Saturday, June 12, 2010

Inhuman | Chapter 5: A God Amongst Them [old edition]

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

Sean slowly begins to understand this new world, and finds himself at home for the first time in his life.


— CHAPTER FIVE —

A God Amongst Them

The days slowly went by and Sean lay in his cot, gradually healing from his injuries and spending most of his waking hours nearly bored out of his mind. The dull, throbbing pain that wracked his body was his only permanent companion, other than an uncomfortably empty stomach. Krypp didn’t allow him much food, saying he wanted Sean’s body to conserve energy for convalescing rather than digestion, an argument Sean found less than convincing. The little sustenance he did have consisted solely of vegetables, legumes, and the occasional fruit. Whilst not an enemy of greens, he also wasn’t a fan, preferring meat (or his personal favorite, pasta). He never went thirsty, though; the pitcher of water at his bedside was refilled whenever it ran low, and Sean positively regaled himself in its purity. It was the best he’d ever tasted, considering the water on New Corinthea came in two unpleasant savors: if it came from the oceans or rivers, it was polluted; if passed through chemical treatment, it possessed a slight acrid aftertaste.

Each day would have been entirely indistinguishable from the last had it not been for Aki. Although she was forced to resume tending to her duties at the orchard and other daily communal chores, having neglected them the first few days she spent with Sean, she still found the time to visit him whenever she could. It was usually she who would wake him up each morning with a gentle smile, one that he couldn’t help but imitate. She would also bring him his meager helpings of food with an apologetic face (which he found comforting, knowing she, at least, recognized his plight). They would share a few words before she left for her daily tasks. She visited every few hours during her quick breaks, and finally, when her chores were taken over by someone else in the late afternoon, she would then spend much of the rest of her day at Sean’s side. She would tend to his needs in a motherly sort of way, something that evoked both appreciation and amusement in Sean. Their lengthy conversations were wide-ranging in their topics: anything from Aki’s day, to dreams Sean remembered having, to the anthro lifestyle, and (of course) Sean’s past and homeworld. He tried to avoid speaking about the latter subject whenever he could, yet he didn’t have the heart to refuse to answer Aki’s fascinated questions when they came.

Finally, when two long weeks had passed since Sean’s dramatic arrival to Earth, he had recovered enough for Krypp to accept to discharge him from his care. Even from within the enclosed walls of the infirmary, Sean could tell that it was a magnificent day outside, particularly as it was the first sunny one after three long days of light rain and overcast skies. A soft breeze wafted through the curtained windows and only increased his excitement at the idea of finally leaving the infirmary.

Aki was at his bedside, as usual, smiling from the same nervous excitement Sean himself felt as they watched Krypp carefully slice through the tight bandages with a small knife. His skin tingled as fresh air made contact with his flesh, making him shiver uncomfortably. Finally, Sean was left in nothing but his underwear, though he felt no shame in being exposed before Aki, as she had helped Krypp change his bandaging every few days and had already seen more of him than he would’ve wished. However, he had been adamant about keeping his boxer briefs on at all times, and to her credit, she had kindly played aloof and turned away whenever he found himself in an awkward position.

‘Come on … take it easy …’ Aki encouraged gently, a supporting arm behind Sean’s back as he slowly pushed himself up to a sitting position with a long groan, Krypp having stepped out for a moment to dispose of the bandaging. It was the first time in weeks that Sean had shifted positions from lying down; he suddenly felt a little lightheaded, as though his blood was no longer used to circulating vertically. He rubbed his body, trying to invigorate his muscles; he was mildly surprised at the three weeks’ worth of beard growth. He made a mental note to take care of that later – then made a second note to remember to ask Aki how, or even if, anthros shaved to begin with. He still felt a bit tired and weak, though whether it was because he was still recuperating or because he’d basically just spent two weeks as a bedridden mummy, he wasn’t certain.

He noticed Aki was staring at his chest; looking down, he was taken aback at what he found. He hadn’t been aware of his physical appearance since the crash, and was therefore stunned to find his flesh peppered with scars and discolorations. He looked as though he’d been thrown through a glass window, then into a wall, repeatedly. He felt a small shiver creep up his spine at just how brutal his landing had been, and how lucky he was to have survived it.

He saw Aki extend a black furred hand towards his chest; she had an air of mingled concern and fascination on her vulpine features as she gently felt Sean’s skin, his pectorals, his abdomen, tracing the length of his well-defined muscles with her fingers and looking utterly mesmerized. Her touch was soft, warm, almost caressing, as she stroke her soft, padded palm and fingers across his wounds. Sean felt another small shiver, one that had nothing to do with the thought of his injuries.

‘Does it hurt?’ she asked quietly, looking up and meeting Sean’s eyes after a moment.

‘No,’ said Sean. ‘Feels fine …’

They stared at each other in silence for a moment; then, as though coming to her senses, Aki quickly retracted her hand, lowering her ears upon her head and looking away in embarrassment. Without thinking, Sean quickly reached and gently grabbed her hand; he wanted to let her know that it was all right, that she didn’t have to feel shy around him. She seemed to understand, and they gazed into each other’s eyes, her hand in Sean’s, taken over by the moment …

Kissssss …’ came a low, snakelike whisper from behind them. They started and looked around at Krypp, who was leering at them, having apparently entered without them hearing him.

‘Get outta here!’ Sean and Aki yelled together. Eyes wide, they stared at each other again, before breaking into nervous chuckles. Krypp merely smirked, a look of suppressed triumph on his canine face, as he slinked off out the entryway, leaving Sean and Aki in a faintly awkward silence.

‘Shouldn’t you be tending to your chores?’ Sean asked to change the subject.

‘No, I have Nessi to cover for me,’ said Aki. She had told Sean all about her best friend, the female cheetah with which Aki spent most of her days. Until she had met Sean, that is.

‘Besides, it gives me more time to accompany you, show you around,’ she said brightly.

‘You’re gonna be my escort?’ said Sean with a playful smile.

‘Mm-hmm,’ said Aki, smiling back. ‘Do you … you think you can stand up?’

‘I think so,’ said Sean, still sitting on the side of his cot. His body still felt rigid; with a groan of relief, he slid off onto the ground, the wood floor feeling pleasantly cool underneath his feet. Standing upright at last, he stretched, slowly and luxuriantly, his arms spread wide and groaning in pleasure as he felt the tenseness in his muscles slowly disappear. He hadn’t notice himself close his eyes; opening them, he caught sight of Aki staring at him, an absent smile on her cute muzzle as she eyed his well-toned body and developed musculature. A lifetime of grueling training had blessed Sean with a very attractive physique, one that several New Corinthean women had ogled at shamelessly, not that Sean had never shown the slightest interest in anyone. To his amusement, Sean could tell that Aki was no exception when it came to a female’s taste in male physiques.

Aki finally realized she was staring again and snapped her head away, looking more embarrassed than ever; Sean could see a bright blush beneath her fine white cheek-fur. He smiled kindly at how endearing and unsettling the situation admittedly was. He decided Aki was uncomfortable enough as it was and chose to get things moving.

The curtain at the entrance flapped and rippled as a breeze blew through, feeling wonderful across his flesh. However, this suddenly reminded him …

‘Uh …’ he muttered, looking at his bedside table, which was bare. Something was missing.

‘Aki, where’re my clothes?’

‘Oh!’ the foxgirl said with a slight jump. ‘Right, I almost forgot to tell you – I hope you don’t mind, only when you were still sleeping this morning, I brought your clothes to my mother so she could clean them and repair them as best she can.’

Sean sighed, part of him wondering if Kira would even be able to get any of the stains of dirt and blood out of the fabric, much less repair the shredding.

‘Well, what am I supposed to wear, then?’

‘I – I brought you a loincloth and a robe’, she said. She reached down at the floor by the cot; Sean hadn’t even noticed the new pile of cloth laying there. Aki handed him the two garments, which Sean took and examined with a vague curiosity.

‘Why do you have to wear this stuff, anyway?’ Aki asked, looking puzzled. ‘It’s so hot out there; your underwear would be enough.’

‘No, Aki,’ Sean said, feeling a slight rush of heat to his face in discomfiture at the idea of walking around mostly nude. ‘I told you, it’s just not like that for people. We like to wear clothes. It’s just … how it is.’

Aki watched as first he clumsily tied the loincloth around his waist with a small length of rope and then slid the robe over his head. It draped over his body quite loosely and comfortably, covering his torso and with openings for his arms.

‘I took one of the larger sizes we have,’ Aki said, looking Sean over and looking proud of her choice. ‘They fit you well?’

‘Perfect,’ said Sean with a pleased air. This sort of loose-fitting cottony outfit felt quite new to him, being used to the body-hugging synthetic materials of his military suits. He noticed his boots stored by his cot, yet ignored them, enjoying the cool of the ground and air on his feet.

‘So, you ready?’ he said to Aki, smiling confidently.

‘Okay,’ she said with a tinge of excitement, obviously eager to show him around – in both senses, Sean mused.

Feeling invigorated at the idea of what lay ahead, Sean and Aki towards the entryway and, in one quasi-theatrical move, cast the curtain aside as they left the infirmary at last.

At once, Sean was blinded by the bright midday sun, shielding his watering eyes with his hand. Of what lay before him, most prominent of all was the giant blue canopy above, its light-blue depths streaked with wispy little white clouds, looking as though they had been painted on with a brush. The single yellow sun was shining without hindrance, bathing the entire landscape below in a sea of light and warmth, with just the perfect soothing breeze to counteract its hot rays. Standing there with Aki staring at him from his side, presumably to gauge his reaction, Sean looked around at his new environment. The air of awe never left his face.

They were on the outskirts of town, and the village sprawled out before them, looking like something straight out of an illustration of a tribal village. The buildings were comprised of little huts and cabins ranging in size and shape from earthly single-person domes to larger wooden shacks for families. They were laid out along dirt pathways that crisscrossed the village, looking vaguely modern in their grid-like arrangement. Most of the structures had their own little lawns or gardens, separated by log fences that looked more as though they were intended to denote boundaries rather than to keep anyone out. None of the cabins and huts had doors or paned windows; rather, they all relied on hung blankets and curtains to seal off the interior of their homes. A few leafy trees were growing interspersed amongst the cabins, offering welcoming shadows for anyone wishing to get a little reprieve from the sun’s rays.

The place was bustling with activity as the anthro people set about their day. Sean was immediately struck by just how varied they were in speciation and appearance. Their only real similarity was that all wore the exact same types of clothes: loincloths around the waist, and with added breastcloths for females. Some also adorned robes, but most seemed to prefer going without, their smooth fur (or, for some, scales) glossy in the sunlight. None of them seemed to have any real humanlike hair on their heads; the fur there grew in longer tufts and sported the same colors and markings as did the rest of their bodies. Sean did notice that the males seemed to have slightly longer and gruffer fur than the females did in general, though, just as one would expect with feral (non-anthro) animals.

Everyone was busy with something. The streets were crowded as anthros of all types and appearances walked about in every direction, carrying crates filled with anything from earth and chopped logs to meat or vegetables. Some (especially horses) dragged around wheelbarrows filled with rocks and stones used for construction and repairs. Across the way from Sean, a female zebra was crouching in her garden, watering the sprouts with a large wooden pail, her beautiful striped coat somewhat matted with dirt from her morning’s labor. At a nearby shack, two anthro otters were bent over on the roof, their thick tails providing some balance as they attended to whatever task that had them up there. Two male lizards, easily discernible due to their bright green coloring, were busy stacking wood against the side of a log cabin, sweat gleaming off their smooth scaly torsos. Cubs were running around here and there, yipping with laughter as they chased and wrestled to the smiles and chuckles of nearby adults. Everyone looked happy and relaxed as they went along their daily routine, as though they didn’t have a care in the world other than getting their job done and moving on to the next, and sharing a laugh or two in the meantime.

Sean took a deep, delicious lungful of air. After two weeks spent cooped up in the stale confines of the infirmary, the literal breath of fresh air simply felt wonderful to him, filled with the aromas of nature and, from somewhere in the village before him, the tempting smell of cooking meat. Glancing at Aki as she smiled up at him, he smiled back, his nervousness gone for the moment and feeling nothing but contentedness at the beauty and loveliness of the world around him. It was so idyllic, a pictorial township; the very air seemed to resonate with an aura of peace and harmony. It was quite unlike anything Sean had ever seen before, having spent a lifetime dealing with (and engaging in) conflicts and hardships of all sorts. Lost in the moment, he was perfectly content just to stand there, staring around, feeling the soft breeze flow through his hair and ripple across his loose robe and loincloth, bathing in the sun.

It was short-lived, however.

‘H-hey, look! It’s the human!’

Sean looked around at the excited shout, yet never had the chance to do anything other than wonder what was going on. At that moment, everything seemed to stand still; all movement in the streets had ceased. Every single furred or scaly head had turned towards him, their eyes wide as they stared in his direction shamelessly. Sean felt as though he had suddenly been thrown into the limelight; his anxiety returned with a vengeance as he glanced nervously towards Aki. The young vixen looked just as alarmed as Sean did, though in her case, this was because she knew what would happen next …

It was as though an electric current had suddenly jolted through all the anthros at the same time; as though of one mind, they all suddenly rushed forwards towards Sean, a sea of multicolored furred bodies swarming around him, threatening to swallow him up. On the edge of panic, Sean stumbled back hastily, yet quickly reached the sturdy wooden wall of the infirmary behind him, unable to escape as the flood of anthros swooped in upon him from all sides –

Fearing that he would be crushed by their overexcited welcome, Sean barely noticed an orange streak fly by him, blocking his view –

STOOOP!

Aki’s roar was loud enough to make Sean cringe; it was distinctly animalistic: guttural, fierce, and powerful. At once, the wall of frenzied villagers screeched to a halt as though it had hit an invisible barrier. Taking notice of what was going on, Sean realized Aki was standing right in front of him, her arms outstretched protectively, blocking the mob’s access to Sean. They stared at her in shock and fear, and as Sean looked at Aki, he couldn’t blame them: her hackles were raised, her black ears flattened against her head, her fangs bared, and a loud growl rumbled from her throat. She looked positively menacing – feral. As would a mother, defending her cub.

As the crowd calmed down, their enthusiasm resolving itself into low mutters and uneasy stares, Aki also relaxed, her ominous growl dissipating, her arms slowly lowering down to her sides now that Sean was no longer in any danger of being turned into human purée against the infirmary wall. Sean glanced at her ears, which were always a good indicator of how she felt; they loosened up a little, though she still kept them low.

The standstill lasted for a few more moments; then, seeing as Aki wasn’t about to move, the crowds sullenly drew back like the tides, slowly returning to their regular chores. Their eyes were still fixed with fascination on that strange, unnerved-looking newcomer, half-hidden behind Aki the foxgirl, his furless skin cloaked behind the white cotton of his robe and loincloth, leaving only his head, arms and lower legs exposed.

The situation having gone back to normal, Aki slumped somewhat from her defiant stance, heaving a sigh of relief, which Sean parroted. She looked around towards him and they gazed at each other, still breathing deeply as their heart rates returned to normal.

‘Sorry,’ she said, looking slightly abashed again. Sean couldn’t help but smile, despite the craziness of the past two minutes.

‘No … Thanks,’ he said, grinning warmly at her and laying a casual hand upon her furred shoulder. ‘I don’t think I would’ve survived that.’

‘Not in your state, you wouldn’t have,’ she said softly, grinning cheekily.

They smiled at each other for another moment. A sweet breeze brushed against Sean’s flesh and rustling Aki’s head-fur, once again bringing with it the tantalizing aromas of cooking meat. This had the effect of making Sean’s taxed stomach growl audibly. Aki’s ears perked at the sound; she giggled softly as Sean felt slightly self-conscious. Stomachs never sounded very melodious.

‘I believe your stomach is telling us to get moving,’ said Aki.

‘Sounds like it,’ said Sean meekly, grinning despite himself.

‘I know just the thing. The butcher, Karnai, he serves some of the best stuff you’ll ever taste. He doesn’t usually do snacks in between meals, though – dinner’s already passed – but I think I may convince him to give you a taste, seeing as you’re … well, you.’ She winked at him; Sean chuckled.

‘Well, then, shall we?’ he offered.

‘We shall,’ Aki said with a light simper. Smiling brightly, they started along the dirt pathway leading into the village. They didn’t even notice that they were holding hands.

They strolled at a leisurely pace, Sean looking all around and trying to take as much of his surroundings in as he could. All around them, people hurried out of the way, both out of awe for Sean’s presence and, presumably, apprehension of Aki after the stance she just took.

Walking along the beaten paths, Sean realized the village was larger than he had imagined; from what he could see in the streets, he easily imagined more than a hundred or two anthros living there. Their variety never ceased to strike him as he continually came across species he never had thought he’d see: rhinos, elephants, antelopes, gerbils, and even what appeared to be a large, draconic lizard Sean felt was distinctly intimidating, despite the reptile’s smile.

‘Komodo Dragon,’ Aki whispered as they passed the intrigued-looking lizard. ‘Nice guys, but they don’t always seem to know their own strength …’

‘“Komodo Dragon?”’ Sean asked, feeling slightly apprehensive and forcing himself not to glance back at the dragon-like creature, now chatting with an iguana.

‘It’s just their name,’ Aki said. ‘Not really sure why they’re called that. No-one seems to know what a Komodo is.’

They strolled along, keeping to what appeared to be the village’s central path as they passed by stunned-looking people. All of them hurried to get out of his way, not out of fear, but … reverence?

‘They all look at me like I’m a god or something,’ Sean remarked, feeling distinctly unused to such brilliant attention. He had always been well-regarded and respected as a member of Phantom Unit and for his remarkable skills and accomplishments, but the way the anthros ogled at him, almost in disbelief, was a level beyond anything he had known back home.

‘Well, you kind of are,’ said Aki. ‘No-one’s ever seen a human before; all we knew about you came from ancient tales and myths. You basically appeared out of nowhere.’

Moments later, they reached what Sean took to be the center of the village It looked like a rudimentary town square: a large open area lined on all sides by more cabins and huts and filled with people walking and lounging about, playing with friends, or taking naps in the cool shadows of the few trees that were there. At the center of the space, a large ring of stones with charred remains of branches at its center indicated where a large fire was usually held, presumably the center of festive activities.

As they walked along the town square sidelines, Sean caught the sudden and strong aroma of herbs and what he believed to be salted meat. It was an odd smell, yet he rather liked it. As if to remind him of their destination, his stomach once again gurgled uncomfortably.

‘All right, all right, almost there,’ said Aki with a chuckle. ‘Right here.’

They approached a relatively large building, nearly two stories tall and looking considerably more imposing than most of the other structures. Its façade was made up of a counter, and behind it, the interior of the windowless cabin was quite gloomy. Through the obscurity, Sean could make out dozens and dozens of carcasses of a wide variety of animals hung by ropes from the ceiling rafters, stripped of their fur and skin, revealing the meat and bones underneath. A lifetime of exposure to scenes much more grotesque than this had left Sean more or less immune to such a sight, yet he nonetheless felt a small chill creep down his back. He noticed that Aki, however, determinately avoided staring at them.

They both arrived at the counter, Aki taking the lead as she leaned against the countertop and gave a sharp whistle.

‘Hey, Karnai! You’ve got a customer!’ she called into the shadowy interior beyond.

‘What? Who’s calling?’ a deep, gruff voice answered back; a moment later, a large beefy anthro appeared from behind the hanging carcasses, careful to avoid catching them with the large curved horns sticking out from his head. Karnai the buffalo wore a bloodstained white apron and held a large meat-cleaver in his sizable hand. As he came to greet his clients, the powerful-looking bovine tensed in shock as his beady eyes focused on Sean, his broad muzzle agape.

‘Hey – You’re the –’

‘Yes, he’s the human,’ said Aki airily. ‘He’s also starving. You know how Krypp is with his patients and food. You mind giving him something to tie him over until later?’

‘I – but – but suppertime’s not for another four hours at least, Aki,’ Karnai said, getting a grip of himself.

‘I know that, but Sean’s hungry now.’

Sean stared at her as she “negotiated”. Her voice was light and casual, yet with an assertive undertone that he had not heard before; he realized she was manipulating the hapless buffalo into doing whatever she wanted him to do. Sean couldn’t help but smile a little in amusement.

Karnai glanced back and forth between Aki and Sean for a moment, then turned around with a grumble and disappeared back into the shadows and hanging carcasses. Aki gave Sean a quick wink.

After a few moments of rustling from the shadows, Karnai emerged again, this time carrying a small wooden tray laden with a simple, steak-sized slab of raw meat. He laid it on the counter, then grabbed a crock off a shelf to the side and carefully sprinkled its contents onto the slab of meat, giving it a light coat of green herbs. Sean instantly crinkled his nose as a powerful smell of what he assumed to be oregano filled his nostrils.

‘There ya go, uh … Sean,’ the great hairy bovine said, settling the clay crock back onto its shelf and staring at Sean. He narrowed his eyes when he saw Sean’s face, perhaps mistaking his reaction to pungent oregano for a sneer.

Sean, however, stared blankly at the salted, spiced slab of meat before him.

‘Uh … don’t you …?’ he began uncertainly, staring at Karnai, then Aki, then his meat again.

‘What? Don’t you … eat meat?’ Aki said, looking puzzled as Karnai just stared at Sean, looking uncertain.

‘Yeah, of course,’ said Sean slowly, ‘only, I usually like meat cooked.’

Aki’s expression changed from puzzlement to intrigue so fast Sean thought she might get facial tics.

‘Oh, so humans eat their meat cooked?’ she said, her eyes bright again as they were whenever they talked about anything human-related.

‘Uh … of course,’ said Sean. ‘You don’t?’

‘Not usually,’ Aki said with a slight shrug. ‘It tastes better raw. Takes less long to prepare, too. It’s fresher.’

‘Not to me,’ muttered Sean, turning back to Karnai. He never imagined he’d feel timid about asking for meat to be cooked. He was starting to get the impression that fitting in with the anthros was gonna be quite the awkward experience.

‘I’m sorry, but … is it possible to get this cooked?’ he asked the buffalo.

‘Uh … No can do,’ Karnai said. ‘Don’t have any fires in here. You’d need to find someplace else to have it cooked, or just eat it raw.’

Sean inwardly cringed. He’d tried raw meat only once before; he distinctly remembered absolutely loathing the taste, the texture, the general lack of being cooked.

‘Sorry … I guess I’ll pass, then,’ he said, doing his best not to offend the bovine, who appeared to take pride in his work. Karnai looked somewhat disappointed as he took the slab of meat and dumped it under the counter into what Sean presumed must have been the waste pile.

‘No worries, you can always have cooked meat at suppertime in a few hours,’ Karnai said, still eyeing Sean with intrigue. Sean could tell he was itching to launch into a flurry of questions, yet thankfully held back.

‘Thanks anyway,’ Sean said politely as he and Aki turned away; the buffalo gave a little wave, his bloodstained meat-cleaver glinting in the sunlight before he disappeared back into the butcher shop.

‘Sorry, I didn’t know you only ate cooked meat,’ said Aki, looking crestfallen.

‘Hey, it’s all right,’ Sean said with a smile. ‘I’m not starving or anything; I’ll just eat at supper. What’s that like?’

‘Oh, you’ll love it, it’s always a fun part of the day,’ said Aki. ‘We all come here and sit down in the grass when the sun starts to get lower in the sky and the heat drops a bit, and they make a great big fire at the center, over there,’ she pointed towards the circle of stones at the center of the clearing. ‘Everyone just sits back and relaxes, we eat, drink, talk, and there’re usually some cubs running around to make sure it’s never too calm,’ she added, chuckling.

‘You all eat together?’ Sean said, intrigued. ‘Neat …’

‘Neat? What’s neat got to do with it?’ Aki asked, looking perplexed.

‘Oh, uh – just an expression,’ said Sean quickly. ‘I mean, it’s just … nice.’

‘You – I mean, humans don’t eat together?’

‘Uh … not usually,’ said Sean. ‘Some eat out in groups, like friends and such, but most people just eat alone or with their own families.’

‘Weird,’ said Aki, looking slightly nonplussed.

‘What’s the food like?’ asked Sean, a little quickly. Seeing as how cooking their food was apparently a rarity amongst these people, Sean was beginning to worry a little about any other unwelcome differences when it came to victuals.

‘Oh, it’s great,’ said Aki, detecting his slightly concerned tone and smiling reassuringly. ‘We got pretty much anything you can imagine: all kinds of meats, vegetables, fruits, creams, pies, anything you want. We also got water, milk or fruit juice to drink, if you want that.’

Sean smiled at the idea of what he imagined to be a sort of banquet. ‘Sounds good,’ he said, a little too eagerly. Aki laughed softly.

‘It is, you’ll see,’ she said. ‘Problem is, we still got about four hours before it’ll be ready, so …’

They stood there at the edge of the village center, watching the other anthros go about their business and chores or having fun. The pleasant climate truly was infectious; Sean felt himself smiling, almost despite himself.

‘Hey, how ’bout we go see Nessi at the orchard? That way, you could meet her,’ Aki suggested enthusiastically.

‘I’d love to,’ said Sean.

‘Great! Come on,’ Aki said, absently taking his hand as she led him down streets and around corners across the village. They nearly crashed into a few cubs who came barreling out from in between two cabins. The look on the youngsters’ faces when they saw Sean made him laugh.

The cabins cleared away as they arrived at the edge of town, and they found themselves at the perimeter of a vast orchard, spanning several square acres as far as Sean could tell, and cutting into the surrounding forest. There were rows upon rows of a myriad of different types of crops with fruits and vegetables of all types, sizes and colors. Narrow and winding pathways separated the rows of crops, amongst which a handful of villagers were shuffling around, picking whichever items they sought and dropping them into pots and baskets they carried. A waist-high rock wall delimited the orchard, presumably to prevent rodents and other undesirables from accessing the crops. This didn’t stop the birds, though; every few moments, a frustrated shout would erupt from somewhere among the rows and a few birds would take flight, only to land somewhere else to peck at the precious harvests.

Aki led Sean towards the short wall and easily hoisted herself over, her orange fur shining like silk in the sunlight; the white tip of her tail brushed Sean across the face like a soft feather-duster. She grinned at him mischievously from the other side of the wall, making Sean grin back as he swung himself over the barrier with a single bound. They both started walking along the sidelines, looking down the aisles as they passed and searching for a hint of spotted yellow fur. Around them, most anthros were too busy picking out ripe fruit and vegetables from the rest to notice much of anything around them, yet Sean nonetheless caught several shocked expressions facing his way when they caught sight of him. He grinned a bit despite himself as he and Aki walked through the orchard.

‘Hey! Over here!’ called a voice behind them. Turning around, they saw the cheetah girl running through the crops towards them, looking thrilled. Aki and Sean started towards her, meeting her halfway. Aki was right: Nessi certainly was good-looking: slightly taller and better toned than the foxgirl, her yellow fur almost white in the bright sunlight, her jet-black spots contrasting sharply like countless little speckles of paint splattered over her coat.

‘Hey, Aki! Hi, Sean!’ she said, sharing a quick hug with Aki before staring at her furless friend with excitement. Sean stared at her in surprise at her upbeat attitude before chuckling to himself.

‘What’s the matter, no mindless staring at the mythical creature?’ teased Aki.

‘Oh, please, you’ve told me everything about him. The shock has worn off,’ said Nessi. ‘How are you?’ she said pleasantly to Sean.

‘Not too bad,’ Sean said; he had to stop himself from extending his hand, remembering that such was not their custom. She smiled and shuffled her shoulders in a nervous manner, and Sean caught a glance of something shiny: a small, round gemstone, glinting brilliantly blue. He noticed a small sort of engraving on the stone but didn’t ask for a better view.

‘That old yote didn’t annoy you too much?’ said Nessi.

‘No … mostly starved me, though,’ said Sean, slightly wistfully.

Nessi laughed. ‘Well, no luck for you here, you can’t eat any of this stuff right off the vines, they’re covered in dirt and stuff. Don’t worry, though, in a few hours you’ll be able to stuff yourself all you want at supper.’

‘Looking forward to it,’ said Sean.

‘Sorry, Aki, I can’t chat just yet, I got a lot of raspberries that need picking,’ said Nessi, still grinning. ‘See you later, ’kay?’

‘All right, see ya, sis!’ called Aki as Nessi headed back to her spot amongst the raspberry growths. ‘Don’t skip on your work just to see the human, now!’

‘Ha! Look who’s talking, Li’l Rebel!’ Nessi threw over her shoulder.

Aki turned to Sean, looking cheery. ‘Oh, it’s just a nickname she gave me a long time ago,’ she said in response to Sean’s unasked question. ‘’Cause I’m always doing things my Mom tells me not to …’

‘Your father doesn’t enforce discipline?’ Sean said light-heartedly and without thinking.

Aki’s joyous expression faltered, her ears drooping. Sean mentally kicked himself.

‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to ask anything too personal,’ he said quickly, worried he’d offended her. But Aki gave him a small reassuring smile and shook her head gently.

‘No, it’s all right,’ she said. ‘My father died years ago, when I was just a little kit. I barely knew him.’

‘Sorry,’ said Sean after a moment’s hesitation, feeling uneasy. One thing he’d learned from his years in the battlefield and surrounded by death: talking about the departed, especially around grieving loved ones, never got any easier. It was something he’d always been awkward with.

‘Yeah … I miss him a lot, of course,’ Aki said, giving him a reminiscing smile. ‘We used to have a lot of good times together. But, that was a long time ago. And, I still have Mom.’

They stared at each other for a moment, smiling softly.

‘Well, she does have good taste,’ Sean said, vying for a change of subject. ‘Nessi, I mean. I didn’t know you people had jewelry?’

‘Huh?’ made Aki. ‘Oh – oh, no,’ she realized, laughing. ‘Around her neck, you mean? No, that’s just her mating necklace.’

‘Mating necklace?’

‘Oh – don’t you humans have something like that? You know, something you get when you mate with someone? … Or marry, in your case?’

‘Yeah, sure, we have wedding rings,’ he said. ‘People give them to those they love.’

‘Hmm,’ said Aki. That word again. “Love”. ‘Well, a mating necklace is what two people who mate together receive, to make their bond official, like, and to remind others that they’re taken. They’re blue for females and green for males. The name of their mate is carved into the stone.’

‘Ah,’ said Sean. He thought better than to comment on Aki’s bare neck.

‘How come I’ve only seen her wear one, though?’ he asked. ‘I mean, there has to be more than one couple in the village, right?’

‘Oh, of course,’ said Aki. ‘She’s the one who’s always wearing it; most of us – I mean, most who do have them, they just take them off during the day so they don’t get them all dirty or scratched when they work and run around. But, we all put them on during the evening for suppertime, though.’

‘Cool,’ said Sean, imagining a sea of glittering necks at supper.

They stared around at the village, watching as the anthros continued their work whilst shooting the occasional glance at them. Sean inwardly wondered whether the villagers’ sensitive, superhuman ears could pick up on their conversation from several dozen feet away.

‘So … wanna head down to the river, take a swim?’ Aki offered.

Thinking about the large body of clear, wonderfully refreshing water suddenly made Sean realize just how hot he was; the air felt humid and heated, and he was sweating a fair amount.

‘Sounds good,’ he said. ‘Hey … my pod’s still there, right?’

‘Yeah,’ said Aki. ‘No-one’s able to move that thing; it’s jammed in the riverbed really tight. Though, most are just afraid to approach it,’ she added with a smirk.

‘Superstitious, are you?’ Sean said with a grin.

‘No, it’s just that people tend to be wary of big pieces of metal that come crashing in from the skies, carrying in it a creature that’s supposed to have died out hundreds of years ago.’

Sean chuckled. ‘Yeah, that would work.’

‘Here, let’s just follow the treeline for once, I’m tired of everyone staring at us like we’re the couple from Space,’ said Aki, indicating the wide berth the forest boundaries gave around the village.

‘Well, half of it is,’ said Sean jokingly. Aki stared at him and blushed slightly; only then did Sean realize the implication of what he had said.

He chose to remain silent in his awkwardness as they walked through the soft grass. Following the trees towards the other side of the village took rather longer than it would have to cross directly through the village, yet they probably ended up arriving faster regardless seeing as they were no longer forced to weave their way through an excited mob. Finally, the trees cleared out on the way down to the rocky banks of the large river, the millions of sparkles contrasting vividly against the blues of the slow-flowing current.

They slowly walked down to the rocky shoreline, the smooth stone feeling pleasantly warm under Sean’s feet. He stared around, feeling lost in the raw beauty of the scenery. He couldn’t help but mentally compare the majesty of this world to his home on New Corinthea; the contrast was almost overwhelming. From a land of gloom, cold and barrenness, to the complete opposite …

‘This is the Neyrin,’ said Aki, interrupting Sean’s contemplations.

‘Neyrin?’ repeated Sean. ‘Sounds nice …’

‘Yeah, it’s named after an old myth,’ said Aki. ‘There’s supposed to be a spirit in there, Neyrin; she lives in the river and protects anyone who dwells nearby.’

Sean nodded slowly, letting himself be swept by the cool, gentle breeze. However, his eyes were attracted to a rather familiar artifact. Right there, in the middle of the waters, Sean’s charred-black pod stuck up above the ways, a rim of lighter metal visible just above the waterline where the char had been partially washed away by two weeks’ worth of water flow. Spherical and with the outlines of its portholes and large dome windshield just barely discernible through the burnt crust, it really couldn’t have stuck out any more jarringly against its surroundings.

Sean noticed the hole at the top of the hull where the escape hatch was. Almost mechanically, Sean slowly stepped forth into the water, which felt just as refreshing as he thought it would against his flesh. His cotton robe and loincloth dragged behind in the current as he slowly sank below the surface as he approached the pod, until the water reached his upper waist when he finally arrived. He looked it over, taking into account all the damage, the denting, the thick charred crust that coated the once sleek hull. He turned to see Aki’s expression, but noticed she wasn’t with him; she had remained on the shoreline, looking at him and the pod with an expression of mingled curiosity and apprehension.

‘Aki, come over here!’ Sean called, waving her over. Still looking slightly nervous, Aki waded into the water and slowly made her way over to him.

‘You okay?’ Sean asked.

‘Yeah, it’s just … that thing gives me the creeps,’ she said, staring up and down at the large blackened hulk at their side.

‘Why?’

‘I dunno … Last time, it just exploded out of the sky, nearly killed me, and then you came out of it all bloody and hurt … It just – I dunno, I just have a bad feeling about it,’ she said quietly.

Sean laid a hand upon her furred shoulder. ‘It’s not gonna hurt you,’ he said reassuringly. ‘It doesn’t even work, anyway; and, you said it yourself, it’s not going anywhere, it’s stuck here.’

‘Yeah, I know,’ Aki said. ‘Just being silly,’ she added with a rueful grin.

Sean gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze, smiling back at her, before turning his attention back towards the hunk of buckled and scorched alloy. He took a few steps back, then lunged forwards as fast as he could despite the water and jumped against the hull; his fingers caught a crease he used to hoist himself up with, his bare feet scrabbling almost painfully against the rough charred hull as he pulled himself onto the top of the pod. Once he’d gained his balance, he peered down into the hatchway, examining the craft that had brought him to this world. The interior was dank and gloomy, the only light sources being the open escape hatchway and the little ribbons that shone through the opaque windows. There was about an inch of rainwater pooled at the bottom of the pod with leaves, twigs and other debris floating on the surface, quite still. There was only a minor covering of sediment over the exposed surfaces and other than the slightly buckled pilot’s seat and the dark smears of blood on the control console where Sean’s face had repeatedly made impact, it looked intact. It was remarkable how all the damage from the impact seemed to be limited to the exterior hull, and Sean inwardly praised the robustness of these crafts’ design.

He turned to look down at Aki, who was staring up at him from the waters below.

‘Can I come up?’ she asked.

Without a word, Sean leaned over, taking care to watch his balance on the rounded hull, and extended a hand. Aki grabbed it, and in a single pull, Sean hauled her onto the pod, her footpaws and claws scrabbling against the hull before she landed at his side. She glanced at him, stunned by his strength; Sean just smiled knowingly. A lifetime of rigorous survival training had left him with the sort of strength, agility and endurance that few others could honestly brag about having.

‘Wow …’ Aki muttered, her eyes wide as she peered down into the shadowy interior. She resembled a scholar who had come across an immaculate relic of a civilization long past; she lengthily examined every detail, every nook and cranny, with pure wonder on her face.

‘This is an escape pod,’ Sean explained. ‘It’s a small craft used in cases of emergency where the main vessel needs to be evacuated. That’s where the pilot sits,’ he pointed at the chair. ‘He uses all those controls and levers to guide the pod on its course and make sure it doesn’t just get lost.’

Aki nodded her understanding, her attention divided between Sean’s expert-like description and the capsule itself.

‘So … but then, something happened to your – your vessel? The – the larger spaceship?’ Aki said, looking at him again.

‘Yeah …’ said Sean quietly. ‘It was a reconnaissance ship – a ship used to look around, gather information, that sort of stuff. Kinda like a spy ship, only much, much bigger. The Chartraine, it was called. It could carry over a thousand men and women,’ he added impressively. Aki’s jaw dropped at the idea, making Sean smile as it was how he had expected her to react. ‘I was stationed there to keep the peace, just to make sure that everything was under control and no-one got into any fights.’

The gentle breeze blowing in from the south slowly grew in strength until their hair, fur and clothes were being buffeted somewhat vigorously. Sean loved the feeling; it was something he rarely had the chance to feel, and he always appreciated it when he did.

‘What happened?’ Aki asked.

Sean stared at her, a tinge of sullenness in his eyes.

‘I don’t know,’ he said in a low voice. ‘It all happened so fast, no-one knew anything; we didn’t even get a distress call out. The ship started exploding and falling apart right there in space; I just … I just did what I was trained for. I ran to an escape pod and … got outta there.’

Another moment passed as Sean recalled the details of his panicked escape, and how he had very nearly died there on that ship. A small chill ran down his spine at the thought.

‘The ship blew up?’ Aki repeated, looking troubled. ‘But … what about everyone there? Did they all get out?’

Sean felt a small lump rise in his throat at Aki’s words. He slowly shook his head.

‘I don’t even know if anyone else made it out,’ he said softly. ‘I didn’t see any other pods when I launched, and … next thing I know, the ship was gone.’

Aki looked upset. ‘All those people …’ she mumbled, her ears drooping.

They sat there in silence, minds swimming with thoughts of all those who undoubtedly lost their lives aboard the great ship. It was to Sean’s numb surprise that he realized he felt … sad. Never before – or, at least, not in recent memory – had he actually felt sad for anyone or anything. His whole life in the years since the war had been filled with contempt and pessimism; all that he had seen, and all that he had done, had led him to shut himself off to the world, or so his mandatory psychological examinations concluded. Dreary and mechanical, he went through his life, executing his missions, with only one certainty: that people were idiots, they were ignorant, dishonest and disloyal. It had come to the point where their mere company was irritating, almost suffocating to him. He was always polite, of course, but he felt no interest in opening himself up to anyone, despite repeated approaches made by others over the years. The only people he had any real respect for or loyalties to, his Phantom Unit comrades, had most likely perished along with the hundreds and hundreds of others aboard the Chartraine. As for as anyone else was concerned, he had just wanted to be left the hell alone.

And yet, in the space of only two weeks, Sean could feel himself changing. He couldn’t tell if it was the peaceful village life, or even if it was his friendship with the sweet Aki, or just because this was the longest he had stayed in one place in years without loathing him being there … but he definitely realized how different he felt. About the world around him, and the people in it – about himself. He felt … calm. Almost – dare he admit it – peaceful. Safe. As though he could just get out of it all, at very long last, and just rest indefinitely, such as a marathoner going to bed after a particularly lengthy and grueling race. From where he was now, he suddenly became aware of how very exhausted he had become over the past years. Not physically – his well-crafted regime of rests and artificially boosted food kept his body healthy and energetic – but emotionally, and psychologically.

But now … he felt replenished in more ways than he had ever thought possible. The feeling was one that felt distinctly strange to him, but in a good way, like meeting an odd yet pleasant stranger. If anything, he felt like he was slowly, but surely, waking up from a very long, very dark dream … he felt like he was waking up to life itself.

‘Hey,’ Aki called, snapping Sean out of his thoughts. ‘Can you … hear something?’

She was leaning into the hatchway, quite still and looking concentrated as her ears slowly pivoted around as though trying to locate the source of a sound.

‘What is it?’ said Sean, leaning over.

‘I don’t know … listen …’

Sean held his breath, straining his ears to try and pick up anything odd, yet he couldn’t hear anything other than the ripples of the water at the base of the pod and the distant calls of birds.

‘It sounds like … like some kind of high-pitched tone, like a buzzing or something,’ Aki said slowly and pensively.

‘I can’t hear anything,’ said Sean with a slight shrug. ‘It’s probably just the water or the wind or something. Nothing in here works, anyway,’ he added with a motion towards the dark, cracked panels.

‘Hmm …’ mumbled Aki as she sat up again, still looking distracted. ‘I coulda sworn … Maybe I’m just hearing things.’

‘Huh … With those ears, you probably hear things all the time,’ said Sean, looking at her with a small grin. Her mouth opened comically, forming a perfect ‘o’ as her ears quickly flattened against her head. With a jokey air, she suddenly lunged at him and knocked him onto his back with a playful squeal; caught off-guard, Sean fell off the pod and splashed into the water. Surfacing and spluttering, he saw Aki jump in after him, and the two wrestled each other, giggling and teasing.

‘Big ears! Big ears! Big fluffy ears!’

‘Hairless ape! Got no tail! Weird alien!’

At which they just both doubled over in laughter, holding onto each other as to avoid falling under the surface of the water.

They played in the water like children, like longtime friends, splashing each other, competing in races, grappling (Sean taking extra care to avoid grabbing any sensitive areas), and just floating around each other, smiling at each other like fools and relishing in the pleasant mixture of warm sunrays and delightfully cool water. Aki revealed herself to be quite the adept swimmer; she made them both laugh by whirling around Sean underwater like an otter, once even passing in between his legs, making him jump and blush. She just grinned cheekily at him before yanking his legs out from under him and sending him underwater. They were so taken in by their fun and games that they didn’t even notice as a handful of anthros gathered at the outskirts of the village to watch them, enjoying the sight of the two friends fooling around and fascinated at how fast their Aki had become attached to this strange newcomer.

It felt like it was hours later when they decided to get out of the waters, feeling waterlogged and worn out but smiling widely nonetheless. They had little to dry themselves with, so they decided to let the still-warm rays from the slowly lowering sun do the job for them as they trekked uphill back towards the village, situated a couple hundred feet from the riverbank. However, Aki grabbed Sean’s hand and nonverbally steered him to the left, away from the village ahead and into the woods that surrounded it.

‘What’re you doing?’ he questioned, watching his step over the brambles, fallen branches and protruding roots that threatened to trip him or scrape his bare wet skin. It was decidedly gloomier under the canopy of treetops yet still more than bright enough to see, the light filtering through the branches forming golden curtains that were almost magical in their beauty.

Aki just smiled at him, still pulling him along, navigating around thick trees and under low branches.

‘I wanna show you something,’ she said softly. Something in her voice conveyed a distinct sense of intimacy that Sean found intriguing and touching. The way the beams of greenish-orange light caught her orange fur was almost entrancing in its beauty. Sean wondered if there was any setting in which the foxgirl wouldn’t look ravishing.

‘Almost there,’ she said a few moments later as they progressed deeper and deeper into the woods. Looking back, Sean could see that they were actually following an old trail, so old and overgrown that he hadn’t even noticed it at first, snaking through the forest towards Aki’s apparent destination.

‘Here we are,’ said Aki, stopping at last. Standing at her side, Sean caught sight of where they had come to and felt a smile edge onto his face once again.

It was as though they had entered a scene in a fantasy film. Before them was a clearing of sorts; soft grassy and rocky slopes led down into the deep-blue waters of a small pond, about twenty feet in diameter by Sean’s estimation, its surface smooth as glass in the absence of wind and disturbance. Sean could discern the bottom; it didn’t appear to be more than five feet at its deepest. The pool formed a sort of basin with steep banks on one end, with large snakelike roots that were thicker than his arms stretching from the tall trees and into the waters. Looking around, Sean noticed the surrounding wall of trees, growing thick and fast around their watering hole, made this a perfect place to take a peaceful dunk with a minimal risk of being seen. There was something almost mystical about the area, as though it were a lair of secrets, or romance.

Sean felt himself blush at the thought; Aki, staring at him, didn’t fail to notice.

‘What’re you thinking?’ she said, her tone hinting at her having some idea of the thoughts going through Sean’s mind. Sean only blushed harder, though tried to keep a casual stance.

‘Noth— uh … it’s just a nice place,’ he said evasively.

‘It is, isn’t it?’ said Aki. ‘This is a special place to me; it’s where I come when I wanna be all alone. No-one knows about it; I found it years ago when I was just … exploring the woods.’ Sean failed to catch the slight evasiveness in her tone.

‘The only other person who knows about it is Nessi,’ she continued. ‘I really like this place. You just … float on your back and forget about everything, just lose yourself in your thoughts. It’s really quite nice.’

As inviting as the small pond looked, Sean figured he had only just begun to dry off from their lengthy dunk in the river; his clothes in particular were still heavy enough, the hem of his robe now dark with filth from trailing across the forest floor and rubbing against trees and brush. Looking up at the little patch of sky visible through the foliage, Sean noticed the sun was now definitely getting low in the atmosphere, streaking the clouds and treetops with golden streaks. The air definitely felt less stifling than it had earlier that day; evening was coming. Another churn from his stomach, the first in a while, once again cast his mind upon the coming suppertime.

Aki, having heard his belly’s complaint, grinned at him. ‘Shouldn’t be much longer, now. Less than an hour, I’d say.’

Sean nodded, rubbing his anguished belly over his robe. The cool dampness of the fabric kept him pleasantly cool.

‘Wanna head back to the village?’ said Aki.

‘Yeah,’ said Sean.

They turned around and proceeded back away from the secret pond – their secret pond. Oddly, the journey back out the woods didn’t seem to take nearly as long as following Aki to her hideout had been, which was especially odd seeing as they were proceeding at a slower rate this time. They talked idly about suppertime, Aki recounting some humorous anecdotes about what some of the more playful people had done now and then when under the influence of matured mead, a favorite drink of the anthros’.

As they arrived at the edge of the woods, the huts of the village just visible beyond the treeline, Aki stopped. Sean did as well, looking at her quizzically. She stared up at him (being at least a head shorter, minus her perky ears) with a solemn expression on her pretty furred face.

‘You’re not gonna tell anyone about our secret place, are you?’ she asked, her eyes fixed into his own.

Sean felt warmed at the idea of the pond being their little secret (and Nessi’s). ‘Of course not,’ he assured. ‘It’ll be our little secret.’

Aki beamed. ‘Thanks,’ she said warmly. Sean smiled back at her as they continued ambling towards the village. Aki was his friend and a great girl, and he wouldn’t betray her secrets for the world. What was better, was that he could sense that however much trust he placed in her, she placed in him in return. This thought had him smiling a little to himself all the way back to the village.