Tania was pregnant when everything changed, he wasn’t supposed to know yet but he’d overheard her telling her mother. She wasn’t far along, but it would have been long enough to have had the baby by the time they were all relocated to District 10. He tried not to think of her often, of everything he had lost. He wasn’t one of them anymore; he didn’t deserve a pink, fleshy baby-child that was the last remnant of one human Wikus van de Merwe.
Over three long years he’d learned to move almost like them, to think almost like them even. They were so much more advanced than humans would have ever guessed; possessing a strong social structure and faceted mind built for specialization like he’d never even heard of in school. He was not one of them either, but they were kind to him – he was the ship-bringer, the one that helped the mothership go home. His first year, he had no place with them; no job, no class or specification – he was surviving like any refugee off the scraps of their captors. He received none of the laughable relocation benefits MNU provided, if he had identified himself he would have been killed on sight rather than just beaten and threatened with arrest, but he learned quickly that if he was willing to do what he was told by the larger prawns – the more intelligent few or simply the meanest, he wasn’t sure – he would do all right.
The second year he was given a job he didn’t even know existed because there were no others that had had it. He was called an egg-minder; the one that watched over the tents where the make-shift nests were hidden. Part of him supposed it was some sort of retribution for all the abortions he’d been responsible for in his past life – but it made him ache each time he churred out the triumphant announcement of another successful eruption – another prawn born into the slavery of squalor… another child.
Despite their trusting him with their young, he was still an outsider – they fed him, brought him blankets and scraps – but when they spoke to him it was as one might approach someone in mental ward. Slowly, with short clicks and always at a certain distance. He was the last to know something was actually coming; there had been two births the last week when the largest of them – the de-facto leader he had assumed – told him there would be no more. He insisted any young ones would be too small to survive the trip home. Wikus’ last act as egg-minder was to end the lives of eleven eggs – eleven more children on his head. He understood then why it was his job; he, of all of them, was the only one who could do the deed without remorse by their understanding.
They were wrong. He felt each loss deep inside his new chitinous body, he ached with each feeding tube yanked out and disposed of. It was a mercy killing, saving them a worse fate, but the only thought that kept him upright as he skulked out of the last tent and toward his lean-to in the junk heap was the understanding that the ship would be back soon.
Would Christopher be with them? Would he still be able to fix him? He wasn’t sure that he could even remember being human anymore… he could remember Tania and the pain of losing her, but the rest felt like a blur of coffee breaks and vague reports in triplicate. Surely Tania would have remarried – would have forgiven him for destroying their life together and moved on. Of course, such thoughts were useless but on a cold night looking up at the sheet metal between himself and the sky, it was all he had left.
Nine days after he found out the ship was coming, the drone-like prawn stopped working for MNU. They ate grouped in clusters, chittering excitedly as they stole glances at the bright sky. Many of them had never seen the homeworld and asked the older ones what it was like. “Free.” One of them had answered; “With enough food for everyone to eat. It is safe.”
Safety. The thought stuck with him. Could he be safe again as a man? He’d be hunted, most likely – a criminal who had killed countless personnel and had lived amongst the aliens for years in secrecy. Even if he could avoid capture somehow, what life would he have? Tania would not want to run… not with a child. He was probably dead as far as anyone knew – slaughtered by the ‘violent menace’ that he had seen to be anything but.
The evacuation was unlike anything he had ever seen before. Nearly a hundred of them gathered at a time near the furthest end of the expansive District 10 – filing onto a drop ship as the others systematically fought back the human forces attempting to stop them. MNU, the government, all screamed that they were not permitted to leave – that the ship would have to surrender because it was breaking treaties that couldn’t have been legal to make. It took less than an hour for shots to be fired, bullets first and then the unmistakable boom of the alien weaponry.
Wikus did not join them on either side. He hid in his lean-to, watching from one end where every so often violence would explode and then the other where one transport after another took on refugees. There seemed to be a planned order to it, nobody giving commands or squabbling over whose turn it was or who would sacrifice themselves at the gates.
When the numbers began to thin, many were dead as the bullets and grenades came closer with each blast but many more were sent up to the mothership. He saw a green figure in a red cloak of no design he’d seen on Earth moving through the crowd as a new group prepared to board. A loud growling and clicking rose among them, but Wikus couldn’t discern what they were saying – there were too many voices talking too fast for him to follow. The large figure turned toward his shelter, so he fled as best he could – scrambling under his blankets and garbage until the sheet metal roof was pulled away. The figure tossed it aside like a piece of paper and then grabbed him by the arm – easily lifting Wikus out of the nest of filth.
“You did not hear the orders?” the familiar voice churred, letting out a low growl as he set Wikus back on the ground.
“You came back for me?” He asked, warming inside unexpectedly. Emotions were different for him after the change, as a man he may have wept, but as a prawn he lacked the capacity. Instead, he dropped down in a reverent posture he’d seen the others use and read as an offer of surrender.
Christopher cooed, and then clicked words Wikus was unfamiliar with, and then lifted him up on his legs. “You must leave now or you will be killed.”
There was no room for protest, even if he had a mind to, which he surely didn’t. Christopher dragged him in a tight grip to the front of the pack – shoving him into a transport ship where he was packed tightly between his cloaked back and several other large prawns. “What is this?” He asked slowly when the shuttle stopped and they unloaded onto a large platform that reminded him of the busiest Metrobus station he’d ever seen.
Christoper didn’t answer for several long minutes, instead leading him through the crowd and into a network of corridors with signs written in a far more advanced system of the Poleepkwa language than Wikus had ever seen.
“The leader must see you.”
He took a deep breath, one tentacle-hand shaking until the larger male grasped it and held it protectively against his hip. “Can you do it? Can you fix me? Now?”
Christopher reiterated; “The leader must see you.” After a moment of pause, he added; “I have missed you. I did not know if you would survive on your own.”
“I managed.” He replied somewhat meekly, puzzled by the thought of the alien he had almost destroyed missing him. Had he missed Christopher? His child? Often he’d thought about them… how Christopher had gone out of his way to help him after all the horrible things he had done, even if he had his own agenda about it. He spent long nights wondering if he would really come back at all. Clearly, he had missed companionship – the others had seen him as no equal; he was smaller and weaker than even the young females, to them he was more like a dimwitted overgrown child. He often went days without talking to anyone if there was no meat or water to be passed on to him. “Your son,” he asked; “is he well?”
The tentacles grasping him squeezed the slightest bit harder as the interior of the ship began to grow dark. “He is training now, to fly ships.”
“Oh? That’s good! He can fly, just like you!”
“I am a builder.” Christopher clicked quietly, giving Wikus the impression it was more like what he understood as an ‘engineer’ rather than ‘carpenter’ – he built important things, technical things Wikus would never be able to understand.
On Earth, Wikus had learned mostly by listening and watching the others. They had a complex system, just as complex as any humans had built, with each member assigned a role to match their aptitudes. Most of the refugees, most of their society as he understood, were more of a laborer type – the equivalent of the working class, uneducated but strong and fierce. Many, like Christopher and now his child, were trained for more skilled positions; they built and used the technology and executed the orders that the workers followed. A select few were groomed to be leaders, the ones that were on the ship had not survived the infection – he’d heard rumors that it was sabotage but a twenty year old rumor was not so trustworthy – but they were the admirals, the planners, the designers. The ship’s leader terrified him before he had even laid eyes on it.
Gender was largely unimportant in the Poleepkwa he’d been living with, after some time he had learned that males and females produced different scents and the females were slightly smaller but socially there was no difference. The leader he had envisioned as some Queen, like at the cinema, but what he saw was easily the largest creature he’d ever laid eyes on. It was almost a meter taller than Christopher with large, long arms and grand tendrils that almost seemed to form a beard until it spoke. “The creature, Wikus.” It hissed his name, so different from the grunts and clicks that it must have been taught. “Bring it forward.”
Wikus winced, shying away when the leader examined him, but not moving from the spot where Christopher had left him before backing away several large steps. He did not speak, couldn’t even remember the simplest patterns to form words in their language. Every part of his body was touched, squeezed firmly and prodded with equal parts curious hissing laughter and fast-paced questions that Christopher answered without hesitation.
“It is weak, how has it survived?”
“He is cunning and resourceful.”
“It has a strange scent. What is its value?”
“He has been scavenging with the others for three years.”
Finally finding words, Wikus answered quietly; “I have been minding the eggs, protecting them from the humans.”
The leader hit him hard across the back, doubling him over until he sank down on his knees. “You have killed children and adults.”
“He was under orders.” Christopher clicked loudly; “He has killed many humans since his transformation.”
The concept of being under orders seemed to assuage the leader, but it gave Wikus that familiar ache again – had he been under orders? His orders had been to attempt the relocation with as few casualties as possible… eliminating the eggs had been seen with no more remorse than killing household pests. How foolish he’d been, how little had thought of them. Still, he chose silence.
“It wishes to reverse the process and be sent back?”
“Yes.” Christopher answered for him; “I promised him when I returned I would fix him.”
Weakly, doubting the words even as he formed the series of clicks and growls, Wikus said; “No. I have changed my mind. I wish to go to your homeworld.”
The leader was silent for a long moment, and then laughed. “Is this trickery? Are you attempting to spy on our kind?”
Christopher seemed even more shocked and stepped toward him, placing a protective hand at Wikus’ shoulder. “He cannot. He is a traitor to the humans,” he explained slowly as though trying to avoid certain words to describe what had happened; “they are afraid of him.”
“Afraid?” The leader asked, pawing at Wikus’ body without regard. “Of this small thing? He cannot even care for himself!”
“I will care for him.” Christopher said in a much harsher tone than before.
“Will you?” The leader asked, laughing again when Wikus winced as its tentacles probed inside what he had come to see as the female portion of his strange new genital structure. He knew better than to protest, but let out a weak churr of humiliation.
Christopher answered; “With my life.”
“And your mate approves of this thing entering your nest?”
Wikus was not surprised when Christopher shook his head, he’d known the prawn – Poleepkwa he had tried to think of them as despite his use of the more derogatory term – to pair up or sometimes live together in groups in their shacks but the concept of picking a mate when reproduction was self-contained still eluded him. “I have no mate,” Christopher answered quietly, with an almost sad tone; “my son bonded with him during his transformation. If he is to stay, I will care for him.”
After hours of deliberation while the remaining refugees were brought aboard the ship, Wikus confined to a small transparent-walled cell alone, Christopher returned to deliver the verdict.
“You may stay.” He said, stripping the tattered remnants of Earth clothing from Wikus’ body without preamble before moving to a display set into one wall almost seamlessly. He called up sequences faster than Wikus could even begin to decipher with graceful touches as he said; “You will be quarantined here for three months. This ship is much faster than the one you know; it will get us to our new home in that time.”
“Three months?” Wikus asked from the somewhat comfortable pile of soft nesting material that had been left for him on the floor. “I’ll be alone for three months?”
“No. There will be doctors.”
Wikus was silent a long moment, frustration welling at the thought. Then, he grunted; “I’m a damn experiment?” Unexpectedly, a spray of warm water came at him from all sides, washing away the years of filth that had built carelessly on his carapace – eliciting a shrill cry that made Christopher laugh.
“You are not one of us.” He explained slowly, “They want to understand what is different.”
The water drained through minuscule pores in the floor below him and Wikus forced himself up on his feet, stepping as close as he could get to eye-to-eye with his friend. “MNU only wanted to understand until they realized they could make money and weapons…”
Christopher cut him off with a harsh series of clicks; “You still think like a human.”
It was enough to silence Wikus and he backed down, slumping slightly forward in resignation. He tried, but it wasn’t like he could change everything he ever knew. His eyes caught the red of Christopher’s cloak and he looked up again to ask; “May I have clothes?”
He didn’t understand, and it was clear from the smile in Christopher’s eyes that it was an ignorant question at best. “Our kind only wear them to block the harsh sun on certain planets and to distinguish officials in a crowd.” He explained as though talking to a child, something Wikus was growing used to. “These marks,” he offered his own forearm, turning it palm up to show several white marks scarred into his plated shell; “show rank and status.” Moving slowly, he took Wikus’ arm – the first to change – and dragged a tentacle over the aging scars that had been earned in the battle to get Christopher and his son off Earth. “I will mark you when your fate has been determined.”
A long silence passed between them, Wikus was yet again at a loss for words but did not wish to be alone in the cage. After several long minutes, Christopher let go of his scarred arm and Wikus asked; “Will you come see me? While I’m here?”
Nodding, Christopher had agreed.
Quarantine proved educational as well as humbling and at times outright humiliating. He was examined physically and tested on machines operated by prawn that seemed even more intelligent than Christopher; their conversations moving so quickly that he only caught errant clicks and phrases – things like “interesting” and “unfortunate”. They asked him to read and attempt to write on a small computer touch-screen but it may as well have been Egyptian hieroglyphics for all he understood. At least in speech he seemed to be able to do more than make a fool of himself.
Time was different on the ship, it moved at its own pace and Christopher had tried to translate it as best he could into terms that Wikus would grasp. Passage of time was marked with the sun of their homeworld in thirty-six hour cycles. They had no need for weeks even months – following instead a more agrarian style schedule where as he understood they would be arriving close to the second of seven harvests. Three months of human time was only sixty cyles – sixty days – on the ship.
He did not see Christopher again until the tenth day; it was late and the ship had fallen quiet save for those responsible for the ship’s operations – the doctors had not come for him since his fourth meal and would not for several more hours when his first of the next day came. He was asleep and did not hear the door to his cell open, but he felt the presence of his friend crouching down beside him in what the doctors had called “a good try” of his first nest – it was bird-like, lined with the soft substance and various bits of things that had been given to him in a neat circle that was apparently not how it was supposed to be done.
“I have brought you some things.” He churred, rousing Wikus slowly with a gentle stroke over his exposed shoulder.
Blinking, Wikus raised his head and waited for his eyes to adjust to the near-dark before asking; “Christopher? Is it night?” Nighttime in space, the question itself was laughable even to him but he still felt the need to confirm that he was adjusting to the time.
“Yes.” He answered, pressing a soft oval into Wikus’ palm. “Eat this. It is good food.”
Their food was something altogether new to him; it had been almost easy to adjust to raw meat and the squish of cat food in his maw compared to the meals he’d been given on the ship that mostly consisted of strips of dry meat sometimes with an almost salty viscous slime he tried to think of as a gravy and hard root vegetables that reminded him of a sweet turnip. He tried not to think much about what it actually was considering he had no basis for comparison, somewhat doubtful the Poleepkwa had animals anything like Earth’s. It tasted just fine, and provided nutrition… that was what had mattered. Still, he was curious when he opened his fist to look at the plump, white thing. “What is it called?”
Christopher answered with a series of clicks and Wikus repeated it back to show that he had learned the word. “It is fruit.” Christopher said; “Sweet. Very hard to find on a ship.”
His tendrils shifted in what passed for a smile among them, squeezing it slightly to find it split in his palm and left a sticky wetness behind. He ate it slowly, tasting only a little to find it nearly intoxicating – sweeter than any fruit he could remember even as a child – letting out a nearly lustful growl when he had shoved the last bit into his craw and swallowed. “I never knew you had fruit.”
Christopher nodded, shifting closer to sit beside him when Wikus folded back onto his knees comfortably. “They are plentiful in the first and second harvest;” he explained, “many animals eat them as food then. The red are best, but white is also good.” With a vibrating tone nearly like a laugh, he added; “Never eat green or brown ones.”
“No green or brown…” he nodded; “got it.” Everything was a learning experience, and that was just the sort of thing he might do if someone were to offer it to him, he would eat it naively.
A concerned look crossed Christopher’s eyes as Wikus nodded and he reached out to touch a small spot beside one of his antennae where a nick had been made the day before – blood still fresh as the doctors had said it must remain open until they had run tests. “You are hurt.”
“No.” Wikus shook his head; “For a test. They will fix it tomorrow.” A quiet lull fell between them and Wikus shifted against a thicker section of the nest – prodding at it before admitting; “They thought it was funny that I can’t built a nest properly.”
Clearly, the doctors weren’t the only ones – Christopher laughed again and nodded. “I will show you when they bring fresh material. This is not warm enough for nighttime and will not protect you from predators.”
“There are predators?”
“Not here. They are clever at home.” Silent again, Christopher reached into a small pack that he had brought with him, withdrawing a tablet not unlike the ones Wikus had been given tests on. “This belonged to my daughter. You should have it.”
Taken aback, he was slow to accept the gift – almost startled when it turned on to his touch. “You have a daughter?”
“She is dead.” Christopher replied after some clear thought. “She was captured on Earth and did not come back.”
Swearing, as he understood it to be swearing in the alien tongue, Wikus shook his head. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
“I never told you. It doesn’t matter now.” He moved closer to sit side by side facing the active screen. Gesturing to each symbol he said; “This will teach you more words. And this one is about our home and our people. This one is for writing and reading.”
Essentially a high-tech prawn Preschool program, Wikus thought, accepting it for what it was. Things he would need to learn in a way that was accessible to him. “Thank you,” he said reverently, adding the same affectionate clicks Christopher had used himself not long before.
Shifting away quickly, as though Wikus had offended him, Christopher said; “I should go. Tomorrow I am meeting with the leader.”
Wikus nodded, confused – as was his normal state of mind for much of the last three years. “Will you come tomorrow?”
“If I can.”
He didn’t come, and the tests continued until Wikus had lost track of even what each one was for – he merely complacently allowed them to do as they wished and answered the questions he could, using his rather copious amounts of free time to go through the programs on the computer tablet. When he slept, he had nightmares where he was human again, a young child dropped into a university where he was laughed at and humiliated because he didn’t understand composition or physics.
When he was returned to his room – he’d stopped thinking of it as a cage after Christopher’s visit – on the twelfth day, his friend was waiting with fresh material piled on the floor and his things shuffled to one corner. “I will build your nest.” Christopher said confidently, no need for the formalities of greetings. “You will learn.”
His antennae twitched, and Wikus nodded acceptance – watching in silence as the other male worked slowly with the soft material. He’d found it to shape almost like paper mache without the frame – realizing with some curiosity that Christopher crushed each section in his strong grasp as he worked, drawing out a glue-like wetness that dried stiff and took a shape more like a pod than an open nest. “This is where you sleep.” He said, gesturing to the end of the pod furthest from the opening large enough for both of them to fit into. “It is safe. It must be hit hard to break.”
Testing it, Wikus curled his fist and knocked on the shell – finding it almost like a fiberglass structure after it had dried. After a curious glance, he dared to crawl inside, burrowing into the bottom as instructed, and found it to be comforting – dark and tight enough that he had to curl slightly to get comfortable. “This is nice.”
Christopher crawled in unexpectedly behind him, fitting his body much closer to Wikus than he had ever been to another prawn. For a second, tapping that almost ancient memory of disgust for what he had become, he considered pushing him away – but there was nowhere to push. Then strong arms wrapped around his and he realized his friend was holding him. There was no way to understand the gesture, what it meant in this new culture – it was something he had not expected any of their kind to offer… something as simple as a hug. Was it physical affection? “We sleep like this?” Christopher said, the clicks almost drawn to a question rather than a statement.
Wikus had no response, his tentacles twitched and almost reluctantly he touched Christopher’s abdomen – surprised to hear a growling set of clicks he didn’t understand. “I don’t know…” he answered, letting his confusion show.
“Families sleep together.” Christopher clicked slowly, “I will protect you.”
Protection. Safety. Concepts Wikus understood and knew that he would need in a strange, new world. “Like family.” Wikus churred, feeling the strange and unexpected warmth he was beginning to connect with Christopher – an emotion he had no human equivalent for but felt no less.
A long silence came between them and Wikus wondered if they would stay so close together, it was still early and food would be coming soon. When Christopher made no effort to move or speak, Wikus filled the silence with a soft admission; “I’m scared.”
Christopher’s antennae shifted forward, brushing against the top of Wikus’ head – tracing along the hard plate. “Now?”
“No.” He closed his eyes and answered; “I’m still just a creature. Not human. Not Poleepkwa. What am I?”
The same series of clicks Wikus remembered from the first visit, and again from when he’d been rescued, came quickly with a soft growl that offered him reassurance rather than confusion.
“What does that mean?”
His antennae straightened back to a more natural arch and Christopher shook his head; “You are special.”
“Special.” Wikus echoed, and then heard the tap on his door. “The doctor will want to see me.”
Christopher nodded, pushing at him to force him out first – emerging himself with an expression only the doctor would read as uncomfortable guilt while she took Wikus’ vitals with an eye turned toward his friend. “I should go.” He said when Wikus was offered a tray of dark meat.
Wikus did not ask when he would return.
He learned much over the next several days, new words and how to build his third nest – a sloppy, but usable cocoon that Christopher praised despite the weak spots and a small hole at the end – and about the harvest seasons; the seven moons and the multiple colonies on their planet. They were halfway there when the tests slowed; the doctors still taking their notes but discussing them in hushed tones he could barely make out as they sprayed him with liquids hot and cold or made him run along a track at various paces until he was exhausted. He liked to think they were bored of playing with him and was content to be left alone save for Christopher’s occasional visits most of the day.
They were curious about his human life; he told them about Tania and about the baby they had conceived before he was transformed, about his job at MNU – the concept of a middle management report filer mostly lost on them – and how they had survived in the camps. They asked about Christopher and laughed at the lessons on his tablet as he scrawled shaky symbols for food and drink and family.
He was used to being laughed at. He’d had a lot of time to think in District 10, and a lot of time to understand the kind of man he was – he was a simple man, a useless pawn that had been easy to cast aside. He was nobody special to anyone but Tania. But here, among these people, Christopher thought he was special and it warmed him as much as the shared moments of quiet conversation in the security of his pod in the quarantine cage.
In those conversations, he’d talked about the things he learned, and Christopher had explained how they would be starting a new city with the rest of the refugees – nearly two million and perhaps half as many more from the adjacent city to replace those that had died twenty years before – and that he was to be part of the planning for it. It was in those moments that Wikus had curled up with the tablet – Christopher stroking along his backbone as he leaned in close – and traced out his first proper written words.
“We. Are…” Christopher read, fondly tracing over the symbols; the last coming out as those strange arranged clicks he’d heard so many times before.
“That one is Family.” Wikus corrected, antennae restless as he tried to figure where he had gotten the mark wrong.
Smiling with his eyes, Christopher shifted his weight closer and lightly tapped to add to the mark before pressing it to hear the same word read back as he had said it – those mysterious clicks that were new Wikus’ mind – before wrapping his tentacle-hand over Wikus’ and squeezing tight. “You were not wrong. This is a better word.”
Once more confused, a common state when in Christopher’s presence, Wikus laughed it off and powered down the computer. “I’m learning.”
“You are learning much and very fast.”
Not letting himself be swayed away from his question, Wikus asked; “What does it mean?” He echoed the clicks, looking down at their joined claws. “Does it mean this? Affection? Mating?” Christopher pulled away again as though caught in some lie but Wikus grabbed his arm as tightly as he could. “Tell me. I want to understand.”
Christopher growled, but not out of anger. When Wikus only squeezed as tightly as he could – no honest physical threat but enough to get his attention – he answered; “Yes. It can mean those things.”
“Can or does?”
“You would not understand.” He yanked his arm away, a pointed joint piercing a hole in the side of Wikus’ cocoon, before scrambling out the small opening at the front.
The warm feeling that was spreading across his abdomen when they were close was replaced by a specific pain – a frustrating ache that he couldn’t place. Snarling, Wikus dragged himself out of the pod and stood with an aggressive forward lean toward his friend before stomping his foot against the floor. “You won’t even try?” He stomped again, glaring at him as a thick, warm smell seemed to seep out of from between the exposed cracks of his plated shell.
Unexpectedly, Christopher did not back down. He moved faster than Wikus had anticipated – slamming him against the transparent polymer wall hard enough to knock the wind out of him and then pressed himself just as close as they had been in the pod. “You are not ready to understand.” Gasping, clicking ineffectually, Wikus struggled against the much stronger male until Christopher let him down with a sad glance. “I must leave.”
“You always do.” Wikus managed, shaking his head – still reeling from the attack and overwhelmed by the scent had subconsciously created.
“You will understand in time.”
The pieces fell together slowly, first when the doctors seemed elated at the report of his spontaneous scenting – asking exactly what had happened to cause it. They were less interested in the fact that he was angry than when he explained he was angry with Christopher. The doctors clicked excitedly to each other, but he was fast enough to pick up the word “intimate” and “dominance” amidst the chatter.
The thoughts weighed heavily on his mind as he flicked through the tablet’s archive; affection, family, mating, intimacy, dominance. If he understood right, when he had asserted himself against Christopher’s physical authority his body had compensated for his smaller size with the release of pheromones that implied far more than his anger; it was to give the impression of a sexually dominant male telling a potential mate that he was able to protect his nest and was the most viable mate. It wasn’t asking for sex, it was demanding it.
Clearly, he didn’t understand. He didn’t understand any of it… and he certainly didn’t do it intentionally. At least, he thought, it made sense that he would want to beat a hasty retreat after that display. Were they engaging in some sort of awkward alien ritual that he didn’t know the steps to? The computer’s entries on the topic were extensive, but mostly utilizing symbols he didn’t understand that he’d have to look up and then shamefully look up the definitions given for even further clarification until a single concept took days to research and ultimately led him nowhere. There were details on scents, marks, claiming one’s mate – but nothing on why one chose to take a mate or if he were in a position to be propositioned as one.
Each day, the ship was a little closer to their destination – the refugees and crew equally glad to be heading toward the planet while Wikus forced himself to turn his studies away from the uncomfortable subject of alien sexuality and back to more practical matters.
Christopher did not return until the fiftieth day of their voyage, once more carrying a small knapsack over his shoulder as he let himself into the cell where Wikus had been avoiding the cocoon in favor of a smaller nest of various things he was learning to operate. He looked up and pressed a button on the side of a small triangular figure – a child’s toy, he thought – and glowed with delight when it followed the program he had given it to dance gracefully in the air, spinning and swaying on its own. “Brilliant!” He chirped, picking up his pad again to look up words for “dance” and “music”.
“You fixed it?” Christopher asked in a soft, cheerful tone. “Oliver will be pleased to see it dance again.”
Wikus nodded, poking the toy and sending it for another spiral when it came close to him. “I need to apologize for what happened last time… I believe I unintentionally excreted a musk that implied I would have my way with you against your will…” Nothing at all awkward about that thought, except everything possible.
Christopher shook his head, stepping closer before crouching down beside him. He cooed; “You did not understand.”
“I still don’t,” he admitted; “I looked it all up… but it’s very complicated and… I… I wasn’t very good at this before I became a creature…”
“Not a creature.” Christopher corrected, taking away the tablet and calling up a long sequence of symbols. “You are my friend. You are Poleepkwa now.”
“Am I?” He asked, only somewhat sarcastically… granted, sarcasm didn’t much translate into clicks and growls. “Is that what the doctors say?”
“It is what I say.” Christopher grasped a claw tight and sat down beside him, letting a video file play on the tablet. “I did not have a mate before we came to Earth, my daughter was conceived on my own.” Wikus did not recognize the almost desert-like environment of the video, but assumed it was his new home planet and that the young prawn who looked quite similar to Oliver was his friend’s daughter. “She was of age when the mothership left and I did not wish to leave her behind.”
He was familiar with their reproductive capabilities from the training films at MNU, and until his recent research had been under the impression it was the only way they could conceive when in fact it was almost an emergency measure, continuing your line when there was no opportunity for genetic diversity. The child would be similar to you, but would not have the benefit of a family unit – only the somewhat less close community to care for them. It was a survival tactic, not the only way… as he was shown in unexpectedly graphic detail. “Oliver was born on Earth?”
“Yes.” He admitted, dragging a tentacle along the screen until the familiar child’s face was present, with his sister and a yellow-marked friend that Wikus recognized from the evictions. “My kind is not permitted to make eggs with their kind. But I did not think we would be leaving Earth and I did not want to be the last of my kind.”
“You two were… were lovers?” He forced himself not to remember, surely Christopher would know what had happened and that he had been there when it happened. There was no sense in drawing out that memory of his own ignorance.
“We mated. Sixteen eggs in five years. Oliver was the first… and only survivor.”
Wikus’ guts lurched and he forced himself up on unsteady feet – stumbling across the room to vomit black bile in an empty corner. Popcorn. He hadn’t thought of that sound in ages, the memory of the smell of eggs burning in a shack made him lurch and drop to his knees as the puddle dripped away below him. “MNU?” He managed to grunt.
“You were not the first to destroy them.”
He didn’t move until he felt Christopher’s heavy claw on his head, stroking gently between his antennae. “I’m sorry.” He looked up, sad eyes pleading forgiveness for crimes he’d tried so hard to forget. “Your children…”
“They would not have been likely to survive.” Christopher shook his head, helping Wikus up to his feet. “Oliver is very intelligent, he has a strong resolve. He survived.”
“But… why? What does that mean for me?”
Christopher’s grip closed on his forearm again and he leaned forward, resting his head eye to eye with his friend – feelers intertwined with an easy twitch. “We are family.”
“Will I be your mate there?” He asked somewhat tentatively, not entirely sure what he was asking. It was all so confusing, but if he was to take a mate – he could not imagine anyone better suited.
Christopher was silent for a long moment before pulling away. Much more softly than before, he clicked; “I do not know if you can be.”
There was much layered into that statement and Wikus understood as much; there were rules for these things, rules that Christopher had wanted him to know he had broken before while he was on Earth. “I have to be part of your sort? But… I’m not, am I?”
“You are special.” The words had taken on their own meaning, encapsulating the essence of his situation. He was not one of them – he could not have a caste or fall within their rules.
“Do you want me to be?”
Lowering his head, Christopher nodded. “Yes.”
The increasingly familiar warmth spread inside him again and Wikus churred softly, considering the unspoken offer. He didn’t know if it was the right thing to do, only that it might make Christopher happy – and that Christopher was special to him. He knew, he understood and didn’t care that Wikus was not the same as he was. “I will ask the leader.” Wikus said simply, warming further when Christopher looked up with a relieved wetness to his eyes. “I don’t know how it works, but I will ask.” He had asked Tania’s father for her hand in marriage – her father had joked about a dowry of five goats but ultimately agreed that if it was what she wanted he should marry her. Of course, that had turned out well…
“I will ask. I have been working with the leader to determine your skills and usefulness to the colony.”
The thought pleased him, somewhat unexpectedly, to know that all the time he was away Christopher had been working on his behalf without even bothering to mention it. “Tell me what to do.”
“Learn.” He answered, pressing close again, letting himself wrap around Wikus until the small claws that spent much of their time idle stroked his flesh. “I will return when I have an answer.”
MNU had theorized that the alien ship – perhaps even their entire race – operated as a hive, not unlike bees; if they could hear the buzz of activity punctuated with millions of voices clicking and chirping and growling as their arrival drew closer, they would consider it truth. Only three days away, Wikus had taken to pacing as he read one screen after another until he was too exhausted to crawl into his pod to sleep. He devoured information as eagerly as food – perhaps even more eagerly as the slimy dry meat had given way to simply dry meat scraps as the ship’s stores ran low – learning about their development on one side while the other kept a list of words that he played again and again to drill them into his memory. Language, growth, culture, how to think and behave like the Poleepkwa.
The doctors examined him thoroughly; injecting him with a thick black serum they explained would help him to mature physically before testing his responses to stimulation as they had in the first few days. Again, they tested his reading and writing aptitude as well as his verbal skills – apparently pleased with his progress the laughter had turned to respectful nods and clicks of “good” and “very close”. He was, quite naturally, beyond pleased with himself.
“I am learning!” He declared when Christopher visited him again, chirping eagerly as he danced with the spinning toy that he rather enjoyed watching. “I have learned about mating and children and food and homes and the colonies and the seven moons and why green and brown fruit are bad…” His clicks came out erratic and rambling until Christopher grabbed him forcefully by the arms – making him stop his energetic dance; “I have learned the word…” He clicked several times, repeating the word that had stuck in his mind and warmed him since he’d first heard it while bowed reverently at Christopher’s feet on Earth, “love. Love. Love. You love me.”
Christopher squeezed harder, drawing his attention before leaning in close. “You have a job.” He said softly, the implied importance weighing on both of them. “The leader wants you to teach the children in our city because you are like them; you are learning and they are learning but you can help them.”
“A teacher?” He asked, quite pleased at the thought; “That is good?”
“That is good.” Christopher nodded; “And I will be responsible for you and the others who will also teach the children.”
He didn’t know the words for “administrator” or “principal” but let out a chirped laugh with the thought. “I will need to learn more.”
“You will have time.” Christopher said, holding both claws tight against Wikus’ backbone. “We will have an egg before you are ready to begin.”
Shocked, Wikus was still a long moment – staring at his friend. An egg? He hadn’t actually considered there would be eggs involved… of course, it was generally expected that with a mate came a child but it was all enough to confuse him all over again. “An egg? Me and you? An egg?”
“You don’t want an egg?” Christopher was equally confused, his antennae flitting somewhat nervously. “We are permitted to mate. I have asked permission.”
It had been easy to shed some of his previous human sensibilities; social taboos were entirely different when something as major as species was altered – their culture simply didn’t fall into the same rules humans had. Of course, it didn’t make the thought of considering children so soon after deciding they would be a couple easy to digest. Wikus concentrated on what he had learned, distracted by the uneasy shift of tentacles against his back; it was common for Poleepkwa to conceive within weeks of their first mating; many eggs not making it through full gestation. “This is not easy for me.” He admitted finally, leaning against the stronger male’s body.
Christopher seemed to relax underneath him, taking most of his weight without thought, as one claw rose up to once more stroke between Wikus’ twitching antennae. “At least thirty days…” he clicked; “before the lessons will be ready.”
It was time enough to think, at least. A number rather than an act that he wasn’t even sure would be physically possible. “Thank you.” Wikus replied softly, squeezing his arms around him.
A comfortable silence passed and they returned to the small collection of trinkets and toys, Christopher watching with quiet fascination as Wikus worked on a puzzle ball that told a rhyme when it was completed. “I brought a drink to celebrate,” he said after nearly an hour, withdrawing a slender clear jug from his bag. He opened the lid and offered it to his mate first, “It is a tradition.”
“Alcohol?” Wikus asked, smelling it warily – memories of District 10’s rather easily obtained illegal concoctions entirely too easy to dredge up. He’d never dared to try any himself, but he wasn’t much of a drinker as a human either.
“Made from the fruit you had before.”
Equating it with wine, which seemed appropriate for their celebration, Wikus nodded and took a small sip directly from the bottle – feeling it warm down his gullet. “It’s sweeter than the fruit.”
Christopher nodded, gesturing for him to drink more. “One half for you, and then one half for me. And we will dream about the future when we sleep.”
Hours later, after Christopher left and he’d climbed into his cocoon, Wikus dreamed of children. Of how Oliver was proud of how alike they’d been when he was still mostly a man. Of eggs in the tents plugged into cattle for food. Of hatchlings and the way they chirped shrilly with starved breaths of Earth’s air. He dreamed of teaching prawn children, and of his own.
He waited patiently in his cage even after the doctors had said he could go, listening to the hum of voices as the refugees were escorted off the ship and to their new homes. The city, as he understood it, was still being built – but Christopher had made it sound like a paradise compared to the camps. Long after the din had died down, past time for his third meal but there was no food to be had, Christopher came for him. “I thought you left without me,” Wikus said playfully, letting the stronger male take his bag before following him through the strange passages.
“I was making preparations.”
Curious, Wikus asked; “For what?”
“You.” He replied warmly, placing a guiding claw against Wikus’ back as he walked faster. “Oliver will be meeting us to fly to the city.”
It amused him, the thought of meeting Oliver after more than three years – surely he’d be mostly grown if he was already flying whatever sort of ships they had on the planet. Of course, he’d managed to fly the drop ship as a child so there was little surprise in it. “Did you dream, the other night? With the drink?”
Letting out a pleased chirp, Christopher nodded. “About our home and our family and working to build a city.”
“Oh.” Wikus let the thought sink in; home, family… being of equal importance to building a city for his people.
“What did you dream of, special one?”
The term of endearment rolled pleasantly in his mind, and Wikus answered; “Children.”
He didn’t respond for a long moment, his eyes focusing on a dim glow ahead as they approached the landing bay. Finally, he said; “I think we should have an egg. That would be good.”
Christopher stopped, gripped him tightly as though assuring what he had heard before he asked; “You would like an egg?”
He nodded slowly; “Yes. I would like a child.”