I drop the plastic baster and it rattles along the titanium grate floor of the Pathfinder XII’s galley. The alien organism oozes through my foot, seeking a meal under my skin. It tickles, and I resist the urge to stomp down on the grate. I don’t want to scare the specimen north toward my organs.
48 hours until the Pathfinder XII enters the Earth’s atmosphere, says an automated announcement.
We identified the potential cure for cancer when it ate Davis’ carcinoma, along its path to devour his brain. The doctors couldn’t save Davis, and his specimen died within seconds of extraction, unable to survive in our artificial Earth environment.
Davis was the species’ third victim on the Twelve.
I liked Davis, he called me a Culinary Magician, and I take pride in filling the stomachs of the brilliant scientists and intrepid explorers who are the heroes of our time. Davis discovered his cancer three months into the two-year mission. We spoke about how cancer claimed both my parents when I was young—ovarian and pancreatic. He was the only one who would talk to me like an equal.
After the dissection of Davis’ specimen proved fruitless, Captain Zhi ordered all research halted, even though Davis’ autopsy confirmed the organism consumed the cancer first. The samples were locked away in hermetically sealed boxes attuned to their native atmosphere.
Somebody didn’t listen. One of the boxes disappeared. The rest of the twenty-four-person crew of the Twelve fell one at a time, but with each sacrifice new knowledge was gained.
The organism slithers through my calf muscle, the bulge creeping around my shin and up to my knee. I rub my leg and push it toward my ankle, like I’m trying to iron the wrinkle out of my skin. It wiggles past my flattened hands and hides under my kneecap. I want to rip my knee apart and find it. I reach for my cleaver, tempted to chop at my own flesh, but I think better. Korovilas bled out in minutes after she severed her arm.
I choose the paring knife instead.
It is afraid, its terror throbbing under my patella. This is good, I need it to take the time to absorb my DNA. Maybe it’s absorbing my fear.
It adapts quickly. The samples from the others changed depending on the host. The longer they fed, the more they changed and the longer they survived in our environment. Korovilas’ specimen lasted almost twenty minutes after gorging itself on her separated arm.
My tongs sit next to my leg, ready for action. The organism pulsates in my knee, and it makes its move. My skin expands like a giant blister where the organism escapes the joint and creeps up my thigh.
It has grown considerably.
I scream in agony as I make the incision. The paring knife falls from my hand and clangs against the floor grate. I grab the tongs with one hand and spread open the wound with my other. The little black djinn tries to crawl away, through the blood, under my muscle fibers, but I am too adept with the kitchen tool.
It clings to my flesh, and I have to wrench it free. It grew larger than expected, larger than any of the other specimens, but it still fits in my readied container.
I can’t take my eyes off it as I bandage myself, watching it squirm around its plastic prison, ensuring it survives.
And I wait longer.
At the forty-minute mark, the organism hasn’t rested, still attempting escape, and I’m ready to celebrate victory.
I did it. Me. Just a Space Chef, bringing the cure for cancer back to Earth.
Then my specimen quivers, the same way Piakowski’s specimen did mere seconds before it expired.
I panic. With moments slipping away, I do the only thing I can think of to save it.
I eat it.
I ingest it whole, and it grasps at my throat, trying to latch to anything it can while I continuously force swallow it down my gullet. I learned it could survive stomach acid with Miller, number four on the species’ hit list.
The samples can sit in the gastric chamber for a while, the digestive fluid slowing their consumption process and progress toward other vital organs. Although, those specimens were smaller. I don’t know how long I can keep this relative behemoth at bay.
This is my last effort. My body can’t take much more of this. I debate letting it consume me, giving the organism its best chance at survival. The autopilot will land us on Earth. Doctors will carve me up. Scientists will scrutinize my unschooled notes.
No, I must live, to justify its worthiness in person.
It takes only two minutes and my stomach twinges, contracting to push the foreign body into my intestines. Armed with knowledge the other hosts never deciphered, I thrust my fingers down my throat and force myself to retch.
I dry heave several times before I feel it slide back up my esophagus, choking me the whole way up. It has grown so much, when it re-enters my mouth, it gets caught. The taste of tar mixed with bile hangs as I gag. My hands fumble along the prep counter, searching. They find my trusted tongs, and I rip the specimen out.
I gaze at it, writhing in the grip of the tongs’ pincers. It survived.
I lock it inside the container, and I watch it for over an hour while I fight the sleep my body craves. Eventually, I give in and rest my eyes.
I awaken to an automated announcement: 24 hours until the Pathfinder XII enters Earth’s Atmosphere.
My eyes dart to the containment box. There she is, squirming like a healthy little girl. She’s the offspring of the heroes of our time, the crew of the Twelve.
I fed her to twenty of them to keep her alive. And I’ve become a hero too.
Greg Clumpner is a proud product of Wisconsin currently residing in Pittsburgh, PA. He has both a Mechanical Engineering degree and an MBA from Carnegie Mellon University and works as a business consultant to early-stage companies. Greg has been published in multiple journals and is Editor of Triangulation: Seven-Day Weekend, forthcoming in July 2023 on Amazon. When not working, writing, or playing with shelter dogs, you’ll find Greg willing to engage in any form of sport.