“Applicant Beulah Khware.”
The voice is peppered with a Celeronian accent and a touch of discomfort. They’re unaccustomed to verbal communication. The benefits of a collective consciousness.
“Proceed to Examination Room Seven. Answer the questions correctly. Join the Celeronian Conglomerate. Do you understand?”
Baba pushes me towards the Celeronian Embassy. I’m the latest hopeful to walk inside with a stack of papers and documentation. None of the others have walked back out. It’s just a long line of Celeronians, gawking at a dying planet and wondering how humanity managed to fuck things up so badly. The exit must be elsewhere.
The room is small, walls slathered in a drab beige. Bureaucratic beige, Baba called it. A haughty Celeronian looks down at me, silvery eyes flashing with the particular brand of contempt the Celeronians reserve for humans. Climate change, mass extinction, interplanetary refugee crises—to the Celeronians, every human is equally responsible. They can’t see individual action, only collective guilt.
“Applicant Beulah Khware, we will examine your correct answers.” There is an aloofness to the Celeronian’s tone and bearing. It only makes them seem more beautiful. “Do you agree?”
“Yes.” I fight to keep my voice from trembling. Nobody knows what comes next, but I’ve trained for this. I should be fine.
They reach out and grasp my hand, thirty-seven slender fingers wrapping around ten stodgy stubs. A transparent glass cloche descends from the ceiling, settling on my head, humming quietly with an electrical current of some kind.
The Celeronian’s silver eyes meet mine. The cloche tightens. A tendril wraps around my thoughts, plucking and teasing at the innermost facets of my mind until I’m naked.
They raise a picture. Gap-toothed Baba, smiling behind a bushy beard.
“Who is this?”
“My Baba, Azish Khware.”
“Celeron.” Baba was sure of his choice for me. “You’ll go to Celeron.”
Other planets are easier to get to. Ghriz offered free housing. Y-At-Ua had open immigration. But Baba had his heart set on Celeron. Maybe it was because they offered no help and didn’t even seem to want us. We always want to impress the unimpressible.
Baba picked up extra shifts and sent me to the Celeron Educational Institute when I was fourteen-years-old.
“Immigration is just an exam, Beulah. Which means you need to study.”
I didn’t know enough to argue, and CEI was too expensive to be a scam, even if it was run by humans. Hundreds of parents appeared to agree, and so we sat, the last generation of a dying planet, learning Celeronian politics, physiology, and customs.
By fifteen, half my classmates had dropped out. I could name every major Celeronian organ and world event.
By nineteen, hundreds had narrowed down to dozens. I ate Celeronian food and listened to Celeronian music.
By graduation, only four remained. I dreamt in fluent Celeronian.
“My little Beulah, a Celeronian.” Baba beamed at me while I struggled to translate his words into Celeronian so I could understand them.
The tendril whips within my mind, a painful bolt tearing something apart. I would fall if I could, but the Celeronian official’s fingers are under my arms now, pulling me up.
“Who is this?”
The tendril whips me again. Something breaks, inside and outside. The officer’s silvery eyes hold mine. I can’t blink.
“Who is this?”
I look at the image. A man smiles behind an unkempt beard. He needs dental work.
“A man. I—” I frown and lean in. Something tugs at me, and the tendril cracks again. “I don’t know him.”
“Correct.” He tosses the image aside, pulls out another. A globe, rusty reds and browns, lined with scorching orange. Earth. “What is this place?”
“Earth. My home.”
I’m eight and living with a strange man. We’ve moved again, something to do with work, or perhaps education, or food. I’m not sure.
I have no friends here. My childhood companions are hundreds of miles away, their faces a blur. But the isolation of a new place is still raw—a cold, shuddering feeling deep within my chest. I want to go home.
“You’re always home, Beulah. This is always home,” the strange man says. It’s comforting, somehow. One day, he comes back to our apartment with a ball. He calls it a “globe,” and it’s speckled green and blue with dots of red and brown near the center and spots of white at the top.
“This used to be Earth,” he says. “The blue bits are water. Super salty water, undrinkable. And the white? Cold water, so cold you could hit people with it.”
“And the green?”
“Broccoli. Fields and fields of broccoli.” His teeth are a flash of white behind the beard. “It was the only food we had, back when I was a child.”
I laugh in disbelief and pretend-retch. We both hate broccoli.
“This is our home, Beulah. Wherever you go, this is home.”
The tendril twists, squeezing at something inside me until it pops. My vision blurs for a few moments. Something hot rolls down my face.
“What is this?”
“Earth. Planet Earth.”
The tendril rummages through my mind, squeezing and popping more of my consciousness. The cloche is tightening even more, my nose pressed up against the glass as it squeezes in.
“What is this?”
“Planetary Designation Sol-3.” I’m mumbling, but the Celeronian seems to hear me clearly.
“Correct.” This image too is tossed aside in favor of another. A lanky woman with dark skin and pockmarks on her cheeks, wearing a maroon cardigan two sizes too large for her.
“Who is this?”
“It’s me. Beulah Khware.”
I’m seventeen, and I hate my body. My hair is too black. My skin is too rough. I’ve seen too many Celeronian movies, absorbed too much of their culture. I hate my blue eyes for not being silver, my limbs for not being longer, my nose for being too long. I cry in front of a mirror, then break it.
My best friend wants to date me. I blanch when I look at him and imagine him naked. I see the same things I hate about myself in his too-short limbs and his too-long nose and his decidedly human eyes. He smiles at me, moves in to kiss me, and I push him away. I tell him I’m too busy studying to date anyone. He doesn’t talk to me again.
Every night, I watch Celeronian porn. Every night, I hate myself even more.
The tendril doesn’t have much work to do. It moves to uproot the memory, but I hand it over gladly. We take pleasure in shredding it. When the Celeronian shows me the picture again, I don’t hesitate.
“A woman. I don’t know her.”
The tendril within me rejoices. My mind feels strangely empty, a container with too much space. The cloche around my face lifts, but the tendril remains. It continues burrowing, expanding into the container, filling the crannies of my mind, judging the clutter occupying my personality, sorting and deleting anything that doesn’t pass muster. I hand over my innermost self and the tendril reshapes me, papering over the cracks in my brain.
The Celeronian leaves my hand, but not our thoughts.
They hand me a mirror, and I grasp it with thirty-seven slender fingers. Silvery eyes gaze back at me.
Leave and gather any belongings you have left on Sol-3. A transport shuttle will take you to the Celeron Homeworld when you return.