The girl blinked a few times and examined the drab faces of the rest of the children in the classroom. Then, wearing a curious scowl, she raised her hand.
I stumbled through the seating chart searching for her name, “Yes Miss…”
“Hamilton,” she finished for me. “But you can call me Maggie. I was just wondering, Mr. Andrews, if we were going to be covering anything about the planets today?” She sprouted a peevish grin, a knowing grin, and somehow I could tell that she had seen through my facade.
“Uhm-uh,” I struggled, “That wasn’t on the agenda today.” Her eyes sharpened to a glare. “But I suppose if you had some questions I could answer them during recess?” The smile returned and she nodded so profusely that the enormous glasses framing her face nearly went flying across the room.
When the bell finally rang Maggie stayed planted in her seat while the other children stampeded toward the playground. “So,” she said when we were finally alone. “What is an alien doing substitute teaching a fifth-grade classroom in Indiana?”
My third stomach churned in nervous ritual. “I-I think the better question would be how an eleven year-old girl saw through one of the most advanced cloaking techniques ever devised. I shouldn’t look any different than any other teacher here.”
She started toward me and for the first time in nearly two Earth years I felt a spark of fear ignite inside me. I took a few steps backward and she stopped. “I’m not going to hurt you,” she said, stretching forward a calming hand. “Just, look.” Then she craned her neck forward and opened her eyes so wide it seemed like they might fall out and pointed to them.
I peered forward. One of the eyes didn’t acknowledge my movement at all, the other had a misshapen cornea. “Astigmatism and monocular vision,” I said, more to myself than to her. “That would double-down on two aspects the illusion relies on the heaviest.”
“I knew it,” she shouted. “You really are an alien! I’ve known it since I saw you in the cafeteria last week.”
“Yes, though unfortunately you won’t know for much longer,” I sighed, slithering a tentacle inside my pocket. “I’m afraid I’ll have to wipe your memory.” I pulled out the expunging tool they’d given me at the Academy and Maggie skittered to the back of the classroom in terror.
“WAIT!” she screamed, taking cover beneath a desk. “What if I promised not to tell anyone?”
I rolled my optic scanners, “And why should I trust you?”
“Because I read science fiction,” she said, pointing to a worn, Arthur C. Clarke paperback that was sitting on top of her desk. “Plus, no one believed me when I saw you last week, why would they believe me now?”
I stared at her for a moment. There was something different about this human. I slid the tool back in my pocket. “Alright, but only because I move across the country in a week, and believe me you’re getting off lucky. If you ever see another one of us you’d be wise to keep your mouth shut.”
Her malformed eyes lit up, “There’s more of you?”
“Forget I mentioned it,” I said, “I’m not supposed to talk about any of that with the subject race.”
“Subject race?” She nearly had a seizure. “What does that mean? Are you our overlords or something?”
“Not that kind of subject,” I said.
“So like—test subjects then?”
“Listen I really shouldn’t be–” I paused. How long had it been since I’d had a real, meaningful discussion? Since I’d talked about something more nebulous than the benign, tea-time chatter most humans resorted to?
“It’s similar,” I conceded. “But it’s more like an observational study, like with your ant farm back there.” I pointed to the terrarium at the back of the classroom. “We don’t do any poking or prodding, we just watch.”
“Watch for what?”
“Nothing in particular,” I said. “We’re just studying how you, erm—how you—operate.”
“Like Jane Goodall?” she asked.
“Like Jane Goodall.”
Maggie sat there for a moment, swept away in the twin currents of thought and awe. Then she looked up and asked, “So what do you think?”
“About us. About humans.”
“Now that would be saying too much,” I laughed.
“Well, can you tell me about your people?”
“No can do.”
The girl crossed her arms and sighed, her face still shaped by lines of contemplation. “Can you at least tell me why your people want to know how we behave? Why you’re studying us?”
Again she gave me pause. How cruel it would be to walk away and leave this creature with the knowledge that alien life existed without telling her a thing about it. I recalled my own curiosity as a hatchling and wondered how damning it might have been had it not been fed in those crucial, formative cycles. The Academy would not care for it, but giving the girl nothing just felt wrong.
“We’re studying you because you’re on the edge,” I told her. “Your civilization is at a threshold most don’t make it past. You’ve developed the technology necessary for spreading humanity’s seed to other worlds but you’ve spent the better half of the last century stockpiling enough weapons to destroy yourselves multiple times over. That isn’t something we often see.”
“So you’re here to try and push us in the right direction?” she asked.
“That’s not our choice to make. Every people must find their own path to the stars.”
“The Prime Directive,” she said, nodding.
“Sort of,” I said with a meager grin.
“So why are you here then?”
I almost bit the words back, but I’d come this far, what was one step further? “To see whether or not you fall short,” I told her. “My people are record keepers and it is the job of our Academy to record as much as we can about all sentient life in the galaxy. The species that make it–”
“And the ones that don’t,” she finished, her tone taking a solemn turn.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I know it’s not an easy thing to hear.” I wanted to tell her more, to not finish our discussion on such a somber note. But before I could say more, the bell rang and the rest of the children flooded back into the classroom.
Maggie was quiet the rest of the afternoon. She didn’t raise her hand, take notes, or even look up from her desk. She just hung her head until the bell rang and then scurried out with the rest of the children.
I sat at my desk for a long while after they were gone. This was why the Academy forbade any form of meddling. That sort of weight shouldn’t be placed on the shoulders of any member of a subject race, especially one so young. As melancholy manifested in my emotion cortex, I began to wonder if I should have just expunged her from the start.
Finally, after the halls had gone dark, I gathered my things and prepared to stalk back to the apartment I was renting nearby. But just as I was closing the classroom door, I looked back and glimpsed a piece of paper sitting on Maggie’s desk. I walked over and peeled it up from the wood. It was folded in half and “Mr. Andrews” was scrawled across the front in the crisp handwriting of a young human girl. I opened it.
“We won’t fall short,” I read aloud with a smile. “I won’t let us.”
I tucked the paper away to be filed later at the Academy. If there was to be only one glimpse of humanity to outlive them, it would be this small shred of what made them great. A shining example of their most defining feature. The one thing that set them all apart.
Originally posted as a response to a prompt by /u/hailthedragonmaster on reddit.com