“There’s really no need to be upset,” said Cowdrey, through the mouthless face of his avatar.
I hadn’t bothered to examine the four life-sized puppets in the room, they could have been shop window mannequins or crash test dummies or maybe something borrowed from Madame Tussaud’s (which would be obvious because they would bear a striking resemblance to no celebrity you’d ever seen).
They each had a blank, white mask attached to their heads and a cloak covering their body. It was too dark in the room to make out any other details.
“In my experience,” I said, “there’s always a reason to be upset, it’s just that the information isn’t always made available to the public. It avoids riots. Is it just you, or is the whole gang here?”
“We’re here,” said a female voice from one of the other blank masks.
“Very lucky you asked to speak to us when you did,” said another female voice from a different head. “If you’d asked a little later, you would have had to wait another week.”
One of the women was Dorothea and the other was Morwenna. I couldn’t tell you which was which off the top of my head, which was rude and inconsiderate of me — I’m sure we can all accept that it’s far too late to do anything about this behaviour.
“So, you aren’t here, in this world, then?” From what she had said, it sounded like they could get in touch only when the stars aligned or when they were allowed to use the public phone at the loony bin.
“No, we are not even in the same universe as you,” said Cowdrey.
“Where are you?”
“Sorry,” said Cowdrey, “did you say something? The reception isn’t great. Hello? Can you hear me.”
“Yes, I can hear you. I want to know where you are. Were you even in Flatland when I saw you?”
If they were able to use puppet-phones here, it was possible they could have used them in Flatland. Rather than them appearing only in their disguised form to protect their privacy, maybe that was the only way they could communicate since they weren’t on that planet, either.
“Our location isn’t important,” said Cowdrey, which told me that their location was very important. “What is important is that you were able to travel between worlds, and you have the potential of opening a gateway for the rest of us.”
“And why is that important?” I asked.
“Do you not see the possibilities?” said Cowdrey. “Do you not see the sea change in human development this could bring about? The entire future of the species rests in your hands at this moment.” He had stepped up the sales pitch to MLM levels. He’d be showing my brochures for a time-share in Malaga next.
“No. I see the possibility of a bunch of giant dickheads to amuse themselves at my expense. Why the hell would I care about your plans for the next step in human evolution? Do you have a track record of great ideas to help convince me of your expertise in universe-moulding? No, you fucking don’t. I don’t recall anyone asking for you to take the steering wheel — I certainly didn’t. And while we’re on the subject of you being two-faced, creepy, lying sacks of shit, why the hell are you working with Peter’s people if he’s the one you’ve been trying to stop all this time? Or is that yet another deception from the Council of Fucks?”
There was a pause.
“You’ve upset him,” said the first woman. “I told you he would be psychologically unprepared for a direct confrontation.” Morwenna, I remembered, was the one who fancied herself as something of an amateur shrink.
“When do you suppose he wouldn’t be psychologically unprepared?” asked the other woman, Dorothea. “And how do we coincide his stable periods with our window of access? It could take years before the two intersect.”
I got up from my chair and walked around the table to where Morwenna was. It was dark with the blinds closed, but no one seems to be able to make blinds that actually shut out the light completely.
I grabbed Morwenna by the shoulders and picked her up. She was very light, which I’m sure she would have been very pleased to hear. There was some resistance, but none of the dummies had moved very much, their connection didn’t seem as strong here as in Flatland were they’d been able to move around. It was like picking up a doll with the legs still in walk-mode.
Dorothea was on the other side of the table, so I walked around and placed Morwenna on top of her, after turning her upside down. They were now in what I would describe as a sexual position most women had not even attempted, not even the gay ones — the seated 69.
On the other hand, every kid who ever owned two dolls or two action figures (no, they aren’t the same thing) would be more than familiar with the pose.
Childish? Yes. Misogynistic? Maybe. Difficult to speak without looking foolish? Bingo.
The mannequin bodies, as well as being very light, were quite well articulated. The joints bent in the right way, which suggested they could be used to walk and move around. Perhaps the signal was only strong enough at certain times, when orbits brought the two entities close enough or when their Mum wasn’t using the hoover.
“What is this supposed to achieve?” said Morwenna, her voice actually coming out muffled.
“It’s supposed to achieve stress-relief for me, and by the looks of it, also Dorothea.”
I headed back to my chair, passing the fourth member of the group, who hadn’t spoken yet.
“What about you? Got anything to add?”
“Not yet,” said Legion, his voice gruff and mildly annoyed, like I’d dragged him away from something far more important.
I bent down and grabbed his ankles, and then raised them up and over his head, so his feet were behind his ears. It’s not often you have a meeting with someone in that position. Not unless you work at Google.
He tried to dislodge them, but I’d wedged them into place quite firmly. All he could do was quiver a bit, which only made the whole thing look more coquettish, bloody tease.
I sat back down on my chair, feeling like I’d got some of the resentment out of my system. Don’t worry, though, I still had plenty left.
“Now,” I said, “why are you working with Peter?” I made sure to sound very calm and reasonable, so Spread-eagle Larry and the Sixty-Nine Twins would look even more ridiculous by contrast.
“We aren’t,” said Cowdrey.
“They think you are,” I said.
“Yes,” said Dorothea, through Morwenna’s legs, “that’s the idea.”
“We have managed to place ourselves at the head of his organisation,” said Cowdrey. “He only managed to speak to them once, a long time ago. Enough to start the ball rolling, but it wasn’t until recently that they started making real progress. That’s when we stepped into the picture. They believe we are Peter’s proxies, for reasons I won’t go into, and that we are working together to bring him back.”
“That’s what you are doing,” I said.
“No,” said Cowdrey. “Well, yes, in a way, but not for the reason they think. The main thing is to remove him from the world he is in currently.”
“You want to bring him here because this world isn’t real?” I said.
“What makes you think this world isn’t real?” said Legion. It was hard to take the question seriously when he was talking from between his own legs.
“It’s obvious, isn’t it? Just look around. There’s no way any of this would be allowed to happen on the real Earth. It’s like a cartoon. It’s like some creative writing graduate decided to write an Orwellian satire, and used the most hackneyed, on-the-nose, cheesy examples possible. Ooh, look at me one-upping 1984. They’ll call me a genius in a hundred years when it all comes true. It’s not even realistic. Spurs are in the European cup final, for God’s sake.”
There was a pause as I got the feeling they had no idea what I was talking about.
“What makes you think this isn’t the Orwellian future Orwell warned us about coming true?” said Cowdrey.
I took a moment to think about it. Could this be the real world gone horribly wrong in my absence? Not that my absence had anything to do with it, but when you don’t see the many, many small steps it took to get from one side of Inconceivable Canyon to the other, it can look like an impossible jump.
“Either way,” I said, “I don’t see how bringing Peter here will be a good thing.”
“If this world isn’t real,” said Cowdrey, “what does it matter?”
Hoisted on my petard, without consent, which makes it a criminal offence, assuming you can get an eighty-year-old judge to believe you weren’t secretly carrying a petard around in the hope someone would give you a damn good hoisting.
“Peter comes here, and you get the free run of Flatland and its adjoining properties, is that the idea?”
“We only want people to have the freedom to do as they want,” mumbled Morwenna, “live as they please.”
“Without him, there is a much better chance for real peace and prosperity for all of Flatland,” said Legion. “We have the means to do it, but we needed someone with the correct energy signature. Someone who had been there and came back. It’s been very frustrating not being able to open the door without someone who was on the other side.”
“You already have that,” I said. “There’s a monster in Hampstead who fits the bill, plus his wife and kid. Three of them.” It was Hampstead, so the description could have fit any number of university professors and hospital consultants, but they knew who I meant.
“We tried… it didn’t work out the way we had hoped,” said Cowdrey.
“You mean he told you to sling your hook. Cheng’s got good instincts when it comes to monster-spotting. He knew what I was, and he knows what you are. You’re no different to Peter, you even have the same goal. You’re just more sneaky than him. Which is saying a lot.”
“You’re wrong,” said Morwenna. “We may fail, we may even make things worse, but we aren’t doing this for our own benefit. Each of us is more interested in being left alone to enjoy our lives the way we want, bothering no one. But Peter has made that more and more difficult over time, and he is doing the same for everyone he encounters. He looks down on people, sees them as mere stepping stones. We don’t.”
It was an impassioned speech, one that would have been more moving if she hadn’t been using Dorothea’s crotch as an amplifying device.
“That’s exactly what you’re doing,” I said. “I’m your stepping stone. None of you gives a shit about what’ll happen to me. I know I don’t either, but I’m entitled to abuse myself — you aren’t.” Halfway through my statement, I started to suspect my point wasn’t as profound as I had thought it would be.
“You’re the only one who can make this happen,” said Cowdrey. “But it’s your choice.”
“Great. I say no. We done?”
“Yes,” said Legion. “We have to stop now before we give away our position.”
“Give away to who?”
“To whom,” mumbled Morwenna.
“Don’t make me come over there and put you into a more embarrassing pose.” I know none of you think that’s possible, but that’s what makes me a goddamn artist, you plebs.
“There are other people who are aware that we exist. They will have seen the energy spike when we opened communications. It’s only a matter of time until they get here.”
“Who? A rival faction of mannequins? What will they do, swing in through the windows and tip over onto their sides?”
“They are government forces, a combined unit,” said Cowdrey. “So far, they know very little, but they have observed signals that do not originate from this planet. It is only natural they would become curious. Unfortunately, they tend to be a little heavy-handed about these things.”
Great, the Men in Black would be after me now.
“Maybe I’ll just tell them all about it,” I said.
There was no answer. I waited but nothing. It looked like they’d got disconnected, or they’d hung up on me.
The door opened behind me. “We have to go,” said Orion. “We have a security breach.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means we’re being raided, and if they get hold of you, you won’t be let out again for quite some time. What are those mannequins doing?”
“I know, weird, right? Anyway, I don’t work here, so I’ll just leave.”
“They have devices that can detect the energy you give off,” said Orion.
“I assure you,” I said, “I don’t give off any energy. My girlfriend often complains about it.”
“They will know you aren’t from here.” He made it sound quite ominous.
“Then what do you suggest I do?” I asked.
“We can get you out, but you have to hurry. They’re on their way up.”
He led me out of the room. The rest of the floor was in panic mode. Everyone was rushing around, emptying drawers and deleting files. They had these black batons they swiped over their computers and you could see the screens get all fucked up.
There was a man standing next to the lifts who I hadn’t noticed on the way in. He had a bank of screens showing security cameras. The outside of the building had a bunch of vans and trucks parked haphazardly. The stairwell had people running up them, dressed in what looked like riot gear. They weren’t carrying guns, they had backpacks on with a hose coming out of it. You know shit’s bad when they send for Ghostbusters.
The lift doors opened and Jack and his three men were revealed, looking tense and full of adrenalin.
“Let’s go,” said Jack, all business. They piled out of the lift, ready for action.
“Where to?” I said. Downstairs was going to be crawling with the bad guys. The other bad guys.
“The roof,” said Orion, pushing me into the stairwell after Jack.
I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to make an escape via the roof, but it wasn’t like I often got to be in a crazy death-defying escape attempt. Once a week, at most.
I had people in front and behind. I could hear banging footsteps from below. We ran up the stairs to the next floor. It was only two flights so I made it only partly out of breath.
Jack tapped a code into the keypad next to the fire door and threw it open. Everyone ran out and he slammed the door shut.
The roof was cold and windy. There were some cables and vents, a large antenna and some satellite dishes, and no safety rail. And a large open space with a yellow H painted on it.
“There,” said Jack, pointing up.
A helicopter was coming towards us at an angle.
Around us, I could pretty much see the whole of London. There were some really tall buildings, a few famous landmarks, but mostly houses and offices of no real note. This was my city, where I’d been born and raised. Looking at it in all its glory, I realised I felt nothing.
A population of eight million, and none of them meant anything to me, or I to them. Or them to each other.
People spoke a lot about community and society and the British way of life, but when you came down to it, people weren’t good or bad, they were just selfish. It was the best core strategy you could take.
Religious people ran on hate, rich people focused on making more money, do-gooders travelled to the third world countries they’d ‘helped’ to sleep with prostitutes. Everyone else was just trying to keep up.
What if this really was my world? So what? What difference did it make who was in charge? No one was trying to pull in the right direction, just eight million wrong ones.
Every person down there, you offered them a free phone every year for life, the latest model — not the one with 0.6mm smaller bezel, I mean the folding phone, the 3D phone, the phone with a headphone jack, the real hot shit you’ve been waiting for — and in exchange they just had to let someone far away they never met get shot in the head, they’d totally go for it. What if it was a criminal, a murderer, a rapist, a paedophile? Wouldn’t even read the ToS before signing up. Frankly, even if it was Cousin Henry who you never liked anyway, electronic signature, no need for a pen, just type in your name.
I realised what I wanted. I wanted to not be here. This was home, but that didn’t mean it was anything special. How many homes are there? One for every person, right? How many of them can be worth a good Amazon review?
I also realised there was something very wrong about the way I’d been bundled up here. I turned around and tried to open the door. It was locked.
“What are you doing?” shouted Jack. “Our rides nearly here.”
“I’m not going with you fucks. This isn’t my first rodeo, Brokeback. Open the door.”
He looked at me, thinking over his options, I would guess. “I can’t do that.” He reached behind him and pulled out a weird looking gun. A taser.
Jack obviously knew the risk of what he was doing, but these Geronimo types don’t think they can ever lose a quickdraw.
He fired. The dart flew at me and then through me, sticking into the door. The two wires still attached to the taser went in my chest and out my back.
Jack pulled the trigger again and the wires buzzed.
My hand looked normal to me. I reached out and touched the door. It passed right through it.
I gave Jack a last look, letting him know next time we met, I’d keep my promise, and then I walked through the door.
Next two chapters are up now on Patreon.Afterword from Mooderino