Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Inhuman | Chapter 15: Resolutions [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 and Aki must decide where their paths will take them in the end.


— CHAPTER FIFTEEN —

Resolutions

Sean watched the three lights shrinking in the distance against the darkened surface of the planet for a few moments, feeling as though his own life were leaving him along with the pods. He resolutely tore his eyes away from the window and turned around, taking the full weight of the situation into account. Thoughts of Aki and Hartling kept intruding, their horrified faces etched in his mind’s eye and the feeling of the impassioned kiss still very real to him. He shook his head roughly, trying to focus his thoughts on the monumental task at hand.

He was still standing before the three newly vacated pod casings, right in the open with the large open deck stretching out around him. Out of habit, he sought out the nearest shelter and scurried across the deck, aiming for some haphazard stretch of wall underneath a sort of alcove formed by the catwalks above. He flattened against the wall reflexively, aware that he was quite alone on the spacious deck but nonetheless unable to shake the feeling that the place was crawling with unwelcome presences, or the certainty that it soon would be.

He tried to concentrate, but realized he was drawing blanks. He had known he needed to stay behind and disable the ship after he had seen the Aqueni off without him, but now that he was all alone on the escape deck, he realized he had no idea how to proceed or where to even begin. He knew he had to cripple the ship, or preferably destroy it altogether, but how on Earth could he pull off such a feat? It was quite unlike his past missions with Phantom, where he was regularly inserted into hostile territory with a team and guided by predefined mission parameters and objectives. And now, he was alone on an enemy vessel with a monumental task that he had no real plan for accomplishing.

He was only too aware of the incessant pounding against the security doors across the deck as a sea of mercs surrounded the area, trying to break through Hartling’s override of the deck’s security systems. He had no fantasies about hiding there indefinitely, however, and the continuous blaring of the alarm throughout the ship only aggravated his mounting trepidation. He looked around the cavernous area, at the towering walls and far-above ceiling where the emergency lights shone their vivid crimson flashes upon every surface below; the wide array of machinery, cranes and catwalks crisscrossing the area above the ground sending a chaotic array of shadows roving and crisscrossing along the floor and walls; the grating siren resonated in an unintelligible racket that both scared and energized.

For a moment, it struck him just how very similar the scene was to that night on the Chartraine, all those long months ago, when he and his crewmates had panicked their way onto the escape deck and rushed to flee the ship as it disintegrated around them. He could just imagine the Catalasia’s muster stations suddenly swarming with confused soldiers and crewmembers rushing about in every direction, cramming themselves into the small pods before the enormous vessel tore itself apart as …

His eyes widened and he suddenly knew what he had to do. It was a brilliant stroke of inspiration; it was completely asinine; it was perfect.

Destroy the antimatter reactor core. Annihilate the ship.

But that would entail a successful infiltration deep within the bowels of the ship, and at once his mind flooded with objectives he needed to accomplish: He needed a guide; he needed a way to ensure safe passage into the heart of the vessel where the reactor chamber was located; he also needed to understand the reactor itself well enough to know how to sufficiently destabilize it in order to achieve critical failure. But he was a soldier, not an engineer, and surely just shooting at it wouldn’t –

His pondering was suddenly cut short as a distinctly loud detonation was heard through the nearest security door, which groaned and visibly buckled. The mercenaries wouldn’t be kept out for much longer, and Sean was suddenly aware that he had no place to hide on the wide-open deck, and nor would he be able to fight them off, not alone and with his debilitating back wound. He quickly dashed along the inconveniently smooth and featureless deck wall away from the weakening security door, scanning the place frantically for any sign of shelter or escape, but it all seemed to be absolutely sealed with no helpful corners or secluded spaces or …

With the loudening chorus banging and clanging behind him, his gaze finally found a relatively small and unremarkable single panel in the wall at the far end of the deck, roughly equidistant from the rapidly failing security door.

*

Aki watched through the rear hatch porthole as the colossal ship’s hull slowly shrank into the distance, though her view was continually obstructed by the wetness in her eyes that steadily overflowed into her now-damp cheek-fur. She felt very weak, though she couldn’t tell whether her fatigue was mostly physical or emotional. All she knew was that she was currently very reliant on Kira’s support from behind as her listless body lay pressed up against her mother’s strong, comfortingly warm body. She greatly craved the feeling of the older vixen’s arms wrapped around her, to feel her mother’s reassuring embrace when she was feeling so impossibly drained and wounded and lost, but Sean’s friend, Hartling, hadn’t thought of a way to remove the Aqueni’s restraints yet.

Aki kept her eyes rooted through the glass and away from the rest of the pod around her. She could sense the others, undoubtedly staring at her or trying not to out of respect for her feelings, but Aki couldn’t bring herself to care in the slightest about anyone else at the moment. Her sorrow was all she felt, her grief all she knew, as she tearfully watched the brightly lit, artificial cosmic monster that still carried her best friend, her love, retreating away from her, though she knew it was she who was leaving … leaving him … leaving him to a certain, manifestly cruel and undeserved fate.

She blinked hard, feeling more wet streaks creep down her face. She gave a loud sniff, tore her eyes away from the glass and slowly pushed herself to her feet, feeling rather wobbly at the knees. She paced across the pod, looking ahead without meeting anyone’s eye. The anthros did their best to get out of her way and seemed to avoid looking at her as though afraid or ashamed of her. She knew they all cared for Sean; some were even his friends. All felt some small measure of the pain she felt in leaving him to die for their sake. Some of them had humid eyes, and she realized that all were silent; not a word had been uttered in the roughly ten minutes since the capsule had blasted off the mothership.

She reached the front of the pod where Hartling was standing off to the side of the cockpit, arms crossed and back against the wall as she quietly glanced around at the scared, nude anthros. Hartling’s composure was strong, but Aki could tell that she harbored almost as much grief as Aki did. After all, Sean had told her about all those years of training and fighting alongside his Phantom Unit comrades and how close he and Hartling had been during those trying times.

She glanced down at the round instrument panel before the pilot’s seat with all the buttons and screens, flickering seemingly at random and displaying incomprehensible readouts. She could barely understand any of it, other than the little that Sean had explained back when they were exploring their world together, sharing their experiences down on Earth, that great dark shape that was steadily growing larger in the windscreen against the pitch-black and star-strewn skies beyond. She looked across the planet’s surface, but her eyes couldn’t distinguish anything on her world’s gloomy face as it lay cloaked in nighttime. She vaguely wondered where their home was situated in the darkness before her.

She wondered if her fellow villagers were all right, her thoughts focusing on Nessi in particular. She wondered what they would do once they landed. If Hartling would be able to protect them. If they weren’t all destined to be wiped away by the invading human forces … or whether life was even worth living anymore.

Her eyes began to burn with a renewed swell of tears and she screwed them shut. Her mind was suddenly alight with scenes from the past few months: running through the grassy fields and through the thick woods with Sean, swimming in the wonderfully cool, crystalline waters of the Neyrin with the endless blue skies above, roughhousing on the banks of the river like two feral animal cubs in the sweet-smelling grass; she remembered ending up on top of Sean a disproportionate number of times and was certain that he’d simply let her win, to tease or to make her happy. Either way, seeing his smiling face, those bright eyes, filled with wonder and caring …

She gave a choked sort of gasp, her lips trying to curve into a wan smile at the memory. How could she possibly go on without him when he’d become so much of her life in the couple of months they’d shared together?

As she stared ahead through the glass at the slowly approaching homeworld, she felt a sudden heat flow through her body like a rush of warm water from her heart outwards, making her fur tingle. She noticed her translucid reflection in the window and breathed in deeply, realizing how disheveled and pathetic she looked; but rather than depressing her, the sight, combined with the images of Sean still playing through her mind, had a greatly different and unexpected effect on her. She gasped softly as a sudden and powerful rush of energy gripped her as though electricity had been injected into her veins. Her body tensed, her mind cleared; and then, there was only one thing she knew …

She couldn’t live without Sean. And she wouldn’t.

She was shaking again, though this time sorrow had been replaced by a rush of adrenaline coursing through her body like a metaphorical kick in the rear. What she had to do next was suddenly very clear to her, as though she’d somehow always known but had never really accepted it.

She glanced back down at the instrument panel and could practically see and hear Sean pointing out various controls and mechanisms at her side in his crashed pod in the Neyrin: speed, fuel reserves, heading, steering. She would still need someone help to turn the pod around. She would need Hartling. And she would have to keep anyone else, especially her mother, from knowing about it – at least for now.

She slowly went over to Hartling’s side, trying to act casual, as though nothing had changed in the past few minutes. The human woman glanced at her quietly, but her brow furrowed in concern when she noticed Aki’s suddenly intent stare.

‘Listen to me very carefully, and keep your voice down,’ said Aki in a hushed but clear voice, hoping to keep anyone else from overhearing her. ‘I have to go back. I have to – no, shht!’ she cut Hartling off as she opened her mouth in bemusement. ‘I have to go back, and I have to help Sean. I can’t leave him there on his own. But I – I don’t know how to work this thing, how to work the controls. I need your help.’

She stared hard at Hartling, who looked back into her hard vulpine eyes with quiet shock.

‘But –’

‘No “but”s,’ said Aki, her voice low but forceful. ‘I am not going to sit here, I am not going to let him die. If I have to turn this thing around myself, then I will, and you’re not gonna stop me.’ Her eyes practically burned with conviction and Hartling actually drew back a fraction of an inch, looking genuinely daunted. ‘If you have any loyalty to him – if you care about ever seeing him again – then you have to help me. Please.

She kept her eyes trained on Hartling, who returned her gaze like a statue. Aki wasn’t very proud of using the woman’s close bond with Sean as a pressure point, but she felt she had no choice other than using whatever tactics were necessary to get Hartling by her side.

Moments slowly ticked past as Aki and Hartling silently surmised each other; Aki could tell Hartling was examining her, as though judging whether the foxgirl was bluffing, or how far she might go in order to get back to Sean.

‘Listen to me.’ Hartling’s face was very solemn. ‘What do you expect to do? What d’you think will happen if you go back in there? You think you’ll just – come flying out with Sean and still manage to destroy the ship? You really expecting a miracle to happen?’

Aki blinked as she thought about what Hartling was saying. She suddenly felt a twinge of embarrassment as she realized the woman was right; what was she hoping to do? She knew she had to go back, but even if she found Sean, what then?

It doesn’t matter. We’ll think of something.

‘I’ll deal with that,’ she said after a moment’s thought. ‘But I have to get back there.’

Another moment passed while the foxgirl and the woman stared at each other.

‘There’s no going back,’ Hartling said quietly.

‘No. There isn’t.’

Aki’s resolute mind seemed to reach a decision as soon as she was asked. She just knew that no matter what would happen, she had to find Sean. They would find a way … or die together. But she couldn’t live apart from him. She just couldn’t; of that, she was absolutely certain.

Hartling stared at Aki for another long moment, then finally gave a resigned nod and discreetly slipped behind the controls and into the pilot’s seat.

Aki stood by Hartling’s side and divided her attention between the human’s quick yet subtle manipulations of the instruments and the looming face of her planet in the windscreen. Then, slowly, the view outside the windows began shifting towards the right as the craft started veered away; two orbs of blue light streaked past on their way towards the surface, the remaining pods unfazed by Hartling’s override. She was able to deviate the pod’s course subtly enough to avoid anyone becoming aware of their change in direction, though a few anthros had noticed that the stars outside the portholes were now moving against the cosmos with mildly quizzical looks.

‘What … what’s happening?’ one of them asked.

‘I just need to … correct something,’ said Hartling vaguely. ‘Nothing to worry about.’

They raised no further questions, content to sit and stand around in silence. They seemed to have been subdued by the events of late into acceptance of whatever was happening at that point.

A few minutes later, as the celestial tapestry continued to shift, Aki’s eyes settled upon their new destination as the shadowy man-made mass once again reentered her sight. Her jaw clenched and her nails dug into her palms at the sight and at the thought of what lay ahead for her now that she was well and truly committed.

And yet, despite the chilling prospect, she found herself thinking about her mother sitting behind her; her mother, whom she loved so dearly and who loved her back just as much, if not more; her mother, whom she would have to convince to let her go for this dangerous and possibly suicidal mission.

Her respiration went slightly faster as she realized she was going to have to essentially betray her mother this way. Her heart grew heavy with fear and sadness at the thought of the confrontation that would come far too quickly as the Catalasia slowly grew across the windscreen like a gigantic angel of doom.

*

BANG!

The clamor of the alarm was suddenly drowned out as a massive detonation rocked the escape deck; the security door nearest to the couplings that previously held the three launched pods was finally blasted apart, the heavy, buckled metal panels skidding across the deck and crashing into the walls across with a resounding racket of screeching metal. The smoke hadn’t begun to clear when troops stormed in by the dozens, rapidly spilling across the deck in all directions with their rifles raised and ready. They collectively flinched and looked up when a second explosion was heard in the distance and another pair of heavy-duty doors was sent tumbling down onto the floor a storey below with a deep, resonating clatter. A second group of mercs began piling onto the catwalks of the second level, and as with the group below, they rapidly spread throughout the wide-open space like a flood, pointing their rifles into every nook and cranny as they systematically scoured the deck in their search.

However, the minutes went by and it soon became apparent that there was nothing to be found, as made evident by the lack of additional commotion or any victorious calls. One of the mercs, identifiable as a commander by the insignia on his chest, looked around in circles at his men swarming across the two-storey deck with confusion etched across his face.

‘Where the hell is he?’ he called to no-one in particular. His question was met with an even more baffled silence as the mercs began wondering how they could have missed a single rogue inside a sealed space.

‘Sir, over here!’ came a voice far off to the side of the deck. The mercenary commander trotted off towards the merc who’d called his attention, looking somewhat hopeful. He then disappeared from sight beyond the field of view allowed by the vent grille.

Sean’s heart was beating so loudly in his ears that he was almost scared the mercs would hear it echoing through the tinny ventilation shaft. He lay quite still on his stomach with his arms under him to buffer any noise as he slowly crawled along the tight rectangular conduit, painstakingly putting distance between himself and the ceiling grille in the small maintenance room he’d used to gain entry to the deck’s ventilation system. The oldest trick in the book, and in his panic, it had only occurred to him once he’d actually seen the vent only seconds before the nearest security door was blown apart.

He now lay quite still, silently gazing down upon the deck from the inconspicuous air vent in the wall of the tight crawlspace between the first and second storeys of the escape deck. He guessed the mercenary commander had located the maintenance room at the edge of the deck, and his suspicions were confirmed a moment later when brusque voices started resonating along the duct from behind him:

‘What, what is it?’

‘Chief, look at the ceiling vent, the grate looks like it’s –’

‘Yes, yes, I see it, I’m not bloody blind. Looks like we got a rat in the ventilation system.’

‘Sir, should we go after him?’

‘Are you stupid? He could be anywhere by now, or even better, could be a trap. Nobody’s crawling in there after him. Just seal the vent up, and I want security dispatched to all positions around …’

The voice lost focus and died out as the commander evidently left the vicinity of the air vent. A slight scraping noise followed by a sharp bang later, and Sean surmised the grille had been stuck back into place.

Sean slowly exhaled the breath he’d subconsciously been holding. He hadn’t expected the mercs to follow after him, so he currently found himself in a temporary reprieve where no-one would find him, at least not for a while. Unfortunately, it also meant that security was now going to be ramped up throughout the entire ship as the mercs had no way of knowing where Sean would pop up, which only made his endeavor that much more difficult. And he still had no idea how to find the reactor chamber, especially now that surveillance in sensitive parts of the ship will undoubtedly have increased.

He reflected upon his situation as he kept his eyes peeled through the narrow slits in the vent at his side. His view of the escape deck below showed the mercs dispersing evenly through the area and most of them leaving through the exploded security doors. (He was still practically deaf from the unbelievable noise those blasts had sent rampaging through the echoing air ducts.)

Deciding the time had come to move on, Sean breathed deeply and again set off through the narrow tin passage, doing his very best not to bump the cramped space with any body part lest he attract the mercs’ attention too early. He was relieved to note how his back injury felt somewhat soothed by him lying flat on his stomach, and he could only hope it wouldn’t come back to bite him later on. He soon came to a variety of turns and offshoots, and upon reflecting that he had no idea which one he ought to take, he elected to go down the path that would take him deeper into the ship.

*

Aki could feel her heartbeat quicken a little as the greyish hulk of the starship slowly loomed ever larger before them, its innumerable portholes and landing bays creating an almost ethereal web of various-colored twinkling lights that covered the expansive hull and superstructure. Soon it had filled the windscreen; the foxgirl’s wary eyes scanned the structure and its multitude of shapes and formations without really knowing what she was looking at as Hartling’s careful maneuvering gradually brought them closer to the belly of the ship.

‘How much longer?’ Aki asked in a somewhat reserved voice.

‘Not long; a few minutes,’ said Hartling without taking her eyes away from the window. Aki noticed the human wasn’t even looking at the instrument panel as she directed the craft, her hands moving across the board with nimble precision. ‘I just need to route us around the main decks. Don’t wanna get seen by anyone in the open bays.’

The anthros now looked confused and unsettled as the massive, coldly glittering hull of the ship once again filled their windows. An uncertain buzz of quiet questioning spread through them, though none of them seemed to have the nerve to ask why they’d returned.

‘Almost there,’ said Hartling in a half-hearted attempt to placate them as she guided the ship in. The massive metal plates of the hull were sliding downward as they rose along the side of the ship, the inside of the capsule momentarily filled with pale, red-tinged light each time they crossed a window. The hull seemed to stretch on for miles around them, and Aki couldn’t help but feel unnerved at the idea of searching through such an oversized structure for her friend. She quickly pushed these thoughts out of her mind; she had to focus and not let herself be overwhelmed. It’s what Sean would do.

Hartling turned a dial on the console and pressed a button. A screen before her flashed into life at once, presenting her with a detailed graphic of the hull at their side.

‘Checking the magna-radar for any clear insertion point in the vicinity …’ she muttered, low enough that Aki thought she might’ve been talking to herself. A moment later, the screen flashed all sorts of seemingly random images and diagrams that made no sense at all to Aki’s inexperienced eyes, yet which made Hartling look up with satisfaction.

‘There, a little cargo bay right above us that’s looks empty,’ she pointed on the screen. ‘Except … shit, they’re closing the doors –’

She grabbed the stick and pulled hard, and Aki and the anthros swooned as the floor seemed to jump up as they suddenly accelerated their ascent along the hull. The rows of lights flicked past faster and faster as the pod shot up the side of the ship like a maniacal elevator.

‘Come on … almost there …’ muttered Hartling. ‘All right, hold on –!’

She hit another button or lever on the control panel and jerked the control stick to the side; the anthros nearly fell over as the pod suddenly spun around and dashed off to the side; Aki felt completely disoriented at the flashing lights and shapes whizzing around outside the windows, yet a moment later everything slowed down and regained focus.

She regained her footing, having fallen against the wall during Hartling’s wild maneuver, and noticed they were facing the inside of brightly lit space with plain walls and a relatively low ceiling, all of which flashed red as the alarm continued to ring. This unexpectedly gave Aki a thrill of hope; they hadn’t found him yet, or else the alert would surely have been called off.

The pod slowly rotated and Aki witnessed two large sliding doors sealing shut just as the pod turned to face them, effectively trapping them inside. The anthros didn’t fail to notice this and Aki definitely noticed a sense of alarm amongst them.

‘I’ll get those open once we jack into the system,’ Hartling muttered to herself again, apparently oblivious to the others as she kept at the controls, carefully hovering the pod along the open floor towards some sort of strange-looking structure in the wall. The craft approached the portal-like structure and turned around as to aim its rear hatch towards it. A moment later, the pod gave a light jerk and the porthole in the rear hatch went dark with shadows.

‘Umbilical …’ breathed Hartling as she flicked a few other switches; there was a series of sharp clanking sounds that sent a shiver through the capsule, followed by a long hiss. Another switch, and the rear porthole suddenly grew bright, illuminating what now appeared to be the inside of some sort of tight passageway.

‘All right, we’re coupled to the ship,’ announced Hartling quietly as she glanced up at Aki. ‘You’ll be able to walk right in through that umbilical. It’ll lead you directly into the main corridor; there’s no need for an airlock with a sealed umbilical.’

Aki nodded, despite not having quite understood what Hartling had said.

‘What?’ came a sharp voice from the back of the pod.

Aki felt her fur bristle, realizing Kira had obviously understood when Hartling talked about Aki “walking right in”. She turned around to face her mother, who was looking at her with eyes that were wide with bewilderment.

‘What’re you talking about?’ Kira said, her gaze flickering between Hartling and her daughter.

‘Mom …’ Aki started, but her voice seemed to fail her, leaving her sentence hanging. Kira looked at her hard, as though refusing to accept what she was obviously realizing was happening.

‘Aki, what the hell are you doing?’ Her voice had a clear tinge of panic.

‘Mom,’ said Aki again, taking a deep breath and swallowing now that her throat was suddenly dry. Kira stayed quiet, her ears perked very intently.

‘I have to help Sean.’ She put as much strength and determination into her words as she could, unwilling to sound scared or uncertain now that the time had come to confront her mother – and to part ways so reticently. ‘I have to – I have to go back, and I have to find him, and –’

No!’ Kira’s yelp was almost a shout and it made everyone in the cramped confines of the pod cringe, Aki most of all; her hackles raised and her ears flattened despite herself. Kira suddenly looked quite horrified, her face a mixture of terror and fury.

‘What the f— What the hell’re you thinking? You can’t go back in there ! We have to get outta here –’

‘Mom, no, listen –’

‘Dammit, are you insane? You’re not going in there, you can’t –!’

‘I have to!’ Aki bellowed over her mother’s increasingly shrill voice, now shaking at the knees but standing firm. ‘I have to find him, I can’t just leave him there to die!’

‘He made his choice and he – he ordered us to get out of here, to get back home –’

‘He’s gonna die if I don’t help him, Mom, and – and there won’t be a home to get back to –!’

‘Aki, enough!’ cried Kira, looking positively overcome now, like a cornered beast. ‘I’m not debating this with you! You are my daughter and you are coming home –’

‘SHUT UP!’

Kira staggered backward as though slapped in the face. The roar had erupted from Aki’s throat almost despite herself, leaving a ringing silence in its wake. Aki almost couldn’t believe she’d screamed at her mother like that, but Kira’s shocked air confirmed it. Aki’s teeth were gritted and her fists balled; stirrings of anger swirled around in her chest with a searing heat, a sentiment she quickly tried to push out. She was not going to let her mother play that hated “because I say so” card on her, certainly not now. She was only too aware how she had never so much as snapped back at her mother, let alone outright silenced her.

The heavy stillness in the pod dragged on for several long moments as the mother and daughter vixens held their stares. Aki calmed down, unclenching her fists and her jaw as she stared hard at her mother, whose face looked equally bullheaded yet – almost imperceptibly – seemed to falter. No-one else so much as moved an muscle, their eyes flickering between the mother and daughter.

Standing there before her mother, whatever little anger Aki felt disappeared as she gazed upon Kira’s anguished face.

‘I’m sorry, Mom.’ Her voice was now rather heavy, almost hoarse; her throat felt constricted. Almost at once, her eyes began to mist over; she blinked to clear her vision, though her eyelids began to burn. She noticed Kira’s emerald orbs were glimmering in the soft, diffused light of the pod; the older vixen’s lower lip trembled slightly.

Not knowing what else to say, Aki stepped forward and slowly approached her mother, who merely stood there, staring at her with those wide, wet, pleading eyes. She hesitated, then reached forth and gently grabbed her mother’s shoulders in a gesture she tried to make comforting, reassuring, placating. Kira seemed to tremble at her touch.

‘Mom …’ Aki said quietly. They stood there, both breathing deeply and gazing at each other as though peering into each other’s very souls. Aki felt a terrible pain at what she was doing, but she was driven to continue. She couldn’t sacrifice herself and her convictions for her mother, no matter how much she loved her.

‘I have to make this choice,’ she continued, her voice reduced to a shaky but resolute murmur. ‘I have to go. I can’t … I can’t go back. Not like this. Not without him.’

Kira’s lips trembled noticeably now. ‘But, Aki …’ she whimpered.

‘I know, Mom.’ Her voice was now only a whisper. ‘I love you. You know I do, and I always will. But I have to do this. I just … I just know I do. It’s like, I’m meant to. It’s my fate, you understand? This is … this is what the fates want for me. You told me it was destiny that he found us; that he was meant to save us. Now, I have to answer my destiny’s call. It’s time for me to go.’

She gazed at her mother closely, willing the older vixen’s features to soften, for her to understand. This was her last desperate gambit, her last hope of making her mother accept what she had to do: playing the fate card. She had never believed in predestination, but she knew the importance her Kira placed in it and was now counting on it, desperately, to sway her mother’s mind.

Before long, she noticed Kira’s eyes were filling up with tears until they were slowly streaking down her cheeks. The older vixen had given no other sign of defeat or acceptance, but Aki could sense that the confrontation was over; that her mother had given in. She pulled Kira into a close embrace and rubbed her mother’s arms, still held behind her back, as Kira placed her head onto Aki’s shoulder, where she heard a distinct sniffle. Aki felt a great sadness fill her chest at the thought of leaving her mother like this, almost traitorously after they had already managed to escape the ship, and she felt her own eyes burn with tears, even moreso than before.

But she had to find Sean. Nothing else mattered.

A moment later, she pulled herself apart and felt Kira hesitate, as though desperate to hold onto her. But the moment was gone and the hold was broken, and now Aki stared her mother in the eyes, both faces etched with sadness, Kira’s moreso. Aki waited, but Kira remained silent, as though she’d lost the ability or the will to speak.

Feeling it was best to get moving, Aki slowly stepped back, trying to settle her nerves once more. She turned away almost brusquely, forcing herself to break away from her mother’s gaze, and looked over at Hartling, who was still in the pilot’s seat. The woman’s expression was solemn as she pointed towards a panel at the back of the pod. Aki shuffled through the Aqueni towards it, trying to avoid looking at her mother, who was still standing there motionless. Hartling flicked a switch on the console and the panel gave a sharp little whir as it retreated into the wall, revealing a shallow compartment that contained various weapons and assorted equipment arranged on racks.

She knew most of them from what Sean had told her: GPS, flashlights, communication earpieces and assorted others, but there was only one she wanted at the moment. She grabbed the laser rifle that took up most of the space, and immediately, the feel of it felt familiar to her; her hands found their positions reflexively and she confirmed through the electronic display that the rifle was at full charge. She slung the rifle over her shoulder as she’d seen Sean do; she felt slightly discomfited at the sudden weight at her back and the strap cutting tightly across her chest.

She ignored the strange sensation and browsed the remaining items in the compartment. Her eyes fell upon a small pistol in its holster, and she could practically hear Sean’s instructions:

Whenever you have a primary weapon, always be sure you have a secondary arm as well. My backup pistol saved my ass more often than I like to admit.

She grabbed the pistol and bent over to strap the holster to her thigh, making sure it was on tight. She checked the pistol’s magazine to ensure it was fully loaded, then slipped it back in and strapped the gun back into its holster, remembering not to cock it until she was ready to use it.

She ignored the rest of the equipment in the compartment and motioned to Hartling to seal the panel up again, which she did with another whir and a click. Now laden with weaponry, she felt somewhat more alert and ready than she did before. She took a moment to gather her nerve one final time as she stood there at the back with the stares of every human and anthro face aimed her way.

‘I’ll be back,’ she said in a low voice that she meant to make stronger and more confidant then she actually felt. ‘I promise,’ she added, looking at her mother in particular. ‘I’ll be back with Sean.’

No-one said anything, but they all gave slow nods or closed their eyes sadly. Hartling looked particularly forlorn; despite the fact that Aki was planning to go on what might as well be a suicide mission to help Sean, who was Hartling’s close friend, played hard on her emotions, the seasoned soldier did her best to remain stoic. Kira, for her part, looked like she could break down at any moment but was restraining herself admirably, despite the dampness in her cheeks.

Aki kept her gaze for a moment more; then she turned around and stared hard at the hatch, which Hartling activated at once. The metal panel disappeared into the capsule’s wall and Aki just walked into the umbilical bridging the pod and the ship without a backward glance.

The short passage led to another metal door with a small pad at its side. She heard the hiss of the pod’s hatch behind her, which was then followed by another closing door that sealed the umbilical from the pod. She knew better than to remain there and wait for Hartling to fly the pod out of the bay, so she headed towards the door that she’d been assured connected right into the ship’s hallways.

However, the door became her first obstacle when she realized she didn’t know how to open it; she had seen Sean and Hartling activate doors via the little control pad, but she had no idea how it worked. Glancing at the little buttons, she found a larger, green-colored one at the bottom labeled “Activate”.

Well, that’s convenient.

Gripping the rifle grip tightly, she dearly hoped that no-one was waiting behind the door – then hit the “Activate” button.

The door immediately gave a sharp hiss and slid away to the side and Aki raised her rifle, her heart thumping like mad in her chest as she prepared for a quick confrontation –

But the area before her was empty. It was a somewhat narrow hallway that looked rougher and more industrial than the rest of the ship, which told her it was probably some sort of a service route. The sterile, metallic smell of the ship returned to her, and for a fleeting moment a ghost pain swept through her body at the memory of the ordeal she underwent in the “lab”. The lighting was poor and cast harsh shadows across the walls and floor from where piping and support beams crossed the lights, and the flashing crimson lights of the lockdown alarm only served to heighten the tension in the air, sending a shiver down her spine.

She jumped as the door behind her hissed shut of its own accord, and as she stood there in the middle of a narrow passageway that led off to uncertain destinations on each side, she became aware, for the first time since she decided to embark on this mission, of just how very alone and intimidated she felt.

*

Progress was slow and tiresome for Sean as he crawled through the air shafts. His efforts to be as quiet as possible translated into cautious movements that reduced speed and quickly had him yearning to bolt forth to escape the tin prison faster. The pain in his back had also reawakened somewhat from the contortions he forced his body into in order to advance through the devilish maze, yet it was easy enough to ignore for now. He vaguely wondered if any of the loose dust in the air could possibly infect his wound, even though the laser burn had essentially sealed or destroyed the nerve endings and other tissue down there. He then wondered why he cared, considering how drastically his life expectancy had now been shortened.

Crawling through ventilation shafts like this with a seemingly impossible task to accomplish, he couldn’t help but realize how similar this had all become to his Phantom-era lifestyle: constantly putting himself in harm’s way deep inside enemy lines (at the bequest of commanding officers, of course) with minimal support and little more than his trusty rifle to fend of waves and waves of trained hostiles. He was practically back in a number of previous missions that had included infiltrating an enemy compound in this manner.

So much for having left all this behind, eh?

However, as the minutes slowly went by, he found himself rapidly growing frustrated when he was forced to backtrack several times (which was even slower than moving forward) whenever he’d found himself heading into a dead end or a ceiling grille that wouldn’t have taken his weight, and the numerous grilles he passed by led to areas that were unreachable either due to the height of the duct or the presence of mercs. He had absolutely no sense of direction and could only hope he wasn’t going to end up in the waste management sector or something.

Also unfortunate for him, though, the fact that the shafts were insulated from the rest of the ship and filled with nothing but some light dust, a deep silence and an almost oppressive darkness only brought forth thoughts and memories that did him no service at all. It was as though he were in some supremely uncomfortable sensory deprivation tank. He found himself wondering about the Aqueni in the escape pods, how they were holding up, and how they would all fare once they reached the ground. He thought about Hartling and all the adventures, good and (mostly) bad they’d shared together, and how far she went to help him rescue the Aqueni, whom she had nothing to do with. And most of all, he thought about Aki, and whenever he did so, a great sucking pain opened up in his chest at the thought of leaving her, practically betraying her. No amount of rationalization or attempts to convince himself that it was necessary and for the best allowed his conscience any respite.

The look on her face in the porthole as the pod launched into space …

He shook himself vigorously, though he quickly froze as he heard the vibrations such an act sent coursing through the ducts. Focusing again, he noticed he was coming up on another ceiling vent. It was poorly lit, suggesting a small or otherwise secluded space – finally, a potential opportunity for him to get out of this infernal rat maze.

He heard several voices wafting up through the grille as he cautiously approached, which momentarily dashed his hopes for a safe exit. He grudgingly peered through the grate into the room below and saw that it was some sort of minor control or security hub, roughly the size of an average cabin and with one wall lined with a control panel and numerous monitors, all flashing different imagery at random. There were four mercs in the room, one seated before the console and the others standing behind him, engaged in a somewhat muffled discussion as they peered over the security feeds.

‘… came up empty. It’s like the bastard just disappeared into nowhere.’

‘You said he went into the ventilation system?’

‘Well, yeah, but it might as well be nowhere, right? He could turn up anywhere.’

‘I wonder what the look on Xander’s face was when he heard a fucking battalion managed to let him slip like that.’

Some light chuckling.

‘If you ask me, he was prob’ly expecting as much. I read about this O’Neil character, he’s one hell of a slippery little lizard when he wants.’

‘Yeah, he managed to break out of interrogation in the first place, didn’t he?’

‘Yeah, but that was with some rat techie, otherwise he wouldn’t have gotten out.’

‘Still, he managed to –’

A series of beeps were heard, followed by some groaning and swearing.

‘Fucking rotation. Jerry, stay here and watch the feeds, will ya?’

‘Yeah, yeah, get outta here.’

As Sean watched, the three standing mercs made for the door at the front of the room and quickly filed out into the brightly lit corridor beyond before the door sealed shut again, leaving only one tech – “Jerry” – seated before the monitors and looking rather bored.

Feeling like fate was finally smiling down upon him, Sean carefully gripped the grille with his fingers and slowly tugged on it. Almost miraculously, it lifted right out of its socket soundlessly, dislodging a few dust bunnies in the process. He pushed it across the other side of the opening and hoisted himself forward, gripping the ledge of the vent as he went. He lowered his head into the opening and, upon making sure that the tech was still absorbed in the security feeds and unaware of his presence, he hoisted his body down through the vent, staying straight as a board; his wound immediately spiked with pain but he held his composure at this critical juncture. One nimble and well-practiced flip later and he found himself hanging from the vent, all without the slightest sound.

He dropped to the floor, buckling his ankles and knees reflexively to cushion out any sound from the impact, though he flinched at another searing jab in his lower back. Thankfully, Jerry the guard was still too focused on the blinking images on the dozen screens lining the wall before him to have noticed anything else happening around him. Until …

The guard gasped and went rigid as he felt Sean’s cold blade suddenly pressing up against his throat.

‘Should spend less time watching TV, more time looking around you,’ Sean intoned menacingly. ‘Get up.’

He pressed his knife upwards, forcing the whimpering man out of his chair, which Sean kicked away from behind him.

‘Turn around.’

The man did as he was told and slowly circled on the spot until he was facing Sean, his eyes wide and face white with fright. Sean brought his knife back to the man’s throat, the sharp tip pressing lightly into the man’s trachea.

‘You’re Jerry?’

The man’s gaze didn’t falter, thus wordlessly confirming his identity to Sean.

‘All right. Here’re your options, Jerry. Either you do exactly as I say and I may let you live, or you don’t and you never leave this room. Got that?’

The man shivered, then gave a quick series of nods.

‘Good.’

Sean grabbed Jerry by the collar and yanked him towards him, spinning him around so that he was now behind the guard with his knife again across Jerry’s throat.

‘Now, you’re gonna tell me where the ship’s reactor is. And you’re gonna take me there.’

The man’s eyes grew even wider.

*

Aki thought she could feel the onset of paranoia as shivers tickled along her spine with increasing frequency. She continually glanced around in every direction, but no matter how many times she ensured that the corridor was clear, her heart still hammered in her chest at the idea of suddenly coming upon a group of hostiles. The rifle’s weight in her hands gave her some reassurance, and she knew her aim was good enough that she didn’t have to worry about it, but nonetheless, her body was slowly reverting back into weariness as though the tense atmosphere were sucking the energy out of her. She could still feel dull aches and pains throughout her body from her previous ordeal, yet the memory of how she got out of it only served to drive her onwards.

She had spent the last fifteen minutes cautiously working her way through the corridors, choosing her directions at random, as she had no idea where to go. She was sticking to Sean’s teachings as closely as she could from what she remembered, sticking close to the walls and only advancing by rushing forward from cover to cover: doorframes, support columns, archways and alcoves, anything she could find that would provide a minimum of concealment. As a result, her rate of progress was very haphazard and gave her the impression that she was playing some demented form of hopscotch through the corridors.

Another hindrance was the continuing alarm, which really messed with her hearing. Several times, she could’ve sworn she heard footsteps echoing through the hallways without seeing anyone to attach them to. Every shadow was suspicious, every door was a danger and every nook and cranny could reveal an enemy at any moment.

Calm down, she kept telling herself, though berating herself didn’t help any more than when anyone else did it. You’re not gonna find Sean if you have a heart attack before – HIDE!

Panic seized her once more at the sight of a figure walking out from behind a corner up ahead; she dove off to the side and flattened herself behind a jutting column, her fingers gripping her gun almost painfully tightly, though she was careful to place her trigger finger on the guard, as Sean had taught her.

She waited for several long moments, controlling her breathing to long, quiet breaths as her vulpine ears strained to pick up any sound of the passing hostile. His faint footsteps, nearly drowned out by the alarm even to her superhuman hearing, grew fainter and more distant until she could no longer detect them. She slowly peered around the corner, forcing her ears flat against her head to avoid them sticking out like beacons, and saw the human in the distance walking off before turning off to the right into a connecting corridor and disappearing from sight.

She returned behind her stretch of wall and released the breath she’d been holding, flexing her fingers around the gun’s grip to give them back some sensation. Although this had been a close call, she couldn’t help but wonder why she hadn’t met more resistance until that point. In fact, she found it somewhat suspicious, though not really troubling, that the halls weren’t just swarming with humans. Where were they? Was she just in some low-risk area of the ship where security was (considerably) lighter? Or perhaps there just weren’t that many people on board to begin with for a ship of this size?

Whatever the reason, she wasn’t about to complain about her luck so far. She peeked around the wall to make sure the coast was clear, then hurriedly bolted off behind the next bit of cover the formations in the wall provided. And so she went.

However, as the minutes ticked by and she burrowed deeper and deeper into the ship, she couldn’t ignore the increasing tenseness inside her chest as her worries and fears grew. She had now spent what may have been anywhere from fifteen minutes to more than half an hour (as far as she knew) advancing into the ship and she hadn’t seen a hint of Sean, nor the slightest indication telling her where she ought to be heading. Part of her had even been hoping to hear about a commotion in the distance she could hone in on, but the siren drilling into her head was the only thing disturbing the otherwise perfectly tranquil environment.

She also couldn’t get past just how foreign, how alien, the place felt to her. She hadn’t really focused on it before when she and the others had been rushing through the ship to the escape pods, but now that she was all alone with her thoughts, the experience was rather surreal to her. There was nothing she identified with; her world was one of life and green and softness and warmth, none of which were present in the stark, barren metal from which everything was made. A few more times she was forced to duck out of sight when a handful of soldiers appeared, but none of them seemed to have the slightest idea where to find Sean, either. This did work to comfort her, though. At least he was still safe, wherever he was.

She was in mid-sprint from one column to another when the alarm suddenly cut out, only to be interrupted by an emotionless, androgynous voice that seemed to emanate from the very walls:

Security breach detected in Sector P-6, deck G-2, concourse. All active personnel report immediately. Possible hostage situation. Security breach detected …

Aki’s heart froze in her chest. Had they found her? But there was no-one around –!

Almost as soon as she began to panic, doors on all sides began opening at random and a trickle of humans emerged into the corridor. Restraining herself from bolting or letting out a terrified squeal, Aki threw herself behind the nearest column and gripped her rifle tight enough to numb her fingers, feeling she would have to raise it in a matter of seconds – yet all the hostiles simply ran past the column that she was hiding behind without looking, all rushing down the corridor in the same direction, obviously headed somewhere else. They hadn’t found her after all.

They must’ve found Sean.

A few moments later, the last of the soldiers rushed to catch up to the rest as they pelted down the hall and turned to the right where they were joined by more connecting groups from intersecting corridors. Aki felt terrified to leave the small refuge the back of her column afforded her, fearing that she may be spotted for real by any further stragglers, but at the same time, if she lost track of the soldiers, she would never find her way back to Sean. She glanced around, ready to retreat behind the wall at the slightest hint of another presence, but the hall was once again deserted in the wake of the rush to wherever Sean had apparently been spotted.

Securing her grip on her rifle, she threw herself out from behind the column and started down the corridor as quickly and quietly as she could, hugging the wall and taking refuge behind any cover she could as she stealthily tracked the human soldiers retreating down the hallway. She knew full well she could be detected at any instant now that she was entering the midst of the commotion, but the fact that she was so close to Sean pushed her forward, her trusty laser gun in her hands and a burning resolve coursing through her body.