3: Twenty One Years Later (part 6)

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3.6 Astronomy Lesson

Hampstead Heath: 15 April 2128

"He's trying to get out of the tent," Ellie shouted. "I didn't think he was strong enough for that. I tried to stop him."

Rick followed Long as he clambered out of the machine and ran for the tent. The man was collapsed outside it. Rick could see the man's face properly for the first time; his receding hair was streaked with grey and, in the swaying light from Ellie's torch, his skin appeared grooved and leathery, quite unlike the older Ghosts, whose lack of facial exercise and exposure rendered their skin smooth and expressionless.

"Give him some more water," Long suggested. As they lifted his head, more hair came out on Rick's sleeve.

"Got to – get back – number one," the man gasped. "On the dial – the dial. The tree. Make me better. Please, got to get back – need to tell Alin. Three is – dead world – that's where it hit – don't go there – five – warped..."

"Easy. Take it easy. Give me that mug, Ellie. Here, drink this."

Long poured water into the man's mouth but he swallowed very little and then started to choke on the rest. Long pushed the man's head sideways so that he could spit out the excess. They couldn't help noticing that, with his mouth hanging open, he revealed a tongue that was strangely twisted and grooved.

"Did he say hit?" said Rick, trying to avoid the stench of the retching.

"Yes, and also something about three being dead."

"Three what? He said 'world' didn't he? Um. Maybe it is some kind of spaceship. Mars is the third planet out from the sun, isn't it? That must be the dead world."

Long corrected him. "No, Earth is third. Anyway, apart from here, they're all dead – by our standards of life anyway."

"Well – just a thought."

The man slumped back having coughed himself dry. Long attempted to make him drink a little more of the water but he was again lethargic, as if the effort of near-rational explanation had drained him completely.

Ellie said, "Let's get him back inside the tent."

As they hauled the inert body back inside Rick held his breath against the smell of decay that enveloped the man. Just as they laid him down, something small fell from the man's jacket pocket. Rick picked it up – it was a pouch made of leather, the top secured by a drawstring.

"There's something inside," he said, opening it. He went back outside the tent and tipped the contents, a single object about half the size of an apple, out into his left hand. It was rough and dark, some kind of rock.

"Ow!" he shouted, flinging the rock away. "Hell, it was hot or sharp or something." He stared at the burn mark on his hand.

Long finished covering the man with a tattered blanket and joined the others outside where Ellie was already examining Rick's hand.

"Don't think there's any damage," she concluded.

They all hunted for the 'hot' black rock but Rick's reaction had lobbed it out of sight.

"Keep an eye on him, can you, Ellie?" Long requested while Rick rubbed his hand. With a grimace Ellie returned to the tent.

"Hell! Don't know how you stand that smell all the time?" Rick said. "He makes me feel like puking up myself."

"Yes, I know," Long agreed.

Then Ellie shouted, "Quick! He's stopped breathing."

Long rushed into the tent but Rick stopped at the flap.

"Aren't you supposed to thump him on the chest or something?" Long shouted. Ellie thumped and Long joined her in their amateur pummelling.

"Does anyone remember anything about the kiss of life?" Long asked.

Rick eyed the stinking body and shuddered guiltily. "Not me," he said.

Long and Ellie spent several more fruitless minutes before finally acceding to the inevitable.

They sat in silence outside the tent still housing the body of a stranger who could no longer return home.

"Now we'll never know who he was," Long whispered.

"Or where he came from?" Ellie added.

"And what that machine is," Rick said, absent-mindedly rubbing at his sore hand, trying to dissipate the sting while pondering how the man had escaped the effects of the disaster. As far as they knew, everyone on the planet had been drained of their intelligence and will, and only AI's intervention had saved mankind from completely dying out.

Well, that's what AI had told them. Rick wondered how much of it had been true.

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