Our delegation was sent to Artemis to study Water Manufacturing Science. I clearly remember the day we left. It was a hot December day. The air was smelling pungent of the detritus we were leaving behind. In some ways it was a privilege while in others, it was just a cruel twist of fate that I, and not someone more educated and braver would be chosen.
It would be an understatement to say that I was afraid. My stomach was twisted in knots and I could hardly breathe. My worst fear was having our flight intercepted by frightening, man-eating alien creatures but since I could not express this fear and no one would tell us what to expect once we’d left the earth’s atmosphere, my fear was literally choking me.
Radio stations and television channels broadcast our impending departure almost nonstop, showing our faces intermittently during the day and we were told, all through the night. We had become famous long before we had packed our bags to leave the planet.
Protests erupted when it came to light that we had been taken to a remote government resort to be briefed over a period of three months. We were eating the best food while most people were struggling to find a decent morsel for their children. It was true, but we had no alternate choices once we’d passed the final selection test.
We were not allowed to leave the programme facility. After the last disqualified entrant had left the premises we were given bottle-green jump suits and a duffel bag and told to follow a high-ranking official down brightly lit corridors. We found ourselves in a windowless, sparse, brightly-lit room where we waited until another official arrived. It was too bright for a sensitive soul such as I. The only way I could find relief was to meditate with closed eyes.
One by one we were called in to an adjoining room. When it was finally my turn, I was startled by someone taking me by the right arm. There was no polite tap on the shoulder or ‘excuse me ma’am’. Just a firm hand on my upper arm signaling that I should allow myself to be led into the adjoining room.
A glaring light was shone into my face as I was motioned to sit down, so that I couldn’t see who was responsible for what would happen next. The chair was extremely comfortable, conforming to the contours of my body. As it slowly reclined with a low-pitched purr, I thought how unfair it was that the chair should be so comfortable, promising a pleasant experience just like a dentist’s chair, but I knew to expect just the opposite.
Once it reached full tilt, the right-arm sleeve of my jump suit was unzipped from the wrist to the elbow and rolled up as far as possible. Not a word was spoken by the officials. Whether they were medics or not, was hard to discern and I was uncertain as to whether I should engage them in conversation. The procedure was very quick and almost painless. A needle was inserted into my upper arm and quickly withdrawn. I experienced a slight shock, accompanied by feint nausea.
The sleeve of my jumpsuit was pulled down and re-zipped . When I stood up, I felt a little dizzy, but one slap between the shoulder blades awakened me fully and I left the room accompanied by the official.
I arrived back to a silent waiting room where I was unable to make sense of what had just happened to me. It seemed that no one was able to express himself. We simply sat and stared at the last person who had been injected. Later when I felt the spot where I had been injected, I figured that it must have been a tracking device that had been inserted. It could also have been a behaviour-altering device but no one was able to discuss what happened. When I brought up the issue, no one seemed to remember. They all stared at me blankly.
“Guys? Does anyone remember sitting in the dentist chair? The bright light? The injection?”
No one responded. Was I the only one who remembered? I touched Su-Len’s upper arm.
“Ouch! Why are you hurting me?”
I felt a distinct swelling as small as a grain of rice.
“That’s where the implant is.”
“Rubbish! What implant? That’s a pimple that came up suddenly this morning.”
“Su-Len, that is not a pimple. It’s where they injected the implant. Look.”
I showed her my spot which was identical to hers. Everyone else inspected their upper arms but despite the evidence, they thought I was being paranoid. They simply couldn’t remember what happened. I inspected their faces for the slightest smirk, thinking that they were pulling my leg, but there wasn’t a hint of jest. I was the only one who could remember the entire experience.
I tried again. Do you guys remember walking down the long passage?
There was no reaction. “Seriously, guys, do you not remember? What is the last thing you remember? Do you remember that we were the last five who qualified?
“Yes...” That seemed to be their last memory. I must have missed part of the process somehow, or the lights had no effect on me as it did to my colleagues who seemed completely hypnotized by the experience.
I counted myself lucky that I had meditated in the short time waiting for the procedure. It was clear that I had retained my memory while everyone else had lost theirs. I had to keep my wits about me.
Farlane explained how he got up to follow the official but after that was a complete blank. It was the same for Su-Len, Biddy and Donny.
They did remember being taken in a government vehicle but fell asleep soon after, only awaking once we’d approached the entrance to the mountain which would take us to the resort. We were parked on a scenic mountain pass above the sea where none of us had been before. We had no idea it existed. I knew where we were, having stayed awake throughtout the two-hour drive but the others were flabbergasted when we arrived at the check point and were signed in by men in camouflage uniforms. There were many, despite it being one of their own vehicles. One person inspected the rear of the vehicle, one inspected the front, another inspected underneath while yet another looked inside to take a good look at the occupants, counting and verifying our names, after we were ordered politely to lower the windows. A short distance away, four armed men stood guard at the concrete mouth of a tunnel and in the kiosk there was someone, no doubt taking an x-Ray of the vehicle.
Once the team of inspectors was satisfied that all was fine, a boom was raised to let us through and called someone on the two-way radio to announce our arrival.
The tarred road had given way to a concrete road leading into the well-lit tunnel. It was just a short drive to the other end but once out, we were amazed at the paradise that appeared before us.
We were not to get excited since we were well aware that this would not be a holiday. We parked alongside a row of Jeeps in the crescent-shaped parking area in front of the building which looked every bit like a three-star hotel.
We were each led to our respective rooms, told to change into camouflage and to report for duty as new recruits.
Everything was done with military precision. From the way we made our beds, to the way we brushed our teeth for exactly three and a half minutes, to showering for exactly seven minutes and eating for ten minutes, chewing each bite thirty times, we had to fall into the routine very quickly.
We were taught to walk like soldiers, shoulders square, backs erect, chin up and feet placed forward instead of either pigeon-tied or splayed like a ballet dancer. We practiced like military models until we’d mastered the gait and passed the walking test. It was required of us to always walk in this fashion, no matter where we were on the property;whether indoors or out.
Each time a whistle blew, we had to complete a task. Only four hours later were we offered a simple meal of meat and vegetables. Meat! We sat with our knives and forks poised over our plates for at least two minutes, casting incredulous glances around the table. We could not believe our good fortune. Our jaws dropped and our eyes grew wide as one, then another cut into the meat to test if it was real.
After the first bite, Farlane closed his eyes and confirmed with a repeating “mmm....mmmm....mmmm,” before we all tucked in to eat our first bite of meat in probably three years.
“Wow, that is so good,” was my verdict.
“Delicious....” Was the general consensus as we identified the meat as lamb. Where the lamb came from was hard to tell. Farlane speculated that New Zealand had some isolated, inaccessible islands where all the humans had died, leaving the sheep to breed unabated. It sounded like a plausible theory and we left it at that, conscious of the fact that we were being watched and possibly recorded.
We didn’t mind that no drinks were served since the water dispenser dispensed the most delicious water we’d ever drunk. Or maybe it was just that we weren’t used to drinking clean water. For a long time, we had to harvest rain water from the street which we purified by boiling. Often we’d drink it straight from the gutters like animals, we were so thirsty. Suddenly, we were privileged enough to share in government’s bounty.
Either there was a spring on the property or a desalination plant but despite our best efforts, we couldn’t find either in the twelve months we stayed there.
What did surprise us more was the sound of birds in the trees when we awoke each morning and the occasional sea gull or tern that came to lift our spirits when it sat on the outside windowsill. At first, I thought I was imagining things, that it was a recorded sound designed to confuse our senses but when I looked out and saw two birds sitting on the window sill, I called the others to come see. Enthralled, we watched in silence until they flew away into the trees across the lawn. Like children we squealed with delight, knowing that their survival boded well for us. If they could do it, then so could we.
Farlane, ever the skeptic was convinced that they were mechanical birds similar to drones, sent to spy on us. We couldn’t be sure and wouldn’t let his skepticism dampen our spirits.
For six days each week, we toiled, in other words, we did back-breaking work without respite and on a Sunday, we would rest. It seemed rather biblical but we were grateful for the respite. Usually we would sleep past breakfast and only emerge from our rooms at about eleven or sometimes even twelve to sit in the garden, read newspapers or go down the side of the cliff for a swim in the cool ocean. It surprised us that no one forbade us to swim below the cliff where we could not been observed, since we were the only ones to do so and because we knew the condition of our oceans. The dark blue waters, lapping gently against the boulders, seemed clean enough and if it did hold a threat, we’d only know when it would be too late.
The first time we scrambled down the boulders, the smell of the ocean pulled us like a magnet. Stripping down to our underwear needed no encouragement. We cared little for who would see us or what punishment might be meted out. We dived impulsively, taking deep gasping breaths before we lavished the plunging depths. Emerging with a shrill “whoo-whoo..,” we continued to tumble, enjoying the cool water enveloping us. Like children we cavorted until our energy was spent and we scrambled back onto the rocks where we lay to dry in the sun, like clean laundry.
When we realised that no punishment was forthcoming, we often savoured our moments there as much as the freedom to enjoy the longed-for, yet unexpected privileges. The ocean soothed our senses, allayed our fears and gave us a false sense of superiority. There were many who yearned for our temporary luxury, if only just for a day.
The ocean more than compensated for the rigorous military regime. It motivated us to do better each day for fear of being rejected from the programme. The possibility that our happiness could end at any moment was uppermost in our minds. Fortunately, our results were so close it was hard to determine if anyone was a failure.
On our day off was also the only time we were allowed to use the telephone in our rooms which was otherwise blocked. We understood clearly why they needed to monitor our conversations to the outside world.
We could not jeopardize or compromise either the programme or the trip. Confidentiality was imperative. Once we’d signed a confidentiality agreement, our whereabouts and all information imparted to us had to remain top secret. So it was a shock when a journalist called my room one day to enquire if we were in a secret government hideaway. Afraid, I promptly hung up. Almost immediately, there was a knock on the door. I was summoned to the General’s office where I was assured that I was not in any trouble.
At first it sounded like a trick until the General explained that they had recordings of all our conversations and were satisfied that I had not told anyone where I was. It wasn’t possible anyway, since I had no clue where I was except to say that I knew for certain that it was about two hours’ drive from home, off the main highway and through an unmarked area marked Inaccessible that was off limits to the public. The road to the property was under constant guard and there was a contingent of armed guards above the cliff to watch us around the clock.
Despite the hard work, we all got through the training with accolades and a vision of a higher quest.