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The Ever Living Corpse
There is always a moment of confusion when you wake up from cryogenic suspension. In the first few seconds, it can be a struggle to remember your own name. When I was revived in front of a small party on Kadiatrax, matters were a little more complicated. I didn’t need to remember my name; I just needed to remember who it was I was trying to impersonate.
A group of figures were huddled together in the Garden of Fond Memories, not three metres away from the cryogenic unit. At sight of me, they bowed solemnly. I swayed and tried to focus my attention on a nearby tree. The artificial gravity wasn’t helping matters. I hadn’t had time to fully acclimatize before I’d entered the chamber. All I could make out now was the bright blue horizon, falling away from me with indecent haste. I gripped the sides of the compartment and tried to clear my mind.
One of the figures had stepped forward. He was an ugly block of concrete in elaborate robes of state. There was something oddly familiar about him. His face was infested with warts and his two bony hands clasped an elaborate scroll. He gestured me forward and suddenly my memory came crashing back. I had to stop myself from reaching out and throttling the odious little maggot. It was his fault I was here at all.
For now, though, all that was required was an “X” on the relevant spot. I took the quill and made a mark at the bottom of the parchment. The hooded figure bowed respectfully. He turned and held up the document for the other delegates to witness.
They fell to their knees and prostrated themselves before me.
The First Minister reluctantly followed suit.
That was more like it. A bit of respect from the snivelling little worm, at long last. It almost made the whole thing worthwhile.
Defrosting the Divine King of Drasidian IV was probably the stupidest thing I ever did – and believe me, I’ve done a lot of stupid things. I wish I could claim I’d done it deliberately. Nobody would have blamed me for waking him up. The Ever Living God was supposed to be over ten thousand years old and officially he knew everything that had ever happened on Drasidian IV. Unofficially, he had a degenerative brain disease and couldn’t even remember his own name.
Two low-grade technicians were looking after the power supply for the casket as we made our way through hyperspace, on the way to Kadiatrax. I was keeping a careful watch on both of them. It was my neck on the line if anything went wrong.
When a light started blinking on the console, I began to panic. Back at the Royal Palace, the cryogenic chamber had had innumerable back-up systems, but onboard ship things were more rudimentary. The technicians assured me that everything was fine, but I pressed a few buttons randomly just to be on the safe side.
That was when the power shut down.
Sparks flared in every direction and before I knew what was happening there was a sudden hiss and the lid of the casket sprang open. I looked on appalled as the emaciated form of the Divine King staggered forward from the opening. For reasons of storage, the casket had been jammed at an oblique angle. The Ever Living God tripped and went flying across the cargo hold. The technicians rushed to assist him. Without the casket, the King could only survive for a few hours. One of the techs helped him over to a nearby crate. I screamed at the idiot to leave the Divine King alone and start fixing the bloody cryo unit. He did as he was told, but by the time the two technicians had rewired all the circuitry the Ever Living God had already expired.
I stared horrified at the lifeless body.
What was I to do now? Killing the Divine King was almost certainly a capital offence, even if it had been an accident. As soon as anyone discovered the truth, I was a dead man.
In the circumstances, there was only one thing to do: we loaded the corpse back into the casket and reactivated the machine. The Ever Living God would be delivered as promised to the New Imperial Museum. There was no reason for anyone to suspect anything was amiss. The cryo unit would prevent any further deterioration of the body and a tragic airlock accident would take care of the two technicians. With luck nobody would even notice the King was dead.
I returned home in a buoyant mood. A shuttle had ferried the Divine King down to the surface of the planetoid. All being well, it would be another fifty or sixty years before anyone needed to consult the Ever Living God. A new Regent had recently been installed, after all, and would probably outlive most of the existing nobility, myself included.
There was certainly no reason to suppose the young fool would accidentally shoot himself with a double barrelled shotgun on the occasion of his twenty first birthday.
I almost laughed when I heard the news.
It is a mystery to me even now how anybody had managed to import such a dangerous alien artefact to Drasidian IV. It was hardly an appropriate gift for His Royal Highness. And how the young idiot managed to shoot himself with the thing unaided is a question only the Divine King himself could have answered, had I not already compromised his eternal divinity.
The First Minister had the shotgun to hand when I finally informed him of the unfortunate mishap on the way to Kadiatrax eighteen months earlier.
The first barrel decapitated a statue to my right.
‘You imbecile!’ the First Minister screamed.
I ducked to the left as the second barrel fired, shattering the private parts of a marble statue just behind me.
‘I ask you to do one thing...’
The First Minister threw the shotgun to the floor and launched himself at my throat.
I could tell he was annoyed.
‘How can the Ever Living God confer the Right of Succession,’ he hissed, ‘when you’ve gone and defrosted the decrepit old bastard...?’
‘It was an accident...’ I croaked, struggling to breathe. ‘It wasn’t my fault. And please have some respect for the Divine King...’
The First Minister released my throat. ‘I’m the one everyone’s going to blame,’ he spat. ‘I’m the one who’s going to have his internal organs extracted one by one.’ The image was a pleasant one, but I kept my expression neutral. It was only fair the Minister shared some of the blame. After all, it had been his idea to ship the casket off planet in the first place. The previous Right of Succession had been a bloody affair; removing the Ever Living God was a political necessity. Luckily, as the artefact was of great historical and religious significance, the custodians of the Imperial Museum had been only too willing to take it into their care.
Now – with our idiot Regent sporting a rather large hole in his head – the Minister was obliged to pay the Divine King a visit.
‘You will go to Kadiatrax ahead of the main party,’ he declared. ‘The Ever Living God must be seen to give his blessing to the new Regent.’
‘I don’t care how you do it. I don’t care how much it costs. But I want to see the Divine King alive and well. Is that clear?’
The image in the mirror was no longer my own. Most of my hair was gone, my eyes had changed colour and the pigmentation of my skin had been darkened to a yellowy orange. My face had been aged by forty years in less than forty minutes. At least I still had my own teeth.
‘The living image,’ Tharila breathed, unconvincingly. Tharila was the latest in a long line of assistants foisted upon me by the Minister. A pencil and paper would have been more use.
‘Couldn’t we give the animatronics another try?’ I muttered. It is not an easy thing to see yourself so disfigured. I have always prided myself on my good looks. The Ever Living God had been many things, but handsome wasn’t one of them.
Tharila shook her head. ‘I’ve already shoved the body out of the airlock, my lord.’
I’d picked up a rotting corpse from the morgue at the Royal Court on the way out; some idiot of a gardener who had accidentally garrotted himself with a plasma-saw two days earlier. For thirty six hours I had tried to reanimate the corpse, but even with the best electronic implants he still jerked about like a marionette.
Nobody would fall for that, even if we used the real King’s body.
And as for the smell...
Radical plastic surgery was the only alternative. Unfortunately there were only two of us onboard ship – the authorities at Kadiatrax would not permit anyone else to arrive in advance of the main party – and I was the closest physical match. I did consider lopping a few bits off Tharila but as she was female and seven feet tall there wouldn’t have been much point. Once the surgical software had been uploaded, I had gone under the knife and Tharila had overseen the surgery.
Don’t tell me I never do anything for the good of my planet.
The walls of the corridor seemed to fluctuate, as if the building itself was alive. The security disk had allowed us access to the main complex. I was still adjusting to the heavy gravity. From space, the planetoid of Kadiatrax looks tiny, but to my surprise it had a fully breathable atmosphere. The open spaces were covered in greenery which made the gardens of the Royal Palace at home look like an overgrown window box.
Once we’d cleared reception, a moving walkway delivered us to the remote complex where our beloved Ever Living God resided.
This section of the Imperial Museum was devoted to semi-organic technology. There was no time to peruse the other exhibits, however, let alone engage them in conversation. The Immortal Casket occupied the pride of place at the end of the main concourse. How it qualified as semi-organic I have no idea. There was certainly nothing alive in there, except perhaps the flesh-eating bacteria which had been cryogenically frozen along with the corpse.
I chivvied the hopeless Tharila along the corridor. She would have to be disposed of once all this was over. Another airlock accident, perhaps.
We set up the trolley in front of the vertically aligned cryo unit. The Ever Living God could be glimpsed beneath the crystallized cover. I inputted the access codes and the lid hissed open. Together, we removed the body and placed it on the trolley
There was a chill unit waiting in our quarters. We had included it as part of our luggage consignment and it had been sent on ahead to our rooms. We could store the Divine King there until after the ceremony. I didn’t want bits of the Ever Living God dropping off while he was exposed to the elements.
‘What exactly do you think you are doing?’ a stern voice hissed from the far end of the corridor. A tall reddish-brown alien stood at the entrance to the facility, his heavy muscular frame obscuring several of the smaller exhibits. I shivered involuntarily.
‘Just preparing the casket for the ceremony,’ I called back.
Tharila stared open-mouthed at the powerfully built alien. She had never seen a Trilaxian before. A terrifying, wolf-like hominid, the creature strode purposefully forward.
‘We’ve received your government’s request to hold this ceremony out in the open air.’ His lips rolled back, revealing a set of razor sharp fangs. ‘A little more notice would have been appreciated. But I thought perhaps the Garden of Fond Memories? Two of my assistants will be along shortly to help you move the casket.’ He gazed down at the Ever Living God, laying flat on the metal trolley. ‘Is this man dead?’
‘Just – sleeping,’ I lied.
The Trilaxian glanced up but he didn’t challenge my assertion. ‘You must be a relative,’ he observed, baring his teeth again in what may have been a smile but probably wasn’t. ‘The resemblance is quite remarkable.’
‘Well. It is not my concern. The main party from Drasidian IV will be arriving in a little under four hours. I would be grateful if you would ensure this ceremony is completed as quickly as possible.’
‘Of course,’ I mumbled. ‘Thank you.’
The Trilaxian turned on his heels and left.
Tharila let out the breath she had been holding.
‘Let’s get rid of the body,’ I said.
The ceremony passed without incident. Nobody had questioned my identity when I signed the formal decree installing the new Regent. After the service, the casket was wheeled back to the centre for semi-organic technology. Two enormous Trilaxians, ugly as sin, with huge teeth, sharp claws and malodorous breath had helped to move the ancient artefact back into position. Somehow, they managed to avoid scratching the paintwork. Appearances – and lack of hygiene – can sometimes be deceptive.
The delegation from Drasidia were already heading back to the spaceport. The Immortal Casket would remain with the Imperial Museum – complete with dead King – and everybody could go home and forget about him for another fifty or sixty years.
The Minister was waiting to greet me as I slowly defrosted. There was a rare smile on his face. It distorted his features in a peculiarly unpleasant way. ‘I am leaving shortly,’ he informed me, as the casket hissed opened. This time, I remembered who he was. Nobody could forget those warts twice in a row. ‘But first I had to congratulate you on the authenticity of your performance.’
I grimaced. I could still feel the tightness of the skin clinging to my scalp. The sooner I could reverse the aging process and restore my good looks, the happier I would be.
I stepped forward out of the unit.
It was then that I noticed my assistant Tharila standing to one side. Like the Minister, she too was smirking. Not to worry. A depressurized airlock would soon wipe that smile from her face.
‘It occurred to me,’ the First Minister added, ‘that we might save ourselves an awful lot of trouble the next time we need to consult the Ever Living God, if there was already somebody in place, ready to impersonate him.’
My skin – which was already chilly – suddenly turned to ice.
The Minister raised an eyebrow. ‘Why bother putting a corpse back in the cryo unit when we can put a living being in there?’
Tharila leapt forward suddenly and before I knew what was happening she had propelled me backwards into the cryo chamber. The lid of the Immortal Casket slammed heavily shut.
Tharila grinned at me from the other side.
‘I’ve spoken to the authorities,’ the Minister called, stepping forward. ‘They still think you’re the Divine King. Probably better for you if nobody finds out the truth. But they’re happy to defrost you once every decade or so, so you can get out and stretch your legs.’ The First Minister entered the start-up code on the panel. I could just see his smiling face through the crystal. ‘I doubt I’ll live to see you again,’ he coughed, happily. ‘I can’t say the fact upsets me.’
Jets of super cool gas started to fill the chamber.
‘You can’t...’ I choked
‘Oh yes I can.’ The man waved jovially through the glass. ‘Give my regards to the next First Minister...’