I stood up and looked at my phone. It said the battery was at 8%, which annoyed me. It had been on charge for four years and it hadn’t been a very long conversation, so why was it so low?
There were other matters I should have been more concerned about. How did Flossie’s dad know I was back? How did he get my number? Who was at the door and what non-consensual things were they going to do to me?
Of course, my phone’s battery didn’t work because the manufacturers of electronic devices had figured out that if you made it nigh on impossible to switch out a battery and also made them unable to hold a charge after about a year or so, then it would force you to buy a new one.
Built-in obsolescence was how everything was designed these days — cars, phones, people.
I went to the door and opened it. Why not? If Mr Flossie wanted to meet and have a chat, I was game. I had some questions of my own, about the state of the world, about the end of civilisation, the rise of fascism and the spread of deadly plagues, and who better to ask than a billionaire? He was probably responsible for most of it.
There was a man standing at the door in a grey suit, a very white shirt buttoned all the way up and no tie (see, civilisation crumbling right before my eyes).
“If you’d like to come with me, I’ll take you to Mr Larwood.” He was a black guy, tall and very well built. Shaved head and one eyebrow that stretched across his wide forehead. Not often you saw a black guy with a unibrow.
His body language was relaxed and he spoke with a soft voice. He had managed to get to my front door without ringing from the locked entrance downstairs, but that could just be because someone let him in as they left the building.
“Okay,” I said. “Sure.” I checked my pockets. “One minute.”
I turned and went back to the kitchen, looked through the drawers and found a spare key that was slightly bent but would still work if you weren’t too aggressive when turning it.
When I turned back, the man was standing in my hallway. Which was odd because I was pretty sure I had pushed the door closed when I left him out on the landing. I even heard the door click shut.
He nodded, still very polite, as he opened the door and held it for me.
“I’m Colin,” I said as I stood outside as he closed the door.
“Yes,” he said. “I am your driver.”
“Do you have a name?”
“Yes,” he said and led the way down to the waiting car.
Not being one to pry (because I didn’t really give a shit) I allowed the man to keep his secrets.
It was a big car but not what I expected from a billionaire. It was a van with a side door. I’m not saying it wasn’t a high quality, top of the range vehicle with very modern aerodynamic styling, but still, it was a van.
The driver pressed something in his hand and the door slid open, revealing a very spacious interior. You could easily get a step ladder and some scaffolding in there. Throw in some duct tape and you had yourself a night to remember.
There was also a sofa, a TV and a glass cabinet with drinks. It was set up like a bachelor pad for the gigolo on the go. There were no windows but it was fully carpeted.
I got in and sat down. My feet sank into the thick shag pile and the leather sofa was incredibly comfortable. The door closed and strip lighting illuminated my new home. If this was a kidnapping, it was a very classy one.
We started moving without any engine sounds, so probably an electric motor. The TV screen turned itself on and the driver’s face appeared looking right at me, even though he was also driving.
“We’ll be travelling for one hour and twelve minutes. Please help yourself to any drinks or snacks.”
The screen turned itself off.
It was an odd limousine service, but it was well catered. I helped myself to a coke from the refrigerated cabinet and used the remote control to turn the screen back on. Every channel in existence was available, which was nice since I had a number of things I wanted to binge-watch. I decided on the final episode of Game of Thrones because I was curious to see how George wound up ending his neverending series.
I knew this world was a bit fucked, but I had no idea how bad things had gotten.
“Are you alright?” asked the driver as he let me out at our destination an hour or so later.
“No, not really.” George had let me down terribly. “I’ll be fine. This the place?”
We were in the middle of central London. Somewhere around Picadilly was my guess. The restaurant we had parked outside of was called Coq du Monde and it looked pretty upmarket. Not really a jeans and t-shirt kinda place.
“Mr Larwood is waiting for you inside.” He stayed next to his van.
I entered alone and didn’t have to say anything as one of the waiters said, “This way, please,” and led me through the long, golden, picture-lined dining room which was humming with the chatter of lunchers.
The customers looked settled in, like they had been here since breakfast. Cigar-waving gents of a certain vintage. The place had a kind of dated glamour: cluttered walls filled with wildly variable art, red plush chairs and well-spaced, crisply dressed tables, patrolled by aged long-serving waiters.
At the far end of the room was a table on a raised platform, and a man seated there who seemed to take up three sides of it. He was very wide. Not fat, not bulky, just wide.
He had a well-oiled head of white hair, a round also-wide face, and a neatly trimmed ginger beard the same colour as Flossie’s hair.
He rose as the waiter stepped aside and pulled out a chair for me. He was not only wide but tall, but neither of those things intimidate me. Girth is the only threatening measurement in my book.
“Colin, so wonderful to meet you.” He held out a hand that could have picked up my head the way NBA players pick up a basketball.
I shook his hand and the pressure squeezed all the blood out of my fingers and into my forearm, making me feel like Popeye.
“Hi,” I squeaked.
We both sat down and there was a moment of awkward silence.
“Allow me to order for you.” He raised his hand and signalled to a waiter, who turned around and headed for the kitchen. Apparently, when you were rich enough, you communicated your desires telepathically.
“Now,” said Flossie’s dad, “might I ask how my daughter is doing?”
“She’s fine. Or, she was last time I saw her.”
“And where was that?”
Now it got a little tricky. How should I explain to him that we had been transported to a world full of monsters and demons? With a series of Frank Frazetta drawings?
A waitress approached and offered us bread rolls from a basket. I took a bap.
“Archie, what do you think happened to your daughter?” Might as well see what I had to work with.
“The same thing that happened to the other nineteen of you. You were taken away. I was there when it happened,” said Archie. “I saw her vanish with my own eyes, Colin. Right in front of me. So I understand completely your hesitance in sharing the truth.”
“You saw her vanish?”
“I did. She just faded away. There’s no other way to describe it. When I learned of the other cases, I realised they must have gone the same way. No bodies, no evidence of violence, just gone. I did everything in my power to find out what happened, not only to Victoria — Flossie — but to all twenty of you.”
“Are you the one who’s been paying my bills?”
“That’s correct,” said Archie. “I wanted to try to keep everything in place in case any of you came back. Not just in your case but all of the abducted. To tell you the truth, I didn’t think it would work, but here you are. Where did you go, Colin?”
Was the truth really the best thing to share here? The usual answer was no. But this guy just wanted to know what happened to his kid. Even if he was a billionaire, an evil billionaire maybe (what other kind is there?), he would care about his own flesh and blood the way any parent would. Or so the movies made by the corporations owned by billionaires would have us believe.
“We were transported to a fantasy world — it may have been a simulation, you know, like a video game — where we were expected to fight monsters to survive. Apparently, we weren’t the first group to have been taken there, it’s happened every four years for the last hundred years or something. Why no one’s noticed until now, I don’t know. In any case, we landed in the middle of your typical Tolkienesque middle ages with trolls and ogres, and we ran around like headless chickens and most of us died.” I ate some more bread and drank some water. Poshest restaurant I’d ever been to and I was eating bread and water.
Anyway, I’d put my cards on table. Ball in your court. Many a mickle macks a muckle.
Archie just sat there, nodding slightly, his wide mouth turned down at the edges.
“You’ll forgive me for taking a moment to fully digest what you’ve just told me.”
“Sure,” I said. “Take your time.”
“Even if you are correct, the kind of technology you’re talking about is even now barely in its infancy. A hundred years ago, even four years ago, I don’t think such a thing would be possible. I own technology firms that are on the cutting edge of virtual reality and augmented media, and the technology just isn’t there yet.”
“Couldn’t the military or the Chinese or somebody be working on it in secret?” I asked.
He shook his big square head. “Most of our contracts are with the Chinese and the military, so I would be the first to know if such were the case.”
Of course, I didn’t really think the world of Flatland was a game — it would have been nice if it we were, I was more than ready to hack the system and level up using exploits — but I thought it would sound more plausible (well, less implausible) to suggest it was all holograms and 3D glasses that actually worked.
If I had said it was magic, I didn’t think I would be taken seriously.
“Have you considered that it may have been some sort of magical power that was responsible?” said Archie, no change in his serious demeanour.
“Hmm.” I tried to look like I was giving the idea some serious thought. “You’re saying it was all real, and we were transported into a fantasy realm by supernatural means, like in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe?” When dealing with boomers, you’ve got to give them pop culture references they can relate to. “I mean, some people did have those sorts of theories, but it’s hard to take seriously, right?”
Archie leaned over the table. “But I take it you were able to perform magic, when you were there.”
There was something about the casual way he was posing the question, like it was just a thought that had popped into his head, that had alarm bells going off.
“Me? No, I wasn’t able to do anything special. The only ability I had was running away from trouble. That’s why I survived when so many of the others didn’t.”
“But you saw others with powers, yes?”
I could have just told him exactly what kind of place Flatland was. It wasn’t like there was anything he could do with the information. There was no way for me to prove any of it, and there was no reason he should believe me. But the strange thing was, he didn’t seem to need convincing.
“I saw some strange things, sure. But I didn’t hang around long enough to find out if it was magic or special powers. The natives weren’t exactly friendly.”
“Listen to me, Colin, I understand this is all very confusing and doesn’t make much sense, even to you who lived through it, but I think I can help. Come with me to one of my facilities where we can run a full analysis on you, down to the molecular level. We’ll run some tests and find out exactly what happened to you. I’ll take care of everything, you won’t need to worry about anything.”
His focus was on me and not so much his lost daughter. In fact, he seemed to have forgotten he had a daughter.
“Do you really think you can find out what happened to us?” I was playing along but I was no newbie. I knew what it meant when the farmer started licking his lips around his beloved animals.
“I can promise you we’ll get to the bottom of this, whatever it is. I have the smartest people money can buy working for me.”
The food arrived on a silver trolley. It looked beautiful and smelled amazing. I hadn’t eaten in a while and I’d never eaten something like this, so it was a rare chance (possibly the only one I’d ever get) to experience the absolute pinnacle of the culinary arts.
“Okay, give me a minute to think it over,” I said, standing up. “Which way is the bathroom?”
When I said I had survived by running away from trouble, I hadn’t been kidding. I made my way to the bathroom and kept going. The further I got from the main room, the less glamorous everything became. There was a kitchen full of noise, a corridor with paint flaking off the walls, a trolley with missing wheels, boxes piled up, and a fire exit.
I opened the door and found myself in a back alley. The driver was standing there, leaning on a wall, smoking a cigarette. “Hello, again.” He didn’t seem the least bit surprised to see me.
He tossed the fag (calm down SJWs, it doesn’t mean that over here) swiftly closed the distance between us and reached out to grab me.
Maybe I didn’t have my magic powers anymore but I still had a lot of training beaten into me by a vicious little red-haired teenager with horrible taste in outfits.
The driver was taken totally by surprise and lost his footing as I ducked past him. He was up in a flash and not at all the cool, confident chap of a moment ago. Now he was roaring at me. I ran out of the alley with a raging brute on my tail. Just like old times.