356: Brown Bread

At times like these, it’s easy to question your own judgement. Maybe it would be best to let the others do as they pleased. What did I care? At least they knew what they were doing, technically speaking.

If they wanted to go off and rule the world — be it this one or the one we left behind — it would be a lot easier to step back and leave them to it. My role would be greatly simplified if I allowed them to fuck it up themselves.

It’s not that easy, though. Things aren’t always as they appear, and they’re never how you’re told. I could simply wash my hands of it all, but that would just mean having to get those same hands dirty again when the irritants of now turned into the industrial strength abrasives of tomorrow.

Thinking ahead doesn’t come natural to me. Looking ahead has always been painful. The light at the end of the tunnel hurts my darkness-accustomed eyes, and then turns out to be an oncoming train.

Maurice was inside the shrine. He had come here with that express purpose, and Biadet was on his payroll. Well, maybe she hadn’t been working directly for him — the idea the world’s greatest midget ninja had simply bent the knee to Maurice was a galling one — but she had certainly decided to side with the ingrates. It was pretty galling, either way.

I walked cautiously down the steps into the shrine, always a step behind. This is the problem with not having a goal in life, other people’s goals end up occupying all your time.

Maurice wanted something that was here. Arthur had said this was the way home, but it wasn’t clear if that meant a doorway or a magic wardrobe or one-way ticket on a magic bus. Golden Wing departing from Gate 4, last call.

This was a shrine. What or who was it a shrine to? Dead people or holy artefacts? I know, I should have asked when I had the chance, but asking people has never served me very well, whether it’s asking for help or directions or the truth. No one wants to share what they know in case you use it against them, which I would.

Biadet had managed to get Maurice here, but what did that mean? I was now in the adjacent world, so he should have been incapacitated. But then, so should have Biadet.

By the way, if you’re wondering if she was dead, I couldn’t tell you.  Probably not, would be my guess, so I had her suddenly attacking from the rear to watch out for, too.

I was the only one who was supposed to be able to enter Arthur’s secret den, but I wouldn’t have put it past Maurice to come up with a way to enable himself to do the same. And what exactly was I planning to do when I caught up with him? No doubt he had prepared for that as well.

Walking away was clearly the best option here. Clearly.

But there was something at the back of my mind warning me to not accept the picture I had been shown. I didn’t mind people going tryhard mode for what they wanted. As someone who wanted nothing in particular, I was fine with the leftovers.

What I did mind, though, was being told I was getting a good deal as a way to make me take a bad deal.

You know how it goes, smartass thinks he can not only cheat you, he thinks he can make you think he’s doing you a favour. And I would still go along with it, knowing the truth, if it makes life easier in the long run, but it doesn’t. Their little victory makes them evermore eager to fuck more people over, especially the ones they’ve already fucked over before.

And I’m not talking about Maurice, here. Although, talking of Maurice, I saw him up ahead, his back to me.

I floated towards the archway that led to Arthur’s realm. I had a ball of light in my hand to help show the way and the wooden sword in the other to deal with whatever was at the other end.

Maurice’s body was frozen, or at least it appeared to be. It had vines growing out of it like any other body would. As I neared him, I shifted to the side and saw one vine extending through the archway. It did not appear on the other side.

He was inside. He had found a way to get where he wanted to get to, so a big round of applause for the boy who could. Maybe someone this ingenious really did deserve a chance to rule the world. Couldn’t be any worse than any of the previous fuckers.

Nope, I wasn’t having it. Not envy, not indignation, not even a belief he would do a terrible job. And certainly not for the benefit of the people. Fuck the people. What have they ever done but ruin everything?

That thought in the back of my mind had crystallised into a clear and solid idea. An understanding of what had happened and what was happening now.

I could have cut the vine connecting Maurice’s body to whatever part of him had travelled through the archway. It was a notion that made sense, even though I wasn’t entirely sure what the effect would be. I didn’t think it would help Maurice, though.

But despite having reached a decision on why Maurice was doing this, it felt wrong to not face him first.

Going in blind wasn’t a good idea, though. If Maurice was confident he could take on both Arthur and Wesley on their home ground, that meant he would be prepared for me, too. I needed to approach this unemotionally. I had to be logical and analytical to understand what Maurice had planned. I had to put myself in the mind of a colossal geek overdosed on pointless trivia, and use it against him. Nerd judo.

I hovered in front of the archway, not liking the options in front of me.

When you aren’t a naturally proactive person, when you’re drawn towards inaction whenever possible, you either embrace solitude and a sedentary existence, or you fake it. You learn how to deal with the daily rituals that make no sense to you by copying others.

You watch people order a coffee in a relaxed and chilled manner, and then you do the same. And once you get it right, when you manage to find the sequence of words that don’t make you stutter, you repeat the same order for the rest of your life.

I had changed a lot since arriving here, of course, but then they didn’t have Starbucks here, although give them fucking time. It wasn’t the act of expressing myself that was the problem — that’s just a symptom — it was knowing what to do.

How do you know? What if everyone rejects your efforts? Are they just guessing and hoping to fluke it, like you are? What if they have it right?

The problem with forcing yourself to act like everyone else so you don’t seem like a weirdo (at least not on the outside) is that it doesn’t teach you how to live. If they discontinue your usual drink, what do you order now?

I would have liked a training montage to get me ready. Where was my master to shout at me for being rubbish as I failed to learn his lessons? I’d have gladly taken his ridicule if it meant that later (after he was horribly murdered) I could have a moment of epiphany and transform into the warrior I was born to be.

Or failing that, I’d have settled for a couple of parents who showed me how to be a human.

I was kind of paralysed by the enormity of what I was contemplating doing. It made me feel a bit sick.

You find out what setting you like your toast at, how long to boil an egg to get it the way you like it, what kind of shampoo makes your hair sit quietly on your head without attracting comment, and you stick to those things instead of learning to live a life of unfettered joy. It’s fine. Could be worse.

And then, one day, someone (probably you, since you live alone) inadvertently moves the dial on the toast. It pops up far too early, now what do you do?

You could put it back down, but now it will burn. You could watch it and manually stop it, but how can you tell? Keep popping it up every ten seconds? And even if you try to pay close attention, you’ll still overshoot the sweet spot.

Turn the dial down and let it heat for a shorter time to make up the difference? You like three and a half, you accidentally did it for two, so extra one point five?

Fuck you, it isn’t linear. Even if you had an app that worked it out for you, each model is different, each toaster of the same model is different. And as they age, they keep changing. Toaster heating filaments aren’t a science, they’re an art, apparently.

There are some people who are natural born toasters. They would just slam the toast back down and go about their business. A couple of minutes later, they’d sniff the air and know the toast was done. Bloody show-offs.

I can’t waste my life watching toast that’s gone rogue. It’s not important enough to draw up a spreadsheet with all possible timing permutations. The solution to the riddle of the toast is this: throw the toast away and start again.

I know, shocking. The waste, the depravity. Am I even a person?

It’s not that big a deal. We get taught waste is wrong, that food is precious, but all around us the giants of commerce and industry are doing nothing but being wasteful. It’s a trick to make us think it’s our duty to play by the rules while others pour acid in paddling pools.

Fuck the toast for being warm bread with the wrong identity. It’s quicker to start again and get it the way you want. God knows there are few things in life that actually have the capacity to be the way you like them.

Of course, we aren’t really talking about bread.

Then what am I going on about? Why was I standing around (floating around, to be exact) while Maurice was enacting Phase Two of the Git Protocol?

Maurice wasn’t the problem. He wasn’t the one doing this, any of it. But he was the one who had to take the responsibility. And I was the one who had to make him.

Once I was through the archway, my feet returned to the ground. I was surrounded by darkness.

“Hey! Where is everyone?” No one answered. That was okay, I was used to being ignored, it was kind of my bonus passive. I expanded my ball of light until the place was lit up like a football stadium. “Ah, there you are, you thankless shit.”

Maurice was standing next to Arthur and Wesley, neither of whom seemed to be in good spirits. I could only imagine Maurice had already moved onto Phase Three.

Maurice looked surprised to see me. “You made it past her?”

Being underestimated was my other passive. They stacked.

“Yeah. I might have killed her. She’ll probably be fine, though. Did you find your Golden Wing?” I walked towards him, swinging my sword.

“This is how it has to be,” he said. “Don’t make it more difficult.”

It was like he didn’t know me at all, which wasn’t that surprising, all things considered.

“This isn’t how it has to be, this is how Peter wants it.”

“Peter’s dead,” said Maurice.

“Then how are you able to use your powers so effectively? The whole island just fell for your last wheeze. Doesn’t seem like the sort of thing you could do without a boost.”

There was no doubt in Maurice’s face. “I’ve improved.”

“No, Maurice, you haven’t. You’re the same twat you’ve always been, just hidden under all of this.” I waved my hand around to indicate his general presence. “You’re the one Peter needed, not me. The only thing he wanted from me was to get me out of the way because I’m the only one your powers don’t work on.”

“He’s dead,” said Maurice, still no doubt.

“Of course, anyone can break the spell if they believe it isn’t real, even you. But no one’s going to think you’re being manipulated by a dead man. Even the Council think he’s dead. It’s a great trick.”

Had the Council fallen for it? Were they in on it? Didn’t make much difference.

“He’s really dead, Colin.”

Peter had him bound up tight. Or I was completely wrong. Too late for all that now.

“I have to admit, it does make me feel better knowing not all your shitty behaviour was your fault, but you can’t just blame the drink, the alcoholic let it happen. He has to face the music. Even if I could convince you Peter isn’t really dead, who knows what other scams he’s pulling through you. You really shouldn’t have let him in.”

“You don’t know what happened.”

“I don’t care what happened. I only know that removing you leaves him fucked. Not even he can use your powers if you’re dead. I’d promise to bring you back somehow, but I don’t know if I can, and I don’t make promises I can’t keep.”

There was a flash of something in his eyes. Still no doubt, but maybe fear.

“You’d kill me,” I said.

“Only if I have to.”

“Oh, you’ll have to.” I walked towards him.

“Kill him!” shouted Maurice.

“I can’t,” said Wesley. “Not in here. And out there, he has stopped everything.”

“Arthur,” shouted Maurice, “you have to stop him.”

Arthur looked at me. How much control did Maurice have over these two? Were they part of it from the beginning? I sent the ball of light higher and brighter. The darkness was Arthur’s to control here, but it was quite some way away.

“He’s dead,” said Maurice. “He’s really dead.”

“No, he isn’t. Peter is alive and being a bastard, same as always. Whatever he told you, whatever his plans for making everyone happy, it was all a lie.”

“I’m doing this. It’s my idea. I’ve never been more certain of anything.”

“That’s how your power works. That’s how Peter works. The perfect union, really. But, Maurice, even if you are sure this is the right thing to do, you wouldn’t be able to feel it over the shame of having to actually do it, like I can feel the shame swamping me for what I’m going to do. I saw you when you killed that mouse woman and her babies. You had to do that, too. You weren’t like this. The real you wouldn’t be as accepting of necessary evils. Not much of an improvement, if you ask me.”

For the first time, doubt entered Maurice’s thoughts, I could see it in his face. “This is only because you weren’t included,” he said in a small resigned voice.

“Fair point,” I said, and then I raised my sword and killed Maurice.

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