“A green brain,” said Maurice. “Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.”
“Does it?” I wasn’t so sure.
“If they all think about it, it could mean they’re all linked to it. Like a central processor for a hive mind. Maybe they look so similar because they’re part of one giant organism.”
The problem with having a thorough knowledge of science fiction tropes was that you were never short of a stupid idea. A bunch of drones working to fulfil the commands of a giant green brain. It might even be true. It wouldn’t be the craziest lifestyle choice we’d encountered in this place.
“Do you think we should follow him?” asked Jenny. We could still see the druid.
The thing about running away on a long straight road was that your escape took a long time and was very visible. We could also see the other druids calling to him. Whatever his explanation for his desertion was, it convinced them to run after him.
“Why would we follow him?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” said Jenny. “I have this feeling they might be up to something.”
“Yes. They very clearly are up to something. That’s an excellent reason not to go after them.”
“But it might be relevant to us,” joined in Claire. “Instead of waiting for them to make their move, we could find out what they’re planning, and outmanoeuvre them.”
It wasn’t a bad strategy, hypothetically speaking. If we were here to overcome the forces of darkness and save the world (again), I was sure it would have been the ideal approach.
“Are you two stupid?” I said. Every conversation needs an icebreaker. “I was starting to think you finally understood how this works. It’s good that you spotted a potential source of future problems, but the correct response isn’t to go towards the source, it’s to go away from the source.” I pointed both hands at the rapidly fleeing druids. “Towards.” I moved my hands to point in the opposite direction. “Away.”
“Yes,” said Jenny. “But that’s what we always do, and the problem still catches up with us.”
“Those druids are going to cause us problems at some point,” said Claire. “And we won’t have a way to deal with them when it happens. We’ll improvise as usual, and maybe we’ll get lucky, again, but our luck’s going to run out eventually. Don’t you think it’s time we took the initiative?"
Had they been rehearsing this?
“They’re only big vegetables,” said Flossie, clearly ad-libbing.
“Yes. Everything you said is true, Jenny. You too, Claire.” I looked at Flossie, and kept going. “It would be better to be proactive and get out ahead of any threat that’s going to be coming our way whatever we do. If we had the people to deal with that threat. But we don’t. We have us. The problem isn’t whatever they’re up to, it’s what we can do about it.”
Dudley and Maurice were keeping well out of it. At least they’d learned that much.
“Think of it this way. If someone drops a bomb on you, knowing who dropped it, what kind of bomb it is, which airfield the plane took off from, those things aren’t going to help you. What you should be doing is getting as far away as you can. Remember that big explosion we saw? Remember where we were? Let me give you a hint—not under it. That wasn’t because we got lucky. That was because I saw the sign that said ‘Unexploded Bomb’ and decided to leave. Not luck.”
“We could buy a lottery ticket,” said Flossie, “and use it to test if we really are lookay. Maybe one of us has a special look ability.”
“Do you have a gambling problem, Floss?” I asked her.
“No. But someone’s got to win, don’t they?”
The druids had disappeared somewhere down the far end of the road. Going after them was a moot point, but the awkwardness remained. When did it not?
We continued our journey to Arthur’s house. If the druids were still following us, they were doing a much better job of staying out of sight.
The gate we had broken was back up, but it was offset to one side so it could lean against part of the wall. We were able to slide through the gap.
Nothing had changed since our last visit. The garden was just as overgrown and the house looked just as deserted. I knocked on the door as loudly as I could. We all took turns knocking in various styles (the big thud, the rat-a-tat-tat, the call-response) and had to wait a good ten minutes before the door finally opened.
Arthur was in the same dressing gown, flapping about precariously. Snuffleupagus was real.
“Yes?” he said.
“You asked us to come back today,” I said, averting my gaze.
“Did I? What for?”
We stood around, each of us thinking the same thing: maybe we should leave. In the classic Hero’s Journey, the first call to adventure is refused. We must have been on our seventh or eighth.
“I suppose you’d better come in, then,” said Arthur, unable to stand the deluge of uncomfortableness on his doorstep. Working as planned.
We followed him into the house, wary of spiders and of betrayal that might lead to a horrendous death, in that order.
Arthur seemed to have only woken recently and kept running his hand over his hair and scratching under his dressing gown. He led us through the house, into a kitchen that looked like it hadn’t been used in a couple of millennia, and opened the back door.
“You said the back door was boarded up,” said Claire.
“It was. I unboarded it.”
There were no signs that there had ever been boards over the door. Arthur’s tactic of lying whenever he felt like it was impressive. Too often, I relied on meaning what I said. I was learning from him already.
The back garden was as unkempt as the front one, but bigger. There was a large lawn that must have been cut fairly recently as the grass was only knee-high. Arthur took a deep breath and stretched, his gown falling open. Then he farted, loudly.
“Excuse I,” he said, turning around to expose himself to us. We all looked away.
“Could you close your robe?” asked Claire, staring at the sky.
“Could you keep your lustful thoughts in check?” said Arthur as he did up his belt. “You aren’t here to have fun.”
“Yeah, Claire, stop being such a slut,” I added.
She didn’t rise to the bait, just sighed.
Maurice leaned towards her. “Never stop.” They both started gigging.
Arthur walked up to Flossie. “You. What can you do?”
“Ah can ride dragons,” Flossie said proudly.
Arthur looked around, like there might be a dragon lurking about. “Where?”
“We left them outside the city,” said Flossie. “They’ll be missing me now,” she added wistfully.
“Call them here,” said Arthur.
“Ah can’t. They’re too far away. They won’t hear me.”
“Yes they will.” He put his finger out and touched Flossie in the middle of her forehead.
She tilted back, and then fell onto the grass, flattening it. Dudley rushed forward to help her up, but Arthur raised his arm to block Dudley’s path. “Leave her to think about it.”
Her eyes were open, but she just lay there, staring at the sky. If this was how you trained to be a Jedi master, I was ready to sign up.
Arthur turned to Dudley who was watching Flossie with concern.
“You, tallboy. What about you?”
“Um, well, nothing very grand. I can do a bit of shooting. Arrows and such.”
Arthur nodded. “Wait here.”
He went into the house and left us with Flossie in repose. He returned in a couple of minutes with a large bow and a quiver of arrows.
“Here you go. Shoot that tree over there.” He pointed at a tall tree at the far end of the garden. Not a very difficult target for Dudley.
Dudley took the bow, fumbled with the quiver, dropped most of the arrows on the ground, and the rest when he tried to pick the first lot up. After about a minute of faffing about, he managed to line up the bow and fire an arrow. He missed the tree by a wide margin.
“Sorry!” he called out to anyone passing who might have been inadvertently impaled. “Um, sorry. Bit nervous.”
“Dudley,” I said, “think of the tree as a living creature. It’s coming to get Flossie. It’s going to Sam Raimi her right in the hoo ha.” Dudley didn’t know what I meant, but Maurice winced, which got the message across.
He aimed and fired three arrows, each hitting the tree in a tight group.
“You have good eyes,” said Arthur. He undid his belt and his robe fell open.
“Ay-ah,” said Jenny. “It’s like he’s got four knees.”
“Head, down here,” he said to Dudley, which was open to all sorts of misinterpretation.
Dudley bent his head down and Arthur blindfolded him with the belt.
“Now, let’s see you hit the tree again.”
Dudley fumbled for another arrow. Maurice thrust one into his hand. He drew the string and we all dived for cover, shouting, “Other way,” as he aimed at us.
Arthur stood behind him, hands pressed against his back, and steered him to face the right direction. “See it, in your mind.”
The bowstring was at full stretch. Dudley’s hands were shaking.
“Think of Flossie,” I said.
He fired. The arrow arced high and landed in the middle of the other arrows.
Dudley took off the blindfold and smiled. His face was covered in sweat. “I could see it. I could really see it.”
Arthur shrugged, like it was no big deal. He turned to Jenny.
She waved him on. “No thanks.”
He kept turning until he faced Claire. “I’m not sure you need to be any more powerful than you are already.”
I was inclined to agree. If she ended up being the most powerful of us, and started demanding she have her opinions listened to and considered as reasonable alternatives… disaster could only follow.
“I don’t think I’m that powerful,” said Claire. “I just see bits and pieces. Most of the time it doesn’t even make sense.”
Arthur looked about. He pointed at a hedge where a small animal was poking out its head, watching us. It looked like a squirrel.
Arthur took an apple out of a pocket in his robe and threw it on the ground so it rolled towards the hedge. The squirrel watched it but didn’t move.
“Can you look in the creature’s mind?” he asked Claire.
She pulled a couple of faces that were no improvement. “It’s thinking about the apple.”
Arthur nodded. He stepped forward and the squirrel ducked out of sight. He picked up the apple and put it back in his pocket. “Now. You think about the apple.”
Claire frowned like she didn’t like to be told what to do (so, no change of expression) and concentrated. Arthur placed a hand on her shoulder. “Put the apple in its head.”
Claire stood there, staring at the bush. Slowly, the squirrel’s head emerged, then the rest of it. It wasn’t a squirrel. It had six legs and two arms with hands on the end. It scuttled forward and we all moved back, apart from Claire and Arthur.
The spider-squirrel drew closer to Arthur. It began climbing up his robe and pulled the apple out of his pocket. Then it jumped down and scrambled back to its hedge.
Claire let out a deep breath. She turned to us with a big smile. “I made it want the apple.”
I’d have preferred if she’d made it want to get the fuck away from us, but it was still pretty impressive.
Arthur turned his attention to Maurice. “Still no idea?”
Maurice shook his head.
“Well, it took me a long time to work out what my gift was.”
“How long?” asked Maurice.
“Twenty years,” said Arthur. Maurice deflated before my eyes.
Then it was my turn. “So, I’ve been giving it some thought, and I think it would be best if we first found a way to enable you to enter this other plane you spoke of.”
Sounded okay to me. A little lying about in the grass couldn’t do any harm. Perhaps away from the hedge.
“Kneel down,” said Arthur.
“Could you close your robe?” I asked. “People might talk.”
I knelt down and Arthur placed his thumb on my forehead. There was a burning heat where he’d touched me. I didn’t fall down. I couldn’t move at all.
“Reach for the other side,” he said.
I tried. It was excruciating. Like when you’re trying to shit but nothing’s coming, and you feel like if you push any harder, your liver’s going to explode. Sweat poured down my face and down my neck and over my back.
There was a sense that somewhere close was what I was seeking. But it stayed out of my reach.
This went on for hours. My mind was swimming and all I wanted to do was give up, but I couldn’t find the off button. I felt like I was going to pass out.
Arthur sat opposite me and Jenny sat next to him. She was also bathed in sweat. On her it looked good.
“Keep going,” she said. “I can take it.” Always had to make it about her.
Arthur stood up and the pressure on my brain eased. Flossie had got to her feet.
“Ah did it. I contacted mah dragons. They’re coming.”
How come her upgrade was so easy?
“Do you think that’s a good idea?” said Maurice. “In the middle of the day?”
I would have said the same thing, if I could move my mouth.
“Ah thought of that,” said Flossie. “Ah told them to come after dark.” She turned to Arthur. “We’ll have to stay here until then. Ooh, ah could use a bath. Got any hot water?”
Sly girl. No need to upgrade her deviousness.
“I suppose we should have lunch,” said Arthur with a sigh.
“And a bath,” added Flossie.
“I suppose so.”
And they all wandered off. Leaving me. Fuckers.
Even Jenny, mouthing something as she went off. Could have been I love you. Could have been I hope there’s pie.
It was just me and the squirrel-spider, whose head I could see out of the corner of my eye.
Not having anything else to do, I continued my efforts. I planned to break through to the adjacent world, and never come back. They probably wouldn’t even save me a slice of pie.
I sank into the hot thumbprint in the middle of my head. I was close. I don’t know how much time passed but it was starting to get dark when Arthur returned, alone.
I saw it, then. All around him, a slight glow. Like light seeping out from around a closed door. I pushed. With all my might I pushed the door open.
Arthur stopped, made a croaking sound, and fell onto his back.
I fell forward at the same time. I could move. I got to my feet and stumbled as blood flowed back into my limbs. I got to Arthur and crouched over him. His face was frozen in a grimace. His eyes were open but lifeless. I’d killed him. It was horrible. His robe was wide open.