Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Inhuman | Chapter 16: Destiny’s Call [old edition]

| »

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 final battle begins and the fates of everyone will be determined, for better or for worse.


— CHAPTER SIXTEEN —

Destiny’s Call

‘Hold your fire, don’t shoot! He’s got a detonator!’

‘What? Where? I don’t see anything –’

‘Right there, in his hand!’

‘Detonator to what? Nobody said anything about explosives –’

‘Just hold your damn fire!’

Sean was acutely aware that every pair of eyes and every rifle sight were trained on him. His movement through the corridor was slower than he had hoped for as he carefully kept the hapless Jerry aligned between himself and the muzzles of dozens of rifles. It was an exceedingly delicate procedure that required his utmost concentration as he progressively advanced past the wall of mercs, who reluctantly opened up to let him pass. He had to be careful never to present his enemy with a clear shot, to avoid tripping over his hostage’s trembling legs, and to make sure that the item he was holding in each hand was clearly visible, both the blade pressing into Jerry’s throat and the cleverly broken joystick from the security room console he kept visible at the tech’s side.

‘They really fall for that?’ Jerry muttered plaintively, close enough to Sean for him to hear his faltering voice over the alarm.

‘Shut up,’ Sean hushed tersely. ‘Just be thankful most of your friends aren’t too bright in the technological department.’

They carved through the ranks of the surrounding soldiers for a few more yards until they arrived at a corner around which more hostiles were waiting, their eyes flickering uncertainly between Sean and the half-hidden “detonator” in his hand.

‘They aren’t my friends,’ he heard Jerry grumble.

‘You’re all here for the money, not the job. You’re all the same,’ growled Sean as they came to the edge of the wall leading into the intersecting corridor. ‘Shit.’

He didn’t at all like the prospect of crossing an open intersection with rifles pointed at his vulnerable back from all directions. Naturally, when he peered around the corner, he found the second corridor similarly crawling with itchy-fingered mercs.

‘Anyone open fire and the whole fucking ship’s going up!’ he yelled out threateningly. ‘Outta the way!’

He led Jerry out into the open and they steadily traversed the open mouth of the second corridor, Sean’s back erupting with faint shivers as he thought of all the firepower aimed his way. A few overly tense moments later and they finally reached the other side of the intersection, the mercs flowing around them like a river just waiting to swallow them up.

‘What d’you plan to do?’ muttered Jerry.

‘Shut up already.’

The minutes followed, each one identical to the last, and the strain in the air felt thick enough to swim through, like an oppressive cloak of fear and uncertainty. Sean vaguely wondered if it was from his own nervousness, or that of the mercs. All were silent, unwilling to cause the already sensitive situation to escalate further.

They arrived at a second intersection and turned left, Sean’s heart beating hard as he once again walked out into the open without a wall to cover his back. They continued down the new branch at a crawling pace, Sean throwing threatening glares in every direction, almost daring the mercs to fire on him. He was counting heavily on his bluff to keep working for however long it would take them to reach the reactor area. He wondered if any of them knew or suspected what he was up to, or where he was going. Not that they could do much more about it regardless, if they actually believed the fake detonator in his hand was authentic.

They eventually came across a moderately large lobby with walls lined with doors, hallway entrances and, at the back, elevators.

‘Four floors down, you said? G-3?’ muttered Sean. Jerry nodded curtly.

They traversed the room, Sean yearning to move faster but knowing that he couldn’t do so without risking revealing his bluff. They reached the back wall with the mercs grudgingly moving out of the way to let him pass (Everyone should come equipped with a hostage when stuck in traffic like this, thought Sean). Sean hit the elevator button and turned around with his back to the wall, holding Jerry firmly between him and the swarms of death.

A moment later, he heard the elevator swoop down into position and the door dinged as it slid open, revealing an empty cabin. Sean dragged Jerry back into it and hit the button at the end of the panel, labeled “G-3”, and watched the angry, mean, sneering faces disappear behind the closing metal doors. The elevator immediately began dropping with the little indicator light on the floors panel blinking through the three floors that separated him from his destined deck, apparently the lowest point reached by this elevator.

‘Why’re you doing this?’ Jerry’s voice was subdued and plaintive in the refreshingly quiet cabin.

‘’Cause you people are trying to kill my family, my friends,’ Sean said coldly.

‘I have nothing to do with it. It’s just our job,’ said Jerry pleadingly. ‘We’re just following orders.’

‘And your orders are going to kill my friends and family.’

Jerry quieted down with a truly pitiful air that unwittingly tugged at Sean’s heart. He could sense that this tech wasn’t a bad person; probably even a good portion of the crew was people he might have gotten along with reasonably well. But despite the moral qualms that he was experiencing (though conditioning allowed him to relegate them to the back of his mind where they didn’t bother him), he didn’t waver in his certainty and determination in the slightest, even if he was essentially planning to slaughter hundreds of people he’d never met and had no personal problem with. But the only alternative was to let them descend upon Earth and wipe out his friends and family.

Once again, he was only doing his job. Only this time, the orders came from his own heart, and the mission meant far more to him than securing some combat zone, or bringing down an enemy stronghold, or even liberating a handful of hostages.

The little light finally landed on “G-3” and the elevator chimed again as the doors slid open. Sean tightened his grip around the tech and secured his knife at Jerry’s neck as they stepped out into another corridor, this one curiously free of any mercs as far as Sean could tell as he scanned both ends.

‘Where are they?’ he thought aloud.

‘M-maybe they haven’t made it down so fast, yet,’ suggested Jerry, apparently feeling it was best if he answered to Sean’s every whim.

Sean grunted noncommittally. He rather doubted the mercs had simply been too slow to reach his location a mere four decks lower in the time it had taken the elevator to descend, but he had no idea where they had all gone.

‘How many are on this ship?’ he said, lowering his voice slightly.

‘About two or three hundred.’

‘That few?’

Jerry allowed himself a light snort. ‘Hired guns aren’t exactly the biggest market. The General was probably lucky to get as many as he did, wherever he found them all. And besides, most of the ship’s automated, you just need humans for some maintenance and navigation and troubleshooting.’

They started down the corridor as per Jerry’s instructions. The combination of the ongoing alarm and the lack of any visible hostile presence in an enemy stronghold in full security lockdown was highly disconcerting to Sean, who was rapidly beginning to wonder if they weren’t heading into some sort of trap.

They turned around the next corner, and Sean then realized he should’ve trusted his instincts.

‘Well, well, Captain,’ came General Xander’s drawl.

Sean tensed, his knife digging deeper into Jerry’s. The bald, scar-faced, cold-eyed general stood in the middle of the new corridor, which was filled with mercs and their menacingly aimed rifles. They quickly swarmed all around him, blocking any exit via the previous corridor and effectively trapping him there with his hostage, who was now shaking harder than ever in his arms.

‘Why so afraid?’ Xander said as he looked at Jerry. ‘I know Captain O’Neil, he’d never hurt a hostage … usually.’

His eyes glimmered coldly, in contrast with his light-hearted tone. ‘I, on the other hand …’

Xander raised his pistol and before Sean could duck to the side, a single shot went off; Sean staggered back, his face suddenly splattered with a warm wetness, and he watched Jerry fall limply out of his arms and onto his back, his face now flowing with crimson that began to pool around his head on the floor.

Sean looked back at Xander, too stunned to react, only dimly aware of the knife and fake joystick “detonator” still gripped tightly in his hands around the empty space where his hostage had just been. Xander merely returned a casually frosty glance with a small, humorless smirk etched across his hard features.

‘You didn’t really think that “detonator” gambit was going to work, did you?’ he said derisively. ‘You and I both know you are not that good.’

Sean glared back at him. He was genuinely shocked, both at how Xander had so casually murdered Jerry and robbed him of his only advantage, his one chance. He had no backup plan, and now his bluff had just been thrown into sharp relief.

He stared hard at Xander, then grunted and carelessly tossed the fake detonator to the floor, where the soldiers glanced at it in bemusement before glaring at him, obviously incensed at being played so easily.

‘What can I say? You’re morons,’ Sean scoffed with as much disdain as he could put in his voice. Now that his last hope had fallen flat, he might as well mock the crap out of his enemies. His mind was running in overdrive with half-formulated ideas flashing through at a hundred miles an hour, trying desperately to find a way out, but with an increasingly gripping certainty that there would be no such escape. All exits were blocked and there were at least two or three dozen rifles aimed at him and that would shred him before he so much as reached for the rifle slung over his back. No matter how he looked at it, he was well and truly screwed, though adrenaline was still pounding through his body and preventing fear and hopelessness from overcoming him, but certainly not for long …

A moment passed as they all stood by in silence with Sean and Xander wordlessly squaring off, inflamed brown eyes clashing with his enemy’s equally venomous green orbs, Xander wordlessly daring Sean to try pulling off another stunt and Sean daring his formal general to take him, or kill him, or imprison him again, this time with no-one to save him, no hope at all …

Hey! Hey, you! Stop!

The tension in the air shattered like glass as a series of voices and rapid footsteps were suddenly heard from down the corridor behind Xander and his people, who turned around in search of the source of the sudden distraction – which was all Sean needed.

Without so much as a thought, Sean immediately grabbed his rifle and before anyone could figure out what was happening, he had already opened fire –

The flashing red hall was suddenly alight with blinding bluish-white blazes as Sean’s laser pulses cut into the line of bewildered mercs and decimated their ranks with the power and efficiency of a divine wrath; more rifle fire was added to the chaos as mercs tried to return fire, but Sean had already ploughed head-first into their midst, pushing, punching and rifling down those in his way as he cut through the group like a knife through butter; all the mercs managed to do when they retaliated was to hit each other with friendly fire, only increasing the level of confusion that suddenly reigned in the area –

Sean finally extricated himself from the group and ran full-tilt down the corridor as streaks of light flashed past in every direction; he threw himself into a door to the side and just as he broke it down, he heard Xander’s roar over the ruckus before he slammed it shut behind him:

Non-lethal force, I want them alive! They’re mine!

*

Aki’s heart was beating as fast as her feet were pounding against the hard metal floor. She heard the voices behind her calling after her, yet did not turn to look as she tore down the corridor as fast as her newly energized legs could carry her. Her superior, animalistic physique ordinarily granted her speeds and endurance greater than any regular human could achieve, but the lingering fatigue in her body and mind inexorably slowed her down like an invisible anchor, only just allowing her to keep ahead of her pursuers.

She came across an intersection to the right just as a horde of humans materialized in the corridor up ahead; she quickly threw herself into the second corridor to her side, her footpads and claws skidding wildly along the smooth floor until she crashed into the wall from her momentum. Her left arm and shoulder suddenly erupted into aches, but she ignored it and bolted down the narrower passage until she noticed another group of soldiers spilling in from an adjoining corridor further up ahead, effectively trapping her in the stretch of hallway along with the hostiles swarming in from behind her –

Panic overtook her like a cornered animal and she let out a feral cry of fear; her laser began firing before she even realized she was squeezing the trigger, creating a terrible lightshow as jets of energy, sparks and exploding chunks of metal began showering everyone in the area from her uncontrolled volleys, forcing the enemies up ahead to stop in their tracks and disperse to avoid the reckless barrage of laser fire –

Still flying across the labyrinth of hallways on the wings of adrenaline, her eyes barely spotted another intersection to her right when she was already hurtling towards it, her rifle still going off intermittently in her shaky hands and creating more havoc than scoring any actual hits; she rounded the corner and something very hot struck her right shin –

She realized she had hit the ground hard, her whole body suddenly racked with pain from the impact; her cloudy mind barely registered how she was now on her back and her hands were empty; she looked around in a panic and saw the shape of her rifle lying several feet away where it had clattered across the floor, but when she tried to crawl towards it she found she couldn’t move; in the background, the wall of enemies had reformed and was once again bearing down upon her like a wave of doom –

Rifle fire suddenly erupted from what felt like all around her and she screamed; her body convulsed and she curled up on the floor unthinkingly, knowing it was the end for her –

A few seconds later, she opened her eyes, realizing she felt no different, no sudden burning anywhere on her body except for the radiating numbness in her right leg; dazed and confused, she noticed the beams of laser were all hitting away from her, at the hostiles, as though they were coming from her and not at her; she witnessed the massive body of enemies suddenly falling apart, some of them fleeing while the rest were either torn down by the laser blasts or tried to shoot back, hiding behind doors and around corners; she turned her head from her position on the floor, trying to see who or what –

The rifle fire was suddenly interrupted, and barely a splitsecond later she felt something grab her very firmly around her upper right arm; she was quite suddenly yanked across the floor like a ragdoll until the force of it pulled her upwards, so powerfully that she couldn’t resist despite the aches and numbness in her legs; she had regained her feet but couldn’t run despite the unrelenting pulling on her arm, her right leg completely unresponsive to her will –

She was then hurled to the side and tried to regain her balance but ended up toppling to the floor as her right leg gave out from under her; the world around her was suddenly considerably darker, though still flashing red as with the rest of the ship; she tried to get her bearings from her position on the floor but barely had time to realize she was now in some sort of room when the door was slammed shut, throwing her in near darkness; panting and shaking all over, her eyes found the only other figure in the confusing array of swirling lights and shadows; at once, her heart filled with relief, joy and fear …

*

Sean was still too shocked at finding Aki there to feel anything else; his instincts compelled him onwards and he leaned down, grabbed her by the arm again and pulled her across the room, ignoring her whimpered protests; they had to distance themselves from the soldiers as fast as possible. He pulled her through a door at the far side of the empty room they were in and they came out into a narrow, empty passageway, not unlike an alleyway between buildings.

He bent over and hoisted her up to her feet, sliding an arm around her back to support her; she hobbled alongside him on her left leg, her right limb trailing unresponsively across the floor. They hurried along and he broke through another door further down the corridor, which he shut and locked the moment he and the subdued, nearly crippled foxgirl were in the room.

He looked around, aiming his rifle in every direction, but the sort of poorly lit, sparsely furnished lounge they now found themselves in was thankfully deserted. He slung the rifle over his back and finally released Aki, who stumbled slightly as she backed away on her left leg, her right barely supporting any weight.

‘What the hell’re you doing here?!’ he demanded, unable to keep both the astonishment and the anger out of his voice.

Aki still looked extremely harried but was composing herself, and now had a certain amount of fresh fear etched across her face.

‘I – I – I had to come back,’ she said in a rush, her voice unusually high. ‘Sean, I had to!’

No! I – I put you on that fucking pod, you were supposed to get to Earth! How’d you get here?’ he thundered as his outrage grew along with his poorly restrained panic.

‘I told – I asked Hartling to help me, I told her to turn the, the pod around so I – so I could help you!’ Aki’s eyes were now very bright despite the gloom, from both passion and tears.

Help me? You nearly got yourself killed! It’s a fucking miracle I got you outta there!’ ranted Sean, his voice rising to nearly a shout.

‘I’m sorry! Sean, I’m sorry!’ wailed Aki, her face stricken and tears now leaking down her cheek-fur. ‘I couldn’t let you go! I just couldn’t! I – I tried, but I can’t! I – I had to come back!’

Sean was still breathing heavily, but his desire to continue raging at the rebellious foxgirl before him wilted and died as he looked upon her pretty face, those deep blue eyes twinkling brightly in the lights of the alarm. His anger dissipated; he then felt a powerful maelstrom of bemusement, fear and compassion churn in his heart.

‘You shouldn’t have come back,’ he said, his voice cracking from emotion.

‘I’m sorry,’ she pleaded again, her voice low.

‘You can’t be here.’

‘I couldn’t leave you.’

They gazed at each other, now very close.

‘We’re going to die,’ he said plainly, his throat tight.

Aki didn’t flinch; her eyes didn’t even widen. As though she’d known this. As though she didn’t care.

‘You don’t know that,’ she hushed, her voice now almost too quiet to be heard over the never-ending siren. ‘We don’t have to die here. Let’s just – do what you have to do, and then we’ll get out of here.’

They stared at each other, then Sean gave an odd sort of groan and wrapped his arms around her, pulling her in tightly; her own arms squeezed around his back and they hugged for a moment, each feeling the other’s slowing heart rate and their warm breath on the sides of their necks. Sean flinched hard when Aki’s hand accidentally rubbed into his lower back wound and she pulled back, looking worried. But Sean pulled her in close again; this time she was careful to place her hands above his injury.

‘I love you,’ he heard her whisper close to his ear.

He closed his eyes. ‘And I love you,’ he said, finding it difficult to push the words out of his tightening throat.

They held their embrace for a moment longer, then separated with their arms still around their bodies. They were only inches from each other, close enough for Sean to be able to count all the individual hairs on her beautiful furred face; to see every crimson sparkle in her big, cerulean eyes; to count the rivulets left by the tears as they crept down her matted white cheek-fur.

They leaned in and their lips met again, this time much more gently than on the escape deck. Her taste was sweet and wonderful, and her warm breath mingled with his to create an enveloping warmth like a soothing blanket. Both their eyes closed briefly as they relished the tender moment.

They pulled apart again; Sean could still taste her in his mouth and he saw Aki lick her lips, perhaps unconsciously.

‘It’s time we got going,’ she muttered, her eyes blazing.

Sean nodded, still feeling slightly lightheaded. ‘Yeah …’

Without a further word between them, Sean gave her one last longing look before turning away, examining the room around them.

‘Uh …’ he said blankly as he tried to recall Jerry the technician’s memorized directions, which now seemed strangely distant in his mind. This sudden detour upon finding Aki had led him drastically off-course, and his mental compass had never served him very well.

‘What is it?’ said Aki.

‘I’m trying to remember where to go …’ There was a door at the other side of the room. It offered a better chance than going back into the fray of soldiers behind them, at any rate. ‘All right, this way.’

They made to start across the room, but Aki stumbled as soon as she stepped forward, Sean quickly supporting her weight.

‘Argh – what’s wrong with my leg?’ she groaned, leaning against the wall and holding her numb limb up with her hands.

‘You were hit by a laser shot,’ said Sean, examining her furred, bicolor leg.

‘What? But – why isn’t it bleeding or –?’

‘It wasn’t in Kill Mode,’ said Sean. ‘I heard Xander, they switched their weapons to Stun. It just knocks out all the feeling wherever it hits. Looks like you were only just grazed, though, otherwise you wouldn’t really be able to move at all.’

‘It didn’t feel like just a grazing,’ muttered Aki spitefully, rubbing her shin where the laser had hit.

‘I know, but trust me, it was.’ He pulled Aki’s arm around his shoulders again and supported her upright as they hobbled across the room. Sean felt something hard brush against his leg; looking down, he noticed the backup pistol holstered at her thigh.

‘You might wanna arm your backup weapon now, if you’ve lost your primary,’ he pointed out.

Aki gave him a brief questioning look before the realization struck her.

‘Oh, right …’

She quickly grabbed at her holster, fumbling with the snap before pulling her pistol out and holding it in her left hand (her right hand grabbing Sean for support) with an admonished look.

‘Calm down, don’t stress,’ Sean reminded her patiently. ‘You must keep calm when shooting so your shots hit true. Remember: Conserve your ammo. Don’t just shoot at random and hope you’ll hit something.’

She nodded like a schoolgirl being taught by a professor. ‘Just like old times,’ she said with a smirk.

Sean returned her reminiscent smile, then turned away as they approached the other end of the room.

‘How long is this gonna last?’ Aki asked somewhat impatiently after stumbling for the umpteenth time.

‘Depends on how you were hit. Judging by the state of your leg, I’d say you’ll get the feeling back in a few minutes.’

They arrived at the door and Sean unslung his rifle.

‘Why wouldn’t Xander want us killed, anyway?’ said Aki.

‘Probably wants to do it himself,’ said Sean as he reached for the door handle. ‘Get behind the door.’

Aki obediently leaned back against the wall across the door, looking at him expectantly. With his rifle held at the ready, Sean grabbed the handle and slowly opened the door inwards, peering into the corridor beyond. It appeared to be empty.

‘Come on.’ He gestured at Aki and helped her through the door, her right leg following the motions of walking but still too numb to adequately support her. They made it down the stretch of corridor, sticking close the wall, and peered around both ways when they arrived at another T-intersection. Again, empty.

‘Where is everyone?’ muttered Aki as she peered around alongside him. ‘Like, when I was looking for you, the halls were always so empty.’

‘It’s a really big ship,’ said Sean, remembering how he’d only recently asked the same thing of Jerry. ‘The crew is spread really thin; instead, standard practice is to form search parties to systematically clear the ship sector by sector. And if I’m right, they’ll probably be coming through this area in a few minutes, so we gotta move.’

They turned right and hobbled down the new corridor, Sean hoping quite hard that they wouldn’t fall into one of those aforementioned search groups in their disabled state. A few times, a handful of mercs or techs crossed corridors or emerged from doors further up ahead, but luckily, there had always been a handy stretch of wall, a column or a doorframe to hide behind. They took turns and went through doors that Sean imagined took them closer to the deck’s central concourse, which was where they were supposed to be heading as per Jerry’s instructions.

Luckily for him, a few minutes later and he breathed a sigh of relief when they finally caught sight of the wide hallway at the end of their current corridor. Unfortunately, he noticed to his displeasure as they approached that it was also crawling with mercs. They sprinted along the wall to the last empty corridor before the exit, cautiously peering around the corner as soldiers regularly marched past with a buzz of activity about them.

‘We have to go through there?’ whispered Aki worriedly.

‘It’s the only area we can reach that has elevators,’ said Sean quietly. ‘I’d try somewhere else, but stairwells are a deathtrap, especially with your leg, and I don’t wanna go too far off-course anymore.’

He thought he saw a flash of guilt flicker across Aki’s face but she nodded resolutely. Sean knew the elevators couldn’t have been very far from their position – a few dozen feet at the most – but trying to reach them with all the activity in the concourse would be asinine.

‘We need a diversion,’ Sean muttered. ‘Aki, did you bring anything else? Something noisy, preferably?’

‘All I have is my pistol,’ she said, holding it up.

‘Right …’

He continued looking around for anything they could use or throw, but the area around them was bare and empty of any loose objects.

‘The pipes?’ Aki offered.

‘Eh?’

She pointed towards the ceiling of the concourse where Sean made out a bundle of pipes and wires ran the length of the hallway. They were an easy target for his rifle.

‘Right, nice one,’ he said with a curt nod as he raised his rifle to eye-level.

‘I do have better eyesight than you do,’ she said with a light smirk.

‘Yeah, yeah …’

Sean carefully focused the rifle’s scope reticule at the center of the conveniently thick pipes, then pulled the trigger; an immediate flash of light later and the scene before them had suddenly become a chaos of smoke, sparks and splashing water, quickly followed by various screams and shouts as the hapless soldiers caught in the blast were either electrocuted or scalded by the hot water.

‘Go, go,’ ushered Sean, grabbing Aki around the shoulder automatically and hoisting her along the narrower passageway running parallel to the concourse. They reached the end at another corridor that connected to the main hallway a few dozen feet further away from the diversion, and Sean was pleased to note that after a couple of soldiers ran past to aid the others caught in the blast, the way was left clear.

‘All right, quietly,’ he muttered as they quickly headed down the corridor towards the larger hallway. Sean noticed Aki was walking on her own now despite a heavy limp, which was good, considering how they’d need to rush through the concourse to evade detection as much as possible.

They reached the end of the corridor opening up into the larger hall, where a mass of soldiers had assembled around the disruptive pipes in confusion. Peering down the hall, Sean saw the sought-after elevator doors in the wall some forty feet to their left, away from the diversion. The segment of hallway leading up to it was perfectly clear.

‘Ready?’

Aki nodded, taking in a preparatory breath.

‘Go!’

They leapt out into the open, sprinting across the stretch of hallway between them and the elevators –

‘Hey! There they are!’ came a shout from behind.

Sean threw himself forward, grabbing onto the limping, stumbling Aki and dragging her along as they closed the gap between them and the nearest elevator door; he hammered at the button just as elevator doors a few rows down dinged and slid open, revealing a couple of soldiers who walked out and froze at the sight of Sean and the naked foxgirl –

They were quickly mowed down by Sean’s blazing rifle and in less than two seconds, he and Aki were in the confines of the elevator and Sean was beating on the button at the lower end of the panel, labeled “Eng.”; the doors finally closed just as fresh laser jets streaked towards them and a sudden yet reassuring loss of balance told him the car had begun its descent.

He and Aki stood there, staring at each other silently and with their breathing slowly returning to normal.

Aki shook her head. ‘You … do this kind of thing … for a living?’ she panted out.

‘I … I used to,’ said Sean, who was already breathing much more easily than the winded foxgirl at his side, either thanks to his physical conditioning or due to her lingering weakness from her previous experience in the torture lab. Sean was silently amazed at how well she was still holding up, especially with all that had happened since their escape from the detention block.

‘How’s your leg?’ he asked.

‘It’s getting better,’ she said, putting some weight on it and wobbling somewhat at the knee. ‘I can walk on my own now, at least.’

‘Okay. And don’t put your gun away,’ he added as she was moving to holster it. ‘Keep it ready, you never know when you’ll need it.’

She nodded, keeping the old firearm clutched in her hands down her front, looking not unlike an actual soldier, if not for the furriness and nakedness. Sean found himself staring a little too long at her bare chest as it heaved with her breathing, only to snap his eyes away when he caught her glancing at him. Neither said a word, though he thought the temperature in the elevator car suddenly rose by several degrees. He avoided Aki’s gaze by staring at the little light on the indicator panel as it slowly descended along the floors to the red-lit one at the end that indicated their destination.

‘We’re headed to the bottom floor,’ Sean informed her. ‘The Engineering Deck. It’s where Jer— where the reactor room is. It’s a high-security zone, so you might wanna get your rifle ready … oh, right,’ he mumbled as he realized the altercation had left her unarmed, save for her pistol.

‘We’ll just get one off the next guy you kill,’ she said.

Sean stared at her.

‘What?’ she asked, rather obliviously.

‘Nothing …’ said Sean, rather taken aback by this sudden disregard for violence. ‘Just, that was kinda … cold. For you, I mean.’

‘Well …’ She gave a gloomy shrug. ‘When you get tortured and they chase you and try to kill you and your friends and family and … and the man you love … well, you lose sympathy for them.’

Her tone remained calm, almost casual, but her fur was bristly and her eyes showed a fierceness he had only seen a few times before. Like a feral animal ready to jump out and maul those in its way.

Sean reached out and squeezed her shoulder comfortingly as the indicator light flicked across the last couple of floors until the elevator slowed to a halt. Aki flattened against the wall as the doors opened and Sean immediately aimed his rifle around the area beyond. The new corridor was narrow and industrial in appearance, and there wasn’t a soul in sight.

‘They haven’t made it down here yet,’ said Sean, half to himself. ‘All right, come on.’

They crept out into the corridor, senses peeled for any sign of movement other than the ever-present alarm lights. Sean noticed how the siren seemed to resonate rather strongly here, even though the narrow passageway curved into the distance on either end without any visible echo chambers. It struck Sean that the corridor itself must’ve been considerably longer than it appeared from his perspective at the elevator door.

They started down the right side, Sean’s rifle held at the ready and half-shielding Aki behind him. They advanced through the slowly curving corridor, the shape of which gave Sean the impression that they were walking in a massive circle – which, he soon realized, they were. The interior wall to his left was unmarked as far as he could see, providing no windows or vents to peer into the massive chamber that lay beyond, which Sean knew to be their destination.

They had walked roughly an eighth around the circular pathway when they came across a door in the exterior wall, but as they approached it suddenly slid open; Sean quickly raised his rifle but was too slow …

‘The—!’

The merc who emerged from the doorway was immediately cut off as a rapid succession of shots rang out from Sean’s side; the woman barely had time to register a shocked gasp before she crumpled to the ground, leaving a splatter of blood on the wall behind her.

Aki’s pistol was smoking lightly at the tip and with five freshly used shell casings rolling around on the floor. Sean stared at her in muted surprise.

‘What?’ she huffed, sounding almost as surprised as Sean was. ‘I can shoot, can’t I?’

‘Uh … yeah … just didn’t expect you to …’ Sean looked at her for a moment, then shook his head with a grunt and headed over to the body. ‘I didn’t know you were that good.’

Aki holstered her pistol and crouched down next to the body as Sean stood over them both, watching as she tugged the dead woman’s laser rifle out of her hands.

‘Should I take that as a compliment?’ she said in a voice she clearly tried to make careless as she stood back up with the newly acquired rifle in her hands. She looked at Sean with something about her that felt bold, almost defiant, a very unfamiliar impression coming from this normally relaxed and peaceful girl. She seemed to be turning into a soldier, herself. The thought was rather disconcerting.

‘A … a compliment,’ said Sean evasively as he stepped over the body and continued down the corridor, Aki trailing him closely.

They paced down the corridor until they arrived at what Sean reckoned must have been a quarter of the way around the massive chamber space they were circling around. The plainness of the interior wall finally broke at this point into a series of windows that allowed bright, red-tinged light into the stretch of corridor ahead of them and Sean slowed down as they approached, not wanting to be seen through the glass by any presence beyond. He flattened against the interior wall, crept toward the edge of the nearest window and cautiously peered through the heavily reflective glass.

He could barely make anything out save for his own face and the crimson lights flashing around the corridor walls around him, but he could still tell that the room on the other side of the window was truly grand in scale. The walls were smooth and white, with a few rows of windows like the one he was peering through dispersed at every quarter of the circumference. The top level had a pathway running the length of the walls with a number of catwalks extending out into the open area beyond, with a few spiral stairways interspersed at regular intervals leading downwards towards the floor Sean couldn’t see for the reflections in the glass. To his reassurance, he could see no sign of movement save for the omnipresent alarm lights.

‘Is that it?’ asked Aki’s reflection next to his.

‘Yeah,’ said Sean. ‘Must be. The reactor room.’

He felt a slight lump rise in his throat at the idea of what had to be done now; he swallowed hard and turned to look at Aki, whose wide, alert blue eyes stared back into his.

‘There’s probably no way … that we’re gonna be able to set it off without actually being there when it goes,’ he said slowly.

Aki held his gaze staunchly and nodded. ‘I know,’ she said plainly.

‘I can’t ask you to go in there with me.’

‘Don’t ask. I’m coming. All that matters is that I’m with you.’

Sean’s throat tightened once again at these words. Aki’s eyes were still quite dry, her face still resolute.

Sean crossed the windows towards the thin, hatch-like door that led to the ledge on the other side. He wasn’t particularly surprised to find another keycard slot next to it, which would evidently be impenetrable during lockdown, much less without him having any actual keycard on him (the interrogator’s would never work in an area this heavily securitized).

He looked up at Aki one more time.

‘Ready?’

She gave a curt nod, her rifle held prepared.

Sean paused, then leaned in and gave her a quick kiss; her eyes widened in surprise but she didn’t pull back.

‘For luck,’ he said as stoically as he could as he shouldered his own rifle. Aki’s eyes twinkled as she gave a slight, gamey grin. They both knew this was where they were doubtlessly going to die. But they would go together – and both knew they would put up one hell of a fight before they did.

Sean took a few steps back and aimed his rifle at the door where the lock was, Aki scuffling over out of the way to his side. Anyone present in the great chamber beyond would certainly be alerted to his and Aki’s presence once the door was blasted open.

Three … two … one …

He opened fire; the door briefly flashed brightly before it was engulfed in smoke and sparks, and a second later it had disappeared from the doorway, blasted open by the force of the powerful laser pulses. The hall was filled with the echoes of the rifle-fire combined with the clanging metal panel as it banged against the wall inside the chamber.

He stepped up to the smoking doorframe and quickly scanned the chamber beyond; Aki poked her rifle around from the other side of the door. It was as vast as he had previously surmised: A giant circular area with a diameter of well over a hundred feet in any direction by the looks of it, spanning two decks in height and with the upper level comprised of a stringy network of catwalks crossing the chamber some fifteen feet in the air and connecting to a platform at the center of the room. The platform lay atop a large, cylindrical structure that rather resembled a short, stubby silo. Its vertical walls along its lower half were lined with small windows through which a softly glowing pale-blue light could be seen pulsing slowly as though controlled by a dimmer switch someone were incessantly playing with. The top of the dome-shaped structure where the catwalks crossing the room converged to form a platform was connected to the ceiling through a large bundle of pipes and cables of various shapes and sizes. Even at this distance, some fifty feet away in the midst of the echoing siren, Sean could sense a certain loud humming noise emanating from this trunk of tubes and wires as it evidently served as some sort of a link between the reactor core inside its silo-like casing and the rest of the ship.

Sean was mildly dumbfounded to find the place was once again entirely deserted, leaving only the swirling crimson lights and infernally resonating alarm for company. He immediately felt rather uneasy about this lack of resistance. It was one thing for corridors or lounges in general parts of the ship to go without active surveillance, but so far, he had yet to encounter any hostile presence at all along the engineering deck, and even the reactor room, the very heart of the ship, was apparently left unprotected by even the most rudimentary forms of security.

He looked around the ceiling, half-hoping to find some surveillance equipment there, and spotted a few automated cameras fixed at various points along the walls. They still appeared to be functioning as they regularly pivoted around to scrutinize their fields of view.

‘Can you take out the cameras?’ he muttered to Aki as he pointed to the devices, lowering his voice despite the absence of any enemy sentries present.

‘What are they?’ Aki asked back, taking aim nonetheless with her rifle from behind the doorframe.

‘Oh …’ Sean realized he had never told her what cameras where. He quickly filled her in and saw a faint glimmer in Aki’s eyes, reminiscent of her excitement at learning about new human technology. It disappeared the next moment when she pulled the trigger, blasting the nearest camera to smithereens with a single expert shot. Sean joined in and together they made quick work sniping off the robotic eyes dispersed throughout the room. Within a minute, the walls were pockmarked with little black scorch marks and the floor was littered with shattered, fuming remains of fried electronics. The alarm hadn’t changed or indicated any disruption, their current position having apparently not been compromised despite taking out the surveillance cameras.

‘Now?’ said Aki.

‘We go in.’

They slowly stepped through the door and onto the ledge, Sean taking the lead and constantly looking around in all directions in search of any sign of security. He couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong; that they had forgotten something, or that some hidden entity was perhaps watching their movements from afar; but there was no sign of movement or additional defense mechanisms.

Their footsteps were virtually silent along the grated metal catwalk, drowned out by the mindless alarm and the increasingly loud droning from the trunk of pipes and cables jutting out from the platform at the center of the room as they approached. Aki’s own foxy ears were constantly pivoting around in every direction as they searched for any suspicious activity, and her face bore the same sort of uncertainty he was feeling in his gut.

I’d even like to see a couple of mercs appear, just to reassure me that this isn’t another damn trap.

They eventually traversed the room and arrived at the platform atop the reactor casing. The trunk of tubes and cables at the center was loud enough to drown nearly everything else out; Sean could feel a certain amount of heat radiating from it and noticed that the closer he got, the more his skin began tingling as though the wires were giving off some sort of electrical charge into the air around them.

‘Looks like some sort of power or cooling supply for the reactor,’ Sean explained loudly.

‘What about this?’ came Aki’s voice from the other side of the piping, barely audible through the noise.

‘What?’ Sean asked automatically as he circled around to where Aki was standing. He then noticed a small, easily ignored panel extending up from through the platform. It was a comprised of a single red button covered by a protective plastic cover, labeled “EMERGENCY OVERRIDE”.

‘I think this – this is it,’ stammered Sean, rather taken aback at having found the solution so quickly and easily. He looked around to his side but Aki wasn’t there.

‘Aki –?’

Clang

He turned around at the sound and almost tripped over himself in his haste to raise his rifle –

‘I’d be careful with that if I were you,’ shouted General Xander.

Sean’s heart nearly froze with a sudden spike of horror. Xander stood a good twelve feet away down the nearest catwalk, one arm wrapped tightly around Aki’s midriff in front of him and reaching up to cover her muzzle whilst keeping her arms pinned behind her back, the other holding his rifle pressed tightly into her upper back. Aki eyes were wide with panic, her ears flat and her tail firmly tucked between her legs. Her rifle lay uselessly on the catwalk just in front of her.

‘Let her go!’ Sean roared in barely restrained panic that matched Aki’s, unable to understand how Xander could’ve overtaken them so quickly or without him knowing. He aimed his rifle at Xander’s face over Aki’s right shoulder; the bald man merely glared back at him, his green eyes twinkling with malice in the revolving red lights.

‘No, I don’t think so, Captain,’ said Xander with unmistakable triumph in his voice. ‘You see, you’ve already caused me quite enough grief today, and I don’t plan on letting you rock the boat any longer. Good thing for all this racket, though, or I might never have gotten the drop on you.’

He glanced around Sean to the reactor emergency override panel.

‘What are you planning to do, O’Neil? You going to shut down the reactor, just like that? No shutdown sequence, no stabilizing the fusion levels? Just destabilize the core and vaporize the whole ship? With you still on board? With her?’

He marked his words with an extra squeeze around Aki’s torso, making her wince visibly.

Sean hesitated, keeping his rifle level with Xander’s head but unable to squeeze the trigger as the resulting jerk from Xander’s body would immediately result in Xander’s rifle blowing a hole through Aki’s midsection. The General’s words rang around in his panicked mind, forcing him to consider his very limited options very seriously. All he had to do was jump back to the panel and slam his hand on the red-colored button; he wouldn’t even have to time to think about Xander’s reaction or his and Aki’s fate before the mass of energy beneath him annihilated itself at once, instantly vanishing the Catalasia from existence in a cataclysmic fireball and leaving nothing behind but empty space, as had happened with the Chartraine. He knew this was what had to be done regardless of the situation; it was what he and Aki had fought their way through the ship to accomplish in the first place, the very reason why they were even on the Catalasia at all rather than speeding back home to Earth with their friends and family.

But Sean still wasn’t about to let her be hurt by Xander’s hand.

‘Where’re all the others?’ he shouted, trying to stall the situation while his mind searched for a way to gain the upper hand.

‘I dismissed them,’ said Xander from behind his terrified hostage. ‘I told them to stand back. I want you all to myself, Captain.’

‘Why? Why me?’ barked Sean without really thinking. He regretted the stupid question the moment it left his lips.

‘I don’t see any other rat rampaging through my ship,’ came Xander’s derisive retort.

Sean was reaching the end of his patience.

‘Let her go!’ he demanded, not bothering to hide the desperation in his voice. ‘It’s me you want! Take me! Don’t hurt her, she’s innocent! Let her go!’

‘Oh, she is far from innocent, Captain, you know this as well as I do,’ goaded Xander, his forcefully amused voice at odds with the fire in his eyes. ‘But, since you asked …’

In one move, he swept Aki’s fallen rifle over the side of the catwalk with his foot and flung her aside, where she collided painfully with the handrail, grabbing on in fright as she teetered perilously over the side; and before Sean could do more than watch in horror, Xander rammed the butt of his rifle into Aki’s chest, sending her tumbling over the railing with a choked scream and falling onto the sloped top of the reactor casing and sliding out of sight –

‘AKI –!’

Sean didn’t even have time to react; the next second, Xander had launched himself at him and was upon him before he could get out of the way, ramming into him and slamming him back against the hot pipes and knocking the rifle out of his hands –

Adrenaline and instinct took over and Sean drove his knee up between Xander’s legs and made contact with their target; Xander immediately cringed and bent over with a groan and Sean wasted no time in kicking out again, sending Xander falling over to the edge of the platform, momentarily stunned –

Sean leapt forth towards the railing but Xander’s feet were suddenly caught in his legs and he fell over hard; he kicked back, fighting Xander off as he struggled to pull himself along to peer over the edge of the catwalk where he briefly caught sight of Aki, lying face-down at the foot of the reactor casing some fifteen feet below, motionless and with her arms and legs bent in weird positions, her rifle lying some twenty feet away from her –

He saw Xander clamber to his feet in the corner of his eye and rolled away, grabbing the railing and hoisting himself upright as well and glaring his rival down from across the catwalk; Xander immediately made for him, but this time Sean was ready for him –

Xander’s fist swung through empty air as Sean ducked and countered with a lightning-fast jab into Xander’s stomach; Xander barely flinched, nor had Sean really expected him to, and quickly shot another hook at Sean, who dodged to the side; Sean grabbed Xander’s arm in a lock and swung his elbow hard into the General’s face –

Xander barely reacted and merely lashed out at Sean, who received Xander’s forearm across the face, sending him back against the tight walkway’s rail; Xander swung out again and Sean ducked under it and quickly drove his foot down into Xander’s inner knee, buckling his leg and leaving Xander crouched against the railing, vulnerable –

Sean aimed but misjudged a kick at Xander’s head, allowing Xander to block it, grab Sean’s leg and give it a sharp twist; Sean cried out as he fell to the floor, but quickly rolled out of the way of Xander’s opportunistic stomp and jumped back to his feet, ignoring the new soreness in his leg –

They stood some six feet apart, both panting heavily yet rearing to continue; Sean shot a quick glance over the side at the fallen foxgirl, who still hadn’t moved, sending a new twinge of dread through his body but he ignored it, the adrenaline in his veins focusing his priorities in combat.

‘How does it feel, Captain, realizing you are not the best hunter in these woods?’ Xander spat, his teeth bared.

Sean advanced at Xander with fists at the ready; Xander once again made the first move at Sean, sending a sharp jab that connected ineffectually with Sean’s shoulder –

Sean spun around, grabbed Xander’s outstretched arm and yanked hard, sending Xander crashing into the rail with a grinding creak; Sean quickly regained his position and sent his knee into Xander’s gut, making him double over again, followed by a jab of his elbow into Xander’s back, making him fall on all fours from the shock to his spine –

Sean whipped around and sprinted back towards the central platform where his rifle was, but he’d barely raised it when something suddenly struck it out of his hands; immediately after, something hit him in the stomach and he doubled over in pain, his breath cut short, his rifle clattering to the ground at the edge of the platform; he threw himself backwards out of the way of Xander’s next kick and dragged himself to his feet against the opposite railing, still clutching his burning gut.

‘This what you wanted?’ Xander snarked, motioning his foot towards Sean’s rifle before kicking it over the edge. ‘What kind of a man are you, bringing a firearm into a fistfight?’

‘What kind of a general are you, Xander, stuck with an army of hired thugs?’ Sean shot back.

Xander’s arrogant leer dropped off his face as though he’d been slapped. He growled and charged at Sean again – but this time, Sean sidestepped him, sending Xander crashing into the railing, which twisted and buckled from the impact but managed to hold steady; Sean immediately twisted around and drove his fist as hard and deep as he could into Xander’s solar plexus, making Xander bend over with a hoarse groan of pain; Sean followed up with a swift knee-jab into Xander’s face, sending him shooting back up with a renewed groan –

Finishing his melee attack, Sean brought his fist to contact with the stunned General’s face as hard as he could muster; the impact was enough to make an audible smack and pain immediately shot up Sean’s knuckles as they crashed into Xander’s skull; already unbalanced, Xander merely fell over sideways, grabbing onto the rail for support as he lay on the ground, wheezing and groaning with pain.

Sean stared at him for a moment, torn between finishing him off and rushing to Aki’s side as quickly as he could; his overpowering desire to reach Aki won out and figuring Xander’s death could wait, he ran back to the railing, peering over again at her still motionless form. His heart once again filled with a horribly familiar sensation of turmoil at the thought of anything bad happening to her and he glanced around for the nearest staircase that would take him down to her, temporarily forgetting about the injured opponent behind him …

Click

He turned around but barely had time to register Xander pointing his arm at him, holding –

BANG

His right shoulder exploded in pain and he cried out; he saw Xander take aim again and he cringed and stumbled backwards into the railing, only for the poorly serviced bar to give way; his world suddenly cascaded around him –

He hit the floor so hard he instantly knew he’d broken bones; the next thing he could tell was he was on his side, his arm underneath his head and his legs twisted into a wide angle; dazed and semi-delirious from the roaring agony crashing through every inch of his body, he looked around and first saw the orange-colored form of Aki only ten feet or so away from him, then noticed the network of catwalks and a dark figured leaning over the edge directly above him and pointing –

Sean gave a guttural yell and somehow managed to tear his nearly incapacitated body away from the floor and feverishly pushed himself behind the massive reactor casing as a couple of shots ricocheted where he’d lain instants before; he dragged himself along until the silo-shaped structure blocked his view of Xander and the catwalks, affording him a momentary reprieve.

He sat back against the wall, panting hard from the effort and especially the pain throughout his body. His head was pounding from the fall, his chest was burning with various aches, his lower back felt like it was drilling into him where his gunshot was, his arms and legs felt like searing lead; he was certain he had more than one fractured bone and he could definitely taste blood in his mouth, in addition to the wetness he felt slowly descending along the back of his head. He absently reached back, felt his wet hair, and brought his fingers before his eyes almost lazily, his addled brain not registering any emotion at seeing them smeared with blood.

My blood. I’m bleeding. A hemorrhage? No, not that much blood. A concussion? No, I’m still lucid, sorta. Only sorta.

He vaguely heard distant footsteps from somewhere up above. Remembering Aki, he groaned as he slowly forced himself back to his feet, his legs wobbling dangerously and requiring him to hold onto the wall behind him to avoid crumpling back to the floor.

Goddamn, this really fucking hurts all over. But then, I did get shot and fall fifteen feet. But so did Aki …

From his position, he strained his ears despite his heart pounding loud enough to nearly deafen him. He could make out sporadic footstep sounds coming from somewhere on the other side of the room, though the alarm made it difficult to keep track of their movements. He slowly shuffled around the large casing, readying his sore, tense body to jump back at any sign of danger as he glanced around. He caught sight of Aki’s tail and her feet splayed on the ground from behind the casing wall, but before he could continue towards her he saw movement at the other side of the room; Xander was descending one of the spiral staircases, his pace somewhat slow and uneven, making it obvious he was still feeling Sean’s blows.

Sean quickly stepped over to Aki and made to grab her, intending to pull her inert form behind the casing and out of Xander’s sight, but was forced to jump back behind cover when another couple of shots rang out, missing him by what felt like inches. He went around several feet along the tubular casing, trying to stay out of Xander’s range for as long as possible as he willed his tired, still hazy brain to come up with an idea, anything at all …

He heard Xander’s slow, heavy footsteps approach the casing where Aki lay and Sean’s breath froze as he wondered what the General would do with or to Aki. Xander’s footsteps finally stopped right where Sean estimated Aki was lying, leaving a worrying silence in their wake. The thought of what Xander may do to Aki with Sean unable to fight back filled him with yet more terror and desperation; he had no weapons and was no longer in any condition to fight someone like Xander. The reactor override panel was now far above, atop the casing where he would never be able to reach it without receiving Xander’s gunfire at his back.

‘Come out, come out, wherever you are!’ came Xander voice from around the wall, raspy and hoarse yet cruelly amused; the voice of someone who knew he had the upper hand over his nearly soon-to-be-vanquished opponent.

‘You cannot hide forever like a child, Captain!’ Xander continued. ‘If you will not come out like a soldier, maybe I will have to convince you to show yourself?’

Sean tensed, his chest swelling with fear. He repressed the urge to shout back, to snipe at Xander or to plead with him not to hurt Aki, knowing full well none of it would help in the slightest. He felt utterly stranded for the very first time in his life, with no trick to pull, no possible diversion, no visible way out. It was a strikingly unfamiliar sensation, an incredibly hopeless one.

‘I see your fox bitch here is still alive!’ came Xander’s voice. Sean gasped quietly in mingled hope and horror; was Aki awake? Was she in pain? Or was it another ruse from Xander?

‘Maybe I should wake her up,’ jeered Xander. ‘I am certain she will squeal easily, don’t you think? And she is already naked, that makes things easier …’

Sean’s mind went numb; his eyes bulged, his hands curled into tight fists and his jaw locked; an overwhelming terror and rage swiftly arose within him, obliterating his cautiousness and overriding the pain wracking his body; without a moment’s thought, Sean stumbled out and tore around the wall towards –

There was a dark form but he couldn’t react fast enough; he was hit squarely in the face, hard enough to stop him in his tracks; his momentum flung him onto his back and he crashed to the ground once again, his back and neck erupting in spasms, his nose broken and bleeding, his eyes blinded with stars. He blinked hard and struggled to roll over, out of the way of whatever harm was surely coming, but something large and very heavy fell onto his chest and pinned him solidly to the ground –

Dazed, hurt and confused, he looked up, his vision somewhat unfocused; Xander was at his side with his leg holding Sean down; the scarred face leered victoriously down at him from seemingly high above.

Xander pointed his pistol at Sean’s head, Sean looking up the sight into Xander’s eyes.

‘I am terribly sorry it had to end like this, Captain,’ Xander said, looking rather wicked. ‘You were a good soldier. But defection carries a cost, and it is time you learned your place.’

He cocked the hammer. Sean knew, even in his dazed state, the gun was self-loading and required no such action, which was only for show.

‘Say goodbye, Captain.’

Everything slowed; Sean’s blurry eyes saw the General’s fingers tightening around the grip of the gun, his index tensing around the trigger; he closed his eyes …

BANG

Sean’s eyes opened. Xander was still standing above him with his leg holding Sean to the ground, his gun-arm pointed low at Sean’s forehead, but the General hadn’t moved; a moment later, Xander gasped and gave a shudder; his grip on his pistol twitched and then slackened, letting the firearm slip right out of his hand and land with a clatter next to Sean’s shoulder; his eyes were wide and his face was still contorted into that demonic grin, but there was something off about it –

Suddenly, Xander stumbled and his knees buckled; he fell on all fours before crumpling over sideways, his eyes still wide but the smile gone from his face. Sean noticed a reddening patch in the middle of Xander’s chest, a crimson stain that spread across his uniform before leaking out onto the floor in red droplets that began pooling beneath him. His eyes were still fixed on Sean, his face bearing a distant, unfocused sort of astonishment, with a thin line of red seeping out from the corner of his mouth.

General Xander was dead.

Sean stared, then looked around, wincing as he slowly propped himself up onto his elbows. Aki was lying on her stomach where she had fallen; her eyes were open and glimmering faintly in the swirling crimson lights. She had an arm extended in front of her, her elbow bent on the floor and her fingers wrapped tightly around her own pistol, still aimed upwards where her target had been.

Sean could hardly think at this point from the toll the past fifteen minutes had taken on his body and mind. Not really thinking straight, he slowly sat up, noticing as he did so the trickle of blood from his nose leaking across his lips. He absently raised a hand to wipe it off, barely flinching at the pain in his face, and clumsily pushed himself to his feet with all the vigor of a sick fawn. He ambled over to Aki and kneeled down at her side, laying a hand on her shoulder. He couldn’t tell if the shaking he felt was his or hers, or both.

‘Hey,’ he said, his voice trembling.

‘Hey,’ replied Aki, her head turned to look up at him. Her muzzle bore the resemblance of a small smile. Sean couldn’t help but smile back in a choked manner.

He looked back over where Xander lay, the blood now stretching several feet across the floor.

‘Nice shot,’ he conceded.

Aki closed her eyes and sighed deeply. ‘I wasn’t gonna miss.’

Sean gazed at her and her battered body, then turned back to Xander’s body.

‘Goodbye!’ he called loudly.

Aki stared at him in bemusement, then grinned widely.

‘He asked for it …’ Sean said in a faux-casual tone with a shrug that made him flinch from the pain in his wounded shoulder.

Aki raised her head the better to look at him with a concerned look, eyeing his numerous bruises, his bloody nose, his injured shoulder.

‘You look like shit.’ Sean noticed her little wry grin.

‘You don’t look much better,’ he pointed out. In fact, she did, at least as far as visible damage were concerned, but he was still worried about any internal injuries she might have sustained from the fall.

Aki gave a light snort and carefully pushed herself over onto her back, where Sean helped her sit upright.

‘My arm and shoulder really hurt,’ she said with a slight whine.

‘It’s probably dislocated or broken,’ Sean said. ‘Think you can stand up?’

‘I think …’

Sean gently wrapped his arm around her lower back and pulled her up with a strained grunt; Aki made it to her feet and stood on her own, though her knees wobbled uncertainly. Sean looked her over, silently amazed at the show of strength she was putting on despite everything she’d been through.

‘I thought …’ said Sean, his voice faltering, ‘I thought you’d …’

Aki gave him another small smile.

‘It’ll take more than a little fall to finish me off,’ she said, almost smugly.

Sean stared at her, then shook his head resignedly.

Aki let off a low groan and closed her eyes tiredly.

‘I really need a nice, warm bed,’ she muttered.

‘Or a hospital bed,’ Sean noted.

Her eyes flashed up at him. ‘Maybe,’ she said finally, her voice flat but with a tinge of ruefulness.

Arm-in-arm, they stood there at the foot of the great reactor and looked around the room, from the body of their aggressor to the small web of catwalks crisscrossing above them, letting the weight of the day’s events lift up off their shoulders. Sean knew they had to get back to the platform with the emergency kill switch, but the narrow spiral staircases that led up to catwalks did not look inviting in the slightest.

Sean’s eyes flickered back to the body of General Xander and that’s when he remembered something.

‘Hold on a second,’ he said, releasing Aki and ensuring she could stand without his support before he turned around and headed back to Xander’s body. She watched on quietly yet quizzically as he leaned over and patted Xander’s chest; finding what he was looking for, he reached into Xander’s chest pocket and extracted the little black journal that was his.

He turned back and rejoined Aki, who now looked guilty as she eyed the little book in Sean’s hand.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said quickly. ‘I know you didn’t want me to, I shouldn’t have taken it, it’s my fault –’

‘Hey,’ Sean hushed gently. She fell quiet, looking not unlike a remorseful puppy. The image was enough to make him grin despite himself.

‘It’s okay, love,’ he said, squeezing her shoulder reassuringly. ‘It’s just a stupid journal. You were gonna read it someday … Frankly, I’m kinda glad you did read it, before all this.’

Her eyes glimmered as they became moist again, but she remained quiet, giving his arm a tender squeeze.

They stood together in silence for a few moments. But as much as Sean wanted to simply lie back with his beloved foxgirl at his side and rest, the alarm wouldn’t let him, constantly reminding him what was going on and what they still had to do.

‘How long do we have?’ said Aki as though voicing his own thoughts.

‘Hard to say,’ said Sean, his eyes roving around the room, spotting the little black marks where they had shot out the surveillance cameras. ‘The ship’s probably an hour or two away from Earth by now. We …’ He swallowed. ‘We should get moving.’

They both glanced absently at the wall across the chamber, still holding each other tightly.

‘Yeah,’ said Aki quietly.

Then they turned to face each other and embraced, each pulling the other in tightly. Sean’s fingers roved almost automatically through the foxgirl’s back-fur and her right arm wrapped around his back, making him flinch slightly when her hand came too close to the laser wound in his lower back.

After a long, warm, comforting moment, they separated, their arms still wrapped around each other like the lovers they were. Sean looked up at the platform on top of the casing where the override panel stood, waiting to be activated.

‘Think you can manage stairs?’ Sean said, indicating the nearest staircase.

Aki sighed wearily but nodded.

They slowly headed over to the staircase; Sean insisted Aki go first so that he could catch her if her legs gave way, disregarding the fact that his own knees weren’t much sturdier than hers at this point. The climb was slow and arduous, with both of them requiring a short pause halfway up to rest their aching limbs. But soon, they made it to the top and climbed back onto the catwalk leading to the central platform.

‘You know how to work this thing? How to kill the reactor?’ Aki asked, still breathing somewhat hard from their climb, as they arrived before the small, simplistic console.

‘Xander said something about stopping it in mid-fusion without going through the full procedure,’ said Sean, examining the single kill switch. ‘I think I remember hearing something about that from systems training … but damn, that was long ago …’

They both gazed down at the button, the seductively simple little switch that would purportedly put an end to all their worries.

‘So that’s it?’ Aki asked in a low voice. ‘We press the button, and …’

Sean nodded slowly, looking around at Aki as her eyes flickered alternatingly between the diminutive console and Sean.

‘It probably won’t go off instantly,’ he said slowly. ‘Might take a few moments for the core to destabilize … maybe a minute or two … I have no idea …’

His voice trailed away, leaving a long silence between them. They both shared a long, meaningful look, now that they were so very close together at the ultimate moment of their lives. Sean was not afraid. He had never feared death – at least, not his own. The antimatter would annihilate far too rapidly for him or Aki to feel it or even know that anything had happened; they would be wiped from existence along with the rest of the massive Catalasia and everyone else on it in less than the blink of an eye. No more pain. No more fear. No more worrying for those he loved … and no more regretting all the harm that he had caused them all, most of all to Aki, who would now die at his side, her ultimate sacrifice for him.

‘I love you,’ he said.

Aki’s eyes grew wetter.

‘I know,’ she replied. ‘I love you, too.’

‘I just wanted to say it one last time.’

The foxgirl’s stared deep into his own, those mesmerizing pools of warm blue twinkling quite prettily in the lights. He held out his hand and grasped hers; her fingers squeezed back around his, a securing, comforting link between their two beings as they faced their own mortality. They were as silent as the emptiness that would soon claim them, neither feeling the need to express their feelings through anything more than their hands, their bodies, and their immutable bond.

He extended his hand. Flipped the plastic cover over, exposing the button. Placed his palm over the button, where it was joined by Aki’s soft, black-furred hand.

Sean looked around at her, she at him.

See you ’round, my love.

They pressed the button together.