What Lies Beyond: Chapter 12

High above the deck, a lone figure sat atop the crow's nest watching the slowly rising sun.

She hadn't meant to yell at Hope, but she didn't understand. None of them understood. They hadn't been there, they didn't know what it felt like to have everything you cared about taken away from you, to feel like you would never be happy ever again. She was sorry for her outburst, and she wanted to apologize, but if she went back down there she would probably just end up lashing out again. She knew they were trying to help, but to see their smiling faces and hear that everything was going to be all right made her feel sick to her stomach, and she couldn't face them right now. So there she sat, alone amidst the darkened sky, watching the sun rise and dreading what was to come.

The lack of understanding from her crew wasn't the only thing that was bothering her:
Why don't you just stay there! I don't care about anyone but myself!”
Had she really meant it? She couldn't have. Helping others was what she did best, and she had always enjoyed it. But deep inside her was a horrible grain of doubt that perhaps she really did feel that way. Helping others had always been easy until now. Now, when something was really at stake, when it might be her life or theirs, what would she choose?

She tried to think about Michelle, trapped in that endless cycle of regret and futility. She had been so moved by her plea for help that she had been prepared to change everything about her life to save her, but her memories of those events were already becoming less vivid. Many of the finer details of the time they had spent together had already faded away, as they always did, and with them the force of her conviction had waned. Had she not written down the message she was to give, she likely would have forgotten some of it by now.

But one memory hadn't faded at all, and that was the worst part of all: That feeling of complete and total despair when Michelle told her that she couldn't go home and she realized she would never see her friends again was as fresh in her mind as if it had only happened a moment ago. And it had very nearly happened again yesterday. She had never realized before that the mornings could be so dangerous. Sure, she always knew it was important to get back to the ship when the sun went down, but it had never been too difficult, at worst she occasionally had to swim back, but the ship was always there, waiting for her. Now, every time she saw the sun rise, she wondered if it might be for the last time.

It suddenly occurred to her that she had taken her friends for granted. She had never thought anything could ever separate them, but now she wished she had made more of the time they had together. She thought about Pack's friend Lapse, who had been lost quite some time ago, and how he still missed her even now. “At least that means Corsair wouldn't forget me”, she thought, but it didn't provide her much comfort. She didn't want Corsair to be sad like that. She wished he was here right now, so she could tell him how much his friendship had meant to her. The thought of those feelings going unsaid was what bothered her the most.

But he was caught up in all this, too. It wasn't just her, she had involved the others in her search for Steven, as well. Corsair could get lost searching for Steven as easily as she could. He had saved her before, she knew that the moment she opened her eyes and saw his face, but what if something happened to him? Was she strong enough to save him if he was in trouble? And what about her crew and the others? They were all in danger, all because of her, and they didn't even realize it. For them, nothing had really changed, they still thought the mornings were fun, they still laughed and talked and joked among themselves. She could hear them talking faintly down on the deck, right now. But she couldn't join them, not anymore.

I wish I had someone to talk to”, she pined sadly, burying her face in her arms, “I feel so terribly alone.” If only there was someone she could really open up to about her feelings, who would understand and comfort her, maybe then she could overcome it all. Corsair would understand, he always had. She longed to be with him desperately, but he wasn't around. She had to face this on her own.

She hadn't asked for all this. Corsair always seemed excited to explore and find new things, but she was most content when things stayed the same, when the people she cared about were safe and happy. She enjoyed meeting the strangers, and she liked to help them when she could, but not at the expense of her friends. If she had to choose between someone she only met once and the friends who had stood by her for so long, of course she would choose her friends, was that so wrong?

The sun was high in the sky now, its tingling warmth made her fur stand on end. It would not be long now before she went away. She tried to steel herself for the morning ahead, but she had nothing left. “We tried our best” she told herself, clasping her paws together. “If Corsair and the others haven't found anything by tomorrow night, I'm going to find them and tell them to call it off. I won't let anyone get lost for me.” She laid on her back and closed her eyes to shield herself from the sun, but it was all around her, all-encompassing, inescapable.

“How can I help you?” said a man's voice. “Why have you come here today?”
Sister gingerly opened her eyes. The sun was still shining down on her, and for a moment she thought she might not have left. But it wasn't the sun, as she opened her eyes a little more she saw it was only a bright light on the ceiling of a white room. She wasn't in the crow's nest anymore, she was lying back on a soft surface, while to her left a bespectacled man with a white beard sat in a red chair, tapping at a small pad of paper. “Don't be shy”, he told her, “just let me know what's been bothering you.”

This was very unusual, she thought, eyeing the strange man suspiciously. The strangers never asked her questions, at least, not any questions they expected her to answer. The man's face belied no emotion, he looked calm and patient as he sat there, tapping his pad. Suddenly, she felt a terrible feeling in her stomach: What if she said the wrong thing? Would she be trapped here, inside this tiny room? She slunk backwards, timidly. “I'm not sure what I should say”, she managed to squeak out, immediately regretting it.
“Why don't you start with what's troubling you the most?” he responded calmly.
What was troubling her the most was that he was asking questions of her like this. Her eyes darted around the room, looking for anything that would give her a clue about what to say, but she came up empty-handed, the room was mostly featureless. He was still looking at her, waiting for her to answer. “I'm looking for someone... a friend... Steven” she said, nervously. “I don't know where he is... or even how to look for him.”

“Ah,” he said, stroking his beard, “this Steven, is he someone important to you?”
“Now what should I say?” she wondered to herself. Most of the strangers didn't even respond when she asked them about Steven, let alone ask for more information about him. Could this man know something? She decided to tell the truth: “I'm looking for him on behalf of someone else, another friend, Michelle. They had a fight, and she needs him, but she can't find him. She was so upset, so I wanted to help her”.
He smiled a little: “That's very kind of you, but I don't think that's really what's brought you here today.”
“I'm afraid.” She said, surprising herself. “Of losing my own precious friends. Already, one is gone, probably forever, and I almost lost the others just recently. So I knew how she felt, and I wanted to help her. I just want everyone to stay together, but it's so hard. I don't know what I should do, and I feel like I'm running out of time...” It was easier than she had expected to say what was on her mind. He tapped his pad a few times while she was talking.

“It sounds to me like you're suffering from stress” he said. “You're a kind person, and you want to help others, but you can't take all of their problems upon yourself. You have to trust those close to you, and focus on your own needs sometimes. What is it that makes you happy? You should try to find something that can put your mind at ease.”
She thought for a moment. “There's someone... a friend... I feel secure and content when I'm with him. I'm happiest when we're together.”
“Ah,” he said, stroking his beard again, “does this friend of yours like you as well?”
“Yes”, Sister said, “he's very kind and protective towards me. I know he worries about me when we're apart.”
He tapped his paper a few times. “Does your friend know how important he is to you?”
“Yes. Well, I think so. We haven't really talked about it.” She felt flustered by that question and she had no idea why.
“Then perhaps you should tell your friend how you feel about him. You're a pretty and kind young woman, I think he would be happy to be with you. And we all need someone to share our troubles with now and then.”
“What am I supposed to say to him?” she wondered, but the man interrupted her before she could put it into words: “I think we made some real progress today”, he said. “I'll see you again soon. He stood up from his chair, put down his pad, and opened the only door in the room for her. Immediately outside it there was a body of water and her ship. Incredulous, she got up and walked towards it, but something made her pause. “Wait”, she said to the man, but when she turned to him he was gone. The lights in the room had also dimmed, and she could no longer see the far wall, close by as it had been. She was about to leave, when the pad of paper he had put down caught her eye. She picked it up, there was a little bit of writing on the front page: “Timid, kindhearted girl with very giving nature and close ties to her friends. Tends to take others' problems onto herself and has problems with stress. Has a good relationship with a friend but is too shy to confess her true feelings. Needs to gain self-confidence and learn to trust in others.” She put the pad down on the floor, as the chair was no longer there, and walked over to her ship. As she climbed the ladder, she milled over the strange events she had just experienced.


Not far away, Pack was also just returning from the day's business. He had been to an office, where he had scanned the corporate email database for any sign of this Steven. As it turned out, there were several, but without knowing Steven's surname it was all he could do to send out emails to all of them and see if he got a response. So far he hadn't, or if he had, he never had a chance to read it with what little time he had in front of a computer. It seemed like a good approach, with the press of a button he could instantly contact anyone he wanted, but somehow he didn't seem to be getting through. Just like before, when he would always try to contact Lapse, but no matter how many times he checked for her reply it would never come.

“I hope that Lapse is all right, and that I'll see her again soon”, he said to himself. “I also hope this Steven can be found, and that the others will stay out of trouble.”
Pack stretched his legs and stood up, pushing his chair back into his table. He gathered up his notebook and left his cabin to address his crew. He hadn't told them about this, somehow he couldn't bring himself to do it. He had never told them much about Lapse either, they knew that she wasn't around anymore, but not how much he missed her. Some things were meant to be kept private, and he had an important job to do. He wondered briefly whether or not the members of his crew had their own secrets. He figured that they probably did.

As he dispatched his crew to their tasks, Scale informed him that another ship had been sighted in the distance, off the port side. It couldn't be Corsair, he had gone the other way. “It would only be proper for us to exchange our pleasantries”, Pack told him. If the ship belonged to Sister, perhaps she could give him some additional information about Steven. If the ship belonged instead to Captain Lay... then pleasantries would suffice. She was a very strange woman, in some ways she reminded him of Lapse, but her manner was completely different, and he never knew how to act around her. Nevertheless, he steered the ship towards the distant vessel and returned to his cabin to see that his whiskers were in proper order.

It took a good part of the night to reach the ship, but for once luck was on his side. “Good evening, lady Sister”, he greeted her, “you're looking well.” That was a lie, she looked worn-out and even thinner than he remembered, but it would be impolite to say so.
“And you”, she replied. “Your whiskers are looking especially sharp tonight.”
“How kind of you to say so!” he beamed. He really did enjoy when people complimented his whiskers. Lapse never did, but she had a strange way of looking at things, as though she was always looking past what was right in front of her to something beyond. “Corsair has told me about this Steven”, he continued, “and I've decided to help you look for him.”
“Oh.” She was much less enthused than he had expected. “Have you found anything?”
“I'm afraid not. You see, just a name is so little to go on. Do you know anything else, a second name, or some associates of his, perhaps?”
“All I know about him is what I saw from Michelle's memories.” she sighed. “Michelle and Steven were very close friends, she hardly ever spoke about anything else. But one time he said something that really upset her, then she left him and something terrible happened to her. Now she's stuck, maybe forever, and they can't see each other anymore.”
Pack fell silent. He didn't even move, as if he had suddenly turned into a statue. “Are you all right?” Sister asked him, after a moment.
“Don't you see?”, he finally replied, in a voice scarcely above a whisper, “I'm Steven. That's exactly what happened to Lapse.”

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