I can’t breathe, the simulation room is swimming so hard. Swirling shades of blue and green, so many shades! I don’t know how the humans stand it. Tears–the real thing–smear my cheeks as I clutch at the clothing covering my body. I’d do anything for the comfort of white walls right now, for the solidity of my pod-group pressing tight against my membranes–
“Stop,” I gasp, and curl atop the simulation room floor, feeling for it past the maelstrom of colors. “Stop the test! I cannot–”
The air flashes, and a moment later, the room settles, resolving into nothing more than blank walls.
Blessedly blank walls.
My panic slowly subsides, but the tight squeezing in my chest does not. I know already the disappointment of what is to come next…
From the nearby wall bud, the project leader’s voice buzzes in disapproval. “Candidate Jandoon,” the project leader says, “you have failed Assimilation Test 351x. Prepare for reincorporation into your pod-group.”
A chaotic array of emotions unfurls inside me, a mix of human neurochemicals and the remnants of my own. I’ve spent years training for the Earth system observation program. Years being coaxed into the unforgiving shape that is human, inoculated into the bizarreness that is sound and speech.
And worst of all, the colors. So many terrible, pointless colors, all of which refuse to settle to stillness in my brain-mass.
This project has been my entire life.
And now I have failed. I am to be reincorporated, so close to my final goal.
“Hey!” A familiar voice echoes down the undulating white passage behind me. “Jandoon, wait up!”
I bite back my cringe–one of the few human expressions I excel at–and turn to face my competitor. “Greetings, Candidate Neeome.”
Their face squints oddly, and I realize I’ve erred too formal.
Neeome would never make such a mistake in language. They have passed every test formulated by the project leader. Have become so human at this point, some question whether they will be able to fully reincorporate into their pod-group once the project is complete.
Their dedication is obviously stronger than my own, an observation which always causes me internal pain. If any of us are chosen to initiate first contact with the humans, it will surely be Neeome.
Neeome matches my pace, joining my disgraceful slouch down the passage toward reincorporation.
“I heard what happened,” they say. “In the color room.”
I say nothing. I do not wish to express myself in human sounds, and chemical clouds are not an option until I have been reincorporated.
“You’ve got nothing to be ashamed of,” they continue. “Plenty of us fail the color tests. They’re tough!”
I stop. Neeome is being compassionate. Likely practicing for when they are sent planet-side. Even now, their dedication continues to shame me. Still, I cannot help but glance down at my near-white hands, veined with faint tones of yellow and blue.
Unlike the color room, my hands do not swim before my vision–but how many weeks of training did that take to overcome? And the colors are still so pale–so muted!–compared to what our final shapings will be and what we will face on the planet’s actual surface.
I grab futilely at the air with my limited human hands. If I were my true self, the air would be permeated with the chemical signature of my frustration. If I were my true self–
“Hey.” Neeome takes my hands, encasing them in their own. It reminds me of my birthing sac, of that brief period surrounded by the pod-group’s mass, touching but not yet joined.
My hands shake in theirs. Sending signals, signals that are so much harder to interpret than what I’ve always known. “I just…I just don’t understand how you can do it. How you can stand it, it’s all so bright. It makes me want to burst from this skin.”
“Hmm.” Neeome glances down the passage both ways, then leans in close. “You want to know the secret to all these tests?”
There is a secret? I was unaware there was a secret.
Cautiously, I nod.
“Well,” they continue, speaking quietly, “ninety-five percent of it is just faking. Pure performance. You know, pretending that everything is okay even though it’s really not.”
I startle. That cannot be right. The project leader would surely catch on. If we do not learn to adapt to being human in all ways, our observations will become compromised at the first moment of extreme stress. Everything we have worked for will be lost.
But the expression on Neeome’s face is one of intense seriousness. And expectation.
As for what they are expecting…?
“So,” I ask, “what is the other five percent?”
She grins as though I have shared an amusing adage or called a large canine companion a “good boy.”
“Nightmares, mostly. Accepting you’re going to have them about everything you work so hard not to see. I spent a week waking up screaming after my first real tree. A week! And the things still give me the trembles when I see them. If the project leader decides to post me at a forested observation point, I am so screwed!”
I laugh at the euphemism. Then nearly jump because it is my first spontaneous laugh.
It sounds quite different from the practice rooms.
Neeome pats my back, then sets off down the passage. “You should ask to take the test again,” they say before exiting a side passage.
“Yes,” I say to nobody in particular, “perhaps I should.”
“Candidate Jandoon,” the project leader states from the wall bud, “we have accepted your request of a second trial for Assimilation Test 351x. Proceed.”
Already sweating–why must these bodies shed so much moisture?–I step into the testing room. The walls are white and blank. Everything is void. Comforting.
But it will not last.
In fact, as soon as I begin to settle, the walls flash.
Blue and green assault my vision in a chaotic spray. Beneath me, an ominous mass of orange and silver tilts, nearly tipping me over.
I start to crumple, wishing I could suck my eyes inward and erase the horrors stabbing at me from every angle. The rocking, the roiling, the terrible colors!
But I catch myself.
Ninety-five percent of it is just faking.
Neeome who excels at everything has admitted even they are not so perfect. And if they can bear the pain of assault from all these newly embedded senses, then there is no reason I cannot do the same.
My eyes water excessively as I bite my lip and send a heavy dose of pain signals to my brain-mass, and my legs quiver beneath me. But I do my best to pretend at stillness. At calm.
And, in what I am certain is to be the greatest error in my life-cycle, I stare directly into the maelstrom.
Oh, how it hurts. Every movement is a stab into my brain-mass. A furious jab whose sole task is to undo me.
Instinct screams at me to shut my eyes. To curl on the floor that I know is there outside of the simulation until the roiling stops. Until my inputs are manageable once more. But though the thought of reincorporating to my pod-group feels urgent under this assault, I know the urge will not last.
Because there is one thing–just this one thing–that I want more.
I want to be a part of making history.
I want to observe.
Wave after wave of sheer terror, I fight off as the colors swoop in from every direction. As they peel away my carefully practiced preparations.
And then, just as I think I can bear no more…a shape resolves.
High up, a winged fluttering. White feathers cutting through the chaos, tipped in black.
“A gull,” I say, my breath sucking free. I remember the pictures, the grayed-out stills we studied in class for preparation.
And as I say the word, the rest of the simulation begins to resolve into shape. Into form and purpose.
“And the ocean,” I gasp. “And the beach! It is the beach!”
A mass of water expands as far as I can see, blue and green and every shade between, murmuring as it stretches calmly up and down the golden sands beneath me, oddly reminiscent of the chemical clouds of home. Overhead, the gull swings in a wide arc, eyeing the waves below.
And though the image fills me with a new kind of terror, the world no longer reels beneath me and my limbs no longer shake.
Indeed, I am laughing, though it takes me a moment to realize it.
I’m laughing because I know now, whatever the challenges, I will pass the tests before me. I will pass them and be as human as I can be no matter how frightening it is because some things are greater than fear.
And maybe, if I am brave enough, it will be me who gets to initiate first contact.
And then I will be the one who gets to teach a human how to be us.
Michelle Muenzler writes words both dark and strange to counterbalance the sweetness of her baking. Check out michellemuenzler.com for links to more of her work.