“There’s no harm in it,” said Wesley. “Perhaps he’ll be able to see something we missed.”
All I’d asked of them was to take me to the island through their secret tunnel or whatever. Seemed like a fairly minor request considering they wanted me to help them conquer the world.
Arthur stretched his face into the shape of someone who doubted very much what he had just heard. The idea I would spot something he had failed to see, well, it was ridiculous.
“We should stay here. It’s safe, no one knows our location and we can react quickly if things don’t go as planned.” He punched the air like victory was imminent. I wasn’t really feeling it.
Arthur looked like Richina. He sounded like her, too, but there was a difference in how he moved, even when he stood still. It was like he had woken up recently and was trying to work out the kinks, twisting and turning various joints.
“Before you get too invested in this plan of yours,” I said, “I should probably make it clear that I have no intention of waiting here with the two of you. I have nothing against your ambitions — good luck to you. The way I see it, world domination doesn’t have to mean you’re a narcissistic madman just because everyone else who ever tried it happened to be. A couple of hundred bad apples shouldn’t ruin it for the rest of the aspiring despots and dictators, right? You’ve got to have a dream or how you gonna have a dream come true? It’s not you I have an aversion to working with, I just have no interest in helping people in general. I find it’s like lending money to a friend. Eventually it ruins the friendship and you still don’t get your money back.”
“But this is for your benefit,” said Arthur. His wings (on his female body) stretched out, making him look huge and imposing, while de-emphasising his waistline. Perfect for women who want to spread terror from the skies while maintaining a svelte outline.
The wings seemed to reflect his mood, although that didn’t really help me figure out what his mood was, just that he was having one.
“That’s great. I’m still not interested.”
The wings bent back, like they were about to snap forward and slap me on either side of my face. Whichever mood this was, it wasn’t one of the good ones.
I wasn’t particularly intimidated, though. As everyone knows, Angel was easily the least powerful of the original X-Men. He could fly and… that was it.
The other four — Cyclops, Beast, Iceman and Marvel Girl — had useful abilities when it came to fighting crime. Angel could watch them do it from a safe distance. Actually, I wouldn’t have minded that role.
Wings as a superpower just aren’t impressive. They look cool, but what can you really do that a regular person can’t? Get places quicker? That makes your special ability commuting. Not really that practical in a fight against a supervillain, unless your nemesis happens to be rush hour traffic.
“Why are you even in that body?” I said. “It’s weird.”
“No, it isn’t,” said Arthur, brilliantly countering my point. “This body has been carefully prepared to withstand fairy attacks.”
“But there aren’t any fairies here,” I pointed out.
“It is better for me to be in this form and ready,” said Arthur. “It takes a little time to get used to.”
The wings flapped and Arthur rose off the ground, then he listed to the left and performed a lopsided fly-by. I could see why he wanted to wait in here until the fighting was over.
“You can’t stop, can you?” I said as he slowly circled me.
“I can. I am fully in control. I just need a second.” He straightened up, for a moment, and then tilted the opposite way and began drifting back in the opposite direction. Clearly, this was the team I was meant to be on.
“Since time has stopped outside,” I said, trying not to get dizzy as Arthur circled me, “we can go to the island and then come back in time for the main event.”
“We can’t. We mustn’t.” Arthur sounded distressed, but whether that was due to my insistence on leaving or his lack of stability with his vertical thrusters, it was hard to tell.
“Arthur,” said Wesely, a little edge to her voice, “don’t be so inflexible.”
“You don’t see the big picture,” said Arthur. He had stopped moving but was still hovering at an angle. If he was this off-balance under no pressure, what was he going to be like in combat? “We need to be here in case something goes wrong. It’s the unexpected intervention we need to be ready for. Peter won’t sit back and let things proceed to his ultimate detriment.”
“And what do you plan to do if things do go wrong?” I asked.
“It depends on what in particular goes wrong,” said Arthur. I could see this wasn’t going anywhere.
“Okay, well you stay here and keep an eye on things, and me and Wesley will go check out the island. How about that?”
“No!” he said, rather too emphatically for it to be a friendly suggestion. “You have to stay here. Without you…”
“Yes? Without me, what?”
Hesitantly, Arthur revealed the true nature of our partnership. “If things go poorly for us, you may have to intervene.”
“No, thanks. If things go poorly, it’s up to you to sort them out. I didn’t agree to anything.”
Arthur’s wings had taken on a metallic sheen they hadn’t had when Richina was in the driving seat. It made them reflective when they stretched out, forcing me to look at a dozen images of myself. A cruel and unusual form of punishment.
“Put those away,” said Wesley. “You know he can leave anytime he wants. There’s no point arguing with him.”
She wasn’t exactly telling him off, but she wasn’t being very gentle either. Her attitude when speaking with Arthur was very different to how she spoke to me. Did spending a lot of time with someone you cared for automatically turn you into being exasperated and snippy with them? If so, I had cared for a lot more people than I thought.
“But it’s better to stay here,” whined Arthur, already sounding defeated.
These two did come across like a couple who genuinely cared for one another. Unfortunately, that didn’t mean their plans for the rest of us were going to be very pleasant. Well-meaning doesn’t necessarily result in well-doing.
“Perhaps I should just go,” I said. “I don’t want to be the cause of any marital strife. Plus, you’re both making me cringe like crazy. I’m not really good around people being embarrassingly familiar with one another.”
They both stared at me like I’d said something awful. It’s a gift I have, bringing people together.
“We will all go,” said Wesley. “You should see Grim Mushroom for yourself. It is the only way for you to fully appreciate what’s at stake.”
“What about Fengarad?” said Arthur, not quite ready to give in. The idea of Wesley taking me to see this mushroom seemed to set him off again. What was the deal with this fungus? Maybe it was a magic mushroom. Although, what did that mean in a world with actual magic in it? Did it talk and offer recipe ideas?
“I’m sure they’ll manage,” I said. “I left them with an army and lots of encouraging words.”
“But the city will be laid to waste, and your friends,” said Arthur, “they’ll be killed.”
“I doubt it,” I said. “And even if they are, I’m sure they’ll get over it.”
Arthur was finding it difficult to make me see things from his perspective. People often can’t understand when you don’t see the importance of the thing they deem vital. The value of something is hard to pin down, even though it should be clear to all. But value is an odd concept.
When it’s a number, it is the most specific term possible. Number of fish in a pond, the temperature of a room, the speed of a car — these numbers represent a fixed value we can all agree on.
On the other hand, value when it refers to worth is a completely separate and arbitrary idea that varies from person to person. What something is worth entirely depends on the context.
It goes from being a very exact number, to something you can only define in relation to something else, like you’re trying to describe a colour.
The truth is everything is worth nothing unless you decide otherwise. And then its value is whatever you say it.
What’s a diamond worth? It used to be the epitome of preciousness. If someone was going to rob something from a museum in a movie, it would always be diamonds. No need for further explanation.
Now that the Chinese can grow diamonds in a lab that no expert on Earth can tell apart from natural diamonds, how can you be sure you’ve got the real thing? And what difference does it make?
Give it a couple of years, and you’ll be able to print out a diamond necklace off a 3D printer.
The point was that I didn’t consider power and money to be particularly valuable. Certainly not worth going out of my way for. This had put me in conflict with a lot of people. After all, you had to be able to bribe people with something they wanted if you planned to trick them into doing something terrible. But if Playstation couldn’t tempt me with their console exclusives, XBox certainly couldn’t, if you know what I mean.
“Come on, Arthur, time to make up your mind. Are you coming or staying? I never force people to do anything, I just abandon them.” Somehow I had managed to make a message of tolerance sound like a terrible crime. I was quite pleased with how it had come out.
Arthur folded his wings. “Very well. I still think this is a mistake.”
“I know,” I said. “Luckily, no one cares what you think.” I was on a roll.
“I care,” said Wesley, taking Arthur’s hand. Which would have been a lovely gesture, except her husband was currently inside the commandeered body of a slightly plump angel. So it just looked a bit freaky.
“This way, then,” said Arthur, resigned and defeated. That’s how you could tell they really were married.
The two of them began walking into the void. It would have been nice if there’s been a yellow brick road, or maybe pavement slabs that lit up when you stepped on them, but they just wandered about in the dark.
After about five minutes of walking, they both stopped.
“Here we are,” said Arthur. “I hope you’re happy.” He was determined to make his sulking an integral part of the experience.
“Where?” I said. Nothing seemed any different in this corner of nothingness compared to the previous bit we’d been in.
“The island,” said Arthur. “This is it.”
I made a ball of light so I could see the nothing more clearly. You know what they say about the infinite void, once you’ve seen one...
As the area around us grew brighter, a figure appeared in the distance. It looked like a man sitting cross-legged. He had long white hair down to his lap, and that was all I could make out.
My heart skipped a beat. Was this the guru I’d been searching for? Senpai, notice me.
“Who’s that?” I found myself whispering for no reason.
“That’s Shroom,” said Wesley. Neither her or Arthur seemed keen on getting any closer.
“Is he a Visitor?”
“Yes,” said Arthur.
“No,” said Wesley. “We don’t know. He won’t talk to us. Never has, apart from the first time. I won’t repeat what he said. It wasn’t very nice.”
I slowly advanced. It was noticeable that the other two stayed where they were. Probably a warning I should have heeded. But I was young, I was stupid. I had a strong urge to cry out, “Master, I’ve found you!” and run towards him in slow motion.
As I approached, his eyes opened. They were all white and glowing. Avatar state. And then he spoke, saying the words I would never forget. “Fuck off.”
Classic senpai opening line.
“Hello,” I said cheerfully. He was the first person in a long while who seemed genuine. I really believed he wanted me to fuck off. “Nice to meet you.”
Now that I was closer, I could tell he was hovering above the ground. Hard to see when everything’s black on black.
“So… this is the island, gateway to the stars. I’m Vinz Clortho, Keymaster. Are you the Gatekeeper?”
“Do you want to die?” he asked in a cold monotone.
“I’m not sure,” I said. “I haven’t made up my mind. Would you recommend it?”
The glowing eyes turned off, with normal, slightly annoyed eyes taking their place. He continued to hover with his legs crossed.
“Why are you here?” His voice had lost some of its animosity. Not most, but some.
“Well, quite a few reasons, actually. Have you seen a guy called Maurice around and about? I lost him in the vicinity. Black chap, glasses, overbite. Very insistent about playing Monopoly by the official rules.”
“Does he think Batman would beat Superman?”
“That’s him!” I said.
“Do you agree with him?”
“Well, Batman always does beat Superman, but that’s only because it makes for a better story.”
“That’s what I said,” said the long-haired weirdo.
“It’s not just that,” said another voice. “Batman has the advantage of humility. He expects to lose.”
“Maurice?” I looked around, but there was only the darkness. Mind you, he was black, so… And no, that isn’t racist, it’s an evolutionary advantage.
Next two chapters are up now on Patreon.Afterword from Mooderino