“Who were those guys?” I asked Cherry.
She shrugged. “They could be working for any number of people. You should have asked them before you scared them off.”
“Are you sure they don’t work for Archie?” I wasn’t going to be fooled by the old trick of sending in your own men to scare someone into running to you for help.
“You’re already working for Mr Pelago,” said Cherry.
“Or maybe they work for you,” I suggested. “Get in my good books by saving me from an ambush.” Another classic, where the boy hires some goons to mug him on a first date so he can impress the girl by fighting them off. In this case, I was the girl.
“I didn’t save you,” said Cherry, which was true. She had actually forced me into trouble just to see what I would do. “I know you don’t trust me, or any of us. You don’t even think we’re real. But real or not, people are going to be coming for you. Pelago may be able to protect, he may not.”
She stepped on the accelerator and we roared through the city.
The car was in good nick, but old and rickety. Vintage. Classic. Rustbucket. It made a dreadful noise I’m sure petrolheads would die for (or die from) and everything rattled like it was bolted down but working on emancipation. Even with the roof up and windows closed, the wind blew through my hair.
We circled a roundabout, climbed a ramp and merged onto the motorway, weaving through traffic like we were on a motorbike and about as likely to tip over at any moment.
Cherry drove the car with press-on nails gripped around the leather-bound steering wheel, and her artfully painted lips silently bouncing off each other. She seemed to be holding a conversation with herself, her head tilting from one side to the other as the conversational baton was passed from one hemisphere of her brain to the other. To put it in legal terms, one brief short of a guilty verdict.
She kept eyeing me from the side, and then looking into the rearview mirror, which she had angled so the only thing she saw was her own reflection.
There are two kinds of women who go crazy once they reach a certain age. Obviously, there are more than two kinds if you factor in actual clinical reasons for insanity, like brain damage or Instagram, but the kind of bonkers older women suddenly indulge in can, I think, be narrowed down to two sources.
One, they have kids, love them, raise them to be self-sufficient adults and then get abandoned by them, and suddenly they realise their lives are now devoid of purpose. Bitterness, empty days and feelings of worthlessness follow, all the way down to the merry depths of despair and recriminations. And so on and so ungrateful after all I did for you, I carried you in my stomach for nine months and this is the thanks I get.
And then there are the second type, who don’t have kids, they have a beautiful bouncing career instead, with lots of money and the satisfaction that comes from a job well done. They don’t regret not having children. They were never the mothering type. And when they retire, they expect to be treated with the respect they deserve and their wisdom and experience to be deferred to as the accomplished elder they now are. But that doesn’t happen. No respect from their male peers and none from the women who they have opened a path for.
In fact, they are seen as somewhat sad and unfulfilled, their potential as a woman never quite reached. Like a black student who went to college on a basketball scholarship and became a doctor. What a shame. Not good enough for the NBA, huh?
The women who spent so much time fighting to get through the glass ceiling, they never noticed the glass side room they were quietly shunted into after their services were no longer required, along with all their many, many power dresses and pantsuits. We can see their lips moving but we can’t hear what they’re saying. Which drives them nuts but I don’t think they can really complain about no one wanting their advice. We know all the dick-sucking men with the wrong background have to do to get their seat at the table, we can only imagine the nasty shit you had to do.
Cherry’s lips were still moving and her eyes kept flicking in my direction as we cut off people in much bigger and sturdier cars. I didn’t think she was the type to have kids, and there was no way she cared if people around her deferred to her judgement or not. She struck me as someone who preferred to be underestimated and shoved aside. That was how you could do things no one would allow you to do if you were right in front of them.
Which made me see her as a fellow outsider. Which made me see her as far more dangerous than the bully boys we’d just encountered.
“Why did you offer to drive me?” I asked her. “Weren’t you hired to get me to Archie?”
She didn’t strike me as the sort of person who did people favours. Not the type to help you move a sofa or pick you up from the airport. Not unless she had a reason to.
“He pays well,” she said. “I think he’s going to need help with you, so it’s good to put me next to you in his head.”
“You’re doing it for the money?” I said.
“That’s sweet. You think I’m not driven by material greed or the lust for wealth, which I certainly wouldn’t accumulate in vast amounts and keep in an offshore tax haven in the Caribbean.”
“I think you certainly would, but I don’t think you’d do it by ferrying me around. Tax haven, yes. Taxi service, not unless you had a specific reason to. Archie already thinks of you as someone who can handle me. But I don’t think you really work for him. Not in the way he thinks you do.”
“No? Who do I work for?”
“I don’t know. Mainly yourself, I guess. You probably want to find out more about where I went and what it can do for you, but you’re going to be disappointed.”
“Mm hmm, big time. It’s a very simple and unsophisticated place. It’s like a video game that’s been in early access forever, and only updates every four years.”
“You sound like you miss it,” said Cherry.
“It worked for me because my life here was pretty shit. I got to start over. But you’re already doing well. Your life would only get harder and more inconvenient if you went over there. Most of the people I arrived with died or had a terrible time.”
“I don’t think that can be true,” said Cherry. “You don’t seem like you’re the same person you used to be.”
“You don’t know the sort of person I used to be,” I said.
“No, but I’d bet you couldn’t have stared down four guys like that before you went away.”
“I didn’t really do anything. It’s not like I beat them in a fight or set them on fire with magic. They obviously didn’t want their faces and identities made public, so I used that against them. Next time they’ll probably try to grab me somewhere more private. By the balls, probably.”
“That’s not what I mean,” said Cherry. “You weren’t intimidated, and you weren’t faking it, I could tell. You genuinely didn’t think of them as a threat. I’ve known a lot of tough people, real hard men. There are very few people who can go into a situation like that, four against one, and not be affected by it. And the ones I’ve met who could, they were a lot tougher and a lot bigger than you.”
She made a fair point. I had faced a bunch of mean-looking men with no fear and no hesitation, but that wasn’t because I was some badass. It was because I didn’t really believe they were real. It’s easy to act cool in a video game, and it’s easy to not get nervous when the NPCs act tough.
Of course, if it turned out this wasn’t all fake and I really was back home, then I would probably start shitting myself on a regular basis. So I would do my best to convince myself this was an illusion even if all the evidence suggested otherwise.
“Size had nothing to do with it,” I said, like a million guys before me. “The person with nothing to lose always wins, even when they don’t.”
Cherry looked in the side mirror. “Did you really set someone on fire with magic,” she said without looking at me.
“No,” I said.
We were on the motorway which circled London. The M25. It wasn’t that far to Hertfordshire and the traffic was having one of its good days where there weren’t any slowdowns that ended with no sign of why everyone had bunched up for the previous five miles. In fact, the lack of gridlock was just another sign of this world’s obvious artificiality. Sure, the world looked the same — same size, same shape, same colours — but so far everything worked a little too well. Not enough to shatter the deception, but we were getting there.
Cherry kept looking at her side mirror, which isn’t particularly useful when you’re overtaking people on the inside lane. I took a look in the mirror on my side and over my shoulder but I couldn’t see anything suspicious. There was a helicopter that seemed to be hovering over us for a while, but it was way high up and then it wandered off.
“Do you think those guys are still following us?” I asked.
“Yes, but it’s nothing to worry about,” said Cherry. “They know where we’re going so they won’t get too close. It’s the police I’m worried about.”
“I’m barred from driving,” said Cherry. “If I get caught, it won’t do my career any good.”
We took the exit at Junction 18, from where we were soon into winding roads. You could get out of urban London and into the countryside surprisingly quickly. Even the small houses that occasionally appeared thinned out to nothing and we were surrounded by open land. Just us, the fresh country air, and a small convoy of dark cars with tinted windows.
They were following us but at a reasonable distance. I would lose sight of them for a bit, but once we hit a long straight stretch of road, I’d see them again.
Warlon House was down a private road (as the signs were very keen to point out). It was walled off and the main gate looked like two sheets of metal welded in place. You couldn’t see over it or through it. We stopped next to an intercom which Cherry had to get out to speak into.
The other cars had stopped a fair way back. As the metal doors slid back, a heavily accented voice from behind shouted at me.
“Colin Brown. We have a wonderful offer to make you. Riches beyond your wildest dreams. All you have to do is walk over here.”
No one had exited their cars and the voice was amplified through some kind of speaker so it was hard to tell what kind of accent it was.
I stepped out of the car as Cherry was getting back in.
“The problem,” I shouted back at the cars, “is that whoever I go with, the others will keep bothering me. I need someone who knows how to take care of me, give me the support I need. If you can make it inside here, and make the offer in person, I’ll consider your proposal.” I got back in the car.
“That wasn’t advisable,” said Cherry.
“Good way to test Archie’s security,” I said.
We drove inside. There was a barrier just inside the gate, manned by three men I could see and possibly more inside a wooden hut. Cherry stopped again as the gate closed behind us and two of the men, both dressed in navy blue jumpsuits and baseball caps like they had just got back from shooting a Janet Jackson video, came up to the car on either side and pointed ray guns at us.
I say ray guns, they looked more like something you might see in a supermarket used to check barcodes. We both got scanned.
“Are they checking our sell-by dates?” I asked Cherry.
“No, they’re making sure we aren’t armed.”
More technology that shouldn’t have existed, but it still wasn’t enough to convince my brain this was a simulation.
It didn’t really matter. Even if I never proved it, I could still use this reality to find my way back to Flatland.
You might think finding a portal back from a manufactured version of Earth would just lead me to a manufactured version of Flatland, which was probably true. But I had always been able to quickly identify Maurice’s illusions for what they were when I was in Flatland. I might not be able to tell the difference here, but that was because this wasn’t the place I was most familiar with. I barely paid attention to what was going on around me growing up, so it wasn’t a great surprise that I found it hard to tell if the dumbest man on the planet being president of the most powerful nation was a believable turn of events or not. In Flatland, on the other hand, everything made much more sense and anomalies stood out much more clearly, for me at least.
The barrier went up and we were let through. Cherry stopped the car again and got out. She said something to one of the men, who nodded a lot. Then he spoke into what looked like a mobile phone from the 1980s and a stream of men also from the Rhythm Nation came rushing out of the hut like clowns out of a very small car.
They headed for the metal doors, which remained closed. A smaller door slid open and they ran out. It slid closed behind them.
What followed was a series of bangs and crashes. Glass was definitely broken and several cars backfired, which modern cars don’t often do.
“What’s going on out there?” I asked, very curious to see if it was some kind of dance battle.
“Private property,” said Cherry. “Just asking them to leave.
There was a long drive up to what looked like a stately home, with some smaller, more modern buildings off to one side. Unlike the castle I’d landed on top of when I first arrived, this wasn’t so high and more elongated. More of a compound.
As we approached the main entrance, a small group of people came out to meet us.
There were six of them and they were dressed in white lab coats. Three men, three women, and all of them wore glasses.
A tall man with a fat fleshy face who not only wore glasses but safety goggles on top of them and a face mask like he was about to spray for roaches, stepped forward carrying a bow. His lab coat was buttoned up to the collar and he had on surgical gloves.
“Welcome,” he said in quite a posh voice that sounded like it was coming out of a dodgy walkie-talkie. His tone gave me the feeling I was talking to someone with a lot of education, which he was going to point out every chance he got, “please forgive the attire, we are expecting a pandemic to descend on us in the next few days.” He thrust the bow at me in his latex-gloved hands. “I believe you requested this.”
I’d read something about a flu-like virus getting out of control in China but it seemed a bit premature to break out the Hazmat suits. Plus, none of the others were dressed like him. I had expected to be faced with nerds when I got here, but they had sent out a mega-nerd to show they weren’t messing around.
I took the bow. It was quite a complicated affair with lots of bits sticking out of it and some kind of scope you were supposed to look through.
“I was hoping for something a bit simpler.”
“Excellent,” said the tall man. “I’ll have someone order a more basic model. I am Doctor Jermaine Rafferty, I head the bioengineering research unit here.” He put out his gloved hand which I shook. It was surprisingly soft and squishy.
“Colin,” I said.
“Yes. Colin Brown. Please excuse the familiarity but I have read your file in anticipation of this meeting — a meeting I have dreamt of my whole life. I feel like I know you, on an intimate level. My condolences on the loss of your mother.”
“I am honoured to be in your presence. You are Columbus returned, Armstrong just landed. What things you must have seen, what wonders you must have experienced. You have been exposed to a new world, a new biota of flora and fauna. We theorised viral infections would kill those who left within weeks of arrival, but you seem healthy and so no signs of being infested by alien organisms. If I could have a sample of your saliva and stool, I would be eternally grateful. We shall be great friends and colleagues. I’m a bit of an archer myself. Perhaps you can show me some of the techniques you picked up during your time... abroad. I’m sure there’s much we can teach each other.”
“Er, nice to meet you,” I said, feeling a little battered by the onslaught of words.
“Calm down, Raffo,” said another of the men. He was dressed a little more casually, his lab coat open and his hands in his pockets. “Neil McHenry, Tactical R&D. You’ll have to forgive Raffo, he likes to take himself very seriously. He’s the lead bioengineer — potato expert — he’ll be pestering you with questions, don’t feel the need to answer any of them.” He brushed down his long black hair which bounced back up and stood like wheat on his head. “We all have a lot of questions for you, but I’m sure you’d like to settle in first.”
There was a large boom and I turned around just in time to see the large metal gates fall off their hinges and slam to the ground in a cloud of dust. Large black vehicles emerged from the dust.
“Ah,” said Raffo. “We appear to have a security breach. Time for me to—”
“Let’s not get carried away,” said Neil. “We don’t want to create a mess. I’ll deal with this.” He took out his phone, turned it sideways and began tapping on it with his thumbs.
From the roof of the house, a machine the size of a suitcase rose into the air. It had four propellers, one in each corner of its chassis. It flew directly towards the oncoming vehicles, and fired missiles.
Missiles? In Hertfordshire? No way. I waited for the matrix to crumble before my eyes. Instead, the lead SUV bounced into the air and flipped over as the ground beneath it exploded.
Something this extreme should have definitely triggered my internal bullshit detector. But it didn’t. This was just like my first few days in Flatland, when I had been convinced I was in a game. But I wasn’t.