405: Holding on for Dear Life

Helping people is supposed to make you feel good. Hold the door open, help carry luggage, give a lift to the airport. It soon starts to wear you down.

You need to find a balance. Most people achieve it by choosing things that appear to be them going out of their way to selflessly offer assistance to those who need it, while actually doing very little and expending the least amount of effort possible.

Cynical? Sure. I’m not saying there aren’t people who don’t genuinely put themselves out for a good cause, but how many fun runs can you do before it stops being fun?

I think what it really comes down to is cost-effectiveness. How much of a difference does your involvement really make? Are the whales okay now? Did the starving Africans learn how to fish? Is racism finally over?

Perhaps I’m being too cynical, if such a thing is possible. Good and honest folk did defeat apartheid in South Africa back in the day. Then again, no one plays Free Nelson Mandela by The Special AKA anymore, and it’s a banging tune, so there’s always a cost to these things.

“What do you expect me to do against a flying fucking armada?” I think I only know that term because of the Spanish Armada which the Elizabethans defeated by pure luck. Feels like we were taught about it every year between the ages of seven and eleven. Perhaps this was my chance to use what I’d learned from history to defeat my enemies in this alien land.

Step one: put myself in the shoes of Sir Francis Drake.

Step two: gather a crew of feisty English sailors who hate the Spanish.

Step three: ???????

Step four: profit.

If only I could figure out step three.

“This is where you need to use everything you’ve learned so far,” said Claire, still rubbing her nose which had turned purple. “We’re all counting on you.”

Nothing like a bit of pressure to give you a spring in your step.

“I haven’t learned anything,” I said. “You lot refuse to tell me what the hell is going on. I’m not going to blow them up, I don’t even know who’s on those ships. The real Claire for all I know. Actually, maybe I should blow them up.”

“I’m the real Claire,” said Claire, convincingly irritated by my lack of derring-do. Sir Francis Drake wouldn’t have made excuses, he’d have shagged Queen Betty, jumped into the nearest galleon and sailed right up the Solent.

For a species that values free will, we spend a lot of our time doing what other people tell us to do. It’s one of the reasons I feel there has to be a Creator who’s responsible for all of this. Or maybe I just want someone to blame.

There’s a very clear carrot and stick methodology to our existence. Carrot and stick, by the way, doesn’t mean dangling a carrot on the end of a stick to tempt the donkey (that’s us) to move forward. It means you offer a carrot as a reward, you use the stick to beat out a punishment. They work best in unison.

Things we aren’t meant to do cause us pain, things we are meant to do give us pleasure. That’s a definitive counter to free will.

Someone decided what we should and shouldn’t do without consulting us first, but acting like they did.

In the end, all forms of government are the same.

I’m not someone who believes in intelligent design, either. Anyone with a modicum of sense can see the designer of the universe had no idea what they were doing. Stick everything in a pot and give it a stir is hardly a sign of genius at work.

Sex is part of that design. We are encouraged to have sex, to procreate (got to do it pro, no time for any amateur creating) as much as possible. Another clue to the nature of our originator.

I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out the entity who had given us life was Evolution, a being with many tentacles and hundreds of eyes, all of which were constantly meddling in our affairs, but only to make conditions as harsh as possible.

Survival through change and adaptation in a deadly environment, so we transform into something stronger, something better. Those who don’t adapt, fuck ‘em.

Evolution only wants the thing we are going to be, not the sad sack of wasted potential we are right now. Evolution is the disgruntled girlfriend who settled for the lazy boyfriend because she reckons she can get him to change into a top of the line executive with expense account and company car. Or failing that, get matching tattoos.

When you look at it like that, when you regard things that make you feel good as someone funnelling you towards a particular goal, and when things feel bad, someone steering you away, even if their intentions are benign, maybe even to your benefit (they aren’t, but let’s pretend for the sake of argument), then you aren’t really making a choice. You’re following a plan, and it isn’t yours.

Could still be a good plan. Could be a great plan. Not your plan, though.

I was getting the feeling I was being pushed in a certain direction and I wasn’t convinced it was the way I wanted to go. It was towards the advancing armada which definitely didn’t sound like where I would choose to be heading if I had a free hand in making my decisions.

“Peter, you seem like you can be trusted,” I said. “Why don’t you take point on this one?”

“Normally I would be only too happy to oblige,” he said, “but I feel that currently there are many unanswered questions I need to investigate.”

This was hardly the time to start searching for the meaning of life, but I guess he had only just learned he wasn’t the blue-eyed one hundred and sixteen year old he thought he was, and he needed time to come to terms with it.

The thing was, if he wasn’t really him and was in fact some kind of construct created by Maurice, and Maurice was dead, how come he was still here? In fact, a lot of Maurice’s effects were operational, even when he wasn’t.

I was one of those effects. It didn’t make sense. Not if Maurice’s power worked the way I thought it did. Which, as I think has been ably demonstrated, was very unlikely.

In any case, I wasn’t up for a big bust up in the sky.

“Claire, you seem like you’re ready for a leadership role.”

“And where are you planning on going?” she asked.

“I’m afraid I can’t tell you. It only works if you work it out for yourself.” Two can play that game.

“Are you going back to the island?”

She was a sharp one, I’ll give her that.

“Could be. I don’t want to confirm or deny. No spoilers.”

“You’re running away,” said Claire.

“No, I’m going on a mission. One that could provide me with the tools I need to end this palaver once and for all.”

“Why do you want to go back to the island?” said Jenny, ignoring the perfectly reasonable answer I’d already given. Her tone of voice heavily implied I was making an excuse to go down the pub with the boys and leave her at home with the kids. Hey, it was a fantasy world, I could have boys I went to the pub with.

“He thinks Maurice is there,” said Claire.

It was like I didn’t even have to be here. Which, by a lucky coincidence…

“This whole thing feels like a set-up,” I said. “It’s all a bit too convenient and on someone else’s timetable. I’m not implying either of you are part of some conspiracy.”

“Thanks,” said Claire, with no trace of gratitude.

“Big of you,” said Jenny.

“All I’m saying is that you both may have been used and manipulated like gullible children who have no idea the man offering them candy is a notorious paedophile.” I felt I was explaining it in a way that was both clear and concise. Good value with the insults thrown in for free.

“How are you planning to get to the island?” asked Jenny. She wasn’t trying to stop me going, so obviously she was condoning my decision. “Dragon?”

“Well, I did think about dragons, yes, but they all got scared off by the last ship, and even if Flossie gets them back, they are going to be vulnerable to that kind of thing again. Best not to leave myself open like that.” We were discussing things like adults, calmly, rationally. Just like the old days, apart from the calmly and rationally bit and the acting like adults part. “What I thought was I’d use the same method Maurice used to reach the island. He shot himself off in an escape pod, and if there was one, then there are probably more.”

“You called it an escape pod,” said Claire.


“So you think you’re escaping. Leaving us behind.”

“It’s just a name. Do you know where the, er, mission capsule is?” I looked around the room. I was assuming the pod was part of the spire, although it had been a very distinctive round shape, and nothing here resembled a big metal ball.

“So,” said Claire, “you’re going to get in a pod for one and fire yourself off to a tropical island. Just like Maurice did.”

There was an implication that men as a whole were prone to abandoning their responsibilities and taking joy rides for the fun of it and having a good time. It was a scurrilous thing to think and completely untrue. It was just the men Claire knew who did that, and didn’t that make her part of the problem?

“I’m not leaving you in the lurch,” I said. “Just tell all the interested parties you’re holding a truce to get everyone around a table to talk. They can all state what it is they want and thrash out some kind of mutually acceptable agreement. No one needs to fight or kill anyone.”

“That’s not going to work,” said Claire.

“I know, it’s called a stalling tactic. You just need to wait for me to come back.”

“How?” said Claire. “The pod only goes one way.”

“Don’t bother me with small details now,” I said. “First we need to find the damn thing.” I flicked through Maurice’s books. “I don’t suppose the instructions are in here, are they?”

“We could arrange a big banquet,” said Jenny. “Invite them all to an assembly of the different factions.”

My girl. Always had my back. Well, I say always. More like occasionally, but that’s still pretty good.

Claire shook her head. “Do you really think we can keep them busy until Flash Gordon makes it back? Assuming he ever does.”

Why Flash Gordon? Who knew? Girls are terrible at making pop culture references. I know, I’m being needlessly dismissive and belittling, but how else do you expect me to trick myself into feeling superior to anyone?

“Look, it’s simple, if things get a bit awkward, just say, ‘I am the Senate!’ and it’ll be fine, trust me.”

They both looked at me blankly. Girls are also terrible at understanding pop culture references.

I was still flicking through Maurice’s notes, trying to decide if any of the instructions looked like launch codes. Maybe the pod emerged out of the ground like one of the Thunderbirds.

“Go, if you want to go,” said Claire. “If this is the choice you think is for the best, then maybe it is.” She walked over to a console and pressed a button. “It’s the last set of instructions in his book.”

A hatch opened over our heads. A ladder descended with a soft purr.

Jenny looked concerned. “I—”

“You can’t go with him,” said Claire. “There’s only room for one.”

She spoke gently, like she’d been through this already and knew there was no point in fighting. Which instantly made me suspicious. It was hard not to suspect this had been the plan all along and I had been tricked into thinking I was doing it of my own volition.

The last set of runes in the Notebook was called Save Maurice.

You can’t keep second-guessing yourself, though. This had nothing to do with what anyone else wanted me to do. Maurice had set all this up, but it was up to me to choose my own ending.

I climbed up the ladder into a dark space. I tried to make a light but nothing happened. My beast magic wasn’t working, but that was to be expected. The spire had had the same effect the first time I came here.

There was a tug on the bottom of my trousers and I climbed back down. Jenny was standing there looking sad.

“I might never see you again,” she said.

“We’re connected,” I said. “I’ll find you.”

She looked like she wanted to say more, but what woman didn’t? I gave her a kiss and climbed back up. Peter waved goodbye. Which was fucking odd.

No point drawing these things out. I had a strong feeling that this was the right thing to do. The island was where Maurice had gone, it was where I would find answers.

I felt my way around and found a seat. I was able to crawl into it, although I may have been sitting in it upside down.

“How do I steer this thing?”

“You don’t,” said Claire. The hatch began to close. Rather hastily. “They all go to the island, that’s what made Maurice go there. There had to be—”

The hatch closed and I didn’t hear the rest.

It was pitch black and I had no idea what I was supposed to do. I couldn’t see the book and I couldn’t make a light. I left my body and floated about. In the adjacent world, the small chamber I was in was lit up with runes painted on the walls. I was able to open and look at the book.

There were fewer runes here and it only took a few minutes to activate them all. If this was a trap, so be it. At least it was convenient.

I returned to my body and the capsule began to shake. The top of the spire opened like flower petals and I could see the night sky which was all stars.

The shaking got more severe and I began to doubt myself. All my certainties abandoned me. I told myself this was the right choice, but I suspected I was a liar.

And then I shot into the air with a deafening roar as I recalled Maurice had worn a safety harness and I hadn’t found anything to strap myself in with. Had he added them himself? Probably. I banged around the interior of the capsule.

The shaking eventually stopped and the flight path levelled out. I fell back into the chair and the world flew past me, or I flew past it. It was a surprisingly smooth ride and quite enjoyable. Until, that is, I saw the fleet of flying ships directly in my path.

I squinted to make sure, leaned back and lined up the differing trajectories, but yes, we were on a collision course.

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Afterword from Mooderino
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