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Chapter 96 - The party is over (incl. Scruff's First Adventure)
Terrorthaw, who was King of Europe, Father Of All Men, Bester Of Gods and the Brightest Jewel In The Crown Of The World, landed heavily in his throne. With a contented sigh, he closed his eyes, accessed his pyramid palace's virtual control panel to turn the thermostat right the way down, wriggled his cybernetically-enhanced buttocks into a comfortable groove and waited for the ice. It would take a few hundred years to cover him and his sleeping Kingdom but he was, above all things, a patient man.
He was alone now at the end of his empire, as alone as he had been at the beginning. Those of his minions, children, creations and champions who had elected to follow him into the New Age were slumbering peacefully in their chambers nested within the endless caverns beneath his feet, safely insulated from the cold and the years. Those who wanted to make the most of the world as they knew it were on their way across the oceans towards the untouched continents of the North, no longer forbidden to their many curiosities and hungers. There his children would find their awaiting destinies as the progenitors of the Royal Bloodlines and Founding Dynasties of India, the United States, China, the southern United States, Ethiopia, Old Celtland, MegaRussia and a certain nation that would also be someday called Europe. They had their King's blessing and as many of his data caches, treasures and materia as could be stowed in the holds of their immense hovercrafts. They would need all the help he could offer, he knew, if they were to overcome the many difficulties that the histories predicted for them.
He had been looking forward to this time of lonesome reflection for centuries. There simply had not been any time in the past one hundred and fifty million years to relax and chill out and reflect on days past, lessons learned, better times and choice victories. So many of each had accumulated from the moment he had set foot on the continent that was his home and Kingdom after disembarking from the landing shuttle of Mechanicus' ship. In that ineffable, primordial time, everything was an enemy – from the roving, city-sized slime moulds, the dotted encampments of shipwrecked ancient astronauts, the wild gods, the dragons, the sponge-colonies, the Moonmen, even the air and water and earth spat poison and fire at him to daily test his defences and endurance. He was so weak back then. His magicks were unwound and his machinery was nearing obsolescence. He had to rely on his cunning and ingenuity to survive. It was quite enough.
He went for the ancient astronauts first. His aim was to seize their alien technology to upgrade himself and his offensive capabilities. Their encampments had progressed well into their third clone-generation and had suffered some programming decay in the harsh atmosphere. They had little interest in anything other than diligently building pyramids upon every flat surface. After a few days of basic remote viewing, he was easily able to infiltrate one of the camps, knock out their remaining sensor nets with his ageing EMP necktie, snap the feeble neck of a guard on armed dragon watch, drag the corpse away to his spider hole and inspect the creature's eyes and central nervous system well enough to be able to modify a simple invisibility spell to bamboozle their minds. Now all he needed was a source of magic so that he could cast such a spell. As masterful a sorcerer as he was, he would have to expend a very good deal of time and effort before he would be able to commune directly with this strange and ancient land, so he turned his mind to the bits and pieces of priesting he'd picked up over the years. He'd listened to plenty of Learn A Dead Language audiobooks in his car when he'd been an Evil Pizzaboy during his teens, so he already knew the tongue of ancient, time-lost entities like the God of Carbon Dioxide. And so, with the mutilated body of the ancient astronaut slung over his shoulder, no heavier than a child's, Terrorthaw retreated to his base at the landing shuttle to prepare a sacrifice.
He powered up the Prayer Amplifier housed in Mechanicus' ship and, inspecting the readings, reckoned that its fields would be able to affect his psychicraft from the ship's position in orbit. The Future Folk installed Prayer Amplifiers on all pieces of equipment above a certain size – in their time, the gods had been utterly enslaved to the last spirit and the Future Folk did not have to worry about pleasing or being diplomatic, all they had to do was be heard. The God of Carbon Dioxide was quite surprised to be spoken to by an animal. Its business had always been with gases, which were straightforward, and it was still getting the hang of plants, and all they wanted was more carbon dioxide, which was easy enough, but still. This ambulatory mass of confusingly woven animals was asking, in a clear and loud voice, to have a specific band of electromagnetic radiation temporarily bent around its one-shaped body and would, in return, dedicate the carbon dioxide in this other non-ambulatory mass of animals to its glory. The God of Carbon Dioxide didn't really understand. It was huge and simple, even by godly standards, it had no idea that it even had a 'glory,' and had never accepted a sacrifice before. But it felt curiosity for the first time in its existence and so wafted a breath of hot air over the mess of animal to mark its agreement. Terrorthaw burned the body of the ancient astronaut, which was a very difficult thing indeed to do in a low-oxygen environment and required a lot of manual rejiggering of his respiratory systems and then more huffing and puffing that he thought he could bear, but eventually the body did burn in parts and the God of Carbon Dioxide was too taken with the novelty of it all to get fussy. Another waft of hot air passed over Terrorthaw and the spell that he had prayed for was cast. He was able to walk right into the ancient astronaut camp, help himself to their weapons and start blasting away. The spoils of his victory were disappointing. Many of the machines he had crafted in his own time had been reverse engineered from ancient astronaut technology, the designs of which he'd improved on considerably. However, one particular ray-gun caught his eye – it had once been mounted on one of their starships but had been modified into a portable siege weapon that could be lifted by a small crew for the purpose of fighting off dragons. He recognised it instantly, for it was the same ray-gun he himself had used during the Bird Wars. It was basically his signature weapon for that period. He'd have to bury the weapon in the place where his earlier self would find it in the far future. But for now, his Kingdom-to-be needed to cleared of the vile wyrms, and a little bit of overwhelming firepower could get a lot of chores done.
With the ancient astronauts eliminated, he took up residence in one of the many shiny new pyramids they had erected in the moss jungles. He was grateful for the shelter and eager to plumb the secrets of these strange buildings. He fashioned some tools and spent a few weeks investigating his new home, being interrupted only once by a colossal slime-mould which oozed through one of the stargazing vents, evidently it wished to be out of the sun. It brought with it a smattering of the dust, rocks, debris and whole ecosystems it had gathered up along its gelatinous yellow body throughout its travels. His magnificent new ray-gun made short work of the sprawling creature before it managed to engulf the whole building but the clean-up was arduous. He did not yet have a single helper drone, past self or vat-grown manservant to help him. He had to do it all himself. 'This is not the way the world is meant to be,' he thought to himself as he mopped and mopped and mopped.
In time, he learned that the pyramids worked together as a network to form a magic-containment system within their walls. This was exactly the kind of thing he needed for the next phase of his plan: to secure a permanent source of magic that did not rely on him trying to get a fire going without any oxygen. In preparation for that, he embarked on an expedition to find the spaceship that had originally brought the ancient astronauts to Earth. He found an empty husk, with anything it once contained long since repurposed by the reluctant settlers. But a husk was all he needed. He caught the attention of a slime-mould the size of a locomotive, relatively small by the standards of the time, with some hand-packed mossball treats, then steered the slime over to the spaceship, whereupon the slimy beast unwittingly scooped it up into its body as it swept across the algal savannah in which the ship was moored. The mould followed a trail of thrown mossballs back to the pyramid and then it was slain, quite a way removed from anywhere that would need cleaning, depositing the spaceship's skeleton a short distance from the pyramid's doorstep. Now Terrorthaw had the otherworldly materials he needed to build a very special cage.
He had some experience in xenometallurgy and the composition of the ancient astronaut's spaceships, with their aligned atoms and impermanence to most of the wavelengths he had at hand. He guessed, quite correctly, that the samples he had worked on in his own time had come from similarly ill-fated rescue and recovery missions on behalf of the castaways he had slaughtered. After a quick hunting party and a repeat of the slime-mould heavy lifting trick, he had the precious bones and hide of a dead dragon to work with. It did not take him long to build three cages: air-tight, magic-proof and effectively indestructible. He'd dreamt up the design to hold his old nemesis, the King, and it would have worked too, if he'd been around and available for trapping. But he had even grander quarry in mind. He checked the seals on the small steely apertures
that dinted the otherwise completely sealed surfaces of the cages for the eighteenth time, extinguished all of the lamps and then went out to catch mosquitoes.
He'd been thinking over this particular part of the plan ever since his scanners had detected Mechanicus' time-jump, but he'd been greatly inspired by his short encounter with the God of Carbon Dioxide. The gods of his time had been through a lot of relatively recent upheavals that had knocked a keen sense of wariness and sophistication into their collective skulls, a sense that these ancient gods were baldly lacking. They had not been co-existing with humanity for millennia, had not fed on their ideas and culture and tear like so many ultradimensional ticks, had not stood before the wrath of a King at the height of his powers, nor been turned out of their godly realm and hunted across the psychoscape by the Devil's relentless Dogma Squads. They had a lot to learn.
The God of Carbon Dioxide fell for what was, by definition, the oldest trick in the book. Terrorthaw would write the book himself during a lull in his empire-building specifically so he could make this claim. Here is the Oldest Trick, according to Terrorthaw's famous book:
Gain audience with FOOL within range of his soon-to-be ETERNAL PRISON (see Sec.6 – GAINING AN AUDIENCE and Sec.3 – CONCEALING THE INTRUMENT OF YOUR MASTERSTROKE IN PLAIN SIGHT)
Flatter FOOL on his mighty STRENGTH and gigantic POWER.
Upon concurrence of flattery, invite FOOL to demonstrate established MIGHT by slipping into the GENIUS CONTAINMENT DEVICE OF MY OWN DESIGN. If FOOL hesitates, proceed to STEP 4. If you have done well, proceed to STEP 5.
If FOOL hesitates, proceed to CHIDE and MOCK the FOOL'S STRENGTH or strongest STAT, starting gently before escalating sharply. Do not be afraid to get sort of FLIRTY, accentuating the HOMOEROTC SUBTEXT.
Upon capture, laugh until NO MORE LAUGHTER WILL COME OUT.
With the God of Carbon Dioxide under lock and key, he decided to up his game with the God of Moist Places and arranged for Mechanicus' ship to nudge some chunks of orbiting debris on a trajectory towards his pyramid, simulating an attack that he begged the God to hide from in this special little shelter he had for just an occasion...
He felt as though he'd overworked it in that last instance, so for the God of Meiosis he tried a pie, a stick on a string and an upturned milk crate. He didn't even need to hide in a bush or around a corner. It worked beautifully.
He had three captive gods – gods immeasurably more powerful than the kind he was used to. After all, the gods of his time were gods of things like wines of a particular region, or a river or a city, one tribe of people or just one of a zillion gods of the sun, moon or a celestial misunderstanding. How low had their kind been brought by their romance with man, to such paltry and hollow depths they would sink, and would continue to sink – as the Prayer Amplifier and the habits of the Future Folk would show. And how far would man climb – he would drop these strutting crudities of magic and myth from the greatest height imaginable. He would have the privilege of giving the first push. He released the mosquitoes.
Normally, he reflected as he crunched through a big bowl of oversized, blood-filled mosquitoes swimming in milk, one would go by a less disgusting route to wring magic from a spirit. But those methods were not available to him in his current situation, and it wasn't as if a bowl of giant, ancestral mosquitoes was the grossest thing he'd ever eaten. He'd once eaten a goblet-full of the gallstones of holy saddhus to gain an edge in his magical war against Mystic Boy, and on one occasion he'd eaten one of his own hearts for some reason he couldn't quite recall. The real tricky part had been in getting the captive gods into a state where blood could be drawn from them by the mosquitoes. He'd tried showing them television documentaries of lizards that he'd found on Mechanicus' ship, so they'd try to change form to mimic the things they saw so they would be better able to command/rape/con them. But the gods needed to be taught first how to see in the appropriate time-frame, along with the fundamentals of trichromatic, stereoscopic vision so that they'd be able to make sense of the images, and Terrorthaw didn't know where to begin on that. Fortunately he could rely on their simplicity, so he just told them, in their own languages, to assume this shape or that and he would set them free.
He could feel the god-blood being broken down by his systems and the magic beginning to seep into his cells. It was raw and dangerous stuff and there wasn't too much of it he could absorb, but it was enough for him to go out and upgrade his whole magic-retrieval mechanism he'd worked out. He'd need some demons.
As marvellous as his big ray-gun was, as glad as he was to be reunited with it and as deadly as he was in combat generally, everybody knows that you don't tangle with demons unless you've got some magic on the table. You learn that stuff in kindergarten in Medieval Europe. And demons, being lesser, easily-tamed gods who work for a living, are exactly the kind of thing you'd need to siphon magic from one source to another. He set out demon-spotting with caution, very aware of the sheer power of these old gods and mindful that they had not gone to the trouble of ranking themselves into neat, easily-recognisable categories like they did under the Devil's rule in Terrorthaw's native time. The key to finding a god small enough to qualify as a demon was to watch the dragons, who would rumble with demons every Friday in the parking lot behind the soda stall. A lady dragon would usually kick it off by getting the guys excited with some loose talk and a suggestive wiggle, then saying in not so many words that she would only put out for the biggest, coolest, most demon-stomping boy dragon around. The dragon guys would then sit in the diner, sip enough soda (or a soda float if it was Christmas) to work themselves into a frenzy, then slither around outside to the parking lot in a gang, looking for the smallest, easiest-to-handle god they could find – usually a god of a short-lived but novel arrangement of organic molecules, or the god of a meteorite that had recently struck the Earth. Sometimes the dragons could pull off this magical trick where they broke a larger god down into many smaller ones. If the dragons won the rumble, they would habitually emasculate and belittle the god by forcing it to follow them around to help support their massive, conventionally unfeasible bulk. So necessary was this parasitism to the dragon lifestyle, that dragons who failed to ever bring down a demon or persuade an older dragon to lend some spares would become beached and useless when he grew to a certain size. Lady dragons thought a beached dragon was the stupidest and least attractive thing on the face of the planet, as was any dragon who remained friends with such a poor specimen, and so the beached, demonless dragon would soon die, his lungs collapsing under his own weight.
If a gang of dragons lost a rumble with a god – which happened fairly often to horrendously bloody effect, then the lady dragon would have to go find another gang of fellas to work up for the following Friday.
Safely cloaked from the dragons' detection during his observation of these strange rituals, Terrorthaw quickly deduced that he was in all likelihood witnessing the origins of the whole concept of demonic labour – these parasitised gods would be inherited by another dragon upon the original host's death. It was conceivable that some of the older demons he'd known in his own time – those he'd so often fought and tamed and enlisted the services of, were the very same ones that he saw getting jumped by malt-crazed snakes on those strange, primordial Fridays. He travelled back to his pyramid, unravelled the stretch of dragon-hide he had left over from the construction of the god-cages, shook it about with a few magic missiles, calibrated his mechanical eye so that he could see the form of a spirit and donned as many spells of magic as he could remember. Three little gods whispered their way out of the rolls of dragon hide. One was the god of a single base substitution in the organelle-RNA of a successful species of fern. One was the god of a sulphur-rich pool, and 1m x 20cm x 60cm in dimension, that contained a handful of nutritious clay. The third was the god of a bubble of methane buried deep beneath the ground near the dragons' soda stall. Terrorthaw had a hard time trying to figure out all three of their languages at once. The gods were angry and eager to fight for their freedom. Trickery was not an option. A mighty battle ensued and many ultimate attacks were made, with colours flying every damn where. Terrorthaw was victorious but suffered injuries so severe that he needed to eat three loaves of bread and rest for the night before he could recover. Nethertheless, victory was his and so gods would serve him now, the first demons to be named as such, because that is how it worked.
He put the demons to work on drawing the magic of the gods out into his pyramid, and used the last bowl of mosquitoes he'd ever eat to bind himself to the pyramid, as well as to paint the place and its surrounding network with protections against decay, erosion and such. Magic was now flowing nicely from the land, into the gods, through the demons, into the pyramid and then into him. His reservoirs of power grew more voluminous by the second. But his imagination had no use of seconds. His plans were on the scale of millennia and thousands of millennia. Now that he had a time-proof source of magical energy ticking away, he could get to the fun part.
He reasoned that if he time-jumped anywhere near a chronology that contained Mechanicus, he could very well be tagged and traced and the Future Folk would be on him so fast and then it would all be over. So he limited himself to the times between his initial landing in the past and the first few years of the King's life, before he met Mechanicus. After carefully programming the ship's time travel mechanism to not time-slide him into the middle of a known war or a gradually creeping piece of geography, he embarked on the long, long journey that skipped him like a stone through the history of his empire. On each jump, he would skip ahead few years at a time and then stop to inspect the pyramid network's fortifications against attack and the elements, check that the gods were stowed safely in their cages, refresh the protection spells or, once a certain time-threshold had been crossed, he'd ask his future selves if they needed a hand with something. Indeed, they were always expecting him and would have detailed lists of chores drawn up. He'd be roped in to take care of this border incursion or that meteor shower threatening the orbiting ship, to sign a stack of paperwork as tall as he was, to avert one of the many ecological crises that a super-empire threw up, or just to clean the bathroom. It was a curious thing, for as an unshakably committed antiauthoritarian lie Terrorthaw, to find himself in a situation where his own well-being and convenience relied on him doing the bidding of another, even if that other was a future version of himself. But ever time he resisted the common urge to slit the throat of his future self and claim his empire as his own, his future self would catch that glint of conflict in his eye, give a grin of recognition and then they would all be laughing.
After a million skips or so, he had learned to just get on with whatever needed to be done without question or hesitation. His many errands took him all across his empire, introduced him to the lieutenants, governors, elders, monsters and bishops who would make that empire great, and who took the time to teach this younger version of the Terrorthaw they served all they knew on the finer points of statesmanship, diplomacy, community planning and warfare that even he could improve on. And, as could be predicted, with all that adventuring, his XP went through the freakin' roof. I'd tell you what level he got to at the end of this first sweep across the timespan of his kingdom but you wouldn't even believe me.
And so, after he'd inspected nearly every year of his rule and ensured that his captive gods stayed captive, his ship stayed floating in the sky, his Kingdom stayed hale and hearty and his pyramid headquarters stayed clean and untroubled, he met himself at the very end of his first reign as King. This part was quite shocking to him. His future selves looked different with each timejump he made – in fact, he was fairly sure that they were making a conscious effort to distinguish themselves from each other by upgrading their cybernetic implants, adding on or subtracting a few limbs or wings or spikes or armour or guns, or swapping bodies/brains with a bush kangaroo, a giant sloth, a gorilla, a pack of ferocious dogs. Sometimes his future selves were regrowing a new body from scratch and could be anywhere from an infant to an old man. Here on the last time-jump, he met his future self as a 27 year old image of himself in perfect health, sensibly dressed in a modest cloak and evening dress, with no visible mechanical contrivances or blade-arms or tank tracks or anything. They met in the usual place for the time-jumps, on the top floor of the central pyramid – his private quarters that overlooked one tiny portion of the Kingdom outside. When he materialised, his future self was standing by the very large circular window at the apex of the pyramid like he was guarding it. He took a minute to orientate himself and take the usual look around to note changes in the décor and layout. The pyramid was apparently deserted by the staff, the curtains were all drawn and the hustle and hum of a city devoted to the running of a continent-sized empire had been replaced by an eerie silence. He approached his future self at the window and felt like an awkward teenager wearing a foolish, faddish costume of a body. His future self knew what he was thinking and smiled at him. Terrorthaw had forgotten how nice a smile could look when you didn't have a mouth full of jagged fangs or robotic lips.
“We thought we'd try something different for this part,” said his future self, indicating his handsome young body. “All I have to do is sleep now. I'll let the world happen out there, I'll let history begin, I'll wait for the fall of Fort Majesty to pass by and then I'll pay a visit to the King.” The fall of Fort Majesty. It was already so long ago, according to Terrorthaw's personal chronology. He no longer kept that particular set of memories in his wetware or two back-up mechanical brains he kept in his abdomen. He psycholinked to the pyramid's system and found the memory almost instantly on Server 48B66-Romeo, one of the stacks located in his Kingdom's annex of the Astral Plane. He'd had a feeling that was where he'd kept it. It was a good memory – he'd used a magical knife his minions had excavated in Ethiopia to rouse every malevolent spirit of the North, and a microwave laser, which he'd sent back in time during his brief but eventful stay in the future for just such a project, to agitate them and direct them towards the Chillinous Plains. Wave after wave fell upon the King's beautiful little base camp and not only did he have the delight of seeing the King's precious Winter plans frustrated, but he quite unexpectedly forced Mechanicus, who'd proven a most delectable adversary with his deft command of the tower defence corps, into making a time-jump, which sent the machines in his lair quite wild. Within an hour he'd learned of the magnitude of what he'd witnessed and dropped everything to devote the following three years of his existence to the planning of the heist of Mechanicus' ship. He couldn't believe he'd forgotten all of that. He moved the memory into his wetware and created a special little loop for it. It was one to treasure. His thoughts returned to the matter at hand.
“Now finally I can begin my long and glorious rule!” he cried triumphantly to his future self. “I have done my menial chores and now comes the reward! I shall return to the beginning and -” he was cut off by his future self's quite obnoxious laughter. He was always annoyed by how badly his future selves did the laugh. He was much better at it.
“You'll have to wait just a little longer before you get to any of that, young one,” chuckled his future self as he stepped smartly towards an unnecessarily ornate coffee table carved from dragon bone and magically levitated by a matrix of crystals harvested from a far-distant supernova. On the table was a book as thick as Terrorthaw's chest and about as half as tall as his impressive height. It was bound in obsidian plate, its pages were treated dragon-hide, its binding glue was superglue. His future self lifted it as if it were a single sheet of A4 foolscap and put it meaningfully into his arms. “What you hold is a log of every failed attempt by those miserable Future Fools to undermine our perfect Kingdom. In my youth, I visited every occurrence listed in this book and I made sure that they did indeed all meet with failure,” his future self said through a sadistic grin. See, that was the downside of losing all the crazy teeth and facial hardware – when you grinned evilly, you could look no more threatening than the next dumb ape. He hefted the massive book around and managed to both get it open and pointing towards his face. The script throughout was laser-etched so tinily on the pages that he needed to use his bionic eye to read the lines:
“If I'm reading this correctly, my dear Terrorthaw,” purred Terrorthaw to his future self, who was standing again by the curtained window, his grin wearing a grin. “Then our Kingdom – which I've yet to rule over for a single day – is to be invaded by Future Forces at least once a month, and will from time to time be beset by spies, saboteurs and natural disasters?”
“You left out the insurrections and economic collapses,” hummed his future self. “But you will stop or contain every one of them.”
“I'll need a hundred armies to do all of these things,” he said in anticipation of what he guessed all this was leading to.
“You have one!” his future self shrieked in excitement as he pulled the ultra-cord that drew back the luxuriant velvet curtains that blinded the pyramid's all-seeing eye. Out there, standing in file before the pyramid, in ranks that stretched back further than the bionic eye could see, was the greatest army that had ever been assembled. It was larger than the one that the King's Great-Grandfather led to liberate Portugal from the Dark Spaniards, more disciplined that the legions of Ghost Romans that the King's Grandfather repelled on the fields of Germany in the Super Visigoth Wars 2, more brave than Erik Rage-Eater!'s Vikings that terrorised the King's father and more magical than the bird army that Terrorthaw himself had brought into the world to do battle with the King. Every soldier who was not a giant monster with the firepower of ten fighter jets was a winged angel with the speed of fifteen fighter jets. Those that did not have the power of one and a half archmagi had the muscle to punch a dozen men to mud with a single blow. Those which were not on Level 99 were lurking unseen, yet all around, on the Astral Plane, were XP worked totally differently. For every two hundred combatants was a space elevator to whisk them up into the sky, a corps of engineers and technicians, a fleet of supply caravans, mobile armouries and all of the wonderful engines of war. It was an investment of skill and time and energy and intelligence beyond all reckoning.
“I just whipped it up in the last forty thousand years or so,” breathed his future self while inspecting his fingernails (which were pink and small and not the slightest bit talonous, which was a little unsettling to Terrorthaw.) “Take the time-ship, stock up with what you need and travel to every point listed in the book and pre-empt it. You'd better get cracking, boy,” he said, looking over to the window and trying feebly not to look impressed by his own display. “Looks like you've already started.”
As Terrorthaw watched, he saw innumerable future versions of Mechanicus' landing shuttle, each with a different pattern of scorch-marks, repairs, upgrades and battle damage, pierce the bubble of the heavens, descend amongst the assembled troops and disgorge a future version of himself, who stalked among the ranks, liaised with yet other future versions of himself, addressed the various sergeants and field commanders, then corralled whatever forces and equipment that were needed for their next mission into the space elevators and jump-rocket platforms, where they were swept up into the multitudes of future versions of Mechanicus' ship that hovered in the sky far above. The elevators that were not going up were coming down, bringing the veterans, the wounded, the captive enemies and the dead back from the sky to the ground, where they could be driven by hovercraft to the appropriate facility for R&R, rebuilding, interrogation or taken to a lavish memorial for their family, followed by recycling. When the admin was done and the preparations made, his future selves, so tiny and fuzzy there among the thronging crowds, would turn and wave up at the pyramid's watching window, up at him, before stepping into their landing shuttle and returning to the sky. This would be his life for the next few epochs. He wondered how long, precisely, this stage of his life would last – how long this defensive time-war against the Future Folk would wear on for, and detected on the pyramid system the artefacts of the future version of himself that stood in the same room as he. The future version of himself was accessing the fresh memory files as he was uploading them to the network and he experienced the strangely unpleasant sensation of having the same thought twice instantly, from wildly different perspectives, many millions years apart. His future self cleared the feedback by touching his shoulder and simply answering his question. “You'll spend a total of eight hundred and five thousand, two hundred and forty five years in combat,” said his future self, no longer grinning. “I didn't log the hours I spent preparing, in transit or taking sabbaticals. All that would make it five times as long.” Terrorthaw looked out again at his army. His future selves were still waving every time they were just about to leave. Those waves were more mocking than friendly. No doubt the world outside rang loud with annoying future-laughter. He sighed with the humility he could only show to to his future selves, the kind he always regretted showing whenever he was out of their presence. He walked down the empty stairs of the pyramid to meet his troops for the first time. Whenever he saw the past version of himself emerge from the pyramid into the deafening cheers of the assembled troops, he felt so sorry for the weight that had just been dumped on the poor self's shoulders. This emotion would always be swiftly replaced by the anticipation of becoming the future version who would be responsible for dropping that weight upon him. Terrorthaw was a conflicted sort of character.
“We've broken their barricade, Your Highness. We're processing the first round of prisoners for asset-stripping now.” came Lord Pitfight's thought-shape over the psycholink. Nothing else needed to be said or thought. It was over. The battle that his armies had won out there on the molten hellscape they'd made of the planet outside his black fortress had been fought against the Future Folk at the very peak of their power and ability to deliver it. Every skirmish and incursion after this (relative to the Future Folk's timeline) would lessen in force and intensity and will until at last they petered out and stopped altogether. He'd already fought and won all of those battles-to-be that came after this almighty victory, and he'd ranked them according to their difficulty and listed them in his working copy of the giant ledger he'd receiver from his final self. Terrorthaw creaked up from the reproduction of the throne in his pyramid back at home, edged over to the ornate coffee-table that supported the open ledger, carefully etched in the final line with the laser in his index finger, then collapsed back into the throne. He was, to his shame, exhausted. He hadn't been able to even actively participate in this final, apocalyptic battle, but he felt as though every las-blast, graviton cannon, cataclysm ray and chunk of the Earth's crust of the war had hit him right in the face. The Future Folk's attack this time had been as sneaky as it had been overwhelming. They'd come as far back in time as they dared to tread and their target had been the gods themselves. Since a spy had uncovered the source of Terrorthaw's power, they had elected to attack that rather than his Kingdom directly. In this case, they had aimed to wipe out all gods on the face of the planet before Terrorthaw had a chance to capture any of them. As in any attack they made before his god-cages had been established, he was unable to rely on any of his magical tricks to fight against them. He had to fall back on technological might plundered from earlier encounters with the Future Folk themselves, which put them at a distinct advantage. And so he'd been forced to watch. He watched through the all-encompassing system of sensors he'd spent years preparing across the planet and its upper atmosphere. It was the most terrifying experience in his long, troubled life. He could shout commands and orders at any number of field commanders and generals in the field, but they were so thoroughly well prepared and battle-hardened by this point that it did little good. He could personally fly his fortress up into the stratosphere and aim potshots at a few targets, but this only left him vulnerable to attack, unable to keep an eye on things and generally in the way. A man with Terrorthaw's history and habits could not help but get stressed out a little when the future was all but entirely in the hands of his minions. But force and foresight and effective resource management was on his side. Every part of the battle had been predicted and countered for before a single shot had been fired. His armies beat the Future Folk in space, in the upper atmosphere, in the air, on the ground, beneath the ground, near the core itself and on the Astral Plane. Terrorthaw suffered three stress-related heart attacks during it all, but in a few short decades it was all over. The majority of the gods had been preserved, usually by being captured by Terrorthaw's forces before the Future Folk could put them down, the enemy had been routed and the firepower expended had reduced the Earth to such a hazardous pile of burning rubble that he risked losing more troops by hanging around than had been killed in the conflict - whole chunks of the crust had been blasted off into space and it was raining molten metal across most of the surface. He sat back almost horizontally in his throne and massaged his tired eyeballs. These ones were opaque iridium balls. They were uncomfortable and hard and he wanted to change them as soon as he got back to the troop assembly outside the pyramid. He had no idea why he had installed such uncomfortable eyes or when. He reached for the memory but one of his machine brains reminded him, for the six zillionth time, that he did not have access to the pyramid's network because it hadn't been built yet. He would need a very long and very relaxing stint on Enceladus after this. He kept a small, exclusive Paradise Habitat there, full to the brim with his favourite body-workers, spa technicians, dream girls and virtual playworlds. He'd have to schedule it right so he didn't run into any past versions of himself while he was there. He tried to remember when a stretch of two years or more was open to him, he searched for the memory and argh! One of his machine brains told him again that he didn't have access to the pyramid network and -
“Lord Pitfight, you're in control,” his thought-shape hissed.
“I'm in – I'm in what, Your Highness?” came Pitfight's puzzled reply.
“Control. Command. You are in charge of all operations. I've done all that I can do here. I'm leaving to set up the celebrations for your return.”
“But, Your Highness.”
“What is it?”
“You've never – this is -”
“Just pretend that I'm here. If you have any questions, just ask them to the pretend me that lives in your head. He'll know what to do.”
“The remnants are regrouping in orbit, they are consolidating some of the larger flecks of rock into a new base, they -”
“What does the little version of me in your head say, Pitfight?”
“It says to cut off their very clear supply lines and leave them to rot, Your Highness.”
“A fine plan.”
“Yes, Your Highness.”
“Goodbye, Pitfight. Well done and so forth.”
He rushed back to spend his first day ruling his Kingdom. He'd never been so sure of having earned the right to do something in his life. He went right back to the start – a few years after the gods had been captured. He'd left the pyramid empty to go on his first tour of the Kingdom across the years and there was enough stored magic in the pyramid network to do his favourite low-level tricks. He spent a good few months getting the place fixed up just the way he remembered it, using his visiting past self as extra manpower, and learned how to use the cloning facility in the basement to birth his first generation of children. In the evenings, he went dragon-hunting with his ray-gun. Finer sport was never had, it kept their numbers down and bolstered his host of enthralled demons. His first major challenge as King was to put down Lord Pitfight's bloody rebellion that was launched following the commander's return to the pyramid and discovery that there was no party for him like Terrorthaw had promised. Destroying the remnant of his army, victors of a million wars across time, was difficult but satisfying. He kicked it old school – a robot decoy, a maze of death-traps, a storm of nightmare-spells to scatter their forces, riding in from the tall cliffs with a whole pack of mind-controlled dragons, mortal combat with Lord Pitfight on narrow walkway over a bottomless bit that crackled with green lightning – it was like being reborn.
He ruled his Kingdom for millions of years. Its splendour was beyond the stuff of legend, beyond the most excessive CGI effects and matte backgrounds. He stayed more or less in control of the continent-wide domain for the entire duration, with brief periods of rebellion where he went on the run and returned in overwhelming force. There were many other minor challenges to his well being and governance, mostly to do with his law of not straying beyond the continent's shore to the North, but he was on such a high level by that point that none of it came to anything more than a fun distraction. His every day was spent immersed in the comings and goings of billions of people – clones and monsters and robots and godlings, demons and dragon-men, reformed Future Folk and refugees from the Astral Plane. His citizens intermingled and happily went about their business running his Kingdom's industries, fuelling its academic and scientific knowledge, crafting its great works and arts, refining and elaborating on its fair and elaborate legal system, and doing their part to make the world a little bit kinder, more bearable and merciful each day. Terrorthaw mellowed with the demands of statehood. With his war days behind him and no rival King to frustrate him, he allowed his nurturing and friendly side to flourish with the generosity that his power allowed. He became disenfranchised with gauche shortcuts like mind control, genetic subservience and time travel stunts and preferred to take the long and difficult path of generating loyalty by fulfilling the needs and happiness of his people while working as best as he could to improve them. What his past self had heard in his laugh was not an intolerably raised level of obnoxiousness, but an overcompensation for a dark side that had long since faded. In fact, it might bum you guys out to tell you this, but Terrorthaw's Europe was even better than the King's Europe, if only because there was no Terrorthaw around to mess things up every once in a while.
It seemed like it was all too soon that the century came around where he'd have to begin to prepare for the journey into the New Age. His ultimate army to fend off the Future Folk had to be prepared, his industries had to be wound down and his people would have to be stored, one by one, in the winding subterranean city of sleep beneath the Kingdom. Once he'd given his past self the ledger full of battle dates and watched in quiet pity as he'd gone down to meet all those mocking waves, he made his plans to do one last spree of time travelling. The fast kind of time travel, not the kind where he slept under two miles of ice for several geological ages.
Mechanicus' ship was on its last legs by now. He'd been very careful to ensure that it was the only thing in his Kingdom capable of time travel and had destroyed every time-capable craft of the Future Folk that he'd captured, and its repair systems were wearing thin, taking longer and longer to recover after each healing hibernation. It might not survive the next reboot. So he got the most out of it before it was time to say goodbye to the old girl. He went on leisure cruises, mostly – his reward for a life, billions of lives when you looked at it, well done. He went on some dates, met some people he'd always wanted to meet, visited some sights, satisfied a few curiosities. He buried his ancient astronaut ray-gun in the place where he would find it earlier on, along with few more bits and pieces that might come in handy, he watched the first gods come to Earth on their clockwork comet, he visited the stars and the heart of the galaxy itself.
Then he made the journey that would bring the Future Folk down on him. He stood at the top of his pyramid and had Mechanicus' ship take him as far forward as it could possibly take him. He landed on a black and dusty plain, in near vacuum, under the dull light of a swollen and angry star a century away from boiling the planet into nothing. His body squirmed and shook and twisted to adapt to the terrible conditions. It took hours and the discomfort was quite severe, but his patience was rewarded when the globe spun round and he saw the night sky. He stood on a dead world, where anything resembling complexity had long since simply fallen apart. The only testament to the richness and glory that he had seen were the fossils of microbes beneath and a slight trace of heavy metals and fissioned material in the dust. But when he looked up, he saw where the life and the intelligence and the beauty had gone. It had impregnated the sky itself and now it teemed with every kind of life, dancing and bright. The stars moved, galaxies wheeled around under conscious control, there were explosions of nova fire to fuel a thousand billion glittering civilisations, every one of them at least as glorious as the one he'd shepherded. When he dropped his neck to look down at the dark and dead ground, he saw a dozen or more shapes shimmering slowly towards him, attracted by his life, by his mind. Dying gods, trapped on an irrelevant world. They stuttered out a litany of promises, of hopes and dreams, of threats and oaths, each one as pathetic an offering as a tadpole could give to an elephant. He ignored them and went back to admiring the lights.
He made one last stop. He visited the time of the Future Folk and stole one of their East Coast cloning facilities. He loaded an entire warehouse of equipment and samples into Mechanicus' ship in a single night. It felt to him more like a childish prank, something the old him would have done with a giggle and a taunt, than an act of war. As he was installing the loot in his home pyramid during the time period when he'd just captured the three gods, he received a message through his implanted link with the ship that the Future Folk would be coming to eradicate him and his illegal chronoship, and would erase all of his unauthorised meddling from the timestream. He could hardly work up the energy to laugh at that one and when he did it took him a while to remember why it was even funny, that the war with the Future Folk was long over and they were as beaten and irrelevant as the gods were.
Then, with all but one life ambition fulfilled, Terrorthaw went to his quarters in his home pyramid. His room was littered with trophies from his thousands of victories, some of which he hardly recognised. He had not spent a huge amount of time in his room, as a rule. He'd modified himself to be able to operate without sleep before he'd even made the first time-jump and he spent most of his leisure time tinkering about in his stolen genetics facility. His bed was unmade and shook out a thin cloud of dust when he pulled off the mattress to reveal the control panel for the laser cannon. The pyramid had dozens of laser cannons concealed within its nooks and hideyholes, all operated from the network like every other feature, but the laser cannon controlled by the panel under his bed was a very special one. That is, while it was standard in its specifications, it was permanently pointed at one particular position in the sky. He flipped up the guard and pressed the single, red, dramatic button on the control panel, then he dropped the mattress to the frame with another cloud of dust and went up the stairs to his throne room. By the time he'd reached his throne, Mechanicus' ship had been vaporised. As he took his seat on his throne, he took a few seconds to mourn the ship that had allowed him to come so far, so very very far. But they'd had their time together, there was nothing more it could do for him and there was no way anyone was going to find it and use it against him now.
There was one enemy left, one foe who had not been ground beneath the rock of ages and left as dust on a dead world. And he had to know – was the interstellar dance he'd seen out there the progeny of his Europe... or the enemy's Europe? He'd examine the evidence during his long period of rest and reflection before the ice came, but the one thought that Terrorthaw could not help but return to again and again as the cold slowly wound around his sleeping Kingdom was this:
He could hardly wait to see the King again.
End Of Chapter 96