407: Hardcore Mode

The archway before me did not look very inviting. It was an open mouth with a strong suggestion that there was a throat attached, leading to a stomach full of acid.

More accurately, it was a dark alcove in what appeared to be a solid stone wall, but appearances can be deceiving. If you imagine the worst, that’s probably what you’ll find. If you imagine the best, the worst will still be waiting for you, it’ll just have the added element of surprise.

Should I go in and have a look? Clearly, I was meant to, which made me reluctant.

Would someone set so obvious a trap for me? I’d escaped from here before. Even if the regular exits had been boarded up, there was a good chance I’d find another way out. So what would be the point? Maybe to delay me for a bit was the only thing I could think of.

If Maurice wanted me to return here it was probably for a good reason. Despite my annoyance with the whole ‘he doesn’t know, don’t tell him, hee, hee hee’ approach he’d taken, he was smart enough to be possibly right. That was a lot closer than most people ever got.

The whole time I’d been in this world, the one thing I felt I really could have done with was a top-tier expert who knew the ropes and was looking to pass on that knowledge to a young padawan.

That’s how it’s meant to work. The older male teaches his acolyte the skills, the expertise, the love for the game that someone long ago handed down to him. Mentor and apprentice as part of a chain, that’s the male heritage we’ve lost. Now we just have online walkthroughs so we can beat the game without working out anything for ourselves.

It’s all very well looking back with rose-tinted glasses, but back then they were also all pederasts, so you really had to want to learn the craft if you took up an apprenticeship. These days you still get buggered but you learn fuck all. They call it being an intern.

Not only had no one in a robe with a beard turned up to offer guidance and the secret to being heroic (I suspected it involved wearing a suede jacket in a bolero cut, but how to be sure?), but a bunch of clueless people had stepped in and tried to force me into being their guy on the front line while they chilled back at HQ.

I was the equivalent of the girl who tarted herself up in the hope the guy she liked would notice her, and then got mad at all the other guys leering at her cleavage.

There’s just something about seeing someone do the thing you want to do at a master level that makes their advice seem reasonable. You trust them because they can do what they preach. The guy with what everyone considers is a pretty good guess (so many upvotes, how could it not be the correct answer?) doesn’t inspire the same kind of confidence.

Where were these experts? Why had I been left to flounder on my own? Why was there no AMA?

All I had was the book Maurice had left for me. A walkthrough where everything would be solved if I pressed the buttons in the right order, no need to understand why.

I suppose I should have been grateful. Even if I had found my senpai, there probably would have been some kind of catch.

Pederasts, dude.

I walked up to the archway. I’d have to leave my body here to check out what was waiting for me, which would leave me vulnerable, but this was the right thing to do.

That didn’t mean it would turn out well, but the correct play didn’t come with a guarantee of success. It was just your best chance.

Knowing it was the right thing to do didn’t make it any easier to carry out, though. Why not stay out here and see how things went? Maybe everyone would end up taking each other out in the crossfire without me having to do anything.

Peter wasn’t around to cause me any problems. He was a construct, whatever that was. I probably should have asked. It wasn’t surprising I’d been fooled. He was so realistic, even he thought he was Peter.

Someone had made a replica that accurate. A doll that believed he was a real live boy.

What if I was one, too?

What if I only believed I was me. A poor copy who had been given all of Colin’s thoughts and memories.

No, that couldn’t be right, could it? I also had all my abilities and powers. If you could replicate those, why not just make a new person who wasn’t such an uncooperative git (I know what I am) and carry on without me?

You wouldn’t create a second me if you could possibly avoid it. I certainly wouldn’t.

The more I thought about it, the more plausible it seemed. I knew it was also part of my subconscious attempt to procrastinate for as long as possible, but still, I felt like the idea had some merit to it.

I died… well, Colin died, so they made me. Convinced me I was Colin, which wouldn’t be too hard if I had all his inner workings transferred over, and then went to great lengths to hide what they’d done.

The question was, did that mean they were trying to get me to take Colin’s place, or was I just a stand-in until something was sorted out for the real Colin? Was he in storage somewhere, waiting for me to reach a place where we could swap. Me in the hole, him out here?

Going through the archway was becoming a less appealing proposition, and it hadn’t been in my top ten things to do this summer to start with.

If I wasn’t the real Colin, then it was only fair I give Colin back his life, and his girlfriend.

Wait, did Jenny know? Did she have sex with me, knowing I was a carbon copy? Did she cheat on me with me to get her own back for all the times I cheated on her with her?

I’d seen enough sci-fi to be familiar with this premise. I knew the pathetic loser who finds out he isn’t the real deal would lose it when he learns the truth. He can’t handle the meaningless of his existence. He’s just a thing, a vessel full of someone else’s memories. A construct, not a person.

Which is a load of bollocks. For some reason it’s a common sci-fi trope to suggest a clone has no soul. Which is kind of a stupid thing to wonder when clones actually exist. They’re called twins, and they have souls. Well, not the ginger ones, obviously — they’re the devil’s creation and should be separated from society and not allowed on public transport. But otherwise, the simple replication of DNA isn’t going to affect God’s attempt at sorting us by new and hot.

If I wasn’t Colin-A, I was fine with being Colin-B. Although most people would consider us both a C.

What I needed was proof. The truth, as painful as it might be, would at least give me a better understanding of what had happened to me. Claire had shown Peter he wasn’t really Peter easily enough. I could do the same. I took out the spike I’d taken from Claire. Another lesson learned from sci-fi. If I was real, I would bleed. If I was a mannequin, I’d just puncture like putty. Either that, or my head would detach, grow legs and crawl across the floor.

I raised the spike and was about to plunge it into my forearm when I reconsidered and decided to prick my finger instead. In the words of Confucius, if you think you can fly, jump off a chair, not the Empire State Building.

Feeling pleased with my arrival at a commonsense approach, I rather overdid the stabbing. I’d experienced quite a lot of pain in my time and a little prick in my fingertip was hardly going to be a big deal, so I really plunged it in so I could be sure I was the real and/or fake me. I screamed as the spike went in.

I dropped the spike and fell to my knees as quite a lot of blood flowed out of me. I was very much not made of Play-Doh. If I was a construct, I was apparently an upgraded version, not the one with the Austrian accent that was deemed obligatory in the previous model.

It had really felt like I was close to the truth. Finally, an answer that made sense of everything, but no.

It still smarted a bit after I healed myself, but this was still progress. I had learned nothing new, but I had discovered the benefit of quickly spotting a possible solution, and just as quickly finding a way to refute it.

Behind this wall could be another answer, or nothing. The way to find out was go in and have a look. If there was something I could use here, I would add it to my arsenal. If not, I’d move on. Same thing when I got to the island.

The thing was not to dwell on coulda, woulda, shoulda. There was no way to know and no way to prepare. Be a man, face your fears, stay on the balls of your feet so you can run away if you have to.

With my new approach to life, I left my body and floated through the archway into the darkness.

“Why are you here?” said Wesley. “Don’t you have things to do?”

“So this is where you got to.” I was surprised to see her, but then again, I wasn’t.

“I told you he wouldn’t be able to stay away,” said Richina. She appeared out of the dark and stood next to Wesley. Were they working together? Was one the jailer and the other a prisoner? Were they planning on opening a feminist bookshop and I was their first customer (which would make it the busiest feminist bookshop I’d ever seen)? I hadn’t watched enough lesbian porn to be able to come up with any more scenarios.

Last time I’d seen them, they’d both been residents of my head. Then they were gone and I was facing the Fairy Queen on my own.

“I wish you hadn’t come,” said Wesley, looking mildly disappointed. I was, of course, used to it.

“Why not?” I asked. “What are you doing here?”

“Trying to keep you away from this,” said Wesley.

She was looking at Richina.

I didn’t know what she meant. Richina looked the same. She might have put on a bit of weight — no, I wasn’t going to mention it, except in self-defence — but otherwise there seemed no big change.

“I think I can handle one slightly modded fairy. What did Arthur do to her, exactly? Is she a construct?”

From what I’d been told (so probably complete garbage), Richina wasn’t an actual fairy, she was just based on fairy technology. Like a Chinese version of an overpriced original that keeps saying, “Device paired,” when it isn’t fucking paired.

I’d been able to keep her contained so far, so why Wesley felt she was a threat was a mystery to me. I had absorbed part of Richina and had bent her to my will, forcing her to obey my commands. Some people might consider that to be abuse through my toxic masculinity, to which I’d say, “Thanks very much, it’s always nice to have your work recognised.”

“She was fine before,” said Wesley, “but now she’s fully operational. Arthur put a lot of time into her, and I thought you would be better off without her interfering.”

I still wasn’t clear on what the issue was. I would rather have had Wesley around to help with advice and background information, oh, and also to use her mega-destructive sonic wave power, you know, on the off chance it might come in useful to lay waste to my enemies. Removing Richina from the field of play seemed a lesser achievement.

“When you say ‘fully operational,’ what does that entail?” I asked.

Richina smiled and her body began to release a soft white glow. From behind her, three pairs of metallic wings fanned out one after the other.

Her hands lit up and beams of light extended from them so she appeared to be holding laser beams, moving rapidly and leaving after images, like she had a bunch of swords in each hand.

“So what?” I said. “You got the fairy upgrade package to full battle-angel? A bit pay to win if you ask me, but whatever. You couldn’t find a way out before I got here, what makes you think things are any different now? Killing me won’t change anything.”

“I wouldn’t harm you,” said Richina. “You’ve already done far more than we expected. The Fairy Queen is free and the Old Gods roam the land once more. We just have to wait, now.”

“Wait for what?”

“Fairy vengeance,” said Richina.

Far be it for me to cast aspersions, but ‘fairy vengeance’ just didn’t have the bone-chilling ring to it I think it needed to really turn heads.

“When the dust clears, there will be no one to stop me.” She was being a bit presumptuous, I felt. “Not even Peter.”

“Peter’s dead,” I said.

“He never dies,” said Richina. “He only goes into hiding.”

“Hiding where?” I was willing to give him the benefit of my doubt. Where was the fucker now?

“Not where, who.”

It took a moment for me to figure out what she meant. “He’s inside someone? A construct, maybe?” Peter hiding inside a construct of himself? Just the kind of retarded I deserved, but didn’t need.

“It could be anyone,” said Richina.

Perhaps testing myself wasn’t what I should have done, it was testing everyone else. Maybe I was the real me, and everyone else was fake. Even Jenny.

Then it occurred to me that Peter could be hiding in Jenny. And I…

I shuddered. It wasn’t worth thinking about. Sometimes the truth doesn’t set you free, it just sets you on fire.

“And what about you?” I said to Richina. “Why are you suddenly so obsessed with Peter… Arthur? You’re Arthur?”

If Peter could be inside someone else, it stood to reason that Arthur could, too.

“I’m sorry,” said Wesley. “I had hoped to spare you my husband’s tampering.”

“No, it’s fine,” I said. “So, you’re not trapping him here.”

“He could leave any time,” said Wesley. “He made this place.”

“I told you,” said Arthur (via Richina). “This is the best place to be right now. We wait until the fighting is over, and then we go out and sort through the wreckage. Easy peasy.”

As a plan, doing nothing did hold quite a lot of appeal.

“But look at you,” I said. “You’re all augmented and pimped out. You could take them all on by yourself.”

Arthur spread his chrome wings so they formed a massive mirror behind him. “This is nothing compared to what the fairies have. They’re going to turn Fengarad into rubble.”

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Afterword from Mooderino
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