456: A Fellow Man of Culture

Eventually, everything falls apart. You make your plans, you save up what you need, you put your trust in others. The outcome is obvious.

This is nothing new. We all know it will end badly, we’re just seeing how long we can delay the inevitable. We do this mainly through lies.

It’ll be fine.

You’ll feel better in the morning.

Never give up and you’ll get there in the end.

It’s not out of malice, nobody’s forcing you to believe this shit. We want to have sweet nothings whispered in our ears. The person most eager to deceive us is us.

I’m no different. I don’t like looking in the bottom drawer of the fridge because I already know what’s in there, and I can’t be bothered to throw it out, all slimy and dripping everywhere.

That’s my life in a nutshell (or in a plastic sandwich bag with a ziplock seal and a white space on the front to write pertinent information). You organise, you prep, you waste time on things that aren’t important to trick yourself into thinking this time you’ll go all the way.

Alexa and Siri and Cortana wait to be told what you need so they can get it for you, and still nothing ever gets delivered on time.

I’d never been blown up before. It was an unusual experience. Everything slowed down as Lillian pulled the pin on her second grenade of the day. I saw it quite clearly come out and stay hooked onto her finger like a wedding ring.

“Do you take this man’s life for no good reason other than your own stupid certainty you know what you’re doing?”

“I do.”

There’s something annoying about people who are sure they know what’s going to happen. I wouldn’t care if they kept their rubbish ideas limited to their own actions, but they feel the need to self-determinate on behalf of others.

They know the right thing to do. They’re only trying to make things better. They have your best interests at heart. And so on and so forth.

It happens to people as soon as they get the chance to bully others. Politicians, priests, teachers, parents, anyone with a social media account, that nutter on the bus.

I don’t like that sort of thinking. I don’t force others to do things my way and I for sure have no interest in doing things their way. I’m not saying they’re wrong (they fucking are, I’m just not saying it) but your belief-set is appropriate for exactly one person — you.

Believe God disapproves of abortion? Don’t have one, then.

Think eating meat is wrong? Go ahead and stock up on those lima beans.

It’s not okay if what someone wants to do impinges on others, then they have to be stopped like any nuisance. You can’t go around shooting people with a gun because you feel like it (unless it’s term time, obviously), but if what you’re doing doesn’t affect others, then it’s nobody’s business but theirs. And if they don’t want to do something you feel is very important to do, then you need to stop bothering people and go do it yourself.

Pretty straightforward.

Lillian didn’t agree, apparently. She carried grenades as a way to get her way. Very obnoxious. I’d class her as a domestic terrorist, but women’s groups would accuse me of being sexist.

“Who you calling a domestic, you chauvinist pig?”

Personally, I think things would be better all round if more women carried grenades or explosive devices. It would improve their situation considerably (as long as they didn’t mix up their IED with their IUD). Imagine how much less hassle a woman would get if everyone knew she had a bomb in her handbag. Rape would be gone in a weekend.

Of course, it would require women to be willing to give up their lives rather than allow a man to abuse them, which probably wouldn’t happen. Most women seem unable to give up the promise of a slight chance of a job in show business in exchange for their self-respect, but hey, you have to suffer for your art.

By the way, I’m not saying women should commit suicide to force the patriarchy to give up some of its power, I’m saying it should be a murder-suicide. Always take one of them with you. As a man (technically) I can confirm that the alpha predator really hates getting his junk blown to pieces by an uppity female. Will do pretty much anything not to have that happen, including not forcing his cock inside her nitroglycerine-packed fanny.

Yes, a few women would have to die to prove a point, but don’t think of them as suicide-bombers, think of them as sacrifice-angels.

I would have explained this to Lillian, made her see she was fighting for the wrong cause, like those people who run charities for abandoned cats when there are children dying of starvation in the alley next to their ‘Save Tiddles’ shop, but Lillian, like the batty old women raising money for vegan cat food, had made up her mind that she was doing what was necessary.

I had no idea what it was Lillian thought I was going to do in the future that required getting rid of me and my body in the most flamboyant way possible, but I was apparently the harbinger of the New Apocalypse (rebranded because of all the bad publicity, like New Labour, only not so inherently evil) and needed to be exterminated. She could have been right.

That wasn’t what happened, though.

The explosion wasn’t something I could dodge. At no point did I trust Lillian, but I didn’t think she would go kamikaze on me, so I wasn’t close enough to get to her, anyway. Once the pin was out, I didn’t have many options.

  1. Die quietly.
  2. Die screaming.

My luck in surviving so far had been based around me not having to do anything to protect myself. For some reason, my body took care of itself and went ethereal whenever danger loomed, but I was too exhausted to manage anything like that after all the healing I’d been doing.

Maybe Lillian knew that and had purposefully tired me out so I wouldn’t be able to defend myself. It wouldn’t have surprised me to learn she had a better understanding of my powers than I had.

In any case, I accepted my death with good grace, no thought of Jenny, no regret at never having achieved my dream of dancing for the Bolshoi, just a very English, “Oh, well,” passing through my mind before my mind passed through the back of my skull.

People often complain about a loss of English culture, what with all the foreigners filling up our cities and bringing their filthy, disgusting, delicious food with them, but the truth is the culture we were best known and respected for died out long ago. A good-natured acceptance of loss, a quiet celebration of a victory, a warm round of applause for playing well even if the effort never came close to what was required. That all went out the window once free markets and leaders with good hair became the norm.

We used to be something special, something so much better than the French. Oh, well.

There was no pain, no blistering heat searing off my skin. It was actually quite a pleasant warmth, like closing your eyes and turning your face towards the sun. And the energy poured into me.

When I said I was exhausted, I meant my energy stores were empty. I could feel it, the weariness in my body, like a video game where the health bar is a sliver of flashing red. The explosion filled me up and gave me a full bar of green.

I sucked it all in, leaving nothing to cause mayhem and destruction in Lillian’s small office. I had my eyes closed so I wasn’t sure what it looked like to her, but when I opened them, she was staring at me with her mouth hanging open.

“What are you?” she said in a breathy whisper, eyes wide with awe. And then she fainted.

My effect on women usually fell somewhere between complete disregard and utter contempt (a narrow but rich furrow I ploughed with the enthusiasm of a subsidised farmer), so amazement to the point of passing out was a new one. Or maybe I’d sucked the life out of her when I’d absorbed the blast from the grenade.

Either way, I felt pretty good, like that mood you get when you think, “Actually, I might hit the gym for an hour or two.” Or what I assume that feels like.

It would be nice to think I had levelled up and could now walk through a war zone, absorbing explosions and bullets like a proper superhero, but I doubted it would work like that. I needed a proper understanding of how my abilities worked before I went running into the middle of a firefight and made a complete fool of myself, dying while trying to hug a missile.

Lillian was lying with her head on her desk, out cold. The rest of the room looked just the same as before, no sign that a small bomb had just gone off, other than me feeling a little frisky.

I picked up Lillian’s crystal ball, which I thought might come in useful at some point, and put it in my pocket. It was too big to fit but I shoved it in anyway, with a manly disregard for my trousers’ consent. And then I left the room.

There were still people looking for me and I had no idea how to get out, but that seemed a very small problem compared to the airships smashing into each other somewhere below. It was a testament to what you could build with enough money that the building was largely unaffected by all the destruction I was leaving in my wake.

I didn’t really fancy fighting my way out and I had little faith in my newly found invulnerability lasting very long, so my hope was to find a quiet way out and hope nobody noticed. Which would be a bit tricky with all those psychics and Lillian no longer shielding my presence from them. Then again, last time they’d tried to probe me, they’d come off the worst for it, so I was banking on them not wanting to get too close.

My memory has never been the greatest, so it took me a couple of wrong turns before I found my way back to the kitchen area. I considered stopping for a break and having a cup of tea, but generally speaking you’re not supposed to take tea breaks during an escape attempt. I know, so uncivilised. Another of our English traditions lost.

Standing in the kitchenette, watching the microwave go round and round like it was some sort of James Cameron special event, was the potato researcher Lillian had introduced to me earlier. He was no longer in his shiny Hazmat suit, he was wearing regular clothes, at least what I would consider regular clothes for a scientist — poorly fitting oversized jeans and an untucked lumberjack shirt. He had a stained white lab coat on top, to round out the look.

He nodded at me. “Oh, hello again. Lillian cut you loose, has she?” He seemed jovial and courteous. I’d probably end up getting him killed at some point.

“Yes,” I said. “She gave me directions but I can’t quite remember which way it was to the lifts. This way?” I pointed down one of the three corridors that met at this junction.

“No, no, you have to go down here, then take…”

I stopped following what he was saying because of the sounds of a large group of people coming from the corridor he was pointing at.

“By the way,” I said, “John, right?”

“John Grand, that’s right.”

“Yeah. I’m Victor. Victor Sifuentes. You mentioned your special potato collection. Is that one of them in there?” I pointed at the microwave.

John looked horrified. “Oh no. I would never… that would be like eating one of my children.”

“Do you think I could have a look? Sounded interesting.” I sounded retarded — who the fuck wants to check out a potato collection? — but it was music to John’s ears.

“Of course, of course, this way.” He practically shoved me down a hallway — not the one with all the noise — probably scared I might suddenly come to my senses.

He led me to a small lab with large metal ovens, like a commercial kitchen. Once inside the heavy door (which had a keypad lock to stop any potato thieves getting in) I was surrounded by a thick layer of silence. You couldn’t hear anything from outside.

“Shouldn’t I put on a lab coat?” I asked. “To prevent contamination.”

John smiled, nodding with warm regard. “Absolutely.” He clearly appreciated the respect I was giving his work with the king of tubers.

I put on a white coat which he took from a rack on the wall. I helped myself to a pair of large plastic safety goggles sitting on the table. It all suited me surprisingly well, judging by the reflection from the glass. On the other side of which, men rushed past.

“So, secret potato research. Do I have to sign an NDA?”

“No, no. If Lillian’s vouched for you, I’m sure it’ll be fine.”

We spent the next ten minutes or so reviewing rows and rows of identical root vegetables grown on trays in the ovens. It was difficult not to yawn, but with remarkable force of will, I managed it. Not all superheroes wear capes, some of us wear the wrong-sized lab coats that need a wash.

Nobody burst in to take me into custody. No one sent out an email asking to keep an eye out for me. I doubt anyone would have been able to recognise me as an outsider.

“As you can see, there’s no way to tell them apart from a regular, run-of-the-mill potato. But under the hood, well, now you know what’s possible.”

I nodded vigorously and gave him a sold ‘you bet’ look. I hadn’t been listening for the last nine minutes so I had no idea what secrets of the tater he had revealed, but I was quite happy to take his word for it.

“And all perfectly safe,” John added.

“Great,” I said. “I hope they don’t get you to find a way to weaponise them.”

John’s face fell. “How did you know about that?”

Just my luck to stumble onto his true purpose— potato grenades. Probably with the help of Lillian.

“I was joking,” I said.

“Hah, me too,” said John. I don’t think he was.

“I should be going,” I said. “Is there a quick way out? I’ll only get lost if I try to find the way Lillian brought me.”

“There is, actually. Freight elevator, special clearance needed.” He waved his ID card at me. “I need it for my manure deliveries.”

He took me to the end of the corridor where a large lift with doors you had to manually pull to one side waited. We went down slowly, in squeaky jerks, down to the carpark. I thought I heard some sounds through the walls, people screaming, large objects crashing, the crackle of flames, but it was like hearing a song from the earphones of a person sitting next to you on the tube. You couldn’t really tell what it was.

“I’ll need the coat back,” he said when the doors opened.

“Ah, sorry, forgot I had it on.” I took off the lab coat and handed it back. John looked at my crotch for rather longer than society deemed acceptable, but it was only because of the bulge made by the crystal ball.

He said nothing. We had come to an understanding, me and the potato whisperer. We shook hands and parted ways.

Lillian was bound to have regained consciousness by now, and Jack’s boys would still be looking for me. I could have called a cab but that would take too long. I decided to go see Cheng, see if he could get reception on the crystal ball.

I felt good, energised. I took a deep breath and started running. I ran all the way.

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