No sound came from the open box. I had expected an enraged shriek followed by a string of expletives. Nothing. I gave the box a gentle shake.
“What do you want?” a surly voice asked.
“I need to ask you a few questions,” I said. Keep it plain and simple and maybe we could have a conversation devoid of histrionics.
“Hey, Yuqi,” said Phil. “Been a while.”
“You piece of shit!” Yuqi’s voice rose in volume until it was like standing next to a bass speaker in a nightclub. “What is he doing here? Get him out! Get him out!”
“Holey fuck-a-moley,” said Phil. “Take it easy, babe.”
“Don’t you babe me. You betrayed me. Twice!”
It was strange hearing bickering complaints made in a voice reminiscent of Linda Blair with a crucifix wedged between her thighs. I got the impression there was some history between these two, and I mean more than a casual acquaintance.
“Like I just explained to these guys,” began Phil in a calm, restrained manner that was guaranteed to annoy anyone spoiling for a fight, “whatever happened last time—weretics or whatever—was nothing to do with me. Your complaints and accusations need to be addressed to the other guy.”
“You are the other guy!” insisted Yuqi. “You can’t say otherwise. I saw you. You!”
“You didn’t see me. You can’t see me, so, please, don’t make it sound like you know everything because you don’t.”
“Don’t you roll your eyes.”
Phil had leaned his head back and was in the process of releasing an extravagant fiesta of eye-rolling but cut it short at Yuqi’s words and snapped his head forward. “I’m not. I’m telling you whatever you think I did before, it isn’t what I’ve done in this reality. And this one is the only one that counts. Judge me by what I do now.”
“Oh, you’d like that, wouldn’t you? Forgive and forget. You’ve been very careful, but you’re going to slip up eventually. You’re going to die one day, and when you do… I’m coming for you. Wherever I may be, whatever I’m doing, nothing will stop me clasping you in my smothering arms.”
The way she said it made the flesh creep up my back. If I was Phil, I’d make sure I lived forever.
“Okay, babe, have it your way.” He completed the eye-roll that he’d had locked in his sockets the whole time. “You see how she is? Thinks she’s omnipotent, like a god.”
I bent my head and spoke into the box like it was a microphone. “If you want me to help you, you have to help me. It won’t do any good if they figure out I can do what you could do. How did they catch you?”
“Why don’t you ask Phil?”
I turned to Phil. He was shuffling his cards and acting nonchalant. “How would I know?” He didn’t look up.
“How?” said Yuqi. “How? Because you’re the one who betrayed me to the masters, that’s how.”
Phil shook his head sadly. “I’ve told you a million times,” he said quietly. “I had nothing to do with it. I don’t know how they found out, but it wasn’t from me.”
“Did anyone else know about what you could do?” I asked.
“Of course not. I’m not a fool.” Debatable. “Only the people in my party knew and the others are dead. The permanent kind. Only Phil or David could have betrayed me, and I know it wasn’t David.”
“How do you know?” I asked.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Yuqi. “I just do. Which leaves only one person.”
“As far as you know,” said Phil, “and you don’t know everything.”
“Yes, I do.”
“No, you don’t.”
I snapped the box shut. This was getting us nowhere.
“Okay, that’s enough of that. Phil, whatever issues you have with Yuqi, I don’t want them to affect our relationship. I take it you still want to get out of this place. Or has that changed too?”
Phil nodded. “Nope, that’s my main goal.”
“Then you have to work with me. The ability to stop time, that affects the masters, right?”
Phil continued nodding.
“So we can go to where the masters live and check it out, right? Do a bit of recon?”
Phil’s nodding continued, although not quite so enthusiastically. “I… guess so.”
“Okay, great. I think you can restart time now.”
Phil snapped his fingers and Varg started looking around, his head jerking about suspiciously. He could tell something had just happened but he didn’t know what.
“I insist you explain yourself,” said General Dorma. No one could remember what we’d been talking about before Phil stopped time, so no one had any idea what he wanted explaining.
“About what?” said Phil.
“You know what,” said Dorma, stamping his foot like an unruly child.
Phil puffed out his cheeks. “I really don’t, General.”
“The weretics, man. Is it true what they’re saying? Have you joined their ranks?”
“No,” said Phil. “Of course not.”
“Then why do they think otherwise? There must be some truth to it. I won’t stand for it, I tell you.” He stamped his foot again.
Phil turned to me and hooked a thumb towards Dorma, whose face was reddening. “You’d never guess he was the one who convinced everyone to side with the weretics during the last uprising. And we all know how well that went. It’s the hypocrisy I can’t stand.”
Personally, I saw the hypocrisy coming in a poor third to the killing and eating of people, but we each have our own standards.
“How dare you?” roared Dorma. “That was war. I was prepared to make sacrifices for the sake of my people, not for personal gain. I will do whatever it takes to free us from the yoke of the masters… whatever it takes.”
“And then who will be the master?” asked Phil. “You?”
Phil liked to wind people up. You could see it in the small curve at the end of his upper lip every time his victim’s voice reached another level of vexed. Everyone he spoke to seemed to take the bait and needless bickering would ensue. He was good at it, for sure. Some people like to watch fireworks, some want to light the fuse themselves.
“You think I enjoy being in charge?” said Dorma. “You have no idea the burden it is. The responsibility. The pressure. The complaints. Oh, the complaints. Not enough money, not enough flour, not enough goats. Never enough goats. Everyone wants something. Nobody’s ever satisfied. It isn’t the careless life of luxury you imagine.”
For a moment I felt a kind of connection with this megalomaniac. I didn’t have a city of thousands on my back, but five ingrates were enough to give me a sense of what he was bitching about.
“Whether I continue to lead is for the people to decide,” said Dorma. “My objective is peace and prosperity, whatever the cost. I may not even survive to enjoy the fruits of my labour, but that isn’t important. I do what is necessary.”
Dorma was so wrapped up in his rhetoric, pounding the tabletop and wagging his finger, he’d all but forgotten his gripe with Phil. And all the while, David stood impassively by the door. He hadn’t said anything during the argument between Phil and Yuqi, and he’d made no move to intervene between Phil and Dorma either. It’s the quiet ones you have to watch.
I shuffled nearer to Claire and whispered out of the side of my mouth. “Try to figure out what David’s thinking.”
She gave me a sideways glance and the merest hint of a nod.
“The people will have free elections and choose their own leader,” Dorma continued to drone. “It may be me, it could be someone else. No matter. The task right now is to defeat our enemy.”
“Nice,” said Phil. “Democracy. I like it. You know what they say, you can fool some of the people some of the time, and that’s usually enough to get you elected.”
Phil did have a point. Democracy was hardly an infallible form of government. In fact, it was incredibly easy to manipulate. When decisions resided with the largest group, and it was statistically provable that the majority of people were morons (source: science), all you needed to win was a shiny object on the end of a string. If Dorma wished to be king, I was sure he’d find a way to achieve it.
“Why did you even bring him here?” Dorma said to David.
David pushed himself off the wall he’d been leaning on all cool and indifferent (I’m not being sarcastic, he did actually look very cool). “We’re going to need him. It’s going to be hard enough to do this; without him, it’ll be impossible.”
Dorma harrumphed to himself. “If you say so. He’ll follow orders, though. No rogue operations. This thing needs to be timed to perfection.”
I didn’t know what operation Dorma was referring to, and I didn’t really care. I had my own plans.
“Before you do that, I’ll need to borrow Phil.” They all turned to me. I think they’d forgotten I was there.
“And what do you need him for?” asked Dorma, already unimpressed with whatever answer I was about to give.
“I want to go see where the masters live.”
“Absolutely not!” said Dorma. “I’m not going to authorise a suicide mission.”
“I’m not asking you to authorise anything,” I said. “We’re just going to have a look.”
“Wait,” said Dorma. “You don’t want to take any men with you?”
“No,” I said. “I just need to borrow one of those flying boxes. We should be able to get some useful information, assuming we make it back alive.”
I had no intention of bringing back any intel for Martin Luther King Junior Junior, my real goal was to find Cheng and get his help in leaving this horrible world. With Phil’s ability to stop time, it would be the least riskiest task we’d ever undertaken. Of course, there’s no such thing as a no-risk plan, but this was pretty close.
“Oh,” said Dorma, his eyes lighting up. “You’ll be going alone? Just you and your friends?”
“Easier to sneak in and out,” I said.
Whatever was going on in Dorma’s head, it wasn’t hard to see that wheels were turning. He was concocting some plan or other. Perhaps getting rid of us would ease his road to the Promised Land. Or maybe he just enjoyed the idea of us getting ripped to shreds by the masters. I didn’t care either way. Hopefully, we wouldn’t have to come back here.
“Come on, General, don’t be a scared old woman. It’s a risk worth taking.”
Dorma stiffened a little. “As long as you understand no one’s going to come and rescue you.”
“Was that really necessary?” said Claire. “Why do you have to use being an old woman as an insult?” She was glaring at me. I think she was trying to read my mind. She’d have to be careful not to make it too obvious, although most people would probably take it as unbridled animosity.
“It’s just a turn of phrase,” I said. “Like saying someone throws like a girl. Doesn’t mean girls can’t throw. Just that most of them look like a spaz when they do it.”
“Twaddle!” said Flossie. Somehow everyone was getting the hump with me over nothing. Phil might have been a pro at getting people’s backs up, but I was a born natural.
“Hey, let’s all bear in mind I had a difficult childhood and often say stupid things. Think of it as a mental illness, like Tourette’s, but in fully formed sentences.” This didn’t seem to appease them.
“You realise,” said Jenny, “one day I’ll be an old woman.”
I smiled. “That’s what I like about you, Jenny. Always the optimist.”