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A World Away
Death lay no more than an inch away. Immediately to his right, to be exact. He could almost feel its clammy fingers caressing his cheek -- the dark reaper’s bony hand, scrabbling at the protective shield of glass he leaned against.
The lack of oxygen would kill him first. Oh, you could hold your breath, certainly. In fact, many people thought it was the bone-chilling -200 degree temperatures that would be the winner in the race to claim one’s life, but that was a lie. The simple fact was that a body lost oxygen faster than it lost heat.
‘What would that feel like, knowing you were about to die? That the tiny six litres or so of air in your lungs was steadily draining away? That the rush of adrenaline your impending mortality brought on would only kill you faster?’
The glass seemed frozen to his cheek. One crack, and their time would be limited. A single rock, kicked up at a bad angle, could tip them over that ever-looming cliff. How long would it take to-
Maverick’s head slammed hard against the reinforced glass he’d been leaning against as the speeding buggy dropped into a crater with a bone-jarring thump. He stifled a curse and a groan, abstaining from joining with the chorus of complaints from around the cabin.
“Oy, wot’s the deal, Mac? Tryin’ to splat us all over the bleedin’ truck?” Esau, a hulking machamp, glared in the direction of the driver in question, rubbing one of his four elbows. Mac gave a cheery wave in return, tromping on the accelerator with enough force to drop the blue-skinned giant back into his chair with a loud harrumph.
‘True enough,’ Maverick thought, running his tongue across his teeth to check for anything missing. ‘He likes to hit all the deep ones it seems. At least, he doesn’t go out of his way to avoid them.’ Mac was like one of those kids who liked to capture beetles or spiders in jars, then watch in twisted fascination as he shook the glass prison vigorously, bouncing the captive insect about like a pinball. Only difference was, the bugs had a chance to escape.
Briefly, he contemplated putting his hard hat on --better yet, a crash helmet-- but decided against it. His ears would be sore by the end of the day anyway, no sense subjecting them to extra time in that plastic torture device.
Sighing, he leaned back in his chair, putting some distance between himself and the window once again. Contemplating how fast the landscape out there could kill you lost its meagre joys very quickly. Besides, they were getting close. He could see the Ionis mountain range looming on the horizon, an image no telescope would ever see in such clarity.
More daunting still; even the greatest telescopes planetside wouldn’t be able to pick them out. Their rover would be no more than a dust speck, kicking up a great cloud of more dust specks as it darted across the lunar plain. As far as the world below was concerned, they were invisible. Folk who didn’t exist. Out of sight, out of mind, save for those few whose jobs it was to keep them alive and kicking.
The buggy bounced heavily once more, throwing Maverick against his restraints. The belt dug into the creamy fur of his chest, but better that than launching from his seat like a living missile. Most of the others were wise enough by now to also keep their belts on for this part of the ride, though a handful hadn’t yet figured out to remove the slack from their restraints. Maverick stifled a derisive snort at a pair of less experienced workers --a Meowth and a Charmeleon-- both of whom were ruefully rubbing their backsides.
‘Should probably put them on Faroh’s crew today, see how they manage in the actual tunnels. Then again, this is still their first week. No need to be torturing the green grass. Keep ‘em on the lines for now. Work is harder, and they’re less likely to get themselves hurt.’ It was only Tuesday. Too early in the week to deal with any workplace violence reports. ‘Less bitching and moaning too.’ He was more than willing to pay the price in tunnel production to keep Faroh from storming into his office with his panties in a twist.
Briefly, he eyed today’s crew, mentally cataloguing how he’d form the workgroups for today. ‘Three teams, and a couple to run break relief. Should keep everyone happy.’ Not that it made a rattata’s ass of difference if they weren’t. Keeping everyone happy wasn’t part of his job description. But, it did make life a little simpler, if it could be managed. With the exception of Faroh, perhaps. It was almost tempting to assign the newbies to him, just to see how pissed off he would get. But no, that would likely result in paperwork. He hated paperwork.
Mac gunned the engine, sending them flying over a crater lip like a daredevil jumping a canyon. Briefly, the odd sensation of a lower gravity ‘flight’ overtook them all as the buggy soared. The moment of true weightlessness might have been refreshing, were it not for Mac’s childish war whoop, and of course the following, far less pleasant sensation of slamming back to the ground. Maverick’s teeth clacked together audibly, and a storm of ear-singing curses both in human and poké tongue flew towards the driver’s seat. Mac gave a thumbs up in return.
“Oy, easy on the language fellas, there’s ladies present!” Esau spoke up again, his baritone sounding far too loud in the confined space. A few of the others snickered at the comment, but immediately choked off as Marie, the hefty blaziken sitting in the seat in front of Esau, turned and gave him a smile accompanied by excessive batting of her eyes, making a surprisingly good show of acting demure.
Maverick felt a brief stab of pity for the now foolishly grinning machamp. There weren’t many females onsite, and those that were didn’t tend to be the “ready to swoon for a gentleman” type. Esau hadn’t clued into that quite yet. Marie’s reply was too low pitched for Maverick to catch, but by the way Esau’s smile evaporated into shock, it had been decidedly un-ladylike.
“I swear, one of these days, that guy’s going to...” A gruff voice from behind Maverick trailed off into some rather crude -in both senses of the word- muttering, most of which seemed to involve some very unlikely reconfigurations of Mac’s anatomy. Maverick twisted halfway in his seat, but the lone speaker lay hidden beyond the reach of his peripheral vision. Not that there was any need to see him to know who it was.
“Really, Faroh, you must be joking. Something that large would never fit, and then where would you be?” Maverick kept his voice condescending, as if the half-heard threat had been the dumbest idea he’d ever heard. Which was absurd, since, after all, a random comment from Faroh was hardly likely to eclipse some of his truly amazing “plans”. “Better to stick to methods of retribution you can follow through on, or you just end up looking like a dumbass in the end.”
The back of Maverick’s neck seemed to heat as the golem’s glower came to rest upon him. “And maybe you should pin those big, floppy ears under yer hat. Might yank yer long snoot outta my business,” Faroh retorted acidly.
“We’ve had this conversation before, Faroh,” Maverick said, allowing exasperation to drip from his words. “These are ears.” He ran a paw across the appendages in question, making one blue tufted lobe twitch. “These are just for show.” The distinctive black dreadlocks all members of his species possessed swayed from side to side as he shook his head. “No need to be jealous just because you don’t have a pair.”
Before the other ‘mon could spit a venomous reply, Maverick clapped his paws together, raising his voice to address everyone at once. “Hats on everybody. Loading bay in five minutes.” Setting the example, he jammed his own protective hard hat on, blocking out Faroh’s irritated mutters with the practiced ease of experience. Around the cabin, all the workers, Faroh and Mac included, followed suit, an array of orange plastic adorning the heads of the crew, joining with the safety vests they already wore to make them look like a small army of pylons.
The next few minutes past in blessed relative silence as everyone attempted to cram in a few final minutes of recreation before the day started. Most simply listened to music on their nano-players, though a couple resumed flipping through the pages of a magazine or novel, and a pair of humans --he’d had to check the duty roster to find their names, they weren’t normally on his crew-- sitting in the back huddled over the screen of an outdated C-gear. The combination of their lascivious expressions, stifled conversation and laughter made it abundantly clear how they were passing their time. Maverick rolled his eyes.
‘Great. Another pair of jokers I can trust to think with the head between their legs. They definitely get the lines.’ Besides, anyone who wasted their time watching pornos could do with the grunt work. A few hours of working like a machine could teach a man a few things. Like not needing to feed off of another’s gratification to gain your own. ‘Whatever. So long as they don’t use up their breaks to jerk off. I don’t need the cleaners after me for messes in the washrooms again.’ He could stick them in the tunnels, just so they’d have to wear suits. Chastity belts weren’t the primary function of the safety devices, but they filled that role pretty damn well. On the other hand, those idiots might just-
The rover lurched to a halt as Mac maneuvered them in front of the massive steel airlock doors marring the silvery mountainside before them. The crew began reluctantly putting their entertainment sources away as the giant sheets of metal cranked open with an unheard hiss, a rush of residual oxygen vapor streaming out past the buggy’s windshield as the frigid and airless outside rushed to fill the airlock.
‘Into the belly of the beast venture we, brave and bold,’ Maverick thought with a wry twist to his lips as the buggy rolled forward. ‘To plunder fast the treasure deep, while yon fearsome monster sleep. To act at risk of precious life, and slay the wyrm who brings such strife.’
It was rather impressive, actually, how much the large industrial doors resembled the maw of some colossal metal monster. Particularly as they slid closed behind you, the grooved edges of the doors grinding together like giant teeth, an ominous whoosh doubtless filling the silence as the lock re-pressurized. The regal era Unovan author of, The Dragon Tamer of Thistlewind might also have appreciated the comparison. Though, he likely would have found it too disturbing to comment. Those five ‘brave and bold’ knights had perished in the final act of the play, after all.
Only the buggy’s floodlamps offered any illumination, a meagre pool of radiance within the crushing dark. Lights for the airlock were deemed “unnecessary” by the powers that be. Perhaps true, but Maverick was quite sure he wasn’t the only one who felt a tiny surge of relief when the inner doors began to rumble open, a comforting wave of artificial brightness streaming through.
Their miraculously intact buggy jerked into motion again, passing through the inner doors and pulling into the loading bay. A moment of maneuvering later, and Mac had them lined up with the steel catwalk which would allow them to disembark from the buggy’s raised platform.
“Last stop, everybody out of the pool!” Mac called, turning from his seat to flash a toothy grin in the general direction of everyone on board. A few scattered groans met the man’s overused joke, but most were probably too grateful to be more-or-less in one piece to complain. Maverick rolled his eyes, gathered his things, and joined the line of workers waiting for the electric platform extension to meet with the buggy’s outer door.
The double-layered glass doors hissed open as the catwalk came into position with a soft thunk, bringing a wash of air that was at once fresh and slightly musty, spiked with a hint of machine oil, ozone, and hard work. Maverick had never thought of the scent as anything other than ‘underground’. One by one, they filed out, greeted with cordial nods by the man who’d been operating the catwalk’s controls. Ernie, if Maverick remembered his name correctly.
“Morning chief. I hear your crew’s expecting a big haul today,” Ernie said as Maverick passed.
“We’ll see,” Maverick replied, glancing up from his folder where he’d been placing the duty rosters. “Pulse tests are never one hundred percent, and there’s enough rock in the way to hide a snorlax behind.” He kept walking, his paws ringing on the steel walkway, tucking the folder under his arm. A few of his crew shot him sidelong glances, but quickly looked away.
The man paused a moment as the words went through his earpiece, the nano-translator sorting out Maverick’s poké speech into language the human could understand. “I suppose so, but damn, your mining crew’s been runnin’ hot lately. I expect this’ll be just another feather in your cap.” His volume increased as Maverick got further away, sparing only a quick look over his shoulder as the irrepressible man kept talking.
“Sure, Ernie, sure. Thanks.” Maverick gave a brief wave as he came to the steps leading down to the main assembly floor, suppressing the urge to snarl. Why did so many feel they needed to ingratiate themselves to him?
“It’s Ezra, actually!” he called back, as Maverick started down the stairs. Whatever. He wasn’t terribly familiar with a lot of the humans onsite. He could feel the eyes upon him again, heaping silent reproach for walking away from somebody being friendly. Let them. If he didn’t want to talk, that was his business, not theirs.
Stiffly, Maverick strode to the middle of the assembly floor, waiting for his silent workers to shuffle their way along to join him. From all around came the ever-present humming and clattering of large machinery, the constant heavy-metal heartbeat of the mining facility. Bulky steel pipes criss-crossed the roof of the immense, man-made cavern, the odd vent leaking a thin veil of steam into the air, which did nothing to dispel the chill pervading the rock-encased environment. Nowhere inside the mine was anything approaching warm.
‘Damn, some days, it’d be nice just to be able to go outside and work on a tan.’ Not a chance of that in this Arceus forsaken place. Sometimes he wondered. Was hell really a place of fire and brimstone? Or was it a place of mind-numbing, bone-wrenching cold? His money was on the latter.
Off to his left, the long conveyor belts of the preparation lines snaked past, still manned by the workers of the previous shift, who occasionally looked their way with eager expressions as they awaited their replacements. As always, perfect, uniform rows of tiny, compressed teragen powder cubes rode along the belts, headed into the refinery for treatment. There, they would become the solid-state fuel cells that added a lot of zeroes onto the company’s earnings.
‘And enough digits on my paycheck to keep me here, freezing footpaws or no. Some days though...’
Maverick glared at his workers as they formed up, a dour mood suddenly descending on his conscience like a hammer blow. Esau met his gaze briefly, and hurriedly began studying his feet, like a child who had been scolded. It was going to be one of those days, it seemed. It was like a strange buzz in the air, some side effect of his ability to read auras, perhaps. Somehow, he knew things wouldn’t be smooth sailing. A premonition, of sorts, but of what, he had no idea.
Perhaps a key piece of machinery would break down, or someone would do something stupid and break an arm or a leg. Maybe the whole damn place would explode and blow them all to hell. All he ever knew for certain, was that it would be something tailor made to ruin his day.
“Right then,” he barked, stabbing a paw at each worker in turn. The show must go on, after all. “Faroh, Marie and Kye are your supervisors today. Kye, you’ve got the lines crew. Marie, refinery. Faroh, tunnels.” Marie and Kye, a lucario like himself, nodded amiably, moving apart from the group to await their assigned minions for the day. Faroh looked surprised at first, but moved along to the opposite side of the other two, seeming to puff up a bit as he walked. Maverick barely suppressed the urge to groan aloud, instead rolling smoothly into rattling off the duty sheet, gradually sorting the employees into their assigned groups.
“As always, sort your breaks out with your supervisor,” Maverick finished after reaching the bottom of the list, with a curt nod at each of the three. “And for those of you in the tunnels, I’d better not see any of you without your suits when you’re on duty. Stupid means dead down here, and I don’t want to have to explain to the brass why we’re being brought up before the labor union, so stick to the regs. Clear?”
A half-hearted chorus of, “Yeah,” and, “Sure,” followed, along with a few sullen nods. Nobody liked wearing the pressure suits, especially when there didn’t seem to be any need, but all it took was one slip of a drill, one blowout to the surface through a patch of soft rock, and the oxygen in the tunnels would be whisked away before a pikachu could quick attack.
Maverick held their gazes for a brief moment, making sure his words sunk in, before waving them away, dismissing them to their duties. He’d still probably have to warn one or two, but they’d fall in line quick once they heard about the hefty deductions it could bring to their paycheck. None of them were up here for the scenery and the companionship.
He spun around, tucking his folder under his arm, looking up towards the giant digital clock next to the prefabs that held his office. Ten past; right on time so far. With any luck, something along those lines would be the sole disaster to happen today, and he could wrap it up with only one form to fill out.
“Hey, Mav, wait up a minute. Need to talk to you.”
‘Then again, maybe this will be it.’ Gritting his teeth, Maverick paused, turning back to face his top candidate for most irritating person in the world. “Yes, Faroh, what is it?” He managed to keep his face composed, but his hackles rose slightly. He hated his nickname. Even when he was being civil, the golem managed to get under his skin.
“About that deposit in tunnel three, I was thinkin’” Faroh paused, looking around furtively, then took a step closer and continued in a lower voice. “It’ll be a bitch to dig through the bloody shield rock blocking the way, ‘less we loosen it up a bit first. I tell ya, let me have a couple of well placed hits of Magnitude, and we’ll be swimming in teragen crystals faster’n you can say, ‘rapidash shit’. I could-”
“No way,” Maverick said sharply, cutting him off. “We do this by the book, Faroh. We didn’t get to where we are now by using shortcuts. There’s no great rush to dig into that vein. If it’s as rich as the pulse readings show, the refinery won’t even be able to keep up.”
Faroh scowled, pointing a clawed finger at Maverick’s chest. “So we’re just gonna do it manually? That stuff’s even tougher than some of the big-ass granite deposits I seen in my day. It might take us bloody days to break through! If we could get some blasts or the drills in there, it’d be okay, but without ‘em...”
“I don’t care!” Maverick retorted, returning the rock type’s scowl with interest. “I know you can’t use the heavy equipment so close to the lode, but you’re certainly not using unstable, wide-effect moves in the tunnels. Not while I’m in charge. Who knows what kind of rock is sitting past that shield you’re whining about? You could blowout the whole tunnel, or pulverize the deposit by accident.”
Faroh’s expression darkened. “Naw, it wouldn’t do that. Not like the blasts or the drills would. Back at Mishra-”
“Mishra had the worst safety record in the industry before we bought them out,” Maverick interrupted acidly, his voice rising a bit. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Mac scurry past, head down as he went about some errand involved with the buggy’s upkeep. He didn’t slow down, but it was apparent he was trying not to look interested in their conversation. Come to think of it, he’d come over from Mishra too, hadn’t he? “They didn’t even mine off-planet, and they had more problems on their hands than a town with a spawning grimer colony. No, you follow the regs on this, or you can head home right now.”
Faroh’s jaw set in a hard expression, his eyes narrowing, but he nodded slowly. “Sure, whatever you say, boss. I’ll be sure to let my crew know exactly why we’re doing this the slowest way possible.” Practically radiating anger, the golem spun around, marching off in the direction of the tunnels.
Hating the necessity of it, Maverick took a deep breath, closing his eyes and reaching inside himself for the inner balance he needed. It would be just like Faroh to try something outrageous. He needed to be certain of his intentions, make sure he wouldn’t do his own thing anyway.
When his eyes popped open, the world around him had shifted, his surroundings fading into misty, gray-scale shapes, punctuated by scattered bonfires of bright blue. Some were dim, barely visible through whatever lay between their owner and where Maverick stood. Others were vivid, almost too bright to look at, seeming close enough to touch. A violet flame burned in the centre of Maverick’s crimson eyes, invisible to any but another lucario, seeking those blue fires and zeroing in, divining the secrets they held.
Faroh had made it halfway across the assembly floor, his aura flared and snapping at the edges, signifying strong emotions. Maverick narrowed his focus, dividing the billowing strands of erratic light in his mind, immersing himself in their currents and waves. Some of them vibrated like a plucked guitar string, a whip-crack response to a personal insult.
‘Offended? Fine. Screw him too. You can get offended about being wrong all you like, it won’t change the facts.’
He moved on, sifting through the other strands. Some radiated an ethereal heat, sizzling and popping dangerously. A closely tied bunch threatened to sting like a beedrill, buzzing in a pitch far too high to hear.
‘Anger, irritation. I’ll have to remember exactly what I said. Seems like there was a keeper in there.’ Maybe it had been the, ‘going home’ part. Or maybe it had been the act of cutting Faroh off mid-sentence. He’d have to test it out and see. ‘If he wants to get himself killed, fine, but he’d better not risk anyone else doing it, and certainly not on my watch!’
Another cluster, rooted under the others. It was getting difficult to read as Faroh walked further away, but these were more sedate, not quite so volatile. They seemed to emit a noxious cloud, the sort that, were it a physical substance, would make his stomach turn quicker than watching a jynx, garbodor and Mr. mime threesome.
‘Dislike, resentment. No secret there. And no, I’m NOT sorry I got the promotion ahead of you.’
Hurriedly, Maverick shuffled through the deeper strands of aura, grasping at them as they began to slip away over the distance. No nasty surprises leaped out at him. As the wisps faded from blue-white to the same grayish tone as the inanimate surroundings, Maverick let go, releasing a deep breath he hadn’t realised he’d been holding as his vision returned to normal. Faroh was nowhere in sight, probably on the elevator into tunnel three by now. He would have to follow to continue reading the other pokémon’s aura.
‘Huh, will wonders never cease? Looks like we’re okay. Not a trace of defiance or overly strong resolve.’ For once, Faroh wasn’t going to do something moronic. Or, at least, he wasn’t planning to do something moronic. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to run an inspection on Faroh’s crew first.
‘Yuck, I feel like I need a shower now.’ A shudder rolled down Maverick’s spine. Reading auras was bad enough as it was. It was almost like climbing into bed with the other person. Tough call as to which was more repulsive, really. But to do it to him?!
‘Even with the isolation bonus, I’m not getting paid enough for this.’
Shaking his head and trying not to rub his paws through his fur in attempts to chase away the feeling of crawling skin, Maverick turned and headed for the stairs that lead to his office. On top of everything else, he was now three minutes behind schedule. He could run, perhaps, but he’d had enough weird looks for the day.
‘What’s that saying the humans have? Oh yes, ‘grin and bear it.’ Sure. No problem. Because random smiling will make all my troubles go away. Whoopee! Look world, I’m falling off a cliff, but I’m fine! Can’t you see how happy I am?’ The clang of metal steps beneath his feet covered his derisive snort. ‘It’s overrated anyway. More liars hide behind smiles than behind straight faces.’
It remained to be seen what shape today’s cliff would be. Who knew? Maybe it would even be shaped like a smile.
“Is that coffee I smell?” Maverick’s nose wrinkled as he pushed through the flimsy door into the office block. It felt like he’d just walked into a brick wall of raw scent. Kind of like walking into the locker room at the end of the day, only not quite as salty.
Tia, the site’s only geological analyst -who pulled double duty as the one person to help keep the offices organized- appeared from one of the cut-out doorways, wearing her typical perky smile over a paisley blouse and cream pants. She held a steaming mug in each hand, and held one out to him invitingly, her green eyes sparkling.
“You bet it is! Fresh out of the last supply shipment. Here, I made you an Unovan twister!”
Maverick shook his head, waving his paws at her in rejection. “I hate coffee.”
“Oh...” She looked so crestfallen, that for a moment, he actually entertained the notion of apologizing. Tia tended to have that sort of effect on him. Chasing away her sprightly attitude, even unintentionally, felt like stomping on a flower patch. Before the moment dragged on into awkwardness however, she recovered and gave him another of her brilliant grins. “More for me then. You don’t know what you’re missing out on, Mav. The caffeine might shock that frown off your muzzle. Why so gloomy, anyway?”
Maverick slipped past her, nearly gasping as the overpowering smell assaulted him full bore, before he broke free into the relatively clean air of his tiny office. How could people drink that stuff? “It’s nothing.” He tossed the folder onto his lightweight folding desk, swinging around to face her as she followed him inside.
Tia made one of those strange human facial movements at him, scrunching up her nose and raising an eyebrow. “It’s not ‘nothing’, Mav. I’ve seen that look on your face too many times before. I know when something’s upset you. C’mon, spill.” Somehow, his nickname didn’t rankle quite so much when it came from her. But, Arceus! She wouldn’t take no for an answer, would she?
He tried affixing her with his best, ‘I’m busy’ look. She stuck her tongue out in return. “Fat chance. I’m not leaving until you spill!” she said in a sing-song voice. Thankfully, she’d put the mugs down somewhere outside. She must have finished hers already.
After a moment, Maverick’s resolve broke. She really wasn’t going to leave it alone. “Nothing too fantastic. Just a little run-in with everyone’s favourite ‘mon, who decided to prove that he can always find new ways to be utterly asinine.”
Her brow furrowed as his words filtered through her earpiece, waiting for the entire statement to translate before she spoke. “Faroh I assume? What did he do this time?” She paused, frowning, and abruptly switched tacks before he could form a response. “You know, you should really cut him some slack. He may be a bit gruff sometimes, but he’s good at what he does. I’m sure there’s a good ‘mon lurking under that crusty skin.” Her eyes sparkled mischievously. “A bit like someone else I could mention.”
Maverick’s eyes narrowed. Oh, so it was on his head now? It was one thing to be optimistic, but the woman was downright naive at times. “We are not alike.” He jabbed a black-furred paw in the direction of the door, vaguely towards the tunnels. “He’s reckless. He has no concept of organization. He’s a bad-tempered, egotistical, ill-mannered, downright-”
“Yes, yes,” Tia interrupted. Her smile still remained on her lips, but it was gone from her eyes. “I’ll be the first to admit you’re much more warm and fuzzy than he is.” The sparkle returned for a moment, and she moved closer, sliding a hip up on his desk and folding her arms across her chest. “But, stars above, Mav! You’ve got to learn to let it go. The two of you are like a pair of wild pidgey with a bag of seed between you. Constantly pecking and squabbling! I swear, it’s like you guys want to get on each other’s nerves.”
‘No kidding,’ Maverick thought, resisting the urge to roll his eyes at her. It must have shown on his face anyhow though, because she snorted and shook her head. “See? That attitude is exactly what I’m talking about. Can’t you at least try to look at his good qualities for once, instead of wallowing in all the bad ones? There are a lot of them, I’ll give you that, but all you’re doing is raising your blood-pressure.” She pointed a fingernail --they were painted a vibrant blue today-- at his chest, punctuating her argument. “You just need to make the effort, be the bigger man. You never know. If you two stop poking at each other, you might even become friends.”
He could feel something inside him starting to melt, her irrepressible outlook wheedling its way into his conscience. Damn, she did know how to work him over. Stubbornly, he dug in his heels. “Maybe I like having high blood-pressure. Keeps the mind sharp.”
Her expression softened, and she leaned forward, staring him straight in the eyes. “Nope, not convincing. Sorry, but you’ll have to do better than that. I’m right and you know it. Give it a try? For me?”
He scowled at her, irritated that he couldn’t come up with a rebuff that wouldn’t sound surly. She was one of the few who deserved better than that. “I’ll think about it.”
“Thanks, Mav. That’s all I ask.” Her returning smile was like seeing a planetside sunrise again. She leaned closer, and before he knew what was happening, her lips brushed against the fur of his cheek. The barest whisper of contact, and then she was gone, sliding off his desk and turning away. His body jerked reflexively, feeling like he’d just jammed one of his spikes into an electrical outlet. All thoughts of what they’d been talking about vanished from his mind. In a daze, he touched his cheek, as if he’d been stung there by some enormous insect. Had she really just...
Tia, seeming to sense his distress, turned around, a concerned expression replacing her smile. “You okay? You look like someone just blindsided you with a freight train.”
Still in shock, Maverick stumbled, catching himself on the desk. His paw slipped, sweeping his pen-holder from the desk, scattering its contents across the floor. “Mav!” Tia exclaimed in surprise, moving around his desk. “What’s wrong?”
Maverick went rigid, taking a step away from her, his eyes darting from the human to the strewn pens. Precisely ten of them. He counted them twice a day. What if one got lost? Then there wouldn’t be ten. He had to have ten. He’d started with ten. He wouldn’t accept less than ten!
Crawling along in the dark, clouds of dust everywhere, choking off his air. Residual angry rumbles in the earth, threatening to collapse more of the shaft. Where were the others? It felt like he’d been searching for days. Was he the only one left?
Ignoring whatever Tia was saying, he dropped to all fours, frantically scrabbling for the stray writing implements. Did she know? No, she couldn’t. She’d never tried to touch him before. That kiss of hers... it seemed to burn on his cheek like a brand. What gave her the right to touch him like that? He’d let her get too close. Close was dangerous. Close was painful.
‘The pens, how many are there?’ He glanced down at his clenched paw, counted four of the blue caps, and resumed his sweeping, gathering two more from under his chair. ‘Have to find all of them. Count them twice. Needs to be ten.’
A hand descended upon his shoulder. Maverick froze in place, the heat from Tia’s palm feeling more like a blast of frigid wind. “Maverick! Calm down!” Her fingertips seemed to burrow right through his short, blue fur, stripping aside that protective layer and nestling against his skin. Not just his skin, either. Right on his scar.
He wanted to cry out, to pull away, but he couldn’t move, couldn’t speak. It was as if a thousand icy hands were reaching inside him, gripping his heart, his lungs, his stomach. Five thousand frigid fingers, working in tandem to keep him rooted in place.
Tia jerked away suddenly, muttering an uncharacteristic curse under her breath. “Blast it, I’m sorry, Maverick. I completely forgot. Oh hell... I’m sorry.” He couldn’t see her face, but he could hear the earnestness in her tone. It was already too late. Memories came flooding back into his mind, playing out in high definition, full colour. Her touch. His scar. Her kiss....
“What, you thought I was actually in love? With you?” Vera’s voice practically dripped contempt, her sneer emblazoning itself in his mind as he reeled backwards, his cheek stinging from where she’d slapped him.
“When we found out you were no good as a battler, I argued with Henry to keep you on anyway. Lucarios are supposed to make good servants, among other things.” She swung herself off the bed, keeping the sheet wrapped firmly around her lithe form as she advanced upon him, enough rage in her eyes to drive him back towards the door. Funny. Why was her aura so afraid?
“So I got curious about what it would be like. I didn’t think you’d read so goddamn much into it! I thought we could keep this just between us, something to hold me over when Henry goes away, but no!” Her manicured fingernail jabbed him in the chest, hard, pushing him back another step. “You got all these stupid notions about ‘mates’,” her lips twisted at the word, “into your head. Well, I’ve got news for you. You were never anything more than a passing fancy, and I certainly can’t have you sticking around NOW. I won’t have you ruining my marriage!”
“Please, mistress Vera, I would never-”
His head whipped back from the impact of her palm across his cheek. Feeling dazed, he barely registered stumbling back out of the room, only halting as his back hit the rail of the mansion’s spiral staircase. She appeared in the doorway, a specter clad in a sheet, her tiny form seeming to radiate enough raw anger to create a miniature sun. From somewhere, she’d produced his pokéball, pointing it at him like an accusation.
“Don’t even speak to me! I refuse to listen to your justifying.” Her clenched fist opened, dropping the ball unceremoniously to the floor. “We could have had something. You ruined it. End of story. Now get out!” Before his horrified gaze, she brought her heel down upon the device, splintering it into oblivion with a sickening crunch. Immediately, he felt that invisible bond shatter, the effect striking him like a lightning bolt from a clear blue sky.
“Get out! Leave my house! Never come back!” Her voice was shrill now, almost hysterical as she shoved him towards the stairs. He barely reacted in time to keep himself from falling, staggering down the steps --not unlike how his trainer sometimes looked when he came home late with that cloyingly sweet, sharp smell on his breath.
Something heavy hit his shoulder. The sound of something shattering assaulted his ears, as he was knocked head-over-heels down the final few steps to land in a heap.
“Out of my sight! Out of my life!”
Pain flared in several places. His shoulder felt like it was on fire, warm, thick fluid seeping into his fur. He could feel a razor shard of glass --one of the vase remnants he could now see scattered around him-- slicing into his flesh, digging deep as if to bite into his heart.
The words hurt more.
“Maverick? Hey, talk to me. Are you okay?”
Reality snapped back with Tia’s voice, chasing away the specter of the past. His shoulder seemed to throb, a faint echo from all those years ago. It took an effort to meet Tia’s worried gaze. How long had he been staring off into space?
“Do you... want to talk about it?” she asked, crouching down to put herself level with him, concern etched into her features.
“Just... help me find the pens,” he managed, feeling as if he were speaking through a mouthful of peanut butter. His paws hurt from clenching so hard into fists. Slowly, he forced himself to relax. Wordlessly, Tia complied with his request, getting onto her hands and knees to hunt down the missing pens.
‘Fuck me... I thought I was getting over this.’ Tia had said she’d “forgotten”. Great. So rumors were spreading about his ‘episodes’. Not surprising, really. It only took time. But if he found out one of the HR pricks had been gossiping about his personnel file...
Without warning, another ghost of the past whispered in his ear.
“Sorry baby, but you’re gonna have to leave now. It’s been more than half an hour, and a girl in my line of work doesn’t hang out with guys like you just for fun, you know. Either slip me that advance, and we’ll go somewhere more private, or make room for a paying customer.”
That night had been an education. First week out in the world on his own, in some random bar for shelter from the rain. Perhaps at the time he’d thought the pretty zoroark female had been a little too friendly, but he’d welcomed the willing ear. How could he have been so blind to the indifference in her eyes?
“Everyone’s got problems, sugar. I just help ‘em forget about them for awhile. But, that doesn’t come cheap.”
She hadn’t been the first, either. He soon learned that he wasn’t “worth” a female’s time if there wasn’t money involved, or some other form of ulterior motive. He’d never forgotten that lesson. At least, not after the seemingly hundredth time it had been beaten into him.
“I’m leaving, Mav. Don’t ask where I’m going. Don’t try to call me. It’s over.”
He barely managed to keep his muzzle from contorting into a snarl. That poisonous bitch had been the worst of the lot. It made him nauseous to think how devoted he’d been to her. Just when he thought he’d finally found someone who cared, she turned on him, calling him, “Too moody and self-possessed”, which he interpreted as, “Not as rich as the guy I’ve been sleeping with behind your back.” Though, in strange, twisted way, now he wanted to thank her. It had taught him how little you could rely on other people. No matter how rosy things might seem for a time, the axe would eventually fall.
The silence was definitely stretching to awkward as he and Tia found the last pen --it had rolled all the way under the filing cabinet-- and got to their feet, consolidating their rescued writing tools back into the safety of the righted holder. Tia swept back a strand of blond hair that had escaped her ponytail, biting her lip as she examined him critically. The concern in her gaze made his stomach twist. Even if it was real, what did it matter?
“You sure you don’t want to talk about it? Sometimes, that’s all you need. It’s good to vent from time to time, and I promise I’m a good listener.”
Almost the exact same line she’d used when they’d first met. Tia didn’t seem to have that suppressed cruel streak of course, but then again, he wasn’t going to give her the chance to show it if she did.
“No, I’ll be fine.” He met her eyes, carefully schooling his features into neutrality. “I need to get to work.”
Her mouth compressed into a thin line, her eyes narrowing, but she gave a quick, jerky nod of acquiescence, turning to leave. Why did she care? Was she really so naive? Did she want to ‘fix’ him? Arceus knew he was well beyond that.
Then again, she obviously hadn’t had the same ‘education’ as him. Nor was he so blind as to believe it was just females who caused pain either. Males were equally culpable. He didn’t have to swing that way to see it. Nor was it only humans, or only pokémon. He’d be an idiot not to think himself capable of doing the same to her that others had done to him. Better for her to turn away. Better for both of them.
The pens rattled on the desk. Maverick’s heart skipped a beat, a tiny quiver rolling up his spine that hadn’t come from any sort of chill. In the doorway, Tia stopped, looking around with a puzzled expression.
“Hey, did you feel that? I thought there wasn’t going to be any blasting today?”
“There isn’t.” Maverick was already moving, practically vaulting over the desk. Tia’s eyes widened, and she stepped back just in time to avoid being bowled over as he broke into a dead run, bursting through the doorway and pelting down the corridor. Icy bands seemed to constrict around his chest as he sprinted past the other offices, his pulse suddenly racing.
He hoped he was fast enough.
A cloud of dust billowed out from the mouth of tunnel three like a storm rolling in over the Kanto plain. Maverick hit the assembly floor running, chafing at the need to circle around the office and warehouse structure to get to the tunnel entrance. Around the area, workers had halted their tasks to stare at the wafting cloud. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Marie and her crew coming out of the refinery, all wearing their protective chemical suits. Someone had the foresight to throw the emergency stop on the production lines. Good. One less thing to worry about.
Maverick’s breath came in short pants as he dashed into the tunnel staging area, hurriedly grabbing and yanking on the nearest soft pressure suit. It was more than a little over-sized, but it would do. A quick twist of the air pack’s knob sent cool air circulating into his helmet as he zipped up the front and connected the sealing tabs. He wasn’t going to make the mistake of running into a blowout unprotected.
The suits were made entirely of lightweight, high-efficiency materials, but he still felt like his movements had turned slow and cumbersome as he made for the middle of the dust cloud. He wasn’t going to waste time equipping one of the heavier, powered hard suits though. Should he be grabbing any tools to take with him? No, better to assess the situation first.
Darkness surrounded him as he jumped through the open emergency airlock, moving from smooth concrete floor to the grooved surface of the tunnel. The lights outside didn’t penetrate far through the obscuring shroud of dust. Maverick flipped on his helmet’s headlamps, squinting in the sudden flare of illumination. The tunnel stretched on before him, sloping steadily downwards, nothing visible yet but more swirling dust. Maverick started moving again, adopting the awkward bouncing stride that was the best approximation of a run both the suits and the gravity differential would allow. The crew would be down further, in the left hand branch of the main tunnel.
Scrabbling through the dark, the walls and floor rumbling like the belly of some colossal, hungry monster. Small rocks, invisible in the gloom, striking him and leaving bruises. It hurt, but he had to go on.
His breathing sounded impossibly loud in the confined space. Somehow, he kept his feet moving, moderating his pace after a careless, overly powerful push nearly brained him on the tunnel’s ceiling. With an effort, he forced the irrational panic down. One breath, two. Count them up to ten. That was the number of safety. Everything would be alright when he’d taken ten breaths.
He passed the split in the tunnel just as he’d reached the third cycle of ten breaths. He could hear faint sounds from up ahead, the sensitive helmet microphone picking up the echoing, indistinct sounds of voices, along with skittering noises. Signs of life. That was a small comfort. Enough to ease some of the crawling anxiety. At least, about as much as a glass of water eased a forest fire. Ten more breaths.
Soon enough, several huddled figures rose out of the gloom, marked by shafts of light from their own suits. The sweeping beams revealed a scene that made Maverick’s blood run cold. Three had their own lights trained on a pair of figures, stretched out prone on the ground. One was cradling an arm bent at a stomach wrenching angle. The other lay disturbingly still. Debris lay strewn everywhere, from large chunks about the size of Maverick’s head, to the more pulverized sort.
“Hey! Here comes help!” one of the standing figures called, pointing towards Maverick as he crossed the remaining distance as fast as was safely possible. The footing was treacherous, here, broken rock crunching and sliding underfoot, and it would be easy to turn an ankle.
A handful of others were working on a wall of rubble blocking off the passage, digging wildly and tossing loose stones to the side. It appeared to be a losing battle. Each stone removed brought a cascade of others, a seemingly endless supply from above, nullifying the miners’ efforts.
Maverick took a quick headcount. Eight of them altogether. “You,” he said, pointing at one of the miners standing beside the injured. “Tell me what happened. Where are the other two?” For once, he was glad for the microphone in the suit, disguising the tremble in his voice. He would not panic! Ten breaths. Safety.
The electronics didn’t help disguise the other worker’s distress. “Faroh and Pyat got trapped! We were all back here waiting for them to start up the chipper. They were up beside it, talking, and Faroh got all pissed off about something.” Maverick could just make out the other worker’s face --Manny, a normally rather laid-back golduck with a fair bit of experience-- with wide, frightened eyes. “He told us to all stand back, and then he went off, looking mad enough to chew rock, and hit one of the walls with an attack! I dunno what. Then the whole place started shaking, and...” The wild torrent of explanation tapered off as the golduck gestured at the destruction around them.
“Whole place started shakin’ up real good,” one of the others supplied --Diesel, a zoroark Maverick didn’t know very well. “Thought we’d all bit it when the roof started comin’ down. Lucky thing we were back here, but damn...” He glanced towards the wall of fallen rock, shuddering noticeably.
‘That son of a bitch.’ Maverick’s eyes narrowed. If he’d gotten anyone killed...
“What’s his condition?” Maverick snapped, kneeling beside the unmoving worker. The faceplate on his helmet had a spiderweb of cracks, obscuring his face. Maverick could hear a soft hiss of oxygen escaping in staccato bursts. The one with the broken arm --Erik, one of the humans, he could see now-- looked at him and groaned. Maverick ignored him for now. He started to reach for the outer zipper of his own suit, intending to free a paw to check the other’s pulse, but training stopped him. No. No matter what, always see to your own safety first. No way to tell if the air in the tunnel was safe without a tester.
“Jonas took a nasty shot to the head,” Diesel said. “He’s still breathin’, we checked, but he’s out for the count. We didn’t wanna move him though.”
Drawing a deep breath, Maverick closed his eyes and shut out the scene around him, clawing his way to a tenuous balance. Aura abilities wouldn’t come without it. It took a precious moment to find serenity in the maelstrom he currently felt, but somehow, he managed to grasp onto it. Opening his eyes, he took a second look, and was relieved to see the ampharos’s aura flare to life, hearty and hale. He didn’t bother delving into it. For now, not-dying was enough.
He dismissed the second-sight for the time being, blinking as the dusty darkness returned, and got to his feet. “You two get Erik to the nurse, and hustle back with a stretcher. He’s got enough air for now, but that won’t last. Anyone got a tester?” All three shook their heads. “Bring one as well. We need to know if there was a blowout. One of you stay here and watch Jonas, make sure he doesn’t worsen. Go!”
His words shocked them into motion. He didn’t bother supervising them as Diesel and Manny helped Erik to his feet, already moving on to the next issue. How much time did they have? One worker was still completely unaccounted for. Ten breaths might take too long. He forced himself to take them anyway.
The three working on the wall seemed to have made some progress, judging by the pile of rubble they’d moved to the side, but still hadn’t managed to break through. Maverick grabbed one of them by the shoulder, spinning him around. Nevvin, a burly machoke, stared down at him, his suit covered in a layer of grit.
“Any idea how deep it goes?” Maverick demanded. “Are the other two under it?”
“Sure hope not, sir,” Nevvin replied, tossing aside the rock he’d been holding. A small avalanche of smaller stones cascaded down the pile behind him. “Near as we could tell though, this is just a small barrier. Maybe ten, fifteen feet across? No way to tell though. Faroh was yelling at us from the other side, saying he was okay, and to try to break through.”
“Dunno sir. Faroh gave us the go ahead to start digging, and we ain’t heard any more from either of them.” It was hard to tell in the dim light, but Maverick was pretty sure the bulky fighting type looked pale. “I’d figure Pyat got himself clocked like Jonas, but he was wearing a hard-suit to work the chipper. It’d take a lot to hurt him inside that.”
Maverick nodded grimly. The hard-suits were designed to cushion against all kinds of impacts, and were usually used when working close to drills or other rock breaking machinery. It sped up the process if the crew didn’t have to wait for the heavy equipment to finish before hauling away the rubble, or simply to operate the device faster and more effectively in enclosed spaces like these.
“Okay, all three of you, stop what you’re doing.”
The other two paused, turning from their task to give him quizzical expressions. Delica, an electrabuzz, and Archie, another human, he could see now. Nevvin voiced the thought all three of them clearly had. “Why?”
“Because you’re not picking the right spots,” Maverick said tersely, once again forcing down his emotions, his voice coming out cold and distant. One deep breath, and he found the balance again, the calm in the eye of the storm, altering the way he saw the world. This time, he ignored the auras of those standing about him, instead fine-tuning his vision, using a little trick he’d worked out planetside. Everything had an aura of sorts, if you knew how to look for it. The key was allowing yourself to accept them as real, and not tune them out in favor of the stronger, living auras the people around you projected.
Carefully, Maverick scanned the barrier in front of him. The grays and browns of inanimate objects took on new shades when he focused on them, shutting out the warm bodies that emitted such distracting blue flames. These ones; purple striations, dark, cool centres... they weren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Most of the bottom section of the pile was made up of these. The deep crimson ones, shot through with orange highlights... those were unstable. Moving them would simply bring ten more in their place. The entire section the three had been working on was mostly that type.
But, here and there, larger stones told a different story. One of blue edges and warm, black-glowing insides. Stable, but willing to be moved. Small rocks around them would slide, of course, but the pile wouldn’t collapse inward around them. They would supply a way through.
“Here. Move this one,” Maverick said curtly, tapping a rock halfway up the wall. “And this one here. Then get rid of that one.”
Archie gave him a look he couldn’t quite make out, but his aura told the story. Incredulity, disbelief. “I’m sorry, but that doesn’t make any sense. Those aren’t even in-”
“Just. Do it.” Maverick said through gritted teeth, fixing the man with a baleful gaze. He wasn’t in any mood for argument. They hesitated for a moment, giving each other an, ‘I guess we have to’ look, but complied, working together to dislodge the first stone he’d indicated.
Maverick folded his arms across his chest, watching as they shifted the pile More hands wouldn’t help for this part of the task. Relocated rock clattered to the ground, a fresh billow of dust rising from the debris. The others let out mixed exclamations of surprise when the second stone opened up a small hole at the top of the barrier. ‘Gee, looks like I was right. What a shock. Will wonders never cease?’ He could hear voices and movement coming down the tunnel. The other work crews, hurrying to investigate. Well enough. They could help clear the rest of this away.
With a petulant sounding grumble of stone against stone, several medium sized chunks rolled from a rent in the ceiling and bounced down the pile, following the removal of the third rock. The pile seemed to settle, almost like a living thing, and the hole suddenly widened with a clatter of falling rocks from the other side. Just enough to wriggle through. Nevvin grunted in approval.
“You were right, sir. How’d you know?”
“Later.” Maverick was already on the move, scrambling up the pile of loose debris. It felt like trying to swim against a current, but he made it to the opening without rolling back down to the bottom. Tentatively, he poked his head through, allowing his light to illuminate a nearly identical scene, save for the absence of people. His microphone picked up a series of scrabbling, crunching sounds, coming from beyond the narrow beam of his light.
‘Here goes nothing.’ Before he could talk himself out of it, he wriggled his arms through, grabbing onto a sturdy looking rock on the other side and tugging himself over. Something shifted, and his forward motion halted, caught up at the waist.
Walls closing in. Rocks pressing against him on every side. Stone fists squeezing, crushing him. No way out. No way out.
‘STOP IT!’ His eyes narrowed to slits. He would not give in to the panic. He had made it out. All of them had. Taking a deep, steadying breath, he rotated himself sideways, carefully. The obstruction fell away, and he slid through to roll down the slope. He landed in an awkward heap at the bottom, but more or less unscathed.
An ominous grating, clattering sound made him look up at where he’d come from. The cold light of his headlamps was just in time to reveal a hail of stones sliding from some previously stable pocket in the ceiling, neatly sealing off the hole he’d come through. Maverick’s heart lurched, an almost imperceptible tremble quivering up his spine. He was well and truly committed to this now. He’d have to either wait for them to break through on their own, or make a hole himself.
Picking himself up, Maverick scanned the tunnel, noting it was in much worse condition than the area on the other side of the rockfall. Cracks spider-webbed along the ceiling and walls, and there seemed to be more loose debris about. Either one of those was a bad sign, but both together? Even as he watched, a tiny torrent of dust poured from one of the cracks. The icy fingers of fear prodded and probed inside him maliciously. He’d need to get the other two out of here quickly.
Movement came from up ahead. Training his light in that direction revealed the bulky form of Faroh, his suit caked with a layer of dirt and loose rock, almost as if the golem weren’t wearing a suit at all. He stood in front of another massive pile of wreckage, digging like a madman. His motions were rushed, frantic, shoving aside boulders that would have probably taken two average ‘mon to move. Even with their decreased, lower-grav weight, most of these stones were still heavy enough to cause an average worker to break into a sweat.
“Faroh!” Maverick strode up to him, barely keeping his temper in check. Everything within him wanted to strike this moron with all the force he had, but now wasn’t the time. “Is Pyat under there?”
Faroh halted, looking up as Maverick approached. Maverick could hear his breath coming out in ragged gasps through the microphone, the exertion showing in stark detail on his face, even through the helmet’s faceplate. Judging by the large pile of detritus behind him, he’d managed to shift a sizable portion of the cave-in already.
“Mav! How the hell’d you get in here?” Faroh started, then immediately shook his head. “Nevermind that. Yeah, he got buried. He was able to call out to me, gimme an idea where he was, but I think his mic got hit after that. He was standing behind the chipper, and we figured that would be fine for how the shockwave would travel, but then...”
The golem’s expression was all guilt, spiked with fear and exhaustion. For a moment, he looked years younger. A child who’d been caught playing where he wasn’t supposed to. Maverick’s lip curled in disgust. “Then?”
Instead of continuing his explanation, Faroh turned away, grabbing another rock. “C’mon, help me!”
Maverick merely looked at the other pokémon for a moment, feeling a bit like a stone himself. Good intentions, --or more likely, guilty conscience-- aside, Faroh expected him to... “Here’s a better idea. Get the fuck out of my way,” Maverick growled, adding a pointed shove for good measure. Caught off guard, Faroh stumbled back, dropping the stone as he did so, looking shocked. Maverick turned his back on him, facing the intimidating wall of rock, and summoning his concentration.
Light became meaningless. Outlines became sharply defined, though outward details were gone, replaced by other, more important ones. Maverick spared a brief glance at Faroh, who’d apparently managed to end up on his backside from Maverick’s push, and was now picking himself up. His aura flared an angry red in places, along with a stubborn streak that warred with green tendrils of shame. He wasn’t willing to abandon Pyat, no matter how much he feared for his own safety. He was also strangely glad that someone else was here to take the lead. Surprising, coming from him.
“What’re you doing? We need to shift this crap outta the way!”
“Shut up. Just stand back until I say so, and dig where I tell you to.”
The golem muttered something under his breath, but apparently decided not to push his luck. Maverick refocused his attention on the rocks, straining to hold onto his calm. It was like trying to stay afloat in a pool of quicksand. Cold anger burned within him now, working with the insidious fear to throw off his balance. His breathing quickened, and he felt his control slipping. Grimly, he clung to it like a lifeline as he scanned the rubble.
There. Close to the opposite wall. A living aura flickered and snapped, flinging tiny blue sparks away from itself. Strong emotion, almost overwhelming. Maverick’s throat felt tight as he zeroed in on Pyat’s projections. Fear. All-consuming, paralyzing fear, powerful enough to make Maverick’s head throb from the force. Panic. Pain, urgency. Terror. He would die here. All of them would. It was so pitch-black, so cold. He was blind, deaf, mute. Oh Arceus, this darkness, crushing in on him! No one could hear him, no one could help-
No. He couldn’t leave them. He had to get all of them. But-
Maverick tore his gaze off of Pyat’s aura, reeling from the force of the raw emotion. He put a paw to his forehead, feeling dazed. He’d never been... overtaken... like that before. His heart pounded in his chest, seeming as if it wanted to beat its way out, his breathing wheezing in his ears.
‘Calm down, asshole. You’re not the one under there. Do as you’ve been trained to do.’ He clenched his fists, wishing the gloves weren’t in the way of his claws. The pain of them digging into his pad would have been... steadying. A reminder that he was, in fact, alive.
“Well?!” Faroh’s urgent tones broke the spell completely. Maverick looked up. When had he hunkered down doubled over like this? He wasn’t some whimpering child, crying over a scraped knee. Hurriedly, he stood up, meeting Faroh’s gaze steadily. “Are we digging him out or not?” Faroh demanded. “If you’re quite finished huddling up and doing... whatever the hell you were doing?”
He’d noticed that delightful little meltdown alright. Damn. No helping it though, they had to get down to business. “I think he’s losing air, fast. Might’ve been a small blowout in the tunnel,” he said curtly, affixing the golem with a glare. “We don’t have time for digging.” It made perfect sense. That gibbering terror he'd felt could only come from someone in imminent fear of their life, and Pyat was too well trained to panic without reason.
If it were possible for rock types to pale, Faroh likely would have. Instead, he sputtered, “What?! How? Oh shit, oh shit! Oh-”
“Quiet!” Maverick snapped. “I need to concentrate!” Driven by even greater urgency now, he refocused on the rubble, adjusting his second-sight to look for an easy way through. Faroh didn't acknowledge the order directly, but at least he lowered his cursing to a mutter. One less distraction.
Maverick's altered vision flickered precariously for a moment, his calm wavering. Not a chance. He would not fail here. Grimly, he steadied himself, gradually revealing the hidden nature of the barrier before him.
It wasn't pretty. The entire barricade was supported and shored up with sturdy, unmoving boulders. Those few that were unstable were small, inconsequential to the grander scheme. Nor were there many of those perfect stones, the kind he could move without fear of worsening the situation. His options were severely limited.
'We'll never get through that in time. Unless...'
No, no, no. It was reckless. It was stupid. It was the exact sort of thing that had started this mess. All the things that could go disastrously wrong-
It was his only choice.
“Faroh,” Maverick barked. “Get back, and I mean back. This is going to get a little messy, and I can’t be worrying about your sorry ass getting caught up in it.” The steel he inserted into his voice felt like a poor mask for the knot of butterfrees in his stomach. Had he finally completely lost it? Was that where this thick-headed scheme had come from?
“What are you gonna do?” Faroh queried, still looking a bit shell-shocked. “Oh hell, I never meant for this to happen. Mav, I-”
“Save it,” Maverick said, standing up as straight as he could, bringing his physical and mental states into equilibrium as he prepared to tap his abilities once again. “And do what I asked you to. There’s only one way to get to him quickly, and that’s to blast a hole in this mess.”
The hairs on the back of his neck prickled as he drew and deep breath, and even without seeing it, he could sense Faroh’s shocked expression.
“That’s crazy, Mav, you’re gonna get all of us killed! If it was all unstable like this when I hit it before, it’s gonna...” The golem trailed off with a helpless noise of distress, a sound that seemed disturbingly out of place, coming from such a normally brash individual.
There was no time for arguing. His pride was a bitter pill, and didn’t go down easy, but he choked it down nonetheless. Maverick looked at Faroh, meeting his eyes levelly, and lowered his voice to a much gentler tone than he’d ever spoken to the rock type before.
“Faroh, I’m sorry. If we had more time, you can bet I wouldn’t be taking this risk, but there’s no other way.” Another swallow, this one harder than the first. “Please, I need you to trust me. If this doesn’t work-” He cut himself off before going down that road. “No. It will work. But I have to do this alone. You won’t be able to help me if you get taken out by a rock yourself.”
It was hardly an eloquent speech, but it seemed to have the desired effect. Faroh gave a slow nod, for once not looking like he were about to put in some final parting remark. Silently, he turned and walked away, retreating around the bend in the tunnel.
‘And so now here I stand, the last of my merry band. I see before me no recourse in this mortal shade, but ere to take up my unstained blade-’ Enough of that sort of thinking. It was time to get to work.
Fear, anger, urgency, worry, stress. All faded into the background as Maverick withdrew in upon himself, reeling in the trailing edges of his own aura from where they touched the world, confining them into a tiny ball at the very core of his being. Even the blasted cold seemed lessened. It was as if a torch had been lit inside him, a miniature blaze of raw power that he could draw upon.
The world about him flickered into its odd, grayscale hues as he drew in a deep breath, pushing away the unimportant surface details. There could be no more space inside him for emotion, for all that he was had collapsed into a single, tiny sphere. There was only room for him, his very essence. Nothing could make him waver, no outside force could cause him to falter.
Long ago, nearly forgotten lessons came simmering up as he surveyed the barrier that blocked his path. A memory, a thing learned that was now part of who he was. Knowledge, the power to wield this inner strength, that he’d nearly forgotten he possessed. This blockade was no obstacle. No more than the boards he’d learned to break with his paws had been, back in the dojo of his cub-hood. All he required was a striking point, and he would be through.
“You musn’t think about hitting the boards, Maverick. You must think about already being through them, on the other side. You do not have to do it, for it is already done.”
There, a bit to the right of center. It seemed a fairly innocuous rock at first, but upon closer inspection, its aura stretched out like a blanket, connecting with a string of debris that lead deep into the pile. A glowing line, pointing towards the supernova blaze of blue fire that was his goal. The energy within him gathered, roiled into his drawn back paw. He stood rigid, balancing upon one foot, as if he were about to launch into some strange dance. He was balance. He was strength.
“Don’t think about failure. Don’t think about success. Your only thought is here, now, on the other side of those boards.”
The first thing he noticed from his detached view of the world, was the power leaving him. An azure blast, erupting from his paw in a conflagration of clashing auras. The tips of his paws tingled as the blue fire roared through them, a great rush of strength ebbing away that left his knees weak.
The sound of the shockwave hit next, a horrendous grating and crunching of stone upon stone, accompanied by the rumbles and groans of shifting weight. Dust roiled up around him in a choking cloud, obscuring his vision. His paw hurt, but a tiny seed of hope flared inside his inner calm. He’d felt something move, and it hadn’t been every bone in his paw breaking. Anxiously, he waited for the dust to settle, blinking rapidly as if that would help clear the air.
Something heavy hit the ground by his feet with a thump, making Maverick jump back a pace in surprise. He trained his headlamp down at the thing, revealing a boulder almost half as large as he was. Maverick suppressed a shudder, his forced calm receding as his body recovered from the energy expenditure. That thing could have broken a leg easily.
“Hey!” came Faroh’s voice from behind. “Did it work? Can you get through?”
Maverick didn’t respond right away, leaning forward to peer through the thinning cloud. His muzzle curved upwards into a fierce grin. There, right where he’d struck, a hole gaped open in the barrier, his light revealing a narrow path just large enough to wriggle through. He didn’t hesitate. There was no time to think about this.
“Get ready to grab my feet. I’ll need your help to pull him out.”
Before Faroh could object, Maverick hopped over the fallen boulder and slid head first into the hole, ekans crawling down the makeshift path. His light bobbed crazily around the rocky confines, revealing odd twists and turns that required him to lever himself around, until his entire body was swallowed by the tiny shaft.
His heart skipped a beat as a vice-like grip latched onto his foot, a wave of panic sweeping over him, until he reminded himself that it was only Faroh.
‘Steady. You won’t get anyone out if you lose it here. Stop being irrational,’ he told himself. Another part of him muttered that being afraid to crawl under tons of unstable rock was perfectly rational. He squashed it firmly.
“Can you see him?”
“Not yet. I have to get further in. I-” Something orange flashed into the beam of his light. “I’m almost at the chipper. And ease up a bit! No need to pull my leg off. I can barely move here as it is.”
The grip on his leg loosened, allowing him to wriggle forward a bit more. “Mav, I can’t reach!” Faroh called, his voice tense. “I can’t fit through there. Sorry, but I’m going to have to let you go.”
‘Don’t let go. Don’t leave me in the dark. I don’t want to be alone! Don’t let me go!’
Ignoring his own laboured breathing, Maverick called back, “Fine, go ahead.” Amazing how much fear could sound like confidence, with a little practice. His lone tie to freedom severed, Maverick stretched forward, grabbing onto the shiny orange metal to pull himself along, looking for any sign of Pyat. The wide sides of the machinery made a tiny alcove in the debris, which looked like it had been there before Maverick’s ‘improvements’. No sign of life. He must be on the far side.
Maverick called out as he wormed his way through the little alcove, straining his ears for any response. Nothing but silence, and the bone-chilling sound of shifting rock. Tiny pebbles bounced off his faceplate.
Grimacing, Maverick hauled himself around the bend formed by the chipper’s engine, wriggling his way through a gap to peek around the corner. Still nothing. More rock, more open space granted by the machinery, and-
There! A flash of colour amongst the gray and black. A jutting limb of one of the hard suits. Fuelled now as much by urgency as by care, Maverick scrambled forward, heedless of his elbows and knees bouncing painfully off of rocky protrusions.
“Pyat?” Maverick queried as he drew alongside the trapped miner, grabbing onto the exposed elbow of the suit. He didn’t respond, save for a feeble twitch, and from what Maverick could see now, likely couldn’t even hear him. The helmet of Pyat’s suit was partially crushed, the faceplate splintered and cracked. Had he not already known Pyat was still alive, that sight would have stopped him in his tracks. It was sheer, dumb luck that the ‘mon hadn’t been killed by the boulder that had done that sort of damage.
Still alive, yes, but not out of danger, not by a long shot. Oxygen vapor trickled out through the cracks in Pyat’s faceplate, looking for all the world like a misty spirit departing for the afterlife. Definitely a blowout further down the tunnel then. Small enough not to engage the airlocks on the tunnel, yet, but more than large enough to siphon away Pyat’s air supply like a greedy snorlax on a vapor diet.
“Right then, time to get out of here,” Maverick told the imprisoned zangoose, with far more confidence than he felt. Several large boulders held Pyat’s lower half in their jaws, and while the chipper gave Maverick a bit of wiggle room, there wasn’t a vanillite’s chance in lavaridge of him moving those rocks.
He grabbed a better hold on the protruding arm of Pyat’s suit, and was mildly encouraged to feel a weak tug of response. If the suit had been badly damaged, the motors in the joints might not be functioning properly. That would make things even trickier. Gritting his teeth, Maverick braced his feet on the debris surrounding Pyat, pulling back with all his strength.
Nothing happened for a long, agonizing moment. Then, just as Maverick felt he would break from the strain, Pyat shifted towards him a fraction of an inch. “Come, on!” Maverick roared, sweat rolling down his brow. Adrenaline pumped through him, lending strength to his shaking arms as he hauled backwards. Rocks grated together, and Pyat ever so slowly began to inch free of his prison.
Something crunched in the pile, the sound of boulders shifting position, and a muffled yelp came from Pyat’s helmet. Their progress stopped dead. Maverick’s heart skipped a beat. For him to hear that, Pyat would have had to be screaming at the top of his lungs. He didn’t want to know what that crunch had been.
Slow down. Ten breaths. Calm.
“Hang in there,” he panted, rapping on the shoulder of Pyat’s suit. “We’re almost out. I’m not going to leave you. We’re going to be okay.” He thought he heard a whimper in response, but that must have been his imagination. Or it had come from his own throat. If he’d been able to hear that, he hoped his words were more convincing for Pyat than they were for himself.
Bracing himself once more, taking a better grip under both of Pyat’s shoulders now, Maverick heaved mightily. It felt like trying to move the entire mountain. Pyat seemed to still be conscious of what was happening, because he attempted to shove too, scrabbling at the rock beneath him. No luck. After a moment, both of them subsided, Maverick’s own panting loud in his ears, blinking as sweat dripped into his eyes.
‘Damn, and we’re so close! One little shift, and he’d be out of there.’ But, now he was out of options. No chance of blowing them another hole to freedom. Even if he could brace himself and have enough room to swing, it would be certain to bring their already fragile ceiling down on them. Maybe if they could get Pyat out of the suit...
The side of the chipper scraped against his back. Of course! It wouldn’t be much, but if he could get the teeth of the continuous miner moving, maybe it would be enough. It had to be enough.
Eager now, he tapped Pyat on the shoulder, giving him the admonition to, “Stay put. I’ll be right back,” before scrambling backwards the way he’d come. On the dumb idea scale, this probably rated at least an eight. For that matter, getting out of bed this morning looked like it had ranked around that level, unbeknownst to him. Maybe it was time to consider a new career path.
Reaching the engine assembly, Maverick plunged his paws into the metallic guts of the heavy machinery. After a moment of rummaging, he found what he was looking for, and quickly squirmed around to draw his paws out of harm’s way before tugging the two wires free of their moorings. Almost delicately, he touched the exposed ends together, and was rewarded with a reluctant grumble as the engine sputtered to life. Maybe those mandatory company classes on mechanical knowledge hadn’t been such a waste after all.
An ominous grating sound -accompanied by the protesting squeals of the chipper as it attempted to move under the weight of the rock surrounding it- assaulted Maverick’s ears as he made his way back to Pyat. He didn’t need much. A fraction of an inch, space to breathe. Was that too much to ask? He would not accept less than his full ten.
“Okay, this is it, help me out here,” he said, tapping Pyat on the shoulder to get his attention. The deformed helmet moved in response, what appeared to be a weak nod. That was as much a confirmation as he would get.
His skin crawled as he positioned himself, seizing Pyat around the shoulders once more, bracing his feet on the rocks. Had that been a few pebbles falling from above? Or just a trick of the light? The chipper was making a terrible racket, but it was hard to say if it was actually doing anything at all.
‘Only one way to find out.’
Maverick let out a feral snarl as he hauled backwards on his charge, assisted by Pyat’s own efforts to shove and wiggle himself free. A grinding noise, like the sound of some massive monster gnashing its teeth, came from the direction of the chipper. He still wasn’t moving.
All of Maverick’s strength poured into his effort, his entire body straining against the unmoving grip of the boulders. “Let him go, dammit!” he growled, rage and fear lending him their support. Nothing. Not even the smallest movement. He’d failed, this time. There was no chance, no way out now. They wouldn’t-
The pair of them flew backwards so fast, he didn’t register it until he hit the side of the chipper with a resounding thwack! Stunned, he stared down at Pyat, who lay in his lap like some oversized child. That was probably going to leave a nice bruise.
‘Well then...’ No sense hanging around to question it, it was well past time to be out of here. Pyat moved weakly, giving him a thumbs-up. It was then, that Maverick noticed the extent of the damage to Pyat’s suit. He winced, whistling through his teeth. “Can you move out on your own at all?”
Pyat shifted, rolling off of Maverick and onto his belly. He stretched, trying to drag himself along, but the attempt was foiled as one arm spasmed erratically. Broken drive motors in the suit then. Maverick’s gaze flicked down, sweeping over the crumpled metal encasing Pyat’s left leg. Dark fluid dripped onto the rocks, and even in the dim light, Maverick was quite certain it wasn’t oil from the suit.
“That’s fine, just stay like that,” he ordered, mind racing. He clambered awkwardly over Pyat’s prone form, coming around to the lead. He put his visor up close to Pyat’s, looking intently. He could just barely make out the zangoose’s face, contorted into a grimace of pain. “This is probably going to hurt, but you’ve gotta stay with me, alright?” Pyat nodded feebly. “Good. Do what you can, but don’t fight me.”
He took hold of Pyat’s wrists, and began to scrabble backwards. It was no small feat. Unable to see where he was going, he constantly barked his elbows and knees on the sides of the cramped tunnel. His retreat was more an exercise of tumbling head-over-heels backwards, dragging Pyat along by no more than his death grip on the other ‘mon’s wrists, than any sort of graceful rescue carry. He shut out the small pains, focusing only on their slow progress. Push. Fall, scrape. A few more inches towards freedom. Firm his grip, then push off again.
Curving around the rumbling chipper almost broke him. He was glad for the muffling effect of the suits that stifled Pyat’s expressions of agony. He forced steel into his grip, into his resolve. Pain wasn’t fun, but it was temporary. Dying was not. Still, it felt like he was putting the other through a slow, gruesome torture.
It felt like hours had passed. Perhaps days. How could one really tell, underground? They could only keep moving, press on. Trivial things were for those with smaller concerns. Ten more steps, ten more falls. Then they would be out of this. When that ten came and went, they would-
He didn’t bother to stifle his yell as he rolled backward and hit air. Rocks slid beneath him as he tumbled, losing his grip on his charge. A strong pair of hands caught him, halted his slide. He looked up, but all he could see was a bright light, shining down.
“Oh, thank Arceus’s holy ass, you made it, Mav!” Faroh’s voice was thick with a curious emotion, something he’d never heard before in those gruff tones. “You made it, and you got ‘im out alive. Dunno how, but that don’t matter. How is he?”
Other pairs of hands or paws helped steady Maverick, lifted him to his feet. More lights danced in the gloom, suited forms bustling around, several lifting Pyat gingerly onto a stretcher. The other party had finally broken down the smaller cave-in.
“He’s been better,” Maverick replied, his voice hoarse. His throat felt raw, even though he’d been protected from the dust and grit of the tunnel. “There was a blowout too, further down. The tunnel needs to be sealed.” From behind, heavy paws clapped him on the shoulder, faceless voices shouting congratulations. He ignored the adulation, for now. Time for that later, if it was even deserved. Some other time, when he wasn’t so... drained.
“Already taken care of,” Faroh rumbled. “Marie caught it with a tester and took care of it before they even broke down the wall.” He seemed to catch Maverick’s gaze as it flickered across the handful of remaining workers, most of whom had quieted down and were examining the hole he’d made in the rubble. Maverick caught sight of Marie among them, who presently straightened and began to issue orders, making a shooing motion towards the exit. “Everyone’s suited up, so no worries there either. Once we all clear out, we can get a cleanup team organized.”
Faroh paused for a long moment, and when he spoke again, there was a catch in his voice that made Maverick turn to face him once more, startled by such unusual emotion. “You... You did good, Mav. Real good. I couldn’t... I mean, you did something that I... don’t think I could’ve.” He shook his head, blowing out a noisy huff of air. “I guess what I’m tryin’ to say here is, thanks. Know what I mean? And, more’n that, I-” His voice broke, and the next three syllables fell out in an uncontained rush. “I’m sorry.”
Something inside Maverick stirred. Part of him still wanted to haul off and punch the golem for what he’d done, to ignore his exhaustion, to take out all his anger and frustration in a flurry of violence and retribution. But, as if someone had pulled a plug, all of that simply drained away in the space of a moment. Faroh’s words, spoken with a sincerity he’d never seen before in the surly rock type, struck a chord.
“I’m not the one you need to apologize to, Faroh,” he said softly. They were all but the only two left now. Marie had marshalled the troops out of the cave-in zone, and now stood off to the side, watching. She seemed to sense they needed a moment, and gave them space, hanging back far enough that she was no more than a shadow in the pools of lamplight.
Will Pyat-” Faroh swallowed hard, turning away. “Do you figure he’ll be alright?”
“I don’t know,” Maverick replied, his voice almost as soft. “He’s hurt pretty bad. I didn’t get a good look, but our medics are going to have their work cut out.”
“Sweet, holy flaming piss of-” Faroh cut the expletive off before he completed it. He muttered something under his breath, his hands tightening into fists. “Hell, I really turned this into a cluster-fuck, didn’t I?”
Maverick deigned not to add to that, even though he was inclined to agree. Instead, he looked up at the ceiling, observing once more the ominous cracks. “Come on, let’s get out of here before a quake hits and turns this place into a hailstorm. I’ve had enough underground for today.”
Faroh looked at him for a moment, as if trying to read his expression, then turned and gave Marie a jerky nod, beginning to walk in her direction. Maverick followed, and Marie bobbed a quick nod of her own, more at Maverick than Faroh, before retreating into the gloom.
For a moment, they merely walked in silence, only the crunch of loose rock underfoot echoing through the tunnel. Maverick could feel the bruises now, a thousand dull aches, coming from seemingly everywhere at once. Easy enough to heal, but damn, did it make the journey to the surface feel longer than it should.
“I’m sorry, Mav,” Faroh repeated again, breaking the quiet suddenly. “Really, I am. I... I don’t know what got into me. I was so pissed earlier, I forgot the key to the chipper. Then to get it, I woulda had to walk past your office, and-” He cut off with a violent gesture, a growl colouring his voice that seemed designed to hide something else, something deeper. “I know, that ain’t no excuse. Or at least, it’s a piss-poor one. But, I figure you at least deserve to know why I did it, before ya let me go.” Faroh clamped his mouth shut, and from the corner of his eye, Maverick could see that his features were set in grim resolve, but was that a hint of... relief?”
When Maverick didn’t reply immediately, Faroh looked over at him, picking up where he’d left off with a query in his tone. “That’s what’s gonna happen, right? You’re gonna fire me?”
Maverick blinked, halting abruptly. Faroh stopped as well after another step, his shoulders hunched. Without looking back at Maverick, he said, “Well, ain’t that it? It’s probly what I’d do, in your place. I really can’t blame ya for it.”
“I... I haven’t decided yet,” Maverick replied absently. Why exactly was that? This should be an easy decision, shouldn’t it? That very morning, he would’ve have cheerfully jumped at the chance to be rid of Faroh’s presence. Hell, he would’ve even organized a ‘retirement’ party for the irritating ‘mon. What had changed? He refocused on the unmoving, bulky shape in front of him, considering. He put a lot of stock in trusting his instincts, but sometimes the things they told him weren’t the easiest to accept.
Before he knew what was happening, he realized he’d laid a paw on Faroh’s shoulder. Startlingly, the golem flinched at the touch. Surprised both of them then. But, Maverick didn’t pull his paw back just yet, instead coming around to face his thorn-in-the-paw turned... what, exactly?
“I’m not sure what’s going to happen yet, Faroh. I’m tired, I’m sore, and I want to get out of here. There will be time for decisions when we get back to base. We’re calling it a day early, and the suits can cry and moan all they want.” He paused, drawing a long breath, removing his paw from Faroh’s shoulder. It seemed enough of a signal to start them walking again.
“For now, we wait and see,” Maverick continued, the words coming a little easier now. “A lot depends on if Pyat is going to be walking again or not. I don’t think he’ll take legal action against you, but that’s always a possibility.” He frowned, contemplating. It wasn’t truly his decision, of course. That would ultimately fall into the hands of the suits, but, he held the power to tip that decision quite heavily, in whatever direction he chose. Not something that should be taken lightly. Or, he admitted, however grudgingly, a decision that should be affected by personal dislikes.
Faroh glanced over at him, clearly expecting him to continue. “You’re going to have to face the safety board at some point, that’s a given,” Maverick said. “And they’ll come to me as well. At the very least, you’re going to be docked pay for damages and officially reprimanded. But...” A lot weighed upon that but. He could almost feel it, even without accessing his second-sight to read the auras. A gravity to his words, that would affect the events to come. Out of the blue, his earlier conversation with Tia rung in his ears.
“But?” Faroh prompted.
“But,” Maverick replied, his voice lowering as if he were about to share a secret. “at the end of the day, accidents happen. Pyat knows that, you know that, all of us do.” He looked up at Faroh, resolve firming. “I know that. We don’t have cushy desk jobs.”
A small explosion of air hissed out from Faroh’s helmet speaker. A noisy sigh, distorted by the electronics. He gave a slow, somber nod of acknowledgment. Maverick could tell he knew it wasn’t a dismissal or mitigation of the incident, but nor was it outright condemnation. It was a hand extended, the first stone of a bridge across the gap. A slim shot at a second chance. For now, that was enough. Maverick would sleep on his judgements, and examine them closer in the morning. Perhaps, by some small, far-off long shot, Tia was right.
He could live with that. He had his ten.
The ride back to base was subdued, to say the least. Despite the fact that the workday had been cut short, every member of his crew was tired, disheveled, and quiet. The cabin of the buggy was significantly more crowded this time around, what with two entire crews riding along this time, as well as the on-duty nurses and Tia. The injured naturally required more space than the others, making conditions range more towards those of a commuter bus at rush hour than a high tech moon buggy. For quite possibly the first time since its early construction stages, the population of the southern moon pole forward mining base was zero. For a few hours, at least, until clean-up squads were organized to head back into tunnel three.
Maverick found himself tucked in once more against a window, sinking into the seat as if it were a high-end terrafoam recliner. The other workers seemed to unanimously decide to give him space, piling in on the opposing bench rather than taking the vacant seat next to him. He had no complaints. The nurses had given him a cursory examination, handed him a hyper potion, and pronounced him healthy. A nap was a blessed relief after the trauma of the tunnels, allowing the medicine to get to work at soothing away his accrued bruises and scrapes.
Even the drive was strangely relaxing. Mac handled the rover like a newborn baby, mindful of the unusual number of passengers, some of which were wounded. Maverick found his eyes slipping closed before the giant metal doors had receded from view, and didn’t awake until the airlock door hissed, announcing to all aboard that it had successfully mated with the extended gangway of home base.
“Okay, make a hole people, let the patients through,” commanded Royce, one of the nurses. Everyone squeezed back, opening a pathway through which Royce and a blissey whose name Maverick couldn’t recall bustled along, supporting Pyat on the stretcher. Pyat gave a weak thumbs up at those he passed, -he was still in the full hard-suit for now, only the helmet removed- and got a ragged burst of cheers for his effort. Even with the medication he’d been given, his face still bore a rigid mask of pain.
Immediately after the medics trooped off with their charges -Sandy, the vividly pink-haired female nurse bringing up the rear with Erik- the hole closed up again, and the workers began to file out of the buggy. Maverick waited, allowing the crowd to disperse before levering himself out of his seat with a grunt, stretching. His muscles still felt a little stiff, but thanks to the wonders of modern medicines and his short nap, he now felt no injury more grievous than his grimy fur.
Mac was the only one left aboard as Maverick traversed the buggy, and he flashed Maverick a toothy grin and snapped a salute as he approached. “So, the conquering hero returns. I know it probably doesn’t mean much, coming from me, but thanks. Pyat’s a friend of mine. I feel like I owe you one for getting him out.”
Maverick shrugged. “It’s okay, really. I’m no hero. I just did what needed doing.”
Mac’s grin widened as the words translated through his earpiece, and he looked about to award Maverick a friendly punch to the shoulder, but then thankfully thought better of the action and settled for a grand gesture towards the door. “Sure you’re not. You’re the best, chief. Now go out there and say hi to your adoring fans.”
Maverick rolled his eyes at him, pulling away and descending into the gangway. He had to admit though, the earnest praise stirred a hint of pride, a part of him that had lain slumbering in a sea of cynicism so long, he’d nearly forgotten it existed.
It appeared that they were indeed waiting for him. As soon as he pushed through the hanging rubber flaps at the bottom of the ramp, a burst of applause and scattered cheers hit him. Nearly everyone from the buggy stood gathered there, along with what seemed to be every other miner in the base. He stared at the group for a moment, too stunned to respond.
“Way to go, bossman!”
“Hell, I wish I had the kinda balls to do what you did.”
“Lemme buy you a drink, cheif!”
“Whatta ya say, boys? Should we take him on a victory lap?”
He waved his paws violently, keeping his expression neutral, as much as his muzzle tried to twitch upwards. It wouldn’t do to lose his composure in front of everybody. He had a reputation to keep. “Woah, easy now. I have to keep my ego in check too, you know. If you all keep this up, you’re going to turn me into a mini version of Taggart.”
Laughter rolled over the group at the reference to the short, pompous little man who functioned as the operations overseer for the two mining bases, which made him Maverick’s direct and only on-world superior. Thankfully, he was at the north pole base now, and Maverick wouldn’t have to give him a report until he returned.
“Nah, he’d probably piss himself at the thought of diving into a cave-in. Besides, you’d have to have a lot less hair, and call everyone by their last name like you’re some tough-guy army sarge,” someone in the mob retorted.
“And try to get with all the nurses,” someone else added, “I’ve heard Moira told him she’d rather have a night out with a cacturne.” Another ripple of laughter rolled through those assembled. Few, if any, were on good terms with the diminutive executive.
“Enough about him,” Diesel, standing near the front of the crowd, drawled. “Let’s escort our fearless leader to the bar and get ‘im good and sloshed!”
A raucous cheer met this suggestion, and before Maverick could react, he found himself herded along by the milling crowd.
“Hey now, easy there,” he protested, flinching away from the over-enthusiastic back-slaps and general adulation. “Hang on a second, don’t I get a say in this?”
“Nope, not a chance, chief.” Mac’s grinning visage suddenly appeared beside him. “You deserve this, and the lads need the chance to fawn over you for a bit.”
“All I really want is a shower,” Maverick grumbled. All the attention was beginning to get on his nerves, but, short of shoving his way free and running, it didn’t look like he had much choice. Fortunately for him, Marie had already taken care of radioing in and arranging the clean-up crew before they’d left the mining station, and had offered to take care of what she could of the paperwork. He’d gladly welcomed the help. It meant he didn’t have to do anything aside from unwind for awhile, face Taggart when the time came, and fill out his own pile of accident report forms at his earliest convenience. Which, if he could help it, was not going to be tonight.
Heaving a sigh, he grudgingly permitted himself to be carried off by the exuberant workers, forced into the captivity that was the fate of temporary celebrity. He’d slip away at the first chance he got, but for now, might as well let them have their fun. It might not be too bad.
Maverick lost his exaggerated stagger the moment he made it into the open air of the main corridor. It had been a lot harder to get away than he’d expected. The crew had been surprisingly determined to get him hammered, and weren’t satisfied enough to ease off the attention a bit until he started showing visible signs of intoxication.
Lucky they hadn’t noticed that most of his drinks had mysteriously vanished before consumption. Offhandedly, he wondered how much alcohol a potted plant could stand. He must’ve treated that bush to at least ten or so. Or twenty. He’d stopped keeping track.
‘Honestly, you’d think we were some in frat house planetside, and I was the school’s star quarterback. What do they really expect from me?’ In spite of his grouching, he had to admit that the gentle buzz of the two glasses he had accepted were rather pleasant. He disliked alcohol as a matter of principle, but he was willing to make exceptions here and there.
Now though, it was time to get away. There was only so much he could take of that atmosphere. The constant weight of eyes upon him, the warmth and closeness of so many bodies. Unknown paws touching and prodding him unexpectedly without so much as a by-your-leave. He felt like some rare zoo creature.
He passed the extensive, glass walled exercise rooms -a necessity for keeping in shape in the lower gravity- and came to a single door with a brass plate affixed to it. The others could have their brand of fun as long as they wished. He was more than ready to have his own, quite peaceful, solitary sort.
Well, nearly solitary. Taking a bracing breath, he pushed open the wooden door -a real bloody wooden door, here- and stepped into the office beyond.
“Well now, can’t say I’m overly surprised. I hear you had a busy day. Left the party early, did you?” The owner of the bored sounding voice didn’t look up from his book, which was floating in mid-air in front of him. The cover was a gaudy display, a shirtless, muscle-bound man entwined with a half-naked woman, the pair highlighted by a vivid sunset. A page flipped over, and the novel lowered slightly, revealing a set of purple-furred, distinctly feline features, mouth quirked up in amusement.
“Surprised you lasted this long, actually. What happened? Did one of our fair females corner you?”
“How can you read that crap, Darwin?” Maverick said in place of response. “I thought people in your profession were supposed to enjoy the latest scientific journals and such.”
“Oh, those,” Darwin said, yawning pointedly as he psychically lowered the book to the wooden desk -which he himself perched upon- and giving a slow, feline blink. “Boring, stuffy things. I much prefer fine works such as, Desert Heat.” He flicked his tail at the novel. “I find them to be considerably more telling of human nature. Much more... informative, in their own way.”
“You know those are probably written by a computer, right?” Maverick glanced around, noting that Darwin had apparently added a few more specimens to his collection of absurdly hideous holosculptures. Honestly, did he have no concept of taste? Just as the entryway suggested, the entire office was filled with unnecessary extravagance, the holos being the least of these. Those, at least, didn’t cost an insane amount of money to ship here, like the desk and bookshelf would have. Benefits of the salary that went along with Darwin’s reputation, he supposed. “And since when are you an expert in human nature? You’re supposed to be our shrink.”
The espeon chuckled, padding to the forward edge of his desk and sitting on his haunches, tilting his head at Maverick in a mocking gesture. “Really now, are the two all that different? I deal with anyone who needs me. But, that is, naturally, confidential.” He smirked, bringing a paw up and giving it a few absent licks. As if the perfectly groomed pokémon actually needed it. “Couldn’t you have at least taken a shower before you came trotting down here? You’re getting rock dust on my carpet.”
“Wasn’t given the chance. Besides, the gel will do for the shower. Better, even.”
Darwin shot him a stern look. “And who says you get to go in? As I recall, you’ve been absent for our past two appointments. Naughty, naughty Maverick.”
Maverick gritted his teeth. Irritating as the espeon was, he did need him for this endeavor. “Sorry. I was busy.”
“Of course you were. Nevermind that the company allows my sessions to take precedence over other, non-emergency matters.”
“Just run the damn machine for me, alright? I need to relax a bit.”
Darwin gave him a flat look, then began studiously washing the other forepaw. “Ask nicely.”
“It’s your job. You can’t say no.”
Darwin quirked a brow at him, pausing in his grooming. “My job, is it? I regret the need to remind you, but my job is to keep you and everyone else on this rock as sane as they can possibly be, loose as that definition may appear sometimes. That PHD on my wall isn’t just for show, you know. How about instead, we discuss those absolutely dreadful defense mechanisms of yours. Hmm?”
Maverick swallowed a sharp reply, that would have played directly into Darwin’s paws. He hated these reminders of why Darwin was here instead of someone else. Why the psychic feline was the only quadruped on the base that wasn’t there for grunt work. “Fine. Please.”
Darwin continued washing his paw. “Better, but not good enough.” His dark eyes danced with amusement as he met Maverick’s gaze. “I expect nothing but the best from you, Mr. Hero, and you know by now what that means in this regard.”
Inwardly seething, Maverick acquiesced. It was the only way to win this debate, though, ‘winning’ was a poor term for it. “Pretty please, with sugar on top,” he ground out.
“Ah, now was that so hard? Keep at it, and one of these days, you’ll really mean it.” Chuckling, Darwin hopped down to the floor, nodding in the direction of a second door at the back of his office. It opened, seemingly of its own accord. “You’re in luck, no one else has it booked. Well, most of them are at your party anyway. Come along.” He strolled leisurely through the door, tail twitching.
Sighing, Maverick followed into the familiar adjoining room. This one was much more stark, more utilitarian. A large glass cylinder dominated the center of the white-walled room, filled almost to the brim with semi-translucent gel. A metal staircase led to the top of the cylinder, and a small panel at the bottom flashed with a rhythmic pulse. Wires snaked every which way, seeming almost haphazard in their placement, more like a spider-web than an expensive piece of technology.
“So, tell me, Maverick,” Darwin said conversationally as he examined at the control board. Various switches began to flip, seemingly on their own, and a low hum began to fill the room. “Why would you come here, abandon all the people that want to see you have a good time, and curl up by yourself in the fapper?”
Maverick gave a theatrical wince. “Must you call it that? And you know why.”
Darwin flicked his tail, the feline equivalent of a shrug. “If it walks like a psyduck and barks like a houndoom, it’s probably a zorua having a little fun. They can term it the ‘employee enhancement and psychological enrichment chamber’ all they want. I’d bet my next paycheck that those hundreds of educational scenarios haven’t been touched more than a dozen times. And yes, of course I know why. I just want to hear you say it. It’s good for you.”
There was no real harm in it. The espeon knew his psychoses inside and out already. And, galling as it was, he had to cooperate to some degree. The last thing he wanted was several weeks on sick leave for, ‘mental health issues’. Darwin did as he pleased, and it could easily become most pleasing to him to turn Maverick into one of his ‘projects’. If there was one thing he liked, as near as Maverick could tell, it was fixing people. He’d even written a book about it. Maverick was quite certain he had no interest in being anyone’s ‘project’. “Because that isn’t my thing. Not anymore. Too many people, all too close. It’s better this way. I get to relax, and no-one gets hurt.”
“Yourself included,” Darwin said. It wasn’t a question, and Maverick didn’t respond. Why waste his breath denying what they both knew to be true? Still, Darwin nodded, as if he’d gotten the answer he was looking for.
“They don’t hate you, you know. As much as you try to make them. Funny thing about pushing people away. Sometimes, they push back.” Darwin hadn’t looked up from the control panel, but Maverick looked away anyway, suddenly embarrassed. Trust Darwin to try turning this encounter into a therapy session. Had he really revealed that much? Sometimes, it was difficult to tell if the espeon was reading minds, or merely being eerily perceptive. He claimed it was no more than the latter.
“I know,” he said softly. He was surprised to realize that this was, in fact, true.
Darwin looked up at last, all traces of amusement gone from his expression as he studied Maverick for a moment, before nodding once more. “Good.”
The top of the tank opened with a soft hiss, like a massive metal flower seeking the sun.
“Right, you know the drill of course. At least you should, you’re my best customer after all.” Darwin smirked at him, nodding at the stairs leading to the top of the cylinder.
“Shush, you.” Maverick growled, still annoyed with the flash of emotion, however small, that he’d displayed in front of the smaller ‘mon. His footsteps rang out as he ascended the metal stairs, impossibly loud in the confined space. Reaching the top, Maverick shucked his dusty shorts into the provided bin -all the bipedal ‘mon on the base were required to wear some such, as company policy- and grabbed the awaiting tube of application gel from a small shelf. He placed a small dab of it on each of his temples and in the center of his forehead, then picked up the lightweight, white painted helmet from the shelf and stuck its three dangling electro pads to the gel blobs. Helmet wires secured, he gingerly placed the thing on his head, careful not to dislodge the pads, and popped a fresh mouthpiece into the breathing tube.
“All set?” Darwin called. Maverick nodded in reply, taking a step towards the awaiting pool and peering down. It was always a little nerve-wracking to step off the ledge, into what seemed to be a glass specimen tube. “Fine. Have fun, sweetie,” Darwin said, a hint of a chuckle in his voice.
Taking a deep breath, Maverick prepared to plunge in, but suddenly halted as his eye caught a patch of yellow. His eyes widened as he did a double-take, then narrowed in suspicion, and he spat out the mouthpiece to say, “The hell? Darwin, why is there a rubber psyduck floating in there?”
“Oh, that.” The espeon was already halfway out of the room, and he tossed the words over his shoulder as if the matter were of little import. “I thought I’d give one more try at getting you to have a relationship with someone a bit more solid. It seemed a good match to me. He’s only a little more talkative than you are.”
“Very funny. Can you take it out, please?”
Darwin heaved a theatrical sigh. “Oh, very well, if you insist. Not much of a charmer, are you? Didn’t even give the poor duck a full first date. Then again, perhaps you two aren’t such a great match. I forgot that he frowns about as often as you smile.” Despite the staged protests, the duck levitated silently from its repose upon the gel, contented itself with only dive-bombing Maverick’s head once, then mercifully followed Darwin out the door.
Rolling his eyes, Maverick decided to take the plunge before Darwin came up with any more ‘clever’ tricks. Where had he even dug that thing up, anyway? He instinctively held his breath as he dropped into the cool, slimy embrace of the gel, before slipping into the assisted breathing provided by the helmet’s mouthpiece, the hose trailing up to the machine’s massive oxygen tank. He didn’t fall all the way to the bottom, the curious buoyancy of the substance keeping him suspended roughly halfway.
He shivered at the initial shock of it, the squishy confines of the nano-gel slipping under his fur and seeming to vibrate against his skin. As placid as the semi-solid mess seemed, he knew it was all constantly in motion, reacting to both his presence and the mysterious hummed commands from the chamber itself. Already, the tiny neuron spark sensors in his helmet would be spooling up, transmitting data to the mighty processor ensconced below.
The top of the chamber closed, silently this time, his senses dulled by the surrounding gel. The ears were always the most unsettling bit. It was almost like having some tiny bug crawling around inside, yet slapping it away would accomplish nothing. He ignored the sensation. It would fade to the background soon enough. A muffled clanking sound echoed through his small cavern, and the light from outside dimmed as the sensory deprivation shields -which doubled as a privacy screen- curved into place around the cylinder.
It was strangely relaxing, these few moments of darkness. While his mobility was limited, the position was in no way uncomfortable. Every part of his body was perfectly supported by the hyperactive gel, leaving the impressions of gravity behind as surely as deep space. His skin prickled, all the dust and grime of the day being carried off like so dead leaves upon a wind. Only the sound of his breathing filled his ears, and the odd burble or popping sound, caused by some of the more abrupt changes in the gel’s structure.
‘Let’s get this show on the road, Darwin,’ he called silently. He hoped the espeon hadn’t ‘forgotten’ again. Unless Maverick decided to push himself upwards and pull the panic lever, he was completely at Darwin’s leisure. The machine wouldn’t run without an ‘ignition’ of psychic energy, and Darwin was one of the only ‘mon on the base who could provide that. From there, it would run almost entirely off of Maverick’s own subconscious and the power of his latent abilities. The gel provided the physical touches that made the experience more real. His mind would provide the rest. As a whole, it was a giant leap from the old, entirely computerized forms of virtual reality.
His stomach lurched, and before his eyes, black dissolved into a pure, unblemished whiteness that should have made him squint, yet felt like the most natural thing in the world to gaze into. The all-consuming light expanded, engulfing him like a black hole, filtering him down into a place of infinite possibility.
Maverick found himself in a familiar white room, much like the one outside, but with a few important differences. Gone was the giant glass tank and control panel. In its place, a single touch screen, glowing with an inviting green blaze. He walked over to it, waving his paw over the surface to begin the sequence.
Type of excursion? The screen queried. Maverick pressed the drop-down menu, scrolling past Educational and Scenario to pick Recreational. The selection screen dissolved from the top down, leaving another in its place. Classification? Maverick lingered briefly over the one’s marked Existential, and Abstraction, once more mildly curious about what those meant, precisely, before discarding it in favor of Adult. It was rumored there was another category, marked Classified, but after what he’d seen already, he couldn’t imagine the purpose of such a typing. Then again, perhaps he didn’t want to.
He thought for a moment, tapping his paw on the screen as he considered the next set of options. What exactly was he looking for, today? He needed something... different. Something completely out of the ordinary.
‘Here goes nothing. Always wanted to try this.’
The next few menus went by in a whirlwind, a simple matter of flicking to the bottom of each and selecting Random. There seemed to be more of them than he remembered, and his brow furrowed as options came up that he wasn’t entirely certain applied. Preferred denial period settings? Developmental reversal options? Rain or shine policy? Shrugging, he set them to random also, deciding that, if nothing else, he would find out.
“Feeling a little kinky today, are we?” Darwin’s voice echoed from all around, as if coming from a hidden loudspeaker. “Are you sure you’re ready for that? Hope you have a safe-word.”
Maverick glared up at the ceiling, even though, in here, direction had no real meaning. “No peeking. It’s none of your business.” He turned back to the board, flipping through a few more menus. How many of the things were there?
“Au contraire, my young apprentice,” Darwin replied, a wry chuckle underneath his words. “As you so elegantly put it, I’m your shrink. This sort of thing is exactly my business. And it’s not so easy as you think, you know.”
“Uh-huh. That’s why I’ve seen you read a book while you run the machine for someone, right?”
“Absolutely! Those of us with high IQs are known for the ability to multitask, you know. But, the ability to do two things at once doesn’t make it easy to do as you ask. It’s a bit like asking someone not to watch the colossoplex film screen that’s glued to their face. Besides,” Darwin added with a snicker, “your scenarios tend to be a lot more fun to observe. I tell you, if I were the sort to break patient confidentiality, some of the stories I’d have...”
Maverick groaned, placing a paw over his eyes and shaking his head. He should have known Darwin would get his jollies by spying on his private time. The espeon could call it what he liked, it made it more akin to watching a porn flick with the little psychologist than a true solo session. The thought was a little off-putting.
“You shouldn’t worry about it,” Darwin put in, as if once more reading Maverick’s thoughts. “Remember, I’m a doctor.” His statement was not helped by the fit of muffled giggles that followed.
“Right, and you’re so professional about it,” growled Maverick. “I don’t care how hard it is. Do something else.”
“Oh, fine then. I’ll go back to my novel, Mr. grumpy-pants hero,” Darwin retorted. Maverick could almost picture the exaggerated pout on his muzzle. “Spoil-sport. I can’t guarantee I won’t be checking in from time to time though. Like I said, it’s a teensy bit hard to ignore. If it helps, I don’t get off on it. Certainly not from watching you! Great Arceus, perish the thought. It’s more like an episode of my favourite comedy than something to add to my own little private fantasy pool.”
“How reassuring,” grumbled Maverick. In spite of his austere rejection of the whole voyeuristic concept, he had to admit the put-down stung a bit.
“Indeed. That’s the whole ‘professional’ part you were discussing. See? Told you I could pull it off,” Darwin said absently. “Oh, one more thing, Mav. You do need to tell me your safe-word. The machine’s protocols will recognize it, but it won’t actually do anything to change the scenario. It will merely tone things down a few notches, until you use the word again. Actual change needs to be enacted manually, and you can’t do that while you’re in animus. Three uses of the safe-word will stop the program entirely, so unless you want your playtime to end early, I suggest you let me in.”
Maverick frowned up at the ceiling, but could find no reason to doubt the explanation. For all of Darwin’s irritating qualities, dishonesty was not one of them. “Sure, if you really think I’ll need it. My safe-word is Vera.” His muzzle twisted as he spoke. There wasn’t a much more un-arousing word than that name. At least, that he could utter without feeling nauseous, and he certainly wouldn’t be moaning her name by chance.
“Trust me,” Darwin chuckled, “you’ll need it. Enjoy your fun, sweetie-pie.” This time, his voice seemed to fade out at the end, leaving Maverick with the curious, spine tingling sensation of being completely alone. For a moment, he merely closed his eyes, savoring the feeling, before glancing down at the touch screen. Only one option remained.
Duration? He set to one hour, with scheduled shifts every quarter. Then, he pressed his paw down firmly on the single, pulsing green button labeled, Start.
Everything vanished. Like a flame extinguishing in a sudden gust, the white room evaporated into nothing. Maverick blinked in the sudden darkness, and almost immediately, the scene around him began to swirl and vibrate with a thousand colours at once. A great, shifting kaleidoscope, slowly rippling into view like a shapeless form rising from the bottom of a placid lake.
Oddly, he could feel his body shifting too, hundreds of needle-pricks along his arms, legs, chest, back. On one paw, his mind knew it was nothing more than the gel and the psychotropic pulses the machine was transmitting to his nervous system. On the other, the inexorable experience of change was impossible to fully deny. He felt... smaller, more compact, though his body still kept the same basic dimensions. And, there was something else, something intangible at first. Something that was missing, that he couldn’t quite put his claws on.
His vision cleared, and he instantly forgot the curious sensations of crawling skin and liquefying bone. His jaw -which felt lighter and narrower than before- dropped at the sight before him. A brief moment of vertigo, and then that too was gone, leaving him within a sphere of effortless motion, floating weightless upon a bed of pure, airless velvet. Millions of stars pierced the endless void, fantastic beacons of light, unhindered by any veil of atmosphere. It was hopeless to number them, or even tell which ones were near or far. Only their life-giving glow mattered, a purity of illumination that no mechanical artifice could ever hope to imitate.
Maverick felt smaller than he ever had in his life, lost among that infinite ocean of sparkling lights. Almost reluctant, he tore his gaze away from them, looking down at himself to see what other changes had been imposed upon him. He had to blink and take a second, closer look to confirm what he saw. Hesitantly, he ran a paw over his -though, that wasn’t quite right now, was it?- belly, the thick, lush white fur coursing through the two heavy striking claws that now adorned each paw. Several tiny nubs perked at his touch, situated in a line down his abdomen, on either side of the zig-zag slash of red that marked him from shoulder to waist. And, more importantly than his new species, he was now indeed a she.
Wonderingly, she cupped her new attributes with her paw, the warmth pulsing through her. A tiny thrill ran up her spine, confirming the existence of a completely foreign sensory network. A rush of excitement stirred within Maverick’s innermost being, a curious mixture of taboo and exotic adventure. It was odd, how quickly she adapted to thinking of herself in the feminine sense, but after that initial shock, her form now felt as natural as the one she’d been born in.
‘Guess this is what ‘Random’ really means. I never even knew this was possible.’ She ran her claws through her belly-fur once more, reveling in the tingling sensations that ran down through her skin, both strange and familiar. She lingered on the tiny nubs hidden amongst her thick coat, examining each one individually, shivering as they hardened at the brush of her paw. Offhandedly, she noticed that her movements had rotated her where she floated, the endless vista of stars turning into a multi-hued nimbus of light, just outside her vision.
Awkwardly, she shifted around, a maneuver difficult to quantify with no friction or direction to judge with, and let out an involuntary gasp. No more than inches away, a crackling firestorm of rainbow energies sung and snapped, random tendrils reaching out to flutter at her feet, drawing her closer towards that brilliant, red-gold core of molten ice. There was no pain at the flickering touches, merely a vague sense of drawing nearer, her body slowly entering the protective embrace of this wonder of deep-space.
‘A nebula? Some sort of mid-stage supernova? A quasar?’ It was well outside her experience to define, but none of that mattered. Its radiance enveloped her, stroked her, caressed her face, her paws, her belly. Arcing bolts formed spectral hands to groom her, fondling strands of fur with a gentle petting motion, drawing along her limbs and back as if to carry her off for presentation to some ethereal master.
Green tongues of flame rose up out of the rippling ocean, stretching over her in glorious archways of living colour. They flicked downward, playing across her splayed limbs, working with a more pronounced touch than the myriad hands. Maverick sighed happily as they massaged her arms and kneaded the muscles of her thighs, working their way lower in concentric circles. Each firm stroke seemed to pull away some of the day’s stresses, siphon it into the swirling, flickering depths.
Before her, fantastic shapes rose and fell in the maelstrom. A face, locked in laughter, crying purple and yellow tears of joy. A pair of ancient sailing ships, bedecked in firework hues green and white, blue and gold, locked in combat. Red starbursts erupted between them, flashing across her body as she floated onward, the display seeming an echo of the humming sensations awakening inside her. Time and space had no meaning in this place of brilliant fancy and revealed secrets. She and the universe were one, a single power, that chose to indulge in her own passions for a time.
The tongues migrated lower now, enveloping all four of her paws with a tenderness she’d never experienced from any lover. They were joined by a new set of sparkling hands and fingers, prodding and stroking and cajoling her pads into a gloriously relaxed state. Her spine arched, each flicker of sensation now more titillating than mere alleviation. Her hips bucked, silently begging that attention, that tenderness, to move towards the center of her arousal. Her nose filled with her own scent, spiked by the ever-present sharpness of ozone. It was a light breeze of nectar, an echo of the fluids she could feel welling up and dribbling free into the abyss.
A comet scorched by, a flare of frigid wind in its wake, passing so close she could almost have touched the spines of ice standing out upon its craggy face. She could not move of her own accord, her limbs pinioned by both adoring energies and the pleasure they were igniting inside her. Maverick shuddered in the chill breeze, the abrupt change feeling like a secret kiss upon her blushing womanhood.
The comet’s passing seemed to excite her countless lovers -or perhaps it was her own animated groans of contentment and helpless twitching- and their pace increased into a frenetic beat. The tongues and hands melted away, congealing into a sapphire glow that molded itself to her paws, undulating and pulsing like eager mouths. Genuine pleasure sparked up through her limbs, racing down her spine and centering upon her dripping folds. Rivulets ran down her thighs, soaking into her fur, a ripple shunting through her passage. Was it possible to climax from no more than this?
Panting, she gazed upwards, riveted by the crescendo of sensations. The spectacular sights above seemed to also be culminating. Gone were the defined, fairytale shapes and scenes. In their place, bursts and showers of every colour she could name -and some she couldn’t- exploded and rioted for her amusement. They seemed to be gathering, waiting upon her command, that final moment of ecstatic completion. Would they finish at the same time? Or would they merely follow? Soon, she would find out, very soon.
Maverick gulped air as the incredible vista was yanked cruelly away, the entire world swirling into a ball of colour as if being sucked down a drain. His own labored breathing echoed like thunder in the sudden shroud of darkness, his pulse racing. Vaguely, he could sense the lingering readiness between his legs, a solid reminder of what he’d just experienced at the hands of the device.
‘Wow.’ It wasn’t much of a summary, but it was all that was required. ‘Fifteen minutes goes quick.’ Before he had a chance to truly reflect, the image of kaleidoscopic chaos returned, rushing towards him at breakneck speed. Once more, his fur stood on end, an unstoppable sense of change overtaking him.
He knelt on a beach, breathing hard, clean white sand crunching beneath his feet. He attempted to stand, but found himself halted, limbs locked into a four-footed stance. Curious, he raised a paw to his face, turning the limb around to examine it. Blue scales sparkled in the blazing light of the midday sun, three large, smooth toes wriggling at his command. His paws tingled, still reacting to the attention they’d been granted on his previous excursion. His haunches felt heavier, powerful, and a presence behind him revealed itself as a thick, heavy swimming tail. He swished it about, spraying sand, marvelling at the radical change of his anatomy. A vaporeon then. ‘This should be interesting.’
His interest quickly spiralled lower, and he ducked his head between his forelimbs to gaze across the smooth expanse of his underbelly. Oh yes, he hadn’t been mistaken. A moderately sized example of his smouldering excitement twitched and throbbed between his hind legs, a tiny bead of fluid glistening atop the taper’s tip. Little had truly changed from before, merely the equipment in place. His previously denied need flared up, heralded by another twitch in his smooth, eager flesh. He was more than ready to continue.
Putting aside the urge to curl into a ball right there and lick himself to completion, Maverick glanced around. Surely there was more to this than a nice view. Even with all the variables reorganizing haphazardly, this adventure still bore a singular purpose. But, which way would that purpose be?
‘Aquatic species, huh? The sea it is then. Certainly can’t hurt.’ In any event, the program would likely adjust itself to his actions. Of course, as turned on as he was now, he would have a hard time lasting those precious fifteen minutes.
Gentle waves lapped at his belly as he strolled into the surf, his gait a bit awkward around his exposed endowment. Walking on all fours came with ease, as did the instinctual thumping rhythm of his tail and paws as he slipped into the rolling waters. The slow swoosh...slap of the sea’s motion was calming, and for a moment, he allowed himself to drift upon the breakers, inhaling the aromas of brine, sunlight, and fresh air. The warmth on his back contrasted with the cool kiss of the water on his scales, rivulets sliding off his smooth body like tiny waterfalls.
Turning away from the protection of the shoreline, Maverick dug deep and stroked out for deeper waters, following an instinctual pulling from somewhere inside him. The pull of salt water upon bare flesh excited his turgid meat, each powerful thrust of his tail stoking the fires as surely as circling a prospective mate would, dancing and displaying himself in the water for her approval. Some vague part of him recognized that instinct as something alien, but he ignored it, accepting all that he was now, embracing it as if it had always been.
The shallows rapidly gave way to deeper waters, tiny fish darting to and fro beneath him, their scales flickering in the refracted light. He halted his progress for a moment, a bit puzzled. Shouldn’t something have happened by now? Had he gone the wrong way? He kicked absently, maintaining his position as he drew in air from the liquid surrounding him. The sensation was somewhat akin to zero G, but with an undefinable sense of weight, of actual being, that the void siphoned away. ‘Okay, now what?’
A concentrated blur of colour moved towards him from the depths. He squinted, peering through the shafts of sunlight to try and make it out. Bright yellow pectorals branched up sharply from deep blue backs. A group of them, at least nine or ten, and moving swiftly. Red undersides flashed with their whipping motions, spike filled jaws opening and closing hungrily. Every aspect of them seemed to scream a single word. Danger.
They were making a bee-line right for him.
Maverick let out a panicked yelp as the school of carvanha closed the gap. Was this a joke? Some malicious scenario programmed in to take advantage of some unfortunate pleasure-seeker? He backpedaled, eyes wide, instinctively aiming for the surface.
“Vera!” he yelled, hoping the cry wouldn’t go unheard due to his watery environ. Almost instantly, the progress of the carnivorous fish noticeably slowed, their fins stroking at only half time. Still, they came on, each wearing an expression much like that an emaciated snorlax might adopt upon stumbling into an all-you-can-eat sushi bar. He could see their eyes now, fixated upon him with single-minded purpose. No, not merely upon him, he realized with a nauseous twist to his stomach, but upon a very specific, exposed, delicate part of him. Somehow, he didn’t think that a gentle oral treatment was what they had in mind.
“What, already? Sure didn’t last too long, did you? Whatever is wrong, darling?” Darwin’s bored tones pulsed like sonar through the water, ringing in Maverick’s ears.
“You know perfectly well what’s wrong! Get me out of here!”
“From that?” Maverick got the distinct impression of ghostly eyes sweeping the scene. “Doesn’t look so bad to me. Rather nice scenery. You can’t actually want to leave before the full experience is over.”
The predatory swimmers were closer now. Maverick shuddered, back-finning wildly. Maybe he could make it to the shore in time. “Like hell I’m staying here! Come on, change it!” Abruptly, his back slammed into an invisible wall, knocking his breath -and the last vestiges of his arousal- out of him. Incredulously, he turned, seeing nothing but open water behind him. Hesitantly, he reached out a paw. A barrier solid as rock barred his way, denying him the safety of the shoreline.
“Are you really certain?” Darwin managed to sound both disappointed and amused. “I’m afraid I don’t see the problem. Why, look at all those friendly faces coming to help you out! I know I, for one, would hate to disappoint them.”
A cold shock struck Maverick like a lightning bolt out of the blue. “You little... You set this up, didn’t you?!”
“You wound me, Mr. hero.” Darwin sounded legitimately hurt, but Maverick noted that he didn’t deny the accusation. “What would make you say a nasty thing like that? Why, I think I might just leave you there after all. So there!”
The caravanha school was no more than a moment away now, arrowing towards the trapped vaporeon. The leader’s jaws opened wide, anticipating sinking into a juicy piece of Maverick that he was quite certain he didn’t want to part with. “Get me out of here now, or I swear, when this is over, I’ll-”
“No need to be so belligerent about it,” Darwin interrupted with a haughty sounding sniff. “Don’t get your tail in a twist. If you’re really sure you don’t want to stick around, I’ll change it. I do require you to use the magic words, however.”
“Please,” Maverick snarled, huddling back against the invisible wall. Instinctively, he curled up, hoping to minimize any damage with his protective scales.
“That will do, I suppose.” The chuckle behind the statement belied the injured pride the espeon was desperately attempting to project. Maverick squeezed his eyes shut. The very moment he felt a maw full of needle sharp teeth scrape against his forepaw, the world fell away into dust.
This change was markedly different than the others. Instead of an endless darkness, the light and colour around him mostly stayed put, blurring and warping as if seen through a film. His body seemed to stretch, a bizarre feeling of... collapsing... rippling down from head to toe. It was a quick change too, swallowing and disgorging him in what felt like seconds. A shudder ran down his spine, his skin feeling raw, brand-new, untested, for a brief moment, before settling into place.
He still floated in the undulating grip of the ocean. The light now had faded, silver streams streaking down in place of the swirling pillars of gold. No razor-edged attackers rose out of the gloom are darted around him. Once more, he was blessedly alone. Relieved, he let out the breath he’d been holding, a storm of bubbles rising from his maw.
Experimentally, Maverick attempted a powerful swimming stroke. The motion was entirely different now, a subconscious flick that started at his head and ended at the very tip of his tail, curling him around into a graceful loop. Intrigued, he looked down at the new alterations to his form.
Muscular rolls of white and blue flesh. A thin, serpentine profile. Smooth, scale-less skin that still managed to completely ignore the drag of the briny waters. A pair of jewel-like orbs adorning his tail, one slightly smaller than the other. He was a dragonair now, a rarely seen specimen of sea and hidden lakes. And, though there was no obvious signs, his ‘equipment’ safely stowed within a protective slit below his belly, there was no doubt in his mind as to his current gender. His lower regions tingled and tightened in an all-too familiar way, a reaction to the heart-pounding fear of moments before that was distinctly masculine. Maverick gave an approving nod.
“Nice choice, Darwin. Knowing your preferences, I thought you would have stuck me in something utterly outrageous.”
There was no response to the jibe, leaving him oddly... disappointed? Why on earth would he feel like that? Shaking the feeling off, he looked around, both curious and a touch wary. What mysteries would this little haven hold?
A faint brush across his intimate regions made him start. Recoiling, he glanced down the long expanse of his body, anxiously seeking his molester. Tiny, nearly invisible shapes shot back and forth around him, mirroring and reacting to his startled movement. Several more feather touches danced across his groin. A quick tease here, a hint of something more there. His belly muscles tensed reflexively, but none of the slippery touches was the slightest bit threatening.
Slowly, he relaxed, rolling belly-up in the water and curving down to get a better look at his new companions. They were so small, he could have swallowed half their number in a single gulp, yet the approached him with no sign of fear. Silvery flashes in the gloom marked their passage, leaving the impression of a shower of sparks surrounding him. They seemed to respond to his calming emotions, and the minute nudges returned, more focused this time. Minuscule mouths pressed lightly to his skin, teasing the sensitive regions around his slit.
‘Mmm, not bad. Like that... what’s it called. Remorish? Remoraid? That sounds right. But, aren’t they supposed to be larger?’ His knowledge of piscine species was admittedly limited. Though, given the unbound parameters of the program, they could very well be miniature versions of that particular pokémon.
The school condensed as he watched, growing bolder with his apparent submission. A flurry of pint-sized kisses descended upon his slit, the affection sparking a tingling warmth in his groin. Maverick released a soft sigh of happiness, leaning back into the fluid arms of the sea and allowing himself to be tended to by his tiny harem. The lips of his slit bulged, a flash of pink flesh showing briefly as they parted, making way for the narrow tip of his growing endowment. Immediately, the diminutive fish darted to his aid, centering their ministrations upon his emerging flesh.
In a sudden flash of insight, the source of this scenario became clear. Maverick almost had to laugh in relief at the absurdity of it. This was, in essence, the same situation he’d almost been eaten alive in. Except, it was an overcompensation, the extreme lower end of the same scale. These companions were about as non-threatening as it was possible to be, save perhaps for an inanimate ball of purple fluff. On the other paw, that still meant there was at least a 5% chance the ball of purple fluff was about to sprout teeth and eat you. After all, random didn’t always mean pleasant.
Cool, slippery bodies rubbed against the sensitive flesh of his dragonhood, tiny mouths and tongues doing their best to engulf him. A shudder wracked him, a rising delight slowly oozing through him as his aquatic paramours worked to pleasure him. He could barely see his own endowment amongst the writhing bodies, each and every one of them scrambling to taste his essence. He felt like some ancient fertility god, presiding over a carnal orgy in his honour. His shaft twitched in response to their attentions, scattering scaled forms for a brief moment, before they rushed back to resume their duties.
A few of the eager worshipers had been shoved to the outside, no place for them even amongst the now full expanse of his throbbing meat. They finned about aimlessly for a moment, bumping uselessly against the backs of the wriggling throng, before, as one, they discovered a new way they could please their master. Maverick’s newly acquired dragon voice sang in the water as they attacked his tightly puckered tailhole, sending quivers of a new form of pleasure up his muscular body.
Every hidden inch of his erogenous regions was systematically uncovered and attended to, whether by the soft scrape of almost invisible scales, or by fervent lips fastening and suckling upon his responsive flesh. His erection throbbed, almost painfully hard from the enthusiastic treatment, thin streams of cloudy pre escaping into the water.
Maverick didn’t dare to move, as much as his instincts cried out to thrust wildly into the glorious grip of that undulating mass of bodies. Any sudden motion from his powerful form would merely fling them away, leaving his arousal crying out for the loving touches of his entourage. His hidden orbs ached for release, the denial he’d experienced making his need almost frantic, the slow progress almost not enough to satisfy. He had no desire to hold himself back. Every fibre of his being felt perched on the brink, not merely wanting, but demanding that final push to sink into the growing pond of bliss pooling inside of him.
‘Wonder if this is what the BDSM crowd gets out of it. Complete reliance upon the other to provide your pleasure. If that’s so, I’m perfectly okay with this, just leave the whips at home.’
A groan bubbled from his lips as the fish stepped up their frenetic adoration of his intimate regions, thicker squirts of pre joining the cloud as they coaxed the fantastic sensations to rise through him. Feathery teases at his pucker were yet another stream adding to the pool, a distinct shivering line of pleasure completely separate from the rest. His serpentine form quivered and arched involuntarily, his internal orbs tightening in anticipation. His tongue lolled out, the taste of brine assaulting his palate as he waited for what seemed an eternity, staring up towards the rippling, moonlit surface.
The tension broke like a tidal wave, his studious attempts to remain still completely forgotten in the heady rush. A mighty geyser of potent cream spurted from his pulsing rod, his internal muscles contracting frantically in their haste to expel the pent-up load. His body jerked and thrashed, scattering the tiny fish as his essence jetted free in all directions.
Maverick closed his eyes, mouthing wordless exhortations of satisfaction as he added his own salty emissions to the safety of the sea. It voiced no complaints, willingly accepting his seed into its tender care. His lower half continued to twitch, almost on its own, as the powerful streams guttered to a fitful bubbling, then no more than an exhausted dribble.
Afterglow came upon him like the rays of the sun, soothing his limp form where he floated. His upward curving shaft bobbed loose in the water, spent, already beginning to soften and retreat. The salty touch of the sea made his hypersensitive flesh tingle and crawl with the curious sensation of freshly scrubbed skin. He sighed happily, basking in the heightened awareness until his attributes receded into their protective home.
He opened his eyelids a crack, feeling refreshed from the mighty release. He only had a moment to take in the sight of the now murky waters, lit by moonlight and once more absent of glittering shapes, his copious fluids mushrooming into a cloud of smoke all about him. It was a curiously satisfying sight. Almost like a visual badge of virility. The corners of his mouth twitched.
Blackness, cool, softly vibrating gel, and the awareness of his own body overtook him. His upright repose felt more natural now, his muscles completely relaxed. His paw instinctively migrated south, brushing against the once more hidden bulge of his knot inside his sheath. The spent satisfaction lingered here too, testament to the mirroring sensations his real body had experienced.
He was glad for the privacy shield, even though his logical mind knew that no-one else would be in the room outside. Nudity in front of others didn’t bother him of course, but this was another matter altogether. It was personal, not something to be shared or put on display for someone’s amusement. His pleasures were his own. He needed no lover -and certainly no voyeur- to appreciate them.
A whirlwind of colour, light, and distorted sound took him away into dream. Some distant source of heat scorched him as his body succumbed to the transitioning forces, molding him unto their will. He amused himself in that brief moment attempting to foresee what shape he would be taking on. Would he be male? Quadruped? Small? Massive? Would he even be a pokémon?
Gravity struck him with all the subtlety of a fist to the belly. His balance wavered, vision spinning with disorienting waves of vertigo. Directly before him, a mighty precipice threatened, the crumbling rock of the edge tickling his toes. A bleat of alarm rasped from his suddenly dry lips, his limbs pinwheeling to find his balance. Time seemed to slow as he teetered, granting him an excellent moment to appreciate the spreading vista of river valley and lush forest decorating the landscape below. He simply didn’t wish to decorate it with his own splattered form.
Gravel and scree slid over the drop, sending tiny clicks and clatters upwards in their wake like an invitation to join them. He politely, but firmly, refused, brow furrowing in determination. After a few more heart-stopping cycles of swaying and careful fidgeting, Maverick’s racing mind managed to grasp a single fact he’d initially overlooked.
He had a tail.
In a titanic burst of concentration, he threw his weight back, attempting to shove the appendage as far as he could reach towards safety. For a single heartbeat, he faltered on the brink, stomach plummeting away as he attempted to somehow collapse into his own tail. Miraculously, the maneuver succeeded, leaving him sprawled in a heap, gasping, on the tiny ledge.
For a few moments, he could do no more than lie there, recovering from the ordeal. Absently, his paws roamed over his body, checking that everything was in order. Rubbery pink skin brushed beneath his fingerless mitts, followed by thick, downy fluff adorning his neck and shoulders, as well as the top of his head. Yes, he appeared to be in one piece still, and on this particular adventure, decidedly woolly.
Maverick was given no more time to contemplate. The sunlight was abruptly eclipsed, a dark shadow stretching over his alcove. Hot wind that smelled like the dry air before a tunderstorm stirred his cotton fluff, sent dust spiralling away into the abyss. He looked up from his self-inspection, jaw dropping as he took in the beast that had risen to greet him.
A yellow, slit-pupilled eye nearly the size of his head stared at him with unblinking intensity. Emerald skin gleamed in the sunlight as the great head of the monster tilted, looking him up and down with obvious interest. Bright yellow markings adorned the powerful back and sides of what he could see of the creature, and a mighty claw rested absently on the edge of the cliff, digging into the solid rock like it were no more than soft loam.
Maverick bleated in alarm, scrabbling back to press against the unyielding wall of his tiny ledge. There was nowhere for him to go, no hiding place, no escape. His only point of egress was that sheer drop, now guarded by this towering, reptilian master of the sky. Yet he could see no wings that would keep such a massive ‘mon aloft. Only a seemingly endless length of coiling, armoured body, protective spines, and some sort of stabilizing fins around its midsection.
‘Great Arceus...’ He wasn’t one to call on the deity as a matter of course, but this seemed as good a time as any. ‘It’s actually Rayquaza. Right in front of me. Here. Now.’ His rational side tried to tell him that it wasn’t real, it was only a simulation, he was perfectly safe. But, it wasn’t so easy to believe when the legend was staring you in the face.
Heated breaths of wind blasted him from the two huge nostrils as the titan regarded him, inhaling mightily, sampling his scent. Maverick quivered, pressed tight against the rock wall, at a loss for how to respond. ‘Can you say size difference? Is it a he or a she? Oh hell, I hope it’s not a he.’
Quite aside from the rather absurd image of his tiny body being rutted over by this immense draconic guardian, he was quite certain that a taste of the other side of the experience he’d received from the fish was not his idea of a good time. Was hugging colossal dicks really a fetish for some people? On the flip side, assuming Rayquaza was female, how would he even manage? The thought of being used as a living dildo was even less appealing than the former.
Rayquaza seemed to finish with its examination, giving a short nod. For a half second, they merely stared at each-other, Maverick’s dark gaze meeting the lidless one of the dragon as confidently as he could manage.
“Hi?” Maverick ventured.
Rayquaza didn’t reply, its lips parting in what looked like a smile. Then, its jaw slowly began to open, revealing a maw lined with razor sharp teeth, each of which was easily the length of Maverick’s current forelimbs. A wide pink tongue snaked out, wetting the green lips in anticipation, and Maverick was treated to a rather disturbing view of that long, dark gullet. Then, the intimidating jaws snapped closed, and Rayquaza’s yellow gaze fixed upon him with such utter single-mindedness, that Maverick suddenly realized the cold intent that lay hidden there. “Forget sex,” that look said. “How about we do lunch?”
“Oh sh- Vera!” Maverick cried, rolling to the side as Rayquaza’s head snapped forward. “Darwin! Help!” By some miracle, he managed to evade that powerful bite, the jaws closing on air above him, his body battered roughly against the mountainside by Rayquaza’s lower jaw. The legendary’s head could barely fit into the enclosed space, and Maverick’s breath whooshed from his lungs as he was squeezed to the ground by the unyielding jaw.
“Having fun, are we?” Darwin’s sardonic tones queried out of empty air. “My, you do like them big, don’t you? What’s the problem with this particular dance partner?”
Realizing its prey had escaped, the dragon withdrew, pulling back out of the tiny grotto with a puzzled look on its face. The safeword had slowed it, and it took its time to examine him again, leaning in close and inhaling his scent. Maverick tried to make himself as small as possible. “I’d rather not be eaten today, thank you! Do you mind?!”
“Just a moment, I’m working on it.” Darwin sounded a little bored, and briefly Maverick wished he were the one watching the show, with the psychologist squirming to get away from a giant, floating dragon with a taste for flaaffy.
Rayquaza’s lips parted again, and the massive tongue stretched out, slurping against Maverick’s curled form like a sopping wet blanket. He shuddered, not inclined to appreciate the feeling of the rough, heavy muscle sampling his flavour to see if it was to the monster’s liking. ‘Eww, dragon slobber.’
“Darwin, care to hurry it up a bit?!” he called desperately as the giant tongue drew back, apparently satisfied. Peeking out from under his arm, he could see the behemoth preparing to strike again. There was no chance of him dodging it this time. One snap, and he would be getting a speedy tour of that long, powerful body. From the inside.
The journey was slightly longer this time. Maverick had the impression of being sucked down a narrow tube with a wild variety of colours. There wasn’t a sense of motion so much as there was a vision of things whipping past at breakneck speed.
“Guess I can add this to your file,” Darwin said, the disembodied voice loud in Maverick’s ears. Once more, the espeon sounded as if he’d just heard an excellent joke. “Vore can join neutering on your list of no-fly kinks. Hmm, now, how do you feel about unbirthing? Or perhaps watersports? Pregnancy?”
“Not at all,” growled Maverick, beginning to feel a bit dizzy from the whirling motion. “And I’d prefer not to find out. Ever.”
“Spoilsport. And you claim to be so open minded.”
“Point. This should be fine for you then.”
Somehow, it didn’t feel like he’d achieved any sort of victory over the quick-witted ‘mon. “What do you-”
“-mean,” Maverick finished, as the world warped back into physical being. Darwin was already gone. He heaved a frustrated sigh, turning instead to see for himself what surprises the espeon had in store. Waves of intense heat battered him mercilessly, and he raised a paw to swipe at the droplets of sweat he could already feel beading on his brow. Something long and green flashed into view, and he jumped in surprise, before abruptly realizing that this... this cumbersome sword thing, was in fact, his own arm.
He flexed the appendage, tilting his head to examine it. The top end tapered to a deadly point, glittering in the harsh sunlight as he tried a few swipes. The blade edge made a satisfying swish. He fancied he could actually see the slice in the thick, sweltering air. A cursory glance down revealed the rest of the story. Green sword arms, check. Small, bipedal body with white skin and two protective red armor plates? Absolutely. Thin, graceful legs designed for striking? You betcha.
‘Wait a minute...’ His gaze travelled back upwards. He blinked, uncomprehending. ‘How is that even possible? Aren’t I supposed to have a ‘dress’ if I have one of those?’ Hesitantly, Maverick reached down to brush the unlikely sight. Yes, definitely real. The glorious shiver the teasing contact with her mound had elicited was more than proof enough. That psychic rascal had turned him into a female gallade.
From somewhere behind him, a faint rumble made his ears perk, swiftly heeled by a shout of, “Yee-haw! Git along!”
Maverick spun, just in time to see a herd of tauros and miltank top a nearby rise, harried by several humans riding zebstrika or rapidashes. Her eyes widened. They would trample her to pieces!
Then, she noticed the thick fence surrounding her. She was standing in the middle of a corral. In a matter of seconds, the throng galloped past, hooves beating a tattoo on the bone-dry earth. All of them ignored her, thundering along in a rising fog of red dust, the entire procession passing by without so much as a glance in her direction.
‘Well, that was interesting.’
“You ain’t seen nothin’ yet, sister,” another voice behind her drawled. Maverick started, but before he could so much as turn, there was a sharp snap! And a heavy, roughly braided lasso pinioned her arms to her sides. Maveirck yelped as she was dragged to the ground, struggling violently, but to no avail. Her blade arms had been caught with the sharp edges turned inwards, leaving her quite truly trapped.
“Who are you?” she gasped. “What are you doing?”
“No questions,” the voice ordered. A heavy boot pressed against her shoulders, stymieing her efforts to roll over. “You just be a good girl and do as you’re told, and everyone’s gonna have a great time.”
Her retort was stolen away by a rough coarse burlap sack being pulled over her head and tied off loosely around her neck. She gasped, instinctively panicking at the pressure on her throat, but quickly realized she could breathe unhindered. It merely cut off her sense of sight. Two sets of hands grabbed her, hauling her to her feet. She tried to kick, but all she got for her efforts was a chuckle and a cuff on the cheek.
“None of that now, purty girl. Just remember, yer the one who came troopin’ out here, so don’t get a bee in yer bonnet when ya get what ya signed up for.”
Maverick quieted at that, mind racing. Her captors took the opportunity to shove her forward, walking her in a direction she couldn’t discern. It was tempting to shout the safeword at the top of her lungs, fly away from this unknown fate to something more benign. But, just as she was drawing the breath to do so, something stopped her. If she bowed out now, that would be the end of the simulation, the end of the adventure. Was she truly prepared to do that? She had known things like this would come up, so why was she running away? Maybe it would actually be fun. This wasn’t nearly so bad as the other two.
The humans -for she assumed that was what they were- seemed to notice the relaxing in her posture, giving mutters of approval. It was a bit galling to submit like this. She could feel their eyes roaming over her unprotected body. Maverick shivered. She could almost smell their lust, their arousal, their desire. But, they wouldn’t hurt her if she cooperated. She wasn’t here for pain.
The burlap slipped slightly, offering her a thinner patch that allowed her partial vision in her left eye. She caught a glimpse of a wooden table, stacked with bondage equipment and a rather impressive variety of toys. The side of a red painted building loomed in front of her, and one of the men took hold of the lasso and yanked her forward.
She stumbled, off balance, and more pairs of hands pushed her into a bent over position on what looked like a sturdy hitching post. The sack slipped again, hiding the sight as someone placed some sort of heavy collar over her neck and shoulders, laughing as she was forced down and locked into place.
Cold metal snapped around one of her ankles, making her flinch. A booted foot shoved at her other ankle, and she would have fallen had it not been for the post she was bound to. Obligingly, she complied with the unspoken command, spreading her legs further and permitting the man to clip the other cuff on with an air of finality.
“Should we gag ‘er?”
“Nah, I wanna hear this little slut moan for her supper. Take a good look at that fine ass, boys. It ain’t gonna be so purty by the time we’re done with her.”
Maverick shuddered, a thrill rippling up her spine. On one paw, it was degrading, it was dirty. On the other, it was gratifying to be so desired, even if it was a band of total strangers that wanted nothing more than to have their way with her. Experimentally, she shifted her feet, noting the bar that now held her in this splayed and inviting pose.
Someone patted her on the shoulder in a strangely friendly manner, whispering in her ear. “That’s it, princess. You relax and enjoy now. Remember, you wanted to do this, and you can make it stop. Just holler.”
Maverick nodded, resting against her restraints, her confidence surging. She could leave anytime she wished. This was no prison. No chains could hold her, here. Some hidden part of her wanted this, dark and carnal as it was. She needed to see what she was capable of, what these pieces of her fantasies were that normally hid away deep inside her. A lover she would not, could not, take. But she could accept this simple act of pleasure without consequence.
A soft exclamation passed her lips as surprisingly gentle fingers stroked her exposed folds, teasing her womanhood with confident, circular strokes. That was what it all came down to in the end, wasn’t it? The world had told her she was not worthy of love. She had tried it, desperately attempted to cling to it, and come away a burned husk every time. Well, fuck love. It didn’t need her, and she didn’t need it. She could live her life quite happily with its absence, and take her pleasures as she saw fit. Whose business was it if this was the form of release she chose? Temporary lovers could all too easily turn to long-term ones, and that was a road she no longer travelled. What did it matter? The results would be the same regardless.
The teasing didn’t last long. Maverick jolted as the powerful, thick fingers pinched and rolled her growing clit, sending arcs of pure ecstasy racing up her spine. Something hard, cool and smooth probed at her entrance, pushing the mischievous fingers aside. Without warning, it slipped in, several inches of firm plastic taper spreading her lips. She cooed wordlessly, reacting to the intruder as feminine nectar began to seep from her walls, aiding the toy’s progress. They were warming her up for the main event.
‘Yes, it all comes down to this. Nothing but the basics. Food, sleep, and sex. It works for survival of a species, it works for the individual. Love doesn’t enter into that equation. There are rules, yes, but it all boils down. Wanting more than that is just getting greedy. Or putting your hopes on a fairy tale.’
The man pleasuring her didn’t wait for her to adjust, steadily pushing the sleek length deeper into her slickened tunnel. Sweat poured down her skin, the intense heat adding to the spectacle of lust, filling her nose with the salty scent. Eager for more, she shoved back on the toy, grunting at the flash of discomfort as it plunged in to the hilt. The man behind her laughed roughly.
“Well would ya look at that! The little lady ain’t a shy one!” A slap to her rump made her yelp, which elicited more laughter. “Go on honey, give us a show.” Maverick wriggled, tongue lolling, revelling in the gratifying feeling of being stuffed full of something hard and thick. Her lips parted wide around the girth of the spreading toy, allowing her to grind her clit against a protruding bulb on its hilt.
Her ears picked up a muted chorus of wet slapping sounds, a surge of perverse pride welling up inside her as she realized what they were. How must she look, squirming and moaning like this? Blindfolded, tied to a post, and put on display. Her current companion hooted, and began to pump the toy furiously, drawing a series of squeaks from her lips as it pounded her aroused clit and rippling passage. Somehow, this sort of scrutiny didn’t bother her. Was it merely because these were not real? Mere constructs? Or was it because she truly was a slut, revelling in the attention given to her body.
The toy slipped from her folds with a loud slurp! Maverick groaned in disappointment, already missing the hefty protrusion between her legs. Her inner muscles contracted, seeking a non-existent phallus. Residual flickers of pleasure spasmed up her spine as she lay there, quivering in anticipation of what would come next.
No, neither of those definitions were quite true. A large part of it was because there were no physical beings in this crowd of raucous revellers, and part was because even if they were, they were not anyone close to her, or even known to her. They were of no consequence. Simply a means to an end. She was here for sex, and they would provide.
As if in answer to that thought, another hard shape pushed against her blushing mound, a much different construct than her previous pleasure toy. A knobbly tip plunged past her entrance, immediately thickening to a pleasant girth, with a veritable maze of dips and protrusions and ridges. Her walls spasmed, welcoming this new intruder, drawing it in deeper. Her runny juices seeped out around it, dribbling in hot lines down her thighs as the marvellously crafted features of the toy explored her insides, finding hidden crannies and folds that unlocked new heights of pleasure for her to experience.
And wasn’t her outright revulsion to the thought of Darwin looking in on her enough proof? Perhaps on some basic level she still did desire the respect of others, and didn’t want them to see her in this state. Keep them from getting close, yes, but don’t drive them away entirely. Look but don’t touch. Touch was what brought pain.
The sudden, insistent probing at her tailhole made her cry out in surprise, even as she shamelessly impaled herself upon the seemingly random protuberances the other toy bore. Men’s voices hurled an assortment of encouragement and lecherous commentary, along with the distinctive grunts, pants and groans of males participating in that age-old, ever taboo activity.
A slightly warm, well-lubed tip pressed inside, demanding and receiving entrance into her untouched back-door. Immediately, she tensed, halting its progress for a moment as she accustomed herself to the odd sensation of something going up instead of down. The same toy as before, she realized. A gentler invader than most, gradually working its way past her relaxing defences. Slowly, she eased her gripping sphincter, permitting the soaked rod to continue its exploration of her virgin tailhole.
Her entire body felt bathed in clean, honest sweat. Admiration from a safe distance... That was something to be prized. Most people couldn’t bring themselves to accept that as all she would ever want. They didn’t understand the dangers of coming close, of opening yourself to the touch of another, of yielding your secrets to them. Friendship was a quality to be kept at arms-length. Those lascivious gazes searing her naked, wanton form? They were a pale echo of this rare commodity. Innocuous and primal, yet cut from the same cloth. No substance behind it that would tie her down, bind her to someone else, tear her already ravaged heart to pieces.
So, why was it so difficult to block out that tiny, almost inaudible voice that whispered, “What if you’re wrong?”
The twin shafts felt impossibly immense, making her pant and writhe in ecstasy as a variety of nerves she didn’t even know she had alighted with pure bliss, weakening her knees. Even as the two began to plunge and thrust in counterpoint, her pleasure centers surged and overloaded, sending her spiralling down on an avalanche of liquid sunlight. Her hips bucked wildly, her twin passages clenching and milking feverishly on the false flesh of the two dildos. The man attending her grunted, continuing to work the toys for all he was worth, prolonging her powerful climax for what seemed an eternity of nirvana.
At last she began to come down from the ecstatic high, voicing a loud moan as the toys were removed, spilling a small rush of fluids down her legs. Aftershocks quaked through her system as the haze settled in, consuming her with its welcome warmth and contentment.
Or, perhaps in the end, she was just crazy. Look at her now, stuck in a body that wasn’t real, playing out a twisted fantasy and trying to rationalize her feelings about it. Wouldn’t it be a grand joke if it was all some crazed fever dream? Maybe what she really needed was a padded room and a regular regimen of medications. Then again, they said that you were only crazy when you thought you weren’t crazy, so there went that theory.
‘Pity. It would have been easier to accept, in some ways.’
A steady clip-clop jolted her from the peaceful reverie, along with more wolf-whistles and hollered suggestions. Oh, they weren’t serious, were they? She squirmed, trying to get a look at what was coming, but couldn’t budge an inch. Maybe it was time to draw the line here. How much time was left? How could she possibly take something that big?
‘No,’ she thought savagely. ‘Don’t wuss out now. You’ve come this far.’
A brisk breeze whipped through, flash-drying her sweat-soaked form. Maverick shivered with the sudden shock of it, her skin prickling with goose-bumps. She could hear the equine ‘mon, whatever species it was, snorting and whinnying, the heavy stomps of its hooves getting steadily closer. More than a little nervous, Maverick braced herself as best she could.
“They don’t hate you, you know. As much as you try to make them. Funny thing about pushing people away. Sometimes, they push back.”
Darwin’s disembodied words rang in her ears. Yes, she knew that there were a good number of those on the base who were ‘pushing back’ as the espeon had phrased it. If nothing else, they weren’t discarding her like some worthless rag, or trying to wheedle into her good graces for some kind of personal gain. At least, not that she could tell, and she considered herself a fair judge of character.
The newcomer -from the scent, she decided it must be a zebstrika- approached, taking his time and having a deep sniff at her abused sex. She remained as still as possible, breathing hard as the hot breath washed across her blushing folds. A quick flicker of a tongue graced her entrance, making her quiver with a mix of gratification and anticipation. He mumbled something under his breath, but must have approved of what he found, for with a loud snort, he reared up, hooves clomping on the supporting hitching post.
“Don’t know who you are, but if you’re going to play the mare in heat for me, I’m not going to complain,” he commented, his voice a rich bass. Without further preamble, he surged forward, forcing a gasp from Maverick as a thick, insistent sample of horseflesh jabbed at her awaiting petals.
His weight crashed down overtop of her, making her flinch involuntarily, only to squeak again in alarm as his questing member fought to gain entrance to her much smaller passage. It was only a token resistance. Nothing so insignificant as a body not designed for one of his girth could stop this powerful male from claiming what he wanted. She was offering herself to him, and he would accept, with a vengeance.
Maverick winced as her insides were forced to stretch and accommodate this absolutely massive trespasser. Even with the relaxation and preparation, there was no way she was ready for this! Hot flashes and spikes of pain ripped through her as the large male enthusiastically attempted to cram his entire length in with a single push. His throbbing meat seemed to vibrate with unrestrained energy, a faint buzz titillating her walls as he squeezed between them. Her breath wheezed from her lungs as he bucked his mighty haunches, straining to fill her with more of that absurdly huge endowment.
The impacts of his thrusts slammed her into her bonds, making her grunt and huff, straining to hang on to... something. She wasn’t sure. She couldn’t think with that monster pounding her, pummeling her already used sex with hefty strokes. Her inner muscles cried out in protest as they were beaten into submission by his huge tool, gradually making its way deeper. The stallion whinnied and snorted incoherently, teeth fastening tightly onto her shoulder to make sure she stayed put. Not like she had much choice.
‘Uh... He’s taking me hard enough to make me feel it out there. Heck, Darwin and all his crappy sculptures are probably feeling this!’ A flash of brilliance broke through the fog of smarting pain caused by his entry, a reflexive spasm of rapture that made her arch and twitch, helpless in his eager grasp. Her hips jolted of their own accord, yanking a groan from her as another couple inches jammed inside with his answering thrust, bottoming out in her battered and stretched tunnel.
Lewd squishing noises floated up to her ears, along with the raucous calls of the men watching. Heat rose to her face as she imagined how the scene would look, with her wantonly thrusting back onto her impromptu lover, taking all she could manage and crying out for more. His hot breath washed over her shoulder. The scrape of his teeth sent tiny pinpricks of excitement bristling along her flesh. Both of their bodies ran with sweat, the heat amplifying the intensity of their union, strengthening the powerful smell of sex permeating the air.
Pleasure ran in equal bursts with the discomfort now. The initial sharp, biting pains of her sensitive flesh being so indelicately treated had faded to a dull ache, throbbing in time with her own heartbeat. She imagined her belly would look swollen and distended with the size of him, his pounding shaft outlined sharply in her stretching flesh.
Her sore folds cried out for mercy, for a respite from this relentless ploughing, but she was a slave to the rapturous delight that came in tandem with every mighty push. The impossibly full sensation of before had been a mere shadow compared to this. It felt like he had somehow become part of her, and losing his fulfilling shaft for even a few seconds left her feeling hollow and drained.
Spurts of warm pre doused her spasming folds, easing the fire of arousal and ecstasy he had lit there with his impressive endowment. Each stroke hammered her against the hitching post, the untreated wood scraping against her arms and shoulders. She took the minor irritation in stride, a small price to pay for the unfathomable experience the unknown stallion was treating her to.
“Can’t you at least try to look at his good qualities for once, instead of wallowing in all the bad ones?” Maybe there was a wisdom of sorts in Tia’s words. If you expected the worst, you were never disappointed, true, but not everything turned out bad. She could take the rising, tumultuous ecstasy in her loins as fair evidence of that. “You never know. If you two stop poking at each other, you might even become friends.” Well, the verdict was still out on that one. Yet, some part of her doggedly held on to the notion of hope. A last chance, however slim, of a place for her to fit in, that wasn’t darkness and pain and shattered dreams. She’d seen the open acceptance in the eyes of the others as they’d carried her off -however much she’d grumbled at them- and tried their best to make her happy. Were those sort of things really so bad?
Maverick’s train of thought abruptly exploded on the tracks. A wordless cry of bliss rang from her throat as the climax took her, wracking her body with spasms of uncontrolled ecstasy. Her back arched, her hips thrusting wantonly back to grind against her partner, trying with all her might to shove the entire length of him inside her, size difference be damned! Her distended folds clamped down on his thick, meaty shaft, desperately trying to draw his essence forth, grace her awaiting womb with his seed.
He whinnied in obvious approval, driving relentlessly forward with an eager intensity as she clung to the rolling waves of her peak. Heedlessly, she bore down upon his turgid rod to draw out the incredible, crackling storm of bliss, barely aware of the sudden, climactic flare in his buried tip.
A heavy rush of hot fluid jetted into her, joining the considerable supply of her own emissions lubing her insides. She barely had time to cry out in incoherent euphoria, revelling in the unique sensation of thick seed pouring into her in a great, unstoppable torrent. There was a brief second of fur-raising wildness in the air, a spark of ozone, and the copious salvos of salty cum blasting into her already stuffed insides were joined by a hundred tiny pinpricks of electricity, arcing and coursing over her entire body.
Maverick yelped in shock, thrashing helplessly in the combined grip of her restraints and the stud’s mating hold, unsure whether to laugh or cry. White flashes popped behind her eyes, a second, tiny climax ripping through her unheeded as his potent load quickly overflowed her bulging canal to run unfettered down her legs, dripping onto the dusty ground. Her skin crawled with the unnerving voltage, fusing the sensations engulfing her into a strange harmony. Not entirely pleasure or pain, but something in-between. An acute awareness, a sensitivity and alertness like nothing she’d ever experienced. But, it still hurt like hell.
At long last, the assault mercifully tapered off, leaving no more than a faint, jangling buzz. His shaft twitched fitfully, before pulling free with a noisy schlick! freeing a veritable fountain of cream to gush down her thighs and pool between her legs. She barely noticed. Weakly, she slumped against her bonds, gasping for air as the stallion dismounted, sniffing her ravaged mound and giving a knicker of approval. His job was done here.
It felt like swimming up to the surface from the bottom of the ocean. A crack appeared in the darkness, making Maverick squint as light poured in from the room outside. His rear ached with residual sensations of that vigorous rutting, a mildly stretched and slick, tingling feeling in his bowels giving him an idea of how much his real body had gone through to simulate it. His own flaccid shaft felt decidedly spent, his balls aching from the effects of several climaxes. As the privacy shield rolled back, he could make out a distinct creamy murk floating in the motile gel, a clear record, if any were needed, of what he’d been up to. Good thing this stuff went through rigorous scrubbing and recycling.
With a noisy gurgle, the supporting gel began to drain through the bottom of the cylinder, gently easing him down with it until he stood on the bottom, the fluid streaming around him to escape through the grating. It sluiced from his fur easily, leaving him dry and clean, with no more than a mild prickle to recall its presence.
Darwin strolled in casually as the last of the gel drained out, glancing at the control panel and flicking a switch. The glass barrier withdrew with a soft hiss, retracting into a hidden groove in the floor that had previously sealed it in place. Maverick stepped out, a bit weak in the knees, shivering at the sudden touch of the cold floor.
Darwin cocked his head sideways, looking him up and down. “Well? How was it? Did it live up to your imagination?”
“It was...” Maverick paused, licking his lips, unsure of how to describe what he’d experienced. “Interesting. I think I’m going to have to give it another shot next time.”
“Indeed?” Darwin raised a querulous brow at him, smirking. “You aren’t going to add a few tags to the ‘block’ list?”
Maverick winced. “Okay, maybe not exactly the same. You know what I mean though.” He took another step forward, forced to walk a bit bow-legged from the stretched soreness in his rump. Darwin made a show of noticing, pointing at the limp with his tail.
“Took a bit of a beating in there, did you? How many times do I have to tell you not to over-achieve? I hope you got all the gel out of your butt. You’d be surprised what kind of creative things that stuff can do when its allowed to settle in for an extended stay. But, then again, maybe you’re a fan of, shall we say, ‘built-in’ network functionality, or something to that regard. Try explaining that one when you link up to a mainframe, eh?”
Maverick grimaced at him. “I’m well aware that it stays in the chamber, thank you. And you should know what happened. You set it up.”
Darwin gave a non-committal shrug. “Hardly. I just put in a few options and told it to go. You got whatever it figured out from there. Half of it is the brain it’s linked to, which in your case, means it might do something totally unpredictable. You think I understand this thing?” He chuckled, curling his tail daintily around his forelegs. “I half expect it to walk out on its own someday.”
Maverick was too tired to come up with an adequate response to that, so he let it drop. “You know, I think I might have been getting some sort of epiphany in there for a moment. But, then I got zapped by a testosterone junky zebstrika. My great revelation is somewhere in there now.” His muzzle twitched upwards as he gestured towards the grate in the floor, a rare flash of mirth threatening to bubble free.
“Oh? I guess you’ll need to go back to that one then. Only, maybe it would work better with something a bit larger. How about we use a rapidash with some snorlax heritage, hmm? I might even make sure it has a dose or two of X-speed beforehand.”
A shudder ran down Maverick’s spine. Knowing Darwin, he couldn’t afford to assume it was a bluff. He might follow through. “I’ll pass on that offer I think. What’s the point of randomizing if you go back to the same scenario?”
“Hmm, I suppose.” He looked far too thoughtful for Maverick’s liking, but thankfully he let it drop. “In any case, you get to work on remembering this amazing epiphany of yours. I expect to hear all about it in your next session. This Thursday. 1300. Sharp.” His expression was suddenly stern, brooking no argument.
“I’ll be there.” Surprisingly, he realized he meant it.
“Good.” Maverick’s shorts dropped unceremoniously on top of his head, covering his eyes for a moment until he snatched them up, glaring at the espeon. “Now get dressed. I’m tired of having to stare at your junk like this.” Darwin snickered gleefully as Maverick hastily complied, slipping back into the loose blue cloth. “Better. It’s rather rude to dangle it in someone’s face, by the way.” Abruptly, he switched gears, holding Maverick’s gaze with a serious expression. “You know, that’s only the fourth strangest place I’ve heard of someone having a life-changing experience.”
Maverick couldn’t help himself, even with the tired, relaxed haze settling over his mind. “What were the oth-” something in Darwin’s face alerted him to the trap, and he hastily interrupted himself. “Never mind, I don’t think I really want to know.”
“Oh, the first one was quite fascinating though,” Darwin persisted, grinning fiendishly. “You see, I once knew this trans-gendered ditto, who took on the form of an arcanine with 5-”
“Heard enough, thanks,” Maverick cut in, waving his paws violently. “Nice talking to you, Darwin. See you Thursday.” He neatly sidestepped the espeon, beating a rapid retreat before the mischievous psychic could say more.
He broke free from Darwin’s office, sagging against the far wall of the corridor with a long sigh. It was still empty. Everyone else might even still be at the bar, or passed out in their quarters. Long past time for him to do the same. The dull ache felt a bit more pronounced now, and he wasn’t looking forward to the pending conversation with Taggart sometime tomorrow bearing that little souvenir. At least it could easily be explained by the tunnel accident.
Slowly, he began making his way towards his quarters, lost in thought. Hope was a funny thing. Fragile. Easily buried by stronger emotions and the pains brought on by life in an unfeeling world. Yet, at the same time, it had a mighty endurance that was able to surprise even him, jaded and crusty as he’d thought himself to be. Maybe Tia was right, and the world didn’t have to be such a dark and gloomy place all the time. He was pretty sure he could live with that.
For the first time in recent memory, his muzzle turned upwards in a full, genuine smile.