I made it back to the wold of Nic and company. Sorry about the hiccup. Back to normal now (relatively speaking).Preface from Mooderino
Nic moved without even thinking. The creature, disguised as the Rutga of this period, wore leather armour, gloves with metal studs and a belt with a sword on one side and a large knife on the other. Nic, on the other hand, was wearing loose clothing that barely protected him from the cold and had no weapons of any kind. Launching an attack didn’t seem like a good idea at all.
But his body seemed to think otherwise. And once he was moving, Nic was inclined to agree.
His movements felt completely different to when he tried anything like this in his own body. When he trained with the Secret Service agents, they would encourage him to let go of his inhibitions and allow his instincts to lead him, but they could never explain how to do that. They would just tell him to keep trying and eventually he would understand.
When it came to reading and analysing ideas, Nic was very capable and he could take in great swathes of information effortlessly. He could grasp concepts, separate them into categories and store them away in parts of his memory for instant retrieval at a future point in time. That sort of understanding was what he was familiar with.
But developing that information into practical skills, requiring adequate physicality to back them up, was something else entirely.
Information was not enough. Instincts and talent couldn’t quite bridge the gap. You needed experience, actual real–life encounters to test what you had been taught. And when the thing you were trying to learn was dangerous, it also helped if you didn’t end up dying in the process.
Nic caught Rutga by the wrist and kicked him in the shin, pulling him forward so his hand was drawn past Nic’s hip, and followed up with a knee into Rutga’s stomach.
Rutga staggered back, yanking his hand free.
Nic knew he shouldn’t let go, he should press his advantage while he had the chance — he wasn’t sure how he knew, he just did — but he was too startled by the burst of violence he had produced to stay focused on the task at hand.
How had he moved so quickly and struck so accurately? Was he somehow commandeering the abilities of Nicodene Tutt? Even if this Nic Tutt possessed great fighting prowess, how had Nic gained access to them? Only one Nic could be in control at a time, and he was very much aware of the body he was in. He stared at his hands as though they belonged to someone else; which they did.
Rutga had stumbled but remained on his feet. The leather armour he wore under his brightly coloured uniform had absorbed much of the power of Nic’s hits. If Nic hadn’t taken him by surprise, he probably wouldn’t have gotten winded.
But Rutga wasn’t himself, either, he was possessed by the creature. Nic had seen the modern version of Rutga in action, an experienced soldier and competent fighter. He imagined this Rutga was the same. He certainly had a similar physique and sense of power to his body. Then why hadn’t his body reacted with its innate fighting ability the way Nic’s had?
It was obvious to Nic that Rutga was not moving like a professional fighting man. It wasn’t just an assumption, he could literally see it. The way Rutga was standing, how he was positioned, the lack of situational awareness. None of it was correct. He was wide open for further attacks.
Nic could also tell that Rutga was about to draw his sword. The shift in bodyweight, the tensing of muscles that indicated he was about to move his arm back so his hand could reach the hilt sticking out of the scabbard. All the tiny changes happening to Rutga’s body were clearly visible to Nic, as was the outcome that hadn’t happened yet.
Was this what the Secret Service agents had been trying to show him? Was this how experience changed information into knowledge?
Other than the two of them, the room was still. The whole world was just as static. They were the only two dancers in this particular ballroom, which made it much easier to predict Rutga’s moves.
Nic did his best to stop thinking and allowed his body to react as it willed. If he was able to synchronise with Nicodene Tutt’s body, then he was happy to let it take the lead. He had his hands on the reins but this horse knew where to go. He just had to hold on and not fall off.
Rutga had his hand on the sword hilt. Nic stepped across him, on the opposite side to the sword. He grabbed Rutga’s free hand and pulled it down, opening up his chest. The sword came out and swung across Rutga’s body towards Nic.
From the perspective of a passenger watching events unfold, Nic thought it might have been better to close in on Rutga’s other side, giving him less space to draw and swing his sword.
Nic being on the opposite side gave Rutga plenty of space to add momentum to his strike and bring the blade down on Nic’s unprotected torso.
But Nicodene’s intention quickly became apparent. It didn’t matter how much room Rutga had, his intent wasn’t important. What Nic needed was time to act. With Rutga committed to his sword, taking it out, swinging it, he couldn’t actually engage Nic before Nic could take his own action.
And that action was to remove Rutga’s ability to guard himself with his free hand, and then to punch him in the face.
Nic used his left hand, which wasn’t his favoured one, or Nicodene’s. The hit was still very solid and the impact registered in clear–cut fashion as Rutga’s head snapped back and the sword lost direction as it sailed over Nic’s head.
Rutga let go of the sword and it clattered to the floor. With his other hand, he cupped his nose, which was bleeding.
“Good, good,” he mumbled into his hand. He let go of his nose which now had a kink in it. “You are adapting quickly.”
Nic could hear the difference now. The voice was the same, but the tone was not the one Rutga had used previously. It was more methodical and matter of fact, flatter and detached. It was the creature.
This assessment did not come from his host, it was Nic’s own judgement. Whatever skills Nicodene Tutt possessed, his perception of disembodied creatures was not as well–developed as his combat technique. Nic was pleased that his intellect, which he considered a key part of his identity, he was beginning to realise, was still useful. He might not be able to manifest his academic learning into performing like a trained soldier, but he was more than just a passenger in this. He might not be able to read a body the way Nicodene could, but he was able to differentiate between words and intent, which was not entirely useless.
“You want me to adapt quickly?” asked Nic. “It will only make me beat you sooner.”
“In here?” said the creature. “In here, it makes no difference. You forget, this isn’t real.”
Nic had not forgotten, he just had no reason to dwell on it. He had been brought here to not only meet Winnum Roke but to take her place. He glanced over his shoulder to where she stood, lifeless.
“Then what do you want?” he asked the creature. “If you intend forcing me to remain here, why bother with any of this? You control this place, don’t you? Why haven’t you already made the switch and left?”
“I don’t wish you any harm, Nic,” said the creature, a finger gingerly touching Rutga’s swollen nose, nudging it back into a straight line and wincing at the pain. “If there was some other way, then I would take it.” A tear trickled down the side of his nose. “Pain is such a strange phenomenon. It’s only in this place that I can experience such things. I do not envy you the experience.”
“You can’t control that body, can you?” said Nic. “Not the way I can control this one.”
“That’s right. I do not have the correct inner architecture to line up with this psyche. But you do. That’s why it feels so effortless. This is what your life would be like if you stay here. Yes, it is not real, not in the traditional sense, but then what is reality? Does it make a difference if it feels the same. You won’t be able to tell this world apart from your own, other than the fact here you will be able to do as you please, with a body that will respond to your intentions much better than your own ever could.”
“Yes, it does make a difference,” said Nic. “If I know this isn’t real…” He wasn’t sure how to put it in words, but he had no doubt that he had no desire to live the life of a heroic man of action inside a dreamworld.
“I could make you forget this isn’t real.”
“That’s even worse,” said Nic. “That would be the same as killing me. This is a puppet, not me. I don’t want to exist as a puppet.”
Rutga’s face scrunched up in what Nic guessed to be frustration, although it might have been in pain from the increasingly purple nose on his face. It seemed to Nic that there was something the creature needed from him. His cooperation with something? He wasn’t sure, but whatever it was, Nic wasn’t going to be told in a straightforward manner and given the chance to make up his own mind. No, that would go against the way everyone had collectively decided to treat him.
Instead, he would be tricked and misled and coerced into doing as they wished. He still hadn’t been able to figure out why. If he had something worth obtaining, he might be able to accept all the deception, but he had nothing of value to offer or be robbed of. Nicodene Tutt, on the other hand, would have made a fine target for the warring factions of his own time.
“I’d like to go home now,” said Nic. “If you don’t mind.” He didn’t think it would be that easy, but he had no idea how he got here and no idea how to get back. In that regard, the creature was right. It made no difference if he could beat this Rutga in a fight, it wouldn’t change his being trapped here.
“I’m afraid that isn’t possible,” said the creature. “Tell me what I can do to make this situation more palatable to you.”
There it was again, the unmistakable indication that something was required of Nic. Which, to his way of thinking, meant the creature couldn’t force him to do what it wanted. And perhaps that meant it couldn’t keep him here, either.
But if he didn’t know what it was he could or couldn’t do in this place, he would be stuck here regardless. What he needed was to find some answers. He could escape from this tower and try to find those answers from the people existing here, but he doubted they would know any more than he did. They were part of this slice of history, not experts on how it was created or what the limitations were. As far as they were concerned, this was all real and they were living their lives as they pleased.
If they knew that wasn’t true, how would they react? Probably not believe it, for a start. But that was what he was being offered. Live here inside a bubble of fiction and be the hero every boy wishes to be.
It didn’t appeal to him in the least. The fact the creature had thought it would showed how little it understood people. Which was an excellent argument for not allowing it to decide humanity’s fate.
“You’re no different to the High–Father,” said Nic. “You can’t fathom why we are as we are, so you substitute your own way of thinking and make decisions we would never make. Even being inside that body, you can’t let yourself learn anything new, it would destabilise your delicately balanced system of operating. You’re incapable of change. Which makes you sorely unqualified to choose our fate.”
“Unqualified?” said the creature, sounding a little offended. “You are a lot like my own people. They too wished to only choose the ideal option, the one where they could have things turn out the way they wanted, with no cost and no sacrifice. And in insisting so, they lost everything. That is the fate that awaits you, that you would hoist onto the rest of the universe. You are only here for an instant, and then not even a memory remains, unless one is made, like this one. You would doom every existence that will come after you to suffer at the hands of the High–Father, just so you can extend the infinitesimally small amount of time you have just a tiny bit longer.”
“Yes,” said Nic. “Your inability to understand what that time means to us is why you can’t grow beyond your limitations. If you only think in terms of an infinite existence or a negligible one, you make the point of existence meaningless. And then what does it matter what anyone does? The short–lived will be gone before you can blink, and the long–lived will still be here when there’s nothing left but them.”
Rutga blinked at him, like he was trying to make sense of what Nic had just said but wasn’t doing very well. The problem with trying to explain something alien to someone’s way of thinking was that there had to be agreement on the fundamentals. Both sides had to agree that two and two made four. If not, every higher function wouldn’t make sense, no matter how elegantly the pieces fit together.
“There is no other option,” said the creature, sounding determined to cling to its own thought process.
Nic looked at Winnum Roke. She had been sure there were other options, that there always were. But you had to be willing to look for them. Nic was inclined to agree with her. The creature’s approach was pragmatic. While you spent time searching for a solution that might not exist or might never reveal itself, the chances of utter failure grew closer. It was better to accept a compromise that wasn’t entirely satisfactory rather than ending up with a complete disaster.
The issue for Nic, though, was something far more immediate. He was stuck in this pretend world with no way out and immense pressure to accept what the creature was suggesting as the only course of action. But Nic had come to the conclusion that the creature’s reasoning wasn’t sound. And that there was something it was keeping from him.
Nic desperately searched his thoughts for an answer, a way to force the truth out of the creature. Even if it wasn’t information he could use, he would rather have a clear picture of the situation he was currently in than the restricted version he was convinced he was being shown.
Nothing came to mind. He didn’t have the necessary information, or the experience, or the knowledge; and neither did Nicodene. He wasn’t even sure why the creature was still here. It would make more sense to leave Nic here imprisoned until he was willing to be more cooperative.
Unless it was stuck in here with him. In which case, if it was trapped inside Rutga, perhaps he could use its immersion into the human sensory experience to his advantage. Perhaps the best way to force out the truth was with actual force.
Nic lunged forward and grabbed Rutga. The creature was taken by surprise and was too slow to react. Nic fell on top of him and the two grappled on the floor, the creature protesting when it could get words out, which wasn’t very often.
Nic took hold of Rutga’s arm and straightened it, bending it back. Rutga screamed in pain. Nicodene apparently had a very good idea of how to cause maximum discomfort without allowing his victim to pass out. It wasn’t a very commendable thing to know, and Nic tried not to focus on the previous recipients of Nicodene’s talent, but it was effective. Rutga was wailing and sobbing in a manner that suggested the creature was not used to being questioned under duress.
Then it screamed louder than before and Nic thought he had done some irreparable harm, but the next moment Nic was jumping off the ground backwards, and not under his own strength. Everything was moving in reverse, including the creature, all the way to the moment it entered the room, only now it was leaving while walking backwards and Nic was standing in front of Winnum Roke.
The door opened and Rutga reentered. “Now,” said the creature, “shall we try ag–”
Nic lunged at him. He didn’t know how the creature was able to turn back time but if it had that much control over this world it only convinced Nic more that he didn’t want to be trapped here. Just as Nicodene was his puppet, he would be the creatures, trapped inside a display case.
He managed to get Rutga on the floor again, this time intent on increasing the amount of pain to a level that would force something of use out of the creature’s mouth. He immediately began jumping off Rutga, who again left the room in reverse. If the creature could do this endlessly, then Nic was truly powerless.
The door opened again, the creature entering more guardedly. “Nic, please…”
He didn’t manage to say any more than that, not because of Nic this time, but because of Winnum Roke. She stepped in front of Nic, one hand extended like a claw, and clenched her fist.
Rutga rose into the air, choking and grabbing at his throat. He flew across the room and slammed into the wall, leaving cracks across its surface, his feet dangling well above the floor.
“You will not speak,” she said, eyes crackling with blue light. She turned her head to face Nic. “What is this thing?”
“It’s a… a captive of the demons. It comes from another world, one that the demons destroyed. It wants to end them here, to stop them before they can do the same to other worlds.”
“By sacrificing ours.”
“Yes,” said Nic. “It brought me here to take your place so it could use you to help it.”
Winnum Roke looked around her, her hand still held outstretched, Rutga still pinned high on the wall.
“I heard what it said to you. This isn’t real. I am not real.”
“No,” said Nic. He considered lying, he didn’t know how she would react, but he would rather treat her the way he would wish to be treated in her position — honestly. “You are a memory of Winnum Roke caught inside this place to be played back like a performance.”
“Then how are you here? You did not exist in the original memory.”
“I don’t know,” said Nic. “It… seems to be able to change events to gauge reactions, a way to view alternative outcomes.”
“Yes, I see,” said Winnum. “A testing ground, with us as its test subjects.” She was taking the news much better than Nic had expected. “And why are you the one that was brought here?”
Nic shook his head. “I wish I knew. For some reason, I have become a focus of attention. I assume it’s because I’m easy to manipulate.”
“No,” said Winnum. “No reason other than convenience is never correct. There has to be a reason it was you and there had to be a reason you had to choose willingly to stay here. Don’t underestimate your worth. If you were the one brought here, you were the best option, possibly the only option. You can do something they can’t.”
“But what?” said Nic. He wanted what she said to be true, but how could it be. If he had any kind of power at all he wouldn’t be here. “It can even reverse time.”
“No one can reverse time,” said Winnum. “If what you say is true, time doesn’t exist here.”
She was right, it wasn’t time that had reversed. This place existed outside of time, it was a record of events already completed. But even then, the creature was the one in control here.
Unless it wasn’t.
What if Nic had more power over this place than he realised? What if he was able to interact with this place just as the creature could? What if he could interact more than the creature could, like he had been able to with Nicodene?
Nic closed his eyes and tried to bring himself to the place in his mind where he could access the map of stars. If he could see where he was, he might be able to see a way home. This place had to exist somewhere.
It took a moment to stop all the thoughts racing around his head and he found himself in a dark, empty room. He recognised it. He was inside the Librarium, in the room he had been in with the High–Father. He hadn’t moved at all.
He opened his eyes. Winnum was still next to him.
“I think I can see the way back.”
“Then go,” said Winnum Roke. “They must fear you greatly if they are willing to go this far. Find out why.”
“Could you…” He looked up at Rutga struggling to get free. “Could you keep him here a while?”
“I can keep our friend here forever,” said Winnum Roke, smiling. “Time doesn’t exist here.”
“I’m sorry I can’t take you with me.”
Her smile remained but there was a touch of sadness in her eyes. “I don’t exist either. Now go.”
Nic closed his eyes and stepped into the dark room. When he opened them, he was there, in the Librarium. A figure jumped at him. It was Rutga, the contemporary one, judging by his clothes. Nic easily evaded him, moving smoothly out of his path in a way he hadn’t been able to previously. It seemed a little Nicodene had rubbed off on him.
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Votes refresh every seven days, so last week's votes no longer count.Afterword from Mooderino