My party had grown. Not just counting the people in my cabin (plus those in my head), but the whole crew of the ship were under my command. It was like I had my own army. A small, weird army.
The problem was, other people had their armies, and theirs were probably better equipped and prepared for war. Mine was probably wondering what we were having for dinner. We did have a number of chefs on board, so it was an understandable question.
More doesn’t mean better. If thirty miners get trapped in a cave-in, and after several days of televised rescue efforts, thirty-one miners are found alive and well, you wouldn’t necessarily think that was the best outcome. You’d think, hold on a minute...
Too many cooks, and dinner could end up being a disaster. I may have become overly interested in the dinner menu myself. Anything to avoid having to face my real problems.
The biggest of which was that I was not only in charge, I was also the smartest person on the team. Don’t take that as bragging. It’s more of a lament. If I was the brains of the outfit, RIP me.
Having such a large complement of people working for me would at least get me back to Gorgoth quicker, at least I hoped so. I’m not really sure how ships work, to be honest. More people equals quicker travel?
You can’t really assume that would be the case, even if it seemed fairly logical. Getting nine women pregnant doesn’t mean the baby will arrive in one month.
“Are you sure releasing the old gods is for the best?” asked Damicar, his hesitant tone making his personal view of my plan abundantly clear.
“I think so. I’m hoping it will cause a chain reaction that will force everyone to have to deal with each other and form some kind of balance between all the warring factions.” It sounded weak and unlikely to succeed when I said it out loud. If I had a deeper voice, it would probably sound like a brilliant idea. If I could find a way to add that deafening sound from movie trailers, it would have everyone begging me to reveal the release date.
“I’m going to cause a chain reaction…”
“...and force a balance between the warring factions.”
See? Add a pitched-down bass drop at the start, fucking number one at the box office.
Sadly, I didn’t have access to Pro Tools. If I did, I’d add sound effects to everything I did. My life wouldn’t be any better, but I think I’d be much happier if I could add Benny Hill music to all my future battles (I’m assuming there’d be running involved).
As it was, Damicar just looked concerned.
“Don’t worry, it’s my ability to do the unexpected that keeps me ahead of the pack.” He didn’t look reassured. “You’ll see, once it starts, the dominoes will fall like a house of cards, and then bingo, it’s checkmate.”
“Your penchant for the unexpected is how we were able to find you so easily,” said Laney.
Her words were light and casual, but managed to cut me off at the knees. Had I become so predictable? Was that why I had been struggling to deal with things lately?
“Do not listen to her,” said Richina. “Your star is burning brightly, believe in yourself.”
Now I was really worried. If the girl with the perm was on my side, I was truly fucked (a lesson that applies in all circumstances).
One thing that had served me well was a strong and unwavering belief that I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was. Luck was not on my side, and hard work required talent to get across the finishing line, which meant no matter how hard I tried, my best would not be good enough. There was always someone better. I countered this by avoiding getting involved in the first place, and that had served me even better.
But I kept getting sucked into situations beyond my control. Which didn’t mean someone else wasn’t in control of them.
What if where I was and what I was planning was exactly what was required of me by those who were good at this sort of thing? The people who revelled in controlling others.
I sat on the edge of the bed, my eyes unable to sit still in my head, like I was reading from some invisible dossier. I was taking Richina to Gorgoth. I was going to use her to break the old gods out of their prison.
Who had made me think this was possible? Arthur.
Why would he tell me if it wasn’t something he wanted me to do? Either he did want me to do it, or that wasn’t what would happen when I took her there.
I was second-guessing myself, doubting my decision five minutes after making it public. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
A good lie can fool you even if its wrongness is glaringly obvious. Hitchcock called it an icebox moment, where you see a movie, everything makes perfect sense, you go home, open the fridge, the little light goes on and you think, “Wait a moment, that was bollocks…”
He didn’t care if you spotted the inconsistency then. It was too late, he had your money, you had your night’s entertainment, eat your snack and shut the fuck up. I’m paraphrasing.
Taking Richina to the gods served a purpose for someone. That person was unlikely to be me. That much made perfect logical sense.
But what was the alternative? My lack of involvement with all these idiots running around trying to rule the world meant that I had no way of knowing how best to achieve my own goals, whatever they were.
After a few minutes of desperate searching, it became clear my mind was a desert of ideas. The cabin had gone quiet, my mood affecting the others.
“I need to think over a few of the details,” I said. I’m not great at sounding confident, even when I have a good idea, but I am excellent at sounding doubtful when I realise I’m talking shit. It’s a gift.
“Good,” said Richina, much more at ease now that she was no longer tied up. “We could all use a good night’s sleep. We’ll have plenty of time to hammer out the finer points on this trip. Calm seas and a stiff wind.” She started to get into the only bed.
Biadet, who was lying behind me, shifted her weight and sent one foot thrusting forward. It hit Richina on her lowering backside, and she tumbled to the floor.
“You are the enemy,” said Biadet. She looked like she was about to faint. “Sleep on the floor.”
Most people would treat the enemy a little more harshly. Biadet felt unreasonable sleeping conditions were enough. Either that or it was all she could manage at the moment.
“We can share the bed,” said Richina. “It’s so rare I get to be comfortable, you wouldn’t deny me something so trivial would you?”
Even if she was the enemy, even if her whole life had been spent as a slave to her master’s wishes, didn’t she deserve to be treated as human? Wasn’t that what I had always preached, that if we behave like our inhumane opponents we merely add to their numbers?
And wasn’t that what made me so fucking predictable? Having principles ended up punishing you in the end. That’s how Patton defeated Rommel in Africa. Rommel had written a manual for tank battles for his officers. Patton got hold of a copy and had it translated into English. Then he read it and beat the shit out of Rommel’s Africa Corps. Knowing your opponents preferred moves is knowing how to beat them.
“You were waiting for me in the shrine,” I said. “Not for anyone else, just me.”
Richina gave me a confused look. “You? I was happy you came, but I didn’t know who you were until we met. I’m still not really sure who you are.”
Very vague and enigmatic — the ideal method for dealing with Colin. Give him mystery and magic, let him fill in the gaps with his own stupid conclusions and theories.
“I know who he is,” said Laney, confident as ever. I was actually interested to hear who the lunatic thought I was. It would at least give me something to head away from. “He is the man who will see you for what you are. Don’t think you can fool him. He can only fool himself, but he always ends up peeling away the layers of dirt people like you like to hide behind.”
It was actually quite a flattering assessment of me, so not very accurate.
“And you?” asked Richina. “Does he see you for what you truly are?”
“I intentionally keep myself fully exposed to him. I want him to see all of me.” She smiled like some animal seeing its prey approaching. “You like to hide in the shadows where you think no one can see you, like all demons and angels.”
Despite Laney being off her rocker and not normally worth taking seriously, Richina’s reaction to her was quite strong. She stiffened and paled. Mind you, my reaction was often the same to Laney. Wait, that didn’t come out right.
“I never thought of angels as hiding in the shadows,” I said.
“Of course,” said Laney. “They are the agents of the gods, their spies and informers. How else can they observe us if not hidden in darkness.” She shuddered. “Disgusting creatures.”
Richina looked very uncomfortable. Was she an agent of the gods? Were her golden wings hidden from me?
There was no way for me to know the truth about her, but my feelings had changed concerning what to do with her. She was certainly a key part of what was going on. She couldn’t be killed, but maybe I could use that to my advantage.
I grabbed Richina by the hair. She didn’t resist, she expressed no fear. It wasn’t a violent grab, I just lifted her hair up so it stretched out, making her look like she has an afro with a mohawk, a chimaera from the 70s.
“Laney, could you cut her hair off, please.”
Richina showed a trace of surprise at my request. Laney didn’t even blink, her sword was out and slicing through hair in a jiffy. My hand was full of long strands of rapidly curling hair.
It was not a flattering haircut. Richina now had a rather unfortunate dip in the top of her head, but it wasn’t like she was the one who had to look at it.
“Why?” she said, a mixture of confusion and distress on her face. No girl likes to get her hair pulled.
“You all have me running around like a blue-arsed fly, no idea what I’m doing but willing to take long journeys for the chance to gain some advantage. I hate travelling. Every place is just as horrible as the last and the people in shops never treat me any better. No more. You can’t kill me and you can’t control me, so you have me running errands. Well, I’m going to look in the box and see what they’ve got me delivering. You’re the box, by the way, and I intend opening you with a knife.”
She wasn’t any less confused, but I was rambling a bit, so I didn’t blame her. But there was something about what I had decided to do that made me less doubtful of myself. I felt conviction. Not something I got to experience very often.
Not conviction that I was right (how the hell can you know that until you get the results in?), this was more like a conviction that this was the best route to take. It could still end in disaster, of course, and probably would, but I would be leading the way.
How did I know I wasn’t being manipulated in this as well? Because my idea was far too vicious for anyone to think I would do it.
“What are you going to do?” said a voice in my head.
“What I need to,” I said. “Do you object?”
“How can I object when I don’t know what it is,” said Wesley. She had been quiet until now. She had always been quiet while I kept to the path. I trusted her more than anyone, but that wasn’t saying much. I always knew she could turn on me, or had already. “You don’t want to do something you might regret.”
“No?” I said. “Why not?” It wasn’t a brilliant answer or anything, it was just blunt.
“I don’t know if I can allow you—”
“I don’t think you appreciate where you are. I may not be very good at exerting control over myself, but that isn’t because I lack the ability. Wesley, you have terrible taste in men. No matter how good a person you are in yourself, all women who cling to men who are clearly horrible monsters, are idiots. They may have good reason for being so stupid, to stay with vile pieces of shit, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us should put up with them.”
My consciousness dropped into my head, the dark place that had become my King’s Cross St Pancras. I rarely stopped longer than it took to switch platforms.
Wesley was standing there, looking concerned. Not scared or angry, just concerned.
“You will make things worse,” she said.
“I can’t make them worse, not for myself. And I don’t care if I make them worse for anyone else. That’s always been my weakness, what makes me such an excellent tool for others — I don’t really care if I lose. Even when I’m being used to do terrible things, so what? Whoever ends up being in charge, there’s no real difference, so I don’t take sides. Even if I was the one in charge, I’d still find a way to screw things up, so who gives a shit? Not disposable-me.”
Wesley’s mouth tightened and the lines around her eyes became increasingly furrowed. “What will you become, though?”
“Not what anyone wants, which is kind of the point. Now, be an angel and stay here.” I nodded at my smaller self who had appeared next to Wesley. He took her hand in his.
Wesley winced. He was stronger than he looked.
I returned to the world outside my mind. Richina looked worried. I raised the handful of hair.
“Let’s go see a woman about a doll.”
“It won’t work,” said Richina. “You think you can control me? Do you think it would work on her?” She indicated Biadet with a nod.
She was right, controlling one of their creations wasn’t the same as controlling regular folk.
“No, it won’t work on its own, but I’m actually quite powerful. I’m not very good at using my power, but that’s because I’m lazy. It requires trial and error, experimentation, a willingness to persevere. Same reason I can’t ride a skateboard. I think it’s about time I put some effort into this godlike power I have. You’re going to need some surgery to attach you to the doll. I don’t know if it hurts when you die, but I apologise in advance if it does. I’m going to tether you and kill you a lot of times. When you die, you won’t be able to leave like you normally do. You’ll go where I tell you, in whichever world you exist. We’re going to find your Dad.”
The ship lurched. The wind had suddenly started howling and the waves were crashing against the hull. It made me smile. Someone was trying to intervene. They hadn’t done that until now. They were always trying to help me, make deals, offer me inducements to pursue the most desirable outcome. If they actually wanted to stop me now, I had to be doing something right. About fucking time.