Three short raps against metal sounded in the distance. Something was banging, but it seemed far away, under a patch of fog.
I opened my eyes and realized that I had fallen asleep. Blinking, I reached for my water and drank greedily.
Bang, bang, bang.
The sounds weren’t in the distance. And it wasn’t a dream. Something was clanging against my craft.
I stared at the door. There was someone outside of my craft, right this very instance. My heart leapt as I scrambled on my knees towards the door. Flicking my helmet down, I wanted to cry as my system booted up. As soon as the suit was ready, I hit the button and the door opened skyward.
There, outside my door was another human being in a bright, white work suit. Dark skin and a wide smile could be seen beneath the visor as my pulse roared. I stepped back and motioned him inside. Quickly, he scampered in and then closed the hatch behind him by hitting the button.
Lowering his visor as the air inside circulated, the teenage boy from Pangaea II beamed.
The boy across from me then removed his helmet. Short, kinky curls framed his thin, brown face. His eyes were large round, dark pools that stared ahead. New feelings washed over me as I swallowed my nervousness as he reached out a hand.
I took it and we shook. Strangely, I wished that it was his actual hand rather than his glove that made contact and we then released our grip.
“It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.”
“Nice to see you in person,” he uttered as he blinked his eyes.
I turned and pointed to the speaker, “I’m being monitored I’d assume— that’s why I didn’t get a message?”
He nodded. “I didn’t want to broadcast anything. Too much of a risk.” He blinked those large, brown eyes again and I tried to regain my focus knowing that there was another dangerous task at hand. “There’s no time, we have to go.”
“Yes,” I nodded in agreement. “To Pangaea II?”
“Yes. We have to go before they suspect anything of me.”
“Yes…” I paused as a thought crossed my mind. “There’s something I need to do first. The cables… They’ll think that I tried to pass between the two ships tonight in the storm.” I reached over and quickly pulled out my arrangements for sleeping and set the scene. “I need a few minutes, I just need two minutes. But I need to do this, it will look like an accident…” I pulled out the emergency blanket and tossed it on the floor.
“That could be good. But we need to go before they figure out where I am.”
“Give me just a few more seconds,” I finished up setting things up. “There, that looks about right.” Grabbing only my sketchbook, I left everything else and turned back to the controls softly patting the captain’s chair. “Goodbye old friend. You were good to me and I wish you the best tonight.”
Quickly, we suited up and headed outside as I trailed behind him in silence. Ahead, the research skiff sat silently on the ground with the fresh marks from being dug out surrounding the vehicle. I pressed the button and hopped inside. Quickly I went inside and grabbed a bolt cutter from the toolbox. Going back outside, I set to work severing the cable and trying to make the ends look frayed. Leaving both ends whipping back and forth in the sand as I turned to go, I looked back to the vehicle that had kept me safe in a journey across the desert.
“Goodbye Ginny,” I whispered and then I headed over to the craft parked a few feet away. The new skiff sparkled in comparison. I climbed into the ship and took a seat next to Adam. He flipped switches and brought the skiff to air. As we departed, I took one last look back at the two ships stranded in the dunes and hoped that I never had to return to my cell.
“Eleven minutes. Hopefully not too long.” He said as he gripped the wheel.
“We’re off grid?” I turned back to face him.
“Yes, my tracking device is at my work site.” Adam’s helmet was off now that he was safely tucked inside and driving.
I grinned and nodded. “An oldie but a goodie.”
We sped through the desert at max speed. The hills whizzed by as he deftly navigated the terrain. “We should be able to get back without raising any suspicion. And then, I’m thinking that it’s best for you to stay inside my skiff for the night. Let’s take the night to ready ourselves for telling the others in the morning.”
“That sounds like a plan,” my shoulders settled and I leaned back knowing that I would welcome the time to sleep and prepare in safety. “It wouldn’t be my first night in a skiff. And I have a feeling I’m going to be a lot cozier not sleeping in a work suit.” It was then that I blushed slightly knowing that I had to reek.
“No one will look in my skiff. You just need to stay still while Randy makes the final rounds tonight. He’ll shut off lights in the hangar by six to go to dinner. And then, it will be all yours until morning.”
“You think it might be safe to step out at night?” Thoughts of a real toilet and shower filled my mind, but I didn’t want to ask if they had a bathroom in their hangar too like we did in our bay.
“Tonight? It’s a risk. The bay should be clear all night and then come to life around 6 in the morning. Randy will be back to do first round of checks on skiffs. I didn’t put in for maintenance so he should leave mine alone.”
“You came just in time. A real shaker is supposed to pass through tonight. I barely made it through last night’s. So whatever happens next is better than taking my chances out there…”
“I have work detail in the morning. If we can get through the night undetected, we can meet in the morning in the skiff and then make our plan to tell the others.”
“I’ll be ready,” I nodded. I had been gifted a second chance.
The skiff slowed to a halt as I looked out the window at the designated research site. Grids were demarcated with the red flag topped rods inserted into the ground cordoning off the area.
“I’ll just be a sec…”
He nodded and I took my cue as we both flipped our suits on so he could journey outside into the afternoon daylight and retrieve his tracker. The whole stop took less than three minutes and then we were off again.
He focused on the path ahead while I coyly studied him out of the corner of my eye.
“Will you tell anyone tonight?” In my mind, I knew that I would be compelled to tell my parents but his situation with his family seemed much different.
“I don’t think it is wise to share anything until morning. We have the advantage and need to keep them off guard. They were willing to gamble with your life by leaving you in the middle of the desert so we have to assume that we are both still in quite a bit of danger.”
“You did a great job of getting me the message…”
“Thanks,” he grinned. “It wasn’t that hard. They definitely think you’re acting alone.” He nodded. “It’s amazing what you accomplished. I can’t believe you crossed the desert.”
“What? In these spacious conditions…” I motioned to the walls of the skiff. “And now I have a roommate to share all of this,” my widespread arms pointed towards the silver metal surrounding us, “before we’re thrown in a cell forever.”
He frowned. “It would seem like that is the plan if we are captured by Aviana. But I think we can avoid that fate.”
“That’s good to hear, because I would really prefer to avoid being locked up. Again.” I paused, “How did you know that I was out here?”
“I didn’t know for sure,” he continued driving. “But I had been watching the Coms Link and the Commander that morning. It was clear that something was up. They must’ve known about the skiff and your disappearance.”
“I’m sure that they’ve been in close contact… Your Coms Link is a piece of work. A real rattlesnake.”
He frowned. “Yes, she is.”
“What’s your Commander like? Maria?”
“She’s actually a good leader. I feel bad deceiving her.”
“I’m not trying to one up you, but I’m pretty sure that I have you beat as far as deceiving the adults. I left my Coms Link tied up in our bay and painted messages all over the vehicles before taking off. I doubt that I’ll be very popular with my Commander when I return.” Pausing for a minute, “If I return…”
“You will one day,” he offered confidently.
“What do you know about the Darkness Protocol?”
He shook his head, “Nothing— never heard of such a thing. Why?”
“It was something your Coms Link brought up…” I could still hear the words in my mind. “And it’s something I’ve heard about before. I think that there’s more for us to uncover. Something else is going on with the colonies.”
The skiff hummed along closing the distance to the complex while I found myself oddly at a loss for words.
As we continued on, he pointed to the outlines of unnatural shapes on the horizon. “That’s it. That’s Pangaea II.”
I strained to look at the domed buildings that were now coming into view. “Amazing, it looks totally different from ours.” The compartments looked like bubbles that had landed on the surface and were linked by a spider web of connectors. The array of round tops spread out before me. “Fascinating…just like she said.”
“She said that the colonies are set up differently. This must be one of the variables” I stared at the complex dotted the surface, finding it hard to believe that I arrived. “And you all were right here the whole time...”
“How does yours differ?”
I leaned forward and smiled, “Our design is more like a set of shoeboxes. And the material… I think that it’s quite different. Most of our units were designed component by component by a printer.”
“I hope to see it one day,” he offered as he drove towards base.
“All of these years, you were right here and none of us knew about it…” I shook my head. “And they chose to keep us apart, just to test out some variables.”
“I never had any idea about your complex until I found the body, I mean Francois. Finding out about him and receiving his messages changed everything. And then, once I set foot inside and verified that there was in fact another world right here, I haven’t been able to turn back since.”
“I’m glad that you didn’t. Ours is definitely to question why,” I added.
“The poem,” he nodded. He looked over and smiled, “Yes. It was with him.” He paused. “And my original plan was that I thought I could go out and drag the skiff back to show the others. That was the plan until the night when you said that you were coming. I tried to prepare as best as I could since then and kept an eye out for you.”
“Well instead of your original plan, I think you’ve got something better than a beat up skiff and a corpse now.”
“Yes,” and then he quickly turned his eyes back to the road.
An awkward silence ensued.
“Are there others that question why here? You know, others like us … you know, people that actually use their brains to think and don’t just blindly follow orders.”
“Yes, I think… or at least I hope that we have people like that.” He smiled and looked over to me.
Once again, I found myself staring at those eyes and then looked away. I felt my cheeks burn.
“I hope so too. We need people to listen to us. People need to be able to choose.”
The complex of Pangaea II grew larger as we closed in on our destination. The largest of the domes loomed directly ahead of us in our path and hand to be the hangar. The white, geodesic patterned shell was dotted with scattered hexagonal windows.
“There’s the hangar right?”
“We are going to head for the bay door. And it’s probably time for you to hide in the back.” He withdrew a taser. “It was something I brought for insurance. We can’t be taken without making a ruckus, that much is certain.”
I reached for mine at my belt, but looked less than confident as I remembered the truth. “I had to leave mine behind.”
“It’s okay. It will look better that way. We have to hope that they fall for our trap. In the meantime, it’s not like a second weapon would be useful. I’ll leave it with you tonight.”
“I doubt that anything will wake me up tonight. Maybe you should hold onto it?” I asked.
“Maybe… but I think that it’s best to keep you protected. You’ll hear a door open if anyone tries to enter.” He genuinely wasn’t sure what the best next move might be right now though. “Time to go.”
I nodded and slid out of my seat. Slowly, I crawled towards the back where there were a few blankets and a neatly folded uni. “Thanks for the gift.”
“It was the best I could do. I could bring you more clothes in the morning.” He reached over and flipped on the switch to the speaker. “Reporting back.” He called out.
There was a pause before a voice could be heard on the other end. “Welcome back Adam. Any issues to report?” A gruff male voice bellowed into the intercom.
“Negative. All systems functional.”
“Great. Just pull around to the bay door and come on it…”
He steered towards the bay housing all of the vehicles. Grinning broadly, he turned to his new travel companion. “We can do this.”
“I hope so,” I called from the back. We were going to arrive safely inside and have a chance to share our news with the other colonists. “Thank you Adam,” I said with a new sense of hope.
“Thank you. You were so determined…” he caught himself gawking at me a little awkwardly and straightened up as he faced forward. “Just be careful tonight,” as he returned to the task at hand and I felt my body temperature rise several degrees. In the background, the sun was on its upward slope towards a high point in the sky. He spun the skiff around towards the bay and I felt it inch up the ramp inside.
“I can’t believe it,” I looked around at the ceiling through the windshield as we entered the airlock. “I can’t believe that I actually made it. I seriously thought I was going to die out in that desert.”
“You didn’t though.”
“Crossing the desert was probably the stupidest and most dangerous thing that I’ve ever done, but it actually worked.”
“It was probably the most courageous thing that anyone on this planet has done,” my new partner corrected. “And now we have a chance to make an impact on the rest of the colonists here.”
The door closed behind us as the vessel came to rest. The atmosphere in the air lock adjusted and beeped signaling that we could move forward. He eased the ship into the bay.
“Here we go,” I said as the hatch to the hover skiff parked.
He crawled out of his seat and knelt facing me as I was partly covered in blankets.
“See you in the morning,” I offered from my hiding spot, knowing that it would be suspicious if he lingered.
He looked worried. “Yes, see you in the morning.”
I pulled the covers up over myself and waited in the darkness. The side doors opened and I heard him step out onto the ground. The door closed behind him and I remained alone on the floor of a skiff once again.
“I made it,” I spoke to the empty insides of the ship. “Now I just need to make it through the night… again.”
Laying curled up in the blanket, I waited for the lights in the cargo bay to turn off. But long before they did, I fell asleep.