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art by Melissa Mead

Test Drive

Over the past twenty-nine years, Nina Kiriki Hoffman has sold adult and YA novels and more than 250 short stories. Her works have been finalists for the World Fantasy, Mythopoeic, Sturgeon, Philip K. Dick, and Endeavour awards. Her first novel, The Thread that Binds the Bones, won a Stoker award, and her short story "Trophy Wives" won a Nebula Award in 2009. Her middle-school novel Thresholds, the first in the Magic Next Door series, was published by Viking in August, 2010. Its sequel, Meeting, was published in August, 2011. Nina does production work for the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. She teaches a short story writing class through her local community college, and she works with teen writers. She lives in Eugene, Oregon. For a list of Nina's publications: ofearna.us/books/hoffman.html.

It was my turn to wear the mask, but my egg-sister Linney wouldn't give it up. She'd been wearing the mask all morning, set on Smile, and it was a test day, too. Everyone thought she was so pleased and relaxed and Earthy.
I am wretched at tests, but the mask would have helped. I flunked my Calm test that morning, scored medium low on Earth Facial Expressions, and got a fifty in grooming because I didn't know how to put on makeup. The mask has its own. Maybe I depend on that too much, even though I only get to wear the mask half the time I'm awake.
Linney didn't even need the mask. Imitating this planet's sentient life forms comes naturally to her. Some days I just want to kill her.
But that's not an option, at least not while we're training under the eyes of everybody still inside the ship, so I went to Dad Two instead and complained.
"You always do this, Morana. Play the poor-little-me card. I'm tired of taking care of you. Deal with it yourself."
"I never wanted to be human anyway," I said and rushed away before he could tell me he didn't like my attitude. I've had a bad attitude since we arrived on Earth. Nobody complained about my attitude on Zalon. Then I was the expert, and Linney was the stupid one because she wasn't used to having six arms and didn't know what to do with two of them.
In the afternoon we were going out for our first field test. Skitty was taking us to a mall, where Linney and I were supposed to wander around like North American Teenagers and see if we made contact with local life forms.
"I want that mask," I said to Linney over lunch. Skitty sat on a pod to the side, her tap pad at the ready, watching our every move.
I hate test days.
"You can't have it," Linney said. "Last time you wore it, you broke the mouth and it was stuck on Frown for two days. You've lost your mask privileges."
If I had had three more arms, I would have strangled her.
I finished eating my fimsaw, and Linney said, "You're going to have to change those teeth, or you'll flunk before we're even out the door."
I growled at her.
"That's a ten-point deduction," she said. "Humans don't have that kind of vocal range."
I ran away before Skitty could mark me down any farther. I spent the rest of lunch period in our cabin, going over the Human specs again and remolding myself to conform. If Linney got a mission before I did on this planet she would smug me to death. I had to pass.
I met Skitty and Linney at the outer lock at the appointed time.
"You look nice," Skitty said. "I like what you've done with your hair."
Linney had exactly the same hairstyle I did, long, yellow, and straight around her shoulders, held back with a blue band. I guess we'd both copied from the same model.
We climbed into the disguised scoot and drove to the mall.
The mall was a big low building like a crouching cityship. We went in an airlock and stepped into strange sensations. Sound that was sort of like music, and lots of people talking in the limited bandwidth humans use. The smells were various and strange.
Skitty herded us down the hall toward the conglomerated food outlets. Our first test was eating in public.
Linney ordered a Happy Meal. This concept always made me wince. How can a meal be happy when it is about to be consumed?
I'd studied lots of menus and even tried some of the foods, so I ordered a vanilla milkshake. It was the only thing I was sure I could keep in my primary stomach.
"That's not eating," Linney said through her perpetual smile.
I stuck a straw in my thick shake and walked away, smiling myself. Skitty paid for our food and herded us toward a table.
Linney had to manage the mouth controls in the mask to eat, whereas I could just suck on my straw and ingest, even while smiling. Skitty hadn't gotten any food. She tapped on her pad.
"Twins," said a passing human. I judged him an adolescent, even though he was as large as an adult. His dark hair stuck up in spikes and he was wearing a black T-shirt with holes torn in it and black pants with lots of chains on them. "Hey, twins! How ya doing?"
"Wanna sit?" I said, scoring points by conversing with a native. I gestured toward the fourth chair at our table.
"Awesome," he said, and sat. "Hey, my name's Palmer. What's yours?"
I couldn't remember my Earth name. "Morana. Nice to eat you, Palmer."
"Eat me!" he said, and laughed, huh huh, huh huh. "Good one, Morey!"
"I'm Linney," said Linney, abandoning her struggle with her hamburger. "Nice to meet you, Palmer." Her voice sounded better than mine, of course. And of course, she said the right thing.
"Hi, Linney," said Palmer.
"Would you like the rest of my shake?" I asked him.
"Rilly? Rilly? What flavor?"
"Vanilla," I said.
"My fave," he said, and grabbed it, sucked through the straw with a big slurping sound. I couldn't stop smiling. I'd gotten rid of the food and made touch-and-exchange-germs contact with a human.
Linney tried to change her expression, but the Mask wasn't fast enough.
Skitty smiled at me, and I was used enough to the expression now to realize I was doing really well.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, September 8th, 2011

Author Comments

I wrote "Test Drive" for one of the Wordos Workshops' annual Halloween Short-Short Nights. We come up with a theme everybody can use as a jumping-off point for thousand-words-or-fewer stories, and then we get together and read the stories to each other on the Tuesday before Halloween. The theme was "Mask."

- Nina Kiriki Hoffman
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