Saturday, June 26, 2010

Inhuman | Chapter 12: Humans and Animals [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.

Back into the nightmare: the fight for freedom and survival begins.


— CHAPTER TWELVE —

Humans and Animals

He was cold. Not quite shivering, but moreso than what his torn uniform could protect him from. He would’ve loved a blanket; he would’ve even appreciated being able to rub his aching arms, but the restraints holding them firmly behind his back made that a fantasy. He knew better than to struggle, though. The hardened manacles would cut through his wrists long before he’d able to loosen them. All he could do was sit back onto his bench in the corner of his cell and try to conserve energy.

The room was featureless with very dim lighting that barely illuminated the plain steel walls and rusty floor. He knew that this was intentional, meant to keep the cell’s captives in a state of exhausted wariness, as was the permeating coolness of the air, not cold enough to affect one’s overall health but just enough to keep them on an edge. This discomfort wasn’t just gratuitous; the aim was simple and clear: to keep prisoners tense enough that they’ll break easier and submit to interrogations quicker. Depending on the methods used, anyway.

Also, maybe it was Sean’s imagination, but there seemed to be a very real feeling of oppression and morbidity to the room, as though its very walls were charged with negative vibes. This was presumably explained by the complete insulation that left its occupants in absolute silence, save for their own breathing and movements, and the utter emptiness of the atmosphere. As though it were imparting upon its captives the impression that the only way not to go insane or die in here was to submit.

And it was extremely effective. Sean couldn’t have been in for more than half-an-hour and already he felt despair gripping his soul. Then again, he could’ve been there anywhere from ten minutes to five hours for all he knew, and the room wasn’t the real cause for his black spirits.

Alone in his gloomy prison cell, he fought to repress shivers as he sat up against the distant corner, his knees bent against his chest and his head lowered. His eyes were open, fixed steadily at the rusty, grimy metal bench underneath him. A casual passer-by might’ve glanced at him and guessed he was asleep, or had died.

Given how he felt, they wouldn’t be far off.

*

Sean, help me!

Her voice was echoes, resonating through the trees and hanging in the air like an ephemeral presence. He was running as fast as he could, his practiced feet moving nimbly to avoid the endless barrage of obstacles that littered the area. He chased after her voice, jumping, ducking and weaving to wherever he imagined it came from; the area was shrouded in a foggy gloom, limiting his vision to a couple dozen feet in any direction, except for the skies, which were black and unfathomable as the deadest of nights. The cold wrapped around him like a blanket, clammy and oppressive, like death itself; but he pushed himself onwards, ignoring the steadily growing feelings of terror and panic in the pits of his stomach and demanding more of his burning, protesting muscles than he had in a long time. Her voice still rang out at him, yet it seemed to grow more distant the nearer he drew; still, he pressed on, aching and determined to see her again, desperate to reach her before –

‘Wake up!’

The sharp voice made Sean snap his head up, the daze evaporating from his mind at once. He strained reflexively against his manacles, bringing only more discomfort to his already sore arms behind his back. He glanced around and noticed that several mercenaries were standing around him, staring down at him condescendingly.

‘We’re home’, one of them jeered with a slight grin.

Sean lay back against the wall and tried to look unconcerned, though his mind had launched back into overdrive and his stomach was refilled with dread. Now that he focused, he could tell the shuttle was indeed losing momentum. Suddenly, a shadow was cast over the shuttle, sweeping across the portholes and lowering the light in the room slightly; Sean twisted around uncomfortably to get a view out the nearby window. His pulse jumped slightly at what he saw.

Though most of his view was obscured by the angle at which they were approaching, the massive white hull before them gave a clear indication as to where they were heading. The ship had the design of a transport vessel, with its characteristically plain and unmarked lower hull contrasting with its cityscape-like superstructure. The separation between the two vertical halves was delineated by the escape deck, its walls lined with the exposed front halves of a myriad of escape pods. The hull was strewn with loading bays, landing pads and other various entrances through which one could catch a glimpse of the insides of the ship: white and sterile, cold and mechanical, designed for rugged functionality over aesthetics. The vessel’s millions of lights flickered and glowed almost warmly in contrast to the endless dark depth of the cosmos around it, almost as if welcoming him aboard.

Despite remaining impassive, morbid apprehension only grew in Sean as he watched the colossal wall grow larger and larger until they extended beyond the edges of the porthole. They were headed for a large service bay, its colossal hangar doors sliding apart to let the incoming craft in, yellow hazard lights flashing. Inside, a couple other stationed shuttles were visible, hanging off the ground and coupled to massive ceiling cranes, their “wings” folded up and engines stripped bare as they underwent maintenance. Several flickering specks of orange and yellow popped up here and there along the catwalks that lined the walls and bridged the vast open space of the multi-storey bay; soon Sean could distinguish the technicians roaming around like pale ants, clad in their atmospheric preservation suits and completely unperturbed by the opening doors exposing them to the spatial environment beyond outside.

The shuttle slowed down as it passed through the doors and entered the ship’s entrails. Sean felt a sudden shiver, telling him that they had entered the ship’s powerful artificial gravity field, and the shuttle gave a slight jump as its engines automatically compensated for the sudden increase in weight. Around him, the mercenaries were getting to their feet and checking their equipment as they readied to disembark.

The shuttle slowed to a crawl as the craft’s powerful lateral engines dexterously maneuvered it to its mooring area at the end of the bay. A series of rumbling mechanical sounds indicated that one of the remaining ceiling cranes above them slid into position, its massive clamps finding the couplings on the hull and fastening the craft tightly, giving a series of shudders and resonating thuds. One last jerk that had the mercenaries standing around in the shuttle grabbing the walls for support, and the craft was still, the whirring down of the engines audible from the exterior.

‘All units, head to the rear of the shuttle and suit up,’ called General Xander as he headed towards the sealed entrance ramp. Sean noticed him slipping his journal into a pocket; he thought he saw Xander glance at him as he passed by on his way to the back of the ship.

The mercenaries quickly slipped into their atmospheric suits (exosuits), zipping up, checking and rechecking every seam whilst slinging their rifles over their shoulders. They now looked like they were wearing strange, baggy jumpsuits that were several sizes too big, complete with built-in footwear, gloves and a helmet with see-through facemask. All of the suits’ systems were internal and dissimulated, and the deceptively light and flexible material, similar to a mix between cotton and rubber, was perfectly hermetic and insulated against exterior environments and temperatures. The suits basically allowed one to head out into open space with the comfort of natural mobility.

One of the suited mercs grabbed Sean and handed him his own suit, a specialized prisoner’s variant designed to accommodate someone with arms restrained behind their back. He proceeded to slip it on without a fuss; suffocating to death in the docking bay’s airless environment wasn’t something he had in mind. Once suited up, he was checked over by the same merc to ensure he was ready, at which point General Xander motioned at the pilot in the cockpit to activate the ramp. The pilot hit a switch on his console and pulled a lever; at once, the locks audibly disengaged and the ramp lowered with a hydraulic whir, leading them down to the metal walkway spanning the length of the dock, some two dozen feet above the first storey floor.

They moved along in a single file, Xander leading the way and Sean second-to-last, the guard behind him keeping the muzzle of his rifle pressed warningly into his back. They cleared the shadow of the dropship and the rest of the bay came into view, a vast metallic chamber dug into the flank of the vessel. There were several other crafts stored around the docks, from dropships to single-person landing vehicles, and all looked as though they hadn’t been freed from their moorings in a long time. The cranes and rigging that fastened them to the ship looked rather old and decrepit, much of it rusty and smeared carelessly with oil and grime, and machinery visible around the docks, such as the massive hydraulics controlling the bay doors and the powerful winches hoisting the crane apparatuses, looked worn and poorly serviced.

This all stank to Sean; no respectable Military vessel would ever let its workings go unmaintained to this extent. Which only increased his apprehension regarding the ship’s management.

As he looked around, Sean counted just over a dozen technicians roaming around the massive bay, stocking the various vessels with equipment and tending to their moorings as they appeared to be readying the crafts for an impending launch. Judging by their progress, they seemed to have received the order to prepare no more than a few hours previously.

Looks like Earth is in for some visitors.

The group crossed the walkway spanning the dock where they’d berthed, staring around at the buzz of activity surrounding them. Sean didn’t need to look back at the shuttle to know what had happened to the anthros. Dropships were designed with holding cells that opened up to a specialized terminal designated for prisoners, providing a quick route through the docks and airlocks directly to the sector’s holding cells. No hassle, no waiting.

They passed through a set of sliding doors and entered the large airlock bridging the bay and the rest of the ship, the tight confines of the metallic room illuminated with a pale red glow, indicating a vacuum. The doors slid shut behind them and a sharp chime rang out; a low hiss arose as the room began to pressurize, their suits becoming less puffy and the fabric sticking closer to their bodies as the room was flooded with air. A few moments later, the rush of air dissipated and another, higher chime announced the room’s pressurization; the lighting turned green.

The sliding doors on the other side of the room hissed open, revealing a wide open hall before them, its metallic surfaces glimmering dully in the ambient lighting. The intercom in the airlock’s ceiling came on with a slight crackling:

‘Welcome aboard the Catalasia.’

*

Sean’s processing into the ship’s detention quarters was all a blur in his memory, not that he tried especially hard to call up any specific details. Barely five minutes after being boarded onto the Catalasia and put into the hands of the security agents, he found himself alone in his uncomfortable little cell, the door slamming shut with a rumbling clang, the electronic locks activating automatically. The first thing he noticed as he took note of the cell’s features were the numerous ventilation ducts and openings in the walls; the six-inches-by-one-foot openings quickly rendered any dreams of escape to moot. He also took note of the conspicuous little holes that dotted the walls, which he quickly recognized as gas vents, used whenever a particularly unruly captive needed to be calmed in a hurry. He knew they wouldn’t use this method of control over him; he posed no threat, restrained and demoralized as he was, yet this feeling that his stay in the isolated little room would be long and possibly torturously uneventful did nothing to lift his spirits.

He merely sat down on the cold bench, and as he did so, he once again felt the hidden knife pressing against him; the soldiers had once again missed it when they’d patted him down during his admission. He could reach it with his hands, but even if he managed to cut or otherwise remove his restraints (something he’d learned to do during his training but had never really put to the test), he’d still be alone and helpless in a cold metallic room, surrounding by a shipload of mercenaries who relished the idea of beating him down again.

So, he just sat there, silent and unmoving, dark thoughts crowding his mind as he waited for whatever was to come. Before long, the room dematerialized again as he once more found himself running in those dark, misty woods, running, running aimlessly and desperately, trying to find her before it was too late, despite the fact that the time had already come and gone and they were all tumbling over a precipice, falling … falling … falling …

*

‘What’s wrong with this piece a’ shit?’

Lieutenant Hartling gave a frustrated growl and banged her fist against the console, which replied with a reprimanding chirp. It was already quite difficult to focus on anything moderately complicated with all the racket that echoed around the Catalasia’s main cargo hold, from elevators and cranes to the rushed yells and barked commands flying through the air as the crew struggled to get the equipment out to the main deck. The lieutenant definitely wondered what all the hubbub was about; she wasn’t privy to the information concerning active personnel, having been relegated to a lowly systems technician aboard this flight, and could only vaguely recall overhearing one of the mercenaries’ radios talking about something to do with an approaching planet or whatever. She hardly knew if any of it was of interest, though the way it had all the crew excited and hurrying about as though preparing for some sort of an invasion did pique her attention.

Too bad she was stuck with the task of fixing this stupid damned winch that had decided to get stuck for no apparent reason.

‘Hey, will you hurry it up?’ called one of the crewmembers irately, his cargo load stuck on the crane that was controlled by the jammed winch that Lieutenant Hartling was currently tending to.

‘Shut up and gimme a fucking minute!’

Her mounting aggravation was quickly getting the best of her. She put her diagnostic console on the ground and took a deep breath to try and calm down. Her extensive psychological conditioning still proved useful despite her lack of activity for the past couple of months. The exercise to calm herself down was one she seemed to be needing more and more frequently as time went by as her aggravations with her life and career kept mounting. The past few months had been particularly hard on her, first losing her close friend Sean O’Neil to the death of the Chartraine; and then … the accident with Vasse … until finally, here she was, having gone from the position of a respected combat operative to a damned technician. A ruddy technological handywoman.

What could happen next?

Having slowed her heart rate satisfyingly, Hartling grabbed the stick-like probe that was attached to the console, which used for diagnosing various types of electro-mechanical equipment. She hit a few keys on the console’s input pad, instructing it to prepare to receive a reading, and proceeded to stick the long, thin metallic rod that was the probe into various areas of the large cylindrical ground winch. With a little luck, she would find a working interface port and the console’s screen would light up, telling her just what was wrong –

CRACK! A bright flash and a loud electrical sizzle erupted from where the probe connected with the winch; she jumped back in shock as sparks rained down upon her and an acrid smell arose from the smoking winch. Grabbing her probe, she saw that it had basically short-circuited with the winch, half-melting and half-exploding it.

She stared at the charred piece of equipment in her hand for a moment, totally incensed; she jumped to her feet and swung her leg back for a frustrated kick –

‘Lieutenant!’ came a voice from behind her.

She had regained her proper footing and was standing straight, so fast that it was almost impossible to tell she’d been on the verge of losing her temper. She turned around to find a young man running towards her, slowing to a halt in a sort of half-hearted salute; she didn’t expect any better from mercs at this point, even if he was her own assistant. Not that she’d had any say in that decision.

‘Brady,’ she acknowledged him impassively. ‘What is it?’

‘I just thought you’d wanna know – we’ve captured a bunch of enemy combatants; they were brought aboard just a few minutes ago. I don’t know who most of them are, no-one would give me any details, but it sounds like it’s important stuff … and …’

He paused, as though trying to build up anticipation for a subsequent revelation.

‘Okay, so we’ve got some number of unidentified hostiles,’ said Hartling, rather unimpressed. ‘What about it?’

‘Thing is, they’re not all unidentified – ma’am,’ he hastily added, his expression one of intrigue as he stared at Hartling. ‘One of the detainees is a friend of yours, I think – Sean O’Neil?’

Hartling stared at him, her jaw dropping slightly.

‘Did you say Sean O’Neil?’ she repeated slowly.

‘Yes, yes, the Sean O’Neil,’ confirmed Brady with a grin. ‘I dunno any details, but it looks like he made it out of the Chartraine after all. He’s alive and well. Well … for now,’ he added hesitantly, his face falling.

‘What … what do you mean, “for now”? What happened? Where is he?’ asked Hartling, struggling to comprehend this jarring new information. Sean was alive? Captured?

‘Uh … that’s where it gets tricky,’ said Brady awkwardly. ‘From what I heard, it looks like he’s been hanging out with hostiles – ever since the Chartraine. They say he, like, joined their side or something. He’s been captured along with them; they put him in holding.’

Hartling just stared at Brady. She could barely believe what she was hearing. Could any of it be true? Was it really Sean? And who were these “hostiles” he had seemingly joined ranks with?

‘Well … what …’ She struggled to find the words. ‘What’s gonna happen to him?’

Brady gave her a long look. ‘The usual.’

Hartling fell silent. Brady took this as a dismissal and departed. Even the repeated irate calls for attention from cargo loaders behind her failed to distract her from her thoughts.

A moment later, she turned heel and marched down an adjacent corridor, leaving the frustrated mercenaries waiting after their jammed crane staring after her.

*

Sean idly wondered how much time had passed since his arrival. Followed briefly by wondering why he still cared. It wasn’t like he was about to get out of there anytime soon, and even when he would, he would undoubtedly wish he were back in the chilly, uninviting cell very shortly. At least here, he wouldn’t be interrogated. Here, he would be left alone. Here, he wouldn’t be hurt. Not by others, anyway. He had plenty of wretched thoughts to occupy and depress himself with without anyone else adding in.

He felt a shiver rove across his skin, whether due to the coolness of the air or his other discomforts, he didn’t know or care. He pressed back against the bench some more, pushing himself up against the wall, trying to ease some of the strain off of his aching arms. His eyes wandered around blankly, not finding anything in particular to gaze at.

He wondered what was happening to the anthros as he sat there. No doubt, they were all stuck together in another of the ship’s holding cells, or perhaps they’d been separated into multiple cells, though this was less likely. They would be all restrained, sitting on the benches that lined the walls or on the floor, and they were probably engulfed in fearful muttering, if they had the strength to talk at all. He briefly wondered whether they were blaming him yet. He knew that they should have been …

Then Aki popped into his mind, almost as if in self-defense against his own guilt and self-doubts. He could see her fierce expression, the one she got whenever irritated or stubborn about an issue. He could almost hear her protests: ‘Hey, don’t be like that, it’s not your fault … You couldn’t have known … You didn’t know this would happen, you can’t blame yourself …

But I knew about the distress beacon, he argued with her in his mind. I was trained to know all about it, how to activate it and how to deactivate it to hide my location, I knew it, I should have remembered …

It’s normal to forget things …

But I can’t! I was trained for this, how could I forget about that fucking beacon …?

It’s not your fault, Sean …

It is …

He sniffed and took a deep, shaky breath. His eyes were misty.

I’m sorry, Aki … my sweet, beautiful foxgirl …

It’s not your fault …

I’m so sorry …

His head shot up reflexively; a series of low mechanical clicks came from the door as the locks disengaged. Sean quickly tried to wipe his eyes – before realizing he couldn’t – and sat there, his body tensing up expectantly and glaring in hopeless vitriol at as the door slid open to reveal –

He stared in shock.

‘Sean?’ Lieutenant Hartling said quietly.

She was standing alone in the doorway, the bare corridor behind her empty. Sean just gazed at her from across the cell, recognition flashing across his face and warmth flooding into his heart at the sight of his dear friend, whom he thought he’d never see again since the Chartraine incident.

He got to his feet and hobbled forwards, trying to ignore the numbness and soreness racking his body, but she was faster; sliding the door closed behind her, she nearly leapt across the room and threw her arms around him without a word, holding him tightly. Sean gasped as emotions soared in his chest, the joy and relief at seeing his best friend again, even – or especially – in such a dark time.

She released him a moment later and they stared at each other with both delight and astonishment.

‘What’re you doing here?’ Sean said mutedly.

‘Uh – it’s a long story,’ she said, looking like she’d intended to ask the same of Sean before he spoke over her. ‘Phantom’s been disbanded, they just couldn’t hold the team together after you’d – left. After a while, they found me and hired me on this, the Catalasia, working as a systems tech. Shit job, but I manage.’

Sean blinked and nodded, the news of Phantom Unit’s termination a bit of a surprise to him. ‘But what about Vasse? I didn’t think he’d let Phantom disappear?’

Hartling remained silent, her eyes visibly tearing up. Sean felt his stomach sink deeper still.

‘Leona …?’

‘He’s dead,’ she said, her voice resolute but shaky. ‘Happened a few months ago … just a few weeks after you disappeared. A freak accident – someone screwed up with a forklift, hit him in the head. He was just making his rounds. Died instantly.’

Sean stared at her in sorrow and horror. He could imagine the scene: an errant flick of a control lever, a fast, uncontrolled spin of the wheels, the giant iron prongs bearing down with lightning speed upon an unsuspecting passer-by …

‘I’m so sorry,’ he whispered. He wanted to place a comforting hand on her shoulder, only to remember he couldn’t, which only made him feel angry and helpless anew.

Hartling took a deep breath to steady herself. ‘It’s all right,’ she said with a more earnest voice, her blue eyes still misty but clearer. ‘We knew what we were getting into, we knew there were risks. I’m just … happy we had the time we did. And at least he died without pain. That’s – that helps.’

They shared a moment of silence as they both thought about Vasse and what the tough but respected commander had meant to them.

‘What about you?’ said Hartling, looking him over as though she’d just remembered Sean’s own thorny situation. ‘Wha— what happened?’

Sean hesitated. ‘That … that’s a long story …’

‘Well?’ pressed Hartling. ‘I heard about you joining a group of hostiles or something? What’s all that about?’

Sean’s face hardened. ‘They’re not hostiles,’ he growled. ‘They’re innocent. They’re a peaceful people, a tribe, just living their lives. They’re … uh …’

He was momentarily stumped as he debated whether he should tell Hartling about the exact nature of the anthropomorphic prisoners and decided that such a delicate detail could wait.

‘Well then, how’d you end up with them? What happened since the Chartraine, anyway?’ said Hartling.

Sean quickly told her about his harrowing adventure in the out-of-control escape pod. He chose to skip over the tricky and speculated wormhole detail – he still wasn’t even sure himself what had happened. However, when he arrived at his arrival on Planet Earth, he trailed off, preferring not to detail his level of attachment to this new world and its inhabitants.

By then, Hartling was staring at him in both astonishment and wonder at his tale; Sean reflected that, from her viewpoint, it must indeed have sounded quite a bit similar to some fairy tale as opposed to a real occurrence. He chased the silly thought out of his mind quickly.

‘So that’s where you’ve been?’ Hartling said, looking almost incredulous. ‘I mean, you look – well –’

‘Yeah,’ said Sean noncommittally.

‘So, they’re just indigenous? Then why did they – I mean, why are they being treated as hostiles?’

‘Uh … that’s a long story,’ said Sean evasively. He couldn’t see how he could explain why, according to General Xander, the Military would want to destroy the anthros without needing to reveal their nature. Thinking about the anthros’ predicament, along with his own, sent a new sense of urgency flooding through him.

‘Look,’ he said, taking a step towards Hartling. ‘I need to get out of here, and – and the anth— the villagers – they’ve done nothing wrong. They’re innocent, Leona. This is all just one big fuck-up, and – I gotta help them,’ he ended with a pleading tone in his voice.

‘But – Sean, what do you want me to do?’ Hartling said, looking stricken. ‘I don’t know them – I mean, I don’t even know what happened, I’ve got no say in any of this –’

‘Leona, please!’ Sean was practically begging now; she was his single last hope at saving the anthros from an unspeakable fate. ‘Please, there’s gotta be something you can do – Can’t you just, I dunno, screw up the systems or something? Just schedule an emergency departure or something and smuggle them aboard – they’re in holding right now and –’

Hartling stepped up to him wordlessly, placing her hands up on his shoulders in a comforting yet helpless manner. Her face was filled with sadness and remorse.

‘Sean … I’m sorry,’ she said, her voice slow and quiet. ‘There’s nothing I can do. I’m just a stupid tech here. I don’t have any authority. I …’

She fell quiet, her eyes shining brightly as she held his own pained gaze. Sean just stood there, feeling the last little bit of hope in his heart fade away.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said again. The look on her face was entirely genuine. ‘Sean, I … I have to go … I’m not supposed to be here, I just tricked the guard – with my rank, y’know, and …’

Sean just nodded, his throat too constricted to speak. Hartling pulled him into another hug; he just stood there with his arms behind his back, hating the fact that he couldn’t wrap his own arms around his loyal friend. He blinked hard, trying to clear the mist from his eyes, and he heard a distinctive sniff from Hartling. Indeed, when she released him again, her eyes were once again shining with humidity and her lower lip was quivering slightly. He didn’t think she was making any attempt to hide it.

They stood there for another few moments, their gaze conveying all the emotions, the thoughts, the unspoken words that resonated between them. They both knew this was undoubtedly the last time they’d ever see each other. Their final goodbyes.

Then Hartling took a few slow steps backwards, looking as though she were fighting with herself to leave the cell; then she turned around and opened the door. She gave Sean one last meaningful, teary-eyed gaze, which he longingly returned; then the door had slid shut again, removing her from his sight as the locks activated, trapping him forevermore in his prison cell, both metallic and emotional.

He turned around, glancing only half-mindedly around the barren cell and slowly strolling back to his bench. The (final) departure of his closest friend had created a sudden chasm in his chest that seemed to suck his strength and vitality away like an emotional vacuum; he suddenly felt so empty, so drained, so unbelievably miserable, that it almost felt like a physical pain to him, as though he’d been punched so hard that his very heart had been affected. He slowly sat down and laid his head back against the wall, staring at the desolate ceiling without really seeing it, feeling like he was once again falling into the dark depths of oblivion. It was the worst feeling in the world.

He didn’t know whether he’d simply lost track of time again or whether he’d somehow managed to doze off for a while; the next thing he knew, he was brought to his senses by the locks disengaging and the door sliding open, this time revealing a small group of soldiers in the corridor. A pair came in and headed towards him; Sean merely got to his feet slowly and didn’t protest when their strong grips squeezed his arms uncaringly and started directing him out. The rest of the soldiers queued behind them as Sean was taken out of the detention quarters, down a few random corridors (he wasn’t particularly paying attention) and into a new room. It was no larger or smaller than his previous cell, but it had a metal table built into its center with a few retractable chairs on each side. One of the mercs locked one of the seats in place and he was sat roughly in it at the back of the room, facing the wall with the door. The mercs neglected to put any additional restraints to keep him in his seat, though he didn’t imagine he’d feel up to vacating it, anyway.

He watched glumly as the soldiers filed out of the room, closing and locking the door behind them. This room didn’t seem to be as insulated as the last one; he could detect faint sounds resonating through the walls and ceiling from around the ship. This hinted at the nature of the room and, presumably, the fact that its occupants weren’t usually brought in for extended stays. Which made him guess that he probably wouldn’t be made to wait very long before something happened.

He was right. Only a few minutes later, the door buzzed open again, and this time stepped in a rather unassuming-looking man in a plain suit, his face blank and unreadable. The door closed behind him from outside, though the locks did not activate with the newcomer in the room.

Sean kept a wary eye on the man as he sat across the table from him, sparing Sean only cursory glances as though he lacked interest, or was concentrating on something else. Once the man was seated as comfortably as he could make it, almost rigidly, he extricated a small datapad from his chest pocket and fingered it for a moment, paying Sean no attention. Sean didn’t care; the more ignored he was, the better.

Finally, the man put the datapad on the table before him and looked Sean right in the eyes as though he knew him personally.

‘Is your name Sean Achelon O’Neil?’ His voice was measured, dry and completely neutral. Sean returned his deadpan gaze for a moment, then looked away without even indicating that he’d heard him. So, this was it: they’d sent the interrogator. Start with the baseline questions meant to evaluate Sean’s neutral behavior and reaction characteristics: ask his name, his age, his rank, if he had any siblings, etc.. Sean had no intention of enabling even this, and so he remained silent.

‘Are you currently twenty-five years old?’

Shit, I even got the question order right.

‘Are you a Captain with the New Corinthea Military?’

And my ship’s just fucking sank.

‘Were your parents named Kaylena Hayworth and Travis O’Neil?’

This earned the nameless man a look from Sean. He’d never known his family or learned their identities, not even their names. He’d never bothered to ask; he hadn’t exactly been encouraged to dig into his past when in the midst of the War, and he’d pretty much forgotten all about it afterwards. It looked like the Military kept more details on him than even he knew.

Kaylena and Travis … Mom and Dad.

‘Were you a member of Phantom Unit until its disbandment?’

Sean had looked away by then, resuming his façade of complete disinterest. He found that it was a façade that didn’t require much acting to uphold.

Once Phantom, always Phantom. Hooah.

The questions kept coming, one by predictable one, until they almost became background noise to Sean, who felt his thoughts slipping away and wandering back to all that he’d left behind. The interrogator never showed any signs of frustration at Sean’s lack of cooperation; after all, baseline questions were really just a procedural thing, a mere formality these days. The real questioning would begin shortly afterwards.

And Sean knew that those were something to be apprehensive about.

*

The room was quiet, with the occasional shifting, low moan or sore cough breaking the silence. The cell floor was gently writhing with the one-and-a-half dozen bodies that slowly, painfully tried to regain consciousness, many of them hacking their lungs out, their throats burning and dry. Some were muttering feebly, others were already moving around and trying to help their friends as they slowly came to their senses.

Kira gingerly pushed herself onto her knees, her back against the wall for support as she blinked hard to focus her vision. Her lungs felt clogged and her nose and throat itched as though she’d just inhaled a mountain of dust. She wiped at her eyes, which were still watering, as she looked around at the anthros, few of which were in any better a state than she was. She noticed that their clothes had disappeared, leaving them all nude, though not that this concerned her too much, all things considered.

It’s as she became aware of what had happened that something struck her as very wrong, even with the general wrongness of their current situation. She looked around, her eyes widening and her heart constricting in her chest. Her voice was croaky but sharp:

‘Where’s Aki?’

*

‘Are you going to cooperate, Sean?’

The question was jarringly different from the rest and brought the interrogator another look from Sean. He noticed, with some slight satisfaction, that the man seemed to have lost his previous imperturbable cool and now looked somewhat cross at Sean’s utter lack of collaboration. The questions had steadily become more and more specific and pointed, asking about how Sean came across the anthros and what his level of involvement was, and he hadn’t acknowledged a single one with so much as a glance until now.

He knew that to keep stalling only meant that the coercion would be brought upon him sooner rather than later, but this knowledge failed to faze him in the slightest. He would suffer through anything thrown at him – much of which he’d learned to withstand as part of his training – and would either be tortured into insanity, be disposed of, or would be kept to be tortured forever. He didn’t care.

He would die long before he gave them what they wanted.

The interrogator was still staring at him, obviously trying and somewhat failing to suppress his frustration. Sean imagined that most who were interrogated like this “broke” somewhat quickly to try and end the psychological torment brought on by their forced isolation, but contrary to them, this was something Sean welcomed, if the alternative meant giving his enemies the knowledge to destroy his friends and loved ones.

Not that they really need what I know, anyway. They’ll be on Earth soon enough.

‘Well, O’Neil?’ said the man, his tone now more openly impatient.

Sean gave him a cold look.

‘Let me see the prisoners.’

‘That won’t happen,’ said the man, shaking his head slowly. ‘The only way you’re getting out of here is if you cooperate and answer the questions.’

Sean stared at him. Then, most unexpectedly, a small grin appeared on his face.

‘“Cooperate”? Just how stupid are you? Or are you just a rookie with no idea how this works?’ he said derisively. The man visibly stiffened, though he tried to keep his cool. ‘Son, I’m a fuckin’ Captain of the New Corinthean Military; I’m the head of Phantom Unit – or, what used to be Phantom Unit. I know how the fuckin’ system works. Probably a lot better than you do. And I know that the only way I’m ever leaving this place is in a damned body bag. Don’t try bullshitting me with any stupid “getting out of here” promises, son. It’s not gonna work.’

The interrogator’s eyes were slightly wider and Sean saw his lip twitch, though he did a decent job at maintaining a cool façade.

‘Now, let me tell you how this is gonna work,’ Sean continued, his tone hard and sure to convey the message that there would be no compromise. ‘You let me see the anthros, and I’ll tell you what you want. No “buts”, no “if”s. Take it or leave it. Your choice.’

He noticed he’d leaned forward somewhat and sat back coolly in his chair, doing his best to look like he’s the one who held the cards in this game. He’d only been partially truthful; no matter what happened, he would never give in and give the interrogators anything, even if they accepted his demands. He could only hope that they believed he would and would allow him one last cursory little visit with the anthros, if only to get one last chance to say goodbye, or something. Anything to make it seem like he had the upper hand.

The interrogator rigid in his seat, both from mild surprise and irritation. He almost looked like he was actually considering Sean’s proposal –

‘Not a chance, O’Neil.’ His tone was flat and carried the weight of finality. ‘You’re not in any position to make demands. Either you tell us what you know willingly or we’ll make you. It’s your choice.’

Sean caught the use of his own phrase against him and rolled his eyes, looking away again. The interrogator glared at him.

‘I ask again: What do you know about –?’

He was cut off as the door slid open. Sean’s eyes became hard as General Xander stepped into the room and glanced at the two of them, his face registering no particular emotion. Sean noticed he was holding his journal in his hand, which he then slipped into his chest pocket. Sean wondered whether Xander had done this deliberately, perhaps to gauge Sean’s reaction, but Sean remained perfectly placid. Xander motioned to a guard in the hallway to close the door (the locks again didn’t activate) and gestured for the interrogator to move aside. The man hastily got up and stood back, standing by the door as the General took his seat without a word, gazing at Sean, only a light expression of superiority on his face. Like he had Sean by the balls and knew it.

Sean just stared back, appearing indomitable yet feeling a slight chill of nervousness inside him. General Xander’s cold green eyes were staring at him a little too intently.

‘Well, O’Neil?’ said Xander, his voice cool, almost casual. ‘Anything you want to know?’

Sean looked at him suspiciously. He had a virtually unlimited number of questions swirling inside him, all right. But what was Xander playing at? Trying to make him feel at ease, to give him an illusion of control? Maybe hoping to catch Sean off-guard with a trick question? Sean suppressed these thoughts and just glared at Xander. Fine, then. He would play his game. Better than feigning dispassion.

‘How are the villagers?’ He kept his tone calm and measured.

‘Oh, they’re fine for now,’ said Xander with a slight smirk. ‘Nothing will happen to them on this ship; this is just a transport, after all. No, they’re going back to Corinthea. And that’s where the fun’s going to begin.’ He grinned slightly more, whether genuinely or for the effect, Sean couldn’t tell. ‘Once there, I suspect they’ll be sent off to research facilities, where they’ll be examined and studied for a while – maybe a few months, maybe a few years, who knows. I guess it will depend on … how well they hold up.’

Sean heard the light emphasis added to those last words though he kept his face resolutely blank, he felt his hands ball into fists behind his back. Xander must’ve sensed his anger, for his eyes began twinkling with amusement. Sean knew exactly what he’d meant; he’d learned about tight restrictions placed upon research laboratories and scientists that imposed strict safety and humane regulations upon how test animals were treated. However, these policies only extended to animals. Which failed to apply to the anthros. A loophole he knew that researchers, or at least some of them, would be only too happy to exploit.

Images of needles, straps and IV lines flashed in his mind; he blinked hard to clear his head.

‘How can you do this?’ he said in a low but strained voice.

‘Do what? Follow orders and do my job?’ said Xander, his voice derisive.

‘You can’t allow this to happen,’ said Sean, more forcefully.

‘And why shouldn’t I?’

‘Because they are not the enemy!’ said Sean vehemently, his voice rising despite himself. ‘They’re not enemy fighters, or weird mutated freaks – they’re people! They have the same intelligence and same emotions as you and me!’

‘“Same as me and you”? My dear Captain, I think the air down there has addled your brains,’ said General Xander with a chuckle. ‘I can imagine what that – smart-mouthed little fox bitch has been telling you –’ Sean’s jaw tightened and his fingernails dug into his palms, ‘– they are not people; they are nothing more or less than a travesty against nature. A failed experiment gone very, very awry. The military decided one day that human soldiers just weren’t good enough; that they needed some extra … abilities, to be able to do things that no-one else can. Imagine the vision: a soldier with eyes like an eagle, speed like a cheetah, endurance like a horse and strength like a bear. A soldier who can outrun, outgun and outperform anyone else – an army of them!’

Xander chuckled quietly in disdain, his repulsion at the idea of anthro animals apparent.

‘Problem is, those morons in charge of it all actually thought that they could just launch a bunch of anthro soldiers and not have anyone on the outside know about it. Next thing you know, the media was all over it and all those rights and activism groups jumped in and turned it all into a huge poisonous mess for the military, and then, they had no choice but to set all those obedient and docile manimals free. And the society on Earth was contaminated with those things ever since.

‘Of course, we humans got the hell out of there before it was too late, but thanks to the War, we lost the location of the damned place when the archives were destroyed. Finding the experiment and cleaning it up was put on the backburner for years … until you came along, son,’ he finished with a twinkle in his green eyes.

‘All right, so we created them. So fucking what?’ retorted Sean, not bothering to check his tone or passion anymore. ‘Does that make them any less independent? Less able to – to live their own lives? It doesn’t give us the right to control them, to rule over them –’

They came from us!’ said Xander over Sean. ‘They come from our labs – We gave birth to them! We created them! They owe their very existence to us! They owe us everything, because without us, they wouldn’t even be there. It’s no different than any other possession; we created them, we own them. We can do whatever the hell we want to them, and they have no choice but to accept it! Whether they live or they die is our choice, and if we decide it’s time for them to disappear, as they should, then they will disappear and that will be the end of it.’

Sean sat there with his eyes fixed upon a sneering Xander, momentarily speechless. He wasn’t often surprised or appalled when it came to the depths that people could sink to – one of the benefits of being cynical and misanthropic, as he would have said back in the day – but now he felt a nauseating revulsion in his chest at Xander’s words. Maybe he’d been with the peaceful, fun-loving anthros long enough to erode his shell enough for him to feel aversion towards such bigotry, such mindless hate – such utter amorality.

‘Don’t look at me like that,’ said Xander, sounding half amused and half scornful. ‘You know it’s true.’

‘“Tru—”? What is wrong with you?’ Sean growled. ‘How can you – how can be so stupid and heartless?’

‘Oh, what, now the great war hero develops a heart?’ chortled General Xander. ‘“Heartless”? That’s rich, coming from the great Sean O’Neil, the great killing machine, the scourge of the enemy – Tell me, O’Neil, when you were mowing Rebels by the hundreds out in the field, did you ever pause to think about the lives you were taking? Did you ever care – do you even care, now? How do you come off telling me about being “heartless”!’

‘That’s not the same!’ argued Sean. ‘I was just following orders, I didn’t have a choice. The Rebels were a true enemy, they actively murdered civilians – they were making a goddamn genocide. They had to be stopped.’

‘So you were just doing your job, you were just doing as you were told, you didn’t care,’ Xander shot back. ‘You were just following your orders, as you should have. That’s what I’m doing, Captain. As I said, I’m just following orders, exactly as you were doing.’

‘Bullshit! The people I was killing were murderous maniacs. You’re gonna torture and kill a bunch of natives who never did anything wrong. They aren’t the enemy!’ he said, motioning as best he could through the walls, indicating the anthros, wherever they were. ‘They’re innocent and –’

He was cut off as the door slid open again, revealing a bland soldier who motioned at Xander to approach him.

‘What is it?’ barked Xander, staying put in his chair and sounding somewhat irked at the interruption.

‘Uh,’ said the young man somewhat awkwardly, retracting his hand. ‘The subject is ready, sir.’

‘Good.’ General Xander nodded curtly; sensing his dismissing, the young soldier stood back and shut the door again.

‘Bring up the screen,’ Xander ordered at the interrogator, whom Sean had nearly forgotten about. The man glanced at him questioningly before walking over to a small panel by the door, where he flicked a switch. At once, a large and previously hidden panel slid away in the wall next to him, across the table from Sean and behind Xander’s seat, revealing a rectangular monitor mounted into the wall. Its screen was currently a glossy black, a little red light at its base indicating its pending activation.

Xander turned back towards Sean, his eyes positively alight. Sean felt a shiver creep down his spine at seeing the wicked General so amused and eager and suddenly found himself worrying about what was about to be displayed on the screen.

‘I know you, O’Neil,’ Xander said, leering at him. ‘I’ve studied you, I’ve watched you grow up and your training. And you consistently ranked as one of the best in resistance to physical coercion – we just couldn’t break you. So, rather than driving needles into you for a few years until you give us what we want, I figured we’d need to try something else.’

Xander turned towards the interrogator and nodded curtly. The man reached for the monitor, hesitated for a splitsecond, almost as though he were apprehensive of what he knew was coming, then activated a button Sean couldn’t see. The screen suddenly flashed white, then revealed –

Sean’s eyes widened as he gasped in horror, his whole body tensing like steel.

It was Aki. She was lying on some sort of examination table, her arms and legs rigid and held firmly in place by the heavy-duty straps binding her immobile. She was apparently unconscious, her eyes closed, her face blank as she lay there, completely nude. The camera transmitting the image was placed so that Sean could see most of her body, leaving her lower legs out of the range of the screen, along with some of her surroundings. There were a handful of tubes and wires connected to her: a saline IV in her left arm, a breathing tube hooked around her vulpine nose and secured with a strap that served to hold her muzzle shut, and several electrodes attached to her chest, limbs and forehead. She was surrounded by a variety of screens displaying her vitals and other physiological indicators: cardiac monitor, respiration rates, brain activity, and the likes.

There were two or three other people visible in the video feed, dressed in surgical scrubs and handling various tools and equipment. Their faces were masked and the overhead angle of the camera prevented Sean from being able to identify any of them. They were checking over Aki’s limp figure, checking her stats every now and then, inspecting the IVs, and performing other menial tasks that looked to Sean as though they were waiting for something. He didn’t care; he was absently struggling against his restraints again, every part of his body and soul aching to reach Aki, to hold her, to yell at those technicians to get the hell away from her, to not hurt her, to leave her alone –

‘What’re you doing?’ he blurted out instead, tearing his eyes momentarily from the screen to glare at Xander. ‘What’re you –?’

‘You know how this goes, Captain,’ overrode Xander, staring at Sean and glancing at the screen every now and then. His grin was now pure amusement at the cruelty to come. ‘Whatever it takes, you know we’ll get you to talk. All that matters is how much you want her to suffer.’

Sean gaped at the screen and the helpless, as-of-yet unawake foxgirl, and at Xander, who stared back at him calmly, arrogantly, obviously thinking he had Sean by the balls. And he very much did, and Sean knew it, too. He couldn’t let them hurt her – he couldn’t – but he couldn’t break – he couldn’t

The seconds crawled by, agonizingly slow yet far too quickly, as Sean’s tortured mind worked furiously to find a solution, a way out of it – a way to spare Aki the harm that was about to befall her …

Xander’s grin grew slightly wider, more sinister.

‘Then I guess you give me no choice.’

His words came to Sean like a death omen.

*

Feeling came to her like an enemy in a foggy night: uncertainly yet irremediably. She felt pained and constricted, as though she couldn’t move any of her sore and sluggish muscles, and her body felt completely confused; she tried moaning from the discomfort but heard nothing, her throat feeling paralyzed; she clenched her fingers and felt them grind against something hard and cold, and a strange tightness against her wrists prevented her from moving much. Feeling a confused panic start to grip her, she forced her eyes open.

She could barely see; her vision was extremely blurry. She tried blinking but nothing made her surroundings come into focus. She looked around; everything was washed-out as though she were in a white box. As she squinted, she could make out various shapes and features: the ceiling and walls, strange glowing lights around here, and a number of darker forms that hovered around her, occasionally moving to and fro, forever out of focus. Her ears were flattened and her hearing was filled with some sort of indistinct background noise as though she was underwater, but she could still hear far better than she could see. Different noises were reaching her, some higher in tone and some she distinctly recognized as speech. As she struggled to regain consciousness and get a grip on her senses, the world around her started to become clearer.

‘… completely restrained. Vocal chords paralyzed. Cognitive and sensory impairment drugs have been administered, though it is uncertain whether standard human dosage will affect subject similarly due to subject’s different morphology. May require higher dose for desired results.’

Paralyzed … drugs … morphology … what? The words came to her as gibberish with only the vaguest semblance of sense attached. She struggled to listen closer and to move from her incredibly uncomfortable position, but her muscles weren’t responding very well. She felt weak, disabled, and especially, completely helpless and vulnerable. A faceless, ominous fear and a debilitating shame at being so exposed and unable to do anything about it swelled within her and she started squirming more vigorously.

‘Subject has awakened – we’re seeing a mild panicked response. Vitals check out, all systems normal. We are ready to begin.’

Her vision was starting to clear up at last; though far from normal, she could begin to make out more of her environment and the individuals nearby. She could now discern a small group of people – three, apparently – all huddling next to her, looking down at her, their blurry eyes dark and unfathomable, their faces hidden behind cloths. She felt her eyes beginning to well up with panicked tears, only further clouding her vision, but if any of her faceless onlookers noticed, they didn’t react. None of them kept eye contact with her for more than a second or two, and even in her febrile state, she could sense their utter lack of empathy for her sad plight.

Help me … please, help … don’t leave me here … She tried voicing her pleas but again, her throat remained uncooperative, releasing only a few faint tremors of her voice.

A sudden high-pitched chirp caught her attention, and apparently the others’ as well as they all stopped and turned to look away from her. A voice was heard in the room from some undefined location, as though it were coming from the very walls itself:

‘You may begin, nice and slow.’

Begin … begin what? What are you doing to me? She didn’t know how she knew that something very bad was coming her way, but she knew it. She started fighting harder against her restraints, her muscles burning as they struggled to obey her brain’s commands despite the cocktail of paralyzing drugs working against them. She tried crying out desperately, only succeeding in letting out a few weak moans and garbled pleas.

‘Subject is responding to the motor impairment drugs less well than expected, but still within manageable margins. Continue the procedure.’

She witnessed one of the faceless people approach her on her left side and looking like they were holding something. She strained her eyes and could make out the figure reaching up to some strange sac, which appeared to be filled with a water and connected to her arm through a long tube that seemed to bury itself into her fur and under her skin. As she watched, the person raised their hand to the strange sac and a moment later, the “water” became flooded with some sort of yellow-orange-color. She watched as the newly colored liquid began creeping down the tube leading into her arm; her eyes followed it, her heart growing louder in her ears and chest as she began dreading the moment it would make contact with her; she stared at it, almost willing it to stop, but it slid along the tube, inexorably flowing into her arm …

‘Neuro-inflammatory drug has been administered.’

Aki didn’t hear the cold, unemotional words. Before her hapless eyes, she saw the venomous-looking liquid close the space to her arm – then disappear into her.

The reaction was immediate: She lunged forward, her back arching torturously, every muscle in her being feeling like it was being stabbed with a white-hot blade, every nerve inside and out, from her ears to her toes, was on fire – her muzzle flew open, her throat tearing itself out –

She screamed.