3.1 Rick and the Wall
Belsize Park, London: 14 April 2128
The single-carriage train squealed to a halt at Belsize Park underground station. Once extending northwards, the line was truncated here, the tunnel beyond packed with rubble. Rick stepped out onto the platform. Peering up and down its length he spotted little else other than rubbish. Rucksack clutched in hand, he made his way towards the exit.
The ancient tube train groaned as it began to propel itself automatically back towards the centre of London in search of another rare passenger. Once its clatter had been lost in the darkened tunnels, the only sounds remaining were Rick's breathing and the scuff of his soles upon the floor.
He made his way up unmoving escalators. Twenty-one years previously the same tunnels had thronged with thousands of footsteps every hour; now, only his feet disturbed the layers of dust and debris. It made his nose itch. The glow from one of the few working lights illuminated peeling posters: faded colours advertising products and entertainments from a world long past.
At ground level he shivered in the crisp night air and donned his gloves before turning south, away from his objective. At odds with the turmoil that churned his insides, he tried to affect an air of nonchalance, sauntering casually, as if he was just out for a stroll. He was fully aware of the cameras that tracked him, imagining them recording his movements. He tried to picture himself as they would see him: a lanky body, attired in dark jacket and trousers, topped with brown hair, worn slightly long, that flicked about in the slight breeze. In reality he was only too conscious that it stuck to his forehead and neck where sweat betrayed his apprehension. Hopefully, only his pale face could be seen distinctly and, soon, the balaclava in his pocket would rectify that. It was not the only thing in his pockets. His hands checked that the rods and night vision glasses were still there.
A shuffling sound brought him up short. Across the street were an older couple, arm in arm and dressed in shapeless pale blue sheets. Rick slipped into the shadows from where he watched their aimless meandering, as they stumbled over litter and fallen masonry. But there was no need for concealment; these two posed no danger – they were merely Ghosts.
As he resumed his journey he wondered where they'd come from but concluded they most likely had as little idea about that as he. There were definitely more of them about. A door left unlocked, an open window, or, more likely nowadays, a robotic nurse on the blink. They had probably just wandered off because nothing had sought to stop them.
At a junction he headed north-east along the remains of Downside Crescent, out of view of the cameras on the main street. A rare working street light bathed the surroundings with its pallid orange glow – he avoided such elliptical oases in case cameras still had a view of the street.
Minutes later, leaving the crumbling semi-detached houses behind, he crept past trees tangled with ivy towards some larger buildings. He paused, listening and scanning the dark skyline for signs of anything taking an interest in his movements. Only broken windows stared back, accompanied by the sound of his beating heart. He swallowed, trying to push the fear down.
Into a slightly clearer passage he pressed close to the wall of a building that, unknown to him, had once housed part of a hospital.
As he neared his objective a humming sound emanated from the east, accompanied by several cracks of electrical discharge. He halted instinctively. At the far end of the passage he could see the Wall dominating the horizon and, as expected, a camera buggy swished past from right to left along the electrified monorail mounted atop it.
Rick studied the Wall from the passageway. Towering over three times his height, it was a jumble of reused masonry haphazardly concreted together. As usual, it was bathed in more light than he would have wished. The breakdowns had yet to reach the maintenance of the street lamps nearby. He glanced at his watch – not the AI issued one that not only displayed the time of day but could also be used for voice communication, location finding and mapping. This was a dumb solar powered device whose only role was to tell the time. The numbers 9:44:22 glowed at him. He waited until a second camera passed at 9:44:59.
Thirty-seven seconds – about normal. Rick watched the camera lens that constantly scanned for movement in the thirty-foot no-man's-land between the Wall and the buildings.
He heard a rustle and froze. A shadow detached itself from the gloom and became the outline of a man.
"Hell, Phil!" he whispered. "Didn't realise you were already here."
"Been here ten minutes. You set?"
"Yeah," Rick replied. Phil's grin, as he watched Rick forcing the balaclava over his head, was almost lost in the darkness.
"I'll hang back till you're clear," Phil said, slapping Rick on the shoulder. They hugged for a second.
"Okay. Anyone else out there?"
Rick nodded – she'd gone out a couple of days before. He missed her.
"Be quick," Phil advised, before secreting himself in amongst the rubbish a few feet down the passageway.
After another buggy passed, Rick positioned himself near the end of the passageway. He poked his head around the corner, the cool breeze playing across the sweat on his forehead.
His eyes picked out the telltale marks. Barely visible against the lighter colouring of the brickwork were ten small holes in two staggered columns of five; the rods in his pocket ready to fit into them.
He flicked a few sticky strands of hair away from his eyes, and checked both east and west for anything amiss before retreating a few feet into shadow, poised ready.
Rick counted to three and then sprinted out into the yellow light. Reaching the base of the Wall he shoved three rods into the lowest holes, and stepped on the first two in order to place the fourth and fifth.
Slipping back down, he retreated into the passageway where he heard Phil's whisper, "Twenty-one seconds."
Then a double camera went past – the extra one scanning outside the Wall.
"Four seconds late," Phil murmured. "Even more erratic lately. AI's definitely falling to bits."
Two more trips saw the remaining rods placed into position. As Rick pushed the smallest pair into the top holes he heard the clatter of the next buggy coming about five seconds early. Cursing, he sprang back into the shadows.
Six more passed before he was sure they had settled down to a more regular interval. After the seventh he buttoned the jacket to his chin and pulled up the collar to cover his neck. His heart thumped in his chest.
"Scrott! It doesn't get any easier," he whispered – a grunt from nearby was Phil's agreement.
As he strapped the rucksack across his front he heard a whispered, "Good luck," from the passageway and raised a hand in acknowledgement.
Once the next camera had passed he sprang for the rods, leaping up them, hauling himself to the top of the Wall. Avoiding the electrified monorail track he lowered himself over the far side to drop down into long weeds and nettles that cushioned his fall. He rolled as he landed, protecting his face with his arms. Hardly stopping to breathe, he ran away from the Wall only falling flat when he heard another buggy coming.
"Not easy," he thought, "but I'm definitely getting a bit better at it."
The first time he had 'jumped' the Wall it had taken the best part of an hour to place the rods and get over. He had also almost touched the electrified rail, upon hearing the familiar clatter hurtling towards him.
Jogging for a convenient clump of growth, he threw himself down behind a bedraggled piece of privet hedge, a remnant, possibly, of someone's garden boundary. Donning the night-vision glasses, he looked back. By now Phil would be retrieving the rods a few at a time.
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