New Package, Same Old Taste
by S Shane Thomas

Listen to my narration here

Ben Kieley ranked, by many measures, a success. One of the brightest scientific minds from the generation born while the colony traveled through space on its twenty five year voyage to reach their new home world, Haran. He kept physically fit, had a few close friends, and even became a lab assistant for the colony’s head geneticist, Doctor Zimmerman. Ben simply could not figure out how to get close with members of the opposite sex, not for lack of effort.

“Hey Brenda,” Ben greeted his colleague and latest crush. “Now that the travel ban around the colony is lifted I thought maybe you’d like to take an afternoon and explore the woods south of the colony with me.”

The brunette took a large step back. Ben wouldn’t creep her out if he didn’t feel the need to get so close when they spoke. She knew it wasn’t just for her, she had seen him get spittle on Zimmerman’s face when they discussed his assignments. Too bad, she mused, he wasn’t that far off from her type other that his lack of personal space awareness.

“Sorry Ben, I’ve got plans.”

“I didn’t say when,” Ben said, leaning in.

“I know. I’m a busy girl, always busy.”

Ben focused on his projects the next couple days until the rejection stung less. Doctor Zimmerman had been in the field and retrieved a number of strange gems stones from the long deserted planet’s original inhabitants. Zimmerman assigned Ben to inventory and catalogue the stones. He’d met the two strange children who had undergone changes from contact with the gem in the months prior.

As he worked in the same lab with yet another woman who had spurned his affection, Ben began to wonder if a drastic physical change would really be a bad thing. One of the orange gemstones had been drilled through large enough for his necklace to slide through. Almost unconsciously, he slid the new pendant under his shirt. No one would miss what had never been counted anyhow.

Days passed uneventfully. Ben Kieley forgot about his charm and about the situation with Brenda, who would smile so long as he didn’t cross the room to her or speak more than a greeting. Zimmerman brought Ben along to a colleague’s laboratory on the south continent for a month long study and by the time the Doctor and assistant returned, Ben felt like a new man.

He recalled his theft while he shaved scruff from his cheeks in front of the bathroom mirror in his quarters. The orange pendant glimmered. Ben rinsed his face and stared hard in the mirror in attempt to discern what changes the gem had initiated. Disappointed to see the same features, Ben imagined the bulky muscles and stoic expression from a movie actor whose old films from Earth he watched as a child.

Ben gasped as his skin began to swell, shrink and contort. The actor he imagined stood before him, skin tone slowly changed to fit memory. Ben’s close cropped hair dissolved into the shaved head from the films. The gemstones had turned Ben into a skin changer.

Ben spent evenings perfecting the image of his new persona. Then he found Brenda at a café he overheard her talk about with friends. The new Ben settled in for a coffee and sandwich at a seat where he and Brenda could make eye contact. As he finished the meal she got up and made for the door. Ben panicked and leaped at his chance to speak with her.

“Hi, I couldn’t help but notice how lovely you look this evening,” Ben said and beamed with confidence.

A look of disgust flashed across her face. “Thanks guy,” she said as she took a half step back. He leaned so close Brenda feared the spinach caught in his teeth would brush against her. She turned to depart.

“Wait I…”

“I’m busy that day,” she said over her shoulder through the doorway.

"I guess it's not my looks,” Ben said to no one in particular.

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