Chapter 1: Stranger in a Strange Land

by Duo Radon

Mankind had speculated about the nature of the Universe from the very moment he understood that the stars were not illuminations of the gods. Since then, his clever brain willed into being fantastic machines to photograph the unobtainable filament of creation itself. From a microscopic blue pocket of life in a previously unvisited corner of space, humans have glimpsed gargantuan towers of gas, lethal black holes, the birth and death of stars and countless galaxies of every possible configuration. They were, however, just pictures; goals to be achieved. The greatest minds in space exploration could only dream of the day that Man would journey outside his own solar system.

And yet, one unlikely human being was doing just that, although his venture had certainly not been undertaken for the noble purpose of advancing the species. On board the poleepkwan freighter Fiordraa, tucked away in his cabin, Wikus van de Merwe was as far removed from the wonders of the Universe as it was possible to be. While the scenery outside the massive floating metropolis was undoubtedly awe-inspiring, Wikus was unable to see past the muddled torrent of conflicting emotions that filled his brain and tugged his conceptions of self in every direction at once.

After all, it had been a trying week and a half. Which, in itself, might not have been so bad if it hadn’t come at the tail end of a three year exile in a Hellish prisoner camp. Three long years defending his life and the lives of his adoptive comrades against a far more advantaged militia had finally come to a close with the appearance of the Fiordraa and its cavalry of warriors. In a quick, bloody strike, every alien refugee had been liberated, Wikus among them. Saving his life was a daunting prospect at the time, but it wasn’t as though he was the only poleepkwa to leave Earth beaten and bleeding. Nevertheless, after having been patched up, a full recovery looked promising.

But now, Wikus lay in his bunk, removed from the hectic activity of the Colony, his future hazy once again. The reverted human peered at his thin, pale hands, wiggling his ten fingers as if he didn’t believe they were there. The fact that they looked odd to him was, in itself, strange. This was his body, after all. He hadn’t seen it in over three years, but it was his. Still, it had no reason being here.

Wikus ran through the course of events again in his mind, trying to come to terms with them. After the departure from Earth and his treatment in the med bay, he’d been free to recuperate in the comfort of a two-bed cabin, looked after by Yeen, the drone previously labeled “Christopher Johnson”. His familiar face had been a comfort, and the bright-minded poleepkwa seemed almost delighted to be supervising Wikus’s recovery. The days that followed were fairly pleasant; Wikus put his regenerative abilities to good work and healed quickly. And then, four days ago, fate threw him a curveball.

He’d felt something was off just before bedtime, but unable to articulate any real symptoms, he’d kept the problem to himself. Yeen made sure his charge was comfortable in the bottom bed before retreating to the top one, which he shared with his young son, Joji, and the trio had gone to sleep as per the usual routine. It wasn’t long, however, before Wikus was wrenched awake by the most excruciating torment he’d ever known. Every iota of his being surged with a sickening pain, as though he were being burned alive. He found himself unable to move, see, speak or hear. Perhaps worst of all, he was being suffocated, completely unable to draw even a small gulp of oxygen into his screaming lungs. He didn’t even know if anyone was aware of his plight, or if they’d be able to help if they were. Wikus reacted the only way he could: he fought like mad. As the lack of air drew strength from his beleaguered body, he willed himself to kick, to thrash, to move anything. With a sound like cracking bone, he was finally able to jerk his form into an upright position and was shocked to hear his human voice cry out in anguish. Looking down at himself, he realized he’d broken out of his poleepkwan carapace like a cicada from its shell, his malnourished mammalian body sitting in the hollow remnants of the alien form he’d come to know so well. His pink skin was profusely smeared with a slimy reddened mucus and the smell of decay was thick in his nostrils. Wikus was vaguely aware of Yeen beside him, purring some kind of reassurance, but his vision was cloudy and his ears caked with muck. The convulsions began seconds later, accompanied with a cruel resurgence of searing pain. Someone must have paged Grenyo, the lead physician, as he appeared a moment later with a sedative. The last sensation that Wikus could dedicate to memory was an intense relief as he slipped into unconsciousness.

The Earthling was dependent on the recount of his companions as to what had happened next. Apparently, he’d been kept in the emergency wing for the following day, under intense surveillance. When the medical crew was certain his vital systems were stable, they’d revived him and sent him back to his room. No one, not even Grenyo, had any explanation as to why or how this had happened, or what it would mean for his future. They weren’t even able to confirm how long he’d continue to live. Even at this moment, the doctors were utilizing all of their complied experience, knowledge and technology to make sense of the event. Grenyo had only been able to assure Wikus that he’d made a name for himself in the records of genetic transmutation for the extraordinary transformation, but that hadn’t done much to boost his spirits.

The positive aspect of his current situation seemed to be that Wikus was steadily feeling better. Lying in his sealed bunk, he was acutely aware of the steady ache in his muscles, but the nausea and headache were greatly diminished. At least his surrounds were cozy. Submerged in thought, he pulled the thick, warm pelt up to his chin. Such trimmings weren’t commonplace on the ship; in fact, poleepkwan living quarters were, by human standards, very Spartan. The décor wasn’t lacking due to an absence of materials, but rather, a lack of necessity. As Wikus’s compatriots had explained on Earth, they had little understanding of a need for “style”. Making variations of the same object, or possessions that served no practical purpose, simply for the sake of preference was an alien concept.

As a result, the little cabin, like all the habitats on the Fiordraa, was quite plain. The room was rectangular, an entrance at one end, with two partially embedded bunks in the facing wall. At the foot of the beds was an octagonal metal table attached low to the floor, with stationary padding around it for occupants to kneel upon. In the far corner was the entrance to a narrow, well lit lavatory. There was a replicator, a communication link and monitor, a few storage units and the poleepkwan equivalent of a clock, but otherwise the room was empty. Even the walls and ceiling were bereft of any adornment other than the standard two-color block pattern that marked functionality on most of their technology, and a series of well-maintained pipes fastened neatly above.

Wikus might have found these cold metal surroundings disparaging three years ago, but today he was dreading the time when he would have to step outside his comfortable nest and rejoin the Colony. Of course, the nature of the bunk itself may have been a weighty factor in his desire to stay. It was oval in shape, the roof of the bed above concave, with a sliding wall that could be closed to completely encompass the occupant in his very own isolation chamber. Once snug inside, one could adjust the temperature, air flow and lighting. Wikus knew it was no accident that it was very much like being inside a giant egg.

With their sturdy exoskeletons, however, poleepkwa rarely found a need for blankets and pillows. But once Yeen had learned that his friend’s transformation seemed to be permanent, he’d busied himself obtaining materials to make Wikus as comfortable as possible in an environment that had not been designed with anything like humans in mind. It was all the more necessary considering the furless alien didn’t own a stitch of clothing. So this meant a trip to the manufacturing department, where drones converted hides from enormous, bison-like livestock into satchels, tool belts and the like. Leaving the luxurious, chocolate hued fur in place and fusing two pelts skin-sides together, they’d made three huge, supremely comfortable blankets. Accompanied with a couple soft cushions, Wikus now slept cradled in a capsule of plum fluff.

It was peculiar to the human, then, that he should be so agitated. He had been sleeping almost continuously since he’d been returned to his bed, and it appeared that his body had had enough rest. Wikus rolled onto his side once again, trying to will himself to sleep. And again, his gray-blue eyes refused to remain closed. Instead, he lay gazing at his most recent gift, a tan and gray doll with darker brown patterns on its limbs. The miniature drone was made of a material reminiscent of fabric, but it didn’t have as soft a consistency as a plush toy. While it was unusual for an adult to sleep with a toy, his cabin mates reckoned the man might need a cheerful accessory to brighten his mood. Why Joji had insisted on this coloration when Wikus had worn a green poleepkwan shell he didn’t know; it had seemed impolite to ask. Its name was Pedro.

Wikus picked up his artificial companion and resumed lying on his back. He pivoted the adjustable legs forward and sat it on his chest, Pedro’s happy face smiling back at the comparatively morose alien. For a moment, Wikus envied the doll.....no worries, no shady past, just joyful all the time.

“I’ve got to be losing it....” he mumbled, setting Pedro aside again. Maybe it was time for a more invasive distraction.

A little, illuminated square hovered over the surface of the bunk wall to his right, glowing a bright blue as did every poleepkwan menu system. A quick tap of the finger expanded it into a small monitor, and a tap-and-drag moved it from the wall to the bunk roof. All monitors on the Fiordraa could be used to access something like an intergalactic Internet, holding an enormous selection of broadcasts and data. Many of the things Wikus flipped past made little sense to him, spoken in foreign languages accompanied by unfamiliar subjects. But one of his favorite discoveries was the ship’s catalogue of sentient alien species, of which there were over 6,000 dossiers complete with pictures. While Wikus could speak Poleepkwan fluently, he still read and wrote at a rudimentary level. Perusing documents like this was good practice and besides, the images were the most interesting part. Some of the races were beyond bizarre, while others looked hauntingly Earthly, like mutations of existing creatures.

More importantly, the fascinating digital record was sufficient to distract the Earthling from his emotional baggage. That was, at least, until he passed the point in the catalogue where “Humans” ought to be. His race hadn’t yet been entered, and Wikus’s chest felt heavy again as he began to wonder what it might say about them.

The sliding wall of the bunk flew open, snapping Wikus out of his rumination with a jolt and an expletive. He found himself staring into a pair of yellow eyes, widened with concern.

“Are you okay?” Yeen queried, placing a hand on Wikus’s shoulder, fearful he might have instigated another episode.

“I’m....fine! You scared the crap out of me, man.”

The drone’s expression changed to one of perplexity, cocking his head to one side in a very bird-like manner that Wikus never ceased to find amusing. Yeen turned his attention to the human’s lower body, and Wikus quickly waved a hand in the air between them.

“No, it’s just an expression.”

“Ah. Another one of those,” he said, his face relaxing.

“Yeah. I’ve got to learn to stop using them...”

“How are you feeling?” Yeen resumed, genuinely concerned.

“Actually, not horrible,” Wikus sighed. “A lot less pain than yesterday.”

“Very good!” Yeen chirped. “Listen, it’s time for dinner, I think you should come down to the mess hall with us. You need to start eating real food.”

Wikus couldn’t argue that; he’d had nothing but liquids, medicines and nutritional supplements since boarding the ship. However, it wasn’t his stomach giving him problems now, but his brain; a far more difficult fragment of his being to appease.

The human turned his attention away from those optimistic eyes and picked at a fingernail instead. He paused momentarily before answering.

“Mm, no, I don’t...really feel up to it. Thank you, though.”

Yeen considered his options before deciding not to push his patient too brusquely.

“As you wish. I’ll bring something back for you later. If you change your mind, this is the way to go,” and the poleepkwa turned to gesture towards the cabin door. “Turn to the right and follow the corridor down to the elevators. Go down to Deck 4, take another right and follow the signs,” he turned back to Wikus. “The blue ones. Yes?”

“I understand, yes....” Wikus assured him, regretting his decision already but unable to muster the strength to accompany his friend. Feeling oddly ashamed, he rolled back onto his side, facing the wall.

“Here, these are for you.” Yeen added gently. He placed a pile of soft objects onto the bed and slid the wall closed the way he’d found it.

Wikus remained still for several minutes, torn between a yearning for companionship and a stubborn reluctance to face his future. The monitor that had been distracting him from his predicament only a moment ago was now beginning to irritate him, and he switched it off testily. Didn’t he have the right to be frustrated? He’d had his entire life forcibly removed and replaced with an alien one. And he’d dealt with it. He didn’t have a choice, but he had learned to accept his lot. And just as soon as it looked like he’d be able to make this new attainment a pleasant one, he’d be inexplicably reverted into the body he’d been so feverish to reclaim in the first place. Once again he was alien, and his proper place was already an insurmountable distance behind him. It seemed to Wikus that some unseen force was conspiring against him, determined to prevent him ever being whole again.

Unable to be still, the Earthling tossed back to his left side, grunting crossly. As he did so, his knees bumped some of the items Yeen had left. Wikus realized he’d hardly been listening when the drone gave them to him, and his exasperation was immediately replaced with curiosity. Groaning like an old man with arthritis, he pushed himself upright and sat cross-legged beside what turned out to be a set of new clothes. Wikus unfolded them, inspecting each piece carefully. They were uncannily similar to things he might have worn back home, and manufactured with inhuman precision. He wasn’t able to assess the method of construction; there didn’t appear to be any stitching. But they were definitely made of some kind of fabric, soft and durable. There was a tannish gray, long sleeved T-shirt, an insulated dark blue vest with a high collar, a light pair of green gloves, a simple pair of under shorts and a heavy pair of dark brown trousers with an extended waistband that served as a belt. Evidently, he mused, the craftsmen had not been able to make sense of some of the items that humans used, and had made their own improvements. The attached belt was affixed with a surprisingly elegant, highly reflective silver buckle, and Wikus ran his fingers over it momentarily, admiring the unfamiliar metal.

“Ooh....” Wikus uttered aloud as he folded the pants neatly and turned his attention to a pair of dark gray boots. He picked them up one at a time, turning them over adoringly. They were very much something he’d have bought had he discovered them on Earth. Simple in design but beautifully crafted, they resembled a typical work boot with a zipper running up the front. It was made of the same silver metal as the buckle, but Wikus was baffled as to how it actually worked. The track didn’t appear to have teeth, yet somehow the tab sealed the two sides together completely, making a very satisfying “voosh” sound as he pulled it up and down. The interior of each shoe was lined with the same rich fur that made up his bedding, which explained the absence of socks.

The human was eager to get dressed, but there was one last item to inspect. At the bottom of the pile Yeen had placed a large leather satchel, covered with pockets and straps. Lifting it, Wikus found it had contents of its own, and he dumped them out in his lap. There was a hair brush made of an oval disc of indiscernible material, with a leather strap fastened across it, similar to the sort of brush used on horses. Wikus slid it over his right hand and savored the lovely feeling of pulling a brush through his hair again. He was still a bit grimy from a lack of proper bathing, but putting his short brunette hair in order made him feel worlds better.

The second bit was a clear glass-like bottle filled with what appeared to be water. After turning it over several times, Wikus opened it and gave the contents a sniff. It smelled rather pleasing, but he opted not to taste the stuff until he knew what it was for and set it aside with the brush.

The last of the gifts was the most intriguing, but its function was also a mystery. It was obviously a machine of some kind, roughly six inches long and resembling a vegetable peeler. It had a thick handle that narrowed about halfway up, jutted to one side a bit, and continued forward. The thinner half had inward facing prongs at each end that told Wikus it must produce an energy beam of some kind. The smooth pad on its handle was obviously the switch, and with a quick tap the lower half of the miniature display illuminated in the familiar blue. He pushed the lighted button from the lower half of the pad to the upper, and sure enough, a continuous beam of white light flicked on between the prongs, parallel to the thinner bar.

Wikus admired the tool, waving it back and forth in the air around him. He cautiously touched the light to his fingertip, then pressed it against his palm. It felt slightly warm, but otherwise, seemed to have no effect. Somewhat perplexed, he continued to run the beam over his flesh, but it wasn’t until a sprinkle of shorn hairs fell from the back of his hand that he understood. The proverbial light bulb lit, and he shoved the wall of his bunk aside excitedly. His atrophied body resisted, causing Wikus to stumble across the room like a drunk, but he was eventually steadied in the lavatory facing a full length digital panel. He quickly optioned it from opaque to reflective and turned his face to the mirror. As he pulled the beam down along his thin cheek, the coarse, scruff hair was efficiently removed right to the follicle, leaving his skin clean and even.

Wikus grinned at the razor. The last time he’d shaved his face had been the morning of his promotion, so long ago; the day his life had changed forever. He continued his task, and then paused for a moment to consider his visage. It might not have a scrap of significance anymore, but he opted to keep the mustache. He’d worn it for so long it had become a part of his persona, and he needed something familiar right now.

Wikus could feel a hint of confidence brewing in himself as he returned to the bunk. He replaced the three objects into the satchel and set it on the bed for Pedro to look after before returning his attention to his clothes. His renewed body had undergone many internal and external scans during his treatment and they had no doubt used those schematics to design his coverings. Everything fit beautifully with the exception of being overly large. Clearly they expected him to gain weight, though he couldn’t help but wonder if they’d overshot it a bit. The belt had to be fastened on its first notch and there was still plenty of room.

Nevertheless, it felt spectacular to be dressed in human clothes again, smart and tidy. Wikus looked down at himself approvingly, particularly enamored with his new boots. As if vying for attention, his stomach complained loudly, reminding him there was someplace else to be.

“Well,” he sighed, “no time like the present.”