Risks of Being Human
by Steve Davis
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
Near the middle of the crowd, three Onn from another deck stood calmly, short figures surrounded by taller passengers. The waxy-skinned aliens seemed comfortable in this temperature.
From the edge of the crowd, Jeff looked over at them. He found himself glaring, disturbed.
A skinny kid in a floppy hat spoke up from the back. “They’ll start searching the minute we don’t show up. Maybe find us fast.” Her upbeat guess unlocked several faces.
“Should have brought my lighter top,” the female half of a middle-age couple quipped. Her other half nodded agreement.
From the front of the group, a squat woman in ship’s uniform suddenly let out a distressed cry. She grimaced and waved a hand at the crashed pods, few for a large liner. “The bridge deck’s pod. It’s not here. They must have evaced last. Too late. The captain didn’t make it,” she announced in a shocked flat voice.
As one, everyone turned toward her and the sunglassed man in multicolored uniform beside her, the only upper-crew survivors: a junior engineering officer and the trip’s entertainment director.
The whole group turned outward again. Again, nothing growing from horizon to horizon. Small clouds were dropping rain in the distance.
“Desert. Nothing but rock and sand,” the twenty-something man said. He smiled sarcastically as if a joke had been played on him.
“How much food?” Someone abruptly asked.
The burly guy immediately searched the pods and came back out. “Three boxes of fullmeal bars,” he reported. “Enough for three days. Yeah, at least three days’ worth.” He was looking more positive.
Across from him, the engineering officer shook her head. “Five. We’ll eat two meals a day till rescue arrives,” she told everyone simply. Then looked down at the sand. Scrunched her face.
“Stay here, of course. But it may take a while to find us. Depending on how they do it. I should ask an onboard about that,” she said half to herself. A couple of passengers exchanged looks.
The burly guy stepped in front of her. “We should move out,” he complained impatiently, “not just wait till rescue. We need to start looking for more food.”
The engineer shook her head. “No, we stay here,” she repeated more firmly, eyes meeting his. With a disgusted look, the man backed up a step and spread his arms.
“Oh come on! I’m not going to sit around here and starve when there could be...” his voice raised. But the engineer just folded her arms.
“This is the first place the rescuers will look when they get here. The onboards are working. Emergency beacons are working. Rescue will zero in on us right here,” she reiterated.
Beside Jeff a woman with multi-hued hair spoke up. “Ask a pod whether there’s even anything edible close by.” Then she turned and asked into the closest one.
It dutifully delivered the news. “Planet not surveyed. Detected and catalogued by space telescope Eugenis. No green or grey colors noted, presumably no plant or other life present.”
The engineer sighed. “Rock. A desert world. A whole stinking dead world.”
Everyone flinched as another voice spoke first time. The Onn drawled gravelly. “We won’t need to eat again for some time. Not soon, really. We all ate just before the accident. That will last us for many days. And we cannot eat the deadfood bars. You can have our share. A day or two more for you.”
Most faces brightened, but the stocky man went back to the subject angrily. “We’ve got to at least take a look around. Do something. A few long-distance planet pictures that didn’t pick up green or grey? You know how much that’s worth. There could be a thousand little valleys full of eatable plants out there.”
Some people started talking over the idea. Groups formed.
Crew: engineer, trip director and Jeff and Daruish. Youngest passengers: four girls and a pre-teen boy. A mix of older passengers and Onn. Four men middle-aged or younger, sour dispositions, the burly guy among them.
A few minutes later the two loudest of the four set out, without permission.
As people started getting the few things out of the pods or animatedly discussing the situation, Jeff stood silently looking over at the Onn. The three aliens hadn’t moved from their spot, observing but not joining in anything.
As Jeff fumed, one of the surly “we need to do something” guys walked up beside him. “Creeps you out, don’t it? Just staring like that. No clue what they’re really thinking. Just watching us,” he sullenly told the concierge.
Jeff didn’t respond, didn’t seem to hear, eyes locked on the three beings across from him.
Then, like a firecracker going off, he marched over to them. “Stop staring at me,” Jeff tersely ordered the three, unconsciously leaning low and close. Cold anger, warning. A long moment passed before he pulled away and walked.
Late evening, the two men who had gone out came back with tired looks and no good news. Thankfully that night it rained lightly, filling a few low spots around the pods with drinkable water.
The next days clicked off long and hot. Buying time, the engineer reduced the meals to one a day. But, looking at the people gathered around her that morning, she saw clothes already baggier, shirts and pants hanging looser on thinned bodies.
She absently pulled her own belt a notch tighter, again. Glanced up at the boy who’d just asked about how long till rescue, again. “Depends. How meticulous they’re doing it. Drop out of Sidespace every few hundred million Ks to spot the ship, take a scary long time. Or maybe gamble and drop out way longer distances, light-days. Scan ahead and behind, then jump again, Find us fairly soon. Let’s hope it’s that,” she optimistically told the boy.
Around her, the other people glanced at each other, trying to feel it. The mixed group of human and Onn less directly, eyes down and darting. In the last few days of increasing desperation about food, a naked fact had become part of private conversations.
The Onn were food. Them and us. On one level, everyone was an animal, like sheep or chickens. The Onn to us, us to them.
From a distance Jeff stared at the aliens, a troubled expression on his face that could have been anything. His clothes were in even worse shape than everyone else’s: torn buttons left unsewn. He visibly forced himself to turn away and then bumped into something.
Burly Guy eyed him from where he had been standing, right behind, watching him. The stocky passenger smiled smug, as if reading his thoughts. “Meat is meat, eh, Jeff? Protein. Yeah, some small amino differences, right. Tastes a bit acidic. But that wouldn’t affect digesting.” The bearded man sounded patient, but then his face tightened.
He morphed to low and mean. “We need to eat something or we die. The mealbars are gone, we’re out of options, the normal stuff is over. And our lives are a lot more important than theirs, you know that, I can feel it.”
Jeff didn’t react, but he didn’t disagree, either.
A loud burst over by the pods grabbed both men’s attention.
“Are you serious?! That’s crazy! What’s wrong with you stupid people?!” One of the guys who’d gone out, the loudest passenger, was yelling at the group around the engineer. In one motion, he picked up a rock and threw it hard on the ground in front of them for emphasis.
The engineer shook her head, seemingly unimpressed. Then she gave the violent passenger a disarming smile. “Onns are going to last longer than us. Maybe till rescue gets here. And if we let them, you know, anesthetize us like they do their prey, we can sleep on through, practically hibernate, till—”
But the loud guy didn’t calm. “No! I’m not letting them bite me and... Once we’re unconscious there’ll just be them getting hungrier and hungrier and us...! No. Die first, eyes open and don’t anybody touch me.” The frightened passenger backed up, fists clenched.
The engineer started to say something.
The floppy-hatted teen stepped away from her. She tilted her hat toward the aliens. “He is right about part of that. They could eat us. If rescue doesn’t come soon, before they starve, too. I mean, what would we do? I can’t. Sorry,” the girl apologized to the stocky officer.
Several people moved backward, also voting no.
No one stepped forward.
Embarrassingly long minutes went by. Even the engineer couldn’t bring herself to walk over to the aliens and let them venom her unconscious. A few people started eyeing the Onn with obvious hungry intent. The four guys traded odd looks as if timing some kind of coordinated action.
“I’ll do it.”
The whole group looked over, astounded at Jeff. The concierge stood eyes down, then lifted them. “I will,” the tall man repeated stronger voice. His thin shoulders lifted a little in the loose hanging shirt, imparting a few centimeters more height.
Across from him, the engineer stared with curiosity. “Okay. And thanks, Jeff. But why? The girl’s right. The Onn could give up before rescue gets here. Eat you to survive.”
The red-shirted crewman nodded slowly, smiled crookedly all around. “But I get to be myself again. Either way, I wake up alive or don’t wake up. But not like I’ve been since... I’m me again. Really human again.” His eyes burned with some kind of intensity.
The other people gazed back with a whole mix of expressions. The other server, never friendly when they’d worked together, nodded some kind of understanding.
Jeff turned and said something in low voice to the Onn. Without hesitating the three aliens leisurely moved forward, blocking the rest of the group’s view, then almost immediately stepped back. For a double blink, Jeff seemed unaffected, then slid down to a sitting position. Six barely visible red spots dotted his neck. A few seconds later, he crumpled sideways all the way into instant sleep. For whatever reason, his face was peaceful.
One by one like drops from a faucet nudged on, the other passengers and crew hesitantly drifted over to the Onn. The engineer second, floppy hat teen moving ahead of her. Burly Guy sarcastically said something about still bad idea, but clenched his jaw like getting a shot and let an Onn deliver a bite. Everyone said something similar when their time came.
Then the Onn stepped back. They silently surveyed the figures lying unconscious before them. Every few seconds one of the sleeping forms took a short and very shallow breath.
The subdued sound of unconscious prey.
The three hairless aliens looked up at each other, faces unreadable perhaps even to themselves. A long moment passed. Then, eyes dragging off the sleepers, they turned away to face the wait and their own personal limits.
Copyright © 2015 by Steve Davis