Diana and Tom were both stunned into silence as the computer's remark sank in.
They both just stared at each other at a loss of words. Diana looked out the cockpit windscreen again and viewed the surrounding sylvan glade. Even if they were, over two hundred years in the future there should have been a base or some buildings.
Diana's eyes widened as a terrible thought came to her. "Computer," she said in a trembling voice.
"Flight computer on-line."
"Computer, give me a reading on the surrounding radiation level," Diana ordered hoping against hope that she was mistaken. The look of fear on Major Tom's face showed that he too was following her train of thought.
"Radiation level is higher than normal, but will not pose any immediate health concerns with a limited exposure."
Tom started looking at some of the other instruments on the panel. He tapped on one with his fingers as if to make sure the needle was not stuck.
"Colonel, the rads are much higher than normal. Instruments show that the o-zone is virtually gone and…" Tom's voice broke off in a swallowed sob.
"Please continue Major," Diana said calmly.
"Based on the half-life readings this happened over two hundred years ago. The strontium-90 and cesium-137 readings suggest that this was from a nuclear exchange instead of some natural disaster."
Diana sat there for a minute wrestling with some internal dilemma. The colonel just stared out the window watching the trees' leaves flutter in the slight breeze. It all looked so deceptively safe.
"Major, we need to find out what has happened."
"I agree, we can fly the Zephyr to some ruins and hopefully find some records. Maybe…"
"No," Diana cut off the major. "We still don't know all that may be wrong with the Zephyr. I will need you to stay here, finish the diagnostics, and make any repairs that you can. I will head towards where Manchester should be."
"Begging your pardon, ma'am, but I must strongly protest against that. You don't know the dangers out there. We cannot become separated from each other."
"We can't take the Zephyr with us for fear of destroying our only way out of here. Plus…" Diana held up her hand as Tom began to protest. "As I was saying, we also cannot afford to abandon the Zephyr for something else happening to it while we are gone. Therefore, the only option left is for one of us to head north to where we believe Manchester may still be."
"Then I suggest I be the one to go. I'm physically stronger and six years younger than you. No disrespect, ma'am."
"None taken. However, I wouldn't think that thirty-seven was old. In any case, you are the engineer and the only one who can repair our ship. I, on the other hand grew up in Liverpool just north of Manchester. I have spent a lot of time in Manchester, something I am sure you can't say."
Major Tom relented and nodded his head in agreement. Diana did not relish the thought of leaving the security of the Zephyr for a jaunt in an irradiated world. But, her mind was made up.
Fortunately, when the Zephyr was constructed it included a cabin behind the cockpit that stored two bunks, the head, and a small galley. The room behind that held the tools, space suits, airlock and other equipment for space repair.
"I'll take an environmental suit, a torch -- flashlight I believe you Yanks call it, and some food. I'll minimize my exposure to the air. I have my palm computer that I can download whatever information I come across. It only has a four terabyte hard drive. I hope that will be enough."
"I believe that you should be within range to transmit that information right to the Zephyr's computer. Keep in contact with your radio. I'll alert you to anything new that may arise here while you are away," Tom added.
"Right," Diana answered, "well then I better get ready. I should only be gone for a couple of days. Cheers."
Within half an hour, Diana had descended the airlock in the bottom of the Zephyr, climbed down the stairs, and had set out across the grass field towards the tree line to the north. The temperature was quite warm. Luckily, the space suit could regulate the temperature inside the suit as well as recycle the air. Diana was sure that her air supply should last seventy-two hours. At least, that was what the scientists claimed before she set out on this adventure.
A few insects flew in the air. They for the most part appeared to be unchanged by their environment. Then again, these same insects survived several natural disasters that wiped out whole species of life forms in the past. Meteor impacts, rapid environmental changes, volcanoes, etc. These tended to kill off larger species like the dinosaurs, but the simpler ones tended to survive well enough. At least, the cockroach was not the only inhabitant of Earth. There appeared to be some dragonflies and mosquitoes as well.
Diana entered the wooded area and the Zephyr soon disappeared behind her. There were no signs of squirrels, or other mammals. Though she did believe she heard a bird call somewhere inside the woods. While she was back on Earth two hundred years ago, the trees were not as tall or thick. At least, that is the way it seemed to her.
"I suppose these would be considered old-growth by now," Diana thought to herself.
The colonel continued to walk northward using her compass as her guide. The woods appeared deeper than she first suspected. Back on the old Earth, this was all buildings and roads leading to the space base. There were no signs of them at all. Certainly, even after two hundred years there would still be some sign of a road, a building, or even an automobile rusting away somewhere.
Two hours later the woods ended and she found herself in another field of tall grass. There did appear to be a mound ahead of her. It was long and continuous. It disappeared over the horizon in one direction and led to some hills in another.
As Diana approached the mound, she realized she had come across the old railway line. The occasional rusted steel rail poked through the grass covered soil. The timber ties had long since rotted away. This would greatly help her on her trek towards Manchester.
Soon Diana found an overturned train with its many passenger cars scattered about. Some were even lying across the old tracks. Diana ran over to the nearest passenger car half buried in the ground. It was lying on its side, the metal skin was tattered and twisted, the steel trucks and wheels were rusting away. There were several openings where a door or window used to be. All were long gone.
Diana poked her head into the darkened interior. Grass and the occasional small tree had started to grow inside the car. The beam from her flashlight illuminated the interior as Diana ran it across the seats on the side of one wall. She lowered the beam to a ghastly scene.
On the bottom of the car, that used to be a windowed wall, laid the remains of the doomed passengers. The skeletal bones of the occupants were now mingling with those of his or her neighbor's. Skulls with empty eye sockets and in a silent scream all seemed to look pleadingly at her. Passengers, possibly fleeing the cities had packed the unfortunate train.
Diana pulled her head out quickly and sat on the mound crying over the remains of the unknown victims. Names long lost to the passage of time. People never mourned until now.
"Colonel," the voice of Major Tom brought Diana back to herself. "Colonel, do you read me."
"I read you Major," Diana responded in her head set trying to gather herself together.
"Sorry, Colonel, you haven't checked in for awhile. I was getting a little worried."
"I must have lost track of time. I have found a train track and am following it to Manchester. I should be there before sundown."
"Very good," Tom responded, "don't forget to keep in touch."
It was just at sundown when Diana reached the ruins of Manchester. The hills she spotted as she left the woods were in fact the decomposing remains of tall buildings. The entire city appeared to have tumbled down upon itself. Plant life had taken over the metropolis. Grass, trees, and flowers now covered the streets and walkways of the city.
Steel girders, tumble stones, and piles of bricks hinted at where buildings and houses once stood. The rusted out remains of an automobile occasionally poked out of a grass covered dirt mound. Navigating around Manchester was going to be difficult. A quick scan with her Geiger-Counter indicated that the radiation was no worse than that at the Zephyr.
The sunlight was rapidly disappearing and Diana needed to find shelter fast. She scanned around and found an opening in one of the torn-down buildings. Diana ducked inside and searched it out with her flashlight. It was the entranceway of some public building. The passage of time affected the marble floor minimally. A metal stairway had at one time lead to the upper stories and still appeared to lead down to the lower floors. For now, Diana found an old bench that was sturdy enough to bear her weight and prepared to spend the night.Posted by deg at March 9, 2006 4:56 PM