“You want me to lead a team of special forces thugs back to slaughter the people of Flatland?” I asked.
“You wouldn’t technically be leading the team, more of a consultant,” said Orion on the phone. “With your knowledge of the place, they can get in and out as efficiently as possible. Think of it like Ripley going back to face the aliens with the colonial marines.”
This guy… this fucking guy had done his homework, knew how to press my pop reference buttons. It didn’t go unnoticed by me that he hadn’t denied the slaughter part of my question.
“And I suppose you’re Carter Burke.” Come on, fucko, let’s see how deep you can go with this shit.
“I’m no Paul Reiser,” said Mr Orion. “I’m not going to try and bring back a sample of alien DNA.”
“Then what is it you’re after in Flatland?”
“Uncle Peter,” said Orion.
“He’s your uncle?”
“I’m his great, great grand-nephew, on his sister’s side. We wish to bring him home, that’s all.”
It wasn’t a terrible wish. Peter being here would certainly make life better for people over there. And somewhat worse for me, assuming I came back. Would I want to come back? My payment of two million bucks wouldn’t be much good to me otherwise.
“Why can’t you just go back over there yourselves and get him?” I asked. “Couple of choppers, rappel down swinging ropes, run around while looking down scopes. I’d just get in the way.”
Now, I’m not saying I’m psychic or anything, but having been lied to, betrayed, manipulated and misled a fair few times, I like to think I can spot a huge bag of dicks when I’m offered something to suck on.
As far as I was concerned, if these guys needed me to come along on their little weekend away in the magic kingdom, it could only be because they needed a human sacrifice. I may not be much to look at but I am human, and I do sacrifice well. Very well. Many people say it’s my best quality.
“It’s not quite as simple as that,” said Orion, the lilt in his voice suggesting he was trying to find the right words so he didn’t come across as a duplicitous douchebag. “We require your help opening the door to that world. Only someone who has been there can… provide the necessary energy.”
There was the d-pause again.
“So you want to suck the life out of me and leave me all husk? I’ve been through this before, I know how Uncle Peter powers his devices. He failed to use me as one of his living batteries and I don’t plan on letting Peter junior do it either.”
“You misunderstand, it’s nothing like that.” Orion sounded like he was trying to be the aggrieved one here. Good luck, bruv, I was born aggrieved, moulded by it. “You have a unique energy signature that is the key. The power to open the gateway, we already have. Uncle Peter may have needed to go to extraordinary lengths over there, but here we have electricity. We won’t need anything like that from you.”
He sounded quite convincing. Obviously, he was lying through his teeth and as soon as they’d got what they needed from me, they would put me in a cage and do experiments involving my anus — not for scientific purposes, just to put on their Instagram story.
They had handed over the money far too easily for me to trust them. You don’t just hand over a couple of mill if you don’t expect to get it back on the backswing.
“It would be great to believe you, but I’ve met Peter, I know how he operates. It doesn’t matter if he’s here, or there, he wouldn’t leave me in peace. There’s no reason for me to bring him back.”
“I assumed you would stay there,” said Orion, “with your friends.”
Would I? It was true there was very little for me here, but it was still home. And if I had my powers… the idea of being able to do real magic in a world where it didn’t exist was not without its temptations.
Like most healthy, normal men, well, like most men — I was never very healthy and normal would be pushing it; men I can get away with on a technicality — I dreamed of being a hero when I was growing up.
Not the hero who becomes a firefighter for terrible pay and lousy working conditions, I mean the type of hero who goes into unwinnable fights and wins anyway because he has special powers. A cheater, basically.
The whole comic book industry is based on people having a massive unfair advantage and a lot of good luck. Of course, those stories aren’t meant to be taken at face value, they’re metaphors for the human experience, or something. But for young boys looking for something to aim for, they are a catalogue of possible future employment options.
Obviously, I wasn’t dumb enough to think anything a member of the Justice League does is actually possible — in the real world they can’t even defeat most film critics — but the idea of going into a fight with a huge superiority is very attractive.
Some might say that’s the definition of a bully, but it’s only bullying if you’re the bad guy. When some billionaire vigilante beats the crap out of a hoodlum, that’s protecting the innocent, which, as we all know, is what billionaires are all about.
Now I was suddenly in a position to actually carry out those dreams. If I could master the abilities I had learned while I’d been away, I might actually get to change things. It was tempting.
Normally, of course, I would be very against getting involved with anything to do with other people. If the world wanted to run off a cliff at top speed, who was I to stop it?
But in Flatland, my powers weren’t all that special. There were other people with powers and the whole thing would have turned into a giant pie fight if I’d joined in. Here, though, I’d be the only one. No one could touch me (literally if I kept phase shifting without meaning to).
I didn’t like how much I was drawn to playing the hero. The hero who got to tell everyone how to do things his way. It was pretty much the opposite of how I’d lived my life up to this point.
Sour grapes? Only claiming to be uninterested in the game because I didn’t get to play with god mode on? There are always people like that, who fight for the weak and vulnerable because they’re one of them. As soon as they get a chance to switch sides, off they go, never looking back.
I didn’t want to be one of them.
It’s all very well being principled when you have no other choice, it’s when you do have another more comfortable option that you find out who you are. Although the real question is, do you care who you really are when the fake you gets to live a life of luxury and uncut drugs? It’s a bit of a conundrum.
“Okay, I’ll think about it,” I said.
“For how long?” asked Orion.
“I don’t know. When were you thinking of going?”
“We’re ready now. We can pick you up and be on our way within the hour.”
They were very keen. I’ve never liked people who were that keen on anything. Relaxed people are far less likely to murder you, in my experience. Bit of a generalisation, I know, but human survival is built on prejudice and assumption.
“That sabre tooth tiger just ate Dave. I think he might eat me, too.”
Of course, the problems start when you start getting selective about your prejudices.
“Okay, everyone. I’ve decided this sabre-tooth tiger menace has gone far enough, so we’re going to go hunting and kill all the black ones.”
“Why only the black ones?”
“Shut up, Jim, and do what I tell you. We’re taking care of the big black sexy ones first. It’s your wife they’ll come for next.”
“You’re going to go, aren’t you?” said Mandy after I’d hung up on Orion. I’d said I needed a day to think it over.
“Why do you think that?” I asked.
“So you’re just going to leave Jenny there and carry on with your sorry life, alone?” Mandy sneered at me like she was expecting me to say the wrong thing and planned to point it out once I had.
“If I go with these people, assuming they can do what they say, they’ll just try to kill me or worse. If I go back, it would be better to do it my own way, without the backstab crew backing me up.”
“And how will you do it your own way?” asked Mandy.
I shrugged. “Cheng will probably come up with something in a few years, right?”
Cheng tilted his head from side to side. “It is certainly possible. I would like to see how they have managed it, if they are telling the truth.”
“Why don’t you go ask them?” I said.
Cheng made a face like he didn’t think that was a good idea.
“Before they wanted you,” said Mandy, “they wanted me. I have the same unique energy, apparently.”
“And? Did they make you an offer you couldn’t refuse?”
“No,” said Mandy. “They kidnapped me. But then Cheng rescued me — it was like a movie, kicking in doors and smashing windows. They won’t bother us again after that.”
“Really? I would have thought they’d come back with some even more messed up plan. Evil people don’t usually give up so easily.”
“The guy you just spoke to,” said Mandy, “Cheng killed his brother.” She said it casually, no big deal, feeling cute, might commit a bit of murder later. “And then he ate him.”
I looked at Cheng, the amateur chef. “You ate a person?”
“I felt it sent a message,” said Cheng, meek as a kitten.
Way to assert dominance. He was king of the monsters, though. Maybe the evil ones weren’t the ones on the other end of the phone.
“He ate him in front of his brother,” said Mandy. “So he won’t try that again.”
“And how do you feel about your husband eating someone?” I asked.
Mandy pursed her lip. “S’alright. I was pregnant at the time so I was eating some weird stuff, too.”
“I don’t recommend it,” said Cheng. “He didn’t taste very good.” That thing I said about relaxed people being less likely to murder, forget it.
Not to toot my own trumpet (every guy’s dream) but when I put these two together, I really nailed it.
“Okay. So they won’t fuck with Cheng. Good to know. Maybe I should meet them, see this team they’ve put together.”
“I can’t believe you’re going to trust them,” said Mandy.
“I’m not,” I said. “I don’t even trust you.”
“That’s just insulting,” said Mandy. “Why would I turn on you? You have nothing I want.”
At least I could be sure this was the real Mandy. She might have matured a little due to giving birth and all those online courses, but deep down, she still thought like a self-centred tart.
“It’s not about what I have that you might want. What if they threatened your kid? Would you be willing to turn on me then?”
“We would get Charlie back and eat all their faces,” said Mandy.
“Okay, what if Charlie was ill and they had the cure? Willing to sacrifice your high horse then?”
There was a pause. “Yes, probably. But once he was better, we would avenge you.”
“Not much use to me if I’m dead,” I said.
“No, but it would make me feel better.”
I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to accept Orion’s invite, but I was curious about their set up. Were they really prepared for what they would face in Flatland? Shape-shifting trolls, enraged ogres and dragons that spat acid. I assumed they had information, but that didn’t tell you the full story. I couldn’t afford to risk letting them get hold of me, at least not until I was able to use my abilities more consistently and with better power management. It wouldn’t be very intimidating if I created a fireball and then passed out.
Mandy and Cheng offered me a bed for the night, which seemed like a better idea than to traipse all the way back to my flat, probably followed by ninjas and SAS rejects. My life was no less odd for having returned to this world.
The guest bedroom was huge and the bed had silk sheets. I had to stick my hand in between the side of the mattress to stop myself sliding out and falling on the floor. I fell asleep quickly and woke up very early, while it was still dark outside, to the feeling that I wasn’t alone. I half-expected to turn around and find Biadet lying there, but she wasn’t. Charlie was sitting on the pillow, his mouth quivering like he wasn’t sure if he was going to burp or throw up. I was obviously hoping for the former, although his gas was probably toxic.
He opened his mouth and something even weirder came out.
“You should go back, Colin.”
“Huh?” I said, my reputation as a sparkling conversationalist intact.
“Go back and find her.” His voice was babyish. Would have been really freaky if he’d spoken like Darth Vader. “I have no idea why, but she misses you.” Then his chubby cheeks inflated and he threw up.
I woke up with a start, alone. It was morning, the sun was coming in through the window (it was English sunlight, so very weak and not at all warm, although better than Scottish sunlight, which will give you frostbite).
A dream? It hadn’t felt like it, but it seemed the most likely explanation — my subconscious telling me what it wanted me to do. Might have been worth listening to if it had just once given me good advice in my entire fucking life. They say trust your instincts. I say, the same instincts that led me to listening to you? No thanks.
“I’m going to meet them,” I said over breakfast.
“I knew it,” said Mandy, the kid sitting in her lap.
“What do you think Charlie?” I said, looking him straight in the eyes. Mandy probably thought I was trying to be cute with him, but I was looking for an answer. He was still the son of a demon, wandering around the house in the middle of the night, handing out unasked for advice was hardly the strangest thing he might be capable of.
Charlie gurgled at me.
“Shouldn’t he be able to talk by this age?” I asked, searching Charlie’s face for signs of inner wisdom, but he had Mandy’s eyes, so that was the end of that expedition.
“No,” said Mandy, slightly annoyed at my insinuation that her kid was retarded. How could he be when he hadn’t been vaccinated? Surely there could be no other reason the child of a massive fuckwit would grow up to be an autistic little shit. “His psychological development is perfectly normal.”
“Isn’t that strange, considering how perfectly not-normal he is?”
“What are you trying to say about my baby?” she said, wrapping him in her arms and giving him boob-shaped earmuffs.
“Nothing. But he might have appeared in my bedroom last night and spoken to me in perfect English.”
“It’s your psychological development I think we should be worrying about,” said Mandy.
“It’s quite possible that happened,” said Cheng. “Not physically. He may have projected himself into your consciousness.”
Great, another trespasser in my head. I thought those days were behind me.
“What did he say?” asked Mandy, pouting. Probably felt she should be the one to get nighttime messages from Obi-Wan Kebaby.
“That I should go find Jenny.”
Mandy kissed the top of her son’s head. “I told you. He’s going to be a great healer and bring people together.”
“His father eats people.”
“He’ll take after me,” said Mandy. It would probably be less unpleasant if he took after his father, but I kept my thoughts to myself and called Orion to set up a meeting.
Next two chapters are up now on Patreon.Afterword from Mooderino