Exchange Program by James Rumpel
Exchange Program by James Rumpel
Miles Ohman made one final trip through the locker room. It was his tradition to circumnavigate the musty home of the Alcara High Mustangs the night before a game. It gave him the opportunity to focus, to prepare himself for whatever challenges lay ahead. Miles was concerned about how his team was going to do in the conference championship game. He had spent many extra hours this evening ensuring that everything would go exactly as desired. He had washed the uniforms and made certain that all of the players’ shoes and helmets were in ideal condition. Should the team fail to win, it would not be because their manager had let them down.
It was after nine when Miles finally began his two-mile walk home from school. His parents would be too busy with their bowling league to be able to pick him up. He could have asked one of the players for a lift home, but they would, almost assuredly, have more important things to do. Once he got to his house, he would have the place to himself for the next couple of hours. He looked forward to some time to relax and push the anxiety over the upcoming game aside for a short time. He had just gotten a delivery of a batch of comic books earlier in the week. He was going to enjoy reading them in the privacy of his room away from any taunts or jeers about his hobby.
As he ambled down the sidewalk towards the edge of town, Miles dreamt of being more than a behind the scene slave of the football team. He imagined what it would be like to be the quarterback or at least one of the actual players. He knew this was an impossible dream, he was too small and too slow to ever make the team. Being laughed at during eighth-grade tryouts had sufficiently extracted all hope of ever being more than a manager.
The last house before leaving the town limits belonged to Ashley Howard and her family. Engrossed in his football fantasy, Miles almost did not notice Ashley and a couple of her friends walking towards him. They appeared to be heading to some get-together at the youth center. Miles managed to spot the gaggle of popular girls barely in time to cross to the other side of the street before they reached his location.
He hurried his pace and headed for the country road that would take him home. He pretended not to hear the distinct giggles coming from the girls as they passed by on the opposites side of the road. He knew they were having a good laugh at his expense, but could not do anything about it.
About five minutes later, it started to rain.
When Miles turned off the main road and began sloshing his way along the dirt driveway to his empty home, a faint glow emanating from above drew his attention. It was still raining, so there was no way it could be the moon that he was noticing. Covering his eyes from the rain, he looked up. He understood what he saw instantly.
One of his favorite comic books, Extraterrestrial Visitations, was chock full of descriptions of abductions and close encounters. Despite a slight twinge of excitement over the fact that he had been chosen to be visited, Miles still reacted in fear. He took off, at what could only be described as a slow run, toward the darkened house. It really wouldn’t have mattered if he had been an all-district sprinter, the alien vessel easily passed him and was soon floating directly in his path.
Realizing the futility of trying to turn and run in a different direction, Miles stopped. He bent over and rested his hands on his knees, desperately trying to catch his breath.
The door to the spaceship opened with a loud clicking sound and two creatures emerged from within. They were illuminated from behind so Miles could only make out their silhouettes. While nearly human-sized the shadowy figures appeared to be shaped more like insects than men. The door clicked shut and a spotlight shone down upon the Miles and the strange visitors.
Miles’ first impression had proven correct. The aliens looked like large flying ants. Their three-part bodies and six legs did not look much different from the tiny creatures that tended to build hills of sand on the driest portions of the Ohman’s lawn. What Miles assumed to be their exoskeleton was deep black in color and each creature had a pair of transparent wings folded across their back.
One of the beings rose to its hind legs, stepped forward and spoke. “Are you Miles Ohman?” it asked in perfect English.
Unable to speak or run, Miles nodded his head.
The creature held up an envelope. “It appears that you sent in an application for an intergalactic student exchange. I am happy to inform you that you have been selected.”
Words erupted from Miles’ mouth. “That wasn’t real. I thought it was just a contest to win a set of new comics. It sounded like a neat concept for a bunch of stories.” He did remember thinking that it would be a good thing to travel to a different planet and find a life where he would be more appreciated. He did not share this fact with the alien.
“It is real and it is a great opportunity. We came a long way to establish this exchange. Will you, at the very least, hear us out.”
The explosion of words left Miles as quickly as it arrived. Again, unable to think of a proper response, Miles nodded.
Miles knew he should make another run for safety, but he also knew it would be futile. Instead, he allowed the beings to usher him towards the space ship. The door, once again, opened with a series of loud clicks and allowed the trio to enter.
The inside of the craft was filled with all sorts of unidentifiable machinery. A large, raised flat surface occupied the center of the craft. A set of oddly shaped chairs circled the alien table.
“Please sit down,” the creature gestured towards one of the strange seats. “We have some paperwork to take care of.”
Miles climbed into the chair. He found it least painful to lay on his stomach across its top, much like riding a racing motorcycle. He was far from comfortable in this position.
“So, here is the deal you signed up for. For a unit of time equivalent to one Earth year, you will trade places with Charmock.” The creature gestured towards the second giant ant before continuing. “He will live your life and you will live his.”
The idea was so preposterous that Miles had to speak up. “That’s impossible. I think people would notice if a giant alien insect started going to my school.”
“But they won’t notice because he will be in your body.” The creature pointed to a large machine behind him before continuing. “That device will place Charmock’s brain and essence into your body and you will be put into his.”
The explanation continued, “Charmock has been sufficiently trained to take over for you and should be able to keep his exchange a secret. You, on the other hand, will not have to perform any deception. While Earth is not aware of the existence of an exchange program, our homeworld will accept you for who you are and do everything possible to guarantee you have an excellent cultural experience.”
Miles considered his options. He thought about his life on Earth, his role both at school and at home. The opportunity to visit another planet intrigued him greatly. He would be able to experience life as a completely different creature. “Ok, where do I sign?”
The hardest thing about the new body was the extra set of legs. The middle pair of appendages seemed to get in the way more than they helped when Miles tried to walk. He was fairly adept at using the front set of legs much like he had used his arms when he had a human body. Having only two fingers and a thumb took some getting used to but Miles had caught on with relative ease.
During the month-long immersion session, Miles had adapted to his new form and learned a great deal about the culture he was going to soon be part of, if only temporarily. His exchange host, Chock, had explained to him that his new body would instinctively aid him in many actions. With the body’s help, Miles learned how to fly with relative ease.
Perhaps the most difficult part of the training had been mastering enough of the aliens’ language to communicate sufficiently. When Miles was allowed to interact with the rest of society, he would no longer be able to take advantage of Chock’s ability to speak English.
“So, am I going to have to go to school?” asked Miles in a series of clicks and whistles.
“For part of the day,” was Chock’s reply. The alien still tended to speak slowly, allowing Miles the chance to understand what was being said. “You will also have to spend some time each day with a work unit collecting nectar. It is not hard work, but it is necessary.”
“What do your people do for entertainment?”
Chock’s face contorted into an expression that Miles had learned to be a smile. “You will be surprised to learn that we share a number of entertainment activities. Many of our people enjoy reading books and graphic novels. That is why we used that same medium on your planet to advertise the exchange program. We also have sports and something similar to your movies. Don’t worry, there will be things for you to enjoy.”
Miles tried to contort his new face into an alien smile. “When do I start?” he asked.
Chock escorted Miles to his first day of classes. The school building, like almost all of the structures on the planet, appeared to be nothing more than a series of tunnels partially dug into the ground or constructed of mud above the planet surface. On closer inspection, however, it was obvious that the buildings were made of some advanced building material. The walls were very sturdy but slightly pliable. The rooms were all well lit and contained high tech equipment along with tables and the same sort of odd chairs that Miles had first encountered in the space ship. The chairs proved to be much more comfortable with Miles’ new form.
Soon after entering the school, Chock called one of the students. “Cralow, come here, please. I have a job for you.”
This alien was smaller than most of the other students and noticeably smaller than Miles. The creature hesitated for a second before joining Chock and Miles. He nodded respectfully towards Chock. He glanced at Miles before looking away and muttering, “Hello, Charmock” under his breath.
“This is not Charmock,” explained Chock. “This is an exchange student from Earth. He is just borrowing Charmock’s body.”
The alien student’s demeanor quickly changed. “Oh, I’m sorry. My name is Cralow. I didn’t mean to be rude, it’s just that Charmock and I don’t get along very well.” After a pause, he looked at Chock and added, “Sorry, Chock.”
Chock smiled. “Believe me, Cralow, I know of Charmock’s shortcomings. He needs to learn some lessons in humility and respect. We are hoping that the exchange program will help him in these areas.”
Miles wasn’t sure he liked the idea of his replacement being someone who was not liked by his peers. However, he knew there was nothing he could do about it and it wasn’t as if Miles had many friends back on Earth, anyhow.
Miles extended both of his front arms in the greeting Chock had taught him. “Hello, Cralow. My name is Miles.”
“Hey, you speak pretty well. You do have an odd accent though.” Cralow returned the gesture.
“Would you be kind enough to show Miles around and help him if he gets lost or confused?” asked Chock.
“Of course. It will be my pleasure.”
Chock, apparently, felt comfortable with the arrangement and soon departed. After informing Miles about which transport to take home, he once again thanked Cralow for his help, wished Miles good luck, and went on his way.
“First thing we have to do,” announced Cralow, “is make sure everyone knows you aren’t Charmock. Not many of us can stand him. He is a bit of a bully and a braggart.”
“Well, I just want to learn about your world and have a good experience.”
Cralow smiled and directed Miles down the hall towards their first activity. “Oh, you’ll love it here. So, tell me about your world?”
School was much different here than on Earth. Instead of formal classes with homework and tests, groups of students were assigned tasks that had to be accomplished. Successful completion involved the students using physical and mental talents. Teamwork also was an important component of success. Miles enjoyed and excelled in these activities. He was still getting used to his new body so he did not always do great when presented with a physical challenge, but he was able to be an asset to the group when they needed to solve a mathematical or logic-based problem.
On more than one occasion, his group members complimented him and commented that he was a much better partner than Charmock. It was not long before Miles found himself invited to participate in after school activities.
Miles was surprised to find that he enjoyed the daily nectar gathering. While there was work involved in collecting the honey-like substance, to Miles it was more of a game: a fun exercise activity.
Each morning, Miles and a half dozen other school-age aliens would report to an area that could best be described as an immense jungle. There were many other work teams, but Miles was always assigned to the same group. Each youth would have a large bucket with a strainer attached to the top opening. The workforce waited on the ground until a loud clicking announced that collection was about to begin. Some type of machinery located at the jungle’s canopy would then viciously shake the vegetation. Globs of nectar would fall from above and the workers would attempt to catch as much as possible within their buckets.
After three days of limited success, Miles had an idea. The beads of nectar fell at a high velocity. Miles was usually slow to react and would often miss the globs he went after. Besides, he tended to get in the way of his fellow workers. His comrades were very supportive and did not appear frustrated with him. They missed a good number of drops of nectar themselves. The nectar was falling too fast and they did not have enough room to maneuver as they needed to.
“I’m going to fly up and try to slow the nectar down,” announced Miles.
“You’re going to do what?” asked Cralow.
“I’m going to give you guys more room and slow down the nectar.” He removed the screen from his bucket and left the bucket on the ground. With amazing ease, considering that he had only possessed wings for a little more than a month, Miles rose into the air about twenty feet above the ground. Holding the screen out in front of him, he flew into the path of a falling bead of nectar. The amber-colored substance smashed into the outstretched strainer. Miles was barely able to hold on but he succeeded and the nectar seeped through the screen and fell slowly to the ground where one of the other workers easily caught it in their bucket.
“Hey, that works,” shouted Cralow. “With Charmock, we used to push each other around trying to get the most. This is much better.”
Soon, Cralow had joined Miles in the air. The two of them would slow as many falling droplets as they could and ground workers would capture the nectar with ease. The strategy was not perfect. Both Miles and Cralow found themselves bombarded by falling globs on multiple occasions. They would simply laugh and shake the goo off their bodies. The workers on the ground were soon asking to take their turns in the air.
By the time the clicking sounds indicated the end of the nectar drop, Miles’ group of workers had nearly filled all of their buckets.
“I think this is the most we have ever gotten,” commented Cralow as the group turned in their haul and went to clean themselves off.
“The administrators will be impressed,” added Koomon, a female alien that was in the workgroup as well as many of Miles school task teams. Miles had noticed that she tended to hang around him quite a bit. He had to admit, he enjoyed her company.
Cralow nodded in agreement. “Yeah, I think they make us kids do this by hand to see how good of workers we are and how well we can cooperate. They have machines that could collect the nectar just as easily.”
“I just think it’s fun,” said Miles. He looked at his nectar covered body and added, “messy, but fun.”
“They are showing a video of a new super-being story at the activity center tonight,” Koomon announced. “Maybe we could go together and celebrate our success.”
“Why not? Sounds like fun,” consented Miles.
“Yeah, I like that idea,” inserted Cralow.
Miles wasn’t completely certain he was reading Koomon’s expression correctly, but he thought that Koomon looked a tiny bit upset that Cralow had felt the need to join them.
The going-away party was winding down. Miles had enjoyed the opportunity to thank each of his many friends for making his stay as wonderful as it had been. Koomon had lingered until the very end. She had polished her exoskeleton to the point where it glistened. The multicolored lights reflected off of her, adding another dimension of color to the already festively decorated schoolroom.
“You know, Cralow,” she finally interjected, “there are others of us who would like to spend a little time with Miles too, you know.”
Cralow smiled. “The whole school knows you like him and have liked him for most of the time he’s been here.”
Miles had never seen any of the aliens blush. He didn’t think they were capable. If they could, he was certain that he was blushing at that moment.
Koomon ignored Cralow and stared at Miles. “I know we can never be more than just friends. We are, literally, from different worlds. But I do want to say that it has been a pleasure getting to know you, Miles. You are a very special individual and I am better for having gotten the chance to meet you. Now you get to go back to Earth and continue being the wonderful, popular creature you truly are.”
Miles didn’t want to return to Earth and life as it was there. He knew he had to, however. As comfortable as he felt here, this was not his home.
“I wish I could stay,” was all he said.
“So do we,” laughed Cralow. “Now, we get stuck with having Charmock back.”
Chock chose that moment to interrupt the good-byes. “Charmock has learned quite a lot on his journey also. I think he will be changed when you see him next. Now, if all of you will excuse us, I need to talk to Miles before we return him to his planet.
The elder alien directed Miles towards a pair of chairs in a far corner of the room. As they sat down, Chock began, “You do realize that you should not tell anyone on your planet about the exchange. They are not ready to know about everything in the universe yet. Only a few very special humans are worthy of the knowledge.”
“Don’t worry. I won’t tell,” replied Miles before smiling and adding, “I’m pretty sure I’d be institutionalized if I told anyone this story.”
“I also want to prepare you for the fact that Charmock has made a few changes to your life also. I don’t have all of the details, but just be prepared for some things to be a little different than when you left.”
Miles nodded, tentatively. “Okay. Nothing bad, I hope.”
Chock smiled, “No, nothing you can’t handle.”
They performed the body re-exchange at two o’clock in the morning. Miles’ parents had been harmlessly tranquilized to make certain they would not accidentally happen upon the aliens. Exhausted from the interstellar flight and the mind switch procedure, Miles was too exhausted to do anything but go immediately to bed.
“Miles,” yelled his father from downstairs, “you need to get going. You don’t want to be late for football practice.”
Miles slowly sat up. It wasn’t that big of a deal if he was late for practice. The manager really didn’t have to do much except for cleaning up after practice was over. He stretched his arms and noticed that something felt different. Glancing to the side he got a distinct impression that his arms were bigger than he remembered.
He easily jumped up from bed and went to look at himself in the mirror, nearly tripping over a set of free weights that occupied the middle of his bedroom floor. He stood in amazement as he viewed his image. He was no longer the small, weak boy he had been when he left. He stood about four inches taller than he had last fall. His arms and chest were filled out, bulging with muscles.
So, this is what Chock had been talking about. He quickly started to get dressed. As he pulled a tight-fitting shirt over his head, Miles noticed a note sitting on his dresser. He picked it up and noticed that it smelt of lavender. To his great shock, it was to him from Ashley Howard. Unable to resist, Miles read the note. A huge grin came over his face as he read the final paragraph.
“Miles, I am really impressed with how you worked so hard to change your body and your image. To be honest, the first couple of weeks after you transformed yourself, you were kind of a jerk. But since then you have matured and have been much nicer to everyone. I guess what I am trying to say is ‘Yes’, I will go out with you. We can talk after practice tomorrow.”
Charmock had changed. Miles knew that he had changed also. He could pull this new life off. He could be successful, but he could also remain a good person. He would be the best of both worlds.
His father’s voice once again rose from the floor below. “Hurry up, Miles. After all the work you put in to make the team, you don’t want to make a bad impression on the first day after tryouts. You went from manager to varsity. Go enjoy yourself, son.”
Copyright James Rumpel 2020