9: A Case Of Fluidity (part 1)

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9.1 Anarchy In The Wild

Alternate Five: 24 April 2128

Long gently pushed Rick to one side to look out of the window.

"Hell. My head still hurts," Rick muttered.

"Yes," Long agreed, but he wasn't really listening. His own head was almost clear again and his attention was gripped by the changes he observed outside.

That the machine had moved in some way was undeniable. He could see that woods still surrounded them, but the trees were more open, less densely packed and many looked as though they were dead. Given the amount of wan light that illuminated the view, the sun appeared to be either rising or setting. His immediate conclusion was that they could no longer even be in the same country as it had been around two in the morning when they had left.

He stared at the dead trees; they were twisted in strange, unnatural ways and many of the live ones also exhibited the same problem, though not to a comparable degree.

"Got that Geiger counter?"

Rick passed it across. Long switched it on and it chattered slightly, registering a background level that was well within safety margins. He cracked the door open and pushed the probe outside while sniffing the air.

"Is it safe?" Rick asked.

"Smells okay-ish," Long confirmed, opening the door fully and stepping out onto the machine's platform. "Radiation's normal, too. But you see those trees?"

"Yeah, weird, and why's the sun coming up already?"

Long placed a foot on the ground as if he expected it to open up and swallow him. It remained reassuringly solid. The light grew, although the sun itself was still hidden below the horizon. It did seem to be coming from what he assumed to be the east which was in the same direction in relation to the machine as it had been on Hampstead Heath.

"Look here, Rick."

Still standing on the machine's platform edge, Rick followed Long's pointed finger. In a patch of dry dusty earth there were several imprints of a shoe.

"Must be inhabited," Rick concluded. "We'd better watch out in case the natives aren't friendly."

Long walked a few yards and gazed about. It was both different and yet familiar. He could see a few other footprints near the machine but none further away. He had an idea. He returned to the machine and walked all the way around it.

"What were you looking for?" Rick said once Long had returned to the doorway.

Long grinned. "I think the dead driver came here as well. Those are probably his footprints. Round the other side there's a patch of flattened grass the same size as the base of the machine. For some reason we've come down a few feet further this way compared to where it landed last time it came here."

Then Long stared into the distance, a frown on his face.

"Over there," he said, pointing through the trees. "That dip in the ground is in about the same place as a dip in the woods on Hampstead Heath."

Rick climbed down from the machine's platform but kept close to it. "Coincidence?" he said.

Long shrugged. He could see that Rick remained affected by the machine and he was rubbing at his hand again.

"So, any idea where we might be?" Rick said.

Long shrugged and examined one of the dead trees, it was so twisted it looked as if it had died in utter agony. Rick remained leaning against the machine.

"Did we bring any painkillers?" Rick called out.

"No, sorry. Should have thought of that. Still bad?"

"Yeah, someone's playing drums in my head."

"Mine seems to have worn off. Maybe yours will in a short... Oh, wow! Look at this!"

Long squatted down and ran his hands forwards and backwards through some long grass.

"Ow," he exclaimed, putting a finger in his mouth, "that one was bloody sharp. Lots of them are all distorted."

He carefully picked a small clump; it pulled from ground easily.

Rick peered at the grass and his eyebrows raised and lowered as he, too, saw what Long had discovered. Many of the blades were relatively normal but, growing from the same roots were some that were not: there were curled blades; fat, crinkled blades; some with patterned holes; and several with spiked edges. Some blades even exhibited more than one style along their single length.

"What the hell can cause that sort of mutation?" Rick asked.

"I presume that Geiger counter was working properly?"

"Seemed to be. I took a few tests after reading up on what was normal. I even found one of those old watches with hands that glow in the dark and it went quite mad when I pointed it at that."

"Okay, then," Long said, and added, "let's assume it's not radiation and that we're safe for a while. Maybe we shouldn't stay any longer than a day or so."


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