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The One Mission

They were the last rats on the ship, but the ship was not sinking. Its propulsion units were self-maintaining, self-repairing. The best-designed part of the vessel, the proton scoops and energy converters would keep the ship going and going, even if every other system failed.
Ages ago, they'd had a captain, and prior to that a different one, and before that another. They agreed on that much. The accounts of what had happened to the last captain varied from tribe to tribe. The Hydroponics claimed that a message had been received from home just before the comms died; the message had taken a long time to arrive, and when the last captain decoded it, she killed herself. But everybody knew the Hydros were heretics. The Med-U's said the last captain had died during an epidemic, which the Med-U's had barely been able to bring under control before everyone perished. They were such self-aggrandizers, those Med-U's.
It did not really matter.
Only the mission did.
And the mission continued, despite all obstacles. The protein cultures had become contaminated two generations back, and the Bioengineers had been trying to regain their status ever since, battling with the Environmentals for equipment and supplies. A war now and then was to be expected. As long as everyone stayed human, even killing was permitted, if it served to preserve the mission.
Staying human was the essential factor.
This was most difficult during the cold emergencies. The cold emergency before the final one had taken two cycles to rectify. The Med-U's and the Specialists had allied against the Bioengineers, on the principle that food was of little importance if everybody froze to death. But the Hydros allied with the Bios, believing that some were certain to survive even if only a portion of the remaining heating system was repaired, and those people would obviously need ship-food to stay human.
Ever since the data storage units had become irretrievably corrupted, education and training were passed on orally. Each tribe taught their young the procedures their section was responsible for. But each tribe also taught the children that the most fundamental principle was to remain human. However hungry you are, however desperate you may be, the children were told over and over again, you must never eat another human being, for then you will be lost. You will become other, and we will have to seal you in the lower port cargo hold. The Sans even took their offspring to the lower level and showed them the holds' outer plug door. But then the Sans believed that those who ate a human became furred and quadrupedal. The Sans were a dour tribe, but perhaps that was a result of being tasked with disposing of the dead. The Bioengineers and the Hydros both needed the corpses, but neither tribe actually wanted to touch them, so the messy work fell to the Sans.
The final, most severe cold emergency hit suddenly, and struck the Hydroponics Unit the hardest. The tribe stayed at their posts. That was to their credit; they followed procedure. At first. Later, when the rest of the tribes discovered what Heth had done, she defended her actions by citing protocol--she had preserved as much seed stock as she could, so that the crew would have food when the emergency was over. She had not touched the small amount of force-ripening agents that remained. She had not even eaten any of the vegfruit that had been ready for consumption when the cold emergency struck. The others in her section crew-her husband, her offspring, her unmarried younger brother, her widowed maternal grandmother, and her mother-in-law--had committed that wrong.
Before she had eaten them.
The Sans were all for casting her into the lower port cargo hold immediately. To them it was black and white; Heth was no longer human. She had lost herself and become other.
The rest of the tribes, especially the Bioengineers and the Environmentals, argued that the matter was not so simple. They faced, in fact, a quandary. Heth was the last survivor of the Hydro tribe. No one else knew any of the protocols and procedures of her section. They needed her to train a new group to take over the functions of the Hydro tribe. To become the new Hydro tribe.
And other tribes would have to give up some young members, entrusting their kin to Heth.
This frightened everyone, even the Bioengineers, who were the ones shouting the loudest that this had to be done.
She is not human anymore! She will eat them! the others shouted back.
The Sans hid their children in a remote part of their territory. You will see, they said. She will grow fur and walk on four limbs. She is other now.
We need a Hydro tribe, the Bioengineers and the Environmentals said. The others understood this, but not even the Med-U's or the Specialists or the remnant of the Command tribe, which no longer had any purposeful function but still insisted on wearing badges, would do more than shuffle their feet and mutter.
It was Wroe, of the Xeno-Survey people, who said, "The mission must continue, even if we do not know where we are going or what we will do when we get there."
No one could disagree with that.
"Many things have changed since the mission began. But still we remain bound by the vows made by our ancestors."
Again, no disagreement.
"Perhaps this is something that can also be changed."
More shuffling, some mutters.
"Heth is not human now, but perhaps she can become human again."
The Bioengineers and the Environmentals glanced up at that. The other tribes fell silent.
"How?" asked the Senior Bioengineer.
"We can only determine that by conducting the experiment."
"Scientists," someone hissed.
A San said, "So we'll know you're wrong when she eats us."
Wroe said, "It is a leap of faith, I realize. And those are not words that a scientist should use. But every day that we continue the mission, we perform an act of faith. We have been doing so for generations. Now I believe we must surrender to the necessity of accepting another one."
"Easy for you to say," one of the Med-U tribe said.
"No," Wroe said. "It isn't. I am as afraid as the rest of you. But I volunteer myself to be trained by Heth."
In the end, the Environmentals offered one of their tribe, the Med-U's also offered one, and the Bioengineers, not to be outdone, gave two. And so the new Hydroponics tribe was formed.
Heth did not eat them.
Whether Heth became human again turned into one more item of dispute among the tribes. When she died, the Sans took care to point out that her body was quite hairy. However, she had never walked on four limbs--the new Hydro tribe swore to that--and, of course, she had not eaten them. She had done her duty and trained them, passed on all the knowledge that she had, and new Hydro tribe performed well. Vegfruit was produced again, though less of it, and the mission continued.
On and on, without knowing where they were heading or what they would do when they got there, the last rats on the ship held on to their purpose, to keep going, and to remain human. For of course they were not rats, but people, doing the best they could, and it is because of them that we are here today, on this world, still human, and still striving. What happened to our original home, we do not know. We do know that our ancestors, the crew of that indefatigable ship, fought unflinchingly to complete their mission, and the best way we can honor them is to continue doing our utmost to be human. And though some of us are furred, and some of us are quadrupedal now, we do not eat each other. We build, we plant, we grow, we hunt. We recount the tales of the ship. And we are human, every last one of us.
Human, in all our varied shapes and appearances, we carry on the mission. We survive. Would our ancestors be proud of us? There is no way to know. But we are proud of ourselves, for we have not given up. How can we? The mission to be human has no end.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, June 26th, 2015

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