Chapter 2: A Book by its Cover
by Duo Radon
The crowded mess hall was overflowing with enthusiasm as half a million refugees reveled in the abundance of food, eager to replenish their malnourished bodies. Yeen seemed to be the only one in low spirits as he picked quietly at his meal. He was sharing a table with a small group of adults, each of whom had known Wikus well on Earth. Joji was beside him as well, accompanied by a pair of young playmates. The little verdant drone gazed up at his father quietly, anxiety growing in his round eyes. Yeen regretted any occasion when his concerns transposed to his son. He forced a smile and gave Joji a reassuring pat on the head. The child brightened immediately and returned to his food, which was currently offering more entertainment than nourishment.
“You’re not eating,” Brutus stated plainly. The big ebony drone had already downed his sizable bowl of noodle-like Waal and was busy cleaning sauce from his tentacles. “Are you sick?”
Yeen glanced sideways at the larger poleepkwa, a bit exasperated that the dull inquisition had wrenched him out of his musings. “No.”
“Is it Wikus?”
“Yes. Brutus. It is,” he grunted, fidgeting his mandibles irritably.
“Look,” Brutus continued, ignoring or unaware of his friend’s displeasure. “He’ll be fine. It’s only been three days, give him some time to recover.”
“It’s been four days, and it’s his attitude that worries me. It’s like he’s given up.”
“You just like to worry.”
“And you never worry about anything,” Yeen retorted, though Brutus clearly didn’t see this as a problem. It didn’t come as a surprise, but it was annoying. Still, it may have been that very attitude that had kept him going back on Earth.
Brutus was a drone of extremes; nothing about him was subtle. He was quick to anger and his temper was ferocious, but he was also unfailingly loyal and, rumor had it, capable of surprising tenderness. His carapace was almost purely jet black, streaked throughout with variegated azure and interrupted by charcoal gray mucus membranes. His exterior seemed rather plain when compared to some of the more erratic patterns of his fellow drones, but he made up for a monochromatic shell with electric green eyes and a personality to match.
Brutus may have been a little on the dim side, but he’d had enough sense to protect the mangled and helpless Wikus in District 9. They developed a fast friendship, and Brutus had been the first to stand by the converted human during the resistance in District 10. In fact, he probably knew Wikus better than anyone else. If he was so entirely unconcerned about the man’s state of mind, maybe Yeen was overreacting.
Wikus stepped out of his cabin and into the dimly lit corridor; the warmer, familiar illumination at his back. He’d been down this hall before, of course, though in varying stages of lucidity. He remained in the block of pale light the open hatch cast and then, reluctantly, pushed the appropriate button to seal the room. The heavy door swooshed shut smoothly, squelching the only slice of comforting habitat he knew on the ship.
The corridor was surprisingly still. The only sound Wikus could detect was a gentle humming and a rhythmic thump that must certainly be produced by some operating mechanism within the Fiordraa. The hall was lined on both sides with doors just like his, but every poleepkwa not engaged in an activity critical to the ship would be in one of the four commissaries by now, leaving living quarters like this one deserted. Even though one could obtain food from the replicator each cabin possessed, poleepkwa were highly social creatures. Not only did scheduled meals make for a more efficient work day, it afforded everyone the opportunity for crucial interaction, something the lonely human desperately craved.
As he stood huddled in the eerie cobalt glow, allowing his eyes to adjust to the low light, Wikus shivered and his thoughts inevitably returned to his fragile human form. His new outfit was actually doing a fair job keeping the chill off, but he knew he wouldn’t even have noticed the temperature if he’d still had his poleepkwan body. It wasn’t as though he disliked this one; quite the opposite, in fact. But he’d resigned himself to life in an invertebrate’s shell, to life on another planet.....it wasn’t supposed to happen like this.
His thoughts drifted to the woman he’d left behind....Tania.....her eyes, her smile, the life he’d built for them, the sound of her voice when she’d left him, and he buried his face in his gloved hands miserably. In truth, he wasn’t upset with her for finding a new partner. Mourning the loss of a spouse was an excruciating ordeal, but never knowing one way or the other if that spouse was dead or alive, if he’d ever return, waiting months, then years with no closure, was a far greater burden. Pile on that all the rumors and lies about the nature of his disappearance and it was no small wonder that the terrified woman would want to rebuild her life. Wikus was strangely relieved when he saw her with another man last year. He’d carry the scar on his heart for the rest of his life, but it wasn’t fair to expect her to wait indefinitely, immersed in perpetual grief. At least she’d seemed happy.
Wikus began to wonder if he’d ever know what that felt like again. Four days ago, he was one member of a family three million souls strong. Today, he found himself in the utterly unique and petrifying position of being the only one of his kind. Worse still, he was the enemy again, a visual reminder to every refugee on board of their former tormentors. The news must certainly have spread through the populace by now, but Wikus couldn’t possibly imagine how they’d reacted to it. Yeen and Joji would almost certainly stay by his side regardless, a miraculous relationship considering how they’d treated each other when they first met. But sacrificing one life to save another created a matchless kinship that no amount of time or distance could erase. He’d also had a few particularly close comrades in District 10, and Wikus would be astonished to see them desert him now. But then, he never would have thought anything could have turned his beloved wife against him, either. The vast majority of the District had never known him as a human, and the few who had.....well, he hadn’t made a very positive impression on them. Would they tear him apart in a fit of revenge? Perhaps they’d give him a trial and lock him up for the rest of his lonesome life. Wikus grimaced at the thought. What was a poleepkwan prison like?
Even if his fears were for naught and the best case scenario occurred, the solitary human still faced an arduous path to normalcy. He was effectively pushed back to the educational level of a five-year-old; he would have to learn everything again. History, laws, languages, social norms, everything was foreign. To complicate matters further, Wikus was certain a good deal of poleepkwan understanding would simply be beyond his grasp. They lived a symbiotic life with impossibly complex technology, and schooling of any kind had never been his strong suit. Back on Earth, in his element, surrounded by the confidence of his peers and the strength of a far-reaching arms manufacturer, the domination of these creatures felt so natural. But alone in the dark, enveloped by incomprehensible machinery, he could see how wholly ridiculous it had been.
With his arms wrapped tightly around his chest, teetering from one foot to the other nervously, Wikus felt for all the world like a toddler on his first day of preschool. He began to realize how long he’d been rooted in the same spot, not two feet from the cabin door. By the time he made his way down to the cafeteria, dinner would be finished.
“Oh, come on, Wikus,” he grumbled out loud, throwing his arms to his sides, “this is stupid.” He paused for a moment, recalling Yeen’s directions, then set off down the empty corridor toward whatever fate had planned for him next.
As he expected, Wikus didn’t cross paths with anyone on his way to the mess hall, but the directions were fairly straightforward. The freighter was designed to house families as well as experienced adults, so the important signage was large, bold and easy to understand. As he neared his destination, he didn’t need text to tell him he was in the right place.
The corridor he’d taken on Deck 4 was much wider than those on the habitation deck, built to accommodate a large volume of traffic. Wikus could see the tunnel lightening before he gradually picked up the unmistakable din of a sizable gathering; a multitude of voices overlapping, and the clank of dishes. Eventually, there was a break in the right hand corridor wall, an unexpectedly wide entrance allowing light and noise to flood into the cool stillness. Wikus slowed, paused a second, then crept to the edge of the doorway and peered inside.
After navigating the network of corridors, the commissary’s size gave the same effect as stepping out of a cupboard and into a stadium. It was massive, an utterly impressive space at least three stories high. The width was difficult to assess given the vast number of occupants, but it was certainly much wider and deeper than it was tall. The brightly lit room was divided into two decks, the upper level starting a few dozen yards away from the entrance. A large, grated staircase arced up on either side, supplemented by smaller sets of stairs throughout the room that angled from center to side. The second deck was supported by a series of black metal arches that gave the space a very modern, industrialized feel by human standards. Food was being obtained along the side walls above and below while the floor spaces were filled with the same kind of table as was in his cabin. These, though, were larger and higher from the floor, with fixed benches surrounding each. It was, to Wikus’s amazement, a very pleasant atmosphere and he momentarily forgot to be nervous.
The lone human stood along the border of the entrance and watched the commotion with interest. The place was crammed with poleepkwa, both drones and soldiers, but the group dynamic was a complete 180 from what it had been when these same people arrived on Earth. No longer aimless, everyone seemed to be coexisting in harmony, moving with purpose. It was reminiscent of seeing cells flood through blood vessels, the entire subsection of the Colony flowing around itself like a single organism with thousands of tiny parts. Squabbling and stealing had been replaced with conversation and laughter. Little ones darted around the lankly limbs of the adults, more interested in play than dinner. Here and there, the locomotion of a few adults was still compromised by injury, but otherwise there was little similarity between the group now and what it had been in the District. It was amazing, Wikus thought, what good food and an intact social structure had done for these people.
One crucial element that had been missing from the picture on Earth was the presence of the poleepkwan soldier. Far less numerous than the workers, they were nevertheless quite easy to spot among the throng. While a human had to train ceaselessly to become a proficient warrior, poleepkwan soldiers were not made, but born. They stood a head or more taller than their drones and were substantially more robust and powerful. Adding to their fearsome appearance was a more formidable jaw, thicker neck plates and a fair few more spikes than Wikus had become accustomed to seeing. They didn’t share the drone’s color diversity, however; soldiers tended to be pale, ranging through whites, grays and foggy blues with starkly contrasting stripes and patterns on their backs and limbs.
Wikus was rather surprised to see this more intelligent fighting class intermingling with the workers. Had they been human, they would almost certainly have segregated themselves into an environment befitting an elite corps. But these creatures were hardwired to think in terms of the hive, where individual progression above the group would be detrimental. In order for the system to work, all parts had to function as one. Without drones, the soldiers would lose their formidable work force and would have nothing to protect. And District 9 had done well to show what happened to drones without their soldiers.
It seemed unlikely to the Earthling that there would be a place in this ancient social hierarchy for a solitary homo sapien. Studying the mass of bodies brought another question to mind: how would he ever find Yeen in this place?
Wikus frowned and huddled against the door frame, biting a nail as he tried to decide what course of action to take. His next move was made for him when a huge, heavy hand grasped his shoulder from behind and he nearly jumped out of his skin. Whirling around, he found himself staring into the thorax of a particularly immense soldier. On the better side of six feet tall, Wikus had rarely needed to look up to anyone in his adult life. Now, he had to step a few paces backwards and crane his neck to meet the unmistakable gaze of General Tarzier.
As the commanding officer on the Fiordraa, Tarzier had led the assault in Johannesburg. He’d been the first soldier Wikus had ever seen and was just as intimidating in this serene setting as he had been on Earth. His hefty carapace was the color of clear sky viewed through a smokescreen, and networked with countless gouges and scars. Breaking up his impressive form was a series of amorphous, solid black stripes, zigzagging across his dorsal side from neck to shins. But Tarzier’s most notable feature began as a deep, ugly gash, long since healed over, sweeping from the plates on the right side of his neck to cross over his face. It was certainly this wound that had taken his eye. The General’s right eye was prosthetic; a clear, glassy orb with a translucent iris that floated inside the sphere in a very unnatural manner. The eye was illuminated from the inside, starting as a white point and blazing outward into a brilliant orange. It was an unsettling contrast to the poleepkwa’s natural, steel blue eye.
Wikus was uncertain what a proper, respectful greeting should sound like in this instance and all he could manage was a muted stammer. Tarzier’s expression was unfortunately difficult to read; the old war horse always looked angry. But when he spoke, there was genuine benevolence in his deep, gurgling voice.
“Wikus. It’s nice to see you on your feet.”
“Ah....thank you. Sir.”
“Much better, yes.”
“You look lost,” the General stated in a tone that almost sounded threatening, though Wikus was certain this was a force of habit and not intentional, at present.
“I’d have thought you would be with your caretaker......” Tarzier trailed off, a commotion behind the man catching his attention.
Wikus was suddenly conscious of a repetitive thumping that marked rapidly approaching footfalls, but before he could turn, he was imprisoned by a pair of coal colored arms. His own thin limbs were effectively pinned at his sides as he was drawn into an embrace that lifted him off the deck and squashed him into the torso of his “attacker”. The poleepkwa placed his large head on top of the human’s, slick tentacles draped onto Wikus’s forehead, and began a vigorous greeting vocalization. Wikus could feel the vibration rumble down the back of his head and neck and managed to push a chuckle from his compressed lungs.
“Brutus, you damn fool, you’re going to kill him,” Tarzier growled, more exasperated than hostile.
“Sir!” Brutus clicked, obediently setting his friend back on his feet.
Wikus was finally able to face his old compatriot; the familiar, bright green eyes and chipper expression a welcome sight. “I missed that,” he grinned. “It’s great to see you again!”
“You too! We thought you were done for, and then this....” Brutus took the man’s arm by the wrist and lifted it up, inspecting the alien body. “Christ, you’re scrawny.” The drone had developed an affinity for human slang and curse words, and he nearly always used them correctly. Wikus suspected Brutus had a more cunning mind than he led on, but kept it in reserve for things he found particularly worthwhile.
“Heh, yeah, guess so...” he shrugged, lifting his eyes from his lean form to meet Yeen, who had much more politely meandered through the crowd to welcome his roommate.
Yeen’s greeting was far gentler but none the less fervent. With a talon-like hand against Wikus’s face, he leaned forward to press his forehead against the human’s. In terms of poleepkwan gestures, it fit somewhere between a hug and a kiss, most commonly shared between parents and children or especially close friends. While heads touched, each would run his antennae up and down against the other’s and brush mandibles together briefly. The fact that Wikus could no longer fully reciprocate didn’t seem to matter to either one of them.
“I’m glad,” Yeen said softly.
Wikus still felt like he should apologize for something, but unable to articulate his thoughts, he smiled and nodded warmly.
General Tarzier gave a stiff jerk of his head to Brutus, who seemed to pick up on the insinuation immediately. “I’ll get you bowl!” he chirped excitedly and pushed his way back through the crowd, creating a cavalcade of annoyed grunts in his wake. Tarzier shook his head in dismay as he watched the drone leave and then turned to Yeen.
“Contact me in a few weeks. Commander Ruwala would like to speak to this one when he’s recovered properly.” After receiving a respectful confirmation from the green worker, Tarzier straightened himself, gave them a nod and strode into the mess hall.
Wikus hunched his shoulders and leaned towards Yeen anxiously. “Wh...the Commander?!” he whispered.
Yeen threw up a hand to quell an unnecessary bought of verbal distress. “You’re not in trouble. I promise. He just wants to speak with you. Now, let’s eat, yes?” He pulled a reluctant Wikus into the hall by the arm, weaving in between the diners.
Wikus quickly relaxed as he was greeted cheerfully by every group they passed. He didn’t recognize any of the faces, but he himself had been a very well known figure among the refugees even before his recent transformation. His apprehension began to melt away like butter on a hot plate as it became clear that no one was the least bit troubled by his new, old exterior. In fact, they didn’t act as if they noticed a difference at all.
When they reached the appropriate table, Wikus was pleasantly surprised to see a cluster of poleepkwa he did know. He waved a happy hello to Lek, a dark brown drone with vibrant orange markings like paint spatters. He was a close friend to Brutus and had been a diehard ally on Earth. Beside him was his little son Mita and an unrelated child, Spek, who made up Joji’s pair of best friends. Lek was bordered on his right by Tookanuk, a shy yellowish worker who’d had a knack for disassembling and retooling human technology.
The reunion of old friends had no sooner completed their salutations before Brutus plunked a gigantic bowl of food on the table before Wikus. He sat beside the startled human and handed over an equally sizable bottle of yellow beverage he’d been carrying under his arm. “Waal!” he announced proudly. “You’ll love this, it’s so good.”
Wikus blinked at the ebony drone before returning his attention to the food, more than a little skeptical. He desperately hoped his first impression wasn’t showing on his face.
The bowl was similar to a wok in size and conformation, only deeper. It was heaped with what might have been pasta; long limp cords of an unidentifiable substance, well coated with a translucent brown sauce. Each was almost as thick as a pencil, and with the slick coating they slid over each other like a pot of steaming earthworms. On top was an assortment of nugget sized chunks. Some appeared to be dumplings; round, white and pressed shut along the edges. Others were clearly hunks of grilled meat. The dish was peppered throughout with little bits of diced this-and-that in greens and grays.
The table’s center was designed to hold bottles of condiments and spices, and Brutus chose the largest one, popped it open and drizzled something thick and molasses colored over the pile of food. The aroma was nice enough, but it did nothing to improve the disgusting appearance of the dish.
Wikus was suddenly aware that all eyes were upon him, waiting patiently to see if he’d approve or not. He pulled off his green gloves and stuffed them into his trouser pocket, swallowing hard. The kitchen staff would almost certainly know from his medical analysis which foods his body needed and what might poison him, but no one could predict what he’d enjoy eating. They were in for a long trip home and if he couldn’t stomach poleepkwan cuisine, it would be a miserable one.
“Um....do I use a fork, or....what?” Wikus asked Yeen, who’d been watching him quietly.
“Fork?” he repeated, punctuated with that head tilt again.
“Yeah. You know.....a utensil? For eating?” Wikus poked at the air with an imaginary fork.
“Ah! No. Your hands for this one,” Yeen explained, picking up a piece of meat from his own partially consumed dinner as an example.
“Right.” Wikus tried not to sigh and chose one of the dumplings to sample first. He picked up the hot morsel carefully so as not to burn his fingers, and held it to his nose. In spite of the appearance, the smell of the food was fairly appetizing. Lovely, even. Tentatively, he nipped a corner off the dumpling, exposing what appeared to be a meat paste inside.
“Mm!” he said, eyes widening, and shoved the entire thing into his mouth in spite of its temperature.
“It’s good?” Yeen asked hopefully.
“Myeah!” he exclaimed through a mouthful, “Ith delifous!”
Yeen couldn’t make out the words but it was obvious from the human’s attitude what he meant. Brutus nodded smugly, and Yeen was able to breath a sigh of relief as his companion moved on to another component of his dish. The drone turned back to his own meal at last, feeling cautiously relieved.
Mealtime passed by saturated with blissful conversation and the occasional playful quip, and Wikus was reminded of the cozy gatherings he’d once shared with his human family. It seemed rather silly, now, that he’d been so apprehensive such a short time ago. With his feverish hunger sated, Wikus decided to raise the question to his mates.
“I don’t get it,” he prompted, “doesn’t it bother you guys that I’m not one of you anymore?”
He was answered with a row of confused faces; the question didn’t seem to be landing.
“What do you mean, ‘not one of us’?” Brutus puzzled.
“I mean, not poleepkwan. I’m human again,” Wikus explained, now himself somewhat confused. That fact didn’t need stating, did it?
“What difference does that make?”
“W....well....I’d think you’d be....a little unhappy to see a human again. You know, considering....” He hoped he wouldn’t have to elaborate on that part.
“You’re still you,” Yeen added gently.
“Your people put too much importance on appearance,” Lek interrupted, as though he was explaining something that should have been blatantly obvious. “Once you become a part of the Colony, it becomes you. You cannot be excluded from it, no matter how many times you change.”
This planted a feeling of intense comfort in Wikus that he knew would be almost impossible to uproot. These people had provided him with a kinship that every human he’d ever known had failed to uphold. It was a gift he didn’t feel he deserved, but he wasn’t in any hurry to chase this sentiment away with his lack of confidence.
“Wow, it.....sounds so easy when you say it like that,” Wikus confessed, hoping the sincerity in his voice would translate. He was answered with a round of unified positivity and a tender caress from Yeen.
Reassured, Wikus returned to his food, stuffing the last bite of a remaining meat chunk into his mouth. He was quite surprised that he’d managed to eat nearly half of the huge portion. Evidently he hadn’t realized just how depleted he was. Swallowing with a bit of difficulty, he would have loved to have finished the whole bowl. It was delectable, but there was simply no place left to put it.
“Oouh. That’s it,” he groaned, pushing the dish back. “Thank you, it was excellent!”
“You’re done?” Brutus clicked, predictably eager to help his friend with his leftovers.
“Yeah. You can have it,” Wikus grinned, taking one last gulp from the hefty bottle of sweet, cirtusy drink before handing that over as well. He rubbed at his stomach blissfully, trying to recall the last time he’d had too much to eat. For reasons he couldn’t quite solidify, he’d been careful to mind his table manners during their dinner but inevitably a decent belch caught him off guard.
“Mnf. Excuse me,” said Wikus contritely.
Yeen appeared bamboozled by the alien’s apology. “For what?”
“You know, for the....” and it occurred to Wikus that he didn’t know the correct word in poleepkwan, “...noise.” He struggled to expound, gesturing by sweeping his hand outward from his throat. Head cocks all around.
Brutus thumped the now empty bottle onto the table and feigned an empathetic tone. “Ohhh, don’t worry, Earth man, it’s okay. You can’t expect to be good at everything. But! I will teach you,” he piped jovially, taking Wikus by the shoulder, “because you are my friend.”
Wikus twisted his face in confusion, but the big, black drone straightened himself in his seat and demonstrated his vocal prowess. Opening his puppet-like mouth in a wide gape, he forced a monstrous belch that rattled the condiment bottles and garnered the immediate attention of every poleepkwa within a seven table radius. All heads swiveled in their direction, eyes wide and antennae pricked. There were a few seconds of localized silence before Joji and his friends erupted in a fit of laughter, followed closely by Wikus. The human was sure he noticed a few pairs of eyes roll before they turned back to their respective parties, Yeen among them.
“That,” Brutus boasted, “is what it should sound like.”
“You really have a gift, there,” Wikus chuckled, wiping tears from his eyes.
“Yes, well, with that, I believe it’s time to get back to our room,” Yeen sighed, getting to his feet. “Spek, you too, little one.”
Joji said a reluctant “good night” to his playmates and Spek set off into the departing crowd to rejoin his own father. With a labored grunt, Wikus swung his legs over the bench as well and pushed himself onto his feet. It was definitely going to feel good to get back into bed.