What Lies Beyond: Chapter 22

“What?!” Sister demanded. “Why would he do that?”
“Oh no, Corsair, you didn't-” Lay said, aghast.
“Of course I didn't! But he might have figured it out!” he blurted out, immediately covering his mouth with his paw.
“Figured what out?” Sister narrowed her eyes. “Corsair, what did you do?!”
He sighed. “When we were all stumped about how to find Steven, I thought that the key to finding him might lie with the Black Ship, so I went looking for it.”
“I knew I was right to worry about you! Something about the way you were acting that night just didn't seem right! How could you do something like that and not tell anyone?”
“For the record, he did tell me”, Lay said, puffing her cheek.
He tried to change the subject: “In any case, it didn't work. I never caught the Black Ship, and I didn't find Steven until I was on my way back looking for you.”
“Wait, why were you looking for me instead of Steven?” Sister asked, her outrage momentarily forgotten.
“It doesn't matter now, Pack could be in trouble. We have to go after him.”
“But how?” Lay asked, “without Pack's star charts we have no idea where to look!”
“We should split up.” Sister suggested.
That surprised him. “But I thought you didn't want to do that?”
“It's okay. This is bigger than me. It's for Pack.”
“Okay”, Corsair said, putting his paw on her shoulder, “but it's late, the sun will be up soon. We should get ready and leave first thing tomorrow evening.”

The three of them left the cabin, and Corsair spoke to his crew about their new mission. Most of them seemed eager to begin the search, but he did not share their enthusiasm. A strange sense of foreboding came over him as he recalled his conversation with Cross on the night of the party. “I feel like we're heading towards something very dark”, Cross had said, and although he had reassured him, even at the time he had felt it, too. Things were beginning to change all around them.
“This is my fault, isn't it?” he asked, staring out over the ocean towards the tiny light in the distance. “What am I supposed to do?”. He felt a soft touch on his shoulder and realized that he had company.

“Do you think he could really find her?”, Lay asked, leaning out over the railing beside him. He turned to face her.
“No one's asked that question yet”, she continued, “what if this could really work? Maybe finding the Black Ship really is the way to find what he's looking for. Is it really our place to stop him?”
Corsair shook his head. “We may not be able to stop him, but we at least have to go after him. The Black Ship is very dangerous.”
“It seems like it led you to Sister, and to Steven.”
“It's possible that it may have, but...”
She turned to face him and looked straight into his eyes. Her deep green irises seemed to shimmer slightly in the early morning light. “What really happened when you found the Black Ship, anyway?”
“Something horrible. I was almost lost. I don't even know how I got back.” He paused. “Pack might not be so lucky.”
She closed her eyes for a second and turned back to look over the railing. “I respect him, you know. I can barely remember Lapse at all, but he would still risk everything for her, all this time later. Their love must have been very strong.” She paused. “...I wish I could feel that way about someone.”
“But look at how he feels now.” Corsair said, shaking his head. “How could anyone envy that?”
“It's true, there are risks, but...” She trailed off, staring off towards the sun.
“By the way”, he remembered, “the last time you said you had something to tell me the next time we met.”
“Tonight's not the night”, she said, closing her eyes. “But I would like to share this moment with you. Would you put your arm around me?”
She rested her head on his shoulder as they quietly watched the sun rise.


“Agent Campbell,” a deep, powerful voice addressed him, “the information I am about to relay to you is of the utmost secrecy and importance.”
Corsair quickly scanned around the room, but the speaker was nowhere to be found. There were a handful of chairs surrounding a large table but no one was sitting in them.
“At precisely 10:42 pm last night, a team of cyber-terrorists broke into a restricted government mainframe and stole a set of top secret launch codes. While the codes are heavily encrypted, our security experts estimate that the codes could be cracked within 48 hours if they were to fall into the wrong hands, and the earliest we could possibly have all the codes manually changed is 5 days. We need you to track down and destroy the codes before they are used by our enemies.”
“Where...?” Corsair asked, still unable to determine where the voice was coming from.
“Unfortunately, the hackers routed their attack through several foreign proxies, making it impossible for us to discern their true location, and we believe that they will likely attempt to sell the codes to the highest bidder. We have an informant specializing in black market weapons trading who may be able to provide you with some information regarding the sale of the codes. You will be flown out to meet with her immediately.
“All right”, Corsair replied, still unsure of what was being asked of him “I'll see what I can do.”
“One more thing”, the voice continued, “We are aware that computer hacking is not your forte, so we are providing you with a partner for this mission. Mr. Bronson is the security expert who detected and shut down the invasion. His skills may prove useful to you.”
A short man with a flat face and thick spectacles walked in. He bowed slightly to Corsair.
Corsair shook his head. “It could be dangerous to bring a civilian along. If I get any information I can send it back to you.”
“Normally that would be the case, but time is of the essence and a clear communication channel may not be available”, the mysterious voice instantly responded to him.
“I'm fully aware of the risks, Mr. Campbell”, the short man said, bowing again.
“The plane is leaving shortly”, the voice told him. “Good luck Agent Campbell”. Corsair sighed and left the room with the shorter man following close behind.

The plane was quite comfortable, with large, cushioned seats and a lot of leg room. The two of them were the only ones in the seating area.
“I'd just like to say it's an honour to be working with you, Mr. Campbell” the stranger said, shaking his hand.
“You sure seem eager to go on this mission.”
“I know it's dangerous, but I've always wanted to go on an adventure like this – tracking down criminals, sneaking into guarded compounds, meeting beautiful and dangerous women... what does regular life have on that?!”
“Well, that sort of thing is normal enough for me. What does your regular life entail?”
“Oh, computer stuff, mostly. Coding, monitoring, troubleshooting, nothing exciting. Not until now, anyway. I really envy you, your life seems so amazing.”
“It's really not”, Corsair said, “It might seem like I have a lot of freedom, but I really don't. They just tell me what to do, but never why. I wish I could see the big picture behind everything.”
The stranger laughed. “Well, you're welcome to trade places with me any time you want.”
“Could we really?” Corsair said, excited. “I'd love to see what your life is like.”
Suddenly, the plane wobbled and the lights flickered on and off.
“Now I know you're pulling my leg”, the stranger said, “But all joking aside, we should focus on how we're going to find those codes.”
Corsair's mood dropped. “Oh, yes, of course.” The plane stabilized. “We should be meeting with the informant shortly.”

Corsair opened the door to the large penthouse. It was a small room, lit only by a single lamp in the corner, with plush furniture and a large, flat seat in the middle of the room. They were greeted by a woman in a shiny red dress whose long light blonde hair covered one of her green eyes. “To what do I owe the pleasure?” she asked, tilting her head to the side and resting it on one of her hands.
“We've come for some information.”
“Of course”, she said, turning away from them. The back of her dress was open, showing the skin on her back all the way down to her waist. “But surely you'll have a drink first?”
“Just one, we're still on duty.” She walked over to a liquor cabinet, swaying her hips as she went. She poured three glasses, Corsair accepted his and took a seat, but the stranger seemed to be in a kind of a trance and needed to be prodded with the glass before he came back to his senses.
“What we're looking for is information about the sale of some highly classified government information that was stolen by terrorists last night.”
She took a swig of her drink. “Ah, you mean those launch codes. The underworld's in a complete uproar over those, I can tell you.”
“Do you know where we can find the people who stole them?”
“No, but I do know who bought them. The sale has already gone through, and they were sold to the West Liberation Army. They have a compound in an old factory building on the west end of the city. I can give you a passcode to get in, but from there you're on your own.”
She gave them the code. “Did you get that?” Corsair asked the stranger.
“What? Oh... yeah, I've got it.” He shook his head, but he couldn't peel his eyes off the woman.
“Good.” Corsair said, standing up. “Then we'll be on our way.”
“But it's so late, won't you stay here until morning?” She put her empty glass down and walked over to Corsair.
“Sorry, but duty always comes first.”
“That's why dutiful men are such terrible lovers.” She stroked his face with her hand as she turned to the stranger. “And what about you?” she said, putting her arms around him and leaning forward, causing his head to droop, “I can tell from your eyes that you have your priorities in order. You want to come with me, right?”
She leaned in to kiss him, but Corsair pulled him away. “Thanks for the information, but we have to go.” He began walking towards the door before she could get them into any more trouble.
“Wait!”, the stranger said, desperately, “I think she's still hiding something. She knew too much about the sale of those codes, we should stay here and uh... investigate her a little more.”
“Time is of the essence”, Corsair reminded him. “Those codes are being broken as we speak.”
“I'm sure it'll take them a little while longer to break the codes” he said, frantically tugging at Corsair. “More importantly, there's a gorgeous woman over there inviting us to keep her company tonight! Maybe chances like this come along every day for you, but I've never even seen a girl who looks like that before!”
Corsair glanced back for a moment, and he saw the three of them in the middle of the room together, the woman kneeling between them. She leaned forward towards Corsair and the stranger eagerly put his hands on her back...
“We've got what we came for”, Corsair said, turning away, and they were at the door again. He used all his strength to yank the stranger through the door and out of the building.

“I'm sorry, I don't know what came over me.” the stranger apologized profusely.
“Neither do I”, Corsair thought to himself. “I'm not sure I want to know”.
“I promise I'll focus on our mission from now on, please, give me another chance.”
“Shh!” A man with a flashlight was patrolling the perimeter of a large building. Corsair ducked around a corner and the stranger followed.
“This must be the side door she was talking about”, the stranger said, approaching a door with a little box beside it. He tapped it a few times and a little light went off, then he gingerly opened the door. “After you”, he said, and Corsair drew his gun and ducked inside.

They found themselves in a small room with a lot of machines inside, but no other people. “This must be the security room”, the stranger said, “I'll see if I can get onto one of their computers and find out anything about the stolen codes.” Corsair kept watch as he pushed various buttons on one of the machines.
“It's no good”, he said after a short while, “it's surprisingly well-protected. These guys know their-”
“Good evening, gentlemen, so good of you to join us”, a stern, bearded face suddenly appeared across all of the machines. The stranger jumped right out of his chair. “We've been expecting you. An old friend of yours told us you'd be here.”
Corsair immediately turned to the door, but it was too late, they were already surrounded by armed men.
“Bring them to me. Shoot the tall one if you have to, but keep the short one safe.”
Corsair had no choice but to drop his gun as they were taken into another room and tied up together. The men filed out of the room.

“I can't believe her, setting us up like this” Corsair said, irritably, “And to think I actually trusted her.”
“There must be some mistake!” the stranger said to him, panicked. “There's no way she could have done this! She was so pretty, and nice! A girl like that couldn't be evil!”
“I thought we understood each other, but obviously that was a mistake” Corsair grumbled as they tied him to a chair.
Just then a man walked in the room, the same man with the beard whose face had appeared earlier.
“Welcome, my friends. I suppose you are wondering to whom you owe this pleasure?”
“I think we already know.” Corsair said, angrily.
“Somehow, I doubt you do. You never thought it could be an inside job, did you?”
“You!” Corsair snarled. It was the same ambient voice from earlier.
“You did a good job of bringing the security expert to us, Agent Campbell. As always, we appreciate your devoted service. Now, Mr. Bronson, you will tell my associate how to remove the encryption from the launch codes.”
“...Okay.” he said, subserviently. “Just let me access the computer and-”
“I don't think so, you will dictate the instructions aloud, and you will not try to deceive us.” The bearded man pointed a gun at them.
“Sir!” Someone shouted from the room they had been inside earlier. “The codes! They're gone!”
“WHAT?!” The bearded man turned to look towards him, but as he did so, Corsair leap up and struck him in the back of the neck, having already undone the ropes while they had been talking. The bearded man fell forward. “It's time to go!” he yelled to the stranger.
“Stop them!” the ambient voice cried, but it was too late, Corsair relieved the bearded man of his gun and shot the man at the computer, and they were long gone before more help could arrive.

“What an adventure!” the stranger exclaimed as they made their escape. “I can't believe everything went so well. The commander's been caught, the stolen codes have been erased, and we escaped unscathed. I could get used to this.”
“Speaking of which, how did you manage to get rid of the codes? I thought you couldn't get anywhere with that machine?”
“I couldn't”, the stranger smiled, a proud look in his green eyes, “they did it for me. You should always check your computer to make sure no one has connected any suspicious devices before you use it. That's computer security 101.”
“I have no idea what any of that means.” Corsair said, putting his hand on the door.
“Of course you don't, but that's why we make such a great team.”
Corsair turned back to the stranger, but he had gone. The world was already melting back into darkness around him. He shrugged his shoulders and looked about for his ship.
“Not yet...” the stranger's voice echoed, even though he didn't seem to be around anymore. “Isn't there time for us to go back and see the woman again?”

Instantly, Corsair found himself back in the penthouse from earlier. The lights were all out, only the faint glow of the stars lit the room now, but that was plenty for him to drink in the sight that lay before him.
She was lying there, clad only in her peach-coloured skin from head to foot, her clothes discarded throughout the room. Corsair found his gaze subconsciously drawn to the parts of her body that now lay bare as he approached the the big soft cushion in the middle of the room. When he drew close, she rose to embrace him, pressing her skin against his. He found he was no longer wearing his clothes, either, and his body reacted to her touch in a way that he was new to him. Involuntarily, he put his hand on her side and gave her a squeeze.
“I didn't think you'd come back,” she said, softly. “I didn't think you wanted me.”
“I had to have you. You're the most beautiful woman I've ever met”. The words just slipped out of his mouth, he didn't even feel as though he was saying them.
“I'm yours”, she said, kissing him. He returned her kiss with a hunger that was not his own, and he could feel her hands all over his body. She lay down on the soft surface behind her and beckoned to him.
“What are you doing?” Corsair asked her, confused. His vision was getting a bit blurry, and he felt disoriented. He leaned over her to get his bearings, and found he was staring right into her lidded green eyes.
She took his hand and pulled him down on top of her. “Putting the past behind us”, she told him, in a deep voice barely above a whisper. “Let's find what we've been seeking, together.” She squeezed him and brought their bodies together. He felt his body starting to move on its own as she cooed softly and batted her eyes at him, but he just felt confused and disoriented. They should have been home by now. No part of this made any sense...

Just then he heard the stranger's voice again, echoing through his mind: “Oh my god, how could that man ever have wanted to trade this life for mine? This is the best night I've ever had, please don't let it end now!”
“The stranger's doing this”, Corsair realized. Somehow, the stranger was holding them there, preventing them from going home. “Lay, I'm sorry, it's not me”, he tried to say, but he couldn't control his body at all anymore, and his consciousness was starting to slip away. He felt something powerful coming towards him, but he didn't have time to find out what it was, already the world was starting to disappear around him, in another few moments they'd be gone along with it.
“He wanted to trade places with me”, he thought to himself. “Somehow, he changed this world to make it come true. But what about his original body?”. He forced his eyes shut and then open again, and he found himself in a different place. It was pitch black, and the building seemed to be dissolving around him, but he heard Lay cry out, and he charged towards her voice and broke right through the wall.
“I won't lose you out here!” he resolved to himself, and he grabbed her body from the vanishing room and dove through the open window to the ocean below.

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