Xtkpk stirred in the vein that concealed him. Properly pronounced, his name would sound like rocks being crushed together, the logical result of its being produced by the crushing together of rocks. A proud name here in Middle-Earth, that is to say deep beneath the earth’s surface at around 800 degrees kelvin. It was his father’s name and his grandfather’s name before that, speaking a bit imprecisely given that the lava-based creatures of Qgkhtb had seven distinct genders, at least three of which were required for procreation.
By sound, the closest approximation of Xtkpk’s gender would be “R,” whereas other genders such as Y and Q made up the complement of the species. (This was the classification system devised by 27th century scholars upon the discovery of the underground civilization)
Xtkpk shifted again, uneasy as he yearned to stretch his appendages, but agonizingly aware how urgently he needed to avoid making noise for fear of detection. He shivered at the images flitting through his mind of the terrible punishment meted out to those caught spying: being sent to the “cold place.” There, rumor had it, ones body froze, locked forever into one position while the mind still perceived all around with perfect clarity.
Nobody in Middle-Earth knew for sure, as the local scientists had never in decades of research been able to devise a protective suit that would sustain life at such ungodly frigid temperatures. There were even rumors spread by wild-eyed conspiracy theorists that intelligent life existed above the crust layer. Xtkpk scoffed at such silly nonsense. How could something as complex as life exist in such harsh conditions? Why, even iron would be a solid.
One time he had partaken of an adventure expedition to the higher strata, where the temperature dropped alarmingly as they ascended, enough to form little sediments of pumice in his joints. It took his masseuse nearly a week to knead out all the knots. Any less than about 750 degrees kelvin was too cold, in his book. How those insane nutcases survived in the chill of the upper strata was beyond him. 500 degrees was simply cryogenic.
Now he crept closer to the chamber of the opposing commander, knowing that, on the other side of the wall, the enemy would be detailing their strategy for the enormous battle that would soon take place. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of souls would be sent to the Cold Place. Carefully, Xtkpk succeeded in drilling a tiny opening in the partition of the cavern. In the infrared glow he could see with perfect clarity through the heat waves that swept across the sulfurous gas that filled the chamber.
The enemy commander stood before a translucent 3-d map that delineated all of the essential boundaries, marked off with distances in base 13 as derived from the fact that most creatures in the region possessed 13 tentacles, give or take. The group of leaders convened in an immense underground cavern, the floor of which was strewn with diamonds, molten gold, and petroleum. The last reminded Xtkpk that it had been a while since he had last eaten. He prayed that his digestive chamber would not betray his presence by gurgling.
“As you all realize,” declared the commander in stentorian tones, “the reach of this battle will be enormous. Unprecedented. At a scale never before seen or even imagined in the history of Qqktkt. Great indeed will be your glory, as will be the pride of your descendants for countless generations yet unborn. Yes, they will flourish in this strata as was promised by our ancestors in the tales that have been passed down. And our great triumph will usher in a time of peace and prosperity for all of our noble race. And great woe to those who are enemies, for they shall be cast into the Place of unbearable Cold, and the gnashing of teeth!”
The high commander stepped over to the 3-d model, pointing percussively with his staff as he rasped out the orders. “We’ll proceed from the deposits of Slgkqht through the sedimentary layer, where we’ll have the advantage of surprise…”
Finally! Now the interminable periods of patient waiting were about to pay off! Xtkpk would finally hear the full details of the top-secret plan so he could spoil the enemy’s attack by informing his commander! If only he could keep still long enough…
Horrified, he began to feel a cramp building up in his 11th tentacle. And with no room to stretch!
“From there, we’ll occupy the granite sheath, and…”
It was no use. There was a faint crackle that reverberated through the rock as his tentacle unwound slightly.
“Did you hear that?” resonated the enemy commander’s voice across the meeting chamber. Desperately, Xtkpk prodded his poor brain for an escape plan, but it was no use. A complete zen blank. He knew he was surrounded. His only hope lay in remaining undetected.
A drop of perspiration trickled down the part that approximately resembled his forehead. The drop was a mixture of lead and manganese, with some other trace elements thrown in.
“I heard it too,” spoke another voice. “It came from over there…”
“Search the area!” barked the commander in chief.
Xtkpk’s molten-ore-pump pounded.
As he heard the crackling munch of lava slithering toward him, he made a desperate effort at furtive escape, but was soon pinned down by a gang of stocky thickset hulks of genders X, Z, and W.
A quick inspection of his notes revealed that he was a spy.
“Summary execution!” bellowed the commander.
And now Xtkpk stood on the brink of the scaffold, waiting to be shoved into the pressure current that would drive him bodily by force up into the realm of awful nightmares, the Cold Place! How he trembled, yearning for a final glimpse of his beloved Gtpqk and their beautiful young Q-gender offspring, Pqqtq, its delightful dimples and infectious laugh.
“Final smoke?” offered the executioner.
“I’m quitting, thanks,” said Xtkpk.
One blindfolded shove, and he was reeling in space, in free rise, plummeting dizzily upward as the walls of the vent streaked by faster and faster, as the icy chill crept in all around him, and his limbs stiffened with pins and needles of numbness, until finally he was released into… into what? An enormous open space, larger than he had ever imagined! And such colors! A tiny bright dot in the middle of deep blue, brighter than anything!
He felt himself falling once more…
* * * * * *
“Mama, what’s that sound?” asked the young lad as the two walked down the streets of Pompeii, past the gigantic advertising billboard for a chain of brothels.
“Vesuvius is angry!” grumbled the older woman. “I have been warning all along, that the quantity of virgins sacrificed this year is insufficient! Now listen!”
There was a tremble that increased to a peak over a few seconds, then came to an abrupt halt as the mountain ejected a cluster of rock in a satisfying belch. The eructed shape had thirteen protrusions, each resembling a tentacle.
The kid chuckled. “It burped!”
“Make a wish, son. Make a wish.”