There was a car upside down on the lawn. Not the sort of garden-based violence you see very often. Occasionally, you might see a gnome with a fishing rod that’s been knocked over by cat, or a couple of pigeon feathers implying an urban fox got lucky in the middle of the night, but a four-wheel-drive, six-seater on its roof with men crawling out of the window, not so much. Maybe in Peckham, but not out in the country.
The missile hadn’t struck the car itself, it had hit the ground, ripping up the turf in a mad explosion which sent the SUV arse over tit to land with an upside-down thump and sending soil shooting into the air like a brown fountain (not a euphemism).
Fortunately, nothing blew up like the movies keep insisting should happen any time a vehicle hits as much as a pothole. Other than that, it had played out very much like an 80s action flick. It would have qualified as a 90s action flick if it turned out the person I trusted most had betrayed me, but since I didn’t trust anyone, I was able to skip that whole decade.
The men who had been inside the lead car wriggled out, dirt still falling on them, and stumbled towards the cars behind which had stopped at the realisation that they too might be launched into the nearest flower bed.
The cars spun around in a tight circle — absolutely ruining the perfectly manicured grass — and ran away. Seemed a lot of trouble to go to if they were only going to leg it as soon as things got a bit hairy. So much for their promise to keep safe — couldn’t even protect themselves.
More of Archie’s men came out of the little shed by the gates and gave pursuit, on foot. I don’t know what happened to the first bunch of security guards who had gone out to deal with my insistent suitors, but there was apparently no shortage of bland white guys in baseball caps to send out.
The people who I had just met, who I had considered a bunch of nerds, probably stuck in a lab sixteen hours a day, shoving Vitamin D pills into their mouths every four hours to make up for the lack of sunshine, were all smiling broadly and giving each other high-fives. No, none of them were American, so they had absolutely no excuse for this disgusting behaviour. They were just filled with the exuberance of confident, happy nerds doing what they loved. It was sickening.
Some of them probably had partners, spouses, maybe even children. It made a mockery of the entire point of being a nerd. I was tempted to confiscate their thick spectacles and order them to get LASIK surgery, be the normies they clearly were in their hearts.
I’m all for people being left to do whatever makes them happy, but you have to draw a line somewhere. That’s the problem with removing a natural predator from an enclosed environment. For years, people have tried to paint bullies as the bad guys, tormenting anyone smarter or weaker than themselves.
Oh, what a Utopia we would be left with if only big boys stopped beating on small boys, and mean girls stopped saying bitchy things to quiet girls.
We shamed them, restrained them, expelled them and filed charges against their parents for damages, and it worked. They went away, driven underground to perform their bully rituals in secret. Hurray.
And the nerds were left unmolested to flourish. And my how they flourished
There’s nothing cute about obsessive little oiks who think they know more than everyone else, believe me. Once they have the power to make everyone do what they think is right, we’re all fucked. You don’t want someone who thinks Batman has the right views on law and order to run any kind of governmental department or even the local corner shop.
“That was a bit excessive, wasn’t it?” I asked Neil, who had been controlling the drone. “You’ve ruined the lawn with that missile. Won’t the police want to know why you’re setting off explosives in your front garden?”
“Not at all,” said Neil with a big grin. “No explosives, just compressed gas. It’s part of our land reclamation and redistribution project. Enables a small town to be built on just about any kind of land in less than a day. Should prove useful in an alien environment, don’t you think?”
The flying suitcase with its four propellers pointed up hovered in place. The missile had ploughed into the ground just in front of the lead vehicle and then erupted from below, leaving behind a deep hole and the world’s biggest divot.
“It’s just a very mobile bulldozer, is it?” I asked.
“I’d say it’s more than that,” said Neil. He pressed something on his phone and a large blade appeared from under the drone’s chassis. “It can also cut grass and trim hedges.” The blade swished from side to side like a scythe primed to decapitate a large crowd.
“This is what you’ve been researching?”
“We experiment with a number of specialised units, this being one,” said Neil. “They can get a bit noisy but otherwise perfectly safe. The police are well aware of what we get up to here, no need to worry about them. No need to concern yourself about these other fellows bothering you, either. They try hard but they lack any real conviction. Just following orders. Makes for very poor agents of a cause. Believers do a lot better. Much more committed. You’ll find the people who work here much more passionate about what we do. We see this as an important next step for mankind. We’re all looking forward to working with you, Colin.” He smiled.
It almost seemed genuine, but you can’t let yourself get carried away by sentiment, especially when people are generally a bunch of shits. The others were giving me warm, friendly vibes too. Devious bastards.
“Shall we go in?” said Neil. “The ground staff will take care of all this. Be back to normal in a few hours.”
More people in jumpsuits and baseball caps rushed around with picks and shovels. The car was back on its wheels and others were filling in the hole with spades and rakes, and rolls of fresh turf were ready to be laid.
“What about the car?” I asked.
“Oh, finders keepers,” said one of the other men, this one a little on the swarthy side, maybe Mediterannean. “Carlos Noriega, no relation.” He shook my hand. “I’m in charge of transportation and travel. We’ll be able to use this beauty for spare parts. Got to make use of whatever’s at hand, right? I’d love to sit down and pick your brain when you have a free moment, if you wouldn’t mind. The terrain, the roads, the common forms of transport, so much to ask you.”
We began moving towards the entrance. Once I was inside, I’d be at their mercy, trapped behind locked doors. Although, it wasn’t like I was footloose and fancy-free out here.
“Give him a chance to settle in first, Carlos,” said a tall and big-boned woman with dark hair and olive complexion. “Dr Chanda, I’m head of the psych unit. Important we prepare our people for what they’ll face over there. Culture shock, shell shock, electrical shocks, we want everyone’s head to be in the right place. Hoping you can help with that.”
I nodded and made no promises.
We reached the entrance which was opened inwards by two more men in jumpsuits. This place was run like a prison, or possibly a lunatic asylum.
“I’ll leave you to it, them,” said Cherry.
I turned to say goodbye to my lawyer. Behind her, the gates, which had fallen flat on the drive, had already been lifted up and slotted back into place, some sweeping up got rid of the sprays of dirt that had gotten everywhere, and it was already looking like it had before the enemy incursion.
It was quite impressive how calmly and efficiently they’d handled everything. Almost like it wasn’t their first time.
“Are you still my lawyer if I get into trouble?” I asked her.
“Sure,” said Chery. “Call me any time, as long as it’s between business hours, and never on the weekend. I’m sure we’ll be meeting again, Colin.”
“Call it a feeling.” She went back to her car and got in.
“Won’t they follow you and try to get answers?” I called after her.
She looked out of the window with a fag in her mouth, lit and fuming. “I’m looking forward to it. Give me a chance to brush up on my languages. My Mandarin is very rusty.” She sped off, gravel flying, scaring some of the ground staff still working to get the lawn back to looking country-estate pretty.
“You’ve known Mrs Hinton long?” asked a woman with a bowl haircut and glasses that took up half of her face.
“Mrs Hinton? No, I met her today.” Cherry was married? I wondered what her husband was like.
“Very good. I’m Pixie — I know, terrible name. Terrible parents, that’s the source if you’re wondering. I’m the alchemist of the party — no, actually, just the chemist, mineralogist, poisons and reactive agents scientist. Toxicity is my speciality. Good things are coming, I can tell.” She gave me a long look full of optimism. “Lots of new things to learn about now that we have you. Do come inside.”
There was one other woman who I hadn’t been introduced to so far, a beefy woman with forearms the size of my thighs. She had a square, asexual sort of face but very round, sexual breasts that jutted out a fair way from her chest.
“That’s Tammy,” said Pixie. “Don’t stare, she gets very self-conscious about those enormous mammaries of hers. She’s liable to punch you in the face if she catches you gawping, to cover her embarrassment.”
“What does she do?” I asked, careful to keep my gaze respectful. She had landmark buttocks, too.
“She’s the engineer. Fix anything mechanical or electronic. Knows how to charge up flat batteries just by rubbing them.” Pixie sounded impressed.
Inside the house there was a large reception area, lots of doors going off in various directions, and numerous people in blue jumpsuits but no baseball caps. They all wore glasses and gloves, and face masks but not as elaborate as Raffo’s.
He was watching me from behind all his protective clothing but hadn’t said anything. I got the feeling he would corner me at some point and try to sell me something. Maybe an idea, maybe a timeshare in Spain,
They were all older than me but not by very much. In their thirties most likely. Everyone seemed very friendly and warm. To each other and towards me. A happy, excited bunch of nerds working on the discovery of the century. I could understand their excitement. I wanted nothing to do with it. It was the sort of excitement liable to get me killed.
“I’ll show you to your room,” said Neil, “and then a quick tour, after which we can reconvene in Meeting Room A for a short discussion, Q&A. You can ask us what we’re up to and we’ll ask you for a brief summary of what you’ve experienced over there. Sound good?”
“Sounds wonderful,” said Pixie. “I can’t wait.”
“Don’t you think it would be prudent,” said Raffo, his voice distorted by his mask, “if we did a full medical check first? We don’t know what he’s been exposed to or what he might be carrying. It’s very unlikely he came back untouched. Mould, parasites, worms…”
“Raffo,” said Neil. “He’s fine. We’ve taken all precautions. He’s been here long enough for any symptoms to show, and too long for us to do anything about it now. If we’re infected, we’re infected.”
“Speak for yourself,” said Raffo. “I am untainted and intend to stay that way.”
I’d have to admit, I was on Raffo’s side. If there was a chance I was carrying some fantastical fantasy disease, I’d ask for a few tests to be run. They should have probably also checked my pockets for magic beans and other contraband.
Neil took me up a grand staircase and down a long passage with no people around, although I did notice a few cameras at various places.
My room wasn’t that big, a single bed, but it was nicely furnished, solid wood furniture and large windows, even a small balcony. And my own shower and toilet, which I eyed longingly. The place was growing on me. At least I wouldn’t be uncomfortable as I worked on a way to extract the information I needed from these people before they tried to extract the information they needed with a probe directly inserted into my brain.
Neil showed me where my brand new blue jumpsuit was kept — there were about twenty of them in clear packing in the drawer — and promised to have my clothes cleaned and returned to me. He went off and gave me a little time to freshen up, which basically meant a really long dump and a quick shower.
The jumpsuit was actually quite comfortable and had lots of pockets, which was nice. I was feeling like one of the team already. We’d soon be swapping jokes and sharing desserts at dinner. Just kidding, I planned to ditch these plebs as soon as I spotted an opening.
Neil returned half an hour later to take me around.
“You look great,” he said. Pleasantries among nerds? The whole thing was a farce. It was like seeing evolution happening in real-time, and it wasn’t pretty. “Mr Pelago will be here this evening, so you can save your more meta questions for him. I’m just going to give you the quick tour, what departments we have here and what they’re running.”
I was looking forward to seeing just how much they knew about Flatland, and also how they found out about it, although that was probably one of the meta questions I should ask Archie about directly.
Neil took me from one corridor to another, outside the side of the house and into a newer building that was mostly glass but opaque so you couldn’t see inside from outside. But once inside, you could see out quite easily.
There were a lot of computers, lots of laboratories with test tubes and stuff, lots of screens with meaningless numbers scrolling across them.
Neil mentioned the names of departments and the people running them but most of it slipped out of my head five seconds after he told me. None of it struck me as particularly interesting. A lot of it felt quite speculative.
They were interested in a new land they’d discovered — its existence, at least — and they were planning to go over some time soon and they were still deciding what to take.
There was no indication of how they were going to get there or what their aim was once they arrived. Judging by what I’d seen so far, their approach would be similar to an 80s action movie, one of the ones set in Vietnam, where they go back to rescue some stranded POWs using one man with a very big gun who’s very angry about how poorly treated he was on his last visit. Burnt his fingers pouring napalm on children and whatnot.
I was polite and faked interest in whatever Neil said. My appearance was that of someone who didn’t really know what they were doing or how they got to where they were at. I knew that and took full advantage. I also took note of where the exits were, and forgot almost immediately. I tried to take in as much information as possible but I was fairly certain most of what I was being told was only superficially true.
Yes, they planned to go over there and plant food and build some nice bivouacs, but they probably planned to do a lot more with their digging and building machines. And good luck to them. Who doesn’t want to see sustainable crops and affordable housing?
After a big loop around the different departments, we ended up in a meeting room with the other five heads of departments.
Neil stood at the front and addressed us all in a casual manner. Nothing so far had come across as urgent or desperate. No demands had been made of me and I had been made to feel welcome. Everyone was just chilling.
“Before we move onto dinner, where I’m sure Mr Pelago will have some comments to make, perhaps you could give us some of your impressions on the world you visited?” Neil asked me. “We’re all dying to hear about it.”
They all looked at me eager for details. All apart from Raffo, who was still wearing mask, goggles and gloves, so it was hard to know what his expression was.
“Maybe I should wait.” I wasn’t too keen on giving away my shit before I’d had a chance to check out their shit.
“Can you give us a few teasers?” asked Pixie, her eyes lighting up. “What’s it like over there? The weather, the creatures, have you ever flown on a dragon?”
“The weather’s okay,” I said. “Fairly clement, not much rain. The people are a lot like the people here, a bit more divided into classes. The nobles have it easiest, but they still have to watch out for each other. And the monsters of course. The monsters are a bit aggressive. And not just the big ones. Demons, dragons, trolls, ogres, sure. But you also want to watch out for any rabbit with a single horn on its heads.”
“Al-mi’raj,” said Carlos.
“No,” I said. “Bunnicorn. You might think these monsters are like the ones from our mythologies, but they aren’t. The bunnicorn’s horn is its sexual organ, and it will try to fuck you with it.”
Before I had their curiosity, now I had their interest.
“Did they try to fuck you?” asked Tammy, the first words she’d spoken to me.
“Yes,” I said. No reason to lie.
“How was it?” asked Tammy.
“They didn’t succeed.”
She looked at me like she didn’t believe me.
“It sounds wonderful,” said Dr Chanda. “A world like a dream. A fantastic dream.”
They were seeing Flatland through rather rosy spectacles. I felt they needed a bit of a reality check.
“The biggest difference is that you can’t rely on the law or the police to protect you. Anyone who’s strong enough can take whatever they want, but that means someone stronger can come alone and take it from you. They won’t get taken to court and you only go to prison to await execution. It’s rough justice and no one stays at the top. Even if you have an army and all the weapons in the world, some kid can find a magic sword and kill everyone of you while deflecting bullets.”
Not exactly a lie, just a bit of an exaggeration. I didn’t want them to think they were going to go over there to thrash the natives with their superior firepower while listening to Wagner.
“Is there anything you’d like to ask us?” said Neil.
“Yes,” I said. “I think I’ve got a rough idea of what you each do, but which one of you is the xenobiologist.”
The room looked blankly at me.
“The what?” said Neil.
“The person who’s going to cut up the new species you find over there, to see how they work. How fairies fly, how trolls change shape. One of you must be in charge of that stuff, no?”
There was another pause.
“That’s not really our objective,” said Neil. “We don’t want to upset any of them. We’d like to make friends, form a partnership.”
“To do what?” I asked.
“Perhaps it would be easier to show you.” He clicked something on his phone and the room darkened a bit. Then a light hit the far wall and a map appeared in 3D, lots of hills and valleys.
It looked very familiar. I’d seen it from the back of a dragon so I recognised it even from a high isometric angle. Flatland.
“How did you get such an accurate map of it?” I said. How much more did they know than what they were letting on?
“You’ll have access to all our research as soon as Mr Pelago arrives and gives you the all-clear” said Neil. “But I think it’s okay to show you our basic plan.”
He clicked another button and the topography began to change. Buildings rose, fields became more organised, more roads, more windmills and waterwheels. Very quickly every spare piece of land had something growing on it and major conurbations everywhere. They looked very much like the kind of fantasy cities you might see in a storybook, or a theme park, even more so than Fengarad and Dargot.
It suddenly dawned on me, they weren’t planning to destroy and invade Flatland. They wanted to do something much more blunt. They wanted to turn it into a tourist destination.