“Excuse me.” The woman smile sweetly, held a microphone in her hand. “Few words? For the records.”
He’d expected this—one of the many waivers he’d signed had given his permission for the recording of his thoughts and actions, first three years. It seemed a small price to pay.
“Great!” She was cute—some might call her pretty. She held her free hand out. “Lizzie.”
She had a surprisingly firm grip. He saw the glowing red light on her microphone. Already recording, then.
“So what’s your position?”
“I’m on the flora team.” He grinned, thought of the idiots back on Earth getting all wound up by that, knowing they couldn’t hurt him now. “Nobody special.”
“Just being here makes you special. One in five thousand, wasn’t it?”
The selection process had taken five years, including aptitude tests that hurt his head, physical tests that pushed his body to its limits. Then the specialisation induction, where he’d learnt more in a couple of months than he had in all his previous years of study. John thought he’d been on the cutting edge of things in the department, but this off-world knowledge was on another level.
And she was right. Out of each five thousand applicants, only one made it. But he saw himself as lucky more than special.
“So what kind of person gets selected? What’s your story? Who’s the real John?”
He shrugged. “Just a flower nerd.” If Chas watched this, he’d probably throw his tablet across the room at this point.
Her smile wavered for a moment. “Okay. But what makes someone dedicate their whole life to this project?”
“It’s a cliche, but—it’s an opportunity of a lifetime. First colonisation programme beyond our solar-system! It’s a chance to be a part of something unique, a chance to start over, in an unformed society. We’re making a new world here.”
“But what of those you’ve left behind, your family and friends? Did they complicate your decision?”
He shrugged. If anything, they made the decision easier. “Nobody to speak of, really.”
Of course, there was Fran. But then Chas happened.
Chas, the oaf. Sure, he had muscles, and John could imagine Fran enjoying something rougher—but only as a bit of novelty. What would they talk about? Could they share the same kind of intimacy John and Fran once had?
But Fran had made it clear—Chas was for him, and he was for Chas.
The microphone hovered closer to John’s face, Lizzie’s expectant face out of focus behind it.
“Sorry?” he said. “Must’ve been distracted.”
“Understandable, with so much happening. I was asking about the future. This isn’t just work, is it? As you said, it’s a new life. How do you see this society developing?”
“At the moment, I’m focusing on the work. Reckon that’ll take up all my time, at least for the first few months. It’s going to be intense.”
“And I’m sure your dedication was part of the reason the selection committee chose you. But what about a year from now, or five. You see yourself with a partner? You going to be an active part of the population programme, raising a family? And how do you think that’ll go? It must be so daunting.”
He shook his head. “Maybe eventually. But I’m fine on my own at the moment.”
Of course he was. His last few weeks at his old job had been hell, doubly so without Fran to comfort him at night. There had been the constant needling, the subtle bullying, the veiled threats.
Things had improved as soon as he’d quit and started the selection programme. He’d grown in stature, he’d slept better, the headaches disappeared. Even the blotches on his neck cleared up. The focused intensity, and the removal of everything else, had allowed a new John to bloom.
“Honestly,” he said, “I see little point in making personal plans at the moment. This is such a momentous time, such a giant step, and we have to take that step as a group. I have to play my part, just like everyone else. Really, there’s no room for personal pursuits at the moment. And later? Well, I’ll let things play out as they will.”
Lizzie smiled. “Very philosophical. And probably just the right attitude for the programme.”
A voice made her turn. John only heard it call out his name the second time.
He looked up, and shuddered.
“That really you, flower-boy? Unbelievable! All this way, and I still have to see your ugly mug.”
A hand slammed onto John’s shoulder, spinning him round. Chas, scruffy beard hiding chipped teeth, grinned.
“Seriously, thought you’d flake out on the first physical. Special favours for the instructor, right? Put that pretty mouth to good use?”
“H…how’s Fran?” It was all John could think of to say.
“Fran the flake? Old news, petal, old news. He should’ve stayed with you. Pair of daisies in a nice little pot, right?”
“I didn’t know you’d be here,” John said, his voice squeaking. He pulled the collar away from his neck.
“You brain-boxes do all your intellectual stuff, but you still need muscle to shift stuff around. And there’s some decent meat here, know what I mean?” He leered, then disappeared, strutting away.
John cringed as his coarse laughter filled the air.
“Old friend?” Lizzie said.
He pushed the microphone away. “Excuse me.”
Then he ran, into the toilet. He locked the door and gripped the sink, his stomach clenching.
John looked up, into the mirror. A stranger stared back, pale, unhealthy. It raised a hand, rubbed round the back of its neck.
Bile rose, and the stench splattered the basin, followed by burning tears as John’s dreams wilted away.
Food For Thought
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