A/N: Well folks, here's the last chapter of Enemy. Thank you for sticking with it this far. I hope it was worth your time. I certainly think it was worth writing.
10 January 2358
Beep beep…Beep beep…Beep beep…
It was the first thing I perceived. What was that constant beeping? It was loud and clear as a bell in my two ears. With every pulse a small pressure behind my eyes would thump. And the more I thought about it, the worse it got. I hated that sound. I wished it would stop.
My fur itched…almost everywhere. The air was cool in my nostrils. There was a slight chemical odor to it. Ammonia and saline. I recognized it immediately, though not as firmly as a memory. It was diffused, cloudy, like a dream. There were distant voices attached to that scent. I could remember them.
'…His prognosis isn't good, sir. He may last a week. Or an hour…'
'…Collapsed lung with significant nerve damage…'
'…If and when he wakes up…'
'…Increase the output to three hundred joules and pulse!...Again!...'
My mouth was dry. I swallowed. It scratched my throat. I needed water. There must be some in my pack. Where is it, anyway? I opened my eyes and blinked a few times. I could see a white haze only. Something was covering my face. A hood? I lifted a paw to my muzzle and felt gingerly across my whiskers and cheek. My fur was incredibly smooth and soft, no longer dingy and rough. Up a little higher, my pads brushing cloth layered thick over my eyes, and I found I could remove them on my own.
The light was soft and white. Pure white, florescent. I looked around numbly. I was alone, lying on my back, surrounded by a cream-white curtain. I tried sitting up, but a blast of pressure behind my eyes forced me back down. I moaned. Suddenly the light was too bright.
And for the Gods' sake, would someone please turn off that beeping!
"Hello," I said weakly, my voice cracking. "Is anyone there?"
There was a distant rustle. Quick pawsteps. The curtain was pulled back with a sharp tug and a female wolf appeared. I stared, shocked into silence. It had been so long since I'd seen another Lupine. A million thoughts, feelings, and questions ran through my mind so fast I couldn't pick a single one out of the storm.
Her eyes were bright against dark grey fur. A brief smile appeared on her muzzle before it turned over her shoulder to say, "Petty officer, page Commander Thompson, please. Tell him the ensign is conscious."
From somewhere beyond I heard, "Yes, ma'am," and my ears perked at the sound.
The wolf stepped up to my side and smiled down at me. Her face held my gape. This wasn't real, was it? Her fur lightened below the chin, becoming creamy white as it ran into her blouse.
"I'm going to look into your eye, alright," she said softly. "There'll be a bright light." A paw touched my forehead and lifted my eyelid. A flash from her other paw. "So far so good. How are you feeling?"
I blinked. "Thirsty," I replied. "Can I have some water?"
"Sure. I'll be right back."
When she returned there was a clear cup of clear water in her paw. She slowly raised my back up before holding up the cup to me. My paw shook a little too much to hold the small plastic cup steady, so she helped me guide the rim to my lips and tip it into my mouth slowly. It was cold and clean.
"Thank you," I said. "Where am I?"
"You're in the ILS Exeter's infirmary. A battle carrier. You gave us all a pretty good scare, ensign." She stepped behind me a moment. When she was back at my side she took my right paw and fastened a white cylinder over my wrist. A medical sensor. It was warm against my fur. "My name is Lieutenant Junior Class Rhodes. I'm one of the nurses here. Night shift. If you want you can call me Wendy."
"I'm glad you're awake, Nate."
I gave a brief laugh. It was half-hearted, but it felt good to do it. "What day is it?"
"Tuesday. The tenth of January."
The doctor arrived just them, introduced himself as Commander Thompson, the chief medical officer, and proceeded without pause to examine every centimeter of my body while explaining that I was very near death when they brought me in. "You'll need to stay in the infirmary until I discharge you. Just in case." He raised my left arm and prodded a few times at random locations with a claw. "Can you feel any of this, ensign?"
I shook my head, following his palpations intently. "Is it paralyzed?"
"Well…yes and no. There was a great deal of trauma to the major nerves that run from the spinal cord to the paw." He traced a line across my outer bicep. "They can't heal themselves, but we'll attempt to repair the damage surgically now that you're coma has passed. I believe that with that, and a bit of therapy, you'll regain much of your strength there." His expression was even and candid. I nodded. "Your right lung was a different story, I'm afraid," he continued. "We couldn't repair the tissue damage and we lost the organ. Your left lung seems perfectly fine at this time, and will be able to perform well enough on its own. But without two lungs you'll never be able to perform as strongly as you could with both."
I looked down, feeling the wrappings around my chest. I was so certain I was going to die on that planet; and for a few hours, I wanted to.
"Nate, a prosthetic lung is an option and they work pretty much as good as a natural one. When you're properly recovered we can talk about it further."
I thanked the doctor, and he drew Wendy aside to speak with her in private. When she came back and asked if there was anything I wanted I answered quietly that I was a little tired and wouldn't know where to begin.
"Wait," I corrected myself before she could get away. "Could you please turn off that damn beeping?"
She chuckled. "Of course, Nate."
When I was alone again I told myself I should have asked Wendy if she knew what happened to Tatania, if she was okay, but then convinced myself that Wendy wouldn't know anyway.
I brushed a paw over my sheets, not believing I had ever felt anything so soft before. The reality of my situation began to sink in: I had been rescued. After a month of fear, hunger, thirst, despair, and pain I was back with my own kind. Safe. Alive.
I drew the blankets over my shoulder. The bed was incredibly soft. Clean and comforting.
I had a few guests, not the least of which Captain Decator, commander of the Exeter, and Admiral Hudson, commander of the Seventeenth Expeditionary Fleet. They came with two other officers that didn't speak. Their aids, I suppose. I listened quietly as they each made short speeches of how proud they were of "a fine junior officer" and how they could not have found the Ursine fleet without my distress transmission.
"The Third Ursine Fleet had entered the Beta Sector in a blatant violation of the cease-fire," explained the admiral, a graying wolf with thinning fur, "and had attacked several of our listening posts, including Beta-Seven—your destination, right? There were no survivors, I'm afraid. We knew we were within a lightyear of them when you hailed our fleet. The Ursine's were masking their presence in your planet's magnetic field when we arrived. What's left of them is limping off to their space. We'll need your report of the events, ensign, but you can have a few days to recover."
I took it all in with a good degree of wonder. I somehow couldn't believe it had anything to do with me, the last month of my life being as extraordinary as it was.
"Yes, sir. I will do that as soon as I can."
He simply nodded, seemingly satisfied for the time being. "Very good, ensign," he said before sharing a knowing glance with the captain and leaving.
"Ensign, Hopewell," said Captain Decator. "There's already an on-going investigation into the events leading up to your crash." I opened my mouth to speak but he stopped me with a raised paw. "It's not a personal attack by any means. Of course, your report will be an important part of that but what we need to know right now is when your crewmates died, for mortuary affairs. One of your ship's crew was never located."
I explained as best I could that the core explosion had killed Captain Howard and Warrant Officer Campbell outright, and that I had never found the remains of Tech Sergeant Hendrix. I also explained, with much difficulty, that Petty Officer Boarden likely died in the crash. Captain Decator listened silently, his aid taking notes behind him.
When I was done, the captain calmly said, "The Nuara's flight recorder reported a failure in the core's control rods to disengage. Rest assured, ensign, there was nothing you could have done to prevent that. An unfortunate accident. It's amazing that you and a slave managed to survive."
I looked up sharply. They knew Tatania was alive.
"The investigation is not closed, but I don't expect you'll receive any pecuniary liability. You can take a few days to rest, but remember to complete that report ASAP."
He shook my paw and repeated his congratulations before leaving me alone, the thump, thump, thump of my tail against the hospital bed the only part of me that could move for a long time until I let out a drawn sigh of relieve and laughed.
Tatania was alive.
On the second day after waking up I held a video conference with my parents. My father focused on reassuring me how proud they were of me, that they looked forward to seeing me soon. My mother wouldn't stop crying.
On the third day I had surgery. To my amazement and joyful relief I began to get feeling in my left paw by day five. Commander Thompson took this as an encouraging sign and granted my request to venture unaccompanied throughout the ship. I ate my meals in the dining facility instead of in the sick bay (I swear I will never complain about military dining again…so long as I never have to look at another flight ration). I spent some time in the recreation hall, but had to leave when the crowds and noise made me too anxious.
I walked to the ship's supply office two days later. It was late in the afternoon and I had spent virtually the entire day anxiously pacing the sickbay, lost in thought, fighting more than one internal battle. It was Commander Thompson that made the decision for me when he ordered me to leave the infirmary and not come back until I was not so restless. I put one footpaw in front of the other until I was staring across a high countertop at the supply orderly on duty.
"Can I help you," asked the petty officer a little hesitantly. "Mister…"
For the last several days I had been wearing a pair of fitness clothes provided by the nursing staff, having no duty uniforms of my own. I suddenly realize that it wasn't exactly proper to be walking around the ship like this.
His ears stood up. "Not that Ensign Hopewell?"
I nodded. I had gained somewhat of a reputation on board.
"Congratulations, sir! I heard about you from a buddy of mine in the personnel office."
"Um…thanks, petty officer." I hesitated. I hadn't exactly worked out a speech or anything. "I actually came here to ask if you know anything about the slave that was recovered with me."
His grin was sly. "I don't know how you managed to keep from strangling that one."
"You mean she's here? On the ship?"
He nodded. "Oh, yeah. The bitch with the little whelp." He said it as if referring to an item of equipment. "She's a hell of a paw-full, sir. Has quite a muzzle on her, too, from what I hear." He didn't miss my angry scowl and stopped grinning. "I guess she's our responsibility now. The bitch's owner was killed and no one has any claim to her now. Classic article fifty two case. You know?"
The thought that had occurred to me a few days before came back in a flash: Article fifty two of the naval property and acquisitions regulations.
The orderly furrowed his brow. "Excuse me, sir?"
"Article fifty two, paragraph twelve," I pressed. "I have the right to claim ownership of unclaimed personal property at the discretion of the quartermaster, right?"
"Ownership of what? The slave?" His expression was a mix of incredulity and suspicion. "Why?"
"That's the regulation, isn't it?"
He nodded. "If that's what you want, sir. We'll have to charge you fair market value for her. You might get her little rat for free. And you need the quartermaster's approval…but she'd pay you fair market value just to get that bitch off our books." The young wolf laughed, but stopped when I scowled again.
"Just give me the proper forms, petty officer," I said, my tone even and low.
"Alright, sir. I can do that." He reached under the counter and produced a computer tablet. He tapped at it for a minute, then passed it over the counter. "These four, sir."
I felt the orderly's eyes follow me as I took the tablet and walked into the corridor.
Captain Decator's office door was open when I walked up, but I still knocked on the frame. The old wolf looked up from his desk.
I stepped up to his desk and stood at attention, saluted, and said formally, "Ensign Hopewell, reporting as ordered, sir."
Captain Decator returned the salute and I dropped my paw. "Please, have a seat," he gestured to one of a pair of low-backed chairs set facing him. I took the one on the right. "I read your report, ensign. Do you realize how few have survived what you went through?"
I didn't care to wonder, nor did I need reminding. My arm complained often. There were some nights I would wake in a cold panic, not knowing where I was for a few minutes, gasping for breath so hard my chest would ache and Wendy or another nurse on duty would rush in, sedative in paw. Commander Thompson reassured me the poor sleep was a side effect of the neural stimulant drug I took for the surgery. I wasn't altogether convinced it had anything to do with the medication.
I wanted to tell the captain what I didn't write in the report. I wanted to say I wasn't alone in the heroics, that without a certain fox, now confined to the slave quarters of the ship, I would not have survived. That she saved my life, perhaps in ways I didn't fully acknowledge.
I wanted to say that she was my friend. That she did not deserve imprisonment.
But I didn't. I simply said, "I was lucky, sir. That's all."
Captain Decator's expression was dubious, searching for any indication of deceit, shame, or anxiety. He tapped the desktop lightly. The way that he watched me long and hard was not just a little intimidating.
"I don't believe in luck, ensign," he finally said, his tone becoming a little lighter and I relaxed. "What I do believe is that you acted honorably when faced with a very difficult situation. The investigatory board has closed their case and cleared you of any wrong-doing. That's the good news, ensign. The bad news is that the medical review board has determined you're not fit to continue duty."
He left the statement floating in midstream for me to catch.
"You mean I'm being discharged?"
"Yes. I think it's a hell of a shame. Waste of a damn fine officer, if you ask me. But regulations are regulations. You might be happy to know that Admiral Hudson has submitted a statement to have you promoted prior to your discharge. It will help with your pension. I fully expect you to get it, too."
Honorably discharged? I groaned inwardly. I knew better than to believe that phrase meant anything more than 'Well done, ensign. But now you're unemployed.' I had saved a good amount while deployed, but that would only last me so long. Tatania's acquisition fees had already taken a sizable chunk of my savings.
"Yes, sir," I said, halfheartedly.
He stood. So did I.
"The personnel office will have the necessary orders and forms for you. They know you'll be coming. Doc tells me he's cleared you for release. I'm afraid you'll have to remain onboard a few days before the discharge is finalized, but by then we should be in port. "
"Thank you, sir," I said a bit dejectedly.
"Take care, ensign. And good luck."
I saluted before leaving, though not as sharply as I had when I entered.
The Exeter's slave quarters were an enclosed subsection of the ship's cargo hold with a management office separated from the rest of the complex. When I stepped up to the receivables desk a young crewmember stood from her chair and held out her paw.
"Good morning, sir," she said. "Checking out?"
"Yes, thank you." I gave her my claim forms, which she scanned briefly.
"Alright…Ensign Hopewell?" She looked up from the packet of papers, a youthful giddiness in her eyes. I couldn't suppress a small grin. "Congratulations, sir," she said excitedly.
"Thank you," I repeated, amiably, and the young wolf called for one of the slavers to retrieve my claim from the dormitory.
A few minutes later a wire-mesh door to the left of the desk swung open and a black, burly wolf emerged. His outstretched arm trailed behind him. I heard a high-pitched growl before a fox was roughly pulling through the doorway, the wolf's paw firmly ahold of her shirt sleeve. The vixen tugged unsuccessfully, her ears folded back and her lips drawn in a snarl. When she saw me she stopped resisting immediately. Our glance held for a long moment, a measure of surprise in those green eyes.
"Tatania," I said, my voice firm. "We're going home."
Tatania recovered quickly. I noted the metal collar fastened about her neck, the remote control in the big wolf's free paw. But what caught my attention was a small bundle held securely in both arms.
"I'll take it from here," I said, stepping up to the black wolf, who nodded and relinquished the remote before returning to the cage. I slipped it into my pocket.
Neither of us said a word as we walked the hall to the elevator. Tatania was the first to speak, but not until we were alone within the lift, the fox standing beside me, her ear tips standing tall, that long full tail swaying idly.
"We're going home," she asked. I nodded. "Does that mean you own me…us?"
I looked down sharply, brow furrowed. "Own you? No, I—" I stopped, looking away. "I hadn't thought of it that way," I muttered. No, that wasn't true. I hadn't wanted to think of it that way. I had justified it by telling myself it was the best way to protect her and her cub. That it was better to become the slave master than it was to risk her welfare to any chance thug that came along.
Why then did it feel so dirty now?
"Listen, Tatania." There was a tightness in my throat. "I can't pretend that I can give you both the freedom you deserve, that's rightfully yours. But I can get awful close. I can make sure you two have some kind of life that's worth living."
A soft paw clasped mine, breaking me from my reflections. She was smirking thoughtfully. My misgivings were forgotten in an instant.
"I appreciate it, Nate. More than I could ever say."
I smiled, closing my paw around hers. "You stayed with me until they landed, didn't you," I said, more as an observation than a question. I already knew the answer. "Despite the fact you would end up here again, a slave. I thought it was better to die free?"
Her gaze fell, her ears canting timidly. "I couldn't leave you like that," she whispered. "And maybe a part of me was still hoping there was a chance…not just for me." The fox unfolded a corner of her bundle's blanket. A little black nose appeared, then a little face with small black eartips poking out of the fabric.
Tatania looked up to me, a prideful smile on her narrow muzzle.
I smiled. "A female?" As the new owner the ship's veterinarian had provided me with a health report on both the mother and the cub.
Tatania nodded. She stroked the bride of the little cub's muzzle. She squirmed and cooed in her sleep.
"She's beautiful, Tatania. Do you have a name yet?"
"No, I don't. Have any suggestions?"
The elevator slowed to a halt, but before the doors opened I smiled down to her.
"You know, I've always thought Laura was a pretty name."
The vixen's tail wagged. "I think so, too."
As we walked to our transport, the ship that would take us home, I felt an incredible sense of calm and satisfaction. I knew I was scarred and probably for life. I knew, even then, that the horrors of the past month were not likely to disappear anytime soon, if at all. It would be difficult to forget Laura…though I was sure I'd find love again. It would be difficult to forget the torture. The wounds heal with time but the memories would linger.
I heard a small squeak. Tatania soothed her cub, awoken by the commotion of the ship's docking bay. The cub was so small, so helpless. She was blind, her eyes not yet open. I wondered if they'd be green like her mother's.
I caught Tatania's voice through the noise whispering, "It's okay, Laura. Shh. We're going home."
I smiled warmly to myself.
Scars I had. Regrets I did not.