Adaptation
Ileana Vicente Armenteros
Published in the collection, “Astronomía se escribe con G”
[“Astronomy is spelled with a G”], Letras Cubanas,
a selection of prizewinning SF stories from the magazine “Juventud Técnica”, 1987-8
(Translation: Daniel W. Koon)

       
        “Did you present your identification papers yet?” Fefita asked as she settled her large body across two iron chairs; across an unpainted table from her, Anaeli looked at her with hate, straightened her expression, and two thick tears fell down her cubby cheeks. Another fat figure completed the trio, sitting on the sofa and making it creak with each of her motions.
        “Anaeli, when will you learn to express emotions?”
        “This isn’t one of them?” she begged in reply, pulling a tiny handkerchief out of her prominent bosom to dry her face with its bulky lips and turned up nose.
        “No, use this one,” Fefita demonstrated an expression of surprise so pronounced that Lilina began to wiggle in the sofa, accompanied by spastic squeals. “Learn to use the system of signals of this planet. That one is called laughter and expresses happiness.”
        “And why happiness? Because I messed up?” she hid her face between her stubby fingers, I’ll never learn! I can’t adapt to these customs.” Her figure vanished slightly.
        Fefita pounded the table and screamed:
        “Don’t disanimate! You have accomplished a great deal.” Anaeli’s outlines suddenly became sharp again, “Your ship returned to the first planet only a Terran month ago, and already you have a density of close to unity, the same as the natives.”
        Lilina interrupted encouragingly, gesticulating exaggeratedly, “You know how to make understandable phonic signals and you are getting good at jamming the annoying radio waves that constantly bombard you and interfere with our mental communications.”
        “But I haven’t mastered sentiments, or social customs, or gestures…” her features became more tenuous, “I can barely concentrate enough to maintain my density.”
        “Rome wasn’t built in a day. Where are you going, Lilina?”
        “To find some sugar to make her documents.” With a great effort she shifted toward the edge of the sofa, lifted herself up and waddled uncontrollably to the kitchen, her thick legs not allowing her to walk with any more grace.
        “Fefita, the RD3 is something to eat?”
        “No, it is an application for legalizing your presence in this house. If you wish to help, plug this cord into the socket and hold on tightly to the ends of this cable – without touching them. Now strip off the polymer covering.”
        “I feel a tingling in my fingers,” Anaeli said as she scraped the wire with her nails.
        Lilina returned from the kitchen carrying a platter with a sugar bowl and explained.
        “It is the electrons as they pass from the cable into your hands. Don’t hold it for too long, because they might oxidize some proteins; this is the procedure used on this planet to transmit electrical energy.”
        Fefita asked her, “Do you need water?”
        “Just a little from the air, it’s not worth getting up.”
        Lilina opened her arms and they became a blur as they diffused through the room corraling the water molecules which saturated the environment. Fefita spread the sugar on the platter drawing a quadrilateral of the same approximate dimensions as the document.
        “Now wet it little by little… Like so,” she placed the platter at one of the extremes of the cable and placed the other between her teeth blowing occasionally to make the electrons flow and sufficiently polymerize the saccharides. Slowly a sheet of cellulose formed. Anaeli watched attentively with an expression of complete boredom.
        “You aren’t interested in how this is done?”
        “Yes, intensely.”
        “Then change that face.”
        “I….”
        “Don’t worry, Anaeli,” Lilina piped in. “If you really can’t learn expressions, it’s better not to use any at all, keep a blank face.”
        While she give the last touches to the paper, Fefita suggested, “she could have facial paralysis.”
        “I am sure that she would forget which of the two halves was paralyzed. It is better to maintain a bored expression or, if you are in a group, to imitate the others.”
        “I’m never going to be able to join any group.”
        “Take it,” Fefita handed her the form properly filled out. “When you are among the Earthlings they will notice your apathy. They like to hear nice comments about themselves. If you can make those discretely, you will make friends and,” she glanced at Lilina and winked an eye, ”maybe even marry.”
        The sofa squeaked again dangerously as Lilina burst out laughing.
        “That’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard!” her stubby hands waved in the air.
        Anaeli watched them with a blank expression. She wished to blend in completely, to appear to have been born on the third planet; but Lilina and Fefita only wished to collect information. Her ID looked good, and the other two only wanted to return to the first planet. She took the form and folded it a few times.
        “There you go,” Fefita said, “you are learning. Those papers pass through many hands and nobody ever bothers to unfold them. If anybody asks you about it, pretend you have a headache. Later you’ll meet the neighbors.”
        “Shall we go, Lilina?”
        The sofa was finally quiet when the unusually fat one managed to get to her feet, knocking the table over with the chairs.
        “Stop making such a racket, can’t you concentrate a little more?”
        “You know what my size was Back There, since when do you think you can squash me?”
        Anaeli walked through the open door to the small porch and waved her hand a little awkwardly, watching them depart with short halting steps. She went inside.
       
        On the small porch carefully arranged with cacti growing in plastic flowerpots, Anaeli leaned over the green leaves to watch the marvels of photosynthesis. She loved to watch the process by which the chlorophyll oxidized and the stomae opened and closed during respiration. A child’s voice rang out nearby.
        “Hey!”
        She lifted her gaze and was confronted with a jumble of cells covered with craters from which oscillating tubes projected. She zoomed her vision out sufficiently to recognize her neighbor’s son.
        “My mom says that the Committee is meeting today.”
        “Thanks, Raulito!” But when she finished the sentence the boy was already gone.
        What precision in information, no useless digressions. And what vitality in his movements. Shame that the reply mechanism gets damaged with development.
        “Hello.”
        Félix’s voice awoke her from her thoughts.
        “How are you? How’s your girlfriend?”
        The young student stopped and answered seriously.
        “I just had a fight with Loma and I don’t know what will happen now, I don’t know.” He stopped, looking for understanding, but the bulky figure and the tiny eyes lost behind the glasses did not appear to him capable of understanding. He waved his hand and continued on his way.
        “I think that…”
        “So long, Miss, I have to go study.”
        That is the first symptom of damage to one’s good sense, Anaeli thought, judging a book by its cover. If I want to gain confidence and intellectual respect, I have to slim down. She opened the door with a resolute gesture. I will ask my neighbors about an effective diet.
        She stepped inside.
       
        The doorbell rang insistently. She finally opened it.
        “Please, is Anaeli there?”
        “Fefita, it’s me!” The happy laugh of the slim, ashen-haired girl roused Fefita from her shock. “Come in, sit down, you shouldn’t be on your feet so much. Come, sit down, these iron chairs can handle you. Stop looking at me like that and tell me about Lilina. Was she able to make the…. trip?”
        Without responding to the question, Fefita exclaimed:
        “What has happened to you? Why have you lost so many fatty acid chains? Have you found some other system for storing information? Something subatomic instead of molecular?”
        “Nothing like that,” she interrupted. “I decided to adapt myself totally to this world and such a bulk was a hindrance for all concerned. I used methods of acupuncture, special diets, exercise and willpower.”
        “And you threw away all the computer data?”
        “Would you like some tea without sugar?”
        “Three spoonfuls.”
        “Well, I,… not a single byte,” Anaeli moved a little nervously from the kitchen to the table. She didn’t know how the tell Fefita the truth because, if this method got out, her colleagues could blend in, unnoticed. “Did you hear anything from Lilina?”
        The fat one’s expression grew dark.
        “She won’t be traveling any more.” And she told her. In the last months they had not come to visit Anaeli because they were building a ship on the roof where they lived; at night they made the components and then hid them among the tanks of water, the television antennas and inside the stovepipes and drains. They had finished and were only waiting for the Conjunction of Mercury to assemble it. “And then the CDR[1] announced its ‘Tareco Plan’. Imagine. Throw out all the trash that was just lying around the building. They were going to clean that next day, there was nothing else to do but leave that very night.” She finished drinking her tea and continued her story. “We made the calculations and left due North taking care not to run into the orbital station when… what should happen but right above the Americans we found a cockroach on board.”
        “No.”
        “Yes.”
        “Well,” Anaeli, truly uneasy, could almost predict the rest.
        “Yes, she destroyed the ship just before the taking the jump through the Aleph.”
        “She was always the sensible one.”
        “It was either her life or the whole planet’s,” Fefita sighed. “She sacrificed herself for us all. If those superresistant beings had landed Back There, they would have overrun all our own native species and taken over the planet. They’ve almost taken over this one already.
        They were silent for a moment thinking about Lilina’s sacrifice.
        “Only one Terran computer noticed the explosion. By the way, it was on the brink of triggering a nuclear war; but since it was an isolated explosion, they thought there must have been a technical glitch.” Fefita glanced at her empty cup and extended it. “If you wouldn’t mind giving me a little more,” and, as Anaeli walked into the kitchen, she added, “and remember: three heaping spoonfuls.”
        They drank their second cup in silence. Suddenly Fefita observed:
        “I see you’ve let your hair grow.”
        Anaeli was surprised, and, knowing her fellow Mercurian’s intelligence, it was obvious that she suspected something was up.
        “Yes, I think it suits me better.”
        “And you can take care of it without great effort,” she pointed to her belly. “This fat would be very difficult to maintain. So, how did you figure it out?”
        Resigned, the young one explained.
        “I was reading some books that described the components of all living things and I noticed that the dead hair cells were a good material for storing information, plus, they didn’t harm the appearance, and they were easy to maintain.”
        Fefita regarded her skeptically and then asked her.
        “What would you think if our people decided to settle here?”
        “I don’t think it is possible, there are other intelligences already modifying this environment. It’s a nice place for visits, but not for settling.”
        “Back There they aren’t going to consider them a true intelligence. They would call them an organized instinct, nothing more.”
        “But they talk about culture. And art.”
        “That’s debatable. Anyway, we are more highly developed beings and we could make better use of the living conditions of this planet.”
        “But they have evolved here. They are the product of this soil.”
        Fefita raised her hand with an authoritative gesture.
        “You seem to sympathize with the Terrestrial life forms.” Her little eyes, lost behind her thick lids, regarded her mockingly. “You would defend this… this subculture?”
        ”It is not a subculture. It is a different frame of reference.”
        “Then there is no more to say,” she cut her off.
        Anaeli played with the spoon, passing it between her fingers as she searched for some winning argument. The fat one raised herself awkwardly.
        “I’m leaving this very day, I only wanted to know whether you would come with me.” Receiving no reply she continued, “We won’t harm you; but it is pointless to try to defend them.”
        “Yes, of course.” She rose and walked with her to the door. “The incident with Lilina hasn’t influenced your decision?”
        “No, she carried all the information that we had gathered at that time, all the data vital for us to return safely since our channels of communication are being blocked by the radio waves of this planet.” She looked at Anaeli, but the thin girl’s eyes were glued to the floor. “I won’t leave until eight tonight because I’m watching the Adventures program and today’s episode promises to be good.”
        She opened the door and left.
       
        Anaeli walked indecisively through the house, peeked out at the porch and watched how her neighbors arrived at their homes, how the lights of the street came on. She passed a hand over her eyes.
        “Bye, lady,” a kid with a neckerchief said, passing her.
        “Bye, Raulito!”
        She went inside the house, returning a few minutes later with a long and purposeful stride. She had to get there before Fefita left. Inside a bag she carried a mosquito repellant atomizer full of disintegrating fluid.
       
       
       
        [1] CDR -- Committee for the Defense of the Revolution -- Cuban neighborhood groups, which occasionally, among their many other activities, organize a “Plan Tareco”, a day in which all items are thrown out that are no longer of any use but are cluttering a building.
       
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