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Red Eden: Homeworld Bound | Chapter 5: Ghosts of Iceland

ME2007VigilNov 30, 2018, 1:43:14 AM

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Chapter 5: Ghosts of Iceland

Lightning flashed and thunder rolled. Jack sped down the highway at a hundred kilometres an hour, heavy raindrops slamming into his visor. He stood up and spread his arms. “Woohoohoohoo!”

Back on Mars, thunder, lightning and rain were the stuff of science fiction and fantasy, so one could excuse his excitement over experiencing the real thing.

A blindingly bright bolt of lightning ripped through the black horizon, momentarily revealing the dark outline of a sprawling city. What followed was a thunder so powerful that its shock wave nearly knocked Jack off his feet. His ATV swerved. “Shit!” He dropped back to his seat and quickly regained control of the steering wheel.


Erwin and Derek were hooting like baboons over the radio, clearly as excited as Jack was at every lightning strike.

“You're getting close,” Ellen said, her voice distorted by static. “Our falcons are grounded due to the storm, but from what I've seen, the enemy is garrisoned at the airport about a kilometre south of the seaport. You should be able to drive around them. Try not to be seen.”

Jack's helmet visor projected a green direction arrow ahead of him. He followed the virtual arrow down the highway. According to the map on SolarNav, he was now driving along the coast. A flash of lightning lit up the sky, revealing a glimpse of a ten storey tall building that looked like an oblique glass cube. A short drive later, he and his companions arrived at the seaport.

They parked their ATVs at the pier. The black outline of a fishing trawler rocked back and forth in the water, its hull scraping against the concrete pier. Though Jack could barely see anything beyond the pale light projected by his helmet, the sound of crashing waves told him that the sea was in a foul mood. A powerful gale sent the tide crashing over the pier. The black hull of the fishing trawler rose several feet into the air before slamming down on the concrete with enough force to produce an audible crack. Jack set his ATV on reverse and backed the hell out of there.

“We gotta wait out the storm,” Derek said.

“Ya think?” Erwin said.

Though Jack didn't want to delay their mission, he didn't want to sleep with the fishes either. “Let's find someplace dry to rest for the night.” He led his companions away from the pier.

They could have stayed in any old building, but Jack wanted to spend the night in comfort. He took his companions on a lengthy cruise around the neighbourhood, making many random turns along the way, fumbling through the dark in search of a hotel. Just as Derek and Erwin were starting to grumble about their aimless drive through the city, Jack spotted a parking lot that had pulsing blue rings over each parking spot. The pulsing light drew him towards the lot like a moth drawn towards a lantern.

He parked over one of the spots and noticed the green battery icon flashing on the dashboard of his electric ATV. The same battery icon also flashed on the top left corner of his virtual interface. “Hey guys, check it out. This parking lot's an inductive charging station.”

Erwin and Derek parked their ATVs next to Jack's.

“Enough driving around,” Erwin said. “Wherever we are, we're staying here.”

Jack turned up the intensity of his helmet's headlight. His beam of light illuminated the foyer of what appeared to be a fancy three-storey hotel. Its red bricks were overgrown with web-like vines. Every other window opened to a moss covered balcony. To his Martian eyes, moss was beautiful, like something out of a fantasy VR.

Jack and his companions got off their ATVs and approached the entrance. The sliding door automatically opened for them. They stepped into the lobby where the ceiling lights flickered eerily. Jack brushed away the rain drops on his visor and wandered into the adjacent hall. The lights came on, revealing a dining hall big enough to seat two hundred people. He counted at least two dozen wheelchairs scattered amongst the tables. Three of the wheelchairs had teddy bears sitting on them.

“Must be a retirement home,” Derek said as he inspected an old photo framed on the wall.

Jack walked over to the picture, which depicted the home's elderly residents all gathered in the dining hall. There were a few children among them, presumably the grandchildren. One of the children, a pigtailed girl, clutched a big brown teddy bear to her chest.

“Say,” Erwin said, “whaddya think happened to the people who lived here?”

“Nuclear Armageddon,” Jack tersely replied.

“That's the theory,” Derek said, “except Solar Express hasn't been able to locate ground zero anywhere on Earth.”

“Meaning?” Erwin asked.

“Meaning they detonated their nukes high above the atmosphere,” Derek answered. “The radiation would have fried their satellites and wreaked havoc on the power grid. For a society completely dependent on technology, it's not hard to imagine how billions perished.”

“Power obviously still works here,” Erwin said.

Derek shrugged. “Iceland got lucky.”

“So we're back to my original question. Where'd all the Icelandic people go?”

“Maybe they're the people trying to kill us,” Jack said. “I mean this island was supposed to be abandoned, right? So where'd those soldiers come from?”

“Apparently, a bunker,” Derek said.

“But why didn't they come out sooner and rebuild their civilization?” Jack asked.

Derek shrugged. “I guess we'll find out soon enough.”

Thunder rolled.

Jack yawned, suddenly feeling quite tired, likely due to the inevitable crash following a speed-induced adrenaline rush. “I'm gonna hit the sack,” he said. He then climbed a creaky staircase that curved around the outer perimeter of the dining hall. As he climbed, he noticed how every table had a plate, a spoon, a fork and a napkin neatly set at each seat. Somebody had set those tables expecting that people would dine here the next day, except that day never came.

Curiously, two of the tables had tiny shoe prints on them, and one table had an odd couple sitting across from each other: a big brown teddy bear and a life-sized doll of a little girl with pigtails. The doll wore a blue dress. A pink teapot and a plate of plastic cookies sat on the table between them. Jack wondered with a shudder how long the couple had sat there, staring into each other's lifeless eyes.

He tripped and caught himself on the railing. A toy train bounced down the stairs. “Stupid kids,” he muttered.

The toy train bounced off the last step and skidded across the floor. Derek picked it up and inspected it. He flipped a switch and the wheels on the train starting spinning. “I'm surprised the batteries still work.” He put the toy train down and let it roll away.

Jack looked up and saw that he was only half way up the stairs. His body felt exhausted, and his joints hurt. Prolonged exposure to Earth's gravity was beginning to take its toll on his body. Hopefully, a good night's rest would restore him to his full strength. With a tired sigh, he dragged himself up to the second floor. He heard his companions' footsteps behind him.

Jack made a turn down a hall. All the doors here had an old fashioned analogue key hanging on a hook below the peephole. He stopped by a door numbered 215. This particular door did not have a key on its hook. Instead, someone had struck a nail to the doorway at waist-level and hung the key there. He took the key and studied it. He knew how it worked, in theory, but he had never used an analogue key before. Long hard things go inside small tight holes. That's just a natural law. He stuck the key into the keyhole and made a twisting motion. The lock clicked. He twisted the doorknob and pushed the squeaky door open.

The light from his helmet revealed a bed, a nightstand with a picture frame on it, a wardrobe, two doors leading to adjacent rooms, and a desk placed next to the windowsill. The desk had a green photo album on it. He stuck his head through the doorway and found a quaint analogue switch on the wall. How cute. He flipped the little switch, and the lights came on.

He walked over to the bed and fell backwards onto it. He glanced at the picture frame on the nightstand. The picture was of a pigtailed girl hugging her grandmother in a garden. He flipped down the picture frame. He didn't want to be reminded that he was sleeping in an old lady's bed.

Erwin and Derek walked into the room.

Jack lifted his head. “I ain't sharing this bed.”

“Relax,” Erwin said. “Just chilling.” He sat down at the desk and flipped through the photo album. A flash of blue light pulsed through the window curtains that hung over the desk. Thunder rolled. Erwin chuckled. “Check out this piece of ass.” He chucked the album over to Jack. It landed on Jack's stomach with a thud.

Jack sat up and stared at the open page. He saw a beautiful woman in her early twenties. She had blond hair, red lips and a sweet smile. She wore a graduation gown, and she held a rolled up diploma against her chest. In the picture below, she stood between an older couple, presumably her parents. The date on both pictures was June 5th, 2095.

Jack flipped to the middle of the photo album. He saw another picture of the same woman wearing a different graduation gown. She looked older here, perhaps in her early thirties. Both her parents were in wheelchairs now. Her father's cheeks had become gaunt, his eyes hollow. He looked like he was about to keel over his wheelchair.

Jack flipped through several more pages, spurred on by a morbid curiosity for how this woman ended up living her life. He was disappointed to find yet another picture of her wearing yet another graduation gown. Here, she looked even older, perhaps late thirties or early forties. She was still beautiful, though. Her parents were conspicuously absent from these later graduation photos. Jack hoped she hadn't spent her whole life in school.

Midway through the album, he was pleased to find a photo of her posing with a shirtless young man who had a heavy tan and killer abs. The man held her from behind with one hand wrapped around her waist and the other cupped over her right breast. She held her hands over his. Her eyes were half closed. They stood by a pool on the roof of a high-rise. In the background, the pyramids of Giza stood at the centre of a city of shining glass. Jack was glad she was living life at last.

In the next picture, the woman stood at the bow of a ship, posing alongside a group of smiling friends. The Statue of Liberty stood in the background. In the picture after that, she once again posed with her friends at the bow of the same ship. Jack recognized the Sydney Opera House in the background. These were all landmarks he had seen before in VR simulations of Earth.

He flipped through several more pages and stopped when he saw a picture he'd seen before. It was the one on the nightstand. The one with the pigtailed girl. Somebody had written on the white margins with a red crayon. My first day with Nana!

In the next photo, the pigtailed girl blew out the flame on a number-shaped candle on her birthday cake. According to the candle, she was a year old, if the candle could be believed, which it couldn't because she was clearly not a year old, more like five or six. He flipped to the next page. He saw another picture of the pigtailed girl blowing out a number-shaped candle on her birthday cake. Five years old now? He flipped through the next ten pages. He stopped when he found yet another picture of the pigtailed girl blowing out the candle of her birthday cake. Fifteen years old, and she hasn't grown at all. On the second to last page, four decrepit old women sat in their wheelchairs. A child sat at the feet of each woman – the pigtailed girl, two other girls, and a boy.

Jack found a crudely drawn picture glued to the last page. Though the hand that drew the picture was clearly unskilled, judging by how frequently the crayon strayed outside the pencil outline, he could see what the artist was going for. The picture was of four old women in wheelchairs staring at the sunset atop a mountain. At the foot of the mountain, four little children cried out big blue tears. A sea of black crosses filled the white space from the foot of the mountain to the bottom of the page.

He shut the photo album with a shudder.

“You shouldn't be here,” a little girl said.  

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