EX/WHI :: Part Ten

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Arrival

This place looks, fees and smells like London, but is anything but.

Looking down from Tower Hill, to the Bridge on their right, not a car is in sight. Buildings are reproduced in a detail that beggars belief, and whilst they feel very solid none can be entered. Chris had suggested trying to climb one, but Ami’s gut is telling her to remain on the ground, at least for now. Knowing every move is being assessed from above by unseen beings should feel more stressful than is currently the case, but it isn’t. They’re here on good faith, because a request was granted as another was given. As soon as the door to the Cafe closed, there was no way back in. The canteens give them water for a day, no more, and that’s about as much food as they have between them.

This has been a test since the moment they woke up.

‘I wonder if this is intended or an accident.’

Chris stands, hands in pockets, looking across to the Tower and down to the Embankment. It is time to see if they are thinking alike.

‘You mean the location, yes?’

‘The coffee bar was a lot further back into the City than we are now. When we emerged, it wasn’t at the same spot we entered.’

‘Fuck, you’re right. That’s a dry cleaners normally… we must be at least a quarter of a mile closer to the river than we were.’

‘So, the question stands. Why are we here, exactly?’

‘Well, we can’t go back to where we came, presumably that exit is now blocked for good.’

‘Agreed, and having been given equipment to travel with one presumes that’s what’s expected of us. But where do we go?’

‘We don’t know what’s been tested here, apart from our ability to be mouthy and ask for help. That’s me, by the way, not you, that speech to our captors was very impressive.’

‘You still think we’re prisoners? We’ve just been given the means to travel -’

‘Indeed but I assume this scenario is finite. So, where would you go?’

‘Where’s your hotel from here?’

‘About half a mile that way, but why -’

‘If our theory is right, that we were abducted into this scenario at different points… you said your hotel room was where it probably happened. It’s closer than where I was taken, which is a good mile an a bit in the opposite direction. Considering our water and food supplies, and because there’s no idea what might happen next, I’d examine the closer location first.’

The smile Chris gives is a genuine boost to morale: not only does he agree with the plan, it makes him happy she’s on top of this. The backpack is on and he’s already walking away, taking the lead. There’s no issue with following, or that he’s not 100% in the game.

Ami wonders, not for the first time, if their observers are happy with what they’re seeing.


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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 Two

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It will soon be insufferably hot in this confined, concrete space: Agent Bishop’s forced to find a CD of Oakenfold dance tracks as entertainment, because there’s no DAB signal in the car park. Radio and TV have both been on the blink for days anyway: something about sunspots and abnormal atmospheric conditions that she’d half grasped over a hurried bowl of breakfast cereal. Escaping to the songs of her youth is perhaps not that wise, because it will just remind again of the mistakes made that can now never be corrected. Except the soothing, rhythmic beat is what is required as relaxation. Nerves are suddenly, worryingly heightened.

He’ll be on borrowed time because of his bravado, Ami decides, wondering if Special Agent Chambers is going to turn up for his lift to the Royal Courts of Justice early or late. The American’s personal life remains enough of a disaster area to suggest that, like her, job matters more than what transpires after hours, so he could be worth getting to know. As with all of these things, it is going to depend on what parts of her file get highlighted in his assessment, just as has been the case in her research of him. If he looks past bisexual, that’ll be a start. Explaining that has become a depressing part of introductions since coming out last year. Maybe, if more people could take her as just human, that would be better.

There’s an odd smell in the car: reminding of photocopiers, bad air conditioning… except hers is not on, driver’s side window open. Turning off the engine, keys pocketed, Ami gets out of the car; senses alert to something that is most definitely amiss. Then movement happens behind: the Walther shifts from holster to hand in a heartbeat, spinning to point at man who’s a lot taller than his file suggests, but whose reaction times are without question.

‘Glad I’m not the only one who’s spooked. You like Bishop or Amelia?’

‘Good friends call me Ami, and if you can react that fast, Mr Chambers, I suspect we’ll get on famously.’

‘I approve of the formal use of my name, that’s way cooler than it sounds from my boss. You can keep that. So, what’s making you nervous?’

‘The smell, a bulletproof sixth sense… it’s been like this since about 3.15 am.’

‘I was upchucking dinner over the Atlantic at 3.15 in a storm that appeared outta nowhere. Everything’s been weird since. That’s just a massive co-incidence, right?’

‘Everything in this job is related. Maybe that extends to our ability to research each other and make an immediate connection.’

Both guns are re-holstered: Chambers’ handshake is solid, reassuring, and there was no need to worry about this guy’s credentials. He’s got the looks and body of a film star, but beard makes him feel more human, flawed. Good guys need to be clean-cut and scar-free, yet he has both in abundance, which allows him a more relaxed, believable air. He’s also staring at Ami with clear discomfort.

‘You know that thing that happens when you’ve read about someone in a file or had a briefing in a room somewhere and then that person turns out to be nothing like you’d expected -’

‘Is it better than you thought or worse?’

‘I’d like to apologise, in advance, for anything dumb or stupid I say or do based on my understanding of you, because whichever fuckwit in my organisation who wrote your file was blind, stupid and utterly ignorant.’

‘What were you expecting?’

‘Someone far less capable and far more angry. Your dress sense is phenomenal, this car is absolutely not what the file version of you would pick from the available pool, and if you have ‘Southern Sun’ playing on the stereo, I’ll forgive you a very great deal.’

Ami feels for the keys in her pocket, only now aware the CD is still playing, fairly convinced this model didn’t allow that to happen… and then music suddenly stops, before the vehicle’s engine unexpectedly starts. Weapons are re-drawn, pair scanning surroundings before a horribly loud, piercing alarm springs into life, lights frantically flashing a completely redundant and utterly impossible warning.



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EX/WHI :: Part One

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Arrival Minus One

This hotel room is beyond his normal range: the British government are now paying for a polished, understated testimony as expert witness, so it makes sense that they’d offer the best. There is no time to worry about jet-lag either: Mark can sleep all afternoon, once the initial briefing is handled and his part in process outlined. To get this man to court at all was a miracle, and to then gather sufficient evidence to formally convict the bastard… normally, professional scumbags like Mehdi Alami were simply removed from the equation with a carefully-placed bullet in theatre.

This time however, the Moroccan’s handiwork with C4, a 747 and a bribed airport official had murdered innocent British and American lives: for that reason alone everybody got to wear their best suits and string him up to dry. The Brits had pursued this bomber, hoping to find him alive for close to a decade: Chambers had discovered him in a Russian brothel completely by accident, on CIA intelligence that suggested he was somebody else entirely.

All that had ever been seen of London before this was Tower Bridge and the Tower of London: as his holster is adjusted under the Tom Ford jacket, SIG not even removed, there’s a mental note to maybe do some sightseeing this time. His liaison will be meeting him outside, before driving them to Court, where he’ll be briefed on what will happen in the days going forward. If this all goes to plan, a couple of hours testimony is all it will end up being, and he can take his MI6 shadow out for a nice dinner at the best Dim Sum place in Chinatown.

Once his own barf had been cleaned up, her file made entertaining reading on the descent to Heathrow. Amelia was something of a folk legend amongst his community of professional assassins: if you asked certain Americans they’d laugh, making a convincing pitch that this woman doesn’t even exist, simply a PR stunt to make the Secret Service look good. You can’t have physical and mental brilliance and still be alive in your mid 40’s. There’s something wrong with that picture: she’s an amalgam of other’s statistics, never as good as her male colleagues, because that would just be wrong.

Mark knows better. This was the right way to do his job, an example in planning, execution and dedication to task. Other men would be jealous, or aroused by her pedigree. Not him. Ami is just the best at what she does, pure and simple, and if you let stuff like that intimidate, there’s never a chance to try for redemption. Instead, failing agents need to be inspired by brilliance and not look like a fucking loser when you tell her that she’s an inspiration.

There might be a decade between them in age, but she is fitter and smarter than Chambers will ever manage. It is time therefore to ignore the tiredness, go find her in the Hotel’s underground car park, and not fuck this first impression up.



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