Once the initial surge of adrenaline had subsided (I was up against a girl, my chances of winning were very nearly fifty percent) the incongruities of the situation started to itch at the back of my mind.
I was in the adjacent world where only a very few people had the ability to move around, and none of them as freely as me. And yet, Claire had just waved at me. She was still waving at me.
I floated closer to the screen to get a better look at Claire’s endless wave. After watching closely, it was obvious I was watching a loop. A recording?
What I’d seen as a belligerent challenge to come try my luck if I thought I was hard enough, could easily have been a loving enticement aimed at Maurice. You could never tell with Claire, she had one of those faces.
The castle battlements she was standing on were definitely the same as the ones I’d seen in my vision. How had Maurice known? He couldn’t have, unless he read my mind. Or Claire had.
Or it could be a coincidence. I saw the castle in that version of the future because she had already found her way there, so it wasn’t particularly surprising that would be where she ended up. Maybe it meant there was a chance this was all going to work out for the best.
Yeah, fat chance.
If I could make the spires operational in the adjacent world, then it explained how I was seeing a recording. I was just accessing the spires data banks.
Had Maurice predicted this would happen, or had he thought I’d get it to work in the normal world and think it was real?
Or had I accidentally stumbled onto a private video. At least if it was on a loop I wouldn’t suddenly be subjected to Claire getting her norks out. The only way to turn it off was to slap the screen, which would only make it worse.
The idea I might be intruding on a private message between lovers made me deeply uncomfortable.
Girls sending nudes to attract guys sort of makes sense. They get to control which pics they send so they look their deceptive best — a very common approach to seducing men. Make it all look better than it is, keep him distracted when you’re actually naked, let yourself go when you’re married. If you’ve never read a copy of Cosmopolitan, now you don’t have to.
Please your man using two hands and plenty of wrist action. Practice on a pepper grinder. Remember, he likes it hot!
The opposite, though, where men send women dick pics, I find hard to fathom. Feels more like a warning than an invitation.
This recording could have been made at any time. It didn’t mean she was there now. I didn’t know what it meant.
I felt like I was rushing because the answers seemed to be so close now. I wanted to get to the end, claim my participation medal, and go home. Maurice’s notebook and everything in it was handed to me very conveniently and I had assumed the rest — how he had worked out what the spire did, what he wanted me to do with the information, how I was meant to use it, all of it was without any real understanding on my part, just a willingness to accept it because it was handed to me on a plate.
How had Maurice even known the Nuke option would fire a laser beam out of the sky? I’m pretty sure people would have noticed a test run. Far more likely that someone had told him. And who knew how to fire the weapon?
I was still making assumptions, but I felt much more comfortable doing it when the conclusions I was drawing were against rather than for me.
Peter could still be running the show, both sides of the fence at the same time. It would be the best way to prevent anyone sneaking up on him if he was playing against himself.
If Peter was in one of the spires, then there was a good chance Claire was with him.
What did that say about Jenny? Was she working against me, too? Knowingly or unknowingly? Did it matter?
The loop on the screen was still going, Claire repeatedly urging me to come. Still wasn’t as irritatingly insistent as the real thing.
What I knew for sure was that Claire had found the castle in my jump-forward, and that meant the good ending was still possible. When I’d spoken to her on those battlements, there had been true happiness in her voice. I realise she might have been happy for herself and not me, but I think I would have noticed. She wasn’t that good an actress.
Women, in general, aren’t good at acting. Oh, no! What a slur! What a chauvinistic statement of degradation.
Don’t get me wrong, they can lie beautifully, stick to a story like it’s the absolute gospel when it’s complete bollocks, but that merely requires a one-note performance. And as for faking orgasms, no guy ever falls for that, they just don’t care.
But what about all the great actresses the world of film has produced? To which I reply, Academy Award winner, Marisa Tomei.
If you’re wondering why men are any different in this regard, it’s because we’ve been brought up to think of ourselves as the hero of the story, not a side-character (even when we are a side character). Which means when it comes to imagining a bullshit scenario, we come with three acts and at least a couple of set pieces prepared in advance.
Claire had without a doubt been happy when I saw her in the future. Even if I never found a way back there, I was sure it was the good ending, if not the best.
But it takes more than wishful thinking to make the castle a home. A number of other issues needed to be taken care of first.
Claire was up to something, I could feel it in my bones. Jenny might be a spy using sex to manipulate me (wasn’t really against her trying that approach, to be honest), even Flossie could be a mole, cleverly planted to irritate the fuck out of me.
Time, at least, was on my side.
I stayed in the spire and went through Maurice’s lists again. I was tempted to try them all out, one after the other. Bet Maurice wouldn’t have planned for that. I mean, the city would probably be destroyed, but at least I’d have a clear idea of what they all did.
I decided against it. At least not until things were really hopeless, so probably sometime after lunch.
The first place to check was the other spires. Peter would be expecting it, but he was limited in what he could do to me in this form. Joshaya was slightly more of a problem — I hadn’t forgotten about him — but hopefully he wasn’t working with Peter. Assumptions, assumptions, assumptions.
The best way to sneak a peek into each spire was from the top down. I could float to the top of each and stick my head in and have a quick look. If they’d prepared a trap of some kind for me, I figured they’d be less likely to stick it on the roof.
I floated out of my spire, which was easy enough as the top had a giant hole in it, and emerged over the city, frozen in all its vine-covered glory. Here was a place I could stay in as long as I liked and no one could bother me. If I couldn’t find Claire in any of the spires, I would just stay here until I thought of something clever to do. Might take a while.
Was I smart enough to outthink Maurice? That was the real question.
He’d done an excellent job of guessing how I’d react and what I’d do. I had become predictable, which was fine when no one cared what I did. Everything you do is a surprise to people when they pay you no attention whatsoever.
The first spire I stuck my head into was pitch dark. I only popped my head in and jerked it straight out, hoping to avoid a steel trap slamming shut on my neck. I survived unscathed.
I had another, longer look, this time with a ball of light floating in ahead of me. The room was similar to the one in the broken spire, same consoles and runes on the walls. If all the spires had the same basic layout, these ones might be operational in the regular world. I would have to find a way to get my real body here to check.
In the meantime, I had a look around.
I had been inside a spire before, back when I first met Uncle Pete. At that time, my beast magic didn’t work in here, but that was in the normal plane. I also recalled there being electric lights. There hadn’t been any in the broken spire, but that could be because they all blew up.
There didn’t seem to be any in this one, either, but as I shone my light around, I discovered I wasn’t alone.
My roommate took me by surprise. I may have screamed and wet myself a little, which strictly speaking wasn’t possible in this form, but I’m all about testing boundaries.
Hanging from a wall, suspended by chains, I think, although it was hard to tell with all the vines in the way, was one of the cool kids. It was the Asian guy with the half-head haircut, couldn’t recall his name.
Was he dead? His eyes were open and staring at me, but that was hardly conclusive. Obviously, he wasn’t moving at the moment, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t start laughing and telling funny stories the moment I restarted time. I doubted it. Screaming seemed more likely. Apart from my vines, there appeared to be other things attached to him. Tubes of some kind.
He was the only one here, which meant he had picked the really short straw. Was Peter using him as a power source? Had this been where I’d been unknowingly drawing power from? I had been about to test the runes in here, but now I felt uncomfortable doing it with him watching me.
What kind of team did this to a member? Scratch that, I already knew the answer. Every team I’d ever been on.
I left him hanging there and went to have a look in the next spire. Same setup, different cool kid. They weren’t looking so cool, now. Although, this one was the white guy with dreadlocks, so he had never looked cool in the first place. Nailing him to a wall seemed more than justified. I bet he always wanted to be a pin-up.
Seemed like the chosen ones had found out what it was they’d been chosen for.
I moved onto the next spire, feeling confident I wouldn’t find brand new solar panels fitted with a government grant. Turned out neither that nor a Cool Kid were installed.
The room was brightly lit this time, with electric lights. Peter was standing in front of a screen that showed me with Jenny and the others in the broken spire. Next to him was Claire.
Jackpot! Or Yahtzee! Or whatever.
It was important I didn’t jump to any conclusions. For all I knew, Claire was as much a victim in this as the rest of us. Although, the satisfied smile on her face suggested otherwise.
The important thing was to remember we all make mistakes. We all fall for obvious tricks because we want the thing that sounds too good to be true to be true. And the universe not only knows this, but encourages it.
Oh, look, a coin on the floor. Wow, free money. Must be my lucky day. Let me just bend right over to pick it up… Arghh, no! What’s that rammed up my arse?
This is pretty much a blueprint for life.
Whether or not Claire was under Peter’s control, my only way to make sure I got out of this situation in one piece and with full control of my faculties (or as much control as I had currently, at least) was to take them both out in one hit.
Bear in mind, they may have had very good reasons for doing what they did. The bigger picture might reveal all sorts of details I had overlooked, and doing it their way could be for the best.
Then again, fuck ‘em. People put way too much emphasis on doing what’s best. It never lasts, whatever you do. All I ever asked is that people did it without me, but they wouldn’t fucking listen.
I took out my sword and went to work. Within a few minutes, both Claire and Peter were divested of any links they had to anyone. There was no way to know how effective this would be, Peter had managed to slip out of death’s grasp before, but Maurice wasn’t here to cover for him this time. I would still have to deal with them in the real world, but this time I would make sure the killing blow was mine.
I returned to my body feeling like I had a handle on things.
The moment I re-entered my body, I felt different. Like I had been wrong about everything and it was time to change my plans. Peter wasn’t so bad. Other people had a much better idea of what to do than I did so I should trust them. Claire and Maurice had taken great care to create this situation, so I should give their ideas a chance.
The thing about being a very cynical and insecure person is that I always doubt myself. I don’t judge my actions on their merits — if I did that, I’d never get anything done. On top of which, the things I’m insecure about, I bloody well should be insecure about. I’m not the sort of person who tries to pretend I’m not fat when I am. Nor do I think if I hide my issues no one will find out.
My point being, when I have thoughts that everything I think and do is wrong, and everyone else knows better than me, I ignore them. I don’t care if everyone is better. I don’t do what they do because of right or wrong, I just don’t like them.
All these thoughts filling my head weren’t mine. My doubts tended to be much more vicious, for a start. I don’t like me, I wouldn’t go this soft on myself. People often think I’m being hard on them when actually I’m being restrained. I save the real mean stuff for the people who can take it, and there’s only one of us.
Claire was in my head, I was pretty sure, but how? I was untouchable. Or I had been until very recently. Now I had a connection to Jenny again.
Was that how she was linking to me? Was that why Jenny hooked up with me after all this time?
It would make sense. Let Jenny reconnect, use that as a way past my defences.
A good plan except, like I said, I’d been thinking about this confrontation for a long time. Maurice might be good at thinking ahead, and Claire might be a whizz at putting bad thoughts in people’s heads, but they were both rank amateurs compared to me when it came to playing this game.
Follow Peter because he knew better than me? Listen to Claire because she meant well? Get the fuck out of here with that pathetic common sense logic. This wasn’t their trap I was in, this was my trap they were in.
“Let’s go,” I said to the others, and headed back down the stairs. “Caim, gear up. Time to put some negative thoughts to bed.”
Next two chapters are up now on Patreon.Afterword from Mooderino