Seventeen

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Import logging
  Logging.config
(security=low; module=core("op.parameters", "safeguards");)
  Log:
    Climate correction results successful. End of industrialised period triggered immediate self-healing of the planet on a scale not seen since the pandemic lockdowns of the 21st and 22nd centuries. Additional air scrubbing measures rebalanced oxygen density and reforestation efforts are starting to yield significant growth.
    In the absence of late-period human society, the Earth has demonstrated a natural capacity for climate correction that studies did not anticipate. Even as the Clean Slate programme is relaxed, there will be no return to the previously toxic levels of human infestation.
//
Exit
(logging)


*

He had almost missed them. Thirty seconds either way and he'd have been oblivious to Eva's plan, would have returned to his bed and probably wouldn't have noticed their absence until halfway through the day. Instead, Rufus had finished his business in one of the toilet blocks and had emerged at precisely the right moment to see Eva, Ramin, Erik and Robin sneaking through town with huge backpacks. Well, except for Erik. He had a small knapsack on a stick which was more for show than any practical purpose.

Recognising that they were acting surreptitiously, he'd followed suit and scampered across to greet them. "What are you doing?" he'd whispered.

They'd glanced at each other, as if wondering if they could trust him, which had hurt a little. Fortunately they'd decided that they could, Ramin filling him in on the plan.

"I'm coming with you," he declared, without even thinking it through.

Eva had sighed, and possibly even rolled her eyes. "You've got five minutes. Get what you need and meet us by the gate at the end of the south field. If you're not there in five, we're going without you."

He'd never moved so quickly, rushing back to his yurt, careful not to wake anyone else in there, had hastily stuffed his belongings into a pack - mostly his writing paraphernalia - and had got dressed, then sped back through Cragside and out across the fields. He'd reached them, sweating and out of breath, just as they had turned to go.

"What's the plan, guys?" he asked, realising for the first time that he had no notion of where they were going or what they were doing. His first thought had been that he couldn't stand to remain in Cragside if Eva was elsewhere; his second was that he could do with some new story inspiration, and this should do it.

"We're travelling south," Eva said, leading them through the gate and into the long grass of the wild meadow beyond. A rough path ran through the meadow, presumably made by the grazing of animals. "Out of the valley, beyond the boundary, then we'll see. We have no idea what we're going to find, but south is the direction."

"So we're going to keep going until we bump into something?"

"More or less," Ramin said, grinning. "Much like life. Only more walking."

Erik harrumphed. "I don't like walking."

"Then you should have stayed at Cragside."

"No!" Erik said, sticking out his lower lip. He grabbed hold of Eva's hand. Ramin looked at Rufus and shrugged.

"Why south? I thought we'd go to the coast. I've always wanted to see the ocean. Properly, I mean. Close up."

Ramin pointed an accusatory finger at Erik.

"What?" Rufus looked at the small boy, not understanding, then back at Ramin.

"Erik saw a map," Eva said, already irritable, "on the knowledge board in the Temple. We're following it. Or trying to."

Finding that each answer only confused him further, Rufus was about to fire off another round of questions when he noticed a figure sat cross-legged on the path up ahead, blocking the way. It was Tilda, he realised, a pack slung over her shoulders and a bandanna pulled tightly around her head, pulling her hair back from her forehead aggressively.

"Tilda," Eva said flatly.

"I overheard you talking yesterday. I think you thought I wasn't listening."

Ramin raised his hands apologetically. "You were puking a lot."

"What are you going to do about it?" Eva asked, a note of suspicion in her voice.

"Come with you, duh," Tilda announced, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

"Are you sure?" Ramin frowned and tilted his head, as if her were regarding her for the first time. "It's not really your sort of thing."

She smiled icily at him. "I don't know what that means, Ramin, but you can kindly not assume what is or isn't my sort of thing."

"Tilda, you're very welcome to join us," Eva said, her voice carefully even, "but are you sure this is the right thing for you to do? Given what happened."

"You mean Harry jumping off a cliff like a complete idiot?" Tilda's voice broke slightly as she said it, betraying her attempt at her usual flippant disregard. "Well. That's why I want to get away from here. This is what he wanted to do. Maybe I can do it instead."

"It's going to be hard."

"Really hard," Erik chipped in. "Lots of walking."

Tilda pointed at the shortest of them. "If the six year old can handle it, so can I. Are we going or what?"

*

As they walked across the meadows, then into the broad, low, young forest that blanketed the land outside of the Cragside valley, Robin considered his abrupt change in circumstances. He'd never expected to leave Cragside - had never even countenanced the idea of it, really, until Harry and Tommy had raised the subject of an expedition. Even then, though part of him assumed he'd accompany Harry regardless, there was still a part of him that he knew would remain anchored to Cragside. It was all he had known and all he had felt compelled to know. There was no need for more knowledge, for more experiences. The valley held everything a human needed: food, community, safety, shelter, purpose.

Until it hadn't. And here he was, walking out further than anyone had ever gone. He was an explorer now, inadvertently, in his own, stumbling manner. It had seemed right to carry Harry's legacy, although even as he thought it he knew it sounded silly. It wasn't as simple as that, though he was loathe to confront the other thought.

Harry was dead. That was awful enough, but it wasn't the worst of it. The way it had happened should have been impossible. Robin had seen Harry make that jump a hundred times, or yet more dangerous antics. That had been Harry, always pushing at the boundaries of what was possible. And it had always worked. Their invisible safety net had always been there, ready to catch them should they fall, a subtle hand to nudge them back onto the path, a comforting phantom arm around the shoulder that told them everything would be alright.

The worst of it was that Harry could only have died in the way he did if the safety net was gone. There was immediately a void in Robin's understanding of the universe: as if someone had violently yanked away his faith. An unspoken trust was broken and the world had seemed more dangerous than the day before.

He could have gone to the Temple and prayed. He could have turned it all inward and wrestled with his uncertainty from the comfort of Cragside. Instead, he'd chosen to follow Eva - someone he'd barely said more than fifty words to his entire life - on her ill-prepared adventure. She'd told him about her own concerns for the Temple, which had seemed almost insulting to hear, as if she were doubting the fabric of life itself. But he couldn't deny what she was saying, and had known that her observations were connected to what had happened to Harry.

Nothing made sense anymore. The world was upside-down and everything felt alien. He might as well confront it and seek answers, rather than wallow in his own fears at home.

To the south, then.

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