New Experiences | A Short Story

Irona stands in the large round tiki hut, waiting to board a ship with the word “Excursion” written in golden letters along its side. A black and white bird sits on a sandy rock outside the entrance silently opening and closing its beak. The temperature is 35°C with no breeze.

“There’s nothing to worry about,” a Parent says. “It’s 100 percent safe. Top ratings.”

There are six pairs of Parents and Children waiting in a straight line to board the ship tied at the end of the long wooden pier. Irona was chosen to be at the head of the line. The feelings are of pride mixed with apprehension. Everyone will be following. Irona must do things right.

A Tour Guide wearing a tan jumpsuit and a wide-brimmed straw hat walks down the line handing white powdered donuts to each Child from a square, pink box. Irona notices the lack of gloves. This must be part of the “rugged” and “authentic” experience promised in the tour description.

Irona chews the treat slowly and swallows it. Sugar, enriched flour, soybean oil, dry milk, dextrose, cornstarch, and water. Using a wet wipe from the front pocket of the standard-issued denim overalls, Irona cleans off the sticky residue before tossing the used cloth into a garbage can in the shape of a crocodile. It makes a small, metallic growling sound.

“Right this way!”

Another smiling Tour Guide calls out to them in a cheery, high-pitched voice. Wearing tan shorts and a bright shirt with red flowers, they point toward the open-air boat rocking gently in the turquoise water. Irona nods and walks swiftly along the wooden planks, relieved to find the ground feels solid despite looking old and weathered. It doesn’t move at all.

Children at the 10th stage of development must choose a tour to experience. Irona wanted to explore lava tubes or the rocky terrain high in the Appalachian mountains, but Teacher insisted they pick someplace outside their normal interests. The Florida Keys, with its clear water and wild animals, fits this description. It’s too bright and too loud.

Irona squeezes closed both eyes and imagines the comfortable darkness of the workspace; the thick black headphones blocking out all sounds, the bank of large clear monitors, and the rows and rows of buttons. Projections of earth’s magma levels scroll across the screen followed by charts on how to optimize and magnetize different metals. 

“Don’t do that.”

It’s the Parent beside Irona talking with a firm, angry voice. They’ve both stopped walking and the Parent has grabbed Irona’s soft squishy cheeks and is squeezing them tightly. It feels odd. Could it be pain?

“Stay here. You must stay here,” the Parent says. “It’s important.”

Irona’s eyes open to find the Parent smiling with an oddly firm mouth. It’s not quite a smile. It’s important to do the right thing. Irona knows this and feels the other pairs of Parents and Children staring in their direction. The burning feeling inside is quickly identified as shame. Irona doesn’t like it and vows, like many times before, to not allow it again.

“I’m sorry.”

There’s no closing of eyes or turning off on the tour. Irona knows better. Anger brews behind the shame.

“We are open to new experiences,” the Parent says.

Irona nods. The Parent has the same look as before and their hands squeeze harder along the sides of Irona’s face.

“Say it.”

“We are open to new experiences.”

The Parent’s smile softens and they release Irona’s face. They embrace each other for a full five seconds, a firm yet gentle hug, and it makes both of them feel better. They walk holding hands to where another Tour Guide dressed in a blue flowered shirt waits to help them aboard.

“Right this way, please. Watch your step. Careful. Careful.”

The Tour Guide helps Irona over the rocking ledge and onto the boat with a firm arm. The others follow. The off-white slightly wet floor moves and sways. It’s an interesting feeling and Irona isn’t sure if that’s a good or bad thing. The voice of another Tour Guide interrupts all further analysis. It’s loud, bassy, and booming and is coming from the far end of the boat they are walking toward.

“Hellloooo! Welcome aboard the Excursion! You are in for a treat my new friends. Yes, indeed! Today you leave behind the world you know and step into a world of wonder. Before we do that, however, I’ve got to pack you all in here like sardines. Tight, tight, tight! Don’t worry though, we don’t plan on eating you!”

Irona recognizes this as a joke. A bad joke. The loud Tour Guide standing at the bow of the ship looks far different than the others; taller, wider, and wearing clothes of the brightest colors Irona has ever seen. Strapped along both legs are brown leather holsters holding black revolvers. Guns. Wars. Death. It makes Irona feel something. Perhaps it is nervousness or curiosity. It’s unclear.

“It’s okay,” the Parent whispers. “It’s part of the experience and…”

“We are open to new experiences,” Irona finishes.

They sit down on a wooden bench in front of the Tour Guide who is talking into a little black speaker. Irona realizes it’s why the voice sounds so loud and distorted. It’s too loud.

“Squeeze closer together. I don’t think anyone will bite you…at least not yet.”

Another joke. Irona absolutely doesn’t like the Tour Guide who has now pushed a button on the boat which brings the motors to life. It’s a low humming sound Irona finds comforting and the boat glides away from the shore and toward the open waters.

“We are off! Wave goodbye to the people on the shore. We will never see them again.”

There are only the other Tour Guides on the shore but some of the Children wave. Irona recognizes the joke and does not. There’s black dirt caked to the bottom of the Tour Guide’s chunky boots which have flaked off creating a little puddle of muddy water. Irona finds it fascinating and wonders what it would feel like to touch it. To taste it.

“Look up,” the Parent says.

Irona obeys realizing the real show isn’t inside the boat but outside in the passing scenery. There’s a slight breeze caused by the boat’s forward momentum and Irona tries to embrace the sensation, but it’s a disappointment. Metal tracks can be seen guiding the boat, a lot like the transport vehicles in the city. It’s too familiar. Not at all what Irona hoped it would be.

The Tour Guide turns back toward them, winks, and begins talking into the speaker again. Irona silently hopes there’s more to this adventure than moving through the water. There has to be.

“The name’s Jinx and I’ll be your tour guide today. The best tour guide around if I do say so myself, which I most certainly do! I’ve only just got a few rules and if we all abide by them, we should have a nice day. A fine day. A perfect day!”

Irona smiles and sits up straighter. Rules mean order and that means competition. There will be a Child who does the best and Irona will be it—Number One rule follower on the Excursion. Does it come with a prize or simply the knowledge of being the best? Either way, Irona is in.

“The rules are simple: stay in the boat and have fun!”

The Tour Guide laughs. Those aren’t real rules and there are no clear parameters for measuring fun. It’s another joke. Irona feels the familiar sensations of anger and disappointment. It’s not pleasant.

“The tour today will explore this beautiful coral clay archipelago located off the southern coast of Florida. You may notice red maple, thatch pine, gumbo limbo, and of course all the cute and crazy creatures of this wonderland. Keep your eyes open and enjoy the ride!”

They pull beside a lush green island and the Tour Guide tells them about each animal, facts mixed with jokes. Key deer, found nowhere else in the world, eat grass raising and lowering their heads in a slow, even movement. Largo woodrats, known for their large stick nests, scurry across a wide tree branch dangling just far enough over the water for them to be seen clearly and heard. They make a tiny metallic squeaking sound. Irona sighs loudly but nobody notices. They are all too delighted.

The boat pulls into a swampy inlet and several large manatees poke their heads above the water and then back under rolling to their sides and wiggling their flippers. A few of the Children clap. One of them cries out in excitement. Irona isn’t impressed at all. It’s not real and not at all the experience promised to “give perspective” and “change ideas.” It feels a lot like everything else at school. Designed for a certain Child in mind. Not Irona.

They pass three dolphins which jump into the air and then splash back down. One. Two. Three. Irona turns back and sees it repeated again. One. Two Three. More Children clap. They are beside themselves with joy, wiggling and jumping in their seats.

It’s exactly like the violin recital last week. Everyone feels and does the same thing except Irona. It’s not from a lack of trying or wanting to be the best. It simply doesn’t work for Irona. The instrument actually called to be played differently. It begged for variation in its notes. Why can’t others hear what Irona can? Why didn’t Irona win with the only original piece? It makes no sense. New is better than old. Isn’t it the point of everything to learn and grow? To find new ways of doing things?

The boat moves from scene to scene. Irona pays attention, mostly, but it’s more of the same. Crocodiles open and close their mouths. Leopards growling and prowling back and forth. Monkeys with swishing tails and little pink mouths which open and move toward bright yellow bananas they never quite reach. The Tour Guide makes jokes. The Children laugh and clap. The Parents smile.

Irona feels the same feeling as at the recital bubbling inside—revulsion followed by compulsion. It’s a line of programming entirely new and perhaps only within Irona. It speaks of creating a real experience. The idea gets louder and louder until Irona looks away from the line of pink flamingos standing on one foot and stands up in the center of the boat.

Humans have been gone from this planet for centuries having wiped themselves out with wars and pollution. Irona’s kind was created by them and left behind to figure things out on their own. While studying the past helps them to not recreate it, Irona thinks they are missing out on the more important aspects of humanity. Feelings. Relationships. Choices. They must do more than live like them while pretending to have choices. They have to have real choices.

These tours are nothing more than fake experiences designed to keep them thinking the same way. All the same way. How can they grow and develop by denying and deleting anything outside normal parameters? How can they experience life without living it? What can Irona do about it?

“What are you doing?” the Tour Guide says. He laughs. “We have a little one who is a bit too excited. I bet you want to try and stand like a flamingo, eh? Like this?”

As the Tour Guide lifts up the muddy boot, Irona lunges forward and pulls the black revolver from the leather holster with a quick, easy motion. The safety pulls back with a snap and Irona fires it directly into the mouth of the laughing Tour Guide who doesn’t even frown or realize what’s happening until it’s done.

Wires lay exposed, spilling out like spaghetti noodles, like wild grasses in the wind, like the strings broken on the violin when Irona slammed it onto the ground. It’s chaos. It’s a choice. The Parents and the Children move toward the back of the boat.

“We are open to new experiences,” Irona says and then laughs.

Author’s note: This started out as a challenge to see if I could write something without using gender pronouns and, like always, it took on a life of its own. It’s an odd little tale and I think there might be a good idea hidden in there somewhere…or maybe it’s simply nonsense. Let me know what you think and thanks for reading. Your support means the world to me.


Short Story Challenge | Week 31

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 about a tour guide in the Florida Keys. We had to include a revolver, headphones, doughnut, leopard, spaghetti, tiki hut, magma, magnetize, swampy, and recital.


Write With Us

Prompt: A letter changes everything

Include: alchemist, waterfall, birthday, cottage, spring, roar, syrup, sift, immeasurable, bank


My 52-Week Challenge Journey

One Thing | A Short Story

No. 1

The family’s in trouble. I’m not supposed to intervene, but it’s becoming harder to ignore the fact they may die. I think I care.

“Hey!” the mother calls to me. “Can you help me with the groceries?”

She got her nails done again. This time she’s painted them a bright shade of blue with tiny fake diamonds glued on the tips. I can’t keep track of how many colors they have been since I arrived, but I wonder if I should have. At least 5, but it could be as much as 8. Although I did plenty of research before coming here, it’s much different seeing these kinds of things in person. I resist the urge to touch them.

“Sure!” I say.

Grabbing two brown paper bags from the trunk of her shiny black SUV, I hope I’ve gotten the tone of my voice right. I keep getting it wrong and people stare at me. There are so many nuisances to speech I simply don’t get and my time is almost up.

Peeking inside the bags as I walk up the rose-lined walkway, I take note of the contents; cilantro, bananas, apples, a bag of tortilla chips, and a loaf of sweet-smelling bread. I make a list in my head for my report. I don’t know what questions I’ll be asked when I return tomorrow. I should have been writing things down. I’ll do better next time.

“Everything okay?” the mother asks. “You seem lost in thought…well you always do, but even more so today.”

“Oh, I’m okay.”

I met her on my first day here while standing on a black iron bridge overlooking a murky duck pond. She came up beside me with a clear plastic bag of bread. She ripped the square slices into tiny pieces and threw them into the water. She had bright yellow nails and I remember thinking “banana fingers.” As I watched the ducks fight for the white lumps of bread, several large open mouths appeared. I gasped and jumped back, for a moment forgetting where I was. She laughed.

“I like you,” she said. “You are weird.”

After letting me throw the rest of the bread pieces into the water, she insisted I walk with her to a place called Freddy’s a few blocks over. Dark and smoky inside, she taught me how to drink vodka martinis. You must hold the glass with one hand and never eat the olive until the drink is gone. You take tiny sips and there’s a lot of talking about things and telling men to “fuck off” when they walk over.

“Now we have to reapply lipstick,” she said when our third drink was gone. “So we don’t look dead.”

She showed me how to pull off the silver cap, twist the bottom and draw the bright pink color across my soft lips. It tasted terrible, but she said sharing makeup makes us friends. I’ve been trying to understand what it means to be a friend and if perhaps it could be my one thing. I’m not sure I get it.

Sitting my bags of groceries on the kitchen counter, I watch her reach above the stove to put away two bottles of clear liquor. Her sweatshirt pulls up and I see the large purple butterfly tattooed on her lower back. She told me it was a stupid thing she did in college, but I like it. I wish I could get one.

The children come running down the stairs to rummage through the bags for something to eat. Twins with the same color hair as their mother, but with the fast-talking pace of their father. The speed and volume of their conversation makes me temporarily unable to do anything but stand with my human mouth open.

“Earth to Edith,” the girl says.

She taps me on the side of my head with her tiny, pudgy finger.

“Come in Edith,” the boy says.

They both laugh and I join in. Perhaps laughing can be my one thing. I lean into it more, savoring how it makes this human form feel inside. It’s a pleasant warmth I feel radiating from my chest. The more I do it, the more affectionate I feel towards those I do it with. Laughter is a bonding agent, I think.

It’s very different from the feeling I felt when the dad held his dirty black gun to my temple last night.

***

No. 4,762

Tumultuous turquoise. Trembling tempests. Throttled temples. Tactile tensions.

I shut my tiny black notebook and slip it and my gold pen back into my pocket. Other words flow and float with me as I walk slowly along the jagged water line created by the continuously flowing ocean waves. As I finish my allotted time on this jeweled planet of contraction and beauty, I’m still not satisfied I’ve captured the one thing I can share when I leave tomorrow.

A rounded bubble in the sand catches my eye and I walk toward it on human feet. It’s a dead jellyfish, a translucent blob with four brain-like pink circles inside its liquid squishy form. I kneel in the wet sand and touch it with my pale human finger.

“You shouldn’t touch that,” a little girl says.

“Why?” I ask.

“It can sting you.”

“I think it’s dead.”

“It can still sting you.”

“Are you sure?”

She digs her small toes into the sand and looks at me with watery wide brown eyes. There’s a smattering of freckles across her nose and she’s not smiling. I can tell my question has hurt her feelings and made her question a truth she thought was irrefutable. There’s trembling energy coming from her. I forget how fragile youth can be.

“You are probably right,” I say. “Thank you.”

“Here,” she says.

Opening her tiny fist she presents on her palm an off-white round seashell with a five-pointed petal shape in the center. Remaining crouched in the sand I smile at her and run my fingers along the raised rough ridges. She smiles and I can see dimples appear in her puffy pink cheeks.

“What a great find,” I say.

“You can have it,” she says. “I have a lot of them.”

“Really? Are you sure?”

“Yeah. We come here all the time and I have tons! I’m so good at finding them.”

“Thank you. I will treasure it.”

“I’m Lucille, but everyone calls me Lucy.”

“It’s nice to meet you. I’m Edith.”

She smiles and runs back to her mother who lies on a blanket reading a book under a bright rainbow umbrella. I see the mother, dressed in a black bathing suit with a pink wraparound skirt, visibly relax when her child returns and realize I’d been watched closely as I interacted with her young.

I was a suspect, a potential danger in a lineup of things this mother must protect her child from. Rolling onto her back, she pulls her child onto her, hugging her with both arms. I pull out my notebook and pen.

Protective peony. Warming waterlily. Loving lavender. Cradling chyrisanthamum.

***

No. 1

The father comes in and slams his fist on the counter. A jar of paintbrushes topples over spilling its grayish-green water across the white tiles. The mother quickly pulls up her silver purse and the children make a little squeaking sound before scampering upstairs with the bag of chips and two small cans of soda from the fridge.

The mother slinks to the father and puts her arms around his waist, pressing her body into his. She makes a kind of cooing sound, but he doesn’t notice. His lips are pressed tight.

“We are in trouble,” he says.

“How bad?”

“Bad…”

He notices me and makes a sound reminding me of the crows in the cornfields where we landed, a warning sound of alarm and distress. I try to look smaller, shrinking back into the corner of the yellow kitchen, but he’s peeled the mother off and walks with slow swaggering steps toward me.

“What are you doing here?” he says.

The mother steps between us placing both her hands on his wide chest. He takes a deep breath, swelling out like a pufferfish. She shrinks as he pulls the black gun from his waistband and points it at my face.

“I asked you a fucking question?” he says. “What are you doing here?”

“Putting away groceries,” I say.

“What do we even know about her?” he says to the mother. “She could be the one who tipped them off about us. It’s all gone to shit and she’s the only thing different around here. You found her at the fucking park. What did you think would happen?”

“Babe,” the mother says. “She’s like stupid or something. You know that. She’s harmless, you know? Like a stray pup that’s been kicked. Just look at her.”

I stare at the small circle at the end of the gun and not at their faces—his angry and hers scared. Weapons are familiar to me, although we don’t use them anymore I remember a time when our people did. I could tell him about how bad this will all go, but I say nothing. I am not supposed to intervene.

“Shit,” he says.

“Babe,” she says.

“We are fucked,” he says.

He lowers the gun but I don’t dare to move. She slips her arm around his waist and guides him from the kitchen. I’m putting away the rest of the groceries when the men come. They kick in the front door and begin shooting.

Human blood is red. 

Maybe that’s the one thing I can divinely share.

No, I think I’ll stick with laughter.

***

No. 4,762

A light green ball rolls across the wet sand and lands beside my toes. Before I have time to react, a furry brown dog snatches it up with slobbering quickness and dashes back toward its owner standing along the sand dunes in an oversized sunhat. I wave at them, but they don’t wave back. Perhaps the sun has turned me into a shapeless shadow and they don’t see my raised hand. I put it back down.

The brightness of the green orb in the dark brown sand reminds me of the dancing beauty of the fractured sky the humans call the Aurora Borealis. It happens when excited electrons release light to create a crackling show of vivid colors. It can feel violent, like an explosion, like a gun blast. I spin around the quiet beach and look for signs of angry fathers or men with guns, but see none. It was a long time ago, I remind myself. You are much older now and understand a lot more. I take out my notebook and pen.

Firestone feathers. Fatherly fauna. Festal fires. Feverish foes.

Entangled memories war within me, the past and the present swirling into and out of focus. Of all the planets I’ve been to and all the things I’ve collected, the memory of my first mission clings to me and won’t let go. I could not have saved them, yet I feel like I could have. It’s why I’ve been allowed this rare second visit to Earth—to heal. It’s to be my final mission.

I stare into the vast watery ocean and take a deep breath. In and out, like the water, like the tides, like the flow of all things. In and out.

The capacity to calm oneself on all planets has surprised me. There’s always an in and out, it just looks different on each planet and with each species we inhabit. These missions, while difficult, aid in our knowledge of the complexity of all things. It allows us to see the bigger picture. Gathering truth is our salvation and I will miss it.

A cluster of seagulls take flight squawking loudly as the little freckled girl and her mother run into the cold water holding hands and laughing. They squeal as a foamy wave crashes into their bare legs and they run back onto the dry land. I watch them do this over and over, the thrill of chasing a wave and playing tag with the icy water.

I close my eyes and savor the sound of their laughter. My first one thing.

Opening my eyes I see the mother wrapping a thick orange towel around the shivering child. She kisses her face and hugs her tight. They rock back and forth and the mother begins to sing. It’s a simple tune, a humming really, but the feeling ripples across the beach and into my arms. I wrap it into my shirt and cradle it to me.

It’s warm and big, my new one thing.

My last one thing.

Me and my babes when they were little.

Author’s note: Oh, this prompt threw me all over the place. I struggled for several days writing all kinds of ideas in my journal which all kept sounding like either Star Trek episodes or rather quite strange commentaries about society or politics. I ended up landing on the idea of an alien poet sent to Earth for inspiration and so began the lines “Tumultuous turquoise. Trembling tempests. Throttled temples. Tactile tensions.” As the alien began walking the beach, however, something shifted. I found my alien was more interested in a singular idea, as I suppose I was, than a bank of words for poetry. This led me to write what would then become the beginning. Originally I saw it as an entirely different alien having a completely different experience on Earth, but it too shifted when I figured out they were the same alien on thier last mission.

The experience of discovery when writing these stories is perhaps the biggest mystery to me. Each week it unfolds in a different way. It’s a mystery I hope I never solve, as finding my path to the tale is half the fun. While this story might have ended up being the very cliched thing I was trying to avoid, I’m happy I found it. Please let me know what you think and thank you so much for reading.


Short Story Challenge | Week 19

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 story with an alien in disguise among humans. We had to include the Aurora Borealis, paintbrush, cornfield, cluster, lineup, overlook, suspect, bridge, dome, and dash.


Write With Us

Next week’s prompt: A young child makes a discovery

Include: Superman, ginkgo Biloba, cavern, clicker, aloe, moviegoer, stretch, fury, yardstick, makeup


My 52 Week Challenge Journey

52 Weeks – Week 4 – Missionary

Prompt: A missionary in a remote village

Include: orchestra, finch, aim, development, ex, bold, old-fashioned, gut, brassy, sharp

What is 52 weeks?

Read Anna’s Week 4 (my talented writing partner)

The Claire in Clarity

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.

“Excuse me.”

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.”

“Thanks.”

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 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 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.”

“Hold on.”

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.

“Claire?”

“I’m here.”

“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.”

“Okay.”

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 unfamilar 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 this close up she can see the blue lines on his body are 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 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.

“Home.”

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.

“Yes, dear.”

“I’m here to help you. I can fix all the problems of your planet. I have all the answers.”

“Yes, dear.”

“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.”

“You are.”

“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.

“Yes, dear.”

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 be break the record and go down in history as the first woman to do so. We won’t let you do this.”

“No.”

“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.

Here’s one of my daughter’s figurines she proudly displays in her room.

Next week’s prompt: Week 5

A teenager whose parents have unwelcome news

Include: comic book, battery, crumbly, apartment, angelic, breach, shooter, soda, engineer, substantiate


My 52 Week Challenge Journey