21: Frying Pan or Fire? (part 2)

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21.2 Hobson's Choice

Cambridge: 18 May 2128

"Phew, that puts a whole different slant on things," Long said, putting the paper back down on the desk.

Ellie picked it up and read it for herself. In it AI calmly documented not only its own failings but also the differences it had detected between what it had once assumed to be the natural physical laws and those it now experienced. The discrepancies were minuscule, almost within the margins of error but there was no doubt that it believed those figures. Then it laid out the idea that the observed changes to the discrepancies indicated that the five worlds were going to recombine. It listed the possibilities that such an event could cause – none of them good. She sat down on the floor and re-read the sheet that coldly spelt out the planet's doom. It made her feel sick.

"Does that mean we've got to go back there? To 'one'?" she asked, unable to stop her hands from shaking.

"Yes," Long said.

"I – I don't think I can stand it again," Rick whispered.

"If AI is right then we haven't got much time," Jenny said. "If we stay here we're dead anyway, and if we go back to our own world then we're probably dead as well. What a choice!"

"Damn it!" Long fumed. "Why did AI have to trick us? Why couldn't it just explain?"

Ellie looked from Long to Rick and back. Long's face, the beard hanging from his chin quivering, simmered with more anger than she had ever seen. Rick, his back to her as he stared outside, was hunched as if in pain. She had no answers for either of them.

"Would you have gone if it had just explained?" Jenny said, sounding more in control of herself than any of the others.

"No, probably not," Long sighed. "That bloody machine knows us better than we know ourselves."

"Maybe not," Rick countered, turning and facing the others. There was sweat on his brow and his eyes looked sunken and old. "It didn't know we'd not stay on 'one'. It didn't expect us to try to come back. It probably thinks we're there now."

"This is all too much," Ellie whispered. "How can it think we can make a difference? What can the four of us do? We're in the wrong place on the wrong world."

Rick came and sat next to Ellie, putting his arm around her shoulder. She leaned her head on his arm. "We'll find a way, Ellie love."

No one said anything for a while. Then Long, his rage subsiding, took the paper from Ellie's hand and re-read it.

"It almost sounds desperate," he said. "It knew it was degenerating and thinks it found out why. I get the impression it doesn't expect to survive whatever's coming. Maybe it did the best thing it could think of by sending us as messengers."

"But there was no one, no people there!" Ellie said. "Apart from those ghosts."

"Yes," Long said, and then snapped his fingers. "Ellie, what you said just now about being on the wrong world in the wrong place. Well, on 'one' we were on the right world but, due to AI moving the machine to Cambridge, I think we must have been in the wrong place. We should have been on Hampstead Heath instead."

"So, you think we should go back to 'one'," Rick whispered. "And try to find the people and warn them."

"I don't think we really have any other choice," Long said.

"I–" Rick started, and then buried his face in his hands.

"What?" Ellie asked.

"I– I think if I go back there, it– it will kill me."

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