20: Empty Worlds (part 2)

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20.2 Alternate Two

Cambridge: 17 May 2128

"Be careful," Long shouted but Jenny had already shoved the door wide open and stared out at a different kind of green.

Here, the wildness was far more tempered, resembling what their own world would have been like had it been left wholly in nature's hands. The sun, hanging low in the west, imbued this world with a golden hue that sparkled off the ruins of the houses.

Long joined Jenny as they viewed what lay beyond the machine's platform.

"We're in the same place," he stated, recognising the overgrown houses to be the same as those that had poked out of the jungle on 'one'. Here they were merely covered in a coating of moss and ivy, showing the deterioration that twenty years of neglect had imparted. The machine rested on the roadway which, here, still showed through in places as crumbled chunks of tarmac, pushed up from below by tree roots. The ground was damp and the sparkling on the battered roofs nearby confirmed a recent rain shower.

Long looked at the flatness of the roadway and wondered why the machine had tumbled in its journey between the worlds. Going to 'three' had forced it to rise up while coming here had made it drop. Although he could imagine the problems that would have arisen had it emerged into something solid, he had no idea how it managed to avoid such circumstances. He assumed that in the 'three' equivalent of Hampstead Heath the land must have been several feet higher, which accounted for the way the machine had dropped through the lower sections of the trees in his own world.

"Look," Jenny pointed. "Over there. The tower – it's intact here."

Sure enough, in a gap between two of the crumbling houses, he could see its height dominating the horizon.

"What happened? Are we home?" Ellie asked, peering out the door while rubbing a temple that now sported a large bruise.

"Not exactly," Jenny replied.

"Something went wrong," Long said. "We went to 'three' but we were only there a couple of minutes. This is 'two'."

"Why didn't you go back to our world?" Rick shouted, appearing beside Ellie. "Hell, I..."

"It wasn't Long's fault, Rick," Jenny cut into Rick's outburst. "The machine refused to go back. He probably saved our lives by fixing the problem quickly. Any longer in that place and we'd have suffocated. We were leaking air."

Ellie helped Rick out of the door and sat him down on the base. He looked years older. "I thought you'd fixed the circuits so that we couldn't go to 'three'," he said.

"Thought I had. AI must have bloody well repaired it. Anyway, we're here now, and I think we'd better look around before going anywhere else. We've only got one spare board left. Once we're left with less than ten good ones, we won't be going anywhere."

Ellie examined Rick's hand properly. His previously fused fingers had been torn apart. He must have caught them when they tumbled into 'three'. She turned to Jenny and Long. "We need water and something to bandage it. I'd go but..."

"Sit down, Ellie," Long said. "You're looking rather pale yourself. We'll go and find something."

Long looked around and then down at his own tattered jacket. He pulled it off and went back inside the machine to rummage in the drawer for the scissors he remembered seeing there. Finding them, he cut a couple of strips from the jacket's lining.

Jenny called from nearby so he handed the scissors and the rest of the jacket to Ellie.

"Chop it up, whatever you need," he said. "I'll see if Jenny's found a source of water."

He rushed off to find Jenny standing in what used to be a garden. Beside her was an ornamental display incorporating a shallow dish filled with water. Near her feet were an assortment of white objects.

"Probably the people who used to live here," she said. Long stared at the bones, identifying three skulls and five broken chunks of pelvis. Unlike the distorted versions he had seen in the hypermarket on 'five' these looked normal, although they were mixed up. He had no idea how many people lay at his feet. Many of the bones displayed marks – probably where something, rats possibly, had gnawed on them. He felt slightly queasy standing amongst the dead, although it was apparent that Jenny, who was tossing one of the skulls in her hands, felt nothing of the sort. She dropped it disrespectfully with a shrug that became a grimace when it shattered into pieces.

Long turned his attention to the water. The bottom of the shallow basin was begrimed with a brown deposit, but the water lying above it seemed clear. He was thirsty but could not bring himself to put it to his lips. He soaked one of the makeshift bandages in the water.

"I'll check inside the houses – see if the pipes and taps still work," Jenny said.

Long returned to the others.

"Was it clean?" Ellie asked.

Long explained where it had come from. Ellie sighed and applied the dripping cloth to Rick's hand, who winced in pain.

Long looked at him. "How's your head now?"

Rick stared around at the scenery. "It's so confusing. The houses – three sets of them overlaid on each other and mixed in with the other buildings from our world."

"Even 'three'?" Long asked.

"No. Maybe yes. It's dark. A shadow over everything."

"Underground?" Long suggested, remembering his suspicions that the surface level on 'three' had been raised.

"Yeah," Rick closed his eyes. "At least it doesn't feel quite as bad as it did on 'one'."

"Maybe this place will be better, then," Ellie murmured.

"Only if we can find something to eat," Jenny said, as she returned.

"Any luck in the houses?" Long asked.

"No, the taps were either empty or wouldn't turn."

"I think we'll have to wait until tomorrow," Long said pointing to the setting sun, now low enough to graze the roofs of the nearby houses.

"It can't be that late?" Jenny frowned.

Long thought for a moment. "I suspect it is here. These worlds all seem to be out of sync with each other."

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