EX/WHI :: Part Eleven

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Here is a place where Chambers can be in his element.

It’s taken a while for brain and body to co-ordinate successfully, but this is good, up front and nominally in charge. This is the place in normal life where everything is most comfortable and confident too, even if there are moments when brain screams otherwise. What’s noticeably different from previous missions is a tacit belief that if he can’t cope or there’s a struggle, his partner’s beyond reproach.

Ami’s demonstrating an almost psychic ability to cover his shortfall, implicit belief that’s what will keep happening. However, they’re in undiscovered territory, and both have shown signs of mental stress. He needs to be ready to cover her at a moment’s notice, and instead of the responsibility rankling it’s all part of the excitement. If she falls, he’ll pick the woman up without a word, because that’s the job trained for right from the start.

Chris is fairly confident that had they’d met earlier, he’d not want to throw in the towel.

That resignation letter would have made it to the Deputy Director’s Inbox this morning.  Superiors had forced an increasingly unsuitable selection of partners into his orbit, which only served to strengthen a desire to work alone, when all that was really needed was someone who understood what he was and allowed that to happen.

It is as if he’s known this woman all his life, mostly as a result of their shared interests meshing: this could have been so much more than just a job. He might have begun to enjoy himself…

‘Okay, this is new.’

They’ve turned the corner, into the street where Hotel should be, but instead there’s a large, white space: this is a simulation, another inescapable reminder. In the centre of the whiteness is what looks like a giant Roman column, except it’s floating several inches off the ground. Ami’s at his shoulder, making no move to approach, and so Chris waits for reaction.

‘So, what do we think this might be?’

‘I was kinda hoping you’d provide me with the answer, ‘cause I’ve got nothing.’

‘I can’t be expected to do all the thinking here, that’s not exactly fair. However, I’ll provide a theory, and you can decide to agree or argue. Sound like a plan?’

‘Yup, this works, away you go.’

‘This is the point where you were abducted -’

‘Can we find a better word for it otherwise this is cheesy Sci Fi and I don’t buy that.’

‘Okay, this is the point where you entered the simulation, so maybe they can’t reproduce it because that point needs to remain tied to the reality that is the actual Hotel -’

‘You don’t have a clue, do you?’

Ami’s hands go to her face, a second before he realises she’s crying. The temptation again would be to offer physical reassurance but that’s not what the woman needs, so he comes to stand in front of her instead.

‘I do know know what’s going on… I just… please, whatever you do, don’t step back.’


 

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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 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 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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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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