441: Take the Lead

“You know,” I said, “I think I’m coming around on this whole trip to fantasyland idea.”

I stepped out of the lift, ignoring the not-so-welcoming committee.

“You are?” said Orion, not sounding as enthusiastic as you would expect considering how hard he’d been pushing for me to get on board with this idea. “You want to go to there with us?”

Suddenly he was having difficulty forming proper sentences. He also looked like he was hoping the lift would close before he could get out and he’d be able to fly away. He stepped out just as the doors began to slide shut.

“Sure, why not?” I said. “Sound like it’ll be fun. You’ve got this special doorway, right? Be a shame to not use it. What is it, some kind of large wardrobe?”

It’s important, I feel, that interdimensional rifts in space-time remain trope-relevant. A stargate if you’re travelling to an alien planet, ornate furniture for D&D shit, and some kind of impractical motor vehicle for time travel. 

“Are you going to try and bring back monsters through the portal?” asked Orion. 

“What? No, no, that was just me thinking aloud. We’re going to get Peter, right? I probably won’t even come back. What would be the point of sending a bunch of rabid magical beasts that can fly and spit acid just to cause a nuisance? It’s not like lizardmen on the backs of giant wasps will find anything productive to do over here. Maybe become Uber drivers, but that’s hardly a long-term career strategy.”

Orion didn’t look like he believed my denials. I possibly shouldn’t have mentioned my plan to give this world the wake up call it so badly needed before agreeing to take his team over the rainbow and my sudden eagerness was making him suspicious of my true motives, which was what I wanted him to feel. No better way to disappoint someone than to give them what they want in too large a volume.

“I think I should speak to some people first,” said Orion. “Finalise the schedule, iron out a few details.”

“Are you sure?” I said. “You’re the one who wanted to get this show on the road as soon as possible. That’s what you paid for, I wouldn’t want to take your money under false pretences. And you’ve got these guys to sort out any monster problems. That’s what they’re going for, to keep the monsters in check, right? I’m looking forward to seeing how they do.” 

I gave the boys a thumbs up. 

I was being quite obnoxious, even for me, but you can’t win people over with kind words and positive reinforcement, not unless they’re very dumb. Make them think you’re happy to do what they want and they’ll start to doubt their own ideas.

It was a risky play. They needed me to do their business, but I might end up taking over and leaving them with nothing. They’d already had a taste of what I could do. I was Mister Magic. MC Shityourpants. Wait, that’s not a cool name.

My point being, I was special. I was the guy who was going to save the world. Well, change the world. I believe the technical word is hero. It was enough to give these guys pause for thought.

“I’m ready to go right now,” I said. “The boys look up for it.”

The boys did not look up for it.

The way the boys were watching me, I could tell they were starting to realise they might be in the wrong movie. You think it’s going to be Lord of the Rings, Nazguls and Balrogs, and it turns out to be a six-week shoot in Bulgaria, with CGI rendered on a Commodore 64.

“It’ll be fine,” I said. “I’ll be there to help.” They didn’t seem relieved. “Like, don’t call them zombies, it’s culturally insensitive. They prefer zombers. And don’t get into any singing competitions with trolls, they’re very sore losers. Let me think, what else? Oh, careful where you stand around giants, they’re liable to piss on you with great force.”

I’m not sure they believed me, but they could tell I was confident enough to taunt them, which was disturbing on many levels. If someone who looked like me could act so cavalier in this company, I had to be hiding some pretty impressive stats.

I wish I could believe my own bullshit, at least sometimes. One day out of two would be fine. Maybe I should invent intermittent self-deception — eight hours stuffing myself with delusions of grandeur, sixteen hours of tightly controlled self-loathing. Hating yourself while you’re asleep doesn’t even feel bad, you just have dreams where you’re driving in a car down a dark road with spooky figures and every preset on the radio is a country music station. You wake up screaming, and occasionally yodelling.

The truth is, I’m jealous of people who are vain and arrogant and full of unsubstantiated self-belief. People like me make fun of people like them because they’re so wrong. They aren’t as wonderful as they think they are. But what difference does that make? They’re the ones loving life, not me.

The men in the underground carpark were carrying a variety of weapons but no guns. Not the bullet-firing kind, at least. They had sticks and knives and tasers, and fists and boots and training. It was pretty obvious just by looking at them that they could handle themselves. They’d seen action, they’d been to war. I was something new, though.

“What do you want us to do?” asked Jack. He was speaking past me, avoiding eye contact.

I can’t say it wasn’t a little thrilling to have grown men be wary of me.

“Nothing,” said Orion. He sounded calm, maybe a little tense, but he was taking the moderate approach. Just business, didn’t work out this time, see you on the next episode. “Let him go.”

“Can I get a ride to the nearest bus stop?” I said. “I mean, I wouldn’t want to inconvenience you. Probably got a lot of bad guy meetings to attend. Do you have a support group you attend, get all the evil shit you do off your chest over a coffee? Hot chocolate?”

The idea of a bunch of hard cases sitting in a circle, sharing sad stories about how they were the real victims — Have you any idea how hard it is to get napalm out of a 100% cotton tank top? That shit clings! — struck me as quite poetic. And I hate poetry.

No one was very amused by my babbling. Whatever they’d been told about me, obviously it had made an impression. These guys with their urban camo outfits and regular gym sessions, they were used to risking their lives. They were courageous under fire. They might die, but at least they could take the other guy down with them. 

They understood the other guy had his reasons, like they had theirs. You fight for what you believe in. You have differing beliefs but your values are the same — you want to improve your own circumstances. Who doesn’t want things a bit better than what they’re used to? Game Theory is based on the fact that when you come down to it, each side wants to win, wants to gain, is driven by self-interest and a series of ongoing risk assessments. 

Worth? Not worth?

The whole point of an idea like mutually assured destruction was that both sides wanted to keep as many of their own alive as possible. Not for any humanitarian reason, just to avoid getting outnumbered.

Not me, though. I didn’t fit into any known category. Which is fine when you’re talking about someone with no power to influence the main stage. Just ignoring that person will be more than adequate. But here I was front and centre. What to do? Can’t take down a guy who’s got Level 1 Cure Wounds in every spell slot. 

Sure, if you’re willing to blow yourself up for your cause, that’s fine and dandy. Might take some of us out, but you take yourself out, too. A reasonable sacrifice any warrior can understand. But you walk onto a military base and detonate your vest of explosives, and come out of it completely unscathed... that ain’t playing the game.

You need to have a stake, something on the line. It’s how we judge each other’s sincerity. What are you willing to give up?

It’s not like sending an unmanned drone to kill a bunch of shepherds on a mountain. You might not be risking lives, but have you any idea how much one of those drones cost? Each side has to have something they don’t want to lose. Otherwise, where’s the sport? What’s the point? Cheating’s fine. Unfair advantage, that’s just life sometimes. But no risk, God mode on? What kind of sick fuck thinks that’s acceptable?

We all have to start at the same baseline. We all have to accept certain core values. What it is to be human; what rights we have to live how we wish; how we treat each other in a society; no wall hacks in CSGO, Clara.

The boys were waiting for me to make sense. They’d attack me if ordered — you die for your team, that’s just standard operating procedure — but they wanted me to identify where I stood first. What did I stand for? What did I think of them? 

No one likes to be dismissed and overlooked. Even an opponent likes to be noticed.

“I’ll be in touch,” said Orion. “You go back and rest, spend some of that money.” He smiled, used his lips and teeth and almost his eyes.

“And the Council?” I asked, being as dismissive and overlooking as possible. The whole obnoxious git thing was where I was min-maxing the shit out of my stats.

“I’ll get a message to them, but we can’t contact them again for a week.”

“Sure, they mentioned that. Okay, so I’ll wait to hear from you.”

It was all a bit tense, but they were now the ones wanting to take it slow. Suited me fine.

Orion’s driver took me back to my place. I was glad to finally be on my own again, at least for a little while. My flat smelled a bit weird, which was normal, and the fridge was empty, which was annoying. I ordered a curry — I had two million in the bank, so I went a little crazy and ordered extra poppadoms. Time to live the high life.

Since I was in the spending mood, and I probably wasn’t going to have a lot of time to spend their cash, I thought about buying some gear for my trip. A decent pair of boots, gloves, combat trousers, a waterproof jacket with a hood tucked into the collar. It was fun having so much money to play with. I ordered it next day delivery and didn’t even get Prime, just paid for each thing separately. Decadent!

I looked around the flat and realised what an unimpressive shithole I lived in. Everything was cheap and basic, nothing fancy. If I did come back, bringing Jenny with me, would she be happy here? Probably not. I ordered a few more things online, couple of cushions,  a rug. It’s amazing how easily you can forget about what a horrible world you live in once you start shopping. Capitalism may have its faults but at least it comes with distractions.

At some point I realised the cup final was on tonight. My team were in it. Spurs, the perennial nearly-men of football had a chance to achieve something amazing. My curry arrived, I watched the footie, the world seemed like a normal place for the first time since I got back. Even if it was all fake, it was a pretty good replica. I considered that maybe I should just stay in the Matrix and live the lie. If it was good enough for Joey Pants, why not for me?

It was quite possibly the dullest game of football I’d ever seen (and I’d seen Sheffield United versus Sheffield Wednesday). Spurs lost like they always did when things got clutch, and it occurred to me that maybe this wasn’t a simulation after all. This was the real world and people had just been that dumb to allow it to fall into the terrible state I had found it in, off-brand Nazi twats and all.

There was a knock at the door. It was late and I wasn’t expecting anyone, and Amazon weren’t that fast.

I went to the door and looked through the peephole. There was a hooded figure out there, like a big black grim reaper hood. But short, hardly reaching my eye-level. Could be a serial killer midget, but I’d seen Don’t Look Now and was ready for the jump scare. Shorter than me was my perfect height for fights and I fancied my chances. I opened the door.

“Are you Colin?” she asked. I couldn’t see her face but she sounded feminine, so I decided to risk public condemnation and assume gender.

“Maybe. Who are you?”

She pulled back the hood to reveal spiky white hair. Her face was powdered to the same hue as an anaemic snowman, her lips were painted black and she had a ring through the middle bit of her nose.

“I’m Lillian. I’ve been sent with a message.”

“Is it from Robert Smith of The Cure asking for his hairspray back? Not that there’ll be much left.” Her hair was sticking up like she’d gone super saiyan from the forehead up.

“I’m not a goth,” she said. “The message is from the other side. I’m a medium.”

“Really? Me too. Do you find you have to buy an extra large more and more these days because everything shrinks in the wash? What happened to quality workmanship, eh?”

She looked confused. “No, I mean I’m a psychic. This is important. I have a message. You’re in terrible danger.”

“Danger?”

“Yes.”

“Deadly danger?”

“I believe so.”

“Oh,” I said. “Who’s the message from?”

“Jenny. She says if you don’t come back and get her, she’s going to kill you.”

Next two chapters are up now on Patreon.

Afterword from Mooderino
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