A white light flashed before his closed eyes. As he opened them, he blinked and stared aimlessly into the distance. The sun was setting behind the mountains, turning the purple sky into a blemish of different colours. With his eyes fixed on the horizon, he noticed his breath hung mid-air, creating a fog as if breathing against glass.
As he touched the ‘glass’, it vibrated through his fingers, pulsing through his nerves, and making his fists clench by its own. The surface was all around him, just a few feet away from his nose. Where am I? What is this? he repeated several times in his head as he reached frantically all around him.
His breath became deeper and the surface almost seemed to close in around him as his heart began to race. He rammed his shoulder against the surface, desperately trying to break it. But the harder he hit, the stronger the surface pulsed through his body, making him limp. With staggering legs he slumped on the platform, careful not to lean outside of its edges.
As his mind raced, he took a deep breath and closed his eyes. Breathing rhythmically, he managed to calm himself and could once again focus his mind. With his eyes now sharp, he looked around, trying to find clues to his whereabouts. Purple weeds grew all around him, with dirt red as blood - he couldn’t recall whether this was strange or not.
The back of his head stung painfully as he tried to remember.
As he groaned in pain, a deep sound echoed around him, like a giant tapping on the outside of a fishbowl. He looked up and found a woman looking down at him, lightly tapping on the surface on the other side. She had a stern look on her face and her blond hair was tied in a knot at the back of her head - she did not look very friendly. But as their eyes met, her mouth quirked. With his attention caught, she reached out her palm against the surface and a holographic interface appeared. The ‘glass’ disappeared around him and he touched the thin air where the surface had been, hesitant to believe that he was free.
He stood on weary legs and stepped outside of the platform. The air blew warmly on his face, making him force air down his lungs. The women stood silently and looked at him with interest.
As he became aware of her scrutiny he stuttered. “H-hello?”
Her expression grew stern again as if changing her emotion by the flick of a switch. “Welcome number 251, please follow me,” she replied in a monotone voice.
His mind flooded with questions, but before he could ask any, she turned around and walked away. He remained by the platform and stared in confusion at her as she disappeared down the path. As she vanished down the slope, fear struck him, and he hurried after her.
They walked in silence as gravel ground under his feet, making him stumble during the descent. She, however, walked with confidence, unaffected by the steep slope. The path soon flattened and he could once again scan his surroundings. Many questions raced through his mind, but they all died on his lips as one seemed more relevant than the next. Finally, he asked. “W-what did you call me just then?” he lowered his head as he asked, realising he picked the most mundane question to ask.
The woman stopped and glanced over her shoulder. “I believe I said ‘251’… I take it you don't remember your name?”
“Of course, I do! It’s—” He hesitated.
The woman nodded and continued to walk down the path as she explained. “Perhaps I should introduce myself. My name is number 45, but you can call me Pen. If it makes you feel any better, nobody can remember anything… about their past life.”
He stared quizzically at her. “I…uh… Everyone?”
Buildings appeared behind the hill as they continued down the path. Pen craned around and pointed down below. “This is home,” she said.
He lurched forward and gazed at the strange looking buildings. There was three large structures, all in grey symmetrical cubes, except the centre piece that was shaped like a cross. “It doesn’t have a name,” she added. “We simply call it ‘Home’.
He continued to scan the area as she spoke. It wasn’t apparent at first glance, but rocks formed a circle around the ‘village’ that stretched far on all sides. The rock formation was pointy and reached inwards towards the structures, effectively hiding it from sight, except from above. Suddenly, her words went through to him. “No name? Why not?” He wondered as he turned towards her.
She remained motionless and looked intently at him. “Because there is nowhere else to go, of course,” she said. “This is the only settlement on the planet, and we are its only inhabitants. Well, as far as we know anyway.”
“And I am the 251st person…” His voice lost its energy as the reality of the situation slowly sunk in.
“Very good, you learn fast. Though, that is to be expected.”
“What do you mean?” he wondered, his voice still low and his eyes tired.
Her lips moved, but he heard no sound. A sharp pain stung at the back of his head and he fell to his knees while pressing his hands against his head. A voice echoed in his mind. Tom… Tom?!
It disappeared. He opened his eyes again and saw Pen hunkered over him. “Are you okay?” she asked firmly.
The pain vanished. Feeling perfectly fine, he was no longer sure whether he had a headache to begin with. However, the voice lingered in his mind. “Tom?” he said aloud. It was more of a question rather than a statement.
Pen raised an eyebrow. “You want to be called Tom?”
He blinked and looked vacantly into the ground, the voice still fresh in his mind. Without an answer, she brought out a notepad and scribbled something down on it.
The tour continued. Quietly he listened to her words describing the surrounding area. Her voice was almost mechanical as if she had recited them many times before. Along the way, they came across a house made of glass, and inside, all manner of plants grew, all in cyan and purple. A vine-like plant caught his attention, that grew tall towards the ceiling. As he stopped and stared, he realised that Pen’s voice had gone quiet. He looked around and hurried down the road. She was talking to herself, still continuing the tour without him.
“… we eat three times a day, six in the morning, at noon, and six in the afternoon,” she said uninterrupted.
Perplexed by her lack of perception, he let her finish her speech, afraid that interrupting her meant that she would start over again. Pen stopped outside the largest structure in the ‘village’ and asked. “Do you have any questions?”
With some hesitation he replied. “No.”
With her mouth quirked, she turned around and walked inside the cross-shaped structure, confident that he would follow. The walls and floor were in blinding white, making it difficult to see where the hall began and ended. Only the black stripes on the door frames that littered the hall provided a sense of depth.
Not far from the entrance, they stopped by a door that looked like any other in the hall. “This will be your accommodation,” Pen said while standing next to it. “Tomorrow you will be introduced to the rest of the residents, and afterwards, we will find out your skill so you can contribute to the welfare of the community.”
He raised an eyebrow and she rolled her eyes in response. “Naturally we will have to find a job for you,” she said. We can’t have people loitering around being useless now can we?”
Tom, already feeling anxious, began to sweat. She noticed this and said. “You should not worry, however, even though you have lost your memories your profession will soon be apparent. As I told you earlier, every single person here is an expert at something. I am sure your case will be no different.”
He could not recall her mentioning this, but her words comforted him a little. She opened the door next to them. “Now get some sleep, we will start the meeting before breakfast at 5.30,” she said while watching him inspect the room.
Tom hunkered under the frame as he went inside. The room was small and spartan, with only the basic necessities. There was a bed, a toilet, and a sink, but no windows. An image of a window emerged in his mind. Outside of it, a green world expanded as far as the eye could see. As he recalled the imagery, his head ached again and a white light flashed before his eyes:
In front of him, there was a playground. He sat on a bench while watching a small child play in the sand. A brown haired woman placed her hand on his knee and smiled warmly at him. Her hazel coloured eyes filled his body with warmth. In the background, he could hear the small girl shout. “Mama look, look what I can do!”
The image, that was clear as day soon faded and he found himself back in the sterile white room. Pen looked at him as if she was waiting for an answer.
She sighed. “Do you have any questions?”
Tom stared blankly at her and shook his head to clear his mind. She took it as no and closed the door behind her, leaving Tom alone with his thoughts. Feeling exhaustion wash over him, he laid down on the bed fully clothed, and soon he drifted into sleep.
The playground appeared before him again, he was sitting next to the brown haired woman on the same bench. She moved her lips, but no words came out. From the corner of his eye, he could see something moving, something large in the distance. He stood up, curious of what it was. He couldn't clearly see, but fear crept into his heart.
The brown haired woman noticed the terror in his eyes and looked in the same direction. Her eyes widen and she quickly rushed off the bench, running towards the playground. He remained frozen, staring at the mass of people coming up from behind a wall. As they approached him, the girls cry broke him from his frozen state and he lifted her from the ground and dashed in the other direction, away from the mob.
The mob chanted loudly as they drew closer. With the girl held firmly around his chest, they ran together up the road towards the buildings on the other side. Soldiers in riot gear quickly formed in a tight formation between them and the threat. A passage opened for them inside the shield wall and they were let through. As they created more distance between the two confronting forces the chanting got fainter. He could no longer hear clearly, but two words pierced his heart. “Murderers! Fascists!”
With his heart beating rapidly, he awoken. He looked around and touched the wall, unsure whether this was reality or not. A word suddenly formed in his mouth. “Beth,” the name felt familiar. Another name came to him. “Linda…” A single tear fell from his eye. These are people he knew and loved, he concluded. No dreams, or illusions.
His head throbbed as he tried to recall their faces, but they faded quickly. Only the scenery stuck with him. It was lush and green, the sky was blue. Where was this place? He wondered. As he was deep in thought, the door suddenly opened. He looked towards the entrance and found Pen’s stiff expression staring down at him. “Good, you are awake,” she said bluntly.
“Good morning to you too,” he grunted.
With stiff limbs, he rose and followed her out into the hallway. “Where are we going?” he asked.
She snorted in despise and said. “You don’t have a very good memory do you? Or perhaps you are just a bad listener? Either way, you will have to get your act together soon.” He opened his mouth to defend himself but his words died on his lips as he had no inclination to explain his visions to her, and he remained quiet the rest of the way. After a while, they came to a large two door entrance with a big sign spelling ‘Meeting Hall’. And above it, there was a digital counter, with the number ‘249’ blinking in a red light. “I will make your arrival official,” she added.
Inside, the room was filled to the brim. Men and women in yellow, blue and red jumpsuits sat in different sections of the room. Everyone turned their heads towards them as they entered. The people mumbled quietly and he felt their stares bore into him. He shuddered at the attention. At the other end they reached a stage, and above it, there was another digital counter that now spelt, ‘251’ with a bright green light.
Pen placed herself at the centre of the stage and said with a commanding voice. “For years now, the device up on the hill have remained quite. We have lived to the best of our abilities, and towards whatever purpose we were sent here for. And we will continue to do so, to make this world suitable for future generations to come. But today is a day of celebration, for we are no longer alone. The device up on the hill grants us comrades still, which means we have not been forgotten and someone is aware of our existence. That said, I hope that you all will make Tom here feel welcomed and I pray that he will not be the last.”
There was sporadic clapping across the room. The indifference of his presence was apparent, and to his surprise, many in the crowd glowered angrily at him. The clapping died quickly, and she continued. “So… to the matter at hand.“
Suddenly a man in a blue jumpsuit stood up from the crowd and said with a clear smooth voice. “Yes, yes. We all know why we are her, but I think I speak for all of us when I say that our food situation is the more pressing matter at the moment.” The crowd mumbled in agreement and the man went on. “I propose that we allocate more resources to food production from less… necessary departments,” he said while glancing at the people in red.
A man in a red jumpsuit rose hastily and said. “I cannot deny that being able to sustain ourselves is important, but don't forget! we know very little about this planet. It is imperative for our continued survival that we learn more about the environment we live in. We simply cannot afford to reduce the funds towards research.” The majority nodded in agreement as well and he continued. “However, we could always allocate resources from the engineering department. They don't seem to be doing anything these days…”
An outraged man in a yellow jumpsuit stood up and began talking in a gritty deep voice, but Tom had stopped listening. He glanced towards the entrance, and at the window of the door, he saw an old man looking inside. Tom’s eyes went between the sign that still shone in a bright green colour and the man on the other side. He nudged Pen on the arm but she waved him away, too focused on the arguments at hand.
He snorted and backed slowly away from the stage. People glared at him as he walked casually towards the exit. He could feel Pen eyeing him from behind, but he did not care, the residence didn't care, so why should he?
In the hallway, the old man stood leaning, watching the meeting through the door window. He didn’t pay any attention to Tom at first and only muttered silently to himself. The old man’s skin looked dry and weather worn, almost like a worn-down piece of leather, and he had the tired eyes to go with it. Though his skin looked that of a senior, his hair still had colour.
Tired of being ignored Tom cleared his throat and the old man finally glanced in his direction. “Couldn’t take the mindless chatter, eh? I don’t blame you. They are all buffoons!” The old man uttered sharply. “Every last one of them… Well, except for Pen that is. She is the only one keeping the colony in order, that is for sure.”
Tom just stared as the old man rambled on. “C-colony?” Tom stammered.
The old man opened his mouth to answer, but something turned his attention back towards meeting hall. “Well, look at that,” he said. “Been awhile since we had one of these.”
Tom turned and looked through the window. Dozens of people had risen from their seats and were arguing loudly with each other. The people in blue and yellow seemed to argue the loudest as they stood facing each other. Tom was about to rush inside when the old man suddenly grabbed his shoulder. “Don’t. You will only make it worse.”
Puzzled by the statement he hesitated by the door. It was true however, he had no stake in this, nobody cared about him anyhow. He relaxed and released his hand from the door handle, looking as the crowd inside was on the verge of an all out brawl.
A part of him wanted them to, and it seemed that the old man noticed his wish as he remarked. “I wouldn’t get my hopes up,” he said, grinning widely.
Tom flushed and looked away, but then asked. “How can you be so certain?”
“Just look,” the old man said, keeping his eyes fixated on the window.
Tom shrugged and turned his attention back into the meeting hall. He gawked as he saw people already calming as Pen interfered along the seats. The brawl seemed have been a certainty just a moment ago, now they were as calm as ever, saved for wild flailing at the edges of the hall.
“Impressive,” he said to himself as he noticed that the old man no longer stood beside him. Tom looked around the corner and found him just a couple of feet down the hallway. “Old man!” he shouted. “What’s your name?!”
The old man craned around and said. “You can call me Ben, I don't care for the numbers.”
Working in the colony was rough. For two weeks he had been assigned several functions that had (at best) only proven that he was not useful, or at worst, a direct hindrance. He thought about what Pen had told him when he first arrived. Everyone at the colony is a specialist at something. Somehow his had yet to reveal itself.
After yet another failed assignment he burst out of the facility and walked briskly out into a purple field. The weeds grew to his ankles and spread across the colony and its surrounding area. The botanists (or blue suits) were hoping that the strangely coloured plant would cover the planet someday.
As he stood in the middle of the field, he looked up into the sky and stared at the red planet that covered a large portion of his view - like he had done many times these past few weeks. Somehow, it calmed him. The atmosphere on the planet flared as he looked. Lightning raged in red and yellow on the northern hemisphere. This happened from time to time; but most of all, he was waiting for the rare opportunity when the smog, that surrounded the entire planet, would subside, so he could see what lay underneath. As the pockets of openings had been too small so far, he imagined the planet being blue and green, like in his memories.
But today, even planet watching was unable to cheer him up. The many failures of finding a profession had alienated him from the others. And without a function, you are considered a strain on the town's resources, a waste of space. That is what they kept telling him anyway. He looked up at a hill, the hill where he came from and wondered why he was sent here, how he was sent here. His legs moved on their own towards the hill, as if drawn to his place of birth; it might as well be since it was his, and everyone else’s, earliest memory - as far as everyone else was concerned…
He reached the top and stared at the small platform at the centre of the hill. Incredibly small, nothing to indicate it being a powerful machine. Surprisingly, the ground around it looked untouched as if nobody had the thought of inspecting the device before. Could it really be true? he wondered as he touched the edges of the platform. He tried to lift it, but it didn’t budge. With no tools to dig with, he decided not to continue.
While gazing at the platform he heard footsteps coming from below, and he saw Ben slowly ascending the hill. “You need help?” Tom shouted.
Ben grunted in response. Tom shrugged and let the stubborn old man be. After watching him power up the hill, Ben finally arrived beside him. His breathing was heavy, but his back remained straight. Tom grinned at the old man, realising that he was tougher than he looked. As Ben’s breathing slowed his eyes fixated on the platform, noticing the finger marks in the dirt around it. “You're curious about this thing?” he growled, his throat still thick with saliva.
Tom raised an eyebrow as he sat hunkered by the platform, thinking it was a rather odd question. “Aren’t you?” he responded curiously.
Ben shrugged. “No, not really,” he replied, now with a steady breath. “What do you even expect to find?”
“Answers…” Tom said bluntly.
With some effort, Ben hunkered down next to him and patted the now dusty platform. “Would it change anything if you found them?” he asked.
Tom could feel how his irritation grew. “How should I know?!” he snapped. “I… I just need them.”
Ben closed his lips tightly and peered aimlessly ahead. A gust of wind threw dust onto their faces and Tom threw up his palm to protect his eyes, but some landed in his mouth and he spat on the ground. They couldn’t terraform this place fast enough.
Ben glanced towards him as Tom spluttered. “Answers can often be found in unexpected places,” Ben said, “if you are willing to open your eyes, that is.” Tom glared with a quizzical expression as Ben continued. ”But I doubt that whatever you will find will change anything, or make you happier for that matter. Take my advice and accept your lot, it will prove to be much easier for you.”
Tom noticed a hint of sadness in the old man’s final words who stared vacantly as the red planet descended over the horizon. A few hours later the sun followed suit and what should have been complete darkness instead turned into an eerie red glow, illuminating from the ground.
Tom clenched his teeth as a yawn almost escaped him. Pen stood on the pedestal next to him, speaking loudly and clearly to an uninterested crowd. Despite the thickness in the air, she spoke with energy and authority, but many in the crowd still slumped in their seats, barely able to keep their eyes open. It was a relief however, a drowsy crowd was less likely to fist fight, and ever since the incident several weeks ago he had been reluctant to leave Pen alone during these meetings. She protested at first, of course, but she realised that Tom being part of the meetings was more of a favour to him than it was to her. It gave him purpose, however little it may have been, and it helped him through the days of monotony.
The different departments (or factions, as he called them) were no longer willing to train him as it was apparent that he had no particular set of skills. Officially making him a ‘waste of space.’
As he watched the crowd he noticed several glaring eyes staring towards the ‘faction’ in yellow, the mechanics. He smirked as he saw their humiliated faces. Out of all the ‘factions’ he’d been with, the mechs were the worst of them all. Ruthless against strangers. A chill went down his spine as he recalled the demeaning acts he had to go through, ultimately for nothing. It did not surprise him that something would finally break. He just wished it wasn't the air purifier.
His mind drifted as he looked over the crowd: Who put them there? Why were they sent here? Why were their memories taken away?… And how come he had retained some of his?
While deep in thought, his body lolled, but a high pitch voice made him twitch and stand straight as he heard:
“(…) and the SKILL SET OF EACH WORKER needs to be (…)” Pen went on, lowering her voice again.
Tom looked over the crowd once again and noticed that people no longer slumped in their seats and their tired expressions washed away. It was never clear what kind of official status she had in the colony, but they listened to her and respected her. She was the glue that held them together, he realised. But too often, she was also the conduit for their concerns.
As the meeting went on, he glanced towards her. She had the same cold and mechanical expression she always had. A tough exterior built from abuse and responsibility, he thought. But for some reason, she was the only one that called him by name, and not by number, or the ‘other’ term. He relaxed and smiled as he watched her, but as he did, a yawn broke free and his mouth opened wide.
He tried to suppress it, but the damage was already done. It spread amongst the crowd, like a disease, they became infected, one by one. Their yawns echoed loudly in the room. His mouth quirked, feeling embarrassed and amused at the same time. He could sense Pen’s eyes flash angrily at him. While glowering, she nodded towards the door. He shrugged, feeling there was no danger today and quietly left the room.
While outside he hesitated by the door, what should I do now? he wondered as he peered down the corridors. They were empty - as expected.
He leaned against the door and glanced inside as his thoughts wandered. Answers can often be found in unexpected places.
He sighed. “Can you be more vague?” he said aloud.
As he stared into the meeting room, his eyes felt heavy, and slowly he closed them. Either he slept for hours or not at all, he awoke in confusion, feeling a vibration through the door.
Chairs were flying and the colours of their jumpsuits blended in the chaos. He looked towards the scene and found Pen no longer there. Within a heartbeat he rushed inside, struggling through the chaos. “Pen!” he shouted, but his voice was drenched in the commotion.
He dodged a chair as it came flying and hit a man in blue behind him, who grunted in pain. As the man lay on the floor, he worried for a second that the man would be trampled, but as he stood in indecision, people in blue came for him and dragged him to their corner of the room. At that moment, he realised that it was only a few people that actually fought, and the majority held formation at each corner of the room. His eyes drifted towards the centre of the conflict, where the three ‘factions’ met. They shouted and cursed but for the time being, they didn’t engage one another. As he scuffled through the chaos he saw her, at the epicentre, trying to mediate between the three ‘factions’.
Feeling relieved he pushed himself through the crowd towards her. But in the commotion, several people were thrown into the stage, knocking Pen backwards. Terror struck him and he mercilessly powered through the crowd that was at each other’s throats. Finally, he reached her and saw her struggle on the ground.
The chaos intensified and he rolled off the person laying on top of her. Her eyes widen as she saw him, but she did not hesitate to accept his hand. He took her by the waist and forced his way through the commotion. The formation of the three ‘factions’ began to break and more and more people joined the fray. They were pushed back and forth and he could feel his mind go blank with rage. Without hesitation he punched a man at the back of his head, making him fall over the person which he argued with. Pen stuck closely to him and he did not dare let go of her completely.
As the door was in sight they made a final push until they broke through and closed the door behind them, slumping with exhaustion against it. Breathing deeply, he wanted to ask what had happened when Pen suddenly reach over his head and locked the door behind them. Confused, he stared into her eyes. He saw her hardened expression tire, and a weariness he had never seen before enveloped her. There were no barriers between them then, and he felt that he could see into her soul. With a simple hug, nothing needed to be said.
He hadn’t noticed, but his fists were bleeding, and as the adrenaline from the commotion receded, he felt sore all over his body.
“Sit down,” she said with a forceful voice. She stopped in her tracks as she realised how she sounded, but soon returned to rummaging through a shelf.
“How are you holding up?” he asked while sitting on a doctor's bed.
She touched her cheek and flinched slightly as she did. “It’s fine. I just need some ice.”
Tom looked down at his bloodied fists, amazed how emotional he had become when seeing Pen in distress. She returned to treat his hands and began wrapping them in bandages.
“What happened?” Tom asked wearily. “Has it always been like this?”
She sighed while continuing to treat his hands. “Not to this degree, no. I try hard keeping the balance, but sometimes they are hard to control.”
“And when you can’t it leads to a brawl?! he exclaimed. “What were they arguing about anyway?”
She hesitated and kept her eyes fixated on his hands as she said. “It was about you… and your purpose here.”
Tom looked down at her scalp, her hair sprawling in different directions. “We have lived many years with just 250 people in the community,” she went on. “We created a delicate balance based on the number of people and their talents. Didn’t you find it strange that there are no children around?”
It had never occurred to him, but Tom just stared at the wall as Pen went on. “Naturally, when you came along, things became complicated. What if more people came? how would the distribution be then? do we have enough resources to accommodate them?
She paused before continuing. “But, nobody else came, only you; which brings up another terrifying question. What if we are it? Are there no more people than us left in the universe?”
“So my presence really stirs the pot, so to speak.”
“To put it lightly, yes.”
“Why doesn’t anyone wonder where we come from?” Tom asked, “I mean, you must have found something by now?”
She smiled wryly. “There have been people that wondered, sure. But, their search made them insane, too focused on what they had supposedly lost, the people they supposedly knew, the great life that was supposedly stolen from them. They became obsessed. It became such a problem, that now, there is a stigma in asking these questions. If we want to survive in this world, we should just accept that we are here and there is nothing we can do to change that.”
Tom looked with a blank expression as he let her words sink in. “Ben told me the same thing,” he finally said.
“You talked to Ben?” she asked, surprised.
“Yeah… A strange man to say the least. What does he do? in which facti—“ Tom hesitated and Pen’s brow furrowed. “In which ‘department’ does he work?” he corrected himself.
Taken aback, Pen stammered. “H-he doesn’t live with the rest of us. He chose solitude outside our community and hasn’t spoken to anyone in years. I’m amazed that he even talked to you. What did he say?”
“I think he knows something that we don’t,” he said bluntly.
Pen raised her eyebrow in intrigue. “What makes you say that?”
Tom told her about his encounter at the transporter and Ben’s strange comment about noticing things.
Pen finished patching his hands and rose to wash her’s by the sink. “I guess it makes sense,” she said. “He was one of the first to inhabit this community after all.”
Tom looked up with anticipation as she continued. “We came in waves. I’m from the third wave of 50 people, but we all came one by one. It took several days before all 50 came through.”
“If that’s true, he must know something!” Tom exclaimed, filled with anticipation.
Pen dried her hands with a towel and then gazed at him with an intent expression. “Maybe, or maybe he became crazy from trying to find the truth. Nobody claims to know him very well, at least publicly.”
Tom grinned excitedly. “I would like to visit this man. Do you know where he lives?”
Pen sighed and shook her head while looking at her feet, hiding a smile. “No, I only know it is north of here,” she answered. “It should be close, though, he walks back and forth once a month for supplies.”
“Apparently someone still knows him,” Tom murmured to himself.
Feeling a flurry of excitement, he clenched both his fists tightly, but he grinned painfully as they began to ache. The pain made his mind trace towards the people still locked in the meeting hall, and his excitement faded as he looked at Pen with a sombre expression.
She knew what he was thinking and she waved her hand airily. “I’ll let them out in a few hours.”
He smirked, feeling his heart expand just a little.
The sun burned against their necks as they traversed the rocky landscape outside the crater. Pen explained that the minerals in the earth around the colony was ideal for colonisation; something about making the earth more fertile, but he didn’t listen closely as his mind was too occupied with the prospects ahead.
In the distance, an intense light reflected into their eyes, a light that could only come from something metallic. They headed towards it and as they got closer, a building appeared before them. It looked nothing like they had ever seen before. The left side was smaller than the other, and there was no clear path inside. They walked around while touching the outer layers of the structure. They gasped as they got to the other end as they found three large exhaust pipes. A thick layer of red dust filled the interior.
“So you came?” a voice said behind them. “Took you long enough.”
Startled they quickly turned towards the voice. Ben’s rugged face and tired eyes, stared down at them from the structure. Unsurprised, Tom held his head high and said. “If you hadn’t been so damn cryptic, I might have come sooner.”
“It was a warning,” Ben replied, “a warning you should seriously consider.”
Old man being cryptic again, Tom thought. But he decided not to argue and instead said. “I need to know something and I think you know the answer to it.”
Ben paused and stared at Pen who looked definitely back. “Please come inside,” he finally said and disappeared into the structure, the door remaining open.
Tom climbed the metal railing so that it clattered at each step, but Pen hesitated below, scanning the structure once more. She took a short breath and followed Tom moments later. Inside, the walls were filled with different kinds of electronics, monitors and other gadgets he had no reference to. Wires hung from the ceiling and whipped his face as he looked around. At the front there were four large chairs to sit on, one being more worn than the other. Ben sat on it.
Pen stroke her finger on the chair next to her, surprised to find it clean. Ben glanced at her as she sat. “I would offer you something warm to drink,” Ben said, “but I can’t get the cooker the work,” while pointing towards a device next to him.
The device stood on a large dashboard with buttons and monitors that had seen better days. Above the dashboard was a large window covered in dust, it was impossible to see through.
Pen stared wide-eyed around herself. “Is this yours?” she asked.
Ben gazed blankly towards the dust covered window, his mind far away. “I think it’s best if I told the story from the beginning,” he said while hunching forward.
They did the same and listened intently to Ben’s words. “As you have already guessed, I was among the first to set foot on this land, or rather, THE first… Or so I thought.”
Tom bent forward in anticipation.
“On that day, I arrived alone. The wasteland expanded upon my vision, all red. There was no-one to greet me, no-one to give me an explanation for anything, my mind totally blank. Luckily, more people began appearing through the device and I had other’s to share in my plight. But the hours went by and we were now twenty people that waited for an explanation; and a shortly after, they came. I assumed at first that they came here before we did, through the same means. But, as they showed us our new home, they claimed to have built it, just for us. Naturally we began to ask questions: Why didn’t I, and my comrades, have any memories? Why were we sent here? What's our purpose? However, they wouldn’t say. And after we got settled in our new home, they secluded themselves from us. To this very spacecraft in fact,” he said and waved his hand in one straight motion. “So, to answer your question. No, it is not mine.”
The very fact that this was an aircraft was brushed over by Ben as it was the most obvious thing in the world. Sure, when you really looked at it, it would seem it could go airborne, at least at one point. But neither his memory nor any records on base even resembled any such technology. While trying to process what Ben had said he asked. “So, what happened to them? Did they eventually tell you what you wanted to know?”
Ben took a deep breath before continuing. “I’m sorry to disappoint, but they didn’t.”
Tom suddenly felt heavier and he slumped on his seat.
“Not substantially, anyway,” Ben added.
Tom raised his head and stared at Ben with wide eyes as he continued. “As we slowly learned how things worked, and more and more people joined our ranks, the three ‘astronauts,’ (as they called themselves) reappeared. They looked depressed and asked if they could help with anything. At first, we tried to get answers from them but mentioning their home made their eyes turn darker. The only thing we did find out, was that we all came from the same world, nothing more.”
“We decided that we would stop asking them questions. Nothing they could ever tell us would help us survive in this new world. And seeing how they acted, we didn’t want to know… at least not I.”
Ben paused and glanced towards Tom, who sat eagerly waiting for Ben to continue. “Anyway… to avoid being asked the same questions after every new arrival, they decided to blend in. It was peaceful for a while, but it did not last. The ‘astronauts’ minds began to decay and they argued daily. I didn’t get the context of their arguments but it was obvious that they missed their loved ones. And in the end, one of the ‘astronauts’ committed suicide. That is what I think happened anyway, but the other two thought otherwise.”
“They accused each other of murder, and before long, they ended up killing each other too. But before they did, they said something peculiar. As they argued about who was the murderer one of them said. ““There is no way that any of these off-worlders could have done it. Their minds are clean, no longer corrupted by society.”” For some reason, they did not believe that we were capable of murder…”
“Nevertheless, they died shortly after. Head trauma and a stab wound to the neck. I didn’t see what happened but it looked brutal. Perhaps they couldn’t die by their own hands and needed a reason to be killed by the other. Perhaps they were crazy from the start, who knows? But take from the story what you will, for this is all that I know, that you yourselves already didn’t.”
Silence enveloped the room and everyone stared at their feet. The silence was all encompassing, save for the wind hitting against the exterior, making the old and rusty metal vibrate and the cords swayed from the ceiling. Pen, who had been sitting silently until now, suddenly asked. “After knowing all this, you still choose to live alone out here in solitude, why?”
“Funny that you of all people would ask me this. You know how the people in the colony are, why do you bother to live with them? Is what I’d like to know.”
Not expecting a question in return she hesitated. She looked at Tom and their eyes met. Her hardened expression softened as she must have seen that he himself was dying for an explanation.
While trembling she took a deep breath and said. “I don’t know what is so difficult to understand about it. It is hard being alone, unwanted. I just felt that it is better to have a purpose, to be respected, and part of the community, rather than spending your days in solitude. No matter how crude the people here may be, nothing is more terrifying than being isolated, especially in our small world.”
Ben grinned and snorted. “ Good answer. It is true that being an outcast among 250 people is terribly lonely. I can testify to this. Yet, it makes me hopeful that mister ‘251’ here is with us.” Ben said and put his arm around Tom. “Perhaps there are more people coming. Perhaps we will know for sure why we were sent here… eventually. Until then, we have to make the best of things I guess.”
A smile grew on Tom’s face as he watched the two of them grin warmly back at him. Perhaps it’s not so bad not knowing, after all, he thought.
Suddenly, intense pain struck him. He groaned and writhed on the floor, and a white light flashed before his eyes:
Finding himself no longer inside the rusty old spacecraft, he watched as people sat around him, hunkered over computer screens. A delicate hand was placed on the glass before him, and next to it, a small girl’s hand. He touched the glass and met theirs on the other side. The brown haired woman and the little girl from his memories stood in front of him, smiling. “Beth… Linda, I’ll await you on the other side,” he wanted to say.
But as he opened his mouth, blood splattered all over the glass. People fell as bullets pierced their flesh and destroyed the equipment all around. His eye drifted back towards the woman and girl who now lay crumbled on the floor. A bloodied handprint streaked along the glass. In that instant, another white light flashed before his eyes and he was sent away.
Pen crouched next to him, with her ear near his mouth. She rose as he sat up with a start.
“Thank god, you’re alive!” she exclaimed.
His eyes darted between her and Ben, eyes wide with a blank stare. Tears welled and he felt his stomach clench. With staggering legs, he wobbled out of the structure and leaned against the railing outside. Gasping and barfing, his body trembled violently so that the railing clattered as he held onto it. As he spat and spluttered, Pen touched him softly on his shoulder and he winced and stared at her with blood red eyes, unblinking. He refused her touch and bolted down the stairs and into the wasteland until the structure disappeared behind him.
He remembered the vision clearly, refusing to go away; their bodies ripped apart by bullets and blood splattering all around. He rubbed his eyes while lying on the bed, unable to sleep for more than a few hours at the time. “Beth, Linda,” he said aloud, tasting the words in his mouth. He tried to recall anything about them, what they were like, how they acted, even some of their facial features were blurry in his mind’s eye. Yet, he missed them. Seeing their death was the most painful thing he had ever experienced. He smiled ruefully to himself, such strong emotions towards almost complete strangers. He did not know them, not truly…
Slowly, the door creaked open behind him. He did not raise his head as there was only one other person who had access to his room. He heard a plate being placed on his table, something she did every day since that awful night. His stomach stung with disgust at himself. Is this what I have become? A man who wallows in his own pity?
With some effort, he rose from the bed and sat on the side of it. He snorted and smiled grimly at her as she stood looking down at him. Her face looked unnatural, he noted, as she smiled compassionately at him. Feeling embarrassed for the both of them he asked before she had the chance. “How are things out there?”
She sighed and leaned against the wall. “Not well. They fight and they bicker… more than usual. But I’m not here to talk about them. How are you holding up? Are you ready to tell me what happened?”
He smiled inside. No shallow words of comfort and straight to the point. He took a slow breath while staring down his feet. “How I’m holding up?” he repeated. “It’s…” he paused, considering his words carefully. “What would you say if I told you I had memories of myself? before I was sent here? Would that ‘stir the pot’ even more do you think?”
She staggered backwards and closed the door tightly behind. “Don’t even joke about such things,” she snapped. “Are you telling me that you know our true purpose? Please tell me that it isn’t so.”
Surprised by her sharp reaction he stuttered. “N-no… I mean, maybe—“
He stopped himself as he saw her intent stare, her fists trembling. He rose suddenly and embraced her. “What is going on out there?” he asked. He could feel her body losing its tension as she rested her head on his shoulder, her hands hanging loosely by her legs.
“Nobody came Tom,” she said, her voice cracking. “They don’t want anything to do with me anymore… I’ve lost them.”
Her body lolled and he held her tight as he sat her down on the floor. Unable to find any words of comfort, he said the only thing he could. “I’m sorry.”
She pushed him lightly, drying her watery eyes that never welled. She was so much stronger than him, he thought.
“It’s not your fault,” she said. “Nobody asked to be sent here. I can’t imagine! And even if they did, that is all in the past. They are not the same people that made that decision anymore.”
His breath hung solid in his throat as she said her final words. He avoided her gaze, just for a second and she scanned his face with wide eyes. “That’s it isn’t it? You remember why you got here, how you got here?”
“It’s… It’s not like I remember everything…” he said. “I think I have a family. Had a family.” He corrected himself. “Every time I pass out I have these flashbacks, or sometimes I dream about them… It was not pretty Pen. Whatever world we left behind, it can’t be much worse than this.”
Pen stared in disbelief at him. He could tell she was hurt that he had held this information from her. She avoided his gaze and then finally asked. “Do you miss them?”
“To be honest… I don’t know. I don’t know them, but it hurts every time I think about them… I think I finally understand what Ben tried to warn me about that day. How the ‘astronauts’ felt leaving home, never to see their loved ones again.”
She offered a smile and they sat embracing each other tightly on the floor, long into the night.
He was extremely thankful to Pen. Even though she had lost most of her authority, she was still able to get supplies every day. Seems that some people still respected her…
Despite this, all semblance of cooperation between the ‘factions’ was virtually gone. They no longer shared resources equally, and instead traded what they had, for service needed. Needless to say, the blue faction (or the biologists) had become the most powerful. They controlled the food and water supply while the red and yellow faction had to provide the workforce, or other services, mostly medical, and maintenance; things that they usually did before the breakup, but now at a much higher price.
He squinted his eyes as he walked down the hallway. He hated these halls. The white light flaring from the panels of the wall, what sane person would design it like this? he wondered. It was difficult to see ahead, perhaps that was its purpose? A cynical protection in case of riots… who knew anyway - not that it mattered. The halls were empty late at night, at least, they used to be. One or two people walked along the hallway, aimlessly it seemed. He glanced at them as they passed and was greeted by angry glares in return. He snorted ruefully in response.
At the centre of the cross-shaped structure, he could see down all four hallways, only the grey doors at the end of each hallway indicated any kind of depth. The area was wide and empty, another strange design choice. But he shrugged at the thought and leaned against one of the panels, waiting for Pen.
It was strange of Pen to arrange a meeting like this, out in public. His mind drifted towards that night several days ago; they had talked all night. His mouth quirked as he stared aimlessly at the ground, lost in thought.
At the corner of his eye, something broke the constant stream of light, and part of the wall flickered next to him. He shrugged, surprised that the colony is falling apart already, perhaps the mechs did more to maintain the colony than he realised. The light turned back on into a constant light, then it flickered again, on the same spot. He stared at the flickering panel finding it had the same shape and size of a door. As the thought struck him, his body tensed and he looked around the hallways. Empty. He lurched towards the wall panel and pressed his palm lightly against it. The door clicked and the panel receded into the wall next to it. He winced as it happened.
The inside was dark, only lit by gloomy red emergency lights. He glanced over his shoulders once again and went inside the room.
As he did, the door closed behind him. He looked back, unsurprised; that much was expected, as far as he was concerned. With the light from the hallway gone it became even darker in the room, but enough light illuminated the spiralling staircase that reached to the depths below. He was surprised to find such a bare structure inside the otherwise high-tech facilities as if they never intended it to be used, at least not regularly. It would explain the emergency lights, he thought as he kept staring down below. The staircase clattered as he took the first step, the railing was cold and metallic and the staircase was small, barely wide enough for two people to stand shoulder to shoulder.
With uncertain legs he was careful with every step, expecting a long descent. But as he descended, his feet hit solid ground after just a few minutes. He couldn’t be more than 30 meters below ground, he guessed, peering up the stairs. The air was pleasant and warm, yet the moisture in his lips leeched out of him, making him lick his lips as he peered into the red- lit darkness. The room felt massive.
“Pen?” he whispered nervously. A sudden snort in the distance made him stagger, ready to bolt. But his body almost slumped in relief as the noise was followed by a faint pleasant groan.
“Tom? Is that you?” The voice said.
Seconds later, the entire room was illuminated by a white light, revealing everything, including that the room was actually very small. He felt embarrassed how nervous he had been. The room was covered with machines from wall to wall, yet there was only one monitor at the far end. Pen stood next to it, with a mattress by her feet. “What is this place? Why was the light turned off?” he asked rapidly.
Pen approached him, yawning. “I’m sorry,” she said, rubbing her eyes. “Nobody knows I’m down here so I take naps here sometimes.”
She was in a good mood, he could tell. She had a warm smile and he flushed as he avoided her gaze. “So, why did you ask me to come down here?” he asked.
She giggled at his awkwardness and leaned against one of the electronics next to her, bending excessively and showing off her figure. He licked his mouth as he looked, moistening his dry lips. With a grin, he bent over her and placed himself inches from her mouth. Feeling each other’s breaths on their faces, their lips finally touched. It was a short and awkward kiss. Her mouth quirked and she let out a gasp before grabbing him by the collar. She pressed her lips tightly against his once more, their hands caressing each other’s bodies. He could feel the warmth of her skin as his hands dug under the fabric of her sweater, trying to reach down her chest. Suddenly, she removed her lips from his and rolled off the machine they were leaning on, now standing beside him while grinning intently. Her clothes came off one by one until she stood naked before him. He just stared as she stood teasingly covering her breasts with her hands, her legs slightly crossed. “Well?” she said, waiting expectedly.
He hesitated for second before looking down at his own clothed body. He let out a short laugh at his dumbfoundery, and he quickly removed his own clothes. Tom grabbed her by her waist and they tumbled on top of the sleeping bag that Pen had brought. She sat on top of him, moving her hips as if she was dancing. The pleasure at seeing her slender body move rhythmically over his abdomen was overwhelming, and he grimaced. She stopped moving and pressed her forehead against his and whispered seductively. “Not yet.”
He smiled embarrassingly and they embraced each. There was nothing in the world but the two of them at that moment.
In each other’s arms, they lie on the mattress. He felt a rejuvenation that he had never known before, with her next to him. At least, he never had as far as he could remember. With a pang, his heart was hit with grief as he got reminded of Beth and Linda. Somehow, it felt like he was cheating her.
Pen squirmed as he winced and he looked at her face resting on his chest. He touched her hair lightly. They are dead now, he thought to himself. He couldn’t betray a person he barely knew. He vowed at that moment to never learn more about his past, he was perfectly content with Pen by his side.
She opened her eyes as she felt his touch and leaned over him, smiling. “Good morning,” she said, smooching him before rising naked from the mattress.
He watched her as she rummaged through the pile of clothes on the floor and began dressing. “Do we have to get up?” he asked while groaning as he stretched his limbs.
Pen released a breath, clearing her lungs while buttoning her shirt. “I’m afraid fun is over, for now, Tom,” she said, her face hardening and her tone turning formal.
He looked in confusion at her while grabbing his underwear beside the mattress. “I really needed this, Tom, and I thank you for it. But there was another reason why I brought you down here.”
Tom snorted, seeing more and more of the old Pen in each breath she took. He was fine by it, that’s who she was, a cold analytical bureaucrat. He wouldn’t change that for the world. “So, care to enlighten me on the real purpose of my visit?” he said sarcastically. “Perhaps you can start by telling me why there is a secret room inside the wall?” Trying to mimic her formal tone. To his surprise, it got through to her and for a second she smiled, looking at her feet.
“Well, this is hardly a secret,” she said. “That would have been devious of me, wouldn’t it? I may be in a position of power, or rather, was; but that power was given to me in confidence, so being secretive would not have benefited me in the long run…” she paused as she groaned putting on her pants. “That said, though this place was determined useless, I found its purpose years later.”
“And you never told them,” Tom added.
“It was not for devious reasons, mind. But, I wasn’t about to lose my only quiet place in the entire world! Besides, power distribution was never an issue, until you came along,” she said while placing her palm on the monitor beside her.
Suddenly, the machines began to hum and a holographic image hovered at the centre of the room. Tom quickly got dressed and hurried next to Pen by the image. An overhead view of the entire colony, with percentage numbers and bars by each section of the departments were shown. She placed her finger across one of the bars and one the percentage number was lowered while the other two increased. “I can control and manage all the resources from here, manually,” she said bluntly as she returned the percentage to its original number. “I need your advice on this,” she went on. “I don’t want to be a despot, Tom; but, as things are now, I don’t see any other choice… I would rule justly, of course, but would they accept it? I don’t think they would.”
Tom hesitated. How convenient it would be, having all the decisions made by the one person, a person that he cared for the most. Yet, he knew it would never work, she knew it too, that’s why she asked him here - among other things…
He placed his hand on her shoulder and stared sternly at the image in front of him, scanning the buildings of the different ‘factions’. “I’m afraid there is only one thing we can do. It wasn’t perfect, but we can’t force people to cooperate,” he sighed heavily. “We need to gather everyone for another morning meeting.”
Tom stood stiffly, staring down at the men that sat at different sections of the meeting hall, as far apart as they could. The representative of the red faction sat at the front, his eyes staring intently at him. He looked elderly, though only part of his hair was white, his stern expression and furrowed brow made his skin look dry and wrinkly. Tom didn’t want to look at the man for several reasons and his eyes drifted towards the representative in yellow. The man’s head lolled and he had a calm expression on his face. He was a large man with bristles for a beard, something they did not allow before. They are taking some liberties in this new world order, it seemed.
As if feeling Tom’s scrutiny, the bearded man lifted his head, looking with lazy eyes at him. Tom did not avert his gaze then, and they glowered at each other.
Behind him, he heard footsteps walking up the scene. It distracted them and they looked away from each other. Tom sighed thankfully for the interruption. Pen stood proudly before them, her chin raised high with a stern expression. “Gentlemen,” she began. “The fact that you are here shows that you have realised the severity of our situation and are willing to do something about it. This struggle cannot—“
“Speak for yourself,” a man in blue shouted on the far side of the meeting hall. “Our position couldn’t be better.”
The other two representatives grunted irritably.
Tom stretched his neck and peered down the hall. The representative in blue sat with his legs crossed on the backrest, leaning arrogantly on his own chair. What caught Tom’s attention was his clothes. He did not wear the usual jumpsuits that were all in one bright colour. His clothes were dyed in black and grey, only a small fraction of his original colour remained on his collar and by his wrists. He could be wrong but he also noticed a small emblem stuck on his chest.
“Yes, so I’ve heard,” Pen said. “But believe it or not, this affects all of us, you included.”
“Oh, I know, hence, I’m here,” the representative in blue replied. “I was just saying that it is clear who has the upper hand, and we don’t want to go back to the ‘status quo’, so to speak.”
Pen sighed, lowering her head. “I didn’t want to bring this up yet, but as you have forced my hand…” she hesitated, irritated that the man had thrown her off her rhythm. “Let me just start by saying: I am deeply sorry for what happened at the 5:30 meeting. I shouldn’t have locked you inside.”
“Damn right!” the man in red exclaimed. Interrupting the man in blue, who frowned as the word was taken from him. “What you did was not only irresponsible but also damn well dangerous! You have disappointed us Pen, I don’t see how you could ever regain our trust.”
Tom clenched his teeth, knowing how this would all go down. “What about yourselves?!” he snapped. “What could you have done to prevent this utter breakdown? You are grown men for god sake, start acting like ones. Yes, it was perhaps irresponsible of us to have locked you inside. But don't misunderstand, Pen has no desire to go back to the ‘status quo’ either. She is utterly tired of your bickering, and you expecting her to solve everything…”
Tom stopped himself and cleared his throat. “I mean, that’s what I’ve been told anyway.” Tom back away as they all stared at him.
Pen shrugged. “Yes, what he says is true. I don’t plan on being your punching bag any longer, but we need to do something, for the survival of all of us.”
“Then what do you propose?” The man in yellow said, who had been silent until now.
Tom felt his mouth dry as he breathed in the uncirculated air.
The researchers, the farmers, the mechanics, all cogs in making the colony work smoothly and efficiently. What could he bring to the table? He who was sent here by accident, as far he knew. They needed a scapegoat, he knew; they had discussed it, Pen and him. But what could they offer expect less power from Pen? He listened as Pen went on, “For starters, there will be no more morning meetings unless either ‘faction’ demands it.” Tom grinned at Pen as he noted how she used the word ‘faction’ instead of department. She continued. “Instead, there will be weekly meetings and only a few representatives will be present at those meetings. Though transparency will hurt, I believe that it will be more efficient, and quell tension.”
“What about you?” the man in blue said. “Will you remain as some kind of overseer?”
Pen closed her eyes and paused, she opened her mouth but her words were stuck at her lips as Tom talked first. “She will,” everyone’s attention turned to Tom. “She will make no concessions because you all know that you need her. But in return, I will banish myself. I was the root of the problem. Get rid of me and everything should return to normal.”
The blue and red nodded in agreement but the man in yellow looked at him quizzically. “Do you really believe it will be that easy? Sure, your presence was the genesis of it, but it is a much more complex problem now, you realise this?”
Tom lowered his head, avoiding Pen’s gaze. “You need a scapegoat don’t you? I’m your man.”
The man in yellow nodded sharply.
“Good, I will gather my things then.”
As he turned around his eyes glimpsed towards Pen who remained motionless, staring with wide eyes. This was not something they had discussed prior. “I will give my regards to Ben,” Tom said and walked out of the room in silence.