I know what regret is. Most people don’t. They think it means when you don’t like an outcome. Mostly when that outcome involves them getting caught doing something others will judge them for. That isn’t regret.
Everyone would prefer to have things go a way that makes them look cool and like they have their shit together. Wanting that conceited feeling you enjoy so much to be permanent and finding it’s hardly ever present is not regret.
You know that feeling when you get home from the supermarket and you’re putting the bread away and you notice that you accidentally picked up the thick sliced loaf by accident instead of the medium sliced one? That’s regret.
Because you know you could have avoided it. You know that last time it happened, you told yourself to check before throwing the loaf into your shopping trolley. A mistake easily avoided, that you’re aware of and have even suffered from in the past, once again inconveniencing you for no good fucking reason, that is something worth regretting.
It’s a tangible specific awareness of a mistake caused by your own stupidity in liquid form trickling through your centre.
There was nothing I could have done for Maurice. I had no idea what he was up to or what kind of a mess he’d gotten himself into. I did what I could. I didn’t regret it.
I wasn’t happy about it and I didn’t think it was something I would ever feel good about, but then that described 99% of my life.
Maurice once told me he thought my alignment was chaotic good. I think that was his way of saying I had no fucking idea what I was doing. That covered the chaotic part. As for good, I guess that’s another way of saying not bad.
How’s it going?
Kind of sums me up. Like when people say, “He’s not a bad person.” Like when they say, “He means well.” Also, “Can’t blame him for trying.”
I had done for Maurice what I would have wanted someone to do for me. Not that I would claim others felt about things the way I did, not even Maurice — my views on the Harry Potter books were very different to his (Ron could have done so much better than that muggle skank) — but there was no way a life spent as CPU to a planet would have been fun. You could probably come up with some version of it that would seem adventurous and thrilling, but you would be wrong.
Maybe if he went from human to small residential area, to metropolis, to continent and then various celestial bodies of differing sizes, he might have grown into it, but the idea you can switch from one end of the scale to the other without it breaking your mind in two is nonsense.
He might have survived, but he wouldn’t be him. He knew that.
Kidding myself? Maybe. I knew there were any number of things he might have wanted to do which he now longer would get the chance to try, but I wasn’t the one to take those things away from him.
In his position, I’m sure I would feel angry that I could no longer accomplish my goals, even though I was doing nothing to get closer to them. My dreams have never even been that big.
I always wanted to get a massage from a Thai lady — no, not the happy ending kind of massage, just a thorough body workout that put everything in place without brutally smashing my muscles into jelly. A traditionally sensuous massage that had been perfected over thousands of years by women with small hands.
If someone killed me today, I would never be able to achieve that simple dream, but would I, anyway? Hell, never mind a Thai lady, right now I’d settle for a massage from a tea lady. Stress doesn’t care if you’re right or wrong, it only knows how to squeeze you in all the wrong places.
“What exactly is the Golden Wing?” I asked Wesley.
She sighed and shifted her eyes away from the direction Arthur had gone screaming in. “I’m not sure. Arthur thought it was you.”
“Me? I’m not golden and I don’t have feathers.”
“No, but he wasn’t being that literal. Your friend was the heart, and you were the wings. That’s how he saw it.”
“And this place?” I looked around at the empty cavern. “What is this supposed to be? The Emerald City?”
“This is all we found after the Elfs left. They used the island to go wherever they went to. We assumed they had taken a craft of some kind that was housed here. Arthur started to think otherwise after he became aware of you.”
It did feel a bit like a hangar. I could easily have believed they took off from here in their Elfbus 9000.
“But how come he can exist here?” I said. “Are we inside his mind?”
“We are. He superimposed it over the heart of the island so he could investigate it. He didn’t have much else to do with his time.”
Idle hands… all this could have been avoided if he’d just had his own Thai professional to work the knots out.
“So, we aren’t seeing what’s really here? Just what his mind is letting us see? How do we turn it off?”
“Only he can do that.”
“Let’s go get him, then.” I wouldn’t mind getting hold of the little shit.
“He has retreated into himself,” said Wesley. “It may take some time to track him down.”
That didn’t strike me as likely. In fact, the more I thought about it, the less likely it seemed.
“Are you sure he’s still here?” I asked her.
“Of course,” said Wesley, the way you snap out an answer to a question you’ve never thought about before and don’t intend to start now. “Where else would he go?”
“If I were him,” I said. “I would have built a back way out of here. Maybe connected to all the other hidden mind-grottos I’d conveniently left lying around. I’d tell everyone I was stuck here and had no way to get out, because I’m a little shit who likes people to feel sorry for me, even though I’m clearly an utter bastard, but secretly I would have this easy way out just sitting there all this time. And I would laugh to myself about what a clever boy I was. Ha-ha-ha, ho-ho-ho.”
Wesley stared at me for quite a long time. I didn’t think what I’d suggested was that outlandish. Programmers always build in a secret backdoor so they can get into their system without going the long way around. The long way being the one where you needed permission. Not because they wanted to sneak into the bank’s records and steal everyone’s money, or even 0.3 cents from every account which wouldn’t get noticed (Superman III, very underrated — something Maurice and I agreed on). No, they do it because computer programmers are inherently lazy. You really think it takes Blizzard that long to fix a minor bug in Diablo? (Diablo III, very overrated).
Think I’m being unfair to poor hard-working programmers? Let me ask you this then. If a game has one weapon much better and much more fun to use than the rest, do they improve all the other weapons to be equally fun, or just nerf the shit out of the good one and make them all equally crap? Must be a coincidence that it’s a lot less work to adjust one rather than many.
“I’ll find him,” said Wesley, and then she wandered off. I thought that might be the last I saw of her, but she wandered back a couple of minutes later. “He isn’t here.”
“He was probably in and out of here all the time,” I said.
“Are you saying I’ve been naive?” said Wesley. There was a tone in her voice, an audio cue letting me know to tread lightly. Sadly, guys aren’t great at picking up on cues, audio or visual. I have no idea why women persist with putting them out.
“Yes. I think it’s in a woman’s nature to be naive. If you weren’t, the human race would have died out long ago. I’m sure one day you’ll convince yourselves that bullying, cajoling and bribing women to go to bed is a form of sexual assault and has to end, but then what will we do? Write poetry? That’s when you’ll see the real ugly side of men.”
Not that I’m advocating the harassment of women as some kind of noble pursuit, but badgering the opposite sex to sleep with you is what separates us from the animals. Apart from badgers, obviously.
Wesley’s mouth narrowed to a thin line. She was at least considering the idea that her husband was a huge fucking liar. It was taking her an impressive amount of time to reach the obvious conclusion, which I guess meant she really cared, or something.
“He believed he was doing something important,” she finally said.
“And you? Why did you go along with it?”
“He could have been right. I at least owed him the chance to see. Just as I owed you the chance to make your own decisions.”
She certainly could have taken steps to stop me. Perhaps I was as deluded as he was, and she just liked giving idiot boys a free pass. She wouldn’t be the first girl to think like that.
“And now?” I said. “Are you going to be honest with me?”
“Good enough.” It wasn’t anywhere near good enough, but I knew when to cut my losses (before a long argument, generally). “Do you think we can find his escape hatch?”
She shook her head. “I doubt it. He is very good at hiding things.”
Yeah, from you, I thought.
If Arthur had been a computer programmer and secretly built a way out of here, I, as the hero (okay, the main protagonist, happy?), should have been able to hack my way through his backdoor (not a euphemism) in under two minutes. People in movies are so good at that. If you’re that expert with computers, you should stop trying to break into the Pentagon and just get a job at Bethesda. Skyrim on Fitbit won’t write itself.
I increased the brightness of my light, but it didn’t reveal anything new. The real heart of the island was somewhere under this construction of Arthur’s.
“Then we should at least get rid of this place.”
If Arthur had gone, as I suspected, there was a fairly simple way to find out. Richina.
We returned to my body. I say we because Wesley was once again my lodger. It had its pros and cons, but at least I now had her firepower backing me up. I’d need it if I ran into Claire.
Outside, Laney, Biadet and Damicar were waiting, unaware of what I’d been up to. And Richina was lying on the ground, still wrapped up.
“Did you find him?” asked Biadet.
“Yes. He’s gone now. Run off to one of his other hidey-holes, I think.”
I got Richina to her feet and loosened her gag.
“You lie,” were her first words. “He would never leave me here.”
I told you, naive. “Go have a look.” I shoved her through the archway.
It shattered. Wherever Arthur was, it wasn’t here.
There was a change in the atmosphere. My light expanded over me and the chamber we were in revealed itself. It was just a big cave. Craggy walls, some green things growing here and there, a few roots hanging down.
Richina got up, sobbing. What would happen if she died now? Resurrected in whatever void Arthur was currently in? If I could follow her, it would be one way to track him down. And I did want to get hold of him, even if only to stop him fucking with me in the future.
But he could have any number of places set up to bolt to. I only knew of the two in Gorgoth, so they would be my next stop. Freeing the old gods still seemed like my best bet, certainly my most chaotic. If it caused people some grief, good.
We dragged Richina back out with us. She would be the key to breaking down Arthur’s prisons — and if we found one she didn’t break, that would mean we’d found Arthur. She didn’t seem very keen on the idea, but once I put the gag back in place she was a lot less vocal on the subject.
The islanders were still as I’d left them, disappointed and looking for someone to blame. The dragons had moved further afield, working their way into the juicy centre of the jungle. It would have been nice to use one of them to get away from here, but I had no idea how to direct them without Flossie. Was she close by?
“Arthur’s gone,” I said before they could start the complaint train rolling. “The heart of the island is a big empty hole, there isn’t any godsbane and you’ve all been living a lie. And please stop eating people, it’s disgusting. I’m leaving now, so get the fuck out of my way.”
They stared at me like they couldn’t understand what I was saying. The last refuge of the guilty, feigned deafness. I got the message through to them by exploding a tree.
Well, not me personally, Wesley did the work, I just took the credit.
“What about the dragons?” asked the acting-president.
“They’ll leave once I’m gone.” Would they? Fucked if I knew. If I was right, I would look like a man who could control dragons. And if I was wrong, they’d all be dead, so who cares?
I took one last look at the shrine — I now knew whose shrine it was — and set off through the haze of sawdust, pretending the splinters in my cheeks weren’t like I was being face-fucked by a hedgehog.
The islanders insisted on following me, probably to make sure I really was going. It was the only time people were genuinely happy around me. From the rise before we went down to the beach, I could see the ships in the bay. There were dragons swooping around them, focusing on the council ship more than The Eternal Infinite.
Someone from my old party was bound to be on those dragons. Eventually, I would have to confront them. A main protagonist would get it out of the way as soon as possible. I wondered if I could sneak onto my ship and sail away without anyone noticing.