Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Inhuman | Chapter 13: The Rescue [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 must find a way out of the hell he landed in and rescue the ones he loves.


The Rescue


Sean was shaking hard, his efforts to remain calm abandoned, but with nowhere near the intensity of the poor foxgirl on the screen. He was leaning forwards from his seat over the metal table as though trying to reach her, to save her, but his restraints and the cruel presence of General Xander made him stay put, no matter how furiously he was straining against his cuffs or how madly his heart thumped in his chest. He couldn’t help it; his eyes were powerless to avoid staring at her, her violently writhing and twisting body, her reflexively flexing claws, her streaming, bloodshot eyes, her gaping muzzle as she let loose any number of silent cries that the muted display saved him from hearing. He tried to keep his head clear, but the terrible, irresistible scene before him filled his heart and mind with a maelstrom of horror, rage and panic.

General Xander’s cold green eyes twinkled lightly in the diffused light from the monitor as they stayed fixed on Sean, either uninterested in the tortured foxgirl (or used to it) or too intent on catching Sean’s every reaction. Sean stared between him and the horrible images on the screen, unable to decide what to do and incapable of focusing on a coherent thought in his mind. He could demand that Xander stop it – but what good would that do? – but he couldn’t just do nothing – but what choice did he have – but she’s being tortured, goddammit, DO SOMETHING

‘Well?’ General Xander’s cool voice brought Sean’s attention back to him, his dark eyes twinkling almost malevolently in the half-light. ‘Are you going to stop her suffering? Will you cooperate?’

Sean glared at him, his jaw shut tight to prevent himself from speaking, but as he glanced back at the horrible image on the screen, he knew his resolve wouldn’t be able to withstand this for long; he couldn’t cooperate, he just couldn’t, but Aki was suffering horrifically right before his eyes; the seconds and minutes were ticking away while he did nothing but struggle, both with his restraints and himself, desperately willing his mind to present him with a solution, a way out …

The back of his manacled hand pressed against something hard at his lower back. The realization hit him like a godsend.

The knife.

Doing his best to appear unsuspicious to Xander’s watchful eyes and to remain calm enough despite the adrenaline pounding through his veins to avoid dropping the knife, Sean slowly extricated the blade from the hidden pocket beneath his waistband and, careful to avoid any sudden movements as well as cutting himself, maneuvered the knife around in his hands to point the blade upwards. He did his best to appear completely focused on the torturous scene on display before him as he concentrated on sliding the pointed edge into a little slit between the two cuffs where he knew the locking mechanism was hidden, a very basic trick he’d picked up in his training. It took him several attempts and was almost sure that Xander was growing wary at his sudden lack of struggling, when –

A quiet little click sounded from behind him, not loud enough for Xander to detect; at once, he felt the manacles spring open, freeing his wrists. It was only with great self-control that he overcame his instantaneous and strong urge to bring his aching arms around and stretch his tired muscles; he couldn’t let anyone know that he’d freed himself – yet. He hadn’t thought ahead as he was busying himself with picking at his restraints, but now that he’d gotten them off, he realized he was hardly any better off; Xander’s close gaze and the various guards who were certainly positioned outside the room, in addition to his weakened arms, made any attempt at escape a foolish fantasy, not to mention that as soon as it was discovered he’d taken his restraints off, he’d only be stripped of his knife, his last useful tool, and the process of coercion would proceed unimpeded …

It was a few moments later, during which Sean tried with all his mental strength to stare away from that damned screen as panic and desperation once again reached their peak inside his stressed body and mind, when General Xander’s radio croaked into life:

Flight deck to General Xander.

Xander snorted impatiently and grabbed his mouthpiece.

‘I’m busy,’ he snapped.

I’m sorry, General, it’s urgent. Bridge technicians are reporting a major problem with the navigation systems, sir. The systems have crashed.

‘I sai— what?’ spluttered Xander. ‘What are you talking about?’

The navigation systems are down, sir,’ the voice repeated over the radio. ‘We’re completely dead up here, we’re flying blind.

‘Well, then, get it fixed. What do you need me for?’ growled Xander, none too pleased at needing to interrupt the torture session for something he obviously considered to be both trivial and outside of his field.

I’m sorry, General, but this requires the on-deck presence of the ship’s ranking officer –

‘All right, all right, fine!’ cracked Xander. He disconnected his radio without waiting for a response, threw a look of mingled irritation and longing at Sean (who did his best to appear noncommittal during the whole thing), and curtly got to his feet and strode out the door without a word, slamming it shut behind him with a reverberating bang. Once again, the locks didn’t activate

Sean sat quite still for a moment, unable to believe the immense stroke of luck he’d just been granted. The only other person in the room was the silently observing interrogator, who more often than not glanced at the screen, looking very much like he didn’t want to witness the continuing revolting spectacle of the silently screeching and twisting young foxgirl –

Sean turned away once more, excitement at this golden opportunity rising in his chest and forcing him to use more restraint than ever to remain still. He couldn’t move – not yet. He had to wait, wait for Xander to clear the area, which, with his impatient pace, wouldn’t take very long, only a few moments … during which Aki was still being tortured …

He was moving before he knew it, his motions fluid, mechanically precise and devastatingly effective, the soreness and weakness in his muscles forgotten; in a second, he had leapt out of his chair and crossed the room before the interrogator could so much as react and had driven his fist as hard as he could into the man’s solar plexus; he rapidly followed up with a hard elbow jab to the now bent-over and wheezing man’s neck, and then it was all over with the interrogator lying unmoving on the ground.

He didn’t pause to think, his training once again settling in instinctively; he dug into the man’s pocket and pulled out his keycard, slipped it into his own pocket, then quickly frisked the unconscious man for anything he could use as a weapon; nothing. Satisfied that there was no more he could do here, he rose and began thinking about leaving when the moving picture on the screen once again caught his eye. Aki’s eyes were shut tight, puffy and red with tears streaming down her cheeks as she was forced through the pure, merciless and unrelenting agony –

The monitor flashed and erupted in sparks; Sean pulled his fist back from the now-cracked screen, his knuckles showing light cuts from the breaking glass. The image was now a dull black, devoid of the muted horror it had been projecting for the past several minutes.

Quickly calming himself down, Sean set his mind back to the monumental task at hand. Escape holding block. Find villagers. Save Aki. Get back home. And all this while securing both his safety and – especially – the Aqueni’s.

And, somehow, ensuring that they would be safe once back on Earth.

Not sparing the cell, the broken monitor or the unmoving man a second glance, Sean headed to the door, took out the interrogator’s keycard and, with one last preparatory breath, slipped the plastic strip through the door’s control panel; it beeped green and the heavy metal panel slid open at once.

His sharp senses immediately took account of his new surroundings: A rather narrow corridor, poorly lit, with a guard just outside the door, and a couple more guards further down the passageway. Sean’s elbow rammed into the nearest guard’s chest before the latter could even react to Sean’s presence and he fell back against the wall, stunned by the sudden blow; a quick jab of the side of Sean’s hand into his exposed throat and the merc crumpled to the ground with a garbled exclamation of pain. Aware of the other guard who was now bearing down on him from behind with his rifle raised, Sean spun around and hurled his knife expertly, sending the blade digging into the merc’s abdomen, just below the ribcage; the man fell over and lay on the ground, writhing feebly.

The last merc present stood about fifteen feet away from Sean, stunned into stillness; then, he scrambled to get his rifle off from around his neck and point it at Sean, but it was too late; Sean had sprung towards him and thrust his fist into the man’s gut, and a subsequent blow to the back of the man’s neck had him out cold.

With the surrounding guards incapacitated, Sean took a moment to check out the area’s layout. The corridor led to a dead end to the right and the walls were lined with the same metal sliding doors as the interrogation cell’s at regular intervals. The other direction led to a set of double-doors (the left door wide open) that opened up into a larger area, perhaps a main lobby for the holding block where connected the various corridors that comprised the Catalasia’s detention deck.

Sean grabbed the rifle off the merc he’d just knocked out, checked its energy level (fully charged), and headed down the corridor, pausing to kick the now-dead merc over and retrieve his knife from his gut. He closed in on towards the double doors, half-hoping no-one would pass by beyond the open left door and spot him. But naturally, someone did; a merc crossing the room beyond glanced at Sean before doing a double-take; he was able to give a shocked ‘Hey!’ before Sean’s thundering rifle pulse cut him down –

At once a number of other voices erupted from beyond the doors; knowing that he couldn’t hide anywhere quickly enough, Sean went into attack mode and surged forth towards the doors just as a dark form appeared in the windowpane; Sean used his momentum to launch a strong kick at the panel, which crashed into the merc behind it with a satisfying thud followed by a yelp; a burly-looking soldier staggered backwards into view, looking dazed –

Sean wasted no time: He fired off a few quick shots at the man’s chest, felling him at once, then sent another short burst into another merc as the latter burst through a door at the left-hand side of the foyer. Sean took cover behind the thick, metallic right-hand door and carefully peered around at the lobby beyond to spot any further guards; a quick flash of light erupted and he jolted back around the panel as laser fire erupted against the wall to his side, leaving several scorched craters.

Holding very still and controlling his breathing, he could only make out one pair of footsteps from the lobby as the last merc slowly approached the doors. He spotted the soldier’s shadow on the wall as they approached; he waited until the perfect moment, then just as the merc appeared within reach, Sean swung his elbow hard into the soldier’s face; she staggered back several steps, clutching at her suddenly-bloody nose and face, and Sean seized the moment; she was unconscious on the floor within seconds, her rifle safely out of reach.

He’d guessed correctly; the lobby was a large room, similarly metal-plated as the rest of the ship, with walls that were lined with various doors and hallway openings surrounding an open floor free of any obstacles, or shelter. As per security regulations, the only exit from the detention block was in the lobby, where security doors divided the sector and the rest of the ship. Barricading those would mean Sean could buy himself some time – at least for a little while as he figured out his plan of action.

Sean hurried over to the large, heavy-duty at the front of the lobby doors and levered the security handle into its engaged position. A satisfying loud clank, followed by a series of rapid beeps from the control panel to the side of the doors, told him that the locks had been activated; they could only be disengaged by hand or from the ship’s security control room, and as far as Sean was aware, no-one had any idea what was happening in the Catalasia’s holding area … yet.

Sean looked around the lobby, trying to decide on his next course of action. He had to find Aki – he remembered the situation she was in and his blood pressure spiked again – he needed to find where she was, how to get there … but how …?

He spotted it as though it were another godsend: He rushed across the lobby to the back, where a computer console in the wall shone its blank screen at him as it awaited activation. Taking out the interrogator’s keycard again, Sean quickly swiped it through the machine’s reader. At once, the screen lit up – and flashed him a password box.


Sean wasn’t nearly well versed enough in informatics and cracking to be able to circumvent the security protocols in time. Once again growing edgy, he navigated the console’s menus until he found himself at a more traditional login screen, the type he was more used to. Deciding he had no choice, he typed in his identity and personal password, hesitated only a moment as the thought that the systems might be monitored, or that his numbers had surely been deactivated, briefly flashed through his mind, then hit Enter.

The computer paused for just a second as it processed his request, then immediately opened up familiar menus, bringing forth his Military profile’s once-familiar welcome screen: Welcome, Captain O’Neil.

Sean stared for a moment, stunned that his login still worked after all this time of inactivity. Quickly focusing his mind on more pressing matters, Sean quickly browsed through the menus until he arrived at the system’s files on the Catalasia itself. His rank in the Military, especially with his Phantom Unit ties, allotted him a very high security clearance that allowed him to navigate just about everything in the Military’s system unhindered.

Nonetheless, he knew all too well that his time was very limited; security would inevitably realize that a bunch of the guards patrolling the holding block had suddenly gone missing, and the computer systems would be disabled once the ship entered lockdown. The clock seemed to count down in his mind as he went along, muttering under his breath. He launched a quick and simple search for the ship’s floor plans and labs area; barely a moment later, the desired information was displayed on the screen. Sean quickly traced the path with his finger, memorizing the various directions and turns from the detention block to the labs and torture chambers where Aki was being held (and suffering …) He made sure to remember every turn and to find reference points; he wouldn’t be bringing the map with him.

Down the main hallway … take the elevator up six levels to the labs deck … fourth door on the left … His destination was pleasingly near and the directions were simple to memorize, given the size and complexity of the Catalasia. Not that he didn’t expect to encounter more than his fair share of resistance on the way, though.

Satisfied that he now knew the path by heart, Sean hit the Logout key on the console, watched the screen quickly flash blank, then turned around and started across the room at a trot. He paused at one of the mercs’ bodies and decided to search it quickly for anything he could use. He ended up grabbing the fallen merc’s rifle, slinging it over his shoulder as a backup. He would need to be light and quick if he wanted to maximize his chances of reaching Aki and the anthros (don’t think about her, don’t think about what’s happening to her …), and two laser rifles would be amply enough.

Satisfied with his equipment, he headed towards the security doors. He was so focused on his what he would do once the doors would open, and what he might find behind them, that he almost didn’t catch a slight movement in an upper corner of the room –

He immediately bolted at the doors, rushing to get out of the newly discovered surveillance camera’s field of vision before the automated sensors detected his unregistered presence – how could he have forgotten about the goddamned cameras?!

Just as he reached the heavy steel doors, he stopped cold with his hand halfway extended towards the manual lock, realizing – the bodies …

The very air seemed to shake; at once, everything turned crimson as the emergency lights went up and Sean jumped at the sudden blast of the alarm as it rang through the ship.

Security breach detected in Sector S-3, deck F-4, holding block,’ blared the cold, automated voice over the intercom. ‘Now entering shipwide lockdown. Security breach detected …

Sean swore under his breath; he’d really been hoping he would’ve had more time than this. He raised his rifle and shot at the camera in frustration, exploding the device into sparking shrapnel. He then quickly slammed his hand on the security handle, reverting it into its normal position … yet the control panel next to the door showed that the locks remained engaged.

– entering shipwide lockdown. Security breach detected –

Sean could practically feel time itself rush by and the walls of opportunity closing in on him as he frantically thought about what to do next. He was pinned in a room with no way out but through security doors that wouldn’t open, and every mercenary and their sibling was approaching his location and would be there in a matter of moments.

Forcing himself to take deep breaths, he focused his mind on his training in infiltration and how to bypass such obstacles as locked doors. Sean swung his rifle around and smashed the butt into the control panel, buckling the metal plate covering the electronics that controlled the door. Sean quickly wrenched it out and threw it aside, exposing the relatively plain circuitry behind it. Letting experience guide his hands, Sean quickly managed to short out the control panel, forcing it to reset to its default settings and thereby overriding the lockdown. He was rewarded with a mechanical clank as the locks finally disengaged.

At once, he hurriedly fingered the interrogator’s keycard and swiped it through the slot; the small light flashed green and the doors gave a whir and a hiss as they began to slide open …

Sean pocketed the keycard and readied his rifle in one go, then quickly poked his head around the door. The wide corridor beyond that connected the detention block with the rest of the ship only held a handful of soldiers, all of which were running towards him, their rifles raised –

Sean stuck his rifle out from around the door and opened fire, letting loose one short volley for each merc; the bluish-white flashes of his laser pulses mixed in with their own as their shots ricocheted off the impenetrable security door, nearly blinding Sean with their bright flashes; when the short-lived lights display died down, the three were lying on the ground, bloodied and unmoving in the flashing red emergency lights.

Sean stepped out from behind the door panel and set off down the corridor; he was eying the crossing passageway where he was supposed to turn according to the map he’d memorized when he caught sight of an army of mercs rushing in from around a corner up ahead –

Immediately eschewing the directions he’d memorized, Sean pointed his rifle in their direction and squeezed the trigger as hard as he could; rapid laser fire tore up the corridor all around them as their return fire flashed by on all sides; he headed off around a nearby corner to the left, escaping the hail of enemy fire as he sprinted down the much narrower corridor and skidded around a turn, only to find himself at a dead-end with a sealed service door that he wouldn’t be able to bust through in time as the mercs trailing him grew nearer …

Sean forced himself to quell the rising desperation inside him once more; he’d been in enough tight, seemingly impossible situations before. He pressed up against the wall behind the corner and slowly moved towards the edge; he could hear the other mercs in the corridor, now strangely quiet, their footsteps slowly advancing towards him; he imagined they expected him to ambush them with a quick leap from around the corner, all guns blazing, but Sean had something else in mind, something better …

He held his breath in wait, silent and still, as the first few soldiers warily approached the corner behind which he hid, their shadows visible from around the bend with their rifles raised almost nervously; maybe they knew all about him, his legend, what he was capable of. Sean waited, waited, as their footsteps grew closer, their shadows telling him how close they were to the bend –

The second he saw a rifle emerging from around the corner, he pounced; a quick swipe and the nearest merc’s gun was knocked away, followed by a lightning-fast jab to the hostile’s chest; he grabbed the gasping and disoriented merc and yanked her towards him, spun her around carelessly and before she could react, he had his arm around her throat and the tip of his knife was resting just below her eye.

He felt her go quite rigid, all the fight leaving her at once as she realized the helpless position she was in; Sean held her tightly pressed to his front, keeping them both half-hidden behind the corner as the rest of the mercs just stood there, staring at him and his human shield, unwilling to move forwards or shoot at him lest they accidentally shoot her or he take away her binocular vision.

‘Get back!’ Sean snarled. ‘Get back or she gets it, you know I will!’

A moment of hesitation passed, then after what seemed like an eternity, the mercs slowly started retreating, keeping their rifles pointed at Sean as they backed out of the corridor. Keeping his knife pressed to the terrified merc’s face, Sean started forwards, almost tripping over her as she tried to precede his footsteps. Foot by foot, they slowly progressed down the narrow hallway, Sean’s heart beating in his ears at the boldness of his move; one misstep, one second of exposure, or one careless merc with an itchy trigger finger, and it would be over –

Yet it wasn’t, and then he’d made it to the mouth of the corridor with the mercs all around in the larger hallway, their guns aimed threateningly at him yet without any ability to fire as long as he had their comrade at knifepoint. The sirens had finally stopped blaring, leaving only the emergency lights flashing their crimson warning and bathing them all in a flickering incandescent glow.

‘Don’t you fucking come any closer!’ threatened Sean, making his warning as forceful and threatening as he could. They all heeded his call, staying back as they kept their eyes and barrels locked on him and his captive, waiting for him to make the next move.

Sean slowly began pacing down the corridor, holding the obedient merc against him, his knife under her eye glinting brightly scarlet in the flashing lights. The mercs slowly followed all around him, carefully measuring their pace so that they weren’t moving any faster than he was. Sean didn’t particularly like the prospect of disfiguring or killing the merc at his mercy, but that certainly wasn’t going to stop him from doing whatever he had to. At any rate, the promise of bringing harm or death upon their comrade was always a reliably effective method of forcing hostile forces to back off, and this case was no different from any of the other times where Sean had held an enemy at gun- or knifepoint to facilitate his progress. His heart was thumping in his chest and ears from controlled fear and strain; he had no idea whether this was going to work; all he knew was that it was his only chance, his only way out.

I’m coming, Aki … just hold on … just a little longer … I’m coming …

He just wanted to throw the hostage aside and to run as fast as he could towards the labs; Aki was still being tortured as he slowly paced down the corridor, or maybe her session had stopped; either way, time seemed to crawl by. Eventually, after a torturously long stretch of time that may have been no more than five minutes, he arrived at a narrower stretch of hallway that ended with an entrance to an elevator. He backed towards the doors and quickly hammered the button (beep). He waited several tense moments, the soldiers filling the corridor before him except for a dozen feet of buffer zone between them, until he heard the lift lower into place behind the closed doors with a hum. The doors immediately opened, and Sean looked behind him just in time to catch a couple of mercs preparing to leave the car until they noticed Sean, freezing in their steps with their eyes wide –

Sean thrust his arm out and flung the blade from the merc’s eye to the first merc’s throat, where it struck into its target with lethal precision; the second merc was now raising his rifle but Sean threw a quick kick and threw off his aim, sending his rifle bolts ripping into the surprised soldiers packing the corridor; he launched himself into the elevator and slammed his arm onto the control panel and the doors closed just as return fire filled the hallway with their blinding flashes of light …

A streak of fire cut into Sean’s left shoulder just as the doors sealed; he let out a grunt of pain but pushed through the sudden discomfort and triggered the button indicator for the labs deck, six decks above his current position. The elevator immediately swooped upwards, sending him against the wall as he was unready for the sudden movement, inadvertently stepping on the chest of the body his knife in its throat. He heard the pounding of laser fire against the impenetrable doors as the elevator quickly rose out of reach.

Taking a moment of respite, Sean examined his searing shoulder. He’d only been grazed lightly; the laser had instantly cauterized the wound, which was nonetheless deep enough to impart a distracting amount of stinging. Nothing he couldn’t fight through, though.

He then realized he’d forgotten his hostage below. Cursing himself, he could only hope the mercs hadn’t set up a welcome party for him as the elevator quickly arrived at the level of the labs. He shrugged off the pain from his shoulder and readied his rifle just as the chime rang out and the doors slid apart …

But the lobby the doors opened on was miraculously deserted. Sean quickly popped out and headed around the walls, aiming his rifle in all directions in readiness for an enemy that didn’t appear. The emergency lights flashing across every surface in sight gave the room a wholly surreal feel; Sean almost felt dizzy. The walls were lined with numerous doors, each of them leading (according to the plans he’d memorized) to a short corridor that connected to its corresponding laboratory. All were plain, unmarked metal panels; none gave any indication.

Fourth on the left ... fourth on the left. Almost there, Aki.

The door was a solid metallic panel much like the rest of the ship, devoid of a knob or hand-plate and with a small keypad to the side with a small digital readout that was locked in the lockdown. Sean smashed it with his rifle butt; it cracked and emitted a warbled beep, and the door quickly hissed open to the side.

Sean’s heart was thumping louder than ever in his ears as he slowly started down the final path towards Aki. The corridor was short and narrow and ended with a sliding glass door on the left, through which Sean caught a narrow glimpse of the plain, gloomy room beyond. He briefly wondered whether he’d made a mistake; the image on the monitor (as little as he tried to think about it) had shown a brightly lit background. Nevertheless, he steeled himself for whatever he might see as he closed in on the glass doors and whatever was behind the door came into view …

It was a control room of sorts, a small, closed off space with the lower walls on the other side lined with a large instrument panel and several monitors that flashed various displays. Overseeing it all was a technician clad in plain grey clothes, his back turned unsuspectingly to Sean as he occasionally fiddled with the controls as he stood and stared through the ninety-degree windows in the walls above the console. Following his gaze into the bright room beyond, Sean scanned the clinically white and bare laboratory, making out various types of machines and equipment stands, several white-clad figures roving around, and in the middle of it all …

Aki, strapped to a table, writhing, naked, helpless.

He gripped his rifle almost instinctively; without thinking, Sean opened fire right through the glass; glittering shards rained down upon the floor as the consoles erupted in sparks and flying shrapnel, their displays going haywire before flashing blankly; the tech bolted out of his seat but fell to the ground in a bloody heap just as the lab’s own alarms went off, distinct from the shipwide lockdown siren and mixing together to form an incoherent racket. Sean hopped through the shattered door as the torturers in the lab ahead ran around in panic and a voice called out:

That’s him, he’s here! Quick, destroy the subject –!

Sean bolted through the control room and around the open door connecting with the lab; less than five seconds later, the laser fire had died down and left a tinny sort of ringing in the room as the medical equipment and bodies of the techs lay charred on the ground.

He felt his throat constrict almost painfully tight his eyes started prickling at what he saw. The poor, vulnerable, innocent foxgirl was still squirming around from the fire streaming through her veins, her movements now weak and sporadic as her exhausted, suffering body started giving up on her; her face-fur was wet and matted with drying tears, her eyes closed and eyelids twitching; her mouth was hanging open but only weak moans and whimpers were heard, her voice apparently broken from all the screaming; her bare chest rose and fell erratically as her breathing came and went in short bursts. Fear struck Sean like being plunged into a pool of ice.

Oh, God, Aki … Please … no …

Taking a deep breath to try and steady himself (though he couldn’t control the shaking in his arms), he carefully pulled the intravenous lines out of her flesh, a trickle of evil-looking yellowish fluid dripping over the table and onto the floor where it couldn’t hurt anyone else; he slammed his fist onto the button on the table’s little control panel to deactivate the restraints and the metallic shackles around her arms, legs and torso immediately retreated, leaving her to move around feebly, whining in pain, fear and confusion. Sean gently slid his arms under her legs and her back and carefully lifted her off the table; holding her to him like a parent would a dying child, he eased her to the ground and he followed, sinking to his knees and propping himself up against the wall behind him; he pulled her into his lap and against his chest, holding her close and tight, tenderly rubbing her arms with his hands as if trying to ease the pain away as she sniffled, shivered and twitched in his arms, completely out of it, her brain overloaded with the agony of the past several minutes (it took me too long, I wasn’t fast enough …).

He lost track of time and circumstance; everything around him, the cold room, the dangers, simply seemed to fade away as he lay there, holding the girl he loved, the girl who’d gone through so much suffering because of him, willing her to come back, to wake up, to open those beautiful cerulean eyes. He slowly massaged her furry body; she felt so fragile, so broken, it put his heart in a vice.

Her shivering slowly died down, to be replaced by an almost stiff stillness; her breathing slowly calmed down and returned to normal; her facial features unclenched from their tortured air, and soon she looked as though she was merely asleep against him, her fur radiant in the emergency lights. Sean was well aware how vulnerable they were in this position, how his rifle was pressed up uncomfortably against his back on its sling and would be totally out of reach should hostiles arrive, which they very well could at any second; but he disregarded all that. He didn’t have a choice. He couldn’t leave her, not when he’d just found her.

She stirred weakly with a low, drawn-out groan, and her eyes slowly opened.

‘H-hey,’ breathed Sean, giving her a soft squeeze. She slowly raised her head against his chest, her unsteady gaze slowly finding his own.

‘Sean …?’ she whispered, her voice barely audible. Sean tried to smile but felt like he only managed a pained grimace; he compensated by giving her another gentle squeeze with his arms, rubbing her fur a little more vigorously. She looked at him unwaveringly, as though she were transfixed at the sight of him, or as if she’d gone blind.

‘I’m here, Aki … I’m here …’

She took a few deeper breaths and shifted her position, her strength slowly returning to her, though she was still beyond exhausted.

‘I knew you’d come,’ she muttered, the crimson lights glimmering brightly in her tired eyes. ‘I knew it.’

Sean stared at her, his vision growing cloudy; blinking, he lowered his head and gave her a soft kiss on her forehead. She closed her eyes and breathed in deeply, her exhale slightly shuddery. Her tail, previously fraught with spasms, swung around and laid over them both as though a fluffy blanket, a buffer against the hostile outside world as they shared their tender moment together.

All too soon, however, Sean knew that it must come to an end. They couldn’t wait around any longer, not with a ship filled with enemies surrounding them. With tremendous effort, he pulled his arm out from under her and slipped it under her arm for support.

‘Come on … we gotta get moving,’ he said quietly.

He half-expected her to protest, to say that she couldn’t, that she was too tired; but to his surprise, she merely gave a slow nod and sigh before grabbing onto his arm and shoulder for support as they both picked themselves up off the floor. The sounds of the alarms now returned to Sean as he had apparently tuned them out at finding Aki, and the racket combined with the still-flashing lights filled him with a renewed vigor and sense of urgency.

He helped her to her feet, where she swayed dangerously, looking tired and dazed.

‘Can you walk?’ Sean asked of her.

She nodded, and as if to prove it, took an uncertain step forwards – then her knees buckled and she fell; Sean grabbed her before she hit the table.

‘You okay?’

‘I’m fine …’ she grumbled, sounding more determined than frustrated. ‘Just … gimme a minute …’

We don’t have a minute.

‘Lemme just check and see if the coast is clear.’ He made sure she wouldn’t fall over again as she was holding onto the table for support and breathing deeply, then crossed the room and aimed his rifle around the door –

Just as a horde of soldiers suddenly materialized in the corridor outside the control room, pausing at the shattered glass door and raising their rifles –

Sean jumped back around the wall and his hand automatically found the lab door’s controls at his side just as laser bolts streaked through the doorway, missing him by inches and striking the wall; Aki gave an almost halfhearted yelp of shock as the glass panel quickly slid shut with a hiss, sealing the lab off from the control room that was now flooded with mercs, whose rifle fire struck the glass door and window without leaving a mark …

Sean felt a stab of relief at the realization. Of course, the lab would be surrounded by bulletproof glass, as a precaution in case anything within needed to be contained. Or, in this case, to keep intruders out. The mercs’ laser fire merely ricocheted back at them, striking and injuring or killing several before they cottoned on and ceased fire; they advanced towards the door and windows and bashed their rifles against the glass, which stood up without fault to the assault. Others tried activating the door’s controls but Sean sealing the lab closed from the inside had effectively barricaded him and Aki in the lab, out of the mercs’ reach for the time being.

Sean backed up and joined Aki’s side, instinctively grabbing her protectively as they stared across the room from the mercs trying desperately to breach the lab’s perimeter. He could hardly believe the situation they were in; they were literally trapped inside the small laboratory, the only exit a sealed glass pane protecting them from what looked like dozens of armed hostiles who were doing their best to break in. He was assailed with visions of the door and window shattering and laser fire filling the room as soldiers swarmed at them, spelling the end …

‘What do we do now?’ squealed Aki, her voice high and trembling in terror.

‘I – As long as we stay in here, we’re fine,’ said Sean, willing his voice to sound braver than he felt. ‘We’ll be all right, Aki, we’ll be all right …’

He could tell by her crushing, shaking grip on his arm that she didn’t believe him. And, now more than ever, neither did he.