I think a real man is someone who can look at the stars and know where he is in the world. This seems to me, a basic requirement of not being a clueless fuck stranded in the middle of nowhere. To be able to look up and pinpoint where you are and which direction you need to go to get to the place you need to get to. A real man also has a place he needs to get to.
What about women, you say? I’m not a woman so I don’t know what their requirements are, that would be presumptuous and condescending, you self-congratulating pseudo-feminist bellend. I suggest you reassess your priorities and get the fuck out of me mum’s car.
Of course, now we can find all the answers just by asking our phones — cinema times, best restaurant, the meaning of life — no need to know anything when you have a search bar. It’s like having mummy and daddy right there to explain things and tell you what to do and how to do it and who to be, you know, like when you were a child.
Personally, I had reached the point where I could build a fire, kill and eat an animal, even fight off a predator (by healing myself through any injuries — cheating is a valid strategy). Was I all grown up now? Didn’t feel like it.
If being able to take care of yourself isn’t enough to make you identify as a grownup, then what?
Humans are social animals. We’re supposed to live together and rely on each other. When we cooperate, we can achieve the most difficult yet pointless things imaginable — giant statues seem to have been a popular choice — and we can defend ourselves against the scariest monsters. We judge ourselves the way the group judges us. We’re made to compare ourselves to each other. We sort by hot and select by popular, and then wait for upvotes to tell us right from wrong.
It’s like we got past the first level — clothing, shelter, food — and then no one knew what the hell we were supposed to do. Does it even count as the first level to learn how to get yourself dressed and fed? More like the tutorial.
Where was the guy with the big yellow exclamation point hovering over his head to give us our daily quest?
One thing seems to have remained constant throughout our evolution as a species, we’re still somehow ruled by corrupt, venal scumbags. They’re everywhere. From kings and presidents to local councillors.
All these leaders, are they real men? Could they beat anyone in a fight? Could they survive in the woods with just a knife? Could they protect women and children from an enraged boar and then serve it to them as dinner?
I would guess, no. So why are they in charge? Because they’re good at making promises for a better tomorrow? Is that really all you need to do?
It’s disappointing no one’s been able to come up with anything better, and also the lack of jetpacks and flying cars. The 21st century has been such a let down. Good thing I gave up on people a long time ago. It helped that the ones who were meant to look after me were so bad at it; opened my eyes early.
Everyone rushes to sign up with the group they think will serve their interests best — a race, a nation, a set of ideals that exclude anyone who will be a drain on resources, and then tries to get promoted up the ranks. That’s the game we’re stuck playing — pick a team and defend them under all circumstances.
There is no separation between any of these groups as far as I can see. They’re all the same animal in different outfits. A bunch of retards, who look alike and sound alike, elect sociopaths to tell them what to do, and are too afraid to get rid of them once they start sending people to the re-education camps. Every fucking country on the face of the planet has them in positions of power, and they’re all doing very very nicely, thank you very much.
It was almost like it had been arranged that way on purpose.
Paranoid? Perhaps. Maybe it was only true in this world, this version, this update. But if the Council was the same Council of Four I had encountered in Flatland, then it meant things were even more borked than I had thought.
“So,” I said to Orion, “when can I meet them?”
Orion didn’t look like he was all that keen to introduce me to his bosses. “You sound like you already know who they are.”
“Maybe,” I said. “Depends. They could be a completely different set of four puppet-controlling megalomaniacs. You know how it is with a meme — one person starts it, and then everyone and their mother is doing their version.”
From the way Orion was acting, he wasn’t aware of the Council’s presence back in Flatland. It really could be that these were a completely separate group of individuals, but it didn’t seem very likely. Much more likely was that they were being super sneaky, keeping their identities hidden from the people working for them.
“You can ask them, at least, can’t you?” I said. “See what they say.”
Orion still didn’t look happy, but how do you turn down such a polite request? Hello, my name is Karen and I’d like to speak to the manager.
“There is no direct line of communication,” said Orion. “It may take some time to get an answer.”
“Fine by me,” I said. This new strat was working out quite well. I got to stall while making it look like he was the ones wasting time. “Take all the time you need.”
“Let me make a call.” Orion wandered out of the room with his phone out.
The rest of Team America sat there, looking too big to fit on the sofa. They were a surprisingly sensitive bunch, not the high-fiving gits I’d expected. Perhaps it was time to rethink my tendency to judge people based on my preconceptions.
“I’ve always wondered,” I said, “do you really think of yourselves as the good guys? I mean, even if none of you are guilty of heinous shit, you must have seen people in the same uniform as you do it. Hard to stand for truth and justice when the guy you bunk with is a murdering rapist-liar-thief, etcetera, etcetera.”
Some people would find my question disrespectful, which is understandable. It’s the best way to avoid having to come up with a reasonable answer, after all.
“It isn’t that simple,” said Jack, not at all offended, at least not on the outside. He was probably listing the many ways he could kill me with a pencil in his head. “You’re limited in who you can have with you, and you need them to stay alive. The job is about killing people, so you can’t be too fussy about the occasional infringement of personal liberties. To be honest, kid, it’s surprising more people don’t break and go on a crazy spree of unauthorised violence.”
It was a fair point. If your job is to murder, how do you get morally outraged at the nickel and dime stuff? I guess it’s more of a marketing issue. If you try to portray the armed forces as a way to pick up a trade, maybe a college degree, you’re going to send mixed signals when the Instagram pics of grinning servicemen standing next to piles of corpses with two thumbs up get posted.
The good guys were the ones who did that shit the least — moral relativism makes heroes of at least half of us.
The five men on the couch looked perfectly comfortable with their life choices.
“Do you guys have, like, specialities?” I asked. “Did they put you together to cover all the bases? A sniper, a demolitions guy, a hand-to-hand combat expert, that sort of thing?”
“You mean like the Magnificent Seven?” said Jack, smiling. “No, not really.”
I was actually thinking more along the lines of an RPG party. Healer, DPS, tank. Which of these guys was the paladin and which was the ranged support?
“We’re all good at the basics,” continued Jack. “We have to be. We’d be in trouble if everyone was a specialist in only one field and someone died. That’s how you end up scrubbing out before you even get on site.”
It would be quite interesting to see how a trained squad would handle a fantasy world, rather than a bunch of kids. Even without modern weapons, they were probably trained in jungle warfare like John Rambo. Couple of bamboo sticks, some vines, slap on a bit of mud, and instant arts and crafts IED.
“Who are these people from the council?” said Mandy, like we were talking about the guys responsible for collecting the bins.
“Cheng knows,” I said, turning to face Mandy.
Cheng shrugged, apparently not knowing, and then I sat down.
I can’t explain it, I didn’t hear or feel anything, but a vague premonition made me drop onto the floor, butt-first, just as something flew over my head.
It would be nice to think I had gained super-reflexes that could save me without me even being involved in the decision-making process, but I doubted that I had developed a spidey-sense overnight. Whatever it was, I dodged a bullet. Or a dart.
I saw it fly away from me and strike Mandy in the chest, just above her cleavage. She let out a gasp and fell backwards.
“What the fuck was that?” I said in my usual timely manner. I looked over my shoulder at the squad, who had shocked expressions, in particular Samson, my recent and, you would think, grateful patient. His arm was extended and I could see some kind of contraption strapped to it.
“Colin!” called out Cheng. He had Mandy in his arms. She was shaking like she’d left her vibrator in and running overnight.
It took me a moment to realise he wanted me to heal her. Whatever the dart was, it wasn’t doing her any good.
“It was an accident,” said Samson. “I swear it.”
“What was on the dart?” I said as I scramble towards Cheng. “Poison?”
“A neurotoxin,” said Jack. “Non-lethal.”
“Then why is she dying?” said Cheng, his voice deepening with each syllable. He probably would have done more than just ask questions if he wasn’t so concerned about his wife.
“Some people have an overreaction,” said Jack. “One in a million.”
An overreaction. Like she was a drama queen making a scene. I mean, she was a drama queen, but she wasn’t dying as a way to get attention. Probably.
I pulled the dart out of Mandy and had a moment as I tried to figure out where on her body to put my hands. One on each tit might get me ostracised on social media. Where did they put defibrillators on buxom women? I opted for a hand on each shoulder like I was about to give her a stern talking to.
“I can’t get in the right head-space without feeling like I’m in imminent danger,” I said.
“Heal her,” said the demon holding his fading wife in his arms, “or you will be.”
There was no change in Cheng but, just for a second, I saw the monster I had encountered when I first went to Monsterland staring at me through Cheng’s youthful eyes. I may have peed myself a little, but it did the trick.
My hands burned with energy and Mandy moaned as I directed it through her chest. It took a while, there was a lot of real estate to cover. As she regained consciousness, she reached her hand to her chest, pushed two fingers into her cleavage, and pulled out a fun-sized Snickers. She thrust it at me.
I was feeling a little light-headed, so it was good thinking on her part, but I felt a bit strange eating boob chocolate.
“Why do you keep sweets in there?” I said, ripping the wrapper open. The chocolate was partially melted, like when you pocket-bake food by accident.
“Low blood sugar,” muttered Mandy.
Women, I submit, are an odd mixture of dainty and absolutely disgusting.
Cheng was visibly unhappy. The squad looked nervous.
“I’m sorry, truly,” said Samson. “It just went off.”
“You came into my home with a weapon,” said Cheng. There was fire in his voice.
“Hey, calm down,” I said. “I think it really was an accident.” An accident that would have hit me in the back if I hadn’t ducked. I stood up and went over to Samson. “Show me.”
Samson looked over at his squadmates, and then pulled up his sleeve. Thin rods of polished wood encircled his forearm up to the elbow. They were attached to a bracelet that looked like cheesy new age jewellery, so nothing that would stand out on Samson, who was wearing plenty of other Etsy impulse buys.
I picked up a cushion from the sofa and held it in front of Samson’s hand. When I bent his hand down, a dart came fizzing out and struck the cushion. The way the whole thing operated to mechanically fire the dart was quite interesting, like Spider-man’s web shooter without the obvious metaphor for teenage ejaculate. I pumped the instrument a few more times (not a euphemism) and more darts shot out. I pulled them out of the cushion and examined the tips, which were coated with greenish goo.
“Non-lethal?” I asked.
“It was just a precaution,” said Jack. “Nothing personal.”
“Sure,” I said. “In case I started anything.” It was a fairly reasonable precaution to take, under the circumstances. “What if you use more than one on a single person. Can you overdose?”
Jack hesitated. “It’s… possible.”
“Hmm.” I looked at the four small darts in my hand, and then at Samson’s exposed forearm. I jabbed all four into his arm and scraped double train tracks across his skin. He let out a yell and his eyes widened.
He hadn’t tried to retract his arm. He was trying to show good faith to prove it had been a genuine misfire. I believed him. It wasn’t the accident that concerned me.
Samson staggered and sat down heavily onto the sofa. The others were all on their feet.
“Remember,” I said,“I can heal him.” This seemed to calm them a little.
Samson sat there, shivering. Cheng had risen to his feet, supporting Mandy, who now had a nasty red pimple on her chest. Might actually get the tart to cover herself up for once in her life.
Samson fell onto his side and stopped moving.
“He’s going to die,” said Jack.
“I said I can heal him. I didn’t say I was going to.” I walked back to where Cheng was. The atmosphere was a little tense.
Two of the other men jumped across and began giving Samson CPR. It was like a scene from a movie, the type where they try to save their comrade- in-arms even though it’s too late, and eventually have to be dragged away with tearful cries of, “He’s gone, he’s gone.”
“He’s gone,” said one of the men leaning over Samson. Not tearful, just matter-of-fact.
“You killed him,” said Jack.
“No, you killed him,” I said. “Can’t expect second chances, Jack. Could have been worse, though. Imagine if I let him do the honours.” I nodded towards Cheng. In many ways, I had saved them from a much worse fate. “I’d really started to like you guys. Always a bad sign.”
Jack looked at me, sizing me up. “You don’t see yourself as one of the good guys, do you?”
“No,” I said. “If anything, I identify as monster.”
“That’s how we think of you, too,” said Cheng, holding on tightly to Mandy. He didn’t sound like he meant it in the inclusive ‘you’re one of us’ sense.
Orion came back in. “I’ve spoken to—” He paused to take in the scene. “What happened to Samson?”
“He couldn’t handle his own toxicity,” I said. “Or mine.”
Orion exchanged a look with Jack. Neither said anything, but they seemed to reach an understanding. Orion turned his attention back to me.
“The Council will meet with you.”
“Great. When can they get here?”
“No, I’m afraid you have to go to them.”
“Where are they?” I asked. “Island with a dormant volcano shaped like a skull?”
“No,” said Orion. “Chelsea.”
A shiver ran through me. Land of the upmarket chavs, with over-tanned monsters roaming wild and the most glamorous arseholes you’ll ever see puking in the streets at two in the morning. I should have saved a couple of those darts.
Next two chapters are up now on Patreon.
If you have a moment, I'd greatly appreciate a vote for this story on TopWebFiction. VOTE. Thanks. (votes refresh weekly).Afterword from Mooderino