“Richina? Where are you?” I said. “I can’t see you.”
“I can’t see you, either,” she said, which didn’t really help. I already knew where I was.
Below me my body looked its usual haggard self. I really needed a weekend off. The crew of the Eternal Infinite stood behind me, their singular vines extending to Captain Somya, who was standing in the doorway.
There was no sign of anyone else here, other than the girl sitting on the floor. In the adjacent world, she had meat on her bones and hair on her head. You would think with all my extensive experience in dealing with dead people, I’d have a better understanding of what was going on.
If her body was dead, how was she still able to be here? She looked alive and well in this plane of existence. Full-bodied. How was this possible?
Unfortunately, there were many possible answers to that question, none of which were known to me. It probably had something to do with Arthur. He was the master of the magic hole where you could keep people on ice indefinitely. He’d done it with Wesley, he’d done it with the old gods, and now he seemed to have done it with Richina.
“Oh, this isn’t how I thought it would be.” She sounded a little distraught, the way you do when you’re pretending to be fine for other people’s sake. It’s a thankless task, convincing people they don’t need to worry about you. The grand old cuck yourself.
I think, deep down, we want the other person to see through our subterfuge. Get the admiration for the attempted self-sacrifice, but get the help we desperately want, too.
Of course, deep down, the other person already knows, and wants you to think you’ve fooled them, so they can leave you to your mess. The relative calmness of their own lives looks far more attractive to them after seeing the kind of shit they could have got dragged into.
“Is Wesley there?” she asked, a light tremor in her voice.
If I couldn’t help her, maybe Wesley could. Smart girl. The only problem was that Wesley couldn’t do anything outside of my body at the moment. And if I restarted time, then Richina would no longer be present.
“Let me go and see if I can get her,” I said. Wesley might at least have an idea of how Arthur meant this to play out. Judging by how the skeleton had looked, this had all been arranged some time ago.
“No, don’t go.”
It’s nice to be wanted, but providing people with comfort is a long-term commitment I prefer not to make.
Being alone is horrible. But you get used to it. And once you find a way to deal with the general monotony and accept that no one’s coming to get you if you just wait it out, you can survive quite well.
It’s the same with most horrible things. Like losing an arm or a leg. You don’t want to be in that position, but if it happened, you would be able to carry on. Just knowing there were others out there who had to face the same problem would force you to stop whining and feeling sorry for yourself, even though that’s what you want to do. Because that’s the power of shame.
That six year old born without legs is laughing and playing on his prosthetic limbs, so put this rubber hand on the end of your wrist, and shut your fucking mouth. Is what you’d like to say to someone crying about not being able to eat cornflakes as easily as they used to.
Whatever Richina’s situation was, I had no idea how to get her out. Or even if I should. She had been here for some time, and the only reason she was getting riled up was because I was here, giving her hope. I tried not to use the stuff myself, if at all possible. And I did my best to not let others get hold of any. It had its uses, but it was easily abused. People were always exceeding the recommended dosage.
Even when things turn out better than expected, you have to stay on your guard. That bionic hand you received as a replacement, yes it means you can now squeeze juice out of an apple by making a fist, but you also run the risk of touching yourself in your sleep, and ripping your own dick off.
“What can you see?” I asked, doing my best to keep my voice relaxed and casual.
“Just black. It’s always been just black.”
“You can’t see the shrine at all?”
“No. Am I still there?”
“Yes,” I said.
“How do I look?”
“Oh, you know…”
“What? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. It’s just that you might have lost a bit of weight.” I was doing my best to put a positive spin on things.
“Not too much, I hope.”
Just my luck, a woman with a healthy image of herself.
She could easily have been in another pocket universe, like the one I’d found Wesley in. Great news, if true. It meant she could be brought out. But where to? Her real-world body wasn’t in any condition to receive visitors.
As I looked down at her body, I could see the design on the floor it was sitting on. Circles within circles. And in the middle, gold. To represent the Golden God? If so, Richina was sitting on his face.
I had travelled all this way, thinking I would find a chest buried under an X. But it was never going to be that easy. Nothing ever is. At least I had made it here. It would be dumb to stop now. It would also be dumb to keep going. Sometimes you have to choose the dumb option from between two dumb options.
The idea of finding legendary loot was compelling, but on a more prosaic level, it would also help if I could bring Richina back so she could convince the islanders not to eat us.
“I’ll be right back,” I said, and left before she asked any more awkward questions.
Now that I had reached my objective, it was time for Wesley to step up. She was the shrine expert in the party. She should know where the cool stuff was hidden.
“It doesn’t look the same,” said Wesley. She was seated in her favourite armchair, having a lovely time letting me do whatever I wanted.
It’s always the thing you don’t have that you want. When people were constantly trying to give me their input, I tried to discourage them by gently asking them to fuck off. Now I had someone who wouldn’t dream of forcing her ideas onto me, I was itching to find out what she would advise.
The two scenarios were a little different, in that Wesley wasn’t a massive idiot. Her ideas might actually be worth something. But then, that was probably why she wasn’t overly enthusiastic about wasting them on me.
As much as I might resent her for not helping out more, I had to admire her good common sense. Don’t make an insecure leader react defensively by criticising and correcting him. Offer suggestions only if asked. Wait till the clueless buffoon gets himself killed, then take over his body.
Seemed like a solid plan to me.
“Can you talk to the priestess?”
“I can hear her when she speaks to you, but I can’t make any contact with the outside world when you’re in this state.”
Wesley had managed to travel from her own prison into this one through the exit Arthur had provided. But she didn’t have the ability to move around outside of my body the way I did.
I let myself take back possession of my body. Air surged back into my chest. The captain and his crew waited patiently for me to give the order to panic. I walked around the priestess, who was once again a skeleton.
“Where did Arthur hide the items you said were here?” I was trying my best not to sound impatient. We all know men are disgusting. They’re only interested in one thing. Magic artefacts.
“I think they’ve repainted,” said Wesley. “Can’t say I like it. No, something else. It’s like the building’s been…” I felt the urge to tilt my head to the side, the way you do when you look at a painting that might have been hung the wrong way round.
It would make little sense for Arthur to set up this place so Wesley could come here to get what she needed, and then to change it without telling her. But he’d added the islanders, so presumably he’d had to upgrade the security for some reason.
“It’s been turned upside down,” said Wesley. “Look up there.”
In the roof was a hole, directly over the priestess. It let in light. I hoped they provided her with some kind of umbrella when it rained, or she’d catch her death of cold.
If the building was upside down, the hole would point into the ground. An entrance?
But the shrine was made of stone. How do you flip an entire stone building?
“Out of the way, please,” I said to the captain.
He moved aside and let me out. The entire village had gathered on the steps of the shrine.
“So, erm, hello. I’m Co—Victor.” Almost forgot my own name for a second. “Victor Sifuentes. Do you have a leader?” I received blank looks. “A spokesperson?”
A man came forward. He was nothing special to look at. Long hair, healthy tan, white teeth. Your average cannibal.
“I am the president of this island.” He had a clear, calm way of speaking. Very businesslike. He seemed quite young, though.
“You’ve been president for long?”
“I am only president for today. Tomorrow, it will be someone else’s turn.”
Seemed a very egalitarian system. “You aren’t going to attack us?”
It was perhaps tempting fate to bring it up, but I was curious what they thought we were here for.
“No. We took a vote. It was decided to see if you were the ones the shrine was built for.”
Democracy in action. They might be cannibals, but that didn’t mean they weren’t civilised.
“This shrine,” I said, pointing at it so we were all on the same page. “It’s upside down.”
There was some murmuring.
“Yes,” said the president.
“Can you turn it back the right way round?” I asked.
“That was to be the priestess’ decision.”
“This priestess?” I asked. “She seems to be slightly dead.”
“Yes,” said the president. “She fasted and meditated, and then she died. There was nothing we could do.”
“Her bones look very clean. You didn’t eat her, did you?”
The assembled islanders suddenly looked at the ground, the sky, something going on behind them. Anywhere but at me.
I’m not sure how the change happens exactly, but you can feel when the shift in power happens. People give up their claim to authority. I felt it then. Time to go all in.
“Guys, come on! She isn’t dead. Not dead-dead. I could have put her back in her body, if you hadn’t eaten it. Who’s idea was that?” I looked around like a teacher waiting for someone to fess up to making farting sounds.
“We took a vote,” said the president for today.
“Oh, you took a vote. You vote on everything, do you?”
They nodded at me.
I was in the presence of democratic cannibals. Arthur, the big believer in unions, was apparently an advocate of bringing democracy to the people, including the people-eating people.
“Then can’t you vote on whether or not to fix the shrine?”
“Yes,” said the president. “We have it planned for the vote after next.”
“And I suppose the next vote is on whether or not to eat us.”
“Yes,” said the president. I deserved that. Walked right into it.
“Couldn’t you switch the votes around?”
“It’s on the books now. Nothing we can do.” He shrugged apologetically. The rest of the islanders copied him. It was a lot of shrugging. Cannibals, sticklers for bureaucracy, apparently.
“That doesn’t seem very fair,” I said.
“It is, it is. You get a vote, too,” he said.
“But there’s more of you than us.” It was nice of them to give us the right to vote even though we were here on a tourist visa, but we were outnumbered by quite a lot.
“We are open to being persuaded by reasonable argument and appropriate incentives.”
I realised the political process here was more advanced than I had thought. This was real democracy, where you could bribe the fuckers into voting the way you wanted. All was not yet lost.
“Then let us throw you a dinner,” I said. “Come spend some time with us, hear what we have to offer, make an informed decision. There’ll be appetisers.”
The president turned around and faced his people. “I call for an emergency vote. All those in favour?”
Hands went up.
Fewer hands went up.
The president turned to face me again. “We accept.”
“You can call an emergency vote?” I said.
“Only for social occasions. Policy decisions can’t be hurried. It would lead to anarchy.”
I had planned to use food as a decoy, but now I could use it as a political tool. I had to show them there was an option better suited to their needs. A tastier option.
“Shall we say just after sunset?” I said. “Do you need directions?”
“We know where you are.”
They escorted us to the tunnel and let us go back to the cove. It was all very friendly. People were looking forward to it. I just had to go back and convince the others this was going to be fine. They sight of all these cannibals was liable to freak them out if I didn’t make it seem very normal. A nice little soirée. Cheese and wine. Maybe some finger food.
When we returned, there was a fire burning, and Damicar was toiling over Mrs Somya’s pots and pans. He was going to have to cook like never before to win over the hearts and stomachs of our island hosts.
“Did you bring the herbs I asked for?”
I had forgotten the shopping.
Everyone was looking at me. How was I going to break it to them? The cannibals weren’t having us for dinner, we were having them.
I looked over at where Royn was lying. Something seemed to be missing.
“What happened to his leg?” I said.
The assembled sailors suddenly looked at the ground, the sky, something going on behind them. Anywhere but at me.