Random Topics for a Morning's Coffee

Survival of the Fittest

short-story science fiction

Do you believe in the theory that a planet attempts to maintain equilibrium and resist change? If not, how about this one: planets operate to maintain justice. When a wrong is done to one part of the ecology, something will happen to exact revenge on the wrongdoers. No? Too much purpose for you in what is a complex, but unconscious system? Consider the following:

The planet Mildo and its normal-sized sun are located about one-quarter the way across the galaxy from Earth. Humans started arriving there about fifty years ago on hyper-light drive spaceships. One major town grew up on the planet, composed of scientists, miners, and adventurers.

Mildo has an odd animal that resembles a flying piece of metal foil. Somewhat like a silver butterfly, only without the middle. The animals, called Cameos by the locals, can change their shape when they land to resemble anything around them. On Mildo, many things are colored silver, including rocks. The Cameos, without changing their size or weight, can look like a solid rock when they are really a hollow membrane, reflexively stiffened at rest.

Ron arrived as a tourist from Earth and camped in a scenic valley to take pictures. He had all the usual camping gear, even a stainless steel cup for coffee that he was accustomed to fortifying with his favorite brandy. One day a Cameo set down on Ron's picnic table next to the cup and changed into a copy of it. The remarkable part was that it even copied the black plastic handle fairly well. Ron wasn't looking in that direction when the Cameo did its thing.

You can figure out what happened next. Ron, busy with his photography, reached for his cup and got the Cameo instead. It was a bit lighter than the cup, but not enough to notice if your mind was on other things. Since the Cameo was sleeping, it stayed in the cup shape even when Ron poured in the brandy. But it was the coffee that did it. It seems that caffeine and alcohol mixed together have a special effect on Cameos. It causes them to exude a chemical mixture foul-tasting to any animal normal to the planet, but which to humans is an addictive euphoric. It also kills the Cameo and fixes it in its chosen shape.

Ron had the most unbelievable high he had ever encountered. He didn't know just what was different about his favorite drink this time, but he started to pour another. And that is when the dead Cameo just disintegrated and the brandy went all over his hand and the table. With the shock of that, it took a while for him to come down enough from the euphoria to see his real cup still on the table and wonder if he had dreamt the whole thing.

Then he noticed there were animal parts on the table still wet with brandy. At first, he didn't know they were pieces of a Cameo. But it came to him after a while. He wondered how long he would have to wait for another Cameo to put in an appearance and choose his coffee cup. A few more minutes went by before he had the inspiration to capture them and put them in a large cage with metal cups on the bottom.

Ron's hunch was right. His photography was now abandoned in order to net Cameos. Soon he had half a dozen in his crudely built mosquito-netting cage, but with only one real coffee cup. He thought he would need more cups because most of the Cameos were changing into silver-colored mesh resting on the cage sides and bottom.

A second idea came to him. He didn't need cups at all! Just a cage made out of netting with mesh too small for the critters to slip through. The Cameo mesh shapes could be stacked in a pan and the brandy and coffee poured over them. With more Cameos for a given amount of liquid, he ought to have a concentration of whatever tasted and felt like heaven that would last for days. He tried that and realized he had drunk too much when he woke up in the morning and it was several days later.

With this success, Ron decided to stay on Mildo and begin to market his special coffee drink. It quickly became popular. Once anyone had a sip, they were hooked.

He hired people to catch Cameos, although he didn't tell them why. He even tried to breed them. Unfortunately, Cameos didn't seem to breed in captivity. That was before we found out that the males fly during the day and the females at night. The females, well hidden in daylight, just send their pheromones out on the wind and wait for a lucky male to home in. We now know that the black ones are female and the silver ones are male, but his was before the biologists, with so many other interesting species on Mildo, got around to studying them.

Ron's catchers began to run out of places to find Cameos. They had been getting better at locating them, and males were getting scarce. The birth rate was dropping, and the number caught was declining. Ron had to do something about the supply. He tried a more dilute solution of alcohol and caffeine but no luck. The euphoric substance was produced only at death.

His catchers quit. He paid them by number of animals caught and now they weren't making sufficient money. Ron's beverage production took a nose dive, his customers became angry and swore off, and Ron was back to catching Cameos himself. His business collapsed.

Ron began to spend more time in the wilderness, hunting Cameos and wondering where they had gone. Being a better drinker than biology student, Ron wandered into places most knowledgeable hunters and explorers avoided.

One night he camped far from the city along a swampy river with strange trees and stranger animals. He managed to net a few Cameos, now caged next to his sleeping tent. Darkness fell, and Ron reclined in a nylon chair in the screened tent he used for a porch. He listened to a talk radio show as darkness fell and pondered whether to give it all up and return home to planet Earth.

A half-kilometer away in the swamp, a Horror awoke: something with a lusty craving for flesh. It could smell Cameos from a great distance. Cameos, it seemed, were partial to hanging around browsing animals that kicked up insects, the Cameos' reward. It sniffed the air. Ron's captives were like a beacon. Staying down wind, Terror began a quiet march toward camp.

As Ron listened, eyes closed, his lantern cast bright light and dark patches around the campsite. Odd scraping sounds, screeches, croaks, grunts, clicks and whistles filled the air. He was used to all that and tuned it out.

One particular deep grunt was suddenly close and his eyes opened. A mouth of huge, sharp teeth glistened at the edge of the camp light, the body lost in deep shadow. The size of the teeth caused Ron's heart to race. He began to think of what he had at hand as a weapon. This planet was not known for predators that attacked people. Humans were fairly safe wherever they went. But those teeth told him he was in trouble now.

His mind ran frantically over what he could do to defend himself or outwit the owner of the teeth. Perhaps it would like Cameos. After all, they were native to the planet and most predators would go after something familiar. At least he hoped so. He took the lantern for protection, went out of the netted porch and moved quickly to the cages. One flick of his hand and the Cameos were released. They took wing quickly. Ron looked around for the teeth but did not see anything. Relieved, he turned to go back to the porch.

Abruptly he was slammed to the ground from behind and immensely painful, sharp knives ripped into his body. Before he could scream or breathe, a vicious jerk snapped his neck.

They found what remained of his camp weeks later. In spite of his lack of concern for the native life of Mildo, Ron was the first to make two important discoveries. One was the toxin used as a defensive weapon by Cameos. The second was the largest predator on the planet. When they finally tracked it down, they named it after him. Some guys have all the luck. Or, possibly, all the justice coming to them.

© 2017 by Dennis Evans