Part Three: Pathfinder
Cargo: Sojourner rover
Launch Site: Cape Canaveral
Time and Date: December 4th, 1996 5:18 UTC
Landing Site: Ares Villes
Time and Date: July 4th, 1997 16:56 UTC
“Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”
Arthur C. Clarke
As my ever-growing gangly legs bent to fit in the confines of my makeshift hiding place, I went through the list of pros and cons of planning my excursion into the desert. In the past, I had shared most everything with my parents but had no intentions of sharing any of this.
I’m a terrible daughter.
Frowning, I stared out across the dimly lit storage area. Hiding the truth brought forth a pang of guilt.
I can’t tell them though.
Pulling out my tablet, I plugged in the coordinates of what I considered to be the boundaries of Sector VII. The Coms Link was the only one who had access to the current satellite images, but I could access old maps online. It had always been framed that it was better to have one person focusing on the weather rather than speculation by all, but now I knew that this hiding of the imagery was about much more than the weather. And for years, who would question it? What was really to be gained by seeing satellite imagery of an empty planet when we’re spoon-fed our daily dose of information? Roy had occasionally shared out the maps and video to appease people, but these tokens must have been filtered and sanitized.
They are hiding something out there…
I gripped the tablet tighter and felt tiny currents of anger surging. Each passing minute here felt like a ticking bomb.
Ours is not to question why… I’m not living like that.
My skiff reached a top speed of about forty kph an hour. Just one hour would give me time to venture into Sector VII for a quick foray if that’s where the transmitter led me and then I could return without being anyone being any the wiser.
I can do this. And how much would they really punish a kid just for being too curious?
It would be worth the risk as long as I kept the transmitter hidden. I looked down at the map of the nearby landscape.
The images on the screen paved the way for the journey and would download them to take them with me. This afternoon, I would set out into the desert, undetected. Looking at the images of the craters and valleys, I couldn’t help but marvel at the possibilities.
What else did you leave for me Francois?
The sound of the door sliding open interrupted my thoughts and secret plotting.
A set of boots shuffled in and the door closed again.
“You need to watch your damn mouth,” the forceful voice of Roy angrily scolded someone as I nestled down further among the supplies.
There was a pause. “Take it easy. I have things under control.” Pablo responded.
“Do you? Sometimes I’m not so sure.”
Trying to remain perfectly still, I let the accusation hang in the air. Although I couldn’t see the pair, it was easy to hear their voices over the low whirr emitted by the climate control system. I hadn’t heard Roy speak like this before to Pablo, which balanced my curiosity with nervousness about being caught and facing his wrath.
Looking down, I watched my chest rise and fall, being careful to not make a sound. There were only so many private places in the complex, so it wasn’t a complete surprise that my they ended up here in the supply area today. What they didn’t realize upon arrival here was that the food consumed by the inhabitants of the outpost left just enough room for a fourteen-year old to hide among the remaining containers and secretly devise a plan to cross the desert.
The area remained mostly silent as I waited to listen what would come next. As I sat with my skinny legs awkwardly crossed, I closed my eyes and hoped that this conversation would soon come to an end without much more being said.
“I said that I have things under control.”
“Out there it seemed like you nearly tipped your hand. You need to be more careful. Need I remind you about Firstpost…?”
“I don’t need to be reminded of anything. Do I need to remind you that I’m the one that Home Base chose to be put in command here.”
“Well, as our leader, you damn well be able to lead right now.”
There was a pause. I knew that things were of course intense after the announcement, but didn’t imagine the tenseness between the Coms Link and Commander.
“I’m not a child. And I don’t need escorted off to be scolded again.”
“Well then I don’t want to hear you slip up again. We can’t afford mistakes right now.”
“Do you think I need to be lectured about the Darkness Protocol? I practically wrote it.”
“I don’t give a damn what you wrote. You need to keep things calm around here and that means making sure that no one’s any wiser about it. Because we’re not writing it now, we’re living it.”
“I’ve got this under control.”
“I hope you do Commander,” Roy’s harsh voice trailed off mid-sentence as the sound of his boots against the metal floor signaled his exit. The whoosh of the door sliding open and then shut followed. A few seconds later, a second set of footsteps exited leaving me alone in the pantry.
Waiting until I was sure that they moved on to complete their daily chores, I crawled out from the stacks of canisters. A sigh escaped me as I stood up.
“Where’s a girl supposed to secretly plot around here?” I offered to the empty room.
A container perched on top of the column stood directly in front of my face. A distorted reflection stared back at me.
“What was up with those two?” I asked the reflection and then reached out to touch the cold steel and my hand made its way along the metal bin that stored our supplies.
No one seemed to notice or care that I occasionally came to the storage pantry, and no one likely would as long as I wasn’t stealing supplies— which I never would have contemplated doing. I just came here because I liked having a space to sit and think, even if it wasn’t completely mine. This space was almost always deserted, providing a quiet retreat away from the other inhabitants of this world— even my parents. Over the years if anyone had been monitoring the area via surveillance, they hadn’t said anything about my frequent trips here. And until today, my visits had gone largely undisturbed.
As much as I loved my parents, I appreciated this private place. The towers of silver metal food containers blocked my view of the door as the machinery hummed in the background. The long, grey storage trunks formed multiple pillars that penned me in the back of the room. It was time to start reorganizing the space to leave the pantry in the condition in which it had been found when I arrived an hour ago. I yawned and raised my arms upward to stretch before setting to work. Reaching up, I pushed the tips of my finger towards the ventilation shafts overhead and thought back on the strange conversation that transpired that I was privy to.
“What exactly were you boys fighting about?”
The food storage area offered no answers. I gripped and relaxed my fingers, readying myself to move the large storage containers back to their original placement. “Back to your spots.”
With both hands, I reached out to lift the top container from the nearest stack. For the next few minutes, I returned the blocks that I had moved an hour ago and tried to recall every word of their conversation.
Secrets on top of secrets abounded here, but the pieces of the puzzle didn’t fit neatly together for me to understand.
The metal boxes full of supplies were heavy, and it took all of my strength to leave no trace as the boxes were transplanted back to their places. Surveying the newly reformed stacks, I nodded in satisfaction.
“Arrival. Francois. Sector VII. The Darkness Protocol,” I whispered the words into the vacant room. The silver door served as the only exit beyond the stacks of supplies. My hands remained planted on my hips while facing the doorway and I began to twist from side to side. My back that was sore from crouching behind the stacks and cracked loudly. I paused and then lowered my arms. The brown tips of my fingers drummed on the side of my legs for a moment in the sparsely lit room.
“I have to make the trip to Sector VII.” I nodded towards the direction of the exit, ready to return to my chores. But as I readied myself to leave, there was still one part in the earlier conversation that was stuck in my mind.
What had Pablo done or said to make Roy so angry?
“Someone almost blabbed a secret. But what are they worried will get out?”
The pantry offered no answers. I proceeded to make my way to the door. I reached out and pressed the rectangular button to the right of the exit. The entry hissed as it opened and I stepped out and the area beyond was empty.
In leaving the food storage area behind, I couldn’t help but wonder if things would become any more clear when I set off on my adventure tomorrow.
What are you hiding from us?
I wondered as I made my way to my chores.