Sector Three, Galatia
“Rise and shine, Mister Lennox,” a voice calls, drawing Gideon out of his sleep.
“What? Where am I?” Gideon demands as he sits up suddenly. He tries to swing himself out of the cot he is in, but finds himself strapped in at his wrists and ankles. He gives a half-hearted effort to free himself from the bindings. He sighs, knowing he can’t get himself free any time soon, at least not without something sharp.
“You’re on your way to Paradise,” the voice continues from a nearby speaker, which Gideon glares at.
“Paradise?” Gideon asks, only partially listening as he scans the whitewashed room around him. The room is almost entirely empty, save a tray on his right which has an array of medical gizmos and drugs. Along with the various tools are a syringe, which Gideon figures will serve as his sharp object. Sadly, no other pieces of equipment were sharp enough to cut himself loose.
“Yes, Paradise,” the voice answers after a brief pause, “Home of the Stalwart Project, congratulations on partaking in this monumental opportunity.”
“What happened?” Gideon asks. As he goes for the syringe, Gideon winces slightly as his bindings bite into the wrist he is reaching with.
“Your questions will be answered shortly,” the voice responds after another pause. Gideon then realizes the voice was probably one of those AIs that would be given only a handful of responses to a handful of questions. When they were asked something that they didn’t have a pre-written response for, the AIs would provide a vague response like the one he was just given.
“What is the Stalwart Program?” Gideon decides to continue asking questions to see what all he was allowed to know. He was curious to know about what was happening to him. As far as Gideon was concerned, he might as well keep the AI occupied as he busied himself with escaping. Gideon gives up on reaching for the syringe with his hand and resolves on trying to get it with his mouth. Straining against all of his bindings, he stretches his body, desperate for a chance to get free.
“The Stalwart Program was set in place two years ago as an effort to tame the wilds outside of civilization,” the AI answers, “By doing so, mankind might be able to retake the planet.”
“And why do we need to leave the Domes?” Gideon asks, briefly pausing from his attempts for the syringe. Gideon feels like he’s bobbing for apples, something he had learned he was very poor at from the various birthday parties he went to through the years. After quite a few attempts, the glass of the syringe finally finds itself between his teeth.
“Your questions will be answered shortly,” the AI answers.
“How shortly?” Gideon asks, dropping the syringe to his waiting hand from his mouth as he lays himself back down. He quickly begins breaking the threads of his bindings with the tip of the syringe.
“Your questions will be answered shortly.” the AI repeats.
“Why am I tied up?” Gideon inquires as he tests the weakened fabric on his wrist. When the cloth holds firm against his efforts, Gideon returns to breaking the individual threads of his bindings with his needle.
“For your safety,” the AI sounds.
“My safety?” Gideon asks, bemused. He tests the fabric again and manages to rip his arm free as quietly as possible. He then feverously sets to work on freeing his other hand.
“Yes, the journey to Paradise can often be treacherous,” the AI answers.
“How treacherous?” Gideon continues questioning the AI. He quickly frees his left hand and busies himself with untying his ankles.
“It is impossible to travel between compounds and cities without adequate transport.” the AI offers.
“What is it like? Like, what are the wilds like?” Gideon excitedly asks. He genuinely wanted to find out what it was like outside of the Dome. He wanted to discover if his dreams are at all accurate to the world beyond the walls. Seconds later, Gideon frees his feet and he swings them to the floor. To Gideon, the cold tiles underfoot feel a lot nicer than the bindings had. He quickly stands and makes his way toward the sole door leading into the room he is in.
“The wilds are an untamed land, set to be colonized by the Stalwarts.” the AI answers simply, filling Gideon with even more questions.
“What’s a Stalwart supposed to be anyways?” Gideon asks as he tests the handle on the door. Locked, but it was still worth a try, He thinks as he turns back the tray of tools. Browsing his selection, he wonders what he could use as an improvised screwdriver to remove the handle. He had never learned how to pick a lock, per se, but he did know how to take apart a door.
“A Stalwart is a capable young adult,” the AI begins in what seems to be some sort of speech, “They are unlike those they grew up with. They are, in one way or another, stronger, faster, smarter. Their strength is what made the Governor set them aside as Stalwarts. They are the strongest of humanity. Their purpose is to retake the wilds of the planet.”
“Good speech,” Gideon compliments the AI in a mocking tone as he chuckles. Clearly, the AI didn’t read my file, Gideon thinks as he leans against the cot he was in. Once again, he takes an inventory of everything on the tray. I’m a dangerous criminal now, after all. Gideon laughs aloud at the absurdity of his last thought.
Just a day ago he had been a law-abiding student. No, he wasn’t the best student—he made sure of that much—but he wasn’t one to break the rules. Now, he was marked as a criminal for doing who knows what.
Gideon had never questioned the government, he had always figured those who did were mentally unstable. Now that he had seen a glimpse of the dark side of the Coalition, Gideon found himself questioning everything he had once held as true. After a few beats, Gideon then asks a question that had been bothering him for a few minutes now, “How many other Stalwarts are there in this place called Paradise?”
“There are currently two hundred other youths in the Stalwart Program of Paradise. You will be the thirtieth member of a team that will be mobilized shortly.” the AI answers.
“Their team?” Gideon prods as he jerry-rigs a screwdriver out of the packaging for one of the various drugs. Gideon returns to the door and sets about unscrewing its handle.
“The Stalwart Program encourages teamwork to overcome the wilderness,” The AI begins, “Stalwarts are expected to complete all training activities as a coherent unit.”
“How long until we are sent into the wilds?” Gideon asks as he pops the first screw out of the door handle.
“The Stalwarts will be sent into the wilderness on the fourteenth of April at 18:00 hours,” The AI answers.
“Wait, what?” Gideon asks, stopping dead in his tracks. Before he had fallen asleep, it had been the thirteenth, and he was fairly certain that he had slept through the night. Concerned, he then asks the AI, “Isn’t today the fourteenth?”
“Yes,” The AI responds simply.
“So, I’m going to be sent out with the others in just a few hours?” Gideon asks in alarm. His fear causes him to have to slow down on unscrewing the remaining screw so he can steady his hands. He takes a deep breath and finishes off the screw, now focusing on silently removing the handle so he can escape.
“That is correct, Mister Lennox,” The AI replies.
“Won’t I get any training before I’m thrown out there?” Gideon demands as he silently sets the locking mechanism onto the hard tiles.
“That is correct,” The AI responds.
“Just a few hours of training, great. Not like my life depends on it,” Gideon complains as he removes the door’s latch and sets it next to the lock and handle. He smiles as he remembers the first time he took apart a door handle to get out of a locked room.
Gideon had been five when his dad had first shown him his way around a door, or more accurately, through a door. That lesson had been one of many where Gideon learned all of his dad’s tricks with common household objects. Ever since Gideon had gotten into high school, he hadn’t been able to spend much time with his father. His dad was at work nearly every day and into the night, he was almost never home. All he would tell Gideon was that the city needed him to do his job to keep everyone safe. Gideon was told his dad did maintenance all around the city. Because of his job, Gideon’s dad knew all the ins and outs of the city’s operation and would share interesting tidbits that he picked up on the job when he wasn’t asleep.
What Gideon was taught, he held on to. Every lesson his dad taught him he applied to his surroundings. From all the tricks his dad taught him, Gideon quickly became the best in class for all the hands-on projects his teachers threw at him. His career counselor told him that because of his skills, he would be admitted to one of the planet’s technical schools. His counselor would always tell him, ‘That’s just the start, the heavens are the limit for you!’ Gideon didn’t know why she said that ‘the heavens are the limit,’ when most everyone said ‘the sky’s the limit.’ However, he had always let it slide, ‘People are quirky,’ he’d tell himself.
Gideon eases the door open and slides out silently. Outside of his room, Gideon finds himself in a cramped corridor with all sorts of wires and pipes running alongside the perforated steel walkway. A host of blinking colorful lights illuminate the catwalk from beneath the floor panels and Gideon finds himself completely lost. Turning left, Gideon starts down the corridor, figuring he would stumble across something eventually.
After wandering for far too long, Gideon finds himself underneath a sign which read Maintenance and he slips through, unable to fight the urge to check out this particular room. He had passed several other rooms in his exploration of what he now believes is a Coalition hovercraft, one of the big ones he occasionally saw on the Founders’ Day celebration every Eighth of August.
“Can’t believe we are doing this again,” a voice resounds from down the narrow corridor Gideon is about to enter. The voice echoes off of the many metallic surfaces in the hovercraft. Gideon was surprised he could hear the comment above the constant hum of the engines. Gideon gently eases the door shut behind himself as he quickly searches for signs of whoever had spoken.
“Please, not this again,” comes a quiet plea from someone else.
Gideon continues down the corridor, assumedly away from the voices. He has to resist the temptation to eavesdrop, which was something he had always struggled with. After all, why would someone talk loud enough for others to hear, if they didn’t want everyone to know what they were saying?
“We are exiling children and telling them that they are soldiers!” the first voice continues with its protests, “And it’s all for what? Keeping the streets free of kids being kids?”
“You know we shouldn’t be having this conversation…” the second voice warns. Gideon stops at the base of a ladder and looks up to what appears to be daylight, pausing, he gives in to his urge to listen in on the duo which are somewhere behind him.
“Or what? They’ll send us out too?” the first voice demands.
“I don’t know what, Clo. I don’t ask questions,” the second voice responds after a thoughtful pause.
“Don’t you, ‘I don’t know, Clo,’ me,” the first voice who must belong to Clo promptly fires back. Judging by the tone of voice, Gideon imagines that Clo could have delivered her retort with a scornful look and hands on her hips. Gideon can’t help a slight grin from spreading across his face as he hears the other person struggle for a response.
“Well I- it’s just… it isn’t my place to know everything,” the second voice eventually pieces its response together.
Gideon flies up the ladder that leads between him and the daylight above. Once at the top, he hoists himself out of the opened service hatch and into an open cabin which is illuminated by several large windows along one wall.
“It doesn’t have to be your place for you to be curious, Jackson,” Clo chides, “Sometimes you just need to know some things.”
“You’ve said as much before…” the second voice which must belong to Jackson reminds Clo.
Gideon tunes out all the noises around him as he walks toward the windows as if he was in a trance. One step at a time he feels his eyes grow wider and wider as he takes in the outside world.
“It’s everything I dreamed it was,” Gideon whispers to himself, awestruck by the sight, he continues with a chuckle “I wonder how big those trees are up close…”
Gideon watches the forests race below him for several moments before he allows his eyes to wander to the white peaks of mountains along the horizon. The only landscapes he had ever seen like this were in pictures from old storybooks, Gideon finds himself speechless as he takes it all in for the first time. Strange straight scars in the treetops crisscross through the forest below, disappearing into the distance in every direction. Whatever the lines were, they had to of had a purpose. Before long, a blue river enters Gideon’s field of vision and he fixates on it. At peace, Gideon’s eyes follow the winding blue thread’s tail back to the mountains as far as he can track it.
Gideon begins walking toward the front of the ship, figuring he could figure out what was happening a lot easier there. The whole time, he refuses to take his eyes off of the beauty outside that he had been starved of for his entire life. The expanse of greenery below him goes on for what seems like forever, hemmed in only by the mountains that Gideon can only describe as majestic.
Gideon catches his breath as he realizes that he hadn’t even seen the sky before, and his eyes turn to the heavens. The sky holds a gentle aqua blue and whispers of white clouds dot the skies as far as Gideon can see. The sun shines with a slight green tint and Gideon presses his hand against the window to feel its warmth. Closing his eyes, Gideon smiles broadly as the familiar feeling of peace from his dreams fills him.
“I remember my first time,” a feminine voice says from behind Gideon after several moments, starling him. Gideon swings around and stares the intruder in the eyes as he contemplates whether he should talk, fight, or run. The intruder continues as she casually approaches the window next to Gideon, “It all looks so peaceful from up here,”
Gideon swallows a lump in his throat as he stutters, “W-who are you?”
“I am Commander Hayes, and this is my ship,” the woman, Commander Hayes, responds. She continues staring out at the world beyond the window absently for a few moments. Eventually, she chuckles and continues, “And you, Mister Lennox, are not supposed to be up here,”
“Well, I-uh,” Gideon starts, unsure of what he should say.
“Don’t worry about it, we have bigger matters to attend to.”
“Oh, right,” Gideon sighs as he remembers what the AI had said about the limited training he would receive.
“It isn’t that bad, you’ll pull through,” Hayes says as she taps Gideon’s shoulder encouragingly.
Gideon tries not to roll his eyes as he wonders if this woman had even seen the outside world up close like he was about to. No amount of encouragement could overcome Gideon’s fear that the beasts from beyond the Dome were as terrifying as those in his dreams. With all of the attention that his drawing attracted, Gideon found himself terrified. No weak attempt of telling himself the creatures weren’t as horrifying as the image could convince him otherwise. He was doomed.
He silently follows Commander Hayes as she leads him down a corridor that branches off from where they had been. Gideon had entertained the thought of making a run for it but decided it would be best if he made the most of his time here. He figured that he had no real chance of escaping the craft, so that meant his next best bet was to stay alive long enough for his next opportunity.
“Now, I know things don’t look so hot for you in your eyes, but I am here to help you all I can while you’re here,” Hayes tells Gideon in a hushed voice, losing her previous formality, “I want you to pull through, and to help keep the others alive, especially my daughter.”
Gideon looks to the Commander skeptically, his interest piqued. Why would a Coalition Commander have her daughter taken? He wonders, A nameless kid like me, sure, but the daughter of a Commander? Phew.
“Yes, my daughter is part of the program,” Hayes cedes, guiding Gideon into a brightly lit room which, like the rest of the ship, is lightly furnished. All Gideon can see is two chairs and a small table which is ladened with a large assortment of supplies. Hayes stops at the table and picks up a length of rope, “Now, let’s get to it,”
“Who is your daughter?” Gideon asks as he takes some rope of his own and slowly matches the Commander’s quick movements as she tangles the rope up in seemingly no pattern.
“You’ll know,” she says simply. Smiling, she holds up the tangle of rope she had made and announces, “This is a snare, it’s good for catching small game, almost useless for the bigger things out there though.”
“The bigger things?” Gideon asks, trying not to sound as scared as he truly was.
“From what I hear, you know what they look like,” Hayes says as she reaches over and straightens out Gideon’s rope, helping him finish his own snare. Once she rescues his attempt, she nods with a smile. After noting Gideon’s look of confusion and concern, she offers, “Want to watch me do it again?”
“Please,” Gideon says embarrassed. He had never been the best at tying knots. Even tying his shoes took him years to finally figure out, it wasn’t until intermediary school that he finally figured it out. He matches Hayes’ slower movements and smiles as the tangle of rope makes more sense this time around.
“You’re picked that up fast,” Hayes praises Gideon after he ties a snare on his own. Pausing, she continues weaving the rope in a different way, “How about this one?”
Gideon silently matches the Commander’s movements through several different knots. He can’t help but smile as he figures one knot after the other. Maybe I’ll be able to make it out there at this rate, He thinks confidently.