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No Man's Land

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"You’re early,” Wikus says blankly, and in his surprise he slurs the words so much they are nearly unintelligible. Lerato always flips her antenna in exasperation at him, at how long it takes him to fumble through a simple sentence, but Christopher’s son doesn’t seem to notice, just beams and throws himself through the door, bounding in long-legged wobbly strides up to Wikus’ worktable.

It's been two years and three months, and Wikus hasn't let himself think about Christopher’s return, not in any concrete way, for the last year and a half. He’d dwelled on it endlessly in the beginning, but eventually he’d stopped counting the days and started trying to find himself a niche, a way to survive here. Now Christopher has arrived, must be in District 10 somewhere, and Wikus can’t quite take in that it isn’t a bizarre hallucination or a dream.

The boy has grown nearly half a meter taller since Wikus saw him last, spindly and gangly, and his skin has the fresh sheen of an adolescent molt. Wikus had recognized him the second he’d shown up in the doorway, pheromones flooding the room and warning everyone in a twenty meter radius of the intent to pry into anything not nailed down. Christopher’s son, head cocked cheerfully, bright even in the dull gray world of the slum.

“Yes, early. We took a fast vessel, the fastest,” he chitters happily at Wikus, leaning forward and pressing his hand against Wikus’ side for a moment before dancing away again – he’s practically vibrating, he’s so excited. “With an immersion engine, very small, very fast. Will you come? We have come back because Father needs you, and we will begin to fix you, make you like you were, if that is acceptable? But you look well, are you well? Do you know I have just been named? The ceremony was last vrek, I am sorry you have missed it but I could not wait, I was already growing. We have a vessel waiting, and it is cloaked, will you come? Are you ready to go?”

Wikus clutches the table and nearly ruins one of the sails of his ship, stopping himself just in time. It’s too much to take in at once – he must have misheard some of that, he’s still fucking awful at picking out the clicks when the aliens get a good ramble going. It really is Christopher’s son, though, excited and shivering and babbling like a bloody brook. Fuck. Wikus can’t --

“Go now?” he asks carefully, and picks up the toy ship, not meeting the eyes of his friend’s newly-named son. The aliens didn’t name their children until they’d reached their second stage of growth, although the fucking MNU assigned them a human name soon as they’d hatched. Wikus had wondered idly each time he watched a ceremony what name Chris’ son would choose. Something as unpronounceable as the other children, he’d supposed. He thinks about that instead of about changing again, transforming, his skin sloughing off and showing soft pink beneath the exoskeleton, his mandibles falling out and hair growing back in.

He’d always imagined himself leaping out the door, sprinting towards the new alien transport when it arrived, towards humanity and home and safety and Tania. Instead he’s thinking that he needs to find Abri and Lerato and tell them he’s leaving, that he hasn’t finished Dolph’s boat yet or paid Botho for the last goat leg he’d purchased. The boy cuts off mid-sentence, clearly realizing Wikus hasn’t been listening, and stares at him, perplexed. Wikus manages to find his voice again, though it’s thick and drawling, like he’s lost his tongue for the second time.

“It’s – fuck, it’s good to see you, boy. Look at you, fucking huge! But where’s Chris? Where’s your dad?”

“I found you first,” the boy clicks smugly, relaxing. “He is close, he was checking the west quarter. Will you come, Wikus? Uncle?” He tries to tug Wikus’ hand, to lead him out the door, and Wikus finds himself resisting, even as he nearly asphyxiates at the word ‘uncle.’ He tries to adjust his mandibles to hide his confusion.

“I need to finish this,” he says finally, smoothing out a wrinkle in the metal, making a tiny adjustment to the stained canvas he’d scavenged last week. He’s a little embarrassed, now, watching the boy’s bright eyes dart questioningly to the small metal creatures and flowers and curlicues strewn about his shack, glinting amidst the shadows. “I’d thought – three years, he said. And now he’s here already? Today? Bloody hell, give a man a second to catch up, would you?”

Ignoring his gruff, terrible enunciation, the boy just flings himself to the floor and begins picking up the tiny mech-soldiers Wikus has created from scraps of copper and steel, testing their limbs.

“Father will be here soon,” he says, opening the compartment of one of the suits and peering in at the metal figure inside, putting it down and picking up another, this one mottled gray-black, with a tiny clay person. “What are these?”

“They’re for the kids,” Wikus explains, because he’d had to do something after Christopher escaped, and he could make little things, tiny useless little trinkets that the youngest prawns inexplicably loved. Most of the prawns were more prone to dismantling than creating things. Make us a human toy, Dolph had said, small orange eyes staring up at him hopefully, and Wikus had begun working on a yacht like the one he and Tania had once owned, one that Dolph could race across the scuzzy puddles in the north quadrant, its sails full of cold July wind.

Before, he’d actually been a bit terrible at making things, making anything  – Tania had pretended to love his lumpy paper-mâché koalas and lopsided clay bowls, and he’d loved her for it, still loves her for it. But these hands are ugly and clever and quick, and now he can mold metal and wiring until it does what he wants. He’s been so many things during his life, it seems like. Wikus the murderer, Wikus the terrorist, Wikus the toymaker. He misses being Wikus the husband, God, he misses it. But he likes making toys, making them well and then seeing the little ones play with the things he’s created for them. It’s satisfying on some level he’s never known.

“May I have one?” Christopher’s son asks, holding one of the copper-wire figures, tasting it delicately with his lower setae, and Wikus feels suddenly helpless again, like he’s watching his fingernails sliding off, feeling his insides writhe and segment into something strange and loathsome and new. He places a hand to his abdomen and tries to remember what it had been like to be all one thing, one entire creature.

“Well, I did miss your name-day,” Wikus says, finally setting the boat back down on the table. He’ll finish it later, add a tiny rudder and paint Dolph’s name on the side with the small bottle of blue nail polish he’d scrounged up from the gutter earlier. He wonders what Tania would think of that, of treasuring a discarded bottle, marveling over a piece of trash. “Humans give each other presents on their name-days, did you know? You can have as many as you like. Take your pick of the lot.” If he has time, he’ll make the kid something special, something just for him.

“Has he told you his name yet?” comes an amused rumble from the door, and it’s Chris, Christopher Martin, and fuck, that’s one of the things that splits Wikus in two. His human eyes would have been flooded with water at this moment, salt and shame and relief, but he can’t cry now, can’t do anything but shiver, his body locked still.

“No,” he manages – fuck, he should be better at this by now, at the glottal tongueless stops. The little bastards make speaking with these mouthparts look so easy. “Chris, I’m so fucking sorry, for everything, for—” And the words dissolve to mush and gibberish.

Christopher, the lunatic brilliant bloody prawn, just arches his neck puzzledly, as though Wikus has nothing to be sorry for, which is not the fucking case. Wikus has had two years and three months, and even a day or two before that, to know it’s not the fucking case. He could never make up for the things he’d done; he can’t even think of it without whatever his stomach’s become churning.

He raises his hand to his eyes, even though he’s got no tears to hide, and listens to the faint creak of joints as Christopher ducks his head and enters Wikus’ shack, the whisper of his antennae twitching as he turns and looks at what Wikus has done with himself for over two years. Wikus the toymaker. Wikus the biological freak. Wikus the murderer.

“I need your help,” Christopher says finally, and Wikus drops his hands and looks at him sidelong. His instinct is to say ‘yes’ without question, to try and make up for some of the Wikuses he’d once been, but part of him still remembers that Christopher is one of the craziest beings to ever touch foot upon the Earth. He can’t imagine what kind of help he might need now. He huffs out a frustrated breath, half from his mouth and half from the line of holes running up and down his side, and hadn't that been weird the first time it had happened.

Pull yourself together, man, he thinks.

“I’m not much fucking help, man. I mean, I could make you a toy train?” he offers lightly, trying to move his mandibles carefully, distinctly, as he speaks. “If you don’t mind waiting, I can even find veggie oil, make it blow smoke rings.”

Christopher’s son visibly brightens at this and Christopher has to put a restraining hand on the boy’s narrow shoulder.

“We need your help,” Christopher says again, this time more urgently, and Wikus laces his familiar-unfamiliar fingers over the ominous lurch in his abdomen and waits to hear the rest. “It is not an easy thing to ask.”

“Father, it is easy, I have heard you talk of it many times. I will explain,” the boy says, giving both adults a puzzled, pitying look that transcends species boundaries – any human adult would recognize it. “Father says we need a human to help us understand things, human things, and the Council agreed and they gave us the ship, the best ship, so we could find you quickly and see if you will come back with us. Will you come, come home with us? We have many more moons and you can meet the Mother, and—”

Wikus makes a noise that defies translation – he isn’t even sure what he’d meant to say. Flying off to fuck knew where, away from everything, everyone – he’s done that already, hasn’t he? And now to do it again, to leave all possibility of regaining the things he misses from his old life. Bad reality television, clean sheets, the Indian curry Tania loved from that restaurant in Sandton. Tania.

And now, strangely, even in the cold and the filth and the deprivation, there are things to miss. The cluster of children that wait at his door in the morning to see the new toys he’s made, the harsh barking noise that is Botho laughing at his clumsy attempts to mimic human singing, the low hum of Abri and Lerato and Mosa as they tend their eggs. He tries not to think about it. No matter what happens he's lost something.

It’s easier not to think about it.

“We will return you to your human body regardless of your decision,” Christopher says quietly, and Wikus closes his eyes.

The Council, whoever they are, they’ll probably roast him alive, and then feed him to whoever the Mother is, and maybe he deserves that, deserves worse. Maybe the whole stinkin’ human race deserves that. Maybe he should just go ahead, lose everything, see what happens.

He wonders if Tania is even still waiting for him. He hopes she is no matter how unfair it may be to her, to have her wait forever for a person that may never return, that might not even exist anymore. District 10 is so far from their old home, and the last time he’d managed the long journey, there’d been a strange car in the driveway, and an acrid cologne in the air, and he’d fled through the empty night streets back to his rusted, corrugated home, to his familiar dirt-gray alleys.

He’d left the metal orchid in her mailbox first, though. He… well, he hoped he’d gotten better at crafting the little flowers over time. Fuck, which probably meant Tania wouldn’t even recognize it was from Wikus. The old Wikus never made anything that delicate -- not successfully, anyway. He raises a hand to his eyes again. It had been an orchid, that had to mean something. They’d had orchids at their wedding, pale yellow cymbidiums, and she’d worn them in her hair. She’d been so beautiful. He can hardly believe he’d really ever touched something so beautiful, when everything in his life now is tarnished and worn and gray.

But can he go back, really, now that he has – fuck, say it, don’t be a fucking coward – friends, Botho and Lerato and Mosa, prawns as his closest friends. Now that he has a pack of little ones that watch for him each day when the sun rises and teach him how to speak more clearly and how to use his lower limbs to groom himself.

And then there’s Christopher.

Christopher is staring at him when he drops his hand, and Wikus remembers the look in his eyes when he saw that room in the MNU basement, when he saw what they’d been doing to his people. For MNU, the aliens weren’t people. Just objects, as easy to rip apart as a dead cow or an abandoned spaceship.

“Yes,” Wikus says, dropping his gaze to Christopher’s son playing on the floor, tweaking wires and levers, undoubtedly making vast improvements. “Yes, of course. I’ll come. Just, give me a moment, will you?”

He leaves the shack and the unfinished ship, and goes to find Lerato and Mosa, and see if anyone will be willing to deliver one last flower after he’s gone.