Claire’s education began with science books. The careful word usage, uniform across disciplines, made it easier to understand this new language constructed from a series of nonsensical rules. The other children in her classes were afraid of her: she was older and solitary, already beautiful for someone so young.
Her life seemed to move faster than eight years could process. Each day took her farther away from understanding. One morning she awoke to the cold, sinking knowledge she would never see her best friend again, never see the breathtaking panorama of Mt. Oag rise from the water or hear her baby cousin’s first word. She spent her free hours at school clicking away through images of her old home, but even the text she couldn’t yet read seemed accusatory towards El Tanika. Claire trusted her parents but kept her crying at night as quiet as possible, until she could push it down entirely and there was only silence between the thin walls of their apartment.
The big city itself was after a time not a challenge to her. Moving through crowds of people who didn’t seem to notice or care about her presence was easier than being ignored at school, and more interesting besides. She was not one to imagine where people or going or doing, but everyone seemed headed somewhere. Claire decided she would discover where that somewhere was. Her eyes took on the same steely sense of purpose that sustained her through the newness of winter and the loneliness of schoolyard lunches. With English mastered, her accent settled into only a distant inflection. She pulled her heavy coat in around her shoulders and whispered practiced phrases into the air as they turned to mist. At home, she coiled them tight, and only spoke El Tanikan.
“We’re lucky to have come here,” her mother told her, ambivalence in her voice. They were staying up waiting for Claire’s father another night, watching the news from home on television. Claire had learned to discern the truth behind her parents’ words in the early weeks of their arrival. It was as if they spoke in code now. The way her mother had been always honest with her was another thing left behind.
Claire tucked her knees against her chin and watched the gentle flicker of the screen, not paying attention as the program switched to a new story about the Martian colonies.
“Maybe we should have gone to space instead,” Claire said. Jokes sat uneasily on her tongue and always had, but her mother smiled all the same. It was a smile that remembered more of what was lost than Claire did. Her mother still thought in the language she was spending her days learning to camouflage.
The faster and more challenging the work, the easier it was for Claire to keep her mind busy. The usual click of her fingers on the keys, the glow of the screen and the heavy pull of the headset against her ear. She took on a different voice when she spoke into it, an octave lower and belonging to a Claire much different than the one who inhabited the world outside the control room. At the end of the day, she was too tired to do anything but fall directly to the deepest sleep in her small no-gravity chamber, still larger than what most people at the company had to call home.
The company, she heard over and over again, with varying levels of sarcasm attached, was like a family. Claire never believed it. She didn’t gossip and laugh with the other members of her section, she worked through breaks and subsisted on coffee and leftovers through the night. She studied until she understood the code of Control Section as intrinsically as a new language or how to deflect questions about her background.
Sometimes she came up for breath and remembered with a slight shock that her feet were no longer planted firmly on the ground.
Claire remembered the exact day Dolf called her into his office for a long while after.
“Miss Rondo,” he began, in the usual impossible to read tone. “I’ll get to the point. I’d like to make you something like an assistant to me. You’ll be entrusted with twice the responsibility of most of the others in your section, and I need to know you’ll be able to handle all of it. I can’t broach mistakes, especially when I’m directly involved.”
She knew there was only a moment to reply and swallowed any possible falter. “You won’t regret choosing me.”
“I know,” said Dolf. “Keep it up.”
Hachi was wandering the hall when she finally left the office, looking lost and irritated.
“Hey, Claire! Wait up!” he called. Her mask broke temporarily as she spotted him.
“I have to…can we talk? In the cafeteria or something?”
Claire was always charmed by his fond intimidation, the way that he was never entirely still.
“The cafeteria or something, twenty minutes,” she said, in her own voice.
It was only a company mixer, but she spent an hour longer than usual fixing her hair. The top and skirt had been impulse buys, but something impractical inside her didn’t want to wear the same old clothes, not tonight. As Claire slid on her earrings, glinting in the light as she turned her head, it was almost possible that the girl in the mirror was an entirely new person. Claire Rondo, Control Section’s best employee, and tonight, Hachirota Hoshino’s date.
Cheng-Shin arrived to pick her up so promptly she later wondered about it. They would meet Hachi at the party — Debris Section had to work the latest, as usual.
“You look beautiful,” he said, with every sincerity. Claire was no longer entirely sure what the word beautiful even meant, but she thanked him. He took her arm.
Hachi spotted them the moment they entered and waved Claire over with his usual casualness. She caught the flush in his face anyway, not from alcohol.
“Let’s take a picture,” Cheng-Shin said, suddenly.
“Come on,” Hachi said, “Are you serious?”
“It’s a nice idea,” said Claire.
They ushered over a bystander to click the button on Cheng-Shin’s little camera and none of them blinked, even on the first try. Everything felt heady and new, and the past very, very far away. Claire allowed herself the rare pleasure of excitement coursing through her body.
She kissed Hachi soft and slow as Cheng-Shin wandered off, her hand resting shyly on his shoulder.
Claire didn’t look out at space, really look out, often. The kind of romanticism some Technora workers gave to their jobs annoyed her, although she would never admit it out loud. Tonight, though, something was different. There was a poem she had learned as a child, memorized through repetition and ingrained deeply in her head where she had kept it for a very long time.
She couldn’t write the words, but she could say them. Claire whispered her joy out into the void.