205. Choosing Sides

Sometimes I wonder if I’m a sociopath. I know I’m socially inept and not very good at dinner parties, but I don’t think that’s the same thing. Is my lack of empathy towards people due to something other than being shy and awkward?

I was able to shove Marv into a pool of lava and not feel bad about it. In fact I didn’t feel anything about it, good or bad. I would have preferred to not have done it, but then I prefer not to do most things. That’s more to do with my innate laziness.

I know I’m capable of emotions like shame, guilt and regret. In fact, most of my life has been spent riding those emotions like a tube train on the Circle Line. I’ve always tried my best to avoid those feelings, mainly by avoiding people, but they’ve always caught up with me. But in this world, I’d done things most people would consider crimes, and I was fine with it.

Good guys don’t kill people. Movies and books and our whole way of thinking about how society should operate tells us this. Bad guys murder, but good guys apprehend and convict, calmly, dispassionately, in the name of justice. Unless it’s unavoidable. Or in self-defense. Or for a good reason your lawyer came up with. 

Which is, of course, nonsense. Killing people is what society is based on. Someone claims a piece of land. Someone else kills them and takes it. Rinse and repeat. Then at some point someone comes up with a ‘law’ that means you can’t take someone’s stuff by killing them. 

“Let’s stop this vicious cycle and stop stealing from each other. No more taking what isn’t yours through violence. Er, except for the land already obtained that way. That you get to keep. And so do your children. Forever. And this will apply to everyone, but mainly to me and all the land I own. In the name of peace!” And lo, civilised society was born.

The dragons were howling it up. The female was thrashing about, her tail swiping in all directions. Vikchutni reared up, wings flapping up a storm. Flossie had been knocked aside but she didn’t seem too hurt. She had awkwardly got back to her feet, a little dazed.

I did the only thing I could think of. I bent down and picked up the dead baby.

It was pretty disgusting. Babies are supposed to be cute. Cuddly, even. This one looked like a ribbed condom stretched over an amputated horse dick. I’m guessing, I’m not a zoologist or a German pornstar.

The dragons were incensed by my interference in their grief. They were animals. Unlike me, when they had emotions, they expressed them. It would take many thousands of years of evolution before they realised the correct way to deal with feelings was to bury them deep in your stomach where they could quietly eat away at your sense of self-worth.

Both dragon heads came swooping down at me, ready to rip me to pieces, no doubt. I ignored them and did my best to heal their child.

She hadn’t been dead long and doctors bring people back from the brink all the time. They use a defibrillator and I use invisible fairy dust. Same thing, only mine doesn’t get me a fuckboi Porsche to impress nurses with.

The dragons paused in their death dive as my hands lit up. The larva glowed, and then moved, weakly rolling over in my hand which was frankly disgusting.

Flossie came staggering over. “Yo’ saved the babby!”

True enough. What a hero. What a good guy. The fact it was the only chance to prevent Ma and Pa from stomping me to death was just a bonus.

The parents made soft mooing sounds and the larva seemed to respond. The mother leaned in closer, took the larva in her mouth. It wiggled as she swung around to the lava pool and then dropped it in. It landed with a plop, and then disappeared. 

“Rip one baby.” After all the effort I’d gone to you’d think they’d want to keep it around, at least until it hit its teens.

The larva resurfaced in the searing hot magma. The mother bent down and opened her mouth. A spray of green acid covered the baby. It made a gurgling sound which I assumed weren’t death throes. The magma thinned out to a more watery form and the larva splashed around.

“Aw,” said Flossie. “Look what a happy babby she is.”

She looked like something out of a horror movie, but then I’m no oil painting myself. 

“Vikchutni obviously knows the way out. Ask him.” There was a half-eaten tree in the cave indicating trips to the surface.

“Ah don’t know if we should separate him from his family right now,” said Flossie, cooing over the baby paddling about in its deadly nursing pool. She would have picked it up and stuck it in her bosom if it hadn’t been coated in acid and dipped in boiling hot magma. And even then, I think she was considering it.

“Impressive,” I said. “After vowing to do what I asked it took you all of five minutes to contradict yourself. Well done—a new world record. Although I don't expect it to last long, not the form you're in.”

Flossie straightened, all pumped up, and glowered at me. Then she let out a long sigh and deflated. “Ah know what Ah promised, and Ah meant it. Doesn’t mean yo’ can’t listen to other people’s opinions. Yo’ can’t always be right.”

“No, but apparently you can always be wrong, which is why I get to make all the decisions and you get to shut the fuck up. If you don’t like it, you know what you can go—absolutely anywhere you want.” 

Nyx emerged from behind an egg. He looked shaken up and the whiskers on the end of his snout were trembling. 

“What about you?” I asked him. “Going to be a problem?”

He shook his head vigorously. 

“Okay. Just remember, our goal is to get out of here. After that, you’re free to leave.Right?”

He nodded. Although in his current state he’d probably agree with anything I said. He was more interested in the dragons and not getting noticed by them. He cowered behind the egg.

Flossie walked over to Vikchutni and patted him on the side of his long neck. “Ah’m sorry, but we need to find the way out. Can yo’ show us.”

Flossie was clearly trying to get the dragon to show the reluctance to leave his family that she’d ascribed to him. Vikchutni didn’t seem that bothered. He swung his massive body around and lumbered across the cave to the tunnel. We followed behind. As I left mother and child I received a massive shove in the back and nearly fell over. Something large and wet wiped across the side of my face. The female dragon’s lick was unpleasant and judging from the harsh tingling, corrosive. If she had been a little more grateful she probably would have killed me.

I gave her the standard response to over-enthusiastic gratitude, I nodded slightly. Then I quickly left before things got awkward. Swapping phone numbers and emails, promising to stay in touch, feeling obligated to send birthday cards—no good deed goes unpunished.

We followed Vik through the tunnel and onto a ledge. There was a gap of a  few metres and then the wall opposite was covered in lava drifting downwards, like a slow-motion waterfall. It seemed to be thickening and getting even slower as we watched.

Vikchutni stretched out his wings.

“Ah think there’s a way out up there.” She pointed to the top of the lava-falls. 

As I looked up, I saw two figures in the lava, gliding down the wall. Two trolls. They were buried up to the waist in lava, their arms waving about. They looked stuck. As they got closer to us, I recognised Raviva and Keezy. Looked like the contest hadn’t gone well for either of them.

“Hey, what are you doing?” I shouted across the gap.

They both turned to look down at me, their slow descent bringing them closer, inch by inch.

“Lava stopped play,” shouted Raviva, like it wasn’t the first time. “Not usually a problem but for some reason the lava’s all dried out. Can’t imagine why.”

Probably a side-effect of me setting it on fire, although I wasn’t going to mention that. And the only other witness had suffered a slight case of death-by-lava, which was lucky.

“You’ve found a dragon, Dragonrider,” said Keezy, sounding impressed. With her, obviously. No props for yours truly.

“Spray them with acid,” I said to Vikchutni. He just looked at me. After all I’d done for him and his, I still got nothing. About par for the course. I turned to Flossie. “Tell him”

She was about to say something, most likely a refusal based on human rights violations, but my cold stare was enough for her to shut her trap. She could say no, that was her right, but I wasn’t going to listen to her moronic justifications for being a moron. That was my right.

She turned to the dragon and stroked his neck. He lowered his head and she tugged on the hairy tuft under his chin, aiming it across the small chasm towards the two trolls still very slowly falling. She yanked down and Vikchutni released a large spray of acid, coating the wall of lava and the two trolls.

The trolls didn’t seem to mind. The lava around them softened and their movements became freer, but they were still stuck. 

“The lava has cooled too much,” said Raviva.

“Again,” I said to Flossie.

This time when the acid sprayed out, I produced fire from my fingertips and sent it into the stream. It immediately burst into flames, sticking to the far wall like napalm.

The lava thinned out and began streaking downwards. The two trolls plummeted, but were now able to move enough to push off the wall behind them and leap across to the ledge. They slammed down beside me, a little burnt around the edges but  none the worse for wear. That’s trolls for you.

“Thank you, Dragonrider,” said Keezy.

“Yes, my thanks, Dragonrider,” agreed Raviva. “It appears the contest will have to be called a tie. Honours even.”

“Hold on,” I said. “You both lost, but there were three teams. Since I’m the judge, I get to call the result.”

“Ah, yes,” said Raviva. “But you can’t really be judge and participant. Conflict of interests.”

“I’m not a participant,” I said. “I was just observing from down here so I wouldn’t miss anything. I’m calling it a win for the Dragonrider’s team.”

“Oh, the Dragonrider,” said Keezy. “Yes, that seems a fair ruling.”

“Hmm,” said Raviva. “There’s no shame in being beaten by the Dragonrider.”

Of course, they were happy to accept the legendary Dragontwit as the victor.

“There you go,” I said to Flossie. “You’ve got your dragon and now you’ve got the troll nation at your beck and call. You don’t need me anymore, you can do what you want, go where you want. All that shit about doing what I tell you, no need to stick to any of that.”

Most people will promise whatever you ask if they think it will get them what they want. The far-off future is a wonderful place where everyone keeps their word and does what they said they would. It’s only when you get there that you really decide what you’re willing to do.

Flossie pulled Vikchutni’s head down even lower and swung herself onto his neck like she’d been doing it all her life. The head rose, carrying her aloft. She looked down at me, a serious look on her face. “What are your orders?”

The dragons and the trolls would do what Flossie asked, and she would do what I told her, at least for now. I’d also found a way to make the dragons breathe fire, which was kind of sick. That was a lot of power under my control. A hero could do a lot of good with dragons and trolls backing him up. A sociopath could do a lot of damage. Which was I?

I don’t believe there’s such a thing as ‘the good guys’. There are people who do good things, and people who do bad things, and everybody is capable of both. Depends on the kind of day you’re having.

Other people might judge you, take your actions out of context and label you as this or that kind of person, but that only matters in a world where they have authority over you. In this world, I got to decide what was right and what was wrong for myself. You couldn’t hold me to account because someone gave you a badge that said you were in charge. You’d need more than that. Anti-dragon missiles and troll-detection gear for a start.

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