404: Plus Ultra

“...3!” I lunged.

My plan was simple. I attack Peter with the spike, aiming for his head. Jenny would be forced to make a choice. We would all know what the deal was going forward.

Peter had all sorts of magic resistance and who knows what other ways to avoid death and various other responsibilities, but a good stab in the head was usually hard to live with.

In any case, if my theory was correct, a direct attack on Peter would cause Jenny to realise she’d been compromised.

It was a good plan, I felt. A lot of answers to be gained, lots of incontrovertible facts to display. The only problem with this equation were the variables, which wouldn’t stop varying.

Peter decided he wasn’t going to assist me in my little experiment and ran away.

I would have thought he’d go for a more theatrical form of defence. Maybe a force field, or summon a magic robot to save him. When you have a world full of magic at your disposal, some sort of show is expected. Legging it is a bit underwhelming.

The room wasn’t that big, though, and he wasn’t exactly in his salad days.

“Hey, stop. Just let me stab you once. It’s for science.” I tried to get to him but the consoles were in the way. Rather than go for the nearest exit, he was staying just on the other side of the nearest console and we were going round in circles. Story of my life.

Jenny had remained where she was, making no attempt to protect Peter, or to deal with me the way she had with Claire. Was my theory wrong?

“The ships, damn you,” said Peter as he matched my movements to always remain opposite me. “This is no time for larking about. We need to work together.”

Peter was playing all coy and hard to get because he still needed me, or needed to know how I had managed to power up the spires. Once he had the secret, I was sure he’d dissolve our partnership at the first bloody opportunity.

“I don’t care about the ships,” I said. My attempt to prove (or disprove) Jenny’s loyalties wasn’t really working as planned, but I was committed to this line of play, so I felt obliged to at least give the bastard a little prick. “There are more important things to worry about than who’ll rule the world. Your problem, Peter, is that you think too small.” I tried lunging across the console, but Peter just jumped backwards and out of reach. He was sprightly for his age.

“What is it you think any of this proves?” asked Jenny. She did not seem impressed by my need for proof regarding her feelings towards me. I would have thought giving her the chance to put all doubts to rest would have appealed to her, but apparently I don’t understand women. I know, a ridiculous accusation. I thoroughly denounce myself for making it.

Did I really want to prove Jenny wasn’t into me as much as she claimed? I mean, as long as she had herself fooled, it didn’t really matter what I thought.

But the idea of getting a firm resolution was just too tempting.

I’ve seen a bomb disposal expert interviewed, and when asked if the process of diffusing a live bomb is as nerve-wracking as you’d imagine, he answered no. Either you do it right and nothing happens, or you screw up and it’s no longer your problem. There’s no middle ground.

That’s how I felt.

Peter, meanwhile, was managing to keep the middle ground between us, which made it very hard to stab him. Inconsiderate git.

Since I was very clearly trying to harm Peter, and Jenny was not reacting in any way (other than slightly riled at being tested), that could be said to have provided me with the answer I was looking for.

But had she overcome the urge to defend Peter using the depth of love she had for me, or was it the power of being pissed off that had done the trick?

“This won’t prove anything,” said Jenny. “Even if I did attack you, that would just mean I wasn’t in control of myself.”

She was right, and it had even happened before, so what was I really proving?

“This is different,” I said. “This is a direct confrontation between me and them. You get to choose in the moment, we’re doing it live.” I gave her a thumbs up. She scowled.

“It won’t mean anything,” insisted Jenny. “You can’t blame me if I’m not in control of what I’m doing.”

The thing about having a voice in your head telling you what to do is that how many voices telling you what to do have you ignored in your life?

For most people, we spend most of our lives, certainly the early part, resisting doing what we’re told. The whole idea that you would say, “a voice told me to do it,” as a justification for doing anything is ridiculous.

Even when the person is insane, being given instructions by a mysterious voice is meaningless. Have you ever tried to tell a crazy person what to do? I have. They aren’t that cooperative.

In those cases, the thing the voice tells them to do is basically what they want to do anyway, in some form. They may not have a reason to murder John Lennon specifically, but if they want attention and to be famous, then that’s a pretty good way to get it. If the voices were truly the product of insanity, they’d be much more likely to suggest weird shit that no sane person would do.

I mean, the voices never force people to use their gym membership and hydrate more regularly. Why not? If it was just random shit, it would be useful random shit half the time.

I am Satan. You will do as I command. Go mow the lawn.

It’s a little different when magic is involved, I suppose. Like giving someone mind-altering drugs to get them to do sick and depraved stuff they would never normally do, but in those sorts of cases it requires a complete change of personality. If I suddenly started running around naked shouting, “Free blow jobs for all the boys, first come, first served,” you would be able to tell I wasn’t my normal self. Yes, you would.

If Jenny was being forced to do things she didn’t want to do, then her whole persona would have changed, not just a tiny bit at the back where no one would notice. But that hadn’t happened. Some part of her was in tune with what she was being told to do, and that part needed to be brought out into the light.

Unfortunately for my brilliant plan, she was currently standing next to a prone Claire with her arms crossed, not looking very amused. Nothing out of character there.

“Please be reasonable,” said Peter. “This is not the time. The ships will be here soon. We need to be ready. The spires must be operational.”

The ships on the screen were over land now. They were moving pretty fast, but it would still take them a while to get here, assuming this was their destination.

“I don’t care about the ships,” I said. “I can just blow them out of the sky.” A little cocky, but not altogether inaccurate. Not that I was planning to go crazy with the death beam, pew pew pew. I assumed the people on the ships knew what had happened to the last ship they sent, so they wouldn’t try the same trick twice.

“Do you really think if I truly loved you I’d be able to resist mind-control?” asked Jenny. I say asked, demanded might be more accurate.

“Look, I know it isn’t that simple. I’m sure there are ways to get you to do stuff against your will where even you don’t know you’re being influenced, and if there’s no way to fight it, that’s fine. But if you did manage to break free of that kind of control because you refused to work against me, that would be pretty telling, right?” Seemed to make sense to me. It wasn’t that failing proved anything bad, but succeeding proved something good. Nothing to get upset about.

“So, if I can’t break free to prove my love, that’s okay, but if I can, I’m woman of the year?”

“Something like that.” I thought we’d finally come to the same conclusion, but when I glanced over at her, the look on her face suggested we weren’t quite on the same page, unless that page was the obituaries. “What? It’s a reasonable supposition. That way we’d both know how you really felt.”

“I already know how I really feel,” she said, with quite a lot of feeling. “What I’m not so sure of is how you feel about me. I hear very little about you proving yourself.”

I stopped trying to stab Peter. “Oh. I thought that was kind of obvious.”

“No,” said Jenny. “Not obvious.”

“Okay, well, basically, you’re the only girl I’m interested in being with, but I feel I might be better off on my own if you’re going to constantly try to help my enemies to capture, torture or kill me. That isn’t a direction I see as healthy for a long-term relationship.”

For once, saying something out loud made it sound quite reasonable.

“The ships, the ships,” said Peter. He seemed preoccupied by the invasion headed our way, which gave me the perfect opportunity to juke to the left and then come in from the right, and land the spike in his neck.

I realise by this time Jenny had already made her position clear vis a vis the ability to resist mind-control, but I needed the closure. Plus, there was never a bad time to stab Peter, I felt.

Peter stood there with the spike sticking out of his neck. He just looked at me, mildly disappointed in my choices. Join the club. There was no blood. He didn’t scream out in pain, he didn’t fall down and go into any kind of death throes. In fact, he seemed fine.

This probably meant something. I wondered what.

Claire groaned and sat up, her hand going to her nose. She’d always had a big hooter — I rarely mention it because I don’t feel it’s right to judge people on their physical appearance, it’s cheap and I’m all about the quality insults — but thanks to Jenny it was a bit shorter, although also a bit wider.

“Why did you punch me?” she said.

Jenny pointed at Claire while looking at me. I think she was indicating that I should have asked that question instead of jumping to conclusions.

“More to the point,” I said to Claire, “why did you attack Peter?”

“I didn’t,” said Claire. “I attacked you.”

“Oh,” I said. “I thought maybe you were trying to free yourself from his control.”

“That’s because you’re an idiot,” said Jenny.

“That’s putting it mildly,” said Claire.

They were both being very mean to me. Honestly, you give them the vote and they think their opinions count for something. Fucking lucky to get seventy cents on the dollar. If I had my way…

“Then why were you attacking me?” I asked.

“Because Maurice told me to,” said Claire. “He said I had to be Kato to your Inspector Clouseau.” It didn’t escape my attention what kind of person Inspector Clouseau was. Although it being a Peter Sellers character helped soften the blow. “We have to keep you on your toes so you don’t drift off and never come back. We were all supposed to do that, but some of us couldn’t stay on message, could we?” She was looking at Jenny when she said this.

“He told you the same, did he?” I asked Jenny.

“Something like that.”

“Why did you hit me?” yelled Claire.

“Because you deserved it,” Jenny yelled back. I felt like I wasn’t entirely in the loop.

“What about him?” I pointed at Peter who still had the spike in his neck. “Why isn’t he dead? Is he immortal?”

“He was already dead,” said Claire. “That isn’t Peter, it’s just a construct Maurice made.”

“What?” said Peter. “Young lady, I can assure you—”

Claire grabbed the dagger out of Jenny’s hand and sliced off Peter’s left hand. It was one quick cut and the hand was off. Claire caught it before it hit the ground. The fingers were still moving, and there was no blood. It was like she’d cut through clay.

“You aren’t real,” she said very coldly to Peter and handed his hand back to him. He seemed upset, as you would.

“Peter died back in Gorgoth?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Claire.

“And Maurice made a new one? Why?”

Claire just looked at me. “If we could just tell you, don’t you think we would have?”

“But how did he know which buttons to press?” I said. Peter had just operated the spire’s controls like an old pro.

“Maurice trained him,” said Claire. “He was his assistant. Helped him write that book.”

If Peter — this Peter — had helped compiled the notebook, it suggested he might be able to help me. Was he like 288, the imp in Nekromel? I took a closer look at Peter. Was part of Maurice in there? If so, technically he was in white-face, and that shit was racist.

“I am the real Peter!” proclaimed Peter, shaking his hand at us. “I’m standing right here.”

“Wait,” I said. “If he isn’t the real thing, who nailed the cool kids to the walls of the spire?”

“I did,” said Claire.


“Because I don’t like them,” she said slowly.

I don’t want to come across all chauvinistic, but Claire had become a bit overwrought since Maurice had left her. She seemed to be sublimating her frustrations into a bit of the old ultraviolence. He really needed to come back and give her a good stuffing.

The same would apply to men, by the way. As superficial as it may seem, the therapeutic benefits of blowing your load shouldn’t be underestimated. My reconnection with Jenny had more than proved that, even though we’d only done it once. Well, technically it was three times, but Jenny insisted the first two weren’t statistically significant.

“I am real,” Peter muttered to himself. “I am.”

Claire snatched his hand out of his hand and stuck it back on his wrist where it resealed itself. He looked with wonder at his fixed limb.

“Maurice spoiled him,” she said. “Thinks he’s a real boy.” She pointed at the screen. “That’s what we’ve been waiting for, although we weren’t expecting them to come in flying ships. We have you to thank for that.”

“What’s on the ships?” I asked. There was no point trying to prove they had done me wrong worse than I had done them. Might as well keep things moving.

“You’ll find out soon enough,” said Claire. “The important thing to remember is that when it all starts making sense, you owe us all an apology.”

I felt she had her priorities a bit backwards, but so be it. “What am I supposed to do now?” I asked, since they seemed to have been preparing for this moment.

“We’ve done all we can,” said Claire.

“You haven’t done anything,” I said.

“Haven’t we?” said Claire, and the two girls looked at me like the rest was up to me.

“No. You haven’t.”  I turned to Peter. “Looks like it’s you and me from here.”

Peter slowly edged away from me until he was standing with the girls. “Best of luck to you.”

I wasn’t really sure this was the team I wanted to be on. I wondered if there was any spare room on one of those ships.

Next two chapters are up now on Patreon.

Afterword from Mooderino
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