293. Freedom for All

Jenny was not happy. She was the sort of person who prided herself on not insisting others do what she wanted. She presented herself as a supportive partner willing to back me up in whatever retarded idea I came up with. She’d tell me it was retarded, but that wouldn’t stop her having my back.

Which is cool. People should only tell you not to do something if they have a better option. One they know works due to experience and wisdom. Not because they think it will help them whore karma on Reddit.

Under those conditions, hardly anyone would get to tell anyone else what to do. People would make mistakes, of course, but they would be valuable mistakes that would help the person grow and improve.

This time, however, Jenny was not in the mood to stand by and allow me to go skipping off into the jaws of danger. Not without her mooring line firmly attached.

“If he disconnects himself from me,” said Jenny, “won’t he die? I thought I was the only thing keeping him alive.”

“Yes. Technically. I’m going to use my ability in another way to stop him dying when he uncouples from you. If someone is augmenting it, I should get a nice boost.”

“But he’s untouchable. How can you—”

“I can’t go into specifics, because then it might not work. It might not work anyway, but Colin won’t die while he’s in here, and if he dies as soon as returns to his body, we can always plug you back in. Our biggest advantage is that they want him alive.”

Jenny’s brow dropped low on her face, giving her a mild Neanderthal look. Cavewoman no like stupid boy’s plan. “I think we should consider some alternatives.”

“We can,” said Maurice. “We have time, I guess.” He flicked through his ghost notebook. “I don’t really have anything else, though. Do you?”

He was being inclusive and genuinely open to her input. Noob.

“I can just reattach you afterwards, can’t I?” It wasn’t like I was keen on cutting her out of my life, either. I certainly wasn’t thinking of it as a permanent move. For all my issues with girls and their irritating ways, I was still a fan of the services they so generously provided.

“How do you know that’ll work?” said Jenny. I was fairly sure she understood the reasons why this was a risk worth taking—we were in a tight spot and being dead (deader) wasn’t going to be the kind of long-term commitment she was interested in, I was guessing.

Claire put her arm around Jenny’s bare shoulders. “Jen, we know—”

“No, you don’t,” snapped Jenny, shrugging Claire off. “None of you do. I’ll give up everything else, but not this. I won’t.”

It was flattering that she was so determined to stay connected to me, and, I’ll admit, frighteningly possessive, but it wasn’t exactly like there was a queue of women waiting to take her place. She could leave me to roam free all across the wilderness and when she came back, I’d still be where she left me. Honestly, I don’t get why women don’t find lazy men more attractive. We’ll never be that guy who says he’s popping out to the shops and then that’s the last you see of him. Not when we can just order a takeaway and get in a few more hours of Call of Duty.

“I think it’ll be fine,” said Maurice in a placating voice. “You can just reconnect to him once this is over. You did it before.”

“That was when his powers weren’t functioning properly,” said Jenny. “What if he becomes fully untouchable and I can’t get through to him?”

Maurice bobbed his head from side to side like this was a reasonable consideration. “We’ve already shown we can lower his defences. We can just put more breasts in his face.”

Was it unmanly of me to think of this as a horrible idea? A sign of my latent homosexuality I’d been trying to deny my whole life? Why couldn’t I just look forward to it like any normal, healthy male?

“What if he gets used to it?” said Jenny, clenching her fists. “Right now, he has a distorted view of the importance of breasts. If I show him something I wouldn’t show anyone else, he takes it as proof I must consider him special. Boob-worthy. But we’re eroding that concept every time he sees breasts out for no reason. Look at him, he’s already getting used to seeing them.”

They all stared at me but I was too stunned to contradict anything she’d said. In a single burst of rapid-fire evaluation, Jenny had summed up my complicated relationship with mammary glands in a way I had never even considered.

Not only had her analysis been very plausible, it showed that she had been thinking about it enough to come up with a very thorough diagnosis. I wasn’t sure which was more astonishing, that I was so simple to explain or that she had me sussed so easily.

Her face relaxed and she opened her clenched hands. “I mean, it’s just a theory.”

Too late to put the mask back on now, Mrs Freud.

“You’re forgetting something,” I said. “I’ve already accepted you belong to me. You don’t need to prove it again. And I think you’ll find in previous instances where we’ve become separated, the problem has generally been you not wanting to be with me, not the other way around.”

She frowned. “That was different. I either lost my memory or was being controlled by someone else. My feelings for you have never changed. In fact, they’ve only grown more intense.”

As nice as it is to have someone declare their feelings for you, I think it would be better if they tried not to sound like a serial killer when they do it. Just a suggestion based on personal preference.

The others were gawking at us, waiting to see who would come out on top. Popcorn was probably now at the top of Maurice’s ‘need to invent’ list.

“Look, I think we need a moment alone, so if you could all fuck off, I’d appreciate it.”

There was a general atmosphere of disappointment, but they backed off, and then disappeared altogether. Leaving me and Jenny.

“Don’t do it.” And him.

“You can shut up, too,” I said to my younger-self. “This has nothing to do with you.”

He shuffled over to Jenny, hands in pockets, floppy hair covering his face. “You can’t let him do this.”

Jenny crouched down so her breasts were level with his face. Pair of pervs. “Don’t worry. Whatever happens, you’ll always be in my heart.”

They embraced.

“Hey, hey, hey. What the fuck? What are you doing, you tart?”

Jenny looked up, my little face buried in her chest. “He’s you. You understand that, right?”

“No, he isn’t. I’m me. He’s some mutant offshoot. Any feelings you have towards him constitute an act of cheating.”

“And how many times have you cheated with different versions of me?”

“What are you talking about? It’s not my fault someone climbed inside you and pushed you into the backseat. It was still your body, not some midget to-scale version.”

“I’m not talking about the times I wasn’t in control of my body” said Jenny. “I mean when you travelled to different timelines. Those weren’t this me.”

She wasn’t even speaking English at this point.

I gave my smaller, less-reliable self a hard glare. “What have you been telling her, Judas? It’s all lies. He doesn’t know anything. It’s always been you, in every timeline. There is only one you, you’re a singularity.” Which is truly what I believed. If it wasn’t, that meant I had abandoned and left behind numerous alternative versions of her, and I couldn’t accept that.

She stood up, my younger-self standing beside her like the little traitorous shit he was. “Alright, do it. Cut me loose. It won’t stop me finding a way back. Enjoy your freedom while you can.”

It was possibly the most threatening romantic gesture ever made. My younger-self grabbed her hand, making his allegiances clear.

“You’re both fucking nuts.” I focused my attention on the little shit. “Maybe if you got a haircut you’d actually be able to see what me and her get up to. You think I’m going to give that up just to save the world or whatever? You both need to get a grip.”

Jenny approached me like she intended to make a last-ditch attempt to win me over, and not intellectually. I turned her around and pushed her away.

“No. You’ve annoyed me. Get out. Let’s see how strong your feelings are once you’re cut off from the source.”

She faded away, a look of worry on her face. Just before she disappeared from view, I caught a look between the two of them. Some unspoken agreement to fuck me over in the future, no doubt.

“Don’t do it,” mumbled my younger-self through a veil of hair.

“Shut up. What do you even know about it? All you do is hide in here and contribute nothing. I’ll decide what chances I take.”

He stared at the ground for a long while. “I’m afraid we’ll lose her.”

“You’re such an idiot. We’re up against a bunch of gods. They’ll probably kill us long before we have to worry about her coming to her senses. If you really want to make sure we get her back, try not to let me get killed. Again.”

He turned around and wandered off into the dark recesses of my mind without saying anything.

I took a breath, which I didn’t need to in here, but old habits die hard, and floated out of my body. Everyone was still frozen in place. Tendrils of useless emotions connected me to each of them.

There was one connection that was missing. The one I had created between Jenny, Claire and Maurice. It wasn’t there anymore.

Maurice had seemed confident he had a way to use his newly found powers that would keep us alive. It seemed he’d put it into effect already? Exactly what he’d done wasn’t clear, and if I tried to work it out, I might make it collapse. I did my best to not think about it.

Using the wooden sword, I sliced through each of the vines like a samurai cutting bamboo. Barely a whisper and they snapped instantly, springing away. The last one was Jenny’s.

It wasn’t like the others. It was silver and taut. Nothing pulsed, no organic texture. It was more like a cable carrying high-voltage electricity.

I raised the sword and slashed it down with all my strength. I severed the connection with the first blow. There was no resistance, it just broke and fell to the ground.

I picked up the frayed end and wound it around my finger, following it to Jenny’s bare chest. There wasn’t really anywhere to put it, and it would probably wither away to nothing now that it was severed, but I felt a need to leave the remains of our relationship somewhere I might find it if I went looking.

I considered using it to tie her boobs together with a bow, but that seemed a bit weird. I hung the loop of silvery thread off her ear.

Then I returned to my body with a mixture of curiosity and dread at what I was about to face.

I opened my eyes and didn’t feel any different to before. The others were standing around, putting their tops back on. Jenny was looking at me.

“How do you feel?” I asked her.

She shrugged. “Fine.” She noticed she didn’t have her top on and covered her breasts with her hands. She’d never done that before.

I turned to Maurice. “Okay, now what? I don’t feel any more super.”

“Depends how it works. You might need to use the power in a high-pressure situation to get it to activate fully.”

“So you’re saying you have no idea.”

“Yep, that’s what I’m saying.” At least we knew where we stood. “Just remember you may not have that long. Since you’re not dead, I figure my power is active, but I don’t know how long it will last. I think you’ll be okay when you’re in your other form, but out here you’re on a clock. And I don’t know how long you have.”

“Better get on with it,” I said.

“Um,” said Dudley, forehead creased with concentration, “should I be asking questions about why I’m not dead?”

“No,” said everyone.

We returned to the arena. On the way, I kept sneaking looks at Jenny, looking for a sign of I don’t know what. She seemed okay. There was clearly a lack of the kind of intimacy we had before, but neither of us seemed devastated by it.

The others could obviously sense the awkwardness between us, but they didn’t say anything.

My greatest concern was that she wouldn’t want anything more to do with me and be glad to have got free. And that I would find her decision to be a good one. But there was nothing I could do about it now. The important thing was to find a way back to the land of the living. After that, we would see.

“Is everything alright?” asked the Pope. He was waiting outside the arena like an expectant father.

“Yes,” I said. “We’ve sorted it out. I’m ready to see your friends.” I hadn’t really thought much about what I would do once I went back through the portal. It didn’t seem all that important.

There were all sorts of questions I could have asked of Joshaya to make me better prepared. He would have bullshitted me, but even that would have been revealing to some extent. Maurice would have worked up a Venn diagram or something and found where the lies intersected the truth, as they always do.

I didn’t ask anything. I wanted to go back to the old gods and see how my abilities had changed. Was it going to be worth what I had lost?

The Pope took us through the tunnels. He seemed the most excited of any of us. He didn’t ask anything either, the attempt seemed to be enough for him.

When we got to the portal, it was my first time seeing it in this plane of existence. I had come here as an apparition and floated through it. That wasn’t going to be possible in the real world.

It was an archway that looked like it had been filled in with cement. It was solid and impenetrable.

“Okay, wait here,” I said.

Now I had to leave my body, but without my link to Jenny, would the old way still work? I tried to focus on my feelings for her but I didn’t have to. I stepped out of myself without even trying.

It was the first sign that things had changed. I also wasn’t floating around, I was standing normally. There were vines everywhere, but they seemed different. They looked distinct from each other.

Joshaya had a single black tentacle growing out of his back. He turned his head very slowly to look at me. His eyes narrowed, and then widened in surprise.

I reached out my hand and a thin vine branched off from the thick growth in his back. I didn’t need to go closer, I could just call it. Upgrade successful.

The newly formed tendril came towards me and I grabbed hold of it. There was a jolt as I accessed the power of a god. It was amazing—like sticking your hand into the national grid and becoming living energy.

I looked over at Jenny, motionless. I had wondered if losing her would be worth whatever I might gain. Now I wondered if losing this would be worth getting her back.


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