‘The Exile Gate’
Chapter 4: A False Oasis
by Duo Radon
Within a very short span of time, Wikus had ricocheted through trepidation, excitement, confusion, frustration, and more confusion. Now, all of it was temporarily forgotten as he tried to make sense of what he was seeing. Stretched out before him was a massive expanse of green countryside, enfolded in tangled bands of fog. The air was cool and humid; the light, blue and feeble, as though dawn had just broken. Up above, Wikus could only see more white, the very convincing clouded atmosphere sending its haze low to mix with the fog banks. Through the sheets of mist, he could make out wide pastures carpeting gentle slopes, each bordered with neat rows of hedges or low stone walls. And further out, he was almost certain he noted the silhouette of a house or two. It could have been mistaken for any sampling of rural Britain, the illusion was so complete.
"This.....is one hell of a hologram..." Wikus muttered, stupefied. What was so baffling about the scene was that he simply couldn't tell where the enclosure ended. It seemed the only way to achieve such an effect would be to encapsulate the entire area in screens, but they were absolutely undetectable. What was more, the place had a very real feel of the outdoors, down to the occasional gentle breeze. Even if he could put the pieces of this magnificent feat of engineering together, the weighty question of "why" would still evade him. Thoughts of zoos and game preserves wandered through his imagination, which only led to the crippling recollections of MNU's underground lab. Perhaps this was Fate's way of having the last laugh.
Wikus bent down and ran a hand along the ground, his vivid memories of dewy green grass brought to life in front of him. He plucked a few blades, twisted them between his fingers, sniffed and even tasted them. It surely did appear to be the real deal. How could it be....unless the Majhatughans had been to Earth....or the poleepkwa were keeping secrets from him.
Unwilling to indulge the possibility of a poleepkwan conspiracy theory, Wikus stood again and turned to face the reflection of the misplaced and bewildered man in the glass doors. Beyond them now there was only blackness, no hint whatsoever of the airlock he'd just exited. But it seemed that was intentional, as there was no sign of the Palace, either. The double doors were framed in an unassuming brick structure, its design very reminiscent of any Earth building constructed within the past 50 years. It was a single story, didn't appear to cover a great deal of ground space, and above the doors a worn sign read "Offices of Water and Power". Wikus set off around the building's perimeter, feeling the aged brick with his hand. He was certain he'd eventually smack into whatever was concealing the Palace, but much to his surprise he was able to walk around the entire structure, stopping just where he'd started.
"The fook...." Wikus whispered to himself. Even though he knew it was of no recourse, he pulled on the door handles firmly. They were locked tight; the doors didn't even rattle in their frames. Turning to his comm watch, the human was relieved to see it flicker on, regardless of the fact that no one was within hailing distance. "At least this won't be exactly like Keehar...." Wikus sighed.
Knowing he wouldn't find any answers where he stood, Wikus peered out over the fields again. A shabby cobblestone path led out on the right, where it joined up with a well-worn dirt road. The road meandered up behind the "office" building and into some rougher, wooded terrain and in the opposite direction, down towards the supposed houses. The choice seemed simple. Wikus tucked his necklace into his shirt, then pulled off his watch and stuffed that into a pocket. He couldn't guess what type of humans lived in this place, or even whether they understood that they were existing off-world at all, but he felt it best to appear as inconspicuous as possible.
As he made his way along the road, he was certain he could hear the sound of bleating sheep, and the occasional chirp of birds. Sure enough, amongst the fog, Wikus could see fluffy little dots clumped together, though he was too far away to decide if they were true immigrants of Earth or just a decent facsimile. Eventually, the square shapes of buildings morphed into view, completely in place in this out-of-place world.
The farm by the side of the road featured a lovely two-story house built of stone and painted white, with a tidy shingled roof and window boxes full of herbs and sleeping flowers. It had a sizable yard, and the pathways looked to be recently trodden. A waist-high stone wall surrounded it, with a wooden gate at the front. Beyond, a well maintained barn stood watch over the scene, partially muffling an occasional cluck or moo.
Wikus stopped at the gate, furrowing his brow. There was a light on in the window, wisps of smoke piping from the chimney above....he was indeed eager to meet these people, yet indecisive as to how he should go about it. As he listened in the morning stillness, he could hear clinking of dishes and periodic running water; the sounds of breakfast.
Before the stray Earthling could come to a decision, a man rounded the corner of the house, his arms laden with a shovel and a pail. He was decidedly human, Caucasian, probably in his 40's, with a neatly trimmed beard and rust-colored hair. He wore a wool jacket, a cap and muddy rubber boots, every bit a farmer. He glanced up and both men shuddered in surprise.
" Howyiz?" the man offered cheerfully.
Wikus stammered as the wheels of his mind struggled to start up again, but didn't manage to emit anything of any intelligence.
"Not from around here, eh?" grinned the farmer.
"I...no, I don't....think so..."
"Name's Owen. Owen Brennan," he announced, setting his tools down alongside the wall and offering an open hand.
Wikus shook it warily, as if he didn't believe it could be real. Neglecting to reply with his own introduction, he couldn't resist venturing the question, "Would you.....can you tell me...where I am?"
"Where ya are? How can y'not know, lad?"
"I don't know, I.....I'm having trouble remembering anything." Of course, that makes perfect sense! If I play the amnesia card, I can ask any stupid question I want and it won't seem suspicious Wikus you're a genius!
It seemed to do the trick, Owen's outgoing grin faded slightly and he took on an empathetic expression. "Ah....I see. That's no good....well, you're about two miles outside Dublin."
"Of course! Is there any other?"
"....Huh...." Wikus ruminated over that for a moment before his new friend expanded upon his hospitality.
"Why don't you come inside for a bit, the wife's making breakfast," Owen proposed as he opened the gate. "Don't suppose you've got a name, have you?"
"Yeah...I probably do," Wikus chuckled sheepishly as he entered the yard, " I just..."
"No matter. We'll figure it out."
As the pair entered the side door, Wikus reveled in the warmth of the cozy kitchen. Though he'd never visited the Ireland of Earth, he was certain this was indiscernible from a typical traditional household, but with some upgraded appliances. Even so, none of it looked poleepkwan, or alien in any way. A fire crackled in the hearth, the floors were wooden, though well kept, and the countertops made of slate. But there was also a fairly modern looking refrigerator, and an oven, along with a few standard gadgets here and there. Perhaps most enticing was the savory aroma of some kind of meat on its way to becoming a meal.
"This is Moira," Owen stated, placing a loving hand upon the shoulder of a chestnut-haired woman in an apron. "Dear, I found this fellow passing by.....lost his memory, it seems, and his way."
Wikus waved a modest greeting at her as she wiped her hands in her smock. "How awful! Please, make yourself at home here, we'll be having breakfast very soon. In the meantime, let me get some tea..."
"Thank you!" Wikus replied with genuine gratitude. "Would you mind if I washed my hands first?"
"Certainly!" she piped, gesturing at the kitchen sink.
Wikus stole a few seconds to look over the sink as he approached it, hoping it wouldn't appear too odd to his hosts. It shouldn't have been anything extraordinary, but for the fact that he hadn't laid eyes on such a setup in years. He turned the tap....plain old faucet, plain old bar soap, plain old ceramic basins, plain old cotton towels. And in the left basin, a steel colander held freshly washed potatoes, carrots and onions. He could smell them, even over the fragrance of frying sausages, and he dearly wanted to pick them up, to turn them over in his own human hands. Wikus wondered if Yeen and Joji had ever had the occasion to taste onions. He wanted to bring some of these foods home to them; the trick now would be finding his way back.
Wikus sat at the unpretentious wooden table with the couple, where a mug of tea had been placed for him. "Thank you...very much," he sighed, cradling the mug in his hands while he waited for the tea to cool a bit.
"Don't mention it," Owen replied, leaning back in his chair. "So. How do you suppose this happened? The memory loss? Any clue?"
"Mm....not really. But maybe....I think it might have had something to do with that brick building up on the hill. What is that?"
"The old utilities office? It was just an administrative center for the water and electric companies, but it's been closed for years."
"Do you ever see anyone coming in or out?" Wikus puzzled.
"Can't say that we do. 'Course, I don't pay much attention to it."
"Perhaps you hit your head on it?" Moira ventured.
"Well! Isn't that how people get amnesia? They hit their heads..." she argued, taking a playful swipe at her husband's arm.
Owen rolled his eyes at her and Wikus couldn't help but laugh. "Nah, I don't think it's a concussion," he smiled, running his hand through his hair. "At least, everything seems like it's in one piece."
"That accent," Moira continued, a sudden realization lighting her eyes, "it's South African, isn't it?"
"Is it?" Wikus pretended to wonder, taken aback by her recognition.
"I thought so, too," Owen added. "Pretty familiar one, these days..."
"Why 'these days'?" Wikus asked, now completely thrown.
"Well, considering everything that's happened there the past few decades."
"Oh, you must remember those creatures!" Moira leaned towards the baffled man, her eyes wide and intense.
Owen cocked his head to the side, as if he couldn't possibly believe that anyone would forget such a thing, regardless of their mental state. "Aliens. Y'know, they came to Earth in a big flyin' saucer, thirty years ago. Big, buggy things," he explained, mimicking antennae with his fingers. "Sounds crazy, I know. But it was all the world could think about until they left. What'id they call 'em?"
"Prawns," Moira responded.
"Yeah, that's right! Prawns. That's what they looked like. That ring any bells?"
Wikus sat frozen and dumbfounded. He was doing an excellent job selling an air of disbelief, though his hosts would never guess at the true reason behind it. How could these people possibly know anything of Earth's current events?
"Maybe they're responsible for your amnesia!" Moira suggested.
"That might actually make sense," Owen agreed, concentrating on the concept. "They were supposed to've had some pretty serious technology. You know, on the subject....you do look a little familiar."
"I...do?" Wikus croaked.
"Mm-hm. Like....maybe you used to be on TV?"
Moira nodded in agreement and Wikus struggled to conceal his growing anxiety. He was certainly a stouter man than the desk jockey that MNU had so fervently slandered seven years ago, but it wasn't nearly enough weight to serve as an effective disguise. If these people recognized him, he wouldn't have the chance to wonder "how". His false reputation meant their warm welcome might turn very cold, very quickly.
Unfortunately, before Wikus could solidify a plan to lead them off the trail, the pieces of Owen's memories clicked into place. "That's it!" he roared, slamming his hands on the table with such ferocity it frightened a squeal from his wife and caused Wikus to fumble his mug, spilling hot tea over the table and onto the floor. "Wikus! You're Wikus, the traitor! The one everyone was looking for!"
Wikus and Moira were both torn between their reaction to Owen's outburst and the mess splattering on the floor. "Owen, please-I'll get a towel," Moira interrupted hastily as she got up from the table.
"I don't know what you want with us," Owen growled, then swatted a hand in his wife's direction, "stay in the kitchen, Moira!"
"Wait!, It's-" Wikus attempted, but the other man was already on his feet. Owen plucked the iron poker from the hearth and Wikus's distress turned to panic. He jumped from his seat and lost his footing on the wet floor, tumbling over backwards along with the chair. Moira was nearly in tears now, towel in one hand and clutching her husband's sleeve with the other, pleading with him to change his mind. Traitor or not, she had no desire to see a man skewed alive on her kitchen floor.
As it happened, the decision would not be theirs to make. The kitchen door crashed open, prompting screams from all three of them. Four armed and uniformed men pushed through, weapons aimed. "Drop it!" the first commanded, and Owen threw the iron to the floor, placing himself between the men and his terrified wife.
Another trained his firearm on the hapless visitor. Still sprawled on his back, Wikus thrust his open hands above his head in submission, but it did him little good. A loud pop split the chaos and Wikus shuddered, expecting to feel the sledgehammer of a bullet tear him apart. Instead, a familiar and unpleasant sting pierced his right pectoral. When he opened his eyes, he saw the bright, fluffy top of a tranquilizer dart sticking out of his chest, its powerful sedative already beginning to course through his veins. "C'mon man," he groaned, "not again."