‘The Exile Gate’
Chapter 5: Recon
by Duo Radon
Consciousness came slowly, in fitful bursts, welcoming the sort of headache that only follows sedation. Once awake, Wikus felt a good deal more pain than he remembered when he'd been darted. The elbow he'd smashed on the floor, that still hurt. But now, it seemed all of his joints and muscles had complaints of their own as he unfolded himself from a crumpled heap. He felt a particular twinge in his nose, and as he touched about his face his fingers disturbed warm, sticky blood already beginning to dry around his nostrils and in his moustache. He could only surmise he'd been treated roughly after he'd blacked out. Given the course of events he'd experienced, it seemed like a logical end to the day.
Once the logy Earthling decided nothing serious was broken, he turned his exploration to his surroundings. At first, he thought he might be at the bottom of some kind of well. The walls were featureless and unbroken, forming a concrete tube that topped off at least 20 feet above his head. Beneath him, the floor was shaped like a funnel, with a four inch opening in the center. The confining space was humid and grimy, with a pungent mix of unpleasant smells. Wikus attempted to stagger to his feet, but the steep incline beneath made it too awkward and he flumped back into an uncomfortable sitting position. As he craned his stiff neck to peer up at the opening, he could make out a faint blue haze covering it, punctuated by an occasional crackle of static electricity.
"Mnnf..." Wikus grunted, "....prison. Of course." Out of nothing more than the desire for some kind of explanation, he shouted at the opening. "Hello?"
"Wikus?" came a muffled response in a familiar click that Wikus could not have been happier to hear.
"Chris?! Is that you?"
"Yes. Are you hurt?"
"Not...really. Where are you?"
"In a cell."
"What?! Oh for the love of....how?! Are you okay? What'd you do?"
"I'm not injured. I didn't commit any violation, that I know of...I just came looking for you..."
"Ohhhh," Wikus moaned, rubbing his eyes wearily, "why, man? I asked you not to follow me..."
"I had to rescue you."
"Oh yeah? How's that going?" Wikus was comforted to hear his partner's chirping laughter in the neighboring cell, even though it was momentary. "Well....what do we do now?"
"Nothing," Yeen explained, "I contacted General Tarzier before I left, he should be here by now-"
"Tarzier?!" Wikus groused. "Is he the only soldier in the galaxy? Why'd it have to be him?"
"You know he has to be notified as soon as anything happens to either of us," Yeen responded calmly.
"You're in a Majhatughan prison cell, Wikus."
"Ohhh...he's gonna wring me out like a wet sponge..."
"No, not this time, I don't think..."
"Why?" Wikus sulked, his demeanor making it sound as though he were disappointed by this reassurance.
"Well-" Yeen stopped short, his voice replaced by the abrupt grinding of machinery. Wikus squawked in surprise as the funnel floor began to chug upwards, and he had to huddle in the center to keep himself from being sanded against the walls.
A few seconds later, with the electric field disabled, Wikus and Yeen found themselves at the top of their cells, blinking in the pallid light of the prison block. It was a tremendous expanse of a room, its floor occupied with thousands of similar wells. Narrow walkways formed a traversable grid in between them all.
Wikus's face lit up at the sight of his Sugati, though it was dampened quickly as he noted the observers nearby. A pair of Majhatughan prison officials stood close together, one holding a control pad; even though their bodies were very alien, a posture of submission and trepidation was clearly decipherable. And understandable. Beside them towered the massive General Tarzier, his fiery eye especially luminous in the gloomy prison block. With him Wikus recognized the violet-clad Royal guard who had let him in, as well as an unmarked solider that must surely have arrived with the General. In his spiky arms he carried Wikus's duffle bag, comm link and thankfully, his and Yeen's confiscated Ulu Mahan adornments.
Oddly, the General did not appear the least bit angry; none of them did. Instead, their eyes held a serious but unidentifiable sentiment that left a queasy feeling in the pit of Wikus's stomach. It was the sort of feeling a person gets when he knows he's about to receive bad news, but it hasn't yet been vocalized.
Troubled by Wikus's blood-smeared face, the green worker didn't wait for official confirmation of their release before he hurried across the walkway to inspect his human's well-being for himself. Yeen cupped the man's face in his gentle hands, rubbing away some of the mess with his thumb. Exhausted, Wikus remained still and allowed the drone to fret over him a bit, enjoying the contact. "You said you were not hurt," Yeen reproached worriedly.
"Are you injured?" Tarzier asked.
"No, Sir, it's not.....not serious. Just a bloody nose..."
"Very well. Captain, get them on board."
"Yessir," the third warrior replied, snapping into action. He handed over the pair's belongings and shepherded them away from the tense group. Wikus didn't have any idea where they were headed now, he was just grateful it was away from where he'd been.
The Captain had led his charges to Tarzier's waiting command cruiser, a type of poleepkwan craft Wikus had never before encountered in person. It was no larger than the ferry that had brought him, but sleeker and very heavily armed. They passed through a cargo bay crammed with battle exosuits, just like the one Wikus had inadvertently destroyed on Earth. These machines were in mint condition, however, shiny and untarnished, awaiting their first chance at combat.
The ship was carrying a small compliment, only six officers in addition to the General. One of which doubled as a skilled medic, and it was he who took over possession of the pair of civilians. In the cramped little med bay, Wikus stripped and subjected himself to a thorough examination. When no serious injuries were found on either detainee, the medic turned his attention to patching the human's few flesh wounds and cleaning away the spilled blood.
By the time Wikus was dressing again, Tarzier had returned, offering no clue as to what had transpired. He neglected to address the pair at all and seemed to inquire about them out of obligation rather than genuine concern. "Well?" the General grunted.
"Nothing serious, just a few superficial wounds, Sir," his medic replied.
"Good. Cabin 3," he ordered, then turned to his previous subordinate. "Captain, prepare to disembark."
"At once, Sir!" the waiting captain responded as he hurried towards the bridge ahead of his commander.
Now alone with the medic, Wikus opened his mouth as though he intended to make a firm point, but Yeen was quick to halt him. Before either of them could continue, the medic strode past them into the corridor. "Collect your things and follow me," he instructed, his tone suggesting that he would not tolerate dissention.
Duffle clutched to his chest, Wikus had to jog to keep pace with the huge soldier. The couple were dropped off in a passenger cabin, very similar to the sort Wikus had slept in on the way to Maj. This one was conformed the same, though it was slightly larger and much cleaner and brighter. Still, there were few amenities to comfort a human.
"Here is your room. The General would prefer it if you stayed here until we arrive at Nie," the medic instructed, and then he closed the hatch and left. It was clear to both of them that this was an order and not a suggestion. Wikus hardly had the gumption to do any more exploring, anyway.
Yeen sat quietly on the bunk, eyeing the sullen man and offering him the opportunity to speak first. Wikus took it without hesitation, tossing his bag to the floor and waving his hands in front of him. "What is going on here?! Am I allowed to ask that?"
"I really don't know, Spucky."
"Of course you don't! Because no one is telling us anything!"
"Just be grateful we're not being punished."
"Yeah," Wikus agreed testily, rubbing at his temples with the heels of his hands.
Yeen indicated the space beside him, inviting his partner to sit. Wikus consented, leaning into the drone's embrace. "So.....where are we going? Nie? I don't remember what that is..."
"Nie is the planet closest to Maj," Yeen explained. "There is no indigenous life because the atmosphere is so thin, but there are poleepkwan stations there. I suspect we're going to see Commander Satu. He regulates all poleepkwan traffic on Maj."
"So, we are in trouble."
"It really doesn't seem that way."
"Huh," Wikus mused wearily. "Hey, you never told me how you got into the Palace?"
"Well, I told the guards I was looking for you and that General Tarzier was close behind me. That was all they needed to hear, one of them escorted me inside. But as soon as we were in, we met up with some more soldiers and a few Majhatughan Councilmen, and there was a lot of confusion.....they gave their guards the order to arrest me and I was placed in a cell."
"Just like that. No explanation."
"None. I'm just glad to be with you again," the drone smiled.
"Yeah. Same here," Wikus agreed warmly, meeting Yeen's kind gaze. He reached up and ran a finger along the underside of the poleepkwa's bristly, shifting pedipalp. Those curious mouth-arms had always been a source of intrigue for the man, even when he'd had them himself. "You know, you don't always have to worry about me."
"Of course I do. It's my job."
"Always. I'll look after you until the day we die."
"Then will you keep a leash on me in the next life, too?"
"I'll have to. You can't be trusted on your own. And I certainly wouldn't want you getting some other poor bastard into tight spots all the time."
Wikus grinned up at him playfully. "At least things stay interesting!"
"And then some. While we're on the subject, are you going to tell me what happened to you back there?"
"You don't know!?"
"No, of course-"
"Oh, man, wait until you hear this!" Wikus exclaimed, his characteristic enthusiasm rekindling. "You know I hate to say 'I told you so' but...."
"This is news," Yeen sighed.
"Yep. Sit tight, I got a whole box of 'I told you so's here for ya. You know, I might even make it into a song...."
"Terrific," Yeen countered sarcastically, "I love it when you gloat-sing."
"You know you do!" Wikus smirked.
At the very least, Yeen was relieved to see the Earthling in high spirits again, even if it meant sitting through some sanctimonious rigmarole. Thankfully, their destination was only a few hours away.
The planet Nie was rather unimpressive, a polar opposite to the vibrancy of Maj. This globe was cold, barren and dark, but it did support life thanks to the poleepkwa's indomitable technology. Sizable habitation pods dotted the landscape, each one containing a fraction of Commander Satu's realm.
The interiors of the encapsulated terminals were very similar to the decks of poleepkwan freighters. As he strolled through the command center with Yeen and the General, Wikus was reminded of the Fiordraa and Commander Ruwala's awe-inspiring office. He missed her dearly.
Tarzier stopped them at what appeared to be a central point in the headquarters and exchanged a few words with the warrior posted there. The guard set off at once and, several minutes later, returned with his Queen, Commander Satu. She bore so many similarities to Ruwala, yet Wikus could pick out the attributes that made her unique. Satu seemed older, more weathered somehow, but her carapace was a shimmering greenish-gold that was every bit as vivid and beautiful as Ruwala's. She looked upon the group with the same kind of multi-colored eyes, the same gentle hospitality, but her attitude was one of urgency and she wasted no time with chit-chat.
"It's an honor to have you all in my station," Satu said amiably, bowing to the trio, who returned the respectful gesture. "If you two would come with me," she continued, outstretching a bejeweled arm to Wikus and his guardian.
"Yes, sir," Wikus acquiesced with a deep breath. At least this time he wouldn't have to go alone. Yeen stayed close by his side while Satu lead the pair through a series of corridors.
The little room they arrived in was very reminiscent of a doctor's office to Wikus. It was a confusing muddle of instruments and equipment, not surprisingly, with a work station along the left wall. The right was occupied by a large table hooked into some sort of scanner at the rear of the room. Among the readers, cables and data ports, the scanning device plugged into an operator's chair, very much like the command center in a small ship's cockpit. Wikus didn't have to be told that the table was intended for him. The table was always for him.
Satu sealed the door behind them and sat on one of the station's stools. "Please, sit," she gestured at the exam table. With a hesitant glance at Yeen, Wikus hopped onto the slab and tried to make himself comfortable. The worker's stalwart presence beside him helped a bit, but he still couldn't shake the feeling of being a specimen under the microscope.
"Now," Satu began, "when General Tarzier arrived to pick the two of you up, a Majhatughan prison regulator let slip a bit of information we don't believe he was supposed to divulge. They were quick to recant and we have little other data, but we think you might have passed through a Spatial Overlap Gateway. Do you know what that means?"
Yeen's eyes widened but Wikus could only shake his head blankly. "You see, sometimes a hole opens in the spatial plane, providing a shortcut from one place to another. These can occur at any time, in any place, connecting any two locations, but they are usually fleeting. We've developed a device to keep them open indefinitely, but the use of such technology is very strictly regulated, for obvious reasons. It is never permissible, for example, to maintain such a gate in secret, and that's what we suspect has happened here."
Wikus's face contorted in disbelief. "Now...wait a minute....you're telling me I was actually on Earth yesterday? My Earth?"
"I suspect so, yes. But we'll need to do a little introspection to be certain."
"Wait wait wait," Wikus backtracked, shaking his head," I thought, when you go through a wormhole...you know, there's supposed to be a tunnel of lights, you...zoom around through...." The human emulated a waving gesture with his arms, back and forth, garnering nothing but baffled head-cocks from both poleepkwa. "It's.....that's the way it looks in the movies....what I'm trying to say....there was nothing. I mean, no difference between this side and that one, it was just like....walking through any old door..."
Satu looked to the green drone for some assistance, but he could only rebound with a confused shrug. "Well, I don't know anything about this...'movies'...but a Gateway is a joining of two places in space, there would be nothing to travel through," she explained.
"Okay, that works....but....what would they want with Earth?" Wikus frowned.
"That's why you're here. As you can imagine, we need answers as quickly as possible. If this is in fact the case, it has very serious implications for all three of our species."
"Well, I'll certainly tell you everything I know, Commander...."
"And normally, that would suffice, but you may have seen things that you don't know to be significant. I must ask you to submit to a memory scan," she said, pointing at the heap of machinery at the head of the table.
"You can....read my mind?"
"Not exactly. This machine will replay any visual and auditory information you received during your excursion, which will allow me to see it as you did. It can't read your thoughts...unless you speak them all out loud."
"Hey!" Wikus shot the drone a pseudo-miffed look before he returned his attention to Satu. "Anything you need, Commander, just tell me what to do."
"Excellent. Please lie down on your back....your head sits in this receptacle...." Satu instructed, rising from her seat to begin turning on equipment.
"Okay..." Wikus grunted as he scooted to the head of the table. Cautiously he rested his head in the rigid cradle, eyeing the sinister looking halo that enclosed it. Some of the functionality he was familiar with, and not at all pleased to see. The memory scanner utilized a system just like an exosuit which literally, and painfully, plugged into the subject's brain. In order to operate the suits at OHSM, his superiors had developed a special crown adaptor for him that prevented the prongs from puncturing his flesh while still giving him control of the machine. Of course, OHSM and his adaptor were four days away. "Is...this going to hurt?" Wikus asked meekly.
"Yes. Very much," Satu replied honestly. "And unfortunately, it works much better if you are conscious and un-sedated. I'm going to administer a drug that will not lessen the pain, but stimulates neurotransmitters in your brain."
"It will hurt, but you won't care," Yeen simplified.
"Well. Lekker. Let's get that going," Wikus proposed as he offered his arm.
Commander Satu placed a dosing band around the human's bare wrist and hooked it up to a palm-sized canister of orange fluid. As soon as it was activated, the band located and penetrated the appropriate blood vessel and began to leak in a regulated stream of medicine. Wikus shuddered at the chilly sensation seeping up his arm, but after a few seconds of circulation, he could feel its effect and it really was marvelous. Suddenly, he didn't care, about anything. It was very much akin to being drunk without losing lucidity. He felt warm and comfortable, his nervous expression melting away in exchange for a dopey smile.
"How are we doing?" Satu asked, "Feeling good?"
"Uuuuuuuhhh-huh," Wikus sighed contentedly.
"Brilliant. Here we go." Satu made adjustments to the halo, then locked it down in place. It emitted a static buzz, jolting the man's skull slightly and drawing small beads of blood from his temples. Even so, Wikus didn't so much as complain. He could feel every stimuli quite plainly, but the drug was doing its job and he tolerated it without anguish.
Once her subject was ready, the Commander situated herself in the scanner's helm, pulling the displays down and fixing them about her head. If the sensations Wikus had already felt were strange, what occurred next was downright surreal. He could feel the device sifting through his memories like a television flips channels until it arrived at the appropriate depth. Then, everything he saw and heard from the time he entered the Palace ran through his mind at triple speed. Wikus was aware that the room was silent, but at the same time his memories seemed to replay right in his ears; the pictures streaking before his eyes even though they were currently shut. It was dizzying, nauseating, but he couldn't muster the desire to stop it.
Satu didn't seem to have any difficulty deciphering this blizzard of data. She sat very still, only her dual sets of antennae wavering now and again. Minutes ticked by and Yeen watched the process anxiously. He knew his partner wasn't being subjected to any real trauma, but he hated the thought of sitting idle while the human was in such discomfort.
Eventually, Satu ended the session, pushing the memory transmitter up and out of the way. She sat silently for a few seconds, gripped in contemplation, then stood to free her guest from the shackles of the scanner.
"Are you alright?" Satu asked softly, dabbing away the trickles of blood with a sterile pad.
"I feel'ittle tired..." Wikus slurred.
"That's to be expected. The drug will wear off on its own in about an hour. Both of you are welcome in my quarters; you must rest and eat."
"What did you see?" Yeen prompted anxiously.
"I am certain," Satu replied morosely as she sat at the workbench again, "that they do have a Gate."
"For how long?!"
"It's impossible to say right now."
"Isn't that.....keeping it secret like that, it's classified as High Treason, is it not?" Yeen struggled.
"Indeed. I can not envision a reason important enough to endanger the million-year relationship our two cultures have crafted together. This is...most disappointing."
Wikus had rolled onto his side, his arm dangling over the edge of the table like a cat sunning on a window ledge. "So....whattrya gonna do, then?" he wondered out loud.
Commander Satu regarded the drunken man shrewdly before she answered him. "It is you who must take action now."
"W-me? Whaddam I suppost t'do?"
"Wikus, the Royals of Maj will be quick to cover this up. Even now, I am certain they are rearranging legislation to keep us away from the Palace. There is only one person on the inside that may divulge their secrets....you must take a meeting with Princess Abayomi."
"Oogh....I dun think she likes me very mush. She's not gonna tell me anythin'..."
"You have an 'in' with her, young one. She is a human out of her element, just like you. And a female. If she isn't willing to open up to you through conversation, perhaps you should copulate with her..."
"HWHAAT!?" Wikus blurted as he shoved himself upright. "Noono, thaz not gonna happen..."
"I fail to see the problem," Satu clicked curiously, "I understood humans to be sexual beings...and rather proliferative ones..."
"Okay, yeah, sometimes but......it's not that easy....you gotta love a person firs'....er, at leas', they hafta like you a little...'specially women.....an' a woman like her, she's not gonna sleep with jus' anyone...I fee-feel pretty sure about that..."
"I do hate to ask this of you, Wikus, but you are the only one in any position to find an answer. You're an extraordinary person, in extraordinary circumstances....most of us can only claim allegiance to one species, but you belong to two...those that raised you, and those that care for you now. The future of both may hinge on the decision you make here."
Wikus slumped his shoulders. Even without the Commander's biochemical influence over him, he wouldn't have had any choice but to consent. "Well....as long as there isn't any pressure."
"Wonderful! I need to make the arrangement while I still have authority to do so, please excuse me. Lieutenant Kir will show you where you'll be sleeping tonight." Satu gave the Earthling a motherly pat on the head, then she was gone.
Yeen sat on the table beside him and wrapped a spiky arm around the disillusioned man. "Aahhhhhgeez," Wikus moaned, "one of these days...I'm goin' ta learn t'listen to you..."
"I'd like that," Yeen replied wistfully.