By the end of her first few weeks at the New Timbuktu Gold Processing and Re-educational Center for the Retirement of Criminals,
Harpreet Mombasu had made quite a name for herself. If you were depressed, prisoners advised, you should speak with Harpreet.
Anxious? Consult Harpreet. Worried about your future? Harpreet. All of which tended naturally to: Have a yearning to confide
desperately secret information? Harpreet will listen.
Not that she had forgotten her own sorrows or concerns. But on the twelfth day of her captivity, Harpreet had awoken from a dream
with the certainty that the Red Galleon would touch down safely upon Mars.
“Well, that is most welcome news,” she said upon awakening. She didn’t question the information, simply took her dream as proof-
positive the event would transpire.
Which tended to make her even more open to listening to the sorrows and concerns of others.
To date, she had heard the confessions of not one but two individuals who claimed to have formerly served as Head of Global
The fact that their stories, told individually, corroborated one another made it hard for Harpreet to doubt what either reported. The
second (Harpreet thought of him as Number Two) told of how he’d agreed to assume the body of the first and to keep secret this
deception. The first (Harpreet thought of him as Number One) expressed dismay at having awoken in prison, in a new body, only to
see his former body accompanying Lucca Brezhnaya as if nothing had happened. The same body had apparently now been
delivered to a third Head of Global Consciousness Transfer (whom Harpreet thought of as Number Three.)
“She likes to maintain the appearance of stability,” lamented Number Two. “But her government is rife with instability.”
Harpreet nodded and listened.
The Chancellor, it seemed, had a predilection for sending top government personnel to this particular prison. The hard labor wasn’t
as likely to be the end of you as, say, the camps in Antarctica or Devon Island. Of course, Lucca had no problem summarily ending
the lives of those she deemed of no further usefulness. Or those who simply angered her on a bad day. The political prisoners in
New Timbuktu thus had some hope of being of further use to their former employer.
“And it is your desire to work once more for so corrupt an individual?” Harpreet often asked those who brought her their
The answers varied. Some swore they would die before aiding Lucca again. (Harpreet even believed some who said this.) Others
said they would jump at any chance to leave New Timbuktu. No one, however, refused to answer Harpreet’s innocent-sounding
question. Harpreet was too easy to confide in.
Thus the Mars-born woman began to form a list of the stories of those who wished to see a different sort of government upon Earth.
She had no means of knowing if her information would ever prove useful; she simply gathered it as one might gather and sort
interesting-looking rocks back home. And at the same time, she appreciated the opportunity to be of use and encouragement to
those who were part of her new life.
One day, she made the acquaintance of Kazuko Zaifa, a scientist who had formerly worked in Budapest at the facility governing the
satellites circling Mars.
“They accused me of leaking information to inciters,” she explained. “Information which allowed the inciters to breach security and
infiltrate the building.”
“Ah,” said Harpreet. “And you were innocent.”
Kazuko nodded. “But they needed to blame someone. From what I’ve heard here, the Chancellor does not respond well to
scenarios concluding without blame and punishment being assigned.”
Harpreet nodded. “It is a common failing of the dictatorial.”
“I’m lucky to be alive, really,” said Kazuko. “And luckier to have escaped interrogation with the Chancellor’s office. Security just threw
me in here after asking a few questions about how it was possible for my system to have been hacked.”
“There is a mercy, certainly, in the discovery that we—or our life’s work—might be less significant than we had believed,” said
Kazuko laughed softly. “I suppose so. If I’d worked anywhere that really mattered to the government, I’d be dead.”
“Indeed,” replied Harpreet. “My friend, you have never asked how I came to be here.”
Kazuko flushed. “It felt like bad manners to ask you.”
“You are here today as a result of crimes committed by me,” said Harpreet. “Should I find myself someday able, I shall procure your
freedom. In the meantime, I crave your forgiveness.”
Kazuko sat still for several minutes, digesting the news. Then she looked at Harpreet’s soft eyes and murmured, “You’ve been the
truest friend I’ve known. There’s nothing to forgive.”
Not everyone shared Kazuko’s qualms about manners, but few ever thought to ask why Harpreet had been imprisoned. Harpreet
was not surprised. She knew from long observation that most people were more interested in talking about themselves than
listening to others.
So she gathered and listened, sorted and waited.