The idea of going back home tricked out with superpowers had its appeal. On the level of a daydream, you could easily visualise it as compensation for a life full of misery and unfair treatment, which is what bitter young men think should be the way the world works. I should know, I’m one of them.
But the reality is very different. Spider-man wouldn’t last very long in the internet age, not as a genuine hero. There’s no way he’d want to keep his identity a secret, for a start. No time to fight crime when you’ve got to put out a new video on YouTube every day.
I had to make a choice. Play the hero because that’s what you’re supposed to do, or leave it to people who actually thought they could make a difference. They couldn’t, but at least they kid themselves.
We each only have one or two of these kinds of moments in our lives, times when we have to make decisions that shape our future, and it’s important not to rush to judgement. Going to university, the death of a parent, whether to assassinate your friends who may or may not be under the power of a megalomaniac determined to take control of the planet… we’ve all been there. It’s only right to weigh up the options carefully.
“Fuck that. You’ve got the wrong guy,” I said, leaning back into the armchair Wesley had so kindly provided for me.
If Peter wanted to go back to Mother Earth and get into a pissing match with the other alphas vying for control, good luck to him. He would certainly bring a new meta with him, but the game has plenty of players who know a thing or two about how to fix the odds forever in their favour.
“I wish you luck if you want to fight him, but I have no interest in trying to stop him.” I looked up at Wesley. “I guess this means you’ll be moving out? Not trying to be pushy, it’d just be handy to know your plans.”
“I don’t think you fully appreciate the magnitude of what we’re telling you,” said Arthur.
“No, I get it. I really do. Peter wants to return home with the powers of a god. I think if he can get HBO to run it as a pay-per-view event, it’ll be huge.”
Whatever Peter planned to do — and I’d guess it would be more of a sneak attack rather than face-tanking the powers that be — he would have plenty of people trying to either co-opt him or remove him from the field of play. It would be a pretty big mess, and one I did not want any part of.
Of course, that could all be circumvented if I stopped him here, before he had a chance to make a mess over there. Then he’d make a mess over here, mostly out of me. I didn’t want any part of that, either.
Arthur put his hands together like he was about to pray. Hardly worth the effort, he’d already locked up all the gods. Well, most of them.
“You could be right,” he said, calm and reasonable (alarm bells were going off, I braced for an attack). “But you are the only chance we have. He’s been waiting for you a long time, and his plans are all in place. It will take an extreme act of sacrifice to stop him now.”
Every sentiment he was expressing was anathema to my soul.
“If he’s had all this time to prepare for my coming, then what chance have I got? He’s done a hundred years of prep for this. It would be petty to make him waste all that hard work for, what? Saving the world? There’ll be other worlds. You’ll get him next time.”
“If you had a hundred years to prepare,” said Wesley, “how much of it would you spend getting ready?”
This was the problem with letting someone live in your head. They could see how your mind worked.
“No, I’d wait until the night before the showdown, and then try to throw something together. But that’s me. I’m lazy and unambitious. Peter has a solid work ethic, right? Probably has a chip on his shoulder because of the Great Depression. Was that before or after you left? Nevermind. My point is, he’s ready for me, I’m not ready for him. I’m not even ready for you, and you guys weren’t even trying to kill me, apparently. Why did you even bother to attack me if you wanted my help?”
“To be sure,” said Arthur, like that explained everything.
“To be sure of what? That I could take a beating?”
“You wouldn’t have tried to sacrifice yourself like that if you were under his sway. Peter wouldn’t have allowed it.”
“That’s why you attacked me? To see if I was one of Peter’s minions?” I turned to face Wesley, sinking a little deeper into the armchair. “You spent all that time with me. Couldn’t you tell?”
Wesley shook her head. “You may not have even been aware of it. His ability can be very subtle.”
“And, it is easier to see a person’s true character when they are under some kind of pressure,” said Arthur. They were quite the double act. “Although, you happen to require a more intense examination to reveal your genuine feelings. You required the threat of imminent death.”
“But I didn’t die,” I pointed out. “Maybe I was bluffing.”
“You did die,” said Arthur. “At least, you came as close as one can before I pulled you back.”
“I get it, you’re all in this, you and Arthur and the gods and the elf. You’re all heavily invested. But I’m not. I’m not mad at you for dragging me into it if you thought it was the only way to win, but if I’m so bloody important to Peter’s plans, why didn’t you just let me die and be done with it? Without me, his plans are fucking scuppered, right?”
Arthur winced every time I swore. “Not quite. You aren’t necessarily out of his reach just because you’re dead.”
“You’re making no sense. First you say he wouldn’t have let me die because he needs me too much, then you say it wouldn’t matter if you’d let me die because he can still get what he wants from me. It can’t be both.”
“It can’t,” Arthur conceded, temporarily, “not to the same extent. He can get more out of you if you are alive, but he can still achieve his basic purpose even if you’re dead. In any case, most of the damage is already done. By releasing Wesley, you have weakened my grip on the gods. It is as much as I can do to hold them back as it is. I fear they will break free at any moment.”
“Then why did you leave?” I said to Wesley. “You knew why you were there. Why leave to lead me on this pointless escapade?”
“Because I didn’t want you to waste the time you had left.” She said it in such a sincere, earnest manner, I nearly believed her.
“Oh, shut up. You don’t even know me. And you think too much of Peter. His tricks might work on those soft-headed dimwits, but I’m untouchable. He can’t get his claws into me, that’s why he’s left me alone for so long, isn’t it?”
“He can’t control you directly,” said Arthur, “but there are others with powers who will do as he asks, and they can affect you in ways that make it dangerous to let your guard down. All it takes is for you to let someone in.”
He was making a lot of sense, unfortunately, which gave me a little pause for thought. One of those people was Maurice, and if he really wanted to get to me, I could easily imagine him doing a bang-up job of it.
“Then I can stay in here with you.” Even as I said it, the words soured in my mouth. I didn’t want to spend eternity with these two. “I really don’t understand what you want me to do. If you couldn’t get the better of him, how am I supposed to?”
“The truth is,” said Wesley, clearly lining me up for another whopper, “we don’t really know. We merely delayed the inevitable, and it cost us our bodies to do so. Our only wish is to protect the loved ones who we left behind. It isn’t just the powerful he can manipulate to his own ends, he can bend anyone to his will, and the energy he draws from them will keep him alive for a long time.”
Sounded like Peter had things nicely arranged for the long game. Good for him.
“Neither of you get it. He won’t ruin the world if he tries to take over. It’s already being controlled by unpleasant people only interested in their own personal pleasures. If anything, he might shake things up a bit.”
I mean, really, how much worse could a single white male make things just because he happens to be able to convince people to do his bidding? One person was hardly going to shift the paradigm. I was feeling less inclined to bar his way, as I was to hold the door open and usher him through.
“They don’t deserve what Peter has in store for them,” said Wesley.
I wasn’t sure what ‘deserve’ had to do with anything. “This is what the world is now — a bunch of powerful individuals playing god, and everyone else trying to distract themselves with poor quality food and entertainment so they can make it through another day. Peter would fit in perfectly.”
If he wowed them with a few tricks and mass executions of unpopular people, they’d throw him a parade.
“I say let him go back. I support his ambition. My only desire is not to have to go with him. I’ll stay here and find a nice palm tree to sit under, he can do whatever the fuck he pleases.”
My audience’s faces were kind of blank. They weren’t feeling my pro-Peter change of heart. The idea of them all leaving this place was very appealing to me, though.
People only really wanted you to come on board if you’re willing to be a team player. Their team, their rules. Fuck that. If you had a team worth joining, you wouldn’t need me in the first place.
“I think you’ll change your mind once you understand what Peter is truly capable of,” said Arthur.
“No, he’s right,” said Wesley. “We have told him what we think is needed, he doesn’t have to agree with us.”
“But—” said Arthur.
“If we believe he is capable of doing what is necessary, then we have to trust his judgement.” She had clearly been paying attention. About time someone did.
“Great,” I said. “Thanks for the support.”
“Go now, make your preparations. We will speak again before you leave this place, but be warned, Peter will come for you. He’s probably on his way already. Or he’ll send your friends.”
I stood up. “Fine by me. I was leaving anyway. There’s a boat waiting and no end of Peter-free waters to sail around in.”
They didn’t look very happy with my life choices, but like concerned parents, they were trying to let me ruin my own life in my own way. What I chose to do was none of their fucking business.
“The problem with you two is you don’t understand how life works. You think it’s your job to make the best decisions for everyone, but it isn’t. Your job is to decide for yourself, that’s it, but you locked yourself in here in a moment of noble sacrifice and now you’re bored so you try to influence the pieces still on the board. Not your job. Life is very simple, it comes in three parts. Part one, origin story. Part two, electric boogaloo. Part three, Tokyo Drift. One, two, three. That’s it.”
They both looked baffled. Not as baffled as people who actually paid to watch Tokyo Drift, but close. I stepped away and pointed at the sword stuck in the ground. It flew into my hand, which I hadn’t expected. I think it gave me a couple of splinters.
“Here, I think this is yours. If you plan on fighting Peter in this place, you’ll probably need it.”
Arthur shook his head. “It’s just a piece of wood in my hands.”
“Who made it?”
“It belongs to the Golden God. Depriving him of it was how I managed to trap him. With it, he is unstoppable.”
I looked at the sword more closely. This was a god’s sword? Didn’t really have the kind of bling-factor you expect of a holy weapon. I didn’t doubt what Arthur had said, but it didn’t explain why I could use it.
I decided to hang onto it, even though I was sure Arthur thought I’d be more likely to come around to his way of thinking if I had a weapon of this power. It still felt like a stick to me.
“If you really want the benefit of my experience,” I said, “release the gods.”
Arthur blinked at me. “Why?”
“Because he won’t expect it.”
“That would be madness,” said Arthur.
“But he’s right,” said Wesley, “Peter wouldn’t expect it.”
“Ah, see, ah, right?” I had no idea what point I was making, but if the rest of them got busy fighting each other, it would give me a chance to get in my boat and sail into the sunset. With any luck, this planet was flat and I could sail right off the edge.
“Think about it, get back to me. I have to see an undead captain about a cruise. Where’s the exit?”
I was feeling much better now that I had a plan. The not-heroic two-step. Step one refuse the call. Step Two, run.
The darkness lifted and I was in a tunnel, alone. I had refused their offer, and they’d accepted my refusal. Could it really be that easy? Probably not. I made way along the tunnel, hoping I was going the right way.
I walked out of the shrine. Damicar and Richina were waiting for me. Richina looked pretty serene, like she’d been waiting for me to put my shoes on so we could go for a nice walk along the beach. Damicar had a mildly stunned look on his face, like he wasn’t sure what had just happened. Captain Somya was with them, which was perfect.
“Is the ship ready?” I asked him.
“No,” said the captain. “I’m afraid it will take several days to get it into a seaworthy condition.”
That wasn’t the news I was hoping to hear. “We don’t need it ready for a regatta, just patched up enough to limp back to port.”
He shook his head. “There are too many holes in the hull. Two days, at the very least, if the islanders are willing to help.”
It wasn’t like I had a choice, and two days wasn’t so bad.
“I’m sure the islanders will assist in getting us off the island as soon as possible.”
“They may be busy,” said the captain.
“Busy? Doing what?”
He pointed out to sea. I turned to look. We were high enough to see the water, and the ship in the distance approaching. Had Peter regained control of his minions? Was he about to arrive for a chat? And who did he have with him? It didn’t matter, if it came down to it, I was going to give him what he wanted.
“I don’t suppose you have a telescope, do you?”
“Of course,” said Captain Somya. He pulled out a short tube and handed it to me.
I pulled it to its full length and had a look. The ship was a big three-master, much more elegant than Somya’s ship. It had sailors scurrying all over it. Many of them had armour that glinted in the light. But it was only one boat, and the islanders were fucking metal when it came to putting up a fight.
Something caught my eye. Light flashing in the crow’s nest. There was someone looking at me with a telescope of their own, someone with flowing red hair. She waved at me. The telescope in her hands was snatched away by someone shorter and darker.
There are forces that in this universe that are both unpleasant and troublesome, and two of them were headed this way.