Chapter 8: Trading Death for Damnation
by Duo Radon
The first sensation that Wikus could identify as he wandered back into the world of the living was a gentle and consistent warmth at his back. At first, he was uncertain if the sensory information was real or just the remnant of a dream. But as he lay, eyes closed, it became clear....he was on his back, on something hard, but warm. His clothes were missing, which meant the air that met his skin was noticeably cool. Toasty on his back, chilly at his front, like a grilled cheese left on the griddle. As the logy human opened his eyes and blinked in the stark, sterile light of the 1st Quadrant Med bay, he began to understand how close he'd come to being just that.
The room was quiet but for the usual ambient buzzing and ticking of the machinery. Wikus remained still, allowing the haze to lift, and gazed at the dormant scanners above him through tired, narrowed eyes. He was alive, and he was safe. How that had happened, he couldn't quite remember. Clearly he'd slept through the commotion and his caretakers had allowed him to regain consciousness in peace.
Eventually, he dared a simple movement, lifting his left hand. His muscles were stiff, but the medication must have been doing its thing as he felt no pain. Lazily he inspected his open hand, twisting it front to back. Where there had once been a hideous gouge, all that remained were a few neat scars, the tattered flesh soldered back together with inhuman precision. The skin around the wound was clean, but there was still a noticeable amount of dried blood caked around his nails and in the creases of his knuckles. Likewise, the rest of his weary body was still streaked with essence of Chova, its putrid aroma now making itself known in Wikus's nostrils. He grimaced and lowered his hand to idly trace his fingers down the center of his chest. As he expected, that cut too was sealed beautifully; his physical self would retain very little to remember the incident, at any rate.
As Wikus permitted his mind to wander over the aftermath of his misadventure, he suddenly realized that his fingers ought to have found his most valuable of accoutrements and his eyes widened in alarm. Frantically he felt around his neck for the Ulu Mahan until a soft, clicking voice interrupted.
"I have it here," Yeen said in a somber tone.
"Ah!" Wikus barked, startled, and snapped his gaze sideways. The drone had been sitting to his right so quietly and so still that Wikus would have continued to believe he was alone in the infirmary had Yeen not spoken. In the poleepkwa's insectoid hand, he lifted the gleaming gold chain and its familiar glowing crystal.
"Oh..." Wikus sighed, relaxing himself. Yeen dropped his arm again, cradling the precious necklace in his cupped hands, and for a moment poleepkwa and human stared at one another in silence. Both seemed to struggle for the best way to open an uncomfortable but obligatory dialogue.
The careworn human grunted as he struggled onto his side to face his friend. In his most sincere tone, Wikus offered the only sentiment that came to the forefront of his drug-addled mind. "Thank you."
Yeen's expression was not the least bit consoling. The green worker's eyes bore the same conflicted sadness they'd shown on Earth, when he'd promised to return for a man who would most likely not survive their parting. It caused an unwelcome ache in the human's chest to know that he was the cause of such a resurfacing.
"You're very lucky to be here," Yeen stated plainly, knowing full well this was not news to anyone.
"Yeah...." Wikus answered quietly.
"A few minutes later and you'd have been-"
"I know," Wikus interrupted, more to refrain from hearing the gory details than to help the conversation, "but I'm not...."
"Why would you leave me?" Yeen almost pleaded. "What could possibly have been that important?"
Wikus furrowed his brow, momentarily stymied by this change in demeanor, and then he remembered. "Oh! You won't believe it!" he said excitedly, pushing himself into a sitting position with a fair amount of difficulty. "I saw a woman!"
Yeen was thoroughly perplexed. "A human?"
"Yes!" Wikus waved his hands manically as he began to recall the escapade.
"That's not possible..."
"I know, it shouldn't be, but she was right there! I tried to get you to follow, but.....I guess that didn't..."
"No. It did not," Yeen grumbled, though he had to admit his curiosity was piqued. "What did this person look like?"
"Mm, well, she had dark skin and hair, a lot like the people from home, you remember?" Yeen nodded to show that he did. "And she was dressed in silky, green....I don't know, scarves, all around her, with jewels and cords, and she was with three of these.....oh, man, I can't remember the name....they look like camels...ah, you don't know what that is, um....long faces, big long ears, tan," Wikus gestured emphatically with his hands as he tried to mime his thoughts.
"....Majhatugha?" Yeen guessed.
"Yes! Yeah, and they all had the same clothes, but in different colors, and it was like they were escorting her somewhere....I mean, I ran like crazy and I couldn't keep up..."
"That...would have been the royal family..." Yeen muttered, now entirely baffled. Wikus was describing something he could not have known beforehand and yet, such a sight in Keehar was utterly unheard of, if not downright impossible.
Wikus was delighted to be able to share the reason for his reckless abandon at last, even more thrilled that his partner, too, was taken aback by the odd turn of events. Unfortunately, it was apparent that this report, however remarkable, was not going to get him off the hook. As Yeen rubbed at his temple forlornly, his human charge attempted to vindicate his position further.
"Honestly, Chris, I never would have thought I could lose you like that..."
The drone glanced up at his partner without raising his head. "I had a little trouble with the crowd."
"Oh....yeah....but, I mean, you weren't hurt, right?"
"No....just delayed.....a few seconds can make a big difference in a place like Keehar. If you'll recall..."
"Well..." Wikus faltered apologetically, "...it's....I couldn't just let her go, eh?....I had to try....something..."
"All that preparation we did...."
"You were almost killed-"
"I know! What can I say? I'm sorry-"
"...and the General..."
"Oh- he's not mad, is he?"
Yeen shot the man a look that was instantly affirmative.
"W- I mean, it's not like he's going to kill me. He wouldn't save my life just so he could bring me back and rip me apart....right?" Wikus forced a chuckle that had no humor behind it.
"Do you not understand how important you are to us?" Yeen persisted, ignoring the question.
Wikus's dumbfounded expression made it evident that this was not understood and Yeen sighed as he continued. "Your sacrifice for our people...this," he lifted the chain again, "this isn't a thing that happens often. Your story will have made it all the way home by now....you're a part of our history. There will not be a child born from this day onward that will not learn your name."
Wikus opened his mouth to speak but found himself at a loss. Yeen's exposition seemed logical, but he never would have considered it in those terms.
"And Tarzier," Yeen went on as he resumed rubbing at his head, "he comes from a long line of powerful leaders. He wasn't put in command of this offensive by chance. His family is as prestigious as any warrior's has ever been. If he were to come back without you....he'd be a disgrace-"
"Then....why did he let me go?" Wikus interjected brusquely, sounding more accusatory than he intended.
"Because I asked him to."
"But-....I don't follow...."
"You're a grown man," the drone answered sternly, yet again irritated that he should have to explain such a concept, "you're free to make your own choices. And after you'd achieved so much this year...it would have seemed unfair not to let you decide for yourself. Besides....would you have taken 'no' for an answer?"
"Well," Wikus shot back with every intention of defending himself, though he was forced to admit that his partner spoke the truth, "...I guess not."
As Wikus slouched on the table, fiddling his hands glumly, Yeen couldn't hide his empathy. It was probably best, after all, to focus on what was, rather than only on what might have been. "You did very well, really," he added affectionately, "up until that last bit."
"Yeah?" Wikus replied with half a smile.
"Yes. The General will have to recognize that."
"Okay, look," Wikus continued in earnest, "I'll explain everything to him, don't worry. I'll make sure he knows this was all my fault-"
"No! Listen, I won't let you take this one!"
"Do you think I care about that?" the green poleepkwa interjected with such vigor it stopped the human in his figurative tracks. "I almost lost you. Don't you understand what you mean to me? And to Joji, and Brutus.....you're a part of my family. I love you."
Wikus sat with his mouth still slightly agape as those words took root in his brain. He came to realize it was the first time they'd ever been spoken between them. In fact, he hadn't heard that proclamation since the last time he'd had a human body, and then, it had been from Tania. It seemed like a lifetime ago, and, in many ways, it was. Back then, he never would have thought he could feel anything close to love for a creature from another galaxy, not if he lived for a thousand years. It was miraculous how much circumstance could change a person's state of mind.
".....I love you, too," Wikus answered honestly, "...and I really am sorry."
Yeen did not reply, but his kind smile was all the reconciliation and comfort Wikus could have wanted. The drone stood and with the utmost tenderness, looped the sparkling chain around his human's neck, returning it to its rightful place. Leaving his hand upon the man's neck, he leaned forward and pressed his forehead against Wikus's. The pair remained in the embrace for the moment, taking blissful solace in each other's company.
No sooner had skin and plated exoskeleton parted than the bay doors flew open, the soft tranquility of the infirmary sliced apart by the fury of General Tarzier. He crossed the room in a few swift strides, kicking a neatly organized tool cart out of his way as he did so. The cart crashed to the far wall and Grenyo's pristine implements scattered across the floor with a painful racquet.
Terrified, Wikus huddled meekly on his table, wishing he'd had the forethought to at least dress. Yeen, though just as anxious, stood upright beside his friend to face whatever punishment the General felt they'd earned.
"WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?!" Tarzier bellowed down at the defenseless Earthling, his false eye blazing like a blast furnace.
Wikus was unable to produce words of any coherence as he trembled in the shadow of the massive soldier. Much to his dismay, Yeen seemed almost eager to speak for him. "Sir, " the drone began firmly, and was immediately cut off.
"Go." Tarzier commanded, jabbing a powerful arm at the door without taking his eyes off of the floundering man.
"No, Sir, please, I need to speak..." Yeen persisted, and this insubordination definitely garnered the General's attention. His mandibles roiling furiously, Tarzier glared at the comparatively small poleepkwa as though he'd just spit in his supper. Had any other drone directly disobeyed such a command, he'd surely be a limb or two short by now. But of course, this was not just any insolent worker. Yeen's service to his people afforded him a hero's standing as well and the battle-worn warrior was clearly conflicted.
Wikus would have given anything to keep his companion from throwing himself in front of that train, but he knew interrupting now would only make things worse. He glanced nervously between the two poleepkwa as Yeen continued.
"Wikus does not deserve the full penalty, he behaved admirably in Keehar. There was one unforeseen event that caused this and it got out of hand. For both of us. He was in my care at the time, whatever punishment you give him, you must give me as well."
It was plain that Yeen was fearful, yet he stood his ground gallantly. Wikus knew this was certainly the first time he'd ever defied an officer; it seemed his accidental entanglement with humans was leading him into all kinds of new and dangerous territory. The man was desperate to intervene, but he was simply coming up blank. What could he possibly say that would help now?
"That is what you want?" Tarzier growled, "To throw your lot in with his?"
"Yes, Sir. He is my Sugati."
The General had clearly not expected that particular epithet and he fixed the drone in a calculating, unblinking gaze as he deliberated. For what seemed like minutes nothing was spoken; Wikus and Yeen dared not move as they waited for a verdict. When Tarzier finally answered, his voice was firm but controlled.
"So be it."