Sitting on the bottom bunk after returning from gathering samples, I turned on my tablet knowing that I still had thirty minutes before I could even try to make contact. The smiling face of the grinning girl greeted me with a wave from the screen.
“Hey Diya!” The voice of a teen called out from the silver tablet while I sat listening on the edge of my bed.
“Hey Simone,” I held the rectangular device at an angle as I leaned against the wall just working to pass the time.
“What’s going on today?” It was a female voice, specifically designed to grow as I grew. We had known each other for over a year now.
“It was just another great day of being outside.” I wondered how Adam might respond to his simulated friend if he had one at the other Pangaea.
“Great to hear,” the teen in the tablet looked at a black watch on a brown wrist. “Looks like you still have some time before dinner. Glad that you decided to call me up.”
“Yeah,” I paused. “I really wanted to talk to you right now.”
“Cool,” she ran a hand through her long, twisted braids.
“Tell me about school Simone.”
“What do you mean?” her face scrunched up.
“Tell me what’s going on in schools on Earth.”
“Well, not much has changed. The brick and mortars and the virtuals are still serving students. It seems like more brick and mortars pop up every year, everything is going just fine down here. Thinking about school? Do you kind of miss going to virtual here?”
“Yeah, maybe just a little.” Although the truth was that I seldom went to classes anymore and wasn’t too sad about the shift away. But it seemed easier to lie about this rather than let on my real motives for checking in. Besides, Home Base seemed satisfied with my choice to read on my own and abandon school. “But here it’s just with simulated students and I always was in real schools back home.” I regretted saying it as soon as it came out of my mouth. “Sorry about that.”
“No worries. I can understand why you’d say that.”
Good old Simone— she could never be offended. It just wasn’t in her programming.
“Virtual school was okay though. I learned a lot, but I just liked reading on my own more. And HB seemed okay with my preference to read and be tutored by my parents while I’m here. But I have to admit, I’ve been thinking more about school lately…”
“Well, you do a great job on your own that’s for sure. You’re sooo smart.”
“Thanks,” I moved the subject on. “Actually, it’s not just about school— you know teachers and assignments and things. I’ve been thinking about the whole…experience overall. I’ve been thinking about other kids more lately.”
“That’s normal.” Simone was always reassuring me. “And I appreciate that you shared with me about Arrival the other day. That was tough news for the colony. I can’t imagine how you must feel. It makes sense that you’re thinking about other kids.”
“Yeah. I can’t lie— I had been looking forward to Arrival and at least a possibility of another teen. I miss talking to other kids.”
“That’s totally normal to feel that way.” Simone smiled. “And, well, you’re very good at making friends. Your teammates love you too you know.”
“Sure, virtual teammates are easy enough to get along with. And we have lots to talk about on the field. But things with real friends are different. And I was even thinking of what it’d be like to talk to someone that’s kind of more than a friend… talking to someone that I… you know.” My face flushed a little. “Someone that I like. And I think that I’m attracted to guys but I don’t have any experience talking to them... you know, I mean in that kind of way.”
“Ohhhh, that,” she nodded.
“Yeah… that. I’ve been thinking about that more and more lately. I just think that I happened to turn out to be attracted to boys and there are none around here. So lately, I’ve been wondering what… you know, like dating… might be like.”
“Dating huh. Well, my parents say that I’m too young.”
Simone’s goody-two-shoes programming was really beginning to grate on me. “Yeah, sure. Maybe. But I think I might be ready. I just wonder… well, I look at Robert and Aasir or my parents. And they have something special. I can see that they care about each other in a way that is more than just friends like you and I. And lately, I’ve been thinking more about that.”
“Totally normal to think about that. And when you return to Earth, you’ll have many opportunities when you’re ready. You’re a pretty extraordinary girl. I’m sure so many guys would be interested in the only teen in history to ever spend time on Mars!”
“Yeah,” my irritation was building again. “But what would I say? You know, to a boy my age if one was here…”
“You’d just walk up and say that you’re Diya,” Simone offered and laughed a little to herself. “Then you’d have so much to talk about. You could talk about going outside and doing research…”
“Okay, I could talk about that I guess but what else. What do couples on Earth talk about? I was just in elementary school when I left. This is all new to me.”
“Well, there’s so many things you could talk about. I mean, you’re captain of your team, you had the highest marks in your class, your parents are brilliant scientists, and your scores from back on Earth were exceptional.”
“I guess, but what would he be interested in about me… collecting rocks and my grades don’t sound all that exciting.” This wasn’t turning into the talk that I needed. I felt my hands tighten around the device as I sat on my bed holding it steady.
“Well, he should be interested in those things. They’re pretty spectacular.”
“Well, let’s say he’s not interested in my test scores and mineral samples,” I said sharply.
She blinked. I wasn’t sure if a computer generated companion could be surprised, but she looked taken aback. “Well, he would just like to hear about you, and your parents, and the cool things that you interested in…”
“I get it Simone.” I cut her off, ready to bring this to a close. “I’m great and things here are great.” I had never been this short with Simone before. “Thanks. Well, it’s time for dinner soon. I’ll check in with you later.”
“Okay Diya. As always great talking to you!”
I powered down my tablet and watched the smiling, waving Simone flicker to darkness. I set the screen down and stared across the room.
“Well, that wasn’t super helpful.”
Not that I thought it would be. I mean how much dating advice can a computer generated imaginary pal really give. Now, I had about ten more minutes to kill.
Sitting back against the wall, I closed my eyes and imagined his voice and felt a shiver of excitement pulse through me.
I opened my eyes again after a few minutes of recalling the previous conversations. Smiling, I opened up the cubby and grabbed my t-shirt containing the beacon. It was now time and I felt my pulse quicken again in hopes that he would answer. Entering the bathroom, I shut the door behind me and locked it. I sat cross-legged on the floor in my pain grey sweatshirt and navy shorts as I turned on the device.
“Nightingale to Grizzly, copy?” I whispered into the mic as I cradled in my hands.
Smiling in relief, I was happy to hear that he was already waiting for me even though it was a few minutes early.
“I was thinking we need code names,” I offered playfully as I changed positions to sprawl my legs straight out on the matted floor. “I think I want to go with Nightingale. I just like the sound of it. And all kidding aside, I thought it might be better to use other names, in case we get caught. Or someone figures out how to listen in on us.”
“Actually, that’s a good idea.” There was a pause. “Does that make me Grizzly?”
“No, you can choose your own.”
Again, a pause. “I’m going to go with Viper.”
“Nice. Good balance.”
“The technology is certainly there, but I think that one of our Coms would have to actually be looking for specific frequencies. I don’t think that they’ll stumble on our conversation. They have other things to do and I don’t think suspect a thing. And I have some experience navigating radio frequencies here. I don’t think Coms will pick up on this channel but I think that your idea is a good one just as an added layer of protection.”
“My Coms is… dedicated to his work. It’s hard to tell what he does in her spare time. Probably not a lot of community service…”
“Mine and my Commander were part of Firstpost. They’re the only ones that have been here longer than me. I was part of Arrival 1.”
“My Coms and Commander go way back too.” I found myself glancing at the mirror. I oddly enough felt a need to brush my hair, but instead ran a hand through the long strands. I sat up and took notice of the curves that had formed over the last year. “What do you suppose happened at Firstpost? Do you think that the Commanders still talk to each other? Maybe they meet up…” I thought back to my plan and felt my palms begin to sweat.
“I don’t know what happened at Firstpost, but it would seem that they haven’t been honest about it. I would guess that there was really a problem of some kind. Maybe there was actually some kind of spill. And maybe from there, they had to split up.”
“Well, I think that we got the short end of the stick on our Coms Link.”
There was a pause. “Mine is certainly no better.” Again, a pause. “Be careful around your Coms Link.”
There was a change in tone in his voice that raised goose-bumps on my arms. “Agreed.” I changed the subject. “So you’ve been here all your life?”
“I have,” he offered.
“Wow, that is really amazing,” although I wasn’t sure if I really felt that way. It seemed impossible that a child could grow up here among the robots, alone.
“We only arrived a little over a year ago. My parents signed up for three years. We’re on a round trip in thirteen months.”
“They have round trips from Pangaea III?” he asked.
“Not yet, we’re supposed to be on the first.” A chill ran through me as I felt nervous about the prospects that we would actually return home had changed over the last few weeks.
“So your parents brought you here?”
“They did. It was kind of a big deal too. Everyone acted like we won the lottery or something.”
There was a long pause during the transmission. “What are your parents like?”
“Pretty normal I guess.” I thought about it for a second. “Actually, they’re pretty awesome. Yes, they annoy me sometimes but they are amazing people. To be honest— not telling them about you and Francois is pretty much the only secret I’ve ever kept from them.”
“How did you know about him…and his skiff?”
“It’s kind of crazy to think about now that I’m about to say it out loud for the first time. For whatever reason, it seems like he chose me for the mission to find him if something happened to him. When he left here, no one knew what happened to him or where he went. A few weeks after he left, I found that he had left some notes for me. So I did my research to figure out what they meant and they turned out to be some breadcrumbs that included a transmitter. So, here I am.” For the first time, I began to believe that he chose me for a reason. “What about you and your parents? And how did you find Francois?”
“There’s not a lot to say about my parents.” He paused. “They work a lot and I don’t see them often.” Another moment of silence over the air. “As for Francois, I didn’t believe the stories about Sector VII. I did some research and stumbled onto a frequency that I accidentally discovered being transmitted from there. He had set up a transmission that was hidden when his skiff had experienced some kind of failure. When I found the embedded signal, I decoded it and found that it lead to his coordinates. It was very clever how he concealed the transmission so that it would bypass Coms and show up on the frequency used by the outside specimen gatherers. It bypassed the main channels and instead ended up coming through the lab. He must have been incredibly smart. And he knew to bury it out of sight from those in Command because they would not come to help him. In some ways, it was very lucky that I found him at all…”
“Very lucky,” I found myself nodding along.
“Unfortunately, it was too late.”
“Well, I’m definitely glad you did it and found the skiff before the others did.”
There was no answer.
Again, no answer as I waited a full minute just to be sure.
Sighing, I stood up from the bathroom floor to take a look at myself in the mirror. Once again, I ran my fingers through my hair and looked at myself. I turned to see the profile that had become more pronounced over the last year and slightly annoying, especially on the soccer field.
“Now what to do for the next twenty-four hours…” I muttered.
I was stuck back in my routine back here at the colony for another day. I sighed again and watched my reflection exhale.
“I guess that the rest of our conversation would have to wait until tomorrow.”
Shaking my head, I smirked at the reflection.
We needed to meet and I felt more determined to make a plan.