Dead Astronauts
a short story collection
by Patrick Whittaker


Dead_Astronauts


© Patrick Whittaker 2016

Published by Philistine Press





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Sample story...


Kaptain Komfort’s Misdemeanour


What hope is there for us now? With our cities in ruins and our armies in retreat, this must surely be the end. Hypermorphia has become an occupied territory, a kingdom without a king.

We will, of course, surrender to our enemies. There is no alternative. But first they will crush what remains of our spirit and trample our national identity in the dust. For these are ruthless people, aggressors from another world who do not understand ours.

My fellow countrymen blame Kaptain Komfort, and with some justification. But what they cannot bring themselves to do is to examine their own part in this perdition. For one individual alone cannot bring about the ruin of a great nation.

The truth is this: We are all culpable. We became complacent and arrogant, and we failed in our duty to the children of Mundania.

No, Kaptain Komfort - villain that he is - should not have to carry the burden of our collective guilt. Nonetheless, if ever I see him again, I will kill him.

 

The air in this cave is damp and chilly. I spend my days in misery, tormented by hunger and the thought that I will probably not live long enough to wreak revenge upon Kaptain Komfort. My only escape from this despair are the brief snatches of sleep which grow ever rarer. At night, I forage for berries, careful to avert my eyes from the sky, which has now taken on a greenish hue.

If I had the strength, I would attempt to reach the border. If I had the courage, I would seek the remnants of our army and prepare to die in battle.

All I can do now is hope for a peaceful, if ignominious, end.

 

A dingy cave, full of bat droppings and the smell of dank decay. Maybe Kaptain Komfort is holed up in such a place - perhaps even one of the caves that litter these desolate hills. I know there are others hiding hereabouts. I have seen them at night, foraging for food, fighting amongst each other for sour berries and stagnant water. Sometimes, the temptation to show myself, to seek their friendship and company, has been almost overwhelming. But that would be folly, for the Mundanes have put a price on my head and I am hated by my own people, many of whom hold me in some part responsible for our collective ruin.

Yesterday, I stumbled across a dying man. He had no hair, no eyebrows. The slight breeze peeled flakes of skin from his body. I gave him water and he told me I was the last Senior Minister to remain at liberty. Many of my colleagues had surrendered to the enemy, only to be summarily executed. The rest had taken their own lives or been murdered by lynch mobs.

The dying man had no news of Kaptain Komfort. It is likely that the villain has fled this land and will be seen no more.

I asked after Princess Aurora; the man sighed and died in my arms. I envied him.

Princess Aurora. She, as much as Kaptain Komfort, was the agent of our catastrophe. If she had kept her vow of chastity, if she had not soiled herself and her family's name by taking Kaptain Komfort to her bed, then perhaps none of the subsequent events would have happened.

And if the King had listened to me when I begged him to keep the Princess and the Kaptain apart...

So many ifs. So many mistakes and missed chances.

Yes, I do partly blame myself for not persuading the King that the old ways were best. Indeed, I was sometimes instrumental in laying the foundations for his more liberal policies. But how was I to know it would come to this?

 

I think I was among the first to sense that something was amiss. It was just a feeling, nothing I could have expressed in words or placed a finger on. The citizens went about their business as ever they did and Kaptain Komfort himself bore no outward sign of the guilt that must have been gnawing at his soul.

Again I ask myself, how could he? How could he still befriend and console the lonely and lost children of Mundania when all the time he was carrying such a dreadful secret? How many of those poor innocents did he corrupt?

I still recall the chill that crept into my heart that morning when Rufus, Minister for Chocolate, announced that the nation's honey had soured. It was at a special cabinet meeting to which I was summoned at a moment's notice.

‘We've had to close off the vats,’ he proclaimed with tears streaming down his face. ‘I – I – I -’

Poor Rufus could not bring himself to say any more. He ran from the Cabinet Room as fast as his corpulent frame could carry him. The rest of us were too stunned to block his flight. He was then only hours away from hanging himself.

It was Herman, President of the Board of Toys, who finally broke the silence. He slapped his hands on the Round Table and said, ‘Well, I for one am not prepared to put up with this.’

We looked at him in amazement. His oft-used phrase seemed singularly inappropriate. It was not a case of putting up or not putting up with anything. The honey was soured and that was that. Now we could do little more than minimize the harm that would no doubt ensue.

‘The honey must be destroyed,’ I said, realizing no one else was about to come forward with a plan of action. ‘And the vats. And the warehouses that hold them.’

The Prime Minister cleared his throat. He seemed to have aged considerably.

‘The Grand Vizier is, of course, right. We must destroy this contamination before it spreads. A simple matter, of course, but then we must go much, much further. There is the question of the children.’

Now the true import of Rufus' announcement came home to me. The children who had taken the soured honey would also be tainted.

‘Do we have any means,’ asked the Heritage Secretary, ‘of knowing which children took the honey?’

The Prime Minister shook his head. ‘We cannot risk missing a single one of them; the consequences would be too awful to contemplate.’

‘Well, I for one am not prepared to put up with this,’ Herman reiterated.

‘We have no choice. I don't have to remind you what happened not so many years ago when some fool put salt instead of sugar in a batch of ice cream.’

I flinched inwardly, aware of the gaze of my colleagues upon me. My grandfather had been Prime Minister at the time and had reacted to the crisis by expelling all non-native children. No one had thought any more about it until a generation later when the mundane world was engulfed in global war.

‘Do we have the right,’ asked the Prime Minister gravely, ‘to once again equip the Mundanes with so many potential tyrants?’

‘Well, I for one - ‘

‘Shut up, Herman.’

The debate went on for some hours, but the outcome was inevitable. By a unanimous decision, it was decreed that all mundane children currently visiting Hypermorphia should, without exception, be hanged.

 

There were more suicides in the days that followed - not just within the cabinet, but throughout the populace as a whole. Riots swept our cities. In the Northern Province, a full-scale insurrection had to be crushed by the army. The ringleaders were burned in public.

Oh, dark days indeed. But worse was to come.

We had barely hung the last of the children when cracks in the Sugar Mountain were discovered, forcing us to evacuate several villages for fear of avalanches. A day later, the cinnamon mines had to be closed when the spice elves complained of severe headaches and stomach cramps. A detachment of alchemists was sent to investigate; they reported that the mines were filled with noxious gases.

It was grim, but even then I was certain that we would somehow pull through.

My optimism evaporated, however, when word reached me that the animals in the Garden of Fabulous Creatures had begun to die. I went at once to the Garden, which was now closed to the public, and spoke to Ozymandias in his office.

Needless to say, Ozzy was distraught. ‘It started with the kraken,’ he said, pacing in front of a cabinet filled with stuffed birds. ‘The stupid creature leapt out of his enclosure right on top of three members of the public, one of whom was killed instantly.’

‘Did it eat any of them?’

‘No. When we tried to entice it back to the water with freshly slaughtered seals, it just ignored them. It took a whole platoon of the King's Engineers to drag the serpent back to the water. And then - and then - ‘

Ozzy suddenly let out a great wracking sob. He was clearly close to breaking point.

I waited some moments until he had regained something like his composure, then prompted him. ‘What happened?’

‘It leapt out of the water again. No matter how many times we returned it to the water, it just kept doing it. It was as if it wanted to die. Finally -

Finally, we had no choice but to destroy the damn beast. In all my years as Keeper of the Garden, I had never seen such a thing.’

‘It must have been very distressing.’

‘Heartbreaking. It was my great grandfather, you know, who captured the beast barely a day after it hatched. All its life was spent in this zoo. We have no idea why it was so hell-bent on its own destruction. Every veterinarian in this city - or so it seems - has examined the corpse. They all say the kraken was in fine health.’

‘I'm terribly sorry.’

‘Sorry? I was sorry at first, but now I'm beyond sorry. The centaurs were next to die. They all passed away one night. So far as we can tell, they just went to sleep and then expired. There's no rational reason for it. We've lost our snark, our jubjub bird and even the sphinxes. What animals we have left are in very poor shape. I don't expect a single one to survive the week. Except, of course, the unicorn. He seems totally unaffected by whatever is happening here.’ Ozzy put his face in his hands and asked in a coarse whisper, ‘What is happening here?’

I had no more answer to that than he did. ‘Perhaps Wizard Serrc knows.’

 

As I left Ozymandias' office, I was almost forced back in by the stench of putrid flesh. Placing a scented kerchief to my face, I hurried past enclosures of dead animals. At the gate, a detachment of the King's Men were digging lime pits.

When I reached my coach, the horses were agitated. I leapt into the cab and my driver did not wait for my command. Halfway back to the Palace, I remembered the Wizard Serrc and gave orders to proceed to his grotto at once.

Thankfully, the wizard was at home, having just returned from a pilgrimage to some shrine or another. He was preparing a potion in a large cauldron when I burst in without ceremony.

‘Well, well,’ he said, emptying a jar of eyes into the boiling mixture, ‘the Grand Vizier. No need to knock.’

‘My apologies. I would have knocked if you had a door knocker. Or a door, come to that.’

‘Judging from the sweat on your brow and the rapidity of your breathing, I would guess that you are here with regards to a matter of great urgency.’

‘You have not heard, then?’

Wizard Serrc ladled some of his mixture with a wooden spoon and blew upon it until it was cool enough for him to taste. He smacked his lips. ‘Quite delicious. Would you like to try some? It's a wonderful laxative.’

‘The Kingdom is in great peril.’

‘You don't say? What is it this time? Another rise in unemployment?’

As briefly as I could, I related the events of recent days and watched with some satisfaction as the flippancy drained steadily from Serrc's manner. He had never had much respect for authority, but then wizard' never do.

‘I see,’ he said, when I had finished my tale. ‘That would explain the mirror.’

‘The mirror?’

‘Hm, yes.’ Serrc pulled aside a small, square curtain on the cave wall to reveal an ornate looking glass. ‘Just watch and you'll see what I mean.’

He cleared his throat, then, in a very wizardly voice, intoned: ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the greatest wiz of all?’

The mirror clouded, then replied, ‘Not you, dog-breath. I've seen elves do better magic than you.’

Serrc looked at me with a see-what-I-mean expression on his face. ‘It's been like that ever since I got back. I just took it to be teenage rebellion - magic mirrors have certain human qualities, you know - but after what you've just told me, I realize that that probably isn't the case.’

‘So what's going on?’

‘Great evil, obviously. Someone, somewhere has performed a deed so foul, so disgusting that dark forces have been able to manifest themselves in the Kingdom.’

‘Can anything be done?’

‘That would depend on the nature of the misdemeanour. However, judging from what's happened so far, I would guess we're in deep doo-doo. I doubt anything can save us now.’

 

Wizard Serrc was right. With no children allowed to come to us in their dreams, the Kingdom had no purpose. Reports of civil unrest reached us daily.

Rioting became commonplace. The workers refused to work. The peasants gave up toiling in their fields. Drunkenness, crime, disrespect toward authority - all these became endemic.

Cabinet meetings were held daily. When we weren't despondent, we were angry.

Angry at each other, angry at ourselves, angry at the whole sorry state in which we found ourselves.

There was talk of bringing the children back, even though there was no end to the crisis in sight. It was felt, by a few, that having the children around would restore normality. Fortunately, common sense prevailed and it was accepted that such a course could only compound our problems.

We grew wearier by the day. The King aged visibly. There were suicides. And through it all, only two people seemed untouched by the growing tragedy.

Ah, Kaptain Komfort, if you only knew how many times I saw you leaving Princess Aurora's apartments with that stupid, self-satisfied grin on your face. On each occasion, my hatred for you grew stronger. While the Kingdom went to ruin, you indulged your carnal desires with our beloved princess. You cared not one jot for the lonely children of Mundania whom you could no longer befriend.

Many was the time I had to stay my hand upon the halberd of my sword. I dreamt of murdering you on so many nights in so many ways.

And now, there can scarce be a soul in the Kingdom who does not do the same.

 

Ozymandias took his life the day the bong died. Aside from the unicorn, it was the last of his fabulous beasts. He covered himself in lamp oil and went out of this world in a blaze of despair.

The unicorn was moved to the Royal Stables, where the King's own vet kept a watch on it night and day. It was he who gave us our first clue as to the cause of our catastrophe.

During yet another interminable cabinet meeting, he was called for by Herman who said he had some information that might or might not throw some light on the situation.

The fellow stood before us, cap in hand, trembling at being suddenly thrust before the most powerful men in the land. He asked for - and was granted - a tot of whisky to steady his nerves.

‘Speak,’ said Herman, in that grand manner he adopts when addressing social inferiors. ‘What you say in this room is privileged information. You need fear no retribution for telling us what you saw - or think you saw.’

The vet wrung his cap as if to dry it. ‘I'm not sure I saw anything.’

‘You seemed sure enough when you spoke to my Private Secretary this morning. Now, in your own time, just tell us what you told him.’

‘Well, it was about midnight, I think. I was asleep in the stables on a bed of hay as His Majesty commanded, when I suddenly awoke, certain I was not alone in the building. Of course, there were the horses and the unicorn, but I felt the presence of another person and I knew whoever it was had no right being there. So, fearing someone was up to no good, I lay still with my eyes open.

‘There was - as you might recall - a full moon last night, so it wasn't as dark in that stable as you might think. I looked to where the unicorn had been bedded, and there the beast stood, bathed in moonlight. And – and - ‘

‘Yes. Go on.’

‘There was a man on the unicorn. Not exactly sitting on it - more like lying on its hindquarters. Surmising that the creature was in some sort of danger - of being purloined, if nothing else - I got to my feet and made slowly toward the door.’

‘Away from the unicorn?’

‘I was going to fetch the guard. Only I never made it to the door on account of there being a bucket I didn't see and which I walked right into. Needless to say it made an awful clutter. I thought for sure that the man on the unicorn would attack me, but when I looked round, he was gone.’

‘Did you recognize this phantom rider?’

‘I might have dreamt the whole thing. Maybe it was a trick of the light.’

‘Did you recognize him?’

‘He looked like Kaptain Komfort.’

I was puzzled as to why Herman should bring the matter to our attention. If Kaptain Komfort had been in the stables without permission, then what of it?

Far worse misdemeanours were occurring throughout the Kingdom.

Once the vet had been dismissed, I turned to Herman. ‘I'm afraid I can see no significance in that fellow's story. As he said himself, it was probably just a dream.’

Herman gave me that old look of his, the one that said ‘I know something you don't.’ It was just one more move in the constant power game he was always playing. ‘I believe every word the vet says. It tallies with a report I received from a source I decline to name the night before the honey turned sour. It seems my man was in the zoo around midnight. What he was doing there need not concern us now. According to his account, he was in the vicinity of the unicorn's enclosure when his attention was caught by what he describes as a wild braying.

‘Again there was a full moon, just as there was last night. He crept stealthily toward the source of the sound, and there, in the unicorn's enclosure, neatly framed by the silhouette of two oaks, he saw a bizarre sight. There was a man lying on the unicorn, his trousers round his ankles, his buttocks heaving up and down. I need not relay all the details that were imparted to me.

‘Suffice to say, my informant was able to get close enough to the unicorn to positively identify the rider. It was Kaptain Komfort.’

There was uproar in the Cabinet Room. Shrill voices demanded to know why the President of the Board of Toys had not brought this matter to our attention before now. There were calls for proof of the allegation. The Minister for Lullabies demanded that Kaptain Komfort be arrested at once.

Finally, the Prime Minister restored order by banging his shoe - first on the table, then on the heads of those nearest to him. ‘Gentlemen,’ he said, ‘we must be sure of our facts before we proceed against Kaptain Komfort. Perhaps Herman would care to explain why he did not enlighten us previously?’

‘Because, Prime Minister, until the vet came to me, I dismissed the tale as a flight of fancy. In retrospect, I can see that was a mistake for which I now apologize.’

‘Oh bollocks,’ exclaimed the Minister for Lullabies. ‘You, Mister President, have again been playing games with us. The reason you kept this to yourself was because you thought you could gain some advantage by it.’

Herman was on his feet. ‘How dare you! In all my years in government - ‘

‘Sit down!’ yelled the Prime Minister. ‘I will not have my cabinet behaving like wilful schoolchildren! If you two have your differences, you can settle them somewhere else. In the meantime, I want the Chief Constable to apprehend Kaptain Komfort in person.’

This was too good a chance to miss. I flicked my hanky to gain the PM's attention. ‘I rather fancy I know where Komfort is to be found. May I suggest I take a detachment of my men and bring him here forthwith? It will take no more than a few minutes.’

The Prime Minister beamed at me. ‘It is good to know, Grand Vizier, that there is still one amongst us able to show initiative. Yes. Fetch me Kaptain Komfort if you can. I would be most grateful.’

 

Alas, Kaptain Komfort had fled. He was neither with the Princess nor in his own apartments. Orders were issued throughout the land for his immediate arrest, but the cowardly rogue was nowhere to be found. By his own unwillingness to surrender to the authorities, he admitted his guilt.

At a stroke, Kaptain Komfort had made himself the most despised person in the Kingdom. He became the bogeyman. Mothers kept their children in order by promising them a visit from that vile villain should they misbehave.

There was a feeling abroad that we were at last nearing the end of our misfortunes, that the deep well of our misery was running dry. The lawlessness which had threatened to break up our society began to abate as communities united in their determination to find Kaptain Komfort and bring him to book.

There were no suicides in high places over the next few days. Cabinet meetings reverted to their usual format of quiet debate and sly power mongering, punctuated of course by Herman's frequent declaration that he was not prepared to put up with one thing or another.

By contrast, all was not well with Princess Aurora, who was convinced of her paramour's innocence. She became a recluse, never venturing from her apartments.

I visited her often, always on pretence of official business. She no longer ate and refused to wash. Her face bore a wild expression, like a trapped animal. At my insistence, a team of physicians stood by her every hour of every day, but they were powerless to bring her around. Poor, besotted wench.

It distressed me to see her decline.

Reports of alleged sightings of the fugitive became a daily, if not hourly, event. He was seen in every corner of the Kingdom, often in several places at once. Armies of peasants spent their days scouring mountains and plains. My spies followed every slim lead, every wild rumour, only to come up against one dead end after another.

It seemed Kaptain Komfort was everywhere and yet nowhere at all.

 

When Wizard Serrc arrived at my apartments declaring he bore news of great import, I was momentarily gladdened, for I was certain he had found Kaptain Komfort. With his wizardly powers, he could roam the Kingdom at will without even leaving his grotto. If anyone could track down our quarry, it was surely he.

It took him but one sentence to demolish my hope. ‘We are being invaded,’ he said.

I slumped into an armchair. Under other circumstances I would have been inclined to disbelief, but I was by now conditioned to accept bad news at face value. ‘Who by?’ was the only question my addled and weary mind could formulate.

The wizard paced from one side of my desk to the other and back again. ‘The Mundanes have entered our territory to the north. Already they have laid to waste the City of Light.’

‘When did this happen?’

‘This very morning. They have war machines beyond our comprehension. It took them less than an hour to reduce the city to rubble. No doubt messengers will arrive here bearing this awful news before the day is out.’

‘How big a force...?’

‘The Mundane Army is perhaps thirty thousand strong. We have superior numbers, but they have tanks and aircraft and all their other paraphernalia of war. We cannot hope to defeat them.’

‘The Dragon Squadrons...’

‘Are no more. The Mundane flying machines shot them down almost the moment they became airborne. Grand Vizier, we can mount no defense against such machines. We must offer our surrender immediately.’

‘Never!’

‘Surely that is a matter for the cabinet.’

‘Cabinet be damned. Besides, I know they will take the same view as I. Giving up the Kingdom to the Mundanes is unthinkable.’

‘If we don't give it to them, they will take it anyway. Our only hope is to reach an armistice.’

I rose to my feet. ‘I would rather see the entire Kingdom in ruins than surrender to these barbarians. We have a duty to the children – ‘

‘The Mundane children? The very children whose parents are burning our villages with napalm? We no longer have any duty except to ourselves.’

‘I will speak to the King and recommend we muster every force at our disposal.’

‘To what end? We cannot hope to resist.’

‘Thank you, Wizard Serrc. That will be all.’

 

As I predicted, the cabinet shared my views on the matter. It was agreed that we should fight to the end. No mercy, no surrender. As Herman so predictably put it, we were not prepared to put up with it.

After all we had done for the Mundanes...

That evening, the King summoned me to the Palace Dungeons. We had, by great luck, brought down a mundane aircraft and taken captive its pilot.

I was all for hanging the prisoner in a public place, but the King insisted that we should not descend to the level of the enemy. He did, however, accede to my request to interview the Mundane.

Four armed men stood guard outside the prisoner's cell when I was shown in, a needless precaution in light of the Mundane being manacled. Despite his predicament, the pilot seemed wholly unbowed. He looked at me with an unwavering gaze that was part insolence, part arrogance. I judged he could not have long attained his majority and wondered that the Mundanes could send their children to war.

His uniform consisted of a leather jacket and khaki trousers, scarcely a uniform at all. More the garb of a barbarian. On the back of the jacket was emblazoned USAF.

I introduced myself, then leant against the damp wall, not caring that I was soiling my robe. ‘Why?’ I asked.

The airman shrugged his shoulders. ‘You were asking for it.’

‘How did you manage to find our borders? Adult Mundanes should not know of this place. They should forget it even exists.’

‘Yeah. That's what you were counting on, wasn't it? You take our children here in their sleep and brainwash them. Then you wipe their memories. You fucking commie!’

‘We help the lonely and the lost. We give them an escape from the harsh realities of their waking lives.’

‘Says you.’

‘Were you ever here when you were young?’

The airman laughed. ‘What would I want to do in a crummy place like this? When I was a boy, I went to Disneyland. We don't need your dreams.’

‘How did you find us?’

‘I'm only supposed to give my name, rank and number. However, I can't see that it can do any harm to tell you. It was our President who remembered you. He's a very old man. His mind's going. You know how old men get. They revert to their childhood.’

‘I see.’ It had happened before. Senile Mundanes often managed to find their way back to the Kingdom of Dreams. We always welcomed them on the grounds that in their twilight they needed us as much as they did in their dawn.

‘Why did you kill the children? The President saw it all, you know. And he saw that pervert ride the unicorn.’

‘Kaptain Komfort? If ever I see him again, I will kill him.’

I left the cell feeling more despondent than ever. So the Mundanes were taking revenge for their lost children? I couldn't blame them for that. How could they know that we did it for their sake? If we had taken any other course, we could have been inflicting their future with another Hitler, another Stalin, another Pol Pot...

 

I could not sleep that night. The curfew had brought with it an eerie silence that was alien to the city.

I sat in my library, trying to read various volumes, but always thinking of our brave soldiers marching off to take on an invincible foe. Wizard Serrc had been right. Our only choice was surrender. But then what would be left for us?

Our entire existence revolved around the Mundane children. Without them for us to give our dreams to, would any of us care to carry on? Would life be worth living under foreign occupation?

The answer to that last question was clearly no. Shortly before dawn, I determined to flee the Palace. Perhaps I could cross over the border to the Mundane world.

Dressed as a peasant and carrying little more than some food and a handful of gold coins, I sneaked out of my apartment and up to the ramparts where I knew I would encounter no more than an occasional guard. My plan was to take a horse from the stables and shelter in Bil-au-Nor until the following night when I would make my way to the border.

I was halfway across the roof when a brilliant light washed away the night and its shadows. Dazzled, I instinctively fell to my knees, wondering what had happened to all the colors in the world. There was only whiteness.

A wave of heat hit the back of my head. This was followed by a wind that drew the breath from my lungs. Then came the roaring and rumbling; a terrible sound that filled my head and seemed to drill into my bones. Dirt rained from the sky.

After a time - and I know not whether it was seconds or minutes - the air became wondrously still. I was aware that my hair and eyebrows were singed; my back felt as if it had been burnt by a ferocious sun.

Shakily, I rose to my feet and turned. On the far horizon, where the city of Bil-au-Nor had once stood, there rose a pillar of fire and smoke.

All at once, the silence was broken by a great clamour. Windows were thrown open; heads poked out. People ran into the courtyard crying in disbelief. We stood gazing in awe at this nebulous mushroom which more than anything signalled the end of all hope.

With Bil-au-Nor reduced to ruins, I had little chance of reaching the Mundane world. I realised my only sensible option was to seek refuge in the Velvet Mountains. On such a journey, a horse would be a hindrance, so I set off on foot. Along the way, I encountered many refugees from Bil-au-Nor.

The tales they told of the aftermath of the Bomb will haunt me to the end of my life.

The air in this cave is damp and chilly. I am hungry. My hair is falling out; my gums bleed; my teeth are coming loose.

If ever I see Kaptain Komfort again, I will kill him.



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