3: Twenty One Years Later (part 5)

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3.5 Eleanor And The Old Man

Hampstead Heath: 15 April 2128

Ellie bathed the unknown man's forehead with the damp rag. The entrance to the tent was open, leaving the breeze to play over them both, which drove some of the stench away. At that moment he was relatively quiet, his mouth framing words that were softer than whispers. Words that, to Ellie, were as unconnected as anything else she had heard him utter over the past couple of days.

Her mind listed questions she wanted to ask him. What's your name? Where do you come from? What sort of thing brought you here? Why are you so old? But, she had already tried asking such questions and his responses had been incoherent. She hadn't even been sure that he'd heard a single word she'd uttered.

"Just what am I doing here with you?" she said to him. "Am I wasting my time? I don't even know what's wrong with you. I came out here to help, you know. But I don't think I'm actually achieving anything."

The man groaned and his hands waved around as if he was trying to fight off some invisible monster.

Ellie sat back and sighed, thinking back to how she'd ended up in this strange situation.

In her early teens she had badgered AI into letting her experiment with the holographic systems previously used to train medical students. She had pursued the interest for months, sometimes accompanied by Jade and Holls, along with several other NewGen. However, despite the thousands of Ghosts incarcerated around London, AI had prevented them from practicing on live patients – a decision that had dampened, though not completely killed their enthusiasm. Jade, not one for ever getting deeply into a subject, had moved from medicine and onto art after a few months, though she sometimes dipped back into the subject when the mood took her. Holls had kept up with Ellie until Matty's disappearance and her own incarceration.

Three days ago, while spending a relaxing morning with Jade and her identical twin, Jasmine, they had been interrupted by Phil bearing a message from Long. As usual Long had sent a short coded communication via radio and followed it up by chucking a written message over the Wall just before dawn. But, instead of the usual long ramble about how he was dealing with life, this one was short and enigmatic.

"He's asking for you, Ellie," Phil messaged via the watch communicators. She knew exactly who 'he' was from Phil's tone. "Be with you shortly," he'd added.

He arrived by electric trike and uncrumpled the paper as soon he was in the door, spreading it out on a table for the girls to read.

In Long's handwritten scrawl it said: Machine fell out sky last night. Pilot injured/sick – fever, delusional. Ellie: get medicine? Tonight? Tomorrow? Either – will wait for you outside Prime. Rick: need good book on old electronics, transistors, pre-chip, 1950/1960?

Ellie was excited – Prime was the code word for the main place where they went over the Wall. She'd only been outside London once. It had been both fantastic and terrifying. Her heart thumped loudly at the thought of going out again, but she wanted to go. Not only was it a chance to revive her medical interest, something that had never left her, but it was also the chance of tending a real patient without interference from AI. She thought back to school and the story of Florence Nightingale.

"Oh," she said, "I've got to get out there as soon as possible. Do you know where Rick is? We can go out together."

"I did try calling him but he's not answering his watch," Phil said. "I think he's with some of the others at the Embankment getting their trikes ready for the next race. I'm heading there myself shortly so I'll tell him directly."

Ellie tutted, "Well, there'll be no tearing him away from that for the rest of the day. Anyway, it says here that Long wants him to find some sort of book. I'd better go out alone if the pilot is ill."

"Tonight?"

"Yes, Phil. Can you arrange it?"

Phil nodded. "I'll meet you around ten-thirty at the usual spot for Prime." He looked Ellie over, at the delicate dress and flimsy shoes she was wearing. "You'd better change."

"Yes, don't worry, I will." Ellie hugged Phil and, after picking up Long's message to deliver to Rick, he made for the door.

"I'll go find some medicine," Jade announced. "There's still various chemist shops around with untouched stock."

"Thanks," Ellie said. "Pain killers, paracetamol, bandages, tissues, thermometer, balm – that sort of thing."

Jade nodded, "I'll see what I can find."

After Jade's departure Ellie looked at her reflection in a mirror and fondled the golden tresses that hung down below her shoulders.

"I need a haircut," she stated.

Jasmine said, "What? Why do you want to do that? You've always been so proud of your hair."

"When I went over the Wall last time it got caught in everything – twigs, branches, brambles. I don't want that happening again."

"Oh, no, but it's so lovely."

"Well, about time I had a change, anyway. It's been this way for years," Ellie grinned. "So, short it is. Will you do it?"

"Do I have to?"

Twenty minutes later, Ellie peered at her reflection again and was quite shocked at the almost boyish face that stared back at her.

"Sorry, but you did keep saying as short as possible," Jasmine said, eyes flashing blue with worry. The twins were identical except for the colour of their eyes, Jade's being the green from which she derived her name. Their ancestry had endowed them with several striking yet contrasting features: the jet black hair and facial contours of Asia were coupled with Nordic pale skin used as a basis for Jasmine's name.

"I did. Don't worry, love," she said, stroking Jasmine's arm. She contemplated her reflection again and hoped Rick would still like her this way. Well, it would always grow back. But Jasmine still looked worried. Ellie reassured her with a full hug and kiss.

Jade returned with a moderate but useful selection of items while Ellie and Jasmine sorted out suitable clothing.

Once evening was several hours old, Jade accompanied Ellie northwards by tube to meet up with Phil. He had already placed the rods in position by the time they arrived. Ellie left her communicator watch with Jade in order to fool AI into thinking she would still be within the confines of the Wall.

Although nervous, the trip over the Wall was accomplished quickly and, as promised, Long was there to meet her, looking unkempt and accompanied by an odour that made her keep her distance.

Ellie's first impression of the stranger had been a shock – he was far older than his twenties but, though ill, injured and possibly deranged, it was obvious that he was no Ghost. His mutterings, whilst mostly incomprehensible, were not the vague utterances that issued from the mouths of the disaster victims. He, and the smell that accompanied him, was like nothing she had previously encountered.

So much for her idea of becoming a modern Florence Nightingale. She couldn't help wondering if she'd taken on more than she could handle.

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