Saturday, October 16, 2010

Inhuman | Chapter 17: Home Again [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.

A bittersweet return home at the end of a very long day.


— CHAPTER SEVENTEEN —

Home Again

‘Is everyone all right?’

Hartling’s call was met with a round of groans and whimpers. Kira’s head ached where it had hit the wall behind her, yet she was still unable to rub it with her arms stuck behind her back. She glanced around the darkened cabin; the other Aqueni appeared just as sore and disoriented as she felt, squirming in their seats and struggling futilely against their restraints. One white-furred rabbit jill seated in front of Kira, next to the pilot’s seat, gave a pained squeak and her eyes watered from the pain in her twitching nose; a beefy deer at her side sought aid from others to confirm whether his antlers were damaged.

‘Feel like I broke my neck,’ grumbled a wolf at Kira’s side as he stretched and winced.

‘It takes some getting used to, to land in these things,’ said Hartling apologetically from around the pilot’s seat. ‘They’re emergency vessels, not … well.’

She let her thought hang and turned back, muttering quietly to herself as she flicked several switches on the instrument panel. The low hum that resonated through the cabin died down, only to be replaced a moment later by a hiss that seemed to come from the walls themselves. The cabin began rocking back and forth as would a cork floating on water; Kira clutched her stomach, now beginning to feel slightly queasy on top of everything else. Mercifully, the discomfort soon subsided and the cabin stabilized, bobbing gently up and down as though they were on a boat.

Hartling hit one last switch, which sent a subtle shudder through the floor, and then sat back in her seat, slipping off her seatbelt and rubbing her arms and chest where the straps had dug during the rough landing. She paused for a moment as she gazed into the windscreen, her reflection in the glass appearing momentarily mesmerized; Kira absently followed her gaze and could just discern a shimmering watery landscape through the glare and reflections that partially obscured the view. They were surrounded by a river, obliquely facing the shoreline where dark forests stretched on into the distance, the whole scene overlaid by a vast, inky blue, pink-strewn and gold-laced dawn sky with a bright aura at the edge of the horizon where the sun was only a short time away from rising. The pod’s piercing exterior lights shone across the riverwaters, creating large swaths of glittering ripples on the surface as though revealing a surface of gemstones. Kira was distantly struck at how pretty it all was in an almost melancholic, heart-wrenching way.

She hadn’t even noticed Hartling leave her seat and only now caught her voice from where she stood in the middle of the small cabin:

‘… gonna go outside and, uh, check out just what we’ve landed in, here. Everyone, move to the front of the pod and stay low and quiet until I confirm the area is clear.’

There was a shuffle as the Aqueni did as instructed and scooted awkwardly away from the back of the pod. Kira sat still as she was already near the front; she barely even registered the stifling crowd suddenly packed around her. The jill with the hurting nose sat down next to her and gave her a compassionate look, rubbing her leg comfortingly. Kira barely noticed her.

Hartling was now at the rear hatch, her rifle in hand. She silently motioned at the Aqueni to get down and stay still; they hunched over and a current of fear coursed through them in apprehension of whatever was to happen next.

Hartling raised her rifle and activated a switch at the side of the hatch. The panel quickly slid out of the way, revealing the darkened landscape surrounding the pod and the mesmerizing sparkling waters beyond. Hartling scanned the area through her rifle’s scope, her eye cast in green from the electronic display. The survivors waited in a tense silence, the only sounds reaching them that of the soft current of the river and the rustling as Hartling shifted positions, taking every square inch of the environment into account. Kira thought she saw the human woman’s eyes widen in awe at what she was seeing.

Just as she was beginning to wonder if something was wrong (had they arrived too far away from the village?), her ears perked as distant sounds of movement and voices reached them. She tried to peer beyond Hartling but couldn’t see anything other than the forest along the shore. Hartling, however, lowered her rifle and looked around at them with a rather bemused air.

‘It’s all clear,’ she announced in a somewhat shaky voice, gesturing for the Aqueni to get up. ‘It’s safe. Come on, let’s go.’

Feeling too confused and drained in every way to ask what was going on or where they were going, Kira slowly pushed herself to her feet along with the rest of the Aqueni, letting them pass around her as they ambled to the back of the pod until she was at the rear. She didn’t feel much like being at the front of the group.

The group approached the hatch where Hartling showed them out of the pod and onto an odd, soft, yellow-colored platform that now surrounded the pod and sank a little under their feet, apparently filled with air. She couldn’t see past the others’ heads, and only when she finally crouched through the hatch at Hartling’s beckoning could she finally get a good look at their surroundings. Through the numbness and the pain gripping her insides, she couldn’t help but let her jaw drop at what she saw.

Her group was suddenly accosted by other anthros splashing towards them in the chest-deep waters; the survivors from the other pods shouted and cheered up at the new arrivals with joyful relief. She could hear their demands to know what had happened to delay the third craft’s arrival by over half-an-hour, or so Kira thought she could make out from their unintelligibly mingled voices.

Everything felt distant in the disorienting turn of events; Kira felt as though she were an invisible observer, detached from the rest of the clamoring, sobbing, rejoicing Aqueni as if separated from them by an invisible veil. She slowly glanced around and recognized the familiar Neyrin River, noting the shores she knew better than the back of her hand, the distinct rocky formations and grassy banks, the long, gentle slope up to …

Her eyes fell upon her village and she felt her already anguished heart drop through her chest.

There was nothing left. Absolutely nothing. The charred rubble and broken ruins was still smoldering with a pale, almost evil red glow in the early morning gloom. The air above was clear, with only a few spouts of smoke rising here and there where smaller fires still burned. The gentle winds were blowing the vapors downstream behind Kira and preventing her from detecting what would assuredly have been stomach-churning scents of burning and destruction. Where there had once been homes, workshops and gardens, there now lay nothing but flat land with the occasional blackened structural beam sticking up from the rubble like burnt nails jutting up from the earth.

She distantly noticed that the sounds of voices around her had dissipated; the rest of the Aqueni were also staring at the ruins of their home, some of them crying more or less openly, others looking merely depressed, and some looking like the same blaze that had consumed their village was now gnawing at their insides.

Kira! Hey, Kira!

She heard the calls yet barely registered them; only when something tugged insistently at her leg did she look down at the distraction. She was greeted by a familiar spotted face with gleaming dark-brown eyes.

‘Kira! Are you okay?’ Nessi said from the river below.

‘What happened?’ Kira asked automatically, her voice flat.

‘Uh … well – see over there? Look, by the shore …’

Kira followed Nessi’s outstretched arm and noticed a strange-looking group on a partially secluded stretch of shoreline about a hundred yards away. Though too distant to make out in detail, she could tell there was a group of people on the ground within what seemed to be a circle of guards; something about it looked distinctly odd.

‘What …?’

‘We fought them back,’ said Nessi, now looking distinctly excited as she recounted the events of late. ‘We followed Sean’s lead – you know, like what he did with the Dark Riders when they attacked? How he just got everyone together to push them out? Well, that’s what I did – well, we did, I mean, I just, I told the others what to do and they did it, and it worked, and – and there they are now, the humans, the – the soldiers. Our prisoners,’ she finished with a vindictive grin that revealed her sharp feline teeth.

‘It’s all thanks to her,’ piped in a beaver as he swam by to Nessi’s side. ‘She led the whole thing, she was brilliant!’

There was a general spattering of cheerful assent from the rest of the Aqueni now assembled around them in the river, all smiling victoriously and congratulating a modest yet clearly pleased Nessi.

‘Oh, come on, folks, it wasn’t that much …’

‘Ey – where’s Sean? Where’s Aki?’ came a voice from the crowd.

Kira’s momentary distraction came to an end and her heart seized torturously in her chest as the realization that her daughter was gone came crashing back down on her. She partially stifled a sob, making it sound like a choked cough; she glanced at Hartling, who quickly looked her over and at once moved to step in.

‘Hey, I’m Leona Hartling, I’m a friend of Sean O’Neil,’ she introduced herself somewhat clumsily. ‘I’m afraid Sean and Aki won’t … uh, be joining us just yet …’

Kira felt grateful at Hartling’s clumsy attempt to divert the curious crowd’s attention away from her and promptly crept along the cushion around the pod until she was out of the crowd’s sight. She slipped into the water, the cool current feeling wonderful against her filthy fur and her continually strained arms behind her back. She slowly hobbled along the river bottom, doing her best to distance herself from the pod and the crowd behind it as it paid rapt attention to Hartling’s narration of the events. She saw Nessi’s eyes follow her for several moments, but she knew the cheetah girl wouldn’t leave the group while Hartling was filling them in about all that had happened to them since their kidnapping aboard the human shuttle, what now felt like many long ages ago.

After wading a few dozen yards downriver, she veered towards the shore and slowly climbed out, shaking her head to get the dripping fur out of her eyes and nearly falling over several times as the feeble current destabilized her without her being able to use her arms to balance herself. The grass felt vaguely comforting under her feet, as though trying to remind her that she finally was where she belonged. Only, it didn’t feel like home at all.

She stood there on the bank, her unfocused gaze flicking from the crowd around the pod, now too distant for her to overhear, to the gorgeous morning tableau stretching out around her. The trees, the crystalline waters, the vanishing mountains and the heavenly skies; it all looked almost mockingly beautiful, as though rubbing it in her face.

Something in the sky caught her eye; looking up, she saw a brilliant spot of light, slightly larger than a shining star, as it glowed and flickered as though suspended in emptiness, an intruder amidst the celestial tapestry …

And then it was gone, faded away, leaving nothing behind but a patch of empty, pearly pink in between clouds that glowed almost incandescent in the slowly rising sun. No sign in the cruelly beautiful heavens of what she knew had just happened, of the lives that had just been taken.

Her knees wobbled and gave way; she remained kneeling on the soft grass, wave after mortal wave of exhaustion and pain washing over her like an ocean as she fixed the patch of sky where she knew her baby girl had just vanished.

Her eyes burned; she ignored any attempt at restraint and cried quietly where she lay.

*

She heard footsteps in the grass behind her but remained where she sat, her knees up against her chest as she stared absently out over the river. She barely even felt her arms anymore.

‘Kira?’ came Hartling’s soft voice.

She didn’t respond, preferring to wait for whatever Hartling had to say, or for the woman to leave her alone.

Instead, Hartling came by Kira’s side and slowly lowered herself onto the ground, splaying her legs out in the soothing grass with a sigh. Fixing her absent gaze upon the river, Kira could tell Hartling was looking at her, perhaps gauging her mental state or seeing if her presence was okay by Kira. The vixen merely sniffed and felt another tear creep its way down her cheek. Her vulpine ears picked up on different sounds of chatter and activity from further away behind them where the village still smoldered; they were quite alone at the edge of the river.

‘I figured out how to get rid of those restraints,’ offered Hartling. ‘If you would just …’

She motioned at Kira to turn around a little; Kira slowly obeyed and felt Hartling playing around with the cuffs until she heard a click. The hard metal shackles immediately released her wrists and Kira slowly flexed her arms, which felt quite lifeless.

‘Just move them around, let the blood flow back …’ Hartling said quietly. She stared at the cuffs for a moment, then swung out and threw the metal contraption into the river before them, where they disappeared with a small splash.

They stared out at the landscape, Hartling’s eyes alight with poorly suppressed wonder at the magnificent scenery, Kira rubbing her wrists numbly and giving the occasional sniffle. The minutes passed by indeterminably, as though time was a lost concept, as they basked in the cool breeze that ruffled Kira’s drying fur and Hartling’s short hair.

‘I’m sorry for your loss.’

Kira noticed Hartling was looking at her again, her face solemn. Kira blinked wetly and gave another sniff.

Hartling gave a pause before she spoke again: ‘I hear she was a wonderful girl.’ Her voice was quiet, as though uncertain how Kira would react.

For the first time, Kira looked around at Hartling, gazing at her as though seeing her for the first time. She remained silent for a few moments, the suit-wearing, ebony-skinned woman and the unclothed, red-and-white-furred vixen looking each other over.

‘I … I’m sorry for your loss, too,’ said Kira in a croaky voice.

Hartling gave a small, sad smile.

‘We were friends for many years,’ she said quietly before sighing deeply. ‘I loved him like a brother. But … in our line of work, you never know … I mean, I already thought he’d died months ago when he disappeared with the Chartraine. To see him again, today … it was a blessing.’

They gazed back out upon the river in reminiscence.

‘He was a hero,’ Kira said softly. ‘He saved our lives, when we were attacked … he defended us when no-one else would.’

‘Yeah … he’s like that,’ said Hartling reminiscently. ‘Always getting in trouble.’

Kira gazed at Hartling and her light smile and despite all the turmoil in her mind and heart, she felt a similar one make its way onto her lips. She gave another light sniff and raised an aching hand to rub her eyes and wipe some of the wetness out of her cheek-fur. She took a deep breath and looked back at the river and the three pods, now clearly visible in the morning sun as charred bulbs floating on the surface on their yellow floaters, spaced out across several yards and with Sean’s old, sunken pod a little further out, looking no different than a large rock from where Kira sat.

The villagers had now regrouped further up the slope, mingling and discussing the recent events and where to go from this point on, all of them staying rather clear of the smoking, black mounds of charred rubble that were the remains of their village. Some were over by the human prisoners, though they were too distant for Kira to make out what exactly was going on there. She thought she picked up distant shouts and howls that indicated that they were most likely sharing their pain and anger with the enemies. She found that she didn’t harbor any real resentment towards the humans, nor any sense of forgiveness. It was as though all her emotions had been wiped clean.

‘Where do we go from here?’ she said lowly. ‘What now?’

‘Well …’ began Hartling slowly, looking the ruins over. ‘I guess you … I mean, we should start working on the village, see if there’s anything we can repair.’

Kira looked at the hesitant-looking Hartling and was struck by the realization: This awkward, discomfited woman was in the exact same position Sean was when he first arrived, believing his friends had died and having no way to return home. Hartling’s expression was remarkably similar to the one Sean had worn during the first few days spent getting acclimatized to life with the Aqueni, days spent realizing he would never again leave the planet.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said somewhat awkwardly.

Hartling turned to look at her with a quizzical look.

‘I’m sorry … that this happened – that you’re stuck here, now.’

Hartling looked taken aback for a moment, then gave Kira a small smile.

‘Don’t worry about me,’ she said. ‘I’ve been in worse before. Besides … I don’t have any home to go back to. There’s nothing for me there, now. What I did counts as treason against my home, and now with Sean and my husband gone …’ She shook her head. ‘I’m better off here.’

They shared a look and Kira nodded in understanding. They turned back towards the village and the anthros milling about, looking disoriented and lost.

‘I think we should start by going around the village, seeing if there’s anything we can salvage … then …’

Hartling’s voiced trailed away as though distracted; Kira then noticed it, too, how several of the villagers had stopped in their tracks and were looking up at the sky. She followed their gaze upwards.

‘What’s that?’ she said sharply.

There was another bright dot of light in the sky, shining at exactly the same place (or so Kira guessed) where the light from the distant explosion that consumed the Catalasia had shined only about a quarter-hour previously. This one was larger, however, about half a full moon in size and twinkling brilliantly in the morning sky as it – was it moving?

<[>‘Uh … I think we might wanna get outta here,’ said Hartling brusquely as she started pulling on Kira to head back up the bank.

‘Why, what is that?’ Kira asked as she stumbled backwards on the uneven slope, her eyes fixed on the steadily growing orb of light that left a fiery trail in the wake of its descent.

‘It looks like something’s about to hit,’ said Hartling, now looking almost panicked. ‘No time to warn the others – get down!

Hartling grabbed Kira by the neck and forced her down to the ground none too gently; they both lay prone, looking up in mingled fascination and fear as the strange light, very much resembling a comet, blazed through the skies and grew steadily bigger, trailing all the way down until it got so bright Kira couldn’t look at it anymore without being blinded; she screwed her eyes shut and looked down and Hartling did the same next to her just as the object finalized its approach … The sound reached her ears like a blast, enough to shake the soil under her body, a terrifically loud and sustained whoosh as the light around them grew brighter and brighter; Kira wondered if it would hurt, if they would die …

Then, as the roar grew almost louder than her ears could stand, she was suddenly struck by a terrific blast of wind that hit her almost as hard as a sledgehammer; though nearly unbearable, it finally faded out, slowly dying down until it was replaced by the unmistakable hissing of steam. Kira looked up; she was no longer blinded, the light had vanished, seemingly leaving nothing behind.

It took her a moment to notice that something had changed. There was something new in the Neyrin, closer to them than the other pods, entirely cloaked in a furious cloud of white steam that rose and dissipated high in the air, hiding from view whatever had just landed in the river.

Kira and Hartling looked on as they slowly rose to their feet; Kira noticed the other villagers observing the new event from further down the shoreline, many of them looking as though they were wondering whether they were about to fall victim to yet a new attack. The thought chilled Kira as she watched the cloud of vapor slowly dissipate, revealing a dark shape in its midst that slowly took form …

‘What the hell …?’ murmured Hartling. Kira simply stared, dumbfounded.

It was another escape pod, exactly as the others with its charred hull and bobbing up and down with its yellow floaters on the waves created by the impact. The other anthros watched on with mingled apprehension and downright confusion, and Hartling voiced Kira’s thoughts for her: ‘Who the hell is that?’

‘Enemies, maybe?’ Kira suggested in a tight voice.

‘Maybe,’ said Hartling grimly. She reached around and grabbed her rifle, making sure it was still armed. ‘Come on, let’s join the others.’

They started along the shore, sticking close to the edge of the water to keep the new pod in view as best as they could. They soon rejoined the other Aqueni who were already lining the riverbank and buzzing with apprehensive discussion.

‘Who do you think that is?’ squeaked a mouse doe at Hartling.

‘No idea,’ said Hartling, squeezing her half-raised rifle. ‘Just wait and see. If I say get down, everyone hit the ground as fast as you can, understood?’

There was a general murmur of agreement and the tension in the air only rose as the moments passed by in silence … then …

Hartling quickly raised her rifle, aiming it carefully at the pod where a quiet hiss had just been heard. Kira watched on with bated breath, wondering what more could possibly happen now …

Something emerged from the rear hatch, which quickly became two distinct figures. Everyone froze, eyes wide with shock; Kira’s heart missed several beats. The two dark shapes remained still for a moment, then one them raised an arm and slowly waved.

Hartling looked thunderstruck. ‘Is that …?’

But Kira had already leapt out into the river, running as fast as her powerful legs would propel her through the waters, her heart positively erupting with elation in her chest.

‘Aki! Sean! AKI!’

*

The shrill calls reached Sean’s ears and made him smile widely despite the constant pulses of pain shooting through his entire body. He watched as Kira struggled to reach them through the deepening waters, half-jumping along the riverbed and half-swimming. He looked around at his side where the haggard-looking foxgirl stood, slightly hunched over and looking quite worse for wear, though the illusion of weakness was betrayed by her equally radiant grin and twinkling eyes.

‘I think your mother wants a word with you,’ Sean said, laying a hand on Aki’s non-dislocated shoulder and giving it a tight squeeze. Aki’s arm wrapped around Sean’s side and hugged him back.

‘I don’t think I can make the swim,’ she said, the tiredness evident in her voice.

‘Oh, I think the others will do it for you,’ Sean said as he pointed towards the shore where the anthros were now hurrying into the waters to greet them with a chorus of excited cheers. The sight made him smile even wider as he lay back against the pod’s hull, now pleasantly warm to the touch, careful to keep the weight off his injured shoulder. The bullet-wound, the laser burn, the countless cuts and bruises and peppering his body – none of them intruded upon his thoughts, none of them mattered now.

I’m back. It’s over. I’m home again.

He and Aki watched, arm-in-arm, as the mass of furry and scaly villagers crossed the river and finally accosted them. Kira was the very first to reach the pod; she hurriedly pulled herself up onto the floating platform and immediately threw her arms around her daughter with a sort of guttural cry. Aki winced slightly but was far from complaining, hugging her mother back with gusto, her eyes suddenly rimming with tears.

Moments later, through the joyously clamoring crowd now surrounding the floating pod, another figure detached itself as Hartling climbed aboard and pulled Sean into a crushing hug of his own, which he more than happily returned despite grimacing at the sudden spikes of pain.

‘Goddammit, Sean,’ Hartling exclaimed as they pulled apart, though she was smiling brightly. ‘You scared the fucking shit outta me, you know that?’

‘Yeah, well, don’t worry about payback,’ Sean said with an unapologetic smile. ‘I’m banged up enough as it is.’

Hartling laughed and squeezed his arm. ‘Don’t worry, I won’t do anything to you. I dunno about Kira, though, she was kinda pissed that you … well.’

She fell silent somewhat uncomfortably. Kira, however, had pulled apart from Aki, nuzzling her lovingly, and now stared Sean over, her face suddenly quite austere. Sean wondered if she was going to yell at him …

‘You’re right, you look like you’re hurt enough like that. I won’t have to punish you for stealing my daughter away from me.’

She gave him a wry but genuine grin that alleviated any doubts Sean might’ve had. Instead, she approached him and pulled him into a hug as well, which he accepted with mild yet happy bemusement.

‘Just don’t ever do anything like that again,’ Hartling said as he and Kira separated.

‘I don’t plan to,’ assured Sean, who looked up into the heavens. ‘And apparently, I won’t ever have to, either.’

The others looked up alongside him and gasped in wonder as countless bright streaks flashed across the skies high above, a splendid meteor shower stretching across the entire heavens in the morning’s daylight. A buzz of ‘ooh’s and ‘aah’s arose from the rest of the Aqueni at the spectacular light show. The last vestiges of the Catalasia, consumed by the very planet the ship had been sent to conquer.

‘Aki!’

Sean looked back around as Nessi hoisted herself onto the platform, Hartling and Kira helping her up to her feet, and then wrapped Aki in another hug with a joyful squeal.

‘Li’l sister, I knew you’d come back!’

‘Good for you, Spots, ’cuz for a while, I didn’t,’ Aki replied cheekily, any hint of tiredness suddenly gone at the sight of her best friend.

‘I told you to stop calling me that!’ Nessi giggled. ‘Want me to call you “Tails”?’

‘That doesn’t count, you have one, too!’

‘Yours is bigger!’

‘Okay, okay, girls, could we take it to the shore, please?’ said Sean with a grin. ‘I really wanna get to solid land right now.’

‘Right,’ said Hartling. ‘Kira, help me carry Aki, I don’t think she looks up to swimming much …’

Hartling jumped back into the river and grabbed Aki as Kira helped her in the water, careful to avoid touching her hurt shoulder, whether Aki had told her about the injury or she’d just sensed it, Sean didn’t know. He ambled to the edge of the floater and slid down into the waters, gasping out in delight at the impossibly good feeling of the soft, cool current against his sore body. Next to him, Kira dropped into the river and took Aki on her own to help her to shore, both reengaged in chatter as Hartling stayed behind at Sean’s side. They slowly waded to the riverbank, Hartling occasionally helping Sean as he stumbled, the merry crowd dissipating around them as all made their way back to dry land.

‘You know, you’ve got some serious explaining to do,’ said Hartling with a small grin. ‘How the hell did you make it off that ship before it blew? And with her, too?’

Sean glanced at her and gave an abashed grin.

‘You’re gonna laugh …’

*

Warning: Emergency reactor override activated. Protocol violation. Proper shutdown sequence not completed. Core destabilizing. Five minutes until critical failure. Warning: Emergency reactor override activated …

Sean and Aki stared at each other mutely, their hands still depressing the kill-switch. Aki merely looked bemused, but Sean was gasping in shock.

‘Five minutes?’ Aki said slowly. ‘But … does that mean …?’

She glanced behind them down the catwalk at the door in the wall of the reactor room, left blown open from when they first entered the chamber. Sean felt a mounting rush of renewed apprehension and excitement in him as though fresh fuel were being pumped into his veins.

‘Think you’re up for one last run?’ he said, almost casually, fully aware of every ache in his bruised, bloodied, partially broken body and equally aware of how Aki must be feeling just as tired, just as hurt, and just as newly energized.

The foxgirl’s big blue eyes fixed him, flickered back to the inviting-looking doorway, then back at him.

‘Can we make it?’ she murmured, obviously undecided about this apparent second, final chance.

‘Probably not,’ said Sean with a rogue little grin, the air of someone who had already accepted death and was merely toying with his fate.

They shared a look as time seemed to slow down to a halt all around them. Aki’s eyes were shining fiercely from more than the swirling lights and a growing, daredevil smile appeared on her lips.

‘Now?’ she breathed.

‘Now.’

A long second passed; then both spun around and headed down the narrow hanging walkway as fast as their sore, tired legs could carry them; Sean wrapped an arm around Aki’s back to help her move faster, the exit growing larger as they stumbled and rushed their way towards it. Just as they passed the doorway, the cool voice chimed and echoed all around them:

Four minutes to core failure.

The desperate race down the corridors and up the elevators felt disproportionately fast to Sean compared to the crawling rate they’d been moving at when they’d last come through in the opposite direction. Less than a minute later, they had arrived back onto the concourse, with the still-sparking and gushing pipes creating chaos further down to the left. Sean raised his rifle as they were directly behind a small throng of mercs, all trying to push past each other to access a door that a brightly lit sign above indicated was an elevator that led directly to the escape deck.

Three minutes to core failure.

Sean wasted no time; his rifle roared and the panicking mercs fell where they were, forming an unsightly, bloodied heap at the foot of the elevator doors, which conveniently dinged that very moment and slid open to accept them. Sean and Aki promptly stepped over the pile of bodies and told the elevator to take them directly to the escape deck.

Two minutes to core failure.

The doors opened and they burst onto the escape deck; Sean pointed his rifle around but found the open space was entirely deserted, most of the security doors still sealed thanks to Hartling’s security override. Struggling to control his thoughts and emotions – could they really make it out of there? – Sean grabbed Aki and they bolted towards the nearest pod, running as though their wounds and exhaustion had vanished in the moment. As if a whirl of images, they were inside the pod, Sean had sealed the hatch, and he hopped into the pilot’s seat, glancing over the instrument panel …

One minute to core failure.

Sean painstakingly forced himself to calm down and go through the motions: navigation systems activated, the umbilical severed; the engines whirred into life; the craft shook, either from the energy coursing through its engines or from the ship around them as it entered the final seconds of its life …

Ten seconds to core failure.

It was as though he’d come full circle. Everything was exactly as on the Chartraine: The shaking grew loud enough to deafen, hard enough to make Sean wonder if the pod wasn’t going to tear itself apart; the engines finally roared to full power and Sean glanced over at Aki, crouching down at his side next to the pilot’s seat, their eyes meeting in that infinitesimal instant in between two heartbeats …

He gunned the thrusters.

A terrific rumbling … a bright flash … a sudden feeling of being crushed back into his seat … the ship’s hull suddenly shooting back from around him … Aki’s hand clutched so tightly in his own …

*

‘How could you forget about the timer?’ said Hartling exasperatedly.

‘I dunno, I just did,’ said Sean defensively. ‘I was kinda stressed out – and it’s been a long time since training, you know, and I’m no tech like you are.’

‘Whatever. Point is, you shoulda known you would’ve had enough time to escape. You didn’t have to get all melodramatic about it.’

Sean glanced at her askance.

‘I don’t recall you thinking I was gonna make it out when you were begging me not to do it on the escape deck,’ he pointed out.

‘Well, I wasn’t really thinking straight, was I?’ she retorted. ‘With that bombshell you’d just dropped …’

‘Sean?’

Sean looked around at the voice. They had left the river and were now dripping on the luscious grass, the chilly morning breeze making Sean acutely aware of how utterly finished his suit was. Aqueni were milling around absently, chatting with friends and looking around the nearby ruins that still cast some light wisps of smoke into the air. Sean tried not to think about it.

He saw Aki separating from her mother, stumbling and limping rather prominently as she ambled her way over to him, looking almost indecently unkempt but with much of the grime and blood now wiped off from her trek through the river. Sean hurried forth to support her but was caught by surprise when she promptly wrapped her arms around him with surprising strength and immediately pulled him into a deep kiss, her sweet scent filling his nostrils as he felt and tasted her. He merely followed along and embraced her back, enjoying the loving hold to its fullest. He heard a chorus of cheers and some spattering of applause rise up from around them and felt himself blush, but he ignored them and pulled Aki in even closer to his chest, keeping his lips sealed to hers and fully enjoying every second of it.

After a few moments, or maybe a few full, sunny days, they pulled apart, staring into each other’s eyes that shone with the remaining energy in their tired, impassioned bodies.

‘I just wanted to do that again, now that everything’s gonna be okay,’ Aki said softly.

Sean grinned widely. ‘Don’t worry, I’m not gonna let you forget what it’s like.’

He glanced past the foxgirl in his arms at her mother. Kira had a mildly bemused look on her face, but broke into a reassuring smile and gave a nod that plainly stated: ‘Go ahead, you’ve earned it.

‘Save some for later,’ said Hartling with an impish smile.

‘It’s never gonna run out,’ said Aki brightly.

‘And I’m gonna enjoy all of it,’ declared Sean.

They all shared a light-hearted chuckle. Even with everything that had happened, with their battered and drained bodies, with the wreckage of their home still smoldering further uphill, Sean felt rather unduly happy; so flooded with relief, with love, with sheer joy of being alive and knowing that everything would be fine with time, that he simply couldn’t stop smiling. That is, until they’d begun marching up to the village, Sean arm-in-arm with Aki, and something occurred to him that sent a freezing chill down his spine.

‘Uh – Leona?’

‘Yeah?’

‘Could you do me a little favor and, uh, go back to the pods and destroy the fucking distress beacons?’

Hartling stared at him for a second; then her eyes went wide.

‘On it!’ she yelped as she quickly turned around and headed back down the grassy slope and into the river. Sean watched, his jaw locked, as she reached the nearest pod (his and Aki’s), scrambled aboard and disappeared through the rear hatch. A few moments later, she emerged and raised an arm: a thumbs-up. She proceeded on to the to the other pods and repeated the process, Sean keeping his eyes fixed on her as she worked.

‘This way, they’ll never find us … right?’ said Aki quietly from his side.

‘They sure as hell shouldn’t. Not unless they happen through the exact same wormhole I went through months ago … Something tells me it isn’t around anymore.’

Aki gave him an understanding look and squeezed his hand reassuringly. Hartling emerged from the fifth and last pod, giving a distasteful snort as she exited through the top hatchway of Sean's crashed capsule, and dove back into the river on her way to shore. Sean breathed in deeply, unlocking his jaw and flexing his hands.

‘Hey,’ said Aki, having obviously felt the change in his composure. ‘It was an accident. It’s over now. Everything’s okay. Everyone’s safe. Just let it go, my love.’

Whatever stirrings of anger and guilt were burgeoning in Sean’s stomach, they were trumped by Aki’s words and the feeling of her furred hand squeezing his too tightly to ignore. He looked around at her, his eyes finding the pale traces of scarlet-brown running down her muzzle, her scruffy fur, her obviously weary poise, all of which were eclipsed by the look in her eyes, the fire that still flared within, strong enough to sear if not controlled.

Sean sighed and rubbed her hand with his thumb, a smile finding its way onto his lips again.

‘You’re right,’ he said. ‘That’s all history now. There’s nothing but the future ahead of us. Let’s make it worth it.’

Her smile widened. Sean felt lost in her glow, in the pure, radiant joy of being with her.

‘You once told me I’d only know what romantic love felt like if I ever actually felt it,’ she said softly.

‘And?’

Her eyes twinkled. ‘Feels pretty damn good.’

Sean chuckled. ‘Told you it would.’

‘Hey, lovebirds,’ came Hartling’s voice as she approached, still shaking herself dry.

‘Got a problem with that?’ Aki said with a grin.

‘No, not at all, by all means, go ahead and kiss. It’s fun to watch.’

‘You perv,’ said Sean with a chuckle. ‘You’ll fit right in.’

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

Sean and Aki both laughed at Hartling’s mystified expression as they slowly made their way back up the bank. As Sean looked around, he noticed the prisoners, now near enough to distinguish their hurt, bloodied, terrified faces.

‘Hey, Nessi!’ he called out to the cheetah standing next to the captives. She turned around and came over.

‘What is it?’

‘How hard was it? The fight, I mean, fighting back against them?’

‘Uh … I dunno,’ said Nessi hesitantly, looking around at the prisoners. ‘It all kinda just … happened. I called on everyone to rise up, and it all just sorta went on from there. I don’t even know how many died, both them and Aqueni.’

‘Right.’

Sean stared at them long and hard. The people who so very nearly destroyed everything he held dear. Some of them noticed him from the many yards separating them but didn’t react, too intimidated by the menacing, spear- and club-wielding guards surrounding them.

‘Aren’t they a shitty bunch,’ commented Hartling spitefully.

‘What d’you wanna do with them, Sean?’ asked Nessi, eyeing him expectantly.

Sean glared at them a moment longer, then cleared his throat.

‘Tell them to take a hike.’

Nessi looked confused, but Sean gave her a slight nod and her eyes widened in comprehension. She gave a wicked grin and jogged back to the group to inform the guards of Sean’s decision as to the mercs’ fate.

‘You think they’ll survive the nature walk?’ said Hartling.

‘Who cares?’ said Sean dismissively. In one move, he bent over and swept his arm under Aki’s knees, knocking her legs out from under her and sweeping her up with a surprised yelp into his arms. She was surprisingly light and he held her tightly to his chest, grinning besottedly at her as she laughed, nuzzling his neck and kissing his cheek as he and a smiling Hartling marched up the bank to the task that lay ahead in the form of the ruins that had to be cleared up to make place for their new home.

*

Day of return, 2519 – night

I see I finished my last entry hoping I would live to make another one. Funny, how much closer death came than I ever guessed, in ways I could never have imagined, only two days ago.

I’m currently lying in the grass on the outskirts of what used to be our village, and what will be our village again in the coming days and weeks and months. The air is cool but not chilly, the product of a warm day, and the skies are magnificently clear. They’re almost as beautiful as the wonderful foxgirl lying next to me, though not quite. Actually, not by a planetary margin.

I’m still in a certain amount of pain, though I’ve been tended to by that old yote and given enough herbal sedatives to knock out a horse. God knows why I’m still awake. Maybe the pain keeps me up. Or maybe I just can’t sleep after all that’s happened, if that makes any sense.

Anyway, the first thing we need to do is make plans for our new village. The Aqueni are already obsessed with asking Hartling and I about construction methods back on New Corinthea and how we could improve the village’s structures and layout and whatever. What do they think I am, a city planner? I don’t know how to furnish a freaking bedroom. Give me the reigns and they’ll probably end up sleeping in the middle of the cabbage patch. I think I’ll let Hartling the techno wizard deal with this one.

The village elders apparently want me to be the new village leader. I guess bringing them back from the brink of annihilation improved my image in their eyes after I put them there in the first place. But I cannot accept. If there’s one thing that the human race has constantly learned and then constantly forgotten, it’s that placing a single flawed individual at the head of an entire group has never been a very good idea, not for long. I much prefer the “common law” system that’s been working here since I first arrived. Everyone is equal, every idea is decided upon publicly and openly. The true spirit of democracy, really.

It’s getting late (well, even later, though I don’t think the inky skies can get any darker) and tiredness is winning over me. I’m going to end this entry, and then I’m going to rip out the remaining pages. There is no point in writing any more. This journal has served its course over the many years I’ve been holding it. Luis was right; its catharsis has been extremely helpful. But I no longer need it. I have a confidante with whom I more than happily share everything, including my life, itself. My life, which is just beginning, now that things are settled for good and all my friends and family are here with me in this wonderful place called home.

Sean Aki Elani
Home again
Aqueni village, Earth
Final entry