It’s always easy to tell who the bad guy is in a story. In a book or a movie, you have it clearly laid out for you. They snarl and hiss and say things only a villain would say.
It’s too late, the innocent must die.
They don’t have to explain why they want to blow up the moon or steal all the diamonds in the world, they just do.
Even if there’s a twist, you sort of see it coming. Oh, it was his best friend all along? The guy who was his mentor and taught him everything he knows? The girl he loved who seemed the perfect partner?
In reality, there’s no final boss. No mastermind behind everything.
And if you do get fucked over, it won’t be some viper in your bosom. No one you know is going to betray you because, as I’m sure you already know, they’re all far too useless to organise something on that level. They wish they could stab you in the back and sell your secrets to the highest bidder but, unfortunately, they still haven’t managed to work out what all the controls on the dishwasher are for. Contacting the Saudis to arrange your visit to their embassy for a chop-chop party is not something they’d be able to sort out. Maybe if there was an app.
The way people screw with other people is to cast a wide net. You lay your trap — your false advertising and unproven claims — and then you wait to see who’s dumb enough to fall into it. Many will. There are a lot of dumb motherfuckers in the world.
But if you want to target a specific person and get them to buy into whatever you happen to be selling, then that’s an altogether tougher proposition. Getting the team together one last time — the sexy chick to seduce, the limber Chinese guy to sneak in the window, the black guy who knows how to crack any lock — isn’t as easy as the average montage would have you believe.
There’s something quite flattering about being made the target of a lot of attention, even if that attention is bad. You must be someone special if so many people want you dead, right?
If there’s a competition for who can grab you and strap you to a chair so they can electrocute your testicles until you come clean (maybe a euphemism?), then you’ve sort of made it.
You are the special one. The one vile men want to do horrible things to. Me and pretty teenage girls, we had a lot in common.
“We can’t close it,” said Orion. He was looking back at his elite team of scientists, who were raising their hands while shrugging. “Who is she?”
I didn’t trust anyone at this dinner table. I still hadn’t worked out if I was the detective who was going to reveal the murderer by the time coffee was served, or Victim No. 1, who’s poisoned during the first course, and falls into his soup. Hopefully, it was gazpacho so I wouldn’t get a nasty burn.
“It’s fine,” I said. “Let me talk to her.”
Everyone on this side of the building (the inside) was leaning away, like they were ready to make a break for the exit if Claire suddenly sprouted bat wings or tentacles.
I understood their concern — when she came through the portal, she didn’t exactly pop out like she was back from her latest mission through the Stargate. She came through the blackness like it was a thin sheet of plastic, stretching with her as she walked, sticking to her body and face, pulling it out with her like elastic.
They would have you believe a change of hairstyle, a mask that puts circles around the eyes, is enough to hide your identity, but clearly that isn’t the case.
I recognised Claire immediately, just from her outline. Mostly the profile when she turned her head.
She was walking towards us, the black material that formed a barrier between worlds, growing longer behind her.
“Well? What are you waiting for?” The voice also gave her away. She wasn’t even doing the gruff Batman voice to disguise it, just her regular gruff Claire voice.
I walked out to meet her before the elastic reached its limit and she popped out like Ace Ventura being birthed by a rhino.
No one tried to stop me from going. Nobody shouted, “Colin, no, don’t risk your life for us, we aren’t worth it.”
They all seemed very intrigued by this being from another dimension. Would she kill me? Eat me? The black outfit traditionally denoted the hero gone bad, and also the worst film in a franchise.
I think their first thought was to let the guy with the bad attitude deal with it. Story of my life.
I walked out just past the window. It was cold and windy and I didn’t fancy going skydiving without a parachute. I didn’t fancy it with a parachute, either.
“What are you doing here, Claire?” the last time I’d seen her, we weren’t exactly on the best of terms. She and Maurice were running things in Fengarad and had no more use for the likes of me, which suited me fine. Let them find out the hard way what it was like to be in charge of a bunch of ingrates.
“Maurice has been working out how to use the spires.” Her face was entirely covered by the black stuff, but it didn’t seem to impede her speech. I could hear her clearly.
“Great,” I said. “What are you doing here, Claire?” I enunciated it extra-clear to get it through to her.
She paused. Hesitating was usually a bad sign. No one ever hesitated before good news.
“I came to rescue you. Take you back. As a way to thank you for all the times you saved us.”
Now I knew she was bullshitting me.
People, in general, don’t like expressing gratitude. They’ll thank you at the time, give you the credit you deserve in front of witnesses, but once the moment’s over, they don’t rush off to work out how to repay you. They rush off to avoid having to look at you and feel beholden to someone.
It’s quite impressive how people can contort their recollection of events to justify them not owing you and not having to come through when you need a hand in return. You can get them to pay up, figuratively or maybe even financially, but only with a scowl and an edge to their voice as they make you feel bad for making them pay their debt.
“Here. Take it.”
That sense of relief and appreciation that often flourishes in the moment, quickly recedes and dies quietly in a corner, unnoticed. The art of thankfulness died sometime in the 70s or 80s. Fucking Boomers killed it along with everything else that was worth keeping alive.
“Why are you really here, Claire?”
“Where is this?” she said, looking around with her face covered in black.
“It’s Earth,” I said.
“Our Earth?” she asked. We were on a platform sticking out the side of a tall building, so it was easy to not recognise it.
“My Earth,” I said. “I don’t know what planet you come from. Actually, might not even be my one. It’s very strange here. Might be an alternative universe. The whole place is run by idiots.”
“How is that any different?” asked Claire.
“No, I mean really stupid people. They’ve started electing insane people and fascists, for some reason. It’s like a weird video game with comically bad villains.”
I got the sense she didn’t really understand what I was saying, which was understandable. You had to see it to believe it.
Claire reached out her hand. “I think you should come with me.”
I didn’t reach out my hand. “Why? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. Why would anything be wrong?”
“Claire, I think you’re forgetting who I am. Nobody helps me out of the goodness of their heart. No one has any goodness in their heart to start with. You and Maurice would be dead without me. Then you tried to get rid of me. And now you want my help but don’t want to ask or admit what a piece of shit you’ve been.”
There was a longer pause this time. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry we outgrew you. We understood what you wanted and why, but not everyone wants to run away and avoid other people for the rest of their lives. We wanted a chance to try things our way.”
People who make a point of using ‘we’ and ‘us’ are usually trying to hide the fact they went out and did something dumb for reasons of poor judgement and flawed logic. If you make it sound like it was a group decision, then you aren’t solely to blame.
“I strongly suspect it was all your idea from the start,” I said. “Lady Macbeth to Maurice’s Batman. He wanted to build a cave under a big house, you wanted to rule the world. Well, you made your choice, it’s got nothing to do with me.”
Claire lowered her black-covered arm. “It wasn’t like that.”
“Yes. You outgrew me. You can’t outgrow people by becoming smaller and meaner and more rancid. You didn’t outgrow me, you jumped at the chance of deregulation, and like all people who say they can regulate themselves, you got greedy and vicious, and now… what? Maurice found himself another Catwoman?”
“Of course not,” said Claire. “You’ve got it all wrong. There’s just… He’s just… different since his transformation.”
Maurice had died — well, I sort of killed him — and came back transformed with wings and all sorts of new features not available in the old model. I wasn’t sure what Claire’s problem was, but maybe the new lead didn’t fit in the old socket.
“I’m sure things will be fine if you give it time,” I said.
“No. No, they won’t. He’s becoming obsessed. He won’t talk to me, won’t eat, won’t sleep.”
“He’s ignoring you? That’s what got your knickers in a twist?”
“Why can’t you just be a friend and help?” She was getting frustrated and irritable. It wasn’t so bad when you couldn’t see her face.
“You’re the one who told me you didn’t want me around. You outgrew me, remember? I have a very specific way of doing things, Claire. I don’t expect anyone to do things the same way as me, but if you want to impose on me, then you have to do things my way. You know that, Claire. I’ve always made it clear. Go and do your own shit if you want, I won’t stop you, but on my team, there is no equality, there is no democracy. I’ve seen how other people operate — no thank you. That includes you. You’re a fucking idiot. You always have been. The reason I’ve always been so much better than you and everyone else isn’t because I’m some kind of genius, it’s because you’re all so fucking useless. Oh, look at them down in the gutter while I’m on the kerb. Wish I was on top of that litter bin. Your standards are pathetic. I may not be up in the stars, but at least I’m on a rooftop.”
Claire put out her arms. “What kind of rooftop is this?”
It was windy and we were too high up to be comfortable. My analogy was tortured and confusing. I don’t think Claire was really paying proper attention, in any case. Too worried about her own problems and whatever Maurice was up to.
There was the sound of running footsteps from behind me, and then half a dozen men shot past, running down the bridge towards the portal at the end.
It seemed Orion had decided to make a move. Send in his boys, get them through the rift while it was here. This was what he had wanted, after all, a way to cross over.
Well, he probably should have waited a little longer. The men ran all the way to the end of the bridge and jumped. You couldn’t fault them for bravery or stupidity.
They hit the blackness and bounced off, sailing into the air and then down, down, down. No parachutes opened.
I was too startled to react. You’d think they might test it out with a long stick or something first. At least I wasn’t responsible for these fatalities.
“Did they just jump to their deaths?” said Claire.
“Yes,” I said. “I told you, the people here are a lot stupider than they used to be.”
Claire began sliding away from me. Her feet weren’t moving she was just being pulled backwards.
“Come with me,” she said, arm out again.
I reached out and took her hand. Not her actual hand but the black cast of it that was covering her real hand.
The black substance looked familiar to me and I wanted to see if it was what I thought it was — black goo.
The moment I touched it, I recognised the sensation. It stuck to my hand and as I pulled back, it stretched into thin black threads as Claire continued to recede towards the portal.
I stared at the goo stuck to my fingers. It was the same substance I used to stick things together when I was in the adjacent world. Had Maurice found a way to use it?
I grabbed it with both hands and pulled it apart. It sheared open like ripping a sheet and Claire appeared in front of me, although still going backwards on a black carpet. She looked confused.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “Please. Help me.”
“No, not right now,” I said. It’s difficult to turn down a genuine request for assistance from someone desperate, but I find if you remember all the shitty things a desperate person can find excuses to do, it becomes much easier. “If you want help, find Jenny.”
“Isn’t she here with you?”
“No. She’s in the void over the spire.”
“I can’t… I can’t go there. It’s too late.” Something in Claire’s expression told me the spires were not a good place to be right now. “Maybe I should stay here,” added Claire, which was even more troubling.
“Nope.” I let go of the goo and it slapped back together, shutting Claire back in. The goo slid back into the portal which shrank to a dot and then disappeared.
I could have gone back, probably. Just jumped in and taken my chances. But there was something controlling the goo, and it wasn’t Claire. Maurice? Maybe. Someone else? Also possible. Until I had a better idea of who was offering me a way back home and why, I felt it was better to take my time.
I turned around and walked back into the building where Orion and Lillian were standing staring at me.
“Your guys jumping off the end of the platform like that,” I said, “that was pretty fucking stupid. If you were wondering why I don’t want to work for someone like you, that’s why. You’re an idiot, and the plans of an idiot aren’t really the best to follow, I find.”
Orion, to his credit, accepted the criticism without comment. Lillian looked like she wanted to say something. But she looked me in the eyes and decided against it. Maybe she was psychic after all.
Next two chapters are up now on Patreon.Afterword from Mooderino