‘Sugati’

Chapter 4: Spit and Polish

by Duo Radon

Wikus stirred in his bunk after the most restful sleep he’d had in quite some time. He rolled onto his belly and nuzzled the soft pelt lazily, not eager at all to leave the comfort and warmth of his nest. His roommates were already awake and the mildly taxing process of preparing for the day was well under way.

“Pack your satchel, it’s almost time to eat,” Yeen urged his son. The little drone was dragging his feet again. Joji loved school wholeheartedly, but like most youngsters he was easily distracted and needed to be prodded in the right direction. “Did you finish your assignment?”

Joji turned to the mess he’d left on the table, picking up a small machine and handing it to his father for inspection. Each student had been given a set of parts out of which they were to assemble a working gravity regulation module. The item was expertly constructed, as anyone would have expected from Yeen’s son, but the extra pieces were still scattered across the table and onto the floor.

Yeen looked it over carefully. “You did very well! Hm, but look, you’re missing a Kuiper pin. See?”

“Oh, yeah....” Joji recalled, rubbing his head.

“Did your set come with all four?”

“Uhhhhm....I think so....”

“Well, let’s look for it, then,” Yeen sighed, setting the module on the floor with the boy’s school bag and kneeling by the table to hunt for the miniscule pin.

Wikus had shoved himself upright and was sitting on the edge of the bunk, disheveled and groggy, rubbing sleep from his eyes. He would have offered to help search if he’d had the slightest idea what a Kuiper pin looked like. Before he could ask, the cabin door slid open and Brutus entered with a dusty, whitish orb under one arm.

“Morning, greens,” he said. The pair waved a hello from under the table and Brutus cocked his head in bewilderment before he shrugged and turned to Wikus. “Hey, Monkey. Nice hair,” he chuckled facetiously.

“Yeah. Nice.....face...” Wikus attempted.

“Whoa. Good one. Listen, I was talking to your keeper there and he mentioned that you were having a hard time leaving your planet behind, and....I thought you should have this.” The big, black worker sat on his haunches beside the bed and handed over a grungy human skull.

“Oh....you can’t give this away, man! You love this thing....”

“Sure. But it means more to you than it does to me.” Brutus offered a rare, tender smile that Wikus knew would not have not been extended to many others, nor would the gift.

He’d had it since long before they’d met, the spoils of some altercation with a gangster or terrorist. Brutus had strung a tattered cable of interwoven scraps through the skull so he could wear it around his thorax, where it served as a blatant warning to anyone who might mistake him for an easy mark. More gruesomely, it was also an emblem of the drone’s lust for carnage. Brutus was among the few poleepkwa that had habitually consumed human flesh. Such a grisly artifact should not have instilled the warm fuzzies in Wikus, and in fact, it didn’t. It was the skull’s contents that the Earthling was eager to revisit.

“Thanks, buddy!” Wikus beamed. He sat cross-legged on the floor and tugged a filthy bundle of burlap out of the bone’s cavity. How the thing had passed Hazardous Contaminant Inspection was a mystery in itself. Setting the skull aside, he unfolded the cloth and grinned broadly at the collection of “treasures” Brutus had picked up over the years. It was trash by human standards, but without anything tangible to remember home, Wikus couldn’t have been happier to see it. There was a small assortment of bottle caps, a few glass marbles of various colors and patterns, a little rubber ball, a paperclip, a couple of coins and....

“A fork!” Wikus cried gleefully, holding up the worn utensil, “I completely forgot you had this!”

“No, no, that’s an eye-gouger,” Brutus corrected, twisting his hand in the air.

“I know that’s what you used it for, but you’re supposed to eat with it. Ah, this is great!” Wikus reveled in the sensation of holding something so familiar, so utterly human. “This, though,” he said, picking up the skull again, “you won’t be offended if I don’t keep it, will you?”

“Nah. I guess it is a little creepy for you to have this guy....” Brutus grinned. He took the head and tucked it back under his arm. “Speaking of ‘eating’....”

“Found it!” Joji exclaimed, popping up from under the table like a whack-a-mole, a tiny pin pinched between his thumb and forefinger.

“Oh, good,” Yeen sighed, scooping the leftover parts back into their trays, “let’s go to breakfast.”

**********************************************

Unlike the preceding day, Wikus was ecstatic to make the journey to the commissary alongside his adoptive family. His sense of trepidation had been temporarily abated and he actually felt comfortable in the hoard of drones as they filed into the food line. Yeen herded the trio of children ahead while Wikus, Brutus, Lek and Tookanuk followed close behind. The human clutched his new utensil securely in his half-gloved hand; it had been run through a sanitizing wash and despite the scuffs and dents, shone like new. It was currently not the focus of his attention, however.

“Why are you doing that?” Brutus demanded.

“I’m itchy,” Wikus answered, somewhat annoyed that he should have to explain the obvious. With his free hand, he’d been scratching furiously at his scalp for the past several minutes. His skin was grimy and irritated, still showing smears from his incident a week ago. The human was in dire need of a bath.

“Itchy. Why? Ya got bugs?” The ebony drone cocked a wayward glance at his friend.

“Yeah. Big giant ones.”

Brutus ignored the sarcasm in favor of more unhelpful prattle. “Why don’t you bathe?”

“I can’t wash with steam like you guys do,” Wikus grunted, moving from his head to his back, “it’ll kill me.”

“That’s the problem with your species,” Brutus continued in a lecturing tone, “you come apart too easy. Always dying over any little thing.”

“I’ll bring it up at the next meeting,” Wikus sighed.

“Can’t they make something for him?” the drone asked, leaning to one side to address Yeen ahead.

“They’re working on it, Brutus,” Yeen explained as he handed small-portioned bowls to the kids, “but it’s tricky. The cleanser has to be something that will clean his skin without....burning it off...”

“Yeah, let’s not rush that,” Wikus interjected.

“We’ll head down after we eat and take a look. I’ll get this,” Yeen took his and Wikus’s bowls from the service counter as they were quite hot, “and you bring our drinks.” The green worker nodded at the rack of cooled beverages and Wikus chose two, hefted them into his arms, gave a polite thanks to the drone serving breakfast and hurried after his caretaker. He was somewhat surprised to feel his stomach growl considering the huge meal he’d had last night, but he was nevertheless pleased at the resurgence of his appetite. Whatever they were about to eat smelled delicious.

The group settled together at a nearby table and everyone was fairly silent as they began to eat. The bowl before Wikus was the same size as the last, but this meal was a stew. The matrix had the consistency of Country Gravy and there was no shortage of roasted meat and vegetables within. As Wikus expected, it wasn’t too pretty; the stew was as gray as gray could be. But the taste was exquisite. He stabbed the tender morsels with the fork and shoveled them down, enjoying every mouthful. When he’d eaten his fill, he handed the remaining portion to Brutus again, who was more than happy to accommodate.

There was less time for idle chatter after this meal. It was, after all, the start of a new day by the ship’s schedule, and everyone had work to do. The children scampered off to class together and the drones all departed for their respective assignments, leaving Yeen and Wikus to themselves.

“Did you enjoy that?” Yeen asked kindly.

“Oh, yeah! It was great, thank you!” Wikus spoke as he licked any remaining food residue from his fork. When he was sure it was clean, he carefully deposited it into the interior pocket of his vest.

“Good. Let’s walk down to Manufacturing, shall we?”

Wikus was eager to visit a new part of the Fiordraa, but his guide found the elongated journey to be quite a challenge. It was much like leading a child through a toy store; everything was new for the human in every sense of the word and he was understandably fascinated. Full to the brim with “why” and “what” and “how”, Wikus moved at a painstaking pace while Yeen patiently tugged him along.

At last they arrived at the ship’s Manufacturing Department, and it turned out to be one of the most remarkable things Wikus had seen yet. It was impossible to gauge the dimensions of the space at a glance, or how many rooms it contained. The entire wing was crammed with machinery of every conceivable shape and function, like a futuristic Industrial Revolution. Sounds of production filled the warm air in a confusing snarl, every clang, bing, slam and whoosh milling together in the din. The drones manning their equipment were almost lost amongst the tangle of technology; only the brightest colored shells were readily visible.

Yeen approached the comparatively small, grease-smudged counter at the head of the department and addressed the worker seated on the other side while Wikus continued to gawk. The drone nodded at Yeen’s request and left to retrieve his order. When he returned, his arms were laden with fabrics and a sizable bottle of greenish gel.

“Let’s go,” Yeen clicked as he took the stack of materials. “Wikus!”

“....wha?”

“Come along. Let’s get you a bath. Yes?”

“Oh! Excellent!” Wikus grinned, broken from his reverie.

The pair thanked the attendant and left the tumult behind. The dim corridors now felt even chillier and more silent in comparison. They hadn’t far to walk this time, however, and were soon entering a room with a marking Wikus couldn’t read.

“What’s that say?” he inquired, pointing at the painted words beside the entrance.

“Well....I don’t know how to translate, really.....it’s a place where one comes to recover from illness or injury by soaking and swimming.....” Yeen explained, trying to use terms his alien would understand.

“Like...physical therapy?” Wikus offered.

“Yes....I’d say that sounds correct.”

“Huh. We have that, too. It’s like.....it’s easier on the body, to be in the water, right?”

“Yes, indeed! But for you, we’re going to use it to bathe.”

“Don’t have to tell me twice,” Wikus sighed, scratching at an elbow. He’d been looking forward to this for three years.

The therapy room was not as large as the mess hall, but was nonetheless impressive. It’s ceiling was much lower, ribbed with alternating black metal rafters and bars of bluish lights. It was filled with tubs of varying sizes set into the floor with narrow walkways in between, like a honeycomb. The floors were also jet black, and only tubs in use were illuminated from their interiors; the rest were dark and empty. A few drones were already milling about, some soaking their healing limbs or preparing a tub, but most of the receptacles were not taken.

Wikus followed Yeen down the short flight of steps towards the right side of the room. As soon as he placed a foot onto the floor, he squawked in surprise and nearly tumbled forward. It was coated in a very proficient non-slip texture which, when in contact with the treaded rubber of his boot’s sole, locked his foot securely in place. He was able to lift his feet off the floor with a little effort, but it felt almost sticky, like walking through tar.

Yeen stifled a chuckle. “You can leave those there,” he gestured at a row of cubbies along the wall, “you won’t need them anyway. The jacket, too.”

“Right,” Wikus grunted, stooping over to pull off his shoes and stuffing them into an empty bin as Yeen deposited all but one set of the new clothing into a neighboring cubby. “Smells nice in here....”

“We add different nutrients to the water. Some of them aid in preventing infection, or softening joints; whatever is needed.”

Wikus padded after his companion, looking about curiously. Yeen had led him to the back of the room where the smallest tubs were found. They were sized for an individual poleepkwa and were therefore much larger than any bathtub he’d ever used at home. The drone made certain his charge was paying close attention before he filled the tub so that he’d be able to do it on his own in the future.

A quick tap to the marked spot on the floor brought a small monitor up and Yeen set the appropriate parameters from the menu. Once confirmed, the ring of lights around the bottom of the tub flickered on and it began to fill with warm water. The left and right ends of the basin were vented, allowing the water, once filled, to flow continuously from one side to the other. It could move quickly if the bather needed some resistance to stroll against, or in this case, gently, taking any residue or dirt away from the body and filtering it out before reintroducing clean water from the opposite side.

“In you go,” Yeen announced, sitting back on the floor and lifting the bottle he’d been carrying to read the instructions printed on it.

Delighted, Wikus pulled off his clothes and set them aside in a heap. The rectangular tub had bench-like protrusions on either of its long sides and Wikus used one as a step, placing first one foot, then the other into the steaming bath. He stood on the bench for a few seconds, acclimating to the heat and savoring the moment. When he’d climbed into the bathtub all the way, the water reached about halfway up his torso. He could feel the subtle flow pushing at his back, eddying around him, already lifting grime from his skin and carrying it away. He groaned so audibly it caused Yeen to raise his antennae in alarm, but Wikus was far too enraptured to offer assurance to his keeper. Instead, he knelt on the bottom and dunked his head under, running his fingers through his greasy hair in elation. When he stood again, Yeen’s curious face was poking over the edge, his large, yellow eyes voicing his unspoken inquest.

“Oooohh, my god, that feels so good!”

“Ah. You’re comfortable, then?” Yeen chirped, sounding a bit relieved.

“Are you kidding? This is fantastic....” Wikus replied, satisfaction thick in his voice.

“Good! Let’s try this out,” Yeen said as he lifted the bottle again. It was roughly the size of a gallon jug and had one flat side so it could be set on the floor. The lid appeared to be a kind of nozzle, and when set on the edge of the bathtub, it pointed down over the water. What was now the top of the bottle had a pop-out lever, which Yeen coaxed into place. As the poleepkwa gestured, Wikus cupped his hands under the nozzle and Yeen gave the lever a push.

What fell into the human’s hands was rather unexpected; Wikus had assumed from the look of the substance that it would be similar to liquid hand soap. It behaved more like mercury, however, leaving no strings from the nozzle and balling up in his hands. It was cool and slick, the color of green tea and very transparent. Wikus rolled the soap back and forth across his hand, amused at how well he could see his fingers magnified beneath the wobbly ball of goo. When he sniffed it, it smelled faintly of fresh herbs and he hummed happily.

“Now, you add a little water and rub,” Yeen continued, demonstrating by rubbing his hands together briskly.

Wikus used his right hand to cup some water and then pressed it into his left. As soon as he did so, the gel seemed to disintegrate completely, replaced by an increasing volume of foam. He rubbed his hands together and the lather grew richer and thicker, and the aroma became more pronounced. The plantish smell, warmth and humidity all combined to give the feeling of being outside after a good rain.

Wikus shut his eyes tightly and rubbed his soapy hands over his face, adoring the sensation. The cleanser tingled lightly and he could easily feel the mucus, sweat and dirt dissolving off his skin. He bathed with meticulous precision, much more thoroughly than he ever would have back home, where a bath had been a daily occurrence. Every last bit had to be attended to, from behind his ears to between each toe to underneath what was left of his chewed-up nails. It felt so wonderful Wikus couldn’t believe he had actually considered this activity to be a chore at one time. He knew he’d never take it for granted again.

Meanwhile, Yeen sat back contentedly, watching his friend enjoy himself. He hadn’t felt this confident in their prospects since before the transformation. The health and happiness of this alien had been left to his devices and it certainly appeared that he was doing the right thing for Wikus.

The human was reluctant to leave the tub after he’d finished washing, but he couldn’t stay all day and his digits had become very pruned. He clambered out and Yeen presented him with another piece of fabric Wikus assumed was a towel. It was thin, smooth and soft, a bit like an animal hide only spongier. As soon as he touched it, the fabric wicked the moisture off of his hands like he hadn’t even gotten them wet. Wikus marveled at the latest invention for a moment before he dutifully dried himself and pulled on the set of clothes Yeen had brought with them.

The drone stood, gathering up the human’s new belongings, and then turned to admire his handiwork. Wikus smiled back at him, smoothing his shirt over his lean torso. “Well,” Yeen said brightly, “good sleep, clean body, clean clothes, full belly....what else is there?”

“I can’t imagine,” Wikus replied merrily. His digestive tract had other ideas, however, and at that moment his lower intestine churned noisily. The man’s pleased face contorted slightly as he rubbed at his abdomen. “Oh. Maybe there is something else...”

Yeen needed no explanation for this one. “Yes. Let’s take care of that now, shall we?”

Wikus nodded and followed his guide out. This was the first time he’d had solid food in his system in quite a while. He hadn’t yet had the opportunity to properly experience a poleepkwan toilet and he wasn’t looking forward to it. It was actually very similar to the sort of facility traditionally used in places like Japan; a basin set flush into the floor. The user was expected to hunker over it, something the poleepkwa’s digitigrade legs were well suited to do. It was probably more natural, and certainly more sanitary, but nevertheless much different than anything Wikus had ever had to use. He certainly hoped he’d be a quick study or they’d be back at the bath sooner than expected.

**********************************************

A full five weeks into the journey, the Fiordraa continued steadily chugging through the vast chasm of space. Life on board the freighter was now indiscernible from the activity on any other poleepkwan ship; at least, for most of its residents. Not so for Wikus and his small cluster of friends. While they made up a miniscule percentage of the colony’s populace, their lives were perhaps the most well known, and the most turbulent.

Wikus had been enduring a manic-depressive roller coaster ride since his transformation. Each point at which he’d been introduced to something new, his spirits were lifted, bolstered by his fascination of a thing so unexpected and incredible. But after the newness wore off and his thoughts could return to the traumas of his past, he’d slump into a dismal depression. It was particularly difficult at night, when the commotion of the day was done and there was nothing left to distract his mind from the hurt. And as Wikus suffered, so too did Yeen and the others closest to him. Yeen would have loved to administer some kind of relief, just as he did for a physical ache. It not only pained him to see his friend so morose, it was doubly frustrating to know that this was one problem he had no ability to alleviate. Only time could cure it.

The human’s physical being was fairing much better, however. After a month of good rest and plentiful nourishment, his body condition was the same as it had been before he’d entered District 9. While he was still trim, he’d fleshed out enough to hide his ribs and hip ridges, something for which Wikus was extremely grateful. Frequent examinations had shown no hint of regression or organ failure. And the return of his corporeal health may have been a harbinger of things to come. As time passed, his downturns became less severe and less frequent. His guardians were hesitant to declare it official, but it did appear that the worst might be behind him.

Yeen had done everything possible to fit the human into a daily routine so he could take comfort in a structured lifestyle. Today was an exception. After breakfast the worker had left for his solitary appointment with Commander Ruwala; it was his turn to tell his story face to face. With Joji in school and Brutus at work, Wikus was left to himself in his room. His usual distractions were inadequate today and he’d quickly set them aside. Antsy and worried, Wikus had taken to pacing the cabin in an obsessive-compulsive circle. In a game with no purpose, he tapped the walls in the same spots as he passed them....bunk, wall, cabinet, wall, bunk, wall, cabinet, wall....

The human’s mind tormented him with all kinds of negative scenarios. Yeen had been away for hours. What would the Commander say as he described his horrible experience? What would the verdict be when it was inevitably Wikus’s turn to hold an audience with the leader of this colony? He was surprised at how close he and Yeen had become; the thought of being taken away from the green drone was too painful to contemplate.

As Wikus rounded the corner yet again, striding towards the cabin door before his next left turn, it whooshed open and he nearly crashed into the person he’d been waiting on so impatiently. Both creatures barked in surprise.

“What were you doing?” Yeen queried, still standing in the doorway.

“Nothing. How’d it go? What did he say?” The tension was as clear on the human’s face as it was in his voice, and Yeen took him by the shoulder gently in an attempt to reassure his companion. As he raised his right hand, his new accoutrement was immediately noticeable. “What’s that?” Wikus asked.

Yeen had returned with a remarkable addition to his modest accessories. On his right wrist was a shiny silver band, made of a similar metal to that of Wikus’s buckle and zippers. The thing was much more elegant than the ordinary communication link he wore on his opposing wrist. It had a sort of watch face, and inside the sturdy little window was not a timepiece but a pair of lights. The soft, white glow appeared to be emanating from two lemon-yellow crystals fused together with short, twisting tendrils around their outsides. It was a beautiful trinket and Wikus was instantly curious.

Yeen sighed a bit at the barrage of questions, none of which he could properly answer at this point. He opted to address the most recent. “This is called Ulu Mahan. It is very special. But it’s not my place to explain it....”

“What does that mean?” Wikus complained. It always frustrated him intensely when Yeen wouldn’t give him a straight answer.

“It means you’ll find out soon enough. The Commander wishes to speak with you today, pending a positive result from your physical.”

“Wh....already?” Wikus faltered.

“Already? It’s been over a month, and you’re.....what did you do to yourself?” Yeen furrowed his plated brow, having just noticed the condition of the man’s hair. He pulled a tuft of the tattered strands through his fingers.

Now it was Wikus’s turn to explain the unexplainable. He’d already had a conversation with his friends about the properties of human hair and he’d had absolutely no luck getting them to understand how the hair on his head continued to grow while the rest of it didn’t. It was all the more exasperating because he didn’t know the reason himself. Wikus was getting awfully tired of the “It just does” routine.

Having allowed it to grow unabated for a month, Wikus’s hair had become long and unruly. It had begun to tickle his face and he’d grown so aggravated with it, he’d tried to trim the front himself with his razor. Hair styling wasn’t exactly his forte and it looked rather pitiful, but it was, at least, out of his eyes.

“I don’t like it....that long,” Wikus attempted to clarify as he shooed Yeen’s hand away from his face, “so I cut it off a little. That’s all.”

“You didn’t do a very good job,” Yeen stated simply.

“Yeah, well....I didn’t go to school to cut hair, you know.”

“You can get an education in cutting hair?” Yeen asked, all the more confused.

“Sure. It’s a job for some people. We can’t cut our own, it’s too hard, so we pay someone to do it. But somehow, I don’t think I’m going to find a barber on this tanker....” he sighed.

“Hm....” Yeen considered the problem for a few seconds before he gestured emphatically at the room. “Get your boots on! And your jacket. I think I know who might be able to fix that, but we have to hurry. I don’t want you to be late for your checkup.”

Wikus shot the drone a curious glance but complied, and then hurried after him into the hall. Yeen was, once again, being stingy with the details.

“Where are we going?” Wikus persisted, still eyeing the glowing band.

“Deck 4, to see Ogo. He has more skill with a blade than anyone else I know. I’m sure he can work something out for you.”

“Ogo...” Wikus struggled to remember. The name was familiar, but it wasn’t a poleepkwa he knew well. They’d reached the elevators and Yeen boarded the empty crate, turning to wait for Wikus.

“Wait...the butcher?!” Wikus exclaimed, stopping short outside the open lift, his boots squeaking against the deck. “Oh, no no no, no thank you!”

The green worker was slightly taken aback by his human’s sudden, adverse reaction. “What’s the problem...”

“Whatryou, kidding?! You want me to ask a guy who spends all day hacking animals into bite-sized chunks to take a knife to my head? I don’t think so, man.”

“He’s not going to hurt you, we’re just going to ask him to put your hair back the way it was,” Yeen replied calmly.

“Yeah, no....I see what this is,” Wikus shook a paranoid finger at Yeen, “we do the same thing on Earth. You take in an animal, treat it like a pet, feed it up and then lop off its head and serve it for dinner. Nothing doing, Chris!”

Yeen’s eyes widened and he fiddled his mandibles in disbelief. “That is the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard! It’s my job to keep you safe, and even if it wasn’t, I’d never let anything like that happen. Don’t you trust me?”

Wikus’s face softened and he slumped his shoulders, feeling immediately guilty. The idea of heading down to the abattoir for any reason still sat poorly with him, but it was impossible to dismiss the sincerity in his caretaker’s large, complex eyes. Begrudgingly, he lumbered into the brightly lit elevator and crossed his arms in a huff.

Yeen wrapped a long arm around the disgruntled mammal and pulled him close in the same way he consoled Joji when the little drone was upset. “You have to be the most neurotic creature I’ve ever known,” he said pleasantly as he set the elevator’s destination. Wikus was less than amused, but the physical contact did well to comfort him and he’d regained his composure by the time they reached the 4th level.

With Yeen leading the way, the pair strode quickly down the quiet corridor, passing the wide entrance to the mess hall. It looked almost foreboding now, dark and deserted. But their target was the much smaller sealed entrance to one of the Food Processing Units, a series of chambers that ran the length of the dining area. Inside, plants and animals raised in the nearby Agriculture Department were turned into the luscious meals Wikus had been so enjoying. This department was a Clearance Level 2, which meant Wikus would not have been permitted without an escort like Yeen. He only carried a Level 1 thus far, the same clearance given to juveniles.

A tap of Yeen’s finger on the bio-sensitive pad opened the solid doors and they were greeted with the heavy scent of blood, backed by the much more pleasant aroma of cooking food. Wikus hurried to keep stride with the drone, more out of a fear of being left behind rather than a desire to explore the wing. The place was abuzz with activity, drones everywhere working diligently and machinery cranking away. Unlike in the dining hall, where everyone paused to greet their alien celebrity, the workers here barely seemed to notice his presence. These were poleepkwan drones in their element, their hive-driven minds set to their tasks. Every movement was purposeful and it didn’t look like “inefficient” was in their vocabulary.

After they’d walked a short distance, Wikus noticed his footfalls had taken on a different resonance. The floor had changed from the metal deck to a grate, allowing blood (and anything else that fell from a carcass) to collect underneath their feet. Huge slabs of meat hung from cables all around. They passed bins as wide as single-story houses, filled to the brim with gargantuan organs. And perhaps most unsettling to Wikus, the bleating of still living beasts could be heard in nearby rooms.

To the human’s relief, Yeen marched on and they left the grated floor behind. They were coming closer to the areas where the meals themselves were prepared when the drone stopped short, causing Wikus to plow into the back of him. Yeen took little notice and turned into a small offshoot, having seen another drone he recognized. The alcove was narrow, with benches and seated poleepkwa on either side. Each was busy slicing meat into smaller pieces for cooking.

Yeen approached a stocky, reddish fellow and the pair exchanged a greeting. After a short dialogue, the red drone hopped off his stool and left in search of his boss. Wikus tried to conceal a nervous sigh as he huddled beside his caretaker. It wasn’t an altogether unpleasant environment; the savory smell of ingredients on their way to becoming lunch was thicker here. Even so, Wikus was feeling very small and helpless. He dearly hoped Ogo would be able to understand the difference between a haircut and any of his usual tasks.

The messenger returned a few moments later with a massive soldier close behind. Ogo rivaled General Tarzier in size and, it appeared, temperament. He lacked the General’s scar-marked carapace, but his entire front was darkened with a bloody residue. He did not appear happy to have been called away from his duties.

While the red drone returned to his work, Ogo glared down at the pair of unwelcome guests. Not wishing to waste any more time, Yeen fired away. He graciously excused himself for his intrusion and pulled Wikus in front of him, tugging and gesturing at the human’s hair in an attempt to demonstrate how it had looked before. Oddly enough, Ogo didn’t look at all perplexed by the request. He didn’t even ask any questions. He simply continued to scowl and when Yeen had finished, he took the man’s jaw in his powerful hand and turned Wikus’s head this way and that, possibly a little more roughly than he intended.

Once he’d finished his inspection, Ogo released the harried Earthling and yanked a free stool out from under a nearby counter, plunking it down in the center of the room. “Sit,” he ordered, like a human would command a dog.

Wikus clambered up onto the seat and unwittingly gathered himself into a timid pose, limbs huddled together and shoulders hunched. Ogo returned to the work counter, opened a tool drawer and fished out the smallest cutter he had at his disposal. It was designed just like Wikus’s razor, but three or four times the size, with a much more serious beam. It was, after all, calibrated to slice through flesh and bone, not just hair.

When the butcher turned back to his subject, he grunted sourly at Wikus’s posture. Palming the man’s head, he tugged him into an upright position, nearly lifting Wikus off of his seat. “Now be still”, Ogo demanded, and the human redirected his concentration on holding the pose.

Choosing a spot on the wall before him to focus upon, Wikus made every effort not to think about what was happening. He would catch bright glimpses of light as the blade passed near his face and hear the “vmm” as it buzzed by his ears. Fortunately, it didn’t take nearly as long as a haircut on Earth would have, and a few moments later both poleepkwa were standing before him, eyeing Ogo’s handiwork. Yeen was grinning broadly, a stark contrast to the still-surly soldier.

“Perfect!” the green worker clicked, “It looks just like it used to!”

“Very well. Now get out of my kitchen,” Ogo groused, returning the tool to its drawer.

“Yessir!” Yeen obliged, picking up Wikus and planting him on the floor before he had the chance to climb down himself. The human had barely gotten his footing before his keeper was shoving him along.

“Th...hey...thank you, sir!” Wikus struggled. Ogo dismissed them with a wave of his hand before he marched back the way he’d came.

Likewise, Wikus and Yeen were quick to head back to the front entrance. Whether the cut did, in fact, look like it was supposed to or not was irrelevant to the human at present. He was feeling along the sides of his head, making certain he still had both ears.

“That wasn’t so bad, now, was it?” Yeen prodded.

Mmmnnf,” Wikus offered as a reply. In truth, it did feel better to have the hair out of his face and off his neck, but after what Yeen had put him through, he wasn’t about to admit it. Besides, they were now on their way to the med bay, not exactly his favorite place on the ship. And afterwards, he’d have to face Ruwala and who-knew-what.....it was going to be one of those days.

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