London’s streets are a nightmare maze. If Marco doesn’t get lucky with the next few traffic lights, he’s going to be late. It’s his first job with this group and he wants to make a good impression.
But luck does go his way, helped by a bit of temporary color blindness that makes a red light look a lot like a green one.
Arthur and Big Bob are waiting outside the King’s Arms, London’s largest pub, when Marco skids his bike to the curb, takes a deep breath, and saunters over.
“You’re cutting it fine,” Arthur says.
They push open the big oak doors and walk in.
“Everybody down!” Arthur shouts. “Except you.” He points at the woman behind the bar. Her eyes are the shape of over-sized painkillers.
“The safe,” Big Bob says to her. He slides over the bar and points a can of hairspray at a lighter in front of her face. “Where is it?”
She points to an open door through which Marco sees a beer-stained pool table and about twenty white-faced punters lying on the floor. He and Arthur and Big Bob are through the door before they notice that the barmaid has not come with them.
“I’ll go back for her,” Arthur says.
A barman is cowering on the floor behind this second bar.
“Where’s the safe?” Marco asks, trying to sound intimidating.
The man points without standing up.
“Through here,” Marco says, leading Big Bob through another door.
It takes them to another similar room with a similar pool table and a similar bar.
Bob is clearly losing patience.
“Where’s the fucking safe?” he screams at the room full of prostrate patrons. No one answers. Marco points at a door, as if he has some hidden knowledge.
Marco remembers something.
“Where’s Arthur?” he asks. Big Bob just shrugs and goes through the door.
They’re deep into the innards of the pub now. No windows.
Marco remembers what Jarvis had said in the briefing for this job, and his skin starts to crawl.
“It’s the new Infinity Protocol,” Jarvis had told him jovially, enjoying the moment a bit more than seemed warranted.
“We need to find Arthur and that barmaid. Let’s go back the way we came,” Marco says, not waiting to see if Big Bob hears him. But he can’t remember which door they came through. He picks one at random.
“This way,” he says. Bob nods. In Arthur’s absence, Bob clearly needs someone to follow, even if it is only Marco.
“Where did everyone go?” Big Bob asks absently.
He’s right. This room looks just like all the others, but it’s empty. Weren’t there people lying on the floor in the previous room? He pulls open the door they just came through. Through it is an almost identical room: empty and silent.
Three more deserted rooms later, Marco has had enough. Time to break cover. He pulls out his mobile phone, calls Jarvis.
“Who are you calling?” Big Bob asks.
After waiting a minute for a response, Marco hangs up.
“Look, Bob,” he says. “I have to tell you something. I’m not really a friend of Arthur’s cousin. I … I work for a security company.”
Bob’s large face clouds with confusion and nascent anger.
“I was sent undercover to test a new security system.”
Bob is turning purple.
“And I think, somehow, it’s doing this to us; it’s confusing us, or moving the rooms around or … or something.”
Bob is slowly moving closer to Marco. Marco backs away until he hits a door. He reaches behind him, turns the handle, and falls into the room. The door swings shut. He backs away, waiting for Big Bob to come through it, running through the best next words to choose. But the door does not open.
Marco’s phone rings.
“Jarvis! What the fuck is happening here?”
“Listen to me,” Jarvis says, his voice cracking, without its usual smugness. “I only have a minute. They found a way to set up a one-time wormhole to let me talk to you.”
Wormhole? Marco shakes his head.
“We didn’t fully understand what we’d built until you and your chums got caught in the middle of it. No way to do a trial run.”
“Caught in the middle of what?”
Marco’s legs feel like they might collapse at any moment.
“The Infinity Protocol. It seemed like an infallible idea. If intruders are detected, it uses a macro-scale quantum tunneling effect to create a gateway into an infinite replica of the building. Something like that. Traps the villains until the police can arrive. That was the idea.”
“And in practice?” Marco is trying to keep his voice steady, but his whole body is shaking now.
“We had no idea it would work out this way. It seems it was a one-direction, one-time kind of thing. No way for us to get to you, no way for you to get back.”
“Back from where? I’m in a pub in London!”
“Yes, you are, but not really. You’re in an infinite replica of the pub. Every door takes you into another variant of the real thing.”
Marco crumples to the floor. He drops his phone, but he can still hear Jarvis’s voice, remote and tinny.
“On the bright side, an infinite pub has an infinite amount of food and drink. Maybe the pinball machines will work too. Just don’t get separated from your friends. I don’t think you’ll find each other again.”
Marco looks around at the empty room. He picks up the phone, but it is silent, signal lost.
He checks out the meager snack selection behind the bar. He’s not sure how long he can keep going on peanuts and beer. He hasn’t seen a bathroom in a long while. What is it they tell children to do if they get lost? Stay in one place. He pulls up a stool and pours himself a beer. He’s going to be here a while, so he may as well enjoy it.
Ben Coppin lives in Ely in the UK with his wife and two teenage children. He works for one of the big tech companies. He's had a textbook on artificial intelligence published, as well as a number of short stories, mostly science fiction, but also horror, fairy tales and other things. All his published stories can be found listed here: http://coppin.family/ben.