I finished polishing the last stationary bike in the row and stood to look up at the clock inserted into the molding along the ceiling. Below it, the silver paneling held the mirror in place. Studying the reflection for a moment, I focused on the faint outline of the scar on my chin from falling off my bunk. The scar had mostly healed, but still left a line that was a slightly lighter shade of brown. I pulled back and took in the whole view of myself as I twisted with my hands on my hips.
“What do you think Adam?” I spun a full 360 to examine the newly formed curves that I was trying to navigate. Pausing with my side profile showing, I frowned. “You’re becoming too vain,” I wagged a finger and watched it shake back and forth in the mirror.
I then glanced back up at the time. My appointment was in two minutes with Beatriz. Knowing that I couldn’t avoid my fate, I returned the cleaning supplies to their home in the cabinet along the back wall. Slowly, I passed by the rest of the exercise pads and bikes and made my way through the sliding metal door out into the connector. My nervousness began to build again as the reality that I would soon be in her office filled me with a sense of dread now that I held so many secrets. This was not how I wanted to pass the day waiting until 1700.
I wonder what you’re sharing with your counselor Adam…
The sunlight flooded the chamber and the brightness glowed on my arms that were covered in prickles of goose bumps. Glancing out, my thoughts drifted outwards away from the safety of the colony towards Sector VII. Somewhere out there, I hoped that he was thinking of me as often as his voice crossed my mind.
The swishing door at the end of the hall snapped me back to reality as I noticed the man coming through and towards me. As I journeyed onward and passed Clarence, I politely nodded to the man with the limp from an accident in the cargo bay. The bearded, gruff man returned the favor, although begrudgingly. Exiting out the other end of the connector, I turned right and passed through another sliding portal into a silver antechamber with three doors. One led to the Coms room, the second led to Command Center, and the third led to the therapist’s office. I swallowed and braced myself for the upcoming session.
You can do this. You’re smarter than her.
I pressed the yellow button to the side of the Beatriz’s door. A few seconds later, the door slid open.
“Diya, please come in.” The voice called out from the well-lit room beyond.
I entered. Despite feeling nervous about this visit, I did like her office space. The wooden paneling on the desk and cabinets gave this room a different appearance than the rest of complex, which often appeared so drab. There were also quite a few plants that dotted the shelves and lined her desk. No doubt HB had tried to organize the most pleasing, soothing environment possible for the therapist’s work.
Sliding into the large, cushioned chair, I sunk into the comfortable seat. Across from me, Beatriz stared out with her dark brown piercing eyes and glasses perched on the edge of her nose. “How are you doing today?” The short woman with the round face stared at me while clutching an electronic pen and tablet in her fingers that were too comparable to talons.
I braced myself for the time ahead— it would be a long haul, where the seconds seemed to take an eternity to tick away. This appointment had been on my mind since finding the hidden messages and knowing that Beatriz was just relaying messages to Roy and Pablo.
Before the visit, I divided up everything in my mind into the categories of “this can be shared” and “this won’t be shared”. It was her job to uncover information about each of us, and it had to be my job to keep secrets private.
“I’m fine Beatriz, thank you.” I forced a polite smile. Inside, my heart beat faster.
During this appointment, there would be even more secrets than usual. Although embarrassing, I had decided my best plan was to share something harmless, in order to keep the counselor in the dark. I drew a deep breath preparing to tell my contrived story.
“I’m so glad to hear that. I know that the news about Arrival was disappointing.” The counselor leaned in, she seemed much more eager than usual. “How are you feeling now that some time has passed since that meeting?”
“Well, that’s a little complicated…” I hung my head and set to work.
“Umm,” she enthusiastically picked up her stylus and brought it to the tablet on the table, “Yes, I’m sure. It was a lot to take in.”
Feigning surprise, I proceeded with my plan to derail the conversation. “Oh no, I’m not talking about the news around the colony. It was terrible to hear about Francois, but I trust Roy and Pablo to take care of us. No, instead, I, um, had these other feelings…” I hung my head, but I was fairly certain that I had her full attention. “You see, you know Rolf…” My eyes brightened and widened. “You see, at the meeting, I was kind of thinking about him, he was only a table away. And I was turned to face directly into his eyes. And I know that I should’ve been focused on what our Commander was saying, but lately I’ve been having these dreams …” My face turned red without having to pretend I was embarrassed.
“Oh that’s… interesting,” she said flatly as she certainly seemed disappointed. “Yes, that would be appropriate.” Her voice flattened into the most monotone that perhaps I had ever heard her use. “It’s completely normal to have thoughts like that. All teenagers have them at some point or another. Can you tell me a little more about the dreams that you’ve been having?”
For the better part of the next hour and entirety of the session, I gushed to my host about Rolf. At first, it seemed a bit awkward to describe another colonist as “cute” and at one point I threw in the word “hot” which felt totally out of character. But after the first few minutes, I was surprised at just how easily the story flowed forward and oddly I began to feel slightly better talking about my imaginary crush. The whole time my therapist appeared to not show much expression on her countenance and I took more than a little delight in knowing her disappointment that this session offered nothing in the way of information about Francois.
As I went on and on, I watched her expression closely. It didn’t seem like the therapist was actually interested in my well-being at all.
Ours is not to question why...
The words danced in the back of my mind while we spoke. As much as I wanted to ask questions of the intentions of the woman staring icily across from me, I instead remained on course for my planned deception by babbling on about my newfound feelings for Rolf knowing that each moment brought me closer to my evening call. I made sure to speak to the changes my body had been going through to ensure that I used the whole session until time mercifully expired.
“Yes,” almost appeared to be frowning, “that was something very special and private. I really appreciate you trusting me with this secret.”
“You’re not going to say anything to my parents, right?” My doe eyes went wide and I batted my eyelashes just to try it out with a person rather than in front of the mirror.
“No, our sessions are confidential.”
“Thank you doctor,” I tried to make it sound heartfelt. It wasn’t so difficult to fool adults— they expected so little of the one child on board.
“It is always a pleasure speaking with you.”
I stood up, “I feel sooooo much better knowing that this is all normal. Thank you Beatriz.”
“Anytime. Please let me know if you’d like to set up an additional meeting,” the counselor set her tablet down in front of her.
“Maybe… that might be a good idea. I will let you know!” I bounded across the office and then turned back upon arriving at the door. “Thanks again,” I offered a smile and then headed out the exit.
Walking down the connector, I oddly felt a little giddy about the small triumph. My counselor, who was clearly intent on doing the bidding of the Commander and Coms Link gleaned absolutely nothing from her time with me— and I was an hour closer to Adam.
I turned to face the voice. It was the tall, geologist from compound C. Clutching his helmet, he made his way down the connector towards me. “Hey Ki,” I offered.
“Roy wants to check in with you. He’s down in the bay,” he motioned back in the direction he came with his head.
I gulped nervously, “Okay.” I turned and followed behind the short, squat man that was still in his work suit. He must have just come back from gathering samples. “Did he say what it was about?”
“No,” the man continued forward and pressed the button at the end of the hall. “He just said that he needed to talk to you and asked me to grab you from Beatriz’s office.” He pointed ahead into the cargo bay. “He’s down there waiting.” Ki turned to go, leaving me alone at the entrance.
The hair raised on the back of my neck as I wondered if this were it for me and I had been caught. Roy hadn’t asked to speak with me in months. I stepped into the bay and passed between the rows of neatly parked vehicles that had returned so far today. I looked up ahead and the tall, muscular man was standing like a sentry in front of a large transport rover with his arms crossed.
“Thanks so much for coming. Please sit down,” he motioned with a freckled hand to the shiny, passenger seat of his vessel. The dashboard in front of the seat was filled with familiar screens and instruments, but seemed to have some screens that I wasn’t familiar with. I had only been in the transport rover once as part of orientation to all of the vehicles. This was the largest of the vehicles and it could take a team of up to six scientists out in the desert, with the three rows of seats behind the driver and passenger. Under normal circumstances, I would have been excited to investigate the variety of data gathering sources and pose a mountain of questions. But after being brought here by Ki because Roy had asked for my help, I was nervous as I took a seat on the passenger side and shut the door. My brain moved from questions about the unusual nature of this to worry as to whether I had been caught. I resolved to stay consistent, as I had with Beatriz.
“Ummm, what’s going on that you needed me to come down here today?” I felt the coolness of sweat on the back of my neck underneath my hair. I did not want to be alone with this man.
“Thank you for coming down. I needed some help with a project and many of the other colonists were out on patrol.”
He walked around the other side and stepped into the vehicle. He turned the knob that served as the ignition as the engine hummed to life. His pale fingers drummed on the console and then paused. “You have done well in your short time here.” The door lowered, sealing us inside.
Never in my life had I thought of him as warm. In fact, I was relatively sure that he despised me based on former interactions where he treated me like an annoying child. But today, his tone was sickeningly sweet and suspicious.
“I try my best Roy,” I replied trying not to let my angst show.
He bared his teeth in a serpent’s smile as he sized me up, “Yes, I’m sure that you do.” He nodded as his steel blue eyes pierced into my core, “You usually do exactly as you are asked which is exactly what a team member does here for the good of the whole. Following orders is what keeps us alive and I appreciate your understanding of that. It is so important that you do what’s best for the colony.”
The rover rolled out of the bay and into the air lock. The door behind us shut, cutting us off from the rest of the inhabitants as we prepared to head out into the desert alone.
“Thank you,” I maintained eye contact for a second to show that I was hanging on his every word, although I wanted to look away. I tried to focus on my own mission and calm my nerves.
I’m not going to give you any information. You’re underestimating me.
A small surge of anger welled. He was treating me like a naïve little kid instead of the colonist who had grown up on a desert outpost, which in turn left me more resolved to outmaneuver him.
“I know my place.” I purposely dropped my dark eyes to appear subordinate and hide my dislike of him.
As the secondary hatch opened, the six-wheeled all-purpose vehicle rolled out onto the dirt near the complex.
“Yes,” he nodded as he ushered the rover forward. His voice shifted as it grew more powerful and echoed slightly within the walls of the craft. “I have to say that I am impressed. Usually, you do. Home Base is always quite impressed— this certainly will help you as you work to rise up in the ranks in the years ahead.” He tilted his head at an odd angle and squinted those beady eyes, “I did have my doubts when you were sent here, but you have grown into a contributing member of our community. It wouldn’t surprise me if HB was considering you for leadership.” He raised a thin, red eyebrow as he looked towards his passenger.
Seeing an opportunity to sell the moment, I feigned excitement, “Me? Really?”
“I had thought as much myself even before today.” He turned back casually to the view ahead and let his voice settle back into a soothing tone.
“Thank you, thank you so much.” I paused and tried to look like I was basking in the compliment. “Do you really think they would consider me?”
Nodding as he smiled, “You usually show the best of judgment and usually keep the colony in mind.”
Slowly, the sight of the outpost in the side mirror grew smaller. As the vehicle approached the first giant dune, it hung a right and settled in behind the hill of sand.
“Yes, dedication to leadership is the main quality that elevated me to the position of Coms Link.” He swept a hand towards the screens in front of him as he snapped the engine off. “But heavy lies the head that wears the crown. Leadership… is not for everyone you know. Leadership requires us to understand that our work is greater than any one of us.” He paused for effect as she leaned in only a few inches away from my face. I could feel his breath through his nostrils on my nose as distrust was transforming into fear. “Do you think that you understand the scope of our work Diya? And do you understand your role in our work?”
I nodded, “I do.” Although my hands were now sweating, I had to seize an opportunity to build on my performance. “In fact, perhaps no one understands this more than me. My upbringing here— my experiences have taught me a great deal about life here. We are a community and we must function with the greater good always in mind.”
“Perhaps, yes… perhaps you have learned that since you arrived and were a more of a child then.” The grin returned and unsettled me. Those perfectly white, unnatural, shining, capped teeth. “And the community’s needs must be kept in mind. The community depends on perfection. The community depends that we follow rules. When we don’t follow rules, people get hurt.” He flipped her visor up. “Please ready your suit.
“Of course,” I flipped my mask up as well to prepare to go outside. Why are we here? He smiled broadly and crossed his muscular arms on the console as he waited for me to prepare and the vehicle readied for our departure. “I know to trust you and HB.”
“Yes,” he leaned in again. I could better see the finer pattern of wrinkles near his eyes that splayed out behind the transparent mask. “Of course, the burden of being the keeper of information can be challenging to be the Coms Link. And I know that some others are frustrated by my sense of duty at times.” He uncrossed his arms and raised a finger, “But I work for the benefit of the colony. We have a higher mission here— we are working for humanity and I work to do my part as our leader.” He opened his door and slid out of the rover.
I stepped out of my side as well. “I can see that.” I spoke into the intercom in my suit. I hadn’t been honest in the past about some things, but seldom had I maintained such a network of lies. “I understand that everything that you do— it’s for the good of the colony.” I followed a step behind him as he walked further from the craft.
“Yes… But unfortunately, sometimes I have to remind people that I’m in charge.” He said each word with emphasis, as he paused and faced me. His hands slid behind his back.
“I think that everyone knows that you’re in charge.” I froze in my tracks.
He took a step closer, leaving only a foot between us. “Yes, most of the time. But sometimes… people need reminded not to do anything foolish. It’s very dangerous here and people can get hurt. People need a leader.”
He leaned towards me. “We live in a world where we are not designed to survive. We are frail. We are at its mercy. Every day here is a gift.”
He roughly grabbed my arm.
“Roy…?” My heart raced as I pulled back but he keep a firm grip. Something was terribly wrong.
“You could fall down today, tear a hole in your suit, and die without anyone questioning why because it’s so dangerous here.” He reached out with his other hand and slashed at my suit with a silver blade.
The warning signal immediately beeped in my suit as I felt the systems trying to compensate for the loss of oxygen and pressure. He let go and stepped back. Looking down at my arm, I gasped at the tiny puncture. I made an attempt to seal off the tear by gripping it with my other hand and turned towards the rover. Quickly as the beeping continued, I ran towards the vehicle while clutching the rip. Straining to breathe, I punched at the panel to enter the craft and the door slid open. I jumped in the seat and looked across to see that he had entered the vehicle as well and sat staring at me. The doors on both sides lowered. As I felt my throat tighten and eyes bulge, he calmly pushed a button on the dashboard and the cabin was pressurized.
I stared at him, eyes wide in horror as my lungs filled with oxygen.
“Oh my,” he said with a voice dripping with honey. “I see that you punctured your suit. I’m sure that we can patch it and of course luckily you have a spare at home.” He reached out and patted my arm just above the rip. He smiled as he flipped his visor down. “See, now everything is just fine now that we are back in the rover. That was a close call.”
He started the vehicle and turned it back towards base while I sat and regained my composure.
“The next time that you decide to want to go for a joyride in a hundred million dollar piece of equipment, think twice. Otherwise, you could end up hurt. When I checked mileage at the end of the month, I don’t like what I saw. Do you understand that I better never see signs of you tampering with your tracking device again?”
My hand ran over the tear in the suit and my insides shook. “I do…”
“We’re not on Mars to joyride. You’re here to listen and obey me. Unless you want your parents to end up hurt. You know that things could happen to them here right?”
He was clearly intent on making me say it as he waited. “Yes, I understand. I really do.”
“Good. I think that we understand each other. At this time, it is best for you if your little ride was not discussed with anyone. Especially your parents. You were never in real danger out here, I do not want to lose a colonist. But you needed a lesson. And this lesson will stay between us.”
I nodded behind my visor, “I understand.”
He hummed lowly to himself in agreement, “Mmmm, yes. I think that you do now. I don’t need to ask why you did it. Kids do dumb things. You better not do something without thinking again. Because if you do, there will be another lesson about who is in charge out here.”
I swallowed and tried to slow my racing heart. “Coms Link, I want to apologize for my reckless behavior.” I let my head hang low in penitence. “I’m sorry— it was stupid. I just wanted to go out on my own...”
“Yes, it was stupid. And your apology is a good start. Honesty is important,” the slightest bit of venom returned to his voice. “You know the importance of following orders. For this reason,” he waited before continuing, “You will be placed on a period of probation with Pablo and I.”
“For the time being, you will not engage in work outside of the complexes and you can tell your parents that you broke one of the data recorders. This truthful moment with me is a small step in the right direction towards having your privileges restored.” The carrot would now follow the stick, “If you are able to keep the events of today between the two of us, your reinstatement should be in the near future.”
I lifted my head and forced a thankful smile, “Thank you, thank you so much. I will show you that I am worthy of being reinstated.” I nodded as the boxy modules of the complex now loomed large in front of us promising safety as I relaxed slightly, “I will show you.”
He remained perched behind the console, and showed his full set of teeth again. “I believe you will.”
“Thank you,” I longed to get out of the rover and step into the bay where I could run away.
“Diya,” he turned towards me as he leered from the driver’s seat.
“Of course, I want to see you reinstated and know that you will do the right thing. But in doing my job, I must warn you, that I am in charge. If you were to violate our agreement, I’m afraid that I would not only ensure that you were not reinstated, but there were be other consequences as well.” His pale hands gripped the controls as he steered into the air lock, “And there are much worse consequences here than losing the privilege of researching outside on your skiff.” He paused and his icy eyes danced in fire, “I will not jeopardize the fate of this mission under any circumstances. I am willing to sacrifice whatever it takes to ensure that our mission is successful— especially a child. And our success will only come if people obey orders. Do you understand me?”
“Yes,” I swallowed and felt a cold wave pass through my core as the memory of his conversation played in my mind.
I underestimated the stakes of whatever is going on.
I regained my composure, “You don’t have to worry about me. I will help the community in any way I can.”
“I believe you will,” his tone moved from menacing back to sickeningly sweet.
The door to the cargo bay slid open and the rover pulled inside to the safety of the outpost as the hangar loomed large up ahead. The craft came to a stop.
“Good to hear. I will be following up.”
The doors lifted upward. “Thank you,” I offered.
“Yes, have a good dinner.”
I stepped out and forced down my instinct wanting to run to my room. As I walked, I tried not to shake or sway while keeping a hand over top of the tear in my suit. There was fear as my hand shook slightly, but my anger welled up as well. We were under the control of a madman who was full of secrets. Two thoughts were prevalent on my mind as I passed through the exit.
I cannot afford to underestimate the stakes involved again.
I have to get to the bottom of what’s going on because our lives may depend on it.