Mandy drove like a maniac. She clipped the kerb on every corner, ran the amber when it was clearly going to turn red while we were still in the middle of the junction, didn’t wait for the old lady to get off the zebra crossing before charging over the black and white stripes. Madness.
“Don’t worry,” she said, head bouncing between looking over her shoulder at her gurgling son on my knee and the mirror to check her eye shadow didn’t need touching up. “It’s not far from here.”
Son, mirror, son, mirror. Can you see the part that’s missing?
“Watch the fucking road,” I yelled at her. I didn’t like my fate being in someone else’s hands at the best of times — and this was hardly one of those.
“Calm down,” said Mandy, looking right at me. The back of a red bus grew larger in the windscreen only I was looking through.
“Bus!” I shouted, pointing.
“Bus!” shouted the kid, happily joining in the game.
The car came to a smooth stop with Mandy still looking at me.
“Anti-crash technology,” said Mandy. “Or something. I don’t know what it’s called. Won’t let me hit another car. Or a bus. I’ve tried.” She smiled at the baby. “Hungry? You hungry? Are you? Hungry?”
The bus shook and rumbled, spewing black fumes into our faces. We were in a hermetically-sealed, air-conditioned bubble, but I could still taste the diesel seeping in against the odds. At least technology hadn’t taken away everything I remembered.
“Looks like we lost them,” said Mandy, her eyes shifting to look past me.
I turned and checked our rear. There was a guy in a white van with a frown that went full scowl as he began beeping his horn. Nothing a London driver hates more than a car standing still in the middle of the road when there’s nothing in front of it.
There was no sign of pursuit. No men in mirrored sunglasses sneaking up on us, no helicopter watching from above, the way shady organisations track their innocent prey in movies, coming in low and spraying the street with machine guns and somehow missing with every bullet.
Mandy turned back around, flicked on the stereo, and drove the rest of the way to Coldplay on repeat. There’s never a head-on collision when you need one.
I tried to put the kid in his car seat but he wasn’t having it, easily dodging my valiant attempts at good parenting. Jenny would have had him eating out of her hand, I bet.
Mandy’s house had a high wall running all the way around it and black gates that opened as we approached. It was a swanky place, all marble columns and original windows from 1066 or 1812 or whenever. I’m not sure why people value old shit so much more than new shit — maybe because some industrialist in the 1950s figure out you could make more money if you manufactured everything with planned obsolescence and nothing lasts anymore.
Shiny-leafed hedges lined the gravel drive up to the house. Mansion, really. Grand old pile. There was probably one of those blue plaques somewhere, letting you know a poet had killed themselves here because they were far too comfortable to write anything good.
How had Cheng ended up here? Where did he get the money from? His mother had been from Hong Kong, but even if her family was rich, Cheng could hardly prove his parentage with a birth certificate.
“We’re safe here,” said Mandy, taking the kid from me as I exited the car. “They won’t dare come any closer, not with Cheng here.”
The door opened and Cheng came out. He looked human. A bit baby-faced, very muscular, and naked. No tail or horns or wings, which I could see because he was naked. Did I mention he was naked?
“Hello, Colin,” he said. “It’s good to see you again.” He kissed Mandy (who was delighted to be home with someone to witness how well she’d done for herself) and took the baby from her. The kid immediately began to climb Cheng like he was a tree.
“Thanks,” I said. “Were you in the shower?”
“No, I was working. It gets very hot and sticky in my study and I need to cool off. I’m not making you uncomfortable, am I?”
“We all walk around naked when we’re at home,” said Mandy, a sly smile on her bright red lips. “Au naturel.”
You get these types of parents, usually in Europe. Everything in the open, hanging out. It’s supposed to create a less repressive environment. But this was England, damn it. If we weren’t repressed, what were we? Swedish? No thanks.
“Could you put some underpants on at least?” I asked, not unreasonably.
“Certainly. You have something I can use?” he asked Mandy.
We went inside, me leading the way, which might have seemed a bit presumptuous for my first visit, but it allowed me to see fewer buttocks that way.
The house was all mod cons inside, full of very stylish furniture and sleek electronic stuff on the walls and blinking lights at me from various corners.
I had a lot of questions for Cheng but I felt like they could wait until he’d put his giant cock away. I sat down on a sofa that threatened to swallow me whole and waited for Cheng to come back, which he did, wearing a pair of Mandy’s knickers which didn’t cover much and made me even more uncomfortable than when he’d been fully nude.
“Did she tell you we were attacked on the way?” I said. Time to get serious, which is difficult with bulging black lace panties everywhere you looked.
“Yes,” said Cheng, not sounding particularly concerned.
“And your driver was one of them,” I added.
“Unfortunate,” said Cheng. “But these things happen. It’s been difficult finding loyal staff. He’s not the first to let us down.”
He made it sound like he was disappointed with their time-keeping and general attitude. If he was hiring Brits to do domestic work it wasn’t like there was going to be any alternatives.
“You don’t care someone tried to take your wife and child away from you?” I made it sound like I was appalled but to be perfectly frank, most guys would probably appreciate a little alone-time once they’re a couple of years into a marriage.
“Oh, I don’t think they were after them. They were much more likely to have been after you.”
“What? Why? How do they even know about me? I only just got here.”
“I’m not exactly sure how they do it, but they seem to be able to detect someone leaving or coming back. They can track us, too. Perhaps we emit some substance not natural to this world. You probably appeared as a massive spike in their readings — even I felt it when you returned”
Mandy came in carrying the child, changed into tiny denim overalls and Adidas trainers, his face attached to her breast. He looked like a little chav. Probably not the first one in that position.
“Charlie started crying, didn’t you Charlie-Biscuit, wet yourself and wouldn’t stop sobbing.” Mandy looked up at me. “That’s how I guessed it would be you.”
I ignored the bait. “And who are they, these people who can detect us and know about Flatland? Yes, they’re rich guys who want a piece of the other world, but how did they find out? Who’s behind them? What do they want?”
“As far as I know,” said Cheng, “they are the descendants of Peter.”
“Peter? His children?”
“No, not his children,” said Cheng. “His family, though. He found a way to contact them over the years, told them where he was. I can’t say for sure what he wants them to do, but I don’t expect it to be very admirable. They are harmless, though.”
I didn’t like how dismissive he was being. “They attacked me out in the open. They must be pretty sure of themselves if they don’t care who sees them.”
“Yes. the police and the media won’t touch them,” said Cheng. “They have little power beyond that.”
“That seems quite powerful to me.”
“What are you so worried about?” said Mandy, taking junior off the feeding tube. “I was there to protect you, wasn’t I?”
“And who was going to protect you?” I asked.
“My little Charlie-Biscuit, of course.” She put him on the rug where he sat looking dazed. “You’d protect mummy, wouldn’t you, golden one?”
He burped loudly.
“Okay, let’s start from the beginning,” I said. “How did you get here?”
“The baby,” said Cheng. “She wanted to have him here.”
“On the NHS? Really?” Not that I thought the NHS was a bad thing, just not my idea of a destination holiday.
“No,” said Mandy vehemently. “Private, of course.”
“Okay, nice of you to ease the pressure on an overburdened system.”
“I wasn’t that fat when I was pregnant. Tell him.”
Cheng gave me a look like I had stepped into a minefield and needed to back out slowly.
“I didn’t mean… never mind.” Some fights are lost before you even get on the battlefield. “How did you get here? Is there a way back? Like a door?”
“No,” said Cheng. “My father opened the way from Nekromel, a one-time portal. I’ve been working on how to open a reverse portal but I’m not sure it’s a very good idea. The people watching us would most probably try to get their hands on it, and that wouldn’t end well.”
“But you think it is possible?”
“You want to go back and rescue the others?” said Mandy.
Did I? Or did I just want to leave this place?
“I’m not sure I’d want to bring them to this timeline. This Earth is very messed up.”
“What do you mean, this Earth?” said Mandy. “This is the only Earth there is.”
“I don’t think so. Haven’t you watched the news? This is nothing like the Earth we left behind. Fat-fuck in the White House, right-wing religious nuts taking over everywhere, Spurs in a cup final — something this bizarre could only be an aberration, probably caused by you two, you three smashing through dimensions to get here for your Harley Street doctor’s appointment.”
“I don’t think our arrival changed anything,” said Cheng, a little defensive.
“Trump was already president when we got here,” said Mandy. “Is that your problem? You’re a loony lefty who can’t handle a guy standing up for regular people? I have relatives in America, and they say things are a lot better over there now. It’s not like how the media show it.” She was getting quite worked up.
Politics has that effect. People are more interested in being heard than being right. They can easily be pushed into needless aggression if they aren’t treated with respect and understanding.
“Your relatives, I assume, are genetically related to you, so will be thick as two planks. Hardly who I’d want feedback from.”
“Are you going to let him talk to me like that?” said an irate Mandy. The kid clapped his hands and laughed.
“You know, without him, we wouldn’t be together,” said Cheng, like a judge’s summation before handing down the sentence.
“Yes, don’t remind me,” I said. “I’m still waiting for my thank you basket of muffins, fucking ungrateful bint.”
Mandy looked like she was about to hit me. The kid was applauding wildly.
“Try to use your brain,” I said. “The guy thinks asbestos is harmless, big conspiracy by the gays and Muslims to make us use building materials that don’t kill people. Fucking retard’s going to proclaim cigarettes are full of vitamins next. Politics has nothing to do with it. If you can’t spot a sack of shit when it’s right in front of you, it’s because you’re too used to the smell since you’re full of shit yourself.”
“Fuck you,” said Mandy. “I suppose you think you’re going to change things back to how they were before, bloody Marty McFly.”
Mandy looked around for something to hit me with, and then stormed into the kitchen where she might find something with a sharp point.
“Now, please, let’s not argue,” said Cheng. “I can assure you the current state of the world is entirely natural and achieved through the normal means. A lot of people worked very hard to create this situation.”
“Yes,” I said. “Evil people. Evil people are very hard working while the peace and love crowd are a bunch of lazy twats; that’s always been the problem. But it’s never been this bad. Even when we had world wars, people at least gave a damn. This is all a bunch of…” I waved my hand around trying to think of the right word “...big hairy bollocks.”
Mandy came back waving a spatula. It looked brand new, which was hardly a surprise. Mandy was not the type to spend her time in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant. More like bare-arsed and on Instagram.
Oh, how funny, I dropped my phone and it took an upskirt pic. Please like me.
“This is my house and I won’t be spoken to like that,” said Mandy. “I have the right to have an opinion.”
“Yes,” I said. “It’s just that my opinions are worth more than yours. This world is all wrong. Just because you and people like you are doing okay doesn’t make it acceptable, you selfish prick.”
“Nice. You hear that?” she said to Cheng. “No, I don’t need you to step in for me.” He hadn’t offered. “Look, I know it’s a bit off how things are, but that’s what happens when things need to change. It’s like punk music. No one liked that shit, it was bloody horrible to listen to, but it was necessary to shake things up.”
It wasn’t a bad analogy. And she was right, punk was fucking terrible.
“Yes,” I said, “sure. There was terrible glam rock with guys in makeup trying to act cool, and then along came punk, and then there were New Romantics, with guys in makeup trying to act cool.”
Punk is always seen as this sea change in the music industry, but all punk did was allow a new set of idiots to take over. Nothing really changed. It was like a little kid having a tantrum to get his brother to let him have a go on the PlayStation. Takes him forever to figure out the controller he eventually gets handed isn’t even plugged into the console.
“Things are fine as they are,” said Mandy. “Leave it alone. You’ll only make it worse. I’m happy, for once, don’t fuck it up.” Her face dissolved into a desperate plea.
There was actually a fair point. No matter how bad I felt things were, I had no doubt they could be made worse, especially if it was left up to me.
“And then what? Wait for Charlie to grow up and become our demon overlord?” It actually wasn’t that bad an idea. “Is that why you came here, Cheng? Is that the plan? Let us destroy ourselves by refusing to vaccinate and voting in conmen, and then you’ll put junior on the throne to save us all?” The more I said it, the less I hated it.
“No, not really,” said Cheng. “Unless he wants to. I think he could do better, though.”
“Don’t you try to boss my son around,” Mandy said to me very forthrightly, spatula pointed at my face. “You leave him out of this.”
“Lucky for you, I don’t have any power here. Cheng, how can I regain my magical abilities?”
“Don’t tell him about the machine, Cheng.” Mandy clamped her hand over her mouth, too late.
“Machine? What machine?”
“It’s something I’ve been working on,” said Cheng. “A way to access power from the other side. But it is a very painful process. It is beyond the threshold of most people, far beyond.”
“I know pain,” I said. “I’ve been beyond the threshold. Jenny once accidentally kneed me in the groin, I doubt your process comes anywhere near close.”
“Ha,” said Mandy. “Accidentally. Right.”
“I can show you,” said Cheng, “but you will need to push yourself to the limit of your endurance.”
“No, don’t,” said Mandy. “If you give him his power back, you don’t know what he’ll do. You don’t know all the horrible things he said he’d do to me.”
“Yes, the horrible things like telling you to marry Cheng. What a bastard I was to make you accept actual love instead of the fake plastic version you’d been chasing all your life.”
“That was a back massager,” said Mandy.
“The only way to make you happy is to not let you decide anything for yourself, fucking dumb fuck. I gave you this life, and if I want to take it away I fucking will.”
“He said he’d set me on fire,” she said to Cheng. “Is that what you want?”
“You know he has a very dry sense of humour,” said Cheng.
“Exactly,” I said. “Dry like kindling. Tell me what I need to do, Cheng. Show me this machine.”
The kid was tugging on my trouser leg. I bent down and picked him up. He at least was on my side. Mandy was pouting like she’d been betrayed by her own flesh and blood — a face poor Charlie was going to see a lot of in the years ahead.
“Aha,” said Charlie in a lilting chortle, and then threw up on my shoulder.
A normal hazard when handling small kids, except this kid puked acid. The material on my shoulder began to dissolve.
“Ow. Little help.”
“This is the first step,” said Cheng, not coming to my aid.
“First step to what?” I asked, trying to hand off the child while my shoulder began to itch.
“To the nine gates of pain. Gate one will only hurt a little. Gate nine will… you will be the first to learn about the ninth gate, if you make it that far.”
Mandy was smiling bitterly. “Go on Charlie, give Uncle Colin a kiss.”
Charlie reached for me, smiling with a mouth full of tiny sharp teeth and what looked like a forked tongue caged behind them.
“And this will give me my magic back?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Cheng. “If you survive, yes.”
Next two chapters are up now on Patreon.Afterword from Mooderino