‘Sugati’

Chapter 7: Keehar

by Duo Radon

A great many things can change in one year, even under commonplace circumstances. If we're fortunate, our lives move forward. Occasionally, it's the other way around. It had only taken a matter of hours to undo everything that Wikus van de Merwe had worked so hard to achieve in his life back on Earth, but building that life back up had been a much slower process.

As the Colony closed in on the one-year anniversary of its departure from Earth, its only human member would have been almost unrecognizable were he not a different species. With Yeen as his mentor, Wikus had fallen into step with life on the Fiordraa quite successfully. The broken, timid creature that had been salvaged from the conflict in Johannesburg was little more than a memory now, replaced with a jovial, enthusiastic being much more reminiscent of his pre-transformation self.

Even though their meeting before the incident in D9 had been brief, Yeen could see so much of the man's former personality reborn in Wikus now, and he was greatly surprised to find that it didn't displease him. It was, after all, not a lack of integrity that had made Wikus an enemy, but a vacuum of understanding. With his moral compass properly placed, Wikus's boyish fervor had done nothing but bring them closer. From the instant he'd set eyes upon the human in District 9, Yeen instinctively knew this one in particular would be a perpetual thorn in his side. What he could never have predicted was how much he'd come to care for him. They were now, in every sense, a family. A little odd to behold, perhaps, but a family nonetheless.

While new experiences popped up from time to time, Wikus was enjoying the comfort of a daily routine alongside his poleepkwan brothers. And, like the rest of the refugees, his attitude was not the only marker of repair; the human's physical body had recovered nicely as well. As it happened, his new diet did not harbor the unhealthy chemicals and saturated fats of his former one. Whether or not his hidden DNA came into play in this respect was uncertain, but he could eat as much and as often as he pleased without suffering the same ill effects he would have on Earth. As a result, Wikus had replaced his gaunt physique with a well-proportioned musculature, slightly softened at the edges. The only indication of an overabundance of food was the modest outward curve that began just below his pectorals and met with the belted waistband of his trousers.

Four years ago, those few extra inches around his waist would have been unacceptable. Wikus had always spent a fair amount of effort maintaining himself within the unspoken parameters of his modern society. After all, Tania's partnership had not come easily. Her parents never thought much of him. His family wasn't rich and he wasn't exceptionally skilled at anything that might excuse a shabby facade. Wikus considered himself outrageously fortunate to have won her heart and he wouldn't have voluntarily allowed anything to jeopardize that. But here, among creatures that put almost no value in looks, and with no members of the opposite sex to pronk for, he'd taken a much more relaxed approach to bodily upkeep. Wikus still enjoyed his bath every night and a shave in the morning; he kept his teeth clean and pulled a brush through his hair every once in a while. But things like cologne, hair gel, pressed slacks and shined shoes never took up an iota of space in his busy brain anymore. Table manners were out as well, helped along greatly by Brutus's repeated condemnation of them. Wikus had never realized how many wholly unnatural mannerisms were expected by human social norms until they were cast off. It was bliss.

Behaving in a more poleepkwan fashion was only part of Wikus's integration into Colony life. Once his guardians were satisfied that he was comfortable enough with his environment and that his physical being was stable, he'd been granted a much-anticipated liberty: a job. Commander Ruwala had set one aside especially for him, a trade she knew he would not only succeed at, but one that would benefit him as well.

The position in question was located in Small Parts Acquisition, an impressive canyon of a room, chock full of countless pieces of equipment. All available wall space as well as a strip in the middle held machinery, leaving a narrow gap down the length of each side of the room. If a part was small enough to carry, it had come through this shop at some point. Tools and elements of the ship itself were brought to SPA when they broke down or became too dirty to function properly, and here they were disassembled, cleaned or repaired, and stashed for future use. On a self-contained starship, nothing was ever discarded.

The department was headed by a retired soldier named Kotai. Once an arms expert, he now put his vast knowledge of poleepkwan technology to use keeping the Fiordraa well-maintained. He wasn't yet elderly, but Kotai was nonetheless beginning to show his age. He may have been heavily scarred, a little faded, and just a bit slower in his locomotion than his younger peers, but he had not adopted the cheerful disposition of General Kwaziak. Upon their first meeting, Wikus had feared the worst. Kotai didn't seem at all pleased to have acquired an apprentice, much less an alien one. The first few days didn't go well and Wikus began to wonder if he had any business in the Colony's workforce. But the human's innate ability to work with his hands and his sheer determination to learn the job gradually won his teacher's respect. After a month, the pair got along like old friends, and Wikus could revel in a feeling of purpose again.

The environment in SPA was really quite pleasant. Many of the machines were running, either devices doing the cleaning or repaired parts being tested, and as a result the shop was much warmer than the surrounding corridors. Wikus could work without his gloves or jacket in the little clearing at the front of the room. There, a pair of benches faced each other, heaped with the day's assignments, and the soldier and his student sat across from one other, swapping casual conversation. There was also a monitor nearby, and even though most of the broadcasts made little sense to Wikus, it added a pleasing element to the cozy workshop. At the front of the space, a large service window allowed workers to drop off used parts and pick up their new items, but aside from these occasional visits, Kotai and Wikus had the shop to themselves.

The human had more than a few good reasons to keep his nose to the grindstone. As he handled each part, learning how to assemble it, so too did he learn how it functioned. Understanding the operation of something as complex as a poleepkwan freighter would have seemed like an impossibility for the alien, but as Wikus became familiar with the smallest of its portions, he began to get a feel for how things worked. His career was supplemented with lessons from Yeen, and the gargantuan picture puzzle began to assemble, one little piece at a time.

Wikus even surprised himself with how much of his education he was retaining. School had never been easy for him, and here, so far from home in the company of "prawns", he was learning more than he ever did in a human university. But the best incentive of all, in the man's opinion, was the promise Yeen had made shortly after he'd began work. If he continued to study and progress appropriately, Wikus was to be granted the chance to earn a pilot's license. The thought that he might one day fly his own spacecraft (successfully) was a tempting carrot indeed, and Wikus never missed an opportunity to remind his friend of that enticing offer.

The promise flitted through Wikus's thoughts this evening, as it did often, but there were other causes for his high spirits as well. The little cabin he still shared with Yeen and Joji was full of cheer and an unlikely volume of whimsy. A few days prior, Wikus discovered that his custom-made cleanser could produce fantastic soap bubbles; they swirled with dazzling iridescence even in low light and lasted absolutely forever. A simple spare gear welded to the end of a composite rod worked perfectly for a blowing wand and Joji, Mita and Spek could now enjoy the same simple diversion Wikus had known when he was small. Without lips, channeling the air in just the right way was rather unnatural for them, but the trio of youngsters mastered it easily. Wikus couldn't hide his amusement as he watched three creatures so supremely attuned to a symbiosis with technology enjoy such an elementary pastime. Even Yeen was finding concentration on his portable computer difficult as he sat at the table, the room full of elated squeaks and sparkling bubbles.

Wikus had fashioned a handful of wands so that everyone could play at once, but not all of the visitors were game tonight. Brutus sat on the floor, his back against the bunk and limbs drawn in close. He had done an even better job than his human friend at replenishing his physique, so much so that he could have been mistaken for a short, soot-covered soldier. The calories did nothing to quell his vigor, yet tonight his attitude was almost surly. It was odd, Wikus pondered; he'd never known his friend to turn down the chance to fool around, even though most of their games involved chasing or play-fighting. This capricious silliness was clearly beneath the hefty drone and he glared at the bubbles as they floated past as if trying to pop them with his mind.

"Come on," Wikus prodded, both literally and figuratively, jabbing at the shell-covered arm with one of his wands.

"No."

"It's easy. Just try..."

"Quit!" Brutus groused. "The things humans invent....this is just ridiculous...."

"Why? They're pretty..." Wikus realized an explanation of the appeal of this activity to someone who didn't get it was almost impossible.

"It's so pointless."

"Duh. Sometimes fun is pointless."

Brutus's stoic facade told Wikus he wasn't going to make any headway with this issue and he sighed, opting to investigate the doings of his other companion instead. He plopped himself down next to Yeen and leaned over his armored shoulder to peer at the monitor. The gentle, green worker responded with a warm greeting rumble as he continued to poke at the database.

"Wha'sis?" Wikus inquired with a casual merriment, propping himself against his partner, "More lessons?"

"Well, yes, but I have other things for you to read, too," Yeen smiled at his human's chummy indiscretion. His face turned a shade more serious as he glanced at the children, still enveloped in their play. "But not now....save these two for later. In private."

Wikus didn't require any further clarification. There was another object of anticipation on the horizon, an upcoming event that had ensnared the whole ship's attention and had the lone human practically giddy with excitement. The Fiordraa was nearing its first pit stop on the journey home, an arid planet called Uzenstaal. In less than a week they would be docked in the massive port of Keehar to refuel and take on supplies. Already waiting for them there was another poleepkwan freighter, the Noota. The vessel would take some of the Fiordraa's refugees on board to lighten the burden on its facilities and the pair of identical ships would then make the rest of the trek home together.

It was standard practice, certainly nothing for most to get excited over. But this stop marked a momentous milestone for Wikus as he had been promised a short excursion into the port alongside Yeen. Half a lifetime ago, he could only guess that his people were alone in the galaxy, maybe even the universe, and in a few days he'd be the first of his species to set foot on an alien world. And what was even more exhilarating, with a population in the hundreds of millions representing thousands of races, this particular city was teeming with all kinds of alien life. Needless to say, it was also a very dangerous place, prompting a law that poleepkwan youngsters were not allowed within its limits (much to Joji's dismay).

This knowledge did little to dampen Wikus's spirits; he'd been looking forward to this from the day he'd first decided to leave Earth. Yeen, however, was not the least bit pleased. He'd been to Keehar before and in his opinion, it was nothing to see....dirty, tangled, dangerous, a haven for criminals and illicit trades. Wikus had come so far and endured so much, it pained Yeen to know he had to drag him through another gauntlet, especially considering he was in charge of the man's well being. It was difficult for the drone to see the appeal from Wikus's perspective; he'd known about aliens and spaceports all his life. But the human spoke of the upcoming outing as though he'd won the lottery, and Yeen knew he couldn't talk him out of it. The Commander had given her approval, she obviously had a great deal of confidence in the worker's capabilities and judgment. And Wikus did deserve some leeway in the matter. He'd done everything that was asked of him over the past year with little in the way of complaint. He'd learned and adapted very well, and he was an adult capable of making his own decisions, as much as Yeen tended to think of him as his helpless ward. Besides which, the poleepkwa had a feeling Wikus would make an attempt to slip out on his own if he was forbidden to visit the port, and that would almost certainly be the end of him. Humans were nothing if not insatiably curious.

So, begrudgingly, Yeen had been preparing the chipper Earthling for their daytrip. He'd schooled Wikus in Haltherian, or "simple tongue", a universal language spoken in places where many races gathered. It was a straightforward and crude sounding dialect, intentionally simplified so that most any creature with something like a mouth could manage it. Wikus picked it up effortlessly; it was much easier for him to form these syllables than the growls, clicks and rumbles of the poleepkwan language. Yeen had also selected a few thorough and unsettling data files regarding the nature of life in Keehar for Wikus to study. The drone had little hope that these articles would dissuade his partner, but he had to know what he was getting into.

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

In the quiet of the evening, Wikus lay curled up in his pelts under the light of his bunk monitor. As promised, he'd waited until he was alone to review the information Yeen had flagged for him. The first set was nothing too frightening; it dealt mainly with the origins of Uzenstaal's largest port. Keehar was one of the most expansive cities in the galaxy. It had begun small, and as different species found it to be a convenient stopping point they settled there and the city spread outward, overspilling its borders again and again until it resembled a huge, black stain, like a melanoma on the surface of the desert world. The massive port was ringed with docks to suit hundreds of different kinds of craft; still more stations orbited around the planet for quicker stops. While the poleepkwa did not keep an embassy on this world, over 4,000 races were represented in the city's permanent populace.

The history of Keehar may have been intriguing to the human, but the risk factor was enough to give him serious pause. The second article detailed the darker side of the story and better solidified the reason Yeen had been so reluctant to take him. At the start, Keehar had been well policed by its pioneers, the Mi'thauw, an ancient race that were also responsible for developing the Haltherian language. But as the settlement grew, it became more unsuitable for these soft-spoken people and they abandoned it to seek out new venues. With so many different species intermingling, each with its own moral code (or lack thereof), a centralized rule book became impossible. Today, each resident was responsible for his own safety, each race free to deliver justice in whatever way it saw fit. Crime in this land was simply a way of life.

Most of the commonplace altercations were due to theft and con games, but kidnapping was also rampant in Keehar. The fate of the person taken was usually decided by his species; many were bought and sold as slaves or forced into prostitution. Those of high status were typically held for ransom. Others might even become a wealthy eccentric's pet. But it was the black market butcher shops that Wikus found most disturbing. For many races, consuming an intelligent species was not taboo, and the right carcass could make a successful killer very prosperous. Even poleepkwa had fallen prey to these crimes, and the article was full of nauseating photos....pictures of those who had died, and others who would have been better off if they had. It was a very real concern for a human; as the only one of his kind, a species never before seen by the rest of the galaxy, he would certainly be an ideal target for any kind of criminal. Rarity always garnered a higher price.

Wikus wished he hadn't saved this lesson until just before bed. As he closed the database and chose a window simulation to comfort him, he promised himself he would consider the pros and cons very carefully before he made a final decision.

The news wasn't entirely dreadful, after all. The poleepkwan race enjoyed a very formidable reputation among all intergalactic travelers. As one of the few species whose warriors were physically larger, stronger and biologically geared towards combat, most wisely opted to avoid a clash with them, even if it meant the loss of a potential fortune. Add to it the intimidating array of deadly weaponry and it was quite likely that any poleepkwan escort, even a drone like Yeen, would be enough to keep trouble out of their way. It wasn't the carefree adventure Wikus had hoped for, but life rarely came without some strings attached.

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

The week before the Fiordraa's arrival at Uzenstaal slunk by at a snail's pace. In spite of the vow he'd made to himself, it didn't take Wikus long to reject the possibility that he might not see the port. It was unlikely he'd ever get this chance again, or at the very least, not for an age, and he'd regret it intensely if he let the opportunity pass by unanswered.

Breakfast in the mess hall this morning had a somewhat different feel than usual; the spacious eatery was largely devoid of soldiers, called away to man their posts. The freighter was currently searing its way through the planet's atmosphere and preparing to secure itself at the appropriate dock. Wikus was astounded at how little he could feel. He'd certainly expected some turbulence, or a change in the ship's air density, something. But life for most of the residents kept to the usual schedule and if he wasn't watching the event on Yeen's portable computer, he'd never have believed anything special was occurring. The excited Earthling attempted to divide his attention between his breakfast and the live teleplay of the landing, huddled snugly alongside Joji and his friends. The children on board had never before witnessed such an affair either and they were just as curious, despite the fact that they would have to remain on the ship.

Sitting to his other side, Brutus was becoming increasingly impatient. He had no interest in the pit stop or in an excursion to the surface, something his human brother found inconceivable. But today's first meal was somewhat of a treat, and a common favorite among the refugees, Wikus included. "Darii" was a coveted dish, high in calories and rich in flavor, made of an enormous centipede-like arthropod. The creature was delicately roasted in sauces and herbs, and each portion got a chunk of the body the size of a pot roast. It was served legs-up on a bed of fluffy steamed grains, and the segments of the flesh pulled out of the shell neatly, rather like a giant lobster tail. The meat was incredibly tender, free of gristle and connective tissues, with a flavor similar to buttery roasted chicken. If he disregarded the rice, Wikus could and usually did finish off the Darii; the resulting bellyache was well worth it. Today, with his nerves and his monitor distracting him, he'd only consumed half the bug. Brutus had scarfed his up in a wink and expected the usual hand-off from his smaller friend, but Wikus was taking an annoyingly long time with it.

"Finish up, Wikus," Yeen coaxed, "before Brutus blows a gasket."

Brow raised questioningly, Wikus pulled his concentration from the monitor to Yeen, then over to the ebony worker and he couldn't stifle a grin. Brutus was staring daggers at him, unblinking, his mandibles and antennae fidgeting nonstop in irritation.

"What?" Wikus teased, feigning ignorance, "What do you want? ....this?"

Brutus emitted an exasperated chuff and his eyes narrowed as he tried to decide if a swift blow to the human's head would ruin his chances at another half-Darii or expedite it.

"I'm done, here," Wikus relented cheerfully, "have it."

The drone's attitude did an instant 180 and he quickly gulped down the remainder of Wikus's breakfast, shell and all, as though he hadn't already had his own. When he'd finished, he gave his comrade a playful jab before joining the departing crowd to begin his work day. Yeen made yet another attempt to hurry the distracted children as well.

"Pleeeease, can we come, father?!" Joji tried yet again, "Just this once.... we'll be good!"

"You know it's not allowed," Yeen replied firmly. "And I promised to bring something back for you, didn't I?"

"Like what?" the child piped excitedly, shouldering his knapsack.

"We'll see. Now hurry, you'll be late."

The half-sized drone hugged a farewell to his father and his human before scurrying after his classmates, leaving only the unlikely pair at the table. Wikus was on his feet already, carry-all over his shoulder, brimming with anticipation as he smiled innocently at the somber drone seated at the dining table. Yeen sighed, watching the human bounce about for a moment until he was finally prodded to rise as well.

"Okay....okay! We're going. Do you have everything?"

"Yep!"

"Toilet?"

"Already went."

"Comm link fully charged?"

Wikus presented his left wrist with its shining new accessory. "Yep!"

"Good. Repeat what I told you...."

Wikus drew in a breath and, in a style reminiscent of early elementary school, recited the rules Yeen had hammered into him over the past week. "Always stay within three paces of you...."

"Good..."

"Don't speak with anyone unless you say it's okay..."

"Yes..."

"Don't accept anything from anyone unsolicited..."

"Correct."

"Don't tell anyone anything about Earth, don't drink water from any public facilities, and I can buy whatever I want as long as it's not living or a weapon."

"Very good," Yeen confirmed as he fastened his own satchel across his thorax, "I supposed we'd better head down to the exit bay. Three paces!" he called out as Wikus jogged across the mess hall.

"Come on!" Wikus goaded, pausing near the entrance, "We're not even out of the lunch room yet!"

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

Wikus and Yeen were the last to arrive in the spacious, brightly-lit bay, and the only crew members leaving for recreational purposes. They took up their place at the end of a line of soldiers and their accompanying drones, all of whom had assigned tasks to conduct in Keehar. With the Fiordraa safely locked in place atop a giant set of columns, the exit bay could open to one of the dock's elevators that transported residents down to the ground level. Wikus stood on his toes, trying to get a glimpse of the outside through the lift's windows, but they were yet too far away and there were too many bodies for him to see more than an occasional slice of light.

Yeen took the man by the shoulder to garner his attention. "There is one last thing I need to discuss with you."

"What's that?" Wikus queried, his bright, green eyes meeting sober, yellow ones.

"This is for you...." Yeen retrieved a metallic object from his satchel and as he drew it forward, Wikus could see that it was a pistol. He'd never encountered a model like this before, but it was unmistakably poleepkwan in its design, utilitarian but sleek and beautiful, painted in the familiar two-tone block style. It was a silver-white with deep red accents and unlike the weapons found with the stranded drones on Earth, this one was pristine. It looked like it had never seen active duty.

"Whoa-ho...." Wikus uttered, his eyes lighting up like a child's on Christmas morning, and he outstretched both hands to receive the weapon. The human's wide, mischievous grin did not go unnoticed in the least and Yeen maintained his grip on the gun's barrel.

"Wikus, this....look at me..."

"I am!"

"You're not! Pay attention....this is not a toy. And it is not for you to keep. Only for today. Do you understand that?"

Still holding on to the pistol himself, Wikus nodded at the worker, making every effort to keep his enthusiasm under control.

"Put it in your bag. You're not to use it unless I say so. Or, if we should become separated somehow, only if you have no other choice."

Yeen leaned close as he spoke those last three words, his voice as stern as Wikus had ever known it. In his large eyes, the human could see all of the hurt and fear that had been so prevalent in both of their histories and the memories of District 9 and 10 ebbed back into his own mind. "Okay...." Wikus said quietly, and Yeen relinquished his hold on the weapon.

The drone straightened himself as he watched his companion stash the gun reverently in his satchel's outermost pouch. When Wikus was certain it was accessible yet secure, he stood silently, gazing up at his caretaker as if wanting reassurance. Yeen's face softened, and he felt remorseful for having squelched the Earthling's gusto so completely. He offered a smile that was quickly reciprocated and drew the human close while they waited their turn to embark.

"You should tuck that into your shirt," Yeen gestured at the softly glowing crystal resting against the man's chest, "The less attention we draw, the better." The poleepkwa's own wrist band had already been set to "opaque", giving it the appearance of any mundane ornament. Wikus complied, and the fabric of his shirt did a moderately effective job at hiding the light.

At long last, the pair was able to cram themselves on board the elevator along with the remaining group of soldiers. As the door slid shut and they began to descend, Wikus squirmed in between the armored bodies and spiky limbs to press himself against the transparent face of the lift. There wasn't much to see yet, really; it was very much what he would have expected.....machinery and concrete, a few poleepkwa milling about far below. He could see the sister ship on its own dock across the way, but the atmosphere of this planet was muggy and hazy, obscuring the view of anything a good distance away.

Wikus could feel the heat of Uzenstaal through the glass, most likely multiplied by this plantless, industrial avenue. He was dressed accordingly; they had prepared a short-sleeved version of his usual shirt for him in a medium orange, with a darker rust-colored bar on the bottom half. The color, it was hoped, would make him easy to spot amongst the crowd. His warm vest and gloves had been left behind, but it was a safety concern that had kept his long pants and heavy boots. Along with the necessary vaccines, the human had also been injected with a chemical that could prevent him from losing too much of his bodily fluids and stave off dehydration and heat stroke. In spite of the treatment, Wikus could already feel sweat starting to bead up on his skin.

The stuffy elevator was nothing compared to the temperature on the planet itself. When they reached the ground and the bulky doors parted, a stifling, humid heat struck Wikus like a tidal wave and he coughed at the shock. It was likely he'd become too accustomed to the chilly air of a starship in deep space, but even so, he was certain he'd never felt anything like this on Earth.

The rest of the lift's occupants filed out methodically, as though they didn't even notice the change in temperature; Wikus found himself longing for his tough poleepkwan shell again. Yeen stood expectantly by his side, hopeful that this unpleasant experience might change his partner's mind. No such luck.

Wiping at his damp forehead, Wikus stepped out into the oppressive heat, reeling at the significance of the moment. Neil Armstrong's famous quote darted through his thoughts briefly. The moon landing had been the end result of so many years of planning, training, research and social advancement. But today, due to a weird twist of fate, an unassuming South African bureaucrat had managed to circumvent decades, maybe even centuries of human technological advancement to walk on an inhabited alien world for the first time.

There was little chance to revel in amazement. A bullet train-like transport was waiting for them in the channel below their platform, and most of their party were already on board. They wouldn't hold the train for long and if they were serious about their adventure, they'd need to pick up the pace. Yeen led the way down a rusted flight of steps and the pair clambered aboard the dilapidated train.

Wikus could tell from the exterior of the tram that air conditioning was a pipe dream. Once on board, his suspicions were confirmed; the transport was even hotter than the air outside and it looked like it had never been maintained. It was filthy, strewn with trash, the windows cracked and greasy. But as he took his place on a hard plastic bench, his joy was not dampened one bit. He twisted in his seat to watch the scenery begin to slink by, then gradually dissolve into a blur as the train reached full pace. Even moving at what must have been a tremendous speed, it took a full 10 minutes before the skyline of Keehar began to solidify in the haze. However, it wasn't until they had stopped and were able to exit the train that Wikus could get a proper look at the city.

Unlike a human metropolis with its clean-cut skyscrapers, the structures here were piled on top of one another, forming unthinkably massive conglomerates of businesses and homes that disappeared up into the heavily polluted air. They were like wasps nests or some kind of hive in which each worker was of a different species from the next. Nothing matched, or even looked like it should be able to fit together. Each builder had just assembled his abode beside or above the next, and they spiraled up until no more could be worked into the mountain of habitation. It was an absolute riot of styles, ornamentations and functionalities, connected haphazardly with little walkways and staircases. Each gargantuan pile of structures was a different size and shape from the next, and people of all kinds could be seen mingling on and through them.

The group of poleepkwa entered the city's Main North gate and headed off on their respective missions. Yeen stood patiently beside his friend and allowed him time to process what he was experiencing. The drone tried to recall his first time in the port...it seemed like a lifetime ago. Shortly after he'd reached the legal age, he'd accompanied his father on a routine supply run. He didn't remember being awestruck, it was a pretty ordinary excursion, though he did recollect feeling extremely relieved when they had finally left the city behind.

"Well," Yeen prompted eventually, "shall we?"

"Oh! Yeah, sure," Wikus replied, sticking close beside his protector as promised.

The pair entered the gate and made their way onto a crowded street. Though he knew it was probably a bad idea to look like a tourist, Wikus couldn't keep himself from gawking. He never could have envisioned such a place, not even after the poleepkwa had made their unintentional debut on Earth. The city was just as disgusting as promised. The gutters were full of garbage and waste, the air was gritty and a foul aroma permeated most everything. And now that he saw the buildings up close, Wikus was even more puzzled as to how they could even be standing. Many were propped with makeshift girders and all were in some state of disrepair. Above their heads, rickety walkways zigzagged over the street while higher still, small craft zipped by in no particular pattern.

Filthy as the place was, Wikus was enthralled. Every little thing he laid eyes on was new and strange. The most fascinating of all, though, was the populace. As he followed Yeen from the little twisting roads onto larger, more open ones, the crowd thickened in number and diversity. Aliens of every possible description wove amongst each other...some huge, some short, some mammalian, some reptilian, with a healthy smattering of "none of the above". Wikus could hear an occasional Haltherian phrase in the din, but the thick air was mostly a hodge-podge of countless foreign tongues and non-lingual vocalizations. People tugged livestock through the streets and vendors hauled carts of nameless wares. Almost all of the vehicle traffic was reserved to the skies; steering a car through a river of bodies like this would have been impossible.

Truthfully, navigation of any kind was a trick in itself here. The city was not laid out in any particular pattern or grid, and the streets had formed as needed. Nothing went in straight or parallel lines and with the building mountains towering so high overhead, getting any kind of bearing by sight seemed out of the question. Wikus didn't ask how Yeen knew where to go, he was simply grateful the drone appeared to have everything under control.

"So?" Yeen asked presently, raising his voice over the racket, "Enjoying it?"

"It's fantastic!" Wikus grinned.

"I was afraid you'd say that. No chance you'd like to go back now?"

"No way! We just got here....I could stand to get something to drink, though." Wikus wiped his face on his shirt again, the fringe of his hair matted with sweat.

"That sounds like a good idea," Yeen agreed. "If it's still open, there was a decent place this way..."

The drone led his companion down a network of streets and alleys and gradually, the nasty fragrance of unwashed masses gave way to some more pleasant scents. Wikus could smell exotic dishes cooking here and there, and the vivid aroma of produce and spices for sale. Eventually they arrived at the stand in question and Yeen was pleased to find it looking in reasonably good shape.

Their successful refreshment stop might have been an indicator of the day to come. Much to Yeen's relief, the pair meandered through Keehar with very little trouble; in fact, the excursion went splendidly. After an hour or so, the human's unflappable enthusiasm won over his caretaker's apprehension and they actually enjoyed themselves. Wikus did earn himself an occasional double take or dubious glance, but few bothered to inquire about his uniqueness. He certainly didn't have the look of an important figurehead or a dangerous criminal, and that seemed to be good enough for most.

Yeen kept his partner on a short leash, but even so, there was more than enough to fuel Wikus's excitement. They browsed shops of all kinds and filled their satchels with treasures to share back on the ship. Most of the goods were treats and candies, but Wikus fell in love with a particularly dazzling trinket. It was a glass orb the size of a baseball; clear and highly reflective when dormant. But when a person held it in his hand, it fired up in an entrancing array of colored lights, casting patterns and figures on the ceiling above. The hue and pace of the lights were dependant upon the person's mood, and one could learn to change it with a concentrated mind, as if playing an instrument.

Yeen chose a similar sort of toy for his son. He picked up a colorful set of spheres and platforms that could be arranged to make over 1000 different games and puzzles, any of which could be shared with his friends or played alone. It would certainly keep their trio of youngsters occupied for quite some time.

Keehar was a place where one could buy just about anything, and that included food. Every race prepared and sold their own favorites and Wikus had the opportunity to sample food from seven different galaxies. Some he liked better than others, but all of them were, at least, interesting. His favorite of the day turned out to be a Koltahdie specialty, the "Hudj" dumpling. They were served four to a skewer, each about the size of a golf ball and very delicately deep fried. The light dumpling was then filled with a rich, sweet cream and glazed. The flavor was exquisite and Wikus had to have another every time they passed a Koltahdie food stand.

Eventually, energy and sunshine began to wane, indicating that it was time to return to the Fiordraa. Yeen and Wikus sat at a rustic little refreshment stall, enjoying one last drink. It was a kind of tea, served in a carved wooden bowl and poured over a heap of crushed ice. It was mild and sweet, spiked with something that tasted a bit like citrus and cinnamon; the perfect thing in this stagnant heat. Yeen had finished and waited serenely while Wikus savored the last of his, letting the ice melt away into the drink.

"You know, this was a pretty good day," Wikus mused, licking his lips and fighting off an I told you so.

"Mm," Yeen clicked, "it certainly was. I'm very proud of you."

"Yeah?"

"Yes. You did everything I asked of you. I know it would have been easy to get carried away in a place like this, but you were very well-behaved. Almost like you've done this before, " Yeen smiled.

"Well, I am an adult, you know," Wikus grinned before he gulped down the rest of his tea.

"Sometimes I wonder. Finished?"

"Mm-hm."

"That goes there," Yeen pointed at a stack of used bowls, "and we'd better head back. We're required to return before dark."

"Right-o," Wikus complied. As fascinating as the city was in the light, he wasn't all that keen on seeing the night shift. He swiveled on his stool and pushed himself off onto the pavement, landing with a pained grunt.

"Are you okay?" Yeen worried.

"Uhf....man....yeah, my feet are just sore. Been a long day."

"Did you hurt them? Let me see..."

"No, no, we've just been walking for hours...don't your feet get sore?"

Yeen gave the man a famous poleepkwan head tilt. "Not unless they're injured."

"Huh," Wikus said as he worked a kink out of his back, "well, must be the exoskeleton, I suppose. It's normal for humans. Goes away after a good night's sleep, usually. Of course, this doesn't help much," he smiled and patted his midsection.

"Mnf," Yeen grumbled at the resurgence of an issue he felt they'd resolved. "You're not fat."

"Says you."

"Yes. Says me. I'll let you know when you've gained too much weight."

"Oh, I'm sure." Wikus chuckled at the drone's agitated mandibles. He couldn't resist ruffling Yeen's feathers from time to time; most likely Brutus's influence.

"Come along, now," Yeen took the human's shoulder tenderly, "let's get going."

As Wikus willed his stiff, aching legs to move, he realized the surroundings were beginning to change noticeably. The bright smudge in the dingy haze above had sunk below the crests of the buildings and some streets were already shrouded in darkness. Here and there, lamps began to illuminate and alien signs, previously inconspicuous in the grime, flickered on. The pedestrians scarcely seemed to notice, and the walkways were just as jammed as they had been when they'd arrived. This was definitely not a city that slept.

Wikus's thoughts were now focused on a long, cool bath and his ever-comfortable bed. He followed along dutifully, making every effort to keep up with the green worker. Yeen's innate sense of direction led them back through the tangle of streets along the quickest route to home and eventually, Wikus began to recognize a few of the curiosities he'd commented on when they'd entered, which brought him a good deal of relief. Not only were his feet tired, they were sweltering inside boots designed to keep them warm. The lovely fur that made them so plush was matted and slick with a day's worth of perspiration. Every step made him wish he could stop and sit, and he kept telling himself that would happen soon....a few more blocks, and he could rest.

Finally they exited an alley onto the first large road they'd taken that morning, and Yeen was forced to stop short. Only half-attentive, Wikus bumped into the back of the drone with an "Oomf!" Momentarily stymied, he moved to the side to take in the cause of their impediment.

The wide street was completely crammed with people, from right to left. It seemed someone on the far right was either fighting over or giving away something of great importance, and every alien within earshot wanted his share. The mob was near-riotous, everyone clamoring to be heard above the others.

Yeen stood, wavering his antennae and considering the problem. He could easily see the setting sun casting its light on the docks through the canyon of structures before him. If they were to turn around and take the next best route, it would add another 45 minutes at least to their journey, even if he carried the exhausted human on his back. It would certainly be dark by then.

"Stay very close to me," Yeen shouted over the din.

Wikus nodded and pressed himself behind his friend as more bodies shoved and bumped them in the tumult. Yeen chose the thinnest spot in the crowd and began to force his way in as Wikus clung to the shoulder strap of his carry-all. As the two tried to make their way through the mess, those they had to push aside mistakenly believed the pair were attempting to squeeze past them to the front and responded aggressively. Yeen and Wikus were pummeled with expletives and flailing, pushy limbs, forcing the human to abandon his sheep's role to take up one of a herding dog. He released his grip on Yeen's satchel and began pushing bodies back himself, offering his own assortment of curses.

Yeen immediately felt the slack on his strap but before he could turn to properly collect his charge, there were already bodies separating them. "Wikus!" he shouted, "Don't let them push you down, I'm coming!"

"I'm...stop it!...I'm trying!" he growled, his frustration quickly escalating into outright anger. The majority of the creatures buffeting him were a good deal stronger and heavier than a human, and even as he tried punching and kicking at them, he was still losing ground. All his efforts seemed to do was exacerbate the situation, but he wasn't the sort of man to roll over when things got hairy. Out of sheer stubbornness Wikus continued to fight at the crowd, yet he appeared to be getting further from his partner.

Yeen wasn't having much more luck. He'd taken to jabbing at the mob with his arm spikes but there was just nowhere for the bodies to go. They were already reaching the breaking point; should he instigate a fight with any one of these people, the horde could turn into a riot in a heartbeat and Wikus wouldn't stand a chance on his own. The drone was torn between the need to protect his friend, who was becoming increasingly distant from him, and remaining calm enough to maintain what peace there was.

Wikus could no longer hear Yeen's voice above the noise and he was starting to grow nervous. A huge, toad-like female something nearly flattened him against the wall of the nearest building and he complained loudly at her. The blubbery alien took no notice, her focus glued on the far end of the street. Wikus shoved at her, attempting to squeeze his way past, but his comparatively small hands just sunk into the flesh. Cursing to himself, he spun around and pressed his back against her flank so that he could brace his boots on the ground and hope to get some kind of leverage. But as he did so, Wikus caught sight of something through a hole in the crowd, something incredibly impossible that widened his eyes and dropped his jaw: a woman. A human woman.

She materialized only briefly, obscured by the multitude milling around the street. What was even more unbelievable was that she appeared to be an African woman, her skin a deep chocolate with classic Masai facial features. Her pure-black hair was almost waist long, twisted into tidy dreadlocks and tied with ribbon behind her neck. She wore garments like silk scarves, all in shades of green, adorned with little sparkly bits where they were fastened snugly around her lithe body.

She was accompanied and protected by a trio of aliens Wikus remembered seeing in the ship's catalogue, though he couldn't recall the name. They were gangly, elongated, mammalian looking people, almost similar to camels walking on two legs, minus the hump. Their bodies were covered in thin, cream-colored fur and in place of a head of hair, they sported huge, rabbit-esque ears that hung down behind their backs. Each of them were dressed in silks just like the woman, in varying colors.

Wikus simply stood in place, dumbstruck, back resting against the impatient toad. The woman hadn't noticed him through the mass of bodies, and she was moving perpendicular to his would-be trajectory. Moving quickly; the pace the quartet was keeping was nearly a jog. They were either in a hurry to get away from the commotion or they had some urgent agenda, but they were headed further into the city, away from the gate. Wikus knew he only had seconds to make a decision.

He whirled around and shot a hand into the air, hoping Yeen would see but not able to wait long enough to be certain. "Chris! This way!" Wikus bellowed into the crowd, then turned and darted through the stragglers as fast as his weary legs would take him.

By now, the frustrated drone had taken to climbing over the people rather than through them, but it was almost as difficult a task. Aliens buckled beneath him, squirmed out of the way or struggled to push him off, and Yeen bobbed up and down across the bodies like a gull floating on rough seas. He had his head above the confusion just long enough to see his human's hand raise, then a flash of orange shirt and pale skin and Wikus was gone, running away from him into the darkening city.

Yeen was aghast, his eyes wide and mouth agape, but it only took a few seconds for him to regain his senses. Frantic, he scrambled over the rabble, leaving a wake of curses and minor injuries behind him, until he tumbled over the edge of the mass and plopped onto the street. As expected, frayed tempers finally snapped and a brawl broke out beside him, but the nimble worker was already on his feet and running. He couldn't possibly fathom what would cause Wikus to make such a rash and dangerous mistake, but he was heading for a labyrinth of narrow corridors and streets. If Yeen lost sight of him there, the human might be in serious trouble. In spite of his fatigue, the man was already a good distance ahead, and he popped in and out of sight between the jumble of aliens until he slipped down an alley and out of Yeen's view. Cursing, the harried drone dodged the pedestrians, determined to catch up before he lost track of Wikus altogether. He knew this day had been going too well....

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

Gasping for breath and grousing in pain, Wikus pursued the mysterious woman and her escorts. As he charged through the streets, the twinge in his feet escalated to an agonizing throb that coursed all the way up his legs and into his backside. The bizarre event and the questions boiling in his mind pushed away his discomfort and he kept on putting one foot in front of the other.

After all, this was not something he could shrug off. If this woman was some kind of illusion, then it must have been intended for him, but who would want to do such a thing, and why? And if she was real, it could only mean aliens had visited Earth before and kept it quiet. What possible reason could they have for keeping Earth to themselves? And why take this woman? Were there more humans living so far from home? Maybe even a whole settlement of them....Wikus had to know.

He was having an undoubtedly difficult time keeping up with these people. It was obvious now that they were headed somewhere with purpose, their haste hadn't slowed a bit since leaving the riot behind. Every time they exited an alley and dissolved into the swarm of a larger thoroughfare, Wikus would have to pause to pick them out again. Each time, he was certain he'd lose them for good before a hint of green silk caught his eye amongst the bodies. He called out to the woman in every language he knew but there was little chance she'd hear him through the thick, humid air and noise of the spaceport.

Even if he didn't lose sight of them, Wikus knew his time was running short. It was physically impossible for any human to outrun a poleepkwa; Yeen would be hot on his heels and it could only be seconds before this errant detour was put to an end. Wikus wasn't looking forward to that. His friend would certainly be angry. He hated the thought of disappointing the person who had just finished telling him how proud he was, but if he could just stop the woman and speak with her....

With his chest heaving and most of his body in some degree of anguish, Wikus was forced to stop in front of another busy road. It took him much longer than it should have to spot the group, now entering a crossway far down the street, and he had the feeling this was the last time he'd be able to locate their position again. They were still gaining too much ground and he was almost tapped, but he had to give it one last try. Wikus staggered across the street, bumping into irritated aliens left and right, and set off down the path he was fairly certain they'd taken. It was more of a tunnel than an alley, narrow and almost completely dark, leading through one of the building-heaps. Wikus couldn't make out any shapes that looked like people, but there was some light at the end and he raced towards it.

As the frantic Earthling reached the tunnel's end and darted out of gloom, his left hand was wrenched back painfully, stopping him short. Expecting to see a furious drone behind him, Wikus was perplexed to find the alleyway empty. His comm link had caught on something sharp, and he was still entangled on it. It appeared to be the rusted out wreck of a small, personal craft that had crashed here and been left to decay. Wikus had managed to hook his wrist band on an exposed piece of twisted metal. He could feel blood sliding over his hand but he was in no mood to deal with that now. Swearing through gritted teeth, he hurried to free himself and return to his pursuit.

Once he was loose, however, it became clear that his efforts were of no avail. Wikus was standing in a sort of courtyard, a hole in the mountain that reached upward seven or eight stories and opened onto the sky. It was empty of pedestrians and seemed like it was designed that way. There were no shop fronts, just a few back doors and some connecting catwalks winding up the sides. It was cluttered with litter, though, as the people who lived in these buildings evidently used the space to dump their garbage.

Wikus strode into the middle of the courtyard, still panting. Across from him, four corridors similar to the one he'd just used exited the space, each in a different direction, and he had no way of knowing which one the woman had taken. His heart sank, but he decided to try one and see if he'd get lucky. Wikus chose the most inviting of the four and trotted down it to find that it, too, opened onto a wide, busy street. As expected, the group was nowhere to be seen, and the exhausted human had to admit defeat.

Wikus doubled over for a moment, his body completely drained, and attempted to catch his breath. He was heartbroken; even though this person looked nothing like Tania, it was as though someone had shown him his beloved wife, then taken her away all over again. He'd come so close, so close to making a connection with another of his kind, something he'd given up on years ago. But, perhaps the poleepkwa would be able to solve this riddle for him. Wikus straightened himself as he considered it.....they had political relations with many races, certainly they'd be able to find out what this was all about, and Yeen.......

His heart beginning to thump in anxiety, Wikus jogged back the way he'd come and stopped in the courtyard again, as if expecting to see the drone waiting for him there. Where was he? There was no way he couldn't have caught up by now. The city was dark. He'd made them late. But Yeen would never head back without him....Wikus nearly slapped his head in self-admonishment as he remembered his comm link. He hadn't owned it that long, and with his mind set so firmly on the mysterious stranger, the obvious solution had evaded him.

Wikus tapped at the watch face in the gloom, but got no result. He could feel that its surface was slick and it brought to his attention a deep, searing pain in his hand but the scarce light was making it difficult to see. Instinct told him he was facing a considerable problem and Wikus hurried to stand beneath one of the few exterior lamps in the circle to get a proper view. His left hand looked like it had been dipped in red paint; blood covered it up to his wrist and had splattered all the way down the front of his shirt and trousers, aided by his elevated heartbeat. Using his shirt to wipe away as much of the mess as possible, Wikus could see that the shard of metal had gouged a trench into the top of his hand, so deep between the bones that it just missed piercing the skin on his palm. It burned and continued to purge thick gobs of crimson, but he could only deal with one crisis at a time.

Unfortunately, his comm link hadn't fared much better. Wiping away the blood revealed an opening in the link's cover, barely sufficient to poke a fingernail through, but it was enough. The thing was nearly impossible to destroy, but it could be disassembled. Evidently the motion of catching it on the shrapnel and then yanking it forward had pried open the case like a cap off a bottle. An opening like this would allow the translucent aquamarine fluid that powered the little device to leak out, but Wikus dearly hoped there was still enough inside to give him a minute or two of use.

Hastily he snapped the case closed again and gave it another tap of the finger. Its face flickered weakly, then went out again. "Son of a..." Wikus muttered, tapping it again and again. This time, it refused to illuminate at all. "Come on!" he growled, slamming his wrist into a nearby support beam furiously, but it only sent another wave of pain through his mauled hand. It appeared he was on his own.

Wikus stood quietly in the pool of pallid light, weighing his options. The courtyard was eerily quiet compared to the rest of the city. The racket reverberating through the tunnels on either side sounded haunting and distant. Even though he knew this incident was entirely his own doing, Wikus couldn't help but feel sorry for himself, alone in the dark, listening to the pit-pat of his blood dripping from his fingertips and onto the pavement. At the very least, he should try to treat his wound.

Keeping his injury raised above his heart, Wikus pulled his satchel to the front and rifled through an outer pocket with his good hand until he fished out a compact first aid kit. Like a clumsy magician attempting an ill-practiced card trick, he pressed the case against his chest so he could manipulate it with one hand. With a bit of fussing, he managed to retrieve a disinfectant wipe and a small tube of clear gel. After replacing the case, Wikus bit off the tube's cap and tore open the wipe packet. It took some quick handiwork, but he was able to wipe the wound clean and smear the entire contents of the tube into the gouge fairly well. He smoothed it over with his thumb and, for reasons he couldn't solidify, blew on it gently as it set up. In a few minutes, the gel had become a soft, plastic-ish substance, very effectively sealing the flesh and soothing the pain.

Wikus inspected his hand carefully, feeling a minor degree of optimism. If nothing else, he'd at least been able to take care of one problem on his own, however insignificant. He glanced around for a trash bin simply out of habit and finding none, tossed the used packaging to the ground with the rest of the garbage. What to do now....

He'd always been taught that a person ought to remain in one place when he was lost. Then again, those rules didn't take foreign worlds into account. From everything he'd learned about Keehar this place was a jungle, and in the wild a bloodied, exhausted straggler was easy prey. He hadn't been paying attention to his surroundings at all as he'd raced through the maze of streets but maybe, if he took it slowly, he could pick his way out and get back to where he started. Perhaps he'd even find Yeen along the way.

As Wikus longed for his partner's warm, comforting embrace a sickening thought bullied its way into his brain: what if something had happened to the drone? He'd left him behind in a riot, maybe he never even got the chance to give chase. He could be anywhere, injured, detained or worse....if something bad had happened to Yeen because of the man's reckless decision, he'd never be able to live with himself. Regardless, he couldn't stay put any longer. Wikus sorted out his unruly hair and made every attempt to look like he wasn't stranded and terrified, then set off back the way he'd come.

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

On a catwalk far above the courtyard, hidden in darkness and silence, a pair of pupiless yellow eyes watched the strange alien stride out of the lamplight below. Their owner had never seen a creature quite like this one before, and it was perplexing why it'd be alone in a place like this. It didn't look dangerous. It didn't even look like it knew where it was going. Still, appearances could be deceiving and the figure contemplated the scenario carefully before it turned and left the courtyard as well.

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

Nearly 12 blocks away, Yeen paced up and down a busy passage like a caged beast, rubbing his forehead fretfully. He'd sprinted along every possible route that Wikus could have taken with no sign of the human. How he could have escaped so completely was baffling, to say nothing of the possible reasons why he'd run. Again, he tried his comm link. And yet again, the same response: "Channel unavailable." Yeen was inclined to fear the worst; the reasons why Wikus's link would be inaccessible could only be that it was either destroyed or out of fuel, and he'd specifically verified that the man had charged it.

It seemed the wayward Earthling's only remaining salvation would be his tracking implant. To think, if Wikus had had things his way, he'd be without it. Unfortunately, as a drone, Yeen did not have access to the equipment needed to track his partner. He'd have to call a high-ranking soldier; General Tarzier. The distressed worker shuddered. Punishment for this kind of recklessness would certainly befall them both and Yeen couldn't bear the thought of inflicting such a harsh lesson on his vulnerable companion. If he contacted the General and Wikus turned up a moment after, they would still be in for it.

He stood tall, peering above the crowd, hoping to see a weary but unharmed human making his way towards him. Disappointed, he attempted the comm link again. Still nothing. He couldn't afford to wait any longer; the more time Wikus spent in Keehar alone, the less likely it was they'd recover him alive. Yeen opened a channel to the ship's command post.

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

Reclining in the cramped Command Room on board the Fiordraa, General Tarzier watched the electric lights of the spaceport replace the murky sun. He was silent and brooding. Beside him, Colonel Azik had just finished checking in the last of the expedition parties. Everyone had returned with the exception of the only two out on recreational business. Azik eyed the General warily, cautious not to disturb him. He knew these last two crew members were the cause of his burdened mind.

"Yorintu's back?" Tarzier asked, sounding more like he was speaking to himself rather than Azik.

"Sir. And the rest of his group."

"Any trouble?"

"No, Sir."

"Mn," he grunted, eyes still fixed on the city. "And the other two?"

"Have...not checked in yet, Sir," Azik answered gingerly. Before he could decide if he ought to make a helpful suggestion, the intercom buzzed for attention.

"That'll be Yeen," Tarzier muttered. As the massive soldier made no inclination to reach for the console, Azik opened the link himself.

"Yes, Sir," he confirmed.

"Put him through."

A panicky voice crackled through the intercom, "General Tarzier....Sir..."

"What happened, Yeen?"

"Wh-...it's Wikus...."

"He's lost," the General finished for him.

"Yes, Sir. There was a riot and we were separated, I've been looking for over an hour but-"

"I'm on my way. Don't move," Tarzier snarled as he hefted himself onto his feet.

"Yessir."

Colonel Azik closed the link and ducked to the side to keep out of the General's way. He was quite familiar with the heat broiling in the soldier's eyes and had no interest in making it worse.

"Take over. I won't be long," Tarzier added as he left the bridge.

"Sir!" Azik felt a deep sympathy for the pair the General would soon confront; if Wikus was found alive and well, he might soon wish he'd remained lost.

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

Somewhere in the gloom of Keehar, Wikus continued his fruitless search, wandering blindly from one street to the next. The chance that he'd have been able to successfully backtrack the same route was pretty slim anyway, but now he felt truly lost. Not to mention tired, sore and thirsty; he needed a place to rest for a bit.

Along the roadside he spotted a quiet produce market and beside the bins of fruit, a few stacks of old crates. Gratefully he plopped down on one with a long moan, relishing the relief he felt in taking the pressure off his feet. Wikus rested his back against the wall but was careful to keep a keen eye fixed on the passers-by for trouble. The nocturnal residents of the port milled to and fro but none paid him much attention. And there wasn't one among them that looked even remotely poleepkwan.

"You really screwed up this time," Wikus mumbled to himself. "Yeen's gonna kill me."

The weary human hadn't settled nearly as long as he would have liked before the shopkeeper emerged with a new batch of produce. He was a spindly, amphibious looking creature, no larger than a six-year-old human, with smooth skin colored in blues and grays. With his arms much longer than his legs, he moved in a very monkey-like way as he clambered up onto the bin to dump the new fruit into the heap. Once he was satisfied with the display, he moved to return to his shop and caught sight of the stranger lounging on his crates.

Clearly he didn't think much of this never-before-seen alien. The merchant began squawking at him in an unfamiliar, chattering language, throwing his long arms at the intruder in an unmistakably hostile manner. Wikus struggled to his feet, attempting to quell the creature's distrust in his best Haltherian, with little success. The shopkeeper wasn't satisfied until Wikus had backed a good 10 or 12 feet away. Then he gave the outsider another good scolding before he scampered back into his market.

Wikus stood in the dim light, a little frazzled by the unexpected encounter. He was about ready to continue his quest when a genteel voice at is back caught him by surprise and he whirled around to face it.

"Pay him no mind, he is always that way," it said plainly in the common tongue.

Wikus was looking upon one of the most grotesque aliens he'd yet seen. The "man" was a good foot shorter than he but twice as wide; he looked very much like a naked mole-rat awkwardly sculpted out of snot. His putrid gray skin was mostly hairless, bunched and folded asymmetrically over muscles and fat. Each thickset limb ended in four stumpy digits with orange, ill-trimmed claws. His face was uncannily mole-like; a set of four lower incisors jutted up towards his nose, separating flabby jowls that framed his tiny, beady black eyes. This resident appeared to be a merchant of some kind as well, clad in a leather apron that had probably been a light color when it was made. Now it was greasy and filthy with stains, which seemed to befit the mole pretty well.

What did not mesh with this thing's character was the manner in which he was conducting himself. He clasped his chunky hands before himself politely, and when he spoke, it was as though he were an underling addressing his supervisor. Wikus found it more than a little unnerving and he slowly backed a few steps away. The man did not advance, but he continued in his welcoming tone.

"You are new to this place, yes? I am called Chova. My family is recent here, too. What is it you are named?"

Wikus remembered well the instructions Yeen had given....do not speak to anyone. He furrowed his brow, trying to make sense of this oddball's overt friendliness, and continued to inch backwards. Simultaneously, he reached behind himself for his satchel, hoping to keep his actions hidden from the stranger while he felt around for the pistol.

Chova ignored the human's reluctance to converse. "You are in need of help? We have communication portals," he offered, pointing at the dormant comm link on Wikus's wrist. This guy didn't miss a thing. "Come to my home....it is dangerous here alone, we will offer you refuge."

As Chova outstretched his hand, Wikus finally found the correct pouch on his carry-all. But he had no sooner placed his fingers on the gun when a sharp pain in his right thigh caught him by surprise and he yelped, yanking a weaponless hand from the bag. The pain was steady, as though something had stuck in his leg. Sure enough, he twisted around to see a tiny dart glinting in the street's multi-colored lights, no larger than the remains of a used-up pencil. Wikus hastened to pull the thing out of his thigh, but the damage was already done. Its transparent vial was empty and he was already beginning to feel the effects of the drug. The dart fell from his hand and clinked on the pavement, and everything began to take on a pinkish-orange fuzz.

Much to his astonishment, however, Wikus did not lose consciousness. He dropped his hands to his sides and wavered a bit on his feet, but his mind and senses were still very much intact. He told himself to run or at least, to fetch the pistol, but his physical being remained inert. It wasn't until Chova spoke again that he was able to react at all.

"Good...yes? Now, you come with me...," he soothed, still offering his hand.

Wikus was horrified when he heard himself reply. "...Thank you....," he said, somehow independent of his own brain, and took the mole-rat's open hand. He felt panic well up inside again as Chova led him down the street and he was utterly unable to prevent himself from following. The drug had turned him into a living marionette, acting and speaking in whatever way Chova saw fit. The only way he'd be able to use his weapon now would be if the mole wished him to do so.

From across the street, the luminous yellow eyes watched Chova and their mutual prey turn down a secluded alley. So far, so good.

Once out of view of the main road, Chova ceased his unnervingly hospitable prattle and began to move with purpose, huffing through his ugly teeth and dragging the incapacitated human behind him. Wikus nearly stumbled over his own feet as his logy body struggled to keep pace. He couldn't even look around to get a sense of where he was being taken, not that he knew where he was to begin with. His captor led him through narrow, jagged alleys into a neighborhood that could be considered dicey even by Keehar standards. For a solid ten minutes they jogged in the oppressive darkness until Chova reached his destination and relinquished his grasp on his acquisition.

Wikus found himself in a narrow passage behind a dismal, unnamed building, standing in the flickering light of a single, pathetic bulb. They were waiting before a lone door while Chova rifled through his apron for the key. As Wikus struggled to make out his surroundings, he felt the acid rise in his gullet. The back alley was made congested by heaps of refuse, the vast majority of which appeared to be stripped carcasses. The bones, hair and exoskeletons of countless creatures lay in careless piles, the remains of their flesh rotting and seeping together. The weak light caught glimpses of unidentifiable vermin writhing and clambering among the carrion and the stench of decay was gut-wrenching at best. The alley was so beleaguered with bodies and trash that all that remained free was a path just wide enough to allow one to walk from the street to the door.

Inside his mind, Wikus was shouting at himself. If he could only move....no one was restraining him, it didn't matter where he ran, anywhere had to be safer than this.....but he was powerless to react. Independent of his terrified thoughts, his body wavered slightly on its feet, forward and back. The haze was thick now, and he was humming merrily to himself like a man waiting for a taxi after a few too many. It was as if it were happening to someone else and he was getting a first-person view through the victim's eyes.

Eventually the lock unbolted with a clunk and Chova pulled the heavy iron-like door open. Wikus was shoved roughly inside the pitch-black interior and the door closed behind them, sealing off the only avenue of escape. The smell inside the building wasn't much more pleasant than that outside. The mole resumed dragging his captive by the wrist through the darkness and after several clumsy paces, Wikus heard his footfalls take on a different and sickeningly familiar resonance. He could feel that he was walking on a grate now and its surface was tacky and gooey from a lack of cleaning. He'd no sooner made the realization before Chova released his arm and left the man standing alone and blind.

When the stumpy alien finally flipped on the lights, Wikus knew he was looking upon his journey's final stop. He'd been parked in the corner of a sizable square room with flat metal walls and, as suspected, a sturdy grated floor. The abattoir was filthy, streaked and discolored by years of unwashed stains and rust, made all the more bleak by the wan greenish illumination. The entire left wall was dedicated to the butcher's tools, a gruesome patchwork of blades, scoops and saws, all of them in various states of repair. Chains capped with hooks and grapples hung from the ceiling and there was an assortment of metal tables scattered about in varying sizes for different creatures. Beneath his feet, the grate was caked and lumpy with gobs of rotting blood and tissue, so much so that some of the openings were completely clogged. There was only one other exit across the way, a narrow doorway that headed a dark hall. Beyond it, Wikus could just barely make out shapes that suggested at a shop front. A shop that probably faced an open street; so very close, and yet, completely unobtainable.

Chova seemed eager to get to work. Chattering excitedly to himself, he chose a long, low table with assorted shackles on either end and wrenched it forward. He scurried around it and as Wikus stood helpless, the mole quickly pulled the satchel over his head and tossed it to the floor. Chova didn't even bother to check the bag for valuables; what he had in his possession now was worth far more than anything the human could have been carrying.

"Lie down. Here," Chova ordered, pushing Wikus onto the table when the drugged prisoner didn't move quickly enough. As soon as Wikus was on his back, the butcher busied himself at his feet, fiddling with his trouser cuffs and boot zippers until he figured out how to remove the shoes. Those he tossed into the corner as well without giving them a second glance. So too went the damaged wrist communicator.

With the human's hands and feet unadorned, Chova chose the appropriate cuffs and bound them, pulling the cables taut and keeping the man's limbs stretched securely towards either end of the table. When he felt certain his prey was properly restrained, he grinned at the immobile body, showing an even beastlier array of misshapen teeth. Wikus continued to hum drunkenly.

As the elated meat monger scuttled to his wall to choose the best tool, Wikus caught the faint sound of a visitor letting himself in to the darkened butcher shop out front. Seconds later, a black silhouette and a pair of luminous yellow eyes made their way quietly down the corridor. When the alien stepped into the light of the abattoir, his visage made Chova look like a puppy.

The butcher's accomplice was largely reptilian in nature, like a dementedly mutated alligator from a toxic waste swamp. He was bipedal, lean and bound with stringy muscle. His leathery hide was a blackish-green and the only clothes he wore covered his hips and upper legs, some kind of trouser that looked like it'd been fashioned out of the shreds of other demolished garments. Around his waist and torso he wore similarly hand-made belts that secured an array of tools, weapons and chemicals. He had a whip-like tail that he held a few inches from the ground and his hands and feet each ended in four cruel talons. Short, crocodilian jaws housed a riot of curved teeth like cat's claws, so disorderly and protruding that he couldn't close his mouth completely. They obviously saw a lot of use; some were broken off and others were missing entirely, leaving only putrid, reddened sockets. Perhaps the oddest thing about the creature was his stance....even with both feet planted firmly on the floor, he looked as though he were being suspended by an invisible cable attached at the back of his thick neck. All four of his long, gangly arms hung limp from the shoulders, swaying slightly as he moved. His head, too, seemed to always tilt forward a bit. But it was the eyes Wikus found most unsettling.

The lizard-man's eyes were lit like a jack-o-lantern's, fire-yellow and completely without pupils or irises. They cast a bit of illumination down his gnarled muzzle and along the underside of his pronounced brow ridge. The thing directed his soulless gaze to the hapless Earthling but his expression was impossible to read.

Chova's, by contrast, was not. The mole had chosen a frightening machete blade, the top of which curved up in a sinister hook, and he was brandishing it joyfully as he greeted his colleague in a gurgling language. The reptile didn't seem to share the butcher's enthusiasm (if he was capable of showing any emotion at all) and simply stood soberly at the exit, taking in his partner's revelry.

With the lizard-man looking on, Chova positioned himself beside the table and turned the machete blade-up over Wikus's chest. He carefully snagged the shirt collar with the knife's hook and, in one quick motion, split the garment down the center. The blood-stained fabric flopped to the sides and exposed the bound man's bare torso and, sitting innocently upon the pale skin, the glowing Ulu Mahan.

Chova and the reptile both recoiled slightly, eyes widened, and there was a charged silence in the dank room. It was blatantly obvious that they recognized the significance of the crystalline flame and neither had been expecting such a circumstance. The lizard was the first to react, throwing up all four previously lifeless hands in a very recognizable "I'm out" gesture and edging backwards towards the hall. This dereliction seemed to snap the mole-rat out of his dumbfounded trance and he slammed the knife on the table beside Wikus with a new and fierce resolve. A sparkly necklace was not about to come between him and his fortune.

Chova clasped the jewel in his meaty paw and wrenched it over his captive's head before he whipped it at the reptile, along with a few choice expletives. In a liquid-quick move of the hand, the retreating alien caught the chain and held it, glaring at the violet flame swinging from his claw. Chova spat an angry command at his accomplice, punctuating his distaste with a flailing of his lumpy arms. For a moment, the pair stared each other down. Then, oddly enough, the more formidable of the two relented. The lizard took one last look at Wikus before he turned and loped down the hall, the Ulu Mahan still clutched in his hand.

Wikus watched the little glowing gem disappear into the shadows, taking with it the protection it had been promised to afford him. Chova did so as well and when he was satisfied that his orders had been taken, he returned to the grisly chore he so relished. His exuberance might have been shaken, but looking over this never-before-seen specimen reminded him of the bounty it would soon bring. With macabre intensity, Chova inspected the odd creature, his stubby nose only inches from the slow rise and fall of Wikus's chest. Once the visual was complete, he pressed his hands brusquely into the flesh, feeling up and down the human's chest and belly, getting a sense of the skeletal structure and organ placement before he opened the body.

Evidently pleased with his inspection, Chova rubbed his hands together and muttered a reassurance to himself before reclaiming his knife. He situated it blade-side up again but this time, positioned the hook in the center of his subject's chest and pressed it firmly into the tissue. In spite of the fact that he was becoming increasingly drowsy, Wikus felt the puncture with vibrant clarity. A searing, biting pain radiated through his immobile form as the metal gouged skin and muscle to scrape nauseatingly against his sternum. He could hear himself scream inside his mind, yet any observer might believe he was about to drift off to sleep. His eyelids were becoming heavy, his body was still, calm and quiet....he hadn't even managed an "ouch". And perhaps it would have been better to allow himself to fall asleep. He knew it was certainly the wise option, to spare himself the agony of being disemboweled alive. Yet he fought it with every iota of strength he'd retained. Wikus was determined not to give up, and if keeping himself awake was the only victory he could manage, then so be it. At the very least, Chova would have to look his victim in the eye as he slaughtered him.

Of course, from the butcher's perspective, death was a lucrative business. Claiming one more life, even an intelligent one, was just another day on the job and such a thing as pity would only be detrimental. He demonstrated none of it as he removed the hook from the puncture, trailing a few speckles of deep crimson across the light skin. Chova brought the bloodied hook to his nose and sniffed at it, then took a small, cautious taste. It wouldn't do to sell this alien to the highest bidder, only to have them discover it was poisonous. The dead buyer's relatives would surely come back and return the favor. Unfortunately for Wikus, the flavor of human blood appeared to be pleasing and Chova burbled in approval.

Grinning cruelly, the butcher replaced the hook into the wound, sending a fresh jolt of pain though the man's chest. Wikus braced himself as he waited for his captor to give his skin the same treatment his shirt had received. His thoughts turned to Yeen, and Brutus, Joji, Ruwala....he'd give anything to be with them now. He would never see them again, but at least his memories of the kindness they'd shown him would be comforting as he passed to the next world and whatever awaited him there.

Chova resumed his careful incision, but he hadn't cut more than an inch through the soft skin before he stopped again. It appeared he was listening to something and Wikus quickly realized the lizard-man was speaking with someone in the shop. It was clear from his tone that whomever it was certainly wasn't welcome. Curiously, the visitor wasn't making a sound, at least, not any that human ears could hear.

Once more infuriated, Chova withdrew his knife again and hefted it firmly, intending to use it to settle whatever problem his seemingly disadvantageous accomplice was having. He hadn't taken a full step towards the door, however, before the reptile's surly grousing escalated into a bone-chilling shriek. The butcher was frozen in mid stride as the sound of a struggle threatened to drown out the terrified squealing. A few seconds after, the market at the end of the hall lit up in a blue-white flash Wikus recognized all too well. The sloppy, ugly sound of a living thing blown apart from the inside followed, and then silence.

Horrified and blindsided, Chova remained stock-still, holding his machete, unable to choose between fight and flight. For a moment it seemed the only movement in the room was the stream of blood that had welled up in Wikus's wound and spilled over the side of his chest. As the pair watched, the feeble light at the end of the corridor was utterly blocked out by a massive form making its way towards them. Affixed to it, an orange orb burned through the dark, bobbing with its owner's gait.

Into the cold green light stepped General Tarzier, nearly doubled over to fit through the tunnel. He straightened himself, antennae brushing against the ceiling, and fixed Chova with a furious glare that Wikus hoped he'd never have to witness again. His striped carapace was splattered with blood like a gruesome Jackson Pollock painting and his still-smoldering Arc Rifle rested against his plated shoulder.

The butcher gaped at the soldier towering over him. His hand trembled and for a second or two, it appeared he actually considered taking a swing at the General. Chova's fear was quick to decide for him; he dropped the blade and opted to make a run for it. No sooner had the stocky killer turned to take a stride then Tarzier aimed his weapon and fired. Again the room lit up as the energy bolt sizzled through the stagnant air and hit its target with expert precision. The mole-rat blew apart like a water balloon, plastering Wikus and the abattoir with black blood and greasy entrails.

Unresponsive and thoroughly exhausted, Wikus was uncertain whether he was giving up the fight or if the drug was finally overtaking him. He was dimly aware of Tarzier's voice before the orange haze blackened entirely and he relinquished his consciousness to the sedative's influence.

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