21: Frying Pan or Fire? (part 3)

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21.3 Noises Off

Cambridge: 18/19 May 2128

They couldn't leave straight away. The circuit boards needed testing. Long attempted to patch circuit boards together with limited success, using nothing more than a nail heated in a camp fire for soldering. As the machine had already dumped them at the wrong destination once, he knew he had to reduce the chances of a repeat occurrence.

Rick, despite his problems, was doing his best to visually check the repairs. Jenny watched Ellie's eyes following Rick's every move. She was obviously scared for him. Maybe she believed him when he said that returning to 'one' would kill him.

Jenny said, "C'mon Ellie. We're just spare thumbs here. Let's go check the traps."

Ellie frowned and then nodded. They left the camp and returned to the animal traps where they found an unfortunate rabbit ensnared. Jenny inexpertly despatched the creature and then skinned it. Ellie, unable to watch, opted to hunt down more potatoes.

With the afternoon growing to a close they feasted again on spit-roasted rabbit and black coffee, though Ellie only picked at her food.

"I keep feeling sick," she said. "Don't know why."

Later on, Long tested the boards by powering up the machine with the lever left set to 'two'. Several of the repairs proved to be failures but, by the end of the testing, they had four spares – less than Long would have liked but enough to take what he hoped would be a final trip to 'one' but with spare capacity to escape again, should the need arise.

The setting sun dictated that they would spend one more night here on 'two'.

None of them felt hungry the next morning, Ellie least of all. The others picked at the leftover rabbit and sipped more black coffee.

Ellie looked at Rick and they exchanged a look. He nodded.

"Okay, let's just it over with," she said. Long and Jenny agreed, and they all boarded the machine.

Jenny looked out the window and wondered if she would ever see the real Cambridge again.

"Saying goodbye," she murmured and sat to brace herself for another bumpy ride.

Long set the lever to 'one' and engaged the power switch. Rick, hands clasped tightly around his head, whimpered as the coils energised themselves and the screeching permeated the entire machine. Ellie gasped and curled up on the floor. Long clamped his mouth shut to prevent his teeth from vibrating.

Jenny gripped the inside door handle and pulled herself back up for another look. "It's changing," she shouted over the noise. Through the window, she saw the overgrown gardens fading from view. "Ooh, it's darker."

Rick looked up, mouth open, scared.

"No, not three again," Jenny said. But she saw his eyes scanning wildly around as he was unable to focus on anything. He slumped into Ellie's arms. "It's okay," she said. "It's definitely 'one' though it's just before dawn here."

After flicking a quick look over his shoulder to confirm Jenny's conclusion, Long switched the power off noticing, from around his feet, the waft of smoke indicating more electronic failures.

As the noise subsided it was replaced by a night-time cacophony of insects audible even through the closed door.

"Hell," Long gasped, covering his ears to cut out the chirruping that filled the jungle, "they weren't making that row before, were they?"

"That was daytime," Jenny said kneeling down beside Ellie and Rick. The latter clasped his hands tightly around his ears, though whether that was to keep out the sounds of the insects or because his head pounded again from the journey, she didn't know. He merely grunted when Ellie asked him how he felt.

"This world is behind the last one," Long said. "It should be morning soon."

"Any sign of the ghosts?" Jenny asked as Long peered out the window. He shook his head.

While they waited for sunrise, Long inspected the circuit boards again in the dim glow of the electric bulb. Three were definitely write-offs and two more had minor damage, which meant that he would need to fix one more board to make up the full complement of ten. He cursed. It wasn't as if access to each alternate world required two circuit boards, as their unplanned trip to 'three' had proven; all ten boards worked together to generate the harmonies required to facilitate slipping the machine between worlds. He looked at Rick hoping he could help, but he was slumped on the floor, his back against the wall, his breathing shallow and irregular. Long felt guilt rise up like bile.

After half an hour, with the air inside the machine becoming quite stuffy, the first hints of dawn appeared in the eastern sky. Before it grew much brighter Long switched off the light in order not to drain the batteries further. He had no idea how well they were holding their charge.

With the dawn came a reduction in the noise levels outside and Jenny cracked the door open to allow the air to circulate. Long stepped outside in the cool morning air noticing the mist rising from the foliage promising later warmth.

The machine, he noted, had positioned itself a few feet away from where it had previously landed. He put that down to the rise and drop they had experienced when moving to and from 'three'. He sipped water from a bottle, one of many that they had brought with them filled with filtered river water from 'two'. He idly wondered if they were breaking any sort of 'universal' laws by transferring the water between the worlds but then considered that the machine itself had already broken such laws by transferring itself as well as themselves. He looked around to see if anything close by looked as if it could be edible. While this version of Earth appeared far more plentiful as regards plant life, he couldn't see anything that suggested itself as food. Despite the cramped conditions inside the machine, he wished he'd brought along a couple of traps; at least he'd packed a few of the tools they'd discovered on 'two' so making a new trap wouldn't be quite so difficult.

Jenny joined him outside and suggested a hunt through the remains of the houses for this world's equivalent of the goods they had discovered on 'two'. She pointed out the caved-in shell of the place from which he had retrieved the water filters. Long nodded in agreement and they set off.

In the remains of a back garden shed they found a stack of plastic chairs, still intact despite the tangle of honeysuckle that had wrapped itself around them. Some of the chairs had been twisted out of shape. They extricated the good ones and returned to the others.

Jenny tried to encourage Rick to go outside and sit on one. He grunted incoherently so she and Ellie guided him to it, his feet stumbling all the way. As they sat him down it was obvious he was having difficulty seeing anything at all. Ellie lifted his face and looked into his eyes, they were bloodshot and darted about unable to settle on anything. She looked at Jenny who shook her head.

Whatever was ailing him was way beyond any help they could provide.

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