Element 94

Element 94. Plutonium. The force that desolated humanity. | Winner of the Sci-Fi Contest 2017 | The full version of this story will be coming soon.

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6. S I X

 

●  S I X    

 

September 8th 2994

 

   Tendrils of morning fog wrapped around his beige combat boots as he took the first step into the unknown. The last of the scarlet hues had melted into the horizon, bringing forth the day - a day that no one would forget. Astro steadied his breathing, waving for the others to follow after he scouted for potential threats. No such danger was detectable. The city was silent.

   His boots scraped on the rubble that lay still on the ground. The sound of their footsteps was magnified by the echoes that ricocheted off the building opposite. It was a relatively tall structure; higher than a regular building but smaller than a skyscraper. Its concrete was barely visible beneath the lush vines that curled around ledges and the occasional shrub that hung loose from the cracks in the stone work. Astro scanned the city around him, where similar buildings stood, looking as if they were on the verge of collapse, plants clinging to every wall and every mantle. How they’d survived here was beyond him. The world was a wasteland.

   Nova stepped up beside him, nudging him with her boney elbow. “Why the long face?” She joked, rolling up her sleeves in an I-couldn’t-care-less fashion. Nova was an archadian and, like Astro, has leadership experience, hence why they had been appointed captains of the squadron. Unlike Astro, however, she had an uncanny sense of humour. Goes with her offbeat punk style, I guess, Astro thought. Although, he wasn’t much in the mood for a joke at the moment, given the seriousness of their current situation.

   “We should scout the west first.” A young voice said. The other archadian girl, Eral, appeared to his right. “That’s where the archives say the water lies.” Her voice was surprisingly confident. She was in her twenties but she had the face of an 18 year old; youthful and attractive. And naive.

   “Puget Sound will have dried up after what has been almost a millennium,” Astro said, “but it’s a start.” The corner of his mouth creeped into a small smile, barely noticeable, but Eral’s eyes fell on his as if she understood.

   Nova rolled her eyes, as she does, and began picking her way through the rubble. Astro, Eral, Jasper and Soll followed close behind. There was only the five of them. Astro was the only aristocratic member of the team. It was a role that he was chosen for - though he liked to think that he’d been born for it - when he was 20, and now ten years later he was co-leading the most famous mission in history. He was puzzled as to how that had happened in such a short space of time, but he didn’t complain. Who would?


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   Puget Sound was about 9 miles west of where the Iris was situated. It would take the squad a few hours to reach it, probably more, considering all the packs and gear they had to tote around with them. Eral cursed to herself, feeling the weight of her boots already draining the energy from her ankles. She pushed the aches out of her thoughts, and concentrated on the landscape around her. She’d only ever seen it from the windows of the Iris, obviously, as the radiation would have killed her in a heartbeat had she ever ventured beyond the Iris walls. The library looked out into the east, so she knew that view well. The west, however, was more unfamiliar. The air was colder than she’d anticipated, and the land before her wasn’t as flat as it was on the opposite end of the compass. It had an eeriness to it, like she was venturing into someone else’s territory, where she knew she didn’t belong, as if someone had been here before. Don’t be a fool, Eral thought with a sigh. It sounded ludicrous.

   The land, of course, didn’t belong to anyone. The last people to have roamed the same paths were a thousand years dead.

   The squad ducked in between two closely knit buildings, their stone work overgrown with shrubbery, just like the whole world, it seemed. Eral was careful of her footing, not knowing where to place her next step, for she could barely see the ground beneath the grass and tendrils of ivy strewn across her path. They emerged from the other side, and their chosen route took them towards an approaching hill. Eral scanned the landscape as she walked. Each time, she was met with the same view of abandoned buildings. Decayed, collapsed and overrun with invading greenery. The apocalypse sure had desolated the land.

   The sun was still rising, climbing the ladder all the way up to the sky’s crest. There, it would sit spreading its light upon memories of a time when millions would have welcomed it, relished it, and then watched it fall back into the deepness of night.

    Eral felt herself missing the safety of the Iris for the first time in her short life. In the Iris, everyone and everything was equal. In the Iris, life was... easy. The Iris. The world's first war-proof building. A spherical structure built in the year 2000 to withstand the atrocities of a possible nuclear war, and a safe haven for humanity's survivors. Within its walls, the Iris held a utopia. Bunker Zero contained enough supplies for over a thousand years of survival. Freedom never cost a cent. There was no crime, unlike in the pre-apocalyptic society in which humans would kill each other, thinking it was for a worth while cause. Had she really descended from those... creatures? It was odd to admit, but sometimes Eral felt as if the Iris was real; like it had a conscience, a mind, and was still holding secrets about the universe before the nuclear war. War? She'd never been able to comprehend it. It always began as a small quarrel. But then, the descent into savagery always followed.

   Eral had often thought what it would have been like, back before the apocalypse. She’d studied this, of course, but studying something and actually experiencing its magic were two completely different things. Books would never let her feel the excitement they felt when the first flakes of snow fell from the sky and cloaked the world in white. Eral simply had to imagine it, for her world was an exact mirror image of the one she dreamed of. Instead of snow, ash fell, clouding the world with a semi-transparent blackness. Ashfalls weren’t frequent, but when they came, they brought with them a darker shadow, a sort of remnant, of the snow that fell before times of rage and ruin. Eral sighed. One can only wonder, she thought.

   Eral looked ahead as the squad reached the top of the arduous hill that they had just climbed. She huffed, feeling satisfied with her efforts so far. Heavy breathing approached her from behind. Eral turned to see Jasper stumbling toward her, tripping over his loose shoelace, cheeks a little rosy from the wind in his face.

   “This is my life now. I have climbed this hill and now I will die upon it.”

   “Shut up, we’ve only been hiking for twenty minutes.” She scolded, but Jasper just smiled, satisfied that she’d given him the reaction he’d been looking for. She rolled her eyes, covering them as she walked into the sunlight at the summit of the hill, wondering how he could

   Wow.

   If she’d been expecting an impressive sight, she’d certainly not prepared for it. Before her, the land continued for miles, most of it barren and dark with ash. Astro had been right about Puget Sound, it had certainly dried up over the last near 1000 years, though there were puddles of a reasonable size scattered across the now arid land. The others probably thought it to be odd, but Eral was a scholar. She’d read about such things, in books, or on the database of Exigent Scientific Research. According to one of the reports, water with a high salt concentration tended not to desiccate so easily. Of course,  Eral thought, Puget Sound was once connected to the Atlantic ocean, hence the high salinity. It must have taken centuries for it to dry up.

   Although the land below was already darkened, it was overshadowed by sheer rock striking down from an ashy peak. It was the one they had called ‘Mount Rainier’. The word apparently meant “warrior”, Eral recalled from her studies. Looking at it, with its towering silhouette in front of her, Eral could understand why it had been addressed with such a name. The sun illuminated its features, somehow giving it a dark crepuscularity despite the iridescent light that had been bestowed upon it.

   It stood, watching. A view such as this, was both daunting and beautiful all at once.

   Astro chuckled, walking up to stand beside her, obviously noticing her awe at the panoramic view before them.

   “Never seen anything quite so splendid, huh?” he said, folding his arms, staring out at the distant Mount Rainier.

   Eral snorted. “Oh?” she said, “and you have?”

   Astro regarded her with a raised eyebrow. “I’ll have you know, child, that I have seen stars a hundred light years brighter than you have, and galaxies a thousand times more intense than you’ll ever imagine.” Child? He’s only a few years older than myself. There was a passion to his words, however, the kind of awe that Eral herself spoke with sometimes.

   “You’re an astronomer.” She guessed, still staring out at the beauty beyond.

    Astro nodded, smiling. “With an intellect such as yours, I would have thought you’d have guessed that just by my name.”

  Eral flushed. “Nonsense.” She said, as the squad continued toward the abandoned boats, rusting yet still intact, that lay resting in the arid gulf, like corpses after a bloody battle. “My intellect has nothing to do with it. I use names simply to address certain people. Their meaning is of no interest to me.”

   Astro chuckled again, but said nothing in reply. She eyed him with an intense curiosity. He was similar to the other aristocrats she’d seen wandering around the Iris. His sandy blond hair was cut to a reasonable length, swept out of his face save for a few rebellious strands that fell across his forehead. He had an air of authority about him, of leadership. Though, as she had just discovered, he did have a sense of humour despite his bold appearance. Eral found herself comparing him to Jasper. Her friend was a sport, someone who always seemed to make light of any situation, someone who always seemed to crack a smile. The two couldn’t be more different. Still, Astro was the kind of guy who struck her as charming. She didn’t know him, they had only met officially for the first time when the vote for the squadron had taken place, but she could tell that there was warmth beneath his self-assured expression.

   With a start, Eral realised she was staring at him. She snapped her eyes away, before he had a chance to notice. What am I doing? She thought with a little embarrassment. She let it go, her mind wandering back to the mountain that still loomed over them with a watchful eye as they continued their journey downward.


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   She was a rather peculiar girl, Astro decided. A pretty name and an attractive face was all well and good, but her attitude was somewhat striking, for one. Astro had never met any girl who could be as blunt as Eral, but he didn’t mind it. He walked behind her, following her gaze across to the mountain. “Mount Rainier”, I think it’s called? Who knows. Astro was never one for geography. He prefered gazing up to the sky, rather than at the world that was once crammed with people, hostile and cruel. The Irissan society was never like that. It was... peaceful.

   Astro knew things about the universe that no one else could ever know. He knew about all the philosophical and scientific debates regarding “outer space”, as the pre-apocalyptic humans had so un-poetically named it. Some simply called it the Blackness. Astro was a little more creative. He called it the Cimmerian Shade, referring to an old book - the only book - he’d read about classic mythology, which stated that the term was used to refer to western people believed to dwell in perpetual darkness.

   Except, it wasn’t perpetual darkness. The light that shone from these stars, these galaxies that he observed through his telescope... it was more powerful than one could even fathom. And he loved that. He loved the fact that the universe was unfathomable, unpredictable. He loved the controlled chaos that had ensued from what they called “the big bang”. Everything seemed to happen all at once, yet in a logical kind of way, as if someone has orchestrated it all.

   Controlled chaos.

   They had approached the nearest rusting vessel. It looked far bigger than it had a moment earlier. Its rust-stained steel was overgrown with tall, thick grass and creepers that clung to the hull and the deck railings. There was a large, vertical ravine cut through the rear end of the hull, though it revealed nothing but darkness from within.

   “Why are we here?” Soll, the civilian, questioned, a puzzled look on his face as he stared toward the abandoned vessel. Astro noticed that Eral had instinctively turned to him, expecting an answer, as did Nova. She obviously couldn’t be bothered to answer the boy’s question herself. He didn’t know whether to be honoured that he was relied upon or irritated. Well, after all, I am the captain.

   “This is the only place we can get a radio signal to contact the team back in the Iris. We must give our first report by noon.” He said honestly, slipping his pack off his shoulder. He unzipped it, pulling out the only wireless radio the squad had been given. It was a bulky thing, and he was convinced its weight was what was giving him an aching shoulder. He pulled out the aerial, and let the device search for a signal.

   Eral sighed, also sliding her pack and setting it down on the ground, coming to look over his shoulder to see the radio’s screen. It still displayed the loading wheel as it tried to pick up the signal. Ping. Got it.

   “How’d you know there would be a signal here?” She queried, squinting before the screen and covering her eyes so she could see it. Her auburn hair brushed his arm, and Astro was suddenly aware of his slouching posture and his haphazard hair, which he proceeded to fix.

   “Radio signal could never be found inside the Iris. Nor in the city. I figured we’d get a stronger signal where the landscape is open and nothing will—”

   “What’s that?” Jasper said suddenly, perking up and staring intensely toward the abandoned boat. Astro turned, his senses alert, scanning for threats. All was dark, all was silent. He could hear only his breathing, and his heartbeat drumming inside his ears. Astro could only hope . . .

   And then he saw it. A faint, but visible, flash of red light from inside the crack in the vessel.

   He froze.

 

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