334: Adapt. Absorb. Assimilate.

My long hair was getting in my face, so I had to brush it out of the way to make sure I was really seeing Damicar with his hand up, voting for us to get eaten. I could have tied it back, but there’s an old saying: Better to let people think you might be a twat than to grow a ponytail and remove all doubt.

Why would Damicar want us to be eaten? He would be eaten, too. Maybe he’d lost the will to live — I could certainly relate — but why not just walk into the sea if that were the case? There were plenty of nasty creatures willing to eat him in there. Why take us with him?

And if you were going to top yourself, would death by three-course meal really be your preferred choice?

Then again, it was Damicar. He could be in it for the culinary tips.

“Would you mind telling me how long I’ll be simmering for? And that’s on a low flame, is it?”

Or he might have made a deal to save himself. Everyone had been very complimentary about his cooking all evening. They couldn’t get enough of Royn in each of the tasty concoctions he appeared in, leaving nothing.

I say tasty from the faces of the diners. I didn’t partake, myself. Not on moral grounds — I just didn’t want to throw up in the middle of the party and offend the cannibals.

Would Damicar have taken the job as this island’s next top chef? Now that I had removed his connection to his father, perhaps he needed something to fill the void, a mentor to guide him. Something I wasn’t really in a position to offer.

But none of these things sounded very plausible to me. I didn’t know him that well, and my judgement about these things was often questionable, but I hadn’t sensed that sort of sudden change in ambition from him.

The reason he’d been so keen to join me on this trip was to broaden his horizons. That didn’t really fit with him settling down in the first banana republic we came to. Only it wasn’t bananas they were into here.

There was a lot of chatter once the verdict had been announced. The islanders, all one hundred or so of them, seemed pleasantly surprised they would be getting their larders filled for the foreseeable future. Keep Damicar to prepare the vittles, and eat him last.

The sailors looked a bit confused. Most of them had turned to look at Damicar, who still had his hand raised. They didn’t look hostile — many of them had become quite friendly with the big tub of lard — but, like me, they couldn’t get their heads around why he had voted against them.

There was, of course, one way to find out.

“Sorry,” I said. “I think there’s been some kind of mistake.”

“Really?” said the president. “Anything I can do to help?”

“Could I just get a five-minute delay on any table setting?”

The president was my number one suspect for electoral shenanigans. It’s all very well playing the benevolent leader, but men in power are rarely as helpful as they try to make out. Democracy, in particular, was a less than ideal form of government.

People in power don’t generally hand you the tools to overthrow them. If they’re forced into an awkward position — perhaps under the blade of a guillotine — they might offer a compromise, but one they’ll be able to work to their own advantage.

For democracy to work, what you need is for the voters to understand what they’re voting on. If you want to be able to trick the people into voting for you to carry on as before, you need them to stay as dumb as fucking possible.

Democracy is basically a game played by the rich to see who can get the most people to vote against their own self-interests. It’s very exciting, you never know which hyper-rich douchebag is going to win until the last minute.

On this island, it was used to give everyone the feeling they mattered, that they were part of the society they lived in. An important part.

That made me suspicious.

But if the president was only in office for a day, how could anyone hold onto power? Who was really running the show?

“I’m afraid the vote’s final,” said El Presidente.

“That’s fine, but I just need to find out why our cook chose to vote with you,” I said. “I wouldn’t want to get served up with unanswered questions still on my mind. Might make the meat taste queer.” He seemed very relaxed about the announcement. “In the meantime, please have some more food.”

I signalled Captain Somya’s men, who weren’t acting particularly bothered about the news of our impending doom, and they began serving more snacks. It’s always easier to ask people to wait if you offer them snacks.

I walked over to Damicar, who was surrounded by sailors. He still had his hand up.

“Why?” I asked him.

His eyes widened slightly. Beads of sweat rolled down his chubby face, but he didn’t say a word. His hand remained in the air.

Clearly, something fishy was going on. Damicar hadn’t voted willingly. If all it took was for you to get hands in the air, by whatever means necessary, then this was more like the kind of democracy I’d been expecting.

And in those cases, the person in power usually wasn’t even on the ballot. No one here could do anything to help me. That’s why they were here. Enough to outnumber us in case of a fight, not enough to make any decisions that mattered.

Damicar looked terrified. Actually, he looked petrified. He couldn’t move. The islanders were watching with polite interest, which is fine when you’re at a party, but comes across as surprisingly aggressive when you’re standing there while others are about to die. Even more so when you’re the ones who are going to be doing the killing.

I felt no need to rush things. I was still interested in knowing who exactly was behind this — it had a strong whiff of the familiar about it. Nothing making sense, people acting weird, everything confused. This was how Maurice had kept me off-balance. It was how Joshaya had kept me second-guessing myself. I had no intention of going down that road again.

They say if you don’t learn from your mistakes, you’re bound to repeat them, but if you do learn from your mistakes, that doesn’t mean you have any better idea how to succeed. Getting it wrong doesn’t teach you how to do it right.

The only real option, if you don’t want to rely on endless bouts of trial and error, is to start from scratch, no matter how painful it is. For you, or for others.

“Would you like some assistance?” asked Wesley. “You seem to have things in hand.”

These little moments in the corner of my mind were quite pleasant. I’ve never been one for chit-chat, but the moments before you choose which path to take at a crossroad deserve a pause for reflection. That part’s over, this part’s about to begin.

“Thank you, but it should be fine. Maybe for the shrine opening, if I can’t get them to show me how.”

“Yes. I must say, I really don’t like how they’ve behaved. Nothing like rude guests to ruin a party.”

Rudeness and politeness are often based on how people speak. Please and thank you. It’s a middle-class thing. Upper middle, in particular. But if there’s one thing guaranteed to mark you out for bad manners, it’s murdering and eating your hosts. There just aren’t the words to make it sound cordial.

“Anyway,” she said, “I’d probably bring the whole cliff face down on us.”

I exited my body.

Regarding my own powers, it would have been nice if I could have used the adjacent world to get a few more hands in the air for my cause, but the islanders were untouchable. That was feeling less like an unfortunate coincidence, and more like a set-up.

But I wasn’t keen to take that approach either. The black goo was fiddly, and took forever to sort out. No doubt I would get quicker over time, especially with practice, but I wasn’t in the mood. And it wasn’t necessary.

Even using the sword to attack them felt needlessly complicated. My power was either incredibly finickity, or cost me my life’s energy. Not that my time or my life were particularly valuable commodities, but that was no reason to waste either. And sometimes it’s just easier to do things the old fashioned way.

I floated around. Damicar had his hand raised, held above the vines sprouting from his body. Nothing was holding it. Would have been nice if there’d been a simple vine all set up for slicing.

Who was making him put his hand up? And how were they doing it?

He couldn’t speak, either. What did that mean?

Lots of mysteries, all very confusing. Just like last time. Things hadn’t turned out so well when I tried to go the Detective Colin route. My final scene where I gathered the guests in the parlour to reveal who the murderer was had ended in them all murdering me.

“It was all of you!”

“We know!” Stab, stab, stab.

I wasn’t going to make that mistake again. Whatever these island-dwelling fuckwits were up to, I wasn’t going to be party to it.

Yes, sometimes you come face to face with true evil and you have to do the decent thing: you drop atomic bombs on women and children and smuggle their best scientists into your pointless space program,

“We’re going to the moon! We’ll come up with a reason later! Or never!”

But I wasn’t looking to recruit scumbags, I had decided. Not if they were going to go around cheating and shit (who would have guessed it from such well-spoken scumbags?).

Sure, it looked appealing from the outside. Like turning up to your ex’s wedding with a porn star as a date. But are they really feeling jealous and intimidated, or do they just think he’s too good for you?

I looked around for the guy who I’d cured of fish poisoning. He wasn’t hard to spot, still devoid of most of his vines, but he had one rather fresh looking vine growing out of his stomach. It didn’t go very far. From his stomach to my shield.

That told me all I needed to know. I started on Damicar, shaving him of all his vines. I didn’t know which one was responsible, or if any of them were, but he would be better off feeling a tad more fragile, and a few hundred degrees undercooked.

Once that was done, I returned to my body.

Damicar looked at me, a tear rolling down his cheek. His arm slowly lowered.

“He’s changed his mind,” I said.

“I’m terribly sorry,” said the president, “but the voting’s closed.”

“Yes,” I said. “I thought it might be.” I took out my rather pathetic-looking wooden sword.

“You don’t accept the results?” he asked, not looking like he minded.

“No,” I said. “You cheated, so the results are null and void.”

“How did we cheat?” he asked.

“I don’t know, and I don’t care.” Not entirely true, but this wasn’t the time for post-electoral analysis. “I don’t need to prove it. I just need to kill you. All of you.”

The president smiled. “Harsh words, but we’ve always found the meat tastes better when the blood really flows through the veins.”

His army of the hungry looked eager to get started on the main course. Well, some of them did. Some of them looked rather unwell.

“I should tell you,” I said. “The fish might have been off.”

“The fish?”

“I know it didn’t taste like fish, but that’s Damicar’s great ability. To make things taste better than they should. Some people are like that, you only find out what they can do if you don’t eat them. Others” —I shrugged— “makes no difference, really.”

People began falling around the president, grimacing and clutching their stomachs. It was the elderly and the children who were worst affected. I could heal them. I wasn’t going to, though.

“The thing about democracy,” I said, “it’s a numbers game. Once you lose your advantage, you’re fucked.”

I could see them preparing to attack, but they weren’t so cocky now. Not everyone had eaten the fish, but most had eaten excessively. Very toxic, but very moreish. You couldn’t stop stuffing it into your mouth, even as you intestines turned to hot mush. Similar effect to Pringles.

The ones still standing were now fewer than fifty. It was about even if it came down to a fight. Which it wouldn’t.

Damicar had known this was the fallback plan. He was the one who had prepared it. So him defecting to the dark side (okay, slightly darker side) wasn’t feasible. They had wanted us to get all worked up. Despite enjoying Damicar’s skills, they liked their meat raw and wild. In fact, they preferred it absolutely livid. They were never going to simply make friends and live in harmony with us.

That’s the thing about immigration, you never expect to have to change your ways. Come live in our country, do the shit jobs, but be more like us. Dress like us, talk like us. Make us feel like we the OG.

Some do. Some try their best to fit in. Most don’t, though, and it pisses people off. But you know what drives the final nail in the coffin of the assimilationists? Take-out food.

It’s so much better than the bland shit your granny used to make. Love her all you want, her boiled potatoes sucked ass.

There’s nothing as galling to a nationalist as being presented with a plateful of proof that your culture is the one that should be absorbed and forgotten. Fuck the flag, how’s your dinner taste?

The islanders had gone one step further. They’d decided to assimilate newcomers right into their guts. Didn’t make a difference. You are what you eat, after all. If you try to eat me, it just means you want to be more like me. And that’s well sad, man.

A man came at me with his spear outstretched. I cut the shaft in half with my glowing sword. I didn’t want to waste too much energy, but I thought it was worth the demonstration.

Someone threw a spear. I exited my body and tweaked the trajectory so it suddenly curved up and into the palm of my hand, like I’d summoned it to me. It actually fucking hurt when it slapped my palm, but I styled it out.

“This island belongs to me now,” I said. “Well, it belongs to a friend of mine, but I’m taking custody until she gets here. I don’t know who you people are or why you came here, but it’s time to leave.”

I pointed at the sea. “Fight me and die, or swim for it. Maybe the poison won’t affect you too badly and you won’t drown. The rest will die here. And you can’t even eat them. The poison makes them inedible.”

A word no cannibal thinks he’ll ever hear. They looked at me like I was some kind of monster.

The sailors stood aside to leave a path to the water.

The islanders had lost their advantage, and they knew it. They had also seen what I was capable of. I could follow through with my threat, but I really didn’t want to. The effort!

They moved towards the water. Some helped those still able to move. Maybe they knew a cure. Maybe they probably thought they could regroup and figure out a way to get their revenge. They went into the sea, leaving their dead and dying behind.

What you should learn from history isn’t your mistakes, it’s what worked. That’s what experience teaches you. And then you should learn how to do that more consistently. I waited until they were out far enough, and then I called the sharks.

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