Wednesday, 19 November 2014

OHMCS: The Perfect Sage of Death

Welcome to the sixth and final part of On Her Majesty's Crooked Service. The longest of all six 7TV stories, we finally meet the master villain of the whole plot, the otherworldly invader known as the Guru. I originally conceived him as an homage to Doctor Who's Master, especially the Roger Delgado version; in the faux TV Times listing which accompany many of the 7TV sourcebooks, the Guru is played by an actor called Rodd Aleggero.

The character also has dashes of Fu Manchu, the Lord of Strange Deaths himself, as well as iconic Marvel villains Doctor Doom and the Red Skull. The scenes in the dormant volcano are call-backs to an earlier 7TV game You Only Live Dice, pitting the fiendish Dr Mao against the heroes of Department X.

For one last time, points will be awarded for spotting references to: a Stanley Kubrick film, a noted 19th century SF novel, a number of well loved British childrens' shows, a classic sitcom and Flash Gordon.

The unseen player mobilising the heroic Daredevils to oppose the Guru's machinations is in fact the Dare sisters' daddy, never seen on screen. A former adventurer (and some say astronaut), Dare senior issues his 'Devils' their orders from a speakerphone, much in the style of a popular US show from the 70s.

* * *

The Perfect Sage of Deaths

Nothing stirred in the chamber apart from the strange inky black smoke that curled and roiled lazily like a phantom hydra. It crawled across the concrete floor and slithered over odd stone protrusions that might have been the product of natural erosion deep beneath the waves or else sculptures carved by some lunatic hand. The smoke climbed the walls in heaving exhalations and drifted across the ceiling in blind, meandering tendrils. It clung to everything, obscuring all.
With a mechanical hiss a circular aperture large enough to admit a man opened in one rough wall. Dull red light seeped in through the airlock, casting an eerie light on the smoky chamber within. A figure stood at the portal, arms by his side, body erect. He wore an unusual jumpsuit that covered every inch of flesh, complete with hood, visor and breathing apparatus. The smoke billowed around the figure; crawling, probing.
The sound of the man’s breathing was amplified by his mask as he stepped through the aperture and into the chamber, the swirling black and red rendering everything beyond arm’s reach an amorphous mystery. Through his protective hood he could hear strange noises somewhere beyond sight. Low, shushing sounds like the sea, or a giant’s gurgling breath.
“Master,” the man’s voice came out muffled and oddly flat, as if the unsettling surroundings, which would surely have given even the most hardened pause to consider what strange forces were at work here, had failed to trigger in him that most primitive of human emotions: fear of the unknown. “The new recruits are ready for your inspection.”
He stood patiently as the seconds passed, the smoke continuing to caress the seals of his protective clothing. At length, the indistinct guttural sounds receded and a figure approached from the chamber’s depths. A bearded man, clad in simple loose garments of unrelieved black, he wore nothing that would ward off the smoke, nor whatever other hazardous conditions existed here. The masked figure bowed his head obediently and then swivelled on one foot to allow the man in black to pass unobstructed into the airlock.
As the heavy circular door sealed tightly behind them and the atmospheric purifiers whirred into life, the red lights in the ceiling reflected oddly off the bearded man’s eyes. His pupils seemed impossibly tiny, little more than pinpricks, which would have struck the masked attendant as odd for someone who had just emerged from such a dark place. Except that the man was not capable of forming such questions, nor of speculating on any other curious aspect of his master, the uncanny Guru, supreme leader of S.H.I.V.A.
“Inform the technicians to increase the ratio of smoke to atmosphere by twenty units. The current solution is too dilute for sustained efficacy.”
As he spoke in clipped, unaccented tones, the Guru’s pupils began to return to normal, though his eyes seemed to flash with a certain inner light.
“It shall be done, superior master.”
The outer door of the airlock cycled open and the Guru stepped out smartly, followed by the masked man at a respectful distance. The corridor outside was of plain concrete, brightened by functional strip lights overhead. The air held the suggestion of a chill, the hint of a breeze. Distant sounds of machines and men echoed off the hard walls. The masked man disappeared through a nearby door as the Guru turned the other way, his hands clasped lightly behind his back, slippered feet leading him through double doors marked ‘RE-EDUCATION CENTRE’.
A short bespectacled fellow in a soiled lab coat hurried up to usher him into a small viewing room.
“Ah, Great One, thank you for joining us. I know your time is, ah, precious at this time of-”
With a wave of his hand, the Guru cut the man short and moved to the long one-way glass that filled the room’s further wall.
“How does the new conditioning process fare?”
The technician hovered at his shoulder, sometimes addressing the Guru’s left ear, sometimes looking down at his feet. Nervous fear rolled off the man like sweat.
“Well, as you know we had experienced some, ah, teething trouble with the process early on, but now, with the ah, acquisition of the Brodsky method, I believe we have achieved some measure of success.”
He shuffled closer to the window, through which a young man could be seen, strapped to something resembling a dentist’s chair. Before him stood a small cinema screen displaying moving images one after another in swift succession, accompanied by taped classical music. Disturbingly, the young man’s head was held in place with a metal cap, his eyelids pulled open by cruel prongs.
“He is being administered the drug?”
“Yes Great One, in increasing dosages with each session. The cumulative effect is quite marked.”
The young man writhed in the chair, unable to turn his head away from the cinema screen or even blink. The images before him seemed innocuous enough - a couple holding hands, a child playing with a puppy, a English policeman helping an elderly woman cross the road – but they seemed to induce in him reactions of the most extreme distaste and even nausea, as if these examples of simple humanity were anathema to him.
“A week ago, he was an unaffected youth taken from the streets of an urban housing development, his head full of music and poetry. When the conditioning is complete, he will find all aspects of charity, affection and rebellion totally alien concepts. Only regular bouts of extreme violence will give him any pleasure at all.”
The technician stepped back, pleased with his pronouncements. Finally, the Guru turned to look him in the eye. The man instinctively flinched under the gaze.
“And the other crucial element..?”
“Ah, yes, yes Great One. If you will continue to observe?”
The images and music faded away to be replaced by a slide projection of the Guru’s head glaring unblinkingly at the young man. The single word ‘OBEY’ hovered over the projected face in large, bold letters.
“Excellent. Continue with the treatment and report back to me within the week. I have plans for him and his young friends.”
The Guru left the viewing room and continued on, passing several squads of guards who all stopped to bow as he approached. He halted at a door marked ‘Armoury’ behind which muffled gunfire could be heard. Inside, he was met by another technician, this one wearing goggles and ear protection. The room itself was a high ceilinged shooting range, where several masked guards were honing their skills with rifle and pistol. The deafening cacophony of the gunshots halted as the Guru entered and the men turned as one to acknowledge his presence.
He raised an eyebrow as someone continued to fire. Powerful reports came in regular bursts, punctuated only by the sound of the weapon being reloaded. It was the furthest booth, shielded from view. The technician gestured wordlessly and beckoned the Guru to follow him to the booth, where a man dressed in a charcoal suit and tie was firing a shotgun methodically from the hip.
The man did not seem to register the Guru’s presence, pumping and firing with robotic rhythm at a series of cardboard targets before him – childlike images of a beardless Viking, a portly pirate, a saggy cloth cat – each target was shredded by the city gent’s shot with cold, unemotional precision.
To one side of the man sat a small tape player, issuing a short flatulent sound as each target rolled in front of him. There was a slight twitch in the man’s eyes when it sounded, as if recalling some deep-seated hostility. The noise rasped again and he pulled the trigger at whatever stood before him.
The Guru nodded in approval and motioned for the technician to follow him out of the room.
“Impressive. Where was this one found?”
“Wandering naked on a beach, master. We tend to find quite a few like him. Middle-aged, frustrated, aimless. Crying out for direction and an outlet for decades of impotent anger. He will do well in our sleeper programme.”
“Indeed. Have him progress to targets of real humans. Strangers, then work colleagues and finally family. When he is ready, inform me at once.”
“It shall be done, superior master.”
The Guru’s slippered feet next led him to a large room something like a gymnasium, where the smell of sweat and blood mingled with the exotic spicy incense wafting up from braziers placed at each corner of the training area. Several robed men fought each other with wickedly sharp hand weapons, watched over by a muscle-bound slab of a man seemingly held together by scar tissue and scowls.
Most of the combatants were already bleeding from cuts to their bodies, and at least one lay slumped and writhing on the concrete floor, a tell-tale pool of red collecting beneath him. Another man took a terrible slash across his chest from his opponent, opening up a deep wound. But he did not scream, nor did he pause in his own counter attack. If the man even felt the pain of his chest injury, he did not show it.
At a tiny motion from the Guru, the scowling trainer barked to the sparring men and the flashing knives grew still. The men assembled into a line before their supreme master, panting, sweating, bleeding. The Guru passed along the line, gazing at each man in turn with narrowed eyes, taking in every detail.
He stopped at one man.
“You, what is your purpose?”
“I have no other purpose but to serve the will of S.H.I.V.A.”
“And what is your pleasure?”
“I have no pleasure, save to die for the glory of S.H.I.V.A.”
The called response, spoken with sufficient fervour, evidently pleased the Guru. He addressed another of the fighting men.
“And what should be done with their weak?”
“The weak cannot be suffered to live.”
At this the Guru’s head turned to where the badly wounded man continued to thrash and moan in his own pool of blood. The others understood immediately his intent and surrounded the injured man. A voice cried out. Knives rose and fell.
At length, he nodded and turned to their trainer.
“These four,” he indicated the least wounded of the fighting men, “will serve as my personal guard. Have their injuries dressed and report to me in the control room.”
“It shall be done, Perfect Sage of Deaths!” the scarred man replied smartly, using an archaic title from the Guru’s past, bringing a brief twitch of a smile to his lips.
His inspection of the trainees complete, he ascended several windowless floors, passing barracks, holding cells and generator rooms eventually emerging into the open air, the very summit of Mount Nirvana, his impregnable eyrie.
Frigid Himalayan air whipped around him, but the Guru barely registered the temperature difference, or the thinness of the atmosphere at such an altitude. He turned to take in the vista. Mighty snow-draped peaks surrounded the base on all sides, an impenetrable bulwark against land forces, should any be so cunning as to discover the location of this, S.H.I.V.A.’s most formidable fortress. Not to mention so foolish as to attempt a direct assault.
He stood on the flat, snow-blown concrete roof, overlooking Mount Nirvana’s central compound. Below him, men scurried like mice, unloading the cable car, carrying out routine maintenance on the radio mast, patrolling the vertiginous perimeter walls. He briefly considered his lieutenants, abroad in the outer world, but soon to return. The butcher Köhner and beautiful, deadly Kali should be here to witness his imminent moment of triumph.
It amused him to allow Kali to retain some measure of free will, of choice. To do otherwise would be to crush her spirit so completely as to eradicate that fiery wilfulness that made her so formidable. Making use of her was not unlike grasping a tiger by the tail, but he remained confident of his ability to tame her when the time came.
Köhner on the other hand was a different proposition. He would never accept the Guru’s control, not fully. The man was a born survivor and with that instinct came the inevitable whiff of betrayal. Still, he was useful for the time being, as long the Guru continued to place the man in the thick of danger where he would succumb to his violent nature.
So much for his own people, his pawns in the great game he played against the world. But what of those arrayed before him, he mused. The flamboyant double agents and enigmatic men of tomorrow? For the time being he was confident that none of his old enemies suspected S.H.I.V.A.’s presence up here in the remote icy heights. But that was not to say nobody was moving against him.
Unfamiliar pieces had begun assembling, moving, forming strange alliances. He had detected a distinctively feminine element entering the game. A woman… no, women, and with a strong connection to each other. A rival cult perhaps? The ties between them seemed as thick as blood, bonds as unbreakable as those of his own loyal followers once their re-education was complete.
These new pieces seemed to move across the board with ease and great speed, unfettered by restrictions of distance. Great Britain, the Alps, even here in the Himalayas themselves, he had glimpsed these new pieces gathering their own forces, their own sacrificial pawns. And always at their centre, a gap where the prime mover should be. Invisible, even to the Guru’s unearthly Game of Antares, this player was somehow shielded from detection. Truly a rival player to test his intellect.
But still… it would be well to draw his own pawns close. Just as a precaution. Perhaps an inspection of the base’s defences was called for.
The security office, tucked away in one corner of the wind-swept compound, was composed largely of flickering internal television screens, depicting almost every room, corridor, and sub-basement of Mount Nirvana. As the guard on monitor duty stood to attention, the Guru saw that he had been reviewing a muted film reel.
The angle was taken from high up in some vast natural stone chamber, a cavern perhaps, or dormant volcano. In the foreground atop a fragile gantry, a Chinese man screamed silently at hard-hatted minions, his fists clenching emphatically before him. The hands glinted with a tell-tale metallic sheen in the camera lens.
“Now, he showed promise,” the Guru mused out loud, and then addressed the security guard directly. “Maintain the utmost vigilance. Pieces are moving across the board in unexpected patterns.”
The man nodded in dumb compliance. The Guru stepped outside into the chill air once more and crossed the compound. A flash of metal low to the ground caught his eye, as a strange mechanical construct skittered across the stones and halted before him, buzzing with electronic intelligence. He stooped to inspect the foot-long mechanoid, an oversized steel and plastic arthropod with bulging silver globes for eyes and twitching, jointed cilia for locomotion.
Producing a small control box from inside his garments, the Guru briefly tinkered with the dials as the mechanoid reversed and turned at his command. He whistled as if to a pet robotic dog, and the bizarre construct scuttled away again, disappearing round the corner of a utility building. A robot dog? He dismissed the preposterous idea as swiftly as he had thought of it and headed for the building marked ‘CONTROL ROOM’.
Like all loyal followers of S.H.I.V.A., the technicians within the main control room leapt to their feet when he entered. Below long windows which looked out on the Himalayan range, large electronic consoles blinked and beeped. Nearby banks of computer tapes whirred back and forth with the constant motion of calculation. The Guru stood in the centre of the room and breathed it all in. Here was where he would reach out and change this world.
A technician with a clipboard bent his head in supplication.
“Great One, preliminary tests of the Weatherbreaker satellite have yielded one hundred per cent success, as predicted.
“Indeed. And the test target?”
“The English village you selected was completely devastated, master. Local meteorological patterns were warped to produce concentrated cyclonic and electrical conditions of unprecedented magnitude.”
A television screen to one side showed a news report of cottages and farm houses flattened and charred, a crying child clutching a tattered toy bear in the foreground.
“Excellent. Proceed with preparations for a large-scale demonstration. It is time the governments of the world learnt to respect our power.”
“Do you have a suggested target, master?”
The Guru considered.
“Somewhere large, well-populated. A capital city. London..? Washington..? Somewhere with a large lightning conductor to facilitate the destruction. Something tall and metallic…”
Then it came to him. It would be perfect.
“Align the satellite for Paris. I want it reduced to smoking rubble within twenty-four hours.”

Nothing on this planet could stop S.H.I.V.A. now. Nothing could stop him. Who would dare? 

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