What Lies Beyond: Chapter 8

I hope Sister will return to us safe and sound, and I hope Corsair will stay out of trouble. But most of all I hope that Lapse is all right, and that I’ll see her again someday.”
Pack rose to his feet. It was dark inside his cabin except for a lone ray of starlight shining through his window. He took a deep breath and retrieved his notebook from his desk. Purposefully, he strode towards his door and out of his cabin.

There is much work to be done.” he addressed his crew, “we must be ready for this morning’s business. There are floors to be scrubbed, windows to be cleaned, sails to be mended, cracks to be filled in, and stock to be counted. I’ll be making the rounds, so I expect everyone to be working hard tonight”.
Yes sir!” his crew responded, in unison. He dismissed them, and they hurried off to perform their duties. He climbed the steps to the helm and took the wheel. To his satisfaction, he noted that the ship's course had not deviated from its intended route while he had been away. He approached the navigation table, where Quill was busy scribbling away.

How’s progress?” Pack asked, twisting his whiskers in his paw.
Without looking up from his work, Quill gestured towards a large stack of papers. “I’ve almost finished charting this quadrant of the northern sky, sir”, he said proudly, glancing up briefly to study the heavens, and then returning to his scribbling.
Pack took the top page off of the pile and studied it - An elaborately detailed grid of stars, arrows, and captions. “Excellent”, he said, replacing the page, “your work has been very useful in allowing us to chart our routes more efficiently.” Quill merely nodded, still writing. “I’ll leave you to it.” Pack said, walking away. Quill looked up again and continued his scribbling.

Below deck things were not as orderly. Someone had spilled a cleaning bucket and soapy water was running down the hall towards the living quarters. Pack righted the bucket, but there was no sign of its owner. He sighed and picked up the mop when he heard footsteps approaching rapidly from down the hall. “Don’t worry boss, I’ve got- Woah!”
Snag slipped on the soapy floor, and the sponge he was carrying flew out of his hands, hitting Pack in the side of the head. Snag himself slid all the way across the floor into the bucket, spilling the rest of its contents and himself onto the floor. Sheepishly, he stood up, retrieved the sponge from the ground, and looked at Pack remorsefully, his folded ears pressed so flat against his head it was almost a perfect sphere.
You’ve done a good job wetting down the floor,” Pack said dryly, handing him the mop. “Now why don’t you try cleaning it?”
Yes sir!” Snag said enthusiastically, saluting him with the sponge, which left a splotch of damp grey fur on his forehead, “I won’t let you down, boss!” Pack shook his head and walked back to his cabin.

After cleaning his fur there was a knock on the door. “Enter”, he called, still grooming his whiskers.
Mr Pack, sir, the ship belonging to Captain Corsair is approaching off the port bow.” Relay bowed politely after delivering the message.
Pack flipped through the schedule in his notebook. “I guess I have time to meet with him. Ask Craft to see to the sail repairs in my absence”. Relay bowed again and stepped out.
What news do you bring, Corsair?” Pack wondered to himself as he gave his whiskers a last once over. “I hope it’s good news, for your sake.” He closed the door to his cabin and returned to the deck.

Corsair! You’re looking well.” He greeted his friend. It was only half a lie – Corsair still looked as untidy as he always did, but he seemed a bit more composed than he had when they had last met. “What news of Sister?”
She’s all right!”, Corsair said happily, embracing him.
That’s wonderful!” Pack replied, surprised but relieved. “I’m glad that this was all resolved so quickly and painlessly.”
Corsair chuckled to himself and released Pack. “Actually,” he said, in a more serious tone, “that’s not the only reason I came here tonight. I need your help, Pack.”
Pack listened carefully as Corsair told him about Sister’s escape, Michelle’s message, and how they planned to search for Steven. His face conveyed nothing, but he twisted his whiskers with his paw as he listened. “...And we all need to work together if we’re going to have any hope of finding this stranger”, Corsair finished.
No, no, no, no, no.” Pack replied, firmly, folding his arms. “Such a thing must absolutely not be done.”
But it’s important to Sister, and Michelle needs our help”, Corsair pleaded, but Pack was having none of it.
Sister has only just returned, and barely, and you would endanger her again? Use your head, Corsair. It’s one thing to put yourself at risk for one of us, but for a stranger?
They’re just work to be taken care of. Such things no longer matter once we come home.”
You don’t know that!” Corsair insisted.
What I do know is that things were best when we were all together. Before our friends started to disappear and not come back. Is that what you want? Is it? Because that’s where this kind of thinking leads, make no mistake.” Pack lowered his voice, to make it clear that it was the end of the discussion.
I didn’t think you’d like it.” Corsair said, shaking his head. “If Lapse were here, she would have been for this.”
She’s not. You would do well to remember that.” He narrowed his eyes and stormed away.

Pack slammed the door to his cabin behind him and tossed his notebook across the room. “That fool!” he exclaimed loudly, striking his desk with his palm. Supporting himself on one arm, he put his other paw on his forehead and tried to think clearly. He didn’t normally argue with Corsair this much, and it was upsetting him. “Why does good news turn out this way?” he asked himself, and he sat down in his chair. “I hope Corsair and the others will stay out of trouble”, he said, “it’s not like anyone ever listens to me.”
He tried to bring his mind back to his work, but it was no use, it was all he could do not to lose himself thinking about her. Time was almost up, anyway. Pack leaned back in his chair and watched the sun rise through his window.

It was a beautiful sunny day outside, with barely a cloud in the sky. Pack gazed out the window longingly, watching a flock of white birds fly by. A beep brought him back to his senses; he reached up and closed the shutters, then spun around on his chair to face his computer. “Meeting in 5 minutes”, read the alert window, and it ticked down to four as he was watching it. Dismissing it, he glanced at his email inbox. At the top were messages from sales, purchasing, the social committee, and someone named “Allen”. He sorted his messages alphabetically by sender, and scrolled partway down through the list, when there was a knock on his cubicle wall. “Better get going to the big sales meeting”, said a bespectacled man with messy blonde hair. He sighed and followed the man through a grey hallway and into an elevator.

As the doors closed in front of them, the man turned to him. “I stayed up all night working on my presentation”, the man said.
How is our business looking for the next quarter?” Pack asked him, inspecting his appearance in the elevator's mirrored walls. He straightened his glasses and brushed his hair back.
Oh, good, good. Strong overseas sales puts us in a very competitive position in the global market. Convincing the bigwigs that our slowing domestic sales are solely the result of market saturation might be difficult, but I’ve got so many bar graphs and pie charts showing growth that I think I can sneak that part by them.” He swallowed nervously. “I can count on you if they ask any really tough questions, right?”
Oh, of course”, Pack said, distracted. The man didn't notice, though, he was fidgeting incessantly with his tie. The elevator stopped, and he followed the man out.

The meeting room was large and very crowded. Pack counted at least thirty people seated around the large, wooden table, and many more standing around the edges of the room. A screen was situated at one end of the room, and the man he had followed was fiddling with a projector at the end of the table.
Push the input selector button and reconnect the cable.” Pack volunteered. He had dealt with more than enough projectors in his time.
Oh, right”, said the man, and a bar graph appeared on the screen.
The room fell silent, and a man in a black suit stood up. “Thank you all for coming to our quarterly meeting”, he said, “this has been an important quarter for us, with the launch of our new product in the overseas market. Now, without further ado, I believe Allen has some figures he would like to justify for us”. The room laughed, and Allen chuckled nervously and cleared his throat.

His confidence seemed to increase when he gave his presentation, though, he worked through his material quickly and handled questions from the audience well. Pack didn’t understand most of the details, but he could tell that business was generally sound and that always went over well. After he was finished, the man in the suit patted him on the back and dismissed the meeting, and everyone except for Allen and himself filed out of the room.
Do you think that went okay?” The stranger asked him.
You did well, I think they were really convinced.”
I hope so.” He finished packing up the projector and rose to his feet. “Thank goodness the company picnic is this afternoon, I’m starved.”
Ah, I could use a picnic”, Pack said, relieved. “Shall we get going?”
Pack followed the stranger back to the elevator. On the ride down, his demeanor was completely different from before. “I've been looking forward to this all week”, he said happily. “Nothing says job satisfaction like a free lunch! And maybe we'll get a chance to see that cute girl from the third floor again, too, I haven't seen her in ages.”
Pack was about to respond, but the elevator reached the ground floor, and they walked out to the park behind the main building.

The sun was still shining bright, and the picnic was a sea of activity. Pack saw many members of his crew amongst the crowd, all laughing and enjoying themselves, which made him smile - it was good for them to get time off, they'd earned it. He spotted Snag, and laughed aloud as he squirted mustard on his shirt instead of his hotdog, then spilled the entire plate onto his lap as he tried to clean it up. He lined up behind the stranger to get something to eat, but Allen seemed concerned by something else, he was scanning the crowd for something.
Mike isn't here.”
Look at all there is to eat!” Pack licked his lips, the food smelled so good.
We have to go get him” said the stranger. “You know he'll never come if we don't.”
Okay, just let me get-” But the stranger was already pulling on his arm. Pack gazed back at the simmering meats wistfully as they gradually faded from view.

They located Mike back up on the floor where Pack's desk had been. He had long brown hair, thick glasses, and was very thin, and his nose was buried in his computer when they arrived.
Hey Mike”, Allen said to him, “you're missing the picnic.”
He only looked up for a moment. “I'm too busy”, he said meekly, and begun typing quickly on his keyboard.
No you aren't, you weren't typing anything before we got here.”
Well, you know I don't like picnics anyway.”
You should still go. People notice that you never come to company functions, you know.” Allen said, disapprovingly.
People notice lots of things about me, but it's never anything good. I've stopped listening to them.”
What's the harm in staying in?” Pack asked. “Picnics are supposed to be fun, if he doesn't have fun then he might as well not go.”
It's not just about having fun” Allen responded sternly, “it's also to get to know your co-workers. It's important that we all work together, as a team.”
Pack fell silent, but Mike spoke up. “All right, all right, I'll go. It can't possibly be worse than having you nag me all the time. But I'm not staying for long, I really do have work to do.”

By the time they got back to the picnic, the sun had disappeared behind a cloud, and both the attendance and Pack's enthusiasm had started to wane. “It's too bad”, said the stranger, “that cute girl doesn't seem to be here.”
What, the one from the third floor? She's a little weird.” Mike helped himself to a hotdog.
She's nice, though. And she's definitely cute. I like her.”
You've got strange tastes.”
That's not true.” Allen protested. “You like her too, right?” he turned to Pack.
Pack quietly filled his plate and sat down at an empty table. Mike and Allen followed him. “Silence means yes”, Allen laughed. Pack took a bite of his hotdog, but he wasn't enjoying it very much.
Hey Mike, you didn't take any of the potato salad”, Allen said, between mouthfuls.
It looked kind of funny. Who made it?”
I did!” Allen responded, proudly.
Good thing I didn't go with it, then.”
What, don't you trust me? I thought we were friends.” Allen said, pretending to be terribly hurt.
Pack shut his eyes and put his hands over his ears. His mind was swimming with thoughts he didn't want to have.
Hey, are you okay over there? Something wrong with your food?” Mike asked.
Just... stop talking!” Pack responded, hoarsely.
Woah, you sound stressed out. You should just try to relax and have fun.”
He had to get out of there. Pack jumped to his feet and ran away from the main building and the table, towards the woods at the other end of the park. Allen and Mike watched him go, dumbfounded.
It was probably the potato salad. I knew it looked off.”

Past the first row of trees the forest was dark and sparsely populated. Pack felt dizzy and out of breath, so he put his hand on a tree to steady himself, but it vanished as he did so and he fell face-first onto the leaf-covered ground below. He looked up, and the world seemed to spin around him. Suddenly, he thought he heard a voice: “Are you lost?” it asked him.
Yes.” he told the voice, weakly.
There you are,” it said. “I've found you!”
Pack's head drooped back down into the dirt. His eyelids grew heavy, and everything around him grew dark. The last thing he thought he saw was someone's hand, reaching out towards him, but he couldn't be sure, and he didn't care anymore.

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