Yes, the reboot is being rebooted. Will explain my plans going forward in tomorrow's monthly update post, but I will be posting Tuesdays and Thursdays, slightly shorter chapters than before. Two chapters ahead on Patreon.

Preface from Mooderino

426: An Englishman's Castle

I inhaled deeply. There was no mistaking it — genuine British air. I knew it was British because of the faint smell of diesel and cow shit, a disgusting combination that the English countryside proudly insisted on, as integral to the rural way of life as fox hunting and sheep shagging. God, I hated the countryside.

My first instinct was to assume this was another fake reality created by Maurice, but hallucinations were never a hundred percent accurate, and smells were particularly hard to simulate.

Rather than clear my head, which was what I had been going for, taking a deep breath made me feel even more dazed and confused, both from the shock of returning home and also the toxic pesticides farmers use to make sure we have perfectly symmetrical potatoes.

This dislocated feeling was kind of nostalgic for me. It was the same sort of confusion I had experienced that first day I arrived in Flatland.

I should have felt happy to be out of there, a crazy, unreal world where everything was determined to kill you. I should have been happy to be back in a sane, normal, boring world where no one cared enough to want me dead, where no one even knew I existed. Anonymity had a lot going for it.

Only, it didn’t actually feel all that great to be back. Not that I had much choice about it. Here I was. Adventure over.

The wind was brisk and the stars were intermittently hidden behind clouds preparing to piss down on me any minute. The first thing I needed to do was get down from here, then I could figure out what to do next.

I didn’t know where I was and I had no way of taking care of myself. No money, no friends, no magic sword. None of the basics.

The moon kept disappearing behind clouds and the darkness made it difficult to see anything.

I was definitely on top of a castle that much I knew. The funny-shaped walls gave it away. And also, it was the same castle from my vision, where I’d met a future version of Claire. Was she about to appear? Would she provide me with answers and, more importantly, would she have the foresight to bring some sort of hot meat-filled pastry with her? Not bloody likely.

Imagine how much male-female relationships would improve if women carried around a few savoury pies in their handbags instead of all that other crap they insist on lugging around. Sexism would disappear overnight.

Low blood sugar may have caused me to become unreasonably angry about future-Claire’s lack of a portable pantry, but my rage did at least help to warm my shivering bones, which was helpful as my clothes were from Flatland and apparently were not made with the intemperate British climate in mind.

Claire did not appear. No one did. I remained pie-less. I think I heard the sound of a passing aeroplane but it could have been my stomach.

It was cold and dark and I was standing on castle battlements, that much I could confirm. Everything was made of stone and solidly built. There was an ugly blue door with a sign showing it was an exit. The sign was written in English.

Okay. Old world traditional construction, modern world shitty Health and Safety features.

I hurried over and tried the handle; didn’t budge. I don’t mean the door didn’t move, I mean I couldn’t even turn the handle. Pull, push, twist, nothing. This was a fire exit.

Of course it didn’t work. Why would it?

That’s how this world worked. Insurmountable obstacles, pointless obstructions, endless inconveniences. It wasn’t supposed to be like that, but there was a guy coming to fix it on Tuesday, between nine and three. He was supposed to come last week but something came up. But this week, for sure.

I punched the door and hurt my hand. Then I kicked it and hurt my foot. I felt so weak and powerless. If this was Flatland, I could burn the door down, I could jump off the room and heal myself of my injuries. There was so much more I was capable of that this world just wasn’t going to allow.

I’d been through so much, gained so much, and now I had lost it all. It would have been easy to give up all hope and lie down, but the stone floor didn’t look very comfortable so I decided to postpone succumbing to despair (temporarily, of course). Instead, I took a moment and stepped back from the door.

My magic may have abandoned me but I was still someone who had plenty of experience in getting myself out of the shit I constantly found myself in. Practice makes perfect, I guess.

I needed to get off this roof and then I had to find a way back. Back to the wild, unstable, enemy-filled world where life made sense. I needed to get home.

The doorway that had brought me here was gone, but…

But that meant magic existed here. It had to. Otherwise, the doorway wouldn’t have been able to open in this world. Magic couldn’t exist just on one end. The fact the door was able to open here, even if it was only for a moment, proved that this world could sustain magic. I just had to find a way to access mine.

Clarity descended along with a sense of calm. Time to get on with it. I didn’t know what it was, exactly, but that didn’t matter. I just needed to find somewhere to hole up and get in touch with my inner self. Maybe I just needed to take an online mindfulness class to reach a higher state of being. Or possibly turn into a pretentious wanker.

The details weren’t important right now, I needed to get down off the roof first.

I rushed around, looking over the sides of the castle walls. The darkness made it hard to make out what was down there.

Climb down? Jump down? Use my parkour skills to Assassin’s Creed my way to safety? None of those options appealed.

Who would have thought Health and Safety would come to my rescue? There was an ugly metal fire escape on the far side of the roof, bolted into the ancient castle walls.

It looked ridiculously out of place, painted yellow to really stand out, but you can’t leave people with only one way to get out of a confined space. You used to be able to, but there were numerous fires in train stations that killed hundreds of people and they realised charred human remains didn’t look good once everyone had colour televisions.

I clattered my way down the metal stairs with a sense of elation, like I’d managed to complete a puzzle that opened up Level Two without having to look up the cheese-solution on a wiki. It was hardly the Great Escape, but reaching the ground in one unbroken piece was a victory, and a shot of dopamine is its own reward.

Looking back at the castle, there were no lights and no signs of life. Did anyone even live here? A huge empty building that was just for show.

It was still very dark and hard to know which way to go. The sound of gravel underfoot suggested a path so I kept my footsteps crunchy.

There was a signpost pointing in various directions. I was just about able to make out the symbols for toilets, cafe, car park — the last one seemed like it would lead to some sort of exit, so I set off in that direction.

There was no gravel path to guide me and with the clouds completely covering the sky, I soon lost my bearings. A magic light would have come in really useful right about now. Trees and bushes sprang up out of nowhere and when I emerged from the shrubbery, I found myself behind some small buildings that didn’t seem very traditional, especially with the wheels they were sitting on.

There were still no lights but there was a rhythmic groaning sound coming from one of the portacabins. Either someone was having sex in there or they were trying to move a very heavy sofa through a narrow doorway.

What interested me more were the two vehicles parked out front. It was weird seeing actual motor vehicles again. I crept closer and checked the cars to see if they’d been left open. There was a small hatchback, which was locked, and a van that smelled like cow shit, which was open on the passenger side.

Inside, I found various empty containers and food wrappings in the footwell, and a bunch of coins in the slot next to the gear stick. I stuffed them in my pocket and eased back out. I closed the door as quietly as I could, the barest of clicks.

The car alarm went off, beeping and honking, and the sidelights started flashing.

I didn’t panic. I threw myself to the ground and rolled under the van.

Lights went on in the portacabin and the door opened. I could only see boots stomping around, checking the van, opening and closing the doors.

“Bloody useless piece of shit,” grumbled a gruff male voice with a slight twang.

“Probably just the wind,” said another male voice, this one softer and much more posh.

“Hmm. I best be getting back. Wife be wondering where I am.”

“Right, then. See you in the morning.”

“See you.”

There were various clunks and clicks as the man got in the van and started it up. The smell from the exhaust flooded my senses as the vehicle rattled and shook above me. The van started moving. The light from the open doorway would be enough to reveal my presence, but if I rolled out there was a good chance I would be spotted or get squashed.

It was at times like these that my wealth of experience facing life or death crises came into its own. I closed my eyes and lay as still as possible, hoping the problem would go away.

The van drove off, the sound of its engine growing more distant. A cold breeze washed over my prone figure. I slowly opened my eyes and looked up.

There was a pale, skinny man standing in the doorway in just his boxers, staring at me.

“Who the fuck are you?”

I jumped up and said, “You home-wrecking bastard!” Then I turned around and ran after the receding tail lights of the van, shouting, “Dad! Dad!”

The van was far enough for there to be no danger he would hear me, and it was still dark enough so he wouldn’t see me in his mirror. Hopefully, the guy in the underpants wouldn’t want to get involved in family matters and leave it.

In any case, I ran until I reached a road and slowed down to catch my breath. There was the yellowish glow of street lights in the distance and the sounds of traffic and no sounds of police sirens, so I seemed to have gotten away with it.

I walked for quite a while before I reached a road with lampposts. There was a sign with the red symbol for a train station. I veered to the left and kept going. The occasional car drove past me. The people in them looked pretty normal, dressed as you’d expect. I was beginning to think I’d been returned around the same time I’d left. I hadn’t seen any futuristic cars or anyone flying by on a hoverboard. Can’t say I wasn’t a little disappointed.

I checked my ill-gotten gains, a grand total of £7.52, which wasn’t a lot. The money looked the same as the coins I was familiar with, with the same queen on them. There hadn’t been a coup while I’d been gone, with Charles finally claiming the throne, blood streaking down Pall Mall and the heads of journalists from The Guardian stuck on the gates of Buckingham Palace.

I continued to try to make my magic work as I walked along but with no luck. No flame on my finger, no healing light.

After another hour or so, I arrived at Arundel station. It was a small train station with no one around. The large digital clock said it was nearly six o’clock. There was no one in the ticket booth, but there were machines where you could buy tickets. There was a direct train to London Victoria for the low, low price of thirty quid. Well, £33.10, to be exact. Even now, the Great Train Robbery was celebrated daily all over these British Isles.

The next train was due… now. The tracks rattled and there was a whoosh of air as the 6:04 to London pulled into Platform 1. I jumped the barrier and ran down the stairs.

Old Colin would have been very nervous about fare dodging. Old Colin would look guilty the whole time and would desperately need the loo but refuse to go because that’s where fare dodgers hide and that would be the first place they’d look. Old Colin was big on overthinking everything.

This Colin didn’t give a shit. There were probably security cameras watching, but no one really cared. Probably weren’t even turned on.

The train came to a creaking, grinding halt and the doors slid open to reveal an empty carriage with free newspapers on each seat. I picked one up and checked the date. February 29th, 2020.

Four years was how often people were supposedly transported to Flatland. Every leap year. Did that mean a new batch had been sent over? Was that how I managed to slip back, using their interdimensional tunnel?

Four years. It made me feel a bit dizzy. I slumped into a seat and went through the paper to find out how the world had changed, thinking four years wasn’t really long enough for anything really major to have happened. Boy, was I wrong.

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