What Lies Beyond: Chapter 14

“This is such a strange problem”, he mused, surveying the courtyard from the window of the room. “How do you go about searching for yourself?”

He walked across the floor and examined as his reflection in the mirror. His hair was cut short and parted tidily, a mixture of grey and light brown, with a receding hairline that left most of his forehead exposed. Upon his wide nose sat a pair of thick spectacles hiding tiny brown eyes beneath, and below a small moustache framed his face, also showing tinges of grey. “Is this the face of Steven?” he wondered, stroking his clean-shaven chin. “No”, he said aloud, shaking his head. “We wear different faces, yet underneath we remain the same. It must be something deeper that defines us.”

He was interrupted by a knock at the door. “Are you ready to go?” a woman asked from outside.
Pack opened the door, where a woman with short yellow hair, a small nose, and a pair of rectangular-shaped glasses waited for him. He had hoped for a moment that it might be Lapse, but it wasn't, he knew instantly that he did not recognize her. She lead him down a plush hallways to a set of double wooden doors, which parted at the press of a button to reveal a cushioned elevator inside. She pushed the button for the ground floor, and as they descended he puzzled over the matter of Steven's identity a bit more, but he was distracted by the sound of distant voices coming from below. As the doors parted again, he was hit by the roar of a large crowd as they exited into a huge room with many tables laid out and a throng of people bustling about them.

“Our table is near the back.” the woman said, cutting through the crowd. “The clients should be there shortly.” Pack followed her, scanning the area for people he recognized. He saw Quill and several other members of his crew walking about, and Snag was seated at one of the tables. He tried to identify the mental process he used to recognize them, but it was too automatic. He sighed and focused on following the woman through the crowd. At last they reached their own table and he sat down at one of the chairs.

Several men who Pack deduced to be the clients showed up shortly. They had a lot of questions about capacity and performance that Pack didn't fully understand, but the woman seemed to know how to answer all of them. Pack paid more attention to the men themselves. They had brown-grey hair, like himself, and two of them also wore thick glasses, one of whom was clean-shaven and the other had a small beard. But no matter how closely he studied them, he never felt as though he recognized them. Eventually their conversation finished and they shook hands and left.
“I think that went well”, said the stranger with a sigh of relief. “Our product should fulfil all of their needs.”
“There's still a few things I'd like to check on.” Pack told her.
“Oh, of course, you can take a look around the rest of the convention. I'm sure I can take care of the rest.”

Pack stood up and walked towards the table he had seen earlier. “Hello.” He said to the short man that he knew to be Snag.
“Hi, boss”, he responded quickly. “Am I doing something wrong?”
“How did you know it was me?” Pack quizzed him.
He tilted his head to the side a bit: “Was I not supposed to?”
“I don't look how I usually do, but still you recognized me so easily. What did you see that told you who I was?”
“It's more about what I felt than what I saw.” he said, gesturing with his hands and striking something. “Whenever you're around, boss, I just feel like I'm about to mess something up.”
The coffee from the cup he had knocked over a second ago began to spill out over the papers in front of him. “Oh, great. Just like that.”
“Did you get that same feeling from anyone else here?”
“Nope, only you, boss.” Snag knocked some of his papers on the floor as he tried to clean up the spill. As he bent down to pick them up, the crowd quieted down and the lights began to dim. “Did I do that?” he asked, bumping his head on the table as he did so.
“I think it's time for us to go”, Pack said, looking up at the lights. “There's nothing for us here, anyway.”

Sure enough, the ship was waiting for them in the now darkened hallway. Back in his cabin, Pack again gazed at his reflection in the mirror, now back to his familiar grey-furred visage. He raised his right paw to stroke his whiskers, while his reflection raised its left paw. “It's not the same.” he mused.


“I'm such a fool.” she chastised herself. “I got everyone's hopes up for nothing.”
“Don't let it get to you”, Hope said, reassuring her, “it's not your fault, you're doing all you can.”
Yet another day had passed and still they had made no progress, and everyone's morale was starting to suffer. She never should have told her crew that she thought she knew how to find Steven, but she felt like had to give them some encouragement to keep their spirits up. Unfortunately, the painful truth was that they were no closer to finding Steven than they had ever been and nothing they did seemed to make any difference. She felt so lost and helpless, and she hated it. How had things gotten so far out of control so fast?

She tried to busy herself with chores, but she just couldn't put her mind into anything. Although she had felt better for the last few days, the feelings of resentment were starting to creep back into her mind, and she wasn't sure how to force them out. She was greatly relieved when Empathy arrived to tell her that Pack was waiting for her above deck.

“Please tell me you've found something.”, she said, before he had a chance to speak.
He shook his head. “Sadly, no, I have not found Steven yet.”
Her heart sank. “You seemed so sure you had found the right answer.”
“It's more complicated than I thought at first:” he said, stroking his whiskers. “The way we see ourselves isn't the same as what others see.”
“I'm beginning to think we can do nothing. That things merely happen and we have no control whatsoever over what happens to us.”
“Sometimes all we can do is hope for the best”, he agreed. “But I still think we're on to something here.” He put a paw on her shoulder. “Hang in there, I know how much you want to help this stranger.”
She sighed and pulled away from him. That was when she spotted another ship in the distance. “It's Corsair!”, she exclaimed happily.
“And Lay too”, said Pack, spotting a second ship. “This is great, now we can all put our heads together and solve this mystery.”

It seemed to take forever, but eventually their ships pulled up alongside hers. Corsair scarcely had time to cross the plank before she pounced on him, throwing her arms around him and burying her head in his chest. He patted her head gently. “I hadn't expected to find you here.”
“I'm so happy to see you”, she said, squeezing him.
“And you too, Pack”, he continued. “Have the two of you been working together?”
“I think that's a good way to organize our search effort”, Lay wrapped her arms around Corsair's neck, and pressed her chest into his back. “Corsair and I have been working together too.”
“Have you found anything?” Corsair asked, feeling a bit squished between the two of them. He attempted to wriggle free but they only tightened their grip on him.
“I think I have the basic gist of it, yes. Looking for this stranger based on a name and a vague physical description is not possible, because those things do not truly identify someone. We have discovered that many strangers can share the same name, and you know full well that we can change our physical appearance...” He paused, twisting his whiskers in his paw, “No, what we need to be looking for is the fundamental essence of this stranger. We need to know not what he is, but what defines him.”

“That sounds deep”, Corsair shrugged, which was as much as he could manage, “but we know even less about that than about what he looks like. I still think we just need to search in the right place.”
Pack was unconvinced. “That might be part of it, but we've been all over, and besides, I think this is the correct place.”
“It's true,” Sister said, raising her head to look up at him. “I wanted to find Steven as quickly as possible, so I've been all over, but it didn't bring me any closer to finding him. So now let's all just stay here and solve this together.”
“But what if we're on the wrong track?” Lay said, coyly, “If we all stay together, we might never find Steven.”
“She's right.”, Corsair said, “At least, I want us to compare which way we've travelled to make sure there aren't any big gaps.” Lay puffed herself up triumphantly and stroked Corsair's chest with her paws.
“Well, if that's what it would take to satisfy you, I think I can help. My man Quill has been working on a series of charts showing the positions of the stars. If you've been watching the skies, we should be able to accurately determine where we've travelled.”
“That sounds like a great idea!”, Corsair said enthusiastically, disentangling himself from Sister and Lay, both of whom looked disappointed. The four of them crossed the plank onto Pack's ship and stood before the navigation table where the star charts were kept. With Quill's help, Pack arranged them so that they showed a complete picture of the world they knew.

Corsair poured over the charts carefully. They were extremely detailed, with each page only showing a small portion of the night sky. “It's complicated, but I think this is the route I took.” He traced the route with his paw.
“I definitely came this way”, Sister said, indicating her route as well.
“I don't understand this, but I know I was travelling this way when I found Corsair.”
“And I came this way”, Pack said, showing the last route, “It's plain to see that we've covered all the known waters, this is the last place.”
“Hmmm...” Corsair murmured, idly running both of his paws over the charts. “I want to check this place again”, he said, finally, pointing to an area on the map.
Sister looked horrified. “Oh no, that's where... I don't want to go back there! Please, let's just stay here!”
He put his paw on her shoulder: “I have a hunch. The rest of you should wait here, in case Pack's right and I'm wrong.”
“All of us?” Lay asked, hopefully.
“All of you”, Corsair repeated. “I won't be gone long, and if my intuition is right, I might be back with good news.”
Lay pouted and Sister looked mortified, but they all returned to their separate ships. Corsair alone sailed away from the group, while the other three set up a wide perimeter around the general area.

Corsair leaned over the railing of the ship, enjoying the night breeze on his face. “It's time to find out the truth.” he said, closing his eyes. He felt at peace, sailing off into the unknown, just as he had many times before.

Sister, however, could not relax, she felt terribly apprehensive about Corsair going off alone towards the place where she had become stuck. “Corsair saved me”, she thought, “but what if something happens to him?” She paced back and forth inside her cabin. “Am I strong enough to be there for him if he needs me?”

“It won't be long now”, Corsair said, as the rising sun bathed his ship in a pale light. “I know that ship must be up here.”
“And when we find it, we'll be ready”, Sabre added, beside him.
Cross looked less convinced. “I hope you know what you're doing”, he cautioned.
The sun climbed higher in the sky, it's warm light washing over them all. Far behind them, two other ships also observed the same sunrise, dutifully maintaining their patrol of the meeting area.

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