Chapter 5: Escalation
If you stay underwater and breathe stale, recycled air for a long time, you're starting to forget things. You forget how the sun feels on your skin. You forget how the wind feels, blowing through your hair and beard.
"Noeel", complained the Old Pseudo, who was standing about five metres behind me, "your beard is fluttering in my face again."
"Sorry", I said under my huge sunglasses. "I should really cut it a bit. I'll tell my servants, once I get them."
We were standing on the deck of a ship, on the surface of the ocean. In the bright midday sun, all colours had an intensity that made me gasp in wonder. Around us, the calm sea glittered like an endless sheet of diamonds - a sheet riddled with curious black spots. There were ships everywhere, in every direction, an enormous fleet stretching towards the horizon. I had absolutely no idea where and how Udunvagor had built such a fleet in such a short time, but obviously he had.
Morambar Udunvagor himself stood on an elevated pedestal in the middle of the deck, on this ship which was the biggest of all and looked somewhat similar to a plane carrier, except for the statues of J.R.R. and Christopher Tolkien that had been erected on its sides, bearing some resemblance to the Argonath statues in the books. Udunvagor himself wore a black cape, inscribed with fiery red runes, that was fluttering all around him. He was reading an account of impressive size that was captioned "Joe's Rent-A-Fleet-Service", then shrugged and stuffed the sheet into his pocket.
"How does the sun feel on your skin?" I asked the Old Pseudo.
"No idea. I don't have skin. But I think my jelly is getting dry", he answered. "And on yours?"
"No idea", I admitted. "It somehow doesn't reach my skin. There's beard everywhere."
"Quiet!" thundered Udunvagor. "The day has come. Today we take what is rightfully ours. We have left our hideout to take over the world! Alea iacta est! The die is cast!" And he threw a twenty-sided die the size of his fist, a die that seemed to be made of pure gold. It rolled noisily over the deck and then came to rest. A small, uniformed man hurried to look what it said.
"Um, it's cocked", he said sheepishly.
A frown crept over Udunvagor's face. "Give me that", he demanded. "As I said: Alea iacta est!" He threw the die again. It rolled away from him, slid under the railing and plunged into the water, where it quickly sank.
Udunvagor's frown deepened. "Anyway", he bellowed. "Hear the words of my loyal fleet commander, Armand!"
The guy named Armand stepped up to his master. Ever since I had first seen him when Pseudonymus dragged me to the Board, I had wondered what his place was in the hierarchy of Udunvagor's army. He was one of these people who are always just around, without doing anything or excelling in anything. Most of the time he was munching sandwiches or holding a beer bottle. He and I had hardly exchanged more than a few words in the past five years. Now Armand wore a smashing, coloured uniform that looked slightly 18th-century Prussian, and for the first time his tentacle hair was neatly combed. He held a world map on which several big arrows were painted.
"After a long and diligent analysis", Armand yelled with a slightly squeaky voice, "we have chosen the first target of our invasion. We will invade the shores of Mongolia, then, as you can see on this map, launch a three-pronged attack towards Ulan Bator. We should reach this line here and that line there in forty-eight hours, while our reinforcements-"
I squirmed. Finally I couldn't take it any longer. I hurried forward and whispered something into Armand's ear, then I quickly retreated to my place.
Armand frowned. "What do you mean, Mongolia doesn't have a coastline?" he inquired. "Uh. Well. Then..." He looked a bit helplessly at Udunvagor. "Suggestions?"
Udunvagor's frown grew into a grimace that would have frightened children and could have caused elderly adults to get a sudden heart attack. "I don't care", he shouted. "Just pick anything!"
"Oh. Well", said Armand and started to sweat visibly. He looked at me. "What's this called?" he asked and pointed at a small yellow blot on the map.
"That? That's Belgium", I said.
"Okay", Armand said. "We will invade the shores of Belgium, then, I dunno, launch a three-pronged attack on something... on everything we might encounter!"
"Very well", thundered Udunvagor. "Onwards then, my brave warriors!"
His lackeys talked into cellphones, and the entire fleet slowly turned around and set course. And in this moment, as the full might and glory of Udunvagor was revealed, I seriously believed that no force in the world would be able to stop us.
Other tales have been told about the great and terrible war Morambar unleashed upon the unsuspecting humanity, so I will just hurry through this part of my life. I hardly saw anything of it anyway. My place was at Morambar's side, and so I stayed on his flagship, the U-fat, while he sent wave after wave of his underwater fighters against everyone who opposed us, in other words, everyone. Our days were filled with parades and speeches of glory, held on deck, and medals of impressive size being handed out to soldiers who won a battle or lost a limb or tentacle. During the night, we would lie in our cabins, listening to distant explosions and cries of death and despair, and they seemed to close in on us, creep closer to us every night. This, of course, was an illusion created by our overheated imaginations - the kitchen, where our incompetent cook regularly blew up his pots, did not change its relative position inside the ship. But still, after a while, we became restless and grumpy from lack of sleep. And good food.
Every day at eight hundred, when I entered the cafeteria next to the kitchen to scrape my morning lasagne off the ceiling, I saw Udunvagor consulting with his officers. He had hired the best and brightest minds money could buy for his campaign. There was Jacques Facques-d'Ecriveur, leading French military planner for decades, the mind behind the brilliant strategical layout of Dien Bien Phu. There was Trethardt von Tothenpferden, a former German general, who had devised and executed Operation Barbarossa. And, last not least, Jusuf al-Ringul, the Arab mastermind behind the Six Day War. These awe-inspiring men, nonetheless looking small and timid next to Udunvagor, would sit there with him for hours and hours, their heads bent over maps, while I was crouching under the table, polishing Udunvagor's shoes with a miniature toothbrush and trying to learn as much as I could.
As the days passed, Udunvagor seemed to spend more and more time with the generals, and even the other Board members started to complain. Of course, the only one who dared to voice her discontent openly was Hecate Mensenlarger, and one day she just burst into the room when the generals were assembled, brushed a couple of maps from the table, stemmed her arms into her hips and gave Udunvagor a look that would have caused hell to freeze instantly.
"Morrie!" she boomed. "Stop that for a moment and listen to me. The boys are tired. They form a queue outside my counseling office that goes all around the ship. Can you please get this world conquest done a bit quicker? I have no idea what you're doing here all day long, but I bet you're not concentrating on your work!"
Morambar's shadow darkened. "Look, Hecate", he started. "I'm really doing the best I can here and-"
"-Then maybe you should call it off and try it again another day", thundered Mensenlarger. "When you're better prepared!"
I could not stand it any longer. I stood up from my crouched position, flinging away the table, and faced the massive woman. "I can't believe what I'm hearing", I cried. "Aunt Heckie, don't you remember what you told me yourself? All those poor children out there who we have to liberate from their anti-Tolkien oppressors! What would they say if we flinched and ran away at the first sign of difficulty? What did Frodo do when they walked into Mordor and their supplies ran low? Did he turn back for a holiday in Minas Tirith, did he prepare himself for another year or two? No. He knew that it was now or never, he knew that he had to fulfill his task even against seemingly insurmountable odds. Did Tolkien run away when he was stuck in a trench at the Somme in World War I, when his friends were giving their lives for him? Just do your best, keep the boys in line a little while longer, and your spaghetti kingdom in Tuscany awaits you!"
The generals stared at me with their mouths open. Morambar smiled sardonically. Aunt Heckie gasped angrily, but she realized that she was outnumbered. "Oh, have it your way then", she hissed and stormed out of the room. On her way she kicked a chair so violently that if flew through the room, penetrated the wall and, after a flight of a few kilometers, smashed into a fisherboat and got stuck in a few dozen tons of frozen halibut.
Suddenly I realized what I had done, and my cheeks reddened. "Uh, sorry if I overstepped my authority", I mumbled and hastily put up the table again. "It just made me so angry and-"
But then I felt Udunvagor's hand on my shoulder, heavy and paternal. I froze. Never before had I seen him touch another living being. Except those he ate, of course, but they never lived to tell. "Well done, my son", said Morambar. "You are a worthy sentinel of Tolkien. I am proud to be your mentor. Now I think my shoes are clean enough for this morning. Why do you not get yourself a chair and take a look at our war plans? I would like to hear your opinion."
My haggard breast swelled in pride. Carefully I sat down at the table, and the generals reluctantly moved over. I do not claim that I understood all of what I saw. The big world map - it was the same Armand had held up on that sunny morning on deck - was covered in a confusing mass of arrows. Some were bold and some were thin, some were straight and some moved in wiggly lines or returned to their beginning. Some were crossed out, others had question marks written over them. Names were scribbled into the few arrowless areas, and numbers were squeezed in, most probably illustrating the strength of this or that army. I stared onto the map very hard. I turned my head. I stood up to watch it from a distance, then sat down again and almost pressed my nose onto the map. I blinked with my left eye, then with my right eye, then with both in the rhythm of Howard Shore's "The White Tree". I used my toothbrush to clean away some chocolate cake stains, rediscovering a little arrow marking the position of a bataillon we had already written off as missing. I frowned.
Finally I looked up. "Well", I said. "Well. Meaning no disrespect, but... well. That's not exactly looking good, is it?"
Other tales have been told about the great and terrible war Morambar unleashed upon the unsuspecting humanity. They tell about how his army first, lead by Armand, completely overran the happy little kingdom of Belgium and established a reign of terror. They tell how Armand, now calling himself the Vlaams Bloke, succumbed to the seduction of the strong Belgian beer and degenerated to a drunken madman, and how he and his men were finally defeated and driven away by a rag-tag band of adventurers, one of which - surprise, surprise! - was described as a "weirdo communist orc named Buggy or Boggy". When I heard that my old friend was stalking me again, trying to ruin my and Morambar's plans, I nearly gnawed a leg off my chair in anger.
The war went on. In desperate need of victories, Morambar started to ally himself with everyone who would not climb up a tree when he approached. Pirates and outlaws from all over the world flocked to his banner, and I swear once I saw Udunvagor talk to Imelda Marcos on a visual telephone. But whoever he recruited, nothing worked. As the world united against our attacks, the sale of Tolkien books plummeted sharply, and in some of the shadier third-world countries his worls were banned altogether. Instead of ushering in Tolkien's rule, we were on the brink of doing unrepairable damage to his reputation. And during an unimportant campaign somewhere in a tiny country whose name I forgot, Armand was captured, and we never heard about him anymore.
And then came the day when a very tiny rowing boat approached the U-fat. In the shadow of the gigantic Tolkien statues a little, stocky man climbed aboard. He was clad in a neat, very expensive suit with a very exactly adjusted tie. His sparse hair was neatly combed over the bald patch on the middle of his head. With an expensive-looking handkerchief he wiped a few very neat, exactly parallel-running drips of sweat from his face. The entire Board, as well as the generals, assembled on deck, curious about the meaning of this.
"Good morning", said the little man with a flat, tired voice. "My name is Joe, from Joe's Rent-A-Fleet Service. Who of you is Mr. Udunvager?"
"Udunvagor" growled our leader, his voice so deep that the entire deck started to vibrate in sonic resonance.
Unimpressed, the guy named Joe wiped his forehead again. "Mr. Udunvager, we have not received your last three weekly fees for the fleet. Now, don't worry, we are sure it's only a misunderstanding. If you could hand over the missing money now, I would be most willing to continue our business relationship."
All eyes turned to Morambar, who seemed to shrink in the bright daylight. "You see... Joe", he said heavily, "I planned to pay the fees with the bounty from the diamond mines on the Namibian coast. Unfortunately, our Fourth African Bataillon ran into an ambush of pro-Pratchett literary critics outside Windhuk, and-"
"-Well", said Joe, scribbling on a sheet of paper with a very expensive-looking pen, "that's just the second or third worst excuse I've heard in all the years since I entered this business. If you can't pay, I have to ask you to hand over the fleet immediately. I'm sorry, but our contract is quite clear on this." He looked down at the pedestal where Udunvagor udes to give his speeches, and frowned. "You have worn out the floor paint here quite a bit, Mr. Udunvager", he added. "I might have to charge you extra for that."
The Old Pseudo menacingly waved his tentacles around. "What do you think you're doing?" he hissed. "Don't you see there is a war going on here? We do not have the time to deal with such stuff right now. The fate of the world hangs in the b4l4nce, I mean ba1aNcE, I mean-"
"-Congratulations", said Joe dryly. "You have just discovered the first worst excuse. Unfortunately, it's also one of the most common." And with these words he gently pushed us all into a lifeboat, lowered it down to the water, and minutes later the entire fleet quietly turned around and steamed off towards an imaginary point on the wide, featureless horizon.
We stood in the lifeboat, tightly packed, and suddenly we all started to talk simultaneously. "Now that is a blasphemy, a travesty, a heresy", exploded Horus Engels. "Not the speck on the left cheek of a sparrow would dare to insult the wart on its right cheek this way!"
"Joe delendam est! Cum vehementitudinum maximum!" wailed Harold Brzeznski.
"Now what did I tell you, Morrie! Now what did I tell you!" boomed Aunt Heckie. "Serves you quite right!"
"Stylish repl1ca w4tches from famous brands", babbled the Old Pseudo.
Morambar Udunvagor said nothing. He just stared at the disappearing fleet, motionless, his face a grim mask of disbelief and wrath. His war was over. He had lost. And in this moment, something snapped inside of me. Everything I had learned to believe in, in my years in the underwater stronghold, the entire ideology that had given me strength, suddenly sneaked away into a dark corner of my brain and made room for a great weariness. "I need a holiday", I murmured. "A very long holiday." No longer having the strength to stand, I collapsed and slid overboard. Shouts followed me: "Noeel!" "What are you doing?" "Come back!" But already a giant wave, seemingly coming from nowhere, took me and washed me away, far away from the tiny lifeboat and its crew.