18: Ghosts (part 2)

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18.2 Confidence

Cambridge: 17 May 2128

Ellie cursed not having a watch – but it felt like Long and Jenny had been gone for well over an hour. Several times she had heard something in the undergrowth and had expected to see them returning. Where she had been able to identify the source of the disturbance, it had usually been some excitable birds chasing each other.

Sitting on the edge of the machine's platform she watched a hedgehog amble past, seemingly oblivious of the fact that it was out in broad daylight. Ellie had seen a few of them when at Long's Hampstead heath shack, but only at night and those had made themselves scarce as soon as they had detected her. This one seemed totally at ease exposing itself during the day, as if it knew that she didn't pose any danger to it. It raised its muzzle in her direction and stared at her for a moment before losing itself in the undergrowth.

She frowned to herself. That was the thing about this world – its confidence. And the more she thought about it the more she felt intimidated by that confidence.

Several minutes later another sudden movement in the bushes, accompanied by a whispering sound barely louder than the faint breeze, made her look up. She gasped as the vision of a human face appeared suspended in a gap between two bushes and, just as quickly, faded away. It had been an old man, his lips writhing as if he was talking.

She sprung up and scampered inside the machine before peering out at where the apparition had materialised. There was no evidence that anything had happened. Had she really seen something or was this world playing tricks on her eyesight? Maybe whatever had happened to Rick to give him his visions was now happening to her as well. Her stomach was starting to do somersaults.

Ten minutes later, though, she had almost convinced herself that she had imagined it all. Steeling herself, stepped back out into the sunshine to investigate the gap. There was nothing, no stray branches or leaf formation that could have accounted for the apparition. She told herself that it must have been her mind, still reeling from the robot attack, fabricating things that weren't there.

She had heard of ghosts, of course, but didn't believe in such things. It had been one of AI's tales to the NewGen as children that had led them, for a day or so, to find out all they could about them but AI had told them that all the evidence in its data banks indicated that ghosts were merely mythical, not something to be believed in. Not long after that event, AI had revealed to the children the existence of the older generation, many comatose in their care homes apart from those it termed wanderers. The children had christened such wanderers 'Ghosts'.

Finally convinced that she had been mistaken about the sighting she sat down on the platform again. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw two figures on the overgrown road about thirty yards away. She stood up and was about to run to meet them when she saw they were not Long and Jenny. They were bald-headed men in cloaks. Not only that, but she could see straight through them. Rushing back inside the machine, she screamed as she slammed the door shut behind her.

Rick, shocked awake by Ellie's scream, wrestled with the swirling colours it had produced. He didn't need his sight to know that Ellie had dropped down beside him, whimpering.

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