This is set about a month after 'A Bug's Life', Aeryn got better all on her own and Crais is still captain of his command carrier. I wrote the first draft in the long hiatus after ABL. Minor spoilers for AHR, ABL. Any similarities between this work and subsequent episodes were a frelling surprise to me.
Disclaimer: I don't own anything about Farscape. All characters, except the few I created, belong to Henson studios and the SciFi Channel.
With many, many thanks to Kat for her encouragement, invaluable advice, and for reeling me back in when I get over my head.
Aeryn Sun entered the bar warily, pausing by the entrance, the transition from bright sunlight to the poorly lit interior momentarily blinding. As she let her eyes adjust, the sounds and smells of the place became its opening introduction. Low conversations sprinkled here and there with nervous laughter, the smell of stale alcohol, the musky scent of alien bodies, others she'd rather not identify-all registered in a moment. The bar was much like others that she had seen throughout her travels in the uncharted territories, rather seedy, attending to the less virtuous needs of the many species in an uncivilized sector of space.
She searched the faces, looking for someone in particular, someone she believed that she would never willingly search out to find again. She took her time, careful to watch her back at the same time. The first thing she felt were his eyes pinned on her. With a radar-like precision she turned slowly, zeroing in on the occupant of a table at the back of the room. Their eyes locked and the familiarity of his face was unexpectedly comforting.
Still, she approached him cautiously. She was taking a terrible risk to come here, but, in the end, curiosity and more than just a twinge of hope pushed her on.
He rose slowly, deliberately, keeping his hands where she could see them. His determined movement hinted at restrained power and his dark, deep-set eyes never left hers. He was wearing a long overcoat that parted briefly as he stood and she glimpsed his concealed Pleisar regiment uniform underneath.
He smiled thinly at her and when she was close enough to hear him without raising his voice, he greeted her simply, "Aeryn."
"Paulto," she answered. She, too, was careful to make no sudden moves. She slowly removed a sensing bar from her belt. He opened his arms in tacit consent as she passed it over his limbs and torso just a few inches from his body. As in most bars in this sector, the patrons made a point of minding their own business and registered no notice of this. Just another day in the uncharted territories.
"No weapons. No tracers," he assured her.
"You won't mind if I check then," she said as she continued. The scan turned up nothing, and he gestured for her to sit.
"Can I buy you a drink? The quanjon here is barely passable, but it's better than I expected."
Aeryn nodded as she sat and Paulto motioned to the waiter who must have known what to expect for two mugs of the amber liquid were placed in front of them almost immediately.
"I'm glad you finally made it. This is the fourth time I've waited for you here and this place lost its charm on the first visit."
"Sorry, I kept you," she said flatly. She raised her mug, nodding to him in salute, and tasted the smoky liquid. The brew was too raw, and she tried in vain to suppress a shudder as the muscles in her throat constricted in protest.
He smiled broadly, chuckling in the back of his throat. "Ahh, I've missed you, Aeryn. It gets much better towards the bottom of the mug, I promise."
Aeryn pushed the mug away. "You've gone to a lot of trouble to get me here. You certainly didn't invite me here just for a drink. What do you want?"
"It wasn't easy changing the encoded message in the wanted beacon without the captain finding out."
"So, this has nothing to do with Crais?"
"Not in the way you might think." He took a long draught of the quanjon, his eyes never leaving hers.
"The vendetta that Crais has against this 'Crichton' is insane. It goes beyond all reason. A quarter cycle ago, I found out that the Council at First Command had ordered him to abandon the search for the Leviathan and the escaped criminals and return to base."
"But we're still finding active beacons."
"Yes. The orders have never been mentioned and the only other officer that would have been privy to those orders mysteriously disappeared."
"Crais deliberately disobeyed the Council?" Aeryn eyes narrowed. "And just how do you know this?"
"After all the cycles we served together, you don't trust me?"
"I don't believe that. We were crib-mates. We've known each other our whole lives...trained together...our lives depended on each other."
"And I let you down," she reminded him.
He gave a slight shrug. "True, we're all being punished for your defection."
Aeryn raised her chin in defiance of the accusation, but she held her tongue.
Paulto leaned towards her, brow furrowed; his eyes narrow and focused. Aeryn had seen this look before. It was the same expression he had at the beginning of sparring exercises. He was a master of sizing up his opponent.
"Why did you do it?" he asked.
"I had no choice. Crais condemned me to death for the mere suggestion that his brother's death was just an accident."
"I know that. But whatever possessed you to defend the Human in the first place? What was he to you?"
"Nothing. Nothing at all. It was an accident. His ship was caught in a wormhole that spit him out in exactly the wrong place. He tried to avoid Tauvo, but couldn't. He comes from a backward race on the other side of the galaxy. He knew nothing about Peacekeepers or escaped criminals. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time."
"He chose sides quickly enough."
"He wasn't given much of a choice. Neither was I."
Paulto seemed to be weighing her answers. She shook off the need to have him understand what happened, realizing that it really made no difference. "What is this all about anyway?"
"As I said, I found out about the message from First Command. One of the techs in the unit I've been assigned to was called to do some repairs in the captain's ready room and she found a damaged message chip. I talked her into trying to retrieve the message and she managed to get most of it. They were Crais's orders from the Council. It took some doing, but my friend managed to hide a message to First Command in a carrier signal. If Crais finds out, his second may not be the only officer that disappears without a trace. But to the point, I've been authorized to make you an offer. From the Council."
Aeryn sneered. "Do you take me for a fool?"
"Would you like to come back? Your commission restored? Rejoin your unit? The offer is genuine."
"Remember, I've been 'irreversibly contaminated'."
"That could be overlooked." He looked directly into her eyes. "Especially if you proved your loyalty."
Of course. A crooked smile played at the corner of her mouth. "You want me to turn them in."
"First Command is very unhappy with Crais for disobeying orders. The Batari rebellion has escalated and spread into the neighboring system. There are not the spare resources to go looking for a few escaped criminals in the uncharted territories. More importantly, the carrier that Crais commands is needed elsewhere and there are not the resources available to hunt him down. So, the Council is willing to make a few concessions. You will be pardoned and your full rank and commission restored-you'll be welcomed back to active duty in your old unit. The entire unit's rank will also be restored. This whole episode will disappear, as if it never happened. All you have to do is give us Crichton."
"The Council's only interest in Crichton is that Crais is looking for him. A ship from First Command was dispatched a weeken ago, as soon as my message with our coordinates was received. It should arrive in this sector in two solar days. It picks up Crichton and takes him to First Command. If the Council has Crichton, Crais will have no reason to remain in the uncharted territories. Once he returns to Peacekeeper territory, they'll deal with him."
"A ship couldn't get from First Command to way out here in only a weeken."
"It's a new ship with a new type of drive. Heavy shielding, minimum weaponry. Built for speed-very fast."
"And what happens to Crichton?"
There was that look again. "He'll be kept in protective custody until Crais can be dealt with and then he'll be free to go. Think of it this way-you'd be doing him a favor."
"A favor," she repeated skeptically. "And just how do you figure that?"
Paulto shrugged. "He'd no longer be a hunted man. Let's face it, so far he's been very lucky. Without you, he would have never had a chance against Crais. But how long do you really think his luck will hold out?"
Aeryn frowned. He had struck a deep nerve. If she was honest with herself, she had to admit that she thought they would have all been dead a long time ago. "And the others?"
"They're escaped criminals."
"They've saved my hide on more than one occasion."
"I see," he said slowly. "I can understand your reluctance to betray a comrade, but they are criminals."
"You've wasted your time, Paulto." She pushed back her chair to go.
"Wait! Let's look at this from a practical point of view."
"What do you mean?"
"This ship from First Command-it's not a warship. They're not going to be in any position to take a Leviathan on, even if she doesn't have any weapons. Once you get Crichton off the Leviathan, your friends can starburst out of here. This ship is certainly not going to follow them. The return of Crais's carrier is vital. They want to get Crichton back to their base as soon as possible. Retrieval of the criminals is secondary. They won't risk the primary mission for a secondary target they are unlikely to succeed at."
Aeryn followed his argument and realized that he was probably right. Moya and the others would likely have no trouble escaping.
"They'd still be wanted," he continued, "but Crais wouldn't be breathing down their necks. And it could be a long while before a Peacekeeper force comes to the uncharteds looking for them again." He paused. "Think about it, Aeryn. There's still a few days until the ship arrives."
Aeryn hesitated. "Alright, I'll think about it." She stood.
"What's your hurry? Finish your quanjon, or, at least, keep me company while I finish mine." Paulto took a sip from his mug.
Aeryn tried to sense the trap, but could only make out the sincere and distantly familiar welcome from an old friend and she found it warmed her considerably. She sat back down and relaxed a bit for the first time since she had entered the bar. "Alright." She took a careful sip from her mug. The liquid was still raw, but not as bad, now that she expected it. "How did you get away from Crais without detection?"
"It's too easy. Crais is still sending out as many patrols as possible looking for your friend. We've been spreading ourselves extremely thin. The ships in a patrol are often out of contact with one another. It's a simple matter for a prowler to slip off for a few arns."
Alarmed, she rose. "Then the carrier is close?"
He grabbed her by the wrist and held her. "Not that close. Don't worry."
Aeryn's eyes narrowed. "How do I know that this isn't a trick, a diversion, while Crais goes after the Leviathan?"
Paulto released her hand, but held her eyes. "I give you my word, on my honor as a Peacekeeper-and as your friend."
Aeryn searched his face for any kind of deception. The Paulto Jetaal she had known would not have given such an oath lightly, but it had been a long time. She was certainly not the same. Was he?
"This is a dangerous game you're playing, Paulto."
"I never let that stop me before," he smiled at her, "Especially not with Aeryn Sun on my wing."
"This isn't exactly like picking off Hockring Stingers."
He grinned at her reference to the long ago sortie. "They've got eyes in the back of their heads-tell me that wasn't frellin' dangerous."
Aeryn peered at him evenly. "So you were the eyes in the back of my head."
"And you were mine," he said matching the intensity of her eyes.
Aeryn took another sip of the quanjon. She found the taste had become friendlier, even familiar. Maybe she could trust him after all.
Several arns later Aeryn landed her prowler in the transport bay on Moya. Rygel and Crichton met her just as she stepped down to the launching pad.
"It's about time you showed up. I was about to head up a search party," John said. "Do you need any help unloading?"
"Did you find anything interesting to eat?" Rygel broke in.
"I picked up a few things," Aeryn answered noncommittally.
John opened the doors to the prowler's very limited cargo hold. Even so, it was nearly empty, containing only two small crates. "This is it? What were you doing down there all this time?"
Aeryn joined him and lifted one of the crates out. "Negotiating." She carried the crate with her as she made her way to the door.
John picked up the other crate and followed after her. "Negotiating?"
"Yes," she answered brusquely, not turning to look at him. "I may need to go back in a couple days."
Rygel had been following them in his levitating chair as they made their way to the center chamber. "Perhaps you could use my expertise?" he offered.
"No!" she snapped. "I can handle it."
"Yeah, back off, Sparky," warned John. He'd sensed Aeryn's edginess since she'd returned and just as soon preferred to stay on her good side.
His good intentions backfired, however, as she exploded at him. "I don't need your help either."
"What did I say?" asked John, suddenly confused.
"Just leave me alone!" She slammed the crate down on the table and stormed out.
John watched her backside as she stomped off. "What bug got up her butt?" he muttered. He shook his head and began to help Rygel unload the crates.
Aeryn retreated to the relative privacy of her quarters, if there was such a thing as privacy aboard Moya. She began to pace, the turmoil in her mind expressing itself as barely contained nervous energy. The ache in her head, a parting gift from the quanjon, only fed her irritation.
She was a soldier, a warrior born and bred, a force for order in the universe, and it hadn't taken a chat with Paulto to remind her where she belonged. But here on Moya--what had she been reduced to? An outlaw, a tech, and worse-a common peddler.
In her distracted state, she accidentally tripped on the corner of her bed. Cursing, she lifted one side of the bed and overturned it, at the same time hitting the bedside table and sending it and everything on it to the floor in a satisfying crash. She spun around, in a glance taking in her surroundings. The contents of her quarters only served to underscore her life in exile and she unleashed her fury at the rest of her meager possessions. She threw herself into her rampage, overturning shelves and cabinets, kicking their contents across the room, and when nothing else remained, attacking the very walls themselves.
When her impotent rage finally dissipated, she was sitting on the floor in the middle of a rubble-strewn room cradling torn hands.
She and Paulto had spent the last two arns reminiscing about old battles they had fought together, their former easy camaraderie reawakening. Paulto was again her brother-in-arms and she found herself reliving the excitement of each engagement-the jazzed anticipation of each mission, the thrill of the chase, the aggressive reflex reaction to danger, the honed killer instinct. She was a warrior among warriors and this was the life she was bred and trained to live.
The time had flown by too quickly. She was disappointed when Paulto said he had best get back before a patrol was sent out to look for him. It was like wakening from a wonderful dream and wanting desperately to fall asleep again. She hardly remembered getting in her prowler and the trip back to Moya.
She had believed that she could never go back to her old life and had resigned herself to make the best of what circumstance had handed her.
But now here it was, dangled before her, so close she could taste it, as sweet as the last sip of quanjon. Did she really dare believe she could go back?
She looked down at the raw skin on the back of her hands and noticed the blood had begun to dry. She made a fist, breaking open the wound again. Fresh blood appeared, reminding her again of why she lost control.
When she had returned to Moya, Crichton was standing in the transport bay, waiting for her, her dream collapsing by his very existence. She had felt her bitter resentment rise on seeing his smiling face, blissfully unaware, asking, of all things, to help her. No matter that it was not his fault-she had said as much to Paulto earlier-but the fact remained that she was here because of him and would stay here because of him.
Ahh, but that was the compelling irony, wasn't it? She didn't have to stay here because of him-he was her way home. She began to laugh bitterly at the cruel, cruel joke, but it made her head hurt more.
Her head hurt, her hands hurt, but not as much as her disappointment. It was easiest to lay the blame on the quanjon. She was tired and she just wanted Paulto and Crichton to get out of her head, go away, and leave her alone for awhile. She got up, found her mattress, and drug it back to the bed, then lay down, clothes and all. In moments she was oblivious.
Not long after a concerned John and Zhaan peered through the door to her quarters. Pilot had seen Aeryn's rampage through one of the DRD's and had contacted them both. They had watched most of it through one of Moya's monitors. John had wanted to try and stop her, but Zhaan had wisely suggested that it would be better to wait and let it play itself out.
"I'm sure she's just asleep, John," Zhaan whispered to him.
John peered at the wreckage of her room-usually so neat that it looked as if no one actually lived there. "What do you think got into her? Do Sebaceans go through 'hyper-rage'?" he whispered back.
"Not that I'm aware of. Let's just keep an eye on her the next few days. Don't push her though, John. You don't want to inadvertently start another episode."
John looked back at Aeryn, worry etching deep lines in his forehead. Zhaan patted him on the shoulder. "I'm sure she'll be alright, John." She turned and walked away.
Reluctantly, John followed her.
Aeryn woke up many arns later to the soft hum that was Moya. The sight that first greeted her eyes startled her adding that to the discovery that she was still wearing her boots, let alone her clothes. Then she closed her eyes in remembrance. She knew better than to drink quanjon, but somehow Paulto always seemed to talk her into it.
She opened her eyes wide again. Paulto.
She sat up quickly, the rest of the memory at once crystal clear. She looked around the wreckage of her room and then at the dried blood on the back of her hands. She fell back on the bed and moaned. It hadn't been a dream.
"Would like to come back? Your commission restored? Rejoin your unit? The offer is genuine." His proposal echoed in her memory.
"No," she said aloud. She pushed it from her mind.
She got up and made her way to her private alcove, her boots making soft crunching noises in the broken rubble. She stripped off her clothes and boots and stepped into the shower. She stood there for a long time, letting the water run down over her face and hair and down over her hands, washing the traces of her blood away, but realizing that the memory of her meeting with Paulto would not wash away as easily.
It had been easy to imagine that nothing had changed, that she was still Officer Aeryn Sun of the Pleisar's Regiment, that she was still with her unit and Paulto, waiting for news of their promotion to the marauder commando unit. Easy to imagine that everything was just as it should be.
"Would you like to come back?"
Would she like to go back to the life that she had been bred and trained for? That had been all she knew? Back to the life she had once loved so well?
She turned off the water and stood there, dripping wet, mindless of the chill.
"Would you like to come back?"
The answer whispered to her, yessss.
"All you have to do is give us Crichton."
Yes, that was all she had to do.
Her cold detachment surprised her; it was as if she were making a list. Things to Do Today: Take a shower, clean your quarters, pick up supplies on the planet, turn Crighton over to the Peacekeepers. Just another day's work.
She was nearly dry when she at last stepped out of the shower bay. She searched and found some gauze in a medic kit and she carefully wrapped her hands. Her stomach growled reminding her that she hadn't eaten since early the previous day. She dressed and left the remains of her room.
John was eating alone in the center chamber when she arrived. She nearly turned around and left, but it seemed an act of cowardice to avoid him. She collected a few food cubes on a plate and a cup of water and sat down at the other end of the table, keeping her eyes on her plate. Several silent minutes passed as they ate. As she knew he would, John finally spoke, "Are your hands alright?"
She looked up at him for the first time, the concern written all over his face. Such an expressive face, she thought, not for the first time. "They'll be fine."
Several more moments passed. She could tell he wanted to say something more, but she wasn't going to make it easy for him; John was the last person she wanted to talk to. But he was persistent, if anything.
"Would you like some help cleaning up your quarters?"
Of course he knew. "No, I'll take care of it."
She was not going to give him another chance. Finishing her last food cube, she rose from the table, then strode towards the door, but a twinge of guilt made her hesitate as she neared the exit. Over her shoulder she said, "I'm sorry."
"For what?" he asked, surprised.
"A-about yesterday." She left before he could say another word.
The prowler required a certain amount of routine maintenance-tech work, but without techs, she had only herself to rely on. She busied herself checking fuel and fluid levels, containment systems, critical relay circuits, and cleaning out the plasma jets. She also needed to check out the environmental controls. The cockpit had recently been getting a little too warm for her comfort. Grudgingly, she had had to admit sometime ago, that if she didn't actually enjoy it, she did derive a great deal of satisfaction from working on the prowler herself. Wouldn't Paulto be surprised to see her now?
She wondered if Paulto knew the dilemma that he had handed her. No, for him there could be no other choice she could possibly make. He had always been so sure of himself. And of her. But he didn't know John.
She owed John. He had saved her from the Peacekeepers, the Living Death, Namtar. He'd selflessly risked his own life for them all too many times, even when it made no sense to do so. He deserved her loyalty, if nothing else, but there was something else. Something that made her feel…vulnerable. Something she tried not to examine too closely.
And then there was the obvious physical attraction. Such physical needs had been easily met when she had been a Peacekeeper, but she knew somehow the rules had changed and she just wasn't ready for all the other complications that would arise from such a relationship. Perhaps that was why her closest encounters with John had occurred when she had thought that they were about to die. No complicated future to worry about there.
Of course, in the end, there would be no future with him anyway. He would figure out how to make a stable wormhole and he would go home. He came close once; it was just a matter of time. She'd been given a fine preview of what it would be like on his planet. She could never go back to his home with him, even if she wanted to.
Eventually the others would find their way home, too. She had no idea what she would do then. She had never been alone, always one of many. The idea secretly terrified her.
This could be her one chance for the only future she had ever imagined.
All she had to do was give them John.
Aeryn leaned her forehead against the cool metal of the prowler's hull and sighed.
"Are you feeling alright?"
Aeryn jumped at the sudden sound of John's voice behind her and she bumped her head hard on one of the prowler's fins. "Ugh! Frelling dren, Crichton! Don't sneak up on me!"
"Sorry, I didn't think I was that quiet."
She rubbed the bump on her head, angrier with herself than John. She tried to suppress her irritation. "What do you want?"
"I came to see if you were still having trouble with the environmentals...see if you needed any help with them."
She had forgotten that she had mentioned this problem to him a couple of days ago. Normally, she would have appreciated his help, but just now his presence would only exacerbate her guilty conscience. "I can handle it myself," she said attempting to dismiss him, but before she finished, he had pulled off the access panel to the environmental controls and was peering inside. She walked up beside him saying more insistently, "I said-I could handle it."
John was shaking his head and making little 'tsking' noises. "Lookie here. This relay is nearly fried. You're lucky it hasn't gone completely. There must be a power overload somewhere." He looked back up at her. "It'll go a lot faster if we trace it out together."
Frelling dren, she thought to herself, but he was right. She didn't know how long it might take to go through all the circuitry by herself. And if there were Peacekeepers anywhere in range, she needed to have the prowler in good working order as quickly as possible. She sighed resignedly. "Alright." They went to work.
It took the better part of an arn to trace out the problem and another two to repair it. Gratefully, John had kept the superfluous conversation he seemed to love so much to a minimum. She tried to keep her mind on the task at hand, but her mind continually wandered back to John-not surprising really, with him hovering nearby.
If she turned him over to the Peacekeepers, what would happen to him? Paulto's story about First Command wanting him to lure Crais and his cruiser back to Peacekeeper territories was plausible. She had no illusions about what 'protective custody' meant; he would be locked up. After that, would they really let him go? She doubted that seriously. Even if they did, he would be stranded in Peacekeeper territories with no way back to Moya and Farscape One and his chances of ever finding his home would go from small to none. She would be back with her unit and would have no way to protect him. No, she had no illusions about what would happen to John if she turned him in.
When they were on the fake Earth, John had turned against his own kind for her sake. No matter that it had all been an illusion, at the time, John believed that it was real. He had not hesitated to forsake his future for her. How could she possibly betray such loyalty?
She valued loyalty; it had been instilled into her by the Peacekeepers, but in the end that loyalty had not been returned and they turned on her. Out of necessity her allegiance had changed to Moya and her crew. She had never believed that loyalty could be such a transient sentiment, but here she was, considering to change her allegiance again, simply because it suited her goals.
"Aeryn, are you here today?" John broke through her reverie.
"That's the third time I called you. I finished connecting the power supply. Why don't you fire her up for a test?"
On the other hand, sometimes he could just be annoying. Maybe the Peacekeepers would take him away before he badgered her to death, she thought as she climbed into the cockpit. She turned on the main power supply and then switched the environmental controls on. Immediately there was a loud crackle from the access panel that John had been working at. He fell to the deck backwards and didn't move.
Icy fear cut through her. "John!" Aeryn cried as she leaped from the cockpit to the deck floor and rushed to his side. "John…John," she repeated his name. She shook him by the shoulders without any response. Fighting her rising panic, she leaned down to feel for a pulse at his neck.
At once arms grabbed her and pulled her down on top of him. She pushed herself back in surprise to see John laughing at her. "I just wanted to see if you were paying attention."
She turned away from him pulling her knees to her chest as relief and anger both fought for control. She was furious; he had manipulated her with this childish prank, and worse, she had let him. But at the same time she realized that she cared for him far more than she had been willing to admit. She had been terrified that he had been hurt, or worse, dead. Whatever made her think for even a moment that she could betray him?
"Aeryn? I'm sorry. It was a stupid joke."
His hand on her back was warm and against her will, calming. She had to remind herself she was angry with him. Spinning around, she launched herself at him, pushing him back to the floor. She pinned him beneath her, staring at him eye to eye.
He made no attempt to struggle, just stared back at her expectantly, willing to accept any punishment she offered. As quickly as it rose, her anger drained away, replaced by...something else.
She became aware of the sensation of warmth where she touched him and the small movement of his chest against her with each breath he took. Her own reflection in the dark pupils of his eyes drew her ever closer until she felt the warmth of his breath on her face. His nostrils flared minutely with each breath, his lips slightly parted. The desire to feel them against her own seemed natural and she leaned down until her lips momentarily brushed against his. They were soft and warm, inviting. She leaned down again, but this time he met her halfway. His arms went round her again, but this time they drew her to him gently and she relaxed against him. He buried one hand in the hair at the back of her head, holding her to him. His tongue parted her lips and she tasted faint traces of cantala tea. The swish of blood in her ears was so loud; he had to hear it too.
"I am sorry to interrupt, but something is happening in Command that you both should hear."
Aeryn and John parted abruptly at the sound of Zhaan's voice directly at their side. Aeryn was momentarily confused as if she had been instantly ripped from one place and dropped into another.
"I'm sorry, I tried to make some noise when I came in, but you were...preoccupied. Pilot notified me of an incoming transmission. He informed me that you were here making 'repairs'. I was nearby, so I just stopped in."
Aeryn stared blankly at Zhaan, but John mumbled nervously, "Well, we were…aah…," he looked back at Aeryn and shrugged, sighing.
Zhaan raised her hand, nodding her head. "No need to explain, John. I'll let you compose yourselves and meet you in Command in a few moments." She turned to leave, then hesitated and turned back to them smiling softly. "It was only a matter of time before you discovered the pleasure of each other's company. I'm very happy for you." This time she quickly walked out.
Aeryn rose to her feet and attempted to straighten her hair by combing it with her fingers, then gave up and tied it back, not that she cared that much about her hair, but it gave her an excuse to avoid looking at John. She was only mildly embarrassed that Zhaan had found them this way; she was more disturbed by her own behavior. Her instinct was to flee and Zhaan had been kind enough to give her a destination.
She made straight for the corridor, but could not avoid John's interception. He held her firmly by the arm.
"Aeryn, can we talk about what just happened here?"
She registered the disappointment on his face, but she didn't care. She looked coldly down at his hand on her arm. "You talk too much, Crichton."
He released her and she strode off to Command without looking back.
D'Argo and Rygel were already with Zhaan when Aeryn arrived in Command with John close behind. If Zhaan had shared what she had seen, the others gave no indication of it. The image of a rather thin anthropoid alien with bushy orange eyebrows that appeared to crawl across his forehead appeared on the forward screen. Rygel seemed to be concluding negotiations with the alien.
"…arrives in 20 arns. I'm sure he would be very interested in meeting your representatives soon after he arrives."
"Here they are now," said Rygel. He turned to Aeryn and John. "Step up to the transmitter so he can see you." They glanced at each other in curiosity, but complied with the request.
"They're perfect. Prator Delmar will never know the difference. Remember, Dominar, I expect my fee promptly, as soon as the negotiations are completed."
"We have final approval of the product," Rygel added.
"Of course, but you won't be disappointed. I am transmitting the coordinates of the meeting place to you now. Until tomorrow. End transmission."
Rygel was looking quite pleased with himself, but the D'Argo and Zhaan were also smiling. "What's this all about?" asked John.
"There is wonderful news, John," said Zhaan. "Rygel may have found a way for us to acquire zed level map fibers depicting a vast extent of the uncharted territories, however, it will require some subterfuge on your part."
"What are 'zed level' map fibers?" asked John.
Aeryn answered him. "'Zed level' is a Peacekeeper designation for a wide-grid preliminary survey."
"You mean, star charts-maps?"
"Yes," D'Argo said ominously. "It appears that Peacekeeper Command is preparing for a larger presence in the uncharted territories."
"Zed level surveys are by no means complete, but it much more than we have at the moment," added Zhaan. It was clear the prospect excited her.
"I'm curious as to how these people obtained the fibers," said Aeryn. " Peacekeepers would never sell or barter such valuable information."
Rygel floated closer to her. "Well, you'll get the opportunity to ask him yourself."
"If these fibers are so rare and valuable, what are we trading for them?" asked John.
Rygel smiled smugly. "Our supply of Glitany distillate"
John turned incredulous. "Someone's going to give these maps to us for six crates of a something that smells like it was squeezed from three day old sweat socks?"
"It's a favorite on the planet," said Rygel defensively.
"What's the catch?" asked John.
"And what did you mean by 'subterfuge'?" added Aeryn eyeing Zhaan suspiciously.
"The Glitany distillate is for our informant, Keegan," explained Rygel. "He is arranging the meeting with the current owner of the map fibers, Prator Delmar, a minor officiate on the neighboring planet. He wants to return them to the Peacekeepers in exchange for their help and support in the next election."
"Peacekeeper help. There's an oxymoron," said John. "Is the man delusional?"
"Quite possibly," agreed Rygel. "So all you and Aeryn have to do is put on your Peacekeeper disguises, visit this Prator fellow, promise him the Peacekeepers' undying support, and solemnly accept his humble offering."
"I don't like it," said Aeryn. "The last time we tried this, it ended up a disaster."
John bristled at the implied accusation. "It would have worked if that intel-virus hadn't gotten loose. We can pull this off."
Aeryn began to pace as she grudgingly considered the scheme. It wasn't like they were trying to fool real Peacekeepers-this Prator Delmar probably would never know the difference. And they wouldn't be on Moya having to explain a Luxan, Delvian, and Hynerian on board. She hated to admit it but the idea had possibilities. And map fibers would be an invaluable tool, one they could hardly afford to pass up.
Still, this meeting was just a few arns before that ship from First Command was due. She silently cursed the weakness that had led her to meet with Paulto. Because of her, Paulto knew exactly where to find Moya. If he hadn't already told Crais about them, he would doubtless inform the ship from First Command. They should have already starburst out of this sector, but she didn't care to explain this to her shipmates, and especially not to John.
John held her arm to halt her pacing. "It'll be easy," he said persuasively. "We go down to the planet, do our James Bond and Mati Hari act and at any sign of trouble we blast the frell out of Dodge."
"I don't like waiting here this long. We found that last wanted beacon four days ago." D'Argo fingered the hilt of his Qualta blade, its ready presence reassuring. "Still, if we can obtain these fibers, it would be worth the risk of waiting another day."
If Aeryn shared the fact that she had already seen a Peacekeeper, D'Argo might not think it was worth the wait, but she kept that to herself. "Alright," said Aeryn. "But I agree with D'Argo. Moya should be ready to starburst out of here the moment John and I return, whether we have the fibers or not."
They would be cutting it very close, and that worried her. "Come on," she said to John over her shoulder as she headed towards the corridor. "We'd better finish the repairs on the prowler. We need to present ourselves in a Peacekeeper ship. Moya's transport will never do."
The remaining repairs took very little time to complete. Aeryn's coldness seemed to be thawing some. He was fairly used to her running hot and cold by now, although he wished the 'hot' spells weren't quite so brief. At this point, though, he would settle for warm and the conversation at least seemed to be heading that way.
"Who were Jamzbun and Matari?" Aeryn asked over the hull of the prowler. They were in the process of replacing the access panels.
John smiled into the panel he was working on, amused by her mispronunciation. "James Bond and Mata Hari. They were spies."
"Did they work together?"
John shook his head. "No. James Bond was a fictional character in a long series of movies." He had explained movies to her before. "He did heroic feats against impossible odds, saving the free world single-handedly and always got the girl."
"Oh, a male fantasy."
John smiled. "Yeah, I guess so."
"And Mata Hari?"
"She was real enough, although quite a bit before my time. She stole secrets for the bad guys though."
"So I take it, in your comparison, you are James Bond and I am Mata Hari."
"Yeah," John said as he finished securing his panel. He walked up behind Aeryn to see if she needed help with hers.
"So why am I the 'bad guy'?" she asked as she snapped the last panel into place.
He placed his hands against the prowler's hull on either side of her shoulders, yet barely touching her, speaking low into her ear. "Because she was smart... and sexy... and men found her irresistible." He could almost feel the softness of her hair against his face.
She stood very still, not that he had given her much room to move in. "What happened to her?"
"She was-,"he stopped short realizing that this was not where he wanted the conversation to go. "I forgot."
She spun around to face him. "She was what?"
John lowered his arms and stepped back, shaking his head, the mood broken. "It was a bad choice, Aeryn."
"What happened to her?" she insisted.
He sighed and answered reluctantly, "She was executed for treason."
She just stood there and looked at him, her dark eyes intense for the longest moment, then she bolted out of the maintenance bay.
John leaned back against the prowler, slowly exhaling the breath he hadn't even realized he had been holding. "You're right," he muttered to himself. "I talk way too much."
He'd come too close. She doubted that there was any way that John could have known about Paulto, his offer, and her shameful period of indecision, but his playful analogy had struck too close to home. John had an uncanny way of reaching inside her and exposing her most disquieting thoughts, thoughts she tried hard to bury deep within herself. She wondered if all Earth people were like this. If they were, she'd just as soon that they remain on their side of the universe.
She was tired-tired of thinking, tired of self-examination, tired of self-recrimination. Exercise was what she needed. Make the body as tired as the mind, until she couldn't think anymore. She headed for the cargo bay she used for that purpose.
Aeryn had set her up her exercise area soon after she joined Moya. She had found an assortment of Peacekeeper martial art and exercise equipment from all over the ship and collected it here, supplementing it once in a while from their many excursions to the various commerce planets. Dominating the room was the oversized mat emblazoned with the red, white, and black Peacekeeper insignia. Her makeshift gym was probably the only place on Moya that she truly felt at home.
She took off her boots and stepped barefoot onto the mat, its familiar feel cool and soothing. Assuming the beginning position for the first Kyde form, she tried to clear her mind and concentrate on her breathing. She began slowly, letting the movements gradually warm her muscles, then picked up the pace. Her breathing increased and as the first sheen of perspiration cooled her skin, she tried to force everything else from her mind intent on letting her muscles assume control of the familiar movements.
She moved from form to form easily. The Kyde forms, with their highly stylized kicks and punches, were basic to building coordination and strength for its sister Oo-kydu style of hand-to-hand combat. She had practiced the forms for as long as she could remember and she valued them not only for the workout they gave her, but for the euphoria created from the perfect focus of mind and body.
By the time she reached the tenth form, she knew that euphoric state would elude her today. Her body knew the movements precisely, yet she struggled continuously to maintain her focus. Flashes of memories nearly forgotten disrupted her concentration.
She had practiced the forms with Paulto more times that she could count. She hadn't thought of him for such a long time, and now she could not seem to remove him from her mind. She imagined him beside her, his movements perfectly synchronized to hers. The tenth form was his favorite. There was a difficult double kick that required perfect balance and timing, and when performed correctly, gave the appearance of defying gravity. He performed the maneuver flawlessly every time and his proud delight had been infectious.
She knew before she even began the second kick in the double that her timing was way off. With both feet in the air, she fell awkwardly on her side to the padded floor. She rolled onto her back and stayed there, breathing heavily. She hadn't fallen in that exercise since she was 12 cycles old, but that wasn't what disturbed her. Her memories of Paulto were innocent enough. Why did she feel so...guilty?
Her enthusiasm for this exercise session evaporated along with her perspiration. She put her boots back on, wrapped a towel around her shoulders and went back to her quarters. There she found Chiana sifting through the rubble on the floor.
"What are you doing in here?" asked Aeryn sharply. She was in no mood for any dren from Chiana.
Chiana stood up slowly twisting her head to look at Aeryn. "Ahh, don't go gettin' your shivvies in a twist."
Her eyes followed Aeryn's to the piece of rubble she held in her hand. She immediately tossed it to the side. "I don't steal from shipmates. Besides, "she added, a sly smile playing at her lips, "there's nothing here worth snurchin'. I was just...admiring the mess. I didn't think you had it in you."
"I'm so glad you like it," Aeryn said, flatly. "You can leave now."
Chiana, ignored Aeryn's request and began to leisurely wander around the room as she talked, picking up pieces of the rubble here and there, setting things right occasionally, more often just tossing them aside again, but always keeping at least one eye on Aeryn. "I was just thinking, what-or more likely who-could have caused you to go all zerker on us? Mother?" She shook her head. "I don't think so. Let's see," she began to tick them off her fingers, "Pilot lives to serve... not him. D'Arrr-go? Um, no. You two have some warrior-buddy thing going on. Rygel? Uh-uh...you would have just squashed the little toad. And I know it's not me.
"So who does that leave? Oh, yes," she said looking back at Aeryn over her shoulder, "Crichton." She grinned, pleased with herself. "Not that I blame you-he's quite the...dish," she added licking her lips.
"Well, then," said Aeryn stiffly, "don't let me stop you. Be my guest."
"Don't think I haven't thought about it. But it's not me he wants."
"I think you'd better leave now, Chiana," Aeryn said more insistently.
Chiana knew better than to push her much farther, but she couldn't resist one parting remark. "It does get very lonely out here sometimes though, doesn't it?" Not expecting an answer, she left, her distant laughter echoing though the corridor.
Irritated, Aeryn turned and stumbled into her quarters, tripping over a misplaced boot. She cursed under her breath and retrieved a waste receptacle from the corner of the room. She needed to clean up her mess and this was as good a time as any.
She worked steadily, beginning at the door and making slow progress across the room sorting the irreparably damaged from the redeemable. As the broken possessions accumulated in the waste bin she wondered how she had accumulated so many things since she came to Moya. As a soldier all her worldly possessions would fit in one bag and she had left them all behind on Crais's carrier when she fled his death sentence. A soldier needed to travel light. Perhaps it had been time to discard the excess baggage from her life anyway.
She picked up a small box that was overturned on the floor next to her bed. As she lifted it, the damaged lid fell open and two shiny fragments caught her eye as they tumbled to the floor. She bent down to retrieve them holding her breath, hoping she was mistaken, and exhaled with a low moan when she recognized the pieces she held in her hands. She sat heavily on the bed, remembering vividly the first time she had seen it. John had just returned from a trading venture on some commerce planet and had found her in Command. He pushed the thing into her hand saying, "Here, I thought you might like this. It reminded me of you."
She turned the object in her hand. It was oddly cold to the touch with an iridescent metallic sheen although, on closer examination, she could see it was made of ceramic. Fixed on the back was a fastener of some sort. "What is it?"
His eyes went wide for a moment and then narrowed again as he gently smiled. "It's for your hair."
"My hair?" she had said too sternly. She turned it over in her hand again. It did possess a kind of cold beauty, but she was not going to go around wearing some frivolous ornamentation in her hair. She handed it back to him. "I hope you didn't trade much for it. Perhaps they'll take it back."
His smile disappeared as his eyes went wide again, and then hardened with a look of determination. He placed the hair clasp back in the palm of her hand, then curled her fingers around it. "I can see you need lessons in how to accept a gift."
"It is not customary among Peacekeepers to give 'gifts'," she said coldly, "Especially not of a such superficial and non-utilitarian nature."
"Oh, but it is utilitarian." He took the object back and moved around behind her. When she began to turn around to face him, he held her shoulders, commanding her to hold still. She started just for a moment when he first touched her face, but then eased slightly as he drew his fingers lightly along her jaw, up to her ears, and then through her hair, pulling it back. She tried to offer some resistance as he gently tugged and pulled at her hair, but the sensation was extraordinarily relaxing. She closed her eyes.
She opened them again abruptly when he said, "There," and stood back to examine his handiwork. "See? Utilitarian."
She tried to cover up her discomposure by reaching up and feeling the clasp at the back of her head. It did indeed hold her hair securely. She cleared her throat nervously and agreed, "Yes." She began to walk away.
"Wait." He reached out and caught her hand. "Aren't you forgetting something?" He looked at her expectantly.
She looked around her person and could see nothing amiss. "I don't think so."
He laughed. "You really do need lessons, don't you?"
"What?" she said sharply.
"On Earth, we have a little ritual when someone gives a gift." He pulled her closer. "The person that gets the gift usually says something like 'I like it very much' or 'that was very thoughtful of you' and then says 'thank-you'."
Her first inclination was to dismiss his request as just more human nonsense, but she suppressed her irritation. It really was a small thing he asked. She considered a moment before saying, "It will be very useful. Thank-you."
He rewarded her with a smile that unaccountably warmed her to the core. "You're welcome," he said, and he released her hand. This time he didn't stop her when she moved away.
She wore it the rest of the day. Whenever their paths crossed, he noticed, and she could tell-it pleased him, and for some reason she didn't quite understand, that pleased her as well.
As she prepared for sleep that evening, she removed it from her hair. She held it up and examined it again. Purple and pink highlights danced across the surface as she rotated it in the light. He had said, it reminded him of her. It was beautiful.
She put it away that evening and she never worn it again. If he noticed, if he questioned why, he never said.
And now here it was, cracked in two and chipped around the edges. The broken pieces filled her with regret.
She had made a practice of holding him at arm's length. He held such power over her emotions. Her mastery over them sustained her illusions of power and control, when in reality there was little else in her life that she had ever had control of. What did she think she was trying to prove? And to whom?
She looked at the shards in her hand again. The pieces still shimmered pleasingly, but they would never adorn her hair again, an opportunity lost
As with her exercise session, whatever interest or enthusiasm she had had in cleaning up her quarters was gone. She sat on the edge of her bed, clenching the pieces of the hair clasp tightly in her hands. Chiana's parting words came back to her, "...sometimes it gets lonely out here."
She was afraid of being left behind, afraid of being alone, but, at least for the present, she wasn't alone. Perhaps it was time to stop pretending that she was. She dropped the broken pieces into the waste bin.
John spent most of his brief turn in Command wondering when Aeryn would ever speak to him again so he could apologize. Stupid, stupid, stupid, he thought for about the thousandth time. Orbiting the planet offered little diversion from self-disparagement and he was grateful when D'Argo finally relieved him.
He stopped briefly for something to eat and then made a half-hearted attempt to look for Aeryn hoping she'd have had time to cool off. After checking the prowler and her gym, he tried her quarters. She wasn't there, but she had been. The room was noticeably neater although she still had a ways to go. Stopping by his own quarters, he was surprised to find Aeryn sitting on his bed in the dark.
She looked at him, but said nothing. Her eyes followed him as he walked over and sat down next to her. He searched for the right words to begin. "You know, that whole thing about Mata Hari, I...I didn't mean to imply-"
"I know," she cut him off.
He relaxed just a little, but he sensed that there was something more to this, so he waited.
She gazed off into the distance. "When you look at the Peacekeepers, you see the military machine, the abuse of power." She paused for a moment, then continued. "I am because of the Peacekeepers. They made me in their image. It is the only family I've ever known. Some of them I care a great deal about."
"They kicked you out of the club."
She shook her head. "Crais did."
John found her hand and held it, playing with her fingers. "Do you think you're a traitor?"
She was silent for a long while before she turned to look at him. "No."
"Then that's really the only thing that counts."
She considered that for a moment. "Did this Mata Hari consider herself a traitor?"
Wishing for the thousandth time that he had never brought this up, he said, "I really don't know Aeryn. I guess so-she was paid for spying."
Aeryn's eyes widened. "You didn't tell me that part."
"I wish to God I had never brought her up at all."
Her eyes softened and a smile began to play at the corners of her mouth. "I told you, you talk to much."
Feeling at least a little forgiven, he returned the smile. "I thought that was part of my charm." Aeryn raised her eyebrows. "But I guess not. Well, is there anything you do find 'charming' about me?"
"Right now? That your quarters are," she drew her fingers along the bedside table inspecting the dust, "-relatively clean. I hoped you might let me stay here tonight."
John's heart skipped a beat, but he was unsure whether she was actually implying anything or not. "There are spare quarters," he suggested.
"You want me to leave?"
He shook his head, "No."
He picked up her hand again, turning it over. "You took off the bandages." It was more of an observation than a question. He examined the scabs and bruises on the back of her hand, then raised it to his lips. He looked up to see her watching him intently. "Earth medicine...it's supposed to make it feel better."
"I think it's working," she said to him with a slight smile.
He tilted his head in surprise. The rules of the game were he flirted and she put him down. Of course, there was that moment in the maintenance bay earlier, but then she practically ran away. She was so...confusing. "Aeryn, what's going on?"
"I'm trying to seduce you," she said quite matter-of-factly.
He blinked twice dumb-founded and then began to laugh at her joke, but she wasn't laughing, too. Instead she looked hurt-and about to bolt once more.
"Whoa, whoa," he said as he caught her by the hand. "Come back here." She sat back down next to him, but wouldn't look at him. "What's this all about? Maybe we should talk about it."
"I-I don't know how Humans do it," she said apologetically, keeping her eyes on her lap.
"Well, maybe we shouldn't worry about how Humans…do it, or Sebaceans for that matter. Maybe we should just worry about how 'we' do it." He ducked his head down in her line of sight, forcing her to look him in the eyes. "Whadaya think?" She smiled at him uncertainly.
Now that he had her attention, he wasn't sure where to begin. "Well, this morning we got pretty…close, but it seemed to upset you. Why the big change?"
He shook his head. "Not good enough."
She sighed deeply and when she began again she spoke slowly as if she were carefully selecting each word. "I've felt an attraction for you for some time now. I always thought that to act on that attraction would just make things too complicated on Moya, but I've reconsidered and now I'm willing to take that risk."
Would wonders never cease? Aeryn Sun was practically admitting that she was in love with him, or as close as she could come. He smiled at her in approval and leaned closer to her, running the backs of his fingertips along her arm. "Well, things are bound to get complicated. I just didn't want you to think that I was 'easy'."
"John, absolutely nothing about you is easy," she said with conviction, then added more softly, "You know, I'm not given to all this introspective dren." She, too, leaned closer, turning to face him.
"No," he stiffened momentarily as her hand touched his thigh. "You're more a 'frontal assault, take-no-prisoners' kinda gal." She was close enough he could feel her moist breath on his face. The fine hairs on the back of his neck stood at attention.
"Then you understand me well." She leaned forward just ever so slightly more and their mouths connected. She kissed him hard, nothing shy or hesitant about it, full of promise. Maybe things would get complicated, but he, too, was more than willing to take that risk.
John was awakened by a high-pitched chirp he dimly recognized as his comm signal. He opened his eyes, abruptly recalling the night before. It didn't take much of a check to realize that he was alone. He reached over to his comm badge on the nightstand. "Yeah, Pilot?"
"John Crichton, I'm sorry to wake you, but your rendezvous with Prater Delmar is in nearly an arn."
An arn? "I'll be there right away. Thanks for the wake-up call."
John had slept a happy and satisfied man and he had no idea when Aeryn had left. He was disappointed, but not surprised to find her gone. Two steps forward, one step back-this delicate dance that seemed to define their relationship. He had hoped that after last night, they had moved beyond that once and for all. She had come to him and revealed the warm, passionate woman she guarded so carefully. He wondered once more what had happened to her to make her like this, one more reason to despise the Peacekeepers.
He reminded himself that he had a role to play and got up to find the Peacekeeper captain's uniform he had put away a month ago. As he put it on he tried not to think about the Peacekeeper lieutenant he had brutally killed, not that he really remembered killing her-the intel-virus had done that. Still, the guilt remained. He examined himself in the mirror. Poof-instant Peacekeeper, he thought morbidly. He stretched his neck from side to side and rolled his shoulders attempting to dispel his rising anxiety. It was time to find Aeryn.
He made a quick stop in the center chamber for a handful of food cubes and took them with him to Command. Aeryn was already there, her hair tied back, dressed in her lieutenant's uniform. With her stood D'Argo and Rygel as they conferred with Pilot. As he joined them, Aeryn's eyes locked on his, but she remained expressionless.
"It's about time you joined us," growled D'Argo.
"Sorry, I was just sleeping so soundly," John answered, his eyes remaining on Aeryn. "And how did you sleep?" he asked in mock challenge.
She answered without hesitation. "I slept very well."
D'Argo looked at them both for a moment, a fleeting question in his expression that changed to irritation. "I'm glad you both slept well," he said sarcastically. "Do you think we can get on with the business at hand?"
"Relax, D'Argo," said John, attempting to mollify him.
"I won't relax until we leave this place. Now it's been five days since we found the last wanted beacon. I'm surprised bounty hunters haven't found us."
"Just a few more arns," said Rygel.
"Will Moya be ready to starburst as soon as they return?" D'Argo asked Pilot.
"Moya is ready to starburst now, Ka D'Argo," said the 3D projection of Pilot in the shell viewer. "I've downloaded the coordinates given to your prowler, Officer Sun. They are in a city on the southern continent. You'll have to land just outside and proceed on foot about half a metra into the city. I've downloaded those vectors, too. You should have no trouble locating the rendezvous point."
"Right," Aeryn acknowledged and then turned to Rygel. "Come with us to the transport bay. You can tell us anything else we may need to know about Prater Delmar." She strode off, but paused at the door asking over her shoulder, "Coming, Captain Bond?"
John smiled at her joke, nodding his head to her in appreciation, but thought it best to forget any Mata Hari comebacks. "Right behind you, 'Lef-tenant' Sun."
He sat behind her in the prowler as she methodically went through the preflight systems check. As much as he wanted to talk to her, he knew better than try to interrupt her now. He wanted to know how she felt. He wanted to know if she had any regrets or reservations about what had happened between them. And most of all he wanted to assuage any doubts she might have, but so far she seemed to be studiously avoiding the subject, and so, for the time being, he was willing to follow her lead. He knew that she was probably having a hard time accepting the change in their relationship; this was all so new to her. Of course, it was new to him, too. He'd never had sex with an alien before. Sex with an Alien. It sounded like the name of a cocktail. What would it have in it? Gin? No, tequila. And something sweet like orange juice, with a touch of bitters. He began to chuckle to himself.
"What are you doing back there?" asked Aeryn, irritated. Well, that was familiar.
"Sorry," he said, suppressing his amusement. "Free associating."
She gave him a sharp glance over her shoulder. "Maybe we should go over a few Peacekeeper protocols before we get down to the planet."
"Right, back to business."
Aeryn wasted no time and they were launched moments later. They spent the short flight reviewing the most common Peacekeeper protocols, just in case their mark had some familiarity with them.
The coordinates landed them just outside a small settlement on the southern continent very soon after the local sunrise. The blue morning light threw the dark, steep-pitched roofs into stark relief against the violet sky. The buildings were mostly two- or three-stories set close to the street reminding John vaguely of some quaint European village and he wondered if there was a reason this place had been selected over the many more modern cities on the planet, although he knew appearances were often deceptive.
As they followed the directions Pilot had given them, the streets became narrower casting deepening shadows in the early morning light. Their path kept them walking mostly uphill and the many twists and turns were disorientating. Listening to their footsteps echo through the nearly empty streets, John began to get a very uneasy feeling. Aeryn, too, seemed nervous, looking around as if she were expecting something. It didn't take Aeryn's tactical training to see that they were at a disadvantage.
"Are you sure you're following the directions?" asked John.
"Yes, I've checked the vectors twice. Look," she said nodding towards the road, "the road must open up ahead. You can see direct sunlight."
"Maybe we should check with Pilot." John paused to open the lapel of his jacket to expose his comm as Aeryn continued ahead several paces.
With precision timing four armed Peacekeepers erupted from the opening ahead and at the same time more troops emerged from the buildings around them. They were surrounded in seconds. "It's a trap-Peacekeepers!" John yelled into his comm before the nearest Peacekeeper knocked him to the ground with the butt of his rifle. He shook his head to clear it and found himself staring into the business end of at least four pulse rifles. He looked over at Aeryn expecting her to be in full commando mode attempting to punch her way out of the unexpected attack. Instead she stood stock-still staring straight ahead at the Peacekeeper walking towards her and it dawned on John that she recognized him. He heard the officer say, "Welcome back, Aeryn," before embracing her in greeting. The officers next to John took hold of each arm and proceeded to bind his hands behind his back with some equivalent of handcuffs, but he had ceased resisting. He stared at Aeryn as she stood aside to let the officer that hugged her approach him, looking him over carefully.
"This is Crichton?" the Peacekeeper asked over his shoulder.
Aeryn's voice sounded dry as she answered, "Yes."
The Peacekeeper turned around and began walking in the opposite direction, obviously expecting everyone else to follow. As he walked away, John could hear his words clearly. "Good work, Officer Sun."
Aeryn fell in with the troops as they began their march. Crichton was somewhere behind her with his armed escort. She glanced back once when they started out to assure herself that he was all right. Her relief that he appeared uninjured vanished under his withering stare and she quickly turned away. She could easily imagine what was going through his mind. She did not look back at him again, afraid that her emotions would betray her.
The whole set up had been too good to be true-Peacekeeper map fibers for a few crates of distillate? But the promised bait was good, too good for them to pass up. Paulto had chosen well. And then there was that promenade through the narrow streets. The rawest grot would have seen through that set up. Frell, even Crichton knew something was wrong. They should have gone back to the prowler and left immediately.
All the clues, all the warning signs-she should have known. And that was the nagging thought that tugged at her conscience-despite all her suspicions, she led John into the trap anyway.
She had to admire the efficiency with which the Peacekeepers sprang the trap. They were completely surrounded in the space of a few microts. She had had her pulse gun ready; she probably could have gotten off a couple of rounds, but she held her fire. She had told herself that John as well as herself would have been killed in the return fire, and that she did not want John to die for her mistake, but now she wondered if that was the only reason.
The only real surprise in the attack had been Paulto. Not that he was there-it hadn't taken her two microts to put that together. No, the surprise had been when he whispered to her, "They think you helped me capture him. If you're smart, you'll play along." He spoke so softly, the suggestion so preposterous, she could scarcely trust her own ears. He could have easily pulled this off over her dead body, but Paulto was trying to save her. If the result weren't so disastrous, it would really be very touching, not very Peacekeeper-like at all. But at that moment she knew that her only hope of saving John was to go along with Paulto's scheme. She could only too easily imagine what this must look like to John. She tried not to wince.
The procession wasted no time as it made its way through the narrow streets. The few townspeople that they came upon either ran away or cowered in their doorways, but none dared interfere with the heavily armed Peacekeeper force. She searched for an opportunity to escape, knowing how much harder it would be once they were underway, but they were too closely guarded, and hopelessly outnumbered, and with John bound, any attempt would have surely ended in his death. Despite the many twists and turns, Aeryn could tell that they were generally making their way to the north. In less than half an arn they came to the edge of the city and the road led them to the top of a rise. As they approached the edge, Aeryn caught sight of their vessel for the first time. The familiar symbols marked it as Peacekeeper, but she had never seen such a ship before. It was generally elliptical in shape, but with hugely oversized plasma jets. Aeryn estimated her mass at something like 30 sakmar, about twenty times the size of a marauder. It might barely fit in Moya's transport bay, but it would never get through the door.
They entered through a starboard airlock. Paulto pulled Aeryn aside for a moment and they let the rest of the compliment pass. As John passed them, he shot Aeryn a look, and for her life, and her honor-whatever that was worth-she'd never felt so guilty in her entire life. She'd betrayed him. And he knew it.
"Where are they taking him?" she asked Paulto.
"To a holding cell on deck two. Follow me," he said as he entered a corridor to their left. Aeryn watched John's back until he disappeared and then turned to follow Paulto. After getting used to the comparative spaciousness of Moya, the low ceilings gave her a feeling of claustrophobia that only added to her growing unease.
Paulto checked two open cabins before he entered a third. He stood aside to allow Aeryn to enter the empty room and then he shut the door behind them.
She turned on him immediately. "Just what the frell do you think you're doing?"
"I'm saving you. I know you want to come back, but you seem to have some misguided loyalty to this Crichton, so I thought it best to change the plan a bit. You'll come to see that this is for the best."
"Of course, it doesn't hurt you either."
"No," he admitted. "My rank has been restored-I may even finally get that promotion. You may too, if you keep your mouth shut and stick to the story."
She turned away from him fighting the urge to cram his words back down his throat. She breathed deeply to calm herself. "I owe John...a lot," she said turning back around. She shook her head. "I can't do this to him."
"Well, you don't have to. I did it for you." He smiled. "What are 'mates' for?" His smiled faded at Aeryn's forbidding scowl. "You may not appreciate it now, but you will eventually. That or you'll be joining your friend. And a fat lot of good that will do either of you. I come out alright either way so you choose." He moved over to the door. "The captain wanted to see you as soon as we came on board. We better go."
Aeryn struggled to get her anger under control as she followed Paulto to the bridge. It would do no good for her to be locked up with John. As a member of the crew, she would have a certain freedom of access. She might be able to find some way for them to get out of this.
The crowded bridge was alive with sound and movement as the crew made preparations for departure. They both snapped to attention as the captain approached them. Even without his uniform, Aeryn would have recognized him as the captain. Though only of medium build his bearing made him seem much larger and he walked around the bridge as if he owned it, which of course, he did. He reminded her of Crais.
"Captain Taxus, Officer Jetaal reporting," said Paulto formally.
"At ease. I take it everything went as planned."
"Yes, the Human, Crichton, is being secured in the holding cell on deck two."
"Excellent, Jetaal. You are to be commended. And this must be Officer Sun."
"Yes, sir," she said, still at attention. She didn't like the way he walked around her, looking her over as if she were some sort of curious alien oddity, even though it was certainly his right.
"Officer Jetaal says that he would not have succeeded without your help."
"He's too generous, sir."
"That may still prove to be the case. Captain Crais may have pronounced you irreversibly contaminated a bit prematurely, but since then you've been with the escaped prisoners a long time."
"I believe she's more than proved her loyalty, sir," Paulto interjected.
"Yes, I'm quite aware of your opinion, Officer Jetaal," the captain said, not taking his eyes away from Aeryn. "You've been given an extraordinary opportunity, Officer Sun. After such a sentence, it is rare enough to have one's life spared, let alone have their career rectified. First Command has been quite generous, possibly, too generous. If I were you, I would take close care in the future to comport myself to the highest Peacekeeper standards. Am I making myself clear?"
"Yes, sir." The implied threat was all too clear; she would have to be very careful.
"Officer Greffen," he said over his shoulder to his aide, "Please find Officer Sun some quarters and show her her assigned duty station for the remainder of this journey. And please, get her a proper uniform. She shouldn't get to wear a lieutenant's attire until she's earned it."
John was taken up several flights of narrow metal stairs, down another corridor and then into a windowless room with a barred cell. While one Peacekeeper stood guard outside, the other pushed John into the cell and released the bindings on his hands. He then backed out and keyed a code into a control panel on the wall. The barred gate closed with only a whisper and John was alone.
He unconsciously rubbed his wrists and then sat down slowly on a bench projecting from the wall. He gave no notice when the ship heaved slightly as it took off, as he tried to absorb the meaning of exactly what had happened. Aeryn had betrayed him, given him up to the enemy. And for it, she was getting back into her beloved Peacekeeper club. There was just no other way to rationalize it. No other explanation. The pain of her betrayal cut deep, beyond the fear of death. This obviously was not some spur of the moment decision; she had planned this. Even as she came to him in his bed, she had known that she would do this. How in God's name could she do this? He knew his failing was that he judged everyone by Human standards. He had made that mistake time and time again, but he knew this time the lesson would never be taught as well. He had been ready to declare his 'undying love' for her and she was planning how to use him as a pawn in her Peacekeeper games. "How do say 'sucker' in Sebacean?"
He had no way of knowing how much time had passed before Aeryn came to stand outside the door to his cell.
"Are you alright, John?" she asked.
"You really are a cold-blooded bitch, aren't you?" he said, pleased with the distressed expression on her face, pleased that he had any power at all to hurt her.
"They're not taking you to Crais."
"Does it really matter?"
"You're being taken to First Command. Crais is in serious trouble with the Council. He has been disobeying direct orders to return to Peacekeeper territory in his quest to find you. Once Crais finds out that you are at First Command, he'll return and they will deal with him. You'll be rid of Crais for once and all. He'll never be able to threaten you again. They'll let you go then."
"And you get to go home and be the proud Peacekeeper again. How very convenient for you."
"I'm truly sorry, John."
"Mata Hari had nothin' on you. Will D'Argo and Zhaan be joining me?"
"No, the Leviathan escaped."
Aeryn continued to stare, her eyes seemed to be pleading with him. What did she expect from him? Forgiveness? Thanks for getting Crais off his tail? Not in a million years, babe.
At last she lowered her eyes. She took a step backward, as if to leave, but he couldn't let her get away that easy. "You didn't have to fuck me. I would have come anyway." Sound made solid, he watched the blow connect. "Definitely above and beyond the call of duty. Do you get a promotion for that? Or at least maybe a medal?" She turned and left.
In that moment before she fled, just a second really, the horrible pained expression on her face-John regretted his words. Sorry, I'm so sorry...it'll be all right. But the moment passed.
You always were a chump, he admonished himself.
Aeryn stumbled half-blind out of the holding cell, fighting the wetness that welled at her eyes. A crewman walked past her in the corridor and she turned away, leaning against the wall in a vain attempt to hide her face. If he noticed, he gave no sign and passed by. She took the first turn into an empty alcove and pressed herself into the corner, wiping her face with her sleeve.
She had had to check on him, had to make sure that he was all right, and hopefully explain how this had happened. Spotting the camera in corner, she realized that his cell was being monitored. She couldn't take a chance of revealing that she was not part of the whole scheme, so she stuck with the official line, hoping that at least he might think that things were not as bad as they looked. She could hardly be surprised by John's vehemence. She'd had no doubt that he believed that she had betrayed him, and she could hardly blame his reaction, still it had hurt her more than she believed possible.
She had heard him say that human word before-once when he had dropped a half-full barrel of chakken oil on his foot and another time when she had kicked him in the chest harder than she had intended during a shared combat drill-but it had never occurred to her to ask what it meant. She had no doubt what 'fuck' meant now.
How could things have gone so wrong?
I should have talked to him this morning, she thought. He wanted to, she knew it, but she busied herself with preparing the prowler and then went on and on about Peacekeeper protocols, anything, anything to avoid talking about what was going on inside her, to avoid telling him how close to her heart he was, how much he meant to her. And now it was too late. He believed she had sex with him just to gain his confidence.
This doesn't do John any good, she scolded herself. Calling up years of Peacekeeper training, she forced her feelings into submission, but refused to dismiss them. She savored the dull ache in pit of her stomach, a fit punishment for her crime of omission, a welcome companion to her purpose. She checked her appearance in the sheen of the metallic wall. Wiping her eyes once more, she set her Peacekeeper mask in place knowing it was necessary, but for the first time, despising it all the same.
"It's a trap--Peacekeepers!"
"Crichton!" called Zhaan back into the comm. "Crichton!" No answer. "Pilot, call the others. Have them come up to Command. Something's happened to John and Aeryn."
Zhaan monitored Moya's sensor readings looking for some clue as to what might have happened while waiting for the others. D'Argo was the first to arrive followed closely by Rygel and Chiana. Zhaan had Pilot play back the transmission from Crichton.
"Peacekeepers." D'Argo's eye narrowed and he made a sudden grab for the Hynerian's chair. "You worthless piece of dinka dren, where have you sent them?"
From long practice, Rygel deftly moved his levitating chair just out of the Luxan's reach. "I didn't send them anywhere. That frelling Keegan must have set us up. How was I supposed to know?"
"I've been checking sensor readings," said Zhaan. "I cannot find any indication of a Peacekeeper vessel in the area, at least not one listed in Moya's data base."
D'Argo turned his attention back to Zhaan. "Peacekeepers could have pressed another species' vessel into service."
"Or it could be a new ship. The Peacekeeper data base on Moya is nearly three-quarters of a cycle old," added Pilot from the shell viewer.
"I suppose that is possible," Zhaan said. "Aeryn's prowler has not moved from its landing site. We'll just have to go down to the surface and look for them." She looked around for any objections, but the grim faces looking back at her voiced none. "Chiana, stay here and assist Pilot in monitoring the sensors. Just in case there are Peacekeeper ships about that we cannot identify, Pilot should take Moya to the far side of one of the planet's moons. The rest of us can take a transport pod down to the surface."
"And if we don't find them, you can personally introduce us to your 'friend'," said D'Argo to Rygel.
"I wouldn't mind having a serious word with him myself," said Rygel and he followed D'Argo and Zhaan to the transport bay.
D'Argo put the transport pod down about half a metra from the prowler and they made their way cautiously on foot, or by levitating chair, in Rygel's case, but they found the prowler undisturbed. They decided to split up with Zhaan taking the path that Aeryn and John had followed and D'Argo and Rygel circling around by another route. Along the way Zhaan inquired among the inhabitants if anyone had seen what might have happened to her shipmates. The second person she asked told her that 'it was all over town by now'. Peacekeepers had commandeered the houses along Hylos Street, threatening the people that lived there and locking them up in backrooms while they ambushed someone on the street. After that, the stories began to conflict, some saying that the Peacekeepers had killed the people that they ambushed and others, that they had taken them with them.
On Hylos Street she found one of the people who had been forcefully held in her home by the Peacekeepers. The elderly woman was nearly hysterical and it took all of Zhaan's skill to calm her enough to get only a little more information from her. She didn't think that the people were killed, although she couldn't be certain. At any rate, if they did kill them, they took the bodies with them. She was sure that they had marched off to the north when they left. Zhaan reported all of this to D'Argo and Rygel over her comm badge.
When Zhaan arrived at the location where Aeryn and John were supposed to meet the prator, D'Argo and Rygel were waiting for her.
"No one seems to know what happened to Crichton and Aeryn, but the Peacekeepers left to the north, about a dozen of them." D'Argo raised his qualta blade in readiness and turned as if to lead them in that direction. "I'm afraid, fierce D'Argo, that it will be too dangerous to confront them like this. Let's see if Pilot has discovered anything more with Moya's sensors." She raised her wrist to bring the communication device pinned there to her mouth. "Pilot?"
"The villagers report that the Peacekeepers moved towards the north of town. Are you picking up anything on Moya's sensors?"
"Nothing unusual now. However, about a half an arn after we received Crichton's call, a vessel lifted off from just north of town. Wait… this is odd, let me check again"
"What is it, Pilot?" asked Zhaan.
"As soon as it broke orbit it disappeared at an unusually high velocity."
"No, but the last recorded velocity was… hetch seventeen… and it was still accelerating."
"Some new kind of drive?"
"It is possible."
"Are there any other ships in the area?"
"None besides the prowler and the transport pod."
"They had to arrive in something," said D'Argo, "and it appears they have already left."
"But why just Aeryn and John? Why not the rest of us? And this elaborate charade-this just doesn't sound like Peacekeepers," said Zhaan puzzled.
"I, agree," said Rygel. "Peacekeepers just use brute force; they don't go sneaking about."
"I think it's time we paid your friend a visit," said D'Argo.
"Keegan is located in a trading center in one of the northern continents. I took the time to monitor some of his communication transmissions. He runs a very large and diverse trading operation. We shouldn't have any difficulty in locating him."
Rygel took offense at the look on their faces. "Don't look so surprised," he sniffed. "I don't like being taken in by this fapooter any more than the rest of you. I have my pride, you know."
"Of course, Rygel," said Zhaan as she nodded her head.
D'Argo was not as easily convinced, but for now he would assume that the Hynerian might be helpful. "Zhaan, take the transport pod back to Moya. Help Pilot and see if you can find out anything else from Moya's sensors. Rygel and I will take the prowler to visit Keegan."
"Welcome. I wasn't expecting you quite this soon," the trader greeted them. Roth Keegan ran a thriving and well-known trading concern and it had not been difficult for them to locate him. D'Argo and Rygel were led to an inner chamber and had not waited long for Keegan to arrive. The room was decorated sumptuously, with rich fabrics and plush carpets in jewel colors that contrasted sharply to the somberly dressed man who greeted them. The dark clothes served to accentuate his gaunt build. "Would you care for some refreshments?"
At the mention of food, Rygel's earbrows went up, but before he could agree, D'Argo declined for them both in his usual brusque manner. "No. We did not come here to eat... and we're not here to deliver the distillate either."
"I didn't expect that you were," he said spreading his dark robes with long delicate fingers as he sat down on the wide sedan. He had a manner of speaking that was slow and deliberate as if choosing every word carefully. "Please, please sit," he said gesturing to the other sedan.
"Then you knew it was a trap," growled D'Argo coming closer. He towered menacingly over the trader, but he seemed unconcerned.
"There's no need to threaten me. I'll tell you everything I know although, I'm afraid, that's very little." D'Argo backed off some. "Believe me, I'm sorry about your friends. It's...bad for business."
This did little to mollify D'Argo, but Rygel recognized the soul of a trader. "Let's hear what the man has to say, before you damage him, D'Argo." D'Argo regarded the Hynerian suspiciously, but sat down. Rygel continued to the trader, "Do you know where they took our shipmates?"
"Back to Peacekeeper territories."
"They were Peacekeepers then," said D'Argo.
"Yes, although the only one I had contact with wasn't wearing a uniform at the time. Still there's no hiding that superior, arrogant manner of theirs."
"You don't sound like you care for them very much. How much did he pay you to help them?" D'Argo asked.
"The Peacekeeper destroyed one of my cargo freighters while in orbit and then threatened to completely disrupt my trading operations if I didn't cooperate with him. He could have ruined me. As it is, with the loss of the freighter, the profit margin for this cycle will be very poor. I had little choice, but to assist him."
D'Argo was about to say something which most likely would have been construed as being very rude, but Rygel diplomatically interrupted him before he could begin. "We can sympathize with your position, but you must understand that some of us are very...distressed by the loss of our comrades."
"Yes, I can understand that perfectly," the trader answered, "but I will tell you all I know. Very late two solar days ago, the Peacekeeper destroyed the freighter and then issued me his ultimatum. He told me to contact the Leviathan giving me instructions for making the fictitious trade. He was very specific that the two Sebaceans were to be brought down to the surface. The timing was dependent on the arrival of this ship." He leaned toward the low table in front of them and pushed a few hidden controls. An image of the Peacekeeper ship appeared over the holographic table. "Since I knew the rendezvous coordinates, I made a point of having someone there to observe. Your friends were abducted and taken aboard the ship. There's something else you may be interested to know."
"What is that?" asked Rygel.
"You understand, it may just be a misinterpretation by my observer, but he is very astute, which is why I use him for these kinds of tasks. It appeared that the female Sebacean was a part of the plan."
"Impossible," spat D'Argo.
"I think it very unlikely," added Rygel more calmly.
The trader opened his palms and shrugged. "Well, you would know her better than I. However, my observer says that while the male was disarmed and bound, the female was allowed to keep her weapon and seemed to go with them of her own accord." Observing D'Argo's and Rygel's disturbed expressions, the trader was quite conciliatory. "I'm sorry if this news is upsetting, but I thought you should be made aware of it.
"And now, I have a proposal to make to you."
D'Argo was astonished at the trader's nerve. "Under the circumstances, I don't think there is anything you have that we would be interested in."
The trader smiled for the first time. "I understand your reservations, but please, hear me out. We may be able to help each other."
D'Argo could not imagine how Keegan might help them, but Rygel was beginning to think that they may have underestimated the man. "I suppose it wouldn't hurt to listen."
Keegan nodded in answer. "First, I will admit, my motives are not in the least altruistic. A key part of my success in commerce is that I make it a practice to be prepared for profitable opportunities as they arise and in this case, I wish to correct a 'missed opportunity'."
D'Argo rose and stomped towards the exit. "I think we've heard enough. You'll have to find someone else who's interested in your business deals."
"Please wait, hear me out. I deceived you once and I know that you have no reason to believe me now, but I want to be as honest with you as I can."
"Now, D'Argo, it won't hurt to listen to him," said Rygel, but he added to Keegan, "You just had better make your point quickly."
"Just so. I had the means at my disposal to defend my property against the lone Peacekeeper, but as I said, he was expecting a much larger ship and my means are limited. I have had a few experiences with Peacekeepers, most of them unpleasant, but I have learned to respect their power. They are well armed and not disinclined to use force. Making enemies of them would hardly be a good business practice. So I went along with his plan.
"However, this ship you see," he said pointing to the holographic projection, "is not what I expected. It has extremely limited weaponry, the prowler alone could likely do more damage. It was never a threat.
"It does have one interesting capability." He touched the controls on the table again. The view of the ship accelerated and disappeared off the table in the blink of an eye. "It's very fast. The last satellite feed from the fifth planet's orbit shows that the ship had already reached hetch twenty."
"The sensors on Moya also indicated that the ship was extraordinarily fast," D'Argo said in reluctant support.
"Such technology would be very...valuable."
"What are you getting at, Keegan?" asked Rygel.
"I propose an alliance. I have accumulated a small fleet of attack vessels and pilots for them. I believe they might be capable of securing the Peacekeeper vessel, but there is only one ship with the ability to overtake the it."
"A Leviathan," D'Argo said. The possibilities were...glorious.
"Permission to come aboard."
"Stand-by. Deploying the docking web," said Zhaan. "Pilot?"
"Bringing them onboard now," he answered.
One by one the odd collection of spacecraft was brought into the transport bay. Most were one- or two-man fighters. Two were transports modified to carry weapons. Only one ship looked as if it was less than ten cycles old. The rest certainly had seen their fair share of combat if not the wrecking yard.
D'Argo and Rygel waited in the maintenance bay, watching the ships land and their crews debark.
"Well, General," Rygel said to D'Argo, "You've finally got your command back."
D'Argo grunted in appreciation. Not the Luxan force he had once commanded, but he felt a growing satisfaction. The warrior had been running far too long. It would be good to finally take the offensive, even if it meant allying themselves with the trader who had made it necessary in the first place. He was surprised, though, to find Roth Keegan, himself, at the head of the assembled force.
"Welcome to Moya, Keegan," began Rygel in cordial greeting.
D'Argo grunted in approval. "So you have come at the head of your warriors-you show a true leader's spirit."
"Let's get this straight, Ka D'Argo," Keegan said, "We are traders, not warriors. I've come to protect my interests."
D'Argo's grudging admiration disappeared. "The Peacekeeper drive."
"Is extremely valuable," finished Keegan. "Nearly priceless. Just so we understand each other."
While D'Argo was disappointed that their new allies did not share his sense of honor, he had not expected it either. He could think of very few people that he would not deal with for the chance to fight the Peacekeepers on their own terms. "I understand perfectly. Prepare for your people for starburst." Then into the comm on his shoulder, "Zhaan, we're ready."
"Yes, D'Argo. Pilot is making the last calculations now. Starburst in 100 microts."
Aeryn reported to the duty station assigned to her. Despite the well-timed ambush in town, most of the personnel on board were techs, necessary aboard a ship such as this. She had learned that this vessel was using an experimental drive that was much faster than anything the Sebaceans had ever used before except for the starburst capability of Leviathans. However, for the time being, its applications were limited. The drive itself was too large for small tactical vessels like prowlers or marauders, but as yet inefficient in high mass vehicles such as command carriers. While she took some grudging pride in yet another example of Sebacean technical superiority, she knew that at this velocity, she would quickly run out of time in which to rescue John. Once they were in Peacekeeper territories, it increased the likelihood that they would be recaptured, if she managed to get them off this ship at all. So maybe that's the key, she thought. If she could disable the drive, it would keep them from getting to Peacekeeper territories. She needed to know more about it.
She began by accessing the ship's database, but immediately found that other than very rudimentary information, all the data stores pertaining to the new drive required access codes. She began making a few attempts at getting around them.
"Officer Sun, that information is classified," said the technician next to her.
The tech startled her, but she covered up her surprise with genuine admiration. "I just wanted to learn more about this new drive. It's amazing. A velocity of hetch twenty maintained for over eighty arns. Yet another magnificent example of Sebacean superiority."
The technician relaxed slightly and broke into a slight self-satisfied smile. "Yes, it is. I'm a member of the design team. We've been testing it for nearly a quarter-cycle."
His pride was apparent; maybe she could use that. "Our enemies will be shivering in their shirmocks," she added and the technician's chest stuck out a little more. "I hope that some day I might get the opportunity to pilot a ship with this drive."
The tech's expression said 'of course, you would'. "It may come sooner than you think. Each test flight brings us closer to perfecting the technology."
Not having to feign interest, Aeryn began to ask questions about the drive. "How would the drive respond to a Helmot maneuver-how does it compensate for the acceleration forces?"
The technician was openly smiling now, clearly excited about 'his' drive. "It took us a long time to come up with the dipolar shielding. Venting plasma through the shielding creates a localized opposing field effectively compensating for extreme acceleration forces."
"What?" She did not have to pretend that she had not understood him.
"The dipolar shielding acts as an inertial dampening device-" he broke off his explanation at the confused look on Aeryn's face. "I guess it would be alright for you to see the first tier data stores about the drive-the ones a pilot would need to know about." He bent over Aeryn's station and entered a command code. Schematics appeared on the viewer in front of her.
Yes, that will be quite sufficient, thought Aeryn as the technician sat down next to her and began explaining the schematics in more detail.
"I was hoping that we'd get to spend a little more time together," Paulto said over a meal of food cubes in the mess hall. "There's not that much for infantry to do on this ship. What have you been doing?"
"I've been trying to catch up with what I've missed while I've been gone," Aeryn said.
Paulto shrugged. "Good, you're getting right back into the swing of things. I'm glad to hear it." He paused a moment. "I just thought-" then he stopped, taking another bite.
For some reason this sparked Aeryn's curiosity. "Thought what?"
"Never mind. When we get to First Command we should review tier four tactical field exercises-make sure your skills haven't dropped."
"Or you'll have me replaced?"
"No! I just-no," he shook his head. Odd, she had rarely ever seen Paulto flustered like this, but he finally seemed to get his bearings. "It just wouldn't hurt for either of us to get some practice in. I'm sure you'll be fine. I wouldn't want to work with anyone else."
Aeryn couldn't explain it, but she felt odd internal alarms going off. It had been a long time, but something about Paulto's behavior was…unexpected. She shrugged the feeling off. Why shouldn't it feel unexpected; the motivation behind this scheme of his was completely unfathomable.
"Good," she said, not knowing what else to say.
And then everything seemed normal again. "This trip's going to be a bit of bore though."
"It's alright," said Aeryn neutrally.
"Well, it's bound to be a step up from that Leviathan and her crew, eh? Tell me, something-I've been wondering-why did they take you in with them?"
"You mean why didn't they just kill me at the first opportunity?" Aeryn asked becoming indignant.
"Is this some kind of test?"
Paulto backed down immediately. "I was just curious. Forget I asked."
Aeryn took a couple more bites in silence and then answered, "Crichton talked them into taking me."
A cold smile formed on Paulto's face. "I'll bet he's sorry now."
Aeryn stiffened. It took all her will power not to reach over and wipe the smirk off his face. "I'm sure of it," she said hiding the bitterness in her voice.
John had spent the first several hours pacing his cell, eight steps forward and eight steps back, until he realized the there was a camera in the cell, and he felt that this must be what it was like to be a caged animal in a zoo. He suppressed the impulse to make obscene gestures, but managed to move the cot so that it was just underneath the camera in what he hoped was out of the field of vision of whoever was watching. He sat down on the cot with his back against the wall and spent the rest of the time brooding.
If John thought the occasional boredom on Moya was bad, it was not even close to sitting alone in a cell for hours on end with only his own thoughts for company. And not very nice thoughts either. After getting over his initial shock of Aeryn's betrayal, he began to imagine evil things happening to her, not very noble admittedly, but for the moment, satisfying. Besides, it was all he had. He doubted that Moya would find him, let alone take on a Peacekeeper ship, even if they wanted to, which was also in doubt given Aeryn's betrayal. He had come to trust her most of all.
He began to get stiff and sore from sitting slumped against the wall. He sat up straight and was rubbing the back of his neck when he accidentally touched the tender bruise there, the muscle where his neck met his shoulder and the memory of how it came to be there rushed back to him. After all, it had only been last night.
She lay on top of him. He remembered the feel of her against the length of his body, her hair tickling his face, that unique mixture of softness and firmness that was her breasts pressing against his chest, her hips cradling his erection between them. His hands cupped that marvelously firm bottom holding her against him as he pressed his leg between hers, pressing against the warmth of her mound. She'd let out a low moan and he thought that maybe he'd finally found something where she couldn't boss him around, but that thought was fleeting. She bit into the side of his neck and every hair on his body rose in attention as if at her command. He had been unsure what to make of this when she kissed him again. The quiver of her laughter passed from her lips to his and into his veins and he pressed himself hard against her once more. After that, there had been no thinking at all.
His pulse raced and his breath deepened with the unbidden memory. He felt the tightening in his pants, dismayed that his body would betray him, too.
He rose up at the sound of the door opening forcing a calm he did not feel. Still, his heart turned over once in his chest as he recognized Aeryn coming through the door. She wore a new uniform and carried some sort of bundle. He hoped he hid his discomfort by staring at her sullenly.
She started and stopped to speak twice before she finally said, "I brought you a blanket. I know the optimum temperature on a Peacekeeper vessel is probably a little cool for you."
"I don't remember calling for room service," said John coldly.
She kept glancing at the wall behind him with the camera. There was something that she wanted to tell him, but whoever was watching made her nervous. He wasn't sure what to make of that. Maybe she was worried about what he might say.
Finally she said, "I'm sorry, John." She slipped the blanket through the bars letting it fall to the floor and left.
John walked over to the fallen blanket and picked it up, then went back to the cot and lay down covering himself with it. "That makes two of us," he said aloud. He covered his eyes with one arm and prepared himself for the long night ahead.
Aeryn returned to her bunk for the night, too. It was painful for her to see John this way, but it was better than not seeing him at all. She had wanted so badly to take out that camera; one well-aimed shot with her pulse rifle would have done it-and brought the entire ship down on top of them.
This will do John no good. She forced herself to focus her attention onto formulating a viable plan. She tried to imagine that this was just a field strategy exercise, one of hundreds she had participated in. She began to review what she had learned about the ship and its drive trying to see if she could use any of the information to come up with some sort of plan.
Disabling the drive would not be simple. Due to the shielding necessary to separate the inhabited part of the ship from the primary power source, the main part of the drive had very limited access and those areas were heavily guarded.
The controls were more accessible, but because of their vulnerability, redundant systems were placed strategically throughout the ship. Still, they seemed like the best chance of success. Except-it suddenly occurred to her, that it might not be necessary to damage the drive itself to render it useless. If the dipolar shielding were disabled, the inertial stresses on the ship would make it virtually impossible to maintain the extreme velocities the drive was capable of. It would not stop the ship, but it would slow it down considerably. And turn it into a very bumpy ride.
Aeryn thought she remembered the main power conduits for the shield generators were accessible from a corridor in the aft section of deck one. An explosion from a strategically placed pulse rifle with the pulse chamber overloaded should take out the whole section. It would also very likely blow a whole in the hull exposing the area to vacuum, making repairs even more difficult and time-consuming. Perfect.
Assuming she could effectively disable the drive-then what? She had to get John off the ship somehow. The ship was too small to have transports. There were escape pods, but they had no propulsion systems of their own. One could only hope to be picked up by another ship. Tomorrow she would try to get access to the flight plan. If they were lucky, perhaps they would intercept an inhabited system or a busy trade route.
Not much of a plan, but it had potential-the most comforting thought Aeryn had had since they had been captured.
Still it was a long time before she could fall asleep. Too much on her mind-John, Paulto, the drive. And while the familiar blend of ship's noise and voices was one she had known all her life, she found she missed the quiet hum of Moya.
D'Argo strode impatiently into Command. "Have you picked up anything on the sensors yet?"
Zhaan sighed. "Not a thing, I'm afraid. We've been making the widest possible sweeps of the area, but so far nothing."
"It's been ten arns since we came out of starburst," D'Argo pointed out needlessly.
"I'm well aware of how long it's been," she answered sharply. Zhaan sighed and stretched the muscles in her back and neck striving to master her own apprehension. She was tired and would have liked very much to spend some time meditating in her quarters, but knew too well she could not. Pilot had projected the Peacekeeper ship's last recorded trajectory and estimated the length of starburst to place them well ahead of the Peacekeeper's new ship. Since then he had repeated his calculations, varying the parameters, but anyway they looked at it, their window of opportunity was closing fast. Most disturbing was that if the Peacekeeper vessel changed its course by more than .03 radii, it would be outside of Moya's sensor range. "Delvia zota del renizha," she added beneath her breath. A small prayer would not hurt right now.
Pilot interrupted, "Zhaan, we're picking up something."
Hope made her alert immediately and she went back to the board. "Where?"
"It's just barely coming on sensors now, but it's traveling at …hetch 19."
"That's got be it. At that speed they'll be in visual range in less than 500microts. D'Argo, you'd better get our allies ready. We won't have much time. You have to get the ship to slow down. If it gets past us, we will never be able to catch it again."
Aeryn had barely fallen asleep when the alarms first sounded. Before her half-asleep mind could identify the attack alarm, an impact to the ship had thrown her unceremoniously from her bunk to the floor waking her abruptly. The ship was under attack.
She quickly put on her uniform, but not before being thrown against the bulkhead twice more. Picking up her pulse rifle, she entered the corridor. She held onto the wall trying to stay on her feet as she made her way to the nearest sensor screen. She was passed by several of the crew, hurrying to their assigned stations. She stopped one, a tech named Brinin. "Who's attacking us?" she yelled over the noise.
"Not sure, but there's a Leviathan," he yelled back.
Moya, thought Aeryn as she let the tech go. But she has no weapons. How?
Aeryn made her way to the nearest workroom. Two techs were already feeding sensor data to the holographic table. Aeryn viewed the floating image with a sense of awe and pride. It was certainly Moya, but more surprising was the assembled collection of fighters attacking the Peacekeeper ship. Then she recognized what could only be her prowler. D'Argo!
Her sudden elation at this discovery subsided rapidly as she realized that except for buffeting them around a little bit, the fighters' attack was having little affect. The ships defense screen was protecting them against any serious damage and at the speed they were traveling, they would very soon be out of the fighters range. She had to stop the ship and now.
She left the workroom and began to make her way towards the aft section. She traced over the schematics in her mind hoping that she remembered them correctly. She found a stairway to deck one and climbed in taking the steps two at a time and then continued down the corridor. The impacts to the ship were slowing, making it easier for her to stay on her feet, but she also knew that that meant that they were getting further out of range. One more hatch and she'd be there.
"What are you doing here, sir?" the tech asked as she stepped out from behind the hatch.
Aeryn tried to cover her surprise. There had been no duty station noted on the schematics she had seen. "You're needed in section elph-the sensor feed had been damaged and needs repair."
"Ladimor is assigned to that section. Why doesn't he repair it?"
Great, thought Aeryn, she wants to play Crichton's game of twenty questions. Aeryn put on her most intimidating scowl and moved directly in front of the tech. "We are under attack, " she threatened. "Why don't you follow orders and I won't put you on report." Aeryn clenched her fist. If the tech, didn't leave now, Aeryn would have to take her out. She was wasting precious time.
But the tech backed down. "Yes, sir," she said. "Section elph." She headed back down the corridor that Aeryn had come from.
"Hurry!" Aeryn called back to her and the tech began to sprint.
Aeryn laughed out loud for a moment, in relief as much as at the tech. She turned back to the open hatchway and walked up to the far wall. As well as she could remember the power conduits for the bipolar shielding should have been right behind the bulkhead. She took up her rifle and opened the pulse chamber, then set the charge on maximum. She leaned the rifle against the bulkhead and ran back the way she came. She estimated she had thirty microts to get as far away as she possibly could. She was barely through the first hatch when she began to hear the high pitch whine of the pulse chamber overloading. She ran faster.
When she had gone 40 units, she paused long enough to secure the hatch behind her and headed for the next one and secured it. If she did manage to blow a hole through the hull, she needed to be sure she could isolate the area exposed to vacuum. Of course, she didn't know just how big a hole that might be. She ran to the next hatch.
The explosion went off just as she secured the third hatch. The force of the blast threw her against the opposite bulkhead. As she hit the wall, she felt a more intimate explosion of her own as her shoulder shattered, before gratefully, she blacked out from the pain.
Frell, her shoulder ached. I don't want to wake up yet, the thought barely formed. Then she felt warmth, holding her hand, touching her cheek. "John," she murmured aloud.
"Aeryn?" At his voice she opened her eyes and struggled to focus them, but she didn't really need to to recognize the dark, deep-set eyes peering back at her. "Aeryn?" He almost sounded as if he were pleading with her. She gave up trying to focus her eyes, and shut them again.
"Where am I?" she finally managed to ask. She could hear activity going on around her.
"You're in the medic bay. Your shoulder is damaged. There was some kind of explosion. You must have been thrown against the bulkhead."
She remembered that. She opened her eyes again and started to rise, but found she was restrained and not just with Paulto's hands pushing her gently back down on the bed. She felt her panic rise. She'd had been found out. "What is this for?"
As if in answer, an impact rocked the ship throwing Paulto against her. She groaned as he fell against her injured shoulder. He pushed himself back up. "I'm sorry-sorry." For the first time she registered the pained concern on his face. "That's why the restraints, so you're not thrown from the bed."
She smiled to herself. It worked. If they were still under attack then the drive must have been disabled. The ache in her shoulder faded.
Paulto took her smile as something else. He brought her hand to his chest and held it with both hands. The tender gesture focused Aeryn's attention back to him. He was worried about her, she suddenly realized, disturbed once more at his unexpected behavior. "How did I get here?"
"I found you and brought you here," he answered.
Aeryn's eyes flashed with worry. Did he know? But her worry eased when she reasoned that if he suspected her of causing the explosion, he'd hardly be sitting here holding her hand. She needed to know how bad the damage was. "What happened?" she asked, hoping he could tell her.
"There must have been a malfunction in one of the major power conduits. The blast has disabled the drive and blown a hole in the outer bulkhead. Repair crews are still trying to contain the breach. We can barely maintain hetch two." Then he added in a lower voice, "Those pitiful fighters from your Leviathan are all over us, but so far the defense screen has protected us from any real damage."
"It is Moya, then," she said softly.
He let go of her hand as if disappointed in her. "Yes," he admitted sourly.
Aeryn's private joy suddenly diminished as a thought occurred to her. "What about the hull breach? You said it hasn't been contained?"
"We're still venting atmosphere from small breaches in the aft sections of decks one and two. Techs are working on repairs."
Fear stabbed her though the heart. "John-Crichton-his cell is on deck two. Paulto." This time she found his hand, and squeezed it "Paulto, you've got to get him out of there."
"He's probably already dead," he said flatly, his expression hardening.
"Paulto, please," she pleaded, "Please, you've got to get him"
She was too afraid that he would refuse, but slowly his face softened. "All right, Aeryn, I'll try."
As he turned to go she pulled him back one more time. She knew that earlier hard expression all too well. "Promise me, you won't hurt him. Promise me," she demanded.
Reluctantly he nodded. "I promise."
Paulto left Aeryn in the medic bay cursing himself for the promise made. He hated himself for being unable to refuse her and hated her for asking. No, he didn't hate her, he corrected himself. He couldn't bring himself to hate her. He should, but he couldn't. Still he was disappointed in a way that made his throat tighten.
He made his way first to the nearest vidviewer and ordered the tech on duty to re-route the visual feed from the prisoner's cell to that station, silently hoping to find the prisoner dead and his coerced promise unnecessary. At first Paulto was hopeful. Crichton was stretched out on the cell bed, not moving, but then he could make out his chest heaving, obviously straining to extract what oxygen he could from the fast thinning air. Perhaps if he hesitated just a few microts longer, this problem would take care of itself. The idea was momentarily satisfying.
Duty. He reminded himself that the whole reason First Command sent this ship to the uncharted territories was to retrieve this man. He would have to set his personal feelings aside, and he found that reassuring. He reasoned that he wasn't doing this just for Aeryn, but that it was his duty to Peacekeeper command to rescue the Human. And by the looks of it, he'd better hurry. Crichton was running out of time.
John had been woken violently, the bed shaken out from under him. Impacts continued to shake the ship and he thought it best to remain on the floor. He surmised that the ship was being attacked, although he could not fathom by whom. The knowledge sparked a small, gloomy hope. He admonished himself for such fatalistic ideas. What had happened to him to make him feel that dying on this vessel was preferable to living as a prisoner of the Peacekeepers?
Then there had been a much larger explosion, much closer, for which he was only too glad that he had stayed on the floor. For awhile there was nothing, then he heard activity from the corridor, the sounds of hatches closing and then nothing. He would have liked to know what was going on, but it seemed the immediate area had been deserted. It was awhile longer before he noticed a faint breeze and realized the air was getting thinner. The hull must have been breached. Perhaps he would get his wish after all.
He crawled back up on the bed and waited. It wasn't long before his head began to ache and soon after, the nausea began. He began to breathe heavily, struggling to get more oxygen from the thinning air. He recognized the early symptoms of hypoxia from the high altitude chamber session he had undergone during his astronaut training. The flight instructor had told them that the major symptom of altitude sickness was 'stupidity'. Death by stupidity, the thought struck him as hilarious, but he was just too tired to laugh. But all in all, not a bad way to go. Kind of like falling asleep.
John was only dimly aware of being lifted and carried out of the cell. His first conscious sensation was of a searing pain in his chest as his lungs filled over and over again with breathable air. He was on the floor and he rose to his hands and knees as his chest was racked with a spate of violent coughing, his lungs still gasping for air in-between. Eventually it stopped and the pain in his lungs subsided. He leaned back against the wall, reveling in the simple act of breathing. Only then did he notice the Peacekeeper in front of him.
John recognized him from when he was captured. The black flight suit he must have worn was sitting in a pile on the floor beside him with the helmet perched on top. He squatted just out of John's reach, using his pulse rifle for balance, eyeing him dispassionately.
"If you're expecting thanks, forget it," John said.
"You're lucky that First Command wants you, or you'd have been dead when I first laid eyes on you."
John began a throaty chuckle that turned into a cough. "Yeah, that's me-'lucky'."
The Peacekeeper continued to watch him intently. "I have no idea what she sees in you."
"Who? Aeryn?" said John, surprised. There was no one else 'she' could be.
For a moment the Peacekeeper almost seemed embarrassed, as if he hadn't meant to speak aloud, but he covered it up quickly with a scowl. "You will refer to her by her proper title-'Officer Sun'."
John shrugged. "Why not? 'Officer Sun' it is. And you are?"
"For the moment, you may address me as Officer Jetaal."
John picked up on that right away. "For the moment? You expecting some sort of change-a promotion maybe?"
"That is none of your concern," he answered, but John noticed a small smile play around his lips.
Something suddenly rocked the ship beneath them. The Peacekeeper momentarily lost his balance, but recovered quickly training his pulse rifle on John in case he might have any ideas about trying to escape.
"What's going on?" John asked.
"We are under attack."
No shit, Sherlock, thought John. "Who?"
Another long pause. "Your Leviathan."
"Moya? But how? She's not armed."
"Apparently your comrades have picked up some allies. She has at least a dozen armed fighters with her."
John listened with growing amazement. "I'll be damned," he said under his breath.
"They are a pathetic force. If we had our prowlers, Officer Sun and I would make short work of them ourselves."
Yes, Aeryn's playing for the other team now, thought John.
Paulto continued, "As it is they won't do you any good. They'll never penetrate the defense screen."
John smiled. "But they already did. I would've been sucking vacuum in a few more minutes."
"That explosion came from inside the ship," the Peacekeeper said, again as if to himself.
John's forehead wrinkled, confused. "Who-?"
"An accident," said Paulto recovering quickly. "This ship is using an experimental drive. It must have malfunctioned."
"Yeah. Right," John acknowledged outwardly, but he had the distinct impression that there was something the Peacekeeper wasn't saying.
Paulto scowled again, rising and leveled his rifle at John. "You are sufficiently recovered. Get up."
John did as he was told, keeping his eyes on the Peacekeeper-and his weapon.
Then, over ship's comm system, "Deck two, section decca, report."
Paulto backed over to a comm panel near the door and activated it. "Captain, this is Officer Jetaal on deck two, section decca."
"Where are the techs in this section?" he demanded.
"Sir, the techs are occupied repairing the hull breeches in this area."
"Then you'll have to do it. Go to main communications. Command has lost access to external communications. Report back on the status of the array."
"Yes, sir." He switched off the comm device.
"I don't need babysitting, if you've got something else you need to be doing," John piped in.
"You're coming with me." Paulto motioned to John to move through the hatch to his right and into the corridor, and followed close behind.
A morbid curiosity moved John to ask, "So you and Aeryn-I mean, 'Officer Sun', you know each other?"
"Yes, we're from the same unit."
"Missed her, did you?" He slowed down to glance back at his captor and was rewarded with a shove.
"Hurry! Or we may find that First Command doesn't really need you after all."
As he walked ahead of Paulto, John pondered this idea. Aeryn must have told the Peacekeepers something about her and himself, but probably not much. Maybe he could use that.
"What did she tell you about us?"
"That you saved her life-more than once."
"What else can there be to tell? Keep moving!" Paulto pushed him again.
"She didn't tell you that we were lovers?" John took a gamble and won the butt of the Peacekeeper's pulse rifle small of his back. He fell to his knees.
"Good try, Human, but impossible. Get up!"
John rose slowly. "Why is that impossible?"
"You are not Sebacean. Aeryn would never do that."
"Ahh, your taboos against interspecies relations. I guess she got past that."
"And just how well do you think you know her?" John asked, daring to look over his shoulder at Paulto again.
"More than you ever will. You have known her for less than a cycle. I have known her her whole life."
"People change. Remember, she's 'irreversibly contaminated'."
"She's a Peacekeeper warrior. She'll be back to normal when she's back in our unit, and we are fighting the Batari. In here." Paulto pushed him towards an open cabin.
Paulto turned to him for a moment and then back to the vidscreen without comment.
The room was not very big and the far wall was covered with controls. John walked to the opposite wall and turned around to look at his-rival, the thought suddenly occurred to him.
"Sit on the floor, there," Paulto pointed to a spot away from the controls and door. Paulto began to access the control panel while attempting to keep a wary eye and his pulse rifle on John.
"Aer-'Officer Sun'," John corrected himself, "Told me that you're not turning me over to Crais, that you're taking me to the Peacekeeper headquarters-that Crais is in trouble with the Big Cheese. But you work for Crais, right?" A light went off. "You went around Crais to set this up, didn't you?" Another piece clicked into place. "You're protecting her," John said as much to himself as his captor. "Why?"
Paulto turned to him for a moment and then back to the vidscreen without comment.
As John considered the Peacekeeper again it suddenly occurred to him. "Well, well, well. Our Aeryn Sun is breakin' hearts all over the galaxy-you're in love with her."
"No. Peacekeepers do not 'fall in love'. Civilians, maybe even techs, but not soldiers. She is a comrade, nothing more."
"Oh, so 'love' isn't a part of Peacekeeper training? But you'd risk your career-your life-to bring her back into the fold. I'll bet that's not in the training manual."
At that moment lights on the panel in front of Paulto sprang to life. "Captain," he said into his comm badge, "This is Officer Jetaal. I'm in the main communications room. I think the communication array is functional."
"Good. Send a message to Captain Crais's carrier. It's the nearest ship in the area."
A dismayed look came over Paulto's face, but he answered, "Yes, sir," and closed the comm, but he stared at the control panel without moving.
"Tough one, isn't it?" said John rising slowly. "Without help, you risk losing this high tech ship of yours. But Crais? Your little plan falls apart."
"At least you'll be dead."
"And how long do you think Aeryn will last?"
Paulto shut his eyes and exhaled slowly. John sensed his guard was down and made a desperate lunge at the Peacekeeper, but he was too far away and too slow. Paulto stepped to the side and slammed the butt of his rifle into John's side. John fell to his knees and keeled over.
As the John's pain slowly resided, Paulto weighed the options. "Contact the Leviathan. Have them call off their attack."
"And what do 'I' get?" asked John.
"I won't call Crais. The Leviathan is no match for a command carrier. You and all your friends will be captured-or dead."
John shook his head. "No. You don't want Crais here anymore than I do."
John could see Paulto's jaw clench tightly, and then relax. "You get off of here. I'll put you in an escape pod and your ship can pick you up."
"What about Aeryn? Without me, will you be able to protect her?"
"What do you care? She betrayed you," Paulto reminded him.
"No, I didn't."
Paulto and John both spun around at the sound of Aeryn's voice. She was leaning heavily against the doorway, one arm bandaged securely against her side. She was visibly weak and in pain and John's chest tightened with sympathy and concern. He put it down to habit, reminding himself that she didn't deserve it.
Paulto strode to her side, keeping his weapon aimed at Crichton. "What are you doing here? You should have stayed in the medic bay." She leaned against him as he helped her over the hatch threshold, but her eyes remained on John.
"Believe me-no matter how it may look-I did not betray you."
John swallowed hard, his throat dry.
"You're delirious, Aeryn-" Paulto began.
"I'm no such thing," she interrupted. "Paulto set up the ambush on the planet. Remember when he first saw me?"
How could he forget Paulto embracing her, then asking if this was Crichton, Aeryn's betraying 'yes'? He felt his bile rise.
"He told me that if I played along, Peacekeeper Command would think that I helped capture you…that I could come back to the Peacekeepers. I thought at least if I was free, I might be able to find a way to get you out of this."
Dimly, it made sense, but he couldn't be sure. Paulto scowled at Aeryn, but she ignored him. She held John's eyes unflinchingly. "It's the truth, John."
Another impact rocked the ship. Aeryn would have fallen except for Paulto's steady grip.
"Moya," murmured John.
"Yes," she said, smiling, her eyes glistening.
In spite of his doubts, he wanted to believe her. At this point what did he have to lose? Uncertain, he smiled back and she beamed in return.
John turned his attention back to Paulto. "Well, it looks like the ball is back in your court. You still gonna call Crais?"
Paulto grimaced as he considered and dismissed his alternatives. John almost felt sorry for him. Almost. Paulto switched on his comm again. "Captain, the communications array is damaged after all. I'll have to locate a tech for repairs."
"Make it a priority. Use whatever resources necessary. Keep Command informed."
"Yes, sir." Paulto switched off the comm, then clicked a switch on the console and stood back. John swiftly took his place before the Peacekeeper could change his mind. "Moya, this is John Crichton. Can you hear me?"
There was a little static and then Zhaan'a voice could be heard clearly. "Yes, John. We hear you."
"Have the fighters pull back. Stop the attack. We're going to come out in an escape pod-you pick us up."
"I don't know how you all did this, but there's nothing sweeter than seeing the cavalry come over the hill. Gotta love that."
He could imagine Zhaan's indulgent smile at the other end. "We'll be waiting."
Silence fell. It took a few moments, Paulto's pulse rifle still trained on John, for them to realize the stalemate.
"They've broken the attack," said Aeryn. She turned back to Paulto. "Where is the nearest escape pod?"
"At the port end of the corridor."
John walked up to Aeryn holding out his arm. "Come on." Aeryn leaned against him, grateful to once more be in John's embrace. Paulto followed them.
When they got to end of the corridor, Paulto keyed in the command code and a hatch opened up, barely a meter in diameter. He stood aside and turned to John. "Get in feet first. You can key the launch sequence yourself from the inside. First the red control, then the green."
John bent over to look inside. It was dark, and he could barely see the other end, but he could make out the controls that Paulto described. There would barely be enough room for the both of them. He stood up and turned to Aeryn. "I'll get in first, then-"
"John," she interrupted, "I'm sorry, for everything." John's heart skipped a beat. "I didn't plan for this to happen; I would have never used you this way. Please believe that, John."
It had been so easy, he thought. Hold her in your arms and in the time it takes to walk down the hallway, you think, everything's going to be the same again…but it's not. "You're not coming, are you?"
"I belong here. These are my people. And someday you'll get back to yours."
How was it possible? How could anything feel worse than thinking she had betrayed him? But then he had his anger and bitterness to buoy him up in his despair. Now that they were gone, he felt like he was drowning. "Aeryn-" he choked.
She touched his face and stared resolutely into his eyes as if she could somehow give him strength, and then pushed him away. "Hurry."
He didn't remember getting into the pod, or hitting the release sequence. It felt like someone else doing all those things.
But he did remember looking back at Aeryn. He remembered the erect way she held herself and the determined set of her jaw. How she hesitated just before closing the hatch. Her eyes had softened and in that fleeting moment faint hope had fluttered in his breast as he sensed her resolution waiver. Then in one sudden movement, she closed the hatch.
The acceleration from the pod ejection barely subsided before John could feel the docking web take hold of the pod. In only a few minutes, the pod was being pulled into the crowded transport bay. It looked like a short step up from a Star Wars junkyard. The pod landed none too gently, just inside the maintenance bay. Chiana was there immediately to help him open up the pod. About 10 meters to his left, D'Argo was arguing with what he assumed were the pilots of the various vessels.
"What's going on?" said John as Chiana helped him out of the pod.
"Our friends aren't too happy about halting the attack."
"Which brings me to the next question, why are they helping us?"
"Rygel and D'Argo promised them the new Peacekeeper drive."
"Promised them the drive?" John made his way over to D'Argo, pushing his way through the crowd.
"Crichton," said D'Argo in greeting, ignoring the others. "Welcome back. Where's Aeryn?"
John pulled in closely to D'Argo speaking low so only D'Argo could hear. "I need to talk to you about that. She's still over there."
D'Argo scowled and pushed back the two nearest pilots. "Wait here! I need to speak with my comrade, then I will let you know what you will do. Understand?" The pilots reluctantly backed down.
"Let's talk with Zhaan in Command," D'Argo said as he pulled John along with him. "We'd best hurry, though. I do not think that will hold them for long."
In only moments, they were in Command; the Peacekeeper vessel filled the front viewer. Zhaan hugged him warmly. "But where is Aeryn?"
John walked closer to the viewpoint. "She's still over there," he said trying to keep his voice from cracking. "She chose to stay."
D'Argo's eyes narrowed. "Back to the Peacekeepers?"
John shrugged sadly, "She's home."
"Then she gets what she deserves," said D'Argo and he began to go back to the transport bay.
"Wait!" said John blocking D'Argo's way. "You can't send the fighters back out there. I made a deal. And Aeryn-"
"-has made her choice," hissed D'Argo.
"Well, here's your choice. The first sign of attack, they'll contact Crais's carrier. Pilot, how long until Moya can starburst again?"
"No sooner than 15 arns," answered Pilot who had been monitoring the discussion.
"Fifteen arns," he repeated. "Well, Crais can be here long before then. This little rag-tag armada you've thrown together might do all right against an unarmed vessel, but how do you think they'll do against a Peacekeeper command carrier?"
"D'Argo," said Zhaan in her best soothing voice, "let's just consider this for the moment. This ship is no threat to us. We have rescued John. Aeryn has simply gone home, as we all wish to do."
D'Argo scowled again, "What guarantee do we have that have not already contacted Crais?"
"None, really." John didn't want to explain about Paulto and Aeryn now. He didn't want to think about Paulto at all. "They just won't, though if we leave now it might reassure them."
"And how am I supposed to explain this to our 'allies'?"
"They same way I did. If they call Crais's ship we're all as good as dead."
D'Argo's disappointment was evident, but eight years of imprisonment had made him pragmatic. "There will be a next time. I'll keep the others in line."
Paulto found Aeryn in one of the staff cabins. A console was activated, with text across the vidscreen, but Aeryn stood at the window engrossed in the starfield.
"You should be in the medic bay."
"No. I'm fine," she said without turning around.
"You're all right?"
Aeryn glanced back at him over her shoulder. "I made my choice."
"Good," Paulto said, a satisfied smile returning to his face. It had been with him since Crichton and the Leviathan had left. He had been relieved when Aeryn did not choose to leave with the Human, but he also chose to believe that the outcome was never in any doubt. He could think of no reason that Aeryn would wish to remain in exile, dismissing the Human's claim. Only her sense of loyalty to a shipmate had demanded that she help him.
After the escape pod had ejected, they had gone back to the main communications room. He had been surprised when Aeryn knew just what to do disable the communications array. She just shrugged and said that she had learned a few new skills in her exile on Moya.
The ordeal had taken a visible toll on Aeryn and he had sent her back to the medic bay. He had joined the repair crews to help as he could. At his first rest period, he had searched for her there, but she had never arrived. He found her here instead. She was staring at the stars.
"The repairs are going smoothly. The drive may be operational in another six arns. I'll be glad to be out of the uncharteds," he sighed. "We've been here too long."
"Practically a lifetime," Aeryn murmured.
He stood beside her and looked out at the stars, too, content somehow just to be at her side. "Just think, Aeryn, in a few days we'll be at First Command and a few days after that, back in regiment. With any luck, we'll get sent to the front right away. I've heard rumors that the Batari have been steadily advancing, but not for much longer, eh? Not with Sun and Jetaal back in business."
"Is that why you did all this?" she asked quietly.
He turned to look at her profile. "Of course."
"Or is there something more?" she asked turning to face him.
Paulto swallowed and turned back to the stars, silent.
"Paulto, you're like a brother to me-"
He cut her off. "I never asked for anything else."
"No, you never did."
They stood in awkward silence, until Paulto tried to change the subject. "What have you been studying?" he asked nodding towards the console.
"I've been reading about the Batari revolt. Do you know why they are fighting?"
"Does it matter?"
She ignored his comment. "Peacekeepers have been exploiting the borinium mines on Batar for the past twenty cycles. The Batari have always worked the mines; they are the planet's most valuable resource."
"So now they work in them for us."
"The environmental conditions in the mines are such that only the native Batari can tolerate them for more than an arn or two. This made supervision of the miners by non-Batari a problem. The Peacekeeper solution was to remove some of the Batari young to a training facility on another planet. They were treated well, trained in mining operations, and taught that they were superior to the general population, made fiercely loyal to the Peacekeepers, then sent back to supervise the mining operations. They were so oppressive to their own people, that the miners rose up and murdered them, in some cases, parents killing their own offspring or siblings, their own brothers. That was the beginning of the revolt."
"They are barbarians."
"No," she shook her head sadly, "Peacekeepers-we-did this to them."
"That's not our concern. We are soldiers. It is our duty to fight where ever we're sent."
"They never did like us to think for ourselves, did they?
Paulto gripped her by her arms. "What are you talking about? Why are you reading all this anyway, and what does it matter?" As he talked he kept squeezing her arms harder until she grimaced from the pain in her shoulder and he let go. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I just don't understand."
"I'm a warrior; it's what I was bred and trained for. I'm just not a Peacekeeper anymore."
"No, you don't know what you're saying."
"Crais was right-I have been irreversibly contaminated and for the first time, I'm glad."
Paulto glanced nervously at the door. "Shhhh! Keep your voice down. You'll ruin everything."
"This was a mistake, Paulto. I don't belong here now."
"No, you'll be all right as soon as we're back in combat..."
"I could still leave in an escape pod..."
"...these ideas will all go away..."
"...you could send a message to Moya, telling them where they can pick me up..."
"...you're hurt and you're still not thinking clearly.."
"...if I left as soon as the drive is repaired, this ship would be out sensor range before Moya returned..."
"...when you're feeling better, you'll see..."
"..I should have seen it sooner..."
"..this is for the best," they ended simultaneously.
There was a long pause, their eyes pleading with one another.
"What can I tell you to convince you?"
Another long pause, then she began again. "The drive did not malfunction. I set a pulse rifle on overload near the shielding conduits to stop the ship, so it couldn't get away from Moya. That's how I got hurt. I was trying to get away before it went off."
Paulto closed his eyes and swallowed hard. Then he opened them again. "I wasn't sure."
He recognized the fleeting look of surprise that passed across her face. She opened her mouth to speak, hesitated, then began again, a determined resolve in her eyes. "I...I had sex with the Human."
His rage ignited his muscles to action. He pinned her to the wall before she finished. This time he ignored her grimace at the pain in her shoulder.
"So the Human was not lying."
"He told you?"
"I didn't believe him." He reached for some other explanation. "Then he forced you."
"Not likely. I was not injured...then."
She stared at him defiantly without the decency to even act ashamed. "I should kill you."
"It would only be a matter of time, anyway, before I am discovered. I'll fail to follow an order, be caught associating with some inferior species, or hesitate to slaughter some defenseless Batari whose only crime is defending his homeland. Only then I would be a traitor, doomed to the Living Death. Killing me would be a mercy."
His hand tightened around her throat. She didn't fight him, but began to strain to breathe and he felt her chest heave against him. He squeezed harder, but his rage demanded the kind of satisfaction that only combat could give, his muscles tensed for action-why didn't she fight him? She would just let him kill her-let him kill his...heart.
Like a damn bursting, his rage drained away. His hand eased from around her throat. He closed his eyes and leaned against her until their foreheads touched. "I can't," he said choking.
Aeryn remained perfectly still. "Then let me go."
Paulto raised his head to look at her. He raised his hand to lightly caress her face, letting it memorize its contours as his eyes had long ago. He nodded slowly. He released her and stepped back, composing himself in the time it took to do so.
"I'll see how long before the drive is ready. The repairs to the communications array will have to be finished by then, too," he said, and then added more softly "You'll have to send a broadcast message. How can you notify the Leviathan without attracting the attention of Crais's carrier?"
"I have a way. You'll have to create a diversion, though."
"I'm in charge of that work crew; I don't think that will be a problem. Get your message ready."
Aeryn's brow furrowed.
"I just hope they'll come back for me."
"Don't worry, he'll come back."
"How do you know?"
"Because I would."
John stood in Command watching the leisurely movement of the stars. He had volunteered to take the watch while his crewmates got some well-deserved sleep. John, too, was tired from his ordeal, but restless. He doubted that sleep would come easily for some time to come. How long ago was it that he had lain content with Aeryn in his arms? Two...three days? Without the rising and setting of the sun, it was hard to tell. But it hadn't been very long. Now everything had changed again. He realized he should be used to that by now. Change was the only constant in this particular corner of the universe. He couldn't afford to get too comfortable, as if it were even possible.
Moya was still gathering her strength for starburst, so they were traveling along at a leisurely hetch 7. With the rest of Moya's crew sleeping, there was plenty of time for thinking. Too much time. He had tried not to think about Aeryn, but had soon given up. She would occupy his thoughts for a long time to come. In the last few days, she had taken him on the emotional roller coaster ride of his life. From love to hate to...what? He wasn't sure. The ride had left him numb and for the time being, he was grateful for that. He didn't want to think about what would happen when the numbness wore off. Right now, he simply missed her.
John heard the distinctive sound of a single set of footsteps behind him. He could recognize them all-the telltale swish of Zhaan's robes, the direct stamp of Aeryn and D'Argo's military boots distinguished by D'Argo's much heavier step, Chiana's much lighter and irregular step although she could be disturbingly silent when she chose, and the whine of Rygel's chair since he rarely waddled his little hiney anywhere if he could help it. .
"D'Argo, I thought you were supposed to be getting some rest," John said without looking.
"I'm not a tired as I thought."
"Well, I could use the company." He turned to D'Argo and smiled gratefully.
"How did you persuade your friends to settle down? Chiana said they weren't too happy about giving up the Peacekeeper ship."
"I threatened to send Keegan out the airlock. And it would have given me great pleasure to do so. I cannot trust a man who measures ethics only by the size of its purse."
"Without him and his fighters, I doubt that I could have escaped," John reminded him.
D'Argo grunted. "If not for him, you would not have been captured in the first place. I consider his debt repaid."
Of course, thought John, it made perfect Luxan logic.
The silence stretched between them. D'Argo occupied himself checking some of the sensor readings, but John had the feeling that he was stalling, that there was something he wanted to say. He waited.
"It felt good," D'Argo began slowly, "to finally be able to confront my enemies, attack, instead of this incessant running. It warmed my warrior's blood."
Then he seemed to switch subjects. "Aeryn is my friend. I do not wish to see her dead although, I admit, it conflicts with my desire to see the Peacekeepers destroyed."
John smiled inwardly. This was as close to an apology as the Luxan could probably come. "I understand, D'Argo. I'm sure Aeryn would, too."
"I hope I'm not interupting, Commander," said Pilot.
"No. What is it?" John asked.
"We received a broadband broadcast message, but it may be encoded-it doesn't seem to make any sense."
"What does it say?"
"It's to a vessel presumably named 'James Bond'. It says that Mata Hari is waiting to rendezvous at her last known location."
John smiled broadly as Pilot read the message. "It's Aeryn. We have to go back."
"Are you certain?" asked Pilot.
"Absolutely. Turn Moya around."
When they arrived back at the original coordinates, the Peacekeeper ship was gone, only some residual particle fluctuations evidence that it had been there at all. There was no immediate sign of anything else. John had no idea how long an escape pod could maintain life support, but given its size, he knew that its power had to be fairly limited. In the half arn it took to locate the faint energy signal from Aeryn's escape pod, John had gone from excited anticipation to nearly frantic with worry as he unsuccessfully fought his fears that they were too late. Zhaan had finally sent him down to the transport bay to wait. He had no sooner arrived than Zhaan announced to him that the escape pod had been located and that the docking web was bringing it in.
John watched anxiously as the transport pod floated toward him and the maintenance bay held by the invisible strings of Moya's docking web. When he saw Aeryn move her head through the pod's window, the flood of relief drained him of all energy. Their eyes locked and for a long moment he stood rooted to deck after the pod came to a stop.
At last she knocked on the glass. The dull thump reminded him that she needed assistance to open the pod. He felt as if he had to command each muscle to move as he kneeled down to release each latch and lifted the hatch.
"I was afraid for a moment that you weren't going to let me out," she said as she sat up.
"I considered it. It would probably be safer...for me."
"Probably," she agreed.
John raised his hand to her face, his fingers wrapped around the curve of her neck, his thumb caressing her cheek. She closed her eyes as he tenderly kissed her along her eyebrow.
"We have a lot to talk about," she said.
He pulled back to look at her. "Yes. But not now," and he kissed her on her mouth.
Aeryn kissed back.
"John, Aeryn...prepare for immediate starburst."
Starburst placed them only an arn away from the commerce planet, where they bid a less than reluctant farewell to the trader Keegan and his mercenaries. Paulto had given Aeryn the last known coordinates of Crais's command cruiser and Pilot set a course in exactly 180 degrees in the opposite direction
John announced that a celebration was in order. They broke out their meager food supplies and collected in the center chamber. From somewhere, Aeryn produced a small keg of an alcoholic drink that she called 'quanjon'. John asked her if it could be used for stripping paint as well as killing brain cells, but she assured that it would grow on him.
D'Argo told them about confronting Keegan about his part in the Peacekeeper plot and then his surprising offer to join Moya with his mercenaries. Aeryn told them, about pretending to go along with Paulto and overloading the pulse rifle to disable the drive, injuring herself and nearly killing John in the process.
As it got later, one by one the party excused themselves, until only Aeryn and John were left.
John sat down next to her straddling the bench and poured them each another quanjon. "I guess it's just us."
"Actually, I think Zhaan arranged it."
"Yeah," John agreed. She could feel his eyes watching her expectantly, but she fixed her eyes on her glass, her hands nervously playing with it. John asked neutrally, "How's your shoulder?"
"After four of these," she said as she lifted her glass, finally looking at him, "I don't even think I have a shoulder."
He smiled briefly, but held onto her eyes. "I'm sorry."
Not at all what she expected. "Whatever for?"
"For doubting you, for believing that you would use me to get back into the Peacekeepers."
She shook her head. "What else could you believe?"
"I should have trusted you."
"I'm not so sure. I didn't know that the whole thing with Keegan and the map fibers was a trap, but I should have. It was so obvious."
"Well," John shrugged, "Hindsight's always twenty-twenty."
"Twenty-twenty?" Another of John's Earth expressions.
"Things are often obvious after the fact," he translated.
"No, you don't understand. I met with Paulto two days before," she confessed.
"Before?" Was he surprised or angry-maybe both, she couldn't say for sure, but she could feel the tension build. She hadn't intended to hurt him anymore than he already had been, but she meant to tell him everything.
"I should have told you-I should have told all of you. He laid out his plan, telling me that if I turned you over to the Peacekeepers that they would take me back. Paulto offered me the one thing I thought I wanted most. I'm sorry to say, it was a more difficult choice for me than I would have liked to believe.
"I was angry with you for being in the way and angry with myself for even considering it."
She could see the recognition in his eyes; he knew her all too well. "Hurricane Aeryn hit your quarters."
"Yes. The next day I came to my senses. I realized I could never trade your future for mine."
John sat for a long moment, thoughtfully rubbing his lower lip with his thumb. "So, you felt guilty for considering his offer."
"Among other things," she admitted.
"Guilty enough to want to make it up to me?"
She was suddenly unsure of where this was going. "What are you getting at?"
He looked her straight in the eye. "Is that why you slept with me, Aeryn?"
"Because-because I also realized how deeply I care about you."
"But not enough to come with me in the escape pod."
How could she explain this so he would understand? "I thought it was for the best. You would be safe on Moya and I was going...home." She swallowed hard, her mouth dry.
"Then why did you come back?"
"After you left, Paulto and I spent some time covering our tracks-damaging the communication array, arranging it to look like you escaped on your own. Because of my injury, I was excused from the repair crews. I needed to occupy myself, so I began to find out something about the Batari. The Batari rebellion would very likely have been my first assignment. I found a report describing a brutal Peacekeeper experiment for controlling the miners on Batar.
"As I read that report, I found myself more and more sympathetic towards my supposed enemies. It was really no different than Peacekeeper operations on a hundred other planets, but somehow it seemed different. I had the sudden realization that it wasn't the Peacekeepers that were different. I was different. Before, I had never questioned my superiors, or considered the rights of an inferior race, but I find that now it matters to me.
"I know I was thrown out of the Peacekeepers when Crais pronounced me irreversibly contaminated, but I still felt like a Peacekeeper inside. But somewhere along the way, I stopped being a Peacekeeper. I became...something else, something...more-I don't know, but I knew I had made a mistake."
John had listened intently to her explanation, but she could tell he still wasn't satisfied. "Is that the only reason you came back?"
"Well," she said changing tactics, "it is all your fault. I was very happy being a Peacekeeper before you came along."
He tilted his head; she had surprised him. "You think I had something to do with your change of heart?"
"Of that I am very certain. And I think it's only fitting that you should have to suffer the consequences."
"Suffer...consequences?" He blinked twice, then a smile began to play at the corners of his mouth. "Will it...hurt much?"
She leaned towards him, threatening, "Only if you resist."
She was very pleased. When she kissed him, he didn't resist at all.
At this velocity the nearest stars went by so fast, they looked like streaks of light. Only the farthest stars stood familiarly at rest. It was an illusion, he knew, this fullness of space. In reality space was overwhelmingly empty, as empty as he felt inside. Paulto found himself spending too much time watching the stars since he helped Aeryn into the escape pod, leaving her to the fate she had chosen.
Aeryn had told him that it was just an accident that Crichton had come through the wormhole at just precisely that moment in time, killing Tauvo, helping the Leviathan to escape, taking Aeryn with them. Just a random incident that set into motion the sequence of events that took Aeryn away from him. Some species might call it 'chance', but Paulto was a Peacekeeper and for them there was no such thing. Peacekeepers were the champions of order in a universe on the verge of chaos, a high and noble purpose, which unfortunately, sometimes required less noble actions on the part of its protectors.
Paulto looked down at the receiver in his hand, the indicator blinking steadily admiring its innovational design. It tied into the ship's communication array as it could tie into any large local receiver. The signal from the tiny transmitter in Aeryn's shoulder was designed in such a way that any faint magnetic field in its vicinity boosted its power exponentially giving the detection device an unheard of range. It was an ingenious device that the inventive Debrian had not wanted to part with, and Paulto hoped to ensure that someday his death would not be wasted.
For the time being duty called. Once they were finished with the Batari rebellion, the Peacekeepers would return to the uncharted territories in force. Crichton had gotten a reprieve for now, but the Human's days were already numbered. And when that time came, Aeryn would need her old comrade again.
He would be ready.