20: Empty Worlds (part 3)

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20.3 Hunger

Cambridge: 18 May 2128

They spent the night huddled together in the machine. Rick and Ellie bundling together while Jenny and Long started off separately but ended up cuddling just to keep warm. Thirst and hunger constantly nagged, whilst sleep was interrupted by Rick's occasional cries of pain.

They were awake by the time the sun's light first touched the window.

Ellie checked Rick's hand. The torn flesh showed no signs of healing and the fingers were angled wrong. His face was also grey and his eyes had difficulty focussing on anything.

Long glanced from Ellie to Rick and back again. The bruise on her temple was an ugly purple but after he asked, she snapped that she felt fit enough.

"Sorry," he said. "If I'd known any of this would be happening I wouldn't have brought you or Rick."

Ellie said nothing but the expression on her face pained him.

"Oh, come on," Jenny said. "The way those robots were acting, we didn't have any choice. This was the only way of escape. Don't blame yourself, Long."

Maybe I shouldn't, Long thought. But Ellie does.

"Anyway, we really need to find something to eat," Jenny announced.

"Yes, okay," Long agreed. "I'll investigate the houses to see if I can use anything to rig up a trap. There must be rabbits or something similar around here. There's bound to be cooking pots in the kitchens, too."

"I'll hunt down a proper source of clean water and take a trip up the tower again," Jenny said. "Might be able to see wildlife we can hunt down, maybe even some evidence of people around who can help us."

"You shouldn't go alone," Long said. "There's no telling what's out there."

"Hmm, maybe you're right," Jenny said, a thoughtful expression crossing her face, and then a grin burst across her lips, "but try to stop me."

Without waiting for an answer she ran off. Long shook his head.

"She's mad," Rick said, momentarily sounding like his old self. "I like her."

Ellie stabbed him a spiteful glare.

"Right," Long said, walking away. "I'm off to investigate the houses."

"Don't go too far," Ellie called, following him.

Long mumbled and carried on walking, aware that Ellie was still behind him. He stopped when he felt her hand on his arm.

"Sorry," Ellie said. "I've been so worried about him. I know you're not really to blame. It's just..."

"Yes, I know. I'm worried about the both of you – all of us."

She suddenly hugged him and he encircled her with his arms, but she broke contact quickly.

"You smell," she said, flashing a brief smile before turning to go back to Rick. Long watched her and sighed. He'd once entertained the idea of himself and Ellie becoming a permanent couple. But, it was now obvious that Ellie's affection was centred wholly on Rick. He cursed AI once more for forcing him into exile.

Long selected a few of the more serviceable cooking utensils he found in the houses. Various garages and sheds provided a collection of items suitable for fashioning into animal snares and traps. He also explored a few gardens, noting the telltale signs of animal tracks.

"Found these," Ellie said later, returning with three bottles in her arms as Long put the finishing touches to a second trap. "Fourth house along. There're several more."

Long looked at them. Two sported faded labels that indicated a French origin, the third's label had long disappeared. All three were sealed with artificial corks.

"Might be alcoholic," he said before explaining how the Cambridge NewGen had found some wine and that its consumption had resulted in the death of a girl called Rachel. He returned with Ellie to the house to pick up a few more.

"We need a corkscrew," Long said.

"A what?"

"Curly metal prong thing to get the corks out. I saw one being used in Cambridge a few days back, though I only had a sip of it. Didn't like it. Right now, though, I could drink anything."

Ellie rummaged through a kitchen drawer that had been sealed enough to keep its contents fairly clean.

"Like this?" she said, holding up a T-shaped device with a plastic handle.

"Yes!"

On the way back to the machine Long stooped and pulled up some plants.

"Beetroot or carrots, possibly," he explained holding up a dark, knotty root.

"Ugh. Hardly edible," Ellie said.

"Last year's crop, probably," he said. "Might be still good enough for the traps, though."


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