There are two kinds of experts. The kind who know their subject well enough to take it apart and put it back together again. And then there are the experts who are really good at watching other people and giving them marks out of ten.
The second kind are also a useless bunch of twats.
Not that people shouldn’t be allowed to express their opinion or make a judgement—without this instinct humans wouldn’t have survived the earlier part of our development. It’s just that there isn’t very much you can do with the second kind these days apart from use it for marketing purposes.
A bunch of people have decided on the film of the year. Okay. So what? Does that help you understand the difference between a good and a bad movie? Do the bad movies not make money?
A group of people whose taste is probably nothing like yours or anyone you know’s voted on it. They spent a lot of time having a good think. There was a big ceremony and everything.
There was a time when you could trust someone’s judgement because if you made a bad choice, you died. Bad opinions got weeded out. Your opinion on the safest route through the jungle came with consequences. Nowadays you might get some mean tweets sent your way.
Admittedly it’s more fun choosing the order things go on a list than figuring out how something actually works. Real expertise, the kind that you can use, is hard work. An annoyingly large amount. If you find someone who already has some, you should hang onto him. Or her. But probably him.
“You could always go through and have a look,” said Claire. She was standing in front of the archway, gliding her hands across the surface like she might spring a secret door if she touched the right spot.
“Why would I do that?” I asked.
“Because that’s what Peter wants me to do. That alone is reason enough to stay well clear.”
Having decided to reject Joshaya’s attempt to get me to do Peter’s dirty work for him, I still had to decide on my next move. It seemed safest to stay down here until I came up with an idea. The Elf might crush the church under its heel and move on, leaving me and Claire as the only two left. Actually, perhaps it would be better to go back up top.
“But Arthur might be through here.” She put her ear against the wall.
“I doubt it. Whatever Peter wants me to do, it’s going to be to his advantage. I doubt he’d want to bring back the guy who thought he was a bit of a dick.”
“You won’t know until you look. Not like we have much else to do.”
“Are you really Claire, or Joshaya in disguise?”
“I’m not saying we should help him, I just mean we should know what it is he’s trying to do. We might be able to use it ourselves.”
She had a fairly reasonable point. Walking around blind, being led from pillar to post and never seeing where the road was leading had left us confused and lost. Not much you can do standing in a crypt staring at a wall.
Claire moved her head up and down with her cheek against the wall.
“What are you doing?” I asked her.
“I’m listening. Seeing if I can pick up any thoughts. If I can make a connection with someone, I might be able to talk to them.”
“I don’t think it works like that.”
“How do you know?” She had me there. “You haven’t really been on top of your game for a while now, have you?”
The critique of my leadership style took me unawares, so I might have gone a bit defensive. “What’s that supposed to mean you fucking ingrate? I saved you enough times to regret it.”
“You were a lot sharper back when we started. Back before you hooked up with Jenny.”
Claire was the last person I’d expect to question my relationship with Jenny. They were close personal friends, after all, and women always… actually, I think I just solved the mystery.
“I’m not with her anymore, am I?” I pointed out.
“No. And look how much quicker you spotted Joshaya and sent him packing. More like your old miserable trusts-no-one self.”
“And what was I like when I was all lovey-dovey?”
“Oh, um…” I could see she was searching for just the right word to piss me off the most. “Smug.”
Good job. “Smug? You think I was smug?”
“Pleased with yourself.”
“I know what smug means, thanks.”
“Okay, not smug. Satisfied with how well you’d done.”
“That also means smug, you fucking Roget-reject. And you’re wrong, as usual. My ability to spot a dickhead has remained consistent, it’s just that they’ve been getting better at hiding it. Joshaya’s been changing appearances and coming at me from all different angles. That’s not by coincidence. He had a strategy, probably given to him by Peter, to get us right here. Whatever’s behind there, it’s not good for us.”
“It might be a weapon. We could use one of those.”
“Seriously, are you working for Peter? Did you sell me out, Claire? Promised to hand me over in exchange for some magic beans?” I was being sarcastic (in case you couldn’t tell), but magic beans might be worth quite a lot in this place. I’d have taken that deal.
Claire scowled at me. It was possible Joshaya had taken her place and stuffed her in a coffin, but it seemed less and less likely. You could copy the face, but the combination of displeased and unsatisfied she wore so effortlessly had to be drilled day after day. Wrinkles don’t just ingrain themselves.
“Instead of tossing around insults, perhaps you should think of a way to get us out of here alive.”
“Why can’t I do both?”
“Oh, just stop it. I’ll help you get her back after this is over. Right now, you have to find out what’s behind this wall. Can’t you use your gardening skills to help me get a signal?”
It took me a moment to realise ‘gardening’ was a reference to the vines I could manipulate. If I could get her ability to poke through the barrier, she might be able to hear what was going on that side of the wall.
“Actually, that might work.”
“Really?” Always a good sign when the person is stunned you took their suggestion seriously.
“Yes, really. I treat ideas with the respect they deserve. People, not so much. Now shut your fat mouth and stand next to the wall. This won’t hurt. Probably. Try to read my mind.”
She flattened herself against the wall and gave me a thumbs up. Then she glared at me like she’d like to punch me in the face. She didn’t actually want to hit me, it was just the way she looked when she was concentrating on her ability. I decided to assume.
I separated from my body. It was a lot easier now that I had no connections to hold me back. All I had to do was think clearly and firmly about leaving my body, and I was out.
There weren’t any vines down here apart from the ones coming off Claire. There were quite a few of those, but only one floating loose, aimed in my direction.
It had tried to reach me, perhaps bounced off my Teflon exterior, and would most likely shrivel up in a minute. I grabbed it, like taking a snake by the throat. Homoerotic images aside, it throbbed in my grasp (homoerotic images not as aside as I’d hoped).
The portal had changed to a dark hole. It was exactly the same as the one under the temple. Were the two connected? A back door? (those homoerotic images really don’t like being marginalised).
I wrangled Claire’s probe towards the portal and shoved it through. I pushed it in as far as my elbow—I didn’t want to go in too deep and get grabbed by whatever was on the other side.
I let go and returned to my body to see the results of my deft bit of tentacle manipulation.
Claire was standing where I’d left her, although her eyes were spinning like she’d had one too many vodka and red bulls.
“What can you hear?” I asked her.
“Ay, ay, ay…” was all that came out of her mouth. The strain of what I had done might have been too much and sent her full mariachi. Never a good thing.
“Concentrate,” I shouted at her, hoping to sharpen her focus. If she was going to have some sort of mental collapse, she could at least give me a bit of recon first.
“No, no, I can’t…” She turned and began staggering away from the wall.
There was a glimmer of something between her and the portal. The vine was partially visible to me. I could see it was attached, and that her moving away was about to pull it loose.
There wasn’t time to convince her to keep going. I had managed to plug her into the other side, I just needed her to get a fix on the occupants of the room behind there.
I grabbed her by the shoulders and pushed her back towards the wall.
She struggled, pushed my hands off, and tried to leave again. I caught her around the waist and swung her around to face the other way. “Come on, Claire. Just get a clear picture of what’s in there.”
She responded by elbowing me in the stomach.
It wasn’t super-hard, but enough to wind me. I bent over trying to catch my breath. She was off again, stumbling towards the exit, one hand clutching her head.
I kicked out and caught her ankle; she fell over. I grabbed her foot and dragged her back so she was lying next to the wall. The vine was still connected.
“Come on, this is important. What do you see?”
“My head… I can’t…”
The old ‘not tonight, I’ve got a headache’ ruse. How can women even try something so clichéd? Shameful. She started crawling away. I had her foot in my hand still and leaned back to prevent her getting away. It was like trying to stop a crocodile getting back in the water by holding its tail. Not particularly advisable.
“No. Don’t give up. Use your anger to push through the pain.”
“Good. Now direct it at the wall.”
“Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you!” Still directed at me.
She scrambled to get away as I was pulled after her. Attach her to a sled and I might finally have found a use for her.
“Do it,” I shouted at her.
She began screaming: “Non-consensual! Non-consensual!”
“What are you doing?”
We both stopped and looked towards the voice. The others, including Dudley and Maurice, who had spoken, were at the other end of the crypt watching us. I let go of Claire’s foot.
“Ah, there you are. Not what it looks like,” I said. “We were trying to get her power to work through the wall, and, um...”
“Non-consensual!” shouted Claire.
“Stop saying that. They’re going to get the wrong idea.”
She was on her feet now, not looking happy. “What wrong idea? You tried to force me against my will. That’s non-consensual.”
“Only if I was trying to fuck you. Which I wasn’t,” I said to Maurice. “You feeling better are you? Seem to have got your colour back.” What does it mean when you’re inadvertently racist under pressure?
“It doesn’t have to be sexual,” said Claire. “Consensual can refer to anything.”
“Yes, but people don’t use it like that. No one complains about a non-consensual handshake, do they? Did you see what was in there?”
“Yes. No. I’m not sure. It was like I was on the edge of something…” Her brow creased like she was wincing from the memory.
“Well, go back in.”
“No. It hurt.” She had moved over to Maurice and embraced him. Like that would save her.
The others had come closer and were looking at me for an explanation or solution or free candy. I don’t know, it was always something with this lot.
Save us, teach us, treat us as equals.
One ridiculous demand after another.
“You two just came round, did you?” I asked Maurice and Dudley. I assumed Joshaya peacing out had something to do with it.
“Yeah,” said Maurice.
“I feel quite refreshed, actually,” said Dudley. Being dead in a wheelbarrow was like spending a weekend at a spa, apparently.
“The Elf’s coomin’,” said Flossie.
“Any ideas?” asked Jenny.
The gang was back together. I could feel all hope leaving me. Bunch of fucking parasites, that’s what they reminded me of. Feeding off the host until the bones were picked clean off the carcass. Claire seemed to think I was at my most perceptive and inspirational when I was at my most miserable and hopeless. That should have meant I was currently the most brilliant person who had ever fucking lived.
Why even bother? Now that Maurice was back online, he’d probably come up with a way to piggyback off my ability to defeat the Elf and Peter.
I looked at him, a cold trickle of ice water sliding across my mind. He’d discovered his power and upgraded it in one fell swoop. He’d found a way to use other people’s abilities. Worked out how to get through my defences. Maybe Joshaya’s tactic of keeping me off-balance hadn’t come from Peter, after all.
“When did you make a deal with Peter?” I asked him.
Claire went gargoyle at record speed, her face folding into a frightening visage of contempt. “What are you talking about?”
I ignored her. “I know you wanted a power like the rest of us, but to sell us out...”
Everyone looked at Maurice, who hadn’t said anything. No denial. “I didn’t sell out. I… I’m sorry.” His head dropped and I waited for the walls to come tumbling down.
“No,” said Claire. “What is this? Some plan the two of you have cooked up without telling us?”
“It’s true,” said Maurice, not looking up at her. “He said he’d show me my power if I let him share it. Without him, it hardly works at all. It’s useless.”
Claire was having trouble accepting her boyfriend had turned traitor. From his point of view, I could see the temptation. He probably convinced himself he’d find a way to turn it to our advantage. In the meantime, Peter had been using him to guide us here, primed to do his bidding.
“What’s behind there?” I asked him.
“I don’t know. He didn’t tell me. He’s desperate for you to let it out, though.”
“This isn’t a trick?” Claire was quite distraught as the truth sank in. “But you don’t need a power. So what if it’s not very strong? You can’t let him use you…”
Maurice shook his head. “I’m sorry. I need to find out what I’m capable of, and he’s the only one who can help me.”
“But how… How did I not know? I would have…” Claire’s eyes widened with realisation. “Did you use your power on me?”
Maurice looked deflated, half his normal size. “I’m sorry.”
I guess she was right. Non-consensual doesn’t have to be sexual.