This one is a little on the shorter side, and a bit of a filler chapter, or more like a buffer between other elements going on in the story right now. I'm trying to control the pace. Anyway, that's enough from me. Read and enjoy!
The days that followed the return to Cerberus, to the ghost ship of the damned... to call it "awkward" would be putting it far too lightly.
Phoenix was right about one thing: he was fired. Caius Company had terminated James McCloud's contract faster than a witty remark comes out of a deadpan snarker. There wasn't a whole lot of fuss about it; no two weeks notice, no messy negotiations, no needlessly verbose discharge letter, just a simple impersonal message that told McCloud that he no longer worked for Caius Company, and was no longer entitled to any benefits or obligations that entailed. That was it, nothing more, an otherwise promising career in private sector soldiery cut off from the company like an infected limb. In hindsight though, a career in Caius Company might not have been that promising in the first place if this was how they treat their people.
In any case, it was over now. James McCloud was out of work, and that was the least of his problems.
Mercenaries die: it's a simple fact of mercenary work. People who fight, shoot, kill for others to make their livelihood will inevitably, sooner or later, end up looking down the business end of someone else's gun barrel. That's not what made the situation awkward though. This was different. This was bigger than a simple escort job gone awry, and it didn't take a great leap of logic to hazard a guess why: the Cerinian.
It was a tough job to begin with, but everything –save for the loss of the squad– had been working out fairly smoothly. By all accounts, it was a success, even if only barely. Then 'Harrow' worked his damned Cerinian shenanigans. No one James knew of had gone up against any of those strange things, those... mind-screws. There was no known counter-strategy, and no time to think up one on the spot in he moment. War certainly could be hell, but the stuff of nightmares that 'Harrow' could pull off was never supposed to be as real as it was.
Speaking of nightmares, James still had some of them: burned alive in the cockpit of the Tapatra-27 fighter, belittled by Captain Sobak Soyuz, taunted by a staff-swirling Cerinian maniac; the usual. He was beginning not necessarily to get used to them, but more like become familiar with them. There were other dreams too now though, some of them involved a raging black terrier out for blood who hacked the world to pieces, or a white wolf who could care less about anything. But on top of all this was one dream, not a nightmare, that he was alright with having. It was a beautiful vixen, bright copper fur and dazzling green eyes, whose calm, compassionate gaze and sweet voice was the only thing in his head that wasn't crap. Or rather, it was the only thing in his head not crap with enough power to stand up against everything else. She wouldn't leave; her face, her voice, her name kept bouncing back into his thoughts, trying so very hard to distract him from all of those other worries that dragged him down: Vixy.
This great uneasiness defined Jame's days for a time, constantly obsessing over people he barely knew, and the ones he did know well had dropped from his thoughts entirely. He didn't want to feel this way, he'd already beat himself up over the failures, already cursed fate, but he still felt miserable nonetheless. The worst part was the inaction, the doing of nothing, it felt like treading water; kicking to stay afloat, but going nowhere. Part of him wondered how just long he could keep this up before he drowned...
Lucky for him that Peppy Hare was there for the worst of it, helping him through, keeping an eye on him. Peppy might not have been there aboard the Amity, or Cerberus when it still functioned; didn't see everything fall apart around him while he watched helpless, didn't feel the pain for himself, but maybe that was for the best. Someone under the same roof as James ought to be the sane one, and it was a good fit for Peppy. It was that stubborn hare's belief that by going through the motions of life –by getting out of bed in the morning, eating the breakfast, doing the smalltalk, taking care of the little things– one can stay alive. It was the thought that if you condition your body to reflexively keep on living, than like any conditioned response, the mind will follow suit accordingly.
Well, that's a pleasant thought at least.
When he and Peppy finally got the call to go back out there, to go do some work, he was most of all relieved. It meant he had something new to focus on, something to get up and get ready for, something he could put his skills to work for. He was beginning to realize, for himself at least, that doing anything at all was better than sitting and doing nothing.
James McCloud and Peppy Hare stepped into Ewan's pub amidst the hubbub of the evening rush. The main space was alive with the conversations between the patrons, most of them enjoying good food, good drink and good company. The warm air was thick with the aromas of several appetizing meals mingling with a slight tinge of alcohol, among others.
They weren't there to enjoy the pleasantries though, not as their first priority at least. This was where they were supposed to meet Rachelle, Pigma and Scott for the job.
"Any idea where to find them?" James asked. His voice was more lively now at least, and not quite the cold monotone it had been for a while; good sign.
"Ah, well, Rachelle wasn't any more specific than 'meet at Ewan's', at this time. But don't you worry Jimmy, they'll be here..." Peppy looked around the busy pub, second thoughts slipping through, "somewhere–"
"Oi, you two there!" the host, an older brown terrier canid, approached them through the busy pub, dodging between patrons as he asked, "McCloud, Hare?"
"Yep, that's us." Peppy answered with a nod.
"Your friends are waiting on you; back room, mates. Right this way."
The host led them through the thick of the pub's activity, past the bar where a few were getting a little tipsy. Soon they were in a small, quiet back room, modestly furnished, and with three familiar occupants sitting around a table waiting for them: Rachelle, Pigma, and Scott.
If James thought he was a little worse for wear, Scott was... something else. There's the thousand yard stare which shell-shocked veterans sometimes adopt that everyone's heard about: that blank, ghostly stare written about in novels, shown in the movies. That was not Scott. The dark terrier's face instead seemed to be locked in a permanent, razor sharp scowl, glaring straight forward as if to drill a hole through the wall opposite him.
As soon as the host left them, James had to ask, "Scott? You doing okay?"
He didn't answer. He just gave the fox a quick glance, and went right back to glaring.
"He hasn't been drinking, has he?" Peppy asked to the others offhand.
At this, Scott rolled his eyes and let out a grumbling sigh.
"Uh, no, actually." Pigma supplied, looking at Peppy with something like a sneer. It wasn't clear if he was just being defensive, or sarcastic, or both. "He hasn't touched a drop of anything stronger than ice-water since he started coming here–"
"Stow it." Scott cut him off with a growl.
"He's fine, and we have more important things on the table anyway." Rachelle insisted, shooting stern looks between Peppy and Pigma, "So why don't you take a seat and we'll get started."
Once Peppy and James were seated, Rachelle wasted no time getting down to business.
"The job is simple:" she began, "We've tracked the shuttle Charon from Cerberus to the Setarea desert, on Titania. It's still there right now, and its beacon transmitting as we speak. The shuttle's blackbox recorder should be in there, and still functioning as far as we know. If Harrow made any calls for a lift, it'll be logged there. Whatever occurred during the trip there will be recorded there. If there's any trace of what might've happened to Chakori, it'll be there. So we go there, and find out anything we can."
"I've got a feeling it ain't as simple as that. There's a lot here that ain't adding up." Peppy figured, "Like: why set it down in the middle of the desert, and not a settlement or something?"
"Quietly ditch it for a new ride, of course." Pigma answered easily.
"Yeah okay, so why the hell is the tracking signal still transmitting?" Peppy questioned, still very skeptical, "If this guy wanted to cover his tracks, he should've blown the shuttle to teeny tiny pieces after ditching it for his new ride."
"I don't think your friend Harrow is trying to cover his tracks at all. He's deliberately leaving a trail of bread crumbs, of bait. And that's why I'm not going out there all by myself." Rachelle explained, looking around the table, dropping the obvious hint.
"Right, great, so we're springing a goddamn booby trap." the hare reiterated, sounding a little uncomfortable.
"Hell, we're not springing it." Pigma corrected, giving Peppy a little punch on the shoulder, "We're busting it up!"
"So what's his angle?" James asked Rachelle, much more interested, "Why would he lead us on a chase?"
"It's only a guess for now, but I'm pretty sure he wants to know who's tracking him, wants to know exactly what he's up against, and doesn't want to draw any unwanted attention finding out." Rachelle answered, and continued explaining, "Combing through a whole mess of unreliable contacts trying to find out who's tailing you attracts unnecessary attention, tips off nosy opportunists, and can make you look desperate. So this Harrow guy saves himself the trouble and lures his pursuers close enough for a good look. And if he's the arrogant, fight-happy bastard I've heard so much about, then he just might try to snuff his tracks out there, along with whoever's on his trail."
"Hmph, let him try." the dark terrier scoffed, but with a grim timbre to his voice, and a smoldering fire in his eyes, "I'm in."
"I'm in if Scott's in." Pigma chimed.
"So what are we waiting for?" James asked, much more lively now, determined, "Let's do this."
"Yeah, sure, what the hell." Peppy agreed, reluctantly, while he fidgeted looking down at his hands, "Let's go tag-and-bag us a crazy homicidal psychic psychopath, huh?"
James placed a hand on the hare's shoulder, "Hey, Peppy."
"Relax." James suggested, much more relaxed than he'd been, "You're making me nervous."
"Well now, I see you've made it back to your usual cocky self–"
"Couldn't have made it here without you Peppy, you stubborn bastard–"
"Complete with your infamous cocktail of fake ass-kissing and sarcasm..." he chuckled, and added, "He does this, you know, all the time."
"Now that is just not true."James exclaimed as he threw up his arms in a fit of faux-outrage, "You're exaggerating."
"Maybe, but not by much." Peppy mumbled, just loud enough for everyone to hear.
"Alright boys, break it up." Rachelle butted in, "As entertaining as the comedy act is, I'm going to have to suggest that you cut it short. The sooner we start the prep-work, the sooner we can get out there."
"You sure about this?" Wiley asked.
Rick Cooney and he made it to the busy city of Port Seyid on Zoness easily enough, found the fairly ordinary Sol Nascente apartment building in the northern district, and got to the entrance of unit 513 with no trouble– well, no trouble beyond the usual nuisances that is.
"Well, are you sure about this?" an all too familiar voice asked.
Rick looked to his side, where his habitually hallucinated doppelgänger had just materialized right next to the white wolf 'Wiley', giving a gleeful smirk to his corporeal counterpart.
"It's a lead, and I'm following it." the raccoon answered as he reached up and activated the apartment's door-chime.
"No, of course you're not sure, but you're doing it anyway." Rick's double sassed back, his every word dripping with sarcasm, "It's one of those funny hunch things, not that you'd tell him about that anyway."
Of all the times to butt in and taunt, it just had to be when meeting up with a possible contact, with Wiley tagging along. Rick wanted nothing more than to tell that part of himself off, but that'd mean trying to explain to Wiley why he was talking to the air.
The apartment door soon slid open, and thank goodness for that. It meant something else to focus on, something to distract Rick from himself.
On the other side of the door was, just as Serge had informed, an older or mid-aged vulpine woman. She looked like she'd be in the 50 to 60 year range, aged gracefully, with a fur pattern of uneven dark gray. She wore a long-sleeved wrap dress than hung over her knees, the fabric of which was a deep blue, but with highlighted at the edges with intricate, exotic patterns.
"Cassandra Alexi?" Rick asked, putting on his best polite visitor act.
"Yes?" the vixen confirmed and questioned in a single word.
She seemed awfully calm to have new arrivals, not concerned, or worried, or suspicious as she had every right to be, but intrigued, interested, almost as if she were expecting them. It crossed Rick's mind that Serge might have informed her of their coming, but that probably wouldn't matter too much.
"I am Richard Cooney, and this is Wiley." he pointed out the Wolf next to him.
"I see..." Cassandra said with a thoughtful nod. She definitely seemed far more clever than she was letting on, and her next action all but confirmed it, "And what about your other friend over there?" she inquired, looking straight at Rick's suddenly baffled doppelgänger.
"Who?" Rick blurted as a shocked, bewildered expression struck his face.
"Me?" the double said in exactly the same tone, with the exact same expression.
"What are you talking about, lady?" Wiley asked, looking where she indicated, but not seeing anything but the wall, "There's nobody there."
"Hmm..." Cassandra stepped into the hallway, scrutinizing the confused wolf with intense, thinking eyes before instructing him, "Close your eyes."
"I don't see what this has–"
"Close them, and you will see." she insisted.
Uneasy, Wiley looked over to Rick, looking for some kind of support in the awkward situation. After a moment, Rick gave him a slow nod, silently telling Wiley to let the lady do whatever it is she's going to do.
Once he complied, reluctantly, Cassandra reached a hand up and lightly tapped the wolf on his forehead, and instructed, "Now open your eyes, and look again."
He did, and he saw the doppelgänger that Rick used to think only he could see, "Rick?"
"Uh... Hi?" the double responded with an awkward wave.
Wiley flinched back, bumping into the actual Rick Cooney in the process, "Holy... Rick, who the hell is this?"
"That, Makita, is his shadow," Cassandra answered, giving the so-called 'shadow' a disapproving look, "and a rather impolite shadow I might add."
"How do you know my name?" Wiley demanded, or Makita as he'd been named.
"It's because you're Cerinian." Rick deduced, working very hard to cover his discomfort.
Cassandra showed them her arm, and ran her fingers through the fur. On close inspection, they could see the hairs were all blue at the roots. She'd dyed her fur gray.
"No, hell no, we can't be here..." the wolf who's identity was in question muttered, shaking his head, then snapped back at Cassandra, "I won't let your kind screw with my head anymore, ever."
"And that can be made true, with my help. That is why you are here, yes?" she replied, and calmly added, "Please, come inside. It seems we have much to discuss."