It felt weird walking down the corridor that early in the day. It felt at once quieter and more peaceful, and like she wasn't supposed to be there. But she had told Mark she'd be there by 12, and she wasn't about to break her word the very next day. She rang the doorbell, its electronic buzzing breaking the silence. "Who is it?"
replied Mark, his voice strained. <"Arnd."> "Door, open! Uh..."
the human replied, and both he and Arnd knew he had made a mistake.
Arnd heard a pair of heavy thuds, and the door soon opened. She was greeted by the sight of Mark frantically pulling on a shirt, a pair of dumbbells lay before him, subtly sunk into the floor. The brief glimpse she caught of his torso before it was covered revealed that it was slick with sweat, the sight of which unnerved her, but she couldn't blame the man for it in the least.
Mark picked up his weights and re-racked them. "Sorry you had to see that."
he said shakily, still panting from the strain of his workout. <"Not a problem.">
replied Arnd, taking a seat beside him on the sofa as he dabbed his forehead dry.
Mark shuffled away, grabbing a crutch. "I'm gonna go take a shower so I don't stink this place out. I won't be long."
Arnd nodded, and Mark half-walked, half-hobbled away and into his bedroom, using the single crutch like a cane for the lone foot that remained injured.
The door to the bathroom shut behind Mark. 'I knew I'd fucking forgotten something!' He sighed at his own failing, and undressed.
The shower was loud enough to fill the entire room with the sound of artificial rain. The sense of serenity the noise would have given was dampened by the fact that these wintry months swapped rain for heavy snowfall, giving it an unnatural sensation that Arnd conceded was all too fitting for Mark. With nothing else to do but wait, small details of Mark's room came to her that she didn't notice before: He appeared to have upgraded his television further, with Arnd recognizing a high-end Saken brand projection strip in place of the nodes she and Mark had repaired; he had brought in more weights than he started with, even personalizing each of the bars and weights with a laser engraved message in English, 'human' being the only word of which Arnd could recognize; and the smell... She grabbed a can of air freshener from below the sink and gave the room a good few sprays. <'How does he live with that?'>
By the time Arnd had replaced the air freshener, Mark had begun toweling himself off. Arnd took a seat at the dining room table, and before long, Mark emerged from his bedroom, adjusting his shirt and taking a whiff of the air. <"So, what's on the menu, chef?">
Mark wheeled around the corner of the kitchen and peeked at the notice on his fridge. "We're looking at... a rukwa platter with ne' julu on the side. Fancy."
He pulled the fridge door open and gathered ingredients.
In short order, the rukwa was in the oven and julu pieces were in a pan, simmering in gravy. As he slowly stirred the gravy pot, he decided to check up on what the lab techs had been up to, and pulled up the reports provided by T'aro's team. Even more surgical tools had been developed and tested, with video recordings of each phase of development, adding to the ever-growing arsenal of medical equipment designed with only one person in mind. Samples of skin and blood had been exposed to a variety of substances; metals and minerals, gases of staggering variety, solutions of various chemicals, with each having their effects recorded and documented. In skimming through days of constant security feeds, he saw that the team had stuck to their word and refrained from increasing their stores of both cloned samples, instead keeping their reserves constant to keep up with tests. Malante 2 had seen quite a surge in development, with an approximate 400% increase in density when compared to previous iterations, but concerns have been raised in regards to cost effectiveness. Ultimately, Mark couldn't find anything to complain about.
While the thought was still on his mind, Mark sent a message.
Hey Rilkr. How're the simulations going?
While waiting, he turned to Arnd. "You want something to drink?"
Arnd looked up from her news feed. <"Ramut, if you have it. With a hint of lija.">
Mark nodded and looked into each cupboard he could access, soon coming across the tin of ramut ears in an overhead cabinet alongside the mugs. But despite his best efforts, he couldn't quite reach either. Arnd saw movement out of the corner of her eye, and couldn't help but laugh at the sight of Mark using his crutch for extra reach, and failing. She came over and casually pulled both the tin and a mug out of the cupboard. <"Now I see what Uns'la's on about, Tiny.">
Mark snatched the ramut ears and mug out of her hands. "You live on a planet with double the gravity of this one and see if you're still a skyscraper, fuzzy."
The two shared a playful smile at each other's jests, and continued with their respective tasks.
The ramut ears appeared much like a dark brown offshoot of ancient, large-kerneled maize, whose kernels contained fluid that acted as a stimulant to the drinker. Following the instructions on the tin, Mark boiled some water and poured it over the plant, causing the kernels to melt into the beverage, staining it a brown that could have easily been mistaken for black, after which he binned the cob. Mark then added a squirt of lija syrup, after requesting Arnd's aid in getting the bottle down from the same cabinet. He watched Arnd take a lengthy first sip. 'I miss coffee.'
Soon, the meal was ready. Rukwa thighs and breasts were piled on one side, garnished with a sprinkling of crushed mantan leaves, and spoonfuls of julu and gravy were tipped onto the other side. Mark brought the plates to the table. Seeing the meal dressed up and right in front of her brought Arnd's hunger to a fever pitch, and she instinctually grabbed her utensils. "You don't need my permission."
said Mark with a smile, and in a flash, Arnd dug in. Mark watched as she scoffed her meal, visible shivers running up her spine like a flashing sign telling the world that each bite was flooding her with dopamine.
Mark raised his utensil to join her, when his tablet buzzed.
Hey Tiny. Boss left his pad behind. things are fine. What's happening on your end?
Mark ate as he replied.
Breakfast. Doctors are coming later to get that last graft on, and I should be back in working order tomorrow.
Cool. What you gonna do first when you're back on your feet?
Gaining citizenship and moving outta here.
Sick. ttyl, boss's back. He's pissed I'm on his pad.
A moment passed, a moment in which Mark imagined Uns'la received a good smack upside the head.
Rilk'r here. Wrench is a prick, but yes, things are fine. Slow, but fine. I'm glad to hear you're almost recovered and wish you luck with your application. I'll keep you updated as developments come.
By the time the conversation was over, Arnd had finished her meal and was downing a fresh mug of ramut. Wordlessly, she passed through the kitchen and into the lounge room, a look of satisfaction on her face. Mark silently praised himself for a job well done and continued his meal.
Mark opened the door for F'ejen and Mee'lo. <"Last graft,
Mark! You excited to have your feet back?">
said the elderly doctor. "That I am."
he replied, laying his foot on the low table in front of him. <"Any pain?">
asked F'ejen as he examined the foot. "Just an annoying buzz, like static. Nothing painful."
F'ejen began applying disinfectant to the last remaining toe. <"If that's the case, then I'd say once we're done here, you're free to walk again. I'd hang onto those crutches if I were you though, just in case."> "Gotcha."
Arnd watched Mark's foot be guided into the tissue replicator. She loved the machine as only one who had been saved by its technology could, but a part of her had grown to tentatively loathe it. It felt like the machine was slowly taking something away from her just as she truly received it, with nothing she could do within reason being able to stop it. She knew the thought was entirely selfish, and that the purpose it had undertaken was for a good cause, but confronting that was a bitter pill to swallow, and standing by moreso. Yet at the same time, she couldn't deny that she wanted this, to see him healed of an injury brought on by his own selflessness, and to see the overbearing government's grip on him loosened that tiny bit by his new lodgings once the dust settled. <"Once you're healed, I insist we run some tests; I expect your time off your feet would've taken its toll.">
said F'ejen gravely.
Mee'lo grunted in response. <"Atrophy's no joke. You been keeping up your exercise?">
His gaze flicked between the machine he was operating and the set of weights beside the sofa, but it never hurt to check. "Yeah, but it's been a pain to find suitable exercises that don't require you to stand up."
Mark had indeed done his best. Lifting wasn't too hard to make work while sitting, so he worried little for his upper body; his core suffered little, with crunches, elevated planks, and oblique twists making up the bulk of his core routines; it was his legs that worried him the most, with weights safely jury-rigged for leg extensions and curls being a sore substitute for his usual repertoire of squats and deadlifts. He knew in the pit of his gut that although he had put the effort in and no doubt stayed atrophy's hand for a time, that F'ejen's word was to be trusted, yet the extent of the damage remained to be seen.
Once hooked up to the machine, Mark turned to look at Arnd. "So, what's on the docket today, Teach?"
Arnd brought up the schedule. The day called for yet more refresher courses. Looking over the topics discussed, Arnd recognized that Mark had as solid an understanding as every subject called for, if not in excess for matters of a more spiritual and historical nature. She thought, and against her better, and perhaps wiser judgement, said: <"Nothing. Take a break, you're gonna have enough on your plate tomorrow as it is.">
Mark blinked. "You sure? I swore we had one last refresh-" <"Just, trust me. You know what's going on out there; this might be the last chance at relaxation you're gonna get in a while.">
said Arnd, pleadingly despite her best attempt at nonchalance.
Mark looked from her to the doctors. Mee'lo shrugged, F'ejen nodded while gesturing back to the human. <'I agree with Arnd, but the choice is yours.'>
Finally, he looked back to the woman. "Fuck it. Sure."
And he laid back and began scrolling through his feed, when a thought came to him. "Then what are you gonna do?"
he asked Arnd.
Arnd leaned back. <"I dunno. Probably binge the rest of Ke'jill Heights, get one last drink in, and see if I can't get away with slugging T'aro in the face.">
she said longingly, with a not little hint of malice in her voice when the subject of violence came up. "I'd be right there with you if I didn't need him. That and, y'know..."
Him gesturing to himself punctuated the sentence better than any word that immediately came to mind. The aliens nodding in understanding proved that.
Everybody in the room silently agreed that no more need be said, and slowly peeled off into doing their own things. Arnd turned the television on and began watching the remaining episodes of the serial drama she had most recently picked up; the doctors split their attention between monitoring the machine operating on Mark, idle conversation, and their devices, with Mee'lo trawling social media, and F'ejen enjoying an online strategy game; Mark himself continued to familiarize himself with The Conclave, finding and joining multiple forums pertaining to his interests after giving the demeanour of each community a thorough investigation. The Aliens forum in particular caught his attention thanks to the obvious content the forum had recently been flooded with, and it also began jogging a memory, of a username. And with a minute's search of the forum's user list, he had found her.
As everybody was mostly absorbed in their own doings, nobody noticed as the screen of Mark's device swapped back and forth between an art canvas and a message tab. Occasionally he would continue scrolling The Flow to give his mind time to think of how to go about rendering the next part of his piece, but still nobody noticed him. Until he began laughing. Human laughter was jarring enough for x'erren ears, but this guffawing shook the entirety of Mark's body, and the sofa it laid on. He tapped Arnd on the thigh. "You have to hear this."
he said between sniggers, handing her his headphones.
Unable to properly fit them on her head, she settled for holding one speaker to an ear. Mark pressed play. The camera zooms out of the X'rtani national insignia in flames, fabric chars as the blaze rapidly consumes it, revealing the stylized logo of the band the camera continues to zoom out to. Twenty vocalists stand in four rows facing the camera. They all wear faces of outrage. The five in the rear vocalize a sharp, rapid, percussive beat. Four more join with heavy, foreboding drones. The effect is similar to traditional military performances, a show of solidarity and fearlessness on the battlefield, that they are willing to sing in the face of death itself. Two at the front harmonize with rhythmic humming, and begin to sing. <"Chaos Breeder! Scourge of Peace! Your tongue is invisible talons! Dug into society! We defy you, mighty demon! Chaos Breeder, fight us and die!">
As Arnd continued to listen, her horror deepened. The message of the song was clear, and the comments below only solidified its meaning: this band did not like Mark. This wasn't just any band, however, it was Blazing Soul, a recent up-and-comer who had broken into the popular music charts with unprecedented success, standing alongside seasoned and reliable acts who had dominated the charts for years. And here they are, one of the fastest-rising bands in recent history, putting out a protest single against an alien who was currently injured and laying on a sofa, absolutely loving it. "This is the funniest thing I've ever seen."
said Mark between deep chuckles. He knew to take his device back when Arnd suddenly jerked back from the video; the weird CG didn't stop the scene of a demonic Mark violently tearing apart civilians from being suitably shocking. He knew he had to leave a comment.
Arnd watched him type, shaking her head. <' "This is awesome! Keep up the good work!"? Is this idiot literally advocating for propaganda against himself?! Soon enough, he'll be actively begging for a lynch mob to storm his doors!'>
Her gaze lingered on the human's tablet long enough to catch a glimpse of the back-and-forth he had been having beneath her notice, with a user going by the username Pa'd_Saavol.
Have you heard of Blazing Soul?
The band? Yeah, I've tried listening to their stuff before, and it's just not for me.
Have you heard about their new track?
Nope, is it good?
No, I don't think so. [Blazing Soul - Chaos Breeder]
Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I needed a good laugh. >D
It is pretty funny though.
Arnd nudged Mark. <"Who's that?"> "A woman I had a short chat with at the bar a while back."
he replied casually. <"Huh. What's she want?"> "Just to chat; she's into sci-fi, so talking to me is like
Christmas for her."
Arnd vaguely recalled Mark mentioning the alien word in a prior conversation, a holiday of some sort. <"Huh.">
She thought to caution him, but she quickly reminded herself that the man was a bloody adult and returned to watching her drama. It was a day for relaxation, and she would be damned if she was going to let some Flow nonsense get in the way of that.
Though Arnd had a number of gripes with Ke'jill Heights, the characters and their intricate relationships had been enough for her to stick it through. This was not to last. <"How long, Sh'elon?"> asks Rell, his voice icy. Sh'elon remains silent, staring guiltily at the floor. <"Answer me."> Sh'elon breathes deep. <"Three years."> Rell's expression is torn between rage, anguish, lingering confusion, and damnable relief. Everything has suddenly clicked in the worst way possible. <"She's not mine, is she?"> <"No."> Cut to black. Credits. <"What the fuck was that?">
bellowed Arnd. <"Either that manipulative bint was lying or the writers forgot that the kid's five! That's it, I'm done.">
In protest, she angrily shut the show off and began looking through the programme list. Normally, she would have kept her composure better, but a poorly written television show wasn't the only thing distressing her.
Mark walked out of the kitchen carrying a pair of bowls. "Grub's up!"
he said cheerily.
It was done. Mark was healed.
The moment when F'ejen announced that the grafts were at last complete was a moment to behold. Mark had stood up and was visibly excited to once again put his full weight down on his feet. His first few steps were slightly shaky as a consequence for not having walked in over a week, but in a matter of moments, he was striding about as though nothing had ever happened. His face was split with a wide smile the entire time, so elated he was that he completely forgot a x'erren's standard reaction to a toothy grin. And at last, in what may very well have been the human's only moment of unquestionable joy, despite her instinctual apprehension, Arnd believed she saw the beauty in a human's smile.
That moment of elation was short lived as Mark continued to walk about. Her relationship with her feelings about being shipped off to prison was fickle. Every day when she laid down to sleep, it all seemed a bit more acceptable, a bit more likely that she would be able to deal with it, and then the next day she would be present as Mark slowly recovered, inching her ever closer to prison, and it would all come flooding back. Now only one step remained before she was to be removed from the world and the life she knew, and she hated that the dread she felt got in the way of the joy she should have been feeling for her friend.
And Mark was none the wiser, handing her a bowl of freshly made palute soup. "Here ya go."
he said with a look and tone of pure joy.
The smell of the dish threatened to pull Arnd out of her gloom, with the savoury bite of the meat, and sweet warmth and syrupy texture of its broth doubling the effort. But not even the delight of a meal currently coating her tastebuds in honey-like bliss could make her entirely forget her emotions.
Soon, F'ejen returned, chewing on a lija pod. Arnd saw this as a perfect opportunity. <"I gotta go. I'll be back.">
she said, placing her empty bowl on the lounge table. "Alright, see you again soon."
said Mark, smoothly transitioning into conversation with the doctor, who wanted to perform some basic checkups. By the time he was prodding the soles of Mark's feet, Arnd was gone.
<"It's not up to me to tell you how to feel, Arnd.">
said Jan'u, pruning the shrub in the pot on the dining table. <"Then how do I figure out how to feel?">
asked Arnd pleadingly, frantically chewing on lija jerky.
Jan'u sighed. <"You don't. You just feel. Your emotions change with events and actions, but that's just natural, you can't force it, not really.">
True as his statement was, he could feel that Arnd was looking for a concrete answer that will immediately solve her problems where none existed. Thus, advice was the next port of call. <"So, what do you want? How do you want this all to play out?">
Arnd blinked. <"Well, I just wanna get outta here."> <"True, but we both know that's not all there is to it, is there?">
A tiny branchlet yielded to Jan'u's scissors. <"... I want us both to get our lives back, our regular lives, like we never got locked up in here to begin with...">
She knew Jan'u was waiting for the rest. <"... And I want
Mark to make it out of this safely, 'cause I can't trust that these guys will do right by him.">
Another limb fell to the table. <"You want everyone to have a happy ending, there's nothing wrong with that."> <"But I don't know if I can do both. If I leave, that's one less person watching
Mark's back. If I don't, then I'm still under the bastard's thumb.">
she said with regret. <"Well, I hate to break it to you, kid, but you're gonna have to suck it up and choose. If you can't do both, then you just have to pick the best available option, and trust me, both options on offer are equally valid. Nobody's going to blame you for picking either, least of all me.">
He studied the shrub's shape, nodded to himself, and left to put his scissors away.
Arnd knew what the man was doing. For all her training to become captain, managing a ship whose personnel numbered in the hundreds, she was still most effective sat in her office, alone. It was a far cry from a professional setting, but the isolation was good enough. She closed her eyes and began to think, slowly but surely compartmentalizing to myriad conflicting thoughts colliding inside her head; each option and their potential consequences were heavily weighed against one another, and before long, her emotions were left in a corner as the logical, managerial thinking of a captain took over. But a truth quickly reinforced itself in her mind: no matter the choice she made, it was going to hurt her in one way or another. She sighed. <'What's the point of being a captain if I can't even make a single hard decision?.. Alright.'>
She got up and walked into the lounge room, where Jan'u was sat, expectant. <"How'd it go, kid?"> <"Well enough.">
she said with a tone of confidence that Jan'u had missed.
Arnd bent down, hugged him, and left. Jan'u laid back on the sofa and relaxed, safe in the knowledge that no matter the choice, Arnd would make it work. After a moment, thoughts of his home came to him, and he furrowed his brow. <'Is he weeding my garden right? Probably not.'>
The day's episode of MarkWatch was a breath of fresh air; for the past week and a half, the crew had utterly run out of material to talk about, and turned to speculation and rumination on the public's response to an alien being present on the planet. Part of Mark felt sorry for them. Today, however, they had something new to talk about, and they made sure to wring every talking point possible out of it. <"This song, I think, is a reflection of the apprehension the public has felt in regards to this sudden and world-changing event. Of course people would be hesitant to trust an alien, and a subsection of those people would be eager to blame the unrest on its arrival. What they've missed is that while indeed Mark's arrival was the spark that set the world on fire, it's the actions of the public that has allowed it to continue burning. Take this song as an emotional reflection, because taking it any other way gives it power that can only serve to make today's already tense climate even worse.">
As the hosts launched into how Blazing Soul's past had shaped the trajectory of their music, Arnd returned. She noticed that Mark had left the television waiting for her. <"How was the checkup?"> "Some minor tenderness, but nothing I can't manage. The doc's given me free rein to go as I please, but he still wants to run those tests tomorrow."
he said, not moving his eyes from his device. "You get what you wanted done?" <"Yeah. I think so.">
said Arnd. She sat down beside Mark, picked up the remote, and continued her search.
Wora awoke with a stretch that she would happily pay to experience again. Casually, she threw off her covers and made for the shower. Then she looked to her right, and froze. Behn was staring at her, and she wasn't stained red. Wora suddenly realized that without the laser gate between them, she felt about as naked as she actually was. <"Hey.">
said Wora, in a failed attempt to alleviate the awkwardness. <"Hey.">
Wora stared for a moment longer, then dashed for the shower, quickly pulling the curtains around herself. <"Umm,">
she started sheepishly. <"Could you put my clothes on the rack, please?"> <"S-sure.">
replied Behn before she had finished processing her cellmate's words. The idea that she could even exist in Wora's half of the room still hadn't settled in her mind, and her steps approaching what was the dividing line were tentative. She closed her eyes as she put a searching toe out to cross the threshold, fully expecting to hear the sound of her digit searing. But she crossed unharmed, and knew in her heart that this moment was up there on the list of her absolute dumbest moments, and that included accidentally joining a pirate crew. Wora's prison uniform thrown haphazardly on the floor was a familiar sight, but feeling its threads in her grip was something Behn had never considered experiencing. Once she laid the garments on the rack by the shower, she padded back to her side of the cell out of instinct. <"They're waiting for you.">
she called out. Of all the things to neglect notifying a prisoner of, Behn could think of little better than shutting down the gate between cells. The inherent danger in an of itself should have been cause enough for notification. She chalked it up to the acting security officer in question just not being up to it. <'Lazy prick.'>
she thought. <"Thanks.">
replied Wora. Her voice had a titter in it.
Hearing that, Behn couldn't help but let out a little chuckle of her own. She stepped in her shower and ran the water. Soon after, she heard the rustle of Wora's shower curtain, bringing her mind back to the cell at large, and one thought in particular. <'Without that gate in the way, she doesn't look half bad.'>
[Continued in comments]