21: Frying Pan or Fire? (part 5)

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21.5 Abduction

Cambridge: 19 May 2128

With Long and Jenny absent, Ellie sat in the shade inside the machine, gazing out at Rick slumped in the chair. Possibly, he was sleeping. Maybe he was unconscious. She felt helpless, no longer able to tell the difference. Maybe Rick really was dying. No, she didn't want to think about that.

She wiped away a tear. In one hand she held AI's sheet of paper. Maybe there were answers here that no one had yet found, something that could help Rick. Both sides were filled with tiny text that was barely readable in the early light. Half of one side was full of equations and mathematics. She had read it three times, but could understand less than a tenth of it. The remainder, addressed directly to Long and Rick, explained in short, clipped sentences the reasoning behind the mathematics. That section, at least, she understood.

It told of AI's realisation that, somehow, nature itself had been subtly altered at a time that coincided with the disaster. After Long and Rick's excursion to 'five' AI had concluded that the Earth had become divided into several initially identical, overlapping worlds numbering possibly, but not necessarily, five. However, as each was isolated from the others, AI surmised that each one existed in its own unique state or 'dimension'. Inhabiting such alternate dimensions, though very close to reality, explained how the forces of nature may have been minutely distorted from the norm. AI noted that, directly after the disaster, its systems had increased in efficiency and it had subsequently used that enhanced power to improve the lot of the now almost mindless humans consigned to its care. It surmised that each isolated world exhibited unique changes, which explained the differences Long and Rick experienced on 'five'.

However, AI's efficiencies had not been permanent and several years ago it had noticed the process had begun to reverse, resulting in the problems with which most of the NewGen had become familiar. At this point in the notes Ellie noticed there was actually something approaching an apology, which surprised her. The surly machine, once a benevolent benefactor, had 'regretted' that the changes had isolated it from those it had single-handedly brought up from birth.

It was only when AI had deduced the origin of the machine from both the machine itself and its interrogations of Long and Rick, had it seen fit to goad them into performing this quest. Reading that, Ellie snorted. She still thought it would have been far better had it told them about its theories instead of tricking them into coming here. But, at the back of her mind, she knew she probably wouldn't have believed it.

Find the machine builders, it commanded. Find out how they survived the disaster. Find out how the Earth became divided. Find out if they can either stop it from re-integrating or know how to survive the event. AI had concluded that the once identical alternates, now vastly different, would not mesh together again without 'problems' – a vague term for what, at its worst, might be complete mutual destruction. It admitted that it had no solutions that could either defer the event nor allow safe passage through its conclusion.

So it had sent them here.

Find the machine builders – but, Ellie shivered, all we found here on 'one' was ghosts. Yet the original occupant of the machine had come from here, or so they assumed. And he had been far older than they, so AI's question about surviving the disaster's stupefying effects might have been valid. Somehow these people, wherever they were, had done just that – they had not turned into the types of Ghosts that were all too numerous on her own world.

A noise from outside made her look up. Had Rick woken up? She stepped through the machine door to be confronted by a stranger standing over him. She froze, recognising the bald head. Now the man looked far more substantial, even if not fully solid.

He stopped examining Rick's sleeping form and straightened up to face her. He smiled, though she felt as if he was leering at her as the slash of a dark branch behind him could still be seen through his partially transparent face. His lips moved.

"Where is Morton Fisk?" came a tinny, strangely distant voice that seemed to neither come from his mouth nor fully synchronise with his lips.

Ellie, gasping, rushed back inside the machine and slammed the door, fastening the lock. Feeling marginally safer, she watched the ghost through the window. He regarded her for a moment and then, without appearing to walk, advanced towards the machine, passing through the solid wooden base and then through the door to face Ellie.

"Please. Where is Morton Fisk?" he repeated.

"Keep away from me," Ellie screamed.

"It is important. We need answers," the ghost said. "You have no need to fear me."

"Get away," Ellie shouted, uselessly trying to strike at him with fists that passed straight through him.

"Sorry," he said with a sigh, "but we'll have to do this the hard way."

Darkness overcame her, as his transparent arms enfolded her.

Rick heard his name being called and felt hands shaking him. He woke up in a visual sea of violent reds and yellows that increased the continual stabbing pains inside his skull.

"Where's Ellie?" Long shouted.

"What?" Rick gasped. "In machine."

"Not any more," Jenny said.

"The machine was locked from the inside," Long shouted. "I broke in but she's not there. Did you have AI's notes?"

"No – inside – I thought – oh."

Rick fell limp.

"He's passed out again," Jenny whispered.

Long grimaced and stomped back to the machine. Where had Ellie gone? And where was the message from AI? He knew he shouldn't be blaming Rick in his state but – hell. He had to find the machine builders, and find out what they knew. He searched the machine once again for any clues as to what could have taken place but found nothing.

"Long!" He jumped at the sound of Jenny's voice from outside and sprung back to the door where he almost collided with her on the machine's platform. She was staring back at Rick who was completely unaware of the ghostly figure that stooped over him.

"Leave him alone," Long shouted, running towards them.

The ghost ignored them. Then, a second ghost appeared behind Rick and both turned to face Long and Jenny.

"This one is open, and we fear for him," said the newcomer in his detached voice. "Others will be sent for you."

The ghosts, along with Rick, faded from view, leaving Long and Jenny staring at an empty chair.

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