Yeen snorted suddenly and straightened himself in his seat. His doctors had encouraged him to take up one of the hospital's bunks and do some proper sleeping, but the fatigued drone insisted on his current station instead. Still, given the night's events and the peaceful lullaby the rain was pattering out on the windows, dozing was inevitable.
The man in the bed before him had not yet joined Yeen in the waking world. Wikus had been out for over 11 hours, and it was a matter of perfect timing, or perhaps dumb luck, that had saved his life at all. Four of those hours were spent repairing the human's myriad wounds, sanitizing and soldering them back together while pumping him full of his own cloned blood.
Oolund's Medical Unit 304 was well equipped to treat not only poleepkwa, but many of the aliens that visited Patakatifu. The bed Wikus reclined in was not the hard-surfaced egg that drones preferred, but something closer to what a human might expect, though a bit larger than what he actually required. Wikus's bare body had been neatly covered with a warm blanket, his head rested upon a cushion. There was really no incentive to awaken early.
It was a particularly close clap of thunder that rattled the recovery wing and finally revived Wikus. His eyes flipped open with a start and he squawked in surprise as his brain attempted to pick up where it had left off. "Wha- Chris!"
"It's okay! I'm here."
"What'sis? What happened?" Wikus choked, struggling to sit up.
Yeen gently pressed the disoriented man back into the mattress and inclined the bed into a more upright position instead. "We're in the hospital. We were picked up just in time. Lucky...again..."
"Oh...yeah...lucky...uhf...are you okay?"
"Yes, I'm fine...the children are safe, too," Yeen explained before Wikus could stress over the events anew. "The Oolund police got to them well before they were in any danger, everyone's in protective custody."
"Thank- ...there's...someone watching us." Wikus squinted at the massive shape in the corner of the room.
"Yes. We will all have an armed guard until the situation is sorted. This is Lieutenant Leetakaalliwattaru."
Wikus frowned at the burly soldier. "That whole thing is his name?"
"Yes, of course." Yeen cocked his head slightly, again thrown by his human's reluctance to accept something he knew to be ordinary.
"Oy...can I just call him- can I just call you 'Leetak'?"
"If you must," the warrior growled in a manner very reminiscent of Tarzier's surly demeanor.
"Mnf," Wikus grunted back, then he pushed the blanket away to have a look at the damage for himself. He ran his hand over his torso, again frowning at the patchwork of tidy, sealed wounds. "More scars..."
"Well...they'll fade. In a few years you won't even be able to see them," Yeen said warmly, running his long fingers through Wikus's messy hair. "How are you feeling?"
"Would you like me to ask for more painkillers?"
"I don't think that's going to fix it," Wikus sighed, pulling the blanket back up under his chin. "What happens now?"
"That depends entirely on whether or not your friend can be located in time. I've told the police everything we know, but without the physical data, they can't get backing from the Commission to overtake Maj's monarchy."
"Do we even know she has it? What if the chip she sent me was it?"
"She's too clever for that, I feel certain."
Wikus groaned wearily. "I hope she's okay. You don't think...they'd send those things after her, too?"
"I hope not, Spucky," Yeen answered softly.
"This is all my fault," Wikus muttered, rubbing his hands over his face in frustration. "I'm so sorry..."
"This is most certainly not your fault! You've brought to light a terrible crime that's been occurring for centuries. It's come to an end because of that."
"And it nearly got us all killed!"
"You can't blame yourself for a crime committed against you. Besides, we came out of it in one piece. Commander Satu attests that we're both in line for another commendation."
"Ahh...I don't want that! I want a nice, quiet, boring life. Like I used to have. You know, before I met you."
"I see. You're going to blame your propensity for trouble on me," Yeen clicked with a raised brow.
"Yeah," Wikus answered resolutely. "Yeah! I mean, aliens landed on my planet, but for 28 years nothing remarkable happened to me. Then I spend 10 minutes with you and my whole life turns inside out."
"You poor thing. Can I get you a chilled beverage?"
"You're really a piece of work. You know that?"
"I was thinking the same thing about you."
The pair of unlikely comrades fell silent in a mock stare-down before Wikus finally cracked a smile. "Ah," he chuckled, "Well...maybe that's how you know."
"How you know?"
"Yeah. That you're in the right company. Your life gets 'interesting'."
"You may have something there," Yeen grinned. "If that's the case, I hope it never turns ordinary again."
"Yeah. Me too."
Wikus was quickly discharged from the hospital's care, but with no home to return to, the family reunited and took up residence in a comfortable hotel suite near OHSM. There they kept a nervous eye on the news feed and attempted to resume life as usual. Even though another attack was quite unlikely, no one went anywhere without a soldier shadowing them.
Three days after Wikus and Yeen had escaped the Horvoss, the development they'd been waiting for made the news: the princess had been found, alive and well. Unexpectedly, Abayomi had turned herself in to poleepkwan soldiers at an outpost not far from Patakatifu, data in hand. Once the evidence was transferred, operations moved quickly. The Western Capitol and its people fell under absolute poleepkwan control, headed by Commander Satu. The Palace was emptied of Majhatughans and the Royal family deposed. Tragically, King Posacam readily accepted responsibility for setting the assassins on Wikus and his family, then killed himself. Whether it was done out of shame or simply to deprive his captors the privilege was unclear.
With poleepkwan armed forces so thoroughly integrated in the Western Capitol, seizing control of it was simple and bloodless. The difficulties arose in the Eastern Hemisphere, whose ruling class felt their allies had no right to remove them from power. The Tri-Galactic Commission debated, then decided; Posacam's deceit was severe and widespread enough to warrant upheaval of the entire Majhatughan monarchy. While the poleepkwan Commanders maintained that oppressing and killing Maj's civilians was certainly not a goal of the restructure, resistance meant casualties were inevitable and conflicts repeatedly blazed up and were snuffed out.
In spite of the chaos, Wikus and Yeen were grateful to be able to return to work, and to normality. They had both opted to refrain from a ceremonious acceptance of commendation, so their exploits were transcribed but not physically applauded. Two of Patakatifu's most colorful figures now had another chapter to add to their strange tale, for better or for worse.
Wikus found himself wondering if his role in the scandal was finally over. An answer came several days later with the arrival of an unexpected but most welcome guest. Wikus had completed another typical work day when he returned to their temporary shelter to find Commander Ruwala waiting for him in the communal room, flanked by her guards. Ever the picture of elegance, Ruwala rose gracefully from her seat to greet him, though Wikus's reaction was slightly less dignified. Elated, he dumped his satchel on the floor and sprinted across the room, hopping up to throw his arms around her jeweled neck.
"Oh, my dear Earthling, I've missed you," she said sweetly, embracing him.
"I was afraid I might never see you again!" Wikus beamed as he was set back upon his feet. "I'm so glad you're here!"
"As am I, Wikus. We've just returned from our mining expedition. I couldn't see heading back out without a visit first, especially in light of everything that's happened. I was deeply saddened to learn of the adversity you and Yeen have suffered."
"Oh, thanks, Commander; but we're okay now."
"It is a rare feat indeed for two unarmed civilians to escape the Horvoss!"
"Well, you know, that was mostly Chris's doing. He really saved my skin."
"He is a most remarkable individual. Much like yourself," Ruwala smiled. "You two must have been meant for one another."
"Yes Sir, it kinda...really seems that way," Wikus agreed shyly.
"Please, take a walk with me, there is something I must ask you," Ruwala added, then flicked a chemical message to her warriors with her delicate antennae. While one remained stationed in the room, the other took up a position behind them as they strolled out into the hotel's fragrant courtyard garden. The setting sun gave the air an amber shimmer and those insects that utilized bioluminescence were already warming up their lights.
"I'm sure you know that Princess Abayomi is safely in poleepkwan guardianship," Ruwala proceeded.
"Yessir, I heard. I'm so glad...but what will happen to her now?"
"She's been offered permanent asylum on Patakatifu. We will afford her protection for her entire life, if she wishes it."
"That's good news. She's been through so much..."
"You care for her?"
"Well...yes, I suppose...I mean, she's my friend. Did...she ask about me?" Wikus stammered.
"I have secondhand information in that regard, but yes, I'm told she was very concerned about your well-being. She wouldn't want you hurt, especially as a result of her own action."
"We have a lot in common, I suppose."
"Perhaps not as much as you might think," Ruwala interjected gently.
"Sir?" Wikus glanced up at the Commander, concern growing in his green eyes.
Ruwala sat down on one of the pellet-shaped seats organically positioned throughout the garden. Even seated she was still a good deal taller than the man before her. "Our analysts have been combing the backlogs of the Majhatughan Royals very carefully, and they've uncovered medical records that were deeply encrypted. It seems Posacam's only daughter was born with a rare disease exclusive to Majhatughans...it causes the body's internal tissues to break down as the child ages. Even poleepkwan medicine struggles with this illness; if they'd brought her to us for treatment, she'd only have had a 50% chance of survival."
"So...what did they do?" Wikus wondered out loud, though he was afraid he already had the answer.
"They did the only thing that could guarantee her survival. A human baby was seized from Earth and Abayomi's mind and a holograph generator microchip were placed inside it. All these years, she's been living in disguise, right in front of us. They kept the disease that spurred their choice a secret and no one suspected a thing."
"She's not human..." Wikus mumbled, and plopped down on a neighboring seat. "But...wait, she's not crazy, she seemed perfectly normal! If she's living in a husk, why isn't she showing any symptoms like they said humans would?"
"It's possible the transfer works well when both candidates are infants. Or that she is simply one of the rarely fortunate."
"Or that they know how to do it right and choose not to most of the time," Wikus grimaced.
"There is that possibility, too," Ruwala sighed sadly.
"So...why did she tell me Posacam adopted her?"
"That's the curious thing, Wikus; she told us the same story. We believe she doesn't know the truth."
"Ah, geez," Wikus grumbled, "did you tell her?"
"Not yet. This is what I must ask of you...you know her more intimately than anyone else. It seems fitting that you should make that decision."
Wikus groaned and pinched at the bridge of his nose. It was the last responsibility he could have wanted, yet he felt such an allegiance to the poleepkwa sitting beside him that he couldn't deny a small sense of pride in her confidence. "Well...I don't...can I think about it for a while?"
"Of course, Dear One."
"Will I be able to see her again?"
"Yes, in time. Right now her safety is reliant on the security of her location."
"I understand. Well...will you stay and have dinner with us tonight?"
"Nothing would make me happier," Ruwala agreed graciously.
The pleasant sunshine and gentle breeze seemed a stark contrast to the charred, gouged earth on which Wikus stood. Just two weeks prior, Yeen had been running for their lives across this same plot of land, yet today the tatters of their security were stitching back together. Yeen had brought his partner to their home to witness the progress of its restructure, and it was a rather impressive sight. The house, crawling with workers and machinery, was already taking a familiar shape. Though he wouldn't voice it, Wikus couldn't help but think of termites on a mound; the construction was a flurry of chitinous limbs and wiggling antennae. The entire building and all its furnishings was scheduled to be completed in just a few more days. It would be identical to the first, including Wikus's pelts, toys for the youngsters and freshly planted Nidu in the garden. It would only differ in the few elements that were irreplaceable.
Wikus was grateful for the chance to occupy his mind with something other than Ruwala's request, even if seeing their home brought back some recent unhappy memories. The family had only just been relieved of the need for an armed escort so he stood alone and out of the way while Yeen chatted with the foreman. Eventually the green drone strode back to his Sugati, a small silver object clutched in his hand.
"Anything?" Wikus asked.
"No. They didn't find...him."
"Not even a piece to bury..." Wikus said solemnly, gazing at his boots.
"I'm sorry, Spucky. This was the only recognizable object from the wreckage," Yeen explained, holding out Wikus's fork.
"Huh. Look at that," he mused, taking the utensil and attempting to straighten out the slightly mangled prongs. "Built to last, you know..."
"I see that. And the Fescalt, it had been disabled, and there are some dents from the debris, but it should be fully operational with a little work." Yeen hoped this would relieve some of the man's despondency but was disappointed with his reaction.
"Well, that's good, I suppose," Wikus replied absently.
The worker moved close and wrapped an arm around his friend. "You know, when the house is finished, we can go into town and get you a new pet. You can pick out anything you like!"
"Thanks," Wikus answered, sorrow welling up in him again, "but I don't want a new pet. I want- OW! Sonova-BITCH!"
Yeen jerked his arm away in surprise as Wikus jolted forward. Something heavy had cracked the man in the back of the heel and he quickly hobbled around to face his attacker. "ROLY!"
The huge blue pillbug lay curled up at his master's feet, unrolled just enough so that his little face peeked out at them. "You're alive! I can't believe it!" Wikus cried. He sat down in the dirt, pulled the arthropod into his lap and hugged him against his chest. Roly responded with an eager greeting warble.
Yeen grinned widely at his revitalized partner. "Incredible! He must have been curled up inside one of the cubbies or something when the house went...he's been waiting in the woods for you all this time!"
"How 'bout that, buddy!" Wikus piped. "Oh...you don't look so good, though..."
Yeen leaned down to get a closer look. The isopod's shell was covered in deep scrapes and slightly blackened; his antennae had been seared down to nubs. But thanks to his tough armor, the creature's face and vulnerable belly didn't appear to be damaged. "I think he'll be okay. We can take him to the wildlife center over by Casoth, they'll know how to fix him up."
"How would that be? Hm?" Wikus murmured cheerily, rubbing a fingertip against the flat space between Roly's large eyes.
Yeen straightened with a contented sigh. The family was whole again, and very soon they'd be home. Things had turned out much better than he could have hoped.
"Then we just take these down to Sub' 3?"
"Yep. And if they're in a good mood, they give us new ones."
"And if they're not?"
"Well...we wait until later," Wikus chuckled. He handed over the last of the spent ion converters and Joji stacked them neatly in a portable bin. It was almost a surreal experience, training the young drone, especially since Joji knew more about the machines they repaired than he did, or likely, ever would. Yet if the juvenile was to take his place with his father as an engineer, he was required to start at the bottom and learn everything there was to know about OHSM's daily protocol. So Joji had been partnered with Wikus for the time being, toting after him through the work day and helping with his assignments. The green worker was more than half the size of his father now, and more like him in character than ever. Sometimes it was difficult for Wikus to remember he was talking with the younger one.
Wikus grunted as he climbed out of the recess inside the cramped shuttle compartment. His wounds, though well sealed, still caused him an occasional twinge, as if they endeavored not to be forgotten. No sooner had he righted himself than his comm link buzzed for attention. When he poked it on, a video image of the ever-frazzled foreman, Lona, blipped alive on the little screen. "Wikus! My office, now, please," he clicked, and was gone.
"Ooh...what'd you do?" Joji teased.
"Nothing! Not recently...anyway...here, you take these. I'll be back shortly, I hope." Wikus handed over the trays of damaged parts and hopped out of the dormant shuttlecraft. On Earth or Patakatifu, being summoned to the boss's office was never a good sign.
Wikus took a swift pace, reluctant to keep Lona waiting any longer than necessary. The drone didn't seem to handle stress all that well, but somehow he managed to keep his division running smoothly. The burden was very obvious, however, and Lona was always in a state of anxiety. It didn't help that his office was located in the most precarious position possible, overlooking Work Bay 6. Four stories off the floor, with a space three times that wide in front of it, the foreman's view could not have instilled a sense of comfort for anyone, Wikus was certain.
It definitely didn't make him feel any more confident, particularly because the catwalk that led to the office was grated, with a simple railing along the outside. It was a lot like walking on a window washer's perch, the volume of space and height to the left creating a stomach-turning disequilibrium.
Wikus was quick to forget the unsettling fantasy of falling to his death as he approached Lona's office. A huge, stoic soldier stood guard outside the door, wearing a painted motif he'd never seen before. Much of the warrior's shell had been blackened in clean and curious patterns and he carried a well-maintained assault rifle. The human, child-sized by comparison, slowed his gait as he drew close, yet the soldier didn't even waver an antenna to acknowledge his presence. Perplexed, Wikus stopped a few feet away and gazed up at the guard, wondering what approach he ought to employ. The soldier continued to stare at the void, seemingly disinterested.
Before the Earthling could settle on anything, the door slid aside and Lona lumbered out, his antennae twitching restlessly and a data port tucked under one arm. The green-shelled foreman disregarded the soldier completely, instead gripping Wikus tightly by the arm with his free hand. "Good, you're here...now, listen. You know...you don't have to make any decisions now. Understand? Yes?"
"Yes! Sir...I...do. Yes," Wikus answered hastily, even though he hadn't a clue what he was affirming.
"Good," Lona clicked, releasing the man. "Yes...that will be taken care of...then we can address the export logs...the kitchens need new heating coils..." The poleepkwa continued to mumble to himself as he squeezed past his employee and set off down the catwalk towards the next problem he needed to rectify.
Wikus had never pitied a supervisor before. "He needs a vacation, am I right?" he smirked up at the soldier. "Nothing? Of course not..."
Wikus replaced his jovial facade with a businesslike one, though it would be short lived. As he stepped through the open door into Lona's headquarters, the purpose for his visit induced another wide smile. Princess Abayomi stood behind the heavily cluttered desk, casually inspecting the paraphernalia of a poleepkwan place of industry. "Wikus!" she chirped merrily, and as she moved out from behind Lona's disorganized mess, Wikus couldn't help but chuckle.
The woman had abandoned her silken finery for much humbler, poleepkwan made garments. Evidently no one had explained the difference in fashion preference between genders, not that the poleepkwan artisans would have understood it anyway. Abayomi was dressed in the very same kind of outfit that had been made for Wikus, down to the work pants and sturdy boots. The fact that it was tailored to fit her feminine shape did not make it the least bit ladylike. Gone, too, were the glistening jewels and gold bands, and her hair had been trimmed short and tidy. "How do I look?" she asked, holding her arms out to the sides.
"...Familiar?" Wikus grinned, "...ah, but...lovely! Beautiful. Really. It's so good to see you again, Princess."
"It's just 'Abayomi' now," she replied sweetly, "and thank you. I was so worried, when I heard...can you ever forgive me?"
"You didn't do anything wrong. No one blames you...it took a lot of courage to come forward like that. I'm just glad you weren't hurt."
"Oh...you're very kind..." The gratitude and affinity in her voice was palpable as she moved to stand a couple of feet away from Wikus, clasping her hands together at her waist.
Wikus could feel his face begin to flush and he hurried to fill the silence. "So...how do you like living with poleepkwa? It's got to be quite a change, eh?"
"Oh yes, it's an adjustment, but everyone's been so good to me. I really don't want for anything. Well, almost..."
"Oh?" Wikus swallowed.
"Yes...I'm sure you've heard, they're closing the Gate."
"Yeah, sure...it's all over the news..."
"I've decided to go through, to Earth. I think I'd like to spend the next phase of my life there...in your Africa. To live as I should have, among our own kind."
"Our own kind..." Wikus repeated, trying his best to hide his remorse. "Well! I mean, that's great...you'll love it there!"
Much to the man's relief, Abayomi didn't seem to recognize the subtleties of concealment. She moved closer, until there were but a few inches between them, and placed her hands tenderly on his upper arms. "And I'd like to ask you to come with me," she went on. "We can give you a holograph chip to change your appearance a little...just enough so no one will recognize you. You can start a new life where you left off...in your own country...with me."
Wikus gazed into her deep brown eyes and allowed himself the privilege of weighing his options, even though he could predict the outcome regardless. "Well...that does sound wonderful...especially that last part. But...I've started life over from the ground up once before. It was the hardest thing I've ever done, and I know I don't have it in me to do it a second time. Besides...my family, my home, is here. This is where I belong now."
Abayomi didn't contest his reply, but returned his somber expression with a gentle smile. "Yes. I figured you'd say that."
"Don't be! You have your path and I have mine. I'll miss you. Very much."
"If you should ever find yourself passing by Earth in the future, I'd welcome the chance to see you again?"
"Absolutely! I'm sure I can work something out, I mean, it'll have t'be-mmf!"
Wikus immediately lost his train of thought as Abayomi pressed her lips against his. The implausible pair of displaced humans savored their connection for a moment before she withdrew, leaving Wikus's head, heart and libido arguing over his verdict. "Goodbye, Wikus," Abayomi said tenderly, allowing her fingers to slip down his arms before she turned and left the office.
After a few seconds of recovery, the dazed man followed her onto the catwalk. The massive warrior finally had cause to break his silence and the pair were exchanging some cursory dialogue. Like a brother looking after his kid sister, the soldier made certain Abayomi was in a proper state before he moved to escort her down the walk. Abayomi turned to offer Wikus one last, kind smile and a wave before she left with her guardian.
Flooded with sentiment and conflict, Wikus watched the couple until they were out of sight. He didn't have his thoughts to himself for long, however. The grating beneath his boots began to rattle as a thump thump thump signaled the approach of someone large and in a hurry.
Panting and agitated, Brutus skidded to a stop beside his human friend. Wikus could smell the pungent aroma of animal blood on the butcher, though his black carapace did a good job at hiding it. "Don't...go..." Brutus huffed, leaning on the railing.
"What's with you?" Wikus asked casually, his brow raised.
Ignoring the question, Brutus persisted. "You can't...leave!"
"Leave?" Wikus repeated, feigning ignorance. "Where'm I going?"
"With her, dammit! I know...I know she wants you to go...back to Earth with her."
"Hmmmm...who told you that?"
"It was Yeen who- what difference does it make? What'd you tell her?"
"Relax, man, you're spitting...I'm not going anywhere," Wikus assured as he wiped at his suit.
"Of course not! I could never leave you guys, you know that."
"It's just...Yeen told me you'd stay. I didn't believe him..."
"Well, you ought to listen. He knows what he's talking about."
"I guess. Wish he wasn't always so damn smug about it..."
"I know the feeling. So you'd really miss me that much, huh?" Wikus grinned widely.
"No! Not even...it's just, with you gone, we all have to do your chores and...I'd get stuck feeding that bug of yours...you need to think of someone besides yourself once in a while!"
"You like me..." Wikus goaded with a gratified smirk.
Whether the ebony drone could bring himself to express it or not, Wikus knew he was wanted, even needed, and it was a very good feeling indeed. There could be no doubt he'd made the right decision. As he relished the fleeting opportunity to tease his sizable companion, the status indicator lights that dotted the factory switched from blue to green, and a tone sounded through the bay, indicating another meal break.
"I am going to lunch, though," Wikus said cheerily. "It's Kelbi day!"
"I know that!" Brutus grunted as he accompanied his friend. "I helped make it!"
The pair of long-time companions made their way down to the cafeteria to reconnect with the rest of the people that gave their lives purpose. Though their friendships had been forged in the most difficult of times, the bonds that resulted were among the strongest Wikus had ever known. Whether it was tested by the splitting of worlds or the soft seduction of one gentle soul, united their family would remain.