A/N: Hey, guys. I know, it's been MONTHS. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to leave it this long, but I've been in a bit of a funk and wasn't sure about continuing this story, despite how much I do like it and the characters and really want to finish it. I'm just not so sure I'm that great at sci-fi, and it's hard to stay in the mindset for it. But I won't abandon it. I'll finish it come hell or high water, whether that's good or bad.
If you're still here, reading this story, then hey! Hi! Welcome back to it, and I hope you enjoy the chapter. It should start picking up again in the next chapter or so.
If you're not, then I guess I understand. I did leave it for like 7 months, so... Sorry.
Anywho. As always, reviews are love and motivate me to keep going! So if you like it, let me know :) If something doesn't really work, also let me know because I can't improve as a writer if I don't get constructive feedback.
Chapter length: 3058
Chapter Twenty-One: A State of Mind
The darkness was beginning to get to Dante.
He lost track of how many hours, days, weeks, he'd been locked in this room. The only light he received was when they opened the doors to feed them – himself and Mikel. The rest were taken, separated from them early on, and he had absolutely no idea where they were being held, or if they were even still alive. Anger flared briefly; his crew could be dead and he had no way of knowing for certain. He let Quinton die, and now this.
I'm such a failure. The thought swirled through his mind, never-ending, relentless.
Mikel spoke little, preferring to remain quiet in his little corner of the room. Dante paced, and tried over and over to find a way out of their confined space, but they were sealed in with no way out that he could see, save for the door which would not open for them. Overpowering their captors when they came to feed them did cross his mind, but he dismissed the thought quickly enough. They had weapons, and while two entered to give them food, the security had upped and now two more remained outside the room, weapons at the ready. Attempting to flee would get them killed almost instantly.
Still, sitting around waiting for something to happen grew tiresome. Dante became more and more antsy as the days passed and they heard nothing about the rest of their crew. He asked, of course – he shouted until he was hoarse, demanding answers, but no one ever responded. Captain Aiko Renly never paid them a visit, either, not since he separated them from the others. When Dante got his hands on the captain, he would be certain to use all of his strength in wringing the man's neck with his bare hands, especially if the man had done something to his crew.
"What are we going to do?" Mikel asked, speaking up for the first time in days. His voice was rough with misuse, and clearing his throat did little to help. "What if they're all dead and we're all that's left?"
"Don't think like that," Dante snapped, dragging a hand across his face even though he knew Mikel couldn't see him. While their eyes were used to the dark, they still needed at least low light to see, and there was no source of light in this room save for when the doors opened and their captors came in to feed them. "They're fine. Kane will get us out of this."
They needed to have faith in their captain. Kane would get them all safely out of this, Dante was certain. They just needed to be patient, and wait for Kane to set his surefire plan in motion, because certainly he had one by now. They just needed to wait.
"What if Kane… can't get us out of this?" Mikel asked, tremulously.
"What do you mean?"
"What if he's dead?"
"What? How can you say that?"
Kane wasn't dead. He couldn't be. He would never let himself be killed by the likes of Aiko Renly, Dante was certain. He knew they were all warned of how dangerous Renly could be, but Kane came knowing the risks, and he most certainly still drew breath. He had to, because otherwise, was there any hope of them getting out of this? If Kane was dead, then did he bring his whole crew into a giant death trap?
No, he thought firmly, shutting down such musings. Everything is fine. Kane will get us out of this.
"It's just been a while," Mikel said quietly. "Wouldn't he have… done something by now? If he could?"
"I'm sure he's just waiting for the right time," Dante said. "He'll get us out of this."
He has to.
If he couldn't… then what hope did they have?
Shuler's shoulders hurt from how they were wrenched back and over his head. He wasn't sure how long he'd been laying here. Hours, days. He didn't know. His body ached, but in that pins and needles way. His limbs drifted between fiery pain and cool numbness. The silence was getting to him, slowly but surely. He twisted in his binds but couldn't get his hands close enough together to make use of his claws and snap free that way. He was stuck here, same as he was hours ago.
It was a slow, painful torture, both physically and mentally. Physically, his bullet wound hurt, spreading fire through the wounded area, and his muscles and joints ached from the held position. His head throbbed, pulse too loud in the silence. Mentally, he was trapped with his own thoughts, and they were running wild with worst-case scenarios.
Everyone else could be dead right now. He might have been the only one left.
He grit his teeth, clenching his jaw painfully. Don't think like that. They're fine.
Kane would get them out of this. He had to. He always had a plan.
He always had a way out, and this time wouldn't be any different. Shuler just needed to be patient, which wasn't easy in the dark silence.
A door opened behind him. Light spilled into the room, momentarily blinding him. As he blinked furiously, attempting to refocus his vision, a shadow moved to stand at his head. He glared up at Renly. The captain looked entirely too smug, and his hair was disheveled instead of smoothed back like before. There was a certain energy in his gaze, a slight upward quirk of his lips. Shuler's nose twitched at the unpleasant stench of sex thick and heavy around Renly.
"Where's my crew?" Shuler asked.
"Around," Renly replied, smirking down at him. "Have you enjoyed your solitude? Is your bed comfortable enough for you?"
"Fuck you," Shuler said.
Renly snorted. "I see Kane wasn't very keen on manners."
"Fuck-" He stopped as Renly's words hit him. "What do you mean, wasn't?"
Renly grinned, wide and wolfish, all teeth and no mirth. "I killed him."
"You didn't," Shuler said, despite the way his pulse stuttered and his breath caught in his throat. Renly was lying; Kane couldn't be dead. He wouldn't let himself be taken down by someone like Renly. He always had a plan, always had a way out, and to lose faith in him now felt too much like betrayal.
"I did," Renly said. "I'll give him this, he did have a loyal crew. Your friend wasn't very keen on believing me, either."
My friend? "Where's Elijah? What'd you do to him?"
"I haven't done anything to him, yet. But that could change. It's entirely up to you."
Shuler growled under his breath. Don't believe a word he says. Kane's alive, and he'll get us out of this. Except, he couldn't detect any lies surrounding Renly. His pulse was even and steady, and that smug grin never left his face. A chill settled in Shuler's bones. "I already said I'm not teaming up with you."
"You did say that," Renly said, nodding. "But unfortunately, it wasn't a request. You don't have a say in the matter."
"I won't help you."
"Who said I need your help?"
"Then what do you need?"
"Your help would be appreciated, and I thought you would like your revenge, but you seem intent on surprising me," Renly said, shaking his head. He looked awkward, upside down as he was in Shuler's vision, since he stood behind Shuler's head. "Nevertheless, if I can't have your willing aid in combat, I can still have your blood."
Shuler snarled, lips curling.
"You see, the remaining members of your species are in places just like this, strapped down to tables just like you, and harvested for their organs and blood. I tried to spare you that fate, and let you help stop it, but you chose to be my enemy instead of my ally."
"Fuck you," Shuler said again.
Renly shook his head, chuckling under his breath. His hand landed on top of Shuler's head and smoothed through the hair. Shuler tensed; to let someone pet him was too intimate, and Renly certainly hadn't earned that right. "I killed your captain, and yet you still think you have a say in anything, trapped as you are."
His fingers curled, grabbing tight at his hair and fur, pulling until his head tilted back at a painful angle, his chin jutted into the air, his throat exposed.
Renly's other hand ghosted over his throat, hovering briefly over the exposed pulse point. "I could kill you now. There's no way you could stop me."
"So do it," Shuler snapped. "At least then I won't have to listen to you anymore."
Gloved fingers ghosted over one of his ears, leaving them flattening on his head. "We could have been so great together, you and I." Renly sighed heavily and released him, letting his head slip back into a more comfortable position. "I'd get comfortable if I were you. You're going to be here for a long, long time."
He turned and left the room. The darkness returned, along with lonely, empty silence.
Shuler closed his eyes, attempting to drown out the world.
He wasn't alone long.
By his mental calculations, he was only alone for a half hour before someone entered again. The lights flickered on, blinding him, and he watched the shadow walk across the room toward a table along the far wall. A shiver inched up his spine as he realized what was on that table.
He kept his mouth shut, though. Torture or no torture, he wouldn't give Renly the satisfaction of getting him to scream. He'd survived torture before; he could do it again.
The person in the room was unfamiliar to him. Human, with short brown hair and pale skin, but he hadn't seen him before. He'd yet to be in here.
The man held a thin blade in one hand – good for skinning people, Shuler recalled – and a few tubes and syringes in the other, clumped between his large fingers. He walked toward the bed and put them down on a small rolling table just behind Shuler's head. The wheels on the table squeaked as the man pulled it closer, so it was to the side of Shuler's head instead of just behind it.
Shuler's pulse quickened and he closed his eyes, fingers curling into tight fists as he tested the strength of his bonds once again. Nothing had changed, and he still couldn't get free. Renly's words echoed through his head.
He could die here. This man could kill him now, and there was no way Shuler could stop him. He was pathetically helpless right now. All of his training, and he could do nothing to stop this or save the others. He was useless.
And this is going to hurt.
A lot. This was going to hurt a lot.
Pain is only a state of mind, he tried to remind himself.
The man didn't bother with pleasantries or simple conversation. Instead, he simply dug in with his blade. The skin on the left side of Shuler's stomach was stretched tight due to how he was strapped to this table, and the blade easily cut through the fur and flesh beneath. He was already tender from the bullet wounds and previous exertion during his stay on the planet, but now the pain screamed anew, ablaze with a burning, searing agony as his flesh was parted.
He bit his lower lip, drawing blood, but kept silent. He would not give the man the pleasure of seeing him squirm.
His flesh was ripped and shredded by the blade, and then pushed apart to allow the insertion of a tube. By this point his eyes were screwed shut so tightly he saw quick flashes of light beneath the closed eyelids. He wasn't entirely certain what the person was doing to him next, only that it pulled at the new injury, making fire lance up his side and dance between his ribs and across his stomach.
A quiet humming penetrated the silence, and the blood rushing through his ears. The person doing this to him was humming, like this was a simple job and he wasn't torturing someone. Because this was torture. Shuler was very adept at torture, at recognizing and withstanding torture, and that was what this was, plain as day.
Pain is just a state of mind, he told himself again. Oh, just wait until I get my claws on you. Because he would get his vengeance – both for this, his crew's capture, and Kane's supposed death, be it true or false. He would get revenge for everything. They couldn't keep him trapped and helpless forever. They'd either have to kill him or move him at some point, and all it would take was one little slip up, and he'd get vengeance.
Hands grabbed his clawed fingers, uncurling them from sticking into his palm. He knew they were bloody, having carved deep grooves into his hand. It was his weaker hand, his left one, and there was a sudden stabbing pain right through his palm. He gasped, shocked, and opened his eyes, tilting his head up as far as it would go so he could look at his hand. Something stuck out of the center of it, a metal shard of some sort, pinning his hand in place and keeping his fingers outstretched.
"What are you doing?" he hissed through clenched teeth.
"I need your claws," the man said almost boredly.
At this angle, Shuler couldn't truly make out what was happening near his fingers, but he felt the first sharp tug which ripped a claw from his flesh.
He bit down hard on his lower lip and tongue, leaving them both bleeding, but he kept silent. He would not make a sound. He wouldn't.
One by one, the claws were ripped from the bedding of his fingers, torn from his flesh, hot blood pooling in the open wounds. His fingertips were fire, the pain sharp and precise. Finally, all of his fingers on that hand were bare, ripped apart at the top knuckle. Normal human hands merely had fingernails, but cats… cats had claws which extended as their last knuckle on their 'paws', or hands in Shuler's case, and while the claws themselves were retractable… the knuckles were not.
His fingers had never been so short.
Would they grow back? Somehow, he doubted it. Declawing a house cat from the human planets didn't allow the claws to grow back.
Did he just fucking declaw me?
The man moved to his other hand.
Shuler curled his fingers inward. "Wait," he hissed, pulse racing. "Wait."
"Captain's orders," the man said in that same bored tone.
Shuler exhaled harshly. "Don't," he said, and hated the pathetic sound of his own voice, but he couldn't lose all of his claws. Who was he without them? They were a massive part of him. Maybe he sometimes wished to be more human, but that didn't mean he wanted to lose such a part of himself. Not like this.
Something beeped just as the man was about to pierce something metal through his other hand. He stopped, sighing, and checked his wrist display before he looked at Shuler through his thick glasses. "Don't go anywhere," he said, and turned to leave the room.
He left Shuler there, strapped to the table, in pain and bleeding, shock starting to set in. He could barely move his left hand at all – its reaction time, after he thought of movement, was not ideal. It was at least three seconds behind what it usually was, and the movements it did make were stiff and rough, barely there at all. His side ached and bled as well, into some sort of tube and bag attached to it, from what he could see. Were they collecting his blood? And what did they want his claws for?
He tried to relax his body and ignore the pain, even as he screwed his eyes tightly shut once again.
Is this how it ends? The thought penetrated his mind, overtaking his thoughts. Was this how it ended for him? Was his downfall to be from a rogue Captain and his insane crew, and not from the Elites after him? He'd always known he'd die painfully, from some unseen force – but this was not what he envisioned at all. He thought he'd die without knowing he was even in danger, hunted by some of the stealthiest, well-trained agents Elite had to offer – not strapped to a table and ripped apart by someone he hadn't even known was a threat until very recently.
Was this how life ended for him? Strapped to a table, declawed and bled dry? Helpless? Pathetic?
"Never let physical limitations define you," one of his instructors once told him. "You will be smaller and weaker than many who oppose you, but raw strength and physical prowess are not what matters, child."
"Then how can I win?" he asked as a kid, beaten and bloody after getting picked on by a group of older kids in training, while he always remained the outcast. "How do I win when I'm smaller, weaker, and outnumbered?"
"You use your disadvantages to your advantage. Let your weaknesses become your strength."
"I don't understand."
"You might be smaller, but that means you can fit in places other cannot. You might be smaller, but you are faster than those who are bigger than you. They might be stronger, but that's only if you let them land a hit, and if you're a small, quick-moving target, they will never hurt you if you use everything to your advantage."
"But what if I'm outnumbered and surrounded? What if I'm tied up and helpless?"
"Then you turn that loss into a win by using that big brain of yours. You're a quick learner, Shuler. Use that. Not every battle is physical."
Shuler exhales slowly, attempting to calm his racing heart and shove the encroaching shock aside.
Not every battle is physical.
Master Llewyn's advice was always helpful as a kid, but now, as an adult, he could truly appreciate what he hadn't understood as a child.
When the door opened and that man returned, Shuler said calmly, "Get Renly. I'm ready to talk."