‘The Exile Gate’

Chapter 1: Patakatifu

by Duo Radon

A seemingly insurmountable distance away from the place of his birth, Wikus van de Merwe stood on the shore of a crystalline lake, gazing absentmindedly into the aquamarine atmosphere of the planet he now called "home". At his feet lay a distraction as commonplace to the poleepkwan people as it was to his own kind, though the method of fishing here was considerably more technology-dependant.

Several yards out on the lake, a mechanical lure burbled and twitched, mimicking the plight of a wounded animal. In theory, one of the lake's larger denizens was meant to gulp the little machine, and once inside, it would emit a swift electrical shock, paralyzing the prey. Then immobilized, the fisherman had only to utilize the retriever that Wikus had tucked under his arm and it would fire out a thin cable topped off with a grappling barb. The barb would meet the lure, the prey would be snared, and the retriever would reel it back to the operator. Naturally, this only worked if a creature took the bait. Today it seemed nothing worth catching was interested, and Wikus's mind had deviated from his task almost immediately.

So he gazed up at the clear sky of early evening, watching the specks of various craft sail past miles overhead, brightly illuminated by the sinking sun. Even after a year on the poleepkwan homeworld of Patakatifu, the human found himself frequently occupied with thoughts of Earth and the people he'd left behind. They didn't happen by accident, these bouts of reminiscence. Out of a need to keep those he still loved close to him, Wikus made time every day to think of them in a ritual others might call prayer, or meditation. He knew that if he didn't, there was a very real chance those mental images might slip away, superceded by the bizarre and overwhelming sensations of the life he now lived.

Even after settling into a comfortable daily schedule, Wikus was constantly occupied with new lessons to learn and more curiosities to marvel over. He'd done his homework while on board the freighter Fiordraa, of course, but seeing an alien planet on a monitor and experiencing it firsthand were entirely different things. The excited Earthling had no idea what to expect when the Fiordraa finally docked at Caltaaris Station last year.

Aside from the fact that it was one of seven, the moon of Caltaaris was uncannily similar to the Earth's moon. It was gray and dusty, free of indigenous life, and the perfect anchor for the space station that overgrew most of its surface. The facility itself wouldn't show Wikus much more than that which he'd already become familiar with on the ship, but once he and his poleepkwan family were shuttled down to Patakatifu, everything would change.

Sadly, not every change was for the better. Much of the ship's crew, it happened, stayed with the ship, and Wikus had to bid a reluctant farewell to people he'd grown indescribably close to over the three year journey. Commander Ruwala and General Kwaziak had been genuinely despondent to see their human comrade depart, as was his supervisor Kotai and the enthusiastic Doctor Grenyo. Wikus knew he was free to keep in touch with everyone via data transmission, but it had been a difficult goodbye nonetheless.

One soldier who would stay on Patakatifu was the surly General Tarzier. The homeworld was his normal post unless he was needed on a mission like that he'd just lead, but regardless, Tarzier was determined to keep tabs on his charges until they were all safely tucked into their new home. Any commendation he'd receive for escorting Wikus and Yeen back safely was secondary; after the mess Wikus had caused on Keehar, the humorless old warrior didn't trust the pair with their own lives.

Fortunately for everyone involved, Wikus and his band of brothers were delivered to the metropolis of Oolund without incident. A massive river called the Kaltu roared down the distant mountains before curving west to empty in the ocean, with Oolund sandwiching it at its most agreeable point. The city was gargantuan, more than twice the size of Tokyo, though it was impossible to get a sense of its range from the air. As Yeen had explained to his curious Sugati, all poleepkwan buildings and cities were constructed within a strict set of guidelines established many millennia ago. Their people had learned through bitter trial and error that technology cannot overstep the natural world; for a people to thrive, they must work with their planet. The codes that resulted gave their structures and settled areas a more organic appearance, flowing along with the lay of the land rather than plowing through it. Every building was finished with a coating of clear resin that provided additional strength and kept the elements from eroding the material underneath. When the sun shone on Oolund, the city sparkled like the water it bounded, creating the illusion that the river had spilled its banks for miles on either side. In addition, every rooftop that wasn't marked for mechanical purposes had been planted with a carefully selected variety of garden stock that scrubbed the air, shaded and cooled the citizens below, and melted the urban sprawl into the wilderness that surrounded it.

Just outside the east border of the metropolis was Oolund Heavy Scale Manufacturing, a factory so large it could have been considered a city in itself. The place had reason to be expansive; it was the leading producer and repair center of spacecraft on the continent. OHSM was also the company at which Wikus and his friends were assigned employment, much to the human's delight. It was an impressive facility even by poleepkwan measure, but to an alien who had never envisioned such a thing, the factory was mind-boggling. It was full of dark corridors and catwalks that might suddenly open onto a work bay six times the size of the largest football stadium, a sensation that rattled one's equilibrium and turned the knees to jelly.

Every division of the facility was an irresistible draw to Wikus, though some of the more dangerous sections were off limits to the comparatively fragile Earthling. With so many oversized machines moving and operating, casualties were surprising rare, but inevitable. Even with the seemingly miraculous poleepkwan medical technology at hand, Wikus's superiors were careful to keep him out of harm's way as frequently as possible. So, proudly shouldering his new label as a mechanic, he worked on small scale tasks inside partially assembled quadrants of freighters and shuttles. The labor wasn't always easy, but he got to work with his hands...and occasionally, an exosuit. Punching the clock had never been so much fun.

As predicted, Yeen took up an engineering position within Wikus's department, and the pair saw each other frequently during the day. Brutus, who had shown a penchant for processing livestock during the trip home, was salvaged from the mines he'd once worked and placed in the OHSM's busy kitchen. Lek, Tookanuk and Spek's father Hlu were also given various roles at the factory. It wasn't common for a Commander to take such exception when assigning drones to their places of employ, but Wikus and Yeen had earned something more than the standard and Ruwala made certain the tight-knit group stayed together.

But, as with almost everything in life, there was a hitch. Patakatifu was a much larger planet than the Earth, with a longer revolution. And that meant a longer day as well as many more days per year. Patakatifu saw 46 hours in one rotation, and when it came to the work day, there were only two shifts: one during the daylight and one at night. The year consisted of 512 days and concepts like "weekends" and "holidays" were quite foreign. The only exception was the annual Festival of the Last Moon, a three-day party that had its roots in an ancient custom and was celebrated by the entire populace at once.

For a poleepkwa, 23 consecutive hours of work every day of the year was simply business as usual. Drones lived to work, it was the factor that gave them purpose. In fact, a worker that fell ill and couldn't report to his duties was regarded with the utmost sympathy, even pity. It was inconceivable that anyone would not want to go to work every day. But of course for Wikus, this was an impossibility.

On board the Fiordraa, time was almost irrelevant; the ship ran non-stop. Wikus hadn't realized how many adjustments his caretakers had made so that he could work and sleep on a schedule similar to that he'd always kept. The requirements of his physical self were well understood now and he wasn't expected to attempt to keep up with his friends once on Patakatifu. In fact, it was expressly forbidden within the newly published Manual of Human Biology and Behavior that Grenyo had handed down to his patient's new doctors.

But keeping to his own special schedule was tricky to say the least, and Wikus was quite miserable for the first few weeks. Sometimes he was awake during the day, sometimes it was dark. His Circadian rhythm couldn't normalize; he slept poorly, ate fitfully, experienced frequent headaches and stomach upsets..... it was the worst case of jet lag he'd ever suffered.

Ever attentive to his partner's well being, Yeen trucked the miserable alien off to the medical center where an ingenious solution was reached. The surgical team developed a genetically-invasive procedure that would reset Wikus's internal clock to keep time with Patakatifu's lengthy day. As much as the helpless man hated the thought of another tweak to his internal anatomy, he could offer no alternative resolution to a problem that simply had to be amended. Much to his surprise, after several days of recovery, he found he had the energy to last the entire day alongside his companions and stay soundly asleep for the full 16 hours each of them required every night.

Even with his new-found stamina, it was deemed important for the human to take one day off after every 30 he worked, and today was one such respite. This time to himself could sometimes be lonely with everyone away, but the surroundings were undeniably serene and the living quarters very comfortable.

The home he shared with Yeen, Joji, Brutus, Lek, Hlu, Tookanuk, Mita and Spek sat on the shore of a clear-water lake, surrounded by fringes of untainted wilderness a short commute south of the city. It was a custom job especially gifted to the recipients of the Ulu Mahan......not the spacious mansion that human well-to-dos might expect, but instead, a cozy melding of cutting-edge technology and nature-friendly construction. The ground floor was mainly kitchen, dining area and communal living space. Upstairs, each resident had his own bedroom, which were essentially large capsules side by side and stacked two high, rather like a huge honeycomb. Each room contained a bed, storage units and a window at the rear. Wikus's room was the furthermost on the right, which also featured a larger window alongside his bed that overlooked the second-story garden patio and the lake.

The house that sheltered a one-of-a-kind alien needed to make some innovations to traditional design so the Earthling could be comfortable. Wikus's bed was equipped with a cushy mattress, unlike the firm padding in a poleepkwan bunk, and was further nested with the wooly pelts and pillows made for him on the Fiordraa. The region's winters were chilly at their worst, but the summers were often very hot and humid. Poleepkwa were hardly sensitive to temperature extremes and their houses were rarely heated or air conditioned so that adjustment, too, had been accorded. But Wikus's favorite feature was his bathroom.

The housing engineers had given him the chance to describe what he needed in a lavatory and it had been beautifully built to suit him to a tee. It was a modest, circular room in pale gray, with a heated non-slip floor and a narrow window along the top to let in sunlight. All of his new towels, washcloths and accessories were stashed away in bins that closed flush with the wall. Wikus had a proper shower stall now that even featured a receptacle for his specially formulated soap. There was also a sink with counter space around it and, much to his delight, the engineers had managed to replicate a comfortable sit-down toilet, with a more advanced operating mechanism, of course. Upon inspection of their handiwork, Wikus had quickly declared it "the best bathroom in the Universe".

Even though it was tempting to spend all of his day off lounging in his favorite room, the great outdoors offered enticements of their own. Across the lake, one could observe a fascinating natural structure; microorganisms that secreted a transparent yellow silica had produced expansive and delicate weavings of brilliant crystal, a terrestrial reef. In turn, these beautiful structures provided homes and hideaways for many more tiny creatures. And beyond the reef, the hills that gradually sloped up to the horizon had been cultivated for a variety of lovely edibles. When the crops began to ripen, the breeze would bring the sweet smells of fresh produce across the lake.

The land that cradled their little patch of habitation could have been called a wood, yet true plants were unknown on Patakatifu. Fungi of all shapes, sizes and colors were commonplace, many that bore their spores inside edible pods which filled the roles of vegetable and fruit. But the dominant flora were creatures that maintained characteristics of both plants and animals in a kingdom called "Nidu". Nidu were everywhere, filling every available niche. Generally, they remained rooted to the soil, drawing nutrients from it, and most required sunlight as well. But they also utilized simple, animal-like systems inside their myriad forms. They could move part or all of their bodies; a few could even uproot themselves and walk about. Some traveled surprising distances to find nutrients, such as the towering Gluund. These hydra-shaped Nidu could reach 50 feet in height and weigh several tons. When they tapped a region of usable resources, they could flip themselves end over end and turn up just about anywhere. These migrations usually happened during the night, a spectacle Wikus had found especially unsettling the first time he'd witnessed it. It was commonplace for a day shift to arrive at their place of business only to find it overrun with a hoard of Gluund, so most urban areas kept a task force whose sole job it was to relocate these nuisance creatures.

The open areas around the shore of their lake were carpeted in Toroswa, or "eel grass", the most common species of Nidu on the planet. At a glance, they could be mistaken for true grass; each organism was blade shaped and deep green, reaching a length of about four inches. But these blades swayed on their own, and each was topped with a black dot, a simplistic eye that kept the flat of the body ever facing the sun. Likewise, most of the Nidu and other living things that made up Oolund's wooded areas were moderately docile. Some did rely on large animals for sustenance and Wikus had been repeatedly warned about their presence, but for the most part he was free to explore the territory on his own.

It was on one of these solitary strolls five months ago that Wikus had picked up an unlikely companion. A commotion in the undergrowth had caught his attention and he'd happened upon another snapshot of the natural world's savage drama. A heavy, boar-sized predator had unearthed a nest of some kind, and it was gobbling up the little gray orbs within, using gelatinous tendrils on either side of its face to flick the spheres into its sturdy jaws. The little balls, evidently animals themselves, were feverishly attempting to roll away from the danger, but it was clear that the entire nest would be a loss. And then one, by sheer chance, slipped past the darting tentacles and rolled straight to the curious human, taking refuge behind his boot. Wikus was immediately reminded of Yeen's prudent "look but don't get involved" lesson, but the tiny thing huddled behind his foot tugged irrepressibly at his heartstrings and he swiftly pocketed the ball and made his retreat.

Once home, Wikus inspected the new animal carefully, rolling it gently in his hand. It was no larger than a tangerine, but in comparison to its Earthly look-alike, it was a giant. After he'd managed to coax it open, Wikus could see that it very closely resembled a woodlouse. Its exterior was formed of tightly segmented armor, with softer plating across its belly. It had a very cute little face, with large, complex eyes and many tiny mouthparts. Its two front limbs were larger than the rest and mimicked a crab's arms, with pinching, snipping prongs. Six more pairs of legs ran the length of its body, each ending in two pointed toes. Tufts of fluff poked out around the points where its legs and head joined the body and it sported a long pair of antennae at its head and tail end. Wikus was immediately enamored with the pill bug and chose to name him "Roly". It didn't take a lot of debate to convince Yeen to allow the isopod to stay on as a pet, especially after Wikus spun the sad tale of Roly's littermates. But the drone confirmed his human's suspicions that it was only a hatchling and would grow much larger before it reached adulthood.

And larger he did become. Now no longer pocket-sized, Roly weighed over 20 pounds and, when curled up, was slightly larger than a basketball. His dust colored shell had morphed into a beautiful blue mottled one, with dabs of whitish-gray that imitated spots of light on the forest floor, where these creatures would normally be found. He trundled after Wikus here and there, but unlike the pill bugs of Earth, Roly could roll himself along when in ball form, at a fairly decent pace. Although, with his face tucked away he lacked precision and Wikus had been bowled clean off his feet more than once.

As was typical, Roly had spent most of the day close by Wikus's side, even if the arthropod was utterly uninterested in the man's activities. Instead, he busied himself with grazing on eel grass, snipping the stalks at their base and nibbling them down one at a time.

Meanwhile, Wikus's mental meanderings had turned down a road he wished he could forget. As much as he tried to put her out of his mind, he couldn't help but see the face of the woman he'd pursued on Keehar. He'd only gotten a fleeting glimpse then, but her visage was seared into his memory. Who was she? What was she? He didn't want to give in to wild speculation; Yeen warned that would "only lead to trouble". And Commander Ruwala had promised to share any information she received with him but after three years nothing had surfaced, not even a rumor. The best thing he could do for himself was to give her up. And yet....

"Hey!" Wikus exclaimed, jarred out of his musings by an abrupt and repeated thump against his ankle. Roly had an entire meadow of eel grass to browse and yet he was only contented with the bits beneath his master's bare feet. Clearly the man hadn't responded to his gentle clicking so he'd taken to bumping his shell against the distracted biped. "M'alright, fine...." Wikus relented and stepped a couple paces sideways. The pill bug emitted a pleased chatter and resumed picking at the slightly crushed blades.

Wikus made it a point to sigh long and loud, even though there was no one around to appreciate it. His gaze wandered over to the glint of bright crimson floating quietly at the small dock just beyond the house. Yeen had made good on a pact they'd established early during the journey home. Wikus had been on his best behavior after the incident on Keehar, working diligently and obediently, making steady progress. Shortly after their arrival, he'd been rewarded with the chance to earn his own pilot's license. OHSM required several operator's license qualifications of its employees; adding on a private craft registration hadn't been a problem.

The ship itself came later, from a vehicle trader that frequented the factory. The mass of inoperable metal, once a Drusian Fescalt R5, was hardly recognizable as a ship and it was secured for next to nothing. But with many nights and free days of hard work, Wikus and Yeen restored the ship's beauty and functionality. The two-seater Repulsorlift driven craft suited the human perfectly; Drusians were very similar to humans in size and the controls were easy to handle. An adult poleepkwa found the back seat rather cramped, but the youngsters loved to go for an evening flight. Likewise, Wikus would often spend at least part of his free day in the air, but not today. Something about today just felt....off.

Fortunately, the man was broken from his reverie before he had the chance to become despondent over it. A stout black shape came into view on the dirt road that lead to the train station, his work satchel slung over his shoulder. The trio of parents would still be in town, picking up their children from their work-study program while Tookanuk often stayed late to file his reports, which meant Brutus was almost always the first one home. Finally relieved of the quiet, Wikus waved him a friendly hello.

"Hey," Brutus clicked, tossing his pack on the ground, "Catch anything? Doesn't look like it...."

"Nah. Nothing's biting today. How was work?"

"Mnf," the drone grunted as he plopped down on the shore and drew the tackle box into his lap. "Well, Durko crushed one of those coolant canisters with a loader. Went everywhere. Everything in Receiving Bay Three's blue now....and everyone. Lona's pissed."

Wikus burst into a fit of laughter. "Man, everything good always happens when I'm not there!"

"Good!? Hmf. That stuff stinks......here, use this one." Brutus offered a silver sphere he'd dug out of the box to Wikus.

"Nooo..."

"Yes! You won't catch anything with that piece of crap," Brutus huffed, getting to his feet.

"That one's too loud," Wikus retorted firmly.

"No kidding! That's what attracts the fish! Here, give it..." Without waiting for an acquiescence, the hefty worker snatched the retriever from his friend and recalled the ineffective lure, which he tossed carelessly into the box. With a flick of his thumb, the choice replacement was activated and a painful screech buffeted the calm of dusk. Even after Brutus had flung the squawking lure into the lake, the auditory discomfort seemed hardly lessened and Wikus shoved his fingers into his ears with a grimace.

As much as the human hated to admit it, his obnoxious friend was right. No sooner had the lure surfaced than several large forms could be seen sliding through the water below it, inching closer to inspect the disturbance.

"See?" Brutus shouted.

"What?!"

The drone gave his alien brother an annoyed shove and readied the gun. Several seconds later the lure was snapped up, the noise ceased and a static jolt sent ripples racing out from the epicenter. A huge, pallid shape thrashed the surface a few times, then fell still. Brutus sent the recall line out and presto, dinner was caught. The entire affair, in truth, was utterly superfluous. Even when fresh foods ran out in their home, which rarely happened, they were equipped with a proficient replicator to whip up whatever one craved. It was plain to see that not a single resident of their household missed any meals. Yet there was something satisfying about the interplay of predator and prey, an instinct to hunt that both species understood well, even if the event itself was less than exhilarating.

Brutus hauled the creature onto the shore and brusquely removed the cable and its lure, leaving the actual gutting to Wikus. It was a large "Bokwae", an animal that resembled a thick eel in its body with the head of an angler fish. Its oversized jaws were loaded with long, spiny teeth, thankfully disabled, and it had grotesque, cloudy eyes that seemed just a bit too large for its head. To an Earthling, it wouldn't appear appetizing in the least, but Wikus knew better. When properly prepared, the meat of the Bokwae was succulent and richly flavorful, if a little chewy.

As he worked to remove the innards, flocks of winged scavengers began to amass nearby, waiting for an easy meal. Roly evidently found the whole business in very poor taste and directed a scolding gurgle at Wikus before curling himself up and rolling to the house after Brutus. Undeterred, Wikus continued his messy task; they would eat particularly well tonight.

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