Hampstead Heath: 24-25 April 2128
Ellie clasped her hands over her ears to try to stop the cacophony from penetrating her skull as she ran further from the clearing. She finally halted next to some sparse bushes nearly thirty feet from the noise. Through half-screwed up eyes she watched the machine shimmer, tilt and then disappear with a distinct pop. The sound echoed around the trees for a couple of seconds leaving her in silence. Even the normally subdued woodland chit-chat that she had hardly noticed before was conspicuously absent.
They had done it. They had really done it. She hadn't believed anything would actually happen. She edged back into the clearing to where the machine had stood. Her hands shook as she played her torch over the ground, seeing the imprints where the base had pushed into the soil along with the damage to the trees where it had originally come down. The torchlight picked out something glistening near the roots of the tree it had originally crashed against. It glinted like several dark eyes watching her. She circled around, afraid to place herself directly on top of the soil upon which the machine had sat, fearful that it could return at any moment.
The sparkling was from several pieces of black rock mixed in with the remains of the previous autumn's leaves. She went to pick one piece up and hesitated remembering Rick's hand. She left it where it sat.
"Oh, Rick," she whispered, unable to speak aloud. "Where are you? What have you done? Please come back." The last came out as a squeak.
What am I going to do now? she thought.
She sat on the far side of the clearing, back resting against one of the sturdier trees. Exhausted and needing sleep, she knew she wouldn't be able to relax until Rick and Long were back safe.
After half an hour the April night air started to bite and she found herself shivering with more than just the dread of losing Rick. Torch in hand she made her way back to the shack, and rummaged around until she'd located a couple of the thicker blankets. Carrying one and wrapping the other about herself, she returned to the clearing. It was as empty as when she'd left it.
She sat on the other blanket and folded the excess around her legs. It felt no warmer.
A buzzing sound accompanied by a deep rumble awoke her and she sprang to her feet. But something wasn't right.
"That's not the machine," she said to herself. Her eyes tried to make out where the sound was coming from. It definitely wasn't the same terrible screeching that had accompanied the machine's disappearance. This was more like something cutting its way into the woods, and it was getting closer.
Ellie slunk back into the undergrowth and pulled the blankets tighter around herself as if they could protect her from whatever was coming. Behind a stand of smaller trees, she hugged closely against the trunk of a larger one whose substantial branches curved upwards in all directions. Whatever was making the noise was almost at the clearing. Hidden as she was, she still felt exposed and in danger.
Her eyes could just about make out a route up into the budding leaves and, with fear at her heels, scrabbled up from branch to branch until she was more than fifteen feet above the ground. There, with legs dangling either side of a large bough and her back against the main trunk, she rearranged the blankets to try to conceal her outline. Then she attempted to remain as still as possible as two large robots, built like bulldozers with caterpillar treads, entered the clearing.
AI had found them – had it known about the machine all along?
Hardly daring to breathe, she watched as the robots pored over the area inch by inch. They probed the ground and the trees where the machine had rested. They located the black rocks and, with spindly attachments, picked them up and examined them before storing them away in compartments within their bodies.
She silently begged them to leave but they refused. Instead, one of them moved to one side of the clearing to wait while the other investigated the tree against which she had been resting. She barely suppressed a whimper as it slowly tracked her path from there towards her hiding place. It navigated its way around the small stand of trees to stop directly beneath her. Surely, it knew she was here. Could it detect the ID chip implanted in the back of her hand all the way from down there?
She held her breath as best she could and, after what seemed like ages, but was probably far less than a minute, sighed in relief as it returned to the clearing to park itself on the opposite side to its mate.
And there they waited.
In the east, the sky was starting to lighten and for the third time Ellie winced as cramps shot up her calf muscle. She clamped her teeth together to suppress making any noise. The damned robots were still there and the machine wasn't.
Surely, they would have returned by now? Tears ran down her face and fear ran through her thoughts. Will I ever see them... Rick again? Not for the first time in the long night, she wished bitterly that Long had never found the damned machine.
She was on the verge of crying out when a familiar screeching sound reverberated around the woods, assailing all her senses yet again.
"Rick, Long!" she shouted, not caring whether or not the robots heard her. But the machine's return drowned out her voice such that she could hardly hear it herself.
And, through the trees, there it was – the machine itself. She half cried, half laughed in relief seeing it back.
What do I do now? she thought. Could she warn them about the robots before they opened the door?
But something was wrong – the noise didn't diminish and the door didn't open. They must have seen the robots, she thought. From her vantage point, she couldn't see into the small window in the machine's door. Were they now looking out of it at the robots? Why hadn't they turned the machine off? Were they going to leave again?
One robot advanced towards the machine and a mechanical arm latched itself onto the handle and pulled. The door didn't budge.
The second attempt used far more force and, with the interlock broken, the screech reduced to a whine and then, finally, silence.
Ellie watched, mouth open, as the robot pushed a second telescopic, flexible arm inside the doorway. It poked around for a few moments and then slowly dragged something out. Ellie gasped as Long's inert body came into view. He was lifted up, balanced upon both robotic arms, as the robot backed away to allow the second robot room to retrieve Rick's body.
"Oh, no, no, no, no," she sobbed, burying her face in the blankets.
Another cliffhanger! Thank you for reading Splinters. Do please vote and/or leave a comment to tell me what you think.
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