uhm…I add up numbers. For a business. I figure out if we’re making enough money and…”
“Not really. I mean, I don’t sell anything, I just keep track of…”
The sneer returned. “A counter of coins.” Then she shook her head. “No, no, this is not possible. You have his blood, and I do see the lines of his face in yours. You are Streak Derrick, you bear his name, his blood flows in your veins, no matter how thin and dilute….you are of the line of the man who slew my great-grandfather, the greatest Overlord of Dragornos. You must be the one to save me…you must!”
“Sorry. Wrong guy. Look. We have got to get up there, talk to, I don’t know, the Earth Consulate or something, get you some more guards. I’m guessing the timing has to do with the coronation?”
“To slay a queen on the eve of her ascension will bring great strength to their claim on the throne.”
“Why are they even bothering? Earth has dealings with the Parliament. If there’s any kind of coup, Earth will throw its weight behind the supporters of the old regime. Their government will be gone in a few weeks at most.”
“They are not stupid men. I do not know what they are planning, but they must have thought of that. Streak Derrick, we cannot go back to the city! It is not safe! I will be slain before I reach your Consulate, I am certain of that.”
“Whatever. Look. I came here for hors d’ouvres, photo ops, and the chance to weasel a guest appearance on the Late Show, maybe. I didn’t come here to play hero, because all it would be for me is playing, and I’m a real crappy actor. Come on, Princess. I’ll get you to someone who can protect you. You don’t need some square-jawed barrel-chested do-gooder, you need some guys wearing black suits and earpieces.
She shook her head. “I will go. But know this – you have slain me, Streak Derrick. You are my death.”
She didn’t reply, but simply strode up the low embankment, taking the clearest path to the outskirts of the city.
The Dragornosians weren’t big on suburbs. The planet consisted mostly of large cities, a relic of endless ancient wars. Millennia after cheap contragrvity had made them useless, walls still surrounded every major population center. Surrounding the cities were underpopulated agricultural lands, mostly worked the lower castes, and surrounding that…wilderness. For a planet with an industrial base capable of space flight, Dragornos has a lot of untamed wildlands.
The massive gates of Dragornos city were open, even late at night. Richard had to admire their style, it not their utility. Thirty feet high, wrought of some dark metal, covered in twisting serpent designs, topped with razor sharp spikes which had once been used to display the fate of enemies of the Overlord….they fairly screamed “Abandon All Hope. Ye Who Enter Here”. A brightly lit blimp, advertising Pepsi, drifted lazily high above them.
Street traffic was light – it always was, more so at night. Most people traveled by air, these days. Nonetheless, there were still guards at the gate. Alazarra had worked the remnants of her dress into a makeshift hood. Richard just planned to bluff it through.
One of the guards, seeing the pair approach, grunted and forced himself to his feet. Sighing wearily, he forced out a tired “halt who goes there stop in the name of the prime minister and identify yourself”, with somewhat less enthusiasm and threat than a teenager asking if deep-fried root vegetables were desired as a side item. Nonetheless, he was carrying a quite real atomo-blaster, and Richard didn’t want to give him an excuse to enliven a boring shift with some random mayhem.
“Two visitors, returning from a walk on the beach”, he said.
The guard glanced at them, as if to assertain that they were not ravenous slargs with poison dripping from their terrible fangs, then shrugged and gestured them to pass. As they did so, the guards eyes narrowed and something resembling alertness crept into his face.
“Say….aren’t you…uhm…you look sort of familiar…”
Richard shrugged in a noncommital fashion and kept walking.
“Hold on…hold on! Yes! You are him!” The guard stared wide eyed. “Blood of champions!”
Richard smiled, still saying nothing.
The guard looked around. His partner was oblivious in the other booth, a blue flickering indicating that he was watching some sort of broadcast on the odd, round, screens which dominated here. He looked back at Richard. “Could I…could I get your autograph? I mean, for the kids…they’ll be thrilled…”
Alazarra paced nervously, glancing around, staring intently at every shadow. She looked pleadingly at Richard.
“Uhm…certainly, fine watchman! Uh…do you have something to write with?”
The guard tore a scrap of paper from the book he carried, and passed it to Richard, along with something that looked like a fountain pen as designed by Torquemada. Richard scrawled a hasty autograph, taking a moment to glance at the categories of offense the guard was supposed to chronicle, including but not limited to ‘1) Treason Against Dragornos’, ‘4) Speaking Ill Of The Overlord (Or The Prime Minister)’, and ‘ 15) Smuggling Condemned Prisoners Outside The City’. He had to raise an eyebrow at that last one.
“Get a lot of number 15, do you?”
The guard laughed. “Oh, no, not anymore. Back in the old days, though, there was tons of it. Every wagon and cart had someone hiding in the back, it seemed. These days, all we really watch for is fruit that’s overripe. But we keep all the old crimes on there. Tradition.”
“Tradition”, Richard echoed, resisting the urge to try out his Zero Mostel impression. He waved to the guard and moved on, grabbing Alazarra by the elbow. She snarled at him from behind her makeshift mask. “You should not waste time bantering with the lower classes! Had your ancestor been so detained, he would have slain both of them before they could draw a breath!”
“I’m not him.”
“Please, continue to lecture me on the obvious. I had always dreamed my last hours of life would be spent being told facts of which I am painfully aware.”
Richard shook his head and reminded himself she’d be someone else’s problem soon. He could clearly see the brightly lit spires of the inner city, but soon found the process of getting there to be surprisingly convoluted. The outer rings of the city consisted of small, dark, buildings clustered tightly together, the narrow streets – still cobbled as they were ages ago – forming a twisting labyrinth of shadows and dead ends. A small number of lampposts, each fitted with a small globe which shed a cold, pallid, light, provided insufficient illumination.
There were no signs.
“Uhm….I don’t suppose you know the way to the Earth consulate from here?”
“I have never walked in these streets before. I suspect no ancestor of mine has for a dozen generations.”
“I see they never invented street signs here, either.”
“The streets are designed to trap and confound invaders.”
“Yeah, and the fact your people have been dropping bombs on each other from the air for centuries never once made you rethink your urban planning.”
She just glared at him. “This is the traditional way to design a city. Why change it?” Suddenly, she paused. “Be wary.”
“Of what? We haven’t seen anyone for fifteen minutes!”
“The day before the coronation of an Empress, and there are no revelers here?”
He rolled his eyes. “It’s too quiet? Is that what you’re saying? Who writes your dialog? That’s just…” He stopped. The patterns of shadow, of darkness on darkness, suddenly seemed…off.
“On the other hand…” He grabbed her wrist and pulled her closer. “Let’s head back this…”
There was a soft thud. Someone…several someones…had leapt off the low rooftops. Patterns of shadow pulled themselves from the deeper darkness and began to move around them, forcing Richard to keep turning, trying to keep as many of them in sight as possible. The dim light of the streetlamps glinted occasionally from the blades.
Richard wondered why they didn’t just blast him with those horribly silly looking, horribly deadly, guns the locals used. Knives…knives he could deal with, a bit. One of the problems of being the descendant of a legendary hero is that you draw bullies like rotting meat draws maggots. From gradeschoolers who turned every history class into a combat zone once they realized who their classmate was to barroom thugs looking to impress their date, Richard had been in a lot more fights than he really liked to think about, and had managed to at least put up a good show, if not always emerge with both pride and dental structures fully intact. He slipped into a fighting crouch of his own and bellowed a challenge.
“Come on, if you think you’re tough enough! Stop dancing around! You want some? Come get some!” Often, in bars, his seeming eagerness to take on all comers dissauded some of the more uncertain combatants.
It seemed to have something of that effect here. There was a hurried rush of dialog in Dragornosian, a language Richard knew, to his occasional regret, only a handful of words in, though he heard his surname, heavily accented, mentioned often in the rapid exchange. Some sort of quick consensus was reached, and one man emerged fully from the shadows, each hand holding a twisting blade. The motion of the blades formed a complex, weaving, pattern, casting sparkles of light in all directions. Something coated the blades, making them highly reflective – they caught and concentrated the dim light, turning it into blinding flashes.
Richard leapt forward, seemingly hurling himself on the blades. Then he twisted and dropped as the knives swept a few inches over his head, landed on one hand, spun, and kicked. His assailant fell. Richard tumbled to his feet and then planted a powerful kick to the prone man’s stomach. He coughed blood and tried to roll away, stabbing upwards clumsily as he did so. Richard grabbed the wrist and twisted. The blade fell, and he caught it. It was oddly balanced and hard to hold, but at least it was something pointy. His few seconds of turning it to find the proper grip had given his foe a chance to find his own balance. The dance continued, this time with greater caution on the part of the attacker.
Why don’t they just rush me, Richard thought. There must be five of them, at least. I should be bleeding in the gutter by now.
But the other four stood back, alert but uninvolved. Their only action seemed to be to keep Alazarra from fleeing.
A swift lunge and a near miss brought his focus back to the man he was fighting, not the four men he wasn’t. His opponent was dressed in dark clothing, loose fitting, with many scalloped and embattled edges, ties, and adornments. Deprived of the Dragornosian love of jewelery as adornment by the need for stealth, he made up for it by having an outfit cut in some many complex ways that it somewhat looked like it had been hit by a lawnmower…and that gave Richard an idea.
He feinted, seeming to leave himself open. The attacker fell for it and stabbed forward, hoping to bury his blade in Richard’s guts. Richard sidestepped, twisted, and grabbed huge handfuls of loose cloth with his free hand, yanking the man backwards. With his other hand, he stabbed clumsily at his enemy’s ribs. The blade skidded off bone, the guard of the hilt jamming painfully into Richard’s hand. As the man struggled to free himself, Richard slashed again, aiming lower, and felt the blade slide into tight stomach muscles and then come free with a horrible wet noise. The wounded man, still alive, wrenched himself free and hacked clumsily back, his blade cutting into Richard’s shoulder. The pain caused him to drop the knife. Before he could retrieve it, the wounded man had retreated and a second, fresh, attacker stepped into place. He shouted something at Richard.
“What the hell is he saying?”
Alazarra tossed her head haughtily. “He says you have shown yourself a worthy enemy. He says he will accept an honorable surrender. Shall I tell him that one of the line of Streak Derrick will never surrender, that you will walk away from this place with the blood of five men staining your boots and never look back?”
“Hell no! Tell them I give up!”
He tossed the knife down and raise his hand. “Me…surrender. Se habla surrender? Surrender por favor? You likee much surrender, yes?”
Alazarra spat out something. Richard figured it contained a lot of insults.
Two men closed on him. A hood was placed over his head, and his hands were tied roughly. He was then prodded to walk along a path. A female voice muttering dark imprecations in a foreign tongue told him Alazarra was next to him.
“So, uhm…hey. Why didn’t they just surround and swarm me?”
“You know nothing of our people, Streak Derrick of Earth.”
“What was that about last words and stating the obvious?”
“Hmf. If they attacked at once, in all of the chaos and confusion, it would not be clear who struck which blow, to whom the honor of wounding and death would belong. It is tradition in such cases to attack in sequence, withdrawing when one can no longer press the fight properly and allowing a new combatant a chance. Each warrior’s blows are thus made clear and their role in the defeat of an enemy is known.”
“You people have some strange traditions.”
“So do you men of Earth, it seems. I like the one where you toss your blade down the instant you suffer the meanest of scratches. Do all your warriors follow this practice, or are you a member of some secret sect?”
“Oh, please. We were outnumbered. Besides, you weren’t being very helpful there.”
“What do you mean?”
“You could have done something. Claw at their eyes. Grab some convenient piece of pottery and dash it over someone’s head. Something!”
There was silence. Richard could see nothing through the heavy hood, but he was sure she was frowning and blinking. Then there was a reply.
“You…expected me…to do battle? Like some sort of palace guard?”
“I am in the company of a man who shares the blood of the greatest fighter Dragornos, World Of Warlords, has ever known, and he expected me to sully my hands with blood?”
“It was a passing thought, yes! You know, you aren’t very….uhm….” He paused, suddenly confronted with the ludicrousness of what he was about to say.
“What? We are to die soon, speak your mind, or perhaps you lack even the courage to do that! What virtue do you find me deficient in?”
Well, there’s a leading question, thought Richard, but he continued with his original thought. “You’re not, well….spunky.”
More silence indicating confused blinking.
“I do not know that word.”
“Well, it’s just…uhm…I always figured princesses were daring rebels who yearned for a chance to break free of their sterile lives and secretly studied swordsmanship despite their parent’s wishes, or something.”
There was a cold, bitter, laugh.
“You are truly mad. I loved my life, and I mourn its end. I had every luxury I could imagine, and no real duties other than appearing to my people as a symbol of the legacy of Dragornos. I was worshiped, adored, and fawned over thanks to a lucky accident of birth, and I gave thanks to the nineteen virtuous gods every day for it. Now, due to my foolish trust in ancient legends and the bumblings of a coin counter wearing the face of a hero, it is to end in ignominy and pain.”
“We’re not dead yet. Uhm…which is kind of odd. Why aren’t we dead yet? I’m guessing it has something to do with tradition…”
“They will want to kill us in some spectacular and public fashion in order to improve their claim on the throne. We are both symbols of the existing order, symbols which must be cast down before a new order is accepted. Every change in dynasties in our history comes in a sea of blood.”
“Except the one my great-grandfather imposed.”
“Yes. Your ancestor was a great hero.” The insult was clear.
Suddenly, they were both stopped. Richard could sense an increase in the ambient light even through the thick hood; it seemed they had been brought inside some brightly lit building. When the hoods were removed, the light was nearly blinding, but his eyes quickly adjusted.
“Talk about a roundabout way to get where I came here to be in the first place…”
The place was an immense arena, dwarfing any such structure on Earth, and probably older than any of them, as well. While humans were still hitting each other with sticks in caves, Dragornosians were hitting each other with ornate, adornment-encrusted sticks in this very arena. Many scholars considered it to be the oldest structure on Dragornos, a not inconsiderable achievement. Currently, the walls around the primary fighting grounds (there were over a dozen, all told, in the complex), long since strained dark with the blood of uncounted thousands who had given their lives in this place, were placarded with uncounted billboards, hawking everything from McDonald’s new McDragornos to, ironically enough, inexpensive life insurance. Richard noted that Snoopy had been given the facial jewels of a Dragornosian battle wolf.
There were arrays of Earth-style TV cameras and Dragornosian tri-imagers, a podium garlanded with the flag of the current Imperial House, and recently added skyboxes in which Earth delegates and Dragornosian elite who had adopted their customs to watch the festivities.
Richard had a sudden inkling the program was undergoing some last minute revisions. What was it she had said? “Killed in a spectacular and public fashion”. Couldn’t get more public than a live broadcast going out to two worlds. As for spectacular…well, it was hard to die mundanely in a place like this.
He looked around at the people surrounding him. Many wore the ornate black cloth of the hunters who had captured him. Others were garbed in armor which seemed to reveal more skin than it protected. One, though, was done up in robes both complex and colorful. He wore a surprisingly simple gold circlet on his head, and around his neck was an odd piece of jewelery. It looked like three serpents, one of sapphire, one of diamond, and one of emerald, entwined around a spherical crimson gem.
“Nogra’s eye!” Then she paused. “No. A forgery. A cunning trick.”
The robed, crowned, evidently Nogra’s-eye wearing man spoke. His command of English was perfect, and his voice was calm and unctious. “No. I am afraid that this is most genuine. So here we are in this place, I with this, and you with…that.” He gestured at Richard. “He doesn’t seem to have lived up to his ancestor’s inflated reputation.”
“Hey!” Richard, still bound, struggled to his feet. “Watch what you’re saying!”
“Or you’ll what? Surrender to me?”
Richard paused for a moment, righteous indignation momentarily stymied by mockery.
Alazarra, for all the rest of her flaws, knew how to bluff, however. “It is you are foolish! Streak Derrick of Earth has shown cunning and daring, tricking you into leading him alive and unharmed straight to your lair! If you cast yourself over the edge and plunge to your death in the pit, you will spare yourself the ignominy of defeat!”
The robed man stroked his chin, as if hoping a stylish goatee would appear there. “Let me consider that…no.”
He barked something at the guards, who nodded, then he walked away.
“So….what’s the big deal with the necklace?”
“It is the scarlet emerald of Nogra. It is unique in all of Dragornos.”
“Red emeralds tend to be. So it’s pretty. So what?”
“It has tremendous meaning to…”
“Another tradition. Of course. Really a little more concerned with getting out of here now…” He pulled at the ropes a bit. They were tied distressingly well. He glanced over at the guards. Even if he was free, he doubted he could take all of them…or even one of them. They were more or less slabs of muscle, and they carried both curved, double-bladed axes and sleek energy weapons. There were four of them.
Overpowering the guards is out, even if my hands were free. So can I run?
They were on, he saw, some sort of large, raised, and fenceless platform, stretching out over the main arena floor. Probably where the nobles could talk and eat while the battle played out beneath them. There were many opportunities for a daring charge to knock one of the guards screaming into the gaping void, but none of them seemed to have any way which would allow him to not follow the luckless guard, or, even if he could somehow pull back, not have the three remaining guards eviscerate him in a dozen exciting ways.
Hmm…what would great-grampa do? He was forever in situations like this…in fact, there was one time when…
He scooted closer to Alazarra. “I have a plan.”
“Oh? Whom will you surrender to this time?”
“Augh! Look, my great-grandfather was in a mess like this once. Jenny Branson…my great-grandma to be…was with him. She, uhm, distracted the guard and grabbed his gun…” Richard desperately tried to avoid the image of his great-grandmother, who he knew mostly as a faded memory and a barrage of photographs which hit the papers at the time of her death, when he was seven, acting the part of the lusty wench. It was a lot easier to imagine Alazarra doing it.
Sadly, though, not for Alazarra. “You expect me to lower myself to seducing a commoner?”
“You’d rather die?”
“Yes.” Her tone made it clear this was a trivial decision.
“You don’t have to actually do anything! Just wiggle your hips, coo at him, then when he takes you away for a little pre-regicide nookie, you kick him in the jewels, grab his gun, free me, and then we….uh…we…hmm.”
She smirked. “What did your ancestor do?”
“He took the gun and made short work of the three remaining guards, put on a uniform, and snuck great-grandma out by pretending he was transferring a prisoner.”
“Do you expect to make…ah….’short work’ of the guards, even if I agreed to your proposal?”
“Then I see no reason to sully myself with them.”
“Dammit, you’re not helping! Can’t you pull some lame-ass tradition out of your hat?”
She gave him an odd look, then began to speak. He interrupted. “I know you’re not wearing a hat! It’s an Earth expression! I mean, can’t you find some weird loophole in Dragornosian custom we can use?”
Her expression shifted from “querulously annoyed” to “momentarily thoughtful”. She pursed her lips a few times, tasting an idea, then worked through the stages of it, each step in the process visible on her face.
“You are blood of Streak Derrick…and he was, for a time, an Overlord of Dragornos…so you can claim the right to challenge any other claimant for the throne…at the moment of ascension….”
“What does that mean?”
“The man who bears the Eye clearly wishes to claim the throne. You have, however strange as it may sound, a blood claim on it as well. You may confront him and he must accede.”
“So I have to kill him?”
“Well, one is better than four, so I guess….”
There was a sudden stream of Dragornosian. The guards turned and stared, then one said something in reply. Another babble of words. Then the one who spoke nodded and walked off, presumably to fetch his employer. One of the other three drew a thin, jeweled dagger from his belt and walked over to Richard, then knelt and slit the ropes tying him. Richard stood and tried to rub some blood into his numb wrists.
He glanced over at Alazarra. “What about her?” If they were both free…well, she wouldn’t actually fight because she might break a nail, but since this whole mess started because she trusted him, he felt a slight nagging sense of obligation for her safety.
She replied:”Do you wish to claim me as your consort? Only then will I be allowed to witness the battle.”
“Yeah, sure, whatever.”
More Dragornosian was exchanged, and Alazarra was freed.
“Now we wait for your rival claimant to announce himself. We also need witnesses…I suppose the guards will do, there are enough of them.”
“Isn’t it a bit unfair that they’re on his side?”
She looked startled. “This is a sacred tradition. Not even the lowest of the lowborn would defile it.”
“Oh, good. My mind is placed completely at ease.”
The would-be overlord entered. Richard had a chance to study him in more detail now that he wasn’t half-blinded. Early 30s. It wasn’t easy to tell under the ornate robes, but he seemed strongly built and agile. The question is, does he have any fighting skill, or is he just some spoiled brat noble getting too big for himself?
The skillful swing which caught Richard under the chin answered that question. As Richard staggered back, his enemy shrugged away the robes which covered him, revealing a lean, taut, body that showed every sign of being shaped by hours at the Blood Nautilus Of Pain or whatever kind of exercise machines they had on this world. His body flowed from one fighting position to the next, following the proscribe styles of some fighting art Richard probably couldn’t even pronounce. Richard did his best to keep his guard up and ward off some exploratory blows as he whispered to Alazarra.
“So, I have to kill him, or what?”
“The battle is to death or cowardly surrender.”
“Huh.” Richard ducked low as a swing passed narrowly over his head, then tumbled back, barely dodging the follow-up kick. “No option for noble surrender, huh?”
Alazarra glared at him contemptuously and said nothing.
“Didn’t think so.” Richard saw what looked like an opening, took it, and found it occupied by a pummelling fist. He took a few stumbling steps backwards, tasting blood. His opponent smiled.
“Typical of Earthmen. All flash and hyperbole, no substance at all.”
Richard parried a punch. “So, this is some sort of Terraphobia, then, not political?”
“Something of both.” A feint turned, somehow, into the real thing and Richard’s head reeled from the impact.
Richard coughed. “So…what did Earthmen ever do to you?” He looked a way to turn around and get behind his enemy, and found none.
“Look!” His opponent gestured broadly, giving Richard a rare opening which he was too tired and slow to exploit properly. “Look at this place, this great arena, one of the most ancient and sacrosanct places on our world…bedecked now with the sigils and signs of your Earth corporations! Our children feast on the flesh of dead Terran cows and our noble princesses are obsessed with the cacophonous noise which your primitive culture regards as music!” His anger began to show, and his blows became slightly less precise. Richard took as much advantage of this as he could, finally landing one solid hit to the man’s guts…unfortunately, said guts were an expanse of tight and toned muscle, and Richard got no more reward for his troubles than a mild grunt and a potent rebuff.
“You’re going to kill me because you don’t like Britney Spears. Terrific. My death is going to be as much of a sick joke as my life.”
“I am restoring our world to greatness!” He kicked. Richard stepped back, fell, turned the fall into a roll, stood up and tried to regain his balance.
“Yeah, right! More ‘traditions’? Like this whole usurpation of power thing?” He tried a double-handed overhead strike; it was deflected with ease. The follow-up foot to the chest knocked him back a good five feet.
“Yes! For the first time in decades, a new Overlord will take command properly!” He leapt at Richard, who had the good sense not to be there.
“Properly? You mean, with massive bloodshed and purges and genocide? What was that phrase, Alazarra? Every change in dynasties comes in a sea of blood?” Richard attempted to find another opening, but was starting to have trouble even keeping his enemy in his sight. His foe was leaping around him, landing one small blow after another from every direction.
“That is our tradition! It is our way! We are the conquerors of worlds! It is not our destiny to become a mass of indolent consumers of your planet’s offal!” The next attack hooked Richard’s leg. He went sprawling to the ground.
“You know, crappy as the Big Macs here are…they’re better than genocide masquerading as politics. Isn’t almost seventy years of peace a good thing?” His foe moved to plant a heavy boot directly on Richard’s head. Richard grabbed it, twisted, and brought the enemy down to the ground beside him. He then rolled to try to smash in his downed foe’s face. “Besides….you’ve still got the entire Earth military that will object to this coup. How long do you think you’ll last?” Richard found his fist grabbed before it could complete its arc, grabbed and twisted and painfully. He tried to limit himself to a grunt, but it turned into a distressingly high-pitched scream.
The man breaking his wrist smiled broadly, apparently at more than just the pain he was inflicting. “You do not even know what the Emerald of Nogra is then, do you? Very well…since I do not wish your spirit to be bound to this plane by unanswered mysteries, I might as well cure your ignorance.”
So that’s why they always did that, thought Richard, as he struggled to yank his wrist free.
“Our world, ancient beyond your comprehension, has known many eras. In one such, vast systems of weapons were constructed in countless hidden locations, linked to the mind of the then-overlord by cunning devices embedded in his sigil of office.”
Richard finally tore his arm free. The parts of it that weren’t numb where in agony.
“OK, I can fill in the rest. Whoever holds the amulet controls the weapons, yadda yadda, you blackmail Earth, they let you rule in peace.”
The would-be emperor frowned. “Somewhat more…succinct…then I would have put it, but that is the essence of the scheme.”
“Cool. So I just need to kill you and everything is back to normal.”
The man laughed. “Your overconfidence will be your downfall.”
Richard began, “Yeah, well your…” he paused for a moment, trying to find some word other than ‘overconfidence’, decided ‘hubris’ was too artsy, and was caught by a vicious double-handed blow, which was followed up by a second, and then a third. The world turned red, then grey, then black.
Sounds came first. Sounds of confusion, of many people milling about, underlaid with a sort of distant electronic hum. Then, painfully, light. Bright light. Far more light than any man should experience after a long night of heavy drinking.
Except…except…there wasn’t drinking. There was a fight. A fight without any drinking? Richard tried to put these disparate facts together, and found it gave him a headache. No…more of a headache. Also, a backache, a chest ache, and one hell of a wrist ache.
Oh…right. Emperor. Stone. Princess. Me.
He tried to make sense of his position. He was still curled on the floor of the platform. He became aware of his body as a whole, not a series of points of pain, and deeply and instantly regretted it.
Bit of the surrounding noise began to make sense. There was a constnat murmur in what sounded like confused English, and a loud conversation in Dragornosian. Richard forced his eyes open.
The man who would be Emperor was standing at the edge of a platform, holding the Eye of Nogra, and shouting downwards. While Richard couldn’t see them, he knew the lower part of the arena was filled with crowds of reporters and news crews, mostly those from the lifestyles and “fluff” programs – nothing which happened on Dragornos was news. He wasn’t sure what was being said, but he suspected it was something like “And now, I slay your beloved hero in front of you to crack your resolve!” Heh. Like anyone would care, back on Earth, if Streak Derrick The Fourth lived or died.
Trying to move as little as possible, he saw Alazarra. The was being held by two guards, and not in a friendly way. Dimly, Richard recalled that her death was also needed for the new order to take command.
I’m sure that thought would have motivated my ancestor to leap into action, but it’s really my own death that’s bothering me now.
Richard had an idea. A stupid, moronic, self-destructive, idea. An idea so astoundingly dim that only a man certain of death would ever have conceived of it, much less attempted it.
He leapt upwards and charged at the Emperor, grabbing for the amulet as he did so.
The guards barely had a chance to grunt in surprise before Richard and the Overlord went tumbling over the edge. Richard grabbed at the side of the platform with his good arm while clinging to the amulet, barely, with the other. The Overlord snatched at the rock, missed it, and went plunging down a good 60 feet, landing on a Fox News camera with a horrible wet explosion that was sent out live to a dozen stations around the world and would end up being the single most downloaded file on the Internet for years to come.
Richard, meanwhile, was hanging by one hand over the gap. He called out in English:”I’m the goddamn Emperor, you morons! You’re sworn to obey me! Haul me up!”
Alazarra said something in Dragornosian. Suddenly, two meaty hand grabbed him and placed him safely on the platform.
Richard had been holding the amulet by the chain. Idly, he touched it.
His mind was elsewhere. He felt himself flowing into control systems and networks. He could feel arrays of missile launchers, of atomo-beams capable of rending worlds (or at least scarring continents), of clockwork armies silently awaiting his mental command. He struggled to force his mind back to his still-precarious situation. He let the amulet slide from his hand, then carefully placed it around his neck, making sure it did not touch his skin.
He smirked at Alazarra. “The battle ends at death or surrender, right? I never did either…so the fight was still on. The challenge never ended…and now the usurper is dead.”
Alazarra looked at him with something other than contempt for the first time since the attack back in the palace. “That is… correct.” She inclined her head. “You are now the Overlord of Dragornos. All you need to do is abdicate in favor of the Parliament, as your ancestor did, and allow the ceremony to go forward as planned.”
Richard smiled. “Not…quite.”
Alazarra looked up. “I do not understand.”
“You made a good point, earlier. This nobility stuff is great so long as you don’t have to actually do any ruling. Just settle back and learn to wave at the peasants for a living. And if I recall correctly, as part of this whole challenge thing, you declared yourself my consort.”
She opened her mouth, then closed it again. My God, thought Richard. I actually managed to shock her.
Nearly two decades of training as a Princess took over quickly, though. Her face shifted to a smile both conniving and warm. “That is correct.” She looked him over. “You are not entirely ill formed. I would have had to have chosen anyway, and it would not be bad to strengthen the line with the blood of heroes.” She moved closer and then oozed into him, locking arms, and causing him to wince slightly. She gestured to the assembled, and confused, media gathered below the platform, some of whom were still desperately trying to clean blood and internal organs off of their equipment.
“I believe the time has come for what you of Earth call a ‘press conference’.”
As is somewhat blatantly lampshaded, Alazarra is fairly unusual among my female characters in that she wholeheartedly embodies somewhat outdated stereotypes (as opposed to my other female characters, who wholeheartedly embrace slightly newer stereotypes… as do my male characters, and my neuter, hermaphroditic, or none of the above characters. Look, people, you want ‘original’ and ‘creative’, find another writer). She was conceived as very much a “Take That!” to the Disney cliche of the Princess who just can’t STAND being rich, powerful, adored, and waited on hand and foot. From a starting point of “It’s damn good to be a space princess!”, she has a grand story arc that leads to her learning the important life lesson of, “Yup, damn good indeed.” Sometimes, the best way to subvert a new cliche to apply some electrodes and resurrect an old one.