Chapter 9: Sewer Duty
by Duo Radon
Two days after the excursion to the spaceport, with their entire aggregation accounted for, both the Fiordraa and the Noota had left the desert world behind and set out together towards home. Meanwhile, inside the Fiordraa's capacious hull, an elevator rumbled down into the literal bowels of the freighter, transporting its two passengers to their appointed mission. Wikus glanced sideways at the stoic green drone, wishing the poleepkwa was more overt with his thoughts. He hadn't shown the least bit of hostility or regret since they'd been saddled with this assignment; he was taking it all in stride with admirable confidence. Wikus would have felt so much better about the predicament if his friend had shown a little remorse, or given him a bit of a cold shoulder, anything. But Yeen's "that's just the way it is" attitude was, from a human standpoint, frustrating. It might have been inspired from the fact that they were on their way to work and not to the ICU. As the drone had explained to his human, punishments were typically physical in nature. A work assignment, as opposed to a bodily injury, was tantamount to a slap on the wrist. Coming from a land that generally frowned upon utilizing dismemberment as a disciplinary tool, Wikus was not as eager to embrace the silver lining, especially considering the nature of their mission.
As a self-sustaining environment, the ship recycled all organic matter, from food scraps to waste. A network of pipes funneled the material towards the center of the vessel and down, where complex machines separated the vile slurry into its base elements. It was stored until a replicator called for whatever arrangement of molecules was needed to assemble the requested item. When Wikus had first discovered that his replicated snack might have been constructed using molecules from yesterday's bowel movement, he'd refused to touch anything from the machines for a month, much to the bewilderment of his cabin mates. It seemed that the human had only just recovered from his phobia and now he was going to get a firsthand look at the process.
As material channeled through the works, the interior of the massive pipes gradually became encrusted and needed to be scrubbed clean. Yeen and his Sugati were to spend the next 40 days performing this chore in place of their normal daily routines, a situation neither of them were too keen to address.
In spite of his revulsion, Wikus couldn't deny that he was intrigued by the new tool he'd been lent. The Organic Disarticulator was a clunky and utilitarian cousin of the Arc Rifle. It was shorter and lighter, with a wide-set pair of prongs that fired an electric wave in place of a bolt. Instead of destroying its target, the lower intensity beam effectively broke apart all caked-on matter to leave the surface of any metal comparatively clean. Reluctant though he was to climb into a sewer, Wikus was still looking forward to seeing the gun in action.
"Don't start that up in here," Yeen instructed calmly, glancing sideways at his companion as Wikus fiddled with the Disarticulator's controls.
"Hm? Why? What'll it do?"
"Short out the elevator, most likely..."
"Riiight. And we'd get in trouble for that, too..."
"And extend our sentence."
"And that'd be bad," Wikus simulated an ignorant tone, attempting to tease a smirk from his partner.
"I certainly think so," Yeen replied with a twitch of his antennae, though it was clear there was no irritation behind the statement.
With any ice effectively broken, Wikus presented a sentiment he felt needed more elucidation. "Look, Chris, I never wanted to get you tangled in this," he said as he gestured at the both of them. "Don't get me wrong, it means a lot that you'd stick by me.....it's more than some of my past....the other people in my life...have done. But I should be doing this on my own, you didn't do anything wrong."
"We are Sugati, are we not?" Yeen answered plainly.
"You remember what that means?"
"What happens to you, happens to me. You might keep that in mind in the future," Yeen grinned at the apologetic man. Wikus paused to savor the influence of his partner's outstretched kindness before he returned the good-natured smile.
Although there were plenty of other subjects he still wanted to discuss, the clunk of the elevator as it reached the lowest level marked the end of their present conversation. As the bulky door slid aside, Wikus stumbled a half-step back involuntarily. The pungent smell of waste was unmistakable and unwelcome, but it was their new supervisor that took the human by surprise. Waiting just on the other side of the elevator door was Druk, a drone who had been the Fiordraa's head Waste Engineer for longer than any but Ruwala could recall, and Wikus didn't need the poleepkwa's dossier to figure that out.
Druk was a fairly hefty drone with a posture that was even more hunched than what was normal for his species. His natural shell pattern was utterly indiscernible; the worker was coated in a second carapace of filth. His entire body was a mucky, clotted brown mess that Wikus suspected was probably permanent. Without neatly maintained plates, Druk's facial expression was very difficult to read, but he didn't appear particularly pleased to have taken on new subordinates.
In attempting to decipher the drone's attitude, Wikus found himself stuck on his remarkable eyes. They were a deep and brilliant violet, the only spark of pleasing color to be found on the worker or in his surroundings. But in spite of their vivid hue, there was undoubtedly something.....off. The eyes were distant, unexpressive and cold, as if the person behind them was somehow absent. It seemed only logical, Wikus surmised; a lifetime in a cesspool would make anyone loony.
"This way," Druk grunted in lieu of a greeting, and turned to lumber away. With his thick stature, soil coating and hunkered gait, he looked very much like a bear that had almost learned to walk on its back legs. Wikus glanced up at his companion with an implicit reluctance, but Yeen could only offer a gentle nod of his green head and the pair followed their temporary boss.
It was difficult for Wikus to decide if the space they had entered was actually a room or just the area outside of a massive mechanism. Everything that surrounded him was either a pipe, a bundle of wires or a control panel. Adequate light and fresh air seemed scarce but grime was most definitely plentiful. The Earthling felt like an ant crawling inside the engine of a car; the bug-men he accompanied only aided the illusion.
After a short march the trio stopped at a circular hatchway in the floor, or more accurately, in the top of the huge sewage tunnel they'd been walking on. As Druk stabbed at the controls, the interlocking segments of the hatch spiraled open to admit access into the pitch-black interior. A vile aroma wafted up to meet them and confirm that this was undoubtedly the source of "that stench you've been smelling". Wikus recoiled predictably, wrinkling his nose and suppressing a gag, while Yeen, ever indomitable, reacted with only a waver of his mandibles.
"Start here," Druk commanded dispassionately, pointing at the hole before their feet. Wikus grimaced, wondering if it might be too late to exchange their punishment for the limb-ripping thing. His reluctance was quite justified given their worrisome lack of gear. They'd been set upon this task with nothing more than the Disarticulators, goggles, headlamps and an injection of something promised to ward off any unfriendly microbes. Dressed in his usual attire, Wikus had carefully tucked his pant legs into his boots, but at this point, it seemed like a dismally futile precaution.
Without protest, Yeen situated his goggles and descended the ladder into the darkness. Wikus caught a surly glare from Druk and hastened to follow suit. The short steps and handholds fixed to the inside of the tunnel were slick with grime and it was only a swift catch by his partner that kept the man from landing on his backside. Instead, his boots found the tunnel floor with a wet splutch. No sooner had he righted himself than the hatch ground shut above and the pair hurried to light their lamps.
"He seems a little put-off," Wikus choked, jerking a thumb towards the door.
"Yes," Yeen agreed, looking around curiously. " I'm told he's very protective of this facility....he doesn't like just anyone working in it...." While the green drone was quite familiar with the operation of the freighter's sewer system, he realized he'd never actually been inside it before. The pipe they were currently locked in was one of the largest, just sizable enough for a drone to stand upright without bending an antenna. They stood at the head of the tunnel, where smaller pipes connected to input their waste. Naturally they were closed off today, leaving only a trickle of liquid nastiness running along the floor of the main tunnel. The walls were uneven and greasy, completely coated with residue. They surely had plenty of work to do, provided the Earthling could regain his composure. Wikus was doubled over beside his caretaker, making some rather concerning noises.
Yeen bent over and placed a hand gently on his human's back. "Are you okay?"
"Uuughch, 'r'you kidding?!" Wikus groaned miserably. In an attempt to bolster himself for what promised to be a physically strenuous day, he'd eaten a characteristically robust breakfast; a decision the repulsed Earthling was quickly regretting. "I think.....I'm gonna be sick..."
"Well, go ahead. You're in the right place for it," Yeen sighed.
Wikus couldn't tell if there was any humor in his friend's remark but it didn't matter. In a few short seconds his semi-digested meal lay in a sloppy pile around his feet. For a moment, still coughing and spasming, Wikus mourned the loss of his beloved boots. They, like the rest of his outfit, would only ever be worn for this task and afterward, discarded. The wizards in Manufacturing had already produced perfect replacements, but as was typical for a human, Wikus had an emotional attachment to this pair of shoes. They'd been through a lot together in the past year and this was hardly an honorable send-off.
"Feeling any better?" Yeen hoped.
"Ech. No," Wikus sputtered, wiping at his mouth. "Now it smells like crap and vomit. My god, why would they make anyone do this? Can't it be done with machines?"
"Of course. You see those?" Yeen directed his light at a bulge beneath the muck that ran in a complete circle against the wall of the pipe. "Those are scrubbers, they are what does the job in most cases-"
"You mean we're only down here because of the penalty?!"
"Yes. I thought you knew..."
"Oh my god, man, I am SO sorry," Wikus cried, doubling over and bracing himself against his knees again.
Yeen hastened to comfort his charge. "Yes, I know, but you needn't be. We'll be fine. It won't seem so bad once you get used to it. And speaking of," he said as he drew the Disarticulator forward, "we had better get to work. If we don't get it done properly they'll keep us down here even longer."
"No no no, we don't want that," Wikus agreed fervently as he gathered himself.
"Right. Now, like this...." Yeen clasped the grip of the Disarticulator and like its lethal cousins, it whirred to life in response to a poleepkwan touch. As he aimed it above his head and squeezed, the device spat forth a foot-wide blue sheet of light through which a bright static bolt wavered to and fro. Slowly, Yeen dragged the beam across the wall of the pipe and stopped at his feet. Sizzling softly, the energy wave effectively dislodged all debris, leaving a blackened but smooth path in the sludge. "You see? Simple. I'll take this side, and you face that way," Yeen instructed, pointing behind himself.
"M'kay....." Wikus complied, and imitated the action his partner had just demonstrated. Side by side, the pair scoured the tunnel walls clean......sweep, side step, sweep, side step, falling neatly into a grungy routine. While most of the dirt fell to the floor, some of the wetter material sprayed backwards and after a few hours of incessant work, both laborers were well coated in slime. Wikus was especially uncomfortable, no longer able to breathe through his mouth and with no carapace to separate him from the mess. Yet he had no choice but to adapt Yeen's attitude and resign himself to his work. There was plenty on his mind to distract him, after all; predominantly, the mysterious person who had gotten them into this fix in the first place.
"Say, Chris," Wikus wondered out loud, raising his voice above the static, "what did Ruwala say to you when you spoke yesterday? Anything interesting? About the woman, I mean..."
"Not really....he was very vague about the whole thing."
"Yeah. That's what I got, too." Wikus frowned. He'd hated that debriefing, having to stand before the person who'd been so kind and adoring, explaining why he'd let her down. Surprisingly, she'd reacted very little. Ruwala had listened to his entire tale patiently and, when he had finished, she'd told him how glad they all were that he was safe and sent him on his way. Nothing more. He just couldn't shake the feeling that there was much more to this incident than he'd ever suspected in Keehar.
"He doesn't blame you, you know," Yeen continued.
"For chasing after her like that. He believes that what you saw was real."
"Really?" Wikus chirped excitedly.
"That does not excuse you from wrongdoing," Yeen interjected firmly when he noted the expression on his friend's face.
"No! Of course not," Wikus smiled. "But....then, what does that mean? Will they do anything about it.....it's illegal for a race inside the Tri-Galactic Commission to discover a new planet and not register it, right?"
"Yes. Very. But our people's relationship with the Majhatugha is good, it always has been. If our Council starts asking questions outright, they may take it as a suspicion of guilt....."
"And start some sort of war."
"Correct. It's an interesting piece of information, and Ruwala loves to work on these kinds of problems. I doubt he'll ignore it. But it may take years before any news surfaces. It's.....not high on the list of issues the Council must address...."
"Yeah. I figured as much," Wikus sighed. It was human nature to want an immediate solution to every dilemma, and even more so to bend to the whim of curiosity. He had no doubt that he'd continue to chase the elusive woman through his dreams, just as he would always revisit the memory of Tania's loving embrace. Yet, to dwell on the past too intensely would mean neglecting the future, and that would definitely be a foolish mistake considering where he was headed. Finding a balance, that was the trick. For now, his immediate concern was simply getting through the day and into a hot (and well-earned) bath.
"Ich.....three more days..." Wikus contorted his face as he sniffed at his freshly washed skin. It had been the longest 37 days of the man's life, spent in the sewers of the Fiordraa. The work was not only disgusting, it was horribly monotonous and tough on the back and shoulders. At the close of every day, he and Yeen would retire to bathe, plastered from head to toe in filth. The poleepkwa seemed to have more success at removing the odor with a customary steam-clean. But Wikus could still smell the funk clinging to his flesh, no matter how vigorously he scrubbed. He was desperately hoping it was temporary. Hair, in particular, held on to the smell and with a portion of it directly beneath his nose, he'd opted to shave off his mustache, at least for the time being. The missing feature had a drastic effect on his appearance, something Brutus felt the need to comment on nearly every day. Three days left, and he could put the entire ugly affair behind him for good. Life would return to normal.
By contrast, the Ulu Mahan had fared superbly. Wikus couldn't bear to take the prized artifact off so he always made sure to tuck it into his shirt. This did almost nothing to spare it from the sludge, but one would never have known. Not a speck of anything foul seemed to stick to the necklace or its jewel. It rested in its proper place against Wikus's chest, sparkling pristinely.
Wikus ambled down the dark corridor towards his room, the chill air especially noticeable at his temples and nape where his hair was still a bit damp. Bed was the only thing on his mind now; the chance to rest his sore body curled up in a bundle of cozy fluff. As he turned to make his way down the appropriate hall, a deep voice startled him and he bumped against the wall as he spun around.
"Yes! Sir," Wikus faltered, uneasy in the shadow of General Tarzier. The human waited nervously for the hulking soldier to make his purpose known. Tarzier hadn't spoken a word to him since the day of his sentencing and Wikus had no idea what might be coming. Naturally, he expected the worst.
Rather than an admonishment, the General held a hand out towards the edgy Earthling. It took Wikus a second or two to realize he had a tiny data chip pinched between his long fingers. "This has been declassified," Tarzier stated frostily. "We thought you'd like to have it."
"Oh!...w- thank you..." Wikus puzzled as he cupped his hands and accepted the chip. Tarzier gave the alien a faint nod of his head and strode away, almost certainly the closest thing Wikus would ever get to "apology accepted." He turned the little bit of tech over between his pruned fingers, but it bore no marking or indication of what it might hold. Stymied, he hurried on to the cabin with his gift and a small parcel of optimism.
Inside the room, the lights dimmed, an exhausted Yeen sat on the edge of his partner's bed. It was Joji's turn to play host to his pair of playmates and the trio was finally settled quietly inside the upper bunk.
"They asleep?" Wikus said softly.
"Yes, finally," Yeen sighed, rubbing at his head. "I can barely stay awake...."
"I know what you mean. But, look!" Wikus announced as he held out the chip.
"What is on it?"
"No idea. Tarzier gave it to me just now. He said I'd want it...."
"I think I understand. Let's take a look," Yeen offered as he made himself comfortable inside Wikus's bunk. Delightedly, Wikus pulled off his boots and clambered into the bed as well. Once situated, Yeen helped fold the pelts around his Sugati and then inserted the chip into the wall port's memory slot. The hovering screen blipped to life and a huge cache of video and data was revealed. As Yeen started the recorded video, Wikus watched with wide and astounded eyes.
Upon the little data chip was every iota of knowledge the poleepkwa had amassed about planet Earth. As soon as the Fiordraa had come into range, it had begun to scan the globe, starting with a view of the world in its entirety. It closed in to show the African continent, then closer...aerial views skimmed across the southern land and its deserts and shorelines, mountains and marshes, green grasslands peppered with wildlife. And closer still, the crystal-clear scans inspected every square mile of Johannesburg. They had arrived on the day when the conflict in District 10 had reached its peak and most of the city was in turmoil, but even so, there it was. The scans were so close, Wikus could see the people on the streets, his favorite burger stand, his old elementary school, even the home he'd once shared with his beloved wife, down to the flowers she'd planted in the back garden.
"Wow....look at that..." Wikus whispered.
"Home," Yeen smiled warmly.
"Yeah. Well, one of them..." As Wikus gazed at images that filled him with the warmth and comfort of reminiscence, he was rather surprised to find that what they did not bring him was sadness. A year ago, yes; visions of home would have wearied his heart with longing. But as life's changes forced adaptation, he'd found his footing on new ground. Perhaps he'd grown a little, or it might have simply been that his wounds had healed up better than expected; probably both.
Regardless, Wikus knew where he was headed. If he'd been given the chance, at that very moment, to return to Earth and resume a human life, he would have refused. The truth was, he couldn't wait to see what would unfold for him and his new family as he followed this unique path. Granted, starting all over on an alien world would certainly have its perils, but he couldn't have been in safer hands. Humiliation, fear, remorse, even heartbreak would have no choice but to recede. Life was just too good.
When one door of happiness closes, another opens,
but often we look so long at the closed door
that we do not see the one that has been opened for us.