I felt better after seeing Claire. I know, not something I thought I’d ever say, either.
Compared to the snotty, antagonistic, deeply unpleasant bitch she had been when we first met, she had grown and matured quite a lot. I wouldn’t call her snotty anymore.
When the black goo had parted to reveal her for a few seconds before she went back to Flatland and whatever mess she had created because of her failure to do what I fucking told her — I wasn’t angry, just disappointed — she had looked like an adult.
It’s strange that I can meet people who are older than me, in their late twenties, thirties, even their forties, and they seem to be large children. When you see old movies, a twenty-five year old man looked like Robert Mitchum or Lee Marvin — they looked like men.
Claire had been wearing grown-up clothes. Not the ridiculous fancy stuff worn by retards to try and convince people (and themselves) of their importance, just well-tailored, practical clothing. She emanated a sense of maturity, the presence of someone who had found their place in the world.
Seeing her had made me feel less responsible for getting her out of that place. It was a place that would get her killed, and I had no intention of swapping places with her just because I was better suited to handle it.
I was better suited because I wanted no part of it. As soon as you get into a collaboration — even thinking the word sets my teeth on edge — then you have to start relying on others. Which would be fine if they were honest, competent and reliable, but we all know how many of that type of person there are in the world. Well, I know. You should halve the number you just thought of, and then divide it by itself.
Also, seeing her in the flesh had made me feel less inclined to believe I was going mad.
Coming home had left me confused as to which reality I belonged to, which was the fake, whether both were figments of my imagination, and if it would all end like the last episode of Lost where it turns out my life was just a shoddy rip-off of the Tim Robbins movie Jacob’s Ladder.
I didn’t like the world I was currently living in, not that I ever had, so my belief there was another world I could escape to might well have just been wishful thinking on my part.
A psychotic break is often much easier than suicide when you want to get away from it all, and far less stressful than going on holiday. I’d be fine if I was actually in a mental home somewhere, drooling and incoherent like a Man United fan still clinging to the hope of a revival, while in my mind I had adventures where I could travel to other dimensions.
Claire’s appearance had proved that there was another world apart from this one. I wasn’t crazy. Or, if I was, at least my delusions were in 3D without the need for those garbage specs they still try to convince us to wear.
Orion had his phone out and was texting someone at an impressive speed. Clean up crew to aisle six, aisle eight and aisles eleven through sixteen. Bodies tend to explode when dropped from a great enough height.
Lillian was staring at me. She had the look of someone who thought she was viewing in full HD because it said 4K ready on the box and 1080p supported on the Amazon page, but was only just realising the native resolution was 360p and everything up till now had been scaled up via low-end Taiwanese parts. It’s a realisation we all come to in the end.
What you see is not the best that’s available. Even if they tell you there’s nothing better on the market, it just means they’re keeping the improved version in the backroom until they can sell the old shit to people dumb enough to buy it. This message brought to you by Steve Jobs.
The rest of the room was equally flummoxed by what they’d seen. The guys in white coats had had the confidence of people who thought they were at the cutting edge. They were doing things with computers no one had done outside of a movie. Now they were unsure of what they were and nervous about the future, like a software company acquired by Activision.
It was a fancy setup Orion had, but they had no idea what they were doing. They were in too much of a rush to take things slow and do the necessary testing. They were willing to take a leap of faith, but the thing about that, the thing they don’t tell you, faith is usually not well-founded. Your faith, in whatever, probably wrong. Your leap, into the wide blue yonder, probably splat.
“Are you sending someone to scrape up your boys?” I asked Orion. No one was saying anything and I was beginning to feel awkward.
“It will be taken care of,” said Orion, not looking up. These kids and their phones today…
“That — the Kamikaze Boy’s Club — was an example of you saying one thing and doing another,” I said. “Doesn’t inspire much confidence in your trustworthiness.”
Orion put his phone away. “No, I can see that. But, in my defence, that wasn’t your doing, that was something that happened while you were here, but not caused by you. What we do in our own time isn’t really connected to you.”
He had a point. I hadn’t created the portal and I wasn’t the one in charge of the mission through it. They were well within their rights to do what they wanted outside of their relationship with me, including taking a giant running jump if that was what they wished.
“Still,” I said, “it shows how poor your judgement is. Not exactly the kind of people I’d want backing me up.”
“It was an opportunity we might not be presented with again,” said Orion, making a lot of sense. “It was worth the risk. Sadly, it didn’t pay off this time.”
“It won’t next time, either,” I said. “You guys are way too excitable. There’s a reason I didn’t end up dead over there when most of the people who arrived with me did. I didn’t do stupid shit like that.”
“Who was she?” said Lillian, pointing out of the still-open window at the empty air.
I turned around, checking just in case Claire had come back. It was the sort of sneaky crap she would pull.
“That was Claire,” I said. “She was one of the people in my party, along with Jenny.”
Lillian nodded, like this information meant something to her. “You should help her.”
I’m not averse to people having their own opinions, even retarded ones. If you want to believe some stupid shit for whatever psychologically demented reason, that is up to you. Every person has the right to believe their own lies if they so wish. What irritates me is when they think them being convinced by complete bollocks entitles them to spread their ‘wisdom’ around.
“Should I? Maybe you should help her. Go on, jump off the end of this bridge to nowhere and see how helpful you can be. Help her. Maybe next time, offer your handy tips after someone asks, you presumptuous goth twat.”
There are some people who have claimed I only have two modes of communication: complete disinterest and enraged sarcasm, and that maybe I should consider filling out the middle-ground.
Personally, I feel this is a little unfair. I’m adept at nuanced social interactions. I can be subtle, charming, offer warm encouragement when required. It’s just that it isn’t required very fucking often.
Lillian looked somewhat offended. “I’m sorry,” she said tersely. “It was only a suggestion. I sometimes get a feeling about these things.”
“Yeah? Like the feeling you got when you brought me here, straight into a waiting trap. You know that voice in your head that tells you to believe in yourself and go with your gut? Stop listening to it.”
“Just because I’m not perfect—”
“Is an excellent reason not to hand out advice,” I finished for her.
“She betrayed you, didn’t she?” said Lillian. “Let you down and left you to die. And now she’s asking for your help. I can see why that would—”
“You can’t see jack shit,” I said. “If she’s in trouble now, the best thing for her to do is work her way out of it herself. How else is she going to learn?”
“So no one deserves a second chance?” said Lillian, her voice full of aha! and gotcha!
“Deserve? No, no one deserves a second chance. They can earn it, sure, but they have to actually do something for that. And most people won’t. They’ll wait until they’ve messed up so bad that there’s no coming back from it, and then they’ll come to you, all forlorn and abject. Save me, Obi-Wan, save me.”
Lillian looked like she had more on her mind she wanted to share — a normal state of being for anyone in the middle of an argument — but I clearly had the advantage here. I actually knew what I was talking about. She at least had enough sense to know when she should shut up and quit while she was only slightly behind.
Most people don’t. Most people think if they keep going it proves they have something worth saying and need to be taken seriously. It’s not that hard to understand — you either have the power to affect change or you don’t. If you don’t, flapping your lips won’t make a difference, so you might as well save your energy.
“You said you were going to get in touch with Jenny,” I reminded her. “How?”
“In my office,” said Lillian.
“You work here?” said Orion, his eyes registering shock for the first time. Bunch of men fall to their deaths — nothing. Mystic Meg mentions she’s an employee, panic stations.
“What did you do again?” I asked her.
“Yeah, yeah. But on what?”
“Bioengineering. Plants. I thought I might as well do some good while I’m here. Help the world become a better place.” She gave me a look that suggested she knew there was no point in elaborating further. I had to hand it to her, psychic or not, she picked up on things very quickly.
“Plants?” I said, an alarm bell going off somewhere in my head. “Like, GM stuff?”
“It’s perfectly safe,” said Lillian, her tone suggesting she’d had to defend her work before. “It’s not like we go around weaponising cabbages.” She turned to Orion, expecting him to back her up on this matter of environmental necessity.
Orion looked a bit miffed. “Didn’t you sign an NDA before you began work here?” He sounded cross.
“You’ve got the place full of psychics and you think an NDA is going to stop your secrets getting out?” But as I said it, I realised he wasn’t worried about the world finding out about his blight-resistant potatoes, he was worried about me finding out.
The other person who had mentioned GM crops to me recently had been Duncan. Pieces began slotting into place.
“Hey, so you’re planning to make genetically modified food your next big investment, right? Once oil and gas have had their day, it’ll be the big GM push to get us all addicted to glow-in-the-dark corn, you and Duncan, the dream team.”
“No, no,” said Orion, sounding panicked in that particular way when someone is trying to sound extra calm and nonchalant. “We are a very diverse company here. We have many areas of research we are investigating. Your friend can confirm.”
“Tell me,” I said to Lillian, “is there anywhere in this building no one’s allowed to go?”
“Lots of places,” said Lillian. “Every floor except this one. I’m pretty sure it’s all empty, though.”
“But also heavily shielded from psychics,” I clarified.
“Oh,” said Lillian.
“I remind you,” said Orion, “that you are legally required—”
“Zip it, Orion,” I said. “You’re only making yourself look bad.”
“There’s a whole basement level no one can get into,” said Lillian. “I have no idea what’s in there.”
“Okay, let’s go have a look,” I said. “Any objections?”
“I’m afraid I can’t let you go down there,” said Orion, “for your own safety.”
Sometimes you’ve got to double down on your position no matter how bad it makes you look. Because the truth would make you look worse.
You could be caught on a security camera doing a terrible crime, but it’s still better to point-blank deny it. If you’re caught on film, so be it. Nothing you can do. But the camera might not be on, it might not be recording, the tape could be damaged. It’s worth taking the utterly dishonest route, even when the other people who were there know you’re lying. If there’s no hard evidence, it’s just one person’s word against another’s, and there are hundreds of ways to turn that around. Mostly using cash, the number one legal aid.
That’s how game theory works. There’s no morality, no ethics, there’s just the path to victory and how to get there. The weakness of that system, though, is that it assumes both sides want the same thing. They both want to win and are desperate not to lose. Which is why it’s never worked on me. I don’t give a fuck, either way.
“I don’t really need your permission, Orion,” I said. “What are you going to do? Set your psychics on me? I’ve got my own psychic.” I pointed at Lillian, who didn’t look very pleased to be singled out, or pressed into service. “She’ll attack your nervous system with her dark thoughts, and she doesn’t even have to use her powers to do it. She’ll just tell you about her childhood.”
Lillian was not impressed by my intro. I would have gone with ‘Let’s get ready to rumble!’ but it’s copyrighted.
I walked over to the platform that took us down to the lifts and Lillian and Orion came with me. He looked tense but he didn’t try to stop me.
The platform lowered and we were met by another group of men. They looked just like the ones who had jumped to their deaths.
I looked at Orion. He waved them out of the way. I wasn’t sure what I would have done if they had tried to apprehend me, but my reputation was enough to stop Orion from taking any more risks. That or he wanted me to go into the basement where he kept his Anti-Colin Neutralising Ray (patent pending).
It’s so hard to get anything done when you keep second-guessing yourself. I entered the lift. Orion and Lillian came with me. Orion took out his phone and entered something. The lift began to go down.
It took a while. There were no floor numbers but it felt longer than the reverse journey. How far below the surface were we going?
Eventually, we stopped moving.
“This is at your own risk,” said Orion. “I want to be open and honest with you but I can’t guarantee your safety beyond this point.”
“You can’t guarantee my safety beyond any point,” I said. The doors opened.
In front of me was a huge hangar filled with machinery. Vehicles that looked like airships, but more modern than the ones back in Hindenburg times. I counted at least a dozen, all floating in the air. I looked up and couldn’t see a ceiling.
“You see, nothing to worry about,” said Orion. “Just some dangerous fumes we need to be careful of. No smoking, please.”
But there was always something to be worried about. Why keep airships underground? Why so many?
Duncan had said he wanted to send people over to Flatland, but by air? And not just a few, but hundreds, maybe more.
This felt more like an exodus. Or maybe an invasion.