|Welcome to Earth, 2153. Hope you survive.|
“How long are you going to tolerate his crap, Edmund?” Haley kicked a rotten branch and it splintered. “This is the second time he has disappeared. I’m telling you, Aldrich is up to something.”
Isaac, Bianca, and Cygnus meandered around the campsite. Haley had argued with her twin brother in their presence before, but she had never felt this much anger toward him. The stress of surviving on Earth, compounded by Edmund’s indifference toward Aldrich’s behavior, pushed her to the brink of explosion.
“Haley, calm yourself. I’m the leader on this expedition, and I don’t have a problem with him taking some time to himself. Aldrich has worked as hard as the rest of us at finding food. The last time he went off on his own he found these houses to shelter us from the electrical storms. All anyone else had managed to find was a salt water sound.”
Haley turned her back on Edmund and rummaged through a box of supplies. “Speaking of water, where’s my canteen? We need to find some fresh water soon. It’s almost empty wherever it is.”
“Hey, everybody! Look what I’ve got.” Aldrich pushed his way through a thicket. He carried all of the canteens. Swinging one by the strap, he tossed it to Haley. “Looking for this?”
Snatching it from the air, she scowled at him before taking a drink. “I’d appreciate it if you don’t take my stuff again.”
Aldrich tipped his hat. “You’re welcome.”
She wanted to spit water in his face to wash the smile from it.
“Good news everyone. There’s a river north and east of here. I didn't follow it to see where it flows. These abandoned neighborhoods stretch for miles.” He gave Haley a wink, and she turned from him. “And I didn’t want to be gone too long.”
Haley ignored him while she helped the others prepare a meal.
By the time they had finished eating, the sun had sunk below the horizon and the sky glowed blue and green. An electric storm passed to the north, but it didn’t present a danger. Haley was still taken aback by the aurora-like clouds. Not by their beauty, but by the potential to generate devastating storms. It served as constant reminder of the war and resulting atmospheric shift which occurred a century before, ultimately tearing apart the planet.
A raised voice grabbed Haley’s attention. “That’s the whole purpose of Earth Camp, the reason we’re down here. To test if colonies could survive.” The conversation had once again turned to the politics of resettling Earth, and the dream of fixing it. Just like before, Cygnus and Bianca were on one side of the debate, and Aldrich the other.
Bored, she stood up and started walking toward the house she had chosen. She brushed some overgrown vines from the welcome mat. These houses are surprisingly welcome. At least we don’t have to sleep outside with the storms.
A movement in the bushes caught her eye. She motioned for Aldrich to quiet his voice. He had been retelling a story they all knew, how his father had died during the last colonization riots.
He scowled at her and shook his head in a questioning manner. When he opened his mouth to speak again, she drew her hand across her throat. Shut up.
Everyone else had turned to look at her.
“I saw something.” She whispered. “Big. It could have been a person.”
The campers stood in unison and looked where Haley pointed.
Bianca stepped forward shining a light. “I saw it too.”
“It could have been a gorilla.” Aldrich said.
“What?” Haley could never tell if he was joking or stupid. He had to be joking most of time. To get into the Earth Camp program, his test scores would have had to be the best of the best. Nevertheless, she couldn’t help but wonder. “Gorilla’s never lived in North America.”
”Maybe we’re near a former city, and they escaped from a zoo.”
A tangible storm of anger and confusion swirled in her frontal lobe. Why did I even take his bait to have this conversation? “How could they have escaped? When the war ended with the people dead, the zoo animals would have died. They would have needed someone to provide for them.”
“Maybe someone who survived the war liberated them.”
She shook her head to clear her thoughts. “Enough of this nonsense. I saw something. It could have been a person. It’s getting dark. Are we going to go looking for it, or wait until morning. Edmund, you’re the leader. You decide.”
Edmund shone his flashlight into the foliage where Haley had pointed. “Discovering any surviving refugees is part of our mission. We go. Grab your flashlights and weapons. Safeties on.” He glared at Aldrich. “If it was a refugee, we don’t need anyone getting trigger-happy and killing it. And everyone stick together. Isaac, you stay with Aldrich, we don’t want him ’disappearing’ again.”
An hour later, with auroras lighting up the night sky, they still hadn’t caught the possible refugee.
Like old times, running through the station corridors. Edmund out in front, me right behind.
By just their handheld lights and headlamps, they dodged trees and plowed through the thick undergrowth.
Haley continued forward with the same energy as when the chase began. Our training was worth it. A year ago I couldn’t have kept up this speed for even a minute, not in Earth’s gravity.
A few times it seemed the trail had gone cold. When the group slowed to take stock, another movement or distant sound would draw their attention.
I don’t like this. More than once, when we think we’ve lost the trail, something new keeps us going. Almost like we’re being led somewhere.
He sidestepped a large tree, stealing a glance back at her. “What is it, did you see something?”
Circling around the opposite side, Haley drew even with him. “No. I think we’re being tricked. This doesn’t—”
From behind them Aldrich rebuked, “Tricked! What does that mean?” Passing between the twins, he gave Haley a smirk. “You had the idea to follow it.” Moving even faster, and taking the lead, Aldrich yelled back, “Let’s go Edmund. It’s getting away.”
“Come on Haley. Aldrich is right, we don’t want to lose the trail again.”
Edmund immediately regained his previous pace.
She hesitated, frustrated and at a loss for how to get Edmund to understand. Damn you, Aldrich. Why are you listening to him, Edmund?
Realizing everyone had passed her, Haley resigned to keep following.
The trees and storm-worn homes gave way to the remains of larger buildings, former businesses and shared living spaces. The ever-present aurora outlined the destruction. One by one, the group crested a hill and vanished from sight. Haley finished her climb moments after Cygnus. From this vantage point, above the trees and buildings, the aurora’s light showed her a remarkable panoramic view. A mountain range expanded to the south east. Closer, though still a great distance away, tall ruins stretched upwards, like fingers reaching to touch the rainbow-colored night sky. A lone mountain stood as a backdrop to what must have once been a magnificent view. Are those...skyscrapers? This is an old city. And with these trees and the salt water to the West, there are only a few possibilities.
Without breaking stride, the six campers continued down the far side of the hill. Haley still followed, with each step increasing her discomfort as Aldrich led them towards this past metropolis.
As quickly as the buildings shifted from small to large, they stopped and opened into a grass-filled field. Even before reaching the street’s end, Haley could see it. The crumpled remains of an iconic structure.
That’s the Space Needle. This is Seattle. Why would they send us here, where the storms began. The six pursuers, amazed by what they had come across, slowed as they passed. Each taking a closer look, no doubt remembering what they had learned as children. How out of nowhere the sky lit up, the aurora radiating outward from Seattle, covering the Earth in a matter of minutes. Then the storms began, catching everyone off-guard. Killing billions. Dying, humanity came together...and fought each other. The lucky escaped to space. But only the wealthy could afford the exodus.
A century later, things remained the same. The storms still tore across the world. And while there were openings in the clouds, the auroras disrupted most of the view from space. Haley had seen pictures taken from orbit, showing the destruction. She had even seen one showing the Space Needle toppled on its side. But this view was beyond what she had imagined. On the far side of the wreckage, one of its legs had snapped near the ground. Closer, she could see into the the observation deck, half-crushed from the tower’s fall.
People must have been inside when it...just more death and destruction caused by the storms.
They continued running through foliage-covered streets, always rediscovering the trail after it vanished. After another half hour, Aldrich pulled to a stop at the invisible border separating the building-lined streets and and open expanse. Edmund did the same a few steps beyond him.
Missing the signal to halt, Isaac and Bianca continued forward. Cygnus, too, ran past Aldrich and Edmund into the open field.
Haley held up and turned to her brother. “Edmund. Something isn’t right.”
As if on cue, light flooded the grass.
"Everyone stay calm, nobody fire." Edmond sounded alarmed, but it was nothing compared to the sinking feeling in Haley's stomach.
Two blasts sounded from behind Haley's head.
"I said HOLD YOUR FIRE! Shit!" Vegetation shredded like in a giant food processor. Bullets rained at them from all directions. "Take cover!"
Haley dove through the broken window of a building.
The gunfire continued until an unfamiliar female voice shouted over it. “Stop! Stop shooting! People have been hit! What the hell is happening? Nobody was supposed to attack!”
People got shot? Who? Please, not Edmund.
Aldrich, of all people, walked out into the clearing, holding his gun over his head. “It’s all right. Someone made a mistake. A horrible mistake.”
Portable light beams glared from various directions. Several people converged on the spot where she, Edmund, and the rest of their people had just stood. As the lights approached, Haley could see three bodies lying on the ground. Aldrich knelt by them. The newcomers stood around the wounded.
Haley rushed from her shelter, but a hand grabbed her.
She turned and threw herself into his arms. “Edmond. I thought...maybe one of them…”
“I’m fine. We need to approach slowly.”
They advanced to the common ground. Edmund said, “We’re coming up behind you. Don’t shoot.”
Several beams shone in their faces and blinded them.
The female voice spoke again. “Aldrich, what happened here? I thought we had everything worked out.”
Aldrich? They know him?
Aldrich stood. “I did. I thought I did. One of your scouts was spotted. I had to improvise and move up the first meeting. Someone from our group must have gotten startled and fired a shot. Edmund, they’re dead. Isaac, Cygnus, and Bianca all got shot.”
The female voice again, “We’ve lost at least two as well.”
Haley couldn’t contain herself. “What’s going on here?” She raised her gun and pointed it at Aldrich. “How do you know these refugees? See, Edmund? I told you he was sneaking off for his own purposes.”
Edmund pushed her weapon away. “No one else needs to die.”
Aldrich, not having flinched from the gun being pointed at him, remained firm. “I did sneak away, but it was for a noble reason. I’ve returned to Earth before. You weren’t to know. It’s top-secret. Only about five people from the Solar Council know. You’re mother being one of them. This group of refugees,” he motioned toward them, “they have a plan, a way to fix the Earth’s problems. To stop the storms. And they need our help and the use of our return ship.”
A woman approached. “My name is Elizabeth Monroe. I’m sorry about your comrades. Please believe me when I say no one was supposed to get hurt. Our whole purpose, the reason we hold on from day to day, is to stop the hurt, the destruction. If you’ll follow me, I’ll introduce you to the man who can save the Earth. He can return it to the way it was. Before the storms.”
Haley looked at Edmund, hoping for a clue into his thoughts. Sometimes she could almost feel his emotions. Not this time. Now all she felt was confusion.
“We’ll come with you, but not yet. We’re not going to leave their bodies here. Not for the animals.”
Elizabeth gave a slight nod. “Of course. We’ve already sent for more of our people to come carry the bodies into the underground. But we shouldn’t wait for them. We were supposed to meet tomorrow. Though, since you’re here now, we should proceed. Time is critical and we must have your help.”
“Alright, Haley and I will follow, but I want your group to stay in front of us so we can watch you. Everyone, including Aldrich.”
Haley and Edmund followed the others into a building on the far side of the the clearing. After a short entryway, they came across a large open supply room. From the far side of the room, Elizabeth yelled back, “This is where we head down. Watch your step. The stairwell is dark.”
At the bottom of the flight, light bulbs illuminated another large room filled with supplies. How do they have electricity?
Elizabeth pointed to a door with ‘LK’ carved into it. “This way.”
“Lionel, it’s us. We’ve brought them. The ones who can help.”
An elderly man looked up from an ancient looking craft. It could have been an aeroplane, or an early spacecraft, yet Haley had never seen anything exactly like it in a history book. As they approached, she could tell it only appeared old because of the design. The material of its construction looked new.“Hi, I’m Lionel Kosta.” Lionel removed his safety goggles and placed them on a workbench. The chair stood on wheels. He spun it to face them, revealing his missing legs. “The people of Earth didn’t destroy the planet during a war as you’ve always believed. Time travelers ruined the atmosphere. They must have brought some type of weapon. The war started later when food became scarce. With your help, we can go back in time, and we can stop them.”
To be continued...December 17.
Author's note: First of all, I'm sorry about this whole "To be continued" thing. I promise this is the last one on LQR. Second, you may have noticed I coauthored this story with Scott Harpstrite. He's my cousin, and we've long intended to pen a story together (though, I don't know that any actual pens were used on this story). Well, here's our first completed effort. We didn't know how working together would, well, work, so we planned the two parts of the story far apart to give ourselves plenty of time.
Eric Price lives with his wife and two sons in northwest Iowa. He began publishing in 2008 when he started writing a quarterly column for a local newspaper. Later that same year he published his first work of fiction, a spooky children’s story called Ghost Bed and Ghoul Breakfast. Since then, he has written stories for children, young adults, and adults. Three of his science fiction stories have won honorable mention from the CrossTime Annual Science Fiction Contest. His first YA fantasy novel, Unveiling the Wizards’ Shroud, received the Children’s Literary Classics Seal of Approval and the Literary Classics Award for Best First Novel. His second novel, The Squire and the Slave Master, continues the Saga of the Wizards. It is scheduled for an August 4, 2015 release. Find him online at authorericprice.com, Twitter, Facebook, and Goodreads.
Scott Harpstrite is a scientist, rock climber, and writer. He grew up in central Illinois, often playing on his family's farm and in the nearby woods. His passion for exploration developed into a love of science, travel, and stories. Now working as a lab manager in St. Louis, Scott has co-authored over 15 peer-reviewed publications focused on diagnostic imaging and drug development. When not performing research or visiting new places, Scott writes both science and fantasy fiction.