I took the notebook from Flossie. She was holding it out for me like it was no big deal, like it was a book she had found lying around and was lending me.
“How did you know which buttons to press?”
“Maurice taught me,” said Flossie. “It took a bloody long time to remember the order, though. What Ah did, right, was Ah made it into a song in me head. That way Ah could memorise it as a—”
“Alright, alright, no need to turn this into an episode of Behind the Music. I just thought it was strange he chose you.”
“Why?” said Flossie, squeezing her mouth into a little bud of irritation. “Ah’m very reliable.”
“True,” I said. She was the least likely to turn traitor. Well, least likely to do it successfully. “You’re right, sorry. If I needed to trust someone with something like this, I’d probably choose you, too.”
Her face relaxed into a smug smile. “Damn right.”
“When did he teach you?” asked Jenny. Clearly, she’d been left out of the loop on this one.
“Yo’ and Claire were off doing your special girls’ club,” said Flossie in a la di da voice that indicated she didn’t care she wasn’t invited, she really didn’t, she was far too busy to come even if they’d asked. “Ah used to bring him a packed lunch when he were too busy to eat.”
“And didn’t Dudley mind you swanning off to see another man?” I asked.
“Who do yo’ think made the sandwiches?”
It must be nice to be in a proper, secure, comfortable relationship. Still didn’t think it would last, though.
I turned the notebook over in my hands. It had a soft leather cover with a strap tied around it. Were all the answers in here? I hoped so, considering how alien all these runes surrounding us were. If it was that complicated just opening a cupboard door, chances were it wasn’t going to get simpler working out how to operate the rest of the spire’s abilities.
I didn’t even know what the spire could do, other than blow shit up. And I wasn’t really looking to utilise it in that capacity. Unless I had to.
“Aren’t you going to open it?” asked Jenny.
“Yes. In a minute.” There was no point waiting. Even if the book contained bad news, delaying wouldn’t help.
Why would it contain bad news?
What are you new? I didn’t see this book as the answer to all my problems. Yes, it had been left for me, most likely in a genuine attempt to assist me, but that process of someone trying to help you actually ending up helping you never seemed to work out as intended for me.
I know, I was worrying for no good reason. But that’s the whole thing with anxiety. It doesn’t need a reason.
I opened the book. On the first page was a scrawled message to me.
Colin, if you’re reading this then I’m probably dead. And most likely you were the one who killed me.
I felt he was being a little presumptuous. Yes, he was correct, but back then he didn’t know that would be the way things played out. It was just a possibility, but he had gone ahead and made it the dedication.
Things could have turned out differently, and then it would have come across as a very passive-aggressive opening to a book, making him look like a mean-spirited and angry author out to blame everyone else for his problems. Mind you, that would have helped get it on the Booker Prize shortlist.
But, as it happened, he was bang on. How had he known? He didn’t have clairvoyant powers and neither did any of the others, as far as I knew.
It’s a curious thing when people guess right and then act like they deserve some kind of credit. Throwing out answers in the hope you might get lucky when you have no idea what you’re talking about is a very common method of trying to impress people. Or as it’s called on the internet, Reddit.
We’re set up to encourage that sort of behaviour, to be honest. We desperately want answers to our questions, so much so that if someone acts like they know we’re inclined to believe them. If they weren’t sure of the facts, why would they be so confident about it? They even wrote it in all-caps.
If you turn out to be wrong, there are a million ways to explain it away as not your fault. And if you happen to get it right by some convergence of the planets, then you’re set for a life as wise old magi. Everyone will want some of your insight and perception because of that one time you fluked it.
I’ve tried my best to get you to a place where you can do the rest without me. I’m hoping you can find a way to get me back but don’t worry if you can’t. It was fun. Thanks for letting me hook up with the girl of my dreams.
It was hard to read this message from the dead, even for someone as numb as me. He was being gracious and forgiving, which is the best way to fire up the guilt receptors and set them to full blast. Bastard.
Read this book when you get the chance (if you’re really bored) but the important stuff is all here. You should have no problems with these simple and easy to follow instructions. Think of it like something you get from Ikea.
I had the horrible feeling I was well and truly fucked.
Some people have a knack with flat packs. They don’t even have to look at the two-sided sheet that draws out what you have to do with all the screws numbered. And then there’s the rest of us, looking for the K screw that looks a lot like the L screw.
He expected me to save him like he’d saved me. Or rather, he didn’t expect it.
Sly, very sly. What kind of a person sets things up so that if I fail, I look like an ungrateful twat and he’s the tragic loss, but if I succeed, he gets his life back while I’m just the guy who followed his instructions? Sly, sly, sly. I’d have to remember that one.
The book was filled with tiny writing, squeezed into every page right up to the margins. It was very hard to read and confusing where it got all bunched up. I know it’s not right to speak ill of the dead, but his penmanship could have used a little work.
There were a lot of drawings of the various runes with numbers next to them. From what I could tell, he had worked out what they did by trial and error. Must have taken a long time to try all the different sequences.
I flicked through the pages to get a rough idea of what he had been doing, and also to check for any dickbutt doodles in the margins (surprisingly none).
Towards the back of the book, it got less frenetic. The writing was bigger and spaced out, like it was meant for someone else to read. Someone simpler and more basic in their outlook. Patronising of him, but perfectly fair.
There was a list of runes, numbered so you could see what order to press them in, titled: Viewer.
It didn’t explain what it was for but I assumed it enabled you to view something. If he had found a way to see things remotely, it immediately raised the question I think all reasonable men would ask — had he finally found a way to watch porn in this miserable backwards place? If so, forget world conquest, I was set to become the most powerful man on the planet.
There were more lists after that one, each with about ten to fifteen runes you had to press. One was called Transport, another was Nuke, there were several pages of them. There were no explanations, but their purpose seemed fairly straightforward. I wasn’t about to try the Nuke one any time soon. Not unless I was in a particularly bad mood.
Before I got too deep into the options, I thought it best to try one out to make sure I could get it to work. Flossie had managed it, so how hard could it be?
The first one, Viewer, seemed the most innocuous. There were ten runes, each distinct and carefully drawn. Unfortunately, there were over a hundred runes in the room with no way to tell where each one was. Not lined up conveniently next to each other that was for sure.
This was like one of those puzzles you get in RPGs, where it isn’t really a puzzle, just a set of tedious tasks that take up time.
Over a hundred hours of gameplay!
Yeah, if you don’t google the solution or, as I prefer, press everything randomly and hope for the best. Having lived the fantasy life for a while now, I can assure you that finding colour-coded keys, opening colour-coded doors and fixing generators with parts conveniently left lying around takes up a very small proportion of the adventuring lifestyle.
“Okay, we need to find each of these symbols.” I held the open book up so they could see. “Pick one and see if you can find it.”
“Over there,” said Dudley without even looking around. The first one on the list was on the wall where he was pointing.
“Ok, good. Nice work.”
Dudley smiled and blushed while Flossie gave him a congratulatory cuddle. They’d be off for a victory shag if I didn’t stop them.
“Still got nine more to go,” I said. “What about the next one?”
“There,” said Dudley. He was a monster with this stuff. I know the whole point of a puzzle is to work it out for yourself and get that immense feeling of satisfaction from proving yourself a clever clogs, but fuck that. Give me a walkthrough and some cheat codes and I’m good to go.
It only took a few seconds to locate all ten of the runes.
“Do you have to press them at a certain speed or rhythm?” I asked Flossie.
“Nope. Just press them.”
I wiped my palms and went through the sequence. Each rune lit up when I pressed my palm on top of it. When I hit the tenth one, there was a click and a square appeared on one of the walls. It was about the size of the average television, which is to say, massive.
The screen flickered and glimmered but no image appeared. Even for free porn, it wasn’t very good.
“Can anyone tell what it is?” I asked.
“Looks like static,” said Jenny. “Maybe you need to find the aerial and wiggle it.”
“I thought the whole spire was the aerial,” I said. If true, the state of the spire was probably the reason we were getting such bad reception.
“We had a TV that used to do this,” said Flossie. “It just needed a good whack on the side.” She walked up to the wall and hit it with her small fist.
“Careful,” said Dudley, “you don’t want to hurt yourself.”
“No worries, lover.” She kicked the wall.
“I don’t think—” Before I could tell her what an idiot she was being, the screen cleared and showed an image of Shrine Island from the air. Birds flew past and you could almost feel the wind blowing through the trees. It wasn’t hard to recognise, the image was very high-definition, even better than the crystal ball the Council had shown me.
Had Maurice been watching me? It would explain how he knew where I was and what I’d been up to.
There was a pop and the screen went black. Smoke seeped out of one of the consoles.
“Flossie broke it,” I said. “We all saw you.” Flossie was outraged at having been caught again. “First it was accomplice to murder, now it’s changing channels without asking. I bet you’re the sort of person who can’t remember where they put the remote control and everyone has to start pulling up the sofa cushions.”
“Ah am not! Yo’ take that back.”
Whatever had broken, it didn’t help to press the runes again. None of them were responding anymore.
The knobs and levers had been old and not in great condition to begin with, so it wasn’t surprising they would break down. Even less surprising they would choose the moment I was actually making headway to do it. Rigged system is rigged.
There was no way I could fix it, I didn’t have the first clue. It was like looking at an old VHS player and thinking, How could people live like this?
I had Maurice’s book, however. He must have run into a few problems testing this stuff out. He’d managed to keep it going long enough to get to the island, so he may have come up with a workaround.
There were plenty more pages to go through, my only worry was that I might get bored with a long bit of pointless description, put it down and never pick it up again. I solved that problem by skimming through it. Not the way a book is meant to be read, perhaps even disrespectful to the author, but I’d already murdered him, so I think we all knew where we stood.
It wasn’t until I got to the last page that I found something interesting. Not what I was looking for, but a big showy ending nonetheless. The last set of runes were titled: Save Maurice.
There were twenty-three runes to press.
If I’d known this was here, I would have tried it first, maybe got it off before the machinery went kaput. But it’s just bad form to go to the back of the book first. Looking for spoilers is a sign of a weak intellect and poor self-control, both of which I’m guilty of, but fiction is different. You already know there’s going to be a happy ending. You’re not going to waste so many hours reading the fucker if the pretend world turns out to be as shitty as the real one.
With this spire not being operational, the obvious answer was to find a spire that was working. Peter had managed to get inside one of them, there was no reason I couldn’t, too. Better still, I could just take his.
“Okay, I’ve got everything I need from here. We need to get inside another spire. One that hasn’t been exposed to Flossie’s magic touch.”
“Hey, Ah have a very nice magic touch, don’t Ah?”
Dudley nodded enthusiastically.
We made our way down to the bottom of the spire and out the way we came. I didn’t exactly have a plan, but you have to feel these things out. We would start with a quick recce of the different spires and see if they were all the same. If all else failed, I could always actually read Maurice’s notes. There just better not be a love triangle in it.
My schedule was immediately disrupted by Caim and company waiting for us down below.
“Didn’t I ask you to stand on the wall?” I said. “You’re the only thing between us and 4000 Cubans trained to kill us.”
“What?” said Caim.
“Never mind. What is it?”
“We’re being attacked,” said Caim, very calmly.
“Oh, you mean like I said we would?” Obviously, this was no time to be crowing about how I was right and doing my ‘told you so’ dance (yes, I have a dance), but there was hardly going to be time after we were all dead with our intestines spilling out of our eviscerated corpses. So now may not have been a good time, but it was the only time.
Caim pointed up in the air. I followed his finger to a ship, a boat with wings, floating in the distance. My ship, the one I’d nailed Richina’s wings to. Using my own ship against me, the cheek of it. I don’t mind people trying to kill me, comes with the territory, but you touch my stuff without asking? Now we’ve got a problem.
Next two chapters are up now on Patreon.Afterword from Mooderino