Meet Raffaella Di Gaetano, friend and mentor to Gift, as she discovers the first traces of malcontent and conspiracy theories.


Insignificant to anyone not knowing to look for it, the data stream was more noisy than usual. Raffaella extended two fingers of her left hand and brushed a long loose curl of ashy blond hair behind her ear. A motion so monotonous, so reflexive that it barely registered in her frontal lobe. That was not in this moment. Her data consumed her focus, her work became more interesting, she may even say it was exciting.

Staring at data streams eight hours a day would not rate as fun by anyone’s stretched imagination. To the keen eye of a master data operator, what Raff was observing now was special. She did not yet know why.

The morning’s chitchat shifted to their most frequent topics of food and wine or debates about music. The naïve observer could mistake their amiable conversation for a heated argument, arms flailing as they do. Raff enjoyed the Italian classics, from Pooh to Pavarotti. Ad nauseam, she’d explain the superiority of her music’s lyrics, composition, and style, going on for hours about why her favorite tenor’s voice was acoustic perfection. Raff’s jaw dropped when her bench-mate Claudia said she preferred Bocelli.

Perhaps it was something else that caused Raffaella to restrain herself from getting close, rarely seeing Claudia off their workbench. Still, she was decent company for eight hours a day.

Raff glanced above her console’s display and sent a smile across the open workspace to Gift. Warm illumination of the young woman’s work lamp glistened over her skin. The subtle tone of her pigmentation reminds Raff of the cream atop a perfectly pulled shot of espresso and she finds it stunning. The elder Raff enjoys the matriarchal posture she assumes in their social circles. Gift fosters the idea, often seeking the sage advice of her older, more experienced friend. Gift’s bench-mate Mike caught Raff’s gaze and offered a nod that was barely a chin raise. To Raff, Mike is okay. His personality did nothing to help endear him to her. That Gift liked him and that he is kind, did.

On Friday evening she’ll join as they go for Tacos, a group favorite if not Raff’s. She enjoys the Asian noodles from that stand in Citadome Two, the group’s second favorite after tacos and this evening’s choice for dinner. Raff, however, had other plans. She told Gift it was to be dinner with her parents. That was a lie. She didn’t love that she said it, but this meeting was not to be divulged, not yet.

Dressing for the meeting without knowing the persons or purpose, she wondered into her reflection, How did it come to this? Her mind searched for answers in memories of the last few weeks.

As a data operator, Raff had been performing her duties by examining data packet logs, and tracing and cataloging them. As always, she purged chatter data. She was tracking anomalies in the data flow for weeks, yet she never thought to log it. It looked to be chatter code floating in the ether, junk to be discarded. Signals between sensors with no retainable data, redundant loop streams, latency adaption, or log read-back verifications—this stream was like the rest, yet it was unlike anything else.

Few could have caught it and it was not likely Claudia did or would. She’s an excellent code writer but less focused on the monitoring tasks. The clarity of data ordinarily flowed as a stream reflected in Raff’s jade-green eyes, but this didn’t have a

category, so it became a challenge to decode. As she tried to identify, label, and categorize it her analytical mind said it was chatter to be ignored, to be purged. No! Pieces of chatter. Pieces. Her self-inflicted forehead smack caught Claudia’s attention.

“What’d you find, Raff?”

“Cosa? Oh, nothing.” Raff didn’t want anyone to know what she found without understanding exactly why she didn’t. “I just remembered something, is all.”

“I know your head smack. Ciao! You found something in the data, didn’t you?”

“Niente Claudia, basta.” Hoping to diffuse the situation, she used a light tone. “I’m having dinner with my parents. Mamma is preparing Pasta Ragù and I forgot, told some friends I’d meet them for a pizza, that’s all.” A believable story as Raff has done that exact thing many times, keeping a full social schedule. She figured if she had to tell a lie, the best ones are based on truth.

“Va bene Raff. One day you’ll get that pretty little head on straight.”

Pieces of chatter. Chat-ter... Chat! Text chat sent in the data stream, fragments in random order, nearly impossible to detect. She’d only seen such text-based chat in comedy vids poking fun at the wasted lives and antiquated tech from before. People’s faces were constantly buried in handhelds, everyone had one. Thumbs tapping away to send typed text messages and ridiculous little pictures to express their thoughts and feelings. Raff thought it a wonder anyone remembered how to hold a conversation. No one uses such a basic and archaic thing—why would they when everyone has audio and video messaging and vidChat?

But it was simple text-based chat. A new class of data now identified, labeled, and categorized. But who’s using it and why? Challenge accepted. For a reason hidden in her subconscious, she still didn’t log the find.

To investigate unofficially, away from Claudia’s curiosity, Raff checked out a hand terminal. Determined to find answers, she sat in her Box letting the hours pass. At 01:15, nothing made sense. By 02:32, a pattern she had followed for over an hour, led nowhere. Then at 03:06, she had an idea. Unable to trace or decode the encrypted data, she could append a tiny information packet—her terminal ID. Only, she had been replaying old streams long after the data stopped. For the plan to work, she’d have to catch the chat data live, join her message onto one of those bits. She may have managed a couple of hours of sleep.

The next day, with the handheld in her pocket and data packet ready, she performed her usual tasks while searching, hoping for the chat noise. There it was, floating in the data stream, and her device appended her terminal ID to one of the bits. Now came the hard part, wait. Raff believed her impatience was an inherited characteristic, not learned—easier to consider the negative ones that way. The nothing that happened for two days was excruciating. No more chat noise in the data stream. Whoever they were plausibly got spooked at being found out. She may never know, and that was worse than waiting.

A third day.

After a shower, Raffaella entered her Box to find a small red dot vying for her attention in the top right corner of her device. This is it. They’re replying.


A message on the screen. A keyboard appeared below the text. That was innovative. Her attempt to speak her message failed and she understood the chat app would only accept typed text. How quaint. It took more than a few tries to enter letters on the tiny qwerty keyboard with her thumbs—she found it most inefficient.


Send. Let’s see how good you really are.


The device was shaking in her hand as she raised it from the floor, all but dropping it a second time. She had teased that they knew who she was but didn’t think they did. They were being cautious yet accepted her intrusion. Her thumb’s words were part of the anonymous data flow, that was exciting. Soon she realized they were more than one, it was a group chat, and she was in it. The nature of the group remained a mystery. Then the questions came.




She had no satisfactory replies, and they offered no additional

information. She decided to press her luck.



So, the woman in the mirror lied to Gift. Her evening with her parents was a covert rendezvous, strangers meeting for no reason she could compile into a guess, educated or otherwise. At 18:42, she stood in Piazza San Marco in the center of Citadome Three assuming they’d recognize her.

Colonial architects had patterned the piazza after the famous one in Venice, Italy, with an open area full of tables and chairs and with various food stands along the perimeter.

A hand from behind grabbed her elbow and warm breath on her right ear came with a voice that said, “Don’t turn, walk.” When she obeyed, the hand led her into an alleyway between two closed offices, then nudged her to turn around to four nameless faces standing before her with invasive looks. The hand belonged to a tall, plump fellow with thinning black hair and a scraggly beard that hadn’t grown full or even. He could have been twenty-five or fifty-five. Beside him was a redheaded slender woman. Around thirty, Raff suspected. A pointy nose separated stunning eyes a deeper green than her own. On Red’s left, the skinny kid looked sixteen at most. Last was a short older man with graying hair, thick and lush but wildly reaching in every direction.

Straight to business, he said, “How did you find the chat?”

“I analyze the data stream and look for patterns, anomalies. It’s my job,” she said into his eyes. Dull eyes as blank as the concrete floor.

“It’s hidden,” he said as his head shook from side to side. “I’m good!” she said with a boastful smile.

The redhead lifted herself on her toes to say, “Untraceable.

Impossible to assemble or decrypt. No one is that good.” Pride bit at the words.

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 the device ID on a packet then?” her elbow-guide said. Raff inferred curiosity, not accusation.

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

“Basic!” the coder said. She looked insulted by the remark. “Elegantly basic, I mean. Chat using no voice or video to identify anybody. Smart. Straight-up text in random chatter packets in the data. Brilliant, Red. Hidden in plain sight.”

“But you found it,” the skinny boy said. A glare from the older guy suggested the kid was there to observe.

“Yes, she did... Yes. She. Did.” Red spoke deliberately, this time with a hint of admiration lacing her words.

“Tell her,” the gray-headed man said. “Everything.”

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 new truth.

“We know nothing about the other colonies.”

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

“They’re manipulating us, putting all kinds of stuff in our

food, our medical injections, to control us.”

“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 above the rest, connecting one forgotten fact. The terraforming project had an expectancy of two hundred years for phase one livability. It is now said to be fifty years away and presented as the original plan. Before its completion, colonists would not see the sky. Only a few on the terraforming team are said to ever have seen outside the domes and passageways.

The timing of the project is challenged only by childhood memories of shared expectations. ‘Raffaella’s generation will be the first to go outside,’ her nonna often repeated. It must be Raff dismissed it with so many other random and senseless things old people said. It was too much to process, much of which sounded unpleasantly like Mike’s conspiracy theories. She wondered, Are these folks on to something or just flat-out nuts?

“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. Prove it to them.”

Raff wasn’t sure what the last one meant, but it tightened her intestines, and her throat went dry. She didn't want to be here, and now these people were scaring her. How did I get myself into this? How do I get out of it?

“Allora,” Raff said, stretching the word on the O. She grabbed her chin with her right hand and said, “This is a lot. Let me process what you’ve told me.”

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

Red lifted her eyebrows and said, “Um, or the chat! No one learns about the chat!”

The older man just tugged the corner of his eye with a finger and Raff appreciated the significance, We’re watching you.

They each departed, trying to go off in separate directions even though they were four and there were only two routes out of the alley. Raff walked home in wonder. A rusty version of history ran through her head for the first time in ages. Over two hundred fifty years ago they had given up on Earth, considered its environment too far gone. That was the final catalyst to the colonization project that brought them to another unlivable planet, trading the blue and green jewel for a red rock. Humanity was making its home on Mars.

Colony life is all she and everyone else ever knew, ever would. In childhood Raff 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 in-between years, what was dubbed the maintenance phase, would be the hardest on Earth’s progeny. The First Ones and their next generation had the realization of how they had survived and were forging 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. And not everyone was content to fill that role.

As the next days passed on the bench, Claudia noticed Raff’s distraction. Lost in a data surge was always a good excuse at work. Gift noticed her disconnection at the next dinner as well. Sure, Raff had acknowledged the red dress and lent her motherly comment regarding it, but Raffaella always talks. Not seeing her Italian hands flailing, acting out her words, was out of character for her. She stared at a handheld on her lap most of the evening and Gift noticed that too. Raff hoped her impulsive excuse was plausible.

Having passed her initiation, the secret chat group took her in, sharing increasing numbers of messages daily. One was calling for action to get noticed, another wanted to do more than post stickers everywhere to raise awareness or curiosity. Raff wondered if even a hint of truth could be in any of their wild theories. More messages about damaging critical systems to ‘prove that they are over rationing’ were disturbing. Could that be why they tolerated her invasion into the chat, then welcomed her as part of the group? Do they expect her to assist in acts of sabotage? Raff rarely responded in the chat, but it was an itch that needed to be scratched.

She read the messages.