435: Quantum Game Theory

I had a dream that I got back to Flatland and rushed to find Jenny but because of the time dilation, she was an old woman. It was like that scene in Interstellar where Matthew McConaughey finally returns and his daughter is on her deathbed, surrounded by her family — the message of which is, Don’t get too worked up about it Matt, I got on fine without you.

In my dream, Jenny had her kids and grandkids surrounding her, plus her husband and ex-husbands, a swarthy gardener and a pool boy. She’d managed to get through the five stages of breakup grief — anger, guilt, sex with strangers, why was I upset again? and marriage to a balding but rich stockbroker — and come out the other end just fine. My worry she would be eternally bereft without me turned out to be unfounded.

It was a ridiculous dream because the time dilation worked the other way around — I’d have been the older one and only a short time would have passed for her. But these things don’t follow strict logic. When you get down to it, not even the laws of physics follow the laws of physics, so you can hardly expect magic to.

As a way to reassure me, Jenny could take care of herself and was a strong enough person to build a happy life without my help, it didn’t really do anything for me. As a way to convince me I was worthless and unneeded, it ticked all the right boxes.

I quietly left Jenny to her unbridled joy and woke up feeling refreshed and hungry. Say what you like about having satanic powers of the occult, they certainly leave you feeling peckish. No wonder they’re always sacrificing chickens.

“Lord Lucifer, accept this chicken’s blood as you accept our devotion to your unholy cause, and also this half a litre of vegetable stock and pinch of five-spice seasoning.”

Everyone was more or less where I had left them, my nap only lasting about half an hour. If I was going to pass out every time I did anything magical, I really wasn’t going to be able to achieve very much. Hopefully, I would get better at managing my energy consumption with practice, but that would take time and effort. Time, I had. Effort… I felt like taking another nap just thinking about it.

From what Cheng had said and from my own attempts at getting my head into the correct space to perform my supernatural abilities, it had quickly become obvious that things weren’t going to work the same way here. I couldn’t just twiddle my fingers and expect to put on a light show of epic proportions.

Pushing myself into a corner and forcing my magic to emerge or face the risk of death seemed like the only way to really hurry things along, so I’d provoked Orion’s team into being my catalyst. It probably helped that Cheng hadn’t been there to act as a safety net.

Shades, the guy whose surgery scars I had healed, was sitting on the edge of the sofa opposite me while one of his colleagues examined his face.

“Man, it’s like, totally fixed. Can’t even see a scratch.”

“Shit,” said Shades. “Jesus fucking Christ.” I felt he could have been a little more grateful but all he did was swear and finger the area around his perfectly good eye. “Fuck me with a handlebar.”

Orion was standing to my left, face to face with Cheng, who was now dressed in chinos and a polo shirt. So that was what a monster’s wardrobe looked like. Both of them had polite smiles on their faces and weren’t blinking. Despite Cheng’s youthful appearance, he didn’t appear to be the junior one. Something about the way he held himself suggested he was more than he seemed, but then I’d seen the kind of monster he was on the inside.

“Are you two having a staring contest?” I asked.

“Oh, you’re awake,” said Orion, smiling like a shark. “I wanted to thank you for healing my man, and for the demonstration. You are turning out to be everything I hoped you would be.”

“And it only cost you a couple of million bucks,” I said. “Bargain.”

“I couldn’t agree more.” He smiled even more. “I think our meeting is kismet. A plan by the gods.” His eyes were twinkling now, making me think that perhaps he had a bit of a monster on the inside, too.

There is actually a superhero called Orion in the DC Universe, a Jack Kirby creation who is the son of Darkseid but adopted by Darkseid’s great enemy, Highfather. They switched sons because what better way to ensure a lasting peace than a baby hostage swap?

Kirby’s Orion was your classic born-to-be-bad guy with anger issues, who learned to use his power for good because of the love he was shown by his adopted family. Nurture triumphing over nature. Was this Orion going to be so easily swayed from the dark path he was set on? Would Cheng end up eating him, too?

Then again, in the comics, Orion obtained the Anti-Life Equation which his biological father craved and used it to defeat him, only to then use it to create a Utopia on Earth which he achieved by taking away free will. Pretty deep for a comic, especially if you're fourteen. It often feels like the only way people will ever be truly happy is if you force them, and even then they find a way to complain about it. If you give them a choice, they always choose to fuck things up.

“I’m not going to accompany your boys on a trip of a lifetime,” I said.

“But you have to,” said Orion. “You’re the perfect man for the job.”

“Very flattering, but I’m not the problem. They are.” I pointed across the room at five guys named Moe (since I didn’t know any of their names, technically this wasn’t necessarily wrong).

“I assure you, they are all experts in their chosen field,” said Orion. “They won’t need you to babysit them.”

I stood up and felt woozy. A bar of chocolate flew at my head from Mandy’s direction and with my cat-like reflexes, I let it hit me in the face and then picked it up off the floor. It was a Mars. “Thanks. Are you a Marianne Faithfull fan?”

“Never heard of her,” said Mandy.

“That’s a relief.” I took a bit of the chocolate and noticed that Team America had stood up when I did. They didn’t look like they were about to attack me, but they seemed a little tense. Possibly offended. “What?” I said through a mouthful of gooey sweetness. “You guys have no idea what’s waiting for you over there. Don’t think just because I survived so can you. I’m a legendary player, you’ll just be noobs twinked out in high-end gear. Guns won’t help you. Or will you use the old smallpox in blankets trick? Bunch of evil f—”

“We won’t be taking guns,” cut in Orion. “Metal can’t travel through the gateway.”

“Really?” I said, pulling out the chain around my neck. “My spoon made it through just fine.” Everyone stared at my spoon. Not a euphemism. “It’s metal. I suppose you thought you were going to be transported naked, Terminator-style. Sorry to disappoint, no excuse to show off the muscles and the tatts. Vanity isn’t very manly, you know that, right?”

“That spoon came from another world,” said Orion. “Might I see it?”

“No,” I said, putting it back inside my top. “Get your own fucking spoon.”

“That could be the most important discovery of the modern age,” said Orion, still reeling from my display of otherworldly cutlery.

“It’s not polite to covet another man’s spoon,” I said. “Says so in the Bible.”

“Yes, yes, of course,” said Orion. “It’s just that what’s normal and everyday to you is beyond the experience of every other person on this planet. You’ll have to forgive our occasional lapse into stupefaction.”

“Not every person,” I said. “She’s seen just as many spoons as I have.” I pointed at Mandy. “More than she’s willing to admit, probably.”

Mandy pulled a sour expression. She didn’t have to pull very far.

“Yes, you’re right, there. Mrs Cheng is off-limits, though.”

“Lucky her,” I said. “Who do I have to eat to get the same consideration?”

“That won’t be necessary,” said Orion, showing a little discomfort for the first time. Just a little, though.

“You don’t seem all that upset about your brother,” I said. “I find it disconcerting. Most of the people I’ve met who aren’t bothered by killing have turned out to be sociopaths who can’t be trusted to keep their word.”

“Like you,” said Mandy.

“Like me,” I agreed.

“I assure you, I can be trusted,” said Orion.

“That’s what a sociopath would say,” I pointed out.

“My brother was not a very pleasant man. Quick to temper and willing to use violence even when there was no call for it. They say twins can feel each other’s emotions, but I never felt anything from him. I don’t plan to continue his reckless approach. We were alike only in appearance.”

He sounded like he was grateful to Cheng for clearing his path to the throne.

“Who takes over if Cheng eats you?” I asked.

“I have no intention of eating anyone,” said Cheng, polite and friendly. “Now that we have an understanding, there’s no need.”

“Never say never,” I said.

“Thank you,” said Shades, from over the other side of the room. “I’ve been on painkillers ever since the operation, not been able to think straight. Sorry for roughing you up like that.”

It appeared that down south they taught their good old boys some manners, along with inbreeding and how to lose wars and then insist it was best two out of three.

“No problem,” I said. “Next time you touch me, I’ll set you on fire from the inside and incinerate your internal organs.” My hand burst into flame. “Shit, didn’t mean to do that.” I quickly ate the rest of the Mars bar before I fainted and tried to stick my hand in the fish tank, which turned out to be an 8K TV. Astonishingly realistic but not very wet.

I would have to learn how to turn off my power as well as turn it on. As an experienced user of super-powers, I can exclusively reveal that the number one skill you have to learn is how to not kill yourself.

You can fly? Great, but can you land? X-ray vision? Don’t burn out your retinas, you don’t get spares. Mind-reading? Imagine being on a bus next to two women chatting. You put on your headphones but you can still hear their inane conversation in your head. It never ends. The voices, the grumbling, the withering commentary on that dress Susan wore to Brian and Phyllidia’s wedding.

I stared at my hand and said, “Stop fucking burning.” The flames went out. Okay, irritated commands FTW.

Everyone was staring at me again.

“See?” said Mandy, probably annoyed I was stealing the spotlight from her. “That’s what he’s like. He said the same thing to me and he meant it.”

“He isn’t a threat to you any longer, my love,” said Cheng.

“He’s a threat to everyone. You haven’t seen him kill people, just like that.” She snapped her fingers. “Didn’t even care. I don’t know what kind of monsters you think you’re going to find out there, they won’t be as bad as him.”

Clearly, Mandy held some unresolved resentment towards me, although her disparaging remarks were actually building me up in the eyes of these men, which wasn’t necessarily a good thing. They would expect me to live up to her claims, which would be hard to do while running away from danger at full speed.

“Your husband eats people,” I said.

“Yeah, and you’re the one who introduced him to me,” said Mandy. How this made me the bad guy, I had no idea.

“If I can say something,” said Orion. “I understand you have reservations and that you don’t trust us, even though we deposited a great deal of money into your bank account with no guarantees, but at least come and see what we have managed to achieve so far. It isn’t far from here.”

“How come you set up shop here?” I said. “Shouldn’t it be over there, Area 51 or something?”

“It was considered safer with the unrest that’s coming,” said Orion.

“What unrest?” I said.

“It isn’t important, you won’t be greatly affected. We are going through a process of change, that’s all.” He smiled in a way that made me think there was some kind of Purge being prepared. I was probably being too optimistic, as usual.

“I guess I should cancel my plans to visit the Grand Canyon,” I said.

“Oh,” said Orion. “Were you thinking of coming over?”

“I had this fantasy I was sent back to get rid of your president in a ‘kill Hitler before he can do any crazy shit’ scenario.”

“You don’t have to go anywhere for that,” said Orion. “He’s on a state visit to this country at the moment.”

This was news to me. I had been so busy catching up on recent events, I hadn’t been paying much attention to current ones.

“Hey, if I help you guys,” I said, “will you get rid of President Dumb-fuck for me?” Maybe this was how it worked. I did them a favour, they did the whole world a solid.

“No,” said Orion. “There’s no need, he won’t be around much longer?”

“How do you know that?”

“We put him in the White House, we’ll decide when he leaves.”

“We? Who’s we? The Illuminati?”

“No, no, just some powerful people who guide world events occasionally.”

How was that not the Illuminati?

“Wait,” I said. “You own Trump?”

“Oh, no. He’s a Russian asset, bought and paid for. We don’t control his actions, that’s the Kremlin’s operational territory.”

“Then why would you make him the president?” I could easily believe Orion was part of some shady conspiracy that controlled the US government, but it seemed unwise to give the reins of power to someone they knew was in the thrall of a foreign power.

“To make our next candidate more palatable,” said Orion. “Once people have had enough of him, they’ll gladly accept what we have planned for them.” That smile again.

It made total sense. It was the same approach game devs used. Have a terrible mechanic you want to implement that you know gamers will object to vehemently and boycott your game? Put out an even worse one and then backtrack to a ‘better’ version which you originally planned to go with anyway. Players think they forced a change, the devs get to fuck them over while making them think the game company buckled to gamer pressure. Everyone wins. Except you.

“So, he’s out?”

“As soon as we get our preferred candidate correctly positioned.”

Without knowing who that was, I still felt it couldn’t be any worse, which showed how well their plan would work. It could even be Peter.

Now that I thought of it, who else? If he could use his powers here, then being President of the US of A would be the ideal place to work from. And everyone would be so grateful he wasn’t the last guy, they’d do whatever he said.

Was that Peter’s plan all along? Get me to be door-opener, delivery boy and kingmaker for the cheap, cheap price of two mill cash. And he actually would be better than what we had right now.  All the Utopia you could ever want with none of the free will.

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Afterword from Mooderino
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