Juan tucked his tablet back in his pocket and raced down long corridors in search of Keira. She’d never believe him, but he had to tell somebody about the day he’d just had. The new building crew had accepted his design for an improved solarium with only minimal changes. A twelve year old kid, and he was designing additions to the base that people would enjoy for who knew how long. They’d be able to sit for as long as they wanted, taking in the red dwarf sun and studying the constellations, because of the safety features he’d designed in. If a storm came or something, George had assured him that they could close it up in less than ten seconds with one master switch. Life on Gliese 667 Cc was looking up.
He found Keira sweeping the floor in the infirmary. She took in Juan’s face as he sped through the door and smiled knowingly.
“You just learned that you aren’t the youngest person on the base anymore,” she said.
“I… no that’s not…” Juan said, skidding to a stop. “I’m not?”
She shook her head.
“Twin girls,” she said. “They’re seven. And there’s a supply ship six months behind them with another family that has kids. I think they’re going to start a school soon.”
The idea of a school didn’t thrill Juan the way it obviously did Keira. He shook off the thought and pulled out his tablet.
“I didn’t come about that,” he said. “You remember this?”
Keira glanced at the tablet and nodded.
“One of your daydreams about sun-gazing,” she said.
For a second Juan considered not telling her. He couldn’t stand the way she talked as if there was no new information in all the galaxies and anything he had to tell her was as uninteresting as cleaning her fingernails. In the end his excitement won through.
“Not a daydream anymore,” he said. “George Havenstock says they’re going to build it, and they barely made any changes at all to my design.”
He braced himself. Keira had a way of snuffing the flame of his excitement with a single puff. She looked at his design for a long while, considering it as if she had only now seen it for the first time.
“I can’t wait,” she said at last.
The most surprising part of her statement was that she seemed completely sincere. Juan stared at her stupidly, not one hundred percent sure that his jaw wasn’t hanging open.
“Keira, when you’re done you can head out,” Dr. Brodin said as he entered the room. “Hi Juan,” he added amiably. “Haven’t seen you around for a while.”
“That’s because he’s studying to be an architect,” Keira said, and the pride in her voice made Juan’s chest feel full and his cheeks feel warm. “I’m done actually, Dr. Brodin. I’ll see you tomorrow. Wait for me,” she added quietly to Juan.
She scooped up the small pile of dust she’d managed to sweep together and emptied it in the trash in the supply closet. Then she grabbed Juan’s wrist and ran out the door with him trailing behind her. They ran in a somewhat random pattern, and it wasn’t long before Juan recognized that she was looking for somewhere private.
“No one’s topside right now,” he said.
That would mean that no one would have reason to use the stairs to the compression chambers near the surface. Keira steered them to the door to those stairs and paused, looking down each long corridor before turning the wheel to open it. They stepped inside and pushed the door mostly shut, being careful not to let it seal.
“I have something to tell you, too,” she said, and her tone was tense. “It’s something I overheard last night when my parents thought I’d already gone to bed.”
She leaned around the rail to the spiral staircase and gazed upward.
“We’d be able to hear if anybody was up there,” Juan reminded her.
“I know that,” she said irritably, and she took a moment to smooth her hair and frown. “My dad said that the population count is off,” she said. “According to Nancy in the kitchens, apparently we’ve been going through meal supplies just a little too fast, and my dad said that he did a head count the other night during the welcome party, you know, after the supply ship…”
“I know which party you mean,” Juan snapped.
Keira could be so ridiculous sometimes. There had only been one party recently, and it had been to welcome the newest base members. Everyone had been there.
“Don’t be testy,” Keira scowled. “Anyhow, he did a head count and we had one too many people.”
Juan perked up.
“A stowaway?” he asked.
Keira shook her head.
“Can you imagine getting away with that for such a long trip? No way. Except that’s exactly what my dad thinks. Anyway, he’s been making a point to meet every one of the new crew and find out what they do and where they belong. Stacy helped him. She coordinated all of their rooms and everything so she has lists. There’s nobody unaccounted for. Except he told my mom that at the end of each of these audits, as he calls them, with nobody extra or out of place, his numbers came up with one too many every time. And before you say it, my dad’s math skills are just fine,” she added, holding up a hand.
Juan smiled. He had been about to say something exactly along those lines.
“There has to be some reasonable explanation,” she said, and Juan recognized her father’s voice in the way she said it. “He doesn’t have enough time to research it properly, though.”
“We could…” Juan said.
“I was hoping you’d say that,” Keira smiled, pulling a folded piece of paper from her pocket. “If you do these rooms you’ll cover half the base. I’ll get the other half. In each room or hallway write down who you see and mark the time, too. We can compare lists at supper.”
What Juan had been about to suggest hadn’t been close to this, but he was intrigued by the project. He accepted the paper, and with a nod that felt more like a salute, he marched out the door and began his mission.
The base on Gliese 667 Cc wasn’t that big, and covering half of it in time for supper didn’t turn out to be a problem. He found Keira sitting at a table for two, an extra food tray already laid out for him. He cast a guilty glance toward his parents as he made his way to take his seat. He almost always ate supper with his parents. Their amused glances and winks at his choice this evening made his neck and cheeks go hot and his scalp prickly. Keira held her hand out expectantly the moment he settled into his seat. He placed his notes in her palm and took up a fork.
“Your handwriting is terrible,” she scowled, squinting at the names. “You’re such a good artist. One would think that your handwriting would at least be pleasant. This looks like you were writing upside-down with your eyes closed. While riding on the back of a rover.”
“I get it,” Juan said through mashed potatoes. “So, what’s our count?”
He scooped food into his mouth while she calculated, frowned and calculated again. She produced a small sketch of the base’s floor plans and began making small symbols in the rooms and hallways. Juan had finished his meal and was gulping down a tall glass of orange juice by the time her head lifted again. Her eyes were haunted.
“You couldn’t have been where I saw you,” she said.
Juan stopped drinking. There was a note of accusation in the way she’d said that. He set the glass down.
“What does that mean?” he asked.
“I saw you, while we were doing this,” she said. “You waved. Do you remember that?”
“I didn’t see you,” Juan frowned. He certainly hadn’t seen her and waved.
“No,” she said, “I don’t believe you did. According to your notes, you were recording the new building crew names at four thirty-two, which is when I jotted down that I had seen you in the hallway beyond the kitchens.”
“I never went by the kitchens,” Juan said.
The scalp prickling sensation was back, but now he felt cold all over instead of flushed.
“Someone is impersonating me?” he asked quietly.
They both glanced around the busy cafeteria to make sure no one was listening in. Several people, their parents included, were paying attention to their little meal with amused smiles, but they were all well away and out of earshot. Even so, they leaned in closer so they could continue in near whispers.
“Someone or something,” Keira said. “It’s not like it’s easy to just look like you.”
“You think…” Juan couldn’t even finish the sentence.
Keira looked around again.
“It should be easy enough to spot him if we just sit here through all of the supper rotations,” she said.
Juan’s meal was sitting uneasily in his stomach. He suddenly regretted eating it as quickly as he had. They sat there through three meal rotations, mostly pretending to be playing a game on Juan’s tablet. A few people greeted them but for the most part they were left to themselves. At last, when the kitchen window closed, they took their trays to the washing window and shuffled out. Juan wasn’t sure if he was disappointed or relieved at not having spotted his impostor.
“I want to do it again,” he announced before they parted.
“What, the count?” Keira asked.
“Yes. One more time, exactly like we did it,” he said. “Tomorrow morning before breakfast.”
Keira thought for a minute and then nodded.
“Sounds good,” she said. “See you at breakfast.”
Juan had their table prepared the next morning within a minute of the kitchen opening. His count had been more difficult, since most people were still in their quarters at that time of day, but he’d taken it upon himself to ring at each door and greet the inhabitants with good morning wishes. It was in doing so that he’d discovered that the seven year old girl who had come with her mother, one of the new scientists, was not, and never had been, a twin.
Keira drifted in, and when Juan waved she returned the gesture politely and continued to the kitchen window. He was about to say something when a thought made him pause. He wrote down a list of everyone in the cafeteria, and noted the time. He added everyone he could see through the kitchen and washing windows. A few minutes later Keira drifted in through the door again, and seeing him, headed straight to his table and sat down.
“Let’s see your list,” she said, digging into a bite of toast.
Juan held up a finger. He was scanning the people in the cafeteria. He no longer saw the other Keira.
“It’s here,” he breathed.
Keira stopped chewing. He slid over his scribbles from not ten minutes before and Keira’s eyes went wide when she spotted her name.
“Sue the gardener and Big Joe Pops came in after you,” he said under his breath, still searching. “Other than that, the list should be right.”
Keira studied it again and began to scan the room with him.
“Eugene,” she said at last. She checked the list to be sure. “Eugene isn’t on this list.”
As if he’d heard her near whisper from across the room, Eugene’s head snapped up and his eyes focused on Juan and Keira at their little table. They froze.
“What are you after?” Keira asked.
Juan kicked her leg under the table.
“What?” she shrugged. “He can obviously hear us. Let’s talk.”
Eugene rose and walked his tray to the washing window. Juan and Keira watched as he made a circuit of the cafeteria, casually grabbing a chair from a nearby table and drawing it up to theirs. He sat down.
“I am observing,” he said. “That is all.”
“How long have you been here?” Keira asked.
Juan couldn’t imagine where she was pulling her courage from but he wanted some for himself. He was scared speechless.
“Longer than memory,” said Eugene.
“In this base with us?” Juan asked. There. He’d found his voice at least, and his curiosity was starting to win over fear.
“Among you,” Eugene said, focusing on Juan. His gaze was startling somehow. “Not long,” Eugene said to him. “Since you woke us.”
“How did we wake you?” Keira asked. “How many are there of you?”
Juan thought suddenly that he might know.
“They brought up some crystalline structure life forms that have everyone excited,” he said, “in a recent drilling sample. It’s the light, isn’t it? The weird light from the red dwarf sun. It… affects you.”
Both Keira and Eugene were staring at him now. He wasn’t sure how he’d drawn the conclusion. He just had a feeling that he was right. The light out there was funny. That was the reason why everyone was so concerned about having windows in their mostly buried base, and that was why he was so surprised that they were going to build his solarium with its two story window walls. The light had everyone uneasy. And his parents hadn’t been able to stop talking about the crystalline life form thingies. They were a completely new type of living thing. They said again and again that history was being written right here in Old Gliese.
“The light affects us, yes,” Eugene said.
“Do you not like it?” Keira asked.
Eugene turned to her and Juan noticed her subtle flinch. He wasn’t the only one unsettled by that gaze.
“We like it,” Eugene said.
“They’re going to be doing more drilling in that area,” Juan offered. “It’s going to open up shafts of light…”
Eugene was shaking his head.
“We like it too much,” Eugene clarified. “Too much.”
“You don’t want us to drill anymore,” Keira said.
“Please,” Eugene said, nodding.
Juan looked at Keira. That wasn’t exactly something that either one of them had any control over.
“We’ll make sure the drilling stops,” Keira said confidently. “Juan has an aerial photo of this quadrant on his tablet. Would you mind showing us what areas we should avoid?”
Juan took out his tablet and they set to work making notes. The area Eugene indicated was a long, wide swath in the shadow of a mountain ridge.
“Good,” Keira said when they were done. “We’ll tell them.”
Eugene looked between them skeptically.
“Will they listen to children?” he asked. “I have been among you long enough to understand that does not happen often.”
“They will,” Keira said. “They’re listening right now.”
Eugene and Juan looked up, startled. The cafeteria was nearly silent. All eyes were on them. The real Eugene stood nearby, wide-eyed. Beside him was Director Savoy and most of the people involved in running the base. Juan hadn’t noticed when the quiet that had descended upon the cafeteria while they had worked. He also wasn’t sure exactly when the fake Eugene disappeared. He only knew that one moment fake Eugene was seated beside him and the next moment the chair was empty, its cushion slowly rising where an indentation could still be made out.
“I’d like to see that map,” said Director Savoy.
Written by W. C. McClure. This may be shared (and please do); just please be sure to share it in its entirety, unaltered (and including this fine print), with credit given to W. C. McClure. This is a work of fiction. None of the characters or events depicted are meant to represent anyone or anything this side of dreams. Comments are welcome! Please help support this indie author by telling your friends about this short story blog at http://www.farsideofdreams.com and buying W. C. McClure’s books at http://www.wcmcclure.com. Thanks for reading!