11: Back To Reality (part 1)

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11.1 Hospital

Sector 1-3-3: 26 April 2128

Long opened his eyes and shut them just as quickly against the harshness of the light. Using a hand as a shield, he ventured another peep. This time his eyes, after struggling for a moment to focus on their surroundings, resolved blurred shapes into beds, cupboards, windows and curtains – a hospital ward.

It was not unlike those he had occasionally occupied when younger. A fall from a tree resulting in a broken leg along with a couple of bouts of influenza had meant a few days incarceration each time. With the latter he had been joined by several of his friends.

Looking around, he could see that Rick was the only other occupant of a ward that could have held twenty or more patients.

Opposite, the window glared with a brilliant sun that hung halfway up the sky. It illuminated the stark pale grey of the decor, and picked out the scratches and chips in old paintwork. The whole room was imbued with an oldness that almost stank of decrepitude. The beds were ancient, stiffly constructed frames repainted with a metallic silver coating that was in a far worse state than the walls up against which they lounged. Beside him, the small bedside cabinet lacked a door though the hinges that had once supported it still remained, dangling uselessly.

Long had no idea if it was morning or afternoon and, at that moment, didn't really care. His head hurt, his joints ached and he was extremely thirsty. He tried to sit up only to find his balance so awry that he nearly tipped sideways onto the floor. As he tried to right himself he heard a clanking sound close in and felt the mechanical arms of a robotic nurse assist him back into bed.

His ears popped and, reassuringly, he realised that his hearing had returned, if not fully, then at least adequately enough. There was a woolly effect to the sounds the robot made.

"Water," he croaked. The nurse blipped an electronic reply and passed Long a tube from which he sucked a cool liquid that was obviously more than just water. But he didn't care, the water slipped down his parched throat and soothed the fire that burned there.

He lay back and studied the nurse that now stood motionless beside his bed. Its presence indicated that he and Rick had managed to return home but it also meant that AI now knew about the machine. Like the institution it worked within, the nurse not only looked old appeared far cruder than those he'd previously encountered. A metal box showing less wear than the rest of its body was attached to its back and suggested that some sort of upgrade had been attempted.

"Where am I?" he asked.

The nurse rattled back into awareness and, after a moment's cogitation, replied, "Sector one-three-three. Hospital."

"Where's sector one-three-three? London?"


"Where, then?"

There was a pause of several seconds.

"Not London," the robot finally replied.

Long sighed and continued, "What city is it in?"

The nurse was silent for another half minute and Long thought it had ignored him or had broken down. Then it spurted, "Not city. Town."

"Hell! Okay, what town is it in?"


"Never heard of it. What or where is Cromer?"

The nurse paused to think again. Long wondered what was going on behind the scenes. Obviously, his questions were being relayed to a more authoritative section of AI, possibly tens or even hundreds of miles away and, there, decisions were probably being made about what could or could not be revealed to him. He didn't know how much ruckus his and Rick's discovery was causing but the time taken to deliver the replies felt unusually excessive. He had never known AI to pause this long in conversation. But he thought, too, that it probably wouldn't be long before questions would be asked back.

"Sector one-three," the nurse finally admitted. "Old term, human reference, East Anglia, Norfolk, north coast."

"Okay. So why are we here instead of London?"

This time the nurse needed more than a full minute before it returned an answer.

"Contamination possibility precludes immediate return to London. Electromagnetic disturbances detected. All cycles converge. Enough."

The nurse backed off and went to investigate Rick who lay motionless four beds away on the opposite side of the ward. Like himself, Rick was dressed in a plain pair of pyjamas. Long's felt starchy and rough, and there was a smell of mustiness about them as if they had spent far too long hidden from fresh air. He scratched under an arm where the material irritated.

Long thought about what the nurse had told him. He could understand the references to 'contamination' and 'electromagnetic disturbances' but the – what had it said? – 'cycles converge' part he hadn't understood at all.

As the nurse picked up Rick's limp arm, Long squinted to see if his fingers looked normal. He could recall seeing them distorted just before he had passed out and wanted to know if it had been nothing more than his imagination. His eyesight, though, was still far from perfect and he could not make out if Rick's hand looked normal or not.

He pulled the tube of liquid back to his mouth and lay back. The liquid had a sweet taste and consistency that suggested honey. Long hadn't experienced that taste since his childhood stay in hospital. An almost forgotten memory about the "Nectar of the Gods" floated up into his mind. The liquid felt completely at odds with the dreariness of the ward.

He shut his eyes and allowed his mind to trace over the events they had experienced in that other London. It now felt like a dream, or maybe a nightmare. What had Rick said about dreaming about the place when they had been young? Long snorted – Rick had always had a lively imagination. But, just where had they been? How could another London, that wasn't the London in which he had grown up, manage to exist? Why had that London been affected by the disaster in a different way to his own? How could a disaster on one Earth affect the alternate versions? How many alternate versions were there?

After a while, unable to fathom any answers, he pulled the sheets over his face to shield his closed eyes from the bright glare of the day and, despite not wanting to, fell back into sleep.

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