11: Back To Reality (part 2)

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11.2 Meat And Veg

Cromer: 26 April 2128

Long awoke to the sound of clanking. He opened his eyes to see a nurse beside his bed. The light was dimmer and more artificial and he saw that evening was drawing in, the sun having painted the lightly clouded sky with orange and crimson streaks.

His headache had all but disappeared and his eyesight was much improved. His hearing, too, had completely recovered and, through an open window, he could hear strange cries. Peering out, he could see they emanated from birds that, silhouetted against the sky, were whirling elliptical paths in the air. Their harsh calls made him wonder if he really had returned to the world he called home and not to some close relative.

The nurse deposited a covered tray into his bed and he smelt the aroma of cooked meat rising from it. He lifted the cover to discover thick slices of what appeared to be beef, the first he had seen for nearly a year, accompanied by roast potatoes, cauliflower, carrots and peas all smothered in a layering of thick gravy. All other worries and thoughts momentarily forgotten, he sat up and started devouring the food. Trying to make a living outside of AI's influence certainly had its disadvantages.

It was only after the sixth or seventh full mouthful that he thought to look across to where Rick lay. His companion enjoyed no such meal and still lay motionless, now sporting a drip that dribbled a clear liquid into his arm.

Long halted his eating and asked the waiting nurse how Rick was. It hesitated before replying, "Person, ID LD-m0018, is unresponsive."

"He's going to be okay, though, isn't he?"

"Determination of outcome is unresolved."

"What's the matter with him?"

"Aggressive mutation has not receded as effectively as in the case of person ID LD-m0014."

Long recognised his own designation, the first time he had heard it in nearly a year. He returned his attention to the meal hoping that the nurse would go away. However, he had to wait for several long minutes before he was rewarded with the retreating clank of its departure. As soon as it felt safe, he pushed the tray to one side and got out of bed. His legs felt strange, tingling lanced up the left as he put weight on it, and he had to support himself as he dragged himself over to where Rick lay motionless. However, the sensation receded quickly.

Rick, conversely, enjoyed no such blessing. The first thing Long investigated was his fingers. He lifted the left hand, the flesh clammy and cool against his own, and he almost dropped it immediately. Rick's third and fourth fingers were fused together for almost their entire length, while the middle finger curved at an unnatural angle backwards above the first knuckle. The burn mark from the strange rock was livid and pronounced. At least Rick's facial appearance hadn't been affected. But what about his mind? His brain?

"Oh hell, I'm so sorry, Rick," Long whispered, dropping Rick's hand back onto the sheet. "If I'd've known I wouldn't have dragged you into this."

But Rick was still unconscious.

Long's legs ached from the small effort of leaving his bed so he limped back and covered himself with the sheets. Beside him, the half-eaten meal was now no longer so attractive. He picked at it for another few minutes and, half an hour later, another robot, not a nursing unit as it had no ability to converse, trundled away with the uneaten remains.

Night fell and, when a wall clock indicated that the time had slipped past ten, the lights dimmed and Long fell into a fitful sleep punctuated by dreams of that other London in which Rick was transformed into something hideous.

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