“You want to turn it into a holiday destination?” I said. “Like Jurassic Park?”
“The movie?” said Neil. “No, nothing like that. We don’t want people to get eaten by dinosaurs.” He chuckled at the idea. The others joined in, amused. All apart from Raffo. He just stared at me over the top of his mask, through the safety goggles on top of his regular spectacles.
I was starting to see him as the smart one. Freaky, but smart. Like one of those serial killers who did horrendous things to their victims’ genitalia but also knew a lot about Russian literature and could unlock handcuffs with their diamond cufflinks.
“Yes,” I said to Neil, “exactly like the movie. If you send people over there, monsters will eat them. And from there, things will only get worse, as I think Jurassic World more than proved.”
“We would never put ordinary people at risk like that,” said Neil. “This…” He pointed a hand at the screen. “This is where we want to end up, eventually. It will take time, of course. Years, probably. The first step is to secure a stable connection. Build up a relationship with the people. Establish an exchange of ideas, needs and wants.” His hands were moving around, sculpting objects in the air. “We have so much to learn from each other. So much to gain. It will be a beautiful coming together of worlds.” He interlaced his fingers.
I nodded. “Yeah, but, to recap, monsters will eat your faces.” I made snapping beaks with my two hands and then used both forefingers to point at my face. I too know the ways of the unnecessary mime.
Everyone in the room was smiling politely at my intimation that they were a bunch of clueless morons. My area of expertise, as you know, is tact and diplomacy.
“If you think you’re going to go over there and tame the place where the wild things are, you’re a bunch of clueless morons.” Never hurts to clarify your point. Avoids misunderstandings later.
The smiles wavered a little but held.
“But there are already people living there, aren’t there?” said Dr Chanda. “It can’t be as bad as you’re making out.”
“That’s true,” I admitted. “There are lots of people over there, most of whom don’t get killed by monsters. And the way they do that is by staying as far away from the monsters as possible. They certainly don’t build hotels in the monsters’ territory and fill them up like some kind of all-you-can-eat buffet. You see this area?” I pointed at the far left of the map. “This is called Monsterland. Anyone want to guess why?”
I was being very condescending. It was a lot of fun. I recommend it.
“We know about Monsterland,” said Pixie, eyes sparkling, full of enthusiasm and unaffected by my tone. Clearly I was out of practice. “It’s going to be fascinating exploring a completely new environment with creatures never seen before.” Sparkle, sparkle.
Pixie was the chemist, experts on poisons and acids and stuff, so she probably thought it would be great to run around dodging the puking dragons.
“You want to go even if it means your death?” I said.
“Oh yes,” said Pixie. “Of course.” The others didn’t seem concerned, either.
There was no way to make them feel any kind of trepidation. I understood how they felt. If there was a chance to travel to a newly discovered planet, there will always be a certain type of person who would want to go. Even if you told them everything there would try to kill them, they would still want to go. Probably more so.
You make your plans, you save up what you need, you put your trust in others. The outcome is obvious. Failure. For most people. But people try anyway.
This is nothing new. We all know it will end badly, statistically speaking. And as we watch the odds get longer and longer, we keep trying. We do this mainly through lies.
It’ll be fine.
You’ll feel better in the morning.
Never give up and you’ll get there in the end.
It’s not out of malice, nobody’s forcing you to believe this shit. We want to have sweet nothings whispered in our ears. The person most eager to deceive us is us.
“Do you actually have a way to get over there and do all this gentrification?” I asked them.
“Not as yet,” said Neil. “But that’s why we’re so excited to have you on the team.”
I wasn’t on anyone’s team but it was best to let them think what they wanted. I did believe they were genuinely thrilled about the idea of visiting another world. Whether their intentions were good or bad, they wanted to cross over and have their names immortalised as great pioneers. Not something that’s ever appealed to me. Who cares what people think once you’re dead? I didn’t care that much while I was alive. Once I’m toast, glhf.
“You really don’t think we’ll last five minutes over there do you?” said Carlos. For someone with a very Spanish sounding name he had a very English accent.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe you will. I did, and I’m nobody special. But I can say for sure that your assumptions and expectations are wrong. Going in with armed drones and high-tech weapons won’t help much. You can drop bombs like Platoon but you’ll only end up destroying everything. What’s the point of that? They don’t have any oil, as far as I know. Is it something else you’re after? Unobtanium?”
Neil smiled and made to put his arm around my shoulder. I ducked it and stepped back.
“Sorry, sorry,” he said, holding up his hands. “Didn’t mean anything by it. Just want you to know you’re among friends here. We want to hear what you have to tell us and we will change our approach accordingly. We know we’re not as well-informed as you. Please help guide us. This is quite possibly the most amazing event of our lifetimes, of this century. We don’t want to be remembered as the people who fucked it up.”
He sounded sincere and earnest, two of my least favourite dwarfs. It would be cynical to just presume he was faking it, and I’ve always been one to give people the benefit of the doubt. Don’t roll your eyes. I believed him. He meant what he said. He saw the future as a place of infinite possibilities, at least half of them good ones.
Unfortunately, half of infinity is still infinity. He wasn’t an optimist, he was an idiot, and he was going to get himself and everyone under him killed. Not my problem though.
“There’s so much we can offer them,” said Pixie. “Whatever problems they have, we can help them fix. Slavery, monarchy, patriarchy, we can support them with whatever they need. We can give them electricity, clean water, pestilence-free crops. They’ll be so much better off.”
I know. You’d think a smart person would realise that if we could do all the things she was promising we’d have done them for ourselves. But that’s not how positive people think. Next time will be better, next time will be great. More of the thing that didn’t work last time is all we need.
People think if something’s shit they should get rid of it, but even if they succeed all that happens is that you get a different flavour of shit. And guess what, all varieties of shit taste like shit.
“We should head into dinner,” said Neil. “We don’t want to keep Mr Pelago waiting.”
I didn’t trust these people — who’s going to feel comfortable around happy, confident nerds? — and I definitely didn’t trust Archie, but these people were my only link back to Flatland. And it wasn’t like I had anywhere else to go.
Neil led us back to the main house, to a dining room that had been tastefully furnished and looked like it should have velvet ropes keeping us out. There were people in jumpsuits everywhere, rushing around.
The table wasn’t super long, it was round and could seat maybe twelve. The seven of us fit quite nicely, although Raffo was still in his full get-up so it was a bit like having dinner with Darth Vader. Which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. You’d know who was going to step up and perform the Heimlich manoeuvre if required. Always good to have these things pre-assigned.
I was the only one of us in a jumpsuit. I matched with the people waiting on us, so that didn’t feel weird. The guys who did the guarding and the cleaning and the serving didn’t seem to talk very much. Their faces were kind of blank and they never stopped moving, except when they were on guard duty, and then they didn’t move at all.
The vibe they gave off was classic Bond villain henchmen. I’d have to check in the basement for a nuclear sub when I got the chance.
One of my fellow jumpsuit enthusiasts whispered something in Neil’s ear as the soup was brought out (not sure what flavour it was — yellow is all I can tell you).
“Mr Pelago is just about to arrive” Neil informed us. “He says we should begin without him.”
Neil was very relaxed, everyone else was helping themselves to bread. Raffo was sitting directly opposite me and was watching me without blinking. And I was watching him. How was he going to eat soup through his mask? Some sort of straw accessory?
“We don’t always eat like this,” said Neil. “This is a special occasion to welcome you.”
“Thanks,” I said, which I don’t like to do. I always sound like I’m being sarcastic. Which I usually am, but it would be nice to be able to modulate it when convenient.
Archie walked in a few minutes later, followed in by three people in dark business suits, one woman and two men. They didn’t sit down with us, they went to a smaller table and opened up their cases to pull out laptops. I guessed they were his assistants or his LAN party for offline games of Halo.
“Wonderful, good to see you again, Colin.” Archie was wearing a different suit to what he’d been wearing earlier. It was the same style but a lighter colour. What did that mean? Was he so rich he changed between lunch and dinner, or just a very messy eater?
“Nice to be here.” People like it when you lie to be polite. Shows a willingness to corrupt yourself for their benefit, and who doesn’t like that?
“I hear you had a little run-in with the competition on your way here.” Food arrived in front of Archie as he sat down. Not what the rest of us had been served, this was a big plate of red pincers. Someone tied a bib around his neck from behind like they were about to garotte him. Archie ignored them, like they weren’t even there. “I hope you can see how important a person you are now.”
How do you respond to a comment like that? Feel flattered?
“I’m only important to them the way a heart donor is to someone on the transplant register,” I said. “It’s of limited-time value to them, and none at all for me.”
“Ha!” snorted Archie, biting into the claws without cracking them open first. They weren’t crab or lobster, by the way. I’ve seen what they look like, and this wasn’t that. I was too afraid to ask in case it turned out to be some previously-thought extinct prehistoric beetle. Not that I care about endangered species, I’m just squeamish. “That’s as maybe, but they will no doubt continue the pursuit. The news is out and the race is on. Which makes you extraordinarily valuable, and not just for a limited time, I assure you. Anything you need, just ask.”
Our next course arrived, a block of dark blue jelly. I stared at it as everyone dug in.
“Try it,” said Neil. “It’s surprisingly delicious. Raffo’s work. Potato-based, grows anywhere, has a thousand and one uses.”
“Potatoes aren’t blue,” I pointed out.
“The potato is the lion of the vegetable kingdom” said Raffo, in a distorted voice. “Not only a superlative source of nourishment that grows quickly and is endlessly versatile — grill them, fry them, bake them — they can also be used as building materials, weapons, for alcohol production, you can even use the skins to make garments.”
Definitely serial killer potential, taking the skins of his victims and turning them into clothes.
“You underestimate the potato at your peril.” He hadn’t touched his soup and his jelly was just sitting there, wobbling slightly.
“So, Colin,” said Archie, yellow liquid dribbling down his chin. “I would like you to start by visiting each department tomorrow.”
“I gave him a quick tour earlier,” said Neil. “To give him his bearings.”
“Good. But from tomorrow, I want all doors open to our newest member. Every question answered without reservation.”
“Full access?” said Neil, sounding a little surprised.
This was what I had wanted. My plan was to find a way to convince Archie to let me see what they were really working on and he had just given me the keys to the vault. Good Bond villains always let you into their lair. It’s getting out again where things get tricky. It was a good first step, though. Now I just had to find what they were really working on.
“Shouldn’t we have him screened for contamination first?” asked Raffo.
“No,” said Archie. “He’s clean, we’ve checked. You can remove that mask, Jermaine.”
Raffo looked at me, then at his jelly. He pulled off his mask, which gave a hiss as it came away from his face. A pungent aroma hit me, like walking into a chip shop. The man lived and breathed potatoes.
Raffo stuck his fork in his jelly block, lifted up the whole thing to his mouth, and slurped it into his mouth in one instantaneous inhale.
“And of course,” said Archie, “I would like you to answer any questions my people have for you.”
“No problem,” I said. “I’ll answer to the best of my ability.” Ha ha, sucker. His remote lie detectors would show that as a totally true statement. Wait till he found out what ‘the best of my ability’ meant.
I ate all my jelly like a good boy. It wasn’t too bad, tasted like chicken. Dessert was an orange block of jelly that tasted sweet and potatoey.
Archie spent the rest of the meal telling me how wonderful it would be once they started construction on the marvellous buildings they had planned. The lure of modernity would be too much for them to resist over there, apparently. He went on and on about how lives would be improved and happiness would be widespread. My guess was his plan involved narcotics. Get all the monsters addicted to painkillers and antidepressants.
I got a few questions, but Archie did a nice job of letting me avoid answering until tomorrow. He even offered me drugs to help me sleep — via Dr Chanda — so I’d be fresh and raring to go.
I declined and said I’d be fine. I was already getting sleepy.
When I returned to my room, escorted by Neil, I found my clothes had been returned, cleaned and ironed, and there was a computer on the desk. Neil helped me get on the internet and left me to it. I got the feeling they were allowing me a little space before the tsunami that was going to hit in the morning.
The door had a lock, which was nice of them. Give me that false sense of security every guy needs. I locked it anyway.
I browsed the internet for a while, catching up on the events of the last four years. It was shocking and hilarious and terrible. Not necessarily in that order. I considered old Earth to be a shit place full of vicious bastards, new Earth was ten times worse and with some real catastrophes. Could the end of Game of Thrones really have been that bad? The idea that none of this was real was very comforting, so I clung to it.
Eventually, I crashed on my bed wearing my jumpsuit. I had a lot of stuff to figure out before they worked out I knew nothing of any use and got rid of me. I had to play it smart and prioritise what my next move was going to be. There were probably lots of hidden cameras and microphones everywhere, so jerking off was going to be a real puzzle to solve.
I was woken by a gentle knock on the door sometime in the middle of the night and almost fell out of the bed. My instinct when disturbed while sleeping was to start running for cover immediately. A little groggy, I opened the door to find the dark lord of the Sith. Raffo had his mask back on.
He put a finger to where his lips would be. “Don’t say anything. Your room is bugged. They hear everything.”
I looked at him questioningly but kept my mouth shut
“This mask distorts my voice so the mics won’t pick it up. I’d like to speak to you. May I come in.”
I shrugged and stepped aside.
“Things are not as they seem,” said Raffo, walking in.
He turned around and handed me a mask like his. I put it on.
“What’s up, Raffo? Am I in grave danger?” I asked. Now we both sounded like idiots.
“No, but I will be if I’m discovered.” He took something out of his pocket.
“Is that a potato?”
I waited for some sort of explanation. None came. “Is it an explosive potato? Do we have to defuse it before it kills us all?”
“No, exploding potatoes are much bigger than this. Take it. You’ll need it.”
He handed it to me. It felt like a normal potato. Maris Piper, if I had to guess.
“What do I do with it?”
“It will protect you from demons.”
This was getting better and better. Anti-demon potato tech. Finally!
“Lot of demons around here, are there?” I asked.
“No, only one,” said Raffo. “How do you think we know so much about Flatland?”
“The demon told you? So what? Why are you here in the dead of night handing out potatoes?”
“In order to get the demon to cooperate, we have to give it a sacrifice. You.”
“Me? Oh, I get it. I know it seems unlikely, but I’m not actually a virgin.”
“No one from here will do, they’ve tried. They need someone from over there. It’s to do with the energy in your body, it has to be the right frequency. You have the right frequency. You understand?”
Raffo, it seems, was trying to save my life. Nice of him. People didn’t usually bother.
“And you want to help me because…?”
“I want you to help me kill it. Evil must not be allowed to live.” Raffo sounded very sure of himself. He also sounded incredibly pompous.
“Well, first, that’s going to be a hell of a to-do list if you’re planning to eradicate all evil. And second, not all demons are evil. They’re just like people — only most of them are evil. I know some very reasonable ones. Demons, that is. I don’t know any reasonable people.”
“This demon is evil. It has killed many, many people. But together, we can defeat it.” Raffo was all puffed up and ready to save the world. “You have the right energy.” First time anyone said that to me.
I yawned, ready to go back to bed. Demons could wait until after breakfast, surely.
“This demon, has it got a name?”
“Yes. It’s called Cheng.”
“Okay,” I said. “Lead the way.”