21: Frying Pan or Fire? (part 6)

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21.6 Unnatural Powers

Cambridge: 19 May 2128

"Something's coming!" Jenny shouted as she peered out the window. The broken lock meant they felt far from safe.

It had been several hours since Rick's abduction and the sun had already passed its zenith, sliding down into a balmy afternoon.

Long could hear voices and a noise as if something large was crunching through the trees. A few seconds later a figure burst from the undergrowth and strode up to the machine. Unlike the ghosts this man appeared solid.

"Hello," he said, peering in at them.

Long slowly opened the door and looked at the man, whose hand was extended in welcome. Long nervously shook it. The man wore a rough tunic, patched here and there as if it had been made to last for far more years than originally intended. It reminded Long of the material worn by the original machine's driver.

"Been sent to find you," the man said, grinning through grizzled beard. His blue eyes, which sparkled from out of an old, lined face, bored into each of theirs. He pointed over his shoulder to where the noise got louder. "The wagon's on its way."

"We saw... men in cloaks," Jenny said. "They took two of us."

"Yes, what's happened to Rick and Ellie?" Long demanded.

"Oh, that was probably Alec Garter and his cronies."

"Cronies? What do you mean?" Long asked.

"Eh? Oh, sort of like a close friend, I reckon. Er, has the language degenerated that much on your world?" Long and Jenny looked blankly at each other. "Mind you," the man continued, "until you lot turned up we thought we were the only place still inhabited. Just goes to show, doesn't it?"

"Show what?" asked Jenny. The man raised his bushy eyebrows and then chuckled to himself.

"You didn't answer about where they've taken Ellie and Rick," Long asked again.

Ray shrugged, "To Yggdrasil probably. Big tree in the middle of London. What them high-ups do is not for the likes of us to know. We just try to keep this damn place tamed, grow enough food and do as we're told."

"London?" Long queried. "Are they safe? Are they prisoners?"

"Hah, as safe as any of us are likely to be with what's coming. No, they won't be prisoners. From what I hear, your arrival, or your mate's arrival anyway, was like a nuclear bomb going off."

"A nuclear bomb? What?"

"Heck, should've bought a dictionary with me."

"No, we've heard of bombs and nuclear power. But why do you say that?"

"He radiates. Everyone for hundreds of miles around felt him. He gave me a right thumper." The man pointed at his head.

"Thumper?"

"Headache. That's why they snatched him."

"Why'd they take Ellie as well?" Jenny asked.

The man shrugged. "All I know is that you two don't warrant the expenditure so you get to go the pretty way back to London. And the DTM."

"The what?"

"This thing, DTM – Dimension Travelling Machine. They thought they'd seen the last of that after Fisk didn't come back."

"Oh," Long said, "Didn't realise it had a proper name. That name, Fisk, was he the man driving the machine?"

"Apparently," the man said. "Big nob, he were. Still, shouldn't complain, him and his mates reassembled me and the missus after the disaster."

"We tried to save Fisk. We really did. But he– he died. I'm so sorry."

The man shrugged, "Ah. Figured as much. Pity."

"Er, I'm Long and this is Jenny."

"Oh yes, sorry. Bad manners. My name is Ray. Ray Hargreaves in full."

"Why do you have two names?" Jenny asked.

"Two? Actually, I've got a middle name as well – Jonathan. Haven't you got surnames then?"

They stared back, blankly, before Long asked, "What's a sir-name?"

Ray was spared the need to answer by the arrival of the wagon. A hole appeared in a stand of foliage and gave birth to a wagon which was being hauled by two large animals.

"Oh, wow. Horses. Real horses," Jenny gasped.

"What's the matter?" Ray asked. "Don't they have 'em where you come from?"

Long and Jenny both shook their heads.

"How are you going to get it onto the wagon?" Long asked as Ray and his two companions negotiated the vehicle in front of the machine.

"You'll see," Ray grinned. "Mind – won't be as easy as a few years ago, but you'll see."

Long estimated that the other two men were nearer his own age. They looked very similar to each other, like younger versions of the older man. Both were thick-set in build, as if they'd spent all their lives in manual work. Long felt positively skinny beside them.

Ray introduced them as Boris and Hector Hargreaves, his sons – they grunted an acknowledgement but seemed reluctant to converse. Hector kept rubbing his head as if he was having problems thinking.

Long puzzled for a moment over the shared last name until his memory dredged up an old AI lesson from when they'd been young. It had been around the time when they had chosen their own names and AI's tale had been about the way families had previously used a common second name. He recalled that it had been one way of tying families together, of identifying relationships.

He wondered what having a family would have been like.

While the men busied themselves with the wagon, Long glanced along the path from where it had come. The low, flat wagon must surely have struggled to negotiate a path through the undergrowth. But he could see that the route cut its way cleanly through the tangle despite none of the men wielding machetes or anything else resembling a tool to perform such a duty. How had they cleared so much away without any apparent mechanical help?

And with such speed?

The three arranged themselves around the machine.

"Can we help?" Jenny asked.

Ray grinned, "I doubt it. Not from where you're from."

"Yes, but how are you going to get it onto your wag– bloody hell!"

Without any physical contact from the three newcomers, the machine slowly raised itself up and drifted sideways to come to rest upon the wagon.

"How did–"

"You'll be told later – that's what they said I was to say," Ray grinned, though he now looked quite exhausted. He mopped his brow with a dirty handkerchief before crushing it back into a shirt pocket. The other two's brows were also beaded with sweat though they made no effort to remove it. All three sat for a moment, catching their breath.

Then Ray beckoned Jenny and Long up onto the plank that served as a front seat. His two sons remained with the machine on the back.

Once they were seated, the horses started to take the strain and the wagon was slowly dragged back towards the hole in the trees.

"It's going to take days to get to London, isn't it?" Jenny said.

"At this speed it would," Ray said. "Once we're past the worst of the jungle, though..."

It took several minutes for the trees to be negotiated. Then they reached what had once been a wide road and the wagon began to pick up far more speed than it had any right to possess. Long gasped as, with the horses galloping hooves hardly touching the ground, the vehicle shot along at more than ten times the speed the clanky old tube trains had managed in the London he had once called home.


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