446: Leading Man

Long-distance relationships rarely work out. You’re doing your thing, she’s doing hers, people drift apart. The reason people fall out of love isn’t for grand reasons of passion like Russian literature wants you to believe, it’s because of bad marketing.

Don’t oversaturate the market, people will lose interest.

Don’t run out of stock, people will go elsewhere.

Me and Jenny were conducting the longest long-distance relationship in history. We weren’t even in the same dimension, so it wasn’t surprising we were having our ups and downs.

“Can you see me?” I asked.

“No,” said Jenny, her face filling the screen like I was watching her in a movie. “I can taste you, though. Your emotions are very distinctive. What are you doing?”

Jenny’s sensitivity to emotions never seemed like a very useful ability to me. I’m a guy, so emotions don’t seem like a very good idea in general. I know, it’s the 21st century and blokes are supposed to open up and be vulnerable but fuck that. Just another marketing ploy to get us to buy stuff we haven’t been buying so far.

Release your emotions with Online Opera Lessons. Scream your feelings right in her face. Paypal accepted.

Emoting for no proper reason is not a valuable way to behave, it just makes it harder to tell when people are really upset.

While I’m on the subject, preventing children from experiencing danger is a terrible way to raise them, it just makes them unprepared for adult life.

And also, stopping bullying without introducing some other form of predator into the environment is another bad idea, we end up with nerds running around unrestrained, blaming women for not finding them attractive.

The world is full of people who think they can improve things by suggesting ideas no one’s using, never thinking there might be a good reason why they aren’t being used.

Jenny’s ability to taste emotions between universes struck me as not very practical, but that was because I was looking at it from my perspective (a common flaw I’m guilty of). For her, being able to pinpoint the direction my stink was coming from was probably reassuring. I guess I should have been flattered.

“I’m home,” I said. “Earth. It’s terrible here, they’ve made things even worse and Donald Trump is president. I’m not even joking.”

“I know where you are,” she said. “When are you coming back?”

This was probably what it was like when your missus calls you when you’re trying to have a quiet pint down the pub. I wouldn’t know because I’ve never had a missus and pubs intimidate me with their happiness and enjoying of sports events.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m not sure how I got here.”

“Are you trying to get back?” Call me oversensitive, but this felt like a loaded question.

“Of course,” I said. “I mean, when I figure out how.”

“Are you figuring it out alone?” There was an edge to her voice now.

“No. Mandy’s here with Cheng and they have a kid.”

“Okay. That’s good. Cheng will help you, right? He owes you.” Her face softened a little, the rage in the eyes dropped to about Gas Mark 4.

“Yeah.”

“He must know how to get back if he managed to find his way there. Did you ask him?”

She was right. Cheng had to have at least an idea of how to get back. I hadn’t actually brought the topic up with him because I was still trying to process everything and decide what I wanted to do. Perfectly reasonable behaviour, but somehow I felt it would be better not to mention my indecision. It might later be used against me in a kangaroo court.

“I haven’t had a chance, yet,” I said. “There’s a bunch of other people trying to get me to open the way over there so they can take over, you know invade and start an empire. The usual. That’s why I’m being careful. I don’t want to let them slip in while I’m coming back.”

I was quite pleased with my explanation. It sounded very plausible.

“How many of these people are women?”

“What’s that got to do with anything?” I said. “Are you being jealous right now? Isn’t that a bit off-key? We haven’t seen each other for weeks, and the first thing you do is accuse me of is cheating. And this after you betrayed me and left me to die in a stone coffin. Shouldn’t I be the one—”

“What do you mean weeks? You’ve been gone a few hours.”

“Oh, right I forgot. Time works differently here.”

“You’ve been over there for weeks?” There was heavily implied criticism that I was slacking off.

There are two things that will always piss off a guy. One, being told to go do something he was just about to go and do. And two, being told he’s being lazy when he’s being lazy. You have to give people a way to save face. Either that or an honourable death.

“I’m doing my best, okay? Jesus, can you chill out?” I admit it wasn’t my finest hour, playing the chill out card, but there wasn’t much else I could do.

“Sorry,” said Jenny. “Just pull your finger out and come back to me. I kind of miss you.” It would have been a more touching admission if she hadn’t been scowling so much when she said it, but beggars can’t be choosers.

It looked like she had more to say but the screen went black.

“What happened?” I asked Nov.

He had his mouth slightly hanging open and a look of utter shock on his thin white face.

“It’s real,” he said. “It’s all real.”

“Yes,” I said. “I thought you already spoke to her. Isn’t that how you found me?”

Nov nodded. “She spoke, told us things, but we never managed to communicate back. This is… amazing. I thought it might have been a psychic artefact, a mass delusion caused by the algorithm, but it’s real.” He looked like might start crying.

The rest of the room was completely silent, the helmeted test subjects silently sitting behind him to create what was, to be frank, a pretty creepy background.

“Come,” said AJ, looking down at his phone. “It is time for you to meet the boss. This way.”

I followed him towards the far end of the room where there was another set of doors. Nov stood rooted to the spot, watching us leave.

Psychics hooked up to a computer in order to make contact with another dimension was not what I had expected. On the other hand, irritated girl calling in from the Twilight Zone to have a go at her wayward boyfriend probably wasn’t what they were hoping to encounter on their search for intelligent life in the universe.

It was interesting, though. How many other frayed ends of seemingly impossible threads was I going to find? The world didn’t appear to merely be the seething ball of biology and logic that I had always seen it as. If psychic powers were real here, if they had always been real, then what else was?

Admittedly, the psychic powers in question were very weak and hard to put to any practical use, but it was enough to make me reconsider the world I thought I knew. Assuming this was the same world.

AJ led me through the double doors into a corridor, whitewashed walls, no windows. He was taking this all in his stride. Maybe he saw crazy shit all the time.

Ahead of us was a thick metal door with a number pad on the wall. On the other side could be a bank vault or slabs of meat hanging on hooks or maybe the cryogenically frozen heads of the rich and famous.

“You will find the boss to be a good man. He will help you find what you need.” Aj smiled and opened the door with a large side lever like it was a slot machine. He didn’t even use the keypad. Here was I thinking this was some secret underground lair and they hadn’t even bothered to lock the door.

Behind the door was a long tunnel. Did they have planning permission for any of this? If you needed proof that these people operated outside the law, here it was.

The walls of the tunnel were curved making me feel like I was in a tube about to be shot out the other end. Why make a circular tunnel? What did they bring through here? Very large sausages?

We came to another tunnel going left. We could carry on straight and end up in France (I didn’t know if that was the direction the tunnel was headed in, I was just thinking of worst-case scenarios) but AJ hitched a left and we were quickly in front of a round door. AJ knocked.

The door was made of metal and looked pretty thick, so I wasn’t sure what good knocking would do, but he didn’t wait for an answer before heaving it open by leaning against it and pushing hard.

The moment the door opened, I hear a thick American accent shouting.

“You listen to me, you creep, you dipstick, you mealy little worm. You do what I tell you, you do it when I tell you, and you do it the way I tell you, or I’ll fuck your asshole so hard you’ll be farting buckets of manseed for a week… Yes... Thank you, Senator. My best to your wife.”

I considered turning around and leaving but that might offer too good of a target.

The room was all blue, the paint on the walls, the carpet, the upholstery on the chairs. Even the big desk taking up most of the space was a black wood that seemed to be very dark blue.

The man behind the desk looked to be quite old. Sixty, seventy, something like that. Not your modern-day keto diet, filtered water and meditation twice a day sixty-year-old, I’m talking about the more traditional, face like Ernest Borgnine’s scrotum sort of old school geezer.

He was broad across the shoulders and the stomach, and he had dark slicked-back hair that was thin and oily but created a sheen over his scalp that wasn’t like being bald, it was like being in the Rat Pack — doobie doobie do while he sticks you in the trunk of his Oldsmobile.

His suit was crisp and tight, but his body didn’t bulge or stretch any part of it. His tie was black and thin, but it didn’t seem at all funereal. His face was wide and his nose had been slammed flat and spread out.

He looked up at me and smiled in a predatory fashion; lots of little white teeth. “Ah, you got him. Good work, AJ. I knew you’d do it. You’re alright, you know, you got what it takes.”

“Thanks, Boss.” AJ looked like he was blushing from the praise, but he was very dark-skinned so who the fuck knows? “This is Colin.” He turned and presented me like I was to be the entertainment for the night. I’d tell him I wanted to be in movies and he’d tell me I had a pretty mouth and next year I’d be at the Oscars.

The boss looked me up and down. “So this is you.”

“Yeah,” I said, feeling a bit shy all of a sudden. “Hello.”

He slapped himself on the chest with a resounding thump. “Call me Duncan. The Dunc. You and me, kid, we’re going to get on just fine.” He pointed a big fat finger at me. “Just looking at you, I can tell you’re no bullshitter.”

Boy, was his radar in need of a tune-up.

“Nice to meet you,” I said. “Why do you live in a hole in the ground like a hobbit?”

Dunc laughed. “I don’t live here, this is just my London office. Once I finish up, I head back home to New York.”

“Bit of a commute isn’t it?” I said. “Five-hour flight each way.” It wasn’t that I cared about his transportation schedule but I was curious about how he got around. Private jet? Teleportation device?

“Takes me an hour by train. The locomotive, forgotten masterpiece of human ingenuity.”

“You take a train from London to New York?”

“Sure. Built it myself. Parked outside. I’ll give you a ride later, if you like.” He got up from his chair and came round to my side of the desk. “Now, let’s get down to business. I assume you know why you’re here.”

“Not really,” I said. “You want something from me, I suppose.”

“Of course,” said Duncan. “Of course I do. Same as the rest of them out there, huh? Had about enough of it, am I right? So let me explain why I’m not like any of them. Let me give you an idea of what I’m about, broad strokes, only take a few seconds.”

We stood there, the three of us, as Duncan prepared to give me his sales pitch. He didn’t give me the impression he was here to threaten me.

“I’m an American, a patriot, a businessman. Not like these pussies you have running the show nowadays. These college boys with their balls in mom’s purse. They ain’t men, they’re creeps. My day, you had to have fought a few wars, killed a few men with your bare hands before anyone took you serious. You could look a fella in the eye and know he knew the same as you. He knew what it took to squeeze the life out of man. I can tell just by looking at you, you know what I’m talking about.”

I had no idea what he was talking about, but I didn’t want to say anything in case he saw it as a sign of weakness and tried to assert authority in the Grecian manner.

“America was always the wild west,” he continued, “even in the east. It’s a state of mind. We fought and we butted heads and someone came out ahead and the others raced to catch up, that was the game. Who could make the deal first? Who could win the public over? Who could get their product to market before anyone else? You put everything on the line and you risked losing it all, but it was exciting, and you know what? It was fun. That’s the America I love. Not this embarrassing mess we’ve been left with.”

He shook his head and sighed. I nodded like I was with him.

“In my day, you beat a guy at cards, you took him for every dime, you lent him a few bucks and let him try to win it back. If he ended up losing his house to you, at least he had his shot. What you didn’t do was grab all the chips and run, and pay off the casino to never let him back in so he’d never get the chance to play you again. It’s just not the way to do business. You see what I’m saying?”

I did not see what he was saying. I nodded in a way I could blame on early-onset Parkinson’s if called on to explain myself later.

“The guys I grew up with are all gone now, they lost it as soon as they retired.” He snapped his fingers three times. “Dead, dead, dead. You can’t run your heart balls to the wall for that long and then just stop. Your brains are going to go flying out of your skull. Why did they do it? Why did these giants give up and curl up in a ball? They wanted to pass on their legacy to the next generation, to their spoilt kids who never had to struggle for a goddamn thing. Horrible decision. Worthless brats who only know how to fuck things up. And their kids… forget about it. This is the rot we’re faced with. This is the cancer destroying the world. We’ve got to put a stop to it.”

“We?” I said.

“Sure. You don’t think these people are doing any good, do you?”

“No,” I said, “but why don’t you stop them if you don’t like what they’re doing? You have money and influence don’t you?” I was assuming someone with their own bunker and a private transatlantic train had connections already. He wouldn’t need my help.

“Sure, but so do they. They’re the heirs to a dozen different dynasties. They don’t have any finesse, they deal with every problem through sheer force of wealth. It’s a sad joke. You know what we used to do when we had a disagreement in the old days? We’d wrestle, winner takes all. You want to unionise my factories, okay, let’s take it to the ring. That’s why they had to get rid of Jimmy Hoffa in the end — he was a beast in the clinch. But now… now we got these pansies, would burst into tears if they scuffed their shoes. Send in the lawyers if anyone ever raises their voice.”

“Sorry,” I said, “I can see you’re upset about how things are turning out over there, and I don’t blame you, but I don’t really see where I come in.”

“Over there? Over there? No, no, it’s already spreading Not just over there, it’s everywhere. The little worms are taking over and there’s only one way to stop them.”

“And what’s that?” I asked, intrigued despite myself.

“We have to send them somewhere where they can learn how to behave like men, or die trying.”

It took me a moment to get what he meant. “You want to send them to...”

“That’s right, your world. Every man who wants to lead and be someone who others listen to, let’s make them prove their value in a world where they have no Mommy and Daddy to pay their way, no lawyers to cover their asses. Who knows, perhaps some of them have what it takes, they just need the right opportunity. What do you say, Colin? Want to help these guys realise their full potential?”

As crazy an idea as it was, and hardly practical — how would you even get them to agree to go? — I had to admit AJ was right. I really did like the boss.

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