“Don’t do anything stupid,” the chilly voice interrupted my work in my sketchbook as I looked up from drawing the surrounding hills.
Setting my journal to the side, I leaned forward and spoke into the intercom. “You said that yesterday.”
Out in the desert, a skiff rose up over the sands and made it’s way towards my tiny oasis. The smooth shell floated a few feet off the ground and steadily chugged ahead.
“It is extraordinary, I will give you that.” The skiff parked in the same spot as yesterday and hovered scattering a few sands with the air blowing out underneath.
“Is that what you really believe?” I resisted the temptation to roll my eyes and tried to watch my tone to prepare for the conversation.
“It is not what I anticipated or wanted, but it is extraordinary nonetheless.” The voice was icy. “And extraordinary that you would attempt to jeopardize everything.”
“So what do you think I should’ve done?”
“I know what you should’ve done. You should’ve stayed put when you learned about this place. You want to tell me how you found out about our colony?”
“The person you need to ask won’t be able to tell you. You’d have to ask Francois. He figured everything out and then just passed it off to me.”
“Is that right…”
She was a tough read and it was difficult to tell whether it was a statement or a question. I knew that my best move was to keep as much information in my hands as possible.
“Yeah, your coordinates are here in my sketchbook. Come take a look for yourself.”
“You make things so much more difficult on yourself than you need to. You know that. You’ve made absolutely no effort to make a deal.”
It was a trap, and difficult not to take the bait.
“What have you told my parents?”
There was a pause. “Roy told them that you stole a skiff and rode off into the desert. For now, that is all. Others have kept secrets here too so it’s not impossible to still salvage this.”
“So you would let me go home?” It was difficult to think of the colony as home, but inside I was surprised to feel homesickness well up.
“I can understand your hesitation in believing that it is possible because you know that it’s not my first choice. But it is one of the possibilities being discussed. Your fate will be tied to what is best for your colony. Our work here depends on this normalcy and I will support the decision that is made.”
“You mean there’s actually a scenario where you’d let me go free?” I asked.
“It is unlikely, but possible. If you were to fit back into life there, it wouldn’t impact the work so greatly.”
“What exactly is the work? Why are we kept separate?”
“Most of what you have been told is exactly the work. Your complexes are providing valuable feedback on what conditions are optimal for human settlement as we move towards a larger migration. We have kept you separate to better understand how life adapts to different conditions on Mars. We have to prepare for humans to thrive in the face of adversity.”
“And how are you determining those conditions?”
“The different settlements have a different set of variables at play. By creating different conditions, we will know what works best for the mass migration when it occurs.”
“And what exactly are those variables?”
“We use a different combinations of features of people and resources.”
“Meaning you already know that some resources are more helpful to survival than others?” I asked.
“We do have a substantial amount of research at this point, but it is ongoing. Throughout history, some colonies succeeded where others failed and all learned from one another. The United States wasn’t a single colony but rather a patchwork of completely different settlements. Only in this way can we plan for an eventual mass migration. We will know the optimal conditions. Separate settlements help provide this data. The end will justify the means and our two colonies have done an exceptional job at adapting. Look how many people have thrived. It could not have ever been thought that everything would be perfect. Separating the colonies also prevented widespread collapse and failure. Life on Mars is difficult.”
“It doesn’t seem… fair.”
“That is not so different than what happens on Earth. Every day, countries sit secure in their safety while their neighbors struggle to survive. This is the long story of humankind. Each colony will take care of itself and continue to prosper. Both Pangaea II and III can survive on their own, nothing can sweep the entire planet clean of us because we are not interconnected. This is the grand plan that has been years in the making since the Pan ravaged Earth. It was conceptualized well before you were born and it is an effort to build an entire planet and keep our species alive should another pandemic sweep through our home here. You must think bigger. The plan that hundreds of years from now will be held up as humanity’s savior when thousands of people are thriving self-sufficiently on Mars and can reseed the Earth here.” Her voice had built to a crescendo. She paused. “But you were willing to sacrifice all of that for a joyride across the desert.”
Looking out the window, I watched as she stepped out of her craft and dropped supplies onto the ground before climbing back into her vehicle.
“What’s the Darkness Protocol?”
“If you survive tonight, I will see you again tomorrow. Don’t do anything stupid.”
The skiff lifted into the air and rode off into the distance, becoming a speck and then totally disappearing on the horizon.
I flipped my mask down and prepared my vehicle for exiting. Crawling towards the back, I thought about the possibility of going home.
Was she just being cruel? Or would they actually let me go back and see my parents?
A tear formed in my eye and ran down my cheek as I pictured my parents, most likely devastated by my choices. Continuing to walk across the desert, I imagined their voices and felt as though my heart might break.
In the middle of a flat patch of barren land, a sack sat on the ground. I grabbed the handle of the black airlock bag and slung the weighty sack over my shoulder. Slowly, I plodded back towards my craft across the rubble.
Settling down inside in the on the floor near the door, I took off my helmet and opened up the bag. I carefully removed the oxygen tanks and dragged them towards the back. The empty ones had been jettisoned and lay underneath the sands now, leaving me feeling a little guilty about the littering but knowing that I needed to preserve my space to preserve my sanity. I crawled up front and sat in the passenger chair that was swiveled to face the rear.
Reaching into the bag on the floor before me, I pulled out a smaller sack within.
My stomach growled as I tore open the bag to find several bags of slog.
“Of course,” I groaned as I held one in my hands and eyed it.
My disappointment didn’t prevent me from digging in. The first two went down quickly enough and the empty wrappers were shoved back in the larger terrain bag.
“A little piggish Diya,” I wiped the corner of my mouth with my suit’s sleeve. It already reeked as bad as the other one I brought so a little slog spill wasn’t going to harm it any further. Although there was a toilet of sorts in the tail, there was no shower in that cramped v-shaped space.
I reached for my third, plain white plastic container. As I twisted the cap, something felt off as the lid too easily came free in my hands. Looking down, I stared at the packet that had apparently been tampered with.
“Are you trying to poison me?”
Squeezing it slightly, a few drips of slog bubbled to the top and looked normal. I leaned down close to the cap and stared at the opening. It was then that I noticed that something was poking out the top.
I grabbed hold of the tiny wire protruding and pulled it free. Out of the opening came a thin wire with something wrapped around it. I reached for my microfiber and brushed the slog off of the small, wound piece of 3-D printer plastic. Taking my bottle of water, I washed the remnants off to look at the piece of plastic in my hands. Leaning down with my face only inches away, I saw the tiny message scratched into the surface.
“You are one smart dude,” I nearly shouted as my heart leapt.
Hope had paid off. There now was another option on the table, and it was only a few hours away.