I live in London, or at least I used to. Sometimes I’d go into the city, usually by bus, to where all the famous buildings are. Big Ben, Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace—these iconic landmarks steeped in history, full of endeavour and accomplishment.
And I’d feel nothing.
I’d seen them so many times, in photographs, in movies, exploding, aeroplanes crashing into them, people crawling up their sides and running across their roofs, they didn’t even look real. I barely noticed them, most of the time.
They were just things surrounding me, no different to the Starbucks on the corner or an anonymous office block.
People talk about culture and tradition as though their importance is self-explanatory. It isn’t to me. Patriotism? Why? Other than pure self-interest, why is the place where I live any more important than anywhere else?
Even when I’ve been in a crowd of people thoroughly enjoying themselves, maybe a concert or a festival, I’ve never felt part of something bigger than myself. I’ve never felt connected to the tribe. I never get carried away by the excitement of others.
It made me feel like I was a bit broken. Part of the human experience was denied to me, and it looked like a fairly important part.
Standing on the rim of a mountain, staring at an alien landscape, made me feel something I don’t think I’ve ever genuinely felt before: awe.
It didn’t look like a postcard or a scene from a movie. It looked real. And new.
The sky over the dunes was different to the blanket of clouds that had sat over us since we’d arrived in this world. It was an unending sky with depth that couldn’t be fathomed. Like looking at a filmed fireplace on an HD screen and marvelling at how realistic it appeared, and then looking at an actual fire and realising the fake wasn’t even close.
There were stars. The longer I stared at the sky, the more stars appeared, as though my presence was summoning them, although more likely my eyes were just taking time to adjust. These weren’t just tiny pinholes arranged in patterns, they moved. Some streaked, flickered, some went out as I watched.
A glow on the horizon grew into a ball of dim green light. It looked like a moon but maybe half the size of our own. And it had rings around it like Saturn, but rings that spanned both horizontally and vertically, crossing each other.
It was astonishing. We all stood there, silently taking in the wonder, and we didn’t even need to wear 3D specs.
Light from the stars reflected off the surface below us in a way that seemed impossible, dancing and swirling as winds shifted the sands. Dunes elongated into mountains, and then collapsed. Invisible hands seemed to shape towers and valleys, not in the way waves move across a sea, but forming solid, twisting, gravity-defying structures that look like they could stand a hundred years, only to be wiped away and replaced by something even more fantastical.
And what did all this wonderment make me think? That such beauty shouldn’t be lost? That only evil would seek to destroy these things for its own selfish ends? That I had to do all I could to prevent such a thing from happening?
I felt like this massive jumble of a universe didn’t need saving. Even if I had the ability to do something about it, what would it achieve? All acts were temporary. Nothing lasted. Change was inevitable.
Or was it?
I turned to Phil who was standing beside me. “Can you stop time? I just want to check something.”
He snapped his fingers and everything froze in place. Not just the sands, but the stars too. A whole universe fixed in place. An awesome power. Nothing moved apart from us, but something had changed—the feeling of wonder was gone. It looked unreal, like a James Cameron special effect. Impressive but artificial.
We could stop bad things from happening, but it meant stopping all things from happening. And then what?
“Thanks,” I said to Phil, “that’s enough.” I turned around and walked back to the stables. Inside, the boxes had quieted down. I think they may have been sleeping, but how the hell would you tell?
288 was standing exactly where we’d left him. He was a bit of a wonder himself. A walking penis that could do household chores. Every woman’s dream.
“Are you okay?” Jenny had followed me back. The others were straggling in behind her.
“Yes,” I said. “Tired. Sometimes it would be nice to take a day off and just Netflix and chill. There’s probably a ton of overrated shows we could binge-watch and get absolutely nothing done.”
“Sounds good. I like sappy romances that end badly, fair warning.”
We crashed in the stalls that were empty. Cheng stayed with Mandy who had calmed down a bit and allowed us to eat the rest of her supplies. I’m pretty sure I got the smallest portions out of everyone but I didn’t care. Doughnuts are bad for you, so maybe she was watching out for me.
Maurice and Claire took 288 with them into their stall. Not for anything kinky (at least, I hope not) but because 288 was going to read the manual to Maurice. Claire kept her distance, which seemed a bit unreasonable. Not like she hadn’t handled worse. It’s really not fair to hold it against a guy because he used to be a dick (as I keep telling people).
Phil and David shared a stall. Phil looked knackered. He had used his ability number of times and it had sapped his strength. If we were going to use him in the tournament, we’d have to figure out a way to do it efficiently. There was no point getting Cheng into the finals and then find Phil had run out of juice. If it was possible for other people to use the device, that might be a viable workaround, but first I’d have to convince Phil to show the rest of us how to operate his device. Which meant first getting him to admit there was a device.
David, on the other hand, was fixated on finding Yuqi. That presented a whole other set of problems, although if he did manage to drag her back into the world of the living maybe she wouldn’t be quite so powerful as she was in the darkness.
So much going on, it really made me head spin thinking about it.
“What are we going to do tomorrow?” Jenny asked me as we lay on the straw bedding we’d piled up in the stall.
“Find the treasury and hope there’s something OP in there.”
“Does it really matter?” said Jenny. “As long as we make sure Cheng wins the tournament, we should be okay, right?”
“If everything goes to plan, yes. How often has everything gone to plan?”
She put her head on my chest and wrapped her legs around mine. She didn’t answer because she didn’t need to. We both knew there were a thousand things that could go wrong, and only one that could go right.
That might sound like terrible odds, but it wasn’t evenly distributed. An action guided by purpose will always have a better chance of succeeding than random fuckwittery, especially if you brace to expect the fuckwittery and prepare to dodge.
The one good thing was something we were actively pursuing. The thousand bad ones were just things the universe threw around to amuse itself, not really caring if they stuck or not. Of course, some things are unavoidable. Some universes excel at being fuckwits. If this was that sort of universe, then it deserved what was coming to it.
Strange sounds woke me the following morning. Scuffling and scratching. If flappy-boxes had sex I imagine it wouldn’t sound too dissimilar. I rolled Jenny off me and crawled out of the stall. It was quite dark and hard to locate the source of the noise. I peeked into the neighbouring stall.
Maurice sat cross-legged with his notebook out and a small light attached to the end of his pencil to write by.
“I didn’t know you could do that,” I said, pointing at the light.
He looked at it and then back to me. “Can’t get it bigger than this, but not bad for a noob.”
Claire was asleep next to him, one hand closed in a fist around the hem of his shirt. One way to make sure your boyfriend doesn’t leave you, I guess.
“Did you find out anything new from the manual?”
Maurice turned his body and pointed the light at the corner of the stall. 288 was crouched over the manual, reading it to himself. He was so absorbed he didn’t react to the light at all.
“Not really that useful,” said Maurice. “Basically, someone got hold of a wagon, reverse engineered a controller and started selling them. Problem was, they didn’t come with a wagon and it’s pretty hard to get hold of one. If we can smuggle a few out, we could make a killing.” He grinned at me, ever the entrepreneur. “Most of the manual’s sales guff. I told 288 to read it by himself and let me know if he comes across anything interesting.”
“You think he’ll be able to tell?” I asked.
Maurice shrugged. “I did get some useful information out of him about the masters. Their fighting styles, their preferred weapons, even their names.” He pushed his slipping glasses back up his nose.
“Really? You can pronounce their names?”
“Well, no. But I’ve done close approximations for them. “He handed his notebook over to me. There were rough sketches of the masters with names next to each. Comfort, Unscathed, Dark Melody, Skull Face, Cheeser, Manly, Killdozer, Gamba and Bisquick.
You had to hand it to Maurice, he put the time in.
“Nice. I thought his Dad sounded more like Biscuit.” I handed the notebook back.
“Sure. We can call him that.” He made an adjustment.
There was a flutter of wings and more scuffling. I stumbled out of the stall in time to witness a mass exodus of flappy-boxes. They flew out of their stalls and through the doorway in a swarm, somehow not smashing into each other.
I followed them out. There must have been dozens of them flying off into the pink-white sky, forming a V-shaped formation like geese.
The others slowly came out to stand beside me and watch them circle us as the sky lightened.
The golems were still standing to attention, ignoring us and the flock of boxes. A tremor under my feet drew my attention to the other side of the mountaintop. The masters emerged through the Palace gates. They looked quite chipper as they stomped towards us.
“We leave to collect our tributes,” said Cheng’s father. “Will you come with us?”
“I have my tribute already,” said Cheng placing a hand on Mandy’s shoulder. Her face was a mixture of dread and relief. Sure, she was being selected as a form of nourishment, but it’s still nice to be chosen.
Biscuit nodded. “You may train as you see fit, but the golems have been instructed to make sure none of our guests leaves the stables.” The golems turned and began walking towards us. “I will leave 288 to fetch and carry for you.” He took off. He didn’t even spread his wings, just lifted into the air followed by the other masters.
By the way, I realise, technically, Biscuit wasn’t strictly speaking a ‘he’. Non-sexual beings don’t have a gender, but since he’d built himself a penis I think we can assume he identified as male (with detachable donger).
Speaking of which, the donger in question flapped his wings and flew up to the lead golem. They seemed to be having a conversation. I couldn’t hear what was being said but 288 did most of the talking.
It occurred to me that 288 might be a spy. Had we revealed any key information around him? More than likely, yes, but it was too late to do anything about it now. Unless there was a way to wipe his memory. It would probably require a phenomenal kick up the arse.
It didn’t really matter. If anything Cheng’s father would admire our ingenuity if we broke into the treasury. It was the sort of thing ambitious types expected in others; maybe even admired. The only thing we had to keep secret was Phil’s ability to stop time.
The golems closed in on us, pushing us back inside. They formed a perimeter around the stables and stood sentry to prevent us from leaving. A lot of good it would do them.
Once everyone was ready to move out, Phil activated his time-stop and we walked past the immobile golems without being challenged.
“Now we have to find the treasury,” I said. “Which way to the East Wing?”
“This way,” said 288, flying past me.
Shit. He wasn’t affected by the time-stop. He’d been made when Mr Biscuit wasn’t on this world, so technically he was the same as us—immune. Meaning we had a guide to lead us straight to the treasury, which was good. And that our secret wasn’t going to stay very secret if I didn’t do something about it. Which was bad. Very, very bad.