By Laura Folden
Note: this story takes place after PK Tech Girl but before Thank God It's Friday Again. If you're not familiar with these stories, check out the SciFi website. Also, I certainly don't want to infringe on copyright, so let me just say that there is a quote referenced in this story that is taken from the show itself. "You can be more," is from the Premiere
Astronaut John Crichton studied the view screen in front of him with quiet intensity. If he'd ever needed reminding that Earth was on the other side of the universe--well, this very unearth like planet would do that just fine. The planet was easily the largest he'd ever seen, larger than Saturn or even Jupiter, but unlike them it was not a great gas giant. And it was a bilious gemstone green. Moya was only one of thousands of ships orbiting this huge commerce planet; some ships were so small in the distance that they were only tiny motes of light amid tons of debris.
"Pilot!" He snapped, impatient with himself. "Aren't they finished yet?" He'd been scanning the region for what seemed like hours now, while Aeryn worked on cleaning the cargo bay. Zhann and the others were down on the commerce planet trying to scare up some food cubes.
The Pilot's very large, very purple, very alien face flashed onto a smaller viewscreen. "Not yet." The big alien head tilted slightly. "Is there a problem?"
John waved his hand dismissively. "No, no...I've just got...." A bad feeling. He turned back to his contemplation of the large viewscreen. "You're sure Crais's ship isn't out there?"
A bulky black ship sputtered between Moya and the planet, temporarily blocking his view. That ship looked like it belonged on cement blocks in front of someone's trailer. You won't catch ME going up in something like that, he thought, and then laughed quietly to himself. One year ago--hell, three months ago--his dreams extended as far as orbiting Earth. Now he was a critic of alien technology.
John felt his stomach tighten again. Aeryn hadn't seemed too worried when the others went down to the planet....of course, he thought, when the hell had Aeryn ever worried about anything? Ms. John Wayne just attacked. And Dargo --a seven-foot-tall mountain of muscles and rage--he wasn't any better. Zhann at least would think first in a crisis, but Rygel had to be forced to help anyone other than himself. We just heard from them, he told himself, they're fine.
He continued to study the planet, trying to ignore the cold deep feeling in his gut. He'd learned to trust his instincts... hell, he thought, what else do I have ? He snorted, both amused and rueful. I hope Someone up there is laughing their asses off, 'cause I sure ain't . Catapulted from his home, from everything he knew and loved, he'd been shanghai'd by a bunch of escaped prisoners in the middle of a space battle with the local rent a cops..
The ship shuddered. The lights went out.
"Pilot?! Pilot, what the hell's going on?" Pause. Silence. Breathe. "Aeryn? Pilot? This, this can't be good." He tried to fight the rising panic. No answer. Breathe! He couldn't hear Moya either. "C'mon, guys, where are you? "
There were flashlights in the maintenance bay. But he had to get there in the dark. Or should he go to Pilot first? Pilot, he decided. Aeryn was probably headed there too. In the pitch blackness, they could miss each other too easily. Or maybe Aeryn was in trouble. Maybe Aeryn was...no! He reached out his hands in the unfeeling darkness and stumbled forward. Anything was better than sitting in the dark. Take it easy, John, Freddie Krueger is NOT coming down that hallway.
Okay, then, Pilot. He tripped on something that fell to the ground with a clatter and stumbled against the wall. John kept his left hand on it and sidled right, waving his arm to feel his way. Pilot's chamber was three corridors down from here, right, then left to the central area. Three corridors...or four? One thing at a time. There it was. The door. Jesus, he thought, doesn't Moya have an emergency generator, backup lights, anything? He crept forward into the darkness.
First corridor. Second. Third. No sound but his own footsteps, his own breathing, his own wildly pounding heart. He still couldn't hear Moya. Was she...what did it take to hurt a Leviathan? John almost called out for Pilot, but stopped himself. If Moya was hurt, then Pilot couldn't hear him. And the darkness felt alive. He didn't want to announce his presence to whoever or whatever might be out there.
"Keep moving!" The voice echoed harshly down the black hallway. "We need get to Pilot to administer the antidote to the sleep agent." Moya's walls gleamed with the faintest echo of light.
John flattened himself against the wall, scarcely breathing. If their objective was Pilot, then they were almost on top of him. Damn. He still had time, if he hurried--John bolted five steps back down the hallway and into the second corridor. The pale light grew brighter. Almost on him. Should he attack? He bit his lip. No, he had no weapon, didn't even know who they were. For all he knew, they could be some kind of rescuers, here because Moya was in trouble.
Yeah. And monkeys are flying right out of my--
Peacekeepers! The dead black uniforms and humanlike faces were unmistakable, even in dim half light. Two of them and neither was Aeryn. Damn, damn, damn... The first turned slightly, shining his light down the corridor. John lay low, not moving. Don't see me, don't see me, don't see me....
They moved on.
There'd been no sign of Crais's ship, and he'd been scanning for hours. So the Peacekeepers had to get here some other way. A Marauder? A five man transport might have hidden among the thousands of ships orbiting the planet. If so, where were the other three commandos? Wait, the commandos had said something about an antidote for Pilot. They'd put him under somehow, and Moya too.
Aeryn, where the hell are you? Maybe she'd had time to hide. Maybe she was dead. His eyes closed and he swallowed against the sudden surge of raw emotion.
First things first. "I need a weapon," he whispered. If he was going to rescue her--rescue them all--he needed a weapon. John cursed himself for not learning to use Aeryn's rifle. I just assumed she'd always be there. Her or Dargo. Stupid.Well, what could he use then? The prison laser. It didn't have much range, but it could cut through anything. Last time he saw it was in the maintenance bay. Pilot would just have to be okay until then. They wouldn't kill Pilot. He hoped.
John stood and eased his way back to the main corridor. He heard the Peacekeeper's voices but they were too far away to make out anything useful. He reached the main corridor and paused for a second. No sign of anyone. Step after step into the dark. Sudden light. Dim light, but enough to see by. He could hear Moya again. The Peacekeepers must've roused Moya or Pilot. Careful, John, they can see you, too.
John sidled around the corridor and down to the maintenance bay. Slow and easy and cautious. The maintenance bay doors were closed. He flexed his hands nervously--the other three Peacekeepers might be behind that door. Hell, there could be three hundred Peacekeepers behind that door. Didn't matter. He had no choice.
Aeryn, be okay, please be okay.
He pressed the door handle. John darted to the left as the maintenance bay door swung open. No sound, not a whisper of movement inside. Breathe, man, c'mon, just breathe, no one's in there. He peeked into the open doorway. Nope, not a soul. He eased his way inside. Well, if no one was in the maintenance bay now, someone had been. The place was a shambles, workbenches tossed over, parts scattered everywhere. The prison laser lay under one overturned workbench. John tugged it free and examined it. The laser wasn't a gun, but it was deadly, it could kill. Can I?
He hadn't thought beyond getting a weapon. He closed his eyes, swallowed hard. Aeryn would do something tactically brilliant and utterly brave. John was scientist, not soldier. He had no idea what a tactically brilliant action would be. He could try to contact Dargo or Zhann, for all the good it would do. They were on the planet with no way to Moya.
It's all up to me.He'd only been in battle three times, all of them short. Once with Peacekeeper commandos, once with Tavloids, and once with Dargo. Twice he'd talked his way out of danger, and he'd never actually fought Dargo. He'd just hidden in the crawlspace in Moya's ceiling for three days. The crawlspace.
John stared up in sudden hope.
Dav squatted in front of her.
She raised her face to his, met familiar eyes. "I am not a traitor!" She flung the words at them.
Mina, her best friend, laughed scornfully and looked away.
Dav grabbed her shoulders in both hands and slammed her against the wall. "Quiet!" His face was only inches from her own. "Understood?"
Aeryn schooled her face into a defiant sneer. She had to bide her time. She glanced at Daren, once her dear friend, now an implacable enemy. They were from her own unit. Why would Crais send her unit out on a Marauder transport? It didn't make sense.
Concentrate on now.
Dav flexed his hands, fingers digging agonizingly into her shoulders. Aeryn refused to acknowledge the pain. "Tell me who else is on board."
Hope. So they didn't have Crichton. It was really only a matter of time. One scientist against five Peacekeeper commandos. At least he'd die fighting. She almost envied him that.
Fingers tightened and dug under her muscles, searching for nerves.
"Lieutenant." Rin's voice sounded tinny and distant over the tiny comlink.
"We've revived Pilot, sir. No sign yet of anyone else on board."
Dav studied Aeryn intently for a moment before responding. "Stay where you are, Officer." "Yes, sir."
"We'll meet you in the Command."
They knew her too well. She couldn't possibly bluff them. She and Dav had been the closest of friends. Before Crichton. What she wouldn't give for one rifle, one core cannon. To kill Crichton!
Dav released her shoulders and pushed one loose lock of hair away from her face, gently brushing her cheek. "Aeryn?" A question full of hidden depths.
Aeryn found herself wishing for the pain again. Physical pain. "I, I didn't!" She twisted in his grip, insistent, panicked, willing them to believe. "Crichton didn't kill Crais's brother, not on purpose. Crais didn't want to hear it."
His eyes widened, then narrowed again. "Then why run? Why not stand trial?"
"Because--" You can be more. Aeryn heard that phrase in her sleep and woke up with it every morning. He said, "You can be more," and the next thing she knew she was on the other side of the galaxy with a bunch of escaped prisoners. Maybe she was irreversibly contaminated. Maybe humans had some kind of mind control. No, that was ridiculous, Crichton couldn't even keep his boots fastened half the time. He was-- You can be more.
Damn him. It wasn't fair.
Dav's fingers tightened in her hair, yanking her head back. "I asked you a question, Officer."
What could she say, Crichton made me do it? I 'm a Peacekeeper commando, six times decorated for valor, twice for outstanding service. He made me. Yeah. Right. "I don't know." Dav deserved the truth. They had been so close once. Before Crichton. "I don't know." Such a bitter truth.
Grey eyes widened in surprise. He yanked her head further back, tilting her face into the light but making it hard to breathe. Abruptly he released her and rose to his feet, turning away.
"C'mon." Daren yanked her to her feet. "Let's go." He shoved her hard with his rifle. Dav waited impatiently. Aeryn dragged her feet, and got shoved again for her trouble. They started down Moya's hallway.
"Daren," she said quietly.
"No. No, I won't. Why--"
Mina pivoted slowly toward her, her face impassive. "Yes?"
"Why did he send you? Send my friends?" Friends. Not since Crichton tore her away from the only life she'd ever loved.
"It wasn't Crais' idea." Daren circled her. "Our whole unit was demoted because of you." He leaned forward. "Do you have any idea what grod's work is like, Sun? Do you? We wanted to come after you. We practically begged Crais for the chance."
Damn you Crichton, damn you to hell for this.
"And you?" She asked Dav, not really wanting to know.
"My reasons are my own. I'll not share them with a traitor." He nodded to Daren and Mina, and they resumed their march. "Let's get to command." John dropped out of the ceiling right on top of Mina, then rolled and came up behind Daren. "Yo, asshole!"
He swung a prison laser into Daren's gut, then back around into his head. The laser connected with a satisfying crack! and the soldier dropped to his knees. Aeryn launched herself at Dav, knocking him off his feet. And out cold. She lay half on top of him, struggling for breath.
"Aeryn, you okay?"
"Yes," she wheezed, "just had the wind knocked out of me." She rolled to her knees. "Took you long enough."
John fumbled in the soldier's belt for the handcuff keys and released her. She rubbed her wrists, then picked up the handcuffs and put them on Daren. Crichton knelt beside Dav and rolled him over. He'd be out cold for a while. "What about these two?" The sweep of his arm included Mina, lying limp and unresponsive near the wall.
Aeryn blanched. "We'll just have to hope they don't wake up." She stared down at the Peacekeeper, breathing harshly. Her hand rubbed the unconscious man's shoulder. "John, you should take the shuttle down to the planet. Get Dargo." Buy me some time.
She shook her head in that mule-headed, impatient way she had. "No. I don't have time."
"What?" John stared. And she thought he was odd?
"Come on." She started down the hallway. "Pilot needs us."
"Not that way." He grabbed her forearm."This way." For a moment John was sure she was going to pull free. Or hit him. Instead, she stepped in under the crawlspace and peered up.
"Where does it go?"
"I hope," he grinned impudently at her, "that it drops us right on top of those bastards."
Her beautiful blue eyes were startled, pleased, and amused all at the same time. Then she was Aeryn again, all business. Ms. John Wayne. She tossed the rifles onto the lip of the crawlspace and reached back to him for the prison laser.
"Are you sure we need this?" he asked nervously, holding it out of her reach.
She snorted. "The way you keep blowing up rifles?"
John's jaw tightened with irritation. He'd be eighty, and she'd be reminding him of that.
Aeryn levered herself up to the first level and then onto the crawlspace. She pulled the rifles out of the way and slid forward. John threw the prison laser after her and followed her up. Rising to a crouch, he stopped next to her in the tight confines of the tunnel. She seemed...different somehow. Less sure of herself, reluctant. He couldn't put his finger on it.
"Let's go." She tossed her braid back over her shoulder.
They crawled for what seemed like an eternity, pausing to scan each corridor they passed for signs of the other Peacekeepers. His legs began to cramp and he had to pause to rub his calves while Aeryn waited impatiently. Finally, finally, they reached the corridor outside Pilot's chamber.
Aeryn twisted to look at him. "Just a little further now." She whispered breathily. She swung one rifle into position. "Ready?" She contemplated the corridor, sliding up onto the balls of her feet, ready to pounce. And didn't move. She put the rifle down and sat heavily against the wall. No, no, I can't! I thought I could do this, but I can't!
"Aeryn?" The soft question in his voice touched her. He's depending on me, he needs me to be strong, to be a soldier. But that's the whole problem-
She shook her head. "I'm fine." Her fingers curled around the rifle. Can I do this? Everything up to now has just been child's play. If I do this...if I fight them...I'll have no more excuses. I will be what they believe me to be.
His warm hand moved protectively over hers. She almost, almost, glanced at him and didn't. If she looked at him, she'd lose it. Go crazy. She shut her eyes, trying to block out the choice before her. It is my duty, my breeding, from birth. It's what I am. A Peacekeeper.
"Aeryn, what the hell's the matter with you?" His voice rose slightly as he became alarmed.
Instinctively she shushed him. "They'll hear you." My friends. Everyone who ever mattered to me.
"Look," He paused, searching for words. "If you're hurt, you have to tell me. We can try something else, go back for Dargo like you said."
"No." No time, they had no time for that. I have to choose. My choice this time, not his. John, or her family? A life on the run, locked away from everything she knew, everything she loved...or her duty. From birth. It's what I am! "John. I'm sorry."
His hand encircled her wrist. "What's going on?"
She let go of her rifle and gripped his hand in both of hers. Aeryn lifted her face to his anxious, confused one. He was maddening, always underfoot, standing in her space, pushing her when she didn't want to be pushed. Odd, and appealing, and completely outside of her realm of experience. You can be more.
My choice. But she owed him an explanation for what she was about to do. "Those soldiers." Aeryn took a deep breath. "They're from my unit." She released his hand and picked up the rifle, rubbed the barrel and took another deep breath. "They're here because of me."
His eyes widened in shock. "Why?"
Stupid, stupid question. "Why do you think?!" He'll die if he goes in there. He doesn't stand a chance. Her fingers tightened on the rifle. "I, I mean--" she stammered, "maybe," just say it, Aeryn, "maybe there's time for you to get on the shuttle. Go to the planet, get out of here." Be safe.
John's blue eyes narrowed, full of questions, watching her, figuring her out. "No, I'm not leaving."
"Yes, you are. No!" She shook her finger in his face forestalling his protests, "I'm going in there. You're leaving. Simple as that."
He rocked back onto his heels. "There's got to be a way out of this." He bit his thumb, seemingly lost in thought.
This is ludicrous, she thought. I'm a Peacekeeper who's having an argument right before a battle!
Pantack jab. She'd knock him out, pack him on a shuttle for the planet. No, no good. No time to drag his limp body from here to the cargo bay. She'd tell him she was hurt, trick him into getting on the shuttle and then leave him on the planet. Leave him, and return to finish this business. Yeah, and what about Pilot?
Aeryn reached out again to touch his wrist. Her eyes watched her hand, her thin fingers resting lightly on the back of his. "You don't understand." Was that her voice? Shaking like that, wavering back and forth on the edge of hearing? "John." Breathe, Aeryn. You've defeated three Luxan warriors in battle; you've faced the enemy armed with nothing but your own courage, and you are quivering like a leaf in front of this...human. "Don't make me choose."
How impossibly dense could one person be? "It's my duty, my breeding, since birth. It's what I am!"
He shook his head, not comprehending.
"It's my duty," she insisted, more sure of herself. "I ran from it, John, but I don't fear it. My time is done. I can't run anymore. Not from them. We served together. Shared everything. I owe them." She dug her nails into his wrist. "I don't want you to die. If you're still here when I...." She closed her eyes. "Don't make me choose between you."
Silence. Except for their breathing, silence. She kept her eyes shut, not daring to look at him. Aeryn listened to him shift in the darkness and felt her heart break. Was he leaving? Did he finally understand? Could he possibly understand?
Suddenly he was knee-to-knee with her, only inches separating them. She let go of his wrist and shoved her arm hard against him, but he grabbed her wrist and immobilized it with her fingers splayed against his chest. "I'm not leaving you." He licked his lips. "Choose."
Aeryn erupted into violence, breaking his hold and knocking him away from her. The palm of her hand slammed up into his chin and he fell backward, barely catching himself at the lip of the crawlspace. He lunged for her, but she clutched at the rifle and shoved it hard into his stomach. Crichton gasped for breath.
She scrambled the last few feet toward Pilot's chamber, leaving the rifle behind. Aeryn edged warily out over the chamber, scarcely daring to breathe. Officer Rin was just beneath her, pacing, her short blonde hair only slightly dishevelled. They had been bunkmates, confidantes, comrades.
Officer G'shan watched Rin pace disinterestedly from his post three metras to her left. He looked relaxed, but he couldn't fool Aeryn. He always looked bored, sometimes even sleepy, but he'd go from that state to fighting in the blink of an eye.
The softest of sounds made her turn. Crichton. He crouched on the edge of the crawlspace, watching her, questioning. Choose.
She looked from him to them and back again. What choice? This is my duty! These are my friends! His open blue eyes entreated her. Choose. Demanding of her. You can be more. Aeryn inched closer to the edge. Crichton took his first hesitant step into the chamber. Aeryn peered down at her friends. Crichton took a second step. His lips formed her name, but he didn't speak. My breeding. Since birth. It's what I am! Blue eyes met hers. He stretched out his hand, beckoning her back.
My duty, my breeding, my choice.
If he came much further, they'd see him. He'd die.
You can be more.
He should've gone back when she offered him the chance.
She landed on her feet behind Rin, spun and kicked high, knocking her rifle away. It was almost ridiculously easy, taking her by surprise like this. Her hand slammed up into a Pantack jab and then she was stepping over Rin's unconscious body. Aeryn wasn't even trying to defend herself, only attack. G'shan was already halfway to her, face contorted in a snarl. Aeryn laughed, feeling savage, insane, lost. She heard Crichton drop to the floor behind her. G'shan feinted, drawing her low, then punched high, fist smashing into her face. Aeryn followed his next move, ducked low and came up inside his reach. She grabbed his head and slammed it into her own, knocking him down. She darted forward and kicked him in the ribs. He curled protectively around his injury but she kicked him again, incapacitating him. And suddenly it was done.
What I am. It's what I am.
Raw bitterness overwhelmed her. My choice.
Dimly, she heard Crichton talking to Pilot, explaining, reassuring. Heard Pilot contact Zhann, heard Zhann's concern, Dargo's hiss of rage. They'd come up to Moya, discuss the situation endlessly, decide what to do with her friends. Dargo would want to kill, Crichton to save them. Somehow. But that was for the future, for a later Aeryn to deal with. She turned, feeling bruised and battered.
Crichton was waiting for her. His blue eyes were compassionate, appealing. He didn't say anything--she'd have killed him for speaking! He just watched her. She met his warm gaze deliberately, chin lifted high. He nodded, understanding her, and let her pass by.
Aeryn acknowledged him with a bare nod and turned back to the stars. She hadn't spoken once during the meeting, just sat and stared at her friends through the prison bars. Not a word when Rygel advised shoving them out an airlock; kept her silence while Dargo paced like a giant cat back and forth in front of the cells. Hadn't spoken even when one of them--the dark haired girl, Mina--spit at her through the bars. John worried.
"We put them under and took them to the transport." He inched closer to her. "I thought.."
"You thought what?" Aeryn's voice was low, tense, cold.
John glanced away. "I thought you might want to say goodbye."
She kept staring at the stars. Not a word, but her thin graceful fingers tightened on her belt. Then, "Why?"
He blinked, not understanding.
She turned slowly to face him. Her thin, striking face was bleak, her eyes as distant as the moon. "Why did you make me choose?"
"Why did you stay?" She bit her lip. "I gave you a chance...."
"So you could be a martyr?" His voice rose with his anger. "Damnit, Aeryn, those friends of yours would've killed you. Or," John stepped toward her aggressively, "turned you in to that bastard Crais--"
Aeryn turned away. "I don't fear death, John." Her voice was soft, breathless. He could barely hear her. "Listen to me. From birth, I was trained to obey. If they commanded me to die in battle, I would die in battle. Because it was my duty. When they said," she paused, inhaled sharply, "that I was irreversibly contaminated, then it was my duty to stand trial, and die if they decided I should die."
He shook his head. "Aeryn--"
She stopped him with the merest shake of her head. "But I didn't. I followed you and Dargo. I didn't know why. I still don't. I just know--" Aeryn's hands tightened further on her belt. " Listen to me, John. If you somehow, someday find one of these wormhole things of yours, would you use it?"
"Of course." He was caught, spellbound, by her voice.
"Even though it might not lead home? Even knowing that nothing would be the same? That your family and friends would treat you differently because of where you've been?"
"Knowing that you might die?"
He could only nod.
She watched him a moment longer, and then, satisfied that her point was made, turned away, dismissing him.
Oh no, not yet, Ms. Wayne, he thought. One more question. He took a step toward her and rested his hand lightly on her shoulder. Amazingly, she didn't hit him, or snap his head off, or even just back away. "So why didn't you?" His fingers touched the back of her neck.
"Because." She flipped her heavy braid over her shoulder with a toss of her head. "I can be more." She turned and left the terrace.
John stared at her retreating back. He would never, ever, ever understand her.