The Conversation

“Okay, let’s try this one more time… Why are you here?” I can hear a man’s voice asking me as I sit on an uncomfortable wooden chair. The chair reminds me of the small seats children use in a kindergarten class. Even the discomfort of undersized seat isn’t enough to distract me from the growing fear I feel and the sound of my blood undulating through the vessels in my head.

“I already told you, I’m here to help.” is all I can muster in response. I try to keep my voice confident, but it’s difficult as I feel I’m starting to suffocate in whatever it is they’ve put over my head. I can’t tell if it’s a sack for food or some hand-woven thing made from goat hair. Either way, between my seat and the bag on my head, I’m having a hard time sitting still and staying conscious. At this point it’s tough to even remember why I’m here.

I hear someone else shift around. I can’t tell where they are, whether they’ve been there the whole time, or if it is only the three of us, but someone’s moving. There doesn’t seem to be very much light in the room, but I can see some level of movement through the covering over my head.

Now I hear some whispering. At least I think it’s whispering. Did they have to use something so thick on my head? It’s bad enough I’m having a hard time breathing and seeing, but anything slightly less than a shout is barely audible. I guess I shouldn’t really be surprised. This is what they do when you’re in an unfamiliar, possibly hostile place, right? They make you uncomfortable. They want you to mess up. They want a reason to hurt you.

No, I can’t think of this like that. I’m here to help. I came here because I was moved by what I read and saw. I’ve grown so tired of seeing people hurt and oppressed. I had to get out and help. I had to do something. I’ve grown so tired of just talking about things I wanted to see change. I didn’t exactly expect this, though. Would I have come here if I had known this was going to happen? I guess so. It’s not as if I didn’t consider things would end up this way.

“Hey! Are you still alive in there?” It’s still the same male voice that’s been questioning me this whole time. No one else has talked to me yet, though I’m pretty sure there is at least one other person with us. “Hey! I’m talking to you!” I hear my interrogator move closer to me and then there is a yank on my head. I realize I must have zoned out thinking about how I got here.

“Yeah, I’m alive.” I say it trying not to sound too scared or confrontational.

“Are you here as a spy?”

“No, I’m not trying to expose you. I believe in your work, even if I don’t agree with all the things you do. I want to help make life better for people!” I have to use everything within me to not black out as I breathe deeply between words. I must be coming to the end of what I can deal with between this thing over my head and the questions. Can’t we just end this somehow?

“What makes you think we want your help? We haven’t posted fliers asking for new volunteers… Why should I trust that you mean what you say?”

“Because as soon as I heard about what happens here, the things that happen to the women, I couldn’t get past the thought about someone treating the women in my life, my wife, my sister, my friends and their daughters like that… But then I realized that they don’t need to be that close to me to care. The fact that it happens at all is disgusting. I felt God tell me the women here are just as important to Him as the women in my life are, and that they should be to me as well. That’s when my heart broke. I knew something had to change. I knew I had to get involved… I knew…”

“So God told you to come to us?” A woman’s voice. I hesitate to answer because I worry about saying the wrong thing.

“Yes. I believe He did.”

“Well that makes for an interesting situation indeed. Do you know how many other people have told us that?” I can’t tell if the way she’s asking is supposed to be sarcastic or some kind of a test or actual interest in how much I know about the rumors of the outlying colony. For some reason the fear I was experience has begun to subside a touch. Perhaps the sound of a woman’s voice is enough to distract me from the danger I’m in.

I decide to be honest in my response: “No. I have no idea if anyone has claimed to be sent by God. I don’t even know if anyone else has come here other than the original explorers.” It suddenly dawns on me that I may be the first person to visit from off-world. I can’t help but begin to feel curious about how my being here would affect these people. I guess it shouldn’t be very surprising, my sociology background would indicate I like considering people’s reactions to each other. I guess my head is finally clearing from the journey out here. Now that I think about it, my hearing doesn’t seem to be as bad as it was either. Maybe I was being affected by the sub-light speed travel. I wouldn’t really know since I didn’t get any proper training before I decided to come out here.

Someone clears their throat. “Did you hurt him?” It’s the woman asking the question.

“No ma’am,” is the response from the man who was interrogating me before. Ma’am? That doesn’t seem right. I heard women were looked down upon and mistreated. That’s the whole point of why I’m here… I feel something tap against my head. I must have zoned out again. I’d love to be able to say that’s another affect of the trip but it’s something that happens often, especially when I’m trying to understand people.

“I’m asking you a question… what do you know about what’s happening here?” Apparently it’s the woman’s turn to ask questions now. I think for a second and decide to tell her what I know:

“I know that all the families that came to this colony were sent as explorers trying to find new places where resources could be mined and shipped back to Earth. I know it was a select people group that were sent because people back home thought it best to let your people separate themselves from the rest of us. I know there was some kind of a revolt against Single World Economy and Trade that lead to the colony being cut-off from Earth. I know that fourteen years later a strange signal was discovered by a number of Operators and that the signal claims to have been sent by someone, or more likely a group of people, here.”

“But that doesn’t explain WHY you’re here. What is it about the transmission that made you come here? Surely receiving an illegal transmission from an abandoned off-world colony wasn’t enough to convince someone to leave their home and come here. No one cares about the conditions at the ‘SWEaT shops’. They’ve never cared.”

“Well yes, you’re right. It wasn’t just the transmission, it was the story within it.”

“Oh, there was a story in it?” Now she definitely sounds like she’s being sarcastic. Is her sarcasm indicative of her knowledge of the message or her disbelief in what I’m saying? “Why should I believe any this testimony? So far none of what you’ve said has convinced me of anything you have to say. As far as I can tell, you’re just another one of the men who hasn’t left the command buildings his whole life.”

“I don’t know how I can convince you either. All I can tell you is how I grew up hating how women used to be treated in the old Middle-Eastern and Asian countries. It’s not often someone went to school in my time and it’s even less often we got to hear about those cultures. ‘Depraved people’ they would tell us. ‘Serves ’em right’ was the mantra for us who stayed when you came to the stars. We felt the world was cleaner without the ‘barbarians’. The difference for me is that it wasn’t anger, it was sadness. When I thought about the stories I had read and heard, as few as they were, I wanted nothing but to see this ‘evil’ society and help to change it. When I was operating one evening and we had realized what was being transmitted, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.”

“A little earlier you said you couldn’t imagine your female family members and friends being treated the way they are here, yet nothing has been said about what’s happening here. What do you think you know about this place?” Now I can hear a bit of anger starting to rise. I’m either getting myself closer to death or closer to finding out what’s actually happening.

“I have to admit, it was a bit of an inference, but I could only assume what was happening based on your rally cry.”

“And what ‘rally cry’ was that?” There’s no doubt I’m hitting a nerve, I must be getting very close to figuring this out.

“Your message said, ‘for Malala.’ I recognized the word, but I couldn’t remember its meaning. The next chance I had to operate I tried to find everything I could on these two words. I kept finding dead-ends relating to a women’s revolution from the mid twenty-first century. It was their cry back then as well. I figured it couldn’t be a coincidence, all this time later and considering where the transmission came from.” My problems hearing earlier must have been a deep-sleep hangover because I notice I can here a heavy, almost labored breathing in the room now. Someone walks up close to me and blocks out what light I can see through the covering on my head. Whoever it is puts their hand on my head.

This must be it… I figured it out… I knew too much… did I really admit to being an operator? I hope the others are safe. I’d hate to be responsible if anything happened to the rest of the network.

“You’re right, it isn’t a coincidence.” She says it in a way that sounds almost sad, like it’s full of pain. I suddenly hear the sounds of a knife being removed from its sheath. “Nothing has changed.” I feel something snip at my neck and suddenly I’m blinded. Even though my hearing seems to be okay, my sight was adjusted to the bag that kept me in solitude. Then I feel my hands freed from their bonds, and I can’t help but grab for my throat, fearing my blood was let flow by the previous slash. A moment of panic seizes me, then quickly subsides when I realize there is no blood flowing. It’s simply me sitting in this undersized chair, a bit chilly and unable to see.

I squint and try to see what’s around me.

Slowly things come into focus.

First my hands.

Then my knees.

I try to look up but the lights are still too bright.

I can make out my feet now.

I look up again and now I can see a pair of spotlights aimed at me.

Curtains. There are curtains all around the room. Almost all black. It seems strange because we are in a cave, why would there be curtains all around us? Are we on a mountain overlooking something that I’m not allowed to see yet?

As I’m pondering what is beyond the curtains, they begin to move. They appear to fold up at intervals around the room. It’s strange because it doesn’t seem like a machine function, it’s not smooth enough.

Wait a moment, these aren’t curtains…

Suddenly there’s a loud tearing noise from all around the room and I’m surrounded by faces. Faces with burn marks, faces with scars. Some faces missing an eye or a section of lip. I scan the room and I’m utterly surrounded. I find the man who was talking to me before. I see him down on his knees with his face down. It appears as if he’s crying.

A voice from behind me: “You see? Nothing has changed.” I turn around to see the woman who was questioning me. Her face is half covered, but she’s beautiful, save the sadness in her eyes. “Did you ever learn the story of Malala?”

I stand staring at her for a moment because I can’t read her expression. “No. The most I could find was what I told you. I know it was a call to battle, but that’s it.”

She gives me a small smirk. “Malala was a girl who wanted an education. In her time, many people didn’t think women deserved one. She was treated poorly, but instead of sitting down and letting it happen she stood up. She did something about it. What we do is for Malala, because the old fight remains.” She reaches up and pulls back the cover over the left half of her face. Her skin has been so badly disfigured by burns and scars that it looks as if it’s barely clinging to the bone. I do my best not to appear sickened but I’m instantly nauseous and I have to look away. “It’s okay,” she says. “You’re only used to seeing these things on your black-net. Don’t worry, you will see plenty more. That is, as long as God keeps you around for us.” I look up to see a smirk in the still-functioning half of her face. She turns away from me and begins to walk slowly towards the ring of women surrounding us. “I hope you’re as good as our informant says you are.” She does a quick one-eighty and puts her arms out with her palms facing up and looks side-to-side at the women around her. “You’re going to have a lot of students.”

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