Jonathan Hooper looked around the room. Every head turned in his direction. Each judging, condemning, rating him “insufficient,” as was the more informal designation of those either unprepared or unfit. “Yes.”
“I mean no, Ms. Lerner.”
“Are you telling me that after my instructions and patience, you still can’t keep your head on straight?”
Giggles from all around, and outright laughter from Brian Kirkwood, whose arrogance was too obvious to ignore, as was his reputation as a bully.
“A yes or no, Cadet Hooper?”
“Yes, I am not always able to keep my head on straight,” Jonathan said, still unable to cope with his own lack of focus and not being able to follow the modular design instructions for how to keep an alien head on without exposing his reality.
“Hang him up,” Brian said, and Annette Londo and Sid Gleason echoed the threat.
“Jonathan, you will stay after class,” she said and continued with the next lesson which had to do with techniques to stabilize the viscera as it tried to cope with Earth’s gravity.
The morning sky was a haze of coral and magenta, the suns of Warros far closer than earth’s.
The domed world they had lived in for a year would be their home for another two until they were fully acclimated. Their main complaint was the stink of the chemically differentiated soil, which watered their eyes and gave them constant headaches. The clothing to match Earth’s most common fabrics made their skin itch until scientists developed a serum to combat the irritation.
The schoolyard that was the extent of their world, an exact replica of a high school facility they expected to find on earth, had become less a place for acclamation and revelry as a stage for disruptive behavior. Retraining themselves to mimic the customs and culture of such a hostile and unpredictable species whose arrogance influenced most rationale was particularly challenging to master.
The Species Handbook for human behavior on Earth had to be memorized as well as emulated for one of the most complex and nuanced of all the species they had invaded in the past millennium. But, as Earth had great strategic importance, Jonathan Hooper’s class was tasked with greater responsibility than those of their many predecessors.
Even with his Class 1 intelligence rating, Jonathan’s parents warned him it would be difficult, and now the instructor was losing patience. Yet there was no rationale for him to suddenly be overtaken by a sudden sloth and lack of focus.
Early in the training he had been admonished for wearing his native skills and uncanny problem-solving acumen with more than a hint of arrogance.
Every day now he was failing an exercise or was found not to be attentive, black marks scarred his proficiency reports, which would certainly be factored into whether he would be cut, and sent home to a world of brutal menial labor that his family had worked so hard to rise from.
Clarence, his second cousin, showed early promise too but never made it out of the first year. That was a scar on Jonathan’s record. Failure, as much as bravery, was a genetic constant that ran in families, their scientists concluded, and any blemish or doubt was enough to be cut from the dangerous journey each cadet was hoping to undertake.
Brian, Logan Cummings, and Lauren Cassidy were posing and posturing around the playground, followed by a swarm of applauding followers. Chrissy Longin trailed indifferently at the tail end of that chorus.
A clot of flying daagons stopped to rest on the top of the dome and were immediately electrocuted by an invisible shield that sealed the hundred and thirty teenagers from the rest of their kind. The top of the dome was a graveyard of carcasses of every sort of flying creature who thought it was a safe space to forage over the countryside, or simply rest from their journey.
Every so often you could see cadets stare up at the freedom of being outside of the dome, then recall the mission they had volunteered for, and their commitment to furthering the unwavering aggressive soul of their nation.
At one point after the first year, Jonathan realized, too late to conceal, that he was attracted to Chrissy Longin. A few students soon caught a whiff of his condition after the first-year exams were taken and were making his life miserable, compromising any possible chance to further what he felt in his heart was the answer to absolute happiness.
When Brian Kirkwood realized Jonathan’s attraction to Chrissy Longin, he made every attempt to openly approach her as aggressively as decorum would permit.
Still, as Brian and Logan moved about the playground, Jonathan noticed Chrissy turned toward him with a sadness that he knew was clouding his own heart.
“Jonathan, why don’t you join us,” Logan shouted.
“He can’t or his head will fall off,” Brian bellowed, followed by an uproar of laughter that followed them back into the school.
The more he studied the Species Handbook profile of earthlings, the more Jonathan doubted his ability to reanimate himself so completely into such an offensive, primitive life form. An earlier, less technically supported, troupe had communicated destructive subtleties in human behavior that were alien and unpredictable and could expose them all, much less their intentions, if they weren’t completely mastered.
“The success of this mission,” they were taught by the school’s Commandant at the beginning of their indoctrination, “depends on your ability to be precisely who you aren’t and to live among those you abhor for the greater benefit of our future advancement and colonization.”
Jonathan missed what he was—his face, the markings on his forehead, hallmarks of the more evolved of his kind. What he saw in the mirror, where he had been surgically enhanced, was ugly and repugnant. But entirely necessary. And there were additional surgeries and anatomical alterations in all their futures.
Caught up in a torrent of doubt and reflection, Jonathan found himself a few paces behind Chrissy, who stopped short of the entrance to the school.
“Hey yourself.” Chrissy said with her first smile of the day.
“You were looking at me?”
“While you were staring at me.”
“Okay, so I know why I was staring at you.”
“And I know why I was staring at you, Jonathan.”
“You may not be staring at me much longer if I get cut.”
“You’re not going to get cut from the Corps.”
Jonathan was startled by her confidence in him and the willingness to openly show it. “I think our instructor and the Commandant might feel differently at this point.”
“Which is why I am moving from where I am sitting to the desk in front of you, and we’re both going to prove them wrong.”
“The instructor wouldn’t permit it.”
“I already told him I need more light, and Cathy Fletcher agreed to swap seats, as long as it didn’t impact our grades.”
“I don’t understand. Why are you doing all this?”
“The closer we sit together, the easier it will be for us to stare at each other, and so I don’t have to sit next to that fool Kirkwood.”
“You would do all that?”
“For you, yes.”
And as if willed by magic, Jonathan’s human head stopped shifting unsteadily from side to side and effortlessly centered itself in place. His neck relaxed, no longer hurt trying to constantly adjust itself, and almost instantly his human viscera congealed into a firm mass as if it had always been a part of him.
“Well, aren’t you two quite the fool’s couple.”
“Go back to class, Brian,” Chrissy said.
“Great idea, sweetheart, but not before I tell you how hot you look today, which is totally wasted on our headless friend here.”
She turned on him. “You just don’t get it, you asshole.”
A handful of students jammed behind Brian Kirkwood, who was blocking entrance to the school. A few repeated Chrissy’s insult in a trickle of laughter and surprise.
“Now,” Jonathan quietly demanded.
“So, now I can’t tell which one of you two is the male and which is playing the female earthling.”
Without thinking, more like problem solving, Jonathan slammed his fist into Kirkwood’s human face, nearly ripping his head from his neck. “Another word and I will take your head and shove it where it will do everybody here the most good.”
The words came from an old western he had read in the library about a place long ago called the United States. It was easy, surprisingly natural, and it instantly made Jonathan feel better about himself. He was consumed in a cloud of confidence that lasted the rest of his life.
Brian Kirkwood shrieked in pain, grasped his head, and fell to the ground. The other cadets moved back and steadied themselves, as they were trained to respond in the face of earthlings’ outbursts of aggressive, often unpredictable, violent behavior.
“Seems Cadet Kirkwood is losing his grip. Not the kind of solider we need to seed the success of our invasion, don’t you think?”
Jonathan turned toward the Commandant and saluted with the rest of those nearby. “Yes. Sir. My apologies. Mr. Kirkwood’s jaw unexpectedly got in the way of my fist.”
“Yes, that’s what I thought happened too,” the Commandant added.
“Sir, yes sir.”
“That ugly, human monstrosity is an offence to all, but keep that spontaneously aggressive hostility close at hand, Cadet Hooper. We’re going to need that instantaneous willingness to attack your own species if we’re going to succeed.”
“I have no doubt we will succeed and wipe that planet of its vermin once and for all and use it as a base for our further conquests,” Jonathan said, and finally released his salute.
“Carry on, the both of you,” the Commandant said and walked away.
Chrissy took Jonathan’s hand, “Come on,” and started to pull him away from the building as the rest of the cadets were waiting to see what was going to happen next.
Brian Kirkwood fumbled to his feet and disappeared into the building, holding his head as if it were about to fall off.
“Where are we going?”
“I need practice.”
“I read ahead a few chapters ahead last night and want to see what this human thing called ‘kissing’ is all about.”
By Arthur Davis
- Twice nominated, Arthur Davis is very grateful to have received an Honorable Mention in The Best American Mystery Stories 2017, for being one of the winners of the 2018 Write Well Award for excellence in short fiction, for being nominated
for a Pushcart Prize and published in over eighty journals.