Saturday, June 12, 2010

Inhuman | Chapter 3: Revelations [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.

All is revealed, and Sean realizes how very different the world is than what he’s ever known.


— CHAPTER THREE —

Revelations

It was as Aki had feared: the shouting match she got into with her mother when she got home that evening was the worst they’d had in years. She had tried to keep her visits to the stranger’s bedside a secret from her mother for as long as she could, yet Kira had always been blessed with the notorious knack of discovering anything others tried to hide from her, despite their best efforts. It was as though the vixen had ears and eyes all over the place, and her reputation for authoritarian disciplining of anyone from adult to cub was one that assured that no-one dared to cross her. The only time Aki remembered seeing her mother as angry as she was now was when she was six years old and had accidentally burned down the cabin they used to occupy (and thus landing them in the rather less spacious earthly hut they now called home). A smarting Kira still brought it up on occasion, much to Aki’s exasperation.

Aki routinely entered arguments of varying intensity with her mother, so the experience was not altogether a new one to her, not that she particularly enjoyed it. They argued well into the evening, Kira yelling about Aki disrespecting her in her disobedience and Aki countering with her mother being too strict and not giving Aki any respect of her own. The row lasted so long that it prompted their neighbor, a short-tempered white tiger named Aleus, to come and warn Kira to keep it down as he was trying to put his cub to bed.

Once he’d left, Aki seized her mother’s temporary silence to explain herself properly, and after a lot of appeasing of her mother’s nerves, she was able to smooth the situation over reasonably well. While still angry that her daughter had gone behind her back (and had neglected to do her communal chores, along with her responsibilities at the orchard), Kira couldn’t help but listen with poorly suppressed interest to Aki’s account of her encounter with the stranger (though Kira still refused to call it a “human”, despite her daughter’s assurance as to his identity). After much asking bordering on pleading, Aki finally got her mother to accept to let her visit the stranger, if only because he was obviously too weak to be of any danger for the moment. She did warn Aki not to tell him too much, however. She still wasn’t sold on who he was or why he was here.

And so, Aki spent the most of the next few days sitting at the human’s bedside, trying to keep out of Krypp’s way as the rather sourly coyote regularly checked up on his patient and changed his bandages, as well as giving him regular doses of a herbal analgesic. She didn’t fail to notice how he seemed to visit his patient more often than was actually necessary of him.

If he was sourly, it was because he constantly tried to hit on Aki, and she was always quick to send him off. Even though she inwardly knew he couldn’t really ignore his impulses, both from his male hormones and from her own scent (which she’d started noticing lately, particularly when the weather was hot), it didn’t stop her from finding the very idea of getting intimate with a male like Krypp to be quite repulsive. She repeatedly made these sentiments clear to him, yet he still kept trying, which after a while became as exasperating as it was irritating. To his credit, at least he didn’t try and feel her up again. She didn’t think she would try and stop herself from breaking his muzzle if he did. (Or worse, tell her mother, whom would likely break far more than just a few bones.)

She spent every day of the week that followed sitting by the man’s cot, watching him, observing his appearance as it gradually improved, his injuries and bruises slowly but surely healing. However, her absence from the usual village activities was quickly noticed. Rumors began spreading about her and her involvement with the mysterious stranger, ranging from her studying him as though he were a test subject, to her actually being attracted to him. Aki was well aware of all that was being said in whispers behind her back and merely ignored it all with disdain. Such ideas were just silly; she was just benignly curious was all, and cared for him in the way that anyone would care for an injured friend … Though, she had to admit that the fact that he became more and more handsome as his bruising subsided could’ve been a mitigating factor in her interest in him.

Yet, the memory of their first contact, wherein they simply had stared into each other’s eyes wordlessly, both completely lost in the moment, constantly haunted her thoughts. She did her best to try and put these thoughts behind her. He was just a fascinating newcomer to her, an ancient myth brought to life out-of-the-blue. He was an opportunity for her to ask questions she’d craved answers to all her life, answers about that strange, mysterious past civilization that had dominated the Earth hundreds of years ago, before vanishing into nothingness.

She couldn’t deny to herself, however, that she had grown attached to the man even as he slept, as though he were a friend, or a cute (and unusual) pet. And at any rate, she had all the time she wanted to mull these thoughts over as she sat by him, a silent vigil to the man’s uneventful slumber.

*

Light slowly filtered through his eyelids, growing steadily brighter and brighter until he tried to turn his head to the side to avoid it. In doing so, he noticed his neck was extraordinarily stiff, as though he hadn’t moved in days.

As he slowly opened his eyes, the first thing he saw was the greyish brown ceiling above him. A few moments later, during which he stared at it blankly, his memory returned to him, considerably faster than it had last time …

Last time –

His eyes went wide as the memories of his previous awaking rushed back to him; he quickly tried to prop himself up on his elbows on the straw mattress, but was forced to stop as the rigidity of his muscles, as well as the tight bandaging covering most of his flesh, made such movements rather painful and difficult. Slowly settling back down into his bedding, he quickly glanced around the gloomy cabin around him, recalling the cots, the plain wooden walls, the sparse furniture. A narrow sliver of sunlight was peeking in through the cloth hung over the entranceway, hitting him straight in the face as he lay there, forcing him to squint; the coloring and angle of the beam indicated it was now evening. A handful of candles were already burning in their brackets along the walls, looking quite fresh. Nightfall was obviously approaching.

He carefully eased himself back onto his mattress, feeling tired yet alert, feeling the dull throbbing coursing through his flesh. His body and mind were both a bit sluggish; he felt as though he’d just awoken from a very long, very deep slumber. It was silence for a few moments as he just stared around, trying to decide whether he should call out for someone or wait for something to happen …

‘Hey,’ came a soft voice to his side.

Sean looked around. There, at his bedside once again, was that young vixen, sitting cross-legged on a chair, her long fluffy tail flicking nervously as she gazed upon him with those big, captivatingly blue eyes. Her soft tangerine-colored fur was irradiant in the dying sunlight, giving her a warm glow that only served to increase her natural beauty.

Sean merely stared at her, at a complete loss for words. She stared right back at him, a small, shy smile on her lips; he could discern a faint blush underneath the white fur of her cheeks.

‘I’m Aki, remember?’ she said gently, eyeing him closely for a sign of recognition.

Sean slowly nodded. Of course he remembered; one does not forget their first encounter with a beautiful, talking, humanlike vixen … or crash-landing on a mysterious planet inhabited by –

‘Do you have a name?’ asked Aki the foxgirl.

Sean hesitated for a moment before answering.

‘Sean.’ Even whispering, his voice was quite hoarse from lack of use.

‘Sean …’ Aki repeated, smiling softly. A short moment passed during which she seemed to ponder how to proceed. ‘Well, Sean … who are you?’

Sean paused before answering. She was asking about him … A talking foxgirl was asking who he was. How could he possibly expect this not to be a dream? Or worse, a hallucination? But then, he figured, he didn’t have any way of knowing either way, so he may as well see where this went.

‘Uh … well,’ he began uncertainly, eyeing Aki’s face closely to gauge her understanding of what he said, ‘I’m … I’m a – a soldier in the military on my planet, New Corinthea …’

‘M-militery?’ Aki said, looking intrigued. ‘Solder? What’s that?’

Sean stared. Well, that was quick.

‘Military,’ he pronounced properly. ‘It’s a … an organization, group of people who fight in wars and that sort of stuff. Members of the military are called “soldiers”. I’m one of them.’

‘So you fight in battles? Against other humans?’ said Aki, her interest evident.

‘Uh … yes. I’m a soldier for planet New Corinthea.’

‘That’s your homeplanet? Where humans live?’ Her beautiful cerulean eyes were bright with fascination. Given her persistence, Sean could tell this was something for which she’d held a passion for the longest time.

‘You … you know about planets?’ he said, slightly surprised. Judging by the primitive loincloth and breastcloth this foxgirl wore and the rustic construction of the cabin around him, Sean had imagined these creatures could only have possessed a minimal understanding of the world around them. They didn’t strike him as a people that had much in-depth knowledge of science.

‘Well, of course,’ said Aki with a slight chuckle. ‘I may not know much about your world, Sean, but I’m not stupid.’ She winked, smiling lightheartedly. ‘We know the basics … planets, stars, space, math, reading and writing, all that sort of stuff. We just don’t complicate our lives too much.’

Sean gazed at her in silence. This was definitely a pleasant and curious start.

‘You … you have schools?’ he asked. They had to keep this knowledge one way or another.

‘Well … not really,’ Aki said. ‘We just pass the knowledge down over the years, just the basics we need to know to live our lives and that sort of thing. We have lots of books, though, with all that extra information about science and that sort of stuff. Problem is, they’re really old, and most people just aren’t able to really understand what they say.’

Sean stared at her some more, taking it all in. He wanted to ask more questions, but noticed that Aki herself was preparing to speak, so he held his silence.

‘So,’ Aki continued, ‘this planet – it’s your home?’

‘Yeah,’ said Sean. ‘Well – it’s one of our planets; we – humans have colonized several planets over time. But, as far as we know, New Corinthea is our place of origin, the home of – of the human species.’

Aki nodded. ‘What’s it like? Your world, your planet? New Carin – Cori –?’

‘New Corinthea,’ said Sean slowly and clearly.

‘Yes,’ said Aki. ‘How does it compare to Earth?’

‘Earth?’ said Sean. The name was unfamiliar to him.

‘This world,’ said Aki, waving around at realms beyond the walls of the wooden cabin around them. ‘This planet, this is Earth. How does it compare to New Corintheria?’

‘New Corinthea,’ Sean corrected mechanically.

Aki must have mistaken his tone for impatience, for then she suddenly looked worried, her large ears slinking down over her furry head.

‘Oh, I – I’m sorry,’ she said quickly, ‘if I’m asking too many questions; if you don’t wanna answer –’

‘No, no, it’s all right,’ Sean assured with a feeble wave of his bandaged hand. ‘I don’t mind.’

‘Okay,’ said Aki, still looking apologetic. ‘I don’t usually ask these many questions … I’ve just … I’ve never met a human before,’ she confessed with a small, contrite smile.

‘It’s okay,’ Sean repeated, offering her a slight smile of his own in reassurance.

He took a few moments to reflect upon Aki’s question before answering. His mind flashed back to the little he’d seen of this world: images of a beautiful planet in appearing out of nowhere, its surface a tapestry of blues, greens and whites … Then, having escaped from his crashed pod, the breathtaking sight that had captivated him … The vast blue sky with its wispy clouds, the dazzling sun shining like a torch, casting its radiating warmth over him, a heat countered by the wonderful little breeze that ruffled his hair and formed millions of little twinkles on the surface of the crystalline waters of the wide river … The vast, unmarked, grassy plains to his sides and the luxuriant woodlands that surrounded … The faint line of steely, snowcapped mountains in the distance … Like it was all straight out of a painting …

Sean was silent for a little while, the shadowy cabin around him all but hidden from his eyes by the memories of the landscape. It was just … pure. Beautiful. So …

‘Different,’ he finally said with a sigh. ‘Here, everything is just so … I dunno how to describe it … It’s like, everything is just full of … of life. It’s … it’s incredible.’

He fell silent, uncertain of how to continue. To his slight shame, he could feel his eyes becoming moist; he blinked several times to clear his suddenly misty vision. He noticed Aki staring at him, looking surprised and awed.

‘Wow, really?’ she said, apparently at a loss for words.

Sean nodded silently, solemnly.

Sadly.

Aki noticed his downcast air and her smile faltered.

‘Hey, what’s wrong?’ she gently asked, her brow furrowed.

‘Oh …’ Sean looked up at her, realizing he’d zoned out. He gave a quick slight smile in reassurance. ‘Just thinking …’

‘About your home?’ Aki advanced softly.

Sean looked at her. ‘Yeah,’ he said in a low voice. Thinking about planet New Corinthea, and how it compared to the natural beauty of this planet, Earth, was leaving him feeling rather depressed.

‘What’s it like?’ said Aki quietly.

Sean stared her in the eyes; his expression had become stony. They exchanged looks for a moment as Sean thought; sensing his gloom, Aki’s ears lowered slightly, her cerulean eyes looking at him with concern.

‘It’s very different,’ he said again. He glanced at the thin sliver of golden sunlight that was slowly but surely disappearing across the floor, the dying rays shining through the sides of the curtain covering the entrance. ‘It’s … it’s darker. Cold. Winds blow through the place all day long, but there’s usually so much dust in the air you end up coughing all the time. There are two suns – Sol and Icarus – but they don’t shine through all that well. The sky’s blocked by eternal storm clouds. Everything is shadows most of the day, even at noon. It’s all … reddish-grey. It’s an ugly color.

‘The whole planet is one big city, except for the oceans – what’s left of them – and the mountains, and some wildlife and nature sanctuaries here and there. There aren’t that many animals, though; most died during the War when they carpet-bombed the whole place … some cities were nuked …’

He trailed away into silence, his eyes dark, his face hard. He was so lost in his gloomy recollections that he didn’t even notice Aki staring at him, looking rather dismayed, her fantasies about the idyllic human world falling to pieces.

He sighed after a moment, still watching the ever-shrinking sliver of fiery sunlight as it crept across the floor, disappearing through the door behind the curtain. The room was now illuminated by the few candles still burning in their wall-mounted brackets, casting a dull fiery, flickering glow across the plain wooden surfaces.

He felt thoroughly miserable. He’d never felt like this before; he was accustomed to living by his training, which taught him how to suppress and ignore his emotions. Emotions are weakness. Ignore them. Do not feel. Just kill …

He shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts. He glanced at Aki, noting her saddened air and droopy ears.

‘It’s not all bad, though,’ he continued, hoping to lighten her spirits a little. ‘Sometimes, when the winds are just right and the clouds clear for a while, every now and then during the evening … and when the evening suns are aligned just right … it hits the land at an angle, kinda like now … It’s like, everything looks like it’s bathed in gold. It’s brighter; it’s so pretty. The rivers sparkle like millions of little pink diamonds in the waters … The shadows from the buildings and the trees, the few trees left, make everything look all striped and stuff, it’s a very nice effect. The elders tell us that’s closer to how Corinthea used to be, long ago … before I was even born.

‘But that never lasts more than a few minutes, and then it’s night, when everything is pitch-black. You can’t see except for the lights in the buildings or the streets, so it’s real easy to get lost if you try and wander around. No moon through the clouds. Everyone goes indoors for the next twelve hours and they wait the night out …’

His voice trailed away into silence as he lost himself in thought at the memories of what nights on New Corinthea were like. How long, how dark … how lonely. And each night always exactly the same as the last.

Aki was gazing at him with a gloomy air, her eyes twinkling dully in the feeble candlelight. Their blue was still surprisingly clear, even in the obscurity.

‘That’s … that sounds sad,’ she said in a low voice.

Sean nodded. ‘Yeah … it does,’ he said, his voice no more than a whisper.

The little ray of light on the ground had now completely disappeared; only the faintest of red glows was left visible behind the curtain covering the entryway as the crepuscule’s last light slowly faded away. The furniture around the room seemed to be moving in the dancing candlelight, their shadows moving along the walls like ghosts. This somehow only added to the moroseness in the air.

‘It wasn’t always like that, though,’ he said, mostly to break the silence. ‘I heard that it used to be really pretty … kinda like here, on – Earth. Old-timers like to tell stories of forests and grasslands and wide open blue oceans, of animals everywhere, beautiful cities where people were happy … I bet that must’ve been nice …’

‘You didn’t – see any of it?’ Aki asked uncertainly.

Sean looked at her, forlorn.

‘No. I was born during the War. My family was killed, and I was raised by the Military to become a soldier for the government. I’ve never known anything else. The War destroyed everything … we destroyed everything …’

It was unexpected, unbidden: Sean suddenly felt hot as a surge of anger and bitterness swelled within him; he took a few breaths to cool his temper. The subject of the Corinthean War was not one he enjoyed lingering upon even at the best of times, but now, surrounded by the beauty of this world and the memories of what his own used to be …

You destroyed your planet?’ Aki blurted, sounding surprised.

Sean turned his head to stare at her. She cringed, obviously worried that she’d offended him.

‘I’m sorry – I –’ she spluttered, her ears flattened against her head.

‘Don’t apologize,’ Sean said quietly. ‘It’s all right …’

They settled into silence again, both gazing, almost transfixed, at the twitching shadows cast around the place. Sean noticed that Aki looked uncertain about something. Aki had endless questions for the man, especially about this “war”, but she could tell this was a subject she ought to drop, at least for the moment.

‘When you said “as far as you know” about whether New Corinthea was the home of your species – I mean, where humans come from … why “as far as you know”?’ she chose to ask instead, trying to change his thoughts.

Sean glanced at her, needing to think for a second before recognizing what she was talking about. Perceptive girl.

‘Because … it’s our best guess,’ Sean said dully. ‘Truth is, we honestly don’t know. We lost everything during the War – all our historical records, our databases; everything was destroyed. Some say that it’s a good thing, that it means we can start a new chapter, like. “Out with the old, in with the new”, as they said. Problem is, we lost any info we had about us and the history of humankind years ago. All we have is word-of-mouth now … and it’s not exactly reliable.’

Another pause set in between them. She stared at him, her blue orbs shining brightly in the candlelight, a slight expression of sadness discernible on her face. Sean once again caught himself staring into her eyes, entranced by their twinkling in the candles’ glow … Those big, beautiful eyes … They were so perfect, so human … but manifestly not quite human at the same time …

Aki blushed slightly under his stare. ‘What?’ she said timidly, smiling despite herself.

Sean took a moment to answer, just looking at her, taking in her features … She just looked so – so inhuman

‘Aki?’

She blushed deeper at hearing him use her name for the first time.

‘Yes?’ She sounded slightly nervous.

Sean hesitated; he still wasn’t sure how to phrase this best, but he couldn’t hold off from asking any longer.

‘What … what are you?’

He’d tried to use the gentlest, most unassuming tone he could manage; the last thing he wanted to do was to offend the pretty foxgirl sitting at his side, showing such an obvious fascination in him and what he had to say. Aki just looked a little puzzled, as though he’d asked a strange question, or a dumb one.

‘I’m a vixen,’ she said, nonplussed.

Sean shook his head. ‘Yeah, I know that,’ he said, choosing his words carefully. ‘I meant … uh … what are anthros? Where do you … come from?’

Aki looked mildly taken aback; her face fell slightly and her eyes narrowed as she eyed him in silence. Sean felt his breath catch, troubled.

‘Please don’t – I mean, I didn’t mean it that way,’ he said quickly, worried he may have offended her. ‘I just meant –’

Aki smiled reassuringly, waving an airy hand. ‘It’s okay, Sean, you can ask. I’m just trying to think … It’s kind of a long story …’

‘… Oh,’ said Sean, lamely.

Aki was silent for a few moments, appearing deep in thought, before clearing her throat.

‘Well,’ she began, ‘I don’t think anyone knows for sure where we come from. I mean, much of our history is only known through stories and legends. One of the oldest and most popular of these stories, is about how we supposedly began, hundreds of years ago.

‘Back then, the world was a very different place. It was ruled by a very intelligent, very powerful species called the “humans” – like you,’ she added with a nod towards Sean. ‘As the story goes, these were the most powerful creatures that had ever walked the Earth; their intelligence and their knowledge knew no ends. They could do anything, even the impossible: they could fly, they could build gigantic buildings that touched the skies, all sorts of things. Like wizards; like gods.

‘Well, one day – and I’m telling you, again, no-one really knows anything about what really happened, lots of this story has changed over the years – one day, these humans tried to create a new species, one that was half human and half animal. It took them a very long time to get it right, many years of hard work, but in the end, they did it. This new creature was named the “anthro”, because as far as humans were concerned, they were animals who looked like humans.

‘However, they didn’t just look like humans; they were also every bit as intelligent as their creators. They had half-animal bodies, but their minds were mostly human: they had human intelligence, human emotions, thinking abilities, that sort of stuff. They could also speak like humans when taught to. Problem is, humans didn’t regard these half-animals, these anthros, as equal to them; to humans, they were nothing more than animals who just happened to talk and walk upright. Anthros were treated like any other feral animals: many were kept as pets, or servants, and others were put to work for the humans, doing whatever humans told them to do.’ She gave a slight irked tick at the idea.

‘And so, that’s how it was for the first few years. Anthros were treated as a lesser species than humans, because of their animalistic side. But after a while, that began to change. They started to rebel against the humans, to fight back; they began to declare their independence, their rejection of the human rule. This “transition” in their social status from sub-human to equals actually went really smoothly; by then, they had become a fully accepted part of the human society, and most humans were more than happy to give them their fair rights.

‘So now, the anthros and humans then shared a single society together, using the same resources and all, and everything was going smoothly … for a while. There was a problem, though. When the anthros had been under the rule of the humans, they were bred, or mated, only occasionally – kinda like you would breed any other pet animal.’ Aki paused for a moment, looking mildly miffed at the thought, a sentiment Sean inwardly shared as he listened on.

‘Anyway … Well, now that the anthros had declared themselves to be a full-fledged species and equals to humans in every way in the human society, they began to, well, mate like they wanted. But,’ Aki gave a wry chuckle, ‘one thing no-one saw coming was that anthros, like their feral animal origins, were a lot more fertile and, well, sexually active than humans were. Actually,’ she added, grinning slightly, ‘you could even say we were a bit … promiscuous. Not that we were (or are) obsessed or anything; we just have stronger impulses to mate than you humans do. Or, so the story goes, anyway.’

She gave Sean a sidelong look.

Anyway … The point is that, all of a sudden, the anthro population, which used to be really quite small, suddenly exploded, and before anyone knew what was going on, anthros suddenly started to outnumber humans, more and more, as they kept making cubs and growing. Before long, humans were actually the new minority …’ She gave a small grin at the idea.

‘However, this just created a whole bunch of new problems for everyone. Soon, anthros started to become so numerous – and humans were still increasing, too – that the entire world was starting to suffer from, well, overpopulation. Resources were being overused and stretched too thin; people were starting to run out of food and water, all the forests were being torn down, etc … It was a complete nightmare. Soon, people began to panic when they realized that they were … well, they were literally killing the planet.’

Aki paused for a moment to catch her breath as they reflected upon this grim pronouncement.

‘So, what happened?’ said Sean.

‘They left,’ said Aki simply. ‘The humans. They realized that there was just no way they could compete with the anthros, and that obviously both species couldn’t live together anymore; there were just too many. So they, the humans, found another planet that that they could live on, one that would sustain their species. So, they just built these huge spaceships and … left.

‘Anthros were left behind to deal with all the pollution and that stuff that was left behind when the humans took off, and after a few hundred years, it all went away on its own; the water and air became pure, animal life rebounded from overhunting, forests slowly but surely grew back, and that sort of stuff. Everything went back to normal – to what it is now.’

Aki shifted and took a breath, her tale having ended. Sean lay there, staring at the wall on the other side of the room, images from Aki’s story filling his mind. Hoards of questions were swimming in his head.

‘But – if anthros always bred – I mean, mated – faster than humans, how come they didn’t just overtake the planet and, you know, use as many resources as the humans did and all that?’ he asked.

‘I’m not entirely sure,’ said Aki slowly, looking pensive. ‘The story’s not really clear on that. But I can make two guesses: first, we anthros live lives that are a lot simpler than the humans from the story did. I mean, see for yourself,’ she said, indicating around at the rustic cabin. ‘We just don’t like to complicate our lives much. We just live as close to the land as we can, we follow the Earth’s seasons and moods, we let it guide us instead of trying to force our presence upon it. I guess it’s the animal part in us. It’s much easier to live this way, just living off the land and trying to give back as much as you take, you know?’

Sean nodded.

‘And second,’ said Aki, ‘I don’t think we live as long as you humans do. I’m not sure, I mean – how long do you live?’

‘Oh,’ said Sean. ‘Uh … well, with our medicine and all, we manage about one-ten, one-twenty years on average these days.’

‘One ten?’ Aki said, looking a little puzzled. ‘What do you …?’ Her eyes went wide.

One-hundred-and-twenty years? Whoa …!’ she spluttered, apparently too stunned for words.

‘Well, how long do you people live?’ enquired Sean, faintly amused at her reaction.

‘Uh … About fifty to sixty years,’ Aki said. ‘Nowhere near as long as you do … which is actually my second reason why I think anthros haven’t, like, taken over the world like you humans did. We don’t have that much of a lifespan, compared to you humans. We don’t … um … you know, accumulate,’ she finished uncertainly.

‘Uh-huh …’ Sean said.

A sudden shiver coursed through his skin and he suddenly realized how chilly he was; he had been so engulfed in Aki’s tale that he hadn’t even felt the cool night breeze waft in through the windows and the entrance. Now that he was aware of it, he started shivering slightly, goosebumps erupting across his skin. Aki noticed as he tried pressing his weak arms closer to his body in an effort to try and warm them up a little.

‘You cold?’ she asked, surveying him sympathetically.

‘A little,’ he said with an inconvenient clacking of his teeth that gave his understatement away.

‘You look like you’re freezing,’ Aki said. ‘Hang on …’

She got to her feet, her fluffy tail swinging lazily behind her as she walked away towards a large cabinet at the other side of the cabin. To his consternation, Sean noticed he couldn’t help but glance at her long, furry, shapely legs as they moved … and then his gaze slowly drew upwards …

A dull thud snapped him back to reality as Aki closed the heavy cabinet doors and turned around; he hurriedly whipped his gaze away, flushing despite himself. Aki returned to his bedside with a large woolen blanket that looked like it could smother him, though he admittedly didn’t feel quite as cold any longer.

‘Oh, look at you, you’re all flushed,’ Aki noted, looking concerned. ‘Are you okay?’

Come on, get a grip of yourself.

‘I’m fine,’ he said, rather quickly. ‘Just … not feeling so cold after all.’

‘Oh, nonsense, you looked like you were freezing your tail off less than a minute ago,’ Aki said, tutting as a mother would. She bent over his inert and bandaged form, laying the thick blanket out over him. The situation, combined with the darkened atmosphere of the room, reminded Sean of a mother tucking her child in. The position Aki was in resulted in her cloth-wrapped chest being placed right in front of his face … and he couldn’t help his eyes as, fleetingly, he took in the contours, the shapes –

No! Dammit, man, come on!

Mentally chastising himself (and blushing even further), he forced himself to stare instead at the vixen’s exposed tummy. The white fur there was fine and smooth, looking almost silky in the candlelight. He saw her small bellybutton, the definition of her slight abdominal muscles …

Damn, she was pretty.

He was mercifully pulled out of his thoughts when Aki finally leaned back upright, having finished wrapping him in the warm blanket.

‘Is that better?’ she asked kindly.

‘Yeah,’ he said, a bit timidly. He had to admit, despite the previous cold (and awkward blushing), he now felt quite comfortable, even despite the persistent yet dulled aches all over his body.

‘Thanks,’ he said, giving her a small grateful smile.

Aki smiled warmly back. ‘Don’t mention it.’

‘Aren’t you cold? It’s freezing in here,’ Sean said, his shivering slowly fading away as he warmed up pleasantly.

‘Of course not,’ said Aki with a grin. ‘You’re the one who has naked skin with nothing to protect him except the clothes you’re wearing … well, was wearing,’ she added with an uneasy glance across his cot; the mess of a uniform was still there. Sean stared at it, looking deflated.

‘I hope you don’t mind; we didn’t have a choice but to cut it off,’ Aki said with a little worry in her voice.

‘It’s okay …’ Sean said after a pause. ‘I guess I can always have it stitched back up, it can’t be that bad … It’s the blood I’m more worried about,’ he added, glancing at her with a wry smile. Aki smirked back.

‘Why do you humans wear so much clothing?’ Aki asked as though enquiring about a strange habit.

‘Uh …’ Sean stared at her. ‘Because of … modesty?’

Aki just stared at him and the tattered uniform, looking bemused. ‘Why so much, though?’

‘I dunno; it’s just how it is,’ said Sean with a slight shrug.

Aki hummed in acquiescence, still looking unconvinced yet electing not to pursue the subject.

A few more moments passed by. Staring at her from his now quite comfortable position, he still had many, many questions in his mind. One of which was …

‘Aki? How come you and your people still know English?’

Aki looked surprised. ‘I dunno … it’s just the language we’ve always spoken,’ she said uncertainly. ‘I mean, I’ve heard of other tribes and peoples speaking other languages and dialects … but English is the one we speak here, so … well, there.’

‘You know other languages?’ asked Sean, his curiosity getting the better of him.

‘Not really …’ she said. ‘I mean, I know a few words, but I don’t know what the languages are – what they’re called, or anything … but anyway, English is what most of the – the tribes around here speak.’

Sean didn’t catch the fleeting forbidden expression that crossed her face.

Another, slightly longer pause settled between them. Sean inwardly wondered how late it was getting; it felt like they’d been chatting for hours. Not that he minded, though; there was something about talking with her, this beautiful foxgirl … Sean didn’t even think it had anything to do with her being an anthro; there was just something about her voice, her tone, her expressions, her openness, the ease with which she smiled …

Wow, was he getting smitten with her?

‘What about you?’ he said, breaking the silence. ‘Who are you, Aki?’

‘Oh – me?’ Aki said, looking a little taken aback. Sean nodded.

‘Um … I dunno, I’m … I’m just me,’ she said awkwardly. ‘Just Aki Elani.’

Eelani?’ repeated Sean quizzically.

Eh-lah-nee. Ah-kee Eh-lah-nee,’ Aki said slowly, teasingly.

‘Huh,’ made Sean, acting miffed. They both grinned foolishly at each other.

‘Well?’ Sean pressed on casually. ‘I’ve told you about me, so now I wanna know about you.’

‘I’m telling you, there isn’t anything to know about me,’ said Aki dismissively.

‘Oh, come on,’ said Sean, a light smile forming on his lips. ‘There’s got to be more to you than that. Who are you? What do you wanna do with your life? What do you like? Wha— I mean –’ he interjected, realizing his doggedness, ‘not if you don’t wanna tell me or –’

‘Sean, will you just relax already?’ Aki said with a small giggle. ‘You’re way too nervous; it can’t be good for you. If you wanna know something, just ask. I promise I won’t bite.’ She winked, showing her canid teeth with a grin. Sean settled down and smiled back, her light-heartedness infecting him again. How did she do that?

‘I dunno,’ Aki continued, lowering her head to stare at her black, padded feet crossed beneath her on the chair. ‘I’m just … I’m a girl from the village. I’m living with my mother until I find a mate, someone to spend the rest of my life with and have cubs with. I, I help around town, I do my communal chores, and I … I dunno, I just live one day at a time, I guess,’ she finished, looking at a loss for words.

Sean stared at her. And …?

‘But … what about dreams?’ he questioned, feeling like he was missing something. ‘Goals, ambitions? Don’t you wanna … you know … do something later on?’

‘“Do something”? Like what?’ Aki demanded. ‘I don’t know what you want me to say, Sean. This is all there is: the village, the people, daily life, one day at a time. I help around, have fun when I want, eat, sleep, get older, whatever. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there just isn’t all that much to do around here. It’s just a small village with a bunch of people living in it and helping each other out. It’s how we survive. It’s how we’ve always lived. What more can there be?’

Sean looked at her in disbelief. ‘But … I mean – isn’t there anything more you people can do? Can’t you, I dunno – I mean –’

He was at a loss for words. Aki’s attitude, her indifferent view on having such a … an empty life … He just couldn’t figure it out; it didn’t make any sense to him. That someone would want to live their entire lives and never do anything other than mundane tasks around the household, only to eventually start a family. Where was the pursuit of goals? The excitement? The adventure? The feeling of accomplishment? The meaning?

‘You look disappointed,’ Aki noted, looking him over and looking slightly apologetic. Sean shook his head slowly.

‘I’m sorry, I just … I’ve never heard of anyone with such … such … empty lives,’ he said finally with a rueful shrug.

‘Unfulfilling? Why do you say that?’ Aki said, looking surprised. ‘What’s empty about my life, or anyone else’s? We just do what we have to do to survive and help each other out, and have fun in the process. I’m sorry; I just don’t understand what you’re trying to get at.’

Her voice wasn’t accusatory or defensive; rather, she genuinely sounded bemused at the idea that there could be more to life than staying in her village and living off routine. Sean lay there in silence, thinking.

‘In our world – the human world, I mean – we don’t just do household chores all day,’ he said finally. ‘We do things – for other people, for society. Everyone has a role, everyone has a job to do. It’s who they are. Some are doctors, others are engineers, others are researchers and others are ordinary office-workers. Me, for example, I work in the military – I help defend my people from attack. It’s my role in life.’

‘Well, everyone here has a role, too,’ Aki said. ‘They all have something to do that helps the rest. Like, for example, I’m the one responsible for maintaining the orchards and harvesting when it’s time. My mother, she’s a clothesmaid; she’s the one who makes and repairs people’s clothes. The coyote who takes care of you, Krypp, well, he’s the town healer, he takes care of the sick and the injured. There are weavers, there are builders, we have hunters and gatherers, we have defenders to protect us – all those things. I just don’t see our roles as defining our lives like you seem to. They’re just … responsibilities we have, towards ourselves and each other, but nothing’s set in stone. No-one’s more important than anyone else; we’re all equal, just different.’

A few moments passed as Sean considered what was just said. He was at a loss for a response. However, one small part of what Aki had told him pricked at his curiosity …

‘Defenders?’ he said. ‘You have soldiers, too?’

‘Ye— soldiers? You mean, those who fight in a military?’ she asked curiously.

‘Uh … sorta,’ Sean said. ‘A soldier is anyone who fights with other soldiers in battles and wars and whatever. Just – never mind; what was that about protecting your village? You also have enemies?’

‘Well …’ Aki suddenly looked uncomfortable, shifting in her seat; her ear gave a twitch. ‘Not really – I mean … we just … don’t have the nicest of neighbors …’

Her voice trailed away into nothingness as her gaze floating around the cabin distractedly. Sean noticed her ears lower against her head, apparently subconsciously, and he was more than intrigued (and a bit concerned) at what she was thinking about. Yet, before he could get a word out, a sudden rustling at the other end of the cabin drew their attention.

The same grey-furred coyote as last time, Krypp the healer, had materialized in the doorway, letting the curtain fall back behind him. He rolled his eyes when he saw Sean, lying underneath the thick woolen blanket in his cot, with Aki at his side.

‘Playing mother hen again, Aki?’ he said, his voice a drawl. ‘Too busy, again, to tell me my patient had woken up?’

Sorry,’ said Aki, her tone cheeky.

Krypp ignored her as he stepped forwards towards Sean’s cot, his dark eyes sizing him up. If he was stunned or awkward at the sight of the human on the cot, Sean couldn’t tell.

‘Your name is Sean, I believe?’ he asked, his voice neutral.

Sean nodded, not taking is eyes off the coyote’s glittering globes.

‘And you are, indeed … a human?’

Another nod.

‘I’ve done what I can for the injuries you have,’ Krypp said, indicating Sean’s bandaged form with a nod. ‘Is there anything you want to tell me? Anything unusual?’

Sean shook his head, without having really understood the question. He just wanted Krypp to leave as soon as possible. Something about the coyote’s emotionless tone and mannerisms made him wary, though he couldn’t tell why. Krypp seemed to notice Sean’s reservations, as his eyes narrowed slightly.

‘Anything you wanna say? Anything I need to know?’

Sean stared at him, then shook his head again. He didn’t trust this coyote – something about him was … creepy.

‘All right, then,’ Krypp said, looking disenchanted. ‘You still need your rest, so don’t exert yourself. I’ll check up on you every few hours – can’t rely on this one to tell you anything,’ he said, nodding with a faint sneer in his voice towards Aki, who just stared defiantly at him.

Krypp hunched over between Aki and Sean, rummaging through a small bedside cabinet there, and pulled out a sort of crude metal pitcher. Sean could hear some tantalizing splashing sounds from inside the container as Krypp set it down upon Sean’s bedside table.

‘Water, in case you get thirsty,’ he said simply. Sean suddenly realized he was quite ravenous, not having eaten in two days.

Krypp turned to leave, but not before giving Aki a good, long stare – which, Sean realized to his repulsion, was so full of visible lust and leer he was surprised Aki didn’t cringe; she merely stared coldly back. He felt like speaking up, and he probably would have if not for what happened next, which stunned him.

As Krypp walked by Aki, he casually, deliberately, brushed his hand insistently across Aki’s rear, underneath her tail, making a fondling move with his fingers. Aki jumped to her feet at once with an angry, foxlike yelp, stepping away from him and glaring at him in fury, ears flattened against her head.

‘Fucking pervert!’ she growled, fangs bared. Even Sean couldn’t help but cringe slightly at the sight of her; her lips were curled, her hackles were raised, her fists were clenched. Her resemblance to a furious animal was chilling.

Krypp, however, was unmoved; he merely slouched away, a slight smirk on his grizzled muzzle as he finally disappeared out the entrance behind the curtain.

A heavy silence set in as Aki stood there, glaring at the entryway, her tail flicking in agitation. Sean was appalled.

‘What the hell was that?’ he spluttered.

‘He’s just a disgusting old yote,’ she grumbled. ‘Not that he’s that much worse than anyone else’s these days, though …’ She let out a long sigh; Sean could detect a large amount of pent-up frustration in her voice.

‘What do you mean? They all act like that around you?’

‘Well, not exactly; the others just stare or whistle when they see me, and that’s annoying enough as it is,’ Aki said glumly. ‘Krypp’s just the one who’s been wanting to get in my bed for a while now. Even since before I had my first heat, a few months back.’

Sean was about to ask why the males acted in such a manner, before something else registered.

‘Heat?’

‘Yeah,’ Aki said, still staring at the entryway, unaware of Sean’s surprised expression. ‘You know, twice a year, females enter their estrus periods … Makes the males go crazy …’

She rolled her eyes and shook her head as she slowly sat back down with a sigh, looking morose.

‘Your first, you say? So… that means you’re an adult or …?’ said Sean, trying to wrap his mind around the concept.

‘Yes,’ said Aki, looking at him again. ‘We – females, I mean – we usually get our first heat when we’re sixteen or something, like me.’

‘You’re … you’re sixteen?’ Sean repeated in disbelief.

‘Yup,’ said Aki with a nod. ‘I know, I look older. Everyone keeps telling me.’

Sean stared at her, temporarily stunned into silence. Sixteen? A teenager? Yet she sounded so mature, so unlike any teenagers he had ever encountered … Nothing like the unruly, whiny youths he’d known back on New Corinthea.

‘Ever since I entered mating age, males won’t stop following me around, staring at me like horndogs,’ Aki continued, looking glum and irked.

‘Mating age?’

‘When you’re old enough to mate,’ said Aki. ‘You know, to bond, to live together with someone. Surely you have something like that in your world?’

‘Uh … we have marriage,’ Sean said. ‘When two or more people fall in love with each other, they form a bond, marriage. Is that like your “mating”?’

‘Pretty much,’ Aki said. ‘Only – what do you mean, “love”?’

‘Wha …? Uh … everything?’ said Sean, staring at her confusedly. ‘You don’t marry someone, you don’t spend the rest of your life with someone, unless you love them, right?’

Aki stared at him blankly. ‘You mean – like parents love their cubs?’

It was now Sean’s turn to stare at her, wondering what was going on.

‘Uh … no,’ he said. ‘You know … when you love someone? Like, romantic love?’

‘Romantic love?’ Aki repeated. ‘What’s “romantic”?’

Sean blinked. He felt at a total loss.

‘It’s “romance”,’ said, feeling increasingly like he was talking to a curious yet ignorant child. ‘You know, when you fall for someone? You become crazy about them, you think about them all the time, you just wanna spend time with them? Making them happy makes you happy and all that?’

‘Uh … that just sounds like friendship, no?’ said Aki.

Sean shook his head as best as he could, laying on his back and covered in rigid bandages. They were going in circles.

‘Look,’ he said, ‘why do you anthros end up living with each other, then? What is it that makes you – mate? For life?’

‘I dunno,’ Aki said. ‘It just … it feels right, is all, when you meet the right male (or female). Like it’s the right thing to do … we need it. It’s hard to explain.’

Sean realized she must have been talking about instinct. Pure, animalistic mating instinct.

‘What’s this “romantic” love like for you humans?’ Aki asked.

Sean couldn’t help but chuckle quietly at this. Could she possibly have chosen a harder question to answer?

‘Uh …’ he started lamely, having less than no idea on how to explain something as ineffable as romantic love to someone who apparently had no idea what it was. ‘It’s … it’s not something that you can just describe and tell others how it feels,’ he said. ‘It’s just … when you like someone really, really, really much … when you fall in love with them …’

He paused for a moment, then sighed.

‘All I can tell you, Aki,’ he said with a small, knowing smile, ‘is that if you ever fall in love, some day … you’ll know.’

Aki gazed at him, looking unsatisfied with his lackluster explanation.

‘Aki?’ came a female voice from across the room.

Someone else was at the entrance to the cabin. It was a vixen, one who Sean noticed looked quite similar to Aki, yet rather older; Sean guessed she was in her thirties. The foxgirl was staring at them, looking quite stern, though not actually hostile as Krypp had been. Looking parental.

‘Oh – hey,’ Aki said, looking disappointed. ‘Time already?’

‘Oh, come on, Aki, it’s past your bedtime,’ the fox said sternly. ‘Say goodbye to your – your friend there –’ she nodded towards Sean without actually looking at him, ‘and then come home. It’s late enough.’

‘All right,’ Aki muttered resignedly. ‘Sean, I’d like you to meet my mother, Kira. Mom, this is Sean …’

She hesitated for a moment; then, a sudden mischievous glint appeared in Aki’s eyes as she seemed to be struck by an idea.

‘Say, Sean?’ she said, grinning oddly at him. ‘What are you, eh? What … species?’

Sean stared at her, wondering what Aki was playing at. Her mother, Kira, was staring at him slightly suspiciously, her arms crossed (she hadn’t moved from the entrance).

‘Uh … I’m a human?’ he said, befuddled.

Exactly!’ Aki said in a singsong voice as she turned to face her mother, an unmistakable look of triumph on her face as though she’d just won an argument. Kira just rolled her eyes. Sean felt lost.

‘Fine, whatever,’ she said, attempting to sound dismissive, yet Sean could sense a stung undertone to her voice. ‘Will you just come home now?’

‘Fine,’ said Aki cheerfully as she got to her feet; Sean’s gaze was once again drawn to her tail as it flicked in the cool night air. He inwardly thought that it would probably take a long time before it stopped attracting his gaze.

‘Well, goodnight, Sean,’ Aki said warmly. Sean smiled, but before he knew it, she leaned over and gave him a soft kiss on the cheek; he felt her warm breath against his skin, the tickling of her whiskers …

She pulled back and left him there in his surprise. Looking back, she smiled at the stunned look on his face and gave a cheery wave goodbye as she followed her mother out of the cabin, through the curtain and out of sight into the night beyond.