(Author's note: a few months back, I published a version of this story that I had rewritten from memory, titled Pecan Pie. I recently found the original version, which I now present here.)
The truck stop had the ambiguous smell of grease, stale sweat, and tobacco in its various forms, some of it hanging in the air, the rest in blotches and lumps on the linoleum-tiled floor, fighting for supremacy with the french fries and chewing gum for the repulsive honor of clinging to the shoes of the graveyard-faced transients shuffling between here and there.
It was three a.m., a time when most people wonder why anyone would be awake, and those who were thanked God for these reeking all-night oases of glaring lights and insufferable country music tinning out of some half-power station in the endless ether of an interstate night.
At a table, in a corner, sat a woman. She was neither young nor old; in fact, she was non-descript to the extent that one would have been hard-pressed to take any notice of her at all. She was dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, and was smoking a cigarette--or, more correctly, was watching the smoke curl up from the lighted end of a cigarette held balanced in her fingertips. It seemed to fascinate her in the same fashion that a cat crossing the street fascinates an old dog on a porch on a hot summer day...it was something to do, to distract her from reading the signatures on the prized Winston Cup team photograph which hung in a place of prominence over the rubbish tips.
She checked her watch, re-crossed her legs, then glanced over her shoulder. She noticed a few of the other occupants of the room had been regarding her with sidelong inquisitiveness, and as her own gaze passed over them, they furtively looked elsewhere. This made her grunt.
Eventually, a gentleman approched her table, and sat down across from her as though he had some right to do so. She did not challenge him, she hardly even looked at him. "You ready?" was all she said to him, in a very final fashion.
He was a good-looking man, about her age--whatever it was--and might have been her brother, despite his dark hair, as opposed to her blonde mane. They both had the same brilliant turquoise eyes, which seemed to stand out from their quiet, fine-boned faces, like tidal pools on a beach. "Not just yet," he murmured, craning his neck to see the cafeteria counter. "One last piece of pecan pie, then we'll go."
She stubbed out her cigarette as he rose. "You and your pecan pie," she mocked. He affected a lofty manner.
"It's good. It's one of the best things about this place."
She watched him cross the room. "Pity," she sighed.
He must have heard her, for when he returned with his tray, he inquired, "What do you mean, 'pity?'"
She rolled a shoulder and pointed at his pie with her chin. "It's a pity that we haven't found much more to praise than pecan pie. We've spent six months at this, and aside from a few isolated instances of brilliance or compassion, the most we can say on their behalf, is 'The pecan pie is pretty good.'" And she snorted in disgust.
The man prodded his fork between two broken bits of nut, and did not look at his companion. He spoke in a low voice. "So...that's it, then? You've...decided...?"
She was quick. "We've decided. And it's not like we didn't give them the benefit of the doubt. They had every opportunity...Oh, come on, Mike! You know the rules, what we're comissioned to do--!"
He chewed slowly, then took a delicate sip of his coffee, which did not so much resemble coffee as it did the stuff that comes out of a bale of hay which has been left to moulder in the rain.
"What about the fellow who stopped and helped us fix the tire?" he reminded her. "Couldn't we put in a good word for him?"
The woman was adamant. "It's too late, Mike."
"But Gaby--surely, there are those who deserve--"
"We've made that mistake before," she reminded him in a firm, harsh tone. Then she sighed. "We've tried everything. We've given them every opportunity to prove their worth, to justify the faith we've put in them...and look what's happened. Look at the mess they've made of this place. Look at what they do to the bodies we've given them. This. This. That." She pointed to the cigarette, the coffee, and the pie by turns. Mike remained silent, cowed, distressed. Gaby sat back and put an elbow over her chairback. "We gave them everything...and every time, they blew it. They can't be trusted."
"But it isn't entirely their fault, you know," Mike interrupted. "I mean, they're not like us--"
Gaby suddenly laughed, and Mike understood her irony. He shut his eyes and sighed with impatience. "You know what I mean. They're little more than animals--"
"But they have superior intelligence, which they choose to abuse, or neglect! And lately, they seem to exalt stupidity...I've made an entire report on it..." She tapped the leather satchel which bundled at her feet. "He can't be pleased, not with the way things have gone lately. I mean, it was bad enough when that Niestzche fellow said what he'd said, but we had the last laugh--the look on his face was priceless...and it's only gotten worse. First they believed so much that they persecuted each other to death, then they made a virtue out of disbelieving, and when their souls cried out for guidance, they started inventing things to suit their needs! Well, I for one am sick and tired of the whole pathetic little game--I suppose if they could truly understand their role in the universe, they wouldn't be so neurotic--"
"But you can't be wholly without pity for them--being halfway between beasts and the divine," Mike interjected.
This thought made Gaby sigh. "I suppose a case could be made for some sort of maladjustment--but that sort of psychobabble is just what they love to ponder. Remember, it isn't as though we're talking about mollusks, here--the same species that gave us Rembrandt and Socrates also gave us Beavis and Butt-head."
They were silent in thought.
"There has been a long-term decline in the culture," Gaby continued quietly. "And while it is perfectly true that certain so-called ills are in fact endemic to the human condition, their general apathy has grown to such an extent that behavior which has long been considered immoral has become accepted, excused, and decriminalized. The only vice now seems to be virtue. It has become unacceptable to help others, for fear of repercussions; what does it say about a society when 'community service' is used as a punishment?" She paused for effect. "I have seen the disinvolvement, distrust, disenchantment, spreading like a virus...the last time we came this way, they were fighting a great war, to guarantee the liberties they now take for granted. They curse the icons which made them great, and call it 'art' and 'freedom of expression.' They no longer care about anything...not about the future, at least, or else they'd be a bit more careful about the present, and mindful of the past."
Mike scraped up the last shreds of pie and wondered, "But don't they deserve a future, nonetheless--?"
Gaby shook her head. "Not if this is how they treat themselves. You and I both know the symptoms of a culture in decline. Do you think I enjoy watching things crumble, over and over again, in spite of our best efforts--? Look around! They don't even know...they don't even realize--! It's so frustrating to have to stand by and watch such a wonderful creation fall apart, again and again...well, this time, it'll be over. He'll have to admit that his experiment was a mistake."
"He won't like that," Mike warned. Gaby waved him off and put the satchel on the table.
"Tough. It's all in here...look at the natural world, how everything stays in balance, in harmony...then look at what happens whenever humans get into the mix--! Disease, decimation, desecration, then half-hearted, misguided attempts to patch things up, and they feel like they're saving the world. Idiots. It's like saving a thimbleful of water from a draining bath, and congratulating yourself on a job well done."
"True--but don't you think you're being too hard on them?"
"Hard--? Hard? Mike, we've been too soft on them, if we've been anything! We gave them the best of everything, we gave them every chance to fulfil their potential, we gave them wisdom and philosophy and science--we even went to protect them, each and every one of them--and for what, eh? Are they the least bit grateful?"
"Gaby, I think you're just being biased."
"Yes, you--it's no secret that you always thought the whole experiment was a bad idea."
She lifted her nose. "I merely thought that it would have been better to gift a few different species, rather than just one having supreme dominance. We all know how natural selection works--it was a disaster from the start to give one species such an advantage over the rest!"
"As if competing with other species would have helped things," said Mike with an ironical smirk. "They can't even get along well with branches of their own species!"
"Natural selection," Gaby shrugged. "I wasn't consulted about the rule. Those most suited for survival will survive; those that aren't--pfft!" And she snapped her fingers.
"Still..." said Mike, and Gaby fixed him in a terrible glower.
"Don't you 'still' me! If we don't cut them off at the top, then none of the others will have a chance! We've both seen it! And I'm sure Uri and Rafe and the others will have similar data. There's too many of them, Mike, and they only get better at surviving every day. And the saddest part of it all, is, that when they had to struggle to survive, they produced some of their greatest acheivements. Now, when the living is cushy, they are a degenerate bunch of morons ready to celebrate sleaze and whine about how tough things are. We did it before, and we'll do it again--but this time, it'll be permanent."
Mike was quiet, and inhaled some coffee, wincing because it was now cold as well as stale.
"So what are you going to suggest?" he asked at length.
Gaby shifted in her seat. "Oh, a combination of things. Some weird weather patterns, to punish them for what they've done to the planet's ecosystem. Perhaps a new disease, or a resurgence of an old scourge long since thought eradicated, to get them for their immorality and their smug complacency. Some mindless ethnic strife...unleash discontent among the underclass...I'm sure we'll come up with something. In fact, simply withdrawing all aid might do the trick."
"You mean like those petty embargoes they seem so fond of?"
"Precisely. Once they get a taste of how truly insignificant they are, they might realize what they've squandered. People who recover from near-death experiences know the feeling...unfortunately, it's a little too difficult to bring an entire civilization through a 'near-death' experience. They simply don't agree enough to have it make a difference. Why, I'd go so far as to bet that they'd be disagreeing over the sort of experience they'd had. They take too much interest in celebrating their differences--be it religious, ethnic, racial, or even among siblings. They have turned the natural instinct for self-preservation into an art form, calling self-centeredness unique and promoting it as the highest form of virtue! Mike, please, let's not debate it further--they've proven their worth. We adjust other populations when they get out of whack--this is really no different."
Mike remained unconvinced. "But wholesale eradication--? For pity's sake, Gaby--"
"They have done no less, to others far less offensive, in the name of Progress," she reminded him. "They have transgressed the laws by which all other living things must abide. They must be punished." Then she sighed, and hefted her satchel over her shoulder as she rose from the table. "I just hope the boss will see it that way. He has this little problem about second chances..."
"You know the whole saurian episode still bothers him," Mike confided as he dropped a few coins onto the tray for the waitress who was eyeing them as she languidly made a futile attempt to clean one of the tables across the room.
"That was a gross miscalculation of scale," Gaby replied, "and if he'd listened to me then, well--"
"Don't be sanctimonious," Mike grumbled. He paused to gaze at the slabs of pie revolving slowly inside a glass display case next to the register, and heaved a wistful sigh.
"I'm really going to miss pecan pie," he decided.
Gaby cast him a disgusted sneer, then reached her hand through the glass and pulled out an entire pie, which she placed in his fingers with a firm flourish.
"Make it last," she advised, and they sauntered out into the fog-enshrouded night.