this liquid nutrient
that the ship's nutritionist swears will sustain us until
a rescue vessel arrives. He has gathered the prickly succulents
from a nearby arroyo, offering a stem to the woman from the
galley and myself. We each take a spongy spoke, trusting this
man who claims to know what is edible and what is not on this
bleak patch of dirt where our ship crashed down after mutineers
The nutritionist, whose name is Terrence,
and a woman from the galley staff, whose name is Sophie, have
taken it upon themselves to log identities from those corpses
with visible name tags still intact. They separate the human
dead from the dead Adapters who were being transported to
the detainment center. The dead number in the hundreds. I
refuse to survey the smoldering pyres. I have no need to be
a witness to this scene of burning flesh.
Our ship, the Liahona, named after
some ancient word for compass, was an incarceration vessel
bound for The Dump. That is what the moon-based penal colony
is affectionately called by most World-Clear personnel. World-Clear
landed the exclusive contract for pest removal, not because
their bid was cheaper than the next bidder, but because they
promised not to kill the pests, a decision they may soon regret
when word reaches them that the Liahona did not arrive as
The agreement had stated they would
simply remove the Adapters to a distant containment center,
a.k.a. The Dump. "Remove"that was the word
that sealed the deal. No death, no disposal of rotting flesh,
no fuss. "Nothing unpleasant, simply remove the species
off-site," the World-Clear CEO promised with typical
World-Clear overconfidence. And now, the few Liahona survivors
get to witness what ignorance blended with hubris can produce;
but hindsight is always twenty-twenty.
The pests in question were given the
name Adapters for their unique ability to take on the attributes
of any species they encountered on any given planet. Adapters
hitched rides on space freighters, military vessels, tourists'
survey ships, any moving vehicle could become a delivery system.
And they needed delivery systems because they were as prolific
as cockroaches, multiplying with litters that reached maturity
in approximately sixty months.
Depending on which species they were
copying and the conditions of the environment, Adapters, in
theory, could adjust accordingly. In practice, they were less
inclined to curtail any of their voracious appetites. Population
expansion could have been slowed down by rationing out litter
permits to a select few. Although it would have been in their
best interest to adapt to the limited family size of their
human models, the Adapters didn't fully appreciate that fact,
until it was too late.
At first, they were merely disliked
after their presence among humans was discovered. But as the
natural resources of the New Colonies began to decline rapidly,
the humans' disdain turned into outright bigotry. Some advocated
for genocide, but they were in the minority. Capital punishment
had been outlawed for humans, and despite the fact that Adapters
were not actually humans, they appeared to be.
"They're not human!" the
more xenophobic segment declared, likening the infestation
to a plague. "Define human," came the response.
Words, words, words. The debate continued month after month
while the number of Adapters multiplied and our shared world
Had World-Clear been willing to sterilize
the invasive Adapters when they were first detected, these
regular jaunts to the moon-based penitentiary would not have
been necessary. But while a debate over mandatory birth control
raged, the Adapters continued to multiply, ravishing crops
like locusts, languishing in parks, gathering at soup kitchens,
occupying every public bench or building, bringing up their
offspring to live off the fat of the land, as they liked to
say, in reply to those who resented their carefree lifestyles.
"It's what we do best," the Adapters explained.
In the end, it was their undoing.
Rapid reproduction has been, in fact,
the Adapters' undoing on every planet they have tried to occupy.
The size and frequency of their litters make it impossible
to share habitats for long. If sterilization had been an acceptable
condition to Adapters, everyone might have been able to co-exist.
The mass deportations, if still deemed necessary, could have
occurred less frequently.
However, Adapters consistently rejected
the idea of population control.
Some of the young, radical Adapters
took things a step further. "To the victors belong the
spoils!" they chanted as they marched in the streets,
demanding property rights and claiming the more choice territories
should be restricted for Adapters' use only.
They armed themselves with homemade
weapons, terrifying the human element with their raucous mobs
and constant threats of mayhem. Even the pacifists became
aware of the dangers posed by the spreading zeal among the
Thus, World-Clear's remedy seemed a
reasonable compromise: Humane Containment on the moon. Regular
foodstuffs would be delivered periodically. Medical supplies,
too. Humans, with their big hearts, agreed to assist the Adapters
as they were resettled in their own colony.
That's how the Liahona ended up bound
for The Dump, overloaded with rebellious, mutinous Adapters.
Along with six months' worth of rations and shelter kits and
manuals on how to construct them, they were to be deposited
in a stark, inhospitable crater community. That was the plan.
No one knew for sure how the first
Adapter escaped his cage. Perhaps there had been a bribe.
Perhaps some guards grew careless. There was a lot of speculation,
but no definite answers. And now, the Liahona would be listed
as another lost ship, another tragic outcome, another unsolved
mystery for World-Clear to try to explain to its stockholders.
"What's the point?" I ask
when Terrence, the nutritionist, tries to recruit me for his
bivouac morgue duty. "If you can't identify half of them,
then your list is permanently incomplete. If any Adapter darted
into the woods, you'll never know. You won't be able to guarantee
that all the prisoners are accounted for. They will have escaped
World-Clear's control. Probably some of them have already
begun to mingle with whatever species they have discovered
on this desolate place. They're good at that, remember?"
Terrence stares at me for a long, drawn-out
moment, assessing how much sarcasm is in my last remark. I
watch his eyes dart to my own name tag. He wants to ensure
he knows who he's talking to or listening to, as the case
"Well, Barry Hartman, I don't
hear any trilling or screeching or whatever they do to signal
one another, so I don't think any of them are out there. They're
prolific, but they're not invincible. More than likely, they
suffered the same fate as our crew did, I imagine. Their insurrection
was a suicide mission. But that's not what I'm concerned with
at the moment. The Adapters can do whatever the hell they
want to, if any of them survived. I'm concentrating on our
own, which I would think you might want to do, too."
He pauses as though he expects some comment from me.
When I don't speak, he continues. "I
guess Sophie and I can carry on without you. You can get back
to doing whatever it is you were doing." Taking note
of the debris surrounding my feet, he then asks, "What
exactly is it that has you so occupied?"
"Just sweeping up," I smile.
"No sense in leaving equipment, even broken equipment,
lying around for some escapee to scoop up and turn into some
signal blocker or worse. Some of these things could conceivably
be converted into weapons."
Terrence motions to the radio parts
I have collected. "Those? I doubt it, friend." He
offers a forced chuckle before asking, "What did you
say your job assignment on the ship was?"
I pick up on the condescension in his
remark. "Maintenance detail. Specifically, latrine duty."
I grin. "Cleaning up is what I do best."
Sophie has been listening to our exchange
and I can see that glint of glee in her eye. Kitchen help
is a rung above toilet janitors, and she likes the fact that
she is, technically, second in command.
A nutritionist hardly seems qualified
to be the new leader, but since there are only the three of
us left standing, Terrence has quickly taken charge. He has
that temperament. Watching him size up our present situation
and determine what should be done next and who should do it,
I can hardly suppress a giggle. Considering our situation,
I know laughter would be a totally inappropriate response.
Still, a nutritionist as world commander strikes me as funny.
"Your energy could be better spent
tending to those who are wounded. Do you think you could try
to get some nourishment down those that are conscious?"
I start to smart off and make some
reference to him being the nutritionist, but I decide against
it. I don't want to be assigned to morgue duty, so I reply,
"Sure thing, boss."
"If you press the stems like so,"
Terrence begins to demonstrate how to release the moisture
from the succulents into the mouths of the injured.
"Yeah, yeah. I can handle squeezing
a toothpaste tube without further instruction."
"You got a problem?" Obviously,
Terrence doesn't like my attitude.
"Yeah, I got a problem,"
I come back. This guy, filled with his own self-importance,
is beginning to bug me. "More than one problem, from
the looks of things," I say as I swing my arm about to
encompass the death scene all around us.
"Look, Hartman. I don't need a
hindrance here. If you'd rather join your comrades in that
heap over there," he points to a pile of charred bodies,
"it can be arranged. Either pitch in when and where I
say, or you just might find yourself a victim of the crash.
Cooperate or incinerate. I don't give a damn which, but choose
now 'cause I've got work to do before the rescue ship arrives.
They don't take kindly to lazy crew. If you survive, you work.
If you're dead, you can take a break."
I reach down and pick up a handful
of the plants that Terrence has gathered. "I'm on the
job, sir," I offer.
"That's more like it," he
says and turns toward his fledging lieutenant, Sophie the
cook, who shoots me a hateful look.
I suppose I should be grateful to have
a nutritionist among the survivors. His expertise has, in
fact, allowed me to regain my strength. I was dehydrated before
he handed me the stem from which I was able to glean some
fluid. I feel much better now, though I know the assignment
Terrence has given me is futile. There is little chance any
of the wounded will survive. Their moans have grown steadily
softer, lapsing into silence as the minutes pass.
Most of the crew I approach are unconscious
or already dead. Those that are not wince at the taste of
the nutrient I squeeze between their lips. Along with the
bitter sap, I offer them each another gift: a quick electrical
charge from one of the batteries I have retrieved. The shock
saves them from enduring even one more hour of suffering.
Terrence would kill me if he knew what
I was doing; but he doesn't know, and that allows me to do
what I feel is best. Each anxious face softens its expression
after I administer a jolt; in turn, each slips away, relieved
of all burdens, free from anguish. "You can take your
break now," I whisper gently as I move from victim to
victim. The death count grows, but I knew it would.
Our ship veered off course. Our fate
changed in an instant. Something lost
gained, I surmise, as I trod along this strange terrain. Though
we are marooned on an unfamiliar world, this new wilderness
offers some vegetation, some scampering rodents, too, and
the climate is temperate, at least thus far. Things could
be a whole lot worse.
I am a realist. Without a working signal
to alert anyone where we are, it will be months or years before
any rescue ship arrives. Assessing the environment seems far
more urgent than burying the dead. Terrence's priorities don't
match my own. I throw down the remaining cacti stems and return
to my former project. Terrence and Sophie are too busy documenting
the dead to notice that I have abandoned my post. Thankfully,
I have a full hour to myself before I hear the would-be tyrant
curse my name.
"Hartman! What in the hell do
you think you're doing?" Terrence is practically leaping
over corpses to get to me with Sophie scrambling to keep up.
"You stupid laggard. You think building some freakin'
gadget takes precedence over tending to the injured?"
"Watch out!" I holler and
point to the clump of metal debris near Terrence's foot. "Don't
touch that," I order. "Watch where you step, both
of you." And then under my breath, but audible enough
for the nutritionist to hear, I mutter, "Morons."
Terrence's jaw drops at my insolence.
Sophie is at his heels like a retriever pup, waiting for instructions.
The nutritionist bends over and grabs the metallic object
I have strategically placed on the ground like a beacon.
"I decide what projects take priority
around here, Hartman." He starts to dismantle it before
me, untwisting the wire I have wrapped around the electrically
charged device as he rants. "Maybe that's too much for
you to handle, but"
I interrupt his thoughts by pressing
the lever in my hand, releasing an electrical impulse strong
enough to fry the nutritionist where he stands and poor Sophie,
too, as she reaches for the arm of her superior. Sophie shrieks
as she clasps Terrence's wrist in an effort to pull him free.
They appear at that moment as one solid entitya beautiful,
welded sculpture of human flesh. The look on Terrence's face
is remarkable, really.
I turn away from that scene of death
and look toward the distant arroyo. In victory, I tilt back
my head and give the all-clear signal. My tongue trills against
the roof of my mouth, producing a sound we perfected after
living among locusts on a distant planet. There, we were deemed
a destructive infestation to be sprayed and dusted, heartlessly,
with deadly insecticides. Only a small group of us managed
to escape on an outbound freighter. Though we quickly shed
our insect forms, we kept the clicks and trills for our confidential
My trilling signal is effectively relayed
around the area. The other escapees slowly begin to filter
out from the underbrush, warily surveying the corpses of their
former captors as well as those of many of our former friends.
Some of my clansmen have already begun adapting to four legs
instead of two in imitation of the small, rodent-like creatures
that occupy the nearby underbrush. I imagine these furry creatures
will be less aware of our influx.
Despite the mandated expulsion from
our last destination, we are not inclined to hold hard feelings
toward former hosts. In fact, we proudly showcase and utilize
talents acquired from all previous forms. Reasoning, forethought,
deviousness, all will be retained from our recent human adaptations.
Should World-Clear send a ship here
in search of their missing vessel, they will find no survivors
and no recognizable Adapters, only edible cacti and an abundance
of some form of gopher scampering over the terrain. A few
of us, those who prefer the human form, might slip onto the
ship, scampering into the cargo bay, becoming stowaways as
we've done before.
We are already familiar with World-Clear
protocol, so adapting wouldn't take much effort. Who knows?
If we get another chance at becoming human, next time, with
the benefit of hindsight and a little added stealth, we might
just get it right.