THIS was going to be hard, Zac thought, but it had to be done.
“I’ve joined The Quest,” he announced.
Marie dropped the glass she was cleaning. It hit the floor, exploding into tiny glittering shards. “You can’t,” she gasped. “Nobody has ever survived The Quest.”
Perhaps it would have been a good idea to break the news a bit more gently; however, that wasn’t Zac’s style. Instead he bent down and picked up the glass fragments. “It’s too late, once you’ve signed up there’s no going back.”
She wasn’t convinced. “Look, it’s hopeless, we all know that. The planet’s too far gone. There is nothing left of any use at all.”
“There’s got to be hope, Mum, I have to try.”
She laughed hysterically. “Yeah, right. So you’re going to leave the safety of The Palace in a survival suit with 2 hours supply of oxygen and go hunting, for what? Nobody
volunteers for the Quest any more. People have gone out in groups and never returned. We don’t have the equipment to cover large distances, it’s all on foot. How far are you
going to get in one hour’s walk?”
Zac frowned. This was going exactly as expected – badly. “The survival suits are pretty good these days. They’re light and more flexible. Don’t worry, I’ll make sure I get back before the 2 hours are up.”
He wished he could say that with more conviction. Even to him, it sounded rather lame.
“Well, why has no one else managed to do that?” Marie shuddered. ”What’s out there?”
“Nothing’s out there, the climate’s far too inhospitable for that. It’s just the freak weather patterns that catch people out.”
“You mean the hurricanes, the floods, the intense heat? Oh yes, the radiation. There’s no ozone layer.”
Zac tapped his fingers impatiently on the table. He wasn’t going to give in. “Why are you making such a fuss? I thought you’d be proud of me.”
“Of course I am!” she exclaimed, pacing up and down the room. “You’re a strong, talented young man, Zac, but this is a death sentence.”
He slammed his fist down on the table. Why did Mum always make him see red? The little boy had long since grown up. “The Palace is a death sentence. The water recycling’s just about holding. But the oxygen plant’s finished. In 10 years tops, no more oxygen. That’s it. Who’ll get to suffocate first? The sick and elderly? This is the only hope we have.”
Tears streamed down Marie’s eyes as she grabbed his hand. “Look, it’s all happened before, we know the scenario. There’s nothing to be done, just enjoy what we do have for as long as we can. I can’t bear the thought of losing you.”
Zac stared at her, this was so difficult, but giving up was not an option. If they were going to die, might as well go down fighting.
“Sorry, Mum,” he mumbled , turning to leave. “Beside which, I don’t think I can stomach another strawberry-flavoured protein bar. Food production has really gone downhill lately. Can’t they produce something else with all that biotechnology?”
She sank down on the chair weeping. It hurt more than anything to do this to her, but on this there was no going back.
Later, Zac sat in Gina’s Bar, moodily sipping the house special, Blue Dream. Fizzy, alcoholic blueberry juice. Too much of it and you got one heck of a hangover.
There had to be a reason why people couldn’t find their way back to the Palace even in good weather. Goodness knows, it was large enough. In its bright red storm shield, it must stand out. So what killed them?
Perhaps better not to think about that.
Next day, a crowd of people gathered at the exit, all clapping and cheering. The noise was deafening. There’s something exhilarating about a good send-off. However, to Zac there were only two people that really mattered. His Mum and little sister, 6-year-old Annie.
“Come back,” Marie whispered, giving him a hug. She slipped a gun into his holdall. “Just in case you need it. This is the latest improved version.”
Annie ran up and clung to Zac. ”I don’t want you to go,” she said. “When are you going to play with me?”
That was a question he just didn’t want to answer. “As soon as I bring something back.” He bent down and picked Annie up clumsily in the survival suit. The crowd cheered even louder.
Annie screamed as he handed her back to Mum. “Don’t go,” she cried, tears flowing down her small red cheeks.
The airlock door slid open. He disappeared into the hatch. The door slid shut,
shrouding him in silence. The final checks done, the helmet was properly fastened; it was now or never. No use worrying about what lay outside.
The outside door slid open. The heat hit him as he walked into the desert for the first time. Zac blinked in the bright sunlight. Sand, nothing but miles of sand.
He cursed softly. No wonder nobody ever returned. It was easy to get lost. Things like the ancient GPS system, once so popular, didn’t exist anymore. The satellites had long since ceased to function. There were no more resources left to replace them.
There was nothing but vast stretches of sand and searing bright blue sky. Totally lifeless, except the eerie feeling of being watched.
It was awkward wearing gloves, but they did have enough dexterity to allow Zac to grab the holdall containing small red pegs. Which way to go? With only two hours’ oxygen, there was only one shot at this. The direction he picked meant the difference
between success or failure.
Very little was known about the Great Desert. There wasn’t the capacity to stray far from The Palace. Yet it was so important to get this right.
He wandered into the desert at random. Maybe, just maybe, there was hope.
It was unbearably hot, trudging along sand. The heat even penetrated his thick boots. Every so often, he’d stop, pull a peg out of the pouch and push it into the ground.
Suddenly a howl cut through the silence. Zac jumped, startled. Something was definitely watching. Yet, no matter where he looked, there was nothing but searing sand and pitiless sky.
Time to get back, quickly. Zac started to run back towards the Palace. He tripped and fell, landing face first in the sand. Something sharp dug into his back. He turned over and gasped. Buried in the sand was a decapitated human skeleton. The bones crushed.
The howling continued, this time louder. It was getting closer and closer..
Zac shrieked and stumbled, scattering the yellow remains. The howling filled the air. It was everywhere. He tripped again. The thing had to be nearly on him.
Yet at the same time a strange calm filled him. Might as well go out in style, Dad would approve.
“Come on, show yourself!” he screamed.
Nothing. Then, there it was. Standing in the glare of a shimmering pool of water. Its yellow eyes sizing him up, the latest prey.
“What on earth,” he hissed. “Where did that water come from?”
Sweat poured down his face, clouding his vision. “Come on,” he yelled. “What are you waiting for?”
The huge reptilian creature charged towards him.
It moved with sickening speed, no time to think.
Zac closed his eyes waiting for the inevitable. He rolled out of the way. The creature spun around in a cloud of dust.
Panicking, Zac stumbled down towards the water. The reptile turned round, howling in anger. It was now or never.
He grabbed the gun and lurched towards the water. Its yellow teeth bore down on him. Zac squeezed the trigger. The lizard roared and flew backwards into the green water unconscious. Slowly it sank down into the depths, leaving nothing but a ripple of waves
Zac’s legs crumpled; he blacked out.
Seconds later he came to, face down in the stagnant water. The stench was awful, made him want to gag. Everything was saturated with water. His oxygen supply was getting low.
The sun had begun to set.
“Oh, give me a break, please!” Zac hissed.
Shivering, he pulled himself slowly to his feet. Soon it would be pitch dark and freezing.
The cold began to seep into his bones, leaving a deadly chill . He crawled along the sand. Every movement took more and more effort.
“Must not give up,” he muttered through chattering teeth. “Will not give up.”
“So tired,” he hissed. ”Must keep going, must find The Palace.”
The darkness closed in; cold, unfeeling, malevolent.
He couldn’t drag his body any further. His eye lids were getting heavier and heavier. Eventually, they closed.
He saw his dad standing beside him. “You’re dead,” Zac gasped.
“Precisely,” he replied. “You’re dreaming. Wake up.”
Zac’s eyes opened with a jerk. Forcing himself to stay awake he crawled onto his knees and looked up. Which way to go? Which way? There, in front of him, was a red
fluorescent trail. The pegs he had put into the ground, the road home.
Slowly, he followed the trail. It was so cold his legs and arms felt like tonne weights. The Palace loomed a few minutes away. It was so near, yet he just couldn’t move. Sobbing, he drifted into darkness.
“He is going to be alright isn’t he?” A girl’s voice seemed to penetrate the blackness.
“Yes, I think so dear,” a woman’s voice replied. It was a voice he knew well.
With great effort, he opened one eye then the other. The pain in his limbs was unbearable. “Arrrrh,” he groaned.
“It’s OK,” Marie said soothingly.”It will pass, you’re warming up after hypothermia.”
“Who found me?” Zac croaked.
Marie laughed. “We had people on guard duty looking for your return.”
“I failed, no plants. Nothing to produce oxygen.”
“It doesn’t matter,” she whispered. “Let’s enjoy the time we have. You came back.”
“But it makes no difference, I failed.”
“Don’t be so sure.” A voice came from the doorway.
Zac stared at the newcomer through gritted teeth, desperately hoping he wasn’t
going to be sick.
“I’m Dr Cowell, Chief Environmental Scientist,” the newcomer said. “You succeeded admirably.”
“What do you mean?” Zac demanded, hope flickering for the first time.
“Your environmental suit. It was covered with green ice and slime.”
“And?” Zac croaked.
Dr Cowell grinned. “The ice contained green algae. The slime is even more interesting. It contains chlorophyll and releases oxygen into the atmosphere. Only, at present, not in enough quantities to make the outside air breathable to us. This is just what we’re looking for. You’ve done it boy, you’ve done it.”
Zac closed his eyes and smiled. Mum and Annie jumped up and down screaming in delight. The noise and the pain were almost unbearable.
“I’ve got to show you something,” Annie cried running out of the room.
A minute later, she charged back and jumped on the bed. “Ow,” he howled. Please take care.”
“This is a book,” she said proudly. “Look at these pictures.”
Despite the pain, Zac tried to stare at the pictures.
“Are there trees out there?” Annie demanded. “Did you see any birds? Is this is what it is like outside?”
Zac closed his eyes, it was impossible to concentrate properly.
Marie, however, looked at the picture.
“No, dear,” she said gently, “these are pictures of Earth. We’re on SP 1.”
Annie frowned. “Why did we leave Earth? It’s beautiful.”
Marie sighed. “We polluted Earth by our activities so much it became uninhabitable. Scientists discovered a planet similar to Earth. So we moved here. To Sister Planet 1. Hope we soon find an SP2.”
Hayley Liversidge writes for fun. She has been shortlisted in the Writing Magazine short story competitions and has written for the local community newspaper. She is passionate about the environment and has taught science. When not tapping on the computer, Hayley is a children and families worker. In her free time she takes every opportunity to travel; it provides a source of inspiration for her stories.