Note: Three things. 1) This is my first post, so hello everybody. 2) I did not intend for the story to be this long, it just sort of happened. (According to Wikipedia, it's not technically a short story because it's 163 words too long). 3) Beware fake science! As in, literally all of the science in the entire story. Enjoy!
Among the Stars
A scratchy newsfeed echoed off the blank, grey walls. Outside, the empty blackness of the universe passed by, broken only by a dotting of stars. It was a brilliant and lonely sight, one completely ignored by the room’s only occupant. She was slumped in an uncomfortable metal chair, half listening to the report playing on the ancient holographic projector. Something about the trade of genetically modified beetles. She sighed and scuffed her shoe against the floor. Only three of the six days required to make the trip had passed, but she already hated the shuttle and its seven other occupants. To add to her grievances, the food was that in name only, and there was a grand total of five shows available on their ancient Holographically Projected Television Set: the Saturn Trade News, and a handful of reruns of New Earth programs that had been cancelled years ago. Sometimes, she really hated her job.
“Hey, Karen! We’re picking up a signal from Settlement 45! Come on, Stephan wants us all to be there when they call!” The overly cheerful voice came from Tommington the second, the third member of her half of the expedition. What had possessed his parents (well, his grandparents, since he was the second) to give him that name, she would never know. Tom had only been hired a few months earlier, which meant he was still annoyingly excited about very nearly everything, including a three-month trip to a tiny space station in the backwaters of absolutely nowhere.
“It’ll probably be the standard verbal welcome brochure plus safety procedure,” Karen responded. She sighed again and pushed back her chair with a high-pitched scraping sound. Tom shrugged, still grinning like he’d won a free vacation. Maybe in his mind, he had. Karen followed him out of the room, letting the newsfeed shut itself off as the door closed.
“Don’t you think it’s going to be really interesting to see how the colony turned out, though? I mean, they were sent up as part of the first prisoners project, so they didn’t exactly have the best role models, at least to start off with. Nothing against them, of course, it’s not this generation’s fault, but it’ll be neat to see if they’ve managed to set up a proper system,” Tom rambled excitedly as they walked side by side through the drab, dimly lit halls. He was still smiling, which made Karen want to punch him in the face. She realized that she actually hated both of the colleagues she was stuck with. They stepped into the dining hall, a room that looked exactly like the one they had just left, which looked exactly like the hallway. The entire shuttle was the same: very, very grey. Taking up most of the room was the table where they all ate, although it had been temporarily taken over by the science team. They were huddled over their notes, mumbling long strings of words to each other that Karen was only reasonably sure belonged to the English language. She decided to ignore them and instead crossed the room to stand next to Stephan, who was fiddling with the knobs of a portable holographic projector. Amazingly, it was even older than the one they were using as a television. The fan inside whirred, releasing a puff of micro-fine dust into the air. Pale blue low-powered lasers activated, light refracting off the dust and forming a flickering screen of blue. Assured the projector was stable, Stephan finally looked over at his colleagues. He was, Karen thought, the perfect picture of someone who cared far too much about his appearance. Everything about him was impeccably neat, from his brightly polished shoes to his equally blinding toothpaste commercial smile.
“Karen,” he said evenly, “nice of you to finally join us.” She almost glared, then realized that would be childish and offered a tight, cold smile instead.
“Have you found anything or not?” she asked, a bit more snappishly than was strictly necessary.
“I’ve picked up a signal,” Stephan replied, voice flat and only slightly condescending. Karen decided this was an improvement from his usual tone. She wondered if she should give him a gold star. Tom nudged her, nodding towards the projector. The connection had finally stabilized and the image of a tall, severe man formed in the blue dust. For a moment, no one spoke.
“Hello and good morning to you all,” the man said, “I am Washington, Chief Commander of Settlement 45. We are pleased to be able to receive a visit from your organization, and we hope future negotiations will prove fruitful.” In contrast to his appearance, Washington sounded mild-mannered and pleasant. Tom seemed surprised and opened his mouth to say something, but Stephan silenced him with a look and turned back towards their soon to be host.
“As do we, although my team will not be doing any of the negotiating— that will come after our visit,” Stephan assured him. “We are honoured to have the opportunity to visit you home. Before we get into business, however, I believe it’s time for introductions. I am, as you may know, Stephan Shriver, the head of the expedition and senior assessor of the Saturn Trade Commission’s Social Analytics department. Here with me are my colleagues of the same department, Karen Arlington and Tommington Monroe the Second. In the back is our scientific research team— it would be best if they introduce themselves, as I have unfortunately not had time to become well acquainted with their work.” Which meant Stephan hadn’t bothered to learn their names either. While the scientists shuffled to the front of the room to offer their names and a brief (or in some cases, not so brief) description or their work, Karen and Tom slipped to the back of the room.
“Washington? Really?” Tom whispered, staring at the man’s flickering blue form. Karen shrugged.
“Could be a tribute to Old Earth; could be symbolic. We’ll find out later.” The pair sat in silence, each contemplating the scene unfolding at the front of the room. She couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something off about the Chief Commander of Settlement 45.
Three days later, Karen was regretting every event of her life that had somehow lead to her clutching the armrest of a threadbare seat in an ancient, rickety shuttle hurtling into the artificial atmosphere of an isolated space station which had not been visited in over two hundred years. She groaned as the shuttle jumped and shuddered, wind screaming in her ears despite the layers of protective shielding incasing the structure. She finally worked up the courage to crack open her eyes when they came to a smooth patch in the descent and peered out of the tiny window next to her seat. If she hadn’t been distracted by an overwhelming feeling of queasiness and terror, she would have been fascinated. Settlement 45 was one of the largest space stations she had visited, and she had visited quite a few of the stations-turned-colonies which had cropped up in the years following the Great Space Migration. The station had been built in a perfectly smooth orb nearly the size of Old Earth’s moon. The outside was a shimmering blue-black colour, and it took Karen a moment to realize it was almost completely covered in solar panels. The only break in the perfect, dark surface was a collection of methodically placed translucent globes reminiscent of ant eggs. The shuttle jerked again and Karen decided to spend the rest of the ride with her eyes closed. Tom would fill her in on the view later, probably very enthusiastically and in great detail. They landed with a rough thump followed by a couple of bumps and a sudden, screeching halt that nearly sent them into the backs of the seats in front of them. Karen opened her eyes again, assuring herself that they were in fact on solid ground. She wiped her sweaty palms against the rough fabric of her pants and let out a shaky breath— and barely kept herself from screaming as they suddenly plummeted downwards. The others showed less restraint: one of the scientists shrieked and another swore loudly. Their descent eventually began to slow and Karen realized that they were not actually falling to their deaths.
“The landing platform acts as an elevator, which brings incoming shuttles to their designated parking areas. Didn’t you read the handout?” Stephan asked, raising an eyebrow in that annoyingly smug way of his.
“No,” Karen grumbled. “I prefer not to think about the landing part.” Tom laughed, high and giddy. Karen glared. He may have been annoying, but at least he wasn’t above petty glaring. She was still trying to think of an actual, verbal response when the inner door opened and a young woman stepped inside. She was dressed in an old prison jumpsuit that seemed to have been repurposed as a military uniform, and had something that appeared to be a combination of a metal stick, a gun, and a Taser strapped across her back. There were even a few spikes on the outside, which seemed a bit redundant. A few seconds later, a man of roughly the same age followed. He was dressed casually and had a look of nervousness surprise fixed on his face, like he hadn’t expected to step into a shuttle full of people. He took a deep breath and stared to speak.
“Hi,” he said uncertainly. “I’m— my name is Mark, I’m the uh…. I’m here to collect the science team. Because I’m the head engineer. As my job.” He smiled nervously and paused as if waiting for a response. “Er… if you’re part of the science team, you can follow me.” He pushed up his glasses, then changed his mind and cleaned them on his shirt instead, hands shaking. The scientists swapped glances, doubtful and apprehensive. Someone groaned quietly. They stood and filed out, less than enthusiastic. The armed woman was still standing at the exit, face blank and hand resting lightly on her mysterious weapon. As threats went, she wouldn’t be winning any prizes for subtlety.
“Follow me,” she said curtly. She turned and marched out of the shuttle without a backward glance. The researchers followed, stepping out of the dim interior of the shuttle and into a sea of brilliant white light. Karen blinked, squinting against the brightness. They were standing in a large, doughnut shaped and very white hallway. The floor was white. The ceiling was white. The walls were white. She wondered if colour uniformity was a requirement for space crafts. Behind them, a portion of wall slid down, closing off the bay where their shuttle was parked. Karen turned to their supposed guide, who seemed to be ignoring them. She marched across the hall, stopped in front of a seemingly blank piece of wall and pressed her palm firmly against it. There was a faint whirring noise followed by a sharp clunk, and then the white paint peeled back to reveal a small, round camera. A thin beam of light swept over her eye, then retracted. The whirring sound started once again and the paint crawled back into place, blending seamlessly with the rest of the wall.
“Access granted,” a toneless robotic voice announced. The hall was filled with a series of clicks and clunks as the wall was slowly retracted into the floor. Tom drew in a sharp breath. They were standing in front of what would have looked like an ordinary work space had the desks and tables not been completely wrapped around the surface of the completely spherical room. People scurried across the ceiling and down the walls, untroubled by the apparent impossibility of their actions. Karen had seen artificial gravity before, but this war far more powerful and far more impressive than anything she had encountered. The guide finally turned to the group, mouth twisted into something that could have been called a smile by someone who had never seen one in person but had once heard a vague description of what it was supposed to look like.
“Welcome to Settlement 45,” she proclaimed, making a grand sweeping gesture with one arm. Tom almost started laughing at the theatricality of it all but covered it up with an odd choking sound. Karen couldn’t help but smile - it sounded like a line from one of the old shows that were always playing in the shuttle.
“Impressive,” Stephan said dryly. The guide’s expression changed in an instant, going from almost welcoming to furious in the blink of an eye. She turned scarlet, then very pale. She took a deep, calming breath, face suddenly blank. Karen froze, perplexed, and saw her colleagues do the same. The guide took another breath, then shot a frosty glare at Stephan. She cleared her throat.
“I’m in charge of you for the duration of your visit. If you need anything, you can ask me,” she said in a tone that suggested housing a family of cockroaches in her socks would be preferable.
“We’ll keep that in mind,” Stephan said, equally cold, “but it would help if you would tell us who you are.”
“Excuse me?” she growled, somehow managing to make the two words sound like a threat. Karen hung back, mystified. It was undoubtedly one of the strangest conversations she had ever witnessed.
“Your name,” Stephan clarified, sounding just as confused as Karen felt. The guide’s hand twitched on her weapon, then relaxed.
“Italy. Your rooms are through the blue door at the end of the hall. Do not speak to me unless you have no other choice.” She turned and marched off without another word.
“Interesting,” Stephan said once she was out of sight. “Well, get to work. You two split this room, I’ll take the dining hall. We meet up in my quarters at 1900 sharp.” Apparently he had been inspired by Italy, because he too vanished into the crowd without waiting for a reply. Karen sighed in annoyance and dragged a hand through her hair. Beside her, Tom was looking hesitantly at the mass of people before them.
“Get on with it,” Karen told him. She offered a reassuring half-smile and smacked him in the arm. He set off into the crowd. Karen turned and went in the opposite direction.
Three hours after she had started her interviews, Karen was tired and plagued with a vague, implacable sense of unease. The work space was quiet beyond the gentle rustle of papers, the occasional patter of footsteps, and the constant hum of the generators. Surrounding her on all sides were uniformed workers hunched over their desks with serene smiles and keen, darting eyes. Not one of them spoke. Karen told herself firmly that she was an anthropologist and that this strange, quiet society was academically fascinating and not eerie. At all. With that thought in mind, she marched quietly over to the nearest desk and tapped the woman working there on the shoulder. When she looked up, her smile was decidedly strained and her eyes flickered with annoyance. It was a reassuringly normal look and Karen felt herself relax slightly, releasing a breath she hadn’t realized she had been holding.
“Hi, I’m Karen Arlington, from the department of Social Analytics at the Saturn Trade Commission. My colleagues and I are conducting an overview of the colony. Would you be able to spare a few minutes to answer some questions?” she asked in the overly cheerful tone used by customer service representatives everywhere. Her voice echoed around the room and she was once again very conscious of the all-encompassing silence. The woman sighed.
“If you must.” Their voices cut through the still air and Karen imagined she could feel two hundred pairs of eyes fixed onto her.
“Should we speak somewhere else?” she asked. The woman’s gaze turned cold.
“Certainly not,” she said. “Under no circumstances will I abandon my post.” Karen opened her mouth, then closed it, unsure of what to say.
“You have a remarkable work ethic,” she said eventually.
“Our leader works tirelessly for the good of the settlement and expects us to do the same. I couldn’t bear to let him down,” the worker intoned. Her voice was quiet and insistent, an odd mixture of fervent passion and subtle contempt. She had not spoken loudly, but it seemed that every head in the room turned towards them, each with a glazed smile on their face.
“Right,” Karen said uncomfortably, and decided she probably had enough interviews for the day.
“Was everyone you talked to unusually supportive of their leader, or was that just the ones I talked to?” Tom asked that evening. They were crammed into Stephan’s room, sitting around the small table and comparing notes. Karen shifted, trying to create more room for her legs. The room was roughly the size of the average walk-in closet, but it was still the largest of the three they had been given.
“I did notice that,” Karen acknowledged, folding her legs awkwardly onto her chair. “I also noticed that their work space is a lot quieter than it realistically should be. Two hundred people, someone’s bound to be feeling chatty.” Stephan leaned forward in his chair, studying his colleagues with cool, dispassionate eyes. He folded and unfolded the top corner of his notes, repeating the movement absent-mindedly every few seconds.
“The behavior of the citizens was odd, but it can be explained a number of ways. They have been isolated for a long time— they may feel threatened by the presence of strangers and feel the need to present a united front in face of that. The work space can be explained similarly: they may have been trying to impress us. Alternatively, it could be the work of peer pressure. The room has a propensity for echoes, does it not?” Stephan said. For a moment, no one spoke, and the only sound in the room was a quiet rustling as they each tried to rearrange themselves into a slightly more comfortable position.
“But don’t you think there’s a possibility that—” Tom started. Stephan shook his head slightly, cutting him off. He looked up at the ceiling, slow and deliberate. Karen couldn’t see any evidence, but she knew security must have been listening.
“At this stage, we can rule nothing out, of course,” he said. “Continue your research tomorrow. We meet again in a week.” No one moved. “Run along now.” Tom freed himself from where he was wedged between the table and the bed with some difficulty and left the room with a parting nod to his colleagues. He looked troubled, or was trying to, but Karen could tell he was still excited. Karen hung back, allowing her expression to slip once the youngest member of their expedition was gone.
“Do you think it’s likely?” she asked, careful to keep her voice low and soft. Stephan sighed and shook his head slightly.
“I don’t know. We have to recognize that it’s a possibility.”
The archives were grim and dusty, lined with metal shelves of boxed files. The archivist—*a mousy, unassuming woman of indeterminate age who went by the name of Rome—*trailed after her, pausing every few meters to stare blankly at the shelves as though that would keep Karen from realizing she was being followed. They came to the end of the room and she stood on her toes to ease a box off the highest shelf. This, she had been told, was where the oldest files were kept. To her surprise, the documents inside were paper, browning and piled unevenly. Smiling apologetically at Rome, she carefully removed the entire stack of papers so she could access the oldest files. At the very bottom of the box lay a faintly battered but surprisingly sturdy photograph of Washington standing above the circular room, addressing the gathered crowd of workers. Karen glanced up at the room once again, the now familiar feeling of unease tugging at the back of her mind. If all the documents were from after Washington became leader, it certainly would explain how they could all fit into such a small room, but it also raised far more questions than it answered. She held the paper up to her face, running her fingers thoughtfully along the edges. It felt sturdy, not brittle and dry like she expected of a paper of that age. The edges were smooth except for the slightly folded and torn corners; it looked authentic enough that she couldn’t tell if it was just paranoia telling her something was wrong.
She worked steadily throughout the day, picking her way painstakingly through the first two boxes as Rome pretended not to hover. Karen placed the last paper back in the second box and stood, muscles in her back cracking. She lifted the box back onto the shelf and reached for the next. She had yet to find any evidence of a time before Washington, not even a hint or veiled reference. The knot of unease grew slightly larger. She moved to flick the lid up— more to check how much work she would have the next day anything— and suddenly Rome was right next to her, one hand planted firmly on the lid of the box and eyes fixed on Karen’s, gleaming with something desperate and almost feral.
“The archives are closing. You have to leave,” she said stiffly. Karen bit back the urge to say something sharp—*diplomacy was key, as Stephan was (somewhat hypocritically) always reminding them— and stepped back with a slightly shrug.
“Of course,” she said lightly. “Do you mind if I come back and look at these tomorrow? We want our report to be as thorough as possible.” Rome bit her lip uncertainly, free hand twisting at the fabric of her shirt.
“We’ll see,” she said when the pause had stretched far beyond what was comfortable. As Rome stalked towards the exit, Karen hung back. She propped the box lid open and peered inside. It was empty. She slid it back into place and took a soft, steadying breath. When she looked up, Rome’s fiery brown eyes were locked onto her own. Neither spoke. Slowly, Rome turned and walked back towards the entrance. This time, Karen followed.
Karen stared down at the table, flipping idly through her notes without registering a word. The table was made of some kind of blue plastic-y wood composite, reassuringly familiar from cafeterias across the universe. Tom sat beside her, face scrunched in something that might have been worry or maybe distaste as he slowly but surely chewed through the pen cap held between his teeth. Karen found herself oddly relaxed. Here, at least, everything was reassuringly ordinary: the chattering of voices and the drag of lazy footsteps, the food that was at once soggy and stale, the lingering smell of old socks. And then she looked up, and the illusion was shattered. Across from her sat Rome and Stephan, the former tense and staring straight ahead, hands clasped in her lap, the latter methodically picking apart soggy cafeteria fries with a look of clinical disinterest. Karen sighed and placed her arms on the table, leaning towards Rome with what she hoped was an earnest look on her face.
“Rome, I realize I’ve been taking up a lot of your time recently and for that, I apologize. I know I speak for my colleagues when I say that we are incredibly grateful for the access we’ve been granted to the archives. There are, however, a few things I would like to ask you about - specifically about the settlement before Washington came into power.” Rome’s hands tightened in her lap, her expression tightened, face closing off.
“What do you mean?” Stephan glanced up from his food, meeting Karen’s eyes for half a second before returning to the measured destruction of his food.
“I can assure you this won’t have too much of an effect on any potential trade, but we do need to consider the history of the settlement. Could you tell us who, if anyone, was in charge before Washington? How the settlement was run?” Karen inquired.
“There was nothing before Washington,” Rome said, voice quiet and almost bewildered, “nothing and no one. Washington—*he’s going to save us. He’s going to bring us back to Earth.” She gazed between them with wonder that was almost childlike. There was a moment of surprised silence before Stephan cleared his throat and fixed Rome with a wide, toothpaste commercial smile.
“Thank you, that was quite enlightening. If you don’t mind, I believe my colleagues and I have quite a bit to discuss.” They watched as she stood and walked off, eyes fixed on her back until she vanished into the crowd of identically-clad workers. Tom plucked the thoroughly chewed pen cap from his mouth with a faintly trembling hand and slammed it suddenly onto the table. Heads turned and Stephan and Karen glared warningly.
“This isn’t right. These people aren’t just enthusiastic, they’re fanatical!” he hissed, leaning forwards. All three paused, glancing subtly around the room to make sure no one was paying attention. Stephan smiled at him, calm and condescending.
“Do go on,” he said. “Enlighten us. I’m sure subtlety is wasted on you anyway.”
“Why don’t you?” Tom challenged. “You’ve noticed it too, I know you have.” Stephan sighed deeply and straightened in his chair.
“Much as I hate to admit it, Tommington seems to have finally stumbled across a truth. The settlement has a disproportionately large team of geneticists. Although they were unwilling to divulge the nature of their research, our own team believes they have found evidence of illegal genetic modifications.” Karen shifted slightly, resisting the urge to look over her shoulder. She had found nothing glaringly obvious beyond the boxes in the archives, just little things she could almost pass off as homesickness for a planet they had never been to. Except it had been a bit too long— they had built a society of their own; they should not have been clinging on quite so tightly.
“They’re obsessed with Old Earth. They have this society that’s— I won’t say it’s good because it isn’t— but it’s running smoothly. A lot better than most places we’ve visited, actually, and yet they’re falling over themselves for a hunk of rock that’s been dead for nearly a thousand years,” Karen said quietly.
“I don’t think they realize it’s gone,” Tom said. “They name their children after cities and countries, they run simulations of the office jobs we try to avoid as a reward. Even the children are obsessed. This isn’t like Old Earth. This is unnatural.” Stephan laughed, hollow and empty and lacking the usual mocking edge.
“Unnatural was the Old Earth way, Tommington. Parents taught their children what to believe from the moment they were born. Our ancestors created machines that destroyed the planet for their own convenience and once it was too sick to live on, they pumped it full of chemicals and artificial atmosphere and pretended it wasn’t their fault. Old Earth turned unnatural into an art form.”
By the end of the first month, the researchers had come to two firm realizations. The first, and the most immediately obvious, was that Washington had something of a celebrity status. The second was that the residents of the colony either didn’t know about the Resource Wars which had decimated Old Earth, or were choosing to ignore them. The consensus among them was that the origin of both must have been the education system. Stephan was still trying to investigate the scientists, and Karen found children to be only slightly less objectionable than sick people, so she had been allocated the education system while Tom was charged with investigating healthcare. The entrance to the school section was nestled in a corner near the round room, and Karen found herself hanging back from the ecosystem nestled within with a feeling of dread. She checked her watch for the sixth time in half as many minutes as she waited for the students to be dismissed for lunch. The harsh shrill of the bell sounded and she jumped slightly, swearing under her breath. Moments later, a herd of children surged through the doors, running and shouting to each other. She waited until the majority had passed through and their voices were fading down the hall before she took a deep breath and pushed open the doors to the dreaded area. She froze for a second, blinking against the violently colourful patchwork of neon paint that assaulted her senses. Once her eyes had adjusted, she began to slowly make her way down the hall. As she walked, she noted the artwork pinned to the walls — clearly done by children — and the arrangement of classrooms. There seemed to be one per grade, with the youngest children nearest to the entrance and the older ones progressively farther away. Mostly, though, she noticed the posters. They reached from floor to ceiling, an over-sized and smiling photo of Washington playing with star-struck children or holding shiny new toys splashed across each one. It looked a bit like someone had put a political campaign poster and an ad for children’s cereal in a blender. Shaking her head ruefully, Karen knocked on the nearest door. The teacher who opened it was a man on the younger side of middle-aged who smiled brightly and invited her inside. She perched on the edge of his desk and took out a notepad as he began talking excitedly about the curriculum. She nodded along, trying to focus. There was a lot of math and science — not unexpected for a space station —*but nothing particularly relevant to what she was trying to find out. The teacher finished his explanation and left her to wander around the class until the children got back. It looked normal, almost disconcertingly so: the desks were arranged in neat rows facing a screen at the front, the walls were lined with low bookshelves and posters showing the conjugations of verbs and multiplication tables. Rows of badly done art hung on one wall, each showing a roughly done map of Old Earth with a little pin and name tag, probably showing where they were named for. The bell sounded once again and the children came tumbling into the room only moments later, still chattering gleefully. The teacher somehow managed to wrangle the students onto the carpet and quieted them by putting on a video. Washington and Italy: Vanquishers of Evil. The cartoon version of Washington stood tall and proud, cape billowing around his shoulders. Behind him stood Italy, complete with her trademark scowl and spiked weapon of unknown use. She appeared to be incapable of smiling even in cartoon form. Bright, catchy music played over the into and the kids sang along gleefully, voices loud and off-key, as the titular characters leapt around, defeating bad guys and saving the innocent citizens of Settlement 45.
“Now remember: if you see someone who needs vanquishing, let us know and you could be featured on next week’s episode!” The video ended, theme music still playing in the background. Karen was tempted to roll her eyes— the whole thing seemed a bit heavy handed— but the teacher was watching her with something of a warning look on his face and she nodded politely instead. And then she looked down at the children. They sat perfectly still, dreamy smiles fixed on their small faces and eyes wide as they listened to the last strains of the music fade away. Unnerved, Karen turned away quickly, eyes settling firmly on the clock. Lessons continued for another few hours, but she couldn’t bring herself to stay any longer. The expressions on the children’s faces kept replaying in her mind as she walked down the brightly lit hallway. No students should ever look that interested in anything, not even cartoons. She left the school section and wandered through the halls with a vague idea of reporting her findings to Tom and Stephan. She meandered down thin, white-washed passages with glaring lights until she found herself passing a row of empty, glass-fronted labs. The lights were off, curtains drawn over the large windows — except for the last one. As she approached curiously, she saw that a lone figure stood in the middle of the room, staring blankly at the glass wall. She looked familiar and Karen realized she was part of the science team from their expedition, although she couldn’t remember the woman’s name. Was it Mary? Margaret? Mira? Miriam. That was her name. Karen pushed the door open, half surprised to find it unlocked, and stepped into the eerily silent gloom.
“Miriam? Are you alright?” she asked. Miriam spun to face her, startled.
“My name is Nora,” she said frostily. Oh. Not Miriam, then.
“Right. Sorry, Nora. Are you okay?”
“Of course! Why wouldn’t I be? Our wonderful leader is going to bring us back to Earth!” Nora exclaimed, voice high and tinged with hysteria.
“Nora, did something… happen?” Karen asked cautiously. It was very important, she had learned early on, not to speak or even to imply ill of the colony’s leader around his followers when they were like this.
“Happen?” Nora repeated, voice suddenly quiet and almost dazed, “nothing happened. I just saw the truth, that’s all. I hope you will, too.” She rushed away abruptly, knocking into Karen. Something hard and rectangular was shoved into her hands and then the door slammed shut and Nora was gone. Alone in the room, she held up the object nestled in her hands. It was a stack of thick, hard edged papers held together by a worn elastic, the top one hastily folded. She removed the elastic and smoothed the top paper, sticking the others in the pocket of her sweater for safekeeping. The message was hastily scrawled in thick black letters, shaky and barely legible: Help me. They took the others. Don’t know if still alive. Please. Karen took a deep breath, staring at the message. I saw the truth. I hope you will, too. Nora had been trying to tell her. She refolded the paper and pulled the other ones out of her pocket. She looked at the first one, a photograph, and squeezed her eyes tight, fighting back nausea. The bodies were mutilated, barely recognizable and locked in steel ages. Twisted piles of what had once been animals were heaped in corners, bits of fur and dried blood smeared across the floor. The next pictures were close-ups, shots of creatures that had once been similar to the ones found on Old Earth, all made into cruel parodies of themselves. Only one looked normal: a simple red squirrel perched in a large, clean cage, an expression of mild curiosity of its face as it gazed out at its fallen brethren. Karen took another deep breath and slid the papers back into her pocket with shaking hands. She closed her eyes, wishing she could start the day over again and avoid this whole mess.
“Damn it,” she whispered. “I knew I should have gone into marketing.” The hairs on the back of her neck prickled and she could feel the weight of eyes fixed on her back. Abruptly, she turned and marched out of the room, closing the door softly behind her. She let her feet carry her back to the cafeteria, heart beating hard in her chest. The hallways seemed interminable, too empty and too silent, leaving her vulnerable and exposed. She breathed a sigh of relief when she reached the bustling crowds and slipped in with the stream of workers at the start of their break. Head ducked low and hands gripping the photographs, she slipped into the crowd and tried to seem innocuous. A hand closed around her wrist and yanked her backwards. She struggled against the iron grip, but whoever was holding her only tightened their grip. Eyes fixed steadily on the floor, she clenched her fists until the sharp edges of her nails made her palms bleed and breathed through the simmering rage that slowly filled her body. She twisted around to find it was Italy who had captured her, smiling like she had won an unexpected victory. Behind her stood another guard, face hard and blank. The stream of workers parted around them, smiling in satisfaction.
“What?” Karen asked flatly. “Are you going to vanquish me?” There were times when diplomacy was not the answer, no matter how much Stephan insisted otherwise.
“Empty your pockets,” Italy commanded. Karen glanced between them. Each was armed and close to twice her size.
“I would love to, but I find myself strangely unable to use my hands. It’s the strangest thing, you know. It’s almost as if someone is holding onto my wrists.” Italy twisted her arm back and she hissed in pain. The second guard reached into her pocket and pulled out the stack of papers, expression unchanging. He looked at the first one and Karen found herself smiling as she watched his expression contort into something she couldn’t quite identify.
“Arrest her,” he said, voice strangled. Italy was finished handcuffing her before he had even finished the words. She tugged uselessly at the cuffs. Italy was whispering with the second guard, one hand casually holding Karen’s wrist. She pivoted slowly on one foot, giving herself as much momentum as she could, and kicked Italy in the shin. The guard didn’t make a sound but her grip loosened for an instant and Karen started running. She made it about half a step before Italy, swearing profusely, punched her in the stomach. Doubled over and gasping for breath, Karen didn’t see the needle until it was too late. She felt a sharp prick on the side of her neck, and then the world was pulsing and swimming before her eyes. Blackness crept into the edges of her vision in spots and blotches, and then everything faded and she slumped to the floor.
When she awoke, she was freezing cold and sore all over. She coughed and sat up, squinting through the grey light. The room was almost aggressively plain, the walls made entirely of unpainted concrete, windowless besides a small, covered rectangle in the heavy metal door, and small enough that she could almost touch the opposite wall with her outstretched legs when she sat up straight. Propped against the door was Stephan, pale and faintly bruised but still wearing his patented expression of calm boredom. Tom was slumped next to him, eyelids twitching, face pale and sweaty. She couldn’t tell if he was unconscious or merely asleep. She took a steadying breath and closed her eyes. The air was hot and stuffy, filled with too little oxygen. She shook her head and coughed again. Stephan looked up, eyes meeting hers for a brief second before returning to the floor.
“Where are we?” she asked. It came out as a strangled croak. She leaned forward to take the pressure off her aching back.
“You’ve gotten us a first-class view of Settlement 45’s prison system,” Stephan responded dryly. “Apparently, we’ve been plotting to overthrow their wonderful leader.”
The days passed in a grey haze of fitful sleep and slow, sluggish thoughts. They were fed sometimes, she couldn’t tell how often. The food was mushy, oddly textured and tasteless, but she found that her stomach ached with hunger and she was shoveling food into her face whenever it appeared before her brain had time to catch up. Drugged, she thought sometimes, but the thought was disjointed and her mind was filled with fog and she couldn’t quite puzzle out what to do with that one word. Tom woke and then slept in fitful starts, tossing and turning against the wall as blue-tinged lips formed unintelligible words. He shivered and sweated, skin alarmingly pale, fingers and lips and nose slowly taking on a deathly tinge. Karen sat against the wall with her legs stretched out, watching him with heavy-lidded eyes and wishing he would just stop so she could sleep. He did, finally, body limp and motionless on the ground. He had not moved when she woke for the next meal, nor when she prodded him with the toe of her boot. Wordlessly, she and Stephan split his portion between them. Sometime later— hours or perhaps days or even weeks— she woke to the putrid, sickly sweet smell of death. She looked over at Stephan, slumped bonelessly against the opposite wall with half-closed eyes and arms folded loosely over his chest and said,
“Would have been one hell of a story. His first job and it’s a brainwashing, animal mutilating dictator.” Her voice was weak and slurred, scratchy from disuse, but still far too loud in silence that blanketed the cell.
“That, it would have,” Stephan conceded. She couldn’t see his face, but she thought he was smiling.
“Spent all of mine bagging counterfeit antique door handles of all things, ‘cause the police out on 58 couldn’t be bothered to do it themselves,” she continued.
“My team gave the all-clear on Blue Rose Keep two months before the massacre. Bit of a stain on the record, that one. I was the only one who wasn’t fired. Saved by juniority, I suppose,” Stephan told her. It wasn’t funny, not really, but Karen found she was laughing, a rough hacking sound that filled the corners of the room and echoed off the walls. She laughed until her sides ached and she could not get enough air, until her eyes swam with tears and her vision settled into an oddly comforting foggy grey.
Far, far away, she could hear someone speaking. She felt warm and refreshed, ready to face a new day even before she was awake. The path back to consciousness was long and meandering, filled with golden sunlight and the long-ago voices of her youth. She first became aware of the cold, hard concrete pressing against her back, then of the fact that it was not her younger sister chattering away but someone older, voice weighed with gravity. Then she became aware of the ache of her back, reaching deep into the muscles. When she opened her eyes, the door was open and Rome stood in front of her, arms crossed and foot tapping with impatience. Her eyes were cold and blue. Tom stood next to her, still pale and shaky but grinning all the same. Karen found herself grinning in response, momentary confusion erased by a rush of energy.
“I dreamed you were dead,” she told Tom, and it was nothing more than a figment of her unsettled imagination. They both laughed liked they had back at the offices when Tom read her one of his terrible jokes he’d unearthed from who knows where, and the sound woke Stephan. She hadn’t noticed him before but suddenly he was there, combing his fingers through his hair and chuckling along with them. Something about this seemed wrong. Her smile slipped slightly, but then they were creeping through the halls like they were in one of the spy movies she had loved as a child, and she couldn’t remember why she had been worried only a moment ago. The halls were deserted and Karen knew she should find it odd, but she didn’t. She found she was smiling again and couldn’t remember when she had started.
They were standing in front of the door blocking access to their shuttle. Rome was gone, unable to help them any further. Karen could not remember when this had happened, but she knew it had. She hummed softly, tapping her fingers against her leg. Stephan was running his fingers along the wall, searching for cracks. His hand froze a few inches above the spot where he had started and he tapped twice, sharp and decisive. The paint peeled away, revealing a sleek, flat keypad. His fingers skittered over the numbers, trembling faintly.
“I thought—” Karen started, then stopped, unable to remember the end of her question. His eyes were bright and anxious, darting across the room and then back every few seconds. She squinted at him, disquieted. She wanted to ask how he knew the password, but she suddenly felt heavy and warm and far too tired to do anything at all.
Stars flashed by outside the window. Karen was slumped low in one of the shuttle’s uncomfortable metal seats, half listening to the monotonous drone of the Saturn Trade News. The whoosh of hydraulics sounded behind her as the door opened. Had it always been automatic?
“Tom,” she acknowledged without turning around. Tom didn’t answer. Heavy footsteps approached her chair.
“I warned you! I told you to get out!” she found herself face-to-face with not-Miriam, gaunt and manic and dripping blood, a chunk of her skull hacked off, the injury half-concealed by stringy, blood matted hair.
“I warned you! I warned you!” she shrieked. “Why didn’t you listen?”
“This isn’t real,” Karen said, the realization making her breath come up short. Not-Miriam let out a strangled cry of range and despair and flung herself forward, knocking both of them onto the floor. Cold, skeletal hands wrapped around her neck and squeezed until there was no more air and her throat was slowly crushed into nothing more than shattered fragments.
She woke suddenly, numb with cold and gasping desperately for air. Her eyes were still pressed shut, afraid to find out what was reality. She wondered why she was cold and sore, why the smell of death still lingered. She cracked her eyes open and sat up, eyes skimming over the room without taking anything in. She stretched her back, brain finally kicking into gear— and froze. Stephan was half propped against the wall, half sprawled on the floor, muttering a string of soft, incomprehensible words. The spot where Tom’s body had lain was conspicuously empty. She stretched out and kicked Stephan in the ribs as hard as she could.
“We’re still here?” she asked, voice croaky, when he had woken with a start. He glanced her way, worn and tired and grey, face bearing on the last remnants of his signature calm, and his expression was something that could almost have been described as pitying.
“Of course we are,” he said quietly, “we will be until we die.” Karen looked between his blue-tinged lips and her own pale, trembling hands and thought that they would not have to wait long at all.