20: Empty Worlds (part 1)

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20.1 Alternate Three

Black Earth: 17 May 2128

Long threw himself back to the desk trying to understand what had gone wrong. Rick and Ellie lay bundled together on the floor where the rolling of the machine had deposited them.

He stared at the indicator. It registered 'four'. Why hadn't it worked? This had to be 'three' with all the radioactivity. He had to get them away from here quickly. But, if the machine wouldn't take them back home, then where?

'Five' was out of the question and no one wanted to return to 'one'.

He slammed the lever three times until the display registered 'two' and, heart in mouth, engaged the power switch again.

Nothing.

"Shit! Shit! Shit!" he screamed as he dropped to his knees. A small curl of smoke followed the front panel as he ripped it off. Pulling each board out one at a time he saw that the seventh from the top displayed a familiar blackened patch.

"The air's leaking out," Jenny gasped.

"I know," he shouted back. "I'm not bloody deaf!"

He chucked the damaged board onto the floor. In a corner, Rick was mewling in a most inhuman fashion while Ellie cradled his head. She picked up Rick's bleeding hand and looked directly into Long's eyes, "Get us home. Now!"

He shook his head, "I don't think I can."

He dragged open the large wooden drawer, rummaged around for a couple of seconds and pulled out what he hoped would be one of the remaining working spares. He slid it into the box and, not bothering to replace the sliding panel, slammed the power switch on.

This time they were rewarded with the ear-splitting hum and the machine rocked, spilling the remaining broken boards onto the floor. Then everything tipped sideways. Long and Jenny were thrown together near the door as Ellie went flying. She screamed as her head connected with the corner of the chair. The machine dropped once more before coming to rest, upright again, with a solid thump.

Jenny gasped for air and, before Long could pick himself up off the floor, she tried to force the door open. Long reached for the power switch and the hum subsided to enable Jenny's battle with the interlock to succeed.

However, the air pressure outside now exceeded that inside and she had to wait, gasping with the others, until the two equalised before the door would budge. Finally, she managed to push the door open a fraction and the whistle of incoming air became a rush. Long's ears popped as the pressure returned to normal and welcome cool air enveloped them.


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