Cherry took out a cigarette and started smoking in the car.
“You really believe that I’m not real?” she asked me through a cloud of smoke. It was a small car and there wasn’t really room for the three of us.
“No,” I said, opening the window. “None of this is.”
“Feels pretty real to me.”
“That’s because you’re part of the simulation.” Most people would probably get offended being told they didn’t exist. Cherry just pulled a slightly pouty frown and tilted her head from side to side like she was giving the idea some consideration.
“I suppose I wouldn’t be able to tell if you’re right,” she said. “It’s a bit dull, though, isn’t it?” She waved a hand at the windscreen and the outside world. “I mean, if you’re going to make a fake world, you could at least get a bit creative.”
“Unicorns and dragons?” I asked her.
“Yes. That would make what you’re saying easier to accept. What was it like where you went?” She looked across at me.
She had a point. If one of the two worlds I’d visited was a simulation, it was more likely to be the one with magic and talking monsters, you would think.
“That would make it easier to accept,” I agreed. “Which is why it would be a terrible idea if you didn’t want someone to twig they were in a fake. The whole point is to make it seem real, the duller the better.”
This seemed to make sense to her. “Well, at least you won’t have to worry about getting cancer from second-hand smoke.” She blew out a hefty dose of carcinogenic fumes. “You can do whatever you want here, and nothing matters, right?”
“You don’t believe me.” Clearly, she was taking the piss, which was fine. It didn’t matter if she believed me or not.
“Why not kill yourself?” said Cherry. “I mean, you want to end the simulation, right? Pull the plug and you’re out, no?”
“That’s one option. But it’s risky. I don’t know what the effect would be. I could enter simulated hell. If I believe I’m dead, that might be the same as being dead, as far as my brain’s concerned. It’s complicated.”
“You’re scared. You think this might be a simulation, but you’re not sure. You’re not willing to bet your life on it.”
“I’m not willing to bet my life on a lot of things I’m sure about,” I said. “Betting your life is a dumb thing to do.”
I was trying to sound like I had thought it through and knew what I was talking about, but the truth was Cherry was right, I wasn’t sure. This could be the real world, four years later and in a huge mess. Perfectly possible.
Hugely unlikely, but new century, new bunch of crazy shit to deal with. Or the same old crazy shit we thought we had already dealt with. Wars, dictators, corrupt politicians, unethical business practices, pandemics, racism and misogyny — none of it was fresh or original. Reruns and reboots, just like everything else.
There was definitely the chance the world had chosen to give all the old classics one more chance, no point denying the possibility. Maybe slavery would make a comeback — they do say fashion is cyclical. Maybe Jeff Bezos was the 21st century plantation owner we’d all end up working for.
The thing was, whatever this world happened to be — real, not real, Unreal Engine 4 (which would explain how Fortnite got so big while being such a terrible piece of shit) — I still had to play it as real since my body and brain would react to it as real. Until I found the crack I could exploit to bring the illusion crashing down, I needed to treat it as the world I once knew. Only I wasn’t the same person I used to be.
Even though I no longer had my powers or ability to use magic, I had lost the debilitating fear of dealing with people. Even someone like Cherry would have been a very difficult person for the old me to interact with. She was a successful member of the establishment, confident and professional. Master of her domain. And what was I?
Well, currently I was someone who genuinely didn’t give a fuck. I may have been wrong to think that way, but here I was anyway.
“You’re not what I expected,” said Cherry.
“Thank you,” I said.
“That wasn’t a compliment.”
“Yeah, it was.”
She finished her cigarette and threw it out of my open window, the glowing stub flying across my face. I reached up and caught it. Not in a superhuman cool way, just because it was so close to me I instinctively put out my hand and happened to catch it.
The red ember gently pulsing in the breeze from the window was on the verge of going out. I put my mind into the neutral state I’d used so many times to bring a flame out of my fingers. I thought maybe if I already had a source of fire it would be easier, but nothing happened. No magic show for the Magnificent Colin.
I threw the cigarette out of the window, disappointed. Cherry was staring at me with the gears in her head turning, which freaked me out a little.
“Could you suspect me of being full of shit while you watch the road?”
She turned her head to face front. “For someone who doesn’t believe any of this is real, you’re pretty nervous about something as trivial a car crash.”
“Yeah. It’s a real paradox.”
Traffic was fairly light and there were hardly any roadworks (another sign this was not the London I grew up in). Cars and vans rushed from one set of lights to the next and my feeling of being outside of this reality gradually faded. No dragons in the sky, no giant worms under the ground. Just aeroplanes and tube trains.
“So what you really want,” said Cherry as she lit another fag, “is to provoke everyone you can until you force people into acting crazy and unreasonable. The more crazy and unreasonable the better.”
At least she was able to understand my point of view, even if she thought I was bonkers.
“Exactly. If I can put them into an impossible situation, I can force them to reveal the way back.”
“How? Even if what you say is true, you’re still just one guy with no money and no power, in this reality. How can you force anyone to do anything?”
She actually got it a little too well.
“I have the power of not giving a fuck,” I said. “My experiences over there allowed me to develop that side of my personality to the fullest extent. It’s quite effective in the hands of a master.”
She scoffed, or the fags were getting to her. “Really? You can deal with any confrontation in this world because of this special ability, can you?”
“I won’t know until I try.”
“Why don’t we try, right now?”
“What do you mean?” I said.
“There’s a car that’s been tailing us for a while. Since The Mullard, actually. I was thinking about losing it when we hit the M25, but since you seem so confident…”
The car lurched to the left as we left the flow of traffic and entered a side street. Terraced houses — two and a half bedrooms, stamp-sized garden, £1.5 million (welcome to London) — line both sides, and parked cars made it so you’d have to rub wing mirrors if a car came the other way.
Once we were off the main road, it became much more obvious that we were in fact being followed. A large black SUV with tinted windows took the same turning and tried to act casual by slowing down and looking sheepish.
“Do solicitors usually know when they’re being followed and what action to take?”
“I suppose not,” said Cherry, taking a left then a right, both times not bothering to brake. “I used to be a legal officer in the army.”
She gave me an unamused look and then screeched to a stop at the bottom of a dead end.
“Yes, the British Army. No need to thank me for my service, mostly I just slept with a lot of married officers. I have a thing for men in uniform.”
The SUV appeared behind us.
“Are you sure you want to tell me these sordid details about your life, Cherry?”
“Why not? Lawyer-client privilege. You can’t tell anyone.”
“I don’t think that’s how that works.”
“Are you the one with legal training? No? Then take my word for it. Go on. Let’s see you deal with them.” She nodded her head towards the SUV which was waiting for us to make a move.
“Who are they?” I asked.
Cherry shrugged. “No idea. Could be a lot of people. You’re going to be quite popular from now on. I expect that’ll be a new experience for you.”
Harsh. But fair.
I got the strong impression that she didn’t believe I could handle this situation. Certainly not as easily as I had made out. I didn’t disagree — I did get a little cocky when there was no risk of having to live up to my claims — but there was no reason to try and back out of this. I was as curious to see how I would hold up under testing conditions as she was.
Once I left the car, the SUV’s doors opened and four men got out. They were big men. Chunky. They wore leather jackets, black gloves, and sunglasses. They looked hard. Square heads with hardly any hair, but all of them had very well-groomed beards. It seemed we were being followed by the Hassidic arm of Mossad.
“Can you back up a bit?” I said pleasantly. “We took a wrong turn and we can’t get out.”
There were cars parked on both sides and the houses had no drives you could use to turn around.
Cherry had gotten out and was lighting up, of course. She had sunglasses on that covered most of her face and she was staying back and watching with a slight smile. She was looking forward to me making an ass out of myself.
“Why don’t you come with us?” said the man who got out of the passenger side. “There are some very nice people who would like to say hello to you.” He had a strange accent I couldn’t quite place. Eastern European, maybe?
“No thanks. I’m flattered, but I’m not interested. I totally support your right to get married and do your thing, though.”
Yes, I know, very juvenile.
“I think you would be very interested in meeting the people we represent,” said the spokesmen of the group. He adjusted the way he was standing to suggest he could grab me any time he wanted. He looked the sort who could handle himself in a fight — they all did. How I knew that, I can’t really say.
“You,” I said, pointing to the guy behind him. “You’re the team leader, right?”
The man looked surprised but didn’t deny it. How did I know? Just a feeling. I guess when you spend enough time around people who run gangs of one sort or another — mobs of monsters or platoons in the army — you get an eye for who runs the show.
I walked forward. “Come on, if you’re going to make me an offer at least do it yourself.”
As I approached their car, the guy who I’d been talking to earlier casually lunged forward and tried to grab my shoulder. I just as casually dodged. Nothing fancy, just a step in the opposite direction at the right time.
“Footwork,” I said. “Yours is shit.” Mine wasn’t great, either, but I’d been trained by a vicious redhead who enjoyed taking a beating. I can’t say she was the best teacher, but she kept me on my toes.
The man I’d identified as the boss was looking intently at me. Trying to size me up. Not sure why he was bothering, we both knew he’d decide I wasn’t shit. It was quite nice to be underestimated again after all this time.
“I guess you’re at the point where you’re going to shove me in the car and drive me to an undisclosed location,” I said. These guys were really obvious. I could see it in the way they stood there, their eagerness to show me who’s boss.
I turned to my right without warning and kicked the wing mirror of a small Toyota. The mirror snapped forward and then sprang back into place again. Not what I had intended.
Everyone was looking at me. For all my confidence, I could feel a little heat around my neck.
“One moment. I’ve got this.” I kicked the wing mirror again, this time more vertically, and it flew into the air. The car alarm went off. “There you go.”
“What are you doing?” said the leader. He sounded French, so I was expecting him to surrender at any moment.
“Wait, wait.” I ran up to a car on the other side and kicked its wing mirror. I’d got the move down now and the mirror immediately fell off. More car alarms.
The four men looked perplexed. Cherry was frowning.
A door opened and a woman came running out of the house on Cherry’s side of the road. “Hey, what the fuck are you doing to my car?” She was mid-thirties, blonde, roots showing, probably called Karen.
“Wasn’t me,” I said. “They did it.” I pointed at the thugs.
“I saw you from my window, you psycho.” She held up her phone. “I got you on video.”
“Oh,” I said, looking around at the others. “You filmed it, did you? All of us, on the record, uploaded onto the internet with our faces and car registration numbers? That was dumb of me, wasn’t it?”
The boys looked nervous as they slowly figured out what I’d done.
“Thing is,” I said, leaning closer to the woman, “I’m actually a reporter for the Daily Mirror. Doing a story on a paedo ring, Jimmy Saville: TNG. Entertainers, politicians, cops. These guys are the muscles they hired to scare me off, but they don’t like publicity. Put that video you took on YouTube and, I think as a civic-minded person you’ll be doing the world a favour. Also, millions of views, guaranteed, so monetise the shit out of that.”
The woman who had been very red-faced and mad a moment ago, now looked like she had dollar signs in her eyes.
“I’m calling the police,” she said, excitedly trying to get her phone to work while filming us all.
“We are the police,” said the guy at the back, holding up a badge. “You’re coming with us.”
“They’re police?” I asked Cherry.
She lifted her sunglasses and peered at the men. “Looks legit.”
“See?” I said. “Dirty euro cops. Anti-Brexit paedos.” The woman nodded at me and held up her phone to get a better shot. More people were emerging from their homes.
The men hesitated. Grab me and get it over with, hang the consequences? Or try to calm the situation?
“Cherry, you're my lawyer. Tell them they can’t arrest me.”
Cherry shrugged. “You did commit a criminal act. I’m more of a witness at this point.”
“You can’t testify against me. Lawyer-client privilege.”
“That’s not how that works,” said Cherry. She was shaking her head but smiling. It looked like a compliment to me.
The men looked nervous. I didn’t. I guess she was seeing the power of not giving a fuck in action.
I didn’t have any powers here, but I didn’t have any when I arrived in Flatland. I managed to survive. My approach then had been to avoid trouble as much as possible. I didn’t feel the need to do that here. In Flatland, trouble killed and ate you. Here, they would go to great lengths to avoid doing that. In public.
The men looked at their boss and then they all got back in their car and reversed out of the street. Not even a goodbye. Kind of rude. French confirmed.
I got back in Cherry’s car. There was a series of angry taps on the window, which I lowered.
“Who’s going to pay for the damage to my car?” demanded Karen.
“Speak to my lawyer,” I said. Archie was good for a replacement wing mirror.