Saturday, June 12, 2010

Inhuman | Chapter 11: Reversal [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.

Sean’s past returns and the unthinkable befalls the anthros.


— CHAPTER ELEVEN —

Reversal

The early afternoon sun had replaced the earlier morning chill with a tepid stillness, imposing an unusual quietness upon the forest. The couple of hours during which Sean tediously made his way through the monotonous undergrowth had only fueled his anticipation for what would undoubtedly be a triumphant return home. He could already imagine the scene that he expected awaited him: the preliminary stunned figures as he emerged from the treeline, once again looking battle-worn; the praise and applause that was sure to follow, along with a rush of eager anthros demanding to know what had happened and whether the threat truly was over; the eventual encounter with Wise Kovida and the other elders, an assuredly awkward experience of silent stares saying “I told you so” … and, of course, Aki, imagining the look on her face, the relief, the joy, at Sean’s safe return …

But that was not to happen.

The woods were beginning to thin and the shadows were clearing when Sean first halted, unsure whether he’d heard something unusual. He strained his ears, but caught only silence –

A muffled, reverberating, thunder-like noise filtered through the trees, unmistakable in its nature. It was immediately followed by an equally muted yet distinctive chorus of shrill voices. The sound of it made the blood freeze in his veins; it had come from the direction of the village, ahead.

His heart jumping into overdrive, Sean considerably quickened his pace, still careful not to trip over disturbances in the ground, his keen eyes scrutinizing the layers of trees for any sign of the village as he approached. It had certainly been a detonation that he’d heard; he’d heard more than enough of them in his lifetime to know how to recognize one. What could possibly have happened? His frenzied mind was filled with ideas, yet none of them were remotely plausible; the village held nothing of an explosive nature of any kind. Which could only indicate …

After a few more minutes of scurrying through the woods, Sean finally arrived at the treeline at the outskirts of the village and immediately scanned the village for activity. A handful of villagers were running to and fro disorderedly, rushing to find shelter inside huts or in alleyways, looking as confused and scared as when the Dark Riders had attacked, only twenty-four hours ago. Every now and then, a number of screams would arise from somewhere deeper within the village, only to be silenced swiftly and occasionally punctuated with –

Sean’s heart stopped. Laser fire.

His instincts kicking in, Sean grabbed his rifle and tore down the nearest path, weaving his way through the few villagers who were desperately seeking shelter and ignoring them when they turned towards him in shock or confusion, determined to locate the source of the commotion for himself. As he drew nearer to the village center, he could hear more and more bursts of laser fire, its distinctive high-pitched discharge emanating from several places all around him. Could someone have found their way into his pod’s weapons cache? Who could have done so? But then, he realized on the fly, that couldn’t be – no-one but he and Aki knew how to operate the rifles, and there were definitely more than two being fired in the village –

He rushed by the apothecary just as a zebra woman poked her head out to scan the surroundings; seeing Sean, she immediately ran out into the street and grabbed him by the shoulders in a panic, shaking him in her wide-eyed terror.

‘Sean, please, you gotta help us! Please –!’

‘Wha-what is it, what’s going on?’ Sean urged of her, but she had already released him and was running towards the village perimeter, shooting frantic looks behind her shoulder as though running from an invisible pursuant. Leaving her be, Sean turned back towards the village center, raising his rifle at the ready, and continued his way towards where the cries and sounds of laser fire were the most frequent, right in the heart of the village.

He finally arrived at an opening into the village square where the origin of all the turmoil was located.

His breath caught in his throat for a few moments as he fought to understand what he was seeing. He blinked repeatedly, feverishly, his brain seemingly paralyzed by the horror of the scene before him.

No … It can’t be …

The clearing was bustling with activity as soldiers moved about – human military troops, perhaps two dozen of them in total, all decked out in military combat suits and equipped with imposing laser rifles. Like an invading army of aliens, they spread through the village, aiming and occasionally firing their rifles in short loud bursts into the air, each time eliciting a new round of screams of terror. Villagers were being rounded up like animals, some going along submissively with their arms tied behind their backs like prisoners, others putting up valiant fights before inevitably being subdued. Sean caught sight of Karnai the great buffalo, swinging wildly at the several comparatively weak-looking human soldiers who surrounded him, only to give a strangled yell and be brought crashing to the ground like a felled monument with ropes slung around his throat and torso, holding the massive creature immobile and helpless. A lizard, perhaps Zina the iguana who had fought with Sean only the day before, was managing to keep a handful of soldiers at bay as he swung a pole around ferociously; a blast of laser fire and a horrific shriek of pain later, he was lying helplessly on the ground as the humans ganged up on him, securing the crippled lizard’s scaly arms behind his back.. Mothers were being torn from their children, fighting and screaming viciously as their crying and cowering cubs were being hauled along the ground helplessly, too small or scared to resist. One fox managed to jump at a soldier’s throat as he was approached menacingly; a brief commotion ensued that ended with a flurry of laser fire and one brief, shrill death cry.

N-no …!

Sean’s heartbeat was thundering in his ears as he struggled to take it all in. With a jolt, he suddenly realized he was just standing there in the middle of the road, in plain sight. He quickly ducked to the side and took shelter in a narrow passageway behind a wooden cabin, his instincts urging him to stay out of sight for the moment. He crept to the edge of the cabin and cautiously peeked around the corner, gaining a good vantage point of the terrible scene.

He silently looked on, as he had done so many times in the past, as the captured anthros were assembled at the center of the clearing and thrown onto the ground amidst a growing group of tied-up villagers, squirming feebly against their strange new metal handcuffs and looking around in barely suppressed panic, completely helpless to defend their village as these cruel and powerful new invaders prowled their community and took their friends and family prisoners. Most looked too shocked to do anything more than stare around in terror, and the few who did attempt to rise up or speak out were swiftly silenced with laser shots fired into the air or the brutal blow of a rifle butt.

Sean’s eyes roved around the scene, instinctually trying to acquire all the information he could about the situation. The soldiers all had the same letters on their suits: NCFM – the New Corinthea Federal Military. Not that Sean had held any doubts regarding their origins, however; their demeanor as they quickly and efficiently roved about the village, superintending soldiers relaying orders through their radio communicators and the rest filtering through the community like a supersized army of ants, indicated that these units were highly trained and experienced. However, something about them struck Sean as a bit odd; as he peered around, he could detect expressions of arrogance and even an apparent lust for violence whenever force was utilized; their movements contained a certain trace of brusqueness and impatience. The exact hallmarks that were expressly stamped out of the New Corinthean Military; during Sean’s years spent in their service, he had never seen anyone regard such a task as that of capturing an enemy village as a matter taken lightly or excitedly.

These people were not soldiers. They were a private force. Hired goons. Thugs with guns.

Mercenaries.

The thought somehow made Sean’s fear grow even greater. Fighters without the restraints of the military’s code of laws or honor … amidst a village of helpless victims.

Needing to get a wider view of the area, Sean slowly began to edge around the corner, trying desperately not to be seen by the enemies roaming around nearby, trying to reach the cover of a short stone wall that lay just a few feet further –

Sean! Hey, look, it’s Sean –!’ arose a villager’s frantic voice.

Sean’s heart missed a beat. A quick blast of laser fire cowed the disturber into silence, but the damage was done.

‘Over there! Get him!

Sean didn’t need to see the approaching mercs or take note of the sudden chorus of excitement that arose from the anthros to turn face and tear down the alleyway between buildings as a dazzling array of laser pulses suddenly began streaking past from all around, exploding chunks out of the wooden and dried earth walls of the structures where they hit. He rushed through the backstreets, jumping fences and dodging other miscellaneous obstacles with the agility of a cat as the mercs pursuing him tried valiantly to keep up. He didn’t dare try and lose them by heading deeper into the village and distancing himself from the village square and the defenseless anthros – but he also couldn’t keep running in a circle forever –

He was just running out from behind another building when a form suddenly jolted forth into his way from a connecting alley; he crashed into it and both were sent tumbling to the ground in disarray. Sean quickly recovered and rolled to his feet and, deciding on the spot that he’d run far enough, grabbed his rifle and wheeled about. The mercenary he’d just collided with merely stared up at him from the ground, looking winded and fearful. His mind was frantic with trying to figure a way out of this mess when the other soldiers streamed in from all direction, their guns aimed at him and their frantic yells for Sean to surrender resonating in the cramped space of the narrow alleyway amidst the wooden cabins that surrounded them –

Sean let loose a burst of laser fire in a wide swing as he turned about and threw himself behind the nearest corner; the mercenaries were forced to take cover themselves to avoid his rapid fire, others riposting in kind and engulfing the area in a blinding and deafening mess of light –

Suddenly, everything ceased, leaving Sean surrounded by a cloud of dust and smoke, his ears ringing harshly in the abrupt silence. He stayed put in the protective little alcove formed by the walls of the surrounding structures, listening in on the hostiles surrounding him.

All units, cease fire, I repeat, cease fire!’ rang a tinny, crackling voice from their radios.

‘But, sir –’ began one merc.

Shut up! Stand down at once, that is an order. Hold your fire at all costs,’ barked the voice. It came across as highly authoritarian and testy, and sounded vaguely familiar to Sean as he stayed there, his finger on the trigger and ready to return fire in an instant.

A few tense moments passed before the voice spoke again.

Captain O’Neil,’ it said simply and clearly.

Sean’s breath caught slightly in his throat. He’d definitely heard that call before.

Captain Sean O’Neil,’ the voice repeated with certainty. ‘I know you’re listening. I am ordering my units to retreat from your position. Just walk out with your weapon lowered, and no-one will be hurt.

A few more edgy moments passed; then the sounds of weapons being lowered and withdrawing footsteps were heard from around the corner. Still pumped full of adrenaline, Sean quickly peered around the corner to confirm that they had left, then quickly rounded the side of the building until he was just around the corner from the clearing, the soldiers – and captured anthros – plainly visible. Sean leaned out, making sure to be seen to gauge the other mercenaries’ reaction; they spotted him yet kept their weapons lowered, albeit grudgingly, judging by their expressions. They truly were only interested in fighting.

‘I’m here!’ Sean called out. ‘Who’s in charge?’

A few moments passed during which the mercenaries glanced around as though looking for their commander. Then, someone broke through the crowd and took a few steps forth towards Sean’s position, stopping about a dozen feet away. Sean looked them over, almost unwilling to believe his eyes. Suddenly, everything made even less sense than before.

‘Hello, Captain,’ said General Xander.

They stared at each other for several moments, Sean stunned into silence. Like a ghost from his days back in Phantom Unit, there he was, his bald head, imposing stature and steely eyes unmistakable for anyone else. However, unlike from Sean’s memories, a large, wrinkly scar now covered the right side of his ex-commander’s face, reaching from his temple and stretching down his cheek and neck, disappearing past the collar of his military uniform.

‘I see you’ve been keeping busy,’ noted General Xander in his baritone voice, glancing up and down Sean’s heavily torn and bloodstained suit. Sean managed to keep his cool despite the confusion mounting within him.

‘You look surprised to see me,’ continued the General. ‘I don’t suppose you’re wondering what happened to the Chartraine or how I made it here, are you?’

Sean remained silent, watching General Xander intently whilst keeping an eye on the others around him for any suspicious movements.

‘The ship was hit by a comet,’ continued Xander without waiting for Sean’s non-coming answer. ‘A stupid little piece of crap rock, but it slipped through a hole in the shield and hit the engine compartment, and destroyed one of the fuel tanks, set fire to the whole thing. We were lucky the ship even lasted as long as it did … well …’ he scoffed dryly, ‘“lucky” … I could’ve gone without this bit of cosmetic surgery, as you can see, but I came out all right, didn’t I?’

Sean remained quiet still, eyeing General Xander uncertainly. This was his commander, a man he’d spent his life being told to respect and obey unquestioningly as per military rule, the leader who’d sent him and his comrades into the pits of hell and back again; and yet here he was now, standing in the middle of the alien anthro village with a platoon of mercenaries at his command, rallying up his people, friends and family, with no indication as to why they were here or what they were planning to do. Whatever their intentions were, though, Sean knew that this wouldn’t end well for him or the villagers.

Deciding that the General didn’t pose any immediate threat, Sean made to step out from behind the building, keeping his hand at his rifle handle; at once, some of the mercs raised their weapons, causing Sean to quickly retreat behind his cover and aim his rifle –

‘I SAID STAND DOWN!’ yelled General Xander angrily. ‘He’s Phantom Unit, you morons, he’ll carve you up like ducks!’

Sean watched from around the corner with his rifle still poised as the soldiers reticently lowered their weapons again, looking very much like they desired little more than to shoot something already.

‘You’ll have to forgive them, O’Neil,’ said General Xander in a seemingly frustrated voice. ‘I had limited resources available to me after I lost the Chartraine, I had to go with the lowest form of fighters I could find.’

Several of the mercs stared at General Xander, looking incensed, but he ignored them, keeping Sean in his focus.

‘I have to say, though, I never thought you’d be one for the tribal life,’ he continued as though nothing had happened. ‘Also, I have to thank you for making my clean-up job so much easier and finally finding the rest of these half-breeds. Wouldn’t you know it, we’ve been looking for this place for … oh, I don’t even know how long …’

The rest of these half-breeds. This excerpt drowned out the rest of General Xander’s words in Sean’s mind.

‘What?’ he said sharply. ‘What the hell’re you talking about?’

General Xander stared at him, a slight smirk appearing on his hard, scarred face.

‘Haven’t lost your attitude, I see,’ he said. ‘I’m saying, thank you for finally allowing us to find this place and clean up the mess – you know, wipe these abominations out once and for all. Took us several weeks to find this planet, though you helped us in that domain, too –’

‘What the fuck are you talking about?’ snapped Sean, unwilling to trust his ears and what they had heard the General say. ‘What the hell d’you mean, “wipe them out” – what –?’

‘Oh, right – I guess you wouldn’t know about that, would you?’ said General Xander, his smirk growing slightly larger, more arrogant, more insufferable. ‘This stuff isn’t exactly common knowledge. It’s a fair bit below your pay grade. Well, see here, O’Neil: long ago, humans who lived here liked to play God with nature and they ended up creating this, this – freak of nature, these half-breeds,’ he said, indicating the anthros, many of whom visibly bristled.

‘Now, we humans left this place long ago to establish Corinthea, and the rest, but we left this mess behind, here on – Earth, it’s called, I think? Well, you see, the people in charge, especially in the science community, they tend to get embarrassed when they get failed experiments left out in the open and running amok like this. So – long story short: we’ve had standing orders, for a few hundred years or something, to find and destroy these, these perversions of nature and –’

The rest of his explanations were drowned out as a generalized outcry of anger and indignation arose from the anthros at his remarks. Many were now fighting their restraints and rearing up towards General Xander and the other humans, their heated voices blending together to form a cacophony of ire. The soldiers were quick to respond, moving in threateningly and aiming their rifles around, several of them firing off several volleys just over the anthros’ heads. This effectively cowed the prisoners into submission once more and they slowly settled down, looking both furious and fearful.

General Xander, however, was only sneering all the more at this mild uprising.

‘Oh, shut up, you worthless mongrels,’ he said heartily, his voice filled with contempt. ‘We gave you your lives, we made you the – the creatures that you are. You belong to us! You are nothing but possessions of the human race, and like any possessions, we can do away with you as we see fit –’

‘How dare you!’ came an enraged vociferation from the anthros; the voice instantly made Sean’s heart seize in his chest again. Aki had gotten to her feet amongst the cowering anthros, staring General Xander down from where she stood, her arms visibly straining against her restraints behind her back. She looked angrier than Sean had ever seen her: ears flattened, hackles raised, a vicious snarl on her muzzle exposing her canine teeth.

‘We have a right to exist just as anyone else!’ she shouted heatedly, staring a somewhat taken aback General Xander down, her anger apparently overcoming her fear. ‘We are not your toys or your slaves and you have no right –!’

‘Who the –? Oh, shut the fuck up,’ dismissed General Xander in irritation. ‘Who the fuck do you think you are, stupid little fox bitch?’

Sean’s eyes flashed in anger, but then in horror as Aki lost her self-control; she gave a bestial snarl and lunged forwards, but the nearest merc quickly rushed in and swung his rifle butt violently into the foxgirl’s abdomen, bending her over as he knocked the breath out of her; he followed with a quick blow to the side of her head that sent her crashing horrifically to the ground with the other anthros, writhing in pain and gasping for air –

Sean reacted before he even realized it and less than a second later, a quick blast of energy had torn through the offending soldier’s legs, blasting them apart in a cloud of light, blood and charred flesh –

At once, Sean retreated behind the wall again as the mercs simultaneously raised their rifles at him –

‘ENOUGH!’ screamed General Xander. ‘Lower your weapons, we need him alive!’

A very strained silence followed, punctuated only by the incessant shocked whimpering of the newly-legless mercenary to whom two other soldiers were already tending. Sean remained hidden behind the corner of the building and forced himself to calm down. He slowly peered around the corner again, verifying that the soldiers had indeed lowered their rifles, albeit glaring at him with an all-too-apparent lust for violence.

However, as he glanced back at General Xander, he noticed that the General wasn’t looking at him but instead was staring at where Aki lay on the ground, now giving low canine whimpers of pain. The General started moving towards Aki’s helpless form, prompting Sean to react by raising his rifle reactively, a move quickly mirrored by the mercenaries once more, though no-one fired. Sean kept a sharp, apprehensive eye on General Xander as he approached his pained friend, who looked up at him and tried to scurry away feebly as he came near, revealing –

Aki noticed the little dark object on the ground that she had apparently dropped and quickly tried to reach for it, but Xander was faster and grabbed the item before she could.

No …!’ he heard her groan, half from the pain.

Sean peered at General Xander’s back as he examined the mysterious object in his hands; he slowly turned around, revealing a little book of sorts with dark covers in his hands.

Sean stared in shock, realizing in horror what it was that Xander was holding. He could’ve recognized his journal anywhere. All his thoughts, all his experiences, his observations on the anthros and the village, his past, everything …

What was Aki doing with it?! He’d told her never to …!

‘Well, this is interesting,’ muttered General Xander, half to himself, perusing the pages almost leisurely, violating the privacy of Sean’s most intimate thoughts right before his eyes. Sean glanced at Aki where she lay on the ground and found her returning his look, her face filled with remorse. Sean kept her gaze for a moment, feeling horrible. How could she …?

‘Well!’ announced General Xander, closing the journal with a dull clap and sliding it into a pocket before returning his attention to Sean. His eyes now carried something akin to triumph. ‘Now, you will, of course, give us your full cooperation and follow your orders of helping us assemble these creatures and bring them back to the ship, won’t you, Captain?’

Sean gave him a hard look. ‘And what makes you think I will?’ he growled.

‘Because, Captain, anything else would constitute treason, as you very well know,’ said General Xander, an almost taunting leer to him now. ‘Whereby you will be processed as a war criminal, charged with desertion, and receive the appropriate sentencing.’

Sean didn’t need to ask him what that entailed. Nor did he need to think before giving his reply.

‘Go to hell,’ he grumbled, his tone flat and decisive.

General Xander merely nodded, leering at him more than ever.

‘You first,’ he said. ‘But not before we’re through with you. There’s still much we can gain from your cooperation … whether you choose to help us or not.’

General Xander turned towards his team and motioned towards Sean. The signal was clear: take him.

At once, the mercs immediately swarmed towards him, their rifles poised threateningly, but Sean had already taken off, running behind buildings and through the serpentine alleyways, keeping a slowly widening distance between him and his pursuant –

A group of enemies suddenly materialized out from an adjoining alley in front of him and he crashed into them before he could stop; hands immediately began grabbing at him, pulling his arms and attempting to restrain them behind his back; Sean kicked out with all the strength in his legs, aiming for ankles and guts and faces and groins, until he was able to wriggle his way out of the tangle of limbs and bodies fighting after him –

He was tripped and fell into the open at the sidelines of the clearing, in plain view of everyone assembled there as the mass of mercenaries after him dogpiled on him; he threw them off valiantly and desperately clambered to his feet –

Something hit him very hard in the guts and he doubled over from the impact, the breath blown out of him; seeing stars, he struggled to get up just as something else hit him right in the small of the back, sending shockwaves down his legs and making him fall limply to the ground, temporarily stunned; his arms were pulled behind his back, countless rifles aimed at him, but still he fought back as with every muscle in his body, kicking and clawing at everything he could reach as the enemies pinning him down tried to restrain him like a rabid beast, fighting for his very life –

Sean! Sean, please!

He heard her voice even with all the other shouts and yells in the vicinity, some of them his own. Focusing his sight, he found Aki, trying weakly to prop herself up on her elbow. Even through the pain that clouded her face, Sean could still discern her gaze, urgent and pleading.

‘Please, stop,’ she called out to him, her voice hoarse and anguished. ‘They’ll kill you!’

Sean returned her gaze, still struggling to keep his arms from being cuffed behind his back; however, picking up on the number of rifles aimed at his head and the increasing agitation of the mercs trying to apprehend him, he realized the reality of Aki’s plea. Dropping her gaze, he finally allowed himself to submit; at once, his arms were yanked into position rather painfully and he felt the cold, hard metal cuffs being snapped around his wrists securely, forbidding any movement. More hands reached for his rifle and other equipment, stripping them from him, leaving him only in his bare uniform.

The mercs around him dispersed and two remained on either side of him, hoisting him disgracefully to his feet and securing him closely. He glared venomously at General Xander, who merely returned his gaze with a satisfied, almost victorious expression in his hard features.

‘Now that that’s settled,’ he remarked haughtily. He turned towards his team.

‘Listen up,’ he barked. ‘A Team, you take as many prisoners as you can to the shuttle and put ’em in holding.’

A faction of half-a-dozen men and women gave a few “yessir”s headed over to the anthros and brought a group of about sixteen captives to their feet; Aki was hoisted forcefully to her feet and thrown in with the others chosen by A Team. They were immediately marched them out of village square, weapons raised against them menacingly, the prisoners too shocked or terrified to bring up any resistance at all. Sean tried to keep Aki’s distinctive orange fur and black ears in sight for as long as he could as she melted into the group and they disappeared down the path.

General Xander motioned to a second group, then to the rest of the detained anthros.

‘B Team, take the rest to the riverbank and keep them there until further notice. Expect a second shuttle at midnight.’

Another round of acknowledgment went up as the team in question headed over to the roughly one hundred remaining villagers and ordered them to their feet, then began herding them down the same path to the shore taken by A Team and their smaller group of prisoners moments previously.

It was all so surreal the peaceful natives being rounded up and captured like cattle in their secluded village by these invaders, these alien mercenaries, and marched out of their home like unwanted pests. Cubs were hurrying to keep up with their parents, not given a moment of leniency by their captors. Some were shaking with silent sobs, others stared at the ground or around at their beloved homeland, the looks of misery and wretchedness on their faces saying all that needed be said. They were walking to their doom and they knew it, their home, their friends, their lives all brutally torn away from them.

Sean barely felt the wet streaks slowly making their way down his cheeks.

‘C Team,’ continued General Xander methodically, supremely unconcerned with the villagers’ plight. ‘Bring the Captain and rendezvous back to the shuttle.’

He threw Sean a cruel glance before turning and leading the group out of village square after the others. Sean put up no resistance as they ushered him along with the others. He made eye contact with none of them, though he could still detect the smirking glances they cast his way, apparently amused by his despair. Sean felt no reaction towards their attitude. He was far beyond caring what these thugs thought or did at this point.

‘What about us?’ came a call from behind them. General Xander halted and so did the others; the final faction, D Team, had apparently been forgotten.

General Xander looked at them, then threw a quick glance around the now-deserted village square.

Burn everything.

*

Sean felt almost like an unseen observer as the grim, unnaturally silent procession was carried out around him. The smaller group of villagers was being pushed up the boarding ramp into a mid-sized dropship on the shore of the peaceful Neyrin, a vessel with a distinctly military look to it with its thick metal plating and generally crude-but-functional appearance. Sean and his captors followed suit behind Team A and their detainees, Sean feeling like the shuttle was a giant metallic prison swallowing him up, taking him away from his home and loved ones in chains. He cast one last longing, defeated look at the landscape around them, the forests, the grasslands – his forests, his grasslands … and the large group of villagers huddling by the riverside, cowering away from the humans and their rifles, completely helpless and lost, the victims of a cruel twist of fate, one that had presumably befallen so many other peoples whose names and cultures were now lost to history …

And then the artificial entrails of the ship engulfed him, stealing his home from view.

Sean and the mercenaries found a seat in the shuttle’s main lounge-slash-staging section, the area barely large enough to hold the dozen-and-a-half men and women present. It was a strictly utilitarian place, the walls bare and metallic, the lights simple and bright.

Sean watched silently as the anthros (his eyes focusing on Aki in particular, who briefly returned his gaze, looking as scared as Sean had ever seen her) were roughly herded and pushed into an adjoining sealed-off locale that he recognized as the shuttle’s holding room, designed to keep prisoners and other troublemakers secluded from the rest. A couple of armed soldiers entered along with them, standing at the sides of the door as it slid close with a light hiss, sealing the captives and the guards inside. Sean kept staring despite not being able to detect anything through the solid steel walls separating him from his people, half-heartedly imagining them inside, what they must be experiencing.

After what could’ve been either thirty seconds or thirty minutes, Sean having lost track of time, a steadily rising whirr and the rumble of the engines indicated the shuttle was preparing to lift-off; the boarding ramp rose up and sealed the entrance hermetically, unseen mechanical locks clicking into place. A few sudden jolts told Sean when they had finally left the ground, the anti-grav field shielding the shuttle’s occupants from any movement-related discomfort as the craft blasted off from the ground and shot into the air, a metal chick returning to its mother, still very far above.

Sean ignored all the men and women standing idly around him, their weapons at their sides, many of them glaring at him with sneers or other taunting expressions telling of their satisfaction at having successfully apprehended this supposed legend and war hero. Instead, he turned towards the nearby porthole, peering down below at the land he’d come to love rocketing away from him, the majestic Neyrin River coursing its way gracefully through the smooth terrain, the forests stretching on into the horizon. Soon, only a fist-sized clearing remained visible where his village was; he could see sparkles of red and gold flicker throughout as Team D did their job …

Unable to bear the spectacle any longer, he tore his eyes away from the window and stared at his feet, silent and still. He could see General Xander out the corner of his eye, seated a few feet away and glancing at him every now and, that ever-satisfied air plastered on his face like a permanent sneer. Sean noticed he was once again holding out his journal, flipping through the pages as he taught himself Sean’s thoughts, his experiences, his weaknesses. And his people’s.

‘Copy that,’ drifted the pilot’s voice from the cockpit, only a dozen feet away at the front of the craft, no wall or barrier separating the shuttle’s flight deck from the rest. ‘Please relay the following: shuttle departure from latitude one-nine-point-five-four-five south, longitude three-four-point-five-four-one east. Load is twelve units and seventeen prisoners …’

An increase in background noise drowned out the rest of the pilot’s transmission as mercs struck up conversations all around Sean. Sean’s hazy mind concentrated on that last bit he’d heard.

19.545°S 34.541°E … 19.545°S 34.541°E … So they already have the planet mapped out.

He kept repeating those random-sounding numbers over and over in his mind, memorizing them for no reason as though subconsciously trying to find something to occupy him mind other than thoughts of his predicament. He leaned back against the wall sullenly, still refusing to make eye contact with any of the hostiles, even though most of them had lost interest in him by then. As he did so, he felt something hard and thin press up against the small of his back; it took him a moment to remember the combat knife he’d hidden there before leaving for the Dark Riders’ village that morning. The mercenaries had somehow missed it when they stripped him of his equipment.

They must not have felt it under the belt.

Even the knowledge that he had a blade concealed on him did nothing to comfort Sean in the slightest. He was, after all, a closely guarded prisoner amidst a group of a dozen trained and heavily armed mercenaries. A hidden blade was as useful to him as a stick.

The minutes slowly went by as the shuttle shot out of the Earth’s atmosphere and rejoined open space on its way to its mothership. Alone and ignored, Sean had nothing but his somber, meandering thoughts and endless dread to keep him company. As bad as what had just happened was, he knew that the worse, by far, still lay ahead for them all. He himself had directly disobeyed his General, and especially, had openly sided with the designated “enemies” and fought against the mercenaries. There was only one possible way he’d be treated once he arrived wherever they were headed … an enemy combatant. A traitor.

He’d captured and processed enough enemies in his lifetime to know exactly what awaited him. Upon arrival, he’d be dropped off in a holding cell, such as the one the anthros were in currently, where he’d be kept for some amount of time – be it anywhere from an hour or two to perhaps even several days – until they called him into interrogation. There, once he’d refused to cooperate, they would commence the true hardship: steadily increasing physical and psychological coercion – colloquially known as torture. And once he’d either broken and divulged the required information, or he had shown that they wouldn’t be able to break him without a tremendous amount of time and effort – once his use had run out … they would get rid of him.

But, as he realized with a slight shiver and a tightening in his chest, even that was still probably preferable to what he was certain lay in store for the anthros. Old and failed creations of man, in the humans’ view … What awaited them was no more or less than an eternity in a laboratory. Until, as with Sean, they were no longer needed.

The thought of Aki strapped to a table, nude and helpless and crying for mercy, briefly flashed through his mind. He cringed slightly, closed his eyes hard and forced it out at once. He already felt slightly sick.

However, there was one thing at the back of Sean’s mind that he hadn’t figured out, something that had been bugging him ever since first seeing the mercenaries spreading through the village.

How did they find us?

As far as Sean could tell, tracing his route from the Chartraine to Earth would’ve been quite impossible; he’d lost control, rocketed through space aimlessly for what could’ve been hours in retrospect, and then had gone through what he could only imagine, drawing upon his admittedly limited knowledge of astronomy, was some sort of wormhole that happened to spit him out in the neighborhood of Planet Earth. The idea that anyone could’ve been tracking him and his pod as they crashed onto this new world was absurd … or …

Sean froze, understanding dawning on him like the sky was crashing down over his shoulders.

The pod. They had tracked the pod through its emergency locator beacon signal. A beacon that was specially insulated deep within the hull of the pod as to protect it from any and all hazards, from impacts to electromagnetic disturbances. A beacon that Aki and her superhumanly sensitive fox ears would’ve detected the slightest hint of as it ceaselessly broadcast its emergency signal into the cosmos.

‘Hey, can you … hear something?’

‘What is it?’

‘It sounds like … like some kind of high-pitched tone, like a buzzing or something.’

‘I can’t hear anything. It’s probably just the water or the wind or something. Nothing in here works, anyway.’

Or so he had thought.

That’s how the military found him. Through the locator beacon in his pod. The beacon he’d been well aware of. The beacon he’d neglected or forgotten to deactivate.

It’s all my fault. It’s all my fucking fault.

He’d brought this upon the anthros, crashing his pod and beacon onto their world and heralding the arrival of the humans. None of it would’ve happened if it hadn’t been for him …

Part of his mind tried to speak up and pacify him, to tell him that he couldn’t blame himself, that he couldn’t control where the pod would end up once he’d lost control, that he couldn’t have been expected to remember to tend to the locator beacon after the terror and violence of the crash … but it was to no avail. He felt sick to his stomach with guilt, his entire being paralyzed and burning with remorse.

He’d gotten his friends and family killed.

He’d gotten Aki tortured and killed.

It was all his fault.

Somehow, the idea of him being the cause for this catastrophic turn of events appeared to stoke a small fire in his gut, a burning determination to get them out of this mess, to fix the grave mistakes he’d made – to save them, one way or another, whatever it took …

But as he sat there, unable to move, under guard from a dozen laser rifles and with his friends locked up like feral animals in the holding room, he knew only too well the extent to which he was powerless. He felt like he was shrinking on his bench; he buried his face in his hands, his eyes burning more than ever, a lump rising in his throat that he couldn’t remove.

They were all going to suffer and die, and it was all his fault. And there was nothing he could do.

*

The room was dark and quiet like a burial chamber, the sound of the engines muffled through the thick, insulated metal walls. The few lights in the ceiling cast a harsh drape of white luminosity upon them all, creating several misshapen shadows for each prisoner. Only the occasional sniff, whimper or brushing sound of someone shifting their position gave any audible hint that the holding cell was occupied by a bunch of anthros and their two emotionless guards at the door. The fear and misery that hung in the air was palpable, bearing down over them all like a crushing weight of despair. Only the two stony-faced sentinels seemed untouched by the anthros’ anguish as they kept watch over them all, their eyes glittering coldly in the twilight.

Aki was standing in the middle of the anthros, all of whom were also on their feet from the lack of space. Her ears were flat and her tail was tucked in between her legs as with everyone else, and she was victim to a shivering spell that had nothing to do with the temperature. Her thoughts wandered far and wide: to her home, now brightly lit by the flames ravaging their village; to her mother, who was standing behind her with her normally stern face now looking as scared as anyone else’s; to Nessi, who had been left behind with the rest of the villagers by the river and who was assuredly as terrified as anyone else, most likely in her father’s arms as they watched in horror the sudden death of their village.

Her thoughts also went to Sean, somewhere nearby, just feet away from her, yet completely unreachable. She had seen it all in his eyes and face: the shock, the fear, the rage, the grief … and the guilt. She had wondered idly how they could’ve found the village … Had Sean known something he hadn’t told her about?

No, she assured herself. Sean didn’t keep any secrets from me … and he wouldn’t hide anything if he knew it could put us in danger …

But then, that wasn’t true, was it? Sean had done everything short of ordering Aki not to touch his personal journal, the little book that contained his heart and soul, the piece of Sean’s mind that had taught her so much about him and his history. Sean had certainly kept that hidden from her …

Kira approached Aki a little closer from behind and laid her chin on Aki’s head in a comforting gesture, her breathing soft but noticeably tense as it blew Aki’s headfur. Aki brushed her tail against her mother’s and they both intertwined, as good as holding hands.

She couldn’t take the fearful silence anymore.

‘W-what will happen to us?’ she asked quietly, her voice uneven from anxiousness and disuse. She sensed her mother tense up behind her as though fearful of retribution for her daring to speak.

The two guards looked at her through the anthros between them, their faces showing a mild amusement.

‘You heard the General,’ one of them answered in a deep drawl. ‘You’re lab rats. You’re stinking guinea pigs. You’re going to labs and you’re gonna be tested and dissected, just like the – the perversions you are.’

There was an uprise in bitter muttering and glowering eyes at the guard’s remarks as the tension in the room became palpably hostile.

Silence!’ the guards barked in unison.

‘We’re not animals, you can’t force us to –’

The guard’s rifle butt swung out and smashed into the offending rabbit-girl’s stomach, producing a collective gasp from the anthros present; she gave a sharp cry of pain as she doubled over, only for the guard to push her roughly aside by the shoulder. The jill’s father rushed to her side, but with his arms held fast behind his back like everyone else, there was little he could do but remain next to her as she wheezed and whimpered in pain. The guard merely leered at them.

‘The next one of you animals who speaks will have their face kicked in!’ the second guard snapped. The scared anthros submitted and sank into silence once more. Kira’s chin was pressing down on her head almost painfully, but Aki didn’t dare say a word.

The hours went by without a sign of their passing, other than perhaps Aki’s steadily increasing hunger in the pits of her stomach and the slowly radiating soreness in her arms and shoulders. In fact, she didn’t even know whether an hour had passed since their capture, or ten; all sense of time was lost in this metal cage, any sign of the outdoors blocked out. Only the cold air and ever-present weight of their collective dread, along with the occasional sniffle or muted whimper, gave them any sign that time was even passing at all.

‘This is all Sean’s fault,’ came a low grumble. Krypp was hunched against the wall, glowering at the floor and occasionally glancing around at the piteous group. Aki felt the urge to snap at him but resisted, fearing another outburst from the guards, who were now eying Krypp closely.

‘He brought them straight to us,’ Krypp continued, either forgetting or disregarding the guards’ orders. ‘I know it and you all know it. Why else would they be here?’

‘What’re you saying, Krypp? That Sean’s a … a spy for the humans?’ squeaked an old hare.

‘I don’t know, but I think he is,’ said Krypp. ‘How else could they have found us? What else could they be doing here?’

‘But, Krypp, Sean’s already done so much for us,’ said a little mouse. ‘He risked his life for us. What makes you think …?’

‘I’ve alwayss known there was sssomething wrong with him,’ chirped up a lizard next to Aki. ‘He was always so … different.’

Aki elbowed the lizard in the ribs, making him flinch and grunt.

‘Of course he’s different, he’s a human,’ she growled. ‘They’re not like us –’

‘Oh, but of course, you’d jump to his defense,’ said Krypp critically, rolling his eyes.

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ retorted Aki crossly.

‘I’m saying that he’s your little friend and ever since he came here, you two have been locked at the hips like you were knotted and –’

Hey!’ snarled Kira as both she and Aki bristled at the coyote’s language. ‘You will not speak to my daughter like that, is that underst—!’

‘Oh, shut up, you bitch,’ growled a lion-man, glaring at Kira. ‘Stop trying to tell everyone what to do –’

Hey! Don’t talk to my mother like that!’ piped up Aki angrily.

‘Oh, you shut up, too –’

‘Don’t you dare talk to her like that –!’

Get the –

‘SHUT THE FUCK UP!’ roared the two guards, who had apparently been enjoying the disaccord until their voices began rising out-of-control. The anthros immediately fell silent, forgetting their fight as they settled back down, now fearful that they were about to suffer punishment. However, the guards seemed merely satisfied that order and quiet had returned and remained in their position, their rifles at their sides, glaring at them all.

Aki clung to her mother, still breathing heavily, her heart pounding in her chest. She cast a dark look at Krypp, who was still in his corner and merely returned her gaze with disdain. She had never liked him less than she did now.

She looked away, feigning disinterest as she settled back into her mother’s soft chest, but her lips began quivering and her eyes grew hot and wet as the whirlwind of emotions she’d been experiencing for the past few hours came to a head within her, exacerbated by the fight. She fought to stop herself whimpering, but to no avail; she gave a shuddering sob and broke down in her mother’s chest-fur, letting the tears flow freely.

*

After another undetermined period of time, Aki felt as though the floor were shaking under her feet; looking around, she noticed that many of the others seemed to be feeling the same curious effect. A few moments later, a series of muted clanging noises were heard reverberating through the walls; the room gave a sudden slight lurch, throwing Aki and the others temporarily off-balance. As they regained their positions, wondering what was going on, the guards spoke up:

‘We’re home!’ they called tauntingly.

A hushed, agitated whisper quickly spread through the anthros as panic once again began to settle in. The guards began going around the anthros, fixing what appeared to be a long and rather heavy chain to their shackles, effectively chaining them together like archetypical prisoners.

A few moments later, a loud mechanical grinding noise resonated through the room; the back wall began shifting to the side, sliding away and revealing a blinding light, forcing the anthros to shield their eyes, still used to the previous gloom. The large sliding panel eventually came to a stop with a loud clunk; at once, Aki, confused and still half-blinded by the brightness, felt her chain yanking her forwards as the anthros began filing out in a single file, relying on the tugs on their wrists behind their backs to guide them as their eyes slowly adjusted. As they stepped through the newly formed opening, a rush of cool air reached them that smelled considerably fresher than the stale confines of the holding room; Aki looked around her, her ears picking up all sorts of strange sounds and echoes that made it feel like they had entered a cavernous area, but her half-shut eyes only revealed pale shapes, metallic structures and distant walls and ceilings before they were once again shepherded into a dark area.

Blinking, she noticed that they were now in a small, featureless room with shallow ceilings and few lights; to her side, she witnessed the rest of the anthros being pushed in before the door behind them was slid shut with a loud clank, locking them in. She noticed Kira looking for her and made her way to her mother, nuzzling up against her again in fear, wondering what fresh hell was about to happen to them.

She looked around the room, trying to take in their new location. It was distinctly different from the crude holding cell: the walls were comprised of smooth metallic plates that had a certain shine to them, softly diffusing the little light that shone in from the ceiling. The panels were lined with strange little holes, and the upper edge of the walls was lined with vents. Aki couldn’t make sense of any of it.

They stood there for several moments, still too scared and shocked to speak, when they heard it: a soft hissing arose, growing steadily louder; Aki could tell it came from the vents at the tops of the walls. Just as she was thinking about pointlessly asking her mother about it, she jumped back from the walls in surprise as the little holes suddenly began hissing, blowing in a harsh current of air. The smell of it hit Aki’s sensitive vulpine nose like a hammer and she nearly retched; it was an extremely acrid scent, so strong that it almost clouded her mind merely from the stench. She began coughing uncontrollably, her mouth, nose and throat burning horrible as though she were drinking acid; she couldn’t keep her eyes open as they stung so horribly, blinding her with tears; she could hear and feel everyone else around her succumbing to the strange new “air” as well, and before long she found herself crumpling to the floor, her body weak and disoriented and unable to stifle her coughing; she no longer felt her body and could feel her consciousness slipping away from her as the suffocating numbness grew; her world growing dim and distant, she felt her panic and fears slipping away, replaced with an empty stillness in her mind. She briefly wondered if she was dying … or if she’d wake up again, and what situation she’d be in then …

The last thing she knew was Sean’s smiling face flashing through her hazy mind; then all went dark.