by Gayla Chaney

When two species cannot agree to coexist, one of them must go.

D I S C U S S I O N  F O R U M  |  R E T U R N  T O  S T  O N L I N E



It burns… 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 took control.

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 scheduled.

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 grew smaller.

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 young Adapters.

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 may be.

"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… but something 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 entity—a 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 communications.

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.




Copyright © 2008 Gayla Chaney

A B O U T   T H E   A U T H O R:

Gayla Chaney's fiction has appeared online at Silverthought, Perigee, Written Word, Amarillo Bay, Mad Hatters' Review, The Angler, and Oklahoma Review. She lives and writes in central Texas.

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