The woman in the mirror lied to Gift. Raff didn’t love that she did it, but she didn’t wish to divulge the nature of her evening—a covert rendezvous with persons unknown, grouped together with intentions she couldn’t begin to guess. Baffled as to how she’d reached this point, she stared into her reflection, searching for clarity.

Dressed but unsure she was ready to go, Raff’s mind drifted through memories of the last few weeks in search of answers…

As a data operator, Raffaella had been performing her duties examining data packet logs. Anomalies had been seen in the data flow that looked to be residual code to be discarded yet she couldn’t shake the feeling this was unlike anything else she had seen. Few could have caught it, and it was not likely Raff’s bench-mate did. Claudia wrote excellent code but gave less focus to the monitoring tasks. The clarity of data ordinarily flowed as a stream reflected in Raff’s jade green eyes, but this became a challenge to decode. Unsure what she had found, Raff kept it from her colleague, letting Claudia ramble on about some song she liked which Raff considered noise.

Pieces of chatter in the data stream, she pondered. If those bits could be compiled, they’d resemble an outdated form of… Chat! Encrypted text chat fragments sent in the data stream, nearly impossible to detect. No reason why independent text-based chat code would be hidden in plain sight came to her. To investigate away from Claudia’s curiosity, Raff took home a hand terminal. Determined to find answers, she pored over the logs, letting the hours pass in search of an idea. Unable to decode the encrypted data, she could append a tiny information string onto one of the packets—her terminal ID. Her joy deflated in the realization that she had been replaying old streams long after the data stopped. For the plan to work, she’d have to catch live chat data.

The next day while performing her usual tasks, Raff’s device found the code and appended her terminal ID to one of the chat packets. Then came the hard part: waiting. The nothing that happened for two days was excruciating. No more chat noise. Plausibly, the chatters got spooked at being found out and she would never know. Something worse than waiting. The corner of her eye noticed a small red dot on her device vying for her attention. When her biometrics unlocked it, the screen filled with an archaic looking app. A message in block letters appeared on the top half of an otherwise empty white box.

R: Who are you?

With a sly smirk on her face, Raff replied, “Don’t you know?” When nothing happened, she considered the keyboard filling the lower half of the screen below the text. How quaint, she thought. It took a few tries to enter letters on the tiny qwerty keyboard with two thumbs—she found it most inefficient.

>Don’t you know?

R: Hello Raffaella.

The device shook in her hand as she raised it from the floor, all but dropping it a second time. Soon she realized they were more than one, it was a group chat, but the nature of the group remained a mystery. Then the questions came.

B: Have you seen anything odd?

R: What do you think about the rations?

S: How many water recyclers supply the colony?

With no suitable replies, she decided to press her luck.

>Can we meet? I have so many questions.

B: Tomorrow 18:45. Piazza San Marco. Alone!

Raff pulled herself from the memory and apprehensive legs shakily carried her to Piazza San Marco. Amid a sea of residents, she stood alone in the center of Citadome Three. A hand from behind grabbed her elbow and warm breath on her ear said, “Don’t turn, walk.”

In a narrow alleyway she found four nameless faces standing before her with invasive looks. The hand and warm breath came from a tall, plump, middle-aged fellow with thinning black hair and a scraggly beard. Beside him stood a redheaded slender woman around thirty, Raff suspected, with a pointy nose separating stunning eyes a deeper green than her own. On Red’s left, the skinny kid looked sixteen at most. Last was a short, gruff man with thick graying hair, scowling as he spoke.

“How did you find the chat?”

“I analyze the data stream.” After a pause, Raff added, “It’s my job.”

“It’s hidden,” the aged man barked.

“I’m good.”

The redhead lifted her heels. “Untraceable. Impossible to assemble or decrypt. No one is that good.”

Must be the chat program code writer, Raff deduced. “Vero. I didn’t say I traced it or assembled it. And I didn’t even try to decrypt it.”

“How’d you know to tag your device ID on a packet then?”

“I knew it was some type of basic chat code.”

“Basic?” The coder scowled under the red bangs, obviously insulted by the remark.

“Elegantly basic, I mean. Chat using no voice or video to identify its users. Very smart. Encrypted text in random chatter packets in the data. Brilliant, Red. Hidden in plain sight.”

“But you found it.” The skinny boy drew a glare from the older guy, suggesting the kid was there to observe.

“Yes. She. Did.” Red spoke with hints of admiration lacing her words.

The gray-headed man said, “Tell her.”

An information dump spewed suspicions on various aspects of colony life they believed to be fabrications. ‘All lies,’ they repeated after each supposed revelation of a concealed truth.

“We know nothing about the other colonies.”

“Rationing is messed up, it’s overly strict.”

“They’re manipulating us though medical injections.”

“Our whole lives are being controlled.”

Then the big one came, a theory to end all others: “It’s safe to go outside and has been for years.” That one resonated with Raff since the terraforming project was fifty years from Phase One Livability. She wondered, Are these folks on to something or just flat-out nuts? She needed answers.

“What now? What do we do about any of it?” Answers varied, but none brought her to a good place.

“Time to take action.”

“Get the truth out there.”

“Sabotage. We need to prove it.”

That last one tightened in Raff’s intestines, and her throat went dry. She didn't want to be there any longer, and these people started to scare her. “Allora…” she stretched the word on the O and held her chin. “This is a lot. Let me process everything you’ve told me.”

“Sure,” the pudgy guy said with slight condescension. “Take a few days. Just don’t tell anyone about us.”

Red hoisted her eyebrows. “Um, or the chat. No one learns about the chat.”

The older man tugged the corner of his eye with a thumb and Raff got the significance: We’re watching you.


As Raff walked home lost in wonder, old history lessons popped like flashbulbs in her head for the first time in ages. When the so-called Doomsday Clock was set to 90 seconds to midnight, the scientific community had all but given up on Earth. Within a decade they considered its environment too far gone. That was the final catalyst for political leaders to push forward the colonization project that brought man from the blue and green jewel to a red rock. She wasn’t sure what meaning she hoped to find in two hundred fifty-year-old events thought forgotten. Colony life was all she and everyone else ever knew, ever would. In childhood Raff had learned of the project’s beginning and its glorious goal of forging the red planet into their new paradise home. It was expected that the maintenance period would be the most challenging phase on Earth’s progeny.

She thought of the First Ones, who finished colony construction. They had survived, migrated across the stars, and forged a new destiny for humanity. The final generation in the colony would live under the bright light of shining hope for stepping outside and starting life on the surface. But for those in between, life was the colony and nothing else, from birth to departure. The solidity of the domes and walls meant they would never see the sky. For the first time, Raff learned not everyone was content to fill that role.