A lot of people tried to stop me from going, but I needed to know. Earth had been ravaged by war, and all the civilians and politicians were sent off world. But I came back. I needed to know.
Looking through the electronic register at the space ferry-terminal, I typed in the name of my hometown. This area was a safe zone, a place where civilians, like me, could come and see for ourselves how our home planet was doing. Not so good I could tell you.
The register finished its search. My hometown was listed. But the status 'war zone' was never a good label, especially when it's your home of 13 years. I could not do anything really; war zone was war zone. But thing is, the war has gone for so long that all sides only had a handful of people left. Funny really, the war broke out and engulfed the entire planet, now only a few soldiers were left. This changed the landscape and most of the animals were gone. Even I as I looked out from the hill, evidence of the war was evident. Craters, unhealthy earth, destroyed buildings, hardly any trees…
I wanted it back. All of us were there when the coin dropped, when we were sent away to the closest planets, armed with life-support technology.
The otherworldly life did not cut it for me. I had a great degree, studying my PhD and am one of the star students at the newly established Interplanetary Academy. But my feet moved by themselves, I knew I wanted to walk, but was not sure where to. Actually, I did, but it was off limits, My feet bought me to the planetary transport shuttle. It was black and looked more like an abandoned beast than a human made monstrosity. I guess that's what bought me to the outskirts of my hometown; the idea of leaving the hulking beast was too much. It even seemed eager to keep me here.
Walking through the streets, I noticed the silence. When I concentrated, I could hear the soft pit-pat of a faucet leaking. I hated this silence, it made my ears hurt. I like listening to something, anything. Always have. Birds singing, trees dancing on windy days, cars grumbling down the roads in the distance. It would reassure me that there is life, that I am not alone.
But here, right now, that is exactly what it was. I was alone, no sound, no movement, nothing. It was dead and it scared me. I did not realize it, but my feet had bought me to the corner of the local major shopping complex. Home was down the street, a few hours worth of walking. I did not dare touch any of the vehicles. After all, one should always respect the dead.
"Walking, walking along the boulevard…"
I sung softly to myself, I could not remember the last time I had the chance of walking so much. The other planets had a limited area where the oxygen shields could cover. Terra-forming was a long process, but one of the planets had been quicker than the others. They were currently trying to stabilize the atmosphere by planting whatever plants they could. The animals and insects would come later, oxygen was hard to come by after all.
I walked past an open field, a large troop carrier, or what was left of it, had crashed in the middle of it. I remember the old times when it rained a lot and the field would be flooded, and the water would stretch as far as the eye could see. Those times were always treasured, because it meant the rains would finally go south and the talk of drought would be over.
Water was another scarce substance out in space. The water found on the other planets was poisonous and scientists were still trying to develop a filter that would make it safe to drink. The water reserves were running low and people have started to panic. A few even tried drinking a bit of the alien water. Doctors now knew the symptoms for martian poisoning.
I arrived at the main road and here a massive battle had taken place, charred vehicles and craters were littered everywhere. Bodies were still laid around, all in their positions of death; some in pain, others peaceful. I wonder what happens when you die.
I froze. I had stopped listening a while back, not able to bear the deathly silence. But now, my ears were on overdrive. The voice came from behind, a male voice.
"Civilians aren't allowed here! Where the hell did you come from?"
I turned, careful not to fall from the road divider. Respect the dead, always. He was young, but a little older than me. He was carrying so many weapons; I was surprised he could still stand. His face was painted with war paint, and he was breathing heavily. The thin layer of sweat indicated he had been running.
"You're not supposed to be here. How the hell did you get here?"
I stayed silent. I strained to listen, to hear whatever was coming. The slightest sounds, the light breeze blowing past, the water gurgling in the gutter…
I glanced to my right, and sure enough a liquid was flowing in the drain. But it was not water. No, it was fuel. I jerked my head around to see behind me. I could not hear anything but the laboured breathing of the man in front of me.
I motioned for him to stay quiet.
"Listen, listen how the 'gale sings…"
There it was, the sound of an empty drum falling to the ground and of running feet.
I sprinted, still on the road divider, in the direction of the sound, knowing that the explosion would be well away from the bomber. I heard sounds of running feet behind me and knew that the armed man had heard me. I ran and ran, jumping off when the divider ended, and before I knew it we had arrived at a small shopping complex. The strange thing was that I did not see the person who spilled the fuel, nor hear the intended explosion.
But it did not matter now, home was just around the bend and across the housing development. I slowed to a walk, and, ignoring the man behind me, headed in the direction I knew so well.
I cut across the parking lot, staying well away from the abandoned cars and continued on towards the main road. The intersection here had lights, and I always thought it was weird how the main road was only second priority. Of course the police station had something to with it, but I never understood the choice of location. Past the lights was my favourite stretch of road. Before the residential development, the fields were green and cows had made it their home. You would see them make their way, lazily, around the giant paddock. I never liked the new houses; it meant more people, more cars and more noise. They'd scare the wallabies in the nature reserve next to our house, and when we would see them in the garden, they would look so lost and sad. Now, I know how they felt.
I never realised how long this road was. I always drove when coming back from the shops because of how far you had to walk. But I really did not mind, because here I was walking down the road that I knew led to home. Here the silence was less ominous. I listened and heard the grass rustling in the wind, the leaves in the trees adding to the soft concerto, the scuttling of small rodents who hid until now and the heavy footsteps of the man behind me provided the percussion. It was not until we arrived at the forsaken houses did I listen for humans. I knew those buildings would one day be a mistake. I calculated the fastest way through the labyrinth and vowed that never again will I see land disappear under the hammer and tools of humans. Not only were the houses in a flood zone, but they were ugly too; impractical and sore on the eyes.
We were at the halfway point when I heard it; a soft cough. A human cough. I froze and tried to pinpoint its origin. It came from the left, a square-shaped house. I had walked along the walls to avoid detection. And good thing too, the cough had been from a small child sick with the cold. Her and her entire family had missed the space transports at the start of the war. Ever since they had bunkered down, not able to leave the area without bullets flying over their heads.
"Come with me, the war is almost over. I know a place where we can go."
And they did come. We left straight away; because somehow I knew the enemy would know anyone who was crazy enough to move about in broad-daylight were no threat. The man who had been following me tagged along as well. We did not speak and, noticing our silence, neither did the refugees. And so we walked.
We got to the base of the hill where the reserve started, and I could see my house. It was sitting there, so still and lifeless, as if it was waiting for its owners to come back. Well, I was not going to let it wait any longer.
I knew that my father had tore down the fence surrounding our property, so the only problems were the remaining wildlife; snakes, rats and whatnot.
But I did not care; I was at home, my shoes sinking in pools of mud, avoiding ant nests and slithering snakes. I know most of them were friendly, but I never wanted to risk it.
It was not long before we arrived at the clearing. Once it was full of large grass that towered over me. We had a control fire going and had it clear ever since. We still have those photos, somewhere. To the right was a small structure of chicken wire. When dad had cleared it of weeds, he found passionfruit vines, my favourite. To the left were the grapefruit and mango trees, both were below the dam, they should be loaded with fruit by now.
As I started up the hill, we walked past the orange trees and the lime fruit tree. The dam, from where I could see, was so overgrown with weeds; it was hard to tell what it was exactly.
When this war is over, I'm going to return once again and take care of this land. It needs a carer, and I'll gladly take on the job.
We made it to the house. My house. Most of the flowers were dead, but a few of them had flowered already. All the orchids were dead. Mum will be sad.
"Stay downstairs, make yourselves comfortable. I have to go check something."
I went up the stairs and went inside.
Nothing had changed; from the abandoned breakfast bowls, to the computers and printer.
I will be able to let dad know, he will be overjoyed to know his man-toys were still safe. Which was weird, I was convinced someone would have taken them already. But that was not why I was here. The small USB that was sent to me before the war, everything about the beginning was on there. And I found it, sitting there in my room. There was no chance of any computer working so I tucked it in my pocket.
He came in; face washed and carried only two handguns.
"Tell the others they can come up if they need to. I'll check if there's anything useful."
He did not ask questions, but he did take another long look at me. From my academy uniform to my chest-long hair, I really did not look like an Earthling.
When he left, I went to the kitchen. I found dog food, some soda water and chips that were way beyond their expiry date. I remember being told stories of how people could not bring their dogs, so they had to shoot them. I was so happy when our dog got cleared to come. I would not have handled it if we had to kill her or even leave her alone. She was bossy, but she would not have stood a chance against bigger dogs.
I debated on whether opening the fridge would be worth the smell. I decided to leave someone else with that task.
Instead I went to the bathroom and remembered how we would fill buckets up from the drainage pipes when it rained. When we had no water, we would use the water in the buckets to flush. I suspected that if there was no electricity, there would be no water.
Sounds from the balcony caught my attention. Walking out I felt like the house was welcoming me back; the flat screen TV in the living room seemed like another hulking beast, waiting to be woken and blare out whatever show was on.
Another commotion made me hurry.
Some of the refugees who came up were cowering in fear and were pressing themselves as close to the house as possible. Looking out towards the once-white driveway, I realised why. An army truck was parked under the shadow of the trees and some of the soldiers were piling out.
The leader came to stand before the house.
He called in such a sickly-sweet tone.
I went to the balcony's edge and motioned for the others to get inside.
"Hello!" he waved. "Are you their leader?"
I remained silent, bracing myself against the railing. I strained my ears, straining to hear any signs of hostility.
The man from before came up behind me, holding one of his bigger guns to the side.
"Hi! Look I need to speak with whoever's in charge of this little operation."
One of the older refugees, who looked like a responsible leader, came to stand next to me. But… he fell over backwards as a gunshot rang out, rolling across the side of the hill.
My eyes widened as I watched him fall down in slow motion. I figured these jokers did not exactly want to talk. But I had to say something, so I opened my smart mouth, activating my receptor.
I called out loud and clear, my voice did not betray any of the anger or fear I felt at that time.
"Well, you know. All those people! You have to be up to something, right?"
"They are refugees. I am from off planet. I came with the mission of finding and retrieving refugees."
"Right, so that guy is a refugee as well, I take it?"
"In my eyes, yes. Now if you please remove yourselves before I report this particular event to the UN Council."
"You know, you should learn to lie better! There's no way a pretty thing like you could ever work with those up-tights!"
I held up my receptor. Councilman Hanashi had been online the whole time.
"I heard that." Came the clear response. "And I assure you. Officer Mimi here has enough experience to put you to shame. Now if you'll leave the refugees alone I will not report the cold blooded killing you've just committed."
I put it away; the look on the commander's face was enough of a response. Except I knew we would not get out of this unscathed. He motioned for his men to pull out. And I turned to the armed man beside me.
"Come, we have to make preparations."
For the next few hours I had split the family out into even groups with a balanced number of adults and children per group. It was late already, so I gathered them all up in the living room.
"We'll have to leave in the morning. They won't let us leave so easily right now."
Everyone was in agreement.
We all split up to different parts of the house. A group was in the living room, another in the dining room, another downstairs and my group set up camp in my parents' room. Once we were all settled, the man came to sit next to me. He had not been nominated to be a leader, but as the overall guard, a position he was fine with.
We talked, but it was a little hazy. I think we talked about me being an agent of the councilman, how we met a petition and sponsored me to come to Earth specially. I left the bit where I had to collect important information on the war out of the conversation. It was all hazy because of what happened next. At first it was a soft whistling sound, unnatural and becoming louder and louder with each passing second.
My ears twitched as I stood up, it was coming closer and closer until I heard a scream cut off by a very loud blast. The door slowly opened (it had been closed) and I saw that carnage that was my living room.
I saw bodies, charred and missing limbs. The miracle was that it was a weak nuclear seeker. Strong enough to kill, but so weak it could not penetrate walls.
I rushed out, very aware of the radioactive levels. We had to move and move very soon.
"Are you guys alright?"
Everyone from the other areas were okay. And as far as I could tell, the initial bodies I saw where the only ones.
"We're missing someone."
"Do you know where they went?"
"Yeah. In your room I think."
We went into the master bedroom. I did not remember seeing or hearing anyone, but then again, my memory was fuzzy. I opened the first closet and saw something weird, an oddity among the shoeboxes. It was a very colourful head. It was the missing girl; she opened her eyes and moved about. She had covered herself with shows and shoeboxes. Her odd habit of hiding had saved her life.
"Can you get the map?"
To the northeast was a mountain range with snow-capped peaks. They would be far enough and tall enough to stop the radioactivity.
"We should head towards that." I coughed. "The mountains are high enough to stop the radioactivity from reaching us."
I coughed again, a deep-throat cough that did not sound healthy.
"Alright, I'll get everybody organised."
"Get them all ready in a few hours." It was almost morning. There was nothing we could do while the kids were falling asleep.
I also felt tired and just wanted to sleep. I made it to my brother's room. It had a bed where I slept when we had guests. Somehow… I just wanted to sleep in that bed. I collapsed under the sheets, caked with dust, and finally went to sleep.
I fell asleep as I listened to the people around me. I listened to life, and I never woke.