Ahead of me, the six-wheeled vehicle veered to the left of the dune as the sands sparkled in the midday sun.
“Breaking east. Will rendezvous at 1400.” Amahle’s voice cooed out over channel seventy-four. Always soft and kind, the woman said little more than she had to both in work and in passing. In my mind, she was the perfect partner to have for today.
“Copy. See you then.”
With that, I pulled my skiff hard towards the west away from the woman in the rover. Hovering over the sands, it maneuvered gracefully towards my research point. Glancing over at the map on the dashboard, I made note that my site was almost exactly one click away as the red dot inched towards its destination.
The day was perfectly clear with the sky an ethereal blue that almost seemed to glisten like the top of a calm lake. Ahead, the path was choppy over a few hills of fine grains piled on top of one another, but the skiff made for an easy ride.
Glancing back to the coordinates, I watched as the craft narrowed the gap to this forbidden destination. I pressed the accelerator to top speed knowing that time was fleeting. The ground flattened out and I could now see the metal stakes in the ground with the green flags that marked the soil designated for testing. Pulling to within five feet of the site sectioned off in rectangles with markers planted, I grabbed the screwdriver that had been “borrowed” from the cargo bay and then flipped my mask closed after powering down the engine. After adjusting the pressure in the vehicle, I waited until the door opened and then popped out. I quickly and carefully walked around to the back of the skiff while it was resting on the gravelly patch.
On the back of the vehicle, there was a small metal box. Kneeling down, I set to work to loosen the large bolt. The tracking device came apart from the frame and I set it on the ground. Knowing the seconds were passing by, I hustled to the door and then climbed back inside. The door shut and I punched the gas as the craft launched forward.
Next to me on the floor was the beacon that pointed towards Francois’s skiff. I reached over with one hand and held it up in my view in front of the windshield. The oblong device’s window at the top read like a compass needle and the digital display said that its host lay nineteen kilometers ahead, well into Sector VII. At best, it would take me almost an hour to get there and back. I took a deep breath as I tried not to think too much about what exactly I might encounter as the reality of what truly likely awaited set in.
I had never seen a dead body before.
“I have to do this,” I reassured myself as I reached up to push my bangs back out of my eyes.
The skiff hopped along at forty-one kilometers an hour. A safe speed under usual circumstances, but this was a mission that was off the grid. If I crashed, help would take a long time to arrive. The vehicle and suit contained more than enough oxygen to prevent anything catastrophic given the perfectly clear conditions. The bigger challenge if something were to happen would be the punishment for my little plot.
“It will be fine. And once I get there, ten minutes, no more. That’s all I have to work with.”
Gliding over the landscape, the ship eased over the small hills and down the navigable valleys. Under other circumstances, I would have noted each twist and turn throughout the sands for time with my sketchbook that evening. The beauty of the terrain was noticeable, but the undercurrent of self-preservation elevated the adrenaline in my bloodstream and heightened my senses focused on driving safely. Looking behind me in the mirror, there were of course no tracks in the sand as the craft floated a few feet above the surface.
Slowly, the kilometers lessened and I had crossed into Sector VII. The landscape here didn’t look greatly different than the kilometers of dunes before. Looking around to scan the perimeter, I saw no signs of danger but also knew that radiation was an unseen foe. It was possible that I was travelling through a contamination zone that was more dangerous than the mix of crimson and tan hues apparent here in the desert. It was tough to know what the truth was about whatever had really transpired with Firstpost years ago out in this restricted area. But with each passing minute, I was confident that Sector VII was declared off limits for a particular purpose and felt secure that I was safe.
So what happened to Francois once he was out here then…
I pushed the thought back down as I grew more nervous. My palms were sweaty beneath the gloves. My eyes focused on the road, scanning the view for any signs of danger. Something had ended his mission, but I was too invested in uncovering the answer to turn back now.
“I’m safe… and the minute something concerns me, I can just turn around and go back.”
The peaks and valleys were plentiful. There were just enough surrounding hills with elevation to prevent the colonists from seeing beyond boundary lines into various sections. Occasional craters dotted the grids know for research. As my skiff arrived at the top of a ridge, I looked down into a particularly steep crater ridge and brought the vehicle to a stop. My eyes searched for a path to ease downward. Carefully, the craft wound down the sands closing in on the mark. In the distance, I saw something that caught my attention. There were a series of small caves up ahead on the left under a rocky overhang.
The clock to my left was the enemy as it continued to count seconds and minutes while I grew tantalizing close to an answer.
Following the beacon, I pointed the ship in the direction of the other signaling device hidden within Francois’s vessel. Inching nearer, I came to an opening in the side of the hill that was just large enough to possibly conceal the skiff. Slowing down, the numbers on the beacon continued to countdown the distance. As the gap narrowed to a mere twenty feet, I reached the outside of the cave and brought the craft to a stop.
The hair on the back of my neck stood up as I thought of entering the dark cave alone far from the colony.
I’m going to do this. I have to do this.
I set the beacon down on the seat next to me and balled my hands up into fists. My pulse accelerated as I felt the throbbing beat in my neck.
“Nothing lives out here. There are no bears in that cave,” but my voice still cracked as the words creaked out.
There were only two possibilities in the cave and I had to know the fate of the lost ship. I readied my suit and the craft to step outside. Within a few seconds, the door opened and I climbed out onto the landscape. My thick, rubber soled boots briskly beat a path towards the cave as I looked around. Nothing seemed out of place or dangerous here, but my hands began to quiver nonetheless.
Just inside the mouth, I could make out part of the craft that had nudged its nose out from under the brown radiation tarp that provided cover. It was now clear that there was a vehicle ahead in the shadows; a vehicle that looked battered by the elements and showed no signs of life. I gulped nervously as it now became more than likely that I would see a dead body. The skiff sat at a slight angle and drifts of sand piled up in several places along the base. There was no movement in the craft’s window as I drew closer. As I took a few steps closer, I could see the outline of the man in the cockpit faintly behind the dark windshield hidden in the shadows. I flicked on the flashlight that I carried with me. A man sat in the driver’s seat of the skiff.
Quickly, I whipped the light back down after seeing the deformed face behind the mask.
“I’m sorry Francois,” the tears welled in my eyes as I now knew his fate. I steadied myself and knew that time was growing short.
The wind had pulled at the radiation tarp that had been fastened around the grounded hover skiff. The craft sat at an odd angle, clearly having been victim of lashing winds of night storms. On the starboard side, the sands of the desert had accumulated even inside the cave and in time would eventually rise up to cover the whole craft.
As I passed by the outside of Francois’s vehicle and flashed the light on the sides, I saw the haunting words that he had painted. In some of the places, the red paint had chipped off but was still legible.
Which Pangaea are you?
The scrawl repeated itself stretching out over the shell of the vehicle.
And there, by the hatch was another line painted on the outside.
Never forget the Pan.
I swallowed hard as I read the word that was too awful to think about. I was too young to really remember being quarantined for a year as the Bug ravaged the Earth taking seventeen percent of the population with it. My parents seldom made mention of what they had endured and the thought of the Pan gave me the shivers. I could only hope that Francois was either alluding to something other then the great pandemic or that he had truly gone over the edge.
He’s probably just projecting about his own memories, I thought as I tried to wipe the idea of Earth being under siege from my mind.
Reaching the door, I looked at my watch. Two minutes had already passed. In my mind, I allowed for four more before departure. To this point, I had avoided staring at the corpse but now it was necessary to examine the inside of the ship, including its lone passenger. I needed to know more.
Taking a deep breath, I put my hands in the manual lock and pulled the door open. Inside, the cabin was in better shape than the outside of the vehicle. Francois had clearly made his own alterations as I saw adjustments made to shelve the cargo. I climbed in and started in the back area, away from the body. An oxygen tank lay on the side as I examined the clues.
“You got stranded here.” I spoke into the air, knowing that there would be no response and thankful that my suit wouldn’t allow me to catch a whiff of the odor inside the skiff. “Had to hole up here in a storm didn’t you? This was an unplanned stop.”
Gathering a second breath, I turned towards the seat in front and made my way forward. As I approached, I saw the horrifying frozen face inside the mask that had started to decompose. Feeling my body begin to shake, I steeled myself as I looked away for a minute.
“You have to do this,” I returned my gaze to Francois and examined the form slumped in the driver’s seat. There was no sign of struggle in the vehicle and the suit appeared in tact, even including the anti-gravitation inserts that protected all of us from the impacts of Mars gravity on our bodies.
“Stranded in the desert…”
But you didn’t want them to know. You choose to die instead…
The skiff had left no tracks in the sand and was perfectly hidden in the caves. It might never be found by the others.
“And there’s no way Roy and Pablo would leave things like this if they knew where he was.”
Then, as I examined the driver, something between the two fingers of his gloves caught my eye. Calming myself, I reached out and pulled a small piece of paper free from the rigid digits. At first glance, I saw the now recognizable handwriting of Francois and his poem.
“The Charge of the Light Brigade…” I whispered as I held the slip.
But beneath the first lines of the poem was something scrawled underneath that shocked me as I nearly dropped the scrap paper.
“I’m Adam…from Pangaea II,” I spoke aloud.
My hands inside their gloves began to sweat as my heart raced. The second message was in handwriting very different from Francois’s. And there were no Adams in Pangaea III.
Someone else has been here…
I shook my head trying to make sense of the discovery as I stared at the body in the seat that offered no answers. Refusing to take another look at the decaying face behind the mask, I faced his chest.
“Who came to visit you?” I offered to the dead driver propped up in the chair but there was of course no response.
My mind somersaulted in attempts to understand who Adam was and where he might be and why the scene was left apparently untouched. But this only lasted for a few seconds as I regained composure knowing that time was ticking.
There are others…? Or someone else from my colony has been here…
But who had beaten me to the skiff was the question.
Who would come here from my colony and why wouldn’t they say anything?
But there was another impossible to fathom possibility.
Could there actually be another colony?
The scenarios flooded my mind as I tried to make sense of the implications of the note. I knew one thing for certain: I would make another reckless decision. Although I had no idea who had been here, I picked up the pencil on the ground and scribbled a response.
I’m Diya. I’m from Pangaea III.
I thought for a few seconds before crafting the next line. It was worth the risks involved to attempt to communicate.
Please reach out tonight at 17:00. Use the emergency beacon from this ship. I have the other transmitter.
Holding the paper in my hands, I examined it.
“I have to leave this message with you. It’s worth the risk.” I nodded to myself. “I understand now Francois. I have to know what’s going on.”
I returned the note to his hand, weaving the note gently in between his digits in his gray gloves. I then searched the front of the cabin, checking the panels built into the dash. In a few seconds, I found the other beacon, which not only emitted a signal but also provided a channel for communication. The channel though would be closed and not monitored, Francois had seen to that by liberating the matching homing device and inserting it into the bear. I left the twin beacon on the dead man’s lap for someone else to find.
Turning to his body one more time, I offered my condolences.
“I’m so sorry Francois.” I paused out of respect for a few seconds with my eyes closed and then I turned to go.
Scampering out of the abandoned vehicle, I then turned to lock it back up. The door closed on Francois as part of the mystery was solved and left hidden in the cave. I hurried towards my skiff across the rubble and eventually settled into the driver’s seat.
The craft rose from the ground and quickly jerked forward as I put it in gear. Racing up over the Martian terrain, it headed back towards the research site where I was supposed to be at this time.
“I’m sorry Francois. So sorry.”
My eyes filled and one singular tear escaped and ran down my face. It would be tough to shake the ghostly image of what remained behind the mask. I clicked the switch on my support systems and my suit powered down. Reaching up, I flipped the mask down and wiped the tears away with the coarse, grey glove. Although I had seldom spoken with the man, I felt a kinship in our efforts to uncover the truths hidden by the regime.
“Thank you for trying, whatever you were trying to do…”
Sniffling, I drew in a breath and regained my composure. It was now a race against time that I was determined not to lose. As I drove back to the staked spot in the desert where my skiff’s tracking device lay in the sand, questions about Adam filled my mind.
“Who are you Adam?” I whispered into the air. “And where and what is Pangaea II?”