Saturday, June 12, 2010

Inhuman | Chapter 4: Memories [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.

Sometimes, the mind wonders back to events in our lives that define our reality.


— CHAPTER FOUR —

Memories

The feeble light from the twin suns that shone through the thick, dark cover of reddish-purple clouds was starting to fade as evening slowly but surely closed in on Capital City, bathing the land and buildings below in an eerie sort of burnt crimson shade. A cold breeze blew through the city streets, kicking up a bit of the loose dust that covered everything in sight and rustling the layer of debris that lay around the streets, from papers to the random rubble and wreckage of buildings. Other than the scarlet beams piercing through the murky clouds, there was another source of illumination that lit up the streets and facades: that of fires raging here and there, consuming vehicles, structures, and the unlucky victims who stumbled into the flames.

The rumbling sounds of rifle fire, explosions and screams echoed throughout the area as droves of men, women and children stampeded through the streets in a display of primal terror. Their cries of panic filled the air as they frantically ran from the other group chasing after them, splitting in every direction as they desperately tried to outrun their deaths. Streaks of bluish-purple plasma tore through the air all around them, blasting craters into walls and imparting lethal, carbonized wounds wherever they hit their victims.

It was civil war.

Not everyone in the area was running for their lives. Crouched amidst the rubble of a half-collapsed office building to the side of the road, a group of four individuals lay still, ghost-like, observing the anarchic scene before them. The massive, fallen slabs of steel and concrete offered them ideal protection against detection and enemy fire as they peered through the narrow gaps in the ruins, unseen witnesses to the horrors unfolding before them. They were clad in black, military-style suits and each of them held a plasma rifle at the ready. Silent and motionless, with their weapons at their side, their rigid, vigilant demeanor spoke of a certain level of professionalism.

One member of the group was crouching in a corner of the small crawlspace formed by the collapsed slabs. His dark, brown eyes, glittering vividly in the fires and laser blasts, swept across the makeshift battlefield that the street in front of them had turned into. His young face carried a heavy expression of somberness and strain. His military-short sandy-colored hair was speckled with dust and particles from the rubble he and his comrades had crawled through. However, his personal appearance was the last thing on his mind as he gazed upon the massacre, his facial expression giving the occasional twitch or cringe as he took in the revolting spectacle. At the grip of his rifle, his fingers were squeezing and twitching, telling of his obvious desire to help the innocents from being slaughtered …

‘Specter!’ one of the operatives next to him whispered sharply in his direction. ‘Keep your fingers cool before you misfire that cannon!’

Sean glanced at the man with strict, pained eyes. The group’s leader, Commander Vasse – known as Ghost – was a relatively tall man who had difficulty lowering himself enough as to fit in the narrow space under the overlaying slab of fallen concrete. His bald head, days-old stubble and sharp grey eyes indicated his position of authority and decisiveness. He was also a stringent pedant, ensuring he and his team always played by the book and obeyed their orders and directives to the letter.

As much as Vasse’s stature and reputation for being a wise and strategic combatant commanded respect, his authoritarian nature grew somewhat cold to Sean’s latent impulsiveness. While Sean desired nothing more than to rush out and save as many as he could whilst killing the attacking forces, it was Vasse’s role to ensure such things never happened. Although Sean would never deliberately expose himself or his team with such a reckless act, it still proved irritating to be reminded to “keep cool”, as though years of punishing physical and psychological training hadn’t taught him that lesson enough.

‘Remember our orders!’ Vasse pressed on. His strained tone indicated that he didn’t enjoy the situation any more than Sean did. ‘We are to stay unseen and unheard at all costs. Conflict is not an option, and we are to engage the enemy only in self-defense. This is a reconnaissance mission, not an offensive.’

Sean resisted the urge to respond with an irked grunt. He was well-aware of their mission objectives, thank you very much, having gone over them a dozen times in preparation for deployment. Infiltrate conflict zone. Track enemy movements and activities. Exfiltrate conflict zone alive. The last thing he wanted was to be reminded of how useless they were ordered to do: merely plot down the rebels’ movements as they performed their unannounced and unwarranted civil attacks.

The fires that spread across the streets twinkled in the shadows of his eyes as he turned them back towards the massacre. He concentrated on keeping his fingers loose, if only to prevent another pointless warning. As if he were about to fire a plasma blast with his teammates in such close quarters … He was eighteen, not four. He knew how to be careful with a rifle – they didn’t hand out such high-power models as the ones he and his teammates were equipped with to just anyone, after all.

They kept watching in heavy silence, hidden vigils to the running, helpless innocents being cut down like insects. Every now and then, Sean would feel himself involuntarily flinch or cringe at what he saw, or when a plasma grenade blast erupted close-by.

It was almost surreal; despite the confusion that reigned, Sean felt like he could make out every single incident as they happened. He saw rows and rows of strategic, coordinated Rebellion soldiers advance along the street, firing their plasma rifles in sweeping motions to strike as many of the fleeing mass as they could. He saw armored and treaded paramilitary vehicles rolling about, blasting both runners and buildings apart with their mounted cannons as though part of a destruction derby, rolling over the fallen, and those who got in their way, without the slightest hesitation. One such truck crashed into the façade of a building across the street and several soldiers ran into the structure, blasting at anything that moved whilst the shrieks of families, including children, rent the air before quickly dying out. One man in the streets kneeled, begging for pity, before a soldier kicked him in the face and then shot him repeatedly. Anyone in the stampede who was unlucky enough to trip or be knocked to the ground were unlikely ever to get back up again, either trampled to death or crushed by the oncoming vehicles. If they weren’t shot first, that is.

Entire buildings were being set ablaze, sending flames craning into the air, casting their golden-red glow upon everything and burning evilly against the cold, crimson skies. The very cover of clouds above, through which golden rays of sunlight managed to pierce through like small and sporadic curtains, seemed to flicker and glow from the light of the fires. Hell had descended upon Corinthea.

As much as Sean just wanted to look away, he found himself unable to avert his eyes. Every fiber in his tired yet alert body was screaming at him just to run out into the fray and start blasting away at as many of those Rebellion beasts as he could, an urge so strong that he could feel himself trembling with adrenaline and restlessness. Yet, his conditioning allowed him to overpower his impulses and stay put, feeling utterly helpless in his inability to come to the innocents’ aid.

Behind him, a third member of the group, a young Black woman named Hartling, was busily scanning her datapad, a small handheld device used to display anything such as text, videos and maps. The Lieutenant’s green eyes and face were feebly illuminated by the screen’s pale blue glow as she concentrated on tracking the enemy’s positions and movements on the map displayed. To her side, the fourth member of the group, a Hispanic-looking man with short greying hair and a nasty scar running down the length of his left cheek, was content to merely lay back against the side of the air pocket formed by the fallen structure around them, eyes unfocused, obviously lost in thought. Captain Luis was known for his exceptional marksmanship as well as for his keen intellect, which perhaps explained in part how he and Sean had become such strong friends over the years of working, killing and surviving together. Luis had been something of a mentor to Sean over the years, throughout his childhood and all during his training, giving him the life lessons no-one else was able to, since Sean’s parents and family had been killed by a Rebellion attack when he was still in diapers. Sean had come to view Luis as a father figure of sorts, leading him right and providing him physical and moral support when he had needed it most.

These four comrades were a unit that had seen and done it all. Together, the brothers-in-arms currently spying on the horrors unraveling in the city streets had gone through more training and preparation for combat than had anyone else in the entire Corinthean military. Years of working side-by-side, of mutual support and care, had fostered bonds that held stronger than did most friendships. They were the absolute best of the best, the go-to guys for when everyone and everything else failed. The last resort of the damned.

They were Phantom Unit.

‘Sean,’ Luis said in a quietly placating tone, breaking the heavy silence between them. Sean glanced towards him. Luis indicated placing his trigger finger on the trigger-guard rather than on the trigger itself, just in case. If anyone else had scolded Sean in such a way, he likely would’ve snapped back irately, but as it was, Sean merely nodded quietly and did as his friend indicated.

‘Ghost,’ Lieutenant Hartling spoke in a hushed voice.

‘Yes?’ said Vasse, turning towards her and looking happy to have a distraction from the horrors.

‘I’ve completed the scans of the hostiles’ positions and movements,’ Hartling said, her voice low and calm yet discernibly tense. ‘From what I can tell from all our preliminary analyses, it all points to a system-wide, strategic clearing of the north-east sector of Capital City. They’re suppressing anyone presumably associated with the Corinthean government.’

Vasse looked back towards the streets, looking morose yet unsurprised. Sean and the others felt the same way – it was exactly what they had expected, yet hoped wasn’t so. The Rebels were organizing a complete wipeout of anyone with “loyalist” ties (the Rebellion’s smear of anyone with links to the federal Corinthean government) in their ever-continuing bid to take over Capital City.

The story of the so-called People’s Rebellion was a long and horrific one, yet their origins were as mysterious as were their end goals. As far as anyone could recall, the dissident movement began decades earlier, when small groups of workers and civilians suddenly turned rogue against the Corinthean government and formed their own little societal microcosm. It was reportedly a group united by anger and bigotry (the original caucus was, unsurprisingly, all male), and fueled by their collective resentment towards the government, though the reasons for this bitterness were never known. Sean figured that some people just grew up to be filled with anger and hate and, having no-one in specific to direct it towards, chose to turn against the very symbols of authority that, in their minds, were responsible for their troubles in life: law enforcement forces, the military, and above all, the government.

The problem, though, is that unlike most such splinter groups of malcontents, which usually just vanished away into nothingness over time, this group somehow managed to claim hold upon the common psyche of similar-minded people and kept growing, garnering new members and gaining in influence. Their methods included propaganda, slander, wild claims, conspiracy theories ranging from cover-ups to an oncoming global government takeover, and the likes.

Soon, the Corinthean government took notice of this unruly group of cranks and, recognizing them as an animated yet unimpressive threat to global peace and order, chose to send a group of their paramilitary peacekeeping forces to “warn” them to calm down.

What happened next was beyond what anyone could’ve predicted or imagined.

Seemingly overnight, violence exploded throughout Corinthea. Riots rampaged through the streets, gunfire erupted in offices, and buildings were burned. It was soon evident that the movement and mindset had grown far beyond anyone’s expectations, thanks to the marvels of modern communications and social networking systems. It was later revealed that the group, already naming itself the People’s Rebellion, had spread far wider than even the most liberal of guesses dared to posit, which accounted for the rapidity and severity of the uprising. The conflicts that ensued were brutal enough to threaten to tear the planet in two.

This revolt had occurred over three decades previously to when Sean and his unit members were crouching in the partially collapsed rubble of an office building, keeping a burning yet helpless eye upon the massacre occurring merely a dozen feet before them. The Corinthean Military immediately organized massive swipes designated to clear out these vicious attacks and the rebels who perpetrated them, yet their forces were shockingly ineffective against the sheer brutality of the Rebellion’s onslaught. Corinthea was being attacked on two fronts simultaneously: the government and Military, to try and overthrow those in charge and to instate a new world order, and the civilians. Questions of how and why people would suddenly decide to murder their own people were quickly swept aside when it came to fighting for survival. The Military was stretched thin, rendering both their offensive and defensive forces weak and friable. Victories in battles were becoming rarer and rarer as the wave of Rebels kept sweeping in, eroding support and resilience by the day.

Finally, after decades of intense combat, the Rebels had broken through the final frontier: Capital City, the heart of the Corinthean government. Attempts to crush them and squeeze them out were failing, as once again, the Rebels were focusing half their energy in claiming innocent civilian lives by the thousands, forcing the Military to split its forces to keep up with the losses and to try and protect the innocent from slaughter.

They were failing. Moreover, once the Rebellion had Capital City in their grasp, no-one would be able to stop them. Endgame.

Commander Vasse reached to his ear and tapped a tiny earpiece present there.

‘Ghost to Command, Ghost to Command, come in,’ he spoke, keeping his finger pressed in his ear. Each of them having their own telecom earpieces linked to the same frequency, Sean and the others heard Vasse’s hushed voice as clear as though he were speaking an inch from their own ears.

‘Command to Ghost, connection established and secured. Proceed, over,’ came the automated, androgynous voice at the other end.

‘We are in position in the north-east sector and have been tracking Rebellion forces positions and movements,’ continued Vasse, the computerized communications system recording his transmission. ‘Their method appears to be an organized and systematic cleansing of the sector with tactics equivalent to guerrilla warfare. We have widespread fires, vehicular offensives, and large numbers of infantry descending down the streets and creating massive unrest and panic. They are methodically eliminating anyone and anything with possible federal ties or loyalties. Current casualty estimates range anywhere from hundreds, to tens of thousands, and climbing fast.’

He paused for a moment, glancing at Sean uncertainly, before continuing: ‘Requesting immediate tactical support and an extraction crew –’

‘Denied,’ the robotic voice interrupted in a sharp tone. ‘Your orders are specifically not to interfere with the ongoing events. Your mission is reconnaissance and surveillance only.’

Sean clenched his jaw in frustration. Vasse looked defeated. There would be no arguing or reasoning with the automated systems, so they had best not even try.

‘Is there anything further to report? Over,’ said the emotionless voice.

Vasse hesitated, staring at the horrors in the street again, before responding. ‘Nothing further to report at this time, over,’ he said in a low voice.

‘In that case, you are to extract from the conflict zone and report back to Base, Ghost, over,’ said the voice.

‘Understood, Command,’ said Vasse. ‘Out.’

A distinct crackle at the end of the line indicated that the connection went dead.

Commander Vasse sighed deeply, still staring at the atrocities. Sean glanced at his friend, Captain Luis, who was still seated back against the side of the small pocket they were in. Luis’ eyes met Sean’s, flickering in the glow of the flames beyond. The two men communicated silently, their frustrations and eating at their hearts. However, having been ordered back to base, there was nothing more they could do.

‘Come on,’ said Vasse quietly yet firmly, shuffling onto his feet and leading the way out the way through which they came, a small opening at the back of the compartment. Sean got to his feet and followed along, casting one last momentary glance towards the scene beyond, just in time to watch as a soldier shot a plasma pulse into a pleading woman’s face.

He closed his eyes with a cringe, turning around and following the Commander out through the narrow passageway haphazardly formed in the rubble. Luis and Hartling entered tow behind him, and in moments, they had exited the ruins, still shielded from view by the remnants of the once imposing edifice around them. The pearly white, metal-plated walls were shining through their coating of dust in the face of the fires that ravaged through the streets around them.

It’s not the risks of their return back to Base that caused Sean such grief. It’s what they were leaving behind. Luis, older and wiser than Sean was, had once told the young lad about an ages-old saying: that all that was necessary for evil to succeed, was for good people to stand by and do nothing.

Sean felt like he and his team had just given the lives of the innocents to evil, to the Rebels, on a silver platter.

*

August 07, 2512 – 21:20

We were sent out to track the enemy’s movements and activities through the northeast sector of Capital City this evening. Upon completion of the mission, we quickly returned to Base without difficulty.

Although the mission was technically a success and we were able to confirm Ghost’s suspicions of what was going on, I cannot help but feel a horrible guilt and sadness, both with what we have seen, and what we have done – or, rather, not done. We witnessed the senseless, methodical and merciless massacre of hundreds and thousands of innocent civilians, and yet our orders forbade us from interfering in any way, from saving a single life. The helplessness that grips me is quite possibly the worst feeling I’ve ever felt. It sickens me to my very core to know that we were there, that we could, and should, have done something, anything, to help those poor bastards in the streets, but that we didn’t.

The Federal Military is having more difficulties than ever in holding their grounds and keeping the local peace; sometimes, I wonder if there even is any peace left to keep. Our troop numbers are running ever lower as every day good men and women are sent to their inevitable deaths at the hands of these beasts, these monsters. Supplies are rapidly being depleted as well. We have now turned towards rationing our ammunition, as well as our provisions. I have been hungry for the past several days with only the occasional meal to keep me functional, and we are being told not to use our firearms unless absolutely necessary – ie. unless actually fired upon. I wish the Rebels were imposed such restrictions.

It has been several weeks since we were promised reinforcements, yet we have still yet to hear news of their arrival. Part of me is now suspecting that they may well have been intercepted; it certainly is plausible, if not even probable. This is a serious setback, one among the so many that we have undergone these times. I fear that without new equipment, supplies and personnel, this outpost, and others like it, may not last for much longer.

Meanwhile, the Rebellion advances across the land like an unstoppable plague. None of our efforts is making the slightest dent in their offensives. At this point, I am beginning to wonder if I even still care about who wins this war, just so long as the atrocities end.

I am sick of being tired, cold and hungry. I am sick of being miserable. I am sick of waking up, day after goddamned day, wondering if I’ll even live to go to bed again. I am sick of seeing the innocent being slaughtered, their lives torn apart, and not being able to do a single goddamned thing about it. I am sick of the darkness and cruelty of this cursed world. And all of this, because of a bunch of degenerate malcontents. I cannot imagine an evil strong or horrible enough that would be a suitable punishment for them. I just want them all to die.

But there is nothing I can do. Nothing anyone can do. Every day is nothing but uncertainty, and we cannot know who to trust, who is about to turn on us. All we can do, is hope that

Sean’s written meanderings were suddenly cut short. At that moment, a concussive BANG gripped the base and the feebly lit corridor around him gave a violent shudder; he jumped so badly that he tumbled out of his cramped bunk-bed and crashed onto the cold steel floor, three feet below. Ignoring his now-aching chin and kneecaps, he quickly jumped to his feet, slightly disoriented as the lights hanging off the corridor’s ceiling were swaying from the tremor and casting swinging shadows around the place, making the corridor appear as though it were undulating like a ship caught in a storm at sea. He barely had time to scrabble for the fallen little leather-bound journal and pen before a deafening, echoing alarm blared throughout the base.

It was the nature of the alarm that sent a spike of fear through Sean’s heart. The base had a variety of alarm calls for different events, and the sharp, trumpet-like blasts that were rolling through the military bunker indicated only one thing: their one-mile perimeter sensors had been tripped.

They’ve found us. They’re coming.

Although the base’s soldiers had performed extensive practice drills to prepare for such an event, it had never actually happened before. The members of Phantom Unit, along with a hundred other soldiers, found home in a secure, fortified and hidden military bunker that had been integrated right into the center of Capital City’s urban landscape. Only a few nondescript structures and surveillance posts were visible above ground; the rest of the complex was hidden under the streets and buildings, effectively hiding it from enemy satellite scans and aerial surveillance. The only two entrances to the base were hidden well enough so that only those who knew where to look, and what to look for, could find them. Command, the panel in charge of the base’s administration and safekeeping, had taken every possible precaution to head off any eventual attacks by enemy forces. Now, it seemed their preparations and defenses were being put to the test.

The sounds of panic and commotion flooded in around him as a rush of soldiers swarmed through the corridors, all headed to their defensive positions as they had been trained to. Sean couldn’t help but notice, despite his own agitation, that most of them looked terrified. Despite their training, which was nearly as exhaustive as was his own, none of them had ever been placed on the defensive before.

Stuffing the pen in the journal and the latter under in his bedsheet, Sean grabbed his rifle, which was resting against the wall next to his bunk, and jumped into the crowd, following them through the narrow, darkened corridors and the wider hallways that made up the complex, towards the base’s façade and fortifications.

Soon, Sean arrived at a narrow spiral stairwell; hurrying up the poorly lit metal mesh steps and nearly tripping himself twice, he arrived at an opening into a small, low-ceilinged concrete bunker of sorts. The structure was actually a disused turret; cutbacks in funding had led to the removal of the base’s automated defenses, prompting Command to rely on the base’s present soldiers to ward off any enemy offensives. The space was octagonal in shape; at the center of the floor, scratches and various markings indicated where the turret’s gun-cannon used to stand. Its absence was a chilling representation of how horribly weakened their forces and capabilities had become over the years.

The northern wall of the bunker had a wide, narrow opening spanning forty-five degrees in angle, where the old gun’s cannon used to stick out. At the right-hand corner of the opening, Commander Vasse was already crouching in position, looking tense but resolutely calm, his rifle at his side as he gazed out at the visible portion of the city beyond. He didn’t even seem to notice as Sean hunkered down at his opposite by the left-hand edge of the opening, checking his rifle to ensure it was locked and loaded. Taking a deep breath to steady his nerves, he looked around at the land outside the base.

The sight made his breath catch in his throat.

The twilight cast feeble illumination upon the urban land, giving the abandoned buildings and desolate streets a sickly, haunted sort of dark crimson radiance. This sector of Capital City had long since been abandoned and evacuated, its citizens spread to neighboring regions in order to try and get them out of the way of oncoming Rebellion attacks. The wide roads and boulevards that divided the city blocks were usually silent and, apart from dozens of old wrecks and a scattering of random debris, empty and still.

However, what Sean and Commander Vasse were looking at this evening was vastly different. The streets were now bustling with activity as dozens of paramilitary trucks, the same armored and laser-equipped treaded vehicles Sean and his team had witnessed chasing after civilians merely hours ago, sped into view from around street corners and behind buildings and structures. They tore down the narrow pathways and rough terrain leading up to the base, swerving around steel-bar fences and anti-vehicular concrete walls with disconcerting precision thanks to their treads, their rooftop-mounted laser cannons glinting dully in the dying sunlight. Their numbers were staggering and horrifying.

‘How many?’ came a familiar voice to Sean’s right; jumping slightly, he realized Captain Luis and Lieutenant Hartling had settled into their positions between himself and Commander Vasse, their rifles raised and aiming through the window. They looked just as scared yet resolved as Sean and Vasse themselves felt.

‘Hard to say,’ answered Sean to Luis’ question. ‘I count two dozen personnel-carrying vehicles and rising, fast.’

‘Look like they’ve come to wage a small war,’ said Vasse half-ironically on his end, aiming through the scope of his high-power plasma rifle.

However, despite the tenseness of the moment, something struck Sean as odd.

‘Hey – if they’ve only just breached the one-mile perimeter, then what was that detonation just a little while ago?’ he asked, keeping his eye on the approaching trucks.

‘I’m not sure, but judging by the fact that our comm. systems just went dead, I’d say they somehow took out or communications antennas,’ replied Lieutenant Hartling, who was fumbling around with a datapad with one hand whilst keeping her other hand securely around the grip of her plasma rifle, aimed towards the oncoming hostiles. ‘We have no contact with any other part of the base. We’re cut off!’

‘Shit,’ muttered Sean. The Rebels had once again upped their game by taking out the base’s communications infrastructure before actually launching their ground-level offensives. Sean surmised that they must have somehow located the bunker’s antennae systems from afar – from over a mile away, in fact, if they didn’t trip their sensors before that – and had presumably launched a missile from a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher.

Clever fuckers.

Outside, the enemy trucks were tearing down the last few hundred feet of pavement and terrain leading up to the base, kicking up large clouds of dust and debris as they roared through the streets and around buildings. Even from afar, the rumbling of those ancient, diesel-powered engines rang ominously in Sean’s ears. After years on the battlefield, it was a sound he had come to fear, and loathe.

‘Arms at the ready,’ said Vasse forcefully to make himself heard over the growing din of crunching earth and revving engines as the enemy approached. The very concrete floor and walls around them were beginning to tremble. They gripped their rifles tighter and peered through the electronic scopes. A small, greenish screen gave them detailed readings about everything in sight: distances, the velocity of various objects, wind speed estimates, temperature, etc., along with the standard remaining ammunition count and rifle condition indicator (to show if the gun was malfunctioning in any way). It also had a built-in intelligent night-vision mode, which automatically enhanced darkened areas within its visible range. Everything anyone ever needed to locate their targets.

Sean aimed his scope at the lead truck and zoomed in, peering through its windscreen. Although they were darkened, the scope’s powerful light detection sensors were able to map out the outlines of objects within the trucks’ interior, including the silhouettes of seated soldiers.

‘I estimate seven hostiles per vehicle,’ announced Sean. Zooming out again – those vehicles were only moments away from reaching the base now – he performed a wide sweep of the field; the rifle’s computer, programmed to count various instances of similar structures or objects, automatically calculated the number of visible vehicles bearing down upon them, displaying a small numeral in the corner of the scope’s display.

‘I count thirty-five vehicles,’ said Sean loudly; the revving engine noises were filling the air, resonating around the empty concrete chamber and creating a hell of a racket. ‘Range: forty yards and closing fast!’

‘Fire on my command! Standby!’ ordered Vasse, his voice rising to a near shout. Adrenaline pumped through Sean’s body, heightening his senses and agitation; he felt his pulse throb in his fingers as they solidly gripped the hard rubber grip of the compact yet power plasma rifle, the shiny steel barrel glinting in the trucks’ lights as they thundered across the final few feet separating them from the base’s immediate perimeter …

‘OPEN FIRE!’ came Commander Vasse’s roar.

From all around the base and its various defense outposts and turrets, it was as if Vasse’s order had been echoed by every single other commander in the area. At once, the air exploded with beams of light and the flashes of explosions; Sean was nearly blown back at the sudden blast of rifle fire that emanated, not just from his and his teammates’, but also from all sides. It was as though the very land around them had suddenly opened fire upon the Rebels as they came ever closer, determined to ward off this last, great menace.

Sean’s rifle barely vibrated at all as he sent pulse after pulse of bright energy beam streaking at the vehicles; there was no forwards or reverse momentum, no mechanical action to create kickback. It was pure energy that was being summoned up from the ammunition cartridge and shot forwards at thousands of feet per second, striking whatever the rifle was aiming at with perfect accuracy.

The military trucks quickly responded in kind; their mounted laser cannons started swinging around, rapidly shooting off multicolored jets of focused energy, aiming for the sources of rifle fire that were blasting their way from all around the area. Sean and the others routinely ducked behind the two-feet-thick concrete walls of their bunker for cover, half the time merely as a precautionary measure as enemy fire hitting their fortified structure, each pulse leaving fist-sized craters of charred, cracked and chipped concrete in their wake. The spectacle of lights whizzing everywhere in sight was nearly blinding, yet at the same time, it proved to be strangely transfixing. Sean had to force himself to keep focused as to not just lose himself to the scene.

Amidst the complete and utter confusion that reigned, it was nearly impossible to tell what was happening with any real certainty. Explosions, from plasma grenades and from exploding diesel gas tanks, peppered the landscape, at times consuming entire vehicles and sending them flying off their treads. Windscreens were shattering like sugar glass; the soldiers within were being shot to pieces by Military fire; chassis were being blasted apart by laser blasts, revealing engines that offered perfect targets for Military marksmen.

Brutally halted in their tracks by the sudden wall of Military laser fire, the Rebel vehicles suddenly stopped advancing, less than two dozen feet from the base. They wheeled around, presenting their sides to the military base, and the Rebel soldiers who quickly jumped out took cover behind the massive metal hulks as they opened fire upon the base with their own plasma rifles. However, they were guerrillas and weren’t better equipped than mercenaries were, whereas Sean and his team held the latest-model rifles in their hands, enabling them to shoot faster, more accurately, and more powerfully. Their blasts ripped through the armored trucks, tearing through the thick metals and alloys and sending debris flying through the air in showers of sparks and flame. Rebels were being cut down by the dozens, body parts exploding and disintegrating as they were riddled with high-energy plasma strikes.

And yet, they just kept coming. Like an unstoppable tidal wave, more and more Rebel trucks swarmed the area, everywhere in sight, bringing in ever newer numbers of armed hostiles for their massive offensive. They were throwing everything they had in this attack.

‘We can’t hold ’em off like this forever!’ yelled Sean over his comrades’ rifle blasts.

‘Try and locate their HVTs!’ Captain Luis shouted back from his side, busy blasting away at the nearest truck and turning it to shrapnel with his powerful, well-placed blasts.

Sean groaned inaudibly, still picking off whatever Rebels were in his range. H.V.T.s – High-Value Targets, or anything that should be destroyed first, such as communications relays, supply trucks, command vehicles, and the likes. Unfortunately, these vehicles all looked the same; it was impossible to tell apart any that may have served functions of higher importance for the Rebels. It was like hammering at a control panel with hundreds of buttons and controls, trying to find the one that may actually shut the systems down. This could take far too long, longer than they could afford to stand.

However, just as Sean was about to reply back, something caught his eye: as though in slow-motion, a sharp glint of light seemed to whizz right by his right shoulder, heading somewhere behind him. Momentarily distracted from the firefight, he turned around, looking for whatever it was that had passed him, before he was attracted to a sudden sound: clack, clack, clack.

Eyes attracted by motion, he discerned the object-in-question, even in the low and sporadic light that filtered through the narrow opening of the bunker wall into the interior space. It was a small, tube-shaped metallic item, rolling around on the floor. It only took a split-second for Sean to realize what it was.

His heart skipped a beat.

GRENADE!’ he roared. Panic overtook his mind; there was nowhere to go, nothing to hide behind; the blast would fill the space inside the bunker, evaporating anything caught in it –

Time seemed to stand still as Sean, incapacitated with shock and fear, witnessed what happened next. At his side, Captain Luis rushed past him – stooped down – grabbed the grenade – whipped around, arm extended – hurled himself towards the opening in the wall – threw the grenade out the window with all his strength, striking a pose that looked like a major-league baseball pitcher –

A blinding bluish-white flash – a dull roar – a rush of heat –

Sean was sprawled on his stomach across cold stone floor. He blinked, once, twice, trying to clear his vision, which had suddenly become blurred. He had gone deaf, or almost; sounds came muffled to him, distorted and echoed, as though hearing in water; his entire body felt numb, paralyzed.

He finally cleared his sight and then rolled over, grunting in pain as he did so; looking down at his body, he noticed he was peppered with cuts and scratches and was bleeding all over. None of it seemed too serious, though; no more than one would bleed from scraping their knee against the ground after a fall. He felt as though he’d been beaten and battered; every inch of his body was wracked with dull pain.

Groaning in effort, battling his rigid and aching muscles, he staggered to his feet, wiping what appeared to be blood from his face, and looked around. The air was thick with dust, which slowly settled down to clear his surroundings. The bunker was now strewn with debris; crumbled and shattered bits of concrete lay everywhere upon the floor, along with a fresh coating of dust and dirt.

Despite his disorientation, his mind started to kick back into function.

‘Vasse?’ he called out, his voice croaky; he cleared his throat, which turned into a sharp, hoarse cough. ‘Luis? Hartling?’

‘Here,’ came Hartling’s feminine voice, sounding pained and breathless. Looking around at the sound of her voice, Sean found her pulling herself up against the wall, looking similarly covered in minor scrapes and blood as Sean was. Thankfully, she did not appear to be seriously injured.

‘I’m fine,’ she added, scrubbing some dirt out of the cuts in her arms and shoulders. ‘Just a few bruises.’

‘And you, O’Neil?’ came Vasse’s voice; looking around, Sean saw his commander stumbling to his feet, grabbing the cracked wall for support, looking dizzy.

‘I’m fine,’ repeated Sean. His hearing was regaining its acuity, and once again, the nearby commotion of an intense gunfight filled his ears.

He paused for a moment. Something was missing. Looking around, the realization suddenly dawned on him like a hawk on a mouse.

‘Where’s … where’s Luis?’

Vasse, who was helping Hartling to her feet, gave Sean a glance. He looked tense, almost scared.

‘Where’s Luis?’ Sean repeated, slightly more forcefully. His heart was pounding in his ears; a cold sensation was creeping down his spine. He tried to remember what had happened just moments ago: a grenade landing on the floor in their bunker …

‘Sean …’ said Vasse softly.

Sean froze; every muscle in his body became rigid. Even for these comrades, with their bonds that were stronger than throughout most military units, it was customary to refer to each other by their surnames. They never called each other by their given names, especially Commander Vasse, being the stringent rule-abider that he was. In the four long years that he and Sean had fought together, he had never addressed Sean by his first name. Not once.

As Sean stared at him, eyes wide and mouth slightly parted, almost as though he were trying not to breathe, Vasse broke his gaze and slowly looked down, to Sean’s right, staring at something on the ground behind him. A thrill of dread suddenly stole over Sean; fearing what he would find, he slowly looked around, following Vasse’s indicative stare.

Lying spread-eagled on his back amidst the scattered rubble, his short grey hair was coated with dust and blood. His face was smeared with red, to the point where it was nearly unrecognizable. His combat suit was shredded and charred at the chest and shoulders, revealing deep gashes beneath. The right side of his neck and head was blackened and burned. Rivulets of blood were seeping out through his parted mouth, even despite his lack of breathing.

Sean was completely numb. Everything around him seemed to disappear, to fade away to blackness, leaving only him and the body of his comrade, his friend – his fallen mentor. He couldn’t feel his legs move, yet somehow he had taken a few steps and was now directly besides Hermano Luis, looking down upon the face of the man who had practically raised him since infancy. The man who had been there for him when no-one else had, the man who had taught him everything he knew, both in combat, and in life. The man who had saved Sean’s life more times than he could count on the battlefield.

I can’t believe the news today
I can’t close my eyes and make it go away …

He was crouching over Luis; again, he hadn’t even felt himself move. He just stared at the body of the closest thing to a father, to family, he’d ever known, and likely ever would. His eyes came upon the twisted, scorched insignia pinned on Luis’ chest, indicating his rank as a Captain. Pulling in a slightly shaky breath, he swiped at his prickly eyes with his sleeve; wetness was smeared across his face, turning cold in the cool night air.

I’ll wipe the tears off your face,
Wipe the tears away …

He started shaking. Badly. Worse than he’d ever trembled before, be it out of fear, or adrenaline, or outrage; almost as though he were detoxing or something. His fists clenched tightly, hard enough for his trimmed nails to dig into his palms, but he ignored the slight pain. It was too small to be noticed, drowned out by the rest of the agony storming through is mind and body.

The trench is dug within our hearts,
And mothers, children, brothers, sisters torn apart …

‘O’Neil?’ he heard Vasse ask uncertainly from behind; he didn’t answer. He just stayed there, squatted down besides his fallen mentor, the words flowing through his mind as though from an earpiece.

His breathing suddenly came ragged, shallow, and sharp, almost like panting. His jaws clenched. His eyes, unable to see anymore through the cloud of tears, shut tightly, as though reacting to intense pain.

And today the millions cry
We eat and drink while tomorrow they die …

Suddenly, it felt as though something within Sean exploded with the force of a bomb. He jumped to his feet, so hard that his boots actually left the floor; twisting around as he went, he located his rifle on the floor, knocked out of his grip during the blast, and the next second it was in his hands again, his finger on the trigger. Before his remaining, living comrades could do anything more than stare in shock, Sean had launched himself out headfirst through the opening, four feet above the floor, and landed on his stomach on the rocky ground outside.

‘No – SEAN!’ came Vasse and Hartling’s desperate cries from inside the cracked, crumbling turret.

Sean barely heard them. Heart thumping madly and feeling an incredible rush of heat and energy coursing through his body, he scrambled to his feet, rifle in-hand, and started running towards the sea of enemy trucks and firing rifles.

He wasn’t thinking or planning ahead; he wasn’t aware of the stinging and throbbing in the cuts and bruises that peppered his flesh; all he was doing, was running straight into the chaos before him, his finger holding his rifle’s trigger depressed and sending endless volleys of plasma beams streaking out in all directions, swinging his aim around to get as many hits as he could manage.

It puts my back up, my back up against the wall …

It was a wholly surreal experience: driven by nothing but pain, grief, and pure hatred, he had only one thought in mind: to kill as many Rebels as he could. He did not care if he was hit, or killed, or even captured; all he wanted was to give these animals, who had taken his best friend’s life from him, as much pain as he could as he tore them down, seemingly effortlessly, the high-power rifle blasts sending vehicles exploding into flame and body parts flying off in every direction. Enemy fire was hastily returned his way; ribbons of light cut through the air all around him as he breezed by, weaving through their own vehicles, jumping over corpses, and blasting at every single hostile that came into his view. Sparks were flying everywhere, dirt was being kicked up as shots hit the ground harmlessly; the air was thick with smoke, dust, and the stench of blood and charred flesh.

Although it all blurred together, Sean subconsciously kept count of all the kills he racked up: ten … twenty … twenty-five … thirty … His rifle, vastly superior to his enemies’ in its stopping power and rate-of-fire, cut the Rebels down as easily as though they were all lined up before him; he shot at everything he could: hostiles hiding behind truck doors, hostiles visible through windshields, hostiles running around in panic – none escaped his wrath. He single-handedly created confusion and chaos amongst the Rebel ranks. Never had they seen anything like this wild maniac, steamrolling through their lines and destroying everything in his path, his elite training and honed skills keeping him alive despite the insane odds against him. And, miraculously, none of their return fire seemed to hit him, as though he were immune, protected by a superior force –

A sudden flash of light erupted just a foot from his face and his arms gave a jerk; a plasma bolt had hit his rifle, blasting it out of his hands. Not even pausing to make sure he wasn’t injured, he merely reached for his belt and drew his pistol, a standard backup weapon amongst Military forces. It fired bullets, not plasma, which was a definite drawback in his situation – not that he cared, as he started firing the few shots his limited ammunition magazine allowed him.

And bodies strewn across a dead-end street …

A sudden blast of white later, he was on the ground, screaming as his leg felt like it had been blasted off. Looking down, he found a large, crater-like plasma wound in his thigh. It was bleeding profusely, the edges blackened and charred.

Lying on the ground, he yelled in mingled agony and rage, his mind turning incoherent – movement came up all around him; he could feel their presence, he could see their faces, half shocked, half determinedly angry; pointing their rifles at him, seconds from blasting him to pieces, all he could do was desperately try to scramble for his pistol, on the ground just feet from his hand where he fell –

Rifle-fire suddenly erupted around him; he lazily shut his eyelids, fully expecting a massive rush of agony as the beams ripped through his flesh before ending his life, but it never came. Looking around again, he was dazzled by the sudden show of laser beams streaking across the dark sky above him, but it wasn’t aimed at him – it was blasting through the Rebels –

Before he knew it, before he realized what had happened, the dozen-or-so hostiles around him were naught but corpses; he looked around just in time to see a truck, like all the others, roll into view and stop just feet from where he lay, unarmed, helpless and broken. The sliding door at its side swung open; yet before the soldiers that were certain to be inside launched themselves on him, he saw a familiar face jump down and crouch at his side – bald cranium glistening with sweat, sharp and worried eyes scanning him wordlessly –

And this battle’s yet begun
There’s many lost, but tell me, who has won? …

Sean was starting to lose his grip on consciousness; his awareness of what was happening was fading as his exhausted, injured, battered body started to give up on him. He felt himself being hoisted into the air by strong arms that grabbed him under the shoulder blades and in the crook of his knees; feeling slightly dizzy, he glanced around and witnessed as he was carried into the interior of the truck, his wounded leg hitting against the frame of the door and sending another surge of pain up his spine, making him gasp and grunt. He heard the door close more than he saw it, and realized he was lying down on a hard, plastic-like surface –

‘GO!’ he heard Vasse yell from somewhere to his side; glancing up from where he was, blinking to try and keep his sight focused, he saw the dark outline of Lieutenant Hartling in the driver’s seat, her hands spinning the steering wheel with expert speed and dexterity as her foot crushed the pedal; the powerful diesel engine roared as the truck suddenly lunged forwards, rattling badly as they crossed the debris-strewn terrain, crashing through surrounding trucks as though they were made of papier-mâché, sending flames and sparks shooting into the air that Sean could not see, his world fading to black from the pain, exhaustion, delirium and grief.

No more … no more … no more …

*

It was warm in the sidelines of the stage where Sean stood, silent and still, clad in his formal officer’s uniform. His badge signifying his rank glinted with a chrome-like tint on his chest, the pistol at his belt only a decoration. He reached to his collar and fumbled with the velcro latch there, loosening the fabric a bit. This was against tradition; officers were expected to walk into administrative processions, such as the one happening on-stage just a few feet in front of him, with their uniform fastened properly and tight. A guard nearby, who had spent much of the past fifteen minutes prepping Sean and making him presentable, huffed audibly with a scowl. Sean ignored him, keeping his gaze fixed ahead at the stage, and the officer on it who was addressing the assembly he could not see.

‘… Hundreds of operations deep into enemy territory, which have led to the success of every single mission the legendary Phantom Unit has ever been sent to carry out.’

The officer’s voice was crisp and his tone sounded rehearsed. Meaningless droning to Sean’s ears. Strangely, all he really seemed to hear was that same song, playing in his head as though on a stuck recording.

‘Five days ago, during an unprecedented hostile offensive on his home base in Sector One of Capital City, this soldier proved himself a cunning and selfless warrior, whose fiercely brave actions led to over one hundred confirmed enemy fatalities and ensured the survival of his comrades. For going far beyond the call of duty and for his exceptional bravery under enemy fire, the Corinthea Military Command is honored to award the Medal of Honor to Phantom Unit Lieutenant Sean Achelon O’Neil.’

A round of applause went up, accompanied with a loud collective cheer. They were calling him onto the stage, where he would be awarded for his bravery. For having killed more than a hundred enemies in a fit of desperation, of rage, of insanity. For failing to die himself.

There’s many lost, but tell me, who has won? …

Sean took a deep breath. Not one of excitement, or fear, or tenseness – but of resignation.

He started forwards in a slow march, towards the limelight, and the applause, and the spectators who would revel in seeing the Military’s most prestigious award be bestowed upon their hero du jour.

He felt mildly sick.

A few steps later, and he saw it: the audience that had assembled for this momentous occasion. Packed in a small hall with a tall ceiling, all plated with synthetic wood, the crowd numbered at perhaps a little over fifty. They were all high-ranking officers, with their traditionally blue uniforms, gold linings and their badges of honor proudly affixed to their chests. Admirals, lieutenants, captains and colonels: officers of every conceivable rank were present, standing despite the metal chairs below them in a standing ovation, clapping loudly and offering spoken words of congratulations.

At the center of the stage, there was a wooden podium with a single microphone sticking out. The presenter, a short, grizzly man whose rank insignia identified him as an admiral, smiled and saluted Sean as he approached. Sean kept walking at his slow pace, unsmiling and merely staring around.

He reached the podium and turned to face his audience, standing at attention. Searching through the faces, few of which seemed remotely familiar to him, he discerned the bald and treaded heads of Vasse and Hartling, respectively, positioned in the third row. They were applauding with the rest, but Sean noticed they weren’t smiling. If anything, they appeared not to want to be there at all.

As he stood there, the admiral-slash-announcer held a navy-blue box in his hand. He opened it, revealing the elegantly detailed and polished metallic medallion inside, which had the shape of a star with a smooth, navy-blue ribbon interlaced around it. The admiral carefully pulled the medal out from its protective casing as though afraid of damaging it, and offered it to Sean, who lowered his head slightly in acceptance. The soft cloth barely caught on his short hair and ears as it made its way down his head and neck, until the pendant rested upon his chest, glinting proudly in the room’s bright lights.

A renewed cheer and applause rang out through the room as Sean stood there, his stance straight and rigid as an arrow, feeling the soft weight of the star hanging around his neck. The presenter next to him stepped back respectfully, clapping enthusiastically and smiling as they all were.

And it’s true we are immune …

When fact is fiction and TV reality …

Sean felt a swell of heat rise within him. He forced himself to remain cool and still, but inside, he felt like screaming. Like tearing this filthy medal off from around his neck and throwing it into a wall. This was a farce to him. He was being awarded for his “bravery”, when he had done nothing that could be construed as such: he had merely wanted to hurt and kill as many of the sons-of-bitches who took his friend and confidant away from him. He had been reckless, and saving the lives of his comrades and fellow soldiers had played absolutely no part in his rampage.

He was a false hero, and now, he had just been awarded for desiring revenge over life.

It was too much; he couldn’t take it anymore. Giving the room one last stony-faced look, he brusquely turned on his heel and marched straight back towards the sidelines as the audience kept cheering, only slowly realizing their crowned hero had just up and left in the middle of his ceremony without a single word. A look of confusion slowly spread across their faces as the cheering and applause quickly dissipated. All looked positively bewildered, except for Vasse and Hartling, who shared a long, somber, understanding look. Having fought alongside Sean for years, no-one knew him as well as they did.

Except for Luis.

Backstage, Sean took the medal off, crumpled the ribbon carelessly and stuffed it into his pocket. He passed the looks of stunned technicians and guards, who hurried out of his way, clearly getting the message that he was not in the mood for a confrontation as he pushed open a door and turned into a deserted corridor. He walked the length of the hallway for a while, until he came across a door identified as a men’s lavatory.

Well I won’t heed the battle call …

He pushed the door open and closed it behind him, locked it, then slowly stepped towards the large mirrors that hung above the sinks in the pearly white restroom. He gazed at his own reflection: tall, looking faultless, proper … proud. Only the hard, twitching expression etched across his face was of any indication of how he felt inside.

He stared at himself in the glass for a minute; then, surprising even himself, he suddenly threw a fierce punch, right at where his face was in the mirror. The glass cracked loudly; Sean cringed at the sudden pain that pulsed through his fingers and hand, bringing his limb back and holding it in his left, uninjured hand, hugging it tightly against his chest as he stared at his red-eyed, stricken self in the cracked glass, teeth bared in pain and tears now creeping down his cheeks.

How appropriate his reflection now looked: disheveled, hurt, and with large cracks showing.

He didn’t deserve this medal, this honor. He didn’t want it.

Wipe your tears away …

He wanted his friend back.

Wipe your tears away …

He wished he’d been killed.

*

Krypp sat in silence at his desk in the darkened infirmary, keeping an eye on his charge as the human shifted and grunted in his cot. The man – Sean, his name was? – appeared to be in pain, yet the grizzled coyote could find nothing more to tend to on his bandaged body that wasn’t already healing. Krypp instead supposed the man was probably just suffering from another nightmare, the first one since his arrival, now a full week previously. He was admittedly curious as to what Sean could be dreaming about that was causing him such torment – he heard some faint mutterings that sounded vaguely like “Louis” – but he wasn’t about to wake the man up to satisfy his idle curiosity.

Despite the lateness of the hour (it was certainly past midnight), Krypp himself wasn’t feeling too tired, so it wasn’t as though the man’s squirming and moaning would keep him awake. It was nonetheless getting annoying after a while, though, and soon Krypp found himself wondering if this terrible nightmare would ever end. And so, he merely lay back in his chair, silent and still, his beady eyes keeping vigil over his strange patient’s restless slumber as the eventless night crawled on.

*

‘I think you don’t wanna climb up because you’re just scared!’ the little ten-year-old cheetah cub taunted, hanging upside-down from a bough with her yellow spotted legs, her tail swinging merrily.

Aki scowled, her ears flattening slightly against her orange furred head. It was a beautiful afternoon and Aki and three of her friends had gotten their parents’ permission to play around in the nearby woods. However, Aki’s mother, Kira, had forbidden her from climbing trees, recalling a previous incident where Aki had nearly fallen off a branch some twenty feet up, to her mother’s terrible fright. Aki wished her mother had at least not scolded her in front of her friends, who would then be sure to tease her about it for a while afterwards. But then, at only nine years of age, her wishes weren’t granted that often, especially with a lovingly strict mother like Kira. Aki loved her mother dearly and only wanted to make her proud, but sometimes it felt like Kira just wanted to tease her in front of her friends for no good reason. Or so it seemed to Aki’s young mind.

‘That’s not true!’ she said, her tail giving an annoyed twitch as Nessi grinned playfully down at her, upside-down. ‘You heard my mother, she said I can’t climb!’

‘Oh, come on, Aki,’ said Felo, a young coyote boy at her side, looking at her playfully with his bright seven-year-old’s eyes. ‘Your mother’s not even here, she can’t see you. She’d never know …’ he added in a taunting voice.

‘Stop it!’ Aki said, growing more and more upset. She hated it when her friends teased her like this. Though she knew that they meant no harm and cared for her, it didn’t stop her from getting wound up.

‘Look how easy it is!’ Kuri, a nine-year-old colt with dappled brown-and-white fur, said as he ran towards the same tree Nessi was hanging from, grinning playfully down at Aki. He quickly hopped up through the lower branches, hoisting himself up with the strength characteristic to his species, even at such a young age, until he reached Nessi’s own bough and sat back on it, resting against the trunk.

‘See? If I can do it, you can do it, too! Foxes are supposed to be even quicker than horses,’ he teased, stretching out as though he were in his bed.

Aki growled in frustration. She really, really wanted to climb that tree – and part of her wanted to do so just to knock those two off the branch onto their butts (though not that she’d ever intentionally do such a thing) – but the prospect of contradicting and disappointing her mother, who was usually so proud of her, was holding her back like an iron grip. However, her resolution was dissolving in light of the other cubs’ constant provoking.

Climb … climb … climb …’ Felo the coyote pup started to chant from Aki’s side, staring alternatingly between her and the two cubs perched on the tree branch, some ten feet off the ground.

Climb! Climb! Climb!’ the others joined in, leering down at Aki’s visibly conflicted figure. Their voices slowly grew louder as they mercilessly teased the poor young pup. Aki whined; she especially hated it when they started chanting like that. It was considered as the ultimate dare amongst young ones: you either obeyed, or if not, were considered a scaredy-cat. Which, to a cub, was an important thing not to be called.

‘Fine!’ Aki yelled in her high-pitched nine-year-old’s voice, their taunting finally breaking her resolve. Pushing Felo in the chest away from her and sending him toppling onto his rear on the soft ground, she ran towards the tree and gripped the branches with her black paws, her foxy agility indeed giving her an advantage over the other two. She ascended through the tree-limbs much quicker than either of the other two had done, and in only a few seconds, she was at their level, carefully edging herself onto the thick bough as Kuri the colt edged away from the trunk to give her some space to maneuver.

‘See? That wasn’t so hard!’ called Felo from below as he clambered back to his feet and massaged his rump, smiling up at her as Nessi and Kuri mock-applauded her, clapping their hands and cheering exaggeratedly.

‘Hey, shut up, you didn’t even climb up!’ Aki shot back, grimacing at him, all thought of her recent resentment forgotten already.

‘You know I can’t, my leg hurts,’ Felo reminded her, rubbing his left leg, which he had broken a while back during a bout of roughhousing.

‘Oh, please, that was weeks ago!’ said Aki, leaning forwards to leer at him from her perch above. ‘I bet it doesn’t even hurt anymo—’

She suddenly stopped taunting, her voice instead turning into a squeal of terror; she had leaned too far forwards, and the smooth cotton loincloth she was sitting on suddenly slipped on the smooth bark of the branch. Her heart found itself in her throat as she fell …

A sudden explosion of pain shot through her ankle and she gave a sharp, piercing howl; next thing she knew, she was a crumpled heap on the grassy ground, clutching her wounded leg and wailing in pain, her eyes streaming.

‘Aki! Are you okay?’ she heard the others squeal in panicky voices; Felo, the only one still on the ground, was the first to reach her and crouched by her side whilst the other two hurriedly climbed down the tree branches.

‘My ankle really hurts!’ Aki sobbed, rolling around in pain.

‘Kuri, go get help!’ Nessi told the stricken-looking colt, crouching above Aki and trying to comfort her.

‘Why me –?’

‘Just GO!’ Nessi and Felo yelled together.

Kuri quickly dashed off, his long black mane trailing behind him as he weaved nimbly through the trees and jumped over protruding roots.

‘It’ll be okay, li’l sister,’ Nessi said in an attempt at a soothing voice, cradling Aki in her arms as best as she could. ‘Help is coming.’

Aki, overwhelmed by the agony in her ankle and overcome with sobs, along with regret at how stupid she’d been to let her friends goad her into climbing when she knew it wasn’t a good idea anyway, failed to realize what Kuri had just left to do, or who he would undoubtedly come back with …

Aki!’ came an older, familiar female shout; Kira was at her daughter’s side within a minute of Kuri running off to fetch her. She bent over, examining her injured and crying daughter with a deeply worried expression, and palpated her wounded ankle as carefully as she could, though not without eliciting renewed sobs and cringes from the poor foxgirl.

‘Aki, I told you not to climb in trees! I just knew this would happen!’ she scolded in a strained voice yet without expressing any real anger, picking her daughter up without effort and cradling her soothingly in her arms.

‘I-I’m so-sorry, M-Mommy-y!’ Aki blubbered.

‘You three, go home!’ she added sharply to the other three, who quickly lowered their heads in submission. Children in the village could be ordered out of anywhere by any other adult, not just their own parents. Part of their communal living culture was that everyone pitched in to raise their cubs, regardless of whether they were directly related or not.

‘Kira, please don’t be too hard on her,’ pleaded Felo worriedly. ‘We were only playing, and we teased her until she climbed the tree.’

‘Well, if that’s the case, then I thank you for your honesty and I’ll deal with you three later,’ Kira said, her tone calm but severe. ‘For now, just go home. Go!’

Nessi, Kuri and Felo obediently ran past, their short little tails trailing behind them, heading back towards the village, which was visible through the short span of trees separating their playing area from the village. With a sniffling and moaning little Aki in her arms, Kira sighed and moved on towards the village, the infirmary conveniently located just a few dozen feet away. It would be the third visit this month alone … What was with her daughter and her getting hurt all the time?

‘Mommy? Are you angry at me?’ Aki asked in a small voice, looking and sounding fearful and filled with regret. Gazing down upon her injured and repentant daughter, Kira couldn’t help but have her anger disappear mostly, replaced by her maternal compassion.

‘I’m not angry with you, sweetie,’ she said softly, kissing Aki on the forehead. ‘I’m just disappointed that you didn’t listen to me and disobeyed. When I tell you to do or not to do something, Aki, it’s for a reason. I knew you could get hurt, and now, you did.’

Her voice was empty of scold or reprimand, instead sounding comforting and caring. Aki looked her mother in the eye with her own tear-filled blue circles.

‘I’m sorry, Mommy,’ she said with a sniff, looking as though she sincerely meant it. Despite her disappointment and worry for her injured girl, Kira smiled gently.

‘I know you are, Aki. I forgive you, but you have to promise me you won’t disobey me again, especially when it’s about something dangerous. Okay?’

‘Okay … I promise,’ Aki said, giving a little smile of her own despite her continued sniffling and little squeaks of pain. That sprained ankle really did hurt a lot.

‘Love you, sweetie,’ Kira said, nuzzling her daughter gently just as they arrived at the front entrance of the infirmary.

‘Love you, too, Mommy,’ Aki replied, still smiling as she returned her mother’s affections before wiping her teary eyes just as Kira knocked on the wall beside the entrance.

‘Come in,’ came Krypp’s characteristically curt greeting from inside.

Kira pushed the heavy curtain blocking the doorway aside as she entered the faintly-lit cabin. The old coyote healer was at his desk, busying himself with some medications and herbs, before he turned around to look at his new patient.

‘You again?’ he said to Aki, looking almost bored. ‘Been fooling around again?’

‘Lay off, Krypp,’ Kira said sternly. ‘I’ve already dealt with it, you just fix her up.’

Aki looked up at her mom before being placed onto the floor again, leaning against the wall to avoid having to place her aching footpaw against the ground. She was grateful that her mother told Krypp to shut up with his snide remarks and teases; she’d had enough of people taunting her for the day. Being a child, it was always so remarkably easy for her to end up in trouble, either by disobeying a parental order, or by getting hurt – or both – but at least, however strict her mother may be, Aki could always count on Kira to be fair, and loving. And that was all she wanted or needed.

*

Aki awoke in her bed, the sun once again beating down upon her face with its usual merciless glare. Not even bothering to groan or open her eyes, she merely turned onto her side, trying to get comfortable again. She could tell she had just been dreaming, yet couldn’t remember what about. She could remember her mother’s face above her, looking down at her, her expression one of caring and love.

Even at the height of her sixteen years, Aki allowed herself to slowly glide back to sleep with a small smile across her muzzle.