I don’t know if you’ve ever ridden a lift carrying an unconscious girl over your shoulder while two small demons glare at you with industrial-strength disapproval, but it’s not as glamorous as you’d think.
The demons weren’t a threat to me but they were very likely to make up stories about my personal habits and paint me in a bad light. Next time I visited a demon pub, I expected to hear whispers about what a dick I am. Mind you, the whispers in a demon bar are probably a little more vicious than personal attacks about your relationship with your girlfriend.
If they made a level of hell reserved for guys who don’t treat their significant others as well as they could, I expect it would be very full. And also quite cheerful. Just a bunch of guys without their partners talking about how shitty video games are these days, what with all the microtransactions and pre-order/early access/DLC shenanigans.
Of course, the really scary part of a demon pub is the toilets. The really scary part of any pub is the toilets.
As the lift rose up to the top floor where my fate awaited me, I kept myself amused with thoughts of names for demon pubs. The Rammed Inn, The Virgin’S laughter, Wetherspoons…
The demons were getting listless, I could tell. They were licking the numbers off the panel, their long tongues grinding the edges smooth. They were still staring at me while they did this, which was disconcerting.
“Look, guys,” I said to them, “when we get up there, we need to work as a team. Coordinated, you get me?” They didn’t look like they got me. “You can’t just jump on the first guy you see and eat his face. It isn’t an efficient use of your time. There are a lot of faces, just chew and move, chew and move.”
The demon on the left reached up and gently pulled on Jenny’s heel. I had obviously bored it into trying to revive Jenny.
Jenny groaned and kicked the demon into the wall. It didn’t seem to mind. Looked quite happy about it.
“This isn’t very comfortable,” she mumbled into my back. “If you’re going to carry me, couldn’t you do it a bit more elegantly.”
“I don’t think there’s an elegant way to carry an unconscious woman,” I said. “Not without a stuntman and a harness they remove in post-production.”
She squirmed some more and managed to swing her way to the front so she was now in my arms, her head next to my ear. “There, that’s better.”
“Not for my back it isn’t.” I tried to put her down but she resisted.
“Just until we reach the top.”
“You want me to carry you up twenty flights?”
“You’re not even doing the climbing.”
She was right, the lift was doing all the work, but gravity was determined not to be ignored and was currently working on my knees and lower back.
“What happened? My head feels funny.”
“You don’t remember the smoke bomb?” I said, cunningly leaning back on the lift wall so I had some support — first time for everything. “People screaming and running around in a panic? Not ringing any bells? They used some kind of sleeping gas, maybe a nerve toxin. The side-effects could be horrific. Maybe even false memories of me telling you to shut your trap and do as your told. Which I would never do, obviously.”
“Mmm,” said Jenny, nuzzling my ear. “Feels like I’ve had six vodkas.”
Say what you like about Jenny, she was a cheap date. One military-style incursion and she was buzzing for the night.
“Why didn’t you heal me?” she asked directly into my earhole. It tickled.
“I was letting you sleep it off.”
“You mean you preferred me to stay quiet and stop annoying you.”
“You weren’t annoying me.”
“Everyone annoys you.”
“You weren’t annoying me any more than anyone else,” I corrected myself.
“When we get back and you save everyone and the world is safe again,” she said, “I promise I will never annoy you again.” She let out a long breath and collapsed on my shoulder.
I appreciated the sentiment but people are always promising the impossible as though it’s the thought that counts. It isn’t. The thought counts least of all. It goes: What you think, what you say in private, what you say in public, what you do. Of those, the last is the only one that really makes a difference, the rest are just progressively more intense sales techniques.
“Wait,” I said, “are you saying you’re going to leave me?” That was pretty much the only guaranteed way to achieve her stated goal.
Jenny’s head shot up and her legs slipped out of my arms so she was standing but leaning on me. “You should be so lucky.”
The lift doors opened and we were met by Peter Orion in a very stylish shiny blue suit, his blond hair slicked back, peering at us through rectangular glasses.
“Is she alright?”
Jenny was still draped over me, which used to be the classic pose for heroes. Nowadays, people are more likely to think you’ve dropped a date-rape drug in the girl’s drink and are trying to drag her off behind some dumpster in an alley.
“I’m fine,” said Jenny. She let go of me and stood a little straighter to illustrate her claim. “Who are you?”
“Another Peter?” said Jenny. “And American.” She said it like it was something that needed to be fixed. Atta girl.
“Just call him Orion. He’s like the liaison officer for this company. Keeps turning up to offer me deals.”
“Oh, he’s the devil,” said Jenny.
“No,” said Orion.
“Yep,” I said. “You got it. If he offers you a million quid to sleep with him, say no.”
“Are you telling me what to do?” said Jenny, no hint of a smirk (but I knew it was in there).
“No, I’m saying I also have a million quid, and pro-rata it will be a better deal for you to take the money from me.”
Jenny rolled her eyes at me. She didn’t refuse the money, though.
“Everything’s ready for you,” said Orion. He had waited patiently for us to finish. He was playing it cool and suave. This was just another deal to him, one of many he had on his schedule for today. It was a nice attempt at chill, but the appearance of the two demons from behind Jenny’s legs put an end to it.
“Holy shit, what’s that?” said Orion, jumping back.
Behind him were a small group of large men. They were kitted out for trouble, and here it was. They looked like they weren’t sure it was the right kit. Sometimes you bring the wrong studs for your boots and it can ruin the game for you, slipping about everywhere on the mud.
“Relax,” I said in my most condescending tone; I have a range, one for every occasion. “Every woman over there has her own demon squad. Helps keep the men in line.”
The idea of women having demons as pets appealed to me. If I had designed the universe, I would have made that a thing. It would have created a very different form of female empowerment. The current system where they just lie there powerless while men do horrible things to them seems to me to be lacking a certain degree of, I don’t know, let’s call it humanity. I mean I get how it works wonderfully from a breeding-whether-you-like-it-or-not point of view — which is all evolution cares about — but in my universe there would be a lot less waking up screaming and shaving your head for no reason.
“You should see what happens when it’s her time of the month,” I told the gathered men. “That’s when the really big demons appear. They have huge appendages. Very intimidating.”
The men, who were all hard-looking motherfuckers, looked a bit queasy.
“Can we go?” said Jenny. The demons clung to her legs and eyed the men, tongues lolling out of their toothsome mouths.
We made quite the pair, me with a reputation as a badass I thoroughly didn’t deserve and her, the disfigured demon queen. I was starting to think we may even be the villains here and all these people were joining forces to stop us from completing our diabolical plan, whatever that was.
That’s probably how they’d spin it after we’d gone. The fact we only wanted to leave and get away from all these terrible people not withstanding.
“Lead the way,” I said to Orion.
He was over the initial shock and turned around and bumped into his men, who weren’t moving. He gave them a stern look and they spread out to form an escort around us.
I won’t say I wasn’t feeling a little apprehensive. They had a plan to screw us over, obviously. They were going to wait until it seemed like they weren’t going to pull a double-cross, and then they’d pull a double-cross.
I had come here knowing this. Was I going to use magic to destroy them all? Probably not. My understanding of the universe was too deep to think that would work.
That’s right, I know how the universe works. Some people might fixate on what stars are made of, or what’s inside a black hole, but these are irrelevant. If you wanted to drive from London to Brighton, would you consider it important to know how the internal combustion engine works?
Here’s what my understanding of the universe tells me. When I’m finally in a position where the only thing that can save me is magic, that’s when magic will fail me. I could write a fucking thesis.
They led us into the large room with all the psychics strapped into electronic coffins, or whatever. There was a bunch of boffins up on a platform dong their best to look busy, and there was a large opening in the side of the building.
“Through there is it?” I asked Orion. That was where Claire had appeared.
“Yes,” said Orion. “We’ve been working very hard to replicate the last event. We’re ninety percent sure we’ve got it. The opening on this side, that is. It’s finding a way out on the other end that we need you for.”
“Ninety percent, huh?” I wasn’t particularly impressed. It’s like when some company that’s cocked up sends out a bloke to do damage control and he bangs on about how ninety-five percent of their customers are very happy, like that makes a difference to the savagely fucked-over five percent.
“Oh, hello again.”
I turned to find a large man with glasses dressed like he was going on safari. “Oh, hello John. This is John Grand,” I said to Jenny. “He’s a potato scientist.”
“That’s not very nice,” said Jenny.
“No, he studies potatoes.”
She looked at me like I was the potato here.
“I’ll be coming with you,” said John. “To study the flora and the soil conditions. We’re hoping to produce some really cracking potatoes over there.”
“You really study potatoes?” said Jenny.
John looked confused by the question. Join the club, mate.
Orion came over with some more tough geezers, these ones also dressed in khaki and with huge rucksacks strapped to their backs.
“You already know Jack,” said Orion.
“Sure,” I said. “We go way back. Let’s put any bad blood behind us and let’s all and do our best.” I’m not sure why I felt the need to give him a pep talk, other than I found it amusing to see his face grow even more sour than it was already.
The men around him had similarly sour expressions. They probably had special training to get them synchronised like that. I didn’t recognise any of them, must have been a new batch after the last lot performed so poorly.
“Is that your idea of a joke,” he drawled in his Texan accent. “Just don’t kill any more of my men and we’ll be fine.”
“Who did you kill now?” said Jenny, like I was always doing it.
“This is my girlfriend,” I said to Jack. It came out like I was bragging, which I wasn’t. Not very much, anyway.
Jack nodded at Jenny and said, “I’m very sorry.”
“Thank you,” said Jenny.
Fuckers were starting their own double act.
There was some faffing about as we lined up at the opening, the bridge to nowhere stretching out into the East London air.
“Hey, now remember the deal,” said Orion. He wasn’t coming and he seemed delighted about it. Probably because he knew what was in store for us. “Just get us through to the other side, and then it’s every man for himself. Do you need anything? I noticed you don’t have any gear. You’ll need some survival equipment, won’t you?”
“No,” I said. “It slows you down when you’re running. I just need this.” I pulled out the wooden sword I had stuck in my belt. “You guys look like you're really well equipped for this. What have you got in there? One of those super high tog sleeping bags?”
I tried to get a peek but they were very reluctant to show me their sacks. Not a euphemism.
There was a soft hum from outside the building which grew louder. There had been no countdown, no pre-flight check. We just stood there as a dark portal appeared.
“Right,” I said. “Here we go.”
I set off across the bridge. The others followed me, somewhat hesitantly. Whether because of the danger of falling, the idea of travelling to another world, or just because it happened to be me leading, I couldn’t say.
The portal was black and impenetrable. I reached out my hand and gave it a poke. My hand went through. Then it came back out. So far so good.
The others lined up behind me. Twelve men, four scientists (also men, but of a different sort), and Jenny. No sign of Lillian. I had thought she would suddenly appear and insist on coming.
“You’re sure about this,” said Jenny.
She could have been referring to a number of things.
“Yeah. After all the trouble Biadet went to, it would be rude not to.” I walked into the void.