I hope for the best in people. I really do.
We all lie and cheat and go back on our promises, sometimes, but that doesn’t mean the next person you meet will. You have to look for the good in people, otherwise what’s the point of even getting up in the morning?
Take Wesley. I genuinely hoped she was a walking pillar of doom and destruction who would reduce the cities of Flatland to rubble and let nature reclaim them so they were silent monuments to the dead. You have to stay positive.
The very fact she had been left inside this prison cell suggested she wasn’t the harmless little woman she appeared to be. Admittedly, she could end up doing me as much harm as everyone else — there was no reason she would be grateful for my help, fuck knows nobody else was — but when you’re already on the losing side, how much you lose by doesn’t really make much of a difference. What was I going to do, play for pride?
I made my light as bright as I could, but it only showed a vast emptiness. Wesley looked around like she was trying to get her bearings, although there was nothing to use for reference. The only available landmark was me, and the only thing monumental about me was my stupidity.
Just because I could shine a light on my problems didn’t mean a fix was incoming. You can stick a torch under the bonnet of a broken-down car, doesn’t mean you know how to get the motor running.
Wesley was an unknown quantity. She could be just as barking as everyone else I’d met in this world. It would be pretty dumb not to assume that was the case. But I had limited options, and once you decided to go all in, there was no point worrying about failure. You played to your outs, no matter how long the odds on the right card being drawn. You never know. This was where I’d stacked my chips. This small woman in a neat smock, rugged trousers and suede boots.
“This way, I think.” She pointed ahead. There didn’t seem to be anything in that direction, but it seemed as good a place to go as any other. “I suppose you have friends waiting for you.”
Where to begin? “I wouldn’t say friends, exactly. There are people who I arrived here at the same time as, who I travelled around with and helped stay alive. We helped each other, I guess some people would say.”
“But not you?”
“No. I would say I kept them alive despite their incessant attempts to behave like fucking retards.” She gave me a disapproving look. “Anyway, they sort of got the hang of it, and turned their backs on me. Probably for the best. They had to leave the nest at some point. Well, they’re still in the nest with each other, they kicked me out instead. The nest I built. But that’s okay, it’s hard to be an ungrateful bastard in an enclosed space. You need a lot of elbow room to be a proper shit.”
I was rambling somewhat. I didn’t really know how best to convey my tale of adventure and petty squabbles. I would have liked to have done it in a way that made me look cool and everyone else like arseholes, but I didn’t really have the energy to make that many edits.
Wesley smiled. “You’re very bitter, aren’t you? I like that, although the foul mouth I could do without. You can’t trust people who pretend they’re happy with everything the Lord throws at them, that’s for sure. They’re just waiting to shift their misery onto you.”
While my words sounded hollow and vindictive, hers, which weren’t all that different in meaning, rang with a pleasant contentedness. She could make the vicious self-serving behaviour of the masses almost seem acceptable, like watching a nature doc about lions gutting their prey and seeing it as part of life’s rich tapestry. Only narrated by a wildebeest (with a Morgan Freemanesque voice, of course). It was quite an accomplishment.
I hadn’t, incidentally, missed the ecclesiastical aside. Not that being religious necessarily made you a bad person or a massive hypocrite. There are exceptions to every rule, probably.
“If we do get out of here,” I said, “you should be prepared for them to turn on you. Peter’s made them much stronger, so they owe him.”
“You don’t have to warn me. I went through something similar. He knows how to make a tempting offer, as is appropriate for the Devil’s own. He’s been sent to test us, and most people will fail the test. Ever has it been thus.”
“Well, temptation has made them quite powerful. There won’t be anyone to help.”
“Worry not, young man. Peter’s powers never amounted to much. They’re too dependent on the user, and he never could attract anyone of real quality.”
“Was there anyone of real quality to attract?” I asked, rather pompously. That wasn’t my intention, but that’s how it came out all the same.
Wesley stopped, our march to nowhere coming to a temporary halt. “Listen to me, young man. Don’t for a moment assume those who have let you down represent the best of who’s out there. You may be unfortunate in who you have encountered in your short life, but let me assure you, there are genuine men and women of all faiths and races living lives of quiet dignity. I’ve been proud to know some of them, even call them my friends. Be contemptuous of those who squander their gifts on sordid goals, but keep your eyes and heart open for those who are worthy of your affection. If you blink, you may miss your chance.”
She grabbed my arm and squeezed. It didn’t hurt, but I did have to force myself not to wince. Now it was my turn to say something noble and grand, so that we could ride into battle with a following wind.
“Good fucking luck with that.” It may not have been what she was hoping to hear, but at least it was short.
She frowned at me, disappointed, no doubt, and started walking again. “You’ll see, in time.”
I had already seen plenty, and none of it very encouraging. “What about Arthur? He was an inventor, was he?” I had it in the back of my mind that maybe he left behind some powerful artefact I could use. It was the other woman from their party, Zarigold, who could make things, but if Arthur could build a prison, perhaps he could also build a spaceship to the next planet. Monkeys on horseback throwing nets sounded like a nice, relaxing change.
“No, not exactly. He could put restraints on people, like he did with me.” I didn’t ask why, although I was curious. We didn’t really know each other well enough for her to confess her desire to kill all men. It was bound to be something like that. “Like he did with Peter.”
“He put a restraint on Peter?” Peter had never seemed like he was being held back. “What did he stop Peter from doing?”
“Harming me, for a start. Peter can’t hurt me, which is why I’ve always been a threat to him. His powers are of no use against me, even when they’re used through someone else.”
Now that sounded like a decent ability to have. If she was immune to their powers, we might actually have a chance.
What was worrying though, was that Peter knew this. Steps would have been taken in case we emerged. It wouldn’t be so simple.
“They’ll be ready for us,” I said. “They’ll have done something to my body, probably.”
“It doesn’t matter. We can undo any damage, I’m sure.”
“Really? What if they hacked my flesh to pieces and fed me to the birds?”
She pulled a face. “They aren’t savages. There are limits to even how far Peter is willing to go.”
Just when I thought we might have a chance, it felt like she didn’t really understand what she was in for after all. Perhaps things had changed since she’d been away. I certainly had no illusions about what Peter was capable of.
We walked a little further in silence. There wasn’t much for me to say, it was up to her. I was merely an observer.
“Here,” she said. “Can you point your light up a bit?”
I raised my ball of light so it drifted higher. It didn’t seem any different up there. “Like that?”
“That’s perfect. There it is.”
I saw nothing. “Oh, great. The exit?”
“Yes. Can’t you see it?”
“No. Can you?”
“Of course. Look harder.” She pointed at nothing, or so it seemed to me. Then I saw something glint in the darkness. She began walking up a flight of near-invisible steps, like they were made of glass. “It doesn’t exist until you can see it. He needed a way to let himself out. I can’t wait to see him again.”
I wasn’t sure now was the time to tell her Arthur had left without her. What did I know? Just what the lying liars had told me. Maybe he was in hiding, waiting for the right moment to reappear.
“Why did he put you in here? You don’t seem all that… unstable.”
“It comes and goes. Emotions can be very destructive. Best to have as few of them as possible.”
“He was working on a cure. Time barely passes in here, so it hasn’t been so bad. A few weeks, it feels like, although I’m sure it’s been longer.”
Telling her she’d been locked away for several years and everyone she knew was probably dead probably wouldn’t help her keep those emotions in check. I decided to hold my tongue.
I followed her up the stairs to wherever she was going. I had nowhere better to go. She stopped ahead of me, took a deep breath, and walked forward. She was gone.
It could have been a trap. Exit for one, leave me stuck here with no way out. I don’t think I would have been all that upset. But it wasn’t. Everything went black and tingly for a moment, and then I was in an altogether more familiar dark place. Although not much more welcoming.
“You’re back,” said the smaller, more irritating version of me. “And who’s this. New girlfriend? Bit old for you, isn’t she? What is she, a hundred and sixteen?”
Wesley bent down so she was face to face with little me, and grabbed him by the ear. “Little boys need to show their elders some respect.”
His head was angled and his ear stretched as she pulled up. He was barely able to keep his feet on the ground. He looked annoyed as he dangled.
“What the f—”
His words disappeared into her chest. Women were always doing that to him. And it usually worked.
“Lucky for you I like them young,” she said to the sound of muffled protests. “I take it this is your Id.”
I shrugged. I didn’t know what the hell he was.
She let go of him and he staggered about in a daze.
“What happened after I left?” I asked him.
“Nothing. I don’t know. I can’t see or hear anything.”
Wesley had said time would carry on once I’d entered that other place, so little me should have been able to tell us what they’d done with our body. Presumably I was still alive if he was here. They must have taken preventive measures to keep me in the dark while they did things to me. The Cool Kids liked their experiments, especially on live subjects. I could be some kind of Resident Evil mutant creature by now. Probably wouldn’t affect my dating prospects. Might even get me a few right-swipes on Tinder. Pretty sure that was what the t in t-Virus stood for.
“Well, maybe I should take a look outside first.” Now I was back, the world should have come to a grinding halt once more. I could just float out and do a quick recce.
I tried, but nothing happened.
“You’re stuck?” asked Wesley, not sounding all that surprised. “Peter’s work, no doubt. Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.”
“Thanks, mum,” said little me with a sneer.
Wesley smacked him around the head. Sharp but quick. They were developing a strong bond, built on fear and violence. Might not be what social services would approve of, but I think it was Gandhi who said sometimes a clip round the ear is the best way to show you care.
“Wait here. You should be able to see what’s going on in a minute.” She disappeared.
“She’s very confident,” said me, rubbing the back of his head. “I thought you were done for.”
“And now?” I said.
“Still done for, but maybe she’ll get a few of them first.”
It took a few moments before I could see outside. It was strange, like I was watching someone else playing a video game, but without Twitch chat to ruin it for everyone. I felt a weird pressure surrounding me. Was I confined in some way?
They were lined up in front of me. Maurice, Claire, Jenny. Gideon and the Gidiots. The Elf, although only her feet were in view (I assumed the rest of her was up above). Flossie and Dudley were at the back. They were all staring at me. Or the person they thought was me.
“I see,” said Maurice. “So he’s still in there. He let you out in his place.”
I had missed some stuff, but it seemed they knew it wasn’t me in the pilot seat. Most likely this was what he wanted. Access to Wesley. They didn’t know I was watching from the cheap seats.
“Good,” said Maurice. It was odd seeing him do all the talking. Had he changed that much without me noticing? “I thought that’s what he’d do. Send you out to fight for him. Probably for the best. He would only mess things up if he was here. He usually does.”
The others all nodded along, bunch of fuckers. Yeah, I messed things up. Messed them up like a boss. No, I don’t know what that means, either. It’s hard to hear people talk shit about you when they think you aren’t there. Mainly because they really mean it.
Never mind, they’d all be dead soon. I prepared for the Wesley show to start. Vibrate them all to dust!
“Where’s Peter?” asked Wesley using my voice. An odd experience.
“He isn’t here,” said Gideon, trying to reclaim some of the limelight.
“Come now, children. You expect me to believe he wouldn’t be here for this? I think I know him a little better than that.”
“Apparently not,” said Gideon. “He trusts us to—”
“She’s right,” said Maurice. “He’s here.”
“What?” said Gideon. “Did he say something to you?”
Jealousy for master’s attention was already rampant. I gave them two weeks before they turned on each other. I wonder how Maurice planned to deal with Gideon.
“No,” said Maurice. “But he isn’t the type to miss out. Are you, Peter?” He said the last part loudly. Would’ve looked a bit of a pillock if no one had answered.
“Quite right,” said Peter. He emerged from behind the large Elf feet. I don’t know if he had been inside them, like some human toe jam, or hidden in some way, but there he was. “Wesley, so lovely to see you after all this time.”
“Why are you so old?” said Wesley, sounding genuinely surprised. “Where’s Arthur?”
“He’s dead,” said Peter, bluntly. “He isn’t here for you now.”
Wesley laughed. It was my voice, so it sounded like my laughter. I hadn’t heard it in some time. “You think death would keep him from me. He is the greatest prison architect who ever lived. He’ll always find his way back to me.”
“Not this time,” said Peter. He produced a knife from somewhere. It was about length of his arm and the blade was black. It looked like the one Roona had been given to kill Cheng with. That seemed like a million years ago, now.
“Do you not remember what I can do, Peter?” she said. “You think these fledglings will be able to stop me. I brought whole armies to their knees. They named me their master and offered me their lives in perpetual service. You remember, don’t you?”
“I remember,” said Peter grimly. “That was a long time ago. Things have changed.”
“Not so much. I can still turn mountains into rubble.”
Everything started shaking. Not like an earthquake, more like a food blender. I was about to become a smoothie, which would have been a first. When it stopped, after about ten seconds, everyone was staggering about. I stood up. Or my body did. Had she freed me?
Everyone looked stunned.
“My ability,” said the tall girl with the Gidiots. “It’s gone.”
“Only temporarily,” said Peter. “She can render all other abilities unable to function for a short time.”
Interesting. It was sort of the opposite of his power. He could make you more powerful, and she could vibrate it away. Anti-magic magic user.
“Thank you,” said Peter, smiling like a shark. “Just as you said, Maurice. Well done.” He seemed far too pleased with how things had gone. “Not only does it neutralise abilities, it also does the same for curses. Like the one dear Arthur put on me. Now nothing can stop me from dealing with you.”
He advanced with the dagger still in his hand. He almost made it within killing distance before the tip of a sword appeared through his chest.
Maurice was holding the other end.
“Sorry,” he said with an embarrassed grin. “All curses and all protections. It was the only time you’d be vulnerable. Sorry.” He was apologising to Peter’s corpse, which had fallen to the ground. A pool of blood formed around him.
Everyone was too shocked to react. Most of them. Lady Claire Macbeth didn’t look very surprised. She picked up the black dagger Peter had dropped and walked towards me.
“Zarigold gave him this,” said Claire. “It’s the only thing that will kill you. Sorry.” I was confused. Sorry for what?
She plunged the blade into my chest.