Noxious contaminant? My eyes widened and I looked around. Jonovan said that Epson used a vaporized drug, so it must be in the fog that spilled from the ceiling and sides of the stage, accumulating on the floor to knee-height.
A slight headache throbbed at my forehead.
Up on the stage Epson, surrounded by the gas and lit like a pillar in the dark room, kept talking in his soothing, yet riveting voice. “Let me tell you a secret.” The people around me hung on his every word, as if they needed to hear it to survive. “The government wants us to stay this way. Oppressed. Under their control. Ignorant of what’s really going on.”
It was like his surround-sound voice was drilling into my head. Even if I didn’t want to hear, I couldn’t keep it from penetrating my skull and polluting my thoughts.
One of the young guys from Aliya’s school pressed his hand to his forehead and wobbled.
His friend reached over and grabbed his shoulder. “You okay, man?”
“H-Head,” the kid groaned and dropped to the ground.
He wasn’t the only one that was affected by the vaporized drug. One after another, people’s eyes went out of focus as they wobbled in place. Some sat down, others just grabbed onto the person next to them to stay up. The people who were affected the most were the humans, but I noticed that the lower the Hunter’s rank, the more they were influenced.
The light show came back on, drawing a picture of Earth in the air. The crowd looked up at it with dazed expressions.
I scowled as the headache pulsed stronger. I looked up at the light show, and Epson behind. My vision blurred and the images of Earth intensified, as if it was growing larger, consuming me. I flinched and shook my head, trying to clear my vision.
“Ten months ago, I accidentally discovered a secret the government is trying to keep hidden from us at all costs. The secret behind the Gates,” Epson announced.
I gasped and looked up, squinting to bring him into focus. This, this is what I wanted to know about. This is why I came, even though I knew it was dangerous. More dangerous than I thought it would be.
Frustrated, I created a barrier around me, pushing back the artificial fog with my own fresh mist. It was a long shot, but I wanted something to ease up the influence of the drug. It didn’t work. I could feel the particles of the drug-laced fog slowly seep into my mist, contaminating it like a drop of food dye in water.
[Cultivate the fog.]
The System notification shocked me. Cultivate it? Are you kidding me? It just warned me that it was full of poisonous contaminants. Still, I put my hands together in the right position. I didn’t sit down because I was worried that someone might fall on me, but hopefully it wouldn’t make too much of a difference. I didn’t close my eyes, as I pushed my senses out and latched onto the artificial fog. I grabbed it and slowly forced it into my body.
It felt awful, like trying to drink too carbonated water that popped and fizzed painfully all the way down your throat, but I continued to absorb the artificial fog. Amazingly, my head started to clear up a bit, enough that my vision stopped swirling.
“You see,” Epson said slowly. “The Portals in the Gate aren’t just one way passages, meant to spit out monsters and make our lives hell.” He motioned with his hands to the light show. The picture changed to a loose depiction of Gate Vale before zooming in at a dizzying pace to a Portal on the south side of Gate Vale. “What the government doesn’t want you to know is that through the Gate,” the light show shot out lights, like travelling through a warp tunnel, “on the other side of a Portal is a paradise.”
The picture opened up, showing a gorgeous land with bright green plants, blue water, rich soil. There were mountains, lakes, oceans, and deserts. As beautiful as Earth was before the Gates appeared, before monsters and weapons of mass destruction damaged a large portion of this planet.
The people around me gasped in delight.
My eyes widened. No, that wasn’t right …
“A paradise full of luscious green plants that aren’t trying to kill you. Deep blue, fresh water that’s safe to drink or swim in without fear of being poisoned. Gentle weather, where the air is sweet and the sunlight is warm on your skin.” Epson’s words bore into my brain. “There are no monsters there. It’s a perfect place to finally reproduce the DNA extracted by our natural animals before they went extinct a decade ago. In as few as a couple years, thousands of our precious wild life could be reborn and live free. No more getting eaten by monsters. A new Earth. That’s what’s on the other side of the Portals.”
“New Earth,” the crowd whispered like a broken choir. They stared at the picture with fascinated, blurry eyes.
No, I thought. That’s wrong. There isn’t a utopia on the other side of a Portal. There’s nothing but death. A parasitic planet that will destroy us. But I was too disabled with cultivating that I couldn’t voice my thoughts aloud.
“A new Earth,” Epson said, his voice heavy with accusation, “that people like us will never see.” He paused dramatically, waiting for the shocked gasps to die out before going on. “For years, the government has been secretly going into this very Portal and building a city there. They have been using our resources — using the energy crystals that we have split blood and tears to collect, energy crystals that are supposed to be used to keep us alive — to fund the construction of their new Utopia. Because to them, we are nothing. Worker ants, meant to be walked on. Weaklings to be trampled over. And when they’re done with their new city, on their new Earth, they will leave us behind.”
Small cries of outrage echoed around me, but all I was noticing was that more people had collapsed on the ground. Most were bent over, breathing in the artificial fog heavily, while others were completely unconscious like the school kid with his friend now fretting over him.
I took a breath and sat down, assuming the full cultivating position and increased the rate that I absorbed the fog. Maybe I could absorb the drug out of the air and help the people around me — was this idea what was behind the System’s suggestion to cultivate? The fog pooled up to my chin, the heavy artificial smell burning my nose.
“Yes, the Hunters will leave. Who wouldn’t want to? This planet is dying,” Epson said, finally telling a truth after a load of bullshit. “Before the Gates opened, there were seven billion people on earth, now there are less than three billion. Over sixty percent of Earth’s human population has died, and of those few billion left, a forth of them are in a permanent coma. The government claims that they’re creating a cure for Sleepers, but it’s a lie. They’re taking all that money and putting it into making their lives easier on the new Earth.”
He opened his arms and the strobe lights changed again, creating a swirling effect that my already aching head could barely handle. Half of the crowd that remained standing fell to their knees, holding their mouths or heads with obvious disorientation.
“And in that diminishing population, less and less are awakening as Hunters. The ones that do are getting weaker and weaker. Fifteen years ago, the average Hunter was a C. Nowadays, that average is a D. In fact, there are more Ds and Es than the rest of the numbers combined. Yet we are sandwiched together and unappreciated. Even though there are less numbers in the higher ranks, the bulk of the Hunters Association money is allotted to the stronger ones. All with the claim that they need the money to get good enough gear to handle the monsters they fight.”
Epson hissed out a breath. “What about us? The greater population of people? What about the ones that don’t have enough money to buy good enough gear to handle what we’re dealing with? What about the E Hunter that died today, because he couldn’t afford a sword that didn’t break after one hit? What about the Hunters that go hungry because they can’t kill a monster with their inferior gear, surviving on rice and vegetables? What about those people?”
His thundering voice propelled the crowd to call out in anger, even those that were on the ground.
I frowned, peering at Epson between the few bodies still standing between us. He didn’t seem to care at all that the people he was preaching to were collapsing. In fact, he spoke more passionately the more people that fell down. Disappointment and anger built in me. Someone like this was too dangerous to be around people.
“Every year,” Epson went on. “More and more people become Sleepers. The numbers have gone up so much that hospitals don’t have the appropriate amount of staff to take care of Sleepers. If you fall into a coma now, they will only house you for four years before they kick your inert — yet very much alive — body into the street. Or inject you with drugs and kill you right in your bed.”
My eyes widened, shocked despite myself. Was that true? I could call foul on his description of ‘new Earth’, but everything else he’d said about Earth was true. Was this information about Sleepers correct? Then again, I only had six more months before my mom’s plug was going to be pulled.
A hunched man beside me lifted his head and howled. “My wife! Give me back my wife!” He wasn’t the only one that reacted to these words.
I gasped. Did that mean it was true?
“But I mean, why should the government spend so much money on a group of people who will never wake up?” Epson’s smooth voice smothered the rest of the cries. “Why not use that money to make new Earth better? It's only a matter of time before it's ready and the Hunters leave.” He paused and looked around, at the few remaining people. “Yes, the Hunters will leave. But only the strong ones. The S’s, the A’s, maybe even a lucky few B’s that are rich enough. The rest of us will be left on our destroyed Earth.”
“Good riddance!” a woman yelled from the front of the crowd.
“Get out of here and let us live without your oppression!” another man yelled.
Epson chuckled. “If they leave, who is going to stop the monsters from coming out of the Gate?” His words were met with silence. After all, the answer was clear. If all the high ranked Hunters disappeared, Earth would be overrun with monsters in days.
“The Hunters Association created this world,” Epson said. “They are the ones that scorched our precious land with nuclear weapons, making twenty percent of Earth uninhabitable. They forced society into a mold, separating Hunters from humans. Splitting up families, couples, friends. They are the ones that made our very survival completely dependent on the government and Hunters. And now that Earth is ruined, they’re going to pack up and leave. Dump the problems that they made on us, the weak, as usual.”
No, I thought. The Hunters and the government didn’t create this mess. The parasite is the one that opened the Gates and spilled the monsters over the world. And the reason why Hunters and humans were separated was for the survival of humanity. Sure there were some things wrong, like the level of control the Assocation had over Hunters and the blatant discrimination that was going on.
But, like what Epson said, the planet was dying. It was slowly being consumed. In fact, from what I’d learned from Kesstel, the reason why Earth hadn’t collapsed so far was because of the strict society that was created to deal with the Hunters and monsters. After all, the parasitic planet’s energy that made a Hunter a Hunter was poisonous to the average human. If Hunters and humans lived together, more humans would fall into a coma than what we had now. Earth probably would have collapsed already.
With all the little truths laced through so many lies I could see why Jonovan had warned me to stay away. And I could see that I’d find no ally here to help me fight the parasitic planet.
Ding! A System notification popped up. [Task: Collect 3 Cyan-Agaric complete! +125 EXP]
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I am an author, mother, wife, and jack of all trades. I mean, every mom is, but I’ve found that through my research for different stories, I’ve picked up a lot of random (and sometimes actually useful) knowledge and skills.
I’ve had a vivid imagination since I was a child. And as much as I wish I could actually live in the worlds in my head, the closest I can get is with the words I put on the page. These characters are like real people to me. The funny lines they say, their emotions that make my heart bleed, the amazing things they can do that I physically can’t, the adventures and sights that I can see in my head. I love sharing those things with my readers and hope that they can feel at least a part of what I do.
I do have other works that are published through Amazon. They are not LitPRG, but I'm still really proud of them. Check them out if you have the chance.