11: Back To Reality (part 3)

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11.3 Beside The Sea

Cromer: 27 April 2128

The following morning Long awoke feeling refreshed. He stretched and yawned to find yesterday's aches and pains were now almost completely absent.

Sitting up he glanced across to where Rick lay. But Rick was no longer there. The bed was empty, denuded even of its sheets.

His breath caught in his throat. "Is he dead?" he thought. "Oh, hell. Have I killed him?"

He called for a nurse until one, a different model from that which had attended him previously, squeaked into view.

"Where's Rick? What's happened to him?" he shouted at it. "The guy that was in that bed?" he added when it didn't respond immediately.

"Unknown. Please rest. Unnecessary stress is not conducive to recovery." The top half of the nurse angled forward in order to gently force Long back down into the bed but he avoided its arms and hopped out the other side.

"Tell me where he is," he shouted at it.

"Return to bed. Return to bed!"

The nurse tried to corner him but Long, adrenaline pumping, evaded it easily. Leaping over several beds he sprinted past the nurse and out of the ward into a corridor. He poked his head into door after door. Most rooms were in a pitiful state of repair but Rick was in none of them.

He found some stairs and, descending them, located an open door that led out into brilliant sunshine.

He was surrounded by an assortment of architecture, of red brick hotels, old dusty-fronted shops and terraced houses in a street around the corner. Unlike parts of London there was little evidence of any accumulation of rubbish. He could make out a sound, a muted punctuated roaring that was only interspersed with the squalling screech of the birds that whirled above his head.

From inside the hospital he heard the clank of a nurse. The vague plan for trying to locate Rick gave way to the urge to escape its clutches and, lacking any preference, he headed towards the source of the roaring noise. Long was sure he had heard something like it before, if only on video.

Using the sun as a guide, he determined that the noise came from somewhere north of him and ran in that direction to be rewarded with an increase in volume. He rounded a corner and stopped. Ahead, the roadway dipped down behind a railing and, beyond that, he discovered the source of the noise. He gasped, witnessing for the first time in his life the unsolid, hazy line of the horizon where sky met sea.

He ran across to the railings and gazed down to where breakers crashed onto a pebble beach, raking the loose stones around with each wave. Long stood mesmerised for a few moments, intrigued with natural forces that he'd never before experienced first hand; all thoughts of discovering the fate of Rick were temporarily banished from his consciousness. The screeching birds were constantly diving onto the sea's surface.

He glanced along the sea front and, noticing some worn concrete steps leading to the beach, headed downwards until his bare feet encountered the smooth pebbles. But he couldn't progress very far as each footstep shifted the stones under his weight and it was highly uncomfortable trying to walk. Instead he sat down and watched the tide.

A growling from his stomach reminded him of other needs and he returned up the steps. A glance along the sea front showed there was little promise of satisfying his needs here so he returned the way he had come, trying to remember where the hospital building was located. After a few turns he had to admit to himself that he was lost and began to despair of finding either it and Rick again. If only he could find someone to ask, but the place seemed to be as devoid of people as that alternate London.

Then a mechanical sound around another corner alerted him and he crept closer to observe some sort of cleaning robot removing fallen debris and pulling weeds from a roadside gutter, depositing its catch in a robotic cart that accompanied it. Long had seen similar devices in London in the past, though he recalled having seen few in the months before he escaped. This explained the relative cleanliness of the streets.

Such robots were quite dumb in comparison to hospital nurses but quite often had rudimentary on-board systems to assist with anyone requiring directions. Usually, they had little connection with the main AI systems. He stepped forward and approached the pair.

"Excuse me," Long said, tapping the cleaner on its shell as it scraped a film of last year's leaves from around the base of a lamppost. At first it carried on with its task but a further rattle around the area of its frame that held the multiple eyes finally attracted its attention and it swivelled around to view Long.

"Can you tell me the way back to the hospital?"

The cleaner stood there mutely. Long surmised that, given the lack of people here, it probably hadn't been required to use its voice circuits for more than twenty years. Maybe the parts of its crude brain that controlled them had atrophied and, even though it wanted to, it could no longer utter a sound.

But then one of its telescopic arms shot out and secured its pincer-like attachment around Long's own arm.

"Ow!" he shouted. "That hurts!"

The grip slackened but he found himself tightly held. The robot just stood there motionless, the cart behind it was the only thing moving and it, too, came to a halt beside him.

With a sudden twist Long felt himself hauled up and then tipped into the open maw of the cart. He landed on an assortment of debris that included stones, rotting leaves and a dead seagull. He tried to stand up but the morass beneath him shifted, unbalancing him. Before he could regain his footing, the lid of the cart closed over his head.

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