Saturday, June 12, 2010

Inhuman | Chapter 1: Escape and Arrival [old edition]

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NOTE: This is an old version of Inhuman, which is currently undergoing extensive revisions that include a stylistic overhaul and several chapters’ worth of new content. Stay tuned for the final version, due out whenever I finally slay the procrastination demon that’s taken up residence in my brain. (The bastard.) Meanwhile, please note that the following may not be representative of my current writing skills and is kept here primarily for archival purposes.


Hundreds of years in the future, an elite soldier crash-lands on a strange planet – and finds he’s not alone.

— CHAPTER ONE —

Escape and Arrival

Friday, July 28, 2519 – 22:15

This evening marks my fourth week aboard the Chartraine, and already, I can hardly wait for this experience to end. Never, in my entire career, have I been so bored for so long; my role aboard this ship has been reduced to wandering the decks aimlessly, eating the shit that passes for food, attending brutally boring meetings which are no more than recaps of the previous meeting with trivial details added, and most of all, just spending my days holed up in my cabin. Not that this is much worse than usual, though at least on the ground, I’m able to walk around and avoid others when I want to. Not so on a ship with hundreds of technicians and other grunts.

Mercifully, this lethargy is finally coming to an end. We are approaching Sector 852-SW where the Chartraine has been dispatched to investigate the source of some strange electromagnetic interference; sort of like a freak lightning storm in space, so I’ve been told. Despite my admitted curiosity regarding this phenomenon, I do have to wonder why it’s me they chose as Team Leader of Phantom for this little bout in space. Now, I also have to take care of all that stupid “patrol-the-corridors-and-maintain-order” crap. As if there were any order to maintain to begin with; the crew of this vessel is probably the least disciplined and civilized bunch of gormless trilobites I’ve ever been stuck with. Half the time, I’m being followed by supposed combat experts who’ve heard of my “heroics” in combat and want to see if they could beat me in a fistfight, just for kicks or something. The mind boggles.

I already miss my position as second-in-command; meanwhile, it’s Hartling who’s to take that position for the duration of this trip. I like her, but I have the suspicion she’s no happier about her sudden change of position as I am. Damned Vasse, why did he have to get promoted and leave?

No doubt Phantom was only placed aboard this dreary cruise, with me in charge, because of that smarmy crank of a general, Xander. Bastard won’t get off my case for half-a-second these days. Not my fault the brute can’t take a joke, or that his sister does look like she’s shoplifting throw pillows down the rear of her pants. Seriously.

Anyway, time for bed. Signing out.

Capt. Sean O’Neil
Team Leader, Phantom Unit
NC-R3 Chartraine, New Corinthea Military

*

He was floating in a river, just underneath the surface. The swirling aqueous film separating him from the world above appeared fragile, yet when he raised an arm to try and reach through it, he found himself caught underneath as though it were made of glass, solid and inflexible. It was like a shiny mirror, sending his crystal-clear reflection back at him, in which he could see his sandy-colored hair swirling around in the water, his pale skin shimmering as though sprinkled with gold, his sharp brown eyes like crystal orbs. His face, usually so pensive and forlorn, was now alight with wonder and curiosity at this strange experience. And yet, despite him being underwater, he could still breathe normally, sucking in lungfuls of clear, cold air that left him feeling quite invigorated. But, how was that possible?

Something was shining in the corner of his eye. Looking around, he could see that he was in the strangest, most beautiful river he’d ever seen: wraithlike golden shapes were swirling all around him, forming random and intangible patterns in the water (but was this really water, if he could breathe? If not, then what?), yet as soon as he focused on one, it seemed to vanish without a trace, whilst others appeared all around him, teasing him, captivating him – and somehow, calming him down, soothing him into a sense of tranquility.

Caught in this mental stymie, he just floated there below the surface, feeling completely at peace and waiting to see what would happen.

Finally, after what was either a few moments or several hours, something happened. From the murky forms he could see outside his watery entrapment, something seemed to detach itself from the background, some sort of form. He tried to make it out, but the water’s rippling and reflections made it impossible to see the dark, wavy shape with any clarity … Straining his eyes, he discerned a rough figure: someone was leaning over the water’s surface, just inches above … Sean just waited, waiting for whatever would happen next …

Suddenly, something was thrust through the rippling film that blocked him from the surface; the previously solid wall gave way as though it were made of jelly, and the object – an arm – reached for him, groping at his own arm, floating at his side …

He let it grab his wrist, around which the hand closed with a grip that was firm, yet not uncomfortable. Looking at it, he noticed that it was the strangest arm: it appeared to be covered in a short, soft, golden-red pelage that swayed enchantingly with the subtle currents, producing a rather captivating effect on him. The hand that gripped him was dark, covered in fine hairs, and the tips of the fingers sported impressive yet rounded claws. The limb had the appearance of an animal’s, yet the shape and contour of a human’s.

Yet, somehow, instead of feeling frightened, a strong, inexplicable feeling of reassurance welled up in him as the arm suddenly yanked him up, up, through the waters and finally through the surface he’d been eager to breach for so long –

ALARM – ALARM – ALARM –

Sean awoke as quickly as if smacked in the face. He sat bolt upright in his bunk, blinded by the flashing red lights that were spinning around his small metallic cabin and nearly overwhelmed by the racket the ship’s alarm was making as it blared through the ship and echoed in the metallic corridors. He hesitated for a moment, listening to the alarm and trying to find out what was happening.

– ALARM – THIS IS NOT A DRILL – PLEASE REPORT TO THE ESCAPE DECK IMMEDIATELY –

Fully awake and alert at once, Sean jumped out of bed, his blue military suit already on, and bolted out the cabin door into the long corridor beyond just as the ship around him suddenly gave a huge lurch; he gripped the wall for support as the Chartraine gave a terrifying heave, sending the panicking people in the corridor hurtling into each other and onto the floor, before finally correcting itself. He could hear a deep, crashing rumble emanating from the bowels of the ship as he started running with the others.

– ESCAPE DECK IMMEDIATELY – ALARM – THIS IS NOT A DRILL –

His lifetime of training and control instinctively kicked in as he hurriedly made his way through corridor after crowded corridor, through doors and down stairwells (elevators were deactivated during emergencies), following the indicator panels along the walls that signaled the way to the Escape Deck where the escape pods were housed. Every few seconds, the ship would lurch and the metal walls around him would rattle as though being pounded on by invisible fists; repeated detonations were heard and felt tearing through the ship, each one sounding a little closer than the last, but Sean spared them no thought, too busy fighting his way through the mob of fellow crewmates and soldiers to the Escape Deck.

He finally arrived at a large arch labeled ESCAPE DECK – SECTOR P-4 and rushed through. Beyond was a cavernous open area, several floors tall and spanning several hundred feet in length – a mere hint as to the size of the vessel it was part of. The outer wall of the massive chamber was lined with hundreds of escape pods, facing outwards. They resembled overlarge chrome orbs with windshields plastered onto their fronts. Small hatches at the visible rears of the pods led into their cramped interiors, large enough to hold up to five passengers – six at the very most.

The crowd that packed the Escape Deck floor was as panicked and near hysterical as anywhere else on the stricken ship as they desperately tried to board the escape pods, nearly swamping them all in the process. As he gathered his thoughts about what to do next, constantly jostled and bumped by passers-by, a sudden BANG echoed around the metallic space as a huge fireball suddenly erupted high above near the ceiling. Bits of metal and pieces of equipment, some as large as anvils, started raining down upon them like a deadly omen …

Acting on pure instinct and adrenaline, Sean rushed through the crowds, pushing and shoving his way as violently as need be and forcibly ignoring whatever happened to the others, until he reached one of the last pods that hadn’t yet been flooded with terrorized crewmates. He quickly jumped inside and quickly hammered at a small control panel at the side of the hatch; at once, the entryway behind him sealed shut, preventing his pod from being swamped with wild passengers. Immediately, banging and clanging started resonating off the hatch-door, breaking the otherwise silent atmosphere inside the hermetically sealed lifecraft. Their terrified, haunted faces pressed against the window in the hatch-door, their voices silenced through the soundproofed hull. Sean ignored them. There were more than enough capsules left, anyway. No need waste time or to sacrifice his pod, or himself.

The lights came on automatically and the electronic systems activated as the pod sensed his presence. The inside of the pod was rounded, the walls surfaces plated in alloys, illuminated by little lights in both the ceiling and the grilled floor. A large curved bench, large enough for the five potential passengers, lined the interior of the hull, and a single pilot’s seat stood before the control panel and navigation systems.

The large black, starry expanse stretched out ominously through the large, thick windscreen before him as he hurriedly settled himself into the pilot’s seat and strapped himself in. Glancing at the controls and displays, he felt slightly nervous. He had received extensive flight training as was required of anyone who desired to enter Phantom Unit, and he excelled at all the tests and examinations. However, his experience at the controls of ships in actual flight was practically nonexistent. Thankfully, these escape pods were almost entirely automated; as soon as he left the ship, the autopilot would kick in, assuring a safe, albeit somewhat lengthy, travel to the nearest vessel of the New Corinthean fleet.

Another concussive detonation echoed from the ship behind him; the Chartraine was clearly on its last legs and would disintegrate at any moment. Forcing any thoughts of fear or regret out of his mind, he began the launch sequence, powering up the hydrogen-fueled engines and preparing to disconnect his coupling affixing his craft to the Chartraine

The pod suddenly rocked violently around him as a huge shockwave, the largest yet, radiated from the ship, as a thunderous BANG filled the air. Sean was thrown forwards and his faced smashed against into the control panel, breaking his nose and smearing blood on the console. Searing pain shot across his face and neck; the blood filling up his nostrils now made it hard to breathe –

Less than a moment later, a deafening racket suddenly rang out, quite closer and distinct from the rest; the pod shuddered as something heavy impacted the top of the hull, sending a tangled mess of sparking wires and twisted hydraulic bars rolling down the windshield. Wondering what the hell had just happened and starting to get quite anxious to leave as the Chartraine was obviously going to become one huge fireball at any moment, Sean unstrapped himself and scrambled out of the pilot’s seat, peering through one of the three small portholes along the sides of the pod.

He couldn’t see anything; his vision was blocked by twisted pieces of steel and tangles of hydraulic cables that were leaking their fluid all over the exterior of the hull and the ship’s deck below. It appeared that one of the cranes from the ceiling of the Escape Deck, used to transport the pods from storage to their launching pads, had fallen onto the lifecraft below, ensnaring the capsule within its twisted wreckage. Sean realized the graveness of this setback with a thrill of dread: as soon as he activated the thrusters, the hydrogen-fueled flame would very likely ignite the hydraulic fluid now drenching the capsule, turning it into a flying torch. The exterior hull may have been extensively fireproofed and insulated, but Sean had no idea how much strain it could take before failing – or if the crane hitting it had caused any threatening damage.

He was yanked out of his thoughts as yet another shockwave ripped through the ship; he rushed back into the pilot’s seat, strapped himself in once more, and quickly disengaged the lever the controls that worked the coupling. A sudden flash of green lights across the dashboard indicated the hydraulic linkage connecting the pod to the ship had successfully been retracted; the craft was supposed to start drifting away from the Escape Deck, and in a few moments, he was supposed to trigger the thrusters and blast off …

Only he didn’t; the pod gave a few weak shudders but kept quite still, attached to the ship, completely stuck. Sean realized his fears were confirmed: the crane wreckage had effectively pinned the craft under its massive weight. He might as well have been nailed down.

Throwing caution to the wind, Sean slowly powered the thrusters, trying desperately to distance himself from the exploding vessel around him. Again, the pod shook and rattled as the thrusters powered up audibly; a sudden hiss told Sean the jets of flame had activated, blasting against the launch pad. Yet, the capsule remained firmly lodged in place by the ton of metal holding it down. Sean pushed the thrusters harder and harder, but still the pod wouldn’t move –

A sudden flash nearly blinded him; the windscreen glowed red and yellow. Peering out, Sean glanced along the side of the Chartraine, down the length of the Escape Deck around him. What he saw made him recoil in terror: gigantic plumes of flame were blasting out the sides of the Chartraine as though bombs were detonating, one after another, tearing the ship apart and drawing nearer and nearer –

Come on, dammit!’ Sean yelled desperately, abruptly ramming the thruster controls into full power.

Sean was blown back into his seat as the pod suddenly rocked forwards; a sizeable explosion was felt from the back of the capsule as the thrusters exploded at the sudden burst in power, not having had the chance to ease in properly; before Sean realized what had happened, the lifecraft rocketed off the side of the ship, shooting like a bullet into the space ahead, leaving the crane wreckage flying in all directions –

Looking back wide-eyed through the window in the rear hatch-door, Sean saw the hull and decks of the Chartraine shooting back, its lights twinkling brightly against the blackness of space, the massive starship rapidly shrinking as the small pod gradually took up speed. He witnessed, to his awe, great flashes of white, yellow and blue as explosions shot out throughout the great ship, tearing the structure apart until –

All went white and Sean cringed, shielding his eyes with his hands; the ship’s central energy reactors had been compromised, producing a furiously bright halo of searing light that engulfed everything in sight …

Then it was gone; nothing was left where the Chartraine had been the black, star-strewn tapestry of the cosmos.

Still staring in astonishment, blood slowly dripping from his broken nose down his front, Sean slowly settled himself back into the pilot’s seat, the pod torpedoing through emptiness at what must’ve been hundreds of miles per hour. He glanced at the controls and displays: everything was set and operational, and the autopilot was already searching for the nearest New Corinthean spaceship he could approach for help and rescue. He could both hear and feel the reassuringly cool hiss of air circulating around the cabin as the life support systems activated.

It’s over, he thought to himself somewhat numbly, wiping some of the blood off with his sleeve, eliciting a slight twinge of pain as he brushed against his injured nose.

He was wrong.

Staring at his console and studying the readouts provided, he didn’t notice as bits and pieces of debris streaked past the capsule from behind … until …

CRASH!

For the second time in three minutes, the pod gave a powerful lunge, this time sending him back into his seat as the craft was suddenly hit hard from behind, giving it a burst of speed; the stars outside the windows suddenly spun around, yet Sean realized it was he who was whirling around, out of control –

Straining to keep a cool head, Sean grabbed the controls and yanked the steering column up and down and side-to-side, trying desperately to avoid being hit by the debris and wreckage zipping their way towards him – but the pod was too slow and clumsy, and then it was too late –

The pod was sent spinning as a particularly large piece of wreckage from the disintegrated ship crashed into it; alarms immediately rang out in an incoherent racket as Sean grabbed onto his chair, trying to prevent himself from flying out even with the safety straps wrapped around him; the stars visible out the windshield were spinning dizzyingly, randomly, as the pod catapulted through space, completely out of control –

Sean grabbed the controls in the midst of the chaos and confusion, trying with all his might to regain steering of the capsule, but it was of no use; the controls weren’t even responding to his commands as the craft sped through emptiness, accompanied by bits of debris from the Chartraine that whizzed by all around it –

Sean was on the verge of losing consciousness, overwhelmed by the confusion and chaos, when something flashing past his windscreen caught his eye –

Something incredible –

Sean gasped, looking thunderstruck, as a bright light-blue hue suddenly cast against his face and the surfaces of the pod around him, growing more and more intense …

*

Bright. Too bright.

With a low measly groan, she dragged an arm over to her face, resting it over her eyes in an attempt to blot out the sudden golden glare that was piercing through her shut eyelids. Yet, the new weight of her arm draped over her face was hardly a comfortable setting for the poor girl, who groaned anew as she shifted over onto her side, the straw in her mattress crunching beneath her, keeping her eyes stubbornly shut. She was too tired; she wanted more sleep.

However, the sun’s rays were now glaring at her nape and the back of her head as though taunting her, daring her to fall asleep again. It became quite warm, to the point where there was just no point to keep up the pretense: she wasn’t going to get any more slumber this morning. With a bit of a disgruntled whimper, Aki opened her eyes at last, lazily pushing herself up onto her elbows in her cot.

Her eyes were met by the gloomy, brownish interior of the mud hut she and her mother called home. It was rectangular with rounded corners, built with a wooden framework and using dried and compressed earth for the walls, ground and ceiling. It was a remarkably sturdy structure, weatherproof and able to stand up to any winds the region could throw at it. Her people were master hut-builders, having had hundreds of years to perfect their technique.

Other than the main entrance, which was closed to the outside world only by a loosely hanging curtain which let in plenty of light on its sides, three small windows, mere openings in the dried-mud walls, provided all the illumination the hut’s residents desired whilst still providing them a refreshingly shadowed corner to hide in during those extra steamy summer days. Unfortunately, one of these windows was placed directly to the East, and as a result, each and every morning Aki had to fight against the sun’s piercing rays for her slumber. Sometimes she got lucky when clouds covered that patch of sky during those morning hours, but oftentimes she just had to use it as her own personal (and unwelcome) wake-up call.

Resting on her elbows, Aki stretched luxuriantly, grunting and her toes curling with pleasure. Truly, there was nothing like a good morning stretch. Except, perhaps, a cool morning bathe in the river …

A smile suddenly appearing on her face at this idea, Aki rolled out of bed and got to her feet. The earth was cool and hard under her as she walked around, stretching her arms as she went with another small groan. She never understood how so many others were so happy to get out of bed and go to work around the village at once; taking one’s time and properly stretching was so lovely. She glanced over to the other side of the hut, where her mother’s empty cot resided, straw mattress all crinkled and worn-looking. Kira’s clothes were absent from her bedside cabinet; she’d already left to tend to her communal chores.

In turn, Aki reached around to her own clothes, piled haphazardly next to her bed. She disentangled the longer loincloth from the shorter breastcloth and laboriously tied them on behind her back, making sure the fit was right. Her people really only wore clothes out of tradition; their bodies were perfectly adapted to deal with the region’s climate and weather. Their clothes consisted only of loincloths (and breastcloths for women) and the occasional robe. No-one needed or desired anything more. Modesty was far from being a prevalent quality in their village, which was exemplified by the fact that they always slept in the nude, even in each other’s company. It’s just how things were, and everyone was quite at ease with it.

Now dressed for the day, Aki took one last look around the sparsely decorated hut before heading towards the door, lured by the promise of a wonderfully refreshing soak in the nearby river. Her eyes briefly caught the only other feature of the hut – her mother’s sewing table in the back, where she made and repaired garments for other villagers – before ducking underneath the relatively low entrance and disappearing behind the curtain.

*

Sean watched in silent awe, the bizarre yet captivating spectacle playing out before him.

The escape pod around him was glowing brighter and brighter; the windscreen suddenly seemed to erupt in tiny little streaks of electricity as though tiny flints were impacting the glass, creating a light show both wondrous and terrifying. Outside the window, the once-dark and empty space around him was now filling up with strange, hauntingly beautiful multicolored clouds. Yet, they didn’t resemble any clouds Sean had ever seen before; he couldn’t decide whether to feel awestruck or scared at this strange, ethereal phenomenon his pod was streaking right into.

All he could see outside the windows of the pod as it sped through the strange celestial formation, through the frightening light show of electrical sparking, were wisps of purple, pink and gold; it was as if he had entered the heart of a massive cosmic furnace. But most notable of all, it was not a peaceful setting: the whole place seemed to be crawling with electrical activity of some sort, as though static electricity was arcing all over the place –

… some strange electromagnetic interference; sort of like a freak lightning storm in space …

His mind was invaded with unbidden thoughts about whether his pod could withstand whatever he was entering –

His eyes snapped back to the control panel where displays had suddenly started flashing warningly; before he knew it alarms started to ring out again, creating a hellish din within the confines of the small metallic shell. He couldn’t make sense of the screens and monitors; they were flashing and blinking, looking distorted as though displaying a corrupted signal –

He was paralyzed with shock and fear at what was happening: his pod zipping uncontrollably through space, his controls unresponsive, his instrument panels looking as though they were short-circuiting, and still, that freakish spectacle of electricity and sparks dancing across the windscreen and portholes –

Suddenly, it clicked.

He knew what this strange light show and what the gigantic electrical gas clouds were – the very oddity he had been supposed to explore the following day, the source of the strange electromagnetic disturbance that was interfering with the New Corinthean fleet’s navigational systems for which the Chartraine had been deployed –

He gasped in horror, realizing … electromagnetic cloud? He was flying straight into a giant electrical plant!

He once again started to feel panic swelling in his gut, yet before he’d had any time to act, it happened …

The lights flashed, once, twice, then went out completely; the controls suddenly stiffened, the screens and backlit buttons flickered and died. He was suddenly plunged into complete darkness, the only thing he could see being the freakish light show and otherworldly clouds still visible through the windows, spinning in and out of sight at dizzying speeds. An acrid smell filled the cockpit, along with a faint trace of smoke; the pod’s electrical systems had fried.

Sean forced himself harder than ever to keep calm and not to start panicking, gripping the armrests of his seat with sweaty hands. Nothing about his situation felt good at all. He was in a metal sphere, hurtling through space at unfathomable speeds that his screens could no longer indicate, the stellar tapestry outside his windows spinning confusingly, almost nauseatingly … Being in the dead of space, there were no forces acting upon his body; the only thing that had kept him to the floor was the subatomic artificial gravity generator, which was now disabled with lack of power. All that was holding him in his seat were the safety straps.

He had no choice; he had nothing to do at all … but wait, sitting in silent fear, watching the ongoing lights dancing across the glass and the ethereal, hauntingly beautiful celestial formations around him come in and out of sight as he rolled and rolled. There wasn’t a sound to be heard, save for his own carefully regulated breathing; the low hiss of the air recycling system had stopped when the pod’s systems had died. He estimated he had about twenty minutes of sustainable oxygen left in the pod if he began to breathe more slowly. But whatever he thought of doing, one very real notion stayed at the forefront of his confused mind: he would not last long like this.

He needed a miracle.

It was such a strange feeling, being overwhelmed with lights and colors flashing by at dizzying speeds yet unable to hear the slightest sound in the emptiness. It was a distinctly dreamlike sensation. Or perhaps, distinctly nightmarish …

Only a few minutes after his pod’s systems had been disabled, Sean could already feel the air slowly becoming thinner; each breath seemed to be less fulfilling than the one before it. His survival training in the Corinthean Military had taught him all about various dangers to the body; hypoxia, a lack of oxygen to the brain, being key amongst them. The signs would be unmistakable: he would start by finding it harder and harder to concentrate, until any focus became impossible; he would suffer memory loss, and he would soon become physically uncoordinated and clumsy. Soon after, he would find it hard to keep conscious at all, and before long, he would pass out completely.

From then on, it would be only minutes before death arrived.

It wasn’t all too long before something new happened, however. Still immersed in the swirling gas clouds, a strange sensation unexpectedly stole over him. It was nearly impossible to describe, it was so strange; it was similar to being squeezed from the inside out, as though the very space around him was constricting; the best he could liken it to was perhaps being forced through a very narrow rubber tube –

He was still in his seat from shock, yet he knew he probably couldn’t have moved had he even wanted to. His vision distorted; the pod appeared to stretch lengthwise, as though seeing through a lens that was being warped. The strange sensation engulfed him; his very lungs felt paralyzed; his vision went dark as his eyes were being pushed back into his head; he panicked, trying to scrabble at his throat, lack of air creating a painful void in his chest, his brain fogging over …

Just as it was all becoming unbearable and he thought he’d surely die, suddenly started vanishing; the pressure, the distortion all around him, dissipated as quickly and unexpectedly as it had arisen. He gasped for breath and finally sucked in a delicious lungful of oxygen; his vision came back to him and the controls and windscreen before him focused into view, dark and metallic and cold –

He paused. Something was wrong. He peered out the glass before him, but to his surprise, the strange clouds he’d been floating through in had vanished completely, leaving nothing but inky stretches of star-strewn cosmos behind. The strange electrical-like lights that had been shooting off the outside of the pod were also gone, allowing for an unobstructed sight of the void around him –

He saw it and he froze, stunned.

The space around him wasn’t empty.

A planet had appeared, out of absolutely nowhere. Large – very large – it swerved past his windows as the pod continued to tumble and roll in space. From the unfocused glances Sean could catch of it, he thought it looked something like an oversized blue marble, with white streaks and blotches dabbed onto it. It was more beautiful than any other planet he’d ever seen in the multiple interplanetary expeditions he’d carried out with his unit.

Over the course of the next few moments, which he spent trying to get a decent view of this unexpected appearance, he suddenly became aware of just how monumentally fast his pod was traveling when the planet was visibly growing larger and larger. He innately estimated his velocity at well over a thousand miles per hour, if not several. He was blasting towards this planet at speeds rivaling, if not exceeding, that of the energy shots fired from a plasma rifle, themselves twice as fast as a standard lead bullet.

Entering the planet’s atmosphere suddenly became a very real problem. He had no idea how much damage his pod may have sustained: from being crushed by the crane wreckage on the Chartraine’s Escape Deck, from exploding off when he’d overloaded the thrusters to free himself, from the electrical activity that shorted out all his electronic equipment, and from that strange, inexplicable squeezing he’d gone through moments earlier. While modern materials and construction allowed spacecraft hulls to withstand tremendous forces without problem, a hull that had been cracked, however slightly, lost most of its integrity and would be a catastrophe waiting to happen.

Unable to activate his fried systems, all Sean could do was sit back and hold his breath, panicked thoughts racing through is mind as the pod came closer and closer to entering the atmosphere.

Finally, the windscreen started glowing yellow, brighter and brighter; he could feel the heat radiating from around him as his capsule started to radiate with a fiery glow as it approached its final destination …

*

It was a pleasantly cool morning, with a soft breeze wafting down from the distant mountains to the north across the woodlands and plains, creating an enchanting wavelike effect across the grasslands and treetops. The pale blue-grey skies were strewn with clouds that occasionally fluttered over the sun, offering some sporadic relief from the hot rays. Despite the current cool, one could easily tell that it would soon develop into a hot summer’s day. The slow-flowing waters of the large Neyrin River channeling its way through the region sparkled like jewels, and even in the fresh morning air, their promise of refreshment posed a nearly irresistible allure to any creatures in the area – one of which was heading down the shoreline at that very moment.

The soft grass felt pleasant under Aki’s feet as she lazily ambled down the gentle slopes leading to the riverbank. She adored this type of clement weather; neither too warm as to make her into a sweaty mess, and neither too cold as to require additional covering, yet still warm enough to warrant a little swim without bringing on a risk of catching a cold.

She sat on the rocky ledge that formed a small step leading into the waters, letting her long legs sway freely in the mild currents, the cool waters sending pleasurable tingles running across her skin. She had always been surprisingly well-developed for her age; though she was only sixteen, she had a body that was easily mistaken for a twenty-year-old’s, something that brought as much pride to her as it brought concern to her mother. She had all the curves of a mature woman, and it went without saying that her sex appeal, even at such a relatively young age, was quite a popular topic amongst the village males. She could hardly pass anywhere without attracting the suggestive, undressing glance …

She blushed at the thought and chuckled quietly to herself, absent-mindedly scratching her chest, reveling in the peace of the flowing waters and the tender breeze that brought countless brilliant ripples upon it. Oh, how strange it felt … She’d only turned sixteen a few months ago and already she was being treated as an adult by nearly everyone in the village. It was so disconcerting; the change in attitude towards her had happened literally overnight, and even many weeks later, she still had difficulty adjusting to the newfound focus the villagers brought upon her. Frankly, that was one of the reasons for which she so often came by the riverside these days, at a relatively secluded spot away from the village and their wandering eyes and thoughts. She’d always found peace in being by herself, quite unlike anyone else she’d ever known. She was just weird that way, but it suited her.

The tingling sensation from her legs only growing more exciting and the waters looking ever so inviting, Aki slowly lowered herself into the lazy currents, feeling elated as she took a few strokes in random directions away from the shoreline. She was a natural-born swimmer, easily as comfortable in the water as she was on land. And yet, the other villagers hated swimming, only approaching the river to drink or to freshen up in the morning after a particularly sweaty night’s sleep, or to fish from the shore. Yet another manner in which she distinguished herself from her people.

Aki stretched her limbs to their fullest, enjoying the strain she put on her muscles and feeling a wave of contentment swell over her. This, truly, was how life was meant to be lived … While it lasted …

Something snapped her back out of her reverie; her eyes opened as a sudden blinding flash of light erupted, high in the skies above over the horizon. Staring bemusedly, she watched as the flash died down, replaced by … something. Something really strange – and slightly frightening.

‘A comet?’ she asked aloud to herself, gazing stunned at the peculiar phenomena that was developing in the distance. A brilliant streak of cloud, smoke and flame was forming, stretching longer and longer through the skies, and – as she realized to her mingled shock and terror – headed right her way.

She stood there, frozen, for a few moments before a jolt of adrenaline shot through her body; keeping her eyes fixed upon the slowly approaching streak high in the atmosphere, she quickly waded out of the river as fast as her legs could power her through the waters, using her arms as paddles. It was as though the “comet” just kept picking up speed, though she realized this was just an optical illusion as the phenomenon drew nearer at what she could tell was a blinding velocity. It was drawing ever closer, and Aki noticed, in her stupefied state, that it seemed to curve slightly as though it were aiming straight for her.

Finally, it was only a few miles away in the air, a brilliant fireball streaking towards the ground right where Aki was, exploding through the atmosphere in its deadly descent; Aki started panicking and ran as fast as she could out of the water and into the neighboring trees, panting in terror and looking for anything to use for cover –

Aki screamed in terror at the exact moment the comet hit, smack in the middle of the Neyrin.

The shockwave hit her as she ran and lifted her off the ground; she tumbled into a fallen log and grabbed on for dear life as the blast from the impact tore through the air, threatening to burst her eardrums; the comet hit right in the deep of the river, and for a while, all one could see if they stared at the impact site was a massive cloud of water, steam and smoke. The energy from the collision kept the ground shaking for several moments until the reverberating shockwaves finally died down.

Totally overwhelmed at the magnificence, the shock, the terror of what had just happened, Aki slowly got to her feet, her hands slightly scraped and bloodied from gripping onto the hard bark so hard in her panic. She felt slightly dizzy as she made her way out of the woods to see what had happened.

It was an incredible sight. Still barely visible through the blanket of mist and smoke in the air, she could start to make out a circular object, as black as coal, resting placidly in the waters in the center of the Neyrin, still giving off copious amounts of smoke and steam as it gradually cooled down in the chilly waters. Waves strong enough to trip anyone walking in the river were splashing everywhere; the impact had raised the water level high enough as to swamp the banks for over a dozen feet on each side, so that Aki was actually standing on damp grass without even noticing it at first.

As she gazed in a dazed silence, still hardly believing what she’d just witnessed, she became aware that she wasn’t alone; others from the village just a few hundred paces from the riverside started arriving, some running, some approaching cautiously as though afraid something else might happen. All sported expressions of complete shock and wonder. A low murmur went through their numbers as they speculated what it could be.

For as she glanced back at the strange object, now clearly visible as the cloak of water and smoke had finally disappeared, she instantly realized this was no ordinary comet. In fact, she realized she had absolutely no idea what to make of it. It was a near-perfect sphere, and its surface, now charred black, was perfectly smooth. In places where the soot had been partially washed away by the waters of the Neyrin, Aki noticed slivers of a pale metallic underside to the strange object. She noticed, to her astonishment, that this thing, whatever it was, was constructed out of metal.

‘AKI! Aki, get over here, quick!’ came a shrill voice from the crowd of villagers now assembled at the riverside. Aki recognized it as her mother’s; indeed, Kira was strongly gesticulating at her daughter to hurry over to her side, and Aki quickly obeyed, not thinking clearly enough to do anything else. Kira grabbed her and pulled her into a semi-protective embrace as Aki reached her, both of them staring speechlessly at the strange object now lying almost casually in the middle of the Neyrin River.

The villagers were now whispering possible courses of action amongst themselves, as though afraid the strange thing might overhear them and attack, despite it giving no sign of any activity.

‘Should we approach it?’ Aki heard one older man mutter in front of her, glancing uneasily between the “comet” and those around him, who only stared at the sight before them, unsure what to do.

‘Daddy, what is it?’ Aki heard a familiar voice say; her best friend, a girl named Nessi, was standing by her father and looking up at him nervously.

‘I don’t know,’ he said quietly, gripping her around her haunches reflexively and held her close as Aki’s mother was embracing her.

They all kept staring for several minutes, until finally some of the braver villagers decided to slowly enter the waters towards the object to investigate further. Yet, just as they entered the current, a dulled clanging sound was suddenly heard, coming from the object; they froze in their tracks, afraid they’d provoked the strange arrival.

Another clang was heard, and another; something was banging, and from the sound of it, it seemed to be coming from inside the sphere, as though some unseen, unknown inhabitant were desperately trying to force its way out as Aki and the rest stared on in amazement and apprehension –

Suddenly, a piece of the sphere at the top popped out like a cork, with a loud clang; most of the villagers hastily took a few steps back in alarm as the metallic piece fell back onto the top of the sphere, then slowly slid off with a metallic scratching sound and splashed into the waters. From her mother’s arms, Aki could clearly see it had left some sort of hole in the side of the object –

Something suddenly appeared out of the hole, causing them all to collectively take another step back in recoil, unable to look away. But then, Aki recognized what it was – an arm

She watched, unsure whether to be fascinated or scared, as the strange arm groped around from inside the sphere; it seemed to grab onto a ledge or something, as the next moment it visibly strained, and before long more of the unknown newcomer started to appear out of the capsule as the villagers crowding along the bank gazed on …

*

The bright sunlight hit Sean in the face, blinding him as he slowly and painfully inched his way out of the wrecked escape pod. Every muscle in his beaten, bruised and bloodied body screaming in protest as he urged one final effort out of them in hoisting himself out through the relatively tight emergency hatch in the top of the capsule. Blinking furiously yet unable to get the blood that was dripping from his cut forehead out of his eyes, he blindly groped around with his left arm for any handholds he could use to pull himself out, pushing against the pilot’s seat and the cracked control console inside for some leverage.

Trying to ignore the building pain wracking his battered body, he slowly pulled himself out and lay on his stomach on the top of the pod, the charred and warm hull feeling harsh and gritty against his flesh. Yet, before he could even get a glimpse of the new world he had just forcibly entered, he lost his grip and slid down the round sides of the craft, plunging into the chilly waters below. Spluttering, using the pod for support, he gingerly clambered back upright, coughing and trying to wipe the water and blood out of his eyes. He felt as though he’d been beaten up; the crash had thrown him so violently that even the padded straps hadn’t stopped him from smashing into the walls and control panel around him, breaking bones and creating terrible bruises.

Once he’d regained his breath, panting slightly and feeling his legs wobbling from under him, he finally looked up at the pod. It was completely and utterly wrecked; the hull was crumpled and cracked from the impact, and was plastered in an inch of soot. The special thermal-resistant materials that made the hull prevented it from becoming too heated; even after the harrowing ride through the atmosphere, the metal was still far from burning, allowing him to rest against it safely as he tried to regain his strength.

He took a moment to examine himself. His face felt like a bloody mess; his nose was broken and dribbling blood freely across his lips (he spat, creating a small red spray as the droplets of crimson liquid peppered the waters), rendering breathing into a difficult task; his jaw felt bruised and he was certain he had at least one chipped tooth from the pain he felt there; his eyes were puffy from bruising and it hurt to even blink, especially in the sun’s glare; every muscle in his body felt like it had been torn, making him feel so stiff he wondered how he was able to move at all. His right arm was clearly broken, and his right foot also felt crushed, throbbing horribly within of his tight-fitting military boot. Staring at himself, he saw his once marine-blue military suit was covered in blood and ripped in several places, revealing cuts of varying depths beneath.

He had been absurdly lucky to have been able to regain some minimal control over the capsule during his hellish atmospheric entry. Once the friction from the air had slowed his descent to only a few hundred miles per hour, he was finally able to work the manual, hydraulically powered steering column, which had been all but useless in space as there was no air for the rudder to work with. From then on, he had slowly but surely been able to manage a course towards the best landing spot available to him: a wide, shallow-looking river cutting through a vast plain …

He shook his head, trying to clear his mind, and he slowly, with difficulty, stood up straight. He knew it was only the fierce amounts of adrenaline being pumped through his veins that kept him upright.

A slight breeze caught his face, ruffling his drenched and matted hair. Even this tiny sensation felt wonderful. Looking up, he glanced around, examining this new world.

Time seemed to stop.

The wide, slow-flowing river he was in was lined with rocky coasts, leading up to gentle grassy slopes that reached into towering, dark-green trees and foliage. Streaks of sunlight made it through their canopy like golden, glowing curtains, allowing for some illumination on the ground and giving the area a hauntingly beautiful atmosphere. The woods spanned for hundreds of feet on both sides of the river before the treeline suddenly receded, leading to vast, endless luxuriant plains that seemed to undulate as a crisp, cool breeze blew through the grass and the occasional tree. In the distance, a darker line of steel-colored mountains stuck up against the horizon, their pretty white snowcaps glinting somewhat in the bright morning sun. Above, the clear, bright blue sky, holding only a few wisps of clouds, completed the picture, with the planet’s single sun shining brightly, almost cheerfully.

It was an image right out of a postcard of idyllic beauty.

Sean slumped back against the pod; the adrenaline was wearing off and he could feel his legs weakening, but he barely even noticed. He was entirely caught up in the moment. He wasn’t even certain if this had somehow turned into a dream; never, even in his most vivid of dreams, had he ever imagined such stunning scenery. No darkness, no cold, no grey rocky wastelands, no purple, toxic-looking skies …

It resembled what he would imagine heaven looked like.

And everything his world didn’t.

Only when he caught something moving out the corner of his eye was he distracted from the vision. He turned around, feeling faint.

It took him several long moments before he even realized what he was looking at. His body froze.

He wasn’t alone: the riverside was crowded with a few dozen people, all staring at him, presumably in shock and curiosity at this strange, sudden new arrival. But – something was wrong.

Very wrong.

Staring at the sight before him, he took a step back, hit the side of the pod and crumpled against it, holding on to stop him from slumping back into the river. His eyes zipped from one individual to another, unable or unwilling to comprehend what he was looking at as shock started to overwhelm his mind again …

There were perhaps thirty of them or so, standing there, staring at him, minimally clothed in tribal sorts of robes and loincloths. But their arms, their legs …

They were covered in fur, as though they were wearing full-body fur coats.

Sean could see tails, swinging around and twitching. Real, flesh-and-blood tails, covered in either fur or scales depending on the individual.

He could make out pointed ears on the tops of their heads, though their forms varied – some were larger, some were smaller … They all had snouts … Hands and feet that were closer to paws …

Neither human, nor animal.

Anthropomorphic animals.

He could make out various individuals … There was one near the front who appeared to be a tall wolf-man, standing on two as would a human – as they all were … There were other canines: wolves, foxes, coyotes … Felines such as tigers and a lions … Several lizards … A horse … A rabbit or a hare … He noticed a fox holding a slightly shorter fox in its arms, as though shielding it from harms’ way … his way, he thought dimly …

He felt light-headed; he couldn’t think straight. In his stupor, his wandering eyes fell upon the first thing that caught his attention. He just focused on that smaller, apparently younger fox in the older fox’s arms, perhaps out of need of something fixed to stare at … It appeared distinctly female … Standing upright, staring at him, and with an expression of awe and wonder on her face …

She looked rather pretty …

His eyesight started to swim alarmingly as though he were suddenly overcome with vertigo; he forced himself to remain lucid, this was not the time to pass out –

Through his daze, he saw some of these – creatures – start to walk up to him in the waters, looking curious, apprehensive –

‘Get – GET BACK!’ he shouted, not really sure why he was reacting so violently, making wild gestures at them to back off away from him; they stopped and stood there, ankle-keep in the water, staring at him uncertainly, in shock –

‘Get – back –!’

Sean fumbled around for his thigh holster and whipped out his pistol; he quickly aimed high and fired a few shots into the air, each gunshot creating a loud and echoing bang; it worked, as the creatures suddenly recoiled, obviously intimidated by Sean and what they must’ve perceived as being this strange, loud device in his hands, possibly dangerous …

Get … get …

His best efforts to remain lucid were failing; combined exhaustion, pain and shock were overwhelming his system as the world around him started to swim out of focus …

Grappling at the pod behind him in vain, Sean keeled over into the waters, floating on his back, too weak to fight gravity anymore; his suit enabled him to float with his breathing undisturbed save for the blood in his nose. The pistol drifted out from his slack grip, plunging to the riverbed where it was quickly covered in sediment, never to be found again …

Less than a moment before going under, as the images started blurring against each other in his mind, he witnessed more of these strange … people … approaching him again … struggling in vain against the oncoming darkness, his eyes found that cute young vixen again …

The prettiest blue eyes he’d ever seen … so pretty … vaguely familiar somehow, yet his memory had stopped working, as had the rest of his mind and body …

Then all went dark.