12.2 Breakdown One
Hyde Park: 4-6 May 2128
Rick stared out the open window of Phil's house, a former hotel. Hyde Park glowed in the early morning light as the rising sun cut across the trees casting deep shadows. The park was reverting back into woodland, and was home to numerous starlings, sparrows and blackbirds that flitted noisily about the trees and down onto the few remaining patches of grass. Each of their chirps became a pinpoint of coloured light in his vision. Unconsciously, the fingers of his right hand explored the distortions of those on his left.
A gentle knock on the door became pulses of reddish-brown. Ellie entered with a cup of tea and some sheets of paper.
"Rick, dear? Oh, you're up."
"Only just," he said, smiling at her.
She joined him at the window and placed the cup and printed sheets on the table. He put an arm around her waist and she kissed him lightly on the cheek.
"Ooh, even that makes my eyes spin," he gasped.
"Sorry," she said. The already sad expression she wore was joined by a deep frown.
"No, not your fault," he whispered, to keep the visual fireworks to a minimum. "You were right. We shouldn't have gone. We didn't know. We weren't prepared."
She pressed herself against him, head resting on his shoulder. His nose nestled in her hair and he breathed in her natural scents. Her hair may have been blonde but, to his distorted vision, it sparkled with tiny red imps. He looked back out the window.
"I suppose all this looks normal to you," he said.
"Yes. Same as it always does. Maybe a bit wilder this year."
"Up there," he pointed across the park above the trees. "There's something winding up into the air, like a giant tree. Do you see it?"
Ellie glanced in the direction indicated but it was obvious she couldn't see what he could. She looked into his eyes and shook her head. Her hand stroked his face. Then, she pointed at the printouts.
"The colours in your vision. It's called synaesthesia," she whispered.
"Okay. So, it has a name then. Not sure if that helps or not."
"It didn't say if there was a way to cure it."
Her arms encircled his waist and he tried to return the kiss. But the fireworks it generated were too much.
"Sorry," she said, seeing the frustration on his face. "I'd better go. You're still weak."
"I'd be better if the world looked normal."
After she had tiptoed out, he picked up the top sheet of paper and started to read about his affliction. Amongst the Earth's previous billions it had been a relatively rare occurrence and was due to 'cross-wiring' within the brain so that two or more senses became interlinked. That alternate London had obviously twisted more than just his fingers.
Later that day, he tried to pummel AI's information databases about Long's current whereabouts and what had happened to the machine. Not surprisingly, AI refused to comply on both counts, feigning a complete lack of information. Its responses were even more terse than usual. He stalked out of the hotel and into the park, each footfall raising a visual grey cannonball that hung in the air. He spent a couple of hours pushing his way through the undergrowth until his temper had dissipated.
On the way back, he developed the beginning of a plan but his thinking was interrupted as he sought out Phil's house. For a moment he was convinced some of the buildings exhibited the distortions he had seen in that alternative London. He blinked and things returned to normal, albeit overlaid with the effects of the synaesthesia. He stopped walking and slowly scanned the buildings again. Out of the corner of one eye one particular house did look as if it had melted but looking at it directly rendered it as normal.
He turned around and contemplated the trees again, staring hard at the tangle that had grown over the years while trying to be aware of what his peripheral vision was seeing. There it was again. The impression that a far taller tree spiralled out of the deeper woods a few hundred yards away. It towered over the real trees but when his eyes tried to focus on it, it wasn't there.
"I'm going over the Wall again," he announced that evening. "I've got to try and trace where they took the machine and, hopefully, find Long, too." As he spoke the air in front of him swirled like a rainbow. He was beginning to see through the distortions, though he could never ignore them totally.
"You're not strong enough yet," Jade said.
"Jade's right, Rick," Ellie added.
"Yes, I know. But the longer we leave it, the less chance there is of finding either of them."
"You can't seriously be thinking of using that thing again, are you?" Ellie shouted, adding a "sorry" when Rick winced.
"No, but maybe Long is wherever the machine is. That world must have affected him as well. I just hope..."
He swallowed and hung his head.
"I just really hope he survived it."
There was silence for a while, finally broken by Phil. "Okay, you'll need help."
"Yes, count us in," Jasmine added.
"What do you think we'll need?"
"Well," Rick said, after a few moments thought, "we have no idea where AI has taken Long and the machine. We could be tracking it for days if not weeks. We'll need supplies, walking boots, tents, maybe even some sort of powered transport if we can find a way of getting it over the Wall."
"There's nothing outside that could be used for transport," Holls said. "A horse sounds like a good idea except there's probably none around. I asked AI for a pony when I was a kid. It showed me video images of wild ones and said there were no tame ones left. It set most non-food animals free to fend for themselves. It also said that it's now too dangerous to try to tame them – they'd kicked a few of its robots to pieces when they'd tried to capture one."
"If that's true," Jade snorted.
Phil nodded in agreement. "Nothing AI says can be trusted any more."
"That leaves the trikes," Rick said.
Phil grinned but Ellie said, "But how do we get over the Wall with them?"
"I have an idea."
Two days later, Rick, Phil, Ellie and Jade were standing around a food kiosk. After letting the kiosk read his ID under the skin of his hand, Phil specified his requirements first, asking for milk, bread, some pre-packaged, self-cooking meals and other assorted snacks. After a short delay the kiosk spat out his request packaged into biodegradable bags though a mechanical voice apologised for the lack of one type of snack which, it said, would be at the kiosk twenty minutes later if he cared to wait. Phil cancelled that part of his order.
Ellie chose next, adding a request for tinned soup and water bottles. The machine issued her with half the requested goods and then halted with a crunching sound. She cursed and tried activating the kiosk again. Jade stepped forward and examined the device and, with a resigned shrug, declared that it had died, not a totally uncommon occurrence.
They trudged along to the next kiosk, some half a mile away only to discover that it, too, was lifeless.
Rick found a working audio link to AI around a corner. He asked where the nearest functioning food kiosk was located.
"All kiosks are inactive," it replied. "A fault has developed. Normal service should resume tomorrow."
"Dango," Phil swore, once they were out of earshot of the kiosk. "This is getting worse. You think it knows we're planning a breakout?"
"Nothing we can do about it if it does," Jade said. "We'd better deal with those trikes."
Thank you for reading Splinters. Do please vote and/or leave a comment to tell me what you think.
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