Kaylee struggled valiantly against the urge to close her eyes.
Must continue, must complete…
She had kept herself functioning through the past few hours only through artificial means (in other words, through copious amounts of caffeine) but was now reaching the end of her tether. She knew that much depended upon her completion of the task, but motivation levels were running low. Black lights danced on the peripherals of her vision and every few minutes, her hands gave a subtle caffeine-induced tremor that was beginning to concern her.
But Kaylee was not like most other university students. She was an exchange student, and more importantly, an exchange student like very few others. ‘Exchange on Earth’ was a rather popular option among her people. With an atmosphere already fortuitously hospitable, the only challenge associated with the program was the abduction of the original Kaylee. The real Kaylee would be kept in a stuporous state until the end of the semester, when she would be brought up to speed on her course, memory-wiped and safely brought back to Earth. She could seem a little sluggish and forgetful upon return, but most of her connections would put that down to a post-semester stress-related disconnect. So far the operation had been a success. Thousands of exchange students had enjoyed their time on Earth undetected. Kaylee didn’t want to be the first of her kind to screw up the system. But she wouldn’t put it past her.
The students were told not to become too attached to any of the native inhabitants. But after a life of no-nonsense facts and figures, how could she not? Kaylee's species was so far advanced that they'd become culturally bankrupt. It was a breath of fresh air to go somewhere where people still wrote things that didn't convey useful information, took lifestyle advice from a small section in their newspaper based on their time of birth, and quite illogically wore clothes that didn't suit the weather. The exchange program itself was something of an anomaly for her pragmatic society back at home.
She began to like life on Earth, with all its trivialities. Like so many other university students, she had been frivolous with her time, sipping lattes in obscure tucked away cafés, reading philosophical novels which contemplated the meaning of an artist’s life and exploring small art galleries on city corners. As a result, she had become acquainted with the very human behaviour of “procrastination”. Twitching and squinting, Kaylee powered through her final hundred words, added a few hasty citations, then fell asleep on the table. She would awake with a keyboard imprint on her face and dried drool running down the corner of her mouth.
Bleep bleep bleep
Kaylee snapped back into consciousness and glanced frantically at her alarm. She groaned. It was obscenely early in the morning for a creature that had just completed a rushed last minute assignment. With her right hand she groped for the snooze button, but soon realised that the sound was not emanating from her alarm. She dragged her communication machinery out from under her bed.
“Mother?” she slurred.
“Are you still not awake?” her mother said teasingly.
“Why are you calling so early?”
“Well, it’s not exactly early back at home. And you know I wouldn’t have called, but…”
“There’s no other way to put this, you’re being recalled.”
Kaylee sat up abruptly, fully awake now.
“Darling, they know.”
Memories of hands on warm skin, lips moving as if to devour. Grey-blue eyes. A patch of green scale...a scream.
She was silent. She knew that the program was always observed and that there were strict rules and guidelines in place, but she hadn’t realised that they would clock on so fast.
Her mother was quiet for a moment. Then, “why did you do it?”
Kaylee felt a new emotion. Sadness. “I can’t explain it.”
She stared blankly at the screen as she switched it off. There was still so much more to do. She couldn't bear the thought of those endless grey corridors, the constant stream of information, the hive mind. She made a split-second decision - she'd always been rash, to the disappointment of everyone back home.
She grabbed a fire extinguisher and brought it down with a resounding clang on the apparatus. The screen spiderwebbed and the console buckled. Again and again she swung at it until it lay in a smouldering, sputtering heap.
She couldn't leave it here. It was evidence. She thought of what to do next.
A short time afterwards, in a galaxy about two over, a green light on a console blinked off. A sleek black humanoid turned its head almost imperceptibly to look at it. Its vents enlarged as it exhaled deeply. "Pity," it thought. It brought up a map of the ship on its HUD and set a marker for the area labelled “Special Deployment”.
Kaylee quickly sprayed on a fresh layer of skin, her mind racing. She swept a collection of novels off her bookshelf into a typical human student shoulder bag, donned her favourite jacket, and looked back on all her things. Her things. It was precisely this sentimentality that got her into trouble.
She lit a match, flicked it onto the communication device's faintly glowing remains, and shut the door behind her.
Kaylee woke up with the imprint of a keyboard on her face and dried drool running down the side of her mouth. She felt groggy and detached. Stretching out her right arm, she reached for the bundle of papers which she would later staple and submit in person to the relevant pigeon hole.
This was her very last assignment, and submitting it meant that she was finally free. Free to read novels, watch crappy reality television shows and hunt out the best chai latte in the entire city. For some reason, the semester already seemed hazy, with her memory quickly fogging over, and the details of classes, lectures and parties quickly fading into a vague haze of blankness.
But who cared? It was time to unwind.
By Jess Hay and John Snow