22.6 Meeting Interrupted
The Tree: 20 May 2128
Ray Hargreaves handed Long and Jenny over to a young man waiting at the base of the Tree. The man wore a pale robe in addition to a fixed, nervous smile as he welcomed them.
"Welcome, Jenny and Long. Do I have your names correct?"
"Yes. And some welcome," Jenny said with a giggle. "You arrange earthquakes for all your visitors?"
Long detected the quaver in her voice. His own hands were still shaking as well. Although the quake had lasted for less than a minute, the effects could still be seen all around them. Several of the normal trees around Hyde Park had fallen but the main casualties were the buildings. Many were nothing more than piles of rubble. The one often used by the twins on their world had lost much of its front facade.
"Good luck," Hargreaves said, as he turned the wagon. "We're all gonna need it, I reckon."
The sound of the horses receded as he pushed them fast. They were out of sight within seconds.
"Come this way," the robed man said. "We have been expecting you. My name is Akshay Shukla."
They were led into and along the winding corridors within the living tree.
"Are Rick and Ellie here?" Long asked.
"Yes, you will be reunited soon. I have been asked to apologise for your method of transport here, but those with teleportation capability were exhausted from bringing in your companions."
"So, what caused that earthquake, then?" Jenny asked.
"It was the first and not unexpected. The consequences of the impending recombination."
"Yes," Long said. "We're getting to know all about that. So how come Rick and Ellie got to come the fast way?"
"I am told that Rick was dying," Shukla said.
"Was?" Jenny said.
"We have been shielding him from the effects of this world."
"How come the rest of us weren't affected?"
"His is a unique talent. Your world never gave him the opportunity to exercise it."
"What on Earth are you talking about?" Long asked.
Shukla paused, and placed both index fingers against his mouth while thinking. Then he said, "I suppose it could be likened to spending the first twenty years of your life blind and then receiving the gift of sight. Your brain would not know what to make of everything, becoming overloaded with the extra sensory input. We have been filtering that input for him and only letting him experience it in tiny, harmless increments."
"Nope, that made absolutely no sense to me, either," Jenny muttered to Long.
They entered a room. At its centre stood a round table about which were arranged several empty chairs. Along one side a trestle table was spread with a selection of fruits, meats, bread, bottles of drinks along with glasses. Some of the plates had spilled their contents onto the table top and two of the bottles were far from full. A boy who looked no older than twelve was in the process of clearing up the spills, mopping the table of spilled liquid and picking splinters of glass from the floor.
"This is a meeting room," Shukla indicated with a sweep of an arm. "Please help yourself to food and drink. Your places are marked. The others will be here soon."
With a bow, he turned and departed, leaving Long and Jenny with the boy who smiled nervously as he cleared up the rest of the shattered glass. After mopping the table once again for good measure, he made his exit, shutting the door behind him.
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