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


The woman in the mirror lied to Gift. Raff didn’t love that she told her friend it was to be dinner with her parents, but she wasn’t ready 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. 

Questions were called up and sorted as if on a display visible only to her. Dressed but unsure she was ready to go, Raff’s mind drifted into her reflection… How did it come to this? Her mental display searched for answers in memories of the last few weeks…

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—any number of things from log verifications to latency adaption or redundant loop streams. This was like the rest, yet it was unlike anything else she had seen.

Few could have caught it and it was not likely Raff’s bench-mate did. Claudia was an excellent code writer but was less focused on 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. Her analytical mind said it was junk, chatter data to be purged. 

No. Pieces of chatter. Pieces. 

A self-inflicted forehead smack got Claudia’s attention.

“What’d you find, Raff?”

“Oh, nothing.” Raff didn’t want anyone to know what she had found before she understood what it was. “I just remembered something, is all.”

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

Niente, Claudia.” Hoping to diffuse the situation, she used a light tone. “I’m having dinner with my parents, and I forgot. I told some friends I’d meet them for a pizza, that’s all.” 

“Okay, Raff. One day you’ll get that head on straight.” 

Raff glanced over her console’s display and sent a smile across the open workspace to Gift. The warm illumination of the young woman’s work lamp glistened over her skin. It reminded Raff of the cream atop a perfectly pulled shot of espresso and she found it stunning. Gift’s bench-mate Mike caught Raff’s gaze and offered a chin raise. To Raff, Mike was… okay. 

Pieces of chat-ter. Chat! Encrypted text chat was being 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. Then she had 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, her device found it 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 may never know. That was worse than waiting. 

A third day.

After a shower, Raffaella entered her home to find a small red dot on her device vying for her attention, and a message on the screen.

Who are you? 

After a failed attempt to speak a message, a keyboard appeared 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 Raff.

The device shook 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. 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.

At 18:42, she stood in Piazza San Marco in the center of Citadome Three assuming they’d recognize her. 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. It’s my job.”

“It’s hidden.”

“I’m good.” 

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

The proud 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 looked 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’s shoulders relaxed. “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 its 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.”

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 there any longer, and those people started to scare her. 

Allora…” Raff 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, widening her eyes. “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. 

The First Ones, who finished colony construction, had the realization of how they had survived and had 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 that not everyone was content to fill that role.

As the next days passed on the bench, Claudia noticed Raff’s distraction. They were close, but only at work. Sitting two to a two-meter-long workbench in an open area of twelve tended to allow bench mates to become familiar.  ‘Lost in a data surge’ was always a good excuse for distraction. 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 talked. It was out of character for Raff not to have her Italian hands flailing, acting out her words. That she stared at a handheld on her lap most of the evening hadn’t escaped Gift’s notice either. 

Having passed her initiation, the chat group welcomed her as one of their own. One was calling for action to get noticed. Another wanted to do more than post messages around the colony 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 they’re over rationing’ were disturbing. 

Could that be why they tolerated my invasion into the chat, then welcomed me as part of the group? Do they expect me 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.