Science Fiction Teens & Young Adult Mystery

The scuffing, thudding boots echo up the corridor, then stop at my cell door. That sound is the only sense of time I have in solitary. 15 days down, 350 more to go. With a creaking clank, the rusty serving hatch is forced open, and the breakfast tray is slapped down with even more gusto and disdain than usual.

Patting rough hemp blankets and the cold metal bed frame, I feel my way into position before the cell door, then reach out with my good arm and find the little shelf. I whip the tray away as best I can one-handed. Then the hatch is shut with a violent metal clang that rings around the room and reverberates through my forehead, making me wince in pain. That obnoxious din is getting ever more unbearable as my hearing sharpens in the otherwise endless silence.

No-one says a word, as usual. Neither the shitty food nor service deserves a “hello” or “thank you”. My crew have shunned and betrayed me, so the thought of being further rejected or bullied by my silent jailer is too much to bear.

I pace five equal steps straight back from the hatch then stop. The smell of the watery gruel-like porridge makes my famished stomach grumble, though from experience, my taste buds are not so enthusiastic.

Turning ninety degrees to my left, I walk two careful paces backwards until my increasingly skinny arse just nudges the back of the chair. I learned early into my sentence that walking forwards results in knocking my knees and spilling the contents of the tray. Licking spilt water and gruel off a lunarcrete floor is not the best way to start anyone’s day. Even days as monumentally hopeless and despairing as mine.

Turning around one-eighty, I lean over and place the tray on the small steel table in front of me. Relieved, I sit down to eat. The water tastes of iron and chlorine, but it’s good for washing down the unidentifiable lumpy bits that make me gag.

I dream of oranges. The vibrant citrus colour, the deep green leaves and clear blue skies of my early years fill my mind. I can almost smell the zesty tang as I imagine splitting open a freshly picked fruit from our tree. That was when southern England was the “New Mediterranean”, because the old Mediterranean was the new Sahara desert.

Greedily gulping down my first grim mouthful, the heavy boots interrupt my meal again, accompanied by the high-pitched clip-clapping of Dr Ross’s headmaster shoes. He’s early, or maybe breakfast is late. With a slight pneumatic hiss, the cell door slides open.

“Good morning Harper, how are you today?” asks Dr Ross. The door shuts, those infernal boots fade away, and we are alone.


He scraps a spare chair up to my table. “Yes, I’m sorry to disturb your breakfast. But I’m needed up top today, on a special visit to the drill site.”

“Right,” I say, noting the excitement in his voice. He sounds in his late sixties and was born on Earth for sure, his melting pot accent ranging anywhere between Glasgow and California. This could be his first time on an EVA outside of the lunar colony, and its artificial Earth-like gravity. In normal circumstances, I wouldn’t have begrudged his eager tone at all.

“Wouldn’t you like to know why?” he asks.

There’s only one scenario which requires Dr Ross’s medical expertise down the mines, and it’s not good.

After a few moments’ silence, he gets the hint. “How are you bearing up?”

I just shrug my one good shoulder and play with the porridge, letting it drip off the spoon and plop back into the bowl with a satisfying splat.

“Turn to face me, Harper,” says the doctor. “Yes, your cheekbone is healing nicely and your lip is almost back to normal. Can you eat okay?”

“Once you bugger off I can.”

“Good, sense of humour still intact, that’s good! Go on, take a few mouthfuls.”

He doesn’t need to ask twice. I put a spoonful to my lips, then wretch at the inexplicable smell of rotten cabbage. Gulping hard, the reconstituted oat-water slides down my throat.

“You must be starving on these meagre rations. I will complain, again!” says Dr Ross, raising his voice for the benefit of my jailor, or whoever’s listening to the video feed. “So there’s still considerable bruising around your right eye socket, but it’s on the mend. Now, let’s have a look at how that shoulder’s doing.”

He gently unties my sling and bandages and my dead arm rests on my lap. His breathing is faster than normal and he reeks of body odour, which is unusual for him.

“Okay, good. Raise your arm for me, as high as you can now.”

Straining, I lift the unwilling limb two inches, before crying out in agony as severe pain shoots through my upper arm and collarbone.

“Okay Harper, please rest,” says Dr Ross. Then he slips something small and square into my sling. My back masks his actions from the video camera angle. “Shush.” 

“What’s that?” I whisper back.


A single tear streams down my battered left cheek. Cocoa beans and sugar are amongst the most lucrative export crops from the lunar farms. But both these plants require plenty of precious water daily, constant heat and during the long lunar nights, fourteen days of synthetic light. So chocolate remains an expensive and luxury item.

“Sorry I couldn’t sneak in more,” says Dr Ross in a hushed, breathless tone, whilst pretending to continue working on the dressings.

Without further ado, I reach inside the sling with my good hand and carefully unwrap the toilet paper surrounding the contraband. Shaking, I lift the treat to my bruised lips, flooding my senses with its rich caramel aroma.

“Suck it slowly, so they can’t hear you chew, and keep your back to the camera.”

“You risk too much, doctor. Thank you.”

As he rises to gather his things, I pop the precious prize in whole. The velvety dark chocolate melts in my mouth, flooding my mind with endorphins. A pleasure hit to lift both body and soul.

“Right, almost done here, back in three days,” he says, placing something sounding like a pile of paperwork on the table. “Here’s something to keep that brilliant mind of yours occupied in the meantime.”

“What about my sight?” I ask. 

He sighs. “I have only the same answer as yesterday, and the days before that. I’m sorry.”

I nod my head in solemn acceptance and a heavy feeling comes over me. “Don’t go in, doctor. The tunnel. Do not go in.”

He places a hand on my good shoulder, and gently squeezes it for just a moment, then walks away. The sudden sound of him banging a fist on the cell door makes me gasp.

“Ready!” he calls to the jailor, then softens as his voice turns back in my direction. “Sorry, too loud?”

“Just a bit,” I say. “I could hear a mouse fart these days.”

The good doctor chuckles. “Hang in there kiddo, and enjoy the book.” Then he’s gone and I’m alone again.

Pushing my foul meal aside, I pick up the thick wodge of paper. It’s ring-bound and almost twice the height and width of a regular paperback book. I run my fingers over the first page, tracing some mesh of tiny embossed bumps. The bumps are convex on the front side of the page, and concave on the reverse. Then it hits me – Braille, the doctor wants me to learn to read Braille! I can’t imagine how I’m meant to do this without some form of a guide. I should focus on my limited exercise routine and then get back to thinking up an escape plan. But I just can’t put the papers down. A gut instinct, a sixth sense almost, tells me that this is important somehow.

I place the papers to my nose and breathe in deep. The paper smells new, synthetic. Not like the musty, old Earth books in the little crew zone library.

Like all of them, the first page is full of bumps – no dots. Somehow I know that dots is the right term. Guessing the first line is the book title and the short second line is the author’s name, I have to know what they are now. I’ve always loved puzzles. It will be a challenge to decipher the Braille alphabet. I’ll just work out the book title and author, then stop.

Assuming the book’s language is English, and you read Braille left-to-right, I run my fingers over the first line. There are smaller spaces between some of the dot clusters, to distinguish different words, and a thinner separation between each… cell, they’re called cells, representing different letters or symbols.

I touch more cells and find that each one has zero to six dots arranged on a two-by-three matrix. Each dot space has only two possibilities: either flat or raised, so two to the power of six means the Braille alphabet has 64 characters max.

By feeling the whole page, it’s clear from the line breaks when each new paragraph starts, and each one begins with the same character – a single lower-right raised dot. Each line wouldn’t start with the same letter, so this symbol either indicates a new sentence, or capitalisation of the first letter. Then it’s simple to work out the symbol for full stop.

Next I find the letter ‘a’, which can be the only single character word commonly found in the middle of a sentence, then learn both capital ‘I’ and lowercase ‘i’.

Now I look for the common two-letter words beginning with ‘a’ or ‘i’. Then I work out ‘if’, which leads me to ‘of’ and the letter ‘o’.

A minute later, I can also recognise the letters ‘r’, ‘h’, ‘n’, ‘s’ and ‘t’. Then, by applying my known letters to the three-character words, I have now learnt all the vowels and common consonants.

I retrace the first two lines: To -ill a Moc-ingbird. Harper Lee.

Harper – that can’t be a coincidence — it’s a message for me. But what is it and why? Now I’m hooked.

I consider the title of the book. ‘Kill’ seems relevant these days for sure, as the authorities have blamed me for the murder of those two poor miners. The memory of the actual culprit, in the depths of that mineshaft, sends a chilling shudder through my entire body. Or does it mean someone’s coming to kill me? Perhaps Dr Ross is an unwitting postman, and the message and its sender are not friendly.

‘Mockingbird’ doesn’t seem to fit with my situation. Canaries perhaps, as an antiquated mining reference, but not mockingbirds. I imagine all species are extinct by now. Most birds who could not live and breed year-round in the polar regions where the air was still breathable, had perished several years ago in the methane smog.

I studied this classic novel in school. The key themes of prejudice and miscarriage of justice each carry some relevance to lesser and greater extents. But I can’t see a clear, direct message. Perhaps I’ll find it within the text...

By the end of the first chapter, I can interpret all the Braille characters, even the shorthand symbols representing compound sounds and common words, with enough fluency to make reading a pleasurable experience. For the first time since my incarceration, I smile. I’m loving both the logical efficiency of the Braille system, and the story itself.

This new skill gives me some hope, and a welcome break from bleak thoughts. My darkness is now lit up with imaginary characters and settings.

Halfway through the book, I find a typo, an extra random letter in the middle of a word. A printing or editing error, perhaps?

There’s another one! An extra space a few lines below. Is there a coded message in these typos? I read on.

There are hundreds of these extra characters in total, found across nine chapters. Memorising the characters in order of appearance, I read them both forwards and backwards, and they make no sense in either direction.

So I try various classical substitution and transposition cipher methods. Decoding these methods relies on finding the right pattern or keyword in order to either replace the letters or read them in the correct sequence. But these known methods are no good. I’m definitely dealing with a custom cipher here. There must be some logic in the particular characters chosen, and perhaps their position in each line.

The additional spaces appear at random in the text. But the extra letters only come from the first thirteen of the alphabet, A to M. And they only appear in the first thirteen characters of each new line. If I add – no multiply, there’s no possibility of equalling 1 for ‘A’ with addition. If I multiply the position number of each extra letter in the alphabet by its line position number, then at a glance, it looks like I’ll never get more than the 26 letters in the alphabet. My heart pounds in my chest and I shake a fist. Yes, I’ve cracked it!

Okay, so first extra letter is ‘a’ at line position 9, so that makes ‘i’. Then a space. Then ‘a’, ’m’, space, ‘j’, ... Then I have it, the first sentence, and I know who sent the message. Bloody hell! I can’t believe who it is.

I calm my nerves and decipher the next page. Okay, so each new page represents the start of a new sentence. I decode the entire message without delay:

“I am jailor. Sorry no more food. Being watched. People know truth. You are still child. Not without innocence. But innocent of murder. Our loved ones work mines. Stop your machines. Seal up horror below. Now follow instructions…”

An escape plan, an escape plan! I jump up from the chair with excitement and fist bump the air. Then my numb legs give way, knocking my knee against the metal table edge, and I hit the deck hard. 

Dazed, I find myself crumpled face first against one wall of my tiny cell. I reach for my knee and howl in pain. Stupid girl! I’d sat in the same spot, in my poor condition, for hours. At least I was lucky enough to not land on my broken shoulder.

Oh Harper, what were you thinking, getting your hopes up like that? I can’t do this. I’m blind, broken, and starving. I can’t escape a prison, in an alien city on the Moon. Even with help, they’ll catch me, won’t they? They’ll catch me, and then they’ll…

Curled up on the floor, I sob into my knees. And stay like this for a long, long time.

Then those echoing, thudding boots approach again. The jailor, he’s coming to rescue me! Oh no, I’m not ready, I’m not ready.

But something inside of me overrides both logic and emotion. So I get up, and dive into bed.

Clank! The hatch is open. Smack! Dinner is served. I cover my ringing ears with the rough bed sheets and wait.

Nothing. Be patient.

I count sixty seconds, but it feels like an hour passes.

“Come get your food,” says a grizzled male voice with a thick colony accent. The stench of stale cigarette smoke seeps in through the hatch.

As instructed, I say nothing, yet. My blanket quivers. What if this is a test? What if he hurts me?

He grunts. “You gone deaf too?”

My throat is in my mouth. I can’t breathe. Then there’s the hiss, and the cell door slides open. The boots approach the bed, then swivel, and the jailor places the tray down on my table. That’s my cue. Here goes nothing…

“No, p-please, please b-bring it here,” I say, shaking to my core.

“Bloody butler am I?” says the jailor, but he picks my meal off the table anyway.

I find the strength to sit up, and he places the tray in my lap. The scent of brown rice and beans wafts towards me, same as every other dinner in this place. But I won’t miss this meal.

I launch the tray’s hot contents up towards where I imagine the jailor’s face to be, then lash out with my new plastic weapon. The jailor shouts and swears at me, but somehow I launch to my feet and push him away with every last ounce of strength I have. There’s crashing and cursing as he trips over the chair, and I leap towards the door. It’s gone to plan so far.

Feeling the frame, I step out into the corridor then turn left towards where the sound of the boots begins each mealtime. Towards where my next rescuer awaits, I hope. The brave jailor groans back in the cell. My heart’s galloping like a hundred horses and I’m drenched in cold sweat. I gasp and wince as piercing alarms scream all around.

So I run! I crash into one wall and then spin into the other, but suck up the pain and just keep running. Not because it’s fair or makes sense, but because I must. It’s do or die, innocent or not.

I’m Tom Robinson now. I am the mockingbird.

October 05, 2023 19:49

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Karen Corr
11:22 Oct 12, 2023

The story is well written and suspenseful. Memorable. I’m thinking of oranges and chocolate, counting my blessings, Prayers for Harper!


M.A. Grace
07:06 Oct 13, 2023

Thanks for reading Karen. This feedback made my day and I'm glad the environmental message worked for you.


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Sam Newsome
21:55 Oct 11, 2023

I don't know why, but I liked this story. The anonymous characters working against an unbeatable system. It's on the moon, but it could be closer.


M.A. Grace
06:56 Oct 13, 2023

Thank you Sam for taking the time the read my story. Glad you liked it, for some reason!


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Kevin Logue
07:32 Oct 08, 2023

That was a lot of story and world building crammed into a short a piece and yet it all had its place and purpose. The intrigue and mystery is great from the get go and subtle hints at the ruined earth and sci-fi setting of the lunar base work so well. Mystery, jailbreak, suspense, environmental message, code breaking, it has a little of everything, quite impressed M.A. Looking forward to more of your works.


M.A. Grace
07:55 Oct 08, 2023

Thank you for you kind words Kevin. Glad you enjoyed it.


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