Just because this world didn’t consider dying the ultimate end, didn’t mean there was nothing to fear. There are worse things than death.
My sudden promotion to leader of the Nekromel Liberation Army did not make me want to go out and buy myself a new sabre to rattle. I was in danger of being railroaded into a situation I’d have no control over and which would land me in the middle of a fight I had nothing to do with.
General Dorma probably expected me to jump at the chance of being in charge—people with a thirst for power usually assume others must crave it as much as they do.
Or, he might have expected me to be too cowed by the huge crowd to object. The many, many faces staring at me looked eager to accept me as their saviour. They would have accepted a donkey with a bag of lucky rocks as their commander-in-chief if they thought it would save them. I had no intention of saving anyone but myself.
Finding my way out of this predicament was the problem. Public speaking has never been something I enjoyed. Standing up at the front of class at school never went well. But in this case, I decided words needed to be said. And quickly.
“First of all,” I said, “please stop hissing at me. I realise it’s how you express your approval, but it’s stupid and getting sprayed with a mist of saliva is no fun.”
To be fair, they weren’t really spitting very much, but if I wanted to get their attention I had to snap them out of the trance Dorma had put them under with his sweet words and grand promises.
“Before you all get too excited by what this man is promising you, ask yourselves why would he give control of everything he’s spent years setting up to a complete stranger? I’ve only just arrived here, hardly spoken to the man, have no idea what the masters are capable of, yet he wants me to lead your revolution? Doesn’t that seem suspicious?”
A nervous murmur spread around the cavern. I did my best not to look at the people. My voice was shaky and I clasped my hands together to stop them trembling. If I let myself see how many of them there were, I would lose my nerve.
“It’s a classic example of passing the buck. He makes lots of extravagant promises about defeating the masters and a happy ever after, then puts the reins in someone else’s hands so when things go tits up the finger gets pointed somewhere other than at himself.”
I sneaked a look over at Dorma. His eyes were wide with shock and his mouth hung open. I had expected a little more rage and was speaking quickly so I could make my point before he sent his goons to shut me up, but he hadn’t made any moves in that direction, which was a little surprising.
“I don’t even know what makes you think his plan will work. Because he has lovely blue eyes? I understand you have been under the control of the masters for so long any alternative seems preferable, but do you really want to swap one power-mad tyrant for another?”
There was a strange atmosphere in the room. The crowd was quiet. They didn’t seem particularly for or against what I had said, just confused.
Dorma still hadn’t given his men leave to drag me out and beat the shit out of me. My plan had been to go in hard and get a reaction out of Dorma which would show his true colours. I certainly had no intention of becoming his scapegoat. The idea I would lead this revolution was preposterous and possibly a ruse to put me in the hands of the masters.
But Dorma didn’t react the way I expected.
“I think there’s been a misunderstanding,” he said rubbing his hands together. “I wasn’t referring to you, I meant Commander Varg.” He pointed to my left.
I looked over my shoulder. A giant of a man in full armour and carrying a sword I could have used as a surfboard was standing there. He didn’t just look like he could lead an army, he looked like he was the army.
“Oh,” I said, mouth dry, palms moist, a faint singing in her ears, “sorry. My bad.”
I stepped backwards, hoping to disappear behind my party, but they also stepped back giving me nowhere to hide. Bastards.
“Commander Varg,” Dorma said in an attempt to introduce the real leader of the fighting force.
There was some half-hearted hissing, the crowd hesitant to go full throttle after my attack on their culture. The man-mountain Varg awkwardly pushed past me and made his way over to where Dorma waited for him.
Jenny grinned nervously and shrugged her shoulders. “Sorry,” she mouthed as she also moved away so no one would think she was associated with me.
There are indeed things worse than death.
You might think you know how I felt. You might have experienced the heat of embarrassment spread across your face.
You know nothing.
True mortification does not produce a healthy, rosy blush. It is the end of the world where the skies are radioactive clouds and the sea is acid. Its colour is grey and it burns deep in your core.
It is one of the traits of modern life, back on our world at least, that we try our hardest to avoid danger and difficult situations. A safe, secure life is considered the ideal.
However, that isn’t how nature works. Nature’s method of teaching us how to survive is to try and murder us. The nearer to death you get, the better at avoiding it you become. Assuming you survive.
As human beings, we are constantly striving to not play this game. We intellectually figure out what to do in any situation so we won’t actually have to work it out through trial and error; where the ‘error’ could turn out to be something horrendous.
Nature doesn’t give a shit. As far as she’s concerned, there are a lot of us and if some fall by the wayside, no biggie. As long as most of us get through the gauntlet of near-misses that is childhood, job’s a goodun. After that, you’re on your own. Adapt or die.
Humans, being the devious little shits we are, still do all we can to reduce our exposure to life’s tomfuckery. Thanks to society’s safety nets and technology that allows us to overcome even the worst of what nature throws at us, we have it pretty cushy.
The problem with this, though, is that we also don’t gain the advantages that come with surviving disaster. You learn from failing. You grow from defeat. You gain strength from suffering.
A parent might think they’re doing the best for their child by keeping their environment clean and bacteria-free, but if the body never learns to deal with germs, the first time the kid gets a cold, he’ll die.
Despite the risks involved in facing danger, life has been set up so it’s the best way to achieve your potential. You can get by keeping your head down and letting others protect you, but you will be weak and feeble.
The universe makes us suffer because it’s trying to teach us to try harder, be better. Well, fuck that.
Not all horrible experiences lead to you levelling-up. It’s hard to learn the lesson when the lesson leaves you in the foetal position, unable to make coherent sounds.
“I think you’re blowing things out of proportion,” said Jenny.
After the meeting, where Commander Varg gave a rousing speech outlining how they would defeat the demon horde on the Day of Welding when they were at their weakest by doing this and that—I can’t remember the details, I was too busy trying to crawl inside my own wretchedness—we were taken back to the brothel and given rooms upstairs.
“Don’t worry about it so much,” she said in a voice that was meant to be comforting but only rattled my eardrums without making sense. “There were only a few hundred people there. Maybe a few thousand. Even if you did make a fool of yourself, think of it as character building.”
My face was buried in a rank-smelling pillow that had probably recently been used to support some hooker’s sweaty bumcrack as she was pounded in her nether regions. I didn’t care.
“Go away,” I mumbled into my stinky new friend.
“It’s not like anyone was mad at you. They understood you panicked when you thought he was asking you to lead the rebels.”
That was true. They had been very nice about my outburst later. No one asked me to explain myself, they just patted me on the shoulder and gave me a look that suggested they realised it couldn’t be easy being such a huge retard. Dorma even thanked me for complimenting his eyes.
“Really, you shouldn’t blame yourself.”
I sat up, enraged. “I don’t blame myself, I blame you! You’re the one who said he was talking about me.”
“It was an honest mistake. I’m sorry. Really, I am.”
“I was so happy being alone,” I lamented. “Alone and miserable—it was great. And then you tricked me into sleeping with you and look what happens.”
“It wasn’t a trick! It was love.”
“Bah! Potato, po-tah-to. I don’t know what you’re endgame is, succubus, but well played. My life is a horror show, all thanks to you.”
“So you’d prefer it if you were on your lonesome, would you?”
“Loneliness never let me down.”
“It never lifted you up, either,” said Jenny.
“Yes! That’s good. The higher you go, the further you have to fall. You ruined my life.” I fell back onto the bed, which had probably been pickled in the juices of a thousand gruesome fucks, and chewed on the sheets.
“Can’t you just slap him?” Claire asked from the doorway.
“He’s a little upset,” said Jenny.
“I know,” said Claire, “we can hear his whining across the hall.”
“Fuck both of you. I am not whining, I’m undergoing a trauma-induced breakdown. Most people have to go through a war to experience this kind of PTSD, I just had to hang out with you lot.”
Claire and Jenny exchanged eye-rolls. I saw them do it and they knew I saw them, but they didn’t care. No one cared about what I was going through. I should just kill myself and get it over with.
I sat up. Then I stood up. “That’s it! I’ll kill myself. I’ll go back and relive this whole thing and do what I should have done in the first place.” I turned to Jenny. “Completely ignore you.”
“So,” said Claire, “you weren’t prepared to go back in time for any of our sakes, but if it’ll save you a little embarrassment, then it’s worth facing off against your dream jester?”
“That’s right. I only wish I could go back further in time, back to the first day I met you bunch of albatrosses. I’d tell you all to go take a flying fuck. I’d walk out of that shed and never look back. Finally, a plan where I don’t have to rely on anyone but me. I just have to figure out the least painful way to top myself.”
“Slitting your wrists would take too long,” said Claire. “And cutting your own throat is a bit fiddly.”
“Stabbing yourself in the heart would probably work best, “ said Jenny, “as long as you’re accurate.”
Those answer had come very quickly. “Have you been discussing ways to kill me?”
“Ah, well...” said Claire, shiftiness personified. “Yes and no.” She slid her gaze over to Jenny. “Mainly, yes.”
Jenny gave me the nervous grin again. “We might have discussed what to do in an emergency where we needed you to go back in time and you weren’t being… cooperative.”
It was outrageous. “So you planned to kill me? My own party? Great! No, really, that’s brilliant. Why wait for the universe to kill me when you can take out the middleman and do it yourselves. Brilliant, brilliant.”
“It’s not like you’d die,” said Claire, “not properly die. You’d just go back and be able to fix things. Don’t pretend you wouldn’t love being Mr Know-it-all, predicting things before they happened.”
She did have a point. It would be amusing to be able to know what was going to happen before it happened, but that didn’t make it okay for them to have a plan in place for how to send me back without my permission.
“Oh, I’ll fix things. I plan to make a number of changes. I hope you’ll like them.”
Claire’s squinted her eyes and sucked in her lips. “What’s that supposed to mean? What are you going to do?”
I hadn’t thought of anything in particular, not yet anyway, but I would. “Oh, you’ll find out. Don’t you worry.”
“It’s fine,” said Jenny, guiding Claire towards the door before things got heated. “He’ll be okay once he’s calmed down. He was much worse than this before. Said he was leaving and started packing.”
“Packing what?” asked Claire. “We don’t have any luggage.”
“I know. He found a moth-eaten sack under the bed and started filling it with things that didn’t belong to him.”
“I am right here, you know? And I don’t need you to take care of me. I’m not a child. I can look after myself, thank you very much.”
I got up and stomped to the door like a child.
“Where are you going?” Jenny asked.
“I’m going to find David and ask him the best way to kill myself. You amateurs are just wasting my time. The only people worth listening to are people who’ve already done it. Experience, that’s what counts, not the random musings of some ignorant plebs.”
“I love you,” said Jenny.
“Po-tah-to!” I replied and walked off not really knowing where I was going. I’d been in such a daze when they brought us up, I couldn’t remember the layout. It would be embarrassing to find a dead-end and have to walk back the way I came, especially if the two girls were still standing in the doorway.
If it came to that, I’d find a window and jump out. Perhaps that was the death I was looking for. Knowing my luck, I’d break both my legs and lie there while people walked past going, “Oh look, it’s the guy who thought he was going to replace Commander Varg.”
Fortunately, there were some stairs around the corner which led down to the bar. The same, slightly mangled men as before (or some that looked very similar) sat around drinking. There wasn’t much talk and even less as I descended.
All eyes were on me in a way that made me feel small but significant, for all the wrong reasons.
I put my head down and aimed for the door. Once I was through it, I would keep going. Nevermind going back in time, first I wanted to get as far away from everyone as possible.
Only a few more steps and I’d be out in the throng flowing past the open doorway. Another anonymous body swallowed up in the faceless crowds.
The voice came from a shadowy corner to the right of the doorway. The familiarity was disconcerting. I didn’t recognise the voice at all. I paused to take a closer look.
A man was sitting at a small table on his own. He was thin and pale. His large forehead was topped by receding black hair, pulled back and flowing down to his shoulders. His face looked vaguely Chinese, but perhaps not. He was slightly goggle-eyed which made him look very intense.
“You are Colin, right?” His thin lips spread in a wide smile to reveal large, square teeth. “You don’t want to go out there. You’re more famous than you think.”
The thing that most caught my attention, though, were the playing cards in his hands. He riffled them as he spoke, firing them from hand to hand and shuffling them together in expert fashion.
Cards were nothing new, I had seen them often in Flatland, although they were usually poorly made with weird designs on them. These cards were much more familiar. They looked like a regular pack from our world, with hearts and spades and the usual pictures on them.
“Do I know you?” I asked, edging closer to the table.
“Not yet. I’m Phil.” He raised the eyebrows over his bulging Buscemiesque eyes. “Why don’t you take a seat. I’m sure there’s plenty we have to talk about. I’m guessing you’re hungry and you probably don’t have any money. My treat.”
He raised a hand and signalled the man behind the bar. When I turned to look, there was a boy already weaving between tables with a tray in his hands. He ducked under a knife thrown at a picture hanging on the wall, spun around a boot stuck out to try and trip him up and placed a steaming bowl of green soup on the table.
A coin flew through the air and landed on the now empty tray. The boy took off again.
Now that he mentioned it, I was quite hungry. Chunks bobbed attractively in the soup. The smell wafted up to my nose and all hesitation melted away. I sat down and... no spoon.
“Yo!” called out Phil. “You forgot—”
A spoon came whizzing through the air. Phil caught it and slid it across the table to me. I grabbed it and dug in.
Phil continued to flash the cards between his hands.
“You’re pretty good,” I said between mouthfuls. The chunks were crusty bread, the green was some kind of vegetable, maybe. It tasted good, whatever it was.
“I always fancied myself a bit of a magician when I was a kid. Used to practice for hours.” He fanned out the cards and interweaved them. “Not all that impressive in a world where actual magic exists.”
With a flick of his thumb, he tossed a single card out of the pack, the ace of diamonds. It spun into the air where it froze. I mean, it hung there, nothing supporting it, no strings, right in front of my face.
It had suddenly become very quiet. I looked around. Everyone was completely still.
The spoon in my hand wouldn’t move. I let go of it and it stayed where it was in the air. I tried to push it but it wouldn’t budge.
The steam rising off the soup has also stopped moving. I poked it but my finger didn’t go through, it bounced off like I was hitting an ice sculpture.
I looked back at Phil who was grinning at me.
“Now, that’s a good trick, right?”
“You can stop time?”
“Something like that. Nowhere near as useful as it looks, sadly. But combined with the abilities of someone like yourself, we would make quite the team. Our first goal being to get the hell out of this shit hole. What about it Colin? Fancy dumping the deadwood dragging you down and teaming up with me?”