I used to wonder what it would feel like to be buried alive. Now I wouldn’t wish that fate upon my worst enemy.
Where am I? I thought as my eyes finally opened. My eyelids were so heavy that the act of keeping them open felt like a workout. The air around me was cold and smelled strangely sterile, and it looked as though my world were in a haze.
I wanted to rub away the last bit of sleep that clung to them, but moving my arms was a struggle. The tingle of numbness ran through both of them, as if I hadn’t used them in ages. Did I sleep on them funny?
With another burst of effort, I tried to stretch my shoulders and lower back. My calves dug into my cushioned mattress as I arched my back, but my shoulders couldn’t find the same relief. As I tried to extend my arms to the sides, they stopped with a sudden thunk.
What in the world was that?
Any lingering fragments of sleep vanished in an instant. My heart thudded against my chest as I tried to remember where I was and how I’d gotten here. No answers came for either question.
I tried to stretch my arms once more, this time straight ahead with my palms to the sky. They didn’t even move a foot away from my face before they collided with the hard object again.
A curse barely escaped my lips. Not that I was opposed to “colorful language,” as my mom called it, but rather that it was a struggle to speak at all. My mouth felt as dry as the Owyhee Desert, and it forced the four-letter expletive to come out like spitting gravel.
Instead of dropping my hands back down to the comfort of the mattress, I kept them pressed to whatever was above me. It was cold to the touch and smooth, but not metallic. Glass?
My hands flew down the side of the object with my fingertips pressed to its surface at all times. The smooth surface formed a semicircle that connected to the mattress I lay on. By raising my right foot, I confirmed that it surrounded my entire body, not just my upper half.
“What’s going on?” I whispered to myself.
The answer caused my heart to skip a beat before racing out of control. I must have been buried alive.
My body tried to recoil at the thought, but the padded surface didn’t have much give. Why did they think I was dead? Did I actually die? How long do I have until this coffin runs out of oxygen and I die for real this time?
Countless thoughts like those and a myriad of curses ran through my mind as I screamed and pounded on the hard surface above me. I kept on taking my frustrations out on my cage until I was out of breath.
As my chest heaved, I felt tears roll down the side of my face. One even found its way into my ear. Memories of my family flashed before my eyes: watching soccer with my aitona, my sister teaching me how to carve wood, helping Mom at her cafe, and cooking with Dad on a crisp autumn night. I would never see any of them again.
Before the weight of that thought could crush me entirely, blinding light flooded my vision. Even with my eyes closed, the orange glare that worked its way through them was overwhelming.
“Unai?” asked a female voice.
Had I died and gone to heaven? I had heard it described as a white light before. Did that make her an angel? A resounding no came from the back of my mind. If she was an angel, then she would’ve said my name right. She’d pronounced my last syllable as “nay,” like the sound a horse would make, instead of “nye” like my aitona’s beloved science guy. Surely an angel wouldn’t have made that mistake. It was an odd line of reasoning, but it helped me keep my wits.
“Yeah, I’m Unai,” I said, making a point to pronounce my name correctly without coming off as rude. “And you are?”
“Clover. Here, let me help you out.”
She pulled what felt like suction cups off my forehead.
“How do you know my name?” I asked as I felt her hand take mine.
I squinted as she helped me into a seated position. The light wasn’t nearly as blinding this time, but it still took my eyes a second to adjust.
Clover might not have been a literal angel, but she was certainly pretty enough to be one. Her deep-set pale-blue eyes were surrounded by a sea of freckles. She had a sharp Grecian nose, and her lob haircut made her brunette hair fall gracefully to her collarbone.
She pointed to something behind me. “It says it above your cryobed.”
“A cryo-what?” My cheeks burned with a flush. Just saying my question out loud made me feel stupid.
If she thought my question was as stupid as I did, then she did a good job of not showing it.
“Cryobeds are used for long-distance space travel so the crew doesn’t die of old age before getting to their destination.”
"Wait," I said, taking in all of my surroundings for the first time. I sat on top of my cryobed in a large, circular metal room. There were nine other beds in the room, and they were spaced out evenly in a circle. Besides my bed, only one other cryobed had an open hatch.
“Why am I on a spaceship?” I asked, my words starting to sound smoother. “I’m an artist, not an astronaut. I should be getting ready for my senior year at the Boise Fine Arts Academy.”
She cleared her throat. “We were on a spaceship.”
I don’t know how I didn’t notice it before, but her eyelids were slightly puffy and red. It dawned on me that she must have cried sometime before I woke up. She might not have been as confused as me, but she was also baffled by what had happened to us.
“It’ll be easier for me to show you,” she continued. “But you’ll want to get dressed first.”
A quick look down sent another wave of heat to my cheeks. I had been so preoccupied with piecing together this puzzle from hell that I hadn’t noticed my lack of attire. The only thing I wore was a tight pair of black boxer briefs. Silently, I thanked whatever god was responsible for not making this room too cold and for not bestowing me with my usual morning wood.
I slipped out of my cryobed and tested my legs. Both of them tingled from disuse, but the feeling dissipated the more I moved them. “Where can I find some clothes?”
She pointed to the end of my sleeping unit. “That thing popped up when I opened your latch.”
That “thing” looked like a square metal bookshelf that rose to the height of my thigh. It had two shelves. The bottom one had the clothes Clover had mentioned, while the top one had a backpack, a canteen, and a ray gun sitting on it.
I wanted to see what was in the backpack, but I thought I felt her eyes on me, and it made my urge to get dressed kick back in. The neatly folded clothes that waited for me appeared to match my colleague's attire: blue jeans, a white T-shirt, and hiking boots. It was a bit bland, but it wasn’t the worst thing I’d ever worn. My only real complaint was the white tube socks. I was sure they would do their job, but they lacked a sense of personality.
“So what did you want to show me?” I asked as I finished tying my boots.
She gestured toward the door with her head. “You’ll see soon enough.”
As I followed her to the hatch door, countless possibilities ran through my mind. I had watched all the science fiction movies I could get my hands on growing up, but I never realized they were preparing me for this moment. Would this door lead us to a viewing deck? If so, what would I see? Images of unknown planets and stars filled my ever-working imagination.
The door opened with a loud squeak, and my heart nearly dropped out my backside. This wasn’t what I was expecting. It didn’t open up to a futuristic space station hall with a view of an ocean of stars. Instead, I had to shield my eyes as natural light flooded through the door. We were on a planet.
I stepped out onto the dirt and surveyed our new world. We appeared to have landed at the foot of a jungle that might have made Dr. Seuss proud. There were so many colorful, funky-looking plants that I didn’t know where to look.
Clover tapped me on the shoulder. I spun around to see we were at the base of a valley. A large, grassy incline rose behind our ship…
“Uh, where’s the rest of our ship?” I asked.
Space travel, especially long-distance space travel, was not my forte. However, even I knew that intergalactic travel wouldn’t be possible in that hunk of metal. The thing didn’t even appear to have any rockets.
She shrugged. “I don’t know. My, my memory is… messed up, to say the least. From what I can remember from military school, this looks like an enlarged version of an escape pod.”
It might have been selfish of me, but I was happy to hear that her memory was hazy. I guessed it was a comfort thing. The inability to piece your past together is less daunting when you’re not the only one facing the problem.
“Either that,” she continued, “or the ship broke up, and our cryochambers landed here by dumb luck. Which means the ship that thing came from either crashed on the planet elsewhere, or its remains are floating through the galaxy.”
It wasn’t a pretty picture, but it was an honest one. She wasn’t pulling punches with me, and I appreciated it.
Birds chirped in one of the trees behind me. My instincts kicked in and sent my eyes searching for the source of the sound. “For the sake of playing devil’s advocate, if it is an escape pod, then could it be possible that the ship is fine and they sent us down here intentionally?”
“I doubt it,” she said. Her brow furrowed. “That pod doesn’t seem to have power, and if I’m being completely honest, I don’t know how either of us is alive. If we were sent here without the ship being in trouble, then they should’ve woken us up to increase our odds of survival and make sure we didn’t have brain damage. I mean, look at us. We both clearly have holes in our memory. It’d be counterproductive for any commander to send a team on a mission if they knew they might not remember what the mission was on arrival.”
Her words picked up speed with every argument she listed. She rattled off four more valid points before pausing to take a breath.
“Sorry if that was a dumb question,” I said before she could launch herself into round two. “I just like to talk out all the options. It sometimes helps me to catch answers I might have missed otherwise.”
I felt the tension in my shoulders ease as she nodded her understanding. My explanation must have been deemed sufficient, or she was being nice enough not to rub my stupidity in my face. I might have only known her for about fifteen minutes, but that was all the time I needed to realize my survival on this colorful rock would be determined by her. My odds would most likely improve if she didn’t think I was a moron.
The sun was hot, and it caused sweat to drip down my brow. I swiped it away with my forearm. “So what do we do now?”
“Well, Carmen Sandiego,” she said with a smile that made my heart skip a beat, “the first thing we need to do is figure out where the hell we are. I’m going to—”
A soft pounding sound made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. Clover flipped on the charge for her ray gun. The two of us remained rooted in place as we strained to listen for the sound again.
Where did it come from?
No sooner had the thought entered my mind than the pounding started once more. It was coming from inside the pod. Someone else was alive.