Claire didn’t choose this job, but she’s good at it. In the 200-year history of the program, she’s tied for first place in the number of successful conversions. After today’s mission, she’ll be number one. It’s all Claire wants. There’s nothing else left.
She clicks the navigation button on her wristband and checks her location. Another thirty minutes until arrival, plenty of time to do a workout. She must stay sharp, lean, and tough. Some missions require climbing mountains, propelling into dark caves, or traveling long distances on foot. Although she’s pushing 45, she’s proud of how agile and strong she’s remained.
Claire looks up to see the wide-eyed new recruit staring at her. She’s practically a child with a round, chubby face and perky breasts. Claire does a few stretches, making sure the girl gets a peek at her firm abs and strong arms. She could take her in a fight, easy.
“What do you want?”
“I was wondering if I could shadow you this time?”
Claire tries not to laugh, but the idea hits her as simply absurd. It’s bad enough she was forced to accept a recruit on her ship, but the idea of teaching her the secrets she’s spent her life perfecting is ludicrous. She’ll have to find her own way like Claire did.
“No. I work alone.”
The girl squares her shoulders and presses her lips tight together in a pouty scowl. It makes her look extra childish. Her eyes are the color of dark chocolate, and it makes Claire think of her mother’s brownies. It’s been so long since she’s been back on Earth, but it doesn’t matter. Her mother isn’t alive anymore and, besides a few ex-girlfriends she’d like to spend a night with, there’s no one left for her.
“I was told you would train me,” the girl says. “I’ve done the grunt assignments already, and I want to go with you. I’ve earned it.”
She’s bold, Claire thinks, but far too desperate and her name’s all wrong. Emily. It sounds like a puppy. In the weeks since she’s boarded the ship she’s copied Claire’s hairstyle and makeup; tight bun, and lots of black eye-liner. While it accentuates Claire’s sharp features and black hair, it works against Emily.
“Unless you have new information about my mission, you are excused.”
Emily’s eyes narrow, and Claire hopes she will step up and fight her. It’s been years since she’s had a good old-fashioned fistfight, and her body tenses at the possibility. She feels like a jack-in-the-box. Turn the crank, kid, and see what happens. Emily clenches her hands into tight fists at her side and looks Claire up and down.
“You know everyone talks about you.”
Emily lets the words sit in the room for a moment, and Claire steps toward her. It’s a small movement, but the young girl jumps back like a scared cat. Claire laughs and begins her workout routine. She presses harder than usual, going further into her squats, jumping higher, and moving faster. It feels good to lose herself in the movements, and by the time she’s done, Emily has left.
Claire takes a quick shower and dresses for the mission in her dark navy jumpsuit. She looks in the mirror and touches the bright yellow finch over her left breast, the symbol of the Galactic Force. The finch knows true north by instinct, and so does Claire. She’s honed her skills and she’s earned her place, and it doesn’t matter what people say about her. All that matters is breaking the record and being number one. She’s got nothing else.
She makes her way through the empty hallways to the pod she’ll pilot to the planet. The ship’s a small silver teardrop, and Claire feels most like herself when strapped into the worn-leather seat surrounded by the colorful greens and blues of the instrument panels. She feels the vibrations in her body and snaps into mission mode.
She pulls up the file on Planet X475. There’s little known about the village she’s headed to, a solitary landmass on a planet covered in water. The hundred or so inhabitants are of unknown origin, and there’s no information about the economic or political structure. It appears to be a straightforward conversion. Simple beings are often easy to impress and control.
She does her pre-flight checks and clicks a button on her wristband to connect to the command center. There’s a moment of beeping followed by, to her annoyance, Emily’s voice.
“We are all systems go here.”
The kid doesn’t sound angry anymore, and Claire’s relieved. There will be plenty of time to fight when she returns, hopefully within a day or two with another conversion complete and the record broken.
“Affirmative. All systems go.”
They say the pledge in unison as they’ve been trained to do before each and every mission, two fingers touching the finch on their uniforms. She hears Jesse join in.
“We are the missionaries of the Galactic Force. We are the voice of Good and Truth in the galaxy. We are the keepers of Knowledge and promoters of Peace and Harmony. We are Right. We are Just. We are the Galactic Force.”
“Good luck,” Jesse adds. “Stay safe.”
For the last five years, Jesse has been her technician. He’s quiet, keeps to himself, and is efficient. He’s got her out of a few bad situations, and she trusts him. It appears he’s allowing Emily to run the controls, a decision she wishes she’d been a part of.
“You’re welcome,” Emily says.
The tone of her voice infuriates Claire and she flips off the communicator with her fist.
“Fuck you, Emily,” she says.
It’s a smooth descent to the planet’s surface, a gleaming world of bright blue water in all directions. She imagines it’s what primordial Earth looked like, and hopes the beings on this planet have evolved complex enough thought and speech to understand the information she has to share with them.
There’s a small patch of land on the island clear of plant life, about a mile south of the village. It’s an easy landing, smooth and uneventful. She runs bio scans and presses the necessary buttons on her suit to counter any effects the planet will have on her body. She clicks the communicator back on and can hear the sound of an orchestra playing.
“Command center,” Claire says. “Come in.”
The music plays on, a sad piece with lots of piano and violin. When Claire was a child her father took her to see an opera, one of the few memories she can recall clearly. Her mother made her a silk lavender dress to wear, and her father wore a dark black suit. They’d held hands as they walked in, and when the lights went out, he let go.
She didn’t understand any of the music or the singing, but she felt it. The sadness, it felt like a tangible thing, a sort of living creature crawling toward her in the darkness. She turned to her father for support but found him crying. It scared her so much that she put her fingers in her ears and looked at the floor, focusing on trying to see her black patent leather shoes as she dangled them from the red velvet chair.
“Oh, sorry,” Emily says. “Command center here.”
It takes Claire a minute to shake the memory of her father. It’s not the headspace she needs to be in for a mission, and she’s pissed at Emily.
“I’ve landed safely,” Claire says. “Thanks for checking.”
“Um, yes. I mean, copy that.”
“Am I clear to proceed?”
“Yes, clear to proceed. I’ll be monitoring from here.”
“Will you? Is Jesse there to supervise you, because I’m not feeling confident in you Emily.”
“I’m here,” Jesse says. “You are clear to proceed.”
His voice calms her nerves. Although most conversions are uncomplicated, things can escalate quickly and she may need support. Rarely does she need an extraction, but when she does, Jesse has proven himself to be quick and thorough. She needs to know she’s being protected, and Emily has failed. Already.
“Thanks, Jesse,” she says.
“You’re welcome. Stay safe.”
She clicks the communicator off, opens the door, and steps into the bright sunshine of two suns in a pale orange sky. The sound of ocean waves can be heard in all directions. There’s no breeze, but the temperature feels comfortable. She knows the suit is regulating her temperature, but it always amazes her to see one thing and feel another.
Following a path of small white pebbles, she makes her way to the village on the other side of the island. It takes her about an hour to reach the perimeter, and during the walk, she sees about a dozen or so colorful bird-like creatures. The camera in her suit categorizes them for analysis later. She doesn’t give a shit about animals, but there are people back on Earth who study them. They will sift through her data to determine if anything here’s worth sending out to the development team.
She can hear music as she approaches the village, a faint sound of a single drum. It’s primitive, the kind of thing she’d expect from a civilization with no technology, but as she enters the village she stops. It appears she’s come during a ceremony, and all the inhabitants of the island stand in an empty field forming a large circle. A lone figure stands in the center. She’s the one playing the drum and chanting.
The closer Claire gets, the clearer the voice becomes. It’s a brassy sound, commanding and clear. All the villagers are dressed in shades of blue, and the woman in the center wears all white. They move forward and back with the drumbeat and chanting. It’s rhythmic, and Claire realizes it’s what she mistook for the sound of the ocean. It’s a sort of back-and-forth song between the woman and the ocean. Claire feels it inside herself, a sort of stirring. The words feel fluid and alive.
“We are one.
We are one.
There’s no other.
There’s no other.”
These are humans, Claire realizes. Perhaps they are refugees from some sector of Earth. She feels scared to approach them. She’s used to dealing with lifeforms far different from her own and seeing this many humans in one place feels strange to her. It’s as if she’s on Earth again, yet not.
A short bald man with a long white beard and an ample gut spots Claire and smiles at her. He motions her forward with a wave of his hand, smiling. She can see blue lines drawn on his body, snaking in and out of his clothing, and his bare feet are covered in white sand. He keeps moving as he looks at her. She clicks her wristband.
“Are you seeing this?” she asks Jesse.
“Yeah,” he says.
“They are human.”
“They do appear to be Earthlings.”
“How did we not know this?”
She suspects Emily didn’t do enough research and plans to write as much in her report when she returns.
“I don’t know,” Jesse says.
“What should I do? Should I abort? I don’t like this. It feels wrong.”
Jesse takes a few minutes, and Claire knows he’s running as many scans as he can through her suit. The chubby man waves at Claire again, motioning her toward him. His smile’s warm and friendly.
“They are Earthlings and I don’t see anything dangerous. There are no detectable weapons. They might be stranded here, and you could be seen as a savior. This could be a great opportunity for easy conversion. The mission’s still a go.”
Claire approaches the man with slow, even steps. He’s tall and wide, and when she’s close enough, he pulls her into his arms in a firm embrace. Claire doesn’t like to be touched, and she squirms uncomfortably. She wants to punch him, all her instincts on red alert, but there’s something about the drumbeat and the woman’s voice she finds calming. It’s an unfamiliar feeling, and Claire isn’t sure she likes it.
The man hugs her and moves her with him, back and forth. It’s like a dance, and she rests her head on his chest and allows herself to be moved for several minutes. There was one girlfriend she danced with, and she squints her eyes to not bring forth memories of her. The man’s body feels cold, the iciness penetrating the protection of her suit.
He releases her, and at this close up she can see the blue lines on his body shifting, and his eyes are glowing an unnatural turquoise color. These physical changes could be an effect of the atmosphere or the presence of two suns. She wants to trust Jesse and the scans, but she’s wary and scared.
The villagers shift the circle and make room for her to join. The singing and swaying don’t halt or change the tempo. It continues to ebb and flows with the drum. A few of the others have noticed Claire and smile at her, a true warmth in their eyes. It makes her shiver.
A tall, thin woman to her right reaches out and grabs her hand, pulling her back and forth. A jolt of ice runs into her hand and enters her body, rushing in and out. The sensation’s wonderful and Claire does something so unlike herself; she surrenders and passes out.
Claire wakes to find herself in a soft bed with a heavy white comforter draped over her. There are three small moons in the sky outside; a full round circle, a half-moon, and a crescent-shaped sliver. Her body feels completely pain-free as if she’s been resting for days. A woman sits in a chair beside her reading a book.
“Hello?” Claire says.
“You are awake.”
The woman’s voice, much like her long blue dress, is soft and flowing. She sits with her legs propped up on an end table the size and shape of a cloud. Putting a long yellow feather into her book to mark the place, she touches Claire’s forehead with her left palm. It feels comforting and warm. Her silvery gray hair is pulled into a long braid, and Claire can’t see where it ends.
“Where am I?” Claire says.
The word seems so strange it makes Claire laugh. She’s not had a home since her parents died, and it feels weird to hear this beautiful woman say it. She repeats it over and over in her head.
“I have to tell you something?” Claire says.
“I’m here to help you. I can fix all the problems of your planet. I have all the answers.”
“I’m Claire and I put the Claire in Clarity.”
The words sound familiar, she’s certain they have been spoken hundreds of times, her famous line. There’s more too, a whole speech. She can feel the words waiting to be released. Her mission. She must be number one. She sits up.
“I have to speak to the person in charge.”
“Well, then good news. I’m here to save you. All you have to do is join us, and you will have the galaxy at your fingertips. Everything you’ve wanted to know will be yours. Everything you want to have will be yours. The Galactic Force has all the answers.”
She can hear herself saying the words, but they feel a bit like nonsense in her brain. Her fingers go to the finch on her uniform, but she’s not wearing it, she’s in a blue nightgown of the softest material she’s ever felt. It’s lightweight but feels solid. Running her fingers over it, she tries to think about what to do next.
“I put the Claire in Clarity,” she repeats.
There’s a sound outside her window, the ocean. She rises from the bed, walks to the window, and finds the water lapping gently on the windowsill. There’s no screen or glass, and she reaches down and touches it. The sensation rushes through her, singing inside her, bubbling and flowing.
“Home,” she says.
“Home,” the woman repeats.
She can see people in the water now, floating on the waves, their skin glowing a faint white light. The blue lines dance across their faces, down their necks and arms. They see her watching and wave to her. One after another dive under the dark water, disappearing from sight. They don’t reappear.
Climbing back into bed, Claire tries to remember her mission. There’s a sense she may be drugged or poisoned, but she doesn’t care. She sleeps and the dreams come fast and beautiful, one after another. When the morning light of the two suns wakes her, she knows what to do.
She finds her navy blue suit laying folded at the end of the bed, the wristband sits on the finch, the symbol she’s rallied behind since turning 16 and losing her parents. The rush of grief she’s been running from presses into her, and she feels tears streaming down her face. A voice inside yells to run and fight, but she doesn’t. Not this time. She cradles the wristband in her hand and stands by the window.
They had taken her dog for a walk. It was her job, but she didn’t want to do it. Her friends wanted to video chat about the new boy in class, a boy she had no feelings for but wouldn’t really understand why for another five years. While she listened to her friends go on and on about the color of his eyes, the swoop of his hair, the shape of his arms, her parents would be hit by a car and killed. The dog would survive, remarkably, a horrible reminder it was all her fault. He would live another two years, and die in her arms the day before she entered the academy. She felt nothing at his death but relief.
Sitting on the windowsill, Claire lets her feet fall into the water. The sensation soothes the pain but doesn’t release it. She can feel it seeping into her, acceptance. It will forever be her story and her pain to bear, but the water sings of new things. It sings of home, of people who will see her for all she is, not what she can give them. She will be real here, her real self.
She slips the wristband on.
“Claire! You are alive!” Jesse sounds panicked, his voice higher and faster than she’s heard before.
“Thank goodness,” Emily says. “We thought something bad had happened to you.”
“You need to leave right now and mark this planet Ex Terminis: Venenati,” Claire says.
“I don’t see any indications for such a harsh designation,” Jesse says. “I’ve scanned every inch of the planet and see no trace of weapons, biological or mechanical. No contaminants. We aren’t leaving you.”
“I’ve been infected. I won’t be leaving. I get to make the call, and I’ve made it.”
“Put your suit back on and it will scan for any virus or contaminant. Claire, you aren’t sounding like yourself. You need to listen to me. Put on your suit.”
“No. It’s my mission and I call it. I order a six-parsec spatial distancing around the planet to be placed indefinitely.”
“Claire,” Emily says. “Whatever’s going on, we can fix it. You have to break the record and go down in history as the first woman to do so. We won’t let you do this.”
“Claire,” Jesse says. “We’ve worked together a long time. I can’t leave you. I just can’t.”
Claire’s touched by the kindness in his voice, and she replays all the mean things she’s said to him over the years in her head. She’s used him, as she’s used lots of people, to get what she wants. He was a tool, not a person. She can see it now, but couldn’t before.
“Jesse, I know I’ve treated you poorly, but you are the closest thing I’ve had to a friend. I don’t know anything about your life and you know nothing about me. It’s how I have wanted things, but not anymore.”
She pauses for a second and considers how it must sound to him and Emily. They won’t understand, but maybe they will follow her orders out of some kind of loyalty or even some sense of relief to be rid of her. If nothing else, she outranks them and they can’t disobey a direct order.
“I have no right to ask anything of you, but I’m begging you. Declare the planet Ex Terminis: Venenati and order the spatial distancing. Leave me, and this planet, alone. Please. I’ve never been more certain about anything in my life.”
“No,” Jesse says. “Please don’t do this.”
“Please,” Emily says.
“It’s a direct order, my final one. Now go.”
She doesn’t wait for a response, but takes off the wristband and smashes it against the wood railing. It takes several hits before it breaks open, a tangle of wires and metal. She stares at it for a long time, the elements of her life’s work, the message she’s been peddling for her entire adult life. It’s her first glimpse at how real peace feels.
The women had spent an hour dressing her this morning in the softest garments of pure white. They braided her hair and added a few small white flowers with a salty, fresh smell. The black of her hair has faded, revealing the soft brown color of her youth with strands of silvery gray. One of the girls had called the colors her “true glimmer,” and it feels right.
The entire village stands in a circle waiting for her. They make an opening, welcoming her with smiling faces. She feels joy and peace radiating toward her. She’s filled with it, filled by it, and her steps become regal and light. The drum sits waiting for her, calling to her. She can feel the music rising from the ocean waves and rising inside her. Her skin will be marked, the blue will become part of her, and she will become part of it.
She raises her hands and hits the drum with perfect aim.
Author’s note: You may have figured this out, but I’m a Star Trek fan. The prompt made me think about the Prime Directive, the guiding rule Starfleet uses to prohibit its members from knowingly or unknowingly interfering with the natural development of alien civilizations. A fair amount of episodes focus on trying to adhere to this directive, and it made me wonder, what if the directive was the exact opposite? What if the mission was to convert all civilizations to those of modern-day America? To boldly spread capitalism and oppression where no man has before. This was the starting place, but the story, as they do, took on a direction of its own. Let me know what you think. Also, Jean-Luc Picard will forever be my captain. Fight me on it.
*I’d like to thank my daughter for editing one of my beach photos with an orange sky.
Short Story Challenge | Week 4
Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write a missionary in a remote village. We had to include the words orchestra, finch, aim, development, ex, bold, old-fashioned, gut, brassy, and sharp.
Read Anna’s Week 4: Rapture in Reverse
Write With Us
Prompt: A teenager whose parents have unwelcome news
Include: comic book, battery, crumbly, apartment, angelic, breach, shooter, soda, engineer, substantiate