“Are they really cannibals?” asked Maurice, nervously looking around.
The islanders stared unblinkingly at Maurice, which could easily be confused with ravenous hunger and portion selection.
“Oh, yes,” said Laney. “They eat people like you for breakfast. Which is only a few hours away.”
“What is she doing here?” Maurice seemed more disturbed by the Princess’ presence than that of the cannibals.
“I have no idea,” I said. “She keeps turning up. Be careful or I’ll give you to her to play with.”
There was a sharp intake of breath from the islanders. They’d spent enough time in the royal presence to know the severity of such a fate.
“They also eat fish,” I said, “so not strict cannibals. It’s more of a lifestyle choice than a restrictive diet. You’re looking pretty good, there, Maurice. New haircut, pressed uniform, very dapper.” It was true, he looked much better than he normally did. Privilege and unbounded luxury agreed with him. I, on the other hand, looked like a hobo with my wild hair and raggedy clothes.
Maurice was sitting on the sand looking up at me. Perhaps he thought if he maintained a submissive position, I’d be less likely to feed him to the locals.
“And you’re their president?” There was a slight implication that this meant I was one of them.
“Mr President to you,” I said. “It wasn’t easy, you know. Had to suffer a lot of trials and tribulations to get them to accept me, and my tribulating has never been my strong point. The things I had to do to survive, Maurice, the appalling things. Nothing will ever prepare you for the carnage you witness at a cannibal all-you-can-eat buffet. It’s either kill or be killed and fricasseed. Have you ever seen a man marinated alive? They eat people, Maurice, they eat them with blood running down their chins, no napkins, horrifying, it is. But, you know, after how I’d been treated, it felt refreshing to know where you stood with people. I feel my relationship with them is so much more rewarding.”
Maurice let me ramble on. He didn’t try to interrupt or make excuses. No explanations, either.
“I understand you’re angry,” he said, the way someone who has prepared themselves attempts to wriggle through an apology without actually apologising.
“Ninety-nine percent of our customers are completely satisfied with our service, I’m sorry if you were treated in a manner not up to our usual standards, but I can assure you we could have fucked you over much more severely if that had been our intention.”
“I’m not angry,” I said. “I was kind of relieved, actually. It was going to happen at some point, right? You were going to need your independence, your space to do your own thing. I just didn’t see the need for you to…” It was hard to find the right words.
“Stab you in the back?” he helpfully offered.
“Mm, no, to be fair, Claire stabbed me in the front, while looking me dead in the eye. I can’t really accuse you guys of not airing your grievances face to face. A longer consultation period would have been nice, though.”
“We didn’t have a choice.” Marice closed his mouth like he was trying to stop himself from making excuses. He knew better than anyone how I would respond.
“Ah, Maurice, come on. Let’s not spoil this lovely evening with giant piles of bullshit. There’s going to be a barbecue later. You’re invited.”
Maurice’s glasses slipped down his nose. He pushed them back up. “You don’t understand. We weren’t going to leave you. We knew your healing would keep you alive. We were going to come back for you when the time was right…” His tautly sincere face drooped. “You don’t believe me.”
“Oh, I believe you,” I said.
“You just don’t care.”
If anyone understood my way of thinking, it was Maurice. Him believing he would come back for me had no relevance. People convince themselves of all nature of good deeds they would do in the future that they never get around to doing. Doesn’t mean they won’t claim credit for good intentions. It’s the thought that counts, right?
“Although,” I added, “I’m not sure how you were going to get me from back on Earth.” I looked over at his smoking vessel. “One way trip, was it?”
Maurice followed my gaze. “That should tell you I’m being straight with you. I wouldn’t leave the others behind, would I?”
He had a point. He wouldn’t abandon them. Me, yes. Them, no.
“Then what were you doing? Test run?”
“Yes! That’s what it was. I didn’t expect it to take me home, I set it to fall short on purpose. I just wanted to see how it would work. I’m the test pilot.” He was all excited as he told me, and then faltered as he realised I wasn’t impressed.
I could certainly imagine him volunteering for the position, although pilot seemed a bit of an overstatement. He was more like one of those dogs they stuck in a capsule during the early days of space flight.
How seriously should I have taken what he was telling me? Did he really not know what this place was?
Bad people, you can trust. The properly bad people who stand up and tell you they’re racist or biased or believe in Jesus riding a dinosaur, those people say what they’re going to do and then they do it. Say what you like about the Nazis, but they keep their election promises. They ran on a platform of craven, deluded fear-mongering, and fuck me if they didn’t deliver.
Meanwhile, the bleeding hearts promise you rainbows and lollipops, and then they do nothing but slowly disappoint you. As an incumbent myself, I understood the problem with politics — too many cannibals who weren’t willing to make the necessary cuts.
“Are you going to kill me?” Maurice did genuinely appear to be scared.
“I don’t know. I’d like to know what your plan was with Peter. I mean, before you killed him.”
“Nothing. I never planned to do what he wanted. He was a madman. He was only interested in you. That’s all any of them were interested in. That’s why it had to be you who took the fall for the rest of us.”
I didn’t think he was expressing envy. It was more of a practical judgement, one that made sense.
It’s like when there’s one guy on the football team the opposition are really concerned about, so they double team him. But if you put an extra guy on him, that means somewhere else on the field there’s going to be a gap. One guy out of position can free up someone else on your side.
If Lionel Messi gets man-marked out of a game, if the opposition put all their efforts into stopping him, he can drag them out of the way, and let his teammates run unopposed. Of course, that’s only if the rest of his team are capable of putting the ball in the back of the net. Anyone who’s watched the Argentinian national side will know one man’s sacrifice isn’t always enough.
Maurice had seen the focus on me as his chance to make his move without being noticed. No one thought the rest of my party could function without King Colin giving the orders, not even me. Or ‘king Colin, as I like to think of myself.
Fair play to him. I mean, it wasn’t fair, nothing ever is. If life was properly played by the rules, policemen would be the first to report the bad apples on the force, soldiers would shoot their own guys if they tried to rape civilians, and parents would report their crazy kids before they went to school with an AR15 under their coat.
Maurice’s actions were not fair, just a reasonable attempt at my expense. But what was his end goal? Ticket to the moon?
“You really want to go home?” I asked him. “You think that would be better than here?”
“I’m not sure. I know this place isn’t what we think it is. There are people controlling what happens, using us like pawns. We’re part of their game, I think. I mean, I’m not sure, that’s what it feels like. That’s what Peter made it seem like. I don’t want to be a piece on a board, moved around whenever someone else feels like it. Do you?”
It was a bit of a leap. Not that what he was saying couldn’t be true. The Council could be the people he was talking about, or any other number of people we had encountered. Maybe someone we hadn’t even met yet.
“With your powers, you’d be a superhero back home,” he said.
“I don’t want to be a superhero,” I said. “The pay’s lousy and the demands are unreasonable. And all the costumes look super gay.”
“Spider-man doesn’t look gay,” said Maurice, losing some of his pre-meal jitters.
“You’re joking, aren’t you? A unitard with a gimp mask?”
Maurice shook his head. “You really think you don’t want to be in charge of anything, do you? But look.” He waved his hand around. “You’re in the middle of the ocean, miles from anywhere, and you’re ruling over an island of cannibals. How did that happen if you’re so keen to have no responsibilities?”
“How the fuck do I know? I keep trying to get away from everyone, but none of you fuckers knows how to take a hint. Maurice, you murdered me. I’ve seen you kill before. I’ve seen you give up your life for others. I have to believe you did what you did because you’d thought it through and decided it was a good idea. Or the best option out of a lot of shitty ones. Or simply the only way to get what you wanted. Fine. But you were wrong. Whatever your plan was, it was wrong.”
“How can you say that when you don’t know what it was?” He had a point, or so he thought.
We were screaming at each other by this point, while the onlookers watched in mild embarrassment. It’s quite some feat when you can make a crowd of cannibals feel uncomfortable with your antics.
“This is pointless,” said Laney. “I will just dispatch him and the matter will be closed.” She drew her sword.
“Put that away,” I said. If anyone was going to kill him, it was going to be me.
“I realise he was a close friend once, but it will be better this way,” said Laney. She didn’t put the sword away. In fact, she pointed it at Maurice in a threatening manner, not that you can point a sword at someone in any other way.
I turned on her. “What do you think you’re doing? This isn’t make a suggestion day. There’s no audience participation. When I fucking tell you to put your sword away, put it the fuck away, or I’ll take it from you and break it over your tiny head.” I was not in the mood to talk things through with people.
Laney was taken by surprise, her face registering shock, then anger, then… something else. Delight? She sheathed her sword.
“Very well, I will do as you say, for now.” She smiled at Maurice. “When the time comes, we shall both be ready, shall we not.”
Maurice scrambled to his feet, stumbling backwards. He got ahold of himself and stood there, shaking. He was surrounded by unfriendly people who only meant him harm, at least in his mind. Actually, outside his mind, too. It wasn’t an easy position to be in.
“You know what, Colin? It’s not that you never trusted me that made it easier to do what I did, it’s that you don’t trust my judgement. Even if I had a plan that would help us all — even you — that I couldn’t share with you because it was the only way to make sure it worked, you wouldn’t care. You’d assume I’d fuck it up, because chances are I would. That’s fine. She said we’d have to face that side of you, and deal with it as best we could. She was right, though. You never think it’s possible to hurt someone and love them at the same time. It is though. Sometimes you have to.”
I had no idea what he was going on about. “She? Who are you talking about? Who is ‘she’?”
“You’re not listening. You can’t be part of the plan because all eyes are on you.”
“So this is all going to work out if I just go along with whatever you idiots have cooked up? You couldn’t just have left me a note — gone for some cigarettes, back later — and left me behind? You had to stab me to death on your way out?”
“Yes,” said Maurice, still shaking, but more with rage. “Now how does this work? I get a half-hour head start before you send your maneaters after me?”
Maurice seemed to think this would be some kind of trial by hide and seek. He wouldn’t last long, I would guess, although he might have a few surprises up his sleeve. The most dangerous game, after all, is man. The most tedious game is Monopoly.
He stood trembling, intending to face his end with dignity. Then he burst into tears. Intentions, as I keep trying to explain to people, count for very little.
You might think crying at a time like this wasn’t very impressive. I’m sure you consider yourself to be the sort of person who would find the will to go down with a fight. You would most likely be wrong.
In that parallel universe where you imagine yourself in front of a firing squad holding your head up high, you probably aren’t taking into account just how parallel things would be. Everything still ends up going in the same direction, just a bit to the left or right. We don’t just inherit a brand new identity. I should know, I’ve actually been to a few of them, and let me tell you, I was pretty much the same useless prick in all of them.
“Who is ‘she’, Maurice? Who’s idea was all this?” I spoke gently, but it wasn’t like I’d be able to believe whatever name popped out of his mouth. Another trick, another attempt to bamboozle me.
“Who do you think would ever dare to suggest you should cut yourself free of Jenny,” said Maurice, “apart from Jenny?”