In the mid 21st century advances in rocket fuel development make the technology more practical opening space travel up to many smaller nations. Soon hundreds of small space stations are launched for scientific research as well as the first space based hotels.
By 2076 almost half a million people are now calling Earth's orbit their home along with another half million visitors and workers who stay in space for short periods of time. On January 7th 2076 an immense orange radioactive cloud appears over the Ukraine and begins expanding. Nobody knows how the cloud originated or what's feeding it. Scientists estimated that it would consume the Earth within a month and the rich and powerful scramble for the last few flights off the doomed planet to the orbiting space stations. The last ships arrive at the stations on February 3rd 2076. Life on Earth soon ends as the last of the planet is consumed by the cloud.
Those living in the stations know they cannot survive on their own and begin joining them up into one immense complex housing over a million survivors, the last of the Human race. Unfortunately the stations are not entirely self sufficient and require ships to return to the surface to salvage equipment. It is highly hazardous work but is essential for their survival. The ones chosen for the job are the least skilled of the survivors deemed 'expendable' by the new ruling elite.
They are known as 'Ground Rats'.
Jamie's guts were spilled over the deck of the dropship as it continued its bumpy descent through the dense orange cloud of Earth. Nobody ever said clouds in the plural anymore since the orange cloud engulfing the cradle of the Human race had no beginning or end to it. It just consumed the entire planet making it appear more like Venus than the once plush green, blue and brown world it once was.
"Should have had a light breakfast F.N.G." said Hammond chortling from the bench on the other side of the cargo hold of the ship. I felt sorry for the new guys. They were always the same being young, skinny and generally frail looking. Jamie was the stereotypical newbie being just seventeen years of age. Apparently I was like that when I first started but I don't remember it. All my previous drops seem to have merged into one by now. Like the cloud itself there didn't seem to be a beginning or an end to my work as a ground rat.
That's what they call us; Ground Rats. We're the people who aren't smart enough to be doctors, engineers or scientists. We're below the required I.Q. level for the relative comfort of life on the Station, our new artificial homeworld. We are sold into this life by being told that we are doing a service to the continued survival of our race. We know that. We also know that we have no choice in the matter. We were born into this life.
"Fifteen minutes!" called out the pilot from the cockpit of the dropship just five feet from the cargo hold where we sat waiting for the inevitable thud that came from the landing skids touching down on the surface.
Our pilot today was Gina Malek, a rather attractive young woman of Arab-Latino descent. Half the entire corps of Ground Rats had spent some time pondering what colour her knickers were but she was yet to let any of us take a look. She was smarter than us which allowed her to become a pilot but she had hopes of marrying into an even higher status. Perhaps she could bag herself a doctor or an operations officer? She could easily do so thanks to her physical attributes but at twenty five she was yet to settle.
Jamie had now finished throwing up and fell backwards against the side of the wall, sweat pouring from his forehead. I looked at him beside me on my left and felt sorry for the poor bastard but there was nothing I could really do. We all have to pull our own down here.
"Here," I said handing him a bottle of water that I was sipping from.
"No," he mumbled.
"Take it. You'll need to build up your fluids before we go on the E.V.A. or you're going to pass out."
"No," he repeated stubbornly, sounding extremely ill. I picked up his hand covered in the thick protective layers of his Extra Vehicular Activity suit and thrust the bottle into his hand.
"Drink it!" I demanded firmly and finally he gave in and took a sip of water.
"There that's better aint it?" I asked him once he had managed to keep down the sip he had taken. He stayed silent and so I encouraged him to take another sip which he reluctantly obliged me.
"Hey F.N.G. you better clear that up," said Hammond referring to the vomit on the deckplates.
"Lay off him," said Jonathon O'Neil sat beside Jason Hammond on the opposite side of the dropship cargo hold. Positioned between us and them was the ground vehicle we use to explore Earth looking for the parts we need to keep the Station operational. This one was a real relic. It was an old United States military HMMV-16 heavy duty four wheel drive vehicle with a canvas roof that would go someway to keeping the dusty atmosphere at bay. Driving these things on Earth was often an awkward affair. Visibility was rarely in excess of twenty feet which meant obstacles often appeared to jump out at you.
Jamie had successfully finished the rest of the bottle of water and handed me the empty container which I returned to our stores box. Nothing is wasted since even something as mundane as a bottle needs to be reused again because replacing it is a big deal on a space station with no natural resources to use.
"Nothing like you're first time, huh?" I said playfully to the young man beside me looking like he was knocking on death's door.
"I-I wish I paid more attention…in school," he mumbled. I had heard the words spoken many times over the years I had been doing this. They were used by all those who were sorry that their mental ability did not make it to the point where they could take an administrative post on the Station. Job prospects were decided by a final exam taken in the last year of school; for many of us it's also the last year of relatively comfortable living.
"What did you score?" I asked him.
"Thirty two," he replied solemnly.
"Man that sucks!" I gasped at the rotten luck of the young man. Anyone below thirty three per cent who possessed only reading, writing and arithmetic skills gets put on manual laboring jobs. Of those assigned such work the luckiest get to stay on the Station. The truly unlucky become Ground Rats. You can continue you're education after school in the hope of upping your grade but seldom do Ground Rats escape their life.
"Six minutes!" called out Gina from the cockpit.
"Where," said Jamie breathlessly with fear. "Where the hell did all the other minutes go?"
"I know, it passes by in no time right? Here, get your helmet on. Once the skids hit the deck we're out of here."
I handed him his helmet. Jamie looked at the front of it and saw the two small eyepieces staring back at him. This would be his only window to the dead cradle of humanity that was Earth. Protruding from the sides of the helmet was a small radio antenna to allow us to talk to one another with the microphone located in the mouthpiece. The mouthpiece itself had a small portable oxygen generation device installed in it which effectively created oxygen for us to breath and recycled the carbon dioxide we exhaled. It worked for a maximum of eighteen hours but jobs seldom lasted that long.
Jamie lifted the helmet up over his head before struggling to pull it down over him. Once it was over his head I helped him fasten it to his protective suit making sure it was sealed up good and tight. During the first few flights back to the surface after the cloud killed everything most newbies died because their suits weren't sealed up properly. These days it's said that if you survive your first job then you'll survive every job. I only wish that was true. The truth is even veterans make mistakes.
"Three minutes!" called Gina before adding, "I'm sealing the cockpit. Good luck guys."
And with that the hatch between the cargo hold and the cockpit closed shut and we were separated from her. We all finished sealing our helmets onto our suits, which we had been wearing since we left the Station, before turning on our radio sets.
"Radio check," I said before raising my right hand. This gestured that I had made my radio check. If you saw someone raise their hand but didn't hear anything either their radio wasn't working or yours wasn't.
"Radio check," said O'Neil who then raised his own right hand. He was soon followed by Hammond.
"R-Radio check," said Jamie before uneasily raising his hand.
"Ok then," I said. "Nobody's got any excuses for not hearing my instructions this time. Hammond; I'm talking to you."
"I know," replied Hammond cockily. "I should explain about last time. I thought I saw Elvis."
"Who?" asked Jamie who sounded like he was fighting off the urge for a second wave of vomit.
"Elvis was a great philosopher of the nineteenth century," said Hammond.
"I thought he was from the twentieth century," added O'Neil.
"That explains why you're in this job," retorted Hammond which I confess made me laugh.
"What's it like?" asked Jamie. "Earth, what's it like?"
"It's a pretty sorry place," I explained in the way that I always did whenever I got asked that particular question.
"Are there bodies?" asked Jamie nervously.
"Billions!" added Hammond taking some perverse pleasure in teasing Jamie about it.
"Yeah but they're all probably skeletons by now though, right?"
"You'd think so. Something in the cloud slows the decomposition process down. They look pretty nasty. You'll see soon enough."
"Don't let him spook you," I said jumping in before Hammond could frighten Jamie anymore. "You won't be able to see much of them unless you get close. The cloud makes it hard to see."
Suddenly there was a loud roaring sound as the vertical thrusters of the dropship fired rapidly slowing the craft's descent. To us Ground Rats it felt like we were momentarily going upwards as the craft decelerated. I saw Jamie's arms clench around his stomach. I reasoned he was fighting off a second wave.
"Don't puke in your mask!" I told him. "Fight it. If you puke in the mask you might block the oxygen vent and you'll suffocate."
That seemed to knock an added bout of courage into Jamie as he seemed to suddenly bring his stomach under control.
The deck plates were now vibrating heavily as the ground got closer. Some of the jetwash of the vertical thrusters was now ricocheting back up and hitting the underneath of the dropship. Finally there was a loud thumping sound as the skids made contact with the tarmac. The roar of the vertical thrusters subsided and the dropship became silent and stationary.
"We're down guys," crackled Gina's disembodied voice in our headsets.
"Alright let's do this," I said to my team. "Mount up!"
The four of us got up onto heavy booted feet and walked towards the HMMV-16. As team leader I always took the driver's position while Jamie climbed into the seat behind me. Hammond climbed in to the front passenger seat yelling "shotgun" like a playful child. Sometimes he annoyed the hell out of me but the truth was he was a hard worker and a useful member of the team. You just have to take the rough with the smooth. Finally O'Neil climbed in behind Hammond. Given the size of the vehicle it was surprising how little room there was when wearing the thick layers of the E.V.A. suit.
Once we were all in I reached up to the right side of my helmet for a small button. While communicating to the team I only needed to speak and the microphone would automatically transmit my voice. Needless to say you quickly learned to bite your tongue when wearing the E.V.A. suit because even a whisper can be heard by everyone. When speaking to the pilot of the dropship however you had to push the transmitter button on the right side of the helmet since this second radio had a longer range.
"Gina, we're all in," I said. "Open the door please."
"Roger," replied Gina.
The large hatch at the rear of the dropship began to lower. No sooner had a gap appeared between the door and the frame then small puffs of orange gas began to seep in. As the door continued to open more and more of it began to snake its way inward and soon it was dancing around our vehicle.
This would be Jamie's first view of the Earth's surface. He was going to be disappointed. You could see the tarmaced surface we had landed on for about eight feet and then it seemed to stop. Directly behind the dropship was the dark outline of a car that had been blown over by the jetwash from the vertical thrusters before we landed. Other than that it was just a dark orange colour the eye was unable to penetrate.
Hammond turned around to face Jamie before he uttered, "Welcome to Earth."