EX/WHI :: Part Nine

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It’s a second before Chris grasps who Ami is talking to, that her honesty and intelligence might count for something if they’re no longer trapped in such an enclosed space. Looking outside, there’s no doubt this won’t be London they’re walking into, but what happens after that would be far easier to cope with if they knew their captors were more friendly than evil. The same breeze that miraculously fixed the table brushes past his left cheek, then there’s a tingle in his fingers, before on the counter to his right a familiar set of sweats materialises, plus what he knows will be very comfortable Nike trainers. There’s a backpack too: not too heavy, inside which are canteens for water plus silver foil-wrapped squares that look an awful lot like protein bars…

Ami has her own rations, and what are undoubtedly army fatigues, plus Doc Martins. All she can do is stare at the pile, with what Chambers will guess is a mind finally accepting she’d pitched their situation just right. Someone, at this point, ought to be grateful too for their gifts, because that’s what they are, and he’s hardly contributed to this entire endeavour thus far.

‘Thank you. This is much appreciated. Give us time to get ready, and we’ll head outside.’

Chris can’t look upwards as he is suitably grateful, because mind’s marvelling at what just transpired. Ami didn’t ask directly for what was provided, and yet that was what their captors took as the request: change of clothes, food and water plus an indicator they were expected to leave, or why else would backpacks be provided? She’s already getting changed, without a word, and there’s a reason: everything they say and do is absolutely being monitored, so maybe it is time to choose conversation with care. He goes to fill his canteens from the bathroom sink, allowing her privacy to get changed, before coming back and removing his own suit. She then repeats the courtesy for him: returning with water, they’re both ready to venture outside.

The backpack has nothing sharp, anything that might act as a potential weapon. Perhaps it is time to assume they’ll be no need to fight and stop worrying about protection. However, it would be great to feel safe, and right now Chambers really doesn’t. Everything is potentially a test, for observers who might expect vastly different results than what is acceptable as human behaviour. He’s also concerned at the implications of one woman and one man abducted as a pair: if he’s been selected as breeding stock, they really picked the wrong guy.


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EX/WHI :: Part Eight

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From being concerned about his mental state, Ami is watching Chambers recover and consolidate with a speed that is more than encouraging. In fact, it is almost as if he registered her shift into panic, as mind began to struggle with remembrance that this was one scenario both police and Secret Service had trained her for but had never been considered until now. If she had been prepared, maybe Chris had too: the desire to ask irreversibly blanks out everything else in a breath.

‘I have a question, to you, related to this current situation.’

‘Shoot.’

‘Did you get training for a scenario where you’d not be expected to survive?’

‘Wow… okay…. um… we did stuff at Langley in both first and last years of Probie Training on the Doomsday Scenario: how to kill yourself as painlessly as possible, if it came down to it, how to reconcile with your God, whoever she might be. Mostly, the end equated to chemical attacks or nuclear warfare. I bet the CIA are gonna have a field day when it transpires that Roswell wasn’t a joke after all.’

‘How did you cope?’

‘By not assuming it was the end until I’d done everything else in my power to prevent it. If I hadn’t survived that you’d be doing this with someone else, but you saw me switch off earlier, just as I saw you panic just then. I’m not gonna lie, this is tough. However, if we’re here as lab rats, that’s a reality that’s easier to grasp than being… anally probed. Maybe that happens once we work out how to escape.’

He’s right, of course: instinct and joint trust have got them both this far. Ami’s confident, at least right now, that she’s not been abducted to be experimented on. To go to all this effort, creating the coffee bar in such meticulous detail seems odd if all someone wanted to do was cut you open and poke your insides. This has the feel and sense of observation, watching how they react to the changes in circumstance… and maybe therefore escaping is integral to that process. Perhaps they’ve been taken to test their endurance…

‘You really think we’re prisoners?’

‘If we weren’t, why else is the door closed?’

‘It’s not.’

A version of reality has returned outside the window, but there’s nobody walking past. The sounds of a busy City of London street are absent too, but the now very obviously open door creates a change in ambience between here and there which is a surprise. The overriding temptation is to run outside and look, but Ami won’t react from instinct, can’t let the adrenaline own her. Instead, she looks up to the ceiling: taking a deep breath, there’s a larger urge to talk to something she knows is there but cannot see.

‘You must be listening to all this, be aware we grasp what’s going on. Maybe that’s the reason why you picked me and Chris in the first place, because you knew we wouldn’t be frightened by such an obvious change in circumstance. I’m not really looking forward to spending what might be the rest of my life in this suit, and I’ve not eaten properly for at least 72 hours. I’m not expecting you to let us go, but a gesture of goodwill would not go amiss.’



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EX/WHI :: Part Seven

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Ami expression is all the confirmation needed: she’s completely serious. There’s also an emerging belief that the woman is absolutely right: normally in those pulpy Netflix TV box sets he’d watch, the protagonist took at least an hour before it became apparent he was in an abduction scenario. Something has been up since he woke in the Hotel room: only now do these pieces fit into some kind of recognisable picture.

‘How much weird shit has happened to you since breakfast? Be totally honest.’

‘Okay, I woke up and went to the bathroom and got lost. I thought it was jet-lag, like the guy walking past the window, but now I realise the door to the bathroom moved. It started by the bathtub, then it’s by the john, and they were on opposite sides of the room!’

‘Do you happen to remember when this was? About 8.15-ish, perhaps?’

‘Yeah, ‘coz I’m listening to the radio and it stutters, like the same advert repeats a second time and I think this is weird, and that was 8.17, so -’

‘I wonder if that’s when we got shifted into this simulation. I was in traffic at 8.15, coming through Docklands. I thought I’d fallen asleep at the wheel at some traffic lights -’

‘Simulation?’

‘Can you think of a better word for a thing that we both assume is reality right up until the point we stare closely at it, when it becomes apparent we’ve been fooled?’

‘No, simulation is exactly the right sci-fi word for this. How did we not notice it before?’

‘Because we’ve been sleep deprived and confused. If you wanted to kidnap and disorientate someone with a less than perfect copy of their existence, you’d lower their ability to react under pressure.’

Under the word ‘Aliens’ in lipstick, Ami now adds ‘Simulation began at approx 8.15am.’ He can see her hand shaking, wants to reassure, but absolutely won’t use physical means to do so.

‘You’re not alone. Don’t forget that. I’m losing my shit here too, for what its worth, because I have no idea how to even process this effectively. What I do know, from your file, is you have the best analytical mind of anyone in the Service right now. Keep explaining to me why it’s aliens until I’m able to catch up, okay?’

She looks at him, really stares for the first time, before taking a deep breath.

‘There is no way this is a hallucination, because I’ve had those before and know full well that something this complex isn’t how that works. We certainly wouldn’t be sharing that experience either, but it is now abundantly apparent that you and I have been connected by more than a court case and a love of dance music. This whole room, the bouncy set dressing, the fact the only edible things are items we bought ourselves… there’s a logic here, you see it?’

‘Absolutely. At 8.15 this morning… or thereabouts we were removed from our reality and transferred into a… copy. We were both hungry and tired, and this was the first coffee bar from the hotel. The car may well have been rigged to scare us and then force us on foot… where we both followed the smell of food and walked into this trap, after which the cage door was swung shut behind us. Like the ignorant monkeys we clearly are, we’ve now become lab rats.’



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EX/WHI :: Part Six

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The bottles behind the cafe’s counter might look full of alcohol but it is immediately apparent they’re empty, and not even made of glass. What Chris finds fascinating is the illusion they create: same weight, even with obvious transparency, but constructed from something unbreakable, that bounces back every time he throws one at the floor. As he attempts to destroy an increasing number of items from hand to ground, Ami is investigating fridges and storage areas. Her conclusions are not comforting: apart from what they jointly bought on arrival, everything else is an elaborate copy.

An incredulous mind is slowly adjusting to their new reality, because that’s what it is. They’ve already established in the last hour by their watches (which still work) that they’re prisoners, there’s absolutely no way in or out of this facsimile, the toilets still function and there’s water they won’t yet drink. With nothing sharp or dangerous enough to make even a dent in what appears to be an impressive and quite bouncy outer wall, they instead investigate the bounds of confinement. Chris has done his best to brute force anything that might look like it could act as a weapon but after the incident with the table, nothing budges.

‘We could try and hurt ourselves and see what happens.’

Chris looks at Ami, who’s holding something in her hand that is obviously not part of the illusion, which is a surprise.

‘I really wish this was a gun or a bomb and not just lipstick, but it at least allows us to make notes. We need to work out what we know, so there’s a chance of answering questions that make no logical sense.’

Her lack of panic or incredulity has been amazingly impressive since regaining consciousness: without Bishop’s pragmatism, he’d have probably just sat and hugged his knees for a long time before wanting to work out answers, not allowing reality to seep into this nightmare. However, she needs to be running the problem, and is already writing a word them on the top of the long, dark wooden serving bar which, as it transpires, was his first thought about their abductors too.

‘I read an inordinate amount of science fiction as a kid. Tons of the stuff, watched all the TV shows. I know what this is, because that’s the only logical explanation for what just happened.’

‘I was big on Buck Rogers, did you get him in the UK?’

‘Yeah, and Wonder Woman, and that thing with the metal bad guys -’

‘Cylons. They at least looked like aliens. What makes you so sure that’s what this is?’


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EX/WHI :: Part Five

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Everything hurts, everywhere, and this is not good.

Moving from lying to sitting is an effort, but Chris is awake, desperately trying to piece together what happened to induce unconsciousness. He’s lying on the floor of the coffee shop, last piece of Apple Danish where it was dropped, before the entire World literally shifted around them –

Where’s Ami?

He’d felt heartbeat racing, body shuddering and watched as she passed out in his arms, shortly before he had done the same… except it hadn’t been via concussion or physical intervention. They’d been starved of oxygen, that he’s convinced of, but what happened before…? Staring at her prone, lifeless body, everything comes back in a rush, followed by an immediate need to check his partner’s alive. Her body should be in the recovery position at least: as hand reaches down an incredibly muscular leg comes up, forced into chest as body is launched into the air and back onto a table, which summarily disintegrates under both weight and impact.

I woke up and panicked, she’s awake thinking I was the enemy. One of us is not phased by what just happened: I need to get my shit together, because she really is very good.

‘Oh fuck I’m so, sorry, I assumed -’

‘I was a bad guy. It’s okay, at least there’s no worry you’re still incapacitated.’

‘I dunno about that, why does everything suddenly hurt so much?’

‘Well, that was my next question. You’re not alone.’

Picking himself up from the shattered wooden remains, Chris comes to help Ami to her feet. Physically she looks no different, but believable reality is not as concrete as it was when he woke up for the first time today. Turning to survey the damage they’ve just caused, air around them both moves, breeze that is anything but normal, somehow prompting the table to instantly and unnervingly reconstruct itself back to pre-impact state. Chris’ SIG is no longer in the holster either, giving nothing to point at this sorcery as reassurance, so staring will have to suffice as logic stops operating, giving brain the finger before leaving his body with disgust.

‘I have no weapon, and am officially out of my depth.’

‘Neither do I: on reflection, nothing from this point forward is likely to conform to our idea of normal. I’m happy to think for us both for a while, it’s okay.’

‘You go right ahead. I didn’t imagine the room upside down either, did I?’

‘Not if furniture’s putting itself back together, you didn’t, Mr Chambers. At least they stopped running the movie outside what I’m now thinking is probably a prison.’

There’s obvious daylight coming into the cafe, but Chambers isn’t looking out at London any more: instead an odd, white space radiates the illusion of… well, space. He needs to sit down where he stands right now, because all of this has just staggered beyond too much to cope with. Ami doesn’t stop him: instead she goes to the large, glass double doors and stares for a moment, before pulling keys to the car out of her pocket. Taking a step back, the bunch is thrown towards what used to be an exit but at the moment of impact they are flung back, over her head before landing near the toilets.

Suddenly, he’s very grateful somebody else has voluntarily offered to be a grown-up until he’s back in the game. Watching the walk back, picking up keys, standing and assessing: mentally thinking through their joint predicament is absolutely what Ami is doing, with a calmness which is immediately reassuring. Meeting his gaze without fear, there’s a decision made that is both logical and fair.

‘Yup, this is definitely a prison, and we need to know why.’



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EX/WHI :: Part Four

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His bitterness is a surprise, Ami concludes with understandable resignation. He’s undoubtedly one of the Good Guys, already warmed to because at no point has any action suggested he’s seeing her as anything other than equal. An increasing conviction emerges that cheap gags or easy answers don’t exist in his repertoire: once you’ve had it with the opposite sex, there’s no need to worry about their rituals to begin a relationship. He stares instead of at her across the World, moving outside glass of the coffee bar, oddly obsessed with people passing to and from the City, before turning with clear confusion.

‘Something’s wrong here, tell me this isn’t just jet-lag.’

‘What are you seeing?’

‘Watch this guy outside, the one with the umbrella and the black backpack. I’m convinced he’s been past the window at least three times…’

As eyes follow the well dressed, middle aged man, something truly amazing transpires: as soon as city trader moves out of range of the glass window, he inexplicably vanishes. Literally blinking out of existence, the same individual returns to his point of origin, appearing again on the other side of the road before commencing an identical journey. With mounting horror, Ami grasps that this background might look like a busy London street, but the people trapped within it are simply recordings, looped to give an appearance of a busy rush hour scene.

The horror isn’t restricted to outside either: turning to look at the coffee bar, patrons are acting as if they were characters in a video game: same movements, repeated conversations, all looped to give the impression of normality. Staring at Chris, he’s doing his best not to look frightened but this is currently beyond collective comprehension. If an enemy was going to try and intercept them on the way to the Royal Courts of Justice, this is an incredibly complex and horribly expensive bait and snare. It makes no sense, when you could bundle them both into a van. This is something to do with the car, her sleepless night, his plane trip and the ozone…

She can taste that smell everywhere, which is beginning to inhibit breathing.

They’re in real trouble: brain is running too fast, anxiety now gnawing at the edges of consciousness. The coffee’s done nothing to help, and Ami needs to be moving, not sitting. Chambers anticipates her and is already standing, motioning her to do the same, but as they do the entire World shudders, throwing him into her body. They cling onto each other for a moment before the entire coffee bar appears to rotate completely on its axis: tables end up above them a joint grips tighten, pulling them closer not simply for protection.

The nightmare does not affect anyone else, however, their recorded lives continuing unabated: the morning rituals on a loop, oblivious to nightmare scenario playing out for Chambers and Bishop. Neither are now capable of movement, frozen in a moment of time that has been taken out of their hands: for a second both think the exact, same thought, before consciousnesses shut down.

I don’t want to die like this.

==

The suitability of this match is
even more fortunate
than was first considered.



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EX/WHI :: Part Three

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Neither of them trust the car any more, so it is abandoned. Walking into the City, weather is impossibly muggy, precursor to storms moving from Europe northwards, breaking an unopposed two week’s worth of sunshine and shirtsleeves. Chris would dearly like to lose the jacket but remained unwilling in the underground parking area to remove his weapon, a feeling Ami completely agreed with. Both have spent decades understanding that when stuff went wrong, there was always a reason: today’s court appearance may now be anything but routine, so alert is their plan.

Neither is nearly awake enough either, so this unscheduled coffee stop serves several purposes. This is an extremely passable Apple Danish, Chambers decides, almost perfect combination of sweet and soft to make taste-buds forgive him for the handful of peanuts and instant coffee in the hotel room, that pretended to be acceptable as most important meal of the day. As he drinks, his MI6 counterpart’s facial expressions give the impression she’s internally debating something that needs to be shared.

‘I’m concerned about the person who wrote my CIA file.’

‘They’re a moron, without doubt. Don’t stress about it.’

‘It is enough of a fight normally to get taken seriously on my own manor, let alone worrying about what you Yanks are thinking.’

Her broad accent is East London, Chris knows, and it doesn’t take a genius to work out what ‘manor’ means in this context. She’s ex-Metropolitan Police, learning the ropes on these streets as he did in Hoboken with the New Jersey PD. They’d both been too smart to stay tied to policing, recruited in circumstances that aren’t really close enough to be considered as co-incidental, but someone probably decided would be a decent way of making him feel at home. Her face finally resolves into a smile, and reminds Chambers not to be a dick because she’s earned the right to be attractive without him flirting at the acknowledgement.

‘How many people have you killed, Mr Chambers?’

‘Twelve. Thirteen if you count the guy I blew up by accident.’

‘So, really unlucky for him, then.’

‘In fairness, it was his own bomb I inadvertently detonated, so we’re not talking about an innocent conscience to stick on the scorecard.’

‘I remember that story from your file: Jihad motivations to martyrdom have always been impossible to understand. Maybe it’s ‘cause there’s too much left I’d like to do first.’

‘That guy was dangerous before the brain-washers got him. Do you keep a card for your losses?’

‘I have a box at home. There’s six pictures in it, all taken on the mortuary slabs. The Department’s Psychiatrist isn’t sure this is a smart way of keeping me focussed on the human cost of protecting Her Majesty and her loyal citizens, but it works for me.’

‘You don’t fit the profiles, that’s why nobody can do a decent review of you. The rest of the World relies far too much on labels and containers. Those of us who prefer to live in the cracks never get a fair deal.’

‘You really want to keep cultivating that maverick persona, Mr Chambers? Your ex-wife wouldn’t take kindly to hearing that.’

‘I don’t give a flying fuck what my ex-wife thinks.’

‘That really won’t help you see your son more than once a month.’

‘I thought about this long and hard on the flight over: maybe it would be best for everybody concerned if my son never sees me again, and we all just move on.’



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