I can’t say everything about this was bad. Delhoun was actually sociable and eager to talk about his work with anyone who was interested. I had nothing better to do, so I let him talk.
He explained that he had been studying mammalian aliens since he was sixteen and part of an advanced placement class that took students on trips to remote worlds and research camps, taking a particular interest in the Annexers. He didn’t seem at all bothered by the fact that I referred to his lab as a zoo.
When I referred to Winnie as a bitch, however, Delhoun said, “A male Annexer is a buck. A female is a doe, not a bitch.”
Delhoun never really gave me anything to do. In fact, he seemed keen on allowing me to sleep most of the time, and he had no limits on food, basically allowing me to eat whatever I wanted and however much I wanted. Whenever we sat down for a meal, though, he talked, asking me all sorts of questions. He asked me about the Marines, the places I had been, and my past. I tried to just enjoy my food; I didn’t trust him enough to tell him about my fucking past.
I awoke one morning to the smell of bacon frying, and after throwing on a pair of pants, I walked out into the corridor to see Delhoun in his quarters, making breakfast. Winnie was in the kitchen, too, peeling apples.
“Good morning,” Delhoun said without looking up from what he was doing. “Have a seat. I’ll have breakfast ready in a minute.”
I sat at the little table, taking a cup of coffee already there and sipping it. I thought for a moment about how Delhoun had been asking me a lot of questions the last several days, and decided it was my turn to ask him some questions.
Delhoun set plates of bacon, eggs, pancakes, and biscuits on the table, and poured both of us a glass of orange juice. He gestured for me to take what I wanted before he opened a microwave and pulled out a small jug of maple syrup.
All this was so much better than the powdered rations I got in the Marines. I wouldn’t miss that, but I knew I’d miss the fresh food I was getting here when I went back to my squad. I shoveled pieces of pancakes dripping with hot syrup in my mouth while Delhoun sat across from me.
“So,” I said with my mouth full, “where’re you from?”
Delhoun glanced at me, his coffee mug halfway to his lips. “Me?”
“Yeah, you. I’m not talking to Winnie, am I?”
Delhoun smirked. “I’m from Winnipeg, Canada.”
“Is that where Winnie got her name from?”
Delhoun nodded. “Yep. I named Winnie after my home city.”
“I’m guessing you’ve dedicated your entire life to animals?”
“Maybe not my ‘entire’ life, but definitely part of it. I’ve spent many, many years going to newly discovered planets and studying their wildlife. It’s a lonely task, to be honest, but it’s been working out wonderfully.” Delhoun set his mug down, picking up a fork and cutting into a pancake.
“You don’t have coworkers?”
“I choose not to. I’ve worked hard enough to where people come to me for help instead of the other way around.”
I wiped my mouth with a napkin before taking another two pancakes.
Delhoun frowned while watching me. “Slow down, Drake, you’ll make yourself ill.”
“I probably won’t get to eat like this again,” I said.
“Oh.” Delhoun grinned. “Well, maybe you could quit the Marines and come work with me. You had some experience with Annexers.”
“I can’t,” I replied. “I’m… from the early-release program for juvenile inmates. I can’t, in any way, shape, or form, end my contract early. Besides, I don’t know what I want when my contract ends, but I know I don’t want to work with your little… crazy zoo here.”
“Well, perhaps you’ll change your mind in… how long do you have left?”
“Just over four years.”
“A lot can change in four years. Think about it.”
I shrugged, rolling my eyes when Delhoun wasn’t looking. “Why are you doing your research in a hospital?”
“This isn’t just a hospital. There’s the hospital and then there’s the Gateway research station. The quick access to new methods of treatment for various injuries and illnesses is very convenient. It can be boring here, though. I haven’t left since my birthday.”
“That had to be nice.”
“Well, it was six months ago, so… yes, it was. I got one of the best presents I could possibly get. A friend I know has a relative who owns surplus from Seegson station Sevastopol before it was destroyed some thirty-eight years ago. He got me one of their Working Joes.”
I frowned. “What?”
“You’re too young to have known about this. Seegson was a rival company to Weyland-Yutani, but they didn’t exactly last very long. They built their own androids, but they were nothing like the ones we have. They were designed to be distinguishable from humans and connected to a single core computer. Unfortunately, when Sevastopol was destroyed, almost all of the Working Joes went with it. My friend’s relative worked for a company that had been shipped several of the prototypes and they hadn’t gotten around to shipping them back when the station was destroyed. He was able to modify them to operate independently, like normal androids, but his company saw no use for them, so he took them. I hooked mine up to the core of the laboratory, and he’s completely obedient to me.”
“How’d Winnie take to this?”
“She hated the Working Joe for about a month. I think she assumed I was replacing her.” Standing up, Delhoun began placing the dishes by the sink, and gestured for me to follow him. “I’ll show you my android. Surely, this’ll be better than lying around all day.”
He wasn’t wrong. I had spent the last three days just eating and sleeping. Hopefully, I’d find something active to do before every piece of real food I had missed out on for the last several years turned into useless padding. I had always struggled with gaining weight, but I’d like to gain muscle instead of fat. Hudson would never let me hear the end of it if I returned heavier than when I left, and this was one thing I think Vasquez would just encourage him to do instead of trying to stop him.
As I thought about the real possibility that my pants wouldn’t fit in the morning, Delhoun led me down the corridor to a small room, locked by a door that required a passcode. With Winnie on his shoulders, Delhoun typed in the passcode, and the door opened to reveal one of the creepiest androids I’ve ever seen. It was bluish-white in color, but instead of human-like skin, it had rubber. The eyes were like those little white Christmas tree lights, and it was wearing a simple brown and orange jumpsuit.
Delhoun was clearly proud of himself as he activated his android. It walked from its post, and spoke with no facial movement. Its voice was clearly robotic as it said, “Good morning, Doctor. How may I serve you today?”
I sighed. “I can see why Seegson went out of business.”
“These things can be mildly unsettling, but at least this one is mine.” Delhoun smirked. “I can assure you that it’s safe.”
“You assure me a lot of things.” I honestly wasn’t interested in his creepy robot. “Is there someplace where I can… I don’t, do a workout or something?”
“Yes, there is.” Delhoun patted the shoulder of his android. “Show him where the gym is.” He then looked at Winnie. “I trust you will also accompany them and let me work?”
Winnie grunted at him.
“Thank you.” Delhoun turned to head to his lab once Winnie hopped down from his shoulders.
So, the creepy-looking android was leading me toward the gym, and Winnie was following me. This was probably going to be the worst gym experience of my life.
Just when I thought the creepy android and Annexer would make everything worse, I entered a gym that looked a lot more like a medical laboratory than a gym, and that’s because it basically was a medical laboratory. The room was completely white, and there were people walking around in white coats observing people in skin-tight black jumpsuits running on treadmills and working on machines.
I was uncomfortable just looking at this. All I wanted to do was run and bench press with no interruptions, but it looked like I was going to have plenty of interruptions here.
One of the doctors approached me, holding a folded jumpsuit. She didn’t say a word as soon as she saw the tracking collar, and simply handed me the suit, directing me to a bathroom where I could change. There were about four or five other guys in there, changing in or out of their jumpsuits. Based on their conversations, they were part of a group testing a new sinus medication.
A tall, well-built man saw me, and said, “You part of a test group?”
“Nope,” I replied, not making eye contact as I removed my clothing. I was about to put one foot in the jumpsuit when the guy added:
“Underpants gotta come off, too, dude. Sorry.”
I took a deep breath and turned a deep shade of red as I removed my underwear, trying to get the suit on as fast as possible.
“You just visiting or something?”
“No. I’m a Marine on punishment,” I muttered. “Can’t you tell?” I gestured to the collar.
“What’d they do, give you to Delhoun?”
The guy laughed. “He’s weird, isn’t he?”
“Sure is.” I hung my pants in a locker while still trying to pull the cold jumpsuit over my body. Once my private parts were covered, I glanced at the other guys, hoping no one was staring.
“Here to get away from him?”
“Yeah, you could put it that way.” Honestly, I felt that was a better response than “I feel fat.” As soon as I had the suit zippered up, I left the room, only to have that same doctor from earlier come up to me and strap a monitor on my right wrist, before sending me off to a treadmill.
I get it. There’s a set program here that I have to follow. There’s no doing it your own way, and that sucks.
I got on the treadmill and I was greeted by Winnie perching on the monitor. She cooed at me, watching me press buttons before actually starting my run.
“What? You here to make fun of me or something?” I asked.
She waited until I was running at top speed, and then shut the damn thing off. I came to an abrupt stop, falling flat on my face. The heartrate monitors on my wrist and the treadmill were beeping furiously, and Winnie was looking down at me, laughing.
I stood up, giving her a dirty look. “I hope Delhoun locks you away for a week when I tell him what you’re doing in here!”
Winnie screeched at me, and the entire gym was looking at us.
I turned the treadmill back on. Winnie turned it off. On. Off. On. Off.
“I just want to know why,” I groaned. “Why are you doing this?”
Winnie shrugged. Thanks to her, I only had ten minutes to actually run, and then I had to move on to another station, which was bench pressing. I hoped Winnie didn’t try any shenanigans here, because one wrong move and I could shatter my ribcage.
Laying on my back, I gripped the bar before slowly lifting it off the rack. Winnie then slunk over to hop onto my stomach, pressing herself flat against me. I was about to yell at her when I realized she was serving as a good point for where I lowered the bar. When the bar was right above her head, I raised it back up again.
I had to smile. “Wow, you’re actually doing something useful. Thanks.”
Winnie made a snuffling noise, stretching her paws out until she was touching the base of my neck. She didn’t move until I received the signal to move on. Instead of being distracting and annoying, she watched me, quietly. I sat down to use a shoulder press machine, and she let out a sad squeak.
“What?” I said.
She stood up, continuing to whine.
Maybe I made a mistake in being nice to her when I was bench pressing, or maybe she had some kind of realization that I’m not a male Annexer. I kept watching her throughout my time in the gym, and I had a moment of epiphany.
Winnie’s bored. Not just bored, but insanely bored. Bored to the point of restlessness and destructive behavior. She thought things were going to change when dumbass Drake came in, reeking with the pheromones of her species. She must’ve thought I brought some of them with me, and she was realizing that simply wasn’t the case.
I felt sorry for her, being cooped up in this station. That’s why she’s been hanging around me and being irritating. She’s doing things to get my attention because I’m someone completely new to her. That, and I’m carrying the comforting scent Delhoun was telling me about.
I returned the black suit and the monitor to the doctors, and they gave me a sheet containing the data collected on my heartrate for the duration of my stay. Needless to say, I’m healthy. Winnie followed me out of the gym, trotting alongside me as I made my way back to Delhoun’s lab.
After taking a shower, I was about to take a nap when Winnie entered my room yet again. She lay on my stomach, and let me touch her head. We remained there for a long time. I was lazily stroking her head, and she was purring contentedly.
“So all it took was me saying a couple of nice words to you and you melt like butter in an oven,” I mumbled.
Winnie snorted, keeping her head rested on my chest.
Alright, so the gym experience wasn’t the worst. It was invasive, though, and a little weird. I would later learn it wasn’t really for recreation; it was for medical test subjects and recuperating patients, but our good buddy Delhoun gave me a pass to go in there. That didn’t make it any less uncomfortable.
I was still lying on my bed when Delhoun peered in. He looked puzzled at what he was seeing, and said, “Is she sleeping?”
Winnie answered that question by looking over at him. She stretched, giving a squeaky yawn.
“I see you two have made up?” Delhoun asked, walking over to pat Winnie’s head.
“I think she’s really bored,” I said.
“I know she’s bored. This isn’t the best of living conditions for her, mentally, but she wanted to come back with me when she bonded with me, and I took her.”
“I told Little Shit to stay.”
“That was probably for the best.”
I snorted, trying to picture what life would be like with an Annexer in the squad. I started thinking about an Annexer screeching at Hudson while he hollered, “All I did was breathe in your direction, man, no need to yell at me!” or “You’re not my mom, man! I will eat my chips as loud as I want!”
I couldn’t believe I was missing him. My thoughts were turning to Hudson and Vasquez and Wierzbowski and Hicks and every other Marine I’ve served with. A dull, heavy ache started in my stomach, and I began wishing I could go back in time to change my behavior.