12: Escape (part 7)

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12.7 Tracking

Hampstead Heath and northwards: 13-15 May 2128

Temporarily abandoning the trikes, which were too wide to pass between the trees, they headed for Long's house but stopped short when noises emanated from the direction in which it lay. Creeping closer, they could see that much of the wood beyond was now missing. The machine responsible was currently dealing with the ramshackle shelter. A wall shuddered and collapsed. A metal arm followed by the rest of the demolition robot pushed its way out of the mess and turned its attention to another wall.

Ellie gasped as the whole unstable structure leaned and then disintegrated. As the robot extracted itself they retreated back into the undergrowth.

"He definitely wouldn't have been in there," Phil said as they trudged back to the trikes. Phil could not believe AI would sanction the destruction of an occupied dwelling. Rick, however, was not so sure. Something nagged at the edge of his memory, something recent he felt he should remember, but could no longer get fix on.

Silently, they returned to the clearing and drove the trikes out of the wood, following the still visible ruts left by the crane that had carried off the machine nearly three weeks previously.

Tracking across undulating countryside made a severe impression on their bodies. The punishing regime tired them easily and they were forced to take several breaks to ease their muscles.

Six miles north of the Wall they entered a region studded with mounds of debris. Brick, concrete chunks and rusted girders were piled up haphazardly. In the distance a grinding noise was revealed to be a machine whose sole purpose seemed to be to reduce each mound at a time to gravel.

"So this is where AI dumps the remains of the old towns," Phil said.

"Looks like it," Ellie replied. She was more concerned with Rick who had become unnaturally quiet, preferring to travel several yards behind the others. He sometimes acted as if he was seeing things that weren't there.

The debris made the crane's tracks hard to follow and several false leads cost them a couple of hours delay. Once they had left the rubble mountains behind them, Ellie spotted a small flying device, one of AI's mobile eyes, observing them from a distance. Hiding in the next available woodland they waited until the drone lost interest and flew away southwards.

They barely managed a total of fifteen miles on the first day. There were few roads for them to follow, most had been torn up in AI's relentless conversion of the land. Those that remained did not follow the path the crane had taken.

Shortly before dusk, exhausted, they sought out another stand of trees as shelter for the night. Hours later, in the darkness, Ellie awoke to the sound of a voice – in the next makeshift tent Rick mumbled in his sleep. She listened for a while but could make little meaning out of what he said.

On the second morning the weather turned and their northward progress was limited to a mere ten miles, most of which was spent huddling under inadequate canvas waiting for a downpour to relent.

"It's only raining here," Rick said at one point.

"What?" Phil asked.

"Nothing. Ignore me," Rick replied, sounding completely exhausted.

By noon the rain had been reduced to a drizzle but, not long after starting out, their path was blocked by a river. The crane had obviously just ploughed through without stopping, but the depth and current were too much for the trikes. They considered abandoning them and swimming across, but this was a far cry from the heated pool they had played in as children. It was less stormy eastwards so they picked that direction where, five miles on, they encountered the remains of a sizeable old town, only partially demolished.

"What's that?" Ellie said, pointing to a large sheet of painted metal laying almost horizontal on the ground and attached to a couple of bent poles. They slowed down and stopped to look.

"Some sort of direction sign," Phil said. "I've seen a few back home."

Ellie dismounted and went closer. "Ware in one direction and places called Welwyn Garden City and Hatfield in the other."

"I wonder if they still exist," Rick mumbled.

"Probably not," Phil said, waving his arm at the rubble ahead of them.

In Rick's mind the images the name Welwyn Garden City conjured up made him wonder what AI had irretrievably destroyed in its quest to eradicate man's works from the face of the planet.

They pressed on into the rubble of this unnamed centre and, an hour later, encountered a bridge that remained intact enough to give access to the northern side of the river.

"Okay, back west again," Phil said.

Ellie sighed. The detour had cost them several hours. She hoped they could find the tracks again this side of the river.

By the time they picked up the trail again, a sombre, cloudy dusk was already starting to creep across the sky. They pressed on for another hour until the impending darkness made further advance hazardous.

The third day started brighter, and swifter progress was made. Another signpost, still upright, in the unploughed remains of a village indicated that they were headed in the general direction of somewhere called Cambridge.

"I think I've heard of it," Rick said. It was something to do with when AI had taught them about electronics. But, that had been so long ago and seemed like a different lifetime now. Maybe Cambridge didn't even exist any more.

Just after mid-morning the tracks merged with an old intact road and, finding no evidence the crane had left the solid surface, they sped up in the hope that they were still on the correct route. By late afternoon they joined another much larger roadway which, though it was nibbled at in places by the encroaching countryside, gave a relatively clear path to the place that they hoped would be their destination.

Just as evening threatened to descend an immediately recognisable sight came into view.

"A wall," Ellie gasped. "Another one."

"Looks different to our one," Phil said. Indeed, the construction of this one looked even more haphazard the closer they approached it.

Rick blinked. Sometimes this new wall didn't even appear to exist.

"If there's a wall it probably means there's more NewGen there," Ellie suggested.

"Wow," Phil said. "Be weird seeing completely new people."

"Might just be more Ghosts instead," Rick countered.

Ellie and Phil exchanged a glance.

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