20: Empty Worlds (part 5)

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20.5 You Have Mail

Cambridge: 19 May 2128

The following morning the traps were found to be empty, so breakfast consisted of black coffee accompanied by the cold remains of yesterday's stew.

Ellie's suggestion of constructing a beacon to attract attention in case people really did live here, wasn't received with much enthusiasm.

"We'd need something far larger than the four of us could possibly build," Long said.

After breakfast Long threw himself into constructing two more traps, positioning them much farther away thinking that the proximity to the machine of the first traps had deterred further victims.

Jenny explored more houses further afield but turned up little that was of any use. She headed out after Long to see if he was faring any better.

The day, which had started misty and subdued, turned bright and warm by mid-morning and Rick initially spent it resting in the sun. However, by noon it had become too warm for him and he had settled down on a blanket inside the machine.

Ellie effectively found herself alone. After cleaning up and disposing of the remains of the meals she joined Rick inside the machine to find him asleep again. She sipped some fresh coffee and idly examined the damaged circuit boards wishing she knew how to fix them. Although she had gleaned the basics of electronics from AI's teaching, it had not been a subject that had interested her.

She sighed. The bravado she had displayed when they had jumped the wall had all but dissipated and she dearly wanted to return home, even with AI still in control of it. Turning a soot-stained circuit board over in her hands, she knew that, without these crude pieces of electronics, that journey could land them back on 'three'. She feared becoming trapped there. Despite the heat she shivered and contemplated what she would do if they became trapped in this world instead. Were there really no people left here? Where had they all gone?

She heard a noise outside and saw Jenny returning.

"No luck?" Ellie asked, seeing Jenny's empty hands.

"Nah, but there's a herd of deer not far to the north on the other side of the river. Long thinks he can make a bow and arrow, or a spear, or something like that." Jenny's slightly mocking tone of voice betrayed her thoughts about the possible success of that venture. She continued, "I came back to get some bottles for another trip to the river as we're almost out."

"Is it far?"

"About five minutes in that direction," she said, waving her arm northwards.

"Maybe I could help you, if that's okay? I need to stretch my legs."

Jenny nodded. "How's Rick? Is it okay to leave him?"

"Probably."

"Actually, I've had enough exercise this morning – must have walked several miles. Could really do with a rest," Jenny said, sitting on the base of the machine.

"Okay, I'll get the water while you rest. If Rick wakes up then check his hand – there's enough water left for bathing it at least once more."

Jenny agreed and helped Ellie round up the empty plastic bottles before giving her better directions to the river. She then looked in on Rick whose eyes flickered open and fixed on hers.

"Sorry," she said, "didn't mean to wake you."

"Uh, hi," he said, groggily. "Anything happening?"

"No, not really. Long's hunting deer and Ellie's gone to get water. I'm just resting up for a while. How are you feeling?"

"Still woozy. Hand's throbbing and I'm still seeing – well, weird things."

"Heard you tossing around a bit last night. Did you sleep?"

"Not very well. Not exactly comfortable packed in here, is it."

"I know."

"There's nowhere else, though, is there?"

She shrugged. "The houses are far too damp. There's always the tower. Mainly offices and labs but we could convert it, I suppose. Didn't seem damp when I went there, not the upper floors anyway."

"You, um, seem to be quite, er, athletic," Rick stumbled.

Jenny flashed him one of her wide grins, "Hah. I could always out run everyone else. Some of them used to call me a monkey when we were little because I was always climbing up things."

He laughed and sat up, cradling his hand.

"Still hurt bad?"

"Yeah," he said. There was silence for a while before he added, "You probably think I'm just a moaning whinger."

"No, Long explained about how you were affected by that other world. He said your fingers had joined up."

Rick nodded. "And now they've torn where the join had been. Maybe that's for the best. Wish I could say the same for my head, though. That seems more permanent."

"I thought it was better here."

"The headaches are but I still see strange colours and all the other stuff." He explained more about the synaesthesia.

"What was it like, that other world?"

Rick sighed. "Full of weird plants and strange animals. Buildings that had melted and skeletons with oddly shaped bones. Probably lucky to get away alive."

"This world seems far better. If only it had people in it."

"I'd seen that other world before."

"Eh? How?"

"As a child. In dreams. Nightmares really."

"The exact same place?"

Rick shrugged. It had been so long ago. He'd only been about six years old. "AI put me on something to make me sleep better."

"Hmm, more drugs."

"More?"

"Any of you ever have babies?"

"No," Rick said. "Ellie mentioned that a few times."

"A couple of our group figured out how to do blood tests. No one's really sure but they thought AI was drugging us to stop us making babies. No idea wh–"

"What's that?" Rick interrupted, staring past her. "Just over the battery rack. Is there something there or is it my eyes?"

Jenny stood up. She could see something, too. Attached to the wall was a sheet of card, almost identical in colour to the wall itself. She picked at a corner and peeled it away to reveal a paper envelope hidden behind. Unsteadily, Rick got to his feet and took the envelope from Jenny's hand as soon as he recognised the two designations printed on the outside, one above the other: LD-m0014 and LD-m0018.

"AI," he said, opening up the envelope and unfolding the sheet of paper it contained.

"Oh hell," Rick whispered, after reading it. "I think Long had better see this as soon as possible," he added, handing the sheet to Jenny.


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