Catalyst

Second in the Inertia series, occuring quite some time after the events in Inertia.


*

The second time he arrives, it is a quiet landing. The humans never notice.

His rebirth happens behind an abandoned complex this time. He shivers and stretches and compresses and at the end of it, he leaves the glutinous excess under a nearby dumpster. He wipes as much as he can off himself, but his borrowed skin still gleams unhealthily, a decayed-fish slickness. He tries to ignore it. His body feels clumsy and alien and yet oddly, distractingly familiar. He teaches himself to walk.

The streets are empty, and the night of this world is dark. It whispers against his skin like an old lover, and doors slide open with hum under his fingertips. It is easy enough to find the right clothes, appropriate the right vehicle. Everything is fits well – too well, he thinks; and it is an disorientating thought. For a moment he is unnerved by it, this sly familiarity that burrows marrow-deep, but he recovers quickly enough. He reminds himself: this was why he was chosen. He has experience. He has tasks.

It takes three days to get to his first task. He drives and it feels familiar as well, easy as thought: the dormant memories of long days spent on human roads thrumming with the alien vehicle. When he finally arrives, it is almost with regret. The other is already standing outside the house, waiting for him.

The visitor stops his borrowed truck, gets out. From this distance, the dim glow of dusk steals all expression from his friend's face – not that it matters, the visitor remembers suddenly, surprised. Why did he think of that? Nevertheless, he moves closer till the other's face is discernible: it is twisted oddly, in some sort of human expression. He tries to remember what it means.

"Wuskt," he greets. The name tastes strange and clumsy on his human tongue.

But Wuskt shakes his head, another human affection. "No," the older one says, "please. Call me Wu. It is what I am used to."

They look at each other.

Then Mr. Wu says, very quietly, "You have changed so much. Welcome back, Klaatu."

They go into the house.

*

He is polite enough to leave off the subject of Wuskt's expiration for the first week. Instead he stays as a guest, under the guise of being one of Wuskt's childhood friends. It is not far from the truth. He watches and learns and remembers how to smile and shrug and make small talk, and Wuskt's native family treat him kindly. It is really only girl and her husband, the girl being an offspring of Wuskt's alien body. Wuskt treats them with great affection, as if he really means it. This troubles Klaatu, but out of respect for his old friend, he pretends to ignore it.

This world is a beautiful one, tainted only by telltale stains of human damage in the skies and waterways and brittle leaves of the trees. It is recovering though, in small, silent gasps. He can see it in the way the grass is growing more deeply, can feel it when he lets the soil in Wuskt's backyard run through his fingers. It breathes and promises life and when he drives to a nearby lake and lets the water there run through his human fingers as well, the water sighs in ripples and promises the same thing. Klaatu listens to the earth speaking and hears the future within.

"The earth is recovering," he informs Wuskt over dinner that night. It is something salty and tender, something that was once a breathing animal. A human custom. "You have done very well."

Wuskt smiles. "I have done nothing at all, my friend. It is you who have allowed them this second chance."

"Perhaps," Klaatu says politely. "But you are the watcher of this earth, and so I congratulate you."

He hates speaking in human form. Everything sounds formal and single-minded, the words clicking out like disconnected beads. He understands the need for it when Wuskt's human family is around, but his false daughter and her husband has been away for the past three days, and Wuskt still refuses to talk in their true form. Klaatu tries to respect his host's decision, but the more he is forced to speak in this unnatural way, the more his patience thins.

"Thank you," Wuskt says, his alien face still crumpled in a smile. "You are very generous. I must admit that it did use to be much worse."

"Yes," Klaatu agrees. "It was. I remember when I first came, the night was – darker... and—"

He stops. His throat tightens suddenly, dries out the rest of his sentence. There is a sound of a rising whine filling his head, a gaping wound where his next words should be, but for one breathless moment he sees –

When Klaatu is able to open his eyes again, Wuskt is watching him very carefully. Klaatu slowly takes down his hands and looks at them – his human fingertips are swallowed in white from being pressed against his temples. As he watches, the blood under his skin flush back like a secret hastily concealed.

"I apologize," Klaatu says, still staring at his alien limbs – "I did not expect that. This body tires easily."

The chair opposite him creaks as Wuskt leans back. Klaatu thinks he hears him sigh, though he cannot remember a sigh means.

"Yes," his companion says quietly. "I was hoping it did."

*

He tries to bring up the subject of Wuskt's expiring container in the second week when they are alone. Their surroundings are serene, their activity is meaningless, and the timing seems right.

He says, "You will be dead in twenty-nine earth days unless you travel home with me when I leave this earth next week."

(He hates, hates speaking in human form. The conversation would have run its expected course if Wuskt would just speak with him in their natural form, Klaatu is sure.)

Wuskt jerks slightly and turns to him, using one of his many human expressions. Klaatu has been here for over a week and still can't recognize all of them – he is beginning to suspect there is far more than is possibly healthy for any species to have.

"I know." The watcher says, quite simply, "I don't intend to leave this earth, Klaatu. It is my home now."

They had warned him that this might happen. Klaatu ignores the idiocy about this alien planet being a home, and says reasonably, "You can always come back. There are other human bodies we have that are younger. If you stay on, you will die along with your physical container."

But Wuskt is already shaking his head. "No. I will die in this body. It is the body that my wife loved." He smiles, "how else will she recognize me when she sees me on the other side?"

Klaatu stares. "There has never been any scientific basis for an afterlife," he says, incredulous that he has to repeat a fact that even the youngest child in their world understood, "and if she were alive, I am sure your human --"

"—my wife," Wuskt says sharply –

"—would understand." With an effort, Klaatu modulates his voice so it sounds softer, less harsh: "You are still young, Wuskt. Think logically. You are throwing away your life to stay with a primitive, violent race. You have forgotten your true home. Come back with me and remember it."

There is a moment of silence, broken only by the wind whispering ripples across the lake's surface. Somewhere behind them, a hummingbird drones in the distance.

Finally Wuskt says, very quietly, "And where is your true home, Klaatu?"

"The same as yours." He touches his temple, as if by instinct. "You know this."

The other turns his head away, but Klaatu thinks he sees his lips twitch before he does. He forces down his exasperation.

"You have become too human," he mutters. It is harsh accusation, but unfortunately also true. "And the time invested in this activity does not justify its value."

Wuskt laughs. It is a startling sound, and for one hopeless moment, Klaatu thinks he has already lost his friend to an alien race.

"Would you have guessed that fishing used to be your favourite pastime? You used to --"

"No." Klaatu cuts in shortly. A thumb on his temple again, pressed harder this time. "I wouldn't."

They don't talk much after that.

*

He decides that the best thing to do is to leave the issue as it is and try again before he goes. He has a list of places that he has to visit before he leaves anyway, and perhaps what Wuskt really requires is some time to reflect on the irrationality of his thinking. Klaatu is sure of one thing: the second time, they will converse in their natural form and in doing so, this foolishness will end.

Wuskt gives him some advice on which roads to take, tells him that he might have guests over when he returns, and wishes him well. Klaatu leaves with nothing but a set of human clothes and the truck he arrived in. It is enough: the human world is structured in lines of electricity, currents or primitive forms of wavelengths, and their secrets open to his slightest touch. He travels mainly between dusk and midnight when the sky is painted in deep swathes of melting colours, and sleeps whenever his body tells him to. On most days, he remembers to shower.

Perhaps the culture of this race should have felt strange, incomprehensible; but like the night of his arrival, it merely seeps down into the bones of his synthetic body, familiar and irresistible and treacherously, unnervingly right. The human race is contradictory and rambunctious and driven by a cocktail of fear and hope, and yet Klaatu cannot help but be drawn into the rhythms and reasoning of their routines, stupid and peculiar and brilliant as they are. He follows their thoughts on their internet; he reads the newspapers of their world. He watches their shows; he listens to the humans talking in diners and parks; he side-steps what little security they have on their governments' intelligence and secret reports to uncover their information and misinformation. Klaatu watches and distils the essence of humanity's direction in the commotion, and yet, try as he might, he doesn't feel like a watcher. He doesn't feel separate. It is in the details where he betrays himself – in the internet, he moves through the confusion of inter-linking networks instinctively; in watching the shows, he predicts the plot conventions and follows the lilt of human slang with barely a pause. In the diners, he orders his eggs scrambled, his bread wholegrain and his coffee black, and perhaps it is this that finally alerts him to the truth he has been trying to resist: he is the middle of eating on automatic, one arm brushing casually against a wall socket for him to connect to the web when he realizes what he is doing. There is a pepper shaker in his other hand, a tip already prepared on the side of the table, and he has instinctively sat in a booth meant for four instead of one of the solo tables near the counter.

After only eleven earth days on an alien planet, Klaatu realizes this: he is acting without thinking, and he is already acting human. For a moment, panic sounds like the static, grey and buzzing at the back of his head, but he suppresses it quickly. He takes a breath – another human habit – and takes control of himself. After all, he has lived here before, for a brief time. It is to be expected he has some residual memories and routines.

Klaatu falls asleep that night with a low and anxious humming in his head, and dreams more vividly than he ever has in any of his previous bodies.

In the morning, he takes the last earth samples and starts the long drive home. In a moment of distracted preoccupation, he touches the radio and absently tunes in to a station. The music screams at him in thunderous rock, an angry young man shouting along; startled, he switches it instinctively to another channel. This time, it is sound made delicate, a quiet waterfall of notes – "It's Bach, she said, and her eyes were so dark and desperate when he replied, It's beautiful –

The music stutters, dies. He has overshot the radio with power. Klaatu can barely hear with all the white noise in his head, anyway. His body feels too heavy, as if suffocating under its own weight; it is trembling under it. He is shaking.

He has to get out of here. Klaatu thinks that as soon as he manages to see Wuskt again and force him to converse properly, he will leave, perhaps on the day itself. He can't stay in this body any longer.

*

There is a truck outside Wuskt's home when he finally arrives. Dusk has just broken, announcing itself in a thin, burnt-orange line edging over the horizon. Klaatu has driven through the night, unable to sleep, and so it takes a beat before he realizes why he recognizes the vehicle. He parks beside it and blinks once, twice, but the outline of the vehicle is burnt into his eyelids even when he closes his eyes and the haunting familiarity of it is unmistakable: it is exactly like the truck he is in.

He is uneasy even before he steps into the house and hears the voice of a female human in the kitchen.

"I was just going to run down to get some groceries," the woman says, her voice muffled from the walls. "I thought we could have some pancakes for breakfast. I didn't wake you, did I?"

Wuskt says something in reply; Klaatu can't quite hear. His exhaustion has woken a storm of buzzing in his head again, low and insistent, and for a moment, he has to lean against the wall briefly for the disorientation to pass. A few feet away, shadows move in the crack of yellow light falling through the gap of the kitchen door.

"No, I'm sleeping better. Here, anyway." The woman laughs, a quiet sound that cuts through his fog. "I wish I could say the same for when I'm back home..."

He must be more tired than he realizes. Everything feels thick and slow, as if the weight of every atom is pressed down against him, compressed tight around his throat. It pushes against him as he moves towards the lighted door, each step taking a second and a century to cover. Klaatu thinks, perhaps this is how human bodies function when they lack sufficient rest.

He thinks, perhaps I am dreaming now.

Wake up.

His fingertips, brushing the door.

Wake up.

A push; it swings open soundlessly.

"But I shouldn't be complaining at all, I'm sorry – you've always been so generous to us." The woman has her back towards him. Her hair is very dark, and very long. It moves with her when she says, "I don't know what I'd do without...oh."

Distantly, Klaatu is aware that Wuskt is staring at him too. He is aware of this only because the woman turns to look. She is pale and delicately-boned, as if crafted from the light of a cold-burning star, and she might be beautiful in human terms. She might be ugly. Klaatu doesn't know. All he knows is that she has the same eyes, dark and burning and he thinks he sees a glimpse of a secret universe hidden within. He sees it.

"Helen," he says. Wake up.

He's up.

*


A/N:

This is a two-part piece, and then there will be a third fic that hopefully finishes the Inertia series. I enjoyed writing this story from a backwards point of view, where Helen, Jacob & Klaatu already have an established, if forgotten, history. The thing is, I suspect almost all readers have left this fandom. In which case there is no point writing, because for me, I write to be read. I can imagine the events well enough in my head after all, but writing takes more effort.

So in a way, this is a testing post: if enough people read & respond to this half, I'll post the second half & go on to write the third final piece. If not... er, I may still finish this piece off but not bother with the third piece, or I will take it down altogether. So yeah, I hate to say it but read & review because it's the only way I can judge if there's anybody out there :P

As always, all mature feedback appreciated :)