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The Question

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His initial nights spent in the penitentiary were the hardest. For days he nursed his wounds the best he could with his manacled hands. A few broken ribs, a fractured collarbone, broken nose, concussion, torn lip and countless bruises and gashes. The last thing he saw before the feet had crashed into his head, as the blood pooled in his eyes was Colin’s bored face, turning away. He remembered crying out, reaching for his partner then the flash of light as he was abandoned to the hoard.

He didn’t know which came first, the blindness or the loss of consciousness. When he came to he was wrapped in chains and laying in a dark room. So dark was it that he didn’t know if he was still temporarily blinded or not. Either way, there was nothing he could do about it. There was nothing to do but sit in the blackness and remember.

His mind took him back there, crumpled on the linoleum as fists and feet and any nearby objects flew about and struck him. The blots of blood on the floor and on his clothes. The figure standing in the doorway. Colin’s eyes meeting his own; the look in those eyes. Indifference.

And whenever he came to from these flashbacks he found the same question whirling around in his head: why? Why did you leave me? Why did you leave me, why did you leave me, why -

And his sobs fell on silence.

His dreams were no different. For months he went without proper sleep. No matter how much or how little sleep he got he would always wake up wailing, guarding his face and screaming those same words: why?

The days since were all but the same. He counted the days, then months, then years down to the second, if anything to keep his mind occupied. He’d long given up hope that his parents would visit him. They were too ashamed, he thought, he’s let them down. As time wore on the dreams and flashbacks became infrequent. Some nights he’d sleep well and full. The other nights he was wakeful as he cried out that same question.

Years passed and the only thing close to living he’d seen was a small rover, an older model with a damaged communication core, rolling in with scraps of food taped to its back.

The darkness grew on him. It comforted him. He felt safe, over time. This was fine. Here, in this dank, dark place he couldn’t make any more mistakes. There were no people to hurt him. There were no more people to abandon him. He felt the closest to contentment he’d felt in ten years.

Then the new station supervisor came. She stood just inside the doorway and David did his best to look normal and helpful and not at all threatening or pathetic. She asked him about the Comfort Buddy - his mind immediately flew back to when he and Colin were working on it, together - and he politely told her all that he knew about it. And then she nodded, thanked him and turned back to the door. As her form was silhouetted against the blindingly bright lights of the corridor, back to him, he saw The Door and Colin just before he disappeared and everything went black.

The sound of E. L. Hob’s voice cut through the darkness, “MarsCorp prisoner number, uh, one. David Knight, you’re free.”

He felt his body freeze in shock when he quickly remembered to hide it.

“Well... isn’t that just... wonderful.”

He thought he hid the fact that he was in a perpetual state of crumbling apart quite well. His new team was nice. Jim always gave him a wide berth when he passed by - how considerate to make sure he didn’t run into David! And of course there was Tom, head of the Technology Department. He gave disgusted looks to be everyone, even David which made him feel quite included. Dave Price didn’t talk to him much - not many people did - but David admired his initiative, even though it was always in some venture related to his own gains. And Miss Hob was a brilliant leader! She gave him another shot, just another chance! So he’d better not muck it up, don’t let her down, don’t be a failure, don’t be so stupid. Miss Hob was getting so much done and she’d get what she wanted even if it came to beating the lights out of anyone. He was reminded of Colin. And whenever he was reminded of Colin he would smack his forehead, reprimanding himself for thinking about that time. If he had a flashback around his new friends they may leave him again.

But being out on the base again, it didn’t feel right. Yes he was apart of a great team but now everything was so bright and filled with so many people, so, so many people. And he had new responsibilities. So many. When someone accidentally brushed him in the hall he’d jump and give a little yelp. This caused the swarms of people to look at him oddly. There were so many eyes.

He laughed and walked as fast as he could to his cupboard. He would stand in the darkness where there were no people. Where he couldn’t make a mistake. The dark was familiar, safe. He wrapped his tattered lab coat around him and nodded off.

The months wore on and he continued doing his best to act like everything was fine, he was fine. He was sleeping at night, wasn’t he? Hopefully people would just assume he always looked so haggard, that it was his natural state of being. In many ways, it was. Over a painfully long time, it felt as though he didn’t need to act so much. First a day went by when he didn’t think about Colin and the Incident. Then a week, a month, two months. At some point he found himself not thinking about the Incident and what a silly little man Colin Denham actually was. And he was happy. He recalled an old Earth saying: “fake it ‘til you make it.” And David Knight had finally felt he’d made it.

He’d climbed that particular mountain and was ready to move on and for the first time in a long time he looked forward to the future.

After the messy start to Phase II of the terraforming mission and the entrails that entailed David was finally headed back to his cupboard. Craving the sweet silence he opened the door, anticipating falling down and nodding straight off.

“I’m okay. For the first time in my life I think I’m okay.”

Instead he froze when he stepped inside. His world began to come apart. He felt himself falling down from that mountain. Falling, falling, helpless.

“Hello, David.”

“Oh! Who said that? Who’s there?”

“It’s me, your conscience.” A wicked little laugh. “Just kidding! It’s me, Colin!”

As cold as he felt a dozen emotions swirled in a frenzy in him. Anger, resentment; fear and anxiety; confusion and abandonment. The questions spilled out. He rubbed his broken nose, fingertips finding the long-since healed scars that marked his face and body. As he was being regaled with stories of infinite universes and mountains of flesh David remembered that bored, uncaring look as Colin watched the seventeen-year-old boy being beaten violently just before he gave a small, indifferent shrug and turned away and into the Gate. To freedom. To adventure and to knowledge. While David was taken into isolation. Emperors, he says? After ten years? And again came that question to which he now felt he knew the answer to but couldn’t acknowledge: why did you abandon me? Why? Why, why, why -

He felt his will slip away as Colin laughed a laugh with practiced charm. David laughed and he cried.