469: Critical Mess

The portal felt a bit sticky as I passed through it. The surface rippled and it changed colour to a glittering starfield that tickled my face.

It had been a while since I’d been through one of these, but I remembered it as being a lot smoother and not quite so gay. I don’t mean gay in the sense of something being crap, which is an unfair way to malign homosexuals, I mean it in the sense of something decorated in a ridiculously glitzy manner like the interior of an Indian restaurant. A totally fair way to malign homosexuals and also Indians.

This was the home-made version I was getting and it didn’t have that slick, over-processed feel of the real shit. That’s the problem with cheap knock-offs — yes, they’re a lot cheaper, but you never get the same kind of quality as the name brand.

Whatever Orion’s people had done to make their gateway between dimensions, they probably had to guess a few of the ingredients, like Richard Pryor had to when he synthesised kryptonite in Superman III. He added tar (because he was looking at a packet of cigarettes at the time) and it made Superman go all Spider-Man 3.

Come to think of it, Superman II was about Superman losing his powers and then regaining them, which is also the plot to Spider-Man 2.

“Hey,” said Jenny, grabbing me by the back of my jacket and pulling me back out. “You’re supposed to take us with you.”

“Sorry,” I said, “I was thinking about something.”

Jenny gave my face a sober examination. “Were you thinking about nerdy nonsense? Comic books and superheroes?”

The closer you get to a person, the more you have to work at keeping some part of yourself private. “No, not comic books.”

She frowned but with only half of her mouth, which wasn’t too bad. “How do we get through?”

The two demons snorted loudly and dived into the portal, disappearing without making even a splash. 7.9 from the Russian judge.

“Like that.” I took her hand and walked in.

A moment later we were in the Void. It was at once familiar and totally alien. There was no air, no floor, just nothing. Lots of nothing.

“I feel strange,” said Jenny. “This is it. We’ll never go back. Don’t you find that sad?”

“One place is the same as another.” I shrugged. Emotional attachments to places were never a factor for me. I was always too busy worrying about the people in those places, and what horrible thing they would make me do if I hung around.

“It’s our home,” said Jenny.

I think she was still expecting some kind of normal reaction from me, even after all this time. Which meant she didn’t know me that well after all, or she knew me much better than I could imagine.

“It was,” I said. “Now we’ll have to find a new one.”

I was abandoning my world for the second time, this time on purpose. I still had no idea how I’d been transported to Flatland originally or why. There was probably a quest there that would lead me to some kind of revelation about the true nature of the universe. Thanks but no.

I already knew what the universe was like, I didn’t need it explained to me with illustrative examples.

Was I sad to be leaving? Nope, definitely not. The state of the world was that it was in a state. I could fully understand why Orion and the people backing him were keen to find a new planet to screw up. This one was done.

It didn’t require a degree in political science to see the way things were going here. America was in decline and the far-right were intent on taking over when the empire fell. Meanwhile, China was building concentration camps and filling them with people who didn’t fit their idea of a good citizen.

When both sides in the next world war decide to follow the Nazi model — the side that lost the last war — you have to expect a future that was going to be super-retarded. Somehow making the acquisition of wealth the major motivation in human development gave douchebags a monopoly on political power.

Britain, on the other hand, had given up and put a literal clown in charge.

Things were getting worse and no one really seemed to care.

Not that Flatland was some kind of utopia. They had many of the same issues there and they would probably end up going in the same direction. But they were in the early stages where they hadn’t figured out how to game the system so one side got to break the laws with impunity, while the other side got punished even if they did nothing.

Our side are freedom fighters, your side are terrorists.

At least in Flatland, even if there was a king with absolute power, you could raise an army and fight him for the throne.

Life on Earth would be far more interesting if you could just storm into the head offices of Amazon and kill Jeff Bezos to become their next CEO.

Jack came through next. He didn’t seem too surprised about where we were. Possibly he had been here before. It wasn’t getting in that was the problem. It was finding the way out on the other side. I’d had some issues with that myself.

The rest of his team followed, big and tough, swaggering like they already owned the place. It was an act, of course. Years of training to always look the part, even when you were shitting yourself. Not a bad skill to have. I had gone the other route. I always looked like I was shitting myself when I was actually moderately okay.

A dozen guys who all had the same build, the same square heads and flat tops, even the bald ones. They were like the team that gets sent in to fight the Alien infestation or the Predator in the jungle. The team that slowly die one by one.

“Stop it,” said Jenny. “You’re doing it again.”

The science guys came next. They were carrying a small chest with them, like a cooler box. Drinks and sandwiches for the journey? If only.

“We need a moment to take some readings,” said Jack. “That okay?”

This was the part that felt weird to me. Being asked permission.

“Sure,” I said.

The scientists opened up the box and took out a bunch of devices I didn’t recognise. They looked like they were made of glass and had coloured liquids inside. They shook them and inspected them closely, put some next to each other and compared. The box was beeping and whirring.

“I expect the other countries will try to send people through as well,” I said to Jack. “The Chinese, they seemed really keen.”

“They’ll try, sure. They won’t succeed. This place… that is, the Orion building is totally secure. They won’t get in.”

“Yes, but they’re Chinese. They won’t let you guys grab everything and leave them with nothing. China number one, as the kids on the internet say.”

“Not yet,” said Jack, shaking his big square head. “The USA will have something to say about it. China has a long way to go before it can win the world’s trust.”

He was adamant, the way an abused wife is adamant the man who beats her does it out of love.

“I suppose so,” I said. “They are still refusing to use a knife and fork like sensible people. And the Great Wall isn’t really all that great. I mean, your ancient civilisation’s greatest monument is a wall?”

“There’s no need to be racist,” said Jack. Lectured to by an American. About race! Truly, we were in another dimension.

“I’m not racist. My childhood hero was black. And American, actually.”

“Martin Luther King?” said Jack.

Jenny sighed. “He’s talking about Daffy Duck. His role model.”

She wasn’t wrong.

I still suspected the Chinese. My late-night encounter with them had pushed them to the top of my ‘watch these fuckers, watch them’ list.

They probably had a spy in Jack’s team. I looked over at his men. They looked a bit bored. None of them looked Chinese. Must be hard being a Chinese spy. Russians just have to change their accent.

Of course, there is an Asian-American community who could be infiltrated, but that doesn’t really help because America is extremely racist. The perfect defence to foreign meddling, other than from foreign white people.

“They’ve all been vetted,” said Jack, seeing me examine his men. “I’d trust each man with my life.”

John came rushing over. “We’re done. The results are astounding. There’s nothing here. It isn’t like our other records. No fields of any kind. The whole place is a dead zone. Like we’re in the middle of a black hole.”

“Is that good for growing potatoes?” I asked him.

“I don’t think so. I have no idea, actually. It’s very exciting. A whole new world.”

He looked like he was about to burst into a song, which would be terrible. Disney would sue and Youtube would ban him for some unknown reason (which is their default setting).

“Ready to go then?” I asked. It had been about an hour but it was hard to tell in here. It could have been a hundred years.

“Alright, let’s move out,” said Jack. “Lead the way, sir.” He was looking at me so I assumed I was the sir. The buttering-up had begun. First the butter, then the jam, and then you get eaten.

We set off, me leading. I didn’t know which direction to take so I aimed straight ahead, Jenny on one side of me, Jack on the other.

“You made the right choice,” said Jack. “We’ll keep you safe once we get there. Safe and sound. Luck’s on your side.” He was speaking to himself more than me. Repeating affirmations to keep his spirits up or something.

Luck, as we all know, or should know, doesn’t exist. It’s just a side-effect of ignorance. If you spin a ball on a roulette wheel, is its final resting spot unknowable, at the mercy of the gods?

If you knew the force of the throw, the speed of the wheel, the friction between moving parts, air resistance, gravity, if you knew every single variable, would it be possible to know which number slot the ball would end up in?

Obviously, yes. And if I got it right every time with a calculator, you wouldn’t call me lucky then. So the luck of getting it right is really just not being able to know for sure with the limited information you have.

That’s why computers can’t pick a number between one and ten, they can only give you the next number from a randomised list based on the Fisher-Yates algorithm. They have too much information to reproduce luck, they have to fake it. A computer model of a roulette wheel will always be a hundred percent predictable by the computer.

My point being, there is no such thing as luck, good or bad. The outcome is already known, just not by us.

“Stop leering,” I said to Jenny. She was constantly looking over her shoulder at the train of burly men behind us.

“Women don’t leer at men,” she said, which was patently untrue. “Have I ever leered at you?”

“I don’t see the connection,” I said, which made her grin. She always gave me the impression that she knew something about me that I didn’t know. It was mildly irksome.

“One day you will accept that we are meant to be. That’s all there is to it.”

“Maybe I can do better,” I mumbled to myself.

“What was that?” said Jenny, eyes narrowed to slits.

“I said, we’ve been having a lot of weather. Climate change, you know.” I stopped.

“You found something?” asked Jack.

I’d been walking aimlessly for a few minutes. The Void was dark and lacked good signage. Google Maps had yet to send that car with the big camera on the roof through here. But I could sense something.

I concentrated, let my mind reach out. Suddenly there were doors everywhere. Not actual doors but the outlines of portals — up in the air and on all sides. Where they led to I didn’t know, but it was one door in particular I was looking for. And I’d found it.

Wasn’t that hard to find, actually. It was the only one that was open.

“We’re here.”

Everyone stopped and looked around.

“This is it?” said Jack.


They looked around some more.

“Where?” said Jack.

“Up there.” I pointed at the door. It was about five metres up in the air. There wasn’t a label on it but I got a feeling from it that none of the other doors were emitting. This was definitely the way back. “That’s the exit.”

Jack exchanged looks with his group. They seemed to be having a conversation via the language of eyebrows. The topic: this guy crazy or what?

“How do we get up there?”

“Should be some steps around here,” I said. “Just fan out and see if you bump into them.”

“Do we have time for this?” said Jenny. She gently floated into the air.

The others watched with awe. No one ever looked at me like that, and I’d done a lot of cool stuff in my time. I guess it’s all in the presentation.

“How is she doing that?” said John.

“Normal rules don’t apply here,” said Jenny from about two metres up. “You can will yourself to do anything if you put your mind to it.”

While she was right, it wasn’t quite as easy as she made it look. Jenny had clearly spent her time stuck in the void practising. Practising flying and also being a motivational speaker, apparently.

She slowly rotated to face the direction I had pointed in and floated higher.

I had never been able to master the full range of possibilities inside the Void. To be honest, I hadn’t mastered even the limited range. I put my hands out and felt around while walking and turning at the same time.

“You can’t do that?” asked Jack in what I considered a disrespectful tone. Do we all have to be able to do the same things to be considered equal?

“No. My powers fall into a different subset.”

People are always judging, using their own flawed value system to rate things, especially me in comparison to them. Everything seems better if you can find one person to feel superior to.

Yes, Jenny could fly. Very impressive. I also could do impressive things. Like, for example, I could sleep with a girl who could fly. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.

“But you should try it, might work for you. Just close your eyes and wish really hard.” I tripped over something and fell. “Or we can use these.” I got back up and carefully put my foot down on the first step.

Slowly, testing each step, I began climbing.

“You guys wait here and we’ll check this is the right door. I’ve been known to make mistakes.” I was up to the same height as Jenny now. “Stay right here. We shouldn’t be long.”

The others were trying to find the steps I was on. It was trickier than it looked. The stairs weren’t physically present, they were more of a two-dimensional illusion that could be made three-dimensional when approached from the right angle.

“Stop, don’t move,” said Jack. He was holding what looked like a gun.

I say ‘looked like’ because it was made out of some weird material. Plastic? Fibreglass? Clay? It was hard to tell. It looked like a toy. It probably wasn’t one.

“You understand that won’t work in here, right?”

“It will,” said Jack. “We’ve done tests. It’s not as simple as a gun.”

I wasn’t sure I’d call a gun simple. They seemed the source of all sorts of complications.

He fired the gun at me. I could have dodged but I was curious to see what the gun did. And possibly I was a little overconfident since I’d always been master of this domain.

The gun fired a sort of webbing. It came out like a blob and expanded. The whole thing happened very fast and I got hit by a big wet mass that wrapped itself around my body, pinning my arms to my sides, and knocked me off the stairs.

Jenny caught me by my wrappings, my head sticking out of the cocoon. A little emasculating to be saved by a girl in front of the guys, but luckily I was already very insecure about my masculinity. My secret was that you couldn’t make me feel worse than I already did.

Jenny whistled. It was loud and piercing, the kind of whistle we all wish we could do instead of that pathetic toot that fades halfway through.

Jack tilted his head like he heard something, then he turned around. I could hear it now, too. The sound of flapping wings.

The demons came flying out of the dark. There weren’t just two of them, there were dozens. How many more dependables did Jenny have? And was I expected to cover half the maintenance costs?

“Do it!” shouted Jack.

His men leapt into action. I was expecting more guns but they took out tubes they put on their shoulders like rocket launchers. Only what came out was a puff of white powder.

I got a taste of it in my mouth and nose. Salt.

“They aren’t slugs,” I said.

The demons flew into the cloud of white and fell to the floor screaming and writhing. I was beginning to think these guys had come prepared, but then the demons howling turned into howls of laughter. They sprang up, coated in white, pulling faces at the men.

“Did you teach them to troll people?” I asked Jenny.

“No, they’re just like that. I like it. They remind me of you.”

The demons set about the men. The men pulled out books and began reading in what sounded like Latin. They were reading Bible verses.

The effect was, as you might expect, negligible. I wondered what they would try next, perhaps shooting them with silver bullets.

“We should go,” said Jenny. “Which way?”

I directed her left and right, up a bit and so on.

“Are you sure? I don’t—”

And then we were through. The wind blew in our faces as we landed on a hillside in the middle of nowhere. Trees and fields stretched out around us.

“Is this the right place?” I said.

“I don’t know,” said Jenny. “You were in charge of directions.”

It sort of looked like Flatland, apart from not being very flat. But then there were lots of parts we hadn’t visited.

There was a noise behind us. We turned to see Jack and his men come through a tear in the sky and land nearby. No sign of any demons. Had they expunged them with holy water?

The science guys came tumbling out next, screaming as they fell. It wasn’t a long drop so they stopped when they hit the ground. They had their cooler box with them.

“Move it,” said Jack. “On the double.”

Everyone started opening their backpacks and pulling out various bits and pieces and putting them together. They moved quickly and efficiently in a highly organised manner. They were building something. Several things.

They were far too busy to bother with us. Jenny began to peel off the white gunk stuck to me. She got me free just as it became apparent what they had brought with them to help take over this world — little planes. That’s what they looked like.

They were drones, the epitome of human ingenuity. Kill people without having to be there, but with a camera so you can enjoy it later.

Jack finally turned to us. “We won’t be needing you two an—” He stopped with his mouth hanging open.

Another sort of drone cut through the air.

“There yo’ are. Ah’ve been waiting bloody ages for yo’ two.”

A dragon rose into the air with a ginger Brummie on its back.

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