Thursday, August 05, 2010

Inhuman | Chapter 14: Sacrifice [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.

The race for safety and battle for survival continues.


— CHAPTER FOURTEEN —

Sacrifice

Crack. The sound reverberated like a whip as a large fissure suddenly appeared in the door … Aki took a half-step behind him, her hand around his waist … The crack slowly grew, the edges reaching each side of the doorframe, the reinforced glass finally starting to fail under the endless barrage it had held up so valiantly against …

This is it … we’re done … I tried, love, I tried … but I couldn’t …

Sean pulled her into his arms quite tightly, willing to shield her from everything around them and their impending destruction, focusing on the softness of her fur, the warmth of her body; goddamn it, he loved her so much … He felt the wetness where her face pressed into his shoulder and he had no doubt she could feel the droplet on her muzzle …

Another crack, another fracture, this time in the window … then another … and another … and …

KA-BANG

A blinding flash of bluish-white erupted as the world around them was torn apart; the room shook violently and Sean and Aki shrieked as they were suddenly showered in glass as the door and windows blew out; everything seemed to go dark and silent, but Sean realized it was he who seemed to have gone blind and deaf …

He slowly dragged himself out of his daze, the cuts now covering his body from the shattered glass bringing his senses back online. He looked around and the state of his surroundings left him totally disoriented. Most of the lights in the ceilings of the lab and control room had gone out, throwing the area into twilight. The gloomy aura was compounded by the wisps of smoke that swirled around in the air and the destruction that reigned in every direction, from the blown out control room to the charred and buckled walls.

Sean tore his eyes away from their surroundings and examined Aki. She appeared to be unhurt, save for a light coating of reddish cuts visible through her fur, and she was staring around, looking just as harried and confused as Sean felt.

‘What …?’ she croaked, half-coughed the words out.

‘Stay here,’ said Sean mechanically as he made to get up and investigate what the hell had just happened. Had one of them detonated a grenade? Had there been a disastrous short-circuit in one of the systems? How were the mercs? Were they safe?

However, just as he clambered to his feet, swaying uncertainly and cringing slightly at the stinging in his legs and feet, he saw and heard movement in the darkened control room; he reached wildly for his gun, but was barely able to bring it up when a figure appeared through what used to be the sealed door …

‘Sean!’

For the second time in about as many hours, Sean stared in disbelief as Leona Hartling materialized out of nowhere before him. He reflexively looked her over; she was definitely in a better state than he did with her clean appearance, and she was holding her laser rifle at the ready. For an instant, Sean felt like they were together in the field again.

‘Sean, it’s me!’ she called, and the vision in his mind imploded. ‘C’mon, we gotta hurry!’

‘Uh … right,’ said Sean rather thickly, still pulling his head back on. ‘Wait … what just happened?’

‘I saw you were in a bit of trouble, I threw a grenade in, got ’em all in one blast,’ she said. ‘You, you all right?’

‘I’m fine,’ he said without thinking. ‘Okay – right –’

He turned around back to Aki, who was only just starting to pull herself to her feet. Sean grabbed her arm and slowly eased her up, bracing her to ensure she wouldn’t buckle again, but she seemed to hold strong.

She then froze, her eyes fixed on something behind Sean. Sean was then hit with realization –

‘What the …’ Hartling muttered, her face registering pure shock as she stared at the woozy foxgirl.

‘Leona. Leo— Hartling!’ Sean called somewhat forcefully, snapping her attention back to him. He’d totally forgotten that she hadn’t been made aware of the anthros yet.

‘Sean, what –?’

‘Leona, listen,’ Sean cut her off. ‘I’ll explain later, all right? This is – this is one of the prisoners I told you about, remember? No, later!’ he said sharply as she opened her mouth in confusion again. ‘Leona, there’s no time! We need to get outta here, now! We need – we need to find the others, the other prisoners, and we need to get off the ship. Are you with me, Shadow?

Hearing her old codename worked as Sean had hoped; she pulled herself together and quickly regained combat mode.

‘All right, all right,’ she said dryly. ‘Let’s go. Can it – I mean, can she …?’

‘She’s fine,’ said Sean as he wrapped one of Aki’s arms around his shoulders and grabbed her around the waist to help her move along. The past half-hour had taken nearly everything out of her, but she was resilient enough that she started walking without too much difficulty, trying to suppress her groans of pain and effort. Sean once again wondered how much tougher anthros were built than humans.

Hartling saw them out of the lab and through the control room; Aki gasped and Sean felt a thrill of revulsion at the sight of over a dozen bloodied, dismembered and charred corpses littering the floor amongst the burnt wreckage that used to be the console and monitors. The very floor was slick with blood and Aki’s hackles didn’t relax until they were well clear of the room and were walking down the corridor outside.

Hartling led the way to the lobby, her rifle at the ready but silent at the lack of guards, as the three of them made their way to the elevator from which Sean had debarked onto the labs deck. Aki gasped again as the doors opened to reveal the two bodies Sean had left in the lift; he quickly hauled them out before they entered the car and the doors hissed closed behind them.

‘The prisoners,’ said Sean.

‘On the detention deck, same as where you were, but in another section reserved for enemy combatants,’ Hartling quickly explained as she hit the appropriate button on the panel. Aki swayed in alarm in Sean’s arms as the lift suddenly dropped; she obviously hadn’t experienced an elevator’s movements before.

‘How’re you holding up?’ Sean asked her quietly.

‘I’m okay,’ she said, looking rather anything but. ‘Just tired.’

Sean nodded to himself and gave her another squeeze as the elevator slowed to a halt (she was again discomfited but braced herself better than before) and the usual chime announced their arrival.

‘Stay back,’ Hartling said to Sean and Aki, though she hadn’t needed to as Sean had already pushed him and the foxgirl back against the wall to the side as the doors hissed open. Leona quickly checked the corridor with her rifle and soon pronounced it all clear.

Sean and Aki ambled out and followed Leona as she led them back into the large central hallway through which Sean had made his way with the merc he’d held hostage. The walls and ceiling were peppered with charred laser-holes and there were several bodies on the floor when Sean’s blind firing as he’d emerged from the security doors had hit the oncoming wall of mercs, but there were no signs of any presence other than their own as the flashing emergency lights and the ever-present siren kept announcing the ship’s lockdown status. The incongruity of the continuing alarm and the lack of enemy forces made Sean particularly uneasy.

‘Where are they?’ he said to Hartling.

‘No idea.’ She sounded somewhat tense, too. ‘I don’t like this one damn bit. They pull an ambush on us, we’re sitting ducks like this.’

‘Right.’ Sean longed to reach for his rifle slung behind his back, to feel the relative comfort of the grip and trigger in his hand, but Aki came first. She looked at him, almost as though she’d heard his thoughts and knew how vulnerable he felt, exposed and weaponless like this, but Sean merely gave her another reassuring squeeze.

They arrived at the open security doors connecting with the detention block lobby where the bodies of the mercs Sean had previously assailed remained on the floor.

‘This way,’ said Hartling as she led them towards a corridor across from the one that led to the interrogation room where Sean had started his breakout.

‘Hey, Sean – how did you pull it off?’ Hartling suddenly asked as though reading his thoughts as they started down the new hallway. ‘I mean, don’t get me wrong, you’re known for getting out of sticky situations, but I gotta admit, even I’m impressed with that one.’

Sean gave a quiet chuckle. ‘Luck. I had a knife hidden on me the whole time, the idiots didn’t even find it. Picked the cuffs, waited for Xander to leave – he got called away for some problem or something with the bridge or whatever …’

‘You mean the nav systems crashed?’ enquired Hartling, giving Sean a telling, mischievous look over her shoulder.

Sean stared at her, then felt a strong rush of appreciation. Oh, Leona.

‘Wasn’t too hard, I hope?’ He tried to sound stoic but couldn’t help the wide grin splashed across his face.

‘If by “not too hard”, you mean having to find a suitable location where I wouldn’t be found in thirty seconds, then accessing the secure systems, bypassing the passwords and security protocols and cracking into the nav files and then uploading a little worm to mangle it all … then no, it was actually pretty easy,’ she said with a small smile of her own. ‘Anyway, I figured you could use the diversion. I knew you’d put it to good use.’

‘I love you, Leona,’ said Sean offhandedly. Her smile grew and she turned away, both to watch where they were going and to hide the slight blush Sean knew was creeping across her cheeks.

‘What … what’re you guys … talking about …?’ said Aki, breathing heavily from the long walk. Sean reflexively grabbed her tighter in support.

‘We’re just talking about how my friend here, Hartling, saved our lives,’ said Sean, feeling somewhat buoyant for the moment despite the direness of their situation.

‘Oh, you did most of the work,’ muttered Hartling.

‘All thanks to you.’

They fell quiet as Hartling paused before them, bringing them to a stop.

‘Right around here, I think,’ she said, looking as though she were trying to remember memorized directions. Sean suddenly realized he had neglected to locate the anthros when he had searched for Aki’s whereabouts earlier. He suddenly felt rather foolish, especially considering how the lockdown had disabled the computers and he would’ve been quite stuck had Hartling not evidently done the job of memorizing the way for him.

They had arrived at a Y-intersection, both offshooting corridors identical to one another.

‘Yeah, this way,’ said Hartling with renewed certainty in her voice as she started down the left-hand pathway. The corridor was narrow and short, leading down only half-a-dozen doors or so before ending in a cul-de-sac. The siren that echoed through the previous hallways seemed not to air in this section, much to their ears’ relief, though the flashing crimson lights were as dazzling as ever.

‘Are you sure?’ questioned Sean as they stepped down the short pathway.

‘Yeah – right here,’ said Hartling, stopping at the next-to-last door in the wall and motioning towards it with her head. ‘I checked the logs, this is where today’s prisoners are being held for the next few hours. They’re scheduled to be moved later on, but –’

‘All right,’ Sean cut across her as he and Aki moved towards the door, not particularly interested in what the mercs had planned for the anthros at the moment. He fished in his pocket for the interrogator’s keycard and quickly slipped it through the port in the door’s control panel.

The light flickered red.

Shit, the lockdown.

‘Whose card is that?’ asked Hartling from behind him.

‘My interrogator’s,’ said Sean with some disdain in his voice. ‘Doesn’t look like he has the clearance to override a lockdown, though …’

‘Don’t worry about that – I do,’ said Hartling as she pulled out her own keycard. ‘Perk of being a systems tech: I have round-the-clock access to all systems and sectors, even in lockdown.’

She ran the card through the slit in the panel. This time, the light turned green; a grinding clank informed them the locks had disengaged.

‘Go on,’ she said as she stepped back to let Sean and Aki take the lead.

Sean took a deep breath to prepare himself – how would they react when they saw him? – then activated the switch. At once, the door hissed open into the wall, revealing the twilit cell beyond …

At once, there was a series of gasps and a rush of activity as those closest to the door hurriedly backed away, everyone there staring with wide eyes at the newcomers before …

‘Sean! Aki!

Kira’s shrill voice was quite welcome to Sean’s ears as he and Aki quickly stepped into the cell, followed closely by Hartling, whom Sean knew must’ve felt quite discomfited at all the half-humans suddenly present around her. The vixen rushed through the crowd of anthros at Sean and her daughter, looking absolutely stricken.

‘Aki – what – oh god – what’s wrong?’ She couldn’t form a complete sentence as she examined her daughter’s frail and disheveled body, her arms straining at the restraints behind her back as she clearly longed to throw them around the foxgirl.

‘I’m fine, Mom,’ said Aki quietly, her reassuring voice betrayed by weariness. ‘I’m just tired, I’m all right.’

‘Oh, my sweetie –’ Kira laid her head on Aki’s shoulder out of a lack of other options; Aki wrapped her arms around her mother and they shared a tight hug, their eyes brimming with tears. ‘Sean – what’s going on?’

‘I’m getting you out of here,’ Sean said, loudly enough for the rest to hear clearly. ‘Look – we don’t have a lot of time, we really need to get moving now. They’ll be coming for us any second, so we need to go.’

‘We are not going anywhere until you tell us what happened!’ came a crabby voice. Sean recognized Krypp the coyote as he stood there, glowering at Sean accusingly. ‘How did they find us? Where are we going?’

Sean was taken aback at this sudden confrontation, though he felt he deserved it. Every pair of eyes in the small cell was now alternating between him and the reproving coyote, their breaths held as they waited for Sean to answer, to explain himself, to tell them how he had gotten them all into this horrible mess to begin with …

‘It’s my fault,’ he said quietly, weighing his words carefully. ‘I made a mistake. I forgot to deactivate a beacon that … well, I mean, I just forgot to do something to make sure that they wouldn’t find us,’ he clarified. ‘I … I led them here. I fucked up … I never meant for any of this to happen.’

His eyes were starting to prickle; he blinked a few times, trying to get rid of the menace of tearing up before the villagers. The room was very quiet and still, everyone’s attention fixed on Sean as he stood before them all, hoping he looked as deeply apologetic as he felt.

‘But it did,’ continued Krypp, not looking much mollified by Sean’s admission of failure. ‘It did happen, and now you got us all into this mess, and now you say you wanna –’

Hey!’ came an angry, croaky bark from Sean’s side. Aki was staring at Krypp over her mother’s shoulder with a glare that transcended her physical exhaustion. Krypp fell silent in surprise at the forceful interruption from the weak-looking foxgirl.

‘Sean did what he could,’ Aki growled, her voice quiet but ferocious. ‘He made one mistake, and it cost him just as bad as it did us. Stop blaming him for not being perfect. He just busted out and risked his life to rescue us – again. Now, you can stay here and get chopped up and tortured and killed if you want, or you can shut up and let him save your ungrateful hide … again.’

Everyone stared at her in quiet awe, Sean included. Krypp looked like he’d been hit over the head but refused to let up, seemingly determined to win the argument if nothing else.

‘But – but we wouldn’t need rescuing if it weren’t for –

‘Oh, shut up!’ snapped Hartling from the doorway.

This irate outburst from an unknown human who was glaring at him whilst wielding an intimidating-looking rifle was finally enough to silence Krypp, who seemed to shrink almost comically in his defeat.

‘Well, if that’s over,’ said Sean to change the subject, realizing the precious minutes they’d lost. ‘Now, come on, we gotta move, now!’ he urged sharply, and they all started crowding towards the door.

‘What about our arms?’ called a zebra-woman, struggling against her restraints.

‘Oh, right – I’m sorry, we can’t do anything about the restraints yet,’ said Sean. ‘We’ll take them off later. For now, we need to get to the Escape Deck and get the hell off this ship. Come on!’

Hartling popped back into the corridor to ensure that the coast was clear while Sean organized the anthros into a line and led them out the door. Only as they shuffled by, some of them throwing him looks of terror and others, of relief, did Sean notice they were all completely naked, which, he remembered, was the custom with captured enemy combatants.

Doesn’t help that they’re just filthy animals to their eyes.

Aki was now in the strong arms of Kira, which finally freed Sean to grab his rifle alongside Hartling, squeezing the grip reassuringly. He moved up through the queue of scared-looking villagers, trying to catch their eyes (though he couldn’t help but glance back at Aki) until he caught up with Hartling at the front, rifle aimed before him and ready to open fire at a splitsecond’s notice.

‘What’re the odds the way to the Escape Deck will be clear?’ Sean said to her over the increasingly loud siren as he walked beside her.

‘Wrong way to think about it,’ she answered, her tone somewhat grim. ‘More like, what are the odds we’ll make it to the Escape Deck?’

‘That’s kinda the wrong way to think about it, too,’ pointed out Sean. They were approaching the corridor’s exit into the main lobby when they stopped dead: A large group of mercs had suddenly emerged from a corridor across the lobby, headed straight for them –

‘GET DOWN!’ Sean and Hartling shouted together they threw themselves up against the walls and opened fire at once.

The anthros immediately hit the floor screaming as flashes of energy suddenly erupted all around them and the racket of gunfire filled the air; Sean and Aki used the walls for some minimal cover as they launched volleys of laser blasts into the oncoming mercs; the enemy’s laser pulses streaked mere inches above the anthros’ cowering heads as the crossfire intensified. Sean and Hartling had the advantage of cover, however, with much of the merc’s fire striking the walls around them harmlessly whilst they stood out in the open, little more than sitting ducks to the ex-Phantom Unit comrades.

What couldn’t have been more than one or two minutes and several near misses later, the din died down in echoes, leaving a ringing in the air as though the walls themselves had absorbed some of the energy from all the rifle fire that hit them. The mercs were now bodies on the lobby floor bathing in their own blood. Sean and Hartling examined themselves for any injuries and miraculously found none. Sean checked the anthros; they were all petrified with terror at the sudden explosion of violence but otherwise unharmed.

‘All right, let’s go, let’s go, come on! Move!’ called Sean urgently as Hartling set out into the lobby, aiming her gun at the surrounding corridors and doors in case anyone else arrived unannounced. The anthros picked themselves off the floor and spilled into the lobby, staying clear of the bodies as though afraid the corpses would attack them anew. Sean had to physically force a few of them off the floor and to their feet as they were paralyzed with fear.

‘We have to keep moving!’ he said. ‘This whole place is gonna be swarming in a few minutes. Hartling, you know the way?’

‘This way.’ She once again headed through the security doors and into the wide corridor for the second time (and Sean’s third). Sean rallied the anthros and herded them down through the doors and down the hallway as well, ushering them along with encouragement and paying particular attention to Aki, who seemed to have regained enough of her strength by now to no longer require her mother’s support, though she still held onto the older vixen as they picked up speed down the large corridor. Sean held the rear, keeping an eye both on the group itself, assuring that none of them fell or lagged behind, and behind them all, fearing that any second may see a sudden swarm of enemies spilling in behind them or to their side from an adjoining corridor …

They were halfway down the corridor, trusting that Hartling knew where she was taking them, when a side-entrance suddenly filled with the sounds of oncoming infantry –

‘GO!’ cried Sean as he rushed past the anthros, placing himself between them and the new rush of hostiles and started shooting without an instant of hesitation into the group before they could even react –

The racket of renewed gunfire failed to cover the sudden uproar of shrieks from the Aqueni as they stampeded past after Hartling, who knew better than to abandon them to help Sean at the rear; clothes, blood and body parts were flying through the air in burnt shreds as Sean’s laser tore them apart and threw them into complete chaos; satisfied that they’d been repealed for the moment, Sean didn’t take the time to make sure they were all dead before tearing down the corridor after the anthros, seeing them turn into a connecting pathway to the right as they followed Hartling further up ahead. He’d barely covered half the distance separating him from the rear of the group when streaks of energy began flashing past again; determined not to get separated from the anthros as they sprinted down the last few dozen yards of hallway, Sean spun around and shot blindly behind him as he ran, a steady succession of screams telling him whenever his shots hit their targets – laser fire kept flashing by, ricocheting off the walls and planting harmlessly into the floor and missing him and the anthros up ahead by a hair, as though the gods were watching over their escape –

He was falling; he hit the floor with a thud and howled in shock and pain, his lower back suddenly on fire; blinded by tears of agony, he mindlessly pushed through the pain, reached for his rifle that had skidded several feet away but it was too late, the mercs were nearly upon him –

SEAN!

The voice was drowned out by the sudden roar of rifle-fire; Sean watched, half-dazed by pain and confusion, as Hartling had suddenly stationed herself behind a nearby corner and was now pelting the legion of mercs behind Sean with laser fire, miraculously holding them back for a few more moments –

Sean didn’t need to hear her yell at him to get out of there; he was already clutching his rifle as he bolted off the floor, his fresh wound hitting him like a dagger planted in his back but he ran anyway, growling loudly from the pain; he passed Hartling and skidded around the corner, nearly falling over in his haste, and found the anthros assembled there at the end of the short corridor.

‘Get them through the doors!’ yelled Hartling, her face lit up bright blue as her rifle spat its lethal load into the mercs around the corner where Sean had nearly just succumbed; heeding her call and fighting through the confusion that threatened to cloud his mind for good, he moved through the anthros to the end of the corridor, his legs nearly buckling from the fire in his back every time he bumped into someone; he finally reached the wall, which was actually a set of security doors; Sean immediately found the control panel, bashed it open, fiddled through the wires for the correct one to override the mechanism –

Sean, hurry!’ came Hartling’s cry from behind him, over the din of the continuing gunfire, just as the light indicator on the panel mercifully flashed green as the doors reset just like the ones in the detention block lobby –

‘Quick, through here! Go, go!’ Sean urged of the anthros, steering them through the opening doors and into the area beyond. A small plaque above the doors told him everything he needed or wanted to know: ESCAPE DECK – SECTOR S-3.

Sean entered the wide-open area along with the anthros and quickly examined the area. It was strikingly similar to the Escape Deck on the Chartraine: several decks high to the ceiling, which was covered in tracks for various cranes that served to move escape pods and other equipment around. The capsules themselves were lined along the exterior wall, each covered by a special casing resembling a glove to prevent their engines from blasting anyone or anything behind them on the Escape Deck, with a hatch in the back for access. The siren echoed through the cavernous chamber as an infernal racket, but Sean knew the lockdown wouldn’t affect the pods’ ability to launch.

The area was clear for the moment, so Sean left the anthros on the open floor and returned to the security doors where Hartling was still blasting away the mercs, growing visibly weary as her stamina began to drop.

‘Leona, get in here!’ Sean called loudly over the combined racket of the alarm and the rifle-fire from the corridor. Not needing to be told twice, Hartling quickly retreated back around the corner and bolted through the doors onto the Escape Deck, where she quickly found the doors’ control panel.

‘Seal them!’ said Sean, but Hartling obviously knew what she was doing; a moment of tampering with the console later and the doors had closed and locked audibly. Sean made to leave but noticed Hartling remained at the console, her fingers dancing across the keypad at feverish speeds as the machine regularly emitted various little beeps.

What’re you –?’

‘I’m overriding the system so they can’t open from outside the Deck,’ she said quickly. ‘And also … if I can just …’

The console suddenly beeped shrilly and she pushed an exclamation of triumph; a number of heavy thuds and slams echoed around the chamber and Sean noticed that all the various entrances and exits to the area, spanning the several hundred feet and three storeys of the Escape Deck, were quickly sealing themselves shut as well.

‘I shut off the entire Deck,’ she boasted with a grin. ‘Let’s see them get in here now. It won’t take them very long to break in, but it’ll give us enough time to get the fuck off this ship.’

‘Goddamn it, Leona, you’re a genius,’ said Sean with veritable awe.

‘Right, well.’ She was blushing slightly again, then her expression turned more serious. ‘How’re you? Lemme see.’

‘I’m fine,’ Sean said mechanically as Hartling examined his back. The burning pain flared as if offended that Sean would dare try to ignore it. ‘How’s it look?’

‘You’ve had worse,’ she said with a sigh. ‘Pretty good laser burn, some tissue damage, but you’ll live. Gonna need to get it checked out soon, though, before the damage grows.’

‘Yeah …’ said Sean. That won’t be a problem.

He held her gaze for a moment and her face seemed to register a slight flicker of worry, as though concerned at something she’d sensed in him, but then he turned away and headed back to the anthros. They had stayed group together on the floor just beyond the entrance, looking quite intimidated at the size of the Deck.

‘Everyone, listen up!’ he called, moving to their front to where the escape pods were awaiting them, doing his best to appear unaffected by his wound. ‘Now, listen to me very carefully, all right? We only have a few minutes before they get in here, so do exactly as we say.

‘Now, you see these escape pods? Yeah, just like the one I crashed in the river with, remember? You’re gonna get into the pods, and then Leona’s gonna program them so you all end up in the exact same place, right in the middle of the Neyrin River, right where my pod is. Do you understand?’

Some of the villagers nodded quickly; others looked confused and obviously hadn’t understood a word of what Sean had said, and most just stood expectantly, awaiting Sean’s instructions. He caught Aki’s eye and he could tell from her solemn expression that she had understood.

‘Now, we need to split up into three groups,’ Sean said. ‘The pods can take five or six people, max, so if you would please, form three groups of five, or six – yes, thank you …’

The anthros slowly separated into the requested formations; Sean shuffled a few of them around to even out the numbers. Meanwhile, Hartling had run off to a nearby wall where a console had activated despite the lockdown, no doubt thanks to Hartling’s magical touch.

‘Leona, what’s up?’ he called.

‘I’m programming them all to follow the same command so we don’t have to input the instructions individually,’ she said absently, navigating through menus and settings. ‘Also making sure the system’s set up to recognize the planet’s geographical alignment … Uh – hey, Sean,’ she said suddenly, looking away from the screen at him. ‘Where exactly do we send them? Do you have the coordinates?’

‘Uh – yeah,’ said Sean, calling back into his memory the numerals he’d absently overheard from the shuttle pilot during his trip to the Catalasia. ‘Latitude one-nine-point-five-four-five south, longitude three-four-point-five-four-one east.’

Hartling flashed a grinned at him (“Knew you’d memorize something like that”), then busied herself configuring the system with the appropriate data.

A few more moments passed during which Sean, in addition to fighting off the fire in his back that seemed to wax and wane with each breath, also picked up another set of sounds through the din created by the alarm: that of escalating levels of banging against some of the doors Hartling had forced shut. He briefly wondered how many dozens or possibly hundreds of soldiers had amassed just a dozen feet away through the thick walls of the Escape Deck, just waiting to break through the security doors and fill the chamber with laser fire and the screams of the defenseless Aqueni …

‘Done!’ came Hartling’s voice, chasing Sean’s dour vision away. As Sean and the others watched, the indicator lights above the three nearest pods suddenly lit up bright green, which Sean took as an indication that they’d been linked together electronically. A second little screen above each of the pods had lit up into a clock that was counting down: 3:573:563:553:54 … Their engines could be heard whirring into life and the hatches opened with a hiss, revealing their cozy but cramped interiors, waiting for passengers to embark.

‘I linked them up to follow the same directions,’ said Hartling as she jogged over to his side. ‘Everything’s automated, no need to touch a joystick.’

‘Perfect.’ Sean turned towards the anthros and ushered them towards the pods. ‘All right, get on board! Go, go …’

He directed the three groups towards their respective pods, making sure they all got in promptly until they were all standing around in the tight confines of the capsules. Several of them gave ‘ooh’s and ‘ah’s of wonder as they were faced with the assuredly breathtaking vision of space through the cockpit windscreens.

Hartling passed by Sean on her way to the last pod. ‘You take that one,’ she said, pointing to the first one over to the right.

Sean nodded. She turned and ducked through the hatchway, joining the other anthros already present who backed away from her a little, either in respect or in their general fear.

‘Good … good …’ Sean muttered absently to himself as he peered into each of the three pods, making sure everything was in place. ‘You’re sure no-one needs to use the controls at all?’ he asked of Leona as he peered into the third pod.

‘Affirmative, I put all three on autopilot all the way to Earth. Should only be about an hour’s time before we land. Sean …’ she added, looking at him with worry. ‘What’s gonna happen when the Catalasia reaches the planet? We’re not gonna be able to fight them off.’

‘You’ll – I mean, we’ll just run and, and hide somewhere,’ said Sean, remaining calm despite the growing trepidation in his stomach. ‘Leona …’

He stared at her intensely, and her eyes reflected the worry in his. ‘Leona … take care of them. They’re innocent and good people. They deserve their chance.’

‘Of – of course,’ she said, her face suddenly registering mild puzzlement.

‘Also, there’s another two groups of mercs down on the ground, they were supposed to watch over the, the rest of the villagers. I dunno how they’ll react to the pods landing in the river – but you make sure they don’t hurt anyone, right?’

She shook her head hesitantly, her concern growing more evident with every word Sean spoke.

Sean held her gaze for a moment longer, then retreated away from the pods, examining the three of them as the digital timers above the pods kept ticking down: 1:511:501:491:48

‘Sean?’

He looked into the last capsule, but it wasn’t Hartling who had called his name. He then realized Aki was there, too, hidden behind the others so that he hadn’t seen her when he had talked to Hartling. She had made her way to the front of the group in the capsule, her mother right behind her, and she eyed Sean with a confused and worried expression that matched the tone of her voice. The look in her eyes couldn’t have been clearer: What are you doing?

Sean felt a lump in his throat form; he swallowed hard and glanced up at the painfully slow timer. 1:401:391:38

‘Sean, come on! Hurry up and get in, there’s barely a minute left!’ called Hartling, looking half-cross and half-bewildered at Sean’s strange inaction.

Sean’s face remained blank as he stood there, his eyes flickering between them and the steadily decreasing digits on the clocks above the pod casings. He was silent and still, as though he were just waiting …

‘Sean …’ Hartling’s voice was low, hesitant, almost mortified.

Sean held her stare until he couldn’t bear the horrified realization that crossed her face like a death omen and looked away, but the only other thing that caught his eye was Aki, who gazed at him looking utterly baffled.

‘Sean, get in, hurry!’ she called. Her voice had grown stronger now; she was standing straight and without her mother’s aid, having regained most of her prior strength.

Amazing girl …

1:261:251:24

‘Sean, you can’t stay!’ Hartling said loudly, looking stricken. ‘You can’t fight them, you’ll never make it –!’

‘I don’t have a choice!’ Sean said before he could help it, his voice more filled with anguish. ‘Don’t you get it? What do you think’s gonna happen when the Military reaches Earth, Leona? We can’t hide! They’re gonna search every inch of the place, we’ll have to run and hide for the rest of our lives until we get caught. It’s bullshit! I have to stay and stop them – somehow – I have to find a way. It’s – it’s my fight. I’m the one who got us all into this shit, and it’s my turn to get us out of it. I’m gonna make things right.’

His words left a shocked silence in their wake, broken only by the continuing echoes of the sirens and the quiet beeping of the countdown. Hartling’s face registered nothing but shock and pain, pain at what must’ve been a betrayal to her, Sean was more than certain (a thought that filled him with torment, himself), but he had no choice. The thought about what he had to do had been brewing in his mind ever since he began planning their escape in the Holding Block lobby; it had taken every ounce of his stealth to dissimulate any indications of his intentions from Aki and Hartling, whom he knew would never voluntarily sign off on his plan until it was too late and they were no longer able to interfere. He tried as hard as he could to block his mind from wandering into the pain, the betrayal, the sorrow that what he was set to do would bring to his friends and loved ones, but there was no way he was able to ignore the shocked, horrified faces of Hartling, Aki and the rest of the Aqueni who had heard him openly declare his intention to sacrifice himself on their behalf.

I’m so sorry.

0:420:410:400:39

‘Sean … Sean, NO!’ Aki’s cry nearly unsettled him; all of a sudden, she lurched forth and out of the open hatchway and stumbled towards Sean; Kira went after her but Sean reached her first, holding her up in his arms; she fought him desperately, bawling and pleading desperately in a choked voice as she tried to grab onto him, but he was too strong for her, especially with her lingering weakness; against every fiber in his heart, he resolutely forced her away from him even as she struggled and non-too-gently pushed her back into the pod, the foxgirl completely besides herself and literally kicking and screaming foxgirl as hard as her frail body would allow …

Sean – please, get in – please, don’t – no – Sean –!’ she cried in desperation as Sean pushed her back through the hatchway as the clock above slowly, inexorably neared its deadline: 0:280:270:26

Kira tried to grab her daughter’s arms but Aki yanked them out of her reach; she ran at Sean again but he blocked her way, barring her attempts to leave the pod again and she merely pounded at his chest as though trying to force herself into him, or trying to drag him into the pod with her; she looked up at him, her face filled with sorrow and anxiety, her large, impossibly beautiful, dazzling blue eyes wide and brimming with tears, tears of shock, of pain, of panic and impending grief at losing –

He grabbed her tight to him and she wrapped her arms around him, and in an instant of raw, purest emotion, their lips found each other as though they were long-lost lovers; he tasted her, her scent overcame him, it was passion; his eyes closed as tears began welling up as sure as they were in hers; his hands gripped her back and her nape as though they would never let go, feeling her soft, wonderful fur, the heat and firmness of her body against his; they kissed as would ages-old lovers, expressing every unuttered feeling for each other, the world around them threatening to slip away, the alarm silenced, the escape pod forgotten, the countdown sliding into nothingness –

Then the spell was broken; Sean pulled back and before she could react, he quickly pushed her back into the pod with all his might; she tumbled backwards into Hartling and the Aqueni, who caught her safely as her mouth opened in shock and Sean jumped back just as –

0:02 … 0:01 … LAUNCHING

Sean stumbled rearward back onto the Escape Deck just as the hatchdoor connecting the pod to the ship sealed shut with a sharp hiss; another glass door slammed close in the casing surrounding the pod, missing Sean by inches as the pod’s engines kicked into life; he caught the briefest glimpse through the porthole in the pod’s rear hatchdoor where he saw the faces of those he loved, the various colors, shapes and sizes of the villagers who were his friends and neighbors, the dark form of Lt. Hartling, and Aki, who was besides herself in her mother’s arms, her hopeless wails muted by the several feet of glass and metal now separating them; then he was blinded by a brilliant white flash and turned away as the thrusters spat their jets of flames with a dull, reverberating whoosh that shook the very floor and sent shivers up Sean’s legs and spine …

The flash quickly died down and Sean peered back through the window through which the pod had previously been housed and witnessed the metallic sphere shooting away like a bullet, the rear porthole quickly reduced to no more than a pinprick of light at the center of a dark, shrinking circle, its three thrusters glowing brightly in a triangular formation at the pod’s rear, the whole surrounded by nothing but empty, black space – except for the basketball-sized dark mass hanging in the background, off to the right of Sean’s field of vision, a thin halo of lingering sunlight lining the outer radius of the Earth as nighttime swept across the surface, plunging the world below into darkness.

The bright white dot that was Aki and Hartling’s pod was soon joined by the two orbs of light that were the remaining capsules, and the three of them slowly swirled around each other as would leaves in a river, their thrusters showing off their aerial ballet like roving little stars against the darkened surface of their homeworld to which they were speeding, away from the Catalasia, away from Sean, away from the nightmare that he had brought down upon them and towards the home that he was now to give his life to save.