|Summary:||In which Ilraen-Aroline-Fothergill meets Orken 7861.|
|Timeline:||Late summer, 2010; just after "The Dark Side," prior to the start of Guvnor's spin-off.|
|Published:||April 24, 2011.|
|Rating:||PG/K+ - All Animorphs fans welcome.|
|Betas:||JulyFlame and Makari.|
|Co-writer:||Guvnor of Space.|
Ilraen made for an unusual sight: something like a centaur, but mostly blue, with an extra set of green eyes on stalks sprouting from the top of his head, no mouth, and a long tail with a sickle-shaped blade at the end of it. Even more unusual, however, was the fact that he was walking through the halls with a bag of laundry slung over one shoulder. It didn't quite seem to suit him—Andalites weren't exactly big on wearing clothes, after all—but the way he carried himself suggested resignation, perhaps even that he had taken this mundane task upon himself.
In fact, it was his partner's laundry, which he had elected to wash in order to earn back some of the respect he'd lost during their last mission. He didn't know if it would actually work or if his display of mental anguish would simply tickle his partner's sense of humor, but either way he was determined to undertake the effort. Even if he had no idea how laundry worked.
Of course, Headquarters being what it was, when he actually managed to find a laundry room, he realized the task was several times more daunting than it had any right to be. It seemed that whoever had designed the room had tried their best to accommodate every need they could imagine using plotholes as plumbing, which resulted in a chaotic hodge-podge that would have made Bloody Stupid Johnson proud. The room was more of a chamber, really, with a domed ceiling that sloped gently down to the floor. Near the entrance, raised about a foot and a half from the floor, was a large circular basin with water that bubbled up from the center and flowed away through drains around the inside rim. Machines from a variety of continua, some of which were running, some of which sat apparently dormant, riddled the remaining space in maze-like disorder. As if that weren't bad enough, there were shelves, and those held a bewildering variety of liquids, solids, powders, sheets, and cakes of stuff with names in several different languages and scripts.
Ilraen stood still, staring hopelessly with all four eyes. He let the bag slide to the floor.
<This . . . this was not in the Manual.>
Another agent entered the room, a bag of black clothing slung over his shoulder. He was visibly taken aback by the Andalite just inside the doorway. While this was certainly a normal reaction to blue centaur-aliens, his exclamation was not. "Andalite fil—" He stopped himself just short of finishing the word.
Ilraen, who had never had that particular imprecation hurled at him before, swung both stalk-eyes back and regarded the newcomer cautiously. He wasn't quite sure what the look on the tall man's face was, but it wasn't friendly. <I apologize if I startled you. I will move out of the way.> He did just that, picking up his bag and stepping to one side of the flowing basin. He kept both stalks on the young man all the while.
The newcomer, who still looked slightly shocked, never took his grey eyes from the Andalite. He gave a rather dark-sounding laugh. "You'll move out of my way. So polite. So civil. So very unlike an Andalite. Where's your arrogance?" He gave his head a shake, as if clearing out bad memories. When he looked up, his look of shock had been replaced by grim determination. "How rude of me. I suppose I should return the favor of your civility. My name is Agent Orken Seven-Eight-Six-One of the Sulp Niar pool. What's yours?"
It was Ilraen's turn to be shocked. He answered faintly, <Ilraen-Aroline-Fothergill.> Then, with conviction, <So you are a Yeerk.> One ear flicked back and forth, as though bothered by an insect.
"I am, Andalite, at least mentally. I'm a nothlit, so physically I'm human," Orken said with just a hint of a sneer. "I suggest you move before someone else shows up and takes the machines. I trust you know where they are, Agent Ilraen?"
Ilraen's momentary relief at finding he was not actually talking to a parasite in someone's brain dissolved upon being confronted again with the conundrum of the laundry room. He stared expressionlessly.
Orken pointed to a series of very obvious yellow arrows painted on the floor, the first labeled "THIS WAY TO THE GOOD MACHINES!"
<Oh.> He colored rapidly. He had been so preoccupied with all the things that he'd completely neglected the floor. Resettling his bag in an effort to cover his embarrassment, Ilraen nodded, an oddly human gesture for someone like him. <Very well, I will go. I must complete this task. Thank you for your assistance.> He set off stiffly, his tail held low to the ground. He kept a stalk-eye on Orken.
Orken followed him, giving glances every few seconds to let Ilraen know that he was being watched as well. The two agents silently followed the arrows through a virtual maze of laundry-cleansing apparatuses. They finally arrived before two relatively normal washer/dryer pairs with a handy shelf of detergents and fabric softeners above them. Ilraen watched Orken grab a bottle of detergent and imitated him, feeling fortunate that constantly moving extra eyes made it easy to disguise just how much he was paying attention. He turned his main eyes to the label on his jug and started reading, intending to get through the next ten minutes with a minimum of awkwardness. This was not to be.
"Andalite. Agent Ilraen. We are going to be here for the next hour or so, and I have some things I wish to tell you, if you are so inclined."
Remaining focused on the label, Ilraen cast a harried glance at the other agent. The prospect of being closely attended by anyone while trying to master the laundry machine, particularly this enemy of his species, was humiliating, but he could see a great dearth of options. <If that is what you wish,> he answered.
Orken's speech came slowly at first, in his usual measured tones, but speeding up and becoming more impassioned as he went on. "When I first saw you, I reacted rather strongly. It was not professional, but I feel it is justified. I reacted the way I did, Agent Ilraen, because I hate your species for what they have done to mine, and you hate my species because it exists. Agent Ilraen, you are an Andalite, and with one exception your species refuses to even try to understand mine. Even if it is futile, I'm going to try to make you understand our side of the story." He gestured angrily with the bottle that was still in his hand. When Ilraen didn't argue, he was briefly surprised, but decided not to question his luck. "We are not a pure evil scourge as you may have heard. In our natural state, we are blind slugs, unable to see or hear, privileges that your species enjoys without even thinking about it. The humans do, too, and they are busy killing each other and squandering these gifts. We have just as much right to sight and hearing as any human."
The bottle was making dangerous sloshing noises by this point. Orken, not wanting to be interrupted by a spray of agitated solution, set it on top of one of the machines. Ilraen had long since given up any pretense of reading, instead watching the Yeerk with his main eyes and leaving his stalks to keep watch on his surroundings. His tail swished dangerously as Orken continued.
"The humans are a destructive, violent species who kill each other in senseless wars. Agent Ilraen, there are many humans who do not deserve the privileges they have been given by evolution. You need to know, Agent Ilraen, Andalite, that the humans were not innocent victims." Orken stopped gesticulating, and his hands clenched in fists at his sides, trying to get his emotions under some semblance of control.
Ilraen could feel muscles twitching along his flanks, as though he were preparing to run, or kick. Instead, he rallied in words. <Now it is my turn to speak, Agent Orken. I know the story, and I know that the 'rights' you speak of are the reason your people betrayed mine, stole their knowledge, and enslaved millions against their will.> He folded his arms. <Your people were not innocent victims, either. The Yeerks struck the first blow.>
Orken's lips curled into a sneer. "Yes. We killed some of your people, this is true. To stop us from expanding further, however, you tried to wipe out the Hork-Bajir. Which do you think is worse? A few Andalite warriors, or an entire race? The Hork-Bajir might not like being hosts, but at least we didn't try to wipe them out. Not to mention that you were planning on destroying Earth. Besides, the Taxxons came to us voluntarily, and so did many of the humans. As for those we enslaved, well, we had no other way to grow as a complex civilization. Millions of us were still stuck in pools without hosts. Would you have denied them the right to lead a life with some amount of pleasure? I suggest you morph a Yeerk sometime, Agent Ilraen, and then tell me that you wouldn't enslave another being if you had to spend your life like that." His face was starting to turn red, as his oddly righteous anger stayed just below the surface. "And on top of all that, the humans could very well have wiped each other out at any time, even with their primitive fission weapons. We may have been saving the species."
<What would you like me to say?> Ilraen snapped. <That your people were in the right? That you were doing the universe a favor by expanding your civilization at the expense of all others? I cannot accept that. For that matter, I cannot fathom what a Yeerk is doing in an organization meant to protect the integrity of other worlds from similarly invasive and selfish forces. What does someone like you find to be worth protecting, Agent Orken? Help me to understand what you are doing here.>
Orken was quiet for a while, but eventually, he spoke. "I appreciate order, Agent Ilraen. There is that, and I left nothing important behind. We lost the war, and I was a new minority in a society not known for its tolerance of minorities. I got involved with a scheme to use Yeerks who had not been turned to infiltrate and seize the California government. It was a stupid, stupid plan, which I now know is because I had ended up in a badfic. It was about to be deleted, and I was offered a job here. That's why I'm here, Agent Ilraen. I cannot fathom how you could compare me to one of those things. I am not a Sue, Andalite. Is it so selfish to want to see, and keep your entire species from being destroyed? I did what I had to, as did my species. What your species did was start a war of vengeance."
<My people also appreciate order, and did what they thought they had to do,> Ilraen responded. His ears oscillated uncertainly. <I cannot say I accept all of that, either, or that I understand it.>
"Of course you could never understand what I have said. You're an Andalite, after all."
Ilraen scowled. <In fact, you have misinterpreted me. War is a terrible thing, Agent Orken, and terrible things were done by both sides. I was not there, so I cannot hope to comprehend how my people made the decision to commit such acts, to abandon the honor we are supposed to believe in. You should know that I do not hate Yeerks,> he went on, seized suddenly with a need to speak what was really on his mind. <I know that I should, according to everything I have ever been told—even by you yourself—but I cannot. I try to be more like the Andalite everyone expects, but you see, all of my memories, my real ones, are of this place where I was given my name and my purpose. All I can do is attempt to uphold the principles that I was meant to have inherited: honor, duty, respect; but I am very much afraid that I fall short. Does that disappoint you?> He stared fixedly into the other agent's face, seeking his response.
Orken, who had expended a lifetime's worth of anger and hatred on this one conversation, looked suddenly defeated. "Of course you aren't a real Andalite." He grabbed the bottle of detergent rather violently. "That's just my luck. At least it explains why you were treating me with a measure of civility." The normally precise agent dashed an unmeasured amount of solution onto his clothes. "I finally say what I've wanted to say to someone who would understand for two years now and it turns out . . . ." He took a deep breath. As he let it out, his face reddened, not with anger, but rather with embarrassment. It was as if he had been in a trance, and suddenly emerged.
"Agent Ilraen . . . I am sorry. That was highly unprofessional. I let my emotions get the better of me."
<I do understand. I have had a lot of practice at listening to another's anger.> Ilraen also drew air into his lungs and held it for a count of seven before letting it out. <I am sorry as well. This is awfully strange, isn't it?> He shook his head, indicating that an answer was not needed. When he looked up again, it was with mixed bemusement and tentative curiosity. <I never had the chance to know Agent Iskillion, so this is the first conversation I have had with anyone from my home 'verse. It is not what I thought it would be like. Not standing in a laundry room, failing to recall what sort of 'detergent' Nume specified and trying to decide whether this will do.> He gestured at the jug sitting in front of him. <But, it is Headquarters, after all. This may be the best it will ever get.>
"True, Agent Ilraen. Considering what I have heard about the other agents from our continuum, I believe you may indeed be the least hostile." He shut the door on his washing machine and started it up.
He gave Ilraen's jug a quick glance. "Agent Ilraen, as long as you are washing normal fabric, that detergent should be fine. I do have to wonder, why is an Andalite, who is wearing no clothing, doing laundry?"
Ilraen laughed wryly. <You find me in a state of disgrace, I fear. I am doing this strange human chore in an attempt to earn my partner's forgiveness. However, that does not seem so important anymore. What happened was an accident, I have learned from it, and we set it right in the end. That is what matters.> Decisively, he upended the bag of Nume's clothes and bedding into the machine and poured what appeared to be an appropriate amount of solution into the mix, then closed the lid and turned on the machine.
"Better than my partner. That fool irradiated our bathroom and still hasn't apologized for it. I'd rather have someone who cared." Orken shook his head sadly. "Still, he's relatively new. He might get better." He paused for several seconds, considering his next question. "Agent Ilraen, if I may ask, what happened?"
<I . . . .> His resolve of a moment ago evaporated. <I regret that it happened at all,> he explained. <I should not have gotten so carried away. Are you familiar with the Fullmetal Alchemist continuum?>
"I can't say I am. I mostly deal with sci-fi continua."
<Oh. It will be difficult to explain, then. It is about two brothers who did something taboo in their culture, using alchemy to try to resurrect their dead mother. They were only children and they failed, and nearly died themselves in the process. The older brother lost an arm and a leg, and the younger brother only survived because the older brother managed to attach his soul to a suit of armor. They decided to search for a powerful artifact in order to get their proper bodies back, and they promised to stop at nothing to do it. They two are quite devoted to each other.
<During a mission, I watched the older brother kill the younger one.> His fists clenched, and his tail swooped across the floor. <I was certain he had been replaced, but instead it was only character possession. I should have waited; we were separated from our partners, Agent Barid and I. Nume would have stopped me from killing the boy. I was so certain . . . but I think mostly I was angry.> He shook his head. <It is a shameful error.>
Orken nodded. "Indeed it is, Agent Ilraen, although it is one I suspect you will not make again. You own up to your mistakes, something many humans, and every Andalite I have heard or read about, does not." Orken scowled at the washing machine. "If this blasted place made any sort of sense, we could leave these machines and return later. I am afraid that if we do, we may lose our clothes forever, and I am sure my partner would not like me to wander around our response center naked." Orken cleared his throat. "So, Agent Ilraen, tell me about yourself. How did you find your way to Headquarters?"
Ilraen breathed easier with the change of subject. <I was rescued by Agents Twiggy and Brittany. They are retired now, but they found me as a bit character designated to appear only to use an Escafil device on a Mary Sue. They could just as easily have left me to vanish once the Sue died, but instead they brought me to the Department of Fictional Psychology . . . .> He described his experiences in FicPsych and how he had been assigned to Agent Supernumerary in the Department of Implausible Crossovers, where he had been ever since. He talked about the friends he had made in Headquarters and his experiences on missions, and even went so far as to admit that he was a complete shambles at morphing prior to discussing his theories on the relative merits of morphs versus disguises.
<And I may take you up on your suggestion to acquire a Yeerk,> he added. <If I ever find myself in my home 'verse.>
Orken listened with more than feigned interest. He did not speak very often, only interjecting when he felt it appropriate. In this way, he passed a rather pleasant thirty minutes. The buzzer went off on his washing machine, and he transferred the clothes to the dryer. Then, he started talking about his own past. "Due to an odd error, my first two years' worth of missions were never recorded. It may be because my first two partners went insane . . . ." Orken briefly outlined being rescued, how he had ended up being partnered with Thomas Greenwall, and something that he referred to as the Plutonium Incident. He discussed his first two partners with much less detail, which was obvious even to Ilraen as a form of respect.
" . . . and then Agent Hannibal started pulling his hair out and yelling, and Thomas just kept telling him that he wouldn't be so angry if we ever got trapped in nineteen fifty-five. So our bathroom is now unusable and Agent Hannibal is permanently bald. The poor man is one of the most professional, devoted agents that I know, and he was rendered hairless by that incompetent fool." Orken gave a wry grin. "All I can say in his favor is that he really cares about the canon, possibly more so than I do. That, and he hasn't killed anyone by accident yet. And his enthusiasm, while annoying, is better than complacency."
The buzzer on Orken's dryer went off, and he began removing his clothes. As soon as he was finished, he turned and faced Ilraen. "Agent Ilraen, this turned out to be a surprisingly pleasant conversation. I never thought I would have anything even approximating that with an Andalite. Thank you."
<You are welcome. I am also pleased it turned out well, despite everything. I do not often have the opportunity to converse freely like this.> His own buzzer went off, and he paused long enough to make sure the load was fully dry before continuing. <If you would like to try it again sometime, I would be willing. Additionally, you do not need to call me 'Agent Ilraen' all the time. I was taught that it is too formal between . . . .> He realized what he'd been about to say might be going a bit too far. He tried again. <That is, for casual conversations.>
"Possibly . . . Ilraen. I only use it as a measure of respect, which I expect to receive in turn." Orken grimaced. "But yes, if you would rather, I would not be terribly bothered if you called me Orken. It is certainly better than what my partner calls me."
<Humans do have an odd penchant for nicknames,> Ilraen observed neutrally, focusing on folding clothes. It didn't seem politic to ask about it. <I had assumed it had something to do with using a mouth to speak.>
"That's no excuse. They only come up with names that they can pronounce. Shortening them is a sign of familiarity, sure, but coming from my partner I have always seen it as a lack of respect."
<I believe that respect must be earned. From one's self as well as from others. It is not always an easy task, but the achievement is greater in the end.> He cast a sidelong look at Orken. <At least, I hope so.>
"In my experience, that is certainly the case. I know a thing or two about unearned 'respect'. It tends to be based on fear, and that is something about my past that I have no problem leaving behind." Orken gathered up his clothes to be folded back in his RC, oblivious to the fact that he had missed Ilraen's point. "Hopefully I will see you again, Ilraen." He then did something he had never done before. He held out his hand.
Ilraen's main eyes crinkled in a grin. This was practically the first thing he had learned to do. He extended his own seven-fingered hand and clasped Orken's firmly. <I would like that, Orken.>
So an Andalite and a Yeerk walk into the HQ laundry room . . . .
Yeah, not really. My co-writer Guvnor of Space and I make no apology for the lack of lulz in this interlude, but we hope that it was a good read anyway. We had fun bouncing our characters off each other.
Guvnor's Note: Just so you know, I'm not one of those crazy "the Yeerks are victims and angsty!" people. I just write one who thinks he is.
Thanks to our beta-readers, JulyFlame and Makari.