Jack O. Crumpet, his billowing robe stirring up clouds of thick dust, scurried frenetically along the edge of Fort Helix’s protective inner fortress wall; his porta-phone buzzed.
A breathless voice jabbered hysterically into Jack O.’s ear: it was Dwarf Twirtle. “Bloody danger here. We think we see big desert lizards.”
“You have laser cannons in your Sand Wagon, so use ‘em to take out the bastards.” snarled Jack O., cutting Twirtle short.
Nasty indifference served Jack O. very well in this cruel, barren world. He had frequently ordered the flogging of Fort Helix personnel for insignificant infractions, such as buggery or other minor acts of disobedience. Jack O. was only looking for efficiency because it translated into profits — though he carefully hid his mercenary desires from the Brethren. It would undermine his moral credibility to let on that he was building an army of killer mutants to help them fight for the Good against Evil solely in the name of filthy cash.
Shrugging his shoulders, Jack O. Crumpet glanced at his watch. Damn: another scheduled freak meat cargo was supposed to be here shortly, along with a Very Important Person, Agro the Esteemed, an alleged emissary from Magnifico the Divine. Dwarf Twirtle and his team were now on their own, and it really made no difference, anyway. Desert lizards would soon eat the stranded mutant shipment, as well as Twirtle and the other handlers. At least Jack O. would not have to feed the useless mouths of that bunch of wastrels anymore. If they could not even handle a routine cargo haul of freaks, they were not cost-effective. “Cut your losses while you can” was Jack’s creed — brutal but effective.
Approximately forty minutes later, Fort Helix’s gates slammed behind the solar-powered heavy-duty cargo truck — an odd boxy-looking vehicle with sun panels jutting out like massive, upraised palms — towing large silver-metal freak meat pods. Behind the controls was Agro the Esteemed, who was also the freak handler. In Magnifico’s world, even messengers of his Divine Word still had to get dirty and sweaty, as well as multi-task.
Jack O. Crumpet slid gracefully forward with a small bow and said in an agreeable tone, “Come in, kind sir; we truly welcome you as a respected messenger from the Most Honorable, Most Holy One, The Divine Magnifico. We exist here to serve Him and his sacred mission. ”
Agro’s purple helix-shaped tattoos, emblazoned on his naked arms, suggested that this driver-handler wielded considerable power within the spiritual ranks. The Magnifico frequently granted emissary authority to an unlikely person, no matter how crude or stupid, especially if that person pleased him during sex. Jack O. looked at Agro’s thick neck, and shuddered at the thought of the Magnifico’s thick, sweaty, passionate fingers running over its reptilian scales.
“So lead me,” said Agro, “to deese Brethren who can speak truly of The Change of the Soul—and also speak,” he added grimly, “without defiling the sacred power of the Holy One and his Good-Words.”
“These holy worthies will enhance, not defame Magnifico’s Divine Mission, I can assure you,” Jack O. Crumpet groveled worshipfully.
Agro merely grunted, dropping his self-righteous tone. “Let’s first free the weird meat.” Rattling his keys, he went around to the convoy’s trailer to collect the cargo of mutants for in-processing. Jack O. made a mental note to ask about his cash.
Jack O. Crumpet, waving his strobe lamp, like a baton, inched forward in the Helix Hives’ gloomy, chilly underground. He led a small retinue of dwarfish Fort Helix servants, who pushed four metal, casket-shaped pods containing the mutants, which Agro had delivered for re-coding. Groveling before such useless creatures as Agro was the price he paid for maintaining his business contacts with the Magnifico. Mutant Re-Coding was becoming a thriving industry in the current Battle Against Evil waged by a slew of wacky religious cults. Magnifico just happened to have the most money and organizational strength; being the biggest mobster in town always ensured Jack O. Crumpet’s fervent allegiance in the War of the Goodies versus the Baddies.
“This tunnel is ringed by genetic Change Rooms,” Jack O. said loudly, trying to sound authoritative despite his non-technical management role at the Fort, “but there is a meaning here that goes deeper…”
“What, pray, may that be?” scowled Agro, his one normal cool green eye suddenly flaring angrily. “Only the Magnifico is the Way and the Path and can speak of where to find da sacred meanings.”
“I rely simply on local interpretations of the uses of these Hive technologies as offered by our Fort’s illustrious teachers — trusted scholars whose canonical opinions have been ratified by the Magnifico himself,” Jack O. calmly replied, remembering how quickly Agro had angered when Jack O. kept the creature waiting to enter the Change Rooms Complex. This ’emissary’ obviously had the passionate, indeed dangerous, ambitions of the fanatical and single-minded. Jack O. Crumpet loved uttering pompous words that mocked Agro’s now obvious ignorance of Fort Helix‘s spiritual and technical culture.
Jack O. wondered if there was any particular reason why Agro had not been properly briefed on the Fort’s customs and details. Since everything Magnifico did and said often had hidden meanings, Agro’s mission perhaps had other non-spiritual purposes. Possibly this, Jack O. reflected, was a ploy, with the Magnifico using Agro as a clumsy spy to snoop around and find out if Jack O. was fomenting heresy far from His Holiness’s watchful eyes. After all, Fort Helix, which was used to bioengineer the harmlessly mutated into killing machines, was a central cog in the Magnifico’s war against the forces of darkness. And the Brethren, as a valuable ally, needed to be watched and protected against subversion or insurgency.
However, Jack O. had no interest in puzzling all this out, or exploring Agro’s “real” intentions. As far as Jack O. was concerned, Agro was a cheap, two-bit operator, a career bootlicker, and a spiritual elitist wannabe who was nothing else than a pain in the ass — Jack’s ass. Political schemes and ambition bored him to tears; he was a businessman with no patience for fools. But Jack knew how to play brain-games for fun with this arrogant egotist.
A little holo-trickery might do the job. Using his laser wand like a pen, Jack made scribbling motions in the tunnel’s frosty air: flat, cartoonish monk-like figures appeared and then began automatically fleshing themselves out into three-dimensional, realistic hooded shapes, grouped into choir-like rows. Rich, booming voices swelled forth in poetic hymns from the holograph:
O His Holiness, the Magnifico Creator of our Sacred Halo. We praise Thy Numinous Name by singing of Thy Glorious Fame. As we gather at Fort Helix to destroy the Evil Geek. To cleanse our beloved home by creating the killer chromosome.
“The Brethren are indisposed at this moment,” Jack O. said, “uh… in deep prayer, so this simulation will have to suffice. These are High Worship Days at Fort Helix. You actually chose a bad time to come here.”
“You mean I drove all dis way just to ice da weird meat without even getting to see the operation or break bread with da local holies?” Agro whined.
“We have an iron rule here, your Graciousness.” (Jack O. mentally winced at his shameful humility.) “Before touring the hives, you have to have a purification blessing, and only the Brethren can dispense that,” Jack O. replied. “Besides, the genetic re-coding process is secret; only a small cadre of select brethren—elderly, technically astute, trustworthy, beyond reproach — who have been personally vetted and chosen by The August Magnifico Himself are privy to our dear Fort’s inner sanctum. At best, Agro, you would get only a cursory walk-through of the Vats — without special access rights — even with the prescribed blessing. ” Jack smiled inwardly; he could almost feel the air whooshing out of Agro’s over-inflated ego. Clearly, this miserable creature had had no special office granted to him by Magnifico, as Jack had first incorrectly surmised; those tattoos must be fraudulent, not signifying any valid spiritual dispensation. To be so uninformed about the Fort’s High Worship Days clinched Jack O.’s doubts: Agro was nothing more than a bag of small beans—despite his pretentious title and airs — a two-bit delivery boy only hired for cheap wages by the Magnifico to haul mutants to Fort Helix for re-coding. Probably not even a spy, either. Too stupid. Now Jack O. regretted his earlier adoration of this fool — but one can never be too careful. Agro’s minor associations with the spiritual elite had clearly convinced him he had a future as something more important than a mere lackey. When Jack O. wrote his official report about this visit, he would report his suspicions about Agro’s false tattoos to the Brethren. They surely would report Jack O.’s concerns to the Magnifico.
In the gloom, Agro’s patterned forearms seemed to squirm brightly, as if in furious reply to Jack O.’s doubts, like exotic, rippling fish; a scowl slipped over Agro’s face. “Why didn’t somebody tell me dis? I coulda sent a team of smalls to just haul flesh if that’s what this is all about. ”
Better not, Jack O. thought, push Agro too far — the creature was ill-tempered and troublesome. “Nothing keeps you from seeing other parts of the process; your time here won’t be wasted, but first,” said Jack O., clearing his throat significantly, “we need to talk about my production commissions.”
The black beasts, their long, sweaty fur flowing like dreadlocks, heaved, snorted, hopped, and lumbered about the fenced-in training field, constructed next to Fort Helix’s administrative center. The Bush Dwarfs, chittering happily, bounced and scampered, doing back flips, feints, and generally tormenting the Killer Kangaroos by skittering around their feet. (An occasional shrill yelp indicated that a kangaroo had gotten lucky and thumped one of his tormentors.) Jack O. stood with Agro on a small observation deck overlooking the action.
Grumpy after a complimentary tour of the Hives’ boring anterooms — far away from the forbidden, more interesting, processing areas — and having failed to meet any of the real-life Brethren, Agro glared sullenly at the kangaroo-dwarf antics. Jack O., delighted to see that he had gotten under Agro‘s skin, explained the scenes before them with the gusto of an eager tour guide.
“Agro, my good mate, these are the warm-ups. The Smalls are here to piss off the Killer ‘roos; then we bring in the re-coded weird meat to fight them. It is part of their ‘killer instinct’ training since, as you know, most pure genetic mutants normally are cowardly wimps. ”
“I know, but you – we – spend a lot of time and trouble capturing and codin’ dis bait; how do you keep da ‘roos from killing ’em?” Agro’s depressed and emotionally flat voice was sweet music to Jack O. Crumpet’s ears.
“Well, it rarely happens, but just in case, we keep some shooters handy.” Jack O. pointed toward three very muscular hunchbacks lurking on the edges of the training field like knotty tree stumps. ” They’ll take out any ‘roo who gets too hyper-manic. ”
“So show me some real action… I didn’t drive through bloody Hell’s Hell to see a circus act,” grumbled Agro.
Jack O. quickly hid a gleeful smile with his hand. “No worries, mate”.
With a wave, Jack O. signaled for the release of the killer trainees. The Bush Dwarfs scattered. Six bow-legged, pink-eyed albinos softly loped onto the field, chased by three handlers, whips snapping. Two of the albinos, crying and trembling, suddenly broke from the group, peeing and vomiting on themselves. One hunchback fired; the first crumpled and fell. Tripping on its own feet, the second went sprawling. Before handlers could drag away either, an especially aggressive Bull Kangaroo bounded in one leap and kicked the second albino in the ribs. Barfing a splash of blood, the agonized mutant shrank into the fetal posture. Another hunchback fired; the attacking ’roo, fatally wounded, spun crazily across the field, crashing against a far fence. As if on cue, the other re-coded freaks, drawing laser pistols, rushed the remaining kangaroos. Agro grunted with sadistic pleasure. “Finally!” Barely attending to the violence, Jack O. Crumpet was quickly figuring the cash value of his latest crop of properly genetically modified mutant products that would staff the killer army to fight the Forces of Evil. The numbers made him smile.
This story previously appeared in The Chamber Magazine, June 2021 issue.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Thomas White’s speculative fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in online and print literary magazines in Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. In addition, he is a Wiley-Blackwell Journal author and contributor to various journals on topics ranging from the meaning of Evil to reality as a computer simulation.