I stand at attention as the collection of guards inch their way over the smooth surfaces of my quarters. They wear identical uniforms. No one speaks, not even the diminutive woman near the door who obviously runs this show.
She’s the only one with an air of endless time. The rest of them hustle—running fingertips along every seam and corner—like their oxygen levels depend on it. Boss Lady leans against the door and pretends to inspect the fingernails of her left hand as she watches my reaction to this surprise inspection.
I hold perfectly still. A single blink, a muscle twitch, could ruin everything.
“Stop!” Boss Lady drops her hand and straightens up.
Her team freezes in tableau. They focus on her while she keeps her eyes on me. I watch the empty space in the center of the room, willing each breath in and out to a rhythmic count of four.
In … two … three … four …
Out … two … three … four …
“Check that mirror again,” she says to a fresh-faced uniform near my wash station.
I refuse to blink, although my fingertips have gone numb and my heart is threatening to gallop across the room.
“There’s nothing here, sir.”
Boss Lady finally looks away from me. She alternates her stare between the mirror and the young man several times. His neck flushes deep red under her scrutiny.
The tiny woman glides across the narrow confines of the room. She stands toe-to-toe with me, rising up on the tips of her boots to look me directly in the eye.
“Oh, I think there is,” she purrs. She sinks back down on her heels and gives a small gesture which inspires two additional uniforms to join the first by the sink. The woman paces around me in tight circles like a unhappy tiger as they search the area again. I cannot hear what they whisper to one another, but I can see their fingers march dangerously close to the secret panel they seek.
“Last chance, cadet,” Boss Lady whispers from behind me, her eyes intent. “You know what will happen if you are caught with contraband materials.” The hairs on my neck stand at the touch of her breath. “Where is the salt?”
I know better than to hesitate. “I have no knowledge of any salt, sir.”
“You received a shipment from your mother, an ambassador on Earth, this week, yes?”
“What did that shipment contain?”
“Sentimental things, sir. Hand-knitted socks. A letter from my sister. A framed photograph of my parents.”
Boss Lady looks around. She saunters over to the dresser and peers into the open envelope covered with my sister’s doodles. Then she searches the drawers, pulling the thick wool socks my mother made out for inspection. Leaving the drawer half open, she walks over to the sink. Her reflection in the mirror makes eye contact with me as a smirk appears on her face.
She plucks the photo of my parents from the mirror. The tape loop holding it up pulls free from the glass with a “pop”. My stomach clenches and my insides go cold as I realize my mistake.
“A framed photograph, cadet?”
It is at that moment that one of the uniformed guards pushes on exactly the right spot and the mirror swings away from the wall, revealing a small recessed space. One of the newer guards gasps.
Several ounces of Earth salt, poured from within the center of the plastic frame I had removed from the photo, sits in a small wooden container. Its crystals glitter in the light.
The tiny woman pulls gloves over her hands and carefully places her new-found treasure into an air-tight bag. She turns to look at me.
“I think we need to have a little chat, cadet.”
She gestures to one of the guards, who pulls wrist restraints from his pocket as he steps forward.
*started 6/10/17 from prompt “salt of the earth, false testimony, secret panel”