3: Twenty One Years Later (part 3)

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3.3 Long and the Machine

Hampstead Heath, London: 14 April 2128

An owl hoot came from close by; three hoots, a pause and two more. Rick cupped his hands to his mouth to imitate the call, adding an extra hoot at the end. The response, closer by a few yards, came seconds later.

He heard movement and ducked down behind a bush but then a voice quietly called out, "Rick?"

"Over here," he responded as a tall bearded man crept out from behind some trees.

He looks so different, Rick thought. Despite his enforced exile, Long had definitely filled out over the past few months, and looked several years older, despite the five days that separated their ages. They clasped hands for a second before it turned into a full body hug, which Rick reluctantly broke, his nose wrinkling.

"Something wrong?" Long said.

"Yeah, hell and scrott! Are baths that hard to come by?"

Long laughed. "Sorry. A dip in a cold pond is the best nature offers out here, I'm afraid."

Then Long turned and said, "Okay, this way."

"Is it close by?" Rick said, his eyes scanning the woods.

"Yes, a short walk. The guy from inside is still alive... just." Long pointed deeper into the undergrowth. "Through here."

Rick followed as Long led him through the untamed woods. Despite the night-vision glasses he had difficulty moving through the foliage. In front of him, Long's shadowy body seemed to slide between the trunks and tangles in a manner he found unable to replicate. Rick envied his companion's new litheness but not the form of his exile.

Then the woodland was left behind as they passed through one of the few open pieces of grassland. Somewhere to their right he could make out a flat area and the distant sound of water.

As they trudged through more undergrowth Rick felt completely at odds with their surroundings. Apart from places like Hyde Park, he was used to having solid walls surrounding him. Here, with only trees, punctuated by the occasional open space, and air that would suddenly fill with insects chased by flying mammals, he was an interloper.

"How bad is he?" Rick asked, breaking the pad-pad rhythm of their footfalls.

"Don't really know. Strange burns on his hands and face, and his hair's falling out by the handful. Keeps muttering something about avoiding 'three' and trying to get us to take him back to 'one'. He says 'one' will cure him. Doesn't make a lot of sense."

"What about the machine itself? Have you looked inside it?"

"It's weird, archaic even – the electronics that is. Haven't got a clue what it's supposed to do, but it seems to have been lashed together by people who barely knew what they were building. Reminds me – did you bring that book?"

"Got it in my rucksack."

They came to some older woodland. Long removed a clockwork-powered torch from his belt and wound it up. Its pale beam revealed a pathway through the trees. "Down here."

Rick wondered why Long hadn't used the torch until now but they were still relatively close to London so he presumed Long thought it best to move in darkness.

"Wow!" Rick said. The machine was at the base of a wooded incline. As Long played the torchlight over its bulk, he could see that it rested against two small tree trunks. A third leaned at an angle, pushed from the vertical by the force of the machine's landing.

The main body of the device was a cube constructed of eight metal girders. Apart from a wooden door, the device was cocooned in metallic windings, threaded through holes in the girders, interleaved in basket-weave fashion not unlike a giant electric transformer. A few of the windings were broken, the wires hanging down from where they had snagged on branches. The cube stood upon a base, a circular platform of untreated wood about twelve inches thick and fifteen feet in diameter. Buckled and splintered from the landing, the timber was also pitted in places with a black substance.

Long aimed the torch upwards and Rick's eyes followed the beam. He frowned. "How come the branches further up aren't broken?"

"Yep, bloody strange," Long shrugged. "It's like it appeared out of thin air ten feet above the ground and then just dropped. C'mon. The guy's this way."

Nearby, in a small clearing devoid of trunks but hidden from overhead view by intertwined branches, was a tent – a makeshift affair made from blankets and sheets.

As they approached, Ellie squeezed out of the tent carrying another wind-up torch. She wore a faded blue sweater and jeans, but her blonde hair was far shorter than the last time Rick had seen her, only days ago.

"Wow, that's different," he said, pointing to her hair.

She said, "Not sure it worked. Anyway, come here."

She flung her arms around him, kissing him solidly on the lips. His own arms enfolded her and the closeness of her body reminded him of the last time they had spent together. But, mixed in with the scents of the woodland, he detected another odour about her, something sweet and sickly.

"How is he, Ellie?" Long interrupted, an impatient edge to his voice.

"I really don't know," she said, reluctantly pulling herself away from Rick and picking a piece of twig from her jeans. "He's been sick twice more. Can't seem to hold anything down, not even water. The shakes are getting worse and the burns, or whatever they are, are oozing, too."

Long peered at the shadowy figure inside the tent. "Said anything else? Like where he's from?"

"No, just the numbers again. Mainly 'three' and 'one' – he mentioned 'four' once."

Long crouched down and beckoned Rick closer. As the torch was played over the man Rick could see he was dressed simply, both shirt and trousers woven from the same thick, roughly-stitched material, nothing at all like the garments provided by AI. The bronze-coloured buckle of the belt that loosely encircled his waist was emblazoned with three concentric circles picked out in red copper. His breathing was erratic and laboured, and he stank. It was the same odour that he had detected on Ellie, but far worse.

"Dango!" Rick swore, "I've never smelt anything like that before." He had to turn away, grimacing, as bile rose his throat.

"I know," she replied. "Wasn't quite so bad a couple of days ago, but now... ugh!" She wrinkled her nose again. She turned to Long, "Your turn for a while – I need a breather."

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