153. Claire Knows It All

I took the Codex from Flossie and inspected it more closely. As far as I could tell, it was made of wood, was very light and had a myriad of detailed carvings all over it. I brushed my fingertips across the surface looking for openings or switches. I found neither.

Nothing about the box stood out as obviously alien or different to anything else in the room, but for some reason it moved around freely. I tried to turn it like a Rubik’s cube. Would have been cool if it was a puzzle that needed solving—twist up, across, down, down, cheat mode activated!—but sadly it seemed pretty solid with no moving parts except for one. I opened the lid.

“How dare y—” I snapped it shut on the voice mid-screech. Apparently, Yuqi wasn’t affected by the time freeze, either. But she wasn’t in control of the box. If only all conversations could be ended so easily.

“Nearly there,” said Jenny. She’d managed to get her top half through the gap in the window David had slipped out of, and now she was stuck with her legs flailing.

There comes a time in every relationship when you realise the person you’ve fallen in love with is an idiot. It’s a heartwarming moment. The doubt you’ve always had in the back of your mind can be put to rest because you finally understand what made them fall for you; stupidity.

I opened and shut the box a couple of times.

“You will lis—” She was still there. “Stop doing tha—”

Annoying her was fun but not very helpful and probably not very smart. If I died again and ended up back in the void, she would have her revenge. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the box held the answer to some question I hadn’t figured out yet.

“So, where did you say that manual was?” I asked.

“Why?” said Claire from over by Dorma. “I thought you said there was no point getting it because of the language barrier.”

“Yeah, but we could get someone to read it for us.”

Claire’s mouth disappeared into her face as she sucked in her lips. “Then why did you stop us from stealing it?” she said, hardly moving her mouth.

“Are you kidding? Because it was a terrible idea. There’s no way the two of you would’ve been able to sneak past all those soldiers.” I ignored the dirty look she was giving me. “Did Dorma let slip any stray thoughts about this gizmo?”

“No,” said Claire tersely. “That’s not how it works. It has to be at the front of his brain for me to be able to see it.” She had got familiar with her ability remarkably quickly.

“When did you become an expert on how your ability works?”

“There’s no need to sound so surprised. We’re not the idiots you think we are. We can figure things out, too.”

“You couldn’t last time. And you had no trouble reading my mind. It’s a bit odd how things are different this time around.”

“That’s interesting,” said Maurice as he jotted things down in his notebook, “but shouldn’t we be preparing?”

“Preparing for what?” I said.

“For weretics.” He turned back a few pages. “You said last time, Phil appeared with a weretic and ripped off Dudley’s head.”

“Don’t say that, you’ll set them off again,” I whispered, waving my hand to get him to keep his voice down. It was too late. The mention of Dudley’s sacrifice had turned Flossie all starry-eyed. I think she may even have started cooing like a dove. Her intense adoration turned Dudley’s face beetroot-red. Not often decapitation is considered a romantic gesture.

Jenny let out a short scream and fell out of the window. Fortunately, we were on the ground floor, so she didn’t fall to her death. Not that death was that big a deal in this world.

“I made it!” said Jenny, her head reappearing and disappearing as she jumped up and down outside the window. “What should I do now?”

“Come back in,” I said and turned back to Maurice. “The plan’s simple. If Phil turns up with a weretic, we surrender.”

“That’s your plan?” said Claire, not sounding very impressed. Actually, she sounded appalled.

“Trust me,” I said, “we won’t win in a fight.”

“Shouldn’t we put up a little resistance, for appearance’s sake?” asked Dudley, all fired up thanks to Flossie’s ardent devotion. Public displays of affection are horrible to witness. The glow you see around people madly in love is common sense leaving their body.

“No,” I said. “Appearances can fuck off.”

Dudley seemed a little hurt by my casual dismissal of his proposal, but it was okay. Flossie would make him feel better. And then he’d be back to make another retarded suggestion.

“The more time we buy, the more information Claire can get for us. We don’t know how many times we’re going to have to go through this, the more we know the better.” Seemed like a reasonable plan.

“I told you, it’s not that simple,” complained Claire. “Just because I can pick up what people are thinking doesn’t mean I understand it. People don’t always think clearly. And just because they think it, doesn’t mean it’s true.”

I was quite surprised by how a little time spent in other people’s brains had expanded Claire’s own view of what went on inside a person’s head, and how little it could mean.

“Yes,” I agreed. “People often think things that are wrong. Sometimes they don’t even believe it themselves, but they can’t help thinking it. The thing about the brain is, so much of it is operating without our permission. What people ‘think’ is the least reliable thing about them. What they ‘say’ is only slightly more reliable. And what they do is the only thing that really matters. But that doesn’t mean you can’t glean some useful information with a little probing. You just have to know what you’re looking for.”

Claire unclenched her jaw and her infuriated grimace downgraded into something a little more perplexed and reflective. “How am I supposed to know what I’m looking for?”

“Who the fuck knows?” I responded helpfully.

I went over to the door and tapped it with the Codex. Maybe something would transfer and the door would be released. I tried turning the handle. Rock solid.

“What are you doing?” asked Maurice, notebook at the ready.

“The only things that should be able to move are us, because we aren’t from this universe. Same as our clothes or your notebook. But if this box can move, maybe it has some special property that can be passed on.” I shook the Codex over the handle like it was a salt cellar. Fairy dust, maybe?

I tried the handle again, not expecting anything different. It moved. Followed by a scraping sound from behind me. I spun around as Varg completed drawing his sword.

“What’s going on?” said Dorma, suddenly returned to life. “How did you move like that?” He slumped into his chair, his eyebrows knitted together in bafflement. He peered around the room like he was looking for hidden cameras.

Phil must have reactivated time, and from Dorma’s viewpoint, it must have looked like we had all jumped to different positions in the room.

Before anyone could answer the General’s question, the door opened. We all ran around the other side of the desk, much to Dorma’s surprise.

“What are you doing?” he cried as we rushed to get behind his chair.

Even without establishing a plan of action, each of us unilaterally came to the same conclusion—the big guy with the sword could fight the monster.

Varg had no idea why we suddenly legged it away from a mere door opening, but he held his sword steady and pointed it at the door. The corded muscles along his arm tensed.

Phil walked in and immediately raised his hands. “Hey, come on, chill. No need to look all freaked out, I come in peace. Do you think you could put the sword away?”

Varg kept his sword held out in front of him, although his eyes slid from side to side as he tried to make sense of what was going on.

David walked in behind Phil. No weretics appeared. Which didn’t mean they weren’t about, but the lack of screaming and viscera splattering suggested things weren’t going to go the same way as last time. I remained firmly behind Dorma’s chair.

“Are you alone?” I asked.

“Sure, who else would I be with?” said Phil innocently. He looked the same as last time, the same clothes, the same bulging Buscemi eyes.

“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe gigantic monsters who eat people.”

Phil curled his mouth into one corner of his face in contemplation. “You’ll have to narrow it down a bit. That could be almost anyone in this place.”

“Weretics, Phil, I’m talking about the weretics you’ve joined up with.”

Dorma leapt to his feet. “What? Is this true?”

Phil shook his head. “No way, man. You’re all tripping if you think I’d make a deal with them guys.” He shuddered. “Just thinking about it gives me the chilly willies. Those guys are crazy.”

“That’s very convincing,” I said, “but cut the shit, Phil. I already know you made a deal with them.”

Phil turned to David. “He’s the guy, huh? Figures. Just like Yuqi.” He turned back to me. “Look, we should probably have this conversation in private, so….” He snapped his fingers and everything froze again.

“Ah, could you just…” Jenny had managed to get herself halfway back into the room when Phil stopped time and now she was stuck again.

“Ignore her,” I said. “She’s just looking for attention. What do you mean, just like Yuqi?”

“It was the same with her,” said Phil. “She jumped back in time so many times, she was convinced she knew everything. What was going to happen, who people were, how they were going to act… it was all bullshit. She got more and more paranoid and deranged the more things didn’t work out the way she expected. That’s not how it works. Things don’t stay the same. I’m not the guy you met last time. Even though things might look the same, the choices I made, the reasons I made them, they defined the person you met. Not me, him. You’ve never met me, this me, and you can’t blame me for things he did. I might make the same choices, I might not, but you don’t get to judge me based on what you’ve seen me do any more than if you’d seen me commit murder in my dreams. I’m not responsible for those actions, you get where I’m coming from?”

What he said did make sense. If the universe wasn’t nailed down the way I thought it was, then each time I went back the variables would be... variable. It made the whole time loop thing a lot less attractive as a way to game the system.

“How did Yuqi get caught?” I asked coming out from behind Dorma’s chair. “Do the masters have a way to detect me going back in time?”

Phil shrugged. “They were waiting for us when we arrived. I mean, it probably wasn’t the first time we arrived, even though that’s how it appeared to us. Yuqi stalled them while we got away. She probably thought they’d kill her and she’d get to do another loop, but they didn’t want her to die. They knew, but how…”

“I’m back!” said Jenny as she fell through the window head first.

I ignored her and looked over at Claire and then at everyone else. I didn’t want to make it too obvious, but it was enough of a glimpse to catch Claire’s slight nod. Phil was telling the truth, at least as far as his thoughts were concerned.

“You really did join up with the weretics,” I informed him. “Which means you’re at least capable of betraying us.”

He didn’t seem too put out by this assessment. “Everyone’s capable of it. The only thing that matters is if you actually do it.” He reached into a pocket, took out a pack of cards and began shuffling them.

“Ace of diamonds?” I asked him, referring to the card he’d had made to do the time-stop trick with.

He stopped shuffling and fanned the cards out in one hand. He picked out one card.

“Ace of spades.” He held up the card. It was hand painted and not quite the same as the rest. “You know, Yuqi wasn’t usually that far off.”

I looked at my group again, from one to the next, coming to rest on Jenny who had got back to her feet. Was I really in the same world I’d entered the first time? Were these the real people I’d shared the last few months with, or just very similar versions from another timeline?

I looked at the box in my hand and thought about Yuqi. She had been in my place and this was how she ended up, what if I went the same way? Just thinking about it was enough to drive you bonkers. Talking about it didn’t make things much clearer but that was probably because I didn’t know the right questions to ask. What I need to do was talk to someone with more experience.

I flipped the box open.

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