The year 2800
The rain poured down heavily that night as if mother nature was crying. Yeah, you heard it right. Everything green now looked black and dead. The tall buildings held their heads high and produced black smoke, making it difficult to differentiate the sky from the smoke. The genetically prepared vaccines backfired, making humans vulnerable to the outside world. Their immune system could not take more of it, for it had become weak from the intake of vaccines one after the other from the beginning of never-ending pandemics. The diseases appeared now and then, slowly engulfing half of the population of humankind. Even though there were experiments to test the living conditions on another planet, they failed as they couldn’t provide a favorable situation for survival as they felt on Earth.
Hazel was one of the many survivors on Earth. She lived with her parents. She had heard a lot about how Earth was a thousand years ago. She always wondered if the sky was ever up there because whenever she looked up, all she could see was thick, billowing, dark smoke.
“Earth isn’t safe anymore.” Cried Ruth, Hazel’s mother, staring at the television screen.
Hazel and Philip, her father, ran to the common room as they heard her cry, “What is it?” asked Philip. Hazel had the same question on her mind. Ruth pointed her fingers to the television, the reporter with his prowess as an anchor, continued, “The amount of Oxygen required to survive on this planet is depleting. The scientists are working on creating it while they are still working on preserving the ozone layer, but…” his voice cracked, “the pollution increasing day by day makes it harder to them. The ozone holes are increasing in numbers. The Earth is dying. Our days are counted.” The reporter sounded like he was about to cry.
“The rain… I thought it would come with good news but….” Mommy sighed; the reporter continued, “Heavy rain will continue for the next five days. There are reports from several part of the city that sewer systems are clogged and outpouring. Spread of water borne diseases are expected. The civilians are requested to stay at home safely.”
The shock was visible on Philip’s and Ruth’s faces. Suddenly the TV crashed, and a black screen appeared with a message.
“CIVILIANS, IT’S TIME. OPEN YOUR EMERGENCY ROOMS IN NEXT TWENTY SECONDS. DO THE REST AS YOU WERE TRAINED FOR.” Read the message.
Hazel didn’t understand what was happening, but Philip grabbed her in his hands and followed Ruth to the room which Hazel was denied entry for a long time. Whenever she asked why she couldn’t enter that room, the response from her parents was never convincing. Therefore, it always remained a mystery for her. She knew that they were hiding something; now, they were taking her to that room without being asked for.
She felt curious and nervous at the same time. She first encountered the room when they moved to their new home a few years back. This room fascinated her because she found it useless; she never saw her parents enter that room even once.
Philip stood in front of the door and said, “It’s time.” The door opened itself! He took them inside and locked the door. The room was not like any other room; it opened the door to a secret house, it seemed.
“Welcome to the emergency room,” said a holographic image.
“Please press the Green button to activate virtual earth.”
Philip pressed on the green button, which blinked in front of him. Suddenly it felt like the whole room was moving. Hazel looked outside the window. She felt like they were traveling through a space portal or something like she watched in the movies. After few minutes, the house stopped moving. For the first time in her life, Hazel saw ‘trees’ like the ones Ms. Ginger, her teacher, had shown them on the screen when she used to go to school.
“What is this place?” Hazel exclaimed.
“This is virtual earth my dear.” Sighed Philip and continued, “We will stay here for the next few days, until our place is back to normal.”
“What if our place doesn’t become a home again?” Hazel asked them with her curious eyes.
“Let’s hope it does.”
She didn’t want to ask further questions as she knew the answers wouldn’t make her happy. She stepped out of the house. The place was nothing like the Earth she lived in. Earlier the verdant beauty of nature was only visible in her dreams, but now she could see it, feel it, smell it. “Beautiful,” she exclaimed in excitement. She looked up; for the first time, she saw clear blue sky looking back at her. She ran to her father, “Daddy, let’s never go back home. I like this place.”
Daddy smiled at little Hazel and said nothing.
She wanted to explore the virtual Earth. If they are going to stay back here for a long time, it’s better to make friends, she thought. So, she decided to take an errand around the neighborhood and introduce herself to them. She wore her little frock and carried a backpack with her, “In case I meet any toddlers, I can give them few of my candies.”
She walked and walked and saw a house nearby. She ran to that house and searched for a doorbell, but no matter how hard she searched, she couldn’t find any doorbell. So, she started knocking at the door. Then somebody opened the door. To her surprise, it was her mother.
“What is it Hazel, were you locked out?” Hazel didn’t understand; she thought she lost her way in the middle of her adventure and went back home. “I was exploring, I guess I got lost.” She was tired to try again, so she entered the house following her mother and closed the door behind her. At night she couldn’t stop thinking about it. She was sure that she didn’t get lost. So, she decided to do the same the next day.
As the clock struck 9, she woke up from her bed. She brushed her teeth and freshened up without being asked by her parents. She ate her breakfast and said to Ruth that she would be back in few hours. This time she made sure that she left trail marks behind her not to get lost. Just like the other day, she walked and walked for a long time but couldn’t find any house nearby. She walked a little more and found a house just like hers.
She moved forward. As she reached the front porch, she saw the trail mark she left behind her starting from this house. “How is this possible?” she was surprised. She was sure that she didn’t lose her way this time. She knocked on the door to make sure that she wasn’t wrong. Her mother opened the door, “Oh you are back. How was your exploration?” She said nothing. ‘Something is wrong with this place.’ She thought. She said nothing and went inside the house.
In the coming days, she tried different routes, yet she ended up finding her own house. Finally, she decided to ask Philip.
One morning, as they sat down to have breakfast Hazel, asked Philip, “Daddy, would you get mad if I ask you something?”
“No sweetie, you can ask me anything.”
“I explored this virtual Earth to find new friends, but I ended up finding our house every time. Why daddy?”
Philip knew his daughter was getting frustrated. He didn’t know if she could understand what was happening.
“Baby, I don’t know if you will be able to understand anything that I am going to say to you now, but this is the truth.”
“One virtual Earth can only be occupied by one family. So no matter how far you go from here or how many different routes you take, you will always end up here. There is nothing else here, other than the air we breathe.”
“What about food daddy? Don’t we need to buy food?”
“All the food that we have are those which were stored in the emergency room. We cannot live here much longer. If we do, we will die of hunger. We cannot eat from the trees outside. Those are genetically made and their only purpose is to produce Oxygen. The Project trees won’t work on our planet because the pollution there is more than acceptable for these trees to grow. Let’s hope our Earth becomes normal so that we can go back. We are waiting to receive notification from the Captain to go back.”
Hazel did understand what Philip said. The truth scared her; she wished if she hadn’t asked Philip. From that day, she was cautious with the food she ate. She noticed that her parents ate less compared to her. Her mother wouldn’t even eat some days. Whenever Hazel asked her about it, Ruth would say that she should learn to adapt to this new situation to survive. Weeks passed. The supplies which were in stock were emptying soon.
“Are we going to die Daddy?” Philip had nothing to say to her. He slowly took her in his hands and hugged her tight. “We will survive.” Said Ruth and joined their family hug. Suddenly the holographic image appeared again. It said, “Message from the Captain.”
“Hi civilians, I express my apologies for the late response. Our Earth is in bad shape and had to restructure a lot of it to make it fit for survival, I do understand that the food cans stored are emptying soon. It’s not safe to stay back in the virtual Earth for long. Gather the Oxygen cylinders you have collected and return back to our planet. You are advised to stay in the emergency room until our rescue team knocks on the door.” The holographic image disappeared after delivering the message.
Philip’s face looked pleasant after a long time. Ruth and Philip rushed to a nearby room and gathered the oxygen-filled cylinders. There were at least fifty of them. Hazel understood that one of the primary purposes to come to virtual Earth was to collect Oxygen. If she had known about it, she could have helped her parents to collect some more.
They were delighted to return home. After hearing the truth, Hazel had lost her interest in staying back on Virtual Earth. They went to the same room just like the last time. “It’s time,” said Philip.
The door opened with a shriek. She heard the holographic image again, “Welcome to the emergency room,”
Philip and Ruth dragged the oxygen cylinders they had collected. Little Hazel supported them by pushing them in and counting them. Finally, when they closed the door to the virtual Earth, they heard the voice again.
“Please press the Red button to go back to Earth.”
Philip pressed the Red button with a big sigh of relief. The house started to move again. After few minutes, it stopped. They waited eagerly for the rescue team to knock on the door. One hour passed; still, they didn’t hear anyone knocking. Hazel pressed her ears to the door. She exclaimed, “Daddy I hear footsteps.”
“Finally, they are here.” Ruth and Philip hugged little Hazel. They heard a knock at the door and slowly opened the door. They saw two people wearing gas masks as they opened the door. “How many cylinders?” they asked.
“50.” Ruth exclaimed. They helped Ruth and Philip to transfer the Oxygen cylinders from the emergency room.
“Is that all of it?”
“Yes.” Said Philip, “and Thank you for the help. I really appreciate it.” They weren’t paying attention. They were looking at Hazel. One of them asked, “How old is your daughter?”
“She is 10, why?” asked a frustrated Philip. They didn’t respond. One of them got hold of Hazel. He grabbed her by her hand and tried to close the door of the emergency room. Philip and Ruth didn’t know what was happening. They tried pushing the door, but the two people were strong enough to close the door. They locked the door from the outside. Philip and Ruth could hear Hazel cry outside the door.
“What are you doing? You are supposed to rescue us? What do you want from my daughter? she is just a child.” Philip’s voice cracked as he said it.
“She is a child now. She will be a woman one day.” Said the man.
“What do you mean?” roared Philip.
“Sir, I am sorry.” This time it was a sound from a woman. “We are asked to collect the oxygen cylinders you gathered along with the child. The Earth, it’s all messed up. We messed it up. It’s not capable to hold many human beings. There is no Oxygen for all of us. I assure you; she will be in good hands. The children are taken for the humans should not go extinct. The Captain; he is… making us do this… Once he gets what he needs, he will end us soon. Our kids are with him. If we don’t do what he has asked us, he will kill them. Please go back to the Virtual Earth. It’s better to die there than in the hands of Captain. No matter how hard we try, there won’t be another Earth.”
Philip and Ruth heard everything silently. “Maybe it’s for the good.” Philip punched the door from inside. Philip and Ruth pressed their ears to the door. They heard Hazel’s cry slowly fading away.
“At least we can hope she’s alive.” Philip hugged Ruth tight and pressed the green button. After few minutes, the house stopped moving, and they heard the holographic sound in their daughter’s voice. “Welcome to the virtual Earth.”