An Alternate Universe Farscape Fanfic
Plot Summary: What would have happened had Aeryn Sun, and not Tauvo Crais, been in that Prowler when John Crichton came through the wormhole?
Obligatory: Farscape, and all its characters and worlds, are not mine. I do this in homage to the characters I know and love, which are owned by Jim Henson and Co. No copyright infringement is intended, no money is collected, and hopefully, no characters are seriously abused. Well, more than usual.
Rating: R for graphic violence, language, sexual situations. Author's note at the end.
* * *
Section 1: Down the Rabbit Hole
She didn't even have time to curse aloud.
Her sensors hadn't picked up on any object; the recon satellites hadn't reported anything to her Prowler. And yet, as she'd swept up past the Marauder-sized asteroid, something had materialized out of nothingness. Something white, with upswept wings, something less-than-Prowler size.
Her onboard systems flickered at her in nanomicrots, proximity alarms wailed at her, but she ignored them all. She didn't have time for this. She'd been taught to read her sensors, to fly according to Flight Regulations. There were Flight Regulations for all situations. But there was no time for Flight Regs. No way she could avoid.
Her consciousness of time, of space, sank, enveloping her Prowler. Her skin was its thin, fragile hull, her heartbeat the pulse of its engines, her lungs the hot breath of its thrusters. Only her eyes, her sensors, were ignored; her mind whirled with relative velocities, angles of incidence, roll, pitch, asteroid trajectories, and was abruptly, startling, clear.
Slow motion. Two objects, converging vectors. Two velocities. And suddenly, the space was there, clear as starlight, the angle obvious, the timing ticking in her head. Roll her body, twist it through the weightless waves of space. One breath, there, now. Just the lightest caress of her fingertips over the firing studs of tactical thrusters. One heartbeat. Another breath, now, now. Two heartbeats. And still the roll, slow, inexorable, and the wingtip was close, so close, she could see the convergence--
She didn't miss the strange craft. She'd known she couldn't; that hadn't been her goal. The object of this maneuver had been to slide to the close, not head-on, but so that any blows would be glancing, and so any redirection of vector would spin her off obliquely, not acutely--
There was a shudder as the two ships collided; she felt the ricochet off her wing, felt little bits break off her skin. Main thrusters gone; she knew even before the telltales reflected from her helmet, splashing red across the interior of the canopy. She was the loser, with her greater momentum; it was her Prowler that bucked out of control, spun off.
The asteroid loomed over the canopy, blotting the lights of the stars, dwarfing her thin-skinned alter ego. One part of her watched the growing obstacle, aware of features, noting rocky hummocks, shadowed craters. Another part watched the flow of time, ticking off little facts inside her head. Docking thrusters were still operable. Not the raw, muscle-wrenching power of her tactical units, but even little breaths would be better than the sere vacuum of space. One breath, now. Two heartbeats, another breath. The dance of fingers across firing studs.
A shadowed crater glimmered with dust as her Prowler passed over it, deflecting starlight for a brief, endless moment. She twisted slightly, and her wing moved from its inexorable doomed course, shivered, and passed above....
And then there was only the emptiness of space.
* * *
Tauvo Crais stared in shock at the Prowler ahead of him, barely coming to his senses in time to avoid having his own fatal meeting with the white pod. He applied tactical thrusters in a bleeding frenzy of power, self-correcting after a moment to keep from following the first Prowler's path to the asteroid.
Frell! That had been too close!
He twisted his head to verify, with his own eyes, what his sensors told him, and he knew his face was blank, heavy with shock. She had survived. The lead Prowler had come howling over the nape of the asteroid, collided with the odd craft, spun off on a direct course with the asteroid, and yet, somehow, she had survived--
No need to figure out who she was. Just that demonstration - survival where all the odds ratified destruction - told him who was piloting that craft. And if she actually managed to fight her Prowler back under control, despite the obvious damage, despite her continued, crippled motion on a direct course away from the Carrier--
Not possible. She had performed an incredible, impossible feat, but her luck had run out. Now there was just a long, slow death, suffocation in the emptiness of space, because the Carrier would never shift for a mere Prowler.
Tauvo realized he was sweating under his suit. It could have been him. It should have been him. He so often scoffed at Bialar's injunctions against being the lead craft out of the hangar; he all too often proved himself by being the first one out, the first one in the charge to battle.
But today, it had only been an attempted escape by a Leviathan. No honour to be won, no need to prove himself, to the others, to Bialar. And so, as dictated by Flight Regs, the commanding officer had not taken lead, instead allowing the Pleisar regiment to follow its accustomed ways, use its usual point pilot.
He'd heard about her, and attempted to ignore her. She was an excellent pilot, but she was not the commanding officer of the Prowler detachment on his brother's Command Carrier. She had no need, like he did, to retain a certain status. It was acceptable to him that she led this sortie.
He would have died in that first shattering impact. Tauvo knew that, and as much as the knowledge hurt, he was also secretly, shamefully, glad.
She would likely still die.
He turned back to the Leviathan, swooping through the asteroid field just in time to see the white pod vanish into the docking bay in the side of the creature. His lips curled back. Working together, where they? He pressed the comms stud. "All units!" he barked. "Concentrate fire across the nose!" The hits, close to the embedded neural receptors of the control collar, would make that biomechanoid creature desist any further attempts to escape.
The squadron swooped to do his bidding, changing the vector of attack.
He'd whiplashed past the Leviathan for the third time, reacquiring targets for another strafing run, when he saw something that made him gape in shock for the second time in less than an arn.
The control collar--!
Two of the Prowler ships, already committed to their runs across such a tight area, crashed headlong into the collar as it separated explosively from the biomechanoid. Tauvo strangled a curse as his Prowler jinked in response to his slack grip, and slammed his thrusters heavily. The engines screamed as the power loaded across the capacitors, and red warning lights flashed across his displays.
Silver light limed his canopy. His comms crackled with interference.
"All units, return at once!"
He could do nothing, his thrusters wouldn't respond. He was still staring at the red displays, bemused by the crackling coruscation around him, the familiar voice echoing through his head, when the starburst swallowed him whole.
* * *
"Captain! Captain Crais!"
He turned. "Yes, Lieutenant?"
"The Prowler squad has returned. They report . . . the Leviathan transport has escaped. One of the prisoners, the Hynerian Royal, somehow secured the key codes to the prisoner's cells and . . . there were casualties, sir. Four ships lost--"
Captain Bialar Crais growled at the small blonde. "I don't care about casualties! A Leviathan transporting prisoners does not escape from my custody. Has my brother returned yet? I'll dispatch him in the rear battle fighter to track her down." Another chance for Tauvo to shine. To show all the rest how good he was, how much he deserved promotion.
"Sir." She hesitated, then led him over to one of the tech consoles lining the bridge of the ship. "This is playback from a recon satellite monitoring the pursuit of the Leviathan."
He watched the footage, noting the sudden appearance of the strange craft. "What manner of craft is this?" he murmured. Then a Prowler, swooping down. He watched absently as the pilot performed flawlessly, turning what was certainly a fatal collision into ... well, the pilot might survive some time in space with a crippled ship. The lead pilot - Officer Aeryn Sun? Yes, Tauvo's unacknowledged rival for points. His brother could pick her up, too, if there was sufficient time.
His thoughts were interrupted by the sight of a familiar Prowler, and he felt himself smile. "My brother's Prowler. Well, we'll soon see an end to this--". He nodded. Yes, his brother had turned back to the Leviathan and ordered a concentrated attack. Good thinking. Tauvo had the right of it, even if events had proved him less than correct. The biomechanoid would not have been able to withstand a barrage of fire; pain alone would serve as a collar.
And then the collar came off.
Crais watched the next few moments, his face, had he known it, mirroring the same expression his brother had worn less than an arn ago. He watched dumbly, Lt. Teeg a silent shadow at his side, as his brother's Prowler disappeared.
She cleared her throat. "Your brother's ship, sir. It was absorbed with the Leviathan when it went into starburst--"
He whirled on her. "Where did they go?"
She swallowed. "I ... I don't know, sir."
"Find them." His jaw clenched hard enough for his teeth to crack, the noise audible in the sudden silence of Command. "Peel back the image. I want to see what he is. Find the Leviathan, find that pilot, and we'll find my brother!"
* * *
"We can no more trust you than we can trust that!"
John turned his head.
Oh, shit. He hadn't even seen that armoured figure that shared the cell with him. Too busy dealing with the whole naked issue, and the looming possibility of alien probing. He should not have watched all those X-Files and South Park episodes.
He was backed up against the cell door, nowhere to go. A damn PhD to his name and he could barely think straight. Okay, so it had arms, legs. Normal number. What was normal in this zip code? And he wasn't placing any bets that the flesh under that armour had ever needed Skin-So-Soft, no, not just right now. Not after the last ... however long it had been since he'd been sucked through something and ended up somewhere with those - those people with the blue and the tentacles and the eyebrows.
He couldn't help but smile, a stupid dopey smile of relief, as the helmet was unlocked, atmosphere venting in a sibilant hiss. A man's face was revealed. Oh, give the little dog a big cigar! The guy was human: dark curly hair, two eyes, features all human and accounted for. John almost felt an urge to kiss a guy. Almost.
"Hey." He stood up and crossed to the young man, holding out his hand. "My name's John Crichton--"
The young man shook his head in confusion, his helmet dropping to the floor. "You're Sebacean? But ... we had no Sebacean prisoners on the manifest--"
"No, no." He felt dumb holding out his hand, so he dropped it back to his side. "I don't know from Sebacean. I'm just a guy. A human, like you. Did you get caught up in that thing, too, that tunn--"
"What's your rank and regiment?" The young man stood up, nearly as tall as John himself. It was like a switch was thrown, and suddenly the guy had a rod up his ass, his back USMC straight. "Rank and regiment, soldier!"
"Whoa there, GI Joe!" Spreading his hands, John backed up a step, got some breathing space. Okay, so the conversation was not going the way he expected. The attitude, however, he was familiar with. He'd had years of dealing with his old man; this kid couldn't faze someone who'd been raised by Jack Crichton. "I get it. I think. You didn't come through with me, did you? You musta been one of the ones zipping around. Different places, different rules. Okay." He took a deep breath as he tried to readjust. "My rank is commander. I'm not military, least not any military you know. I'm a damn scientist. From a planet called Earth. You heard of it?"
Even as he said the words, he regretted it. Boy, John, was that stupid or what? Of course they're not going to call it what you call it! Well, unless they'd managed to tune in to the Apollo recordings. But he was really starting to doubt it.
As he'd expected, the young man shook his head. "My name is Senior Officer Tauvo Crais."
"Nice to meet you, Tauvo."
The young man drew back and clocked him. John hit the ground - hard, of course; gravity had gotten Newton's memo, wherever he was. He attempted to cough up a lung, his ears ringing.
"You will not address a senior officer so familiarly!"
The floor was cold against his cheek, almost soothing. It seemed that floors were universally cold. No matter where you went, there you were. Second time today. First that tentacled guy, now this. It had been a long day already. Day long. Floor cool.
"Rank and regiment, soldier!"
Something snapped inside of him. He came up off the floor swinging, catching Crais squarely in the jaw. Form was poor, but he made up for it in sheer power. Besides, he was Jack Crichton's son. And unlike the others, this guy looked human enough to take.
"I am SICK!" Crack. "And TIRED!" Slug. "Of being HIT!"
They tumbled together to the floor, finally separating when the other aliens came to get them, squabbling over some possessions. A deep voice rumbled, separating them effectively. "Peacekeepers!"
John glared at the guy, then at the aliens. "Peacekeeper? You're one of those out there attacking the ship, you think I'm one of you?" He turned to the nearest one, the blue-skinned one. Who, so far, had not managed to hit him, knock him out, or puke on him. "Listen to me, I'm not what you think I am--"
"Not a Peacekeeper? Yes, we know that now. You have some decidedly unfamiliar bacteria living within you."
Okay, not thinking about how it knew that one. Yet. Put it on the back burner, John. "I'm from a planet called Earth," he repeated. "I'm human. Homo sapiens sapiens." It didn't seem to have any effect on any of them.
"It's time to eat," it - she - said coldly.
John stared blearily up at the tentacled alien. The seven-foot-plus alien. Who looked like a Globetrotter crossed with a linebacker and a Rasta.
Suddenly the young dude didn't seem so bad.
* * *
He looked Sebacean.
But he wasn't. The Delvian priest had confirmed it when she'd told him about the bacteria in his body. Tauvo had listened, fascinated.
He claimed to be "Human". He fought differently, spoke oddly, even with the translator microbes. He wasn't a Sebacean. He wasn't a Peacekeeper. He didn't even know what those two words were.
Two simple words. A world of difference.
Tauvo had eaten the food cubes automatically, his mind reeling in shock, feeding him images of the Human going down the corridor. Poking and prodding. Asking questions about the ship. Showing an amazing lack of knowledge of the world around them.
Tauvo would have sneered, had he not been in so much shock. Here was someone who didn't know their world. Someone who had grown up not knowing the Peacekeepers. Not aware that to be a Sebacean meant to be a Peacekeeper or . . . merely Sebacean. A lesser status. A creature with no great and glorious destiny.
"What do you command?"
The Human looked up from his own food cubes, making a face at his plate. "You guys eat these everyday, or is today special?"
"They're prisoner rations."
A look, briefly passing over that open face. "Prisoners. Right."
"What do you command?"
"Where? On Earth?" He took another food cube and crumpled it. "Like I said, Commander's a scientific rank. At least in my case. I'm not actually part of the military, but a civilian government organization." He pointed to a badge on his outfit, a blue circle with strange sigils on it. "IASA. Means I don't have to deal with a lot of that military bullshit. I don't know if I could ever call my dad 'Colonel' and keep a straight face."
"Your . . . dahd?"
"You know. My father. We work together. Kinda."
"He is your commanding officer?"
"My dad? Hell no. We just kinda ended up in the same place. He was my dad, you know? He was my hero."
Tauvo stopped eating. "You - you mean you chose to be in the same service?"
"Yeah, I guess we did. We got there different ways, but yeah, we work for the same people."
The words filtered through his mind, almost incomprehensible. Not because the translator microbes couldn't understand the concepts behind them, but because Tauvo couldn't. This one. . . . He had never been taken away from his family. He hadn't been conscripted. He had been free. . . .
Tauvo leaned forward, suddenly, astonishingly, finding it hard to breathe. "John Crichton. Tell me more about your Earth."
* * *
He watched the flower revolve until it was all that dominated his vision, his thoughts. The delicate orange petals, the purple hues at the throat. The brilliant green.
The chronometer chimed.
He brought his gaze back to the here and now, lips thinning as he dumped the incoming reports to his console. Tedious, but required. There was too great a need to ignore anything that might possibly hold knowledge of some value. In a universe populated by Scarrans, Scorvians and the like, he could afford the time to scan obscure reports. He couldn't afford the alternatives.
His eyes sharpened on a particular entry, and he called up the full text. An escaped Leviathan - ah, that happened occasionally. Those events fueled one of his side projects, the goal to find some alternative to that requirement. There were casualties taken, of course, in this incidence. He checked the header; no, there was no obvious reason for the attempt, though the Leviathan had once been slated for testing and experimentation. Nothing had come of it; the Leviathan had gone more than a cycle without evidencing results, and the project declared a failure. No, that hadn't been it. The report text from the data dump indicated that the prisoners aboard, due to be transferred to a lifer's colony, had likely instigated the attack, though surely the Pilot on board had been accommodating. The prisoners were - he read further - a renowned Delvian priest, a Luxan general, and a Hynerian royal. Oh, dear. He really must do some work on that Leviathan control project, regardless of how little importance it held to him personally.
Ah. A craft that appeared out of nowhere. A craft of unknown design.
He scrolled down. There was attached imagery from recon satellites deployed at the time of the Carrier's offensive response. He touched the icon, opened it.
The craft was alien to him, and he felt a glimmer of excitement. It appeared on the display between one microt and the next. White. Unknown markings: language? Identification?
A Prowler swept over the asteroid's curve on a direct course with the alien ship's path, and he followed the trajectories carefully. His interest was in what the unknown pilot would do, how it would react. The other craft - well, it was merely a Prowler, one of the thousands of Peacekeeper born-and-bred pilots - but even he was stunned by what happened next.
His fingers flashed out and tapped a command, and the display obligingly replayed itself. He traced the path of the Prowler with a finger, thoughts of the alien craft momentarily held in abeyance.
The Prowler should never have been able to perform that maneuver. A trained Peacekeeper pilot, bred for the task, flying for twenty cycles, could never have pulled off such an exquisite timing of spin, vector, and applications of thrust. Sliding past the alien craft, shearing off at an oblique angle, missing the tumbling wall of rock by micro-metras.
Not even tactical thrusters. Docking thrusters.
He allowed the video to continue, the alien craft once again dominating his thoughts. He watched as it was swallowed whole by the Leviathan, disappearing into the maw of the docking bay.
He could feel no surprise at the release of the docking collar; he watched without a flicker as two Prowlers collided with the drifting structure, disappearing in little gouts of actinic flame. Bad command decision, to concentrate assets in such a small volume of space. He noted with interest the Prowler that tumbled after the Leviathan as the two crafts were silvered in starburst.
The screen darkened, the feed at an end. He sat back and thought, sorting through questions, answers, priorities, possibilities, solutions. Half an arn ticked past, his awareness regulating the time as his suit regulated his body. Then he leaned over his console again.
The question of the alien craft would have to be deferred. He sent the feed to one of the techs, with orders to strip the image. He wanted to know if there was anything else in space around that craft, any abnormal sensor readings, explanations for its sudden appearance. He wanted to know the features of the pilot. He wanted to know everything there was to know.
Next question. One command accessed the long-range comms. He tapped in his query, sent it. Waited for the reply, once again watching the flower.
When his console pinged, he read the resulting report. The pilot had survived, limping back to the Command Carrier. Analysis and debriefing indicated that the sleek attack craft had been returned to its maintenance crew with an estimated loss of over seventy-eight percent of maneuvering ability and power.
He called up the raw data of the filed report and scrolled through the accompanying satellite feed as corroboration. It was just as the pilot had reported. She had righted her spin and redirected her drift using a combination of timed jets from her docking thrusters, explosive venting of her environmental systems, and the feeble remains of her tactical thrusters - of which only the hammond side were operational.
Less than twenty microts of environmental time were left on her suit chronometer after docking. She had literally drifted into the path of the docking web, the result of an early estimation of converging vectors. The calculation of the Carrier's path and her own required flight path must have been performed roughly three arns prior to her retrieval.
Then he accessed personnel files.
"Yes." He spoke aloud, entirely unselfconscious. He'd found it. It was something. It would not explain why she was different, why she was . . . special, but it would allow her to be tested in an arena more fitting for the challenges he could provide. And, perhaps, it would provide him with the answers.
He typed in a command and sent it. Sat back. Watched the flower revolve again.
She would be allowed to transfer, this Officer Aeryn Sun; the only thing that had kept her from transferring was command approval. He himself would authorize it. She would be admitted to Marauder training, and though she wouldn't know it for some time, she would be tested for more.
He chuckled aloud, delighted by the small successes of the day.
* * *
"Man, I wish my dad could see this."
Tauvo looked over at the Human, then back through the viewscreen at the landscape passing below the transport pod. "This? But it's only a small colony on a backward planet."
"Did you miss the wide-eyed wonder cruise, or what?" Crichton laughed and shook his head. "I'm just the red-headed country bumpkin here, I know, but this is amazing. To me, this is cutting edge."
Another workout for the translator microbes. Tauvo suffered through some mind-twisting images as his brain reacted to what he heard, then he simply stopped trying and went back to what he understood.
"Why would you want your father to see this?"
"Because it's what he dreamed of, all his life. Because it's what we always hoped was out there." He fell quiet a moment, then continued. "And because I want to be the one to show Colonel Crichton this view. I'd like to show him and say, 'Yeah, dad, I've been here before.'" He laughed again, but it was a different sound, harsher. Almost like Peacekeeper laughter, what one heard in the locker rooms, the racks. "Talk about a serious case of living in a guy's shadow."
Tauvo thought the words made sense, but the concept didn't. "Living in the space cast by his shade?"
"An Earth saying. A concept. Following in one's footsteps. Living in one's shadow. My dad . . . was a famous man." Crichton suddenly ceased to be animated, his hands dropping by his sides. "Is. Still is. He's led men. He'd been out there. He's a hero. That's what I grew up with.
"I don't know if you can understand that. I don't know if Peacekeeper culture has anything like that. But wherever I went, people always saw my dad. Remembered him. What he'd done. After him, anything I did was . . . just like him. Not mine. At least, not my own."
They were quiet as the transport pod landed, and D'Argo moved past them and opened the hatch. Crichton shook his head. "But I love him. I love him and I miss him." He stood up and left as well.
Tauvo got out of his seat slowly, suddenly aware of the silence in the transport pod. He moved up to the pilot's station, half-expecting someone to come in, to stop him. But no, he made it there; his hand hesitated over the transport's long-range comms.
I understand how it feels, John Crichton, to live in one's shadow.
"Bialar," he whispered aloud. He missed his brother so terribly. Bialar had been everything to him, everything he'd ever known, the only person that could ever truly understand him.
But his brother still wouldn't understand this. Frell, he didn't understand himself. Not yet.
He should have wanted to return. He should have tried to escape, called his brother at the first commerce planet, transmitted rendezvous coordinates. He was Tauvo Crais. Bialar wouldn't declare him irreversibly contaminated, even if he had been around an undocumented species for several arns. Even if, later, he had shared some information on Peacekeeper activities in the area, telling the others which commerce planets had significant Peacekeeper presence on them.
But Tauvo hadn't sent those messages. He'd told himself it was because he hadn't been left alone, hadn't been allowed near his Prowler, near the comms.
Now he was here. Alone. With comms. It would take a microt to send a message.
A fantasy had begun to dominate his dreams. One in which he met with Bialar, told him of a world where children were not taken from their parents, where people could be free. If that world could exist, why couldn't they simply live as they wanted? Why couldn't they determine their own destinies, not follow in the footsteps of those before him? Why couldn't he live as something other than Bialar Crais' younger brother? When would he stop wondering if what he achieved was actually his own?
He caught himself, his thoughts, before he sent the transmission, his fingers automatically setting the controls required. No. He was mad. How could he ask Bialar to do what he himself didn't yet understand? How could he ask his big brother to give up all he knew for . . . this strange, exhilarating feeling of freedom?
Freedom? Hah! He was with fugitives, escaped prisoners. The longer he remained with them, the less likely his chance for escaping consequence and reform. Soon he himself would be hunted, and everything he knew - unit, squadron, even his brother - would be lost to him.
It was his brother that mattered the most.
But he still couldn't transmit the signal. Not yet.
* * *
Section 2: My PK Girl
Gilina and he were working like crazy. Like a team. Crazy, but in a together sort of way. As a teenager he'd have killed to be trapped in close quarters with someone who looked and smelled so good. Then again, he'd been out here in the Uncharted Territories for nearly two months, so of course it would be likelier that he'd be killed, trapped in close quarters with the closest thing to a babe he'd found. "Great, John," he muttered to himself, phasing the connectors. "So you're going to die feeling all warm and fuzzy."
"What?" Gilina was working furiously, her hands nearly blurring in his peripheral vision.
"Nothing," he muttered to himself, and then, louder: "What next?"
She handed him two panels. "When I kill the bypass, these two polaric disks will be attracted to each other. Strongly. So you have to hold them apart. Because if they touch each other, this whole room will be vaporized."
Oh, right. Of course. I had to ask.
"They're going to pull incredibly hard."
He looked at the panels. They were fairly light. Cables were daisy-chained off the ends, waterfalls of black. "Okay."
She dashed back to the fusion panel. "Ready? Now!"
He grunted as power arced through his body. The panels jumped and attempted to occupy the same physical space at the same time. His muscles strained to hold them apart. Dimly, he heard his comms badge crackle to life.
It was D'Argo. "Tauvo, where are you?"
"Maintenance bay, why?"
John's arms were starting to hurt, but he was distracted by D'Argo's call. It wasn't often that D'Argo spoke to Tauvo. John was apparently okay - John was Human - but D'Argo really had a thing against Peacekeeper males. After having been pounded a few times, Tauvo had reconsidered his intentions to make - well, if not friends, then companions - with the Luxan.
"I think one of the Sheyang got onboard the Zelbinion."
Oh, joy. Crichton yelled in the direction of his comms badge, hoping Zhaan was monitoring the calls as well as the sensors. "How the hell did that happen?"
Bluie was monitoring. Her voice was soothing, but her words were not. "It's not important. What is, is that he might be headed right toward you."
He looked over at Gilina, still by the fusion panel. "We gotta stop."
She shook her head and kept working. "No, it won't withstand the process."
"Then finish the process."
"I'm working as fast as I can!"
Damn, he'd snapped at her. He tried again. "I want you to get out of here."
She looked him dead in the eye. "I won't leave you!"
He so did not have time for this. His shoulders were aching with strain and some scavenger dude was probably in the process of kicking Tauvo's butt and heading their way. "Gilina, I want you out of here!"
She stood firm. "If you die here, John, I die too."
He stared at her, frustrated, until his comms crackled to life. "John!" Tauvo's voice was ragged. "He won't let me close to him. I can't pass; I'm going to have to take the long way around to your location. You may have to defend yourself!"
His nerves were as ragged as his muscles, and his frustration with Gilina wasn't helping. "Look, Tauvo, it's a long story, but I kinda have my hands full right now, so you're gonna have to get your ass in here now!" He was gonna be pissed if he did all this hard work for nothing. They were so close! They'd fixed the charred fusion panel, Tauvo had found the correct wire conduits in medical. . . . And the Sheyang was outside the door, breathing on it like the velociraptor from Jurassic Park. John stared at the creature in horror. "And make it fast. Because Ugly's outside the door right now!"
The Sheyang convulsed, and suddenly the window was illuminated in fire.
Fire, which was consuming the door. Was this hi-tech Peacekeeper manufacture, or what? "They spit fire?" he said incredulously. "How come nobody tells me this stuff? How come nobody told me they spit fire?! Tauvo!"
"John, I'm not going to make it!"
The creature was waiting for the flames to die down. John looked back quickly - Gilina was still working her fingers off. John couldn't hear Tauvo coming to the rescue.
"C'mon," he muttered, "c'mon, bro."
The Sheyang tired of waiting and ambled into the room, a ponderous mountain of pain coming to say hi.
God, his shoulders hurt. "Oh, fuck." He took a deep breath. Translator microbes, don't fail me now. "Hi there, big guy. As you can see, it's not likely we're going to hurt you, so take anything you want. But if these two panels touch--"
Its response was to hack up another flammable loogie at him. He dodged nimbly to the side, the panels dipping dangerously close together. Okay, now he was getting really pissed. "Listen, gas-hole, you kill us, you kill yourself!"
"You had your chance to retreat," it rumbled.
He tried to gesture with his shaking shoulders. "Come a little closer, then. Let's see what happens when these panels touch." Gilina gasped behind him, but he didn't pay attention. Move back, Gilina. Move further out from the line of fire--
The Sheyang belched from less than three feet away.
John danced aside, reaching the end of the tether of cables from the panels. There was nowhere else to go. The heat was a wall that struck him on the side, hammering his breath from his body, deadening the area from his armpit to his waist. His clothes melted instantly, even flame-retardant IASA issue. He roared in pain as his muscles spasmed and the heat furled through his body, draining his strength. No. Goddamnit. Keep. The. Panels. Apart.
Gilina screamed as the edge of the nimbus caught her sleeve. He could hear her as a vague echo of his own pain.
Tauvo! Too late, too late. His eyes were slitted through the tears, but he could see the dark shape behind the Sheyang. Too far away to do any good, too close to use the pulse rifle at his shoulder.
Tauvo jumped, and Crichton's muscles, screaming in pain, failed him.
It happened with not a moment to spare. Tauvo hit the Sheyang in the back. The Sheyang stumbled forward into John's arms. John's muscles failed and the panels moved towards one another. The Sheyang was framed in between.
There was coruscating light. There were sparks, and pain, and smoke, and blood. There was an explosion of flesh, a pillar of flame, the powder of carbon and the stench of cooked meat. There was a wave of bodily fluids that coated John and Tauvo at least two inches thick.
Tauvo grabbed the panels before they could connect around - or through - the remains of the Sheyang. John fell the floor. Oh, good. The floor was cool again. It felt good. It was the only thing that felt good. Floors were good the universe around.
"Sorry 'bout the mess," he mumbled.
* * *
There had never been any question. Gilina had to come with them. Her injuries were too severe for them to contemplate any other option.
His were worse, but, as Tauvo explained to him, she was a tech. She wasn't bred to sustain damage, especially not heat damage. Her systems were much more fragile, not enhanced through generations of breeding, and not fortified by supplements, training, in childhood. She wasn't intended for the battlefield, for physical contact and visceral movement. It was her job to develop and maintain engineering systems, to stay back, to stay safe.
So he was burnt from just under his arm to his waist, and a long shiny spot on his arm, but his body coped better with the whole heat thing. He went into shock, but Zhaan pulled him out of it, laving salve on his burns, soothing him so he could lapse into normal, if pain-filled, sleep.
Her body went into shock at the expanse of flesh exposed to heat, and didn't recover so easily.
It had totally slipped his mind. The Sebacean heat weakness. What merely burned him, crippled them. They were culturally and genetically programmed to avoid such a fate. Despite that, Tauvo had overcome his fear of the Sheyang long enough to sneak up behind it and push it into the power panels.
He felt almost guilty. He'd been yelling at Tauvo, practically begging the guy, not realizing what he'd been asking Tauvo to do. Face down a nightmare.
"All's well, that ends well," he murmured to himself, and reached out and took Gilina's limp hand in his. He'd learned a lot about Peacekeepers today. He'd seen how Gilina's eyes had widened upon seeing Tauvo; how she had called him a deserter. Tauvo had flinched from the word, but begged news of his brother, learned Crais was searching for them.
John had seen Tauvo, when he'd first woken from his broken slumber. His friend had been sitting in the medlab, watching the monitors. They'd talked, in the way of guys. Or rather, Tauvo had not-talked. But he had said something, while staring at Gilina's pale unconscious form, that stuck with John.
"I don't know what taking her with us will do to her, John."
"But she'll die if we don't."
"She may well die if we do." He was quiet, and John remembered the accusations that Gilina had first thrown at the former pilot, when she'd realized he wasn't a prisoner.
"She's a tech, John. Born and bred for her life. She's not like us, she hasn't known any difference in stress or environments. By taking her with us, we would subject her to something she's not bred for."
"That doesn't mean she can't be something else."
"And if she can't? She would never be able to go back." He'd looked up then. "You can only ever imagine how horrible it is to never be able to return to the life that you know."
"No," John replied softly, "I hope I never know that feeling." But God, there were days that he nearly succumbed.
And now, this news. Gilina had told them more, shocked at Tauvo's defection. How Captain Crais was searching desperately for an escaped Leviathan, its crewmembers, the Sebacean on board the mysterious white module. When, even now, a message was being sent across light space, ostensibly from the Peacekeeper tech, summoning the return of the Command Carrier. A matter of timing, to get that message out, have the Sheyangs hear it and leave, and still be able to burn rubber before Crais came with all his happy PK friends and big-ass PK guns.
Jesus H. Christ. Poor Gilina. What have we done to her? What have we condemned to her, by coming with us?
He'd brought her into this mess, made that decision for her. He'd be there for her, when she woke up.
* * *
Blood exploded, the reduced gravity causing it to arc in all directions. Aeryn turned her faceplate away a microt too late.
Frell. Now her vision was impaired.
Her sensors displayed her movement vectors. She shifted and drifted left, moving past the body of the trainee without a second thought. The gold icon on her screen melted, then her own icon changed, shifting from red into gold.
Neela's death meant she was now in command.
Pulser fights in deepspace ships. Low gravity - barely enough to keep one's feet on the ground - and no internal lights. How often would they have to do this? From how many times they'd trained variations of this scenario, it was obviously something High Command expected Marauder commandos to run into often.
"Our mission briefing didn't include a live deepspace crew!" The angry whisper cut through the squad's open comms channel.
"That doesn't matter," Aeryn cut in. Stop it before it devolves into chatter, and whining, and distraction from their goal. "Primary target is still control of the vessel. Move on to the next tier. We need to locate Command." This ship wasn't laid out like most Decca-class ships. Of course not. That would be too easy.
Too easy. Not something she could say about the past monens of intensive training, and this scenario wasn't turning out any better. Aeryn kept an eye on a tell-tale on her helmet readouts, though it was only confirming what she'd been suspecting for several microts.
"Is it getting hot in here?"
She checked her squad icons. That had been verbal from Third position, broadcast across the unit channel. Third's location: two tiers up and over. If this ship had been laid out in a normal fashion, Third would have been near an environmental access, and the temperature differential could have been attributed to leakage. However, Aeryn wasn't about to count on that. She keyed the command channel. "Squad, report in. Temperature readouts at your location."
"Second. Optimum plus three."
"Third here. Optimum plus three."
"Fourth. Optimum plus four." There was pulse fire in the background. "Oh, and another Luxan down."
"Fifth. Optimum plus four."
Pulse fire. "Sixth. Optimum plus five, and I got another Delvian. Frell, but it's getting hot and crowded in here!"
Aeryn checked her chronometer. Rising steadily, and fast. Sixth was still out by the airlock, too, and should have reported the lowest temperature. However, as she'd suspected, the rise was uniform across tiers.
"First, should we fall back?"
"I'm going to assume the heat is affecting your judgment, Fourth," she snapped.
Fifth's icon blinked, warning of unstable helmet seal integrity, and her temper rose with the temperature. "Do not remove your armour, Fifth!"
"But it's bloody hot, First!"
That was outright insubordination, but another quick check to her readouts made her reconsider saying anything over comms. It was now plus nine, and still rising. They'd be dead soon, or worse.
She made a snap decision and turned back down the corridor, running. Now she could appreciate the benefits of the low gravity. "All units, retain armour. I repeat, retain armour. Do not break the seal on your helmet. This is your only warning." She might lose Fifth, but she was in danger of losing everyone if she didn't act soon, and she wouldn't be able to complete her mission without at least two other members of the squad.
She keyed her channel to Sixth and issued her orders quickly. Sixth made only one comment.
"But what about the crew?"
"They're not our primary target. Besides," she gritted her teeth as she fired at yet another Luxan, watching it spill across the corridor, "I don't think they're real." She bounced once to clear its body and kept running.
"What do you mean?"
"I don't know Luxans, but I thought this one had the same tattoo pattern as the last one I killed. And the one the time before that." She was nearly at the maintenance bay airlock. While she ran, she palmed a mine from her stash on her belt and armed it, her fingers flying over the surface in the rote pattern. "Ready?"
"Set for five microts." She keyed the command channel. "All units, secure yourself to ship's structures. Now!" There was a murmured babble of voices - they were still trainees - but she ignored it as she moved the last few steps, slapped the mine against the blast doors, pushed off, and sprinted back down the corridor. She made it around the first turn without losing her balance and slid to a stop in front of an access panel. Ripping it off in one smooth motion, she dove in, hitting the floor, just as the mine exploded.
The blast doors between the maintenance bay and the docking hangar disintegrated. The floor bucked beneath her, throwing her up into the roof of the shallow chamber and knocking the breath from her. On the other side of the ship, the mine planted by Sixth exploded, causing another shockwave to the hull, which reverberated through her body.
The immediate rush of vacuum tore at her like desperate fingers, pulling her inexorably across the floor. Her body gained momentum and slid to the opening of the access chamber - and stuck.
She spread her arms and legs, making herself a bigger object, feeling the pressure build against her body. Her chest ached to cave in on itself, pain knotting around her ribs.
There was screaming over the command channel, but no icons were blinking out of existence. Even better, the temperature readout was dropping rapidly as the deadly cold of space ate away at the atmosphere in the ship. They were already at Optimum minus two. It wouldn't be comfortable, but it wouldn't be the Living Death, either. The vacuum would also deal with most, if not all, of the unexpectedly conscious crew.
"Just wait," she broadcast, her voice cutting smoothly over the grunts and the babbling. "The atmosphere will vent in several more microts and we'll continue our mission in zero gee."
* * *
"That was an interesting solution, Officer Sun."
She wasn't sure if that was a compliment, so she said nothing.
"Two members of your squadron questioned the validity of your decision."
Had there been two of them? She only remembered one. A dimly-remembered scream could have been interpreted as a disagreement, perhaps. "I was First, sir. It wasn't their position to question my decisions."
The Trainer nodded thoughtfully. "But I can question you, Officer Sun." He stood at the holo tank, looking at the Decca-class training ship holding peacefully on station with them. "What was your decision based on, exactly?"
She attempted to marshal her thoughts into something resembling sense. She couldn't simply respond I just knew; that would not be an acceptable answer. "My understanding of target priority, sir. Neela's download to me, prior to mission commencement, indicated that the main objective was control of the ship itself. Intelligence indicated that the ship was undercrewed, and, since it's a deep-space ship in long-haul transit, expectations were that any crew would be in cryogenic storage. Once we arrived onsite, however, observation indicated an unknown number of hostile and aware crew members. Analysis showed striking similarities in the crew."
"My own, sir."
He looked at her and raised his eyebrows. "And when was this analysis conducted, Officer Sun?"
"I began to consider the possibility after the second Luxan, sir. After the third encounter with a Sebacean male, I was certain."
He rubbed his fingers against his chin. "The only indication you gave of any thinking along those lines was well after the first two arns of the exercise, after command had devolved to you. A brief transmission to Sixth."
"Because I deemed my observations to be irrelevant to my squad members. Their concern was to neutralize hostile targets. It was my job to figure out the difficulties, sir."
"Is it, indeed?" She couldn't tell if he was amused; his face was blank and his eyes bright. "Do go on."
"My mission priorities were simple, sir. Capture the ship. Retain enough squad members to be able to return said ship to the proper authorities. Therefore I needed at least three of my unit still viable."
"A ship of the Decca class, sir, like that one, requires a minimum of three people. One pilot, one person at the engineering console, one person for environmentals. All other command routines can be slaved through the captain's chair."
He turned away, silent, and she waited. Had she failed? Had she passed? Had her mission orders been unclear? She could still remember the download from Neela; she knew the primary mission had been the vessel, not the crew.
She immediately came to attention. The Trainer turned around to face her.
"You have passed one of the most difficult scenarios it has been my pleasure to construct. Your scores place you in the top of your class." He smiled thinly at her.
She felt a rush of pride.
He continued, his voice bland. "You may find it . . . interesting to note that this scenario was based on a very recent occurrence. A seasoned commando unit landed their Marauder on an unresponsive and presumed hostile vessel while it was seemingly disabled. As per standing mission orders, they attempted to take control. We have simulated the events reported in their debriefing as best as we could. Yes," he said, confirming her questioning tilt of head, "the strange similarity of the crew, the rising heat. Some of the details have been changed, but the key elements are there."
His voice held her. His eyes, fever-bright, bored into hers. "The Marauder team was unsuccessful in their mission. They suffered an eighty percent casualty rate, with another two of their unit returning in the full throes of the Living Death. A fielded, experienced team. Useless. We cannot have this, Officer Sun. The time is fast coming when we will have to face the Scarrans, who even now are massing against us." He gestured towards the view at his back, and his voice dropped, soft, soothing, giving ironic lie to his words. "They're hiding out there, waiting. But they will come. And who knows what else will rise with them? The Nebari? The Scorvians? We need to identify the weak elements in our strategy, and remove them. We cannot afford to lose battles with the Scarrans. Our very people are at stake, and if we must remove weak elements, we must do so now, while we still have the leisure of doing so."
He stepped forward, past his desk, and shook her hand. "Congratulations, Officer Sun. You are the first trainee to succeed in obtaining your primary mission for this particular exercise scenario." He stepped back. "Dismissed."
She saluted him and walked out, allowing herself to smile only after she had passed his door. She'd done it!
Something cracked against her lips. A fleck of dust drifted in the seam of her mouth, and her tongue flicked out and tasted it before she could think about it.
Blood. Neela's blood. She looked down over her suit. Dark splashes were drying, drifting flecks of blood around her.
"We will need to identify the weak elements in our strategy, and remove them. . . . If we must remove weak elements, we must do so now, while we still have the leisure of doing so."
She would have to remain the best.
* * *
Section 3: A Human Reaction
His gaze wandered dully as he moved through the labs. People moved around, quiet. It seemed that the activity level had dropped drastically, and he wondered if he should be glad. They had to be getting bored with a Real Live Alien who seemed . . . well, as human as the next woman.
Two weeks, and you'd think they'd get tired. But no. Poke, prod, more poke, more prod.
But not today, apparently. He frowned. No one was hanging around the translation computers, trying to chat up the sexy alien babe.
"Wilson?" His throat dry, he approached the containment chamber. "Cobb?"
No movement inside. No guard outside, reading seven-month old magazines, refusing to answer his questions.
He whirled and ran to the medlab.
Here there was activity. He pushed through two, three people. Caught a glimpse of blonde hair shining under bright lights--
Wilson pushed through the throng, stood in his way. "It was an accident, Crichton. She had a reaction to a tranquilizer we were administering. Her heart stopped. We couldn't save her."
No. . . .
A doctor came up beside Wilson and nodded his head in agreement. John's eyes passed over the guy absently, then boomeranged back. Wasn't that . . . Dan Tartell? He'd once dated Robyn Tartell in school, and her older brother Dan had been in med school--
Gilina . . . dead?
"You bastard," he muttered, directing his glare to everyone in the room beyond. But he faced Wilson, and he repeated himself. Louder. "You bastard."
"We couldn't have known. Different chemistry--" Dan began.
"I wasn't talking to you." He paced forward, targeting Wilson. He was vaguely aware that his dad had come up behind him and was watching the tableau. Pointing his finger at Wilson, he raised his voice. "You didn't have to do shit. Tranquilize her? Gilina wouldn't fight back. You knew that, you had to know, you've been watching her for two goddamn weeks! What sort of little experiment did you want to perform on her that you didn't want me to know about? Huh? Tell me that, Wilson!"
"It was an accident, Crichton."
"I want to see her."
"You're too upset right now," Wilson began, but John had had it with his bullshit and shoved him out of his face. God damn, but he hadn't brought Gilina all the way here just so she could die of some allergic reaction--
Someone else tried to get in his way - Cobb. John swatted him aside. It was frighteningly easy; he'd gotten used to going at it with D'Argo, albeit never willingly. Now he was grateful to the absent Luxan, for teaching him how to give and take blows that mere humans couldn't tolerate.
His momentum carried him into the room, past the people. To the table.
John froze to the spot. He'd seen this naked body before, of course; he'd charted its hills and valleys, tasted its nectar, suckled its fruit. He had communicated his loneliness and fear and the comfort of being together on a nightly basis. He had become accustomed to breathing her scent and seeking her touch as something familiar in a universe gone mad.
But this-- He couldn't take it in. He had to focus on the pieces before he could comprehend the whole. Like the skin of her hand - the familiar, newly-healed burn, the edges, so slick and rubbery, ropy and raw. The stark dividing line between whole and healing.
She had hated it when he'd touched her there. She'd turned the offending flesh away, offering up instead her still-perfect left hand, never seeming to understand that he hadn't cared.
Gilina, what have I done?
She had seemed so happy when they'd touched down in Australia, an emotion he'd rarely seen in her since the day she'd woken up from her Sheyang-induced coma. She'd been scared to go through the wormhole with him, but she'd accepted the moment he asked. He'd never really had any doubt in his mind that she would have come - she had nowhere else to go.
He'd done that to her.
Her short blonde hair, gleaming under the stark and pitiless lights.
She had accepted the containment field; they had been kept together, as he'd been the only one who could understand her. When they'd let him out, they'd kept her there. He'd wondered if it was to assure that he wouldn't go too far. Well, it worked; he returned every day, to sit with her, talk to her, always conscious of the cameras, the recorders, their audience. He'd brought her chocolate, beer, pizza. She'd tried it all, her gaze constantly darting around at the cameras, the people. He had to be careful what he said to her - he still spoke in English, of course - but she'd responded only to his conversation, never demanding to be let out, just asking, and that only occasionally. She'd accepted the strictures placed upon her by others.
His father had remarked that his thing for blondes had apparently continued, even in outer space.
Her pale skin held a greenish cast. Where he could see her skin, that is. He kept his eyes on her face. Finally at some sort of peace. Better to look at her face than at the butterflied flesh, the organs pinned out, little scientific tags marking anomalies--
He snapped at the sight of those plastic little tags. "You cut her open?!" He whirled to face a smirking Wilson. Cobb was panting in the background. "You fucking vivisected her, you bastard?!"
He stalked towards Wilson. "Why couldn't you be reasonable? You're wrong in what you're doing here, Wilson. You're wrong!"
One final step, and he swung, smashing his fist through that mocking, sneering face. Just like he'd been aching to do for these past few days.
Chaos exploded into the room, and the center of the maelstrom was John Crichton. He was its focus; he was its weapon. People were trying to hold him back, but he was having none of that. He fought them, trying to get to Wilson, to smear him across the wall, to make him bleed like John was bleeding now, inside.
He was screaming, and he heard his own words as though they were coming to him through a tunnel. "Goddammit, Wilson! We spent our lives waiting for this moment! We sent Voyager; we left damn greeting cards on the moon, and as soon as they get here, look at what you're doing!"
Someone managed to throw him back, off the project supervisor. He fell against the table, bumping the corpse. She moved, one hand fell - the scarred hand. That just sent him further over into his frenzy and grief.
His father hauled him out - only his father could have stopped that much rage and fear and disappointment. They were his own people! How could they do this to her? To him? His father hustled him out of the room, out into the waiting room, and waited.
John paced the small room, numb. Walked off the area, counting strides. He felt nothing inside; it was as though his heart had stopped working. Only his brain was ticking, beating, fluttering at the inside of his head. Let me out, let me out, letmeout--
He was in a cage. Everyone he knew, every damn thing, was familiar. It was as though time had stopped seven months ago, when he'd gone. Time had stopped but the people were different. They were subtly wrong. It was like looking at the dark side of humanity. Like--
He stepped forward and stared dumbly at a magazine.
Seven months old. Of course. He turned away and looked at his father, who was watching him with concerned eyes. John knew that look. Hell, he'd caused it, most of the time.
"Are you okay, son?"
"No, dad, I'm not." His own voice was soft. Tightly controlled. Suspicious.
"You're in this too deep, John. They're not gonna let you just walk away."
Yeah, he knew. Everything was just a fucking game to them.
"Come on, John."
"Where we goin', Dad?" Like he cared. This was too unreal. It was time to call the scriptwriters, reshoot the ending.
"I'm taking you home."
How? When? Didn't matter. Home? What a joke. "It's a vacation rental, Dad."
"It's better than what they've probably got planned for you. Both of you need some time to cool off. Think about what's just happened."
"What did happen? A joke. A fucking mistake." Jack shepherded him out the door; John stared blankly at the walls they passed, wanting to put his fist through a few. Leave his mark. Wilson would probably just take blood samples. "They're right, you know," he said dully. "You can never go home again."
His father shot him a worried look.
Right. Remember that the old man was putting himself on the line here. Try to find something with which to care, some last little remnant of humanity. What a joke. "Aren't you going to get in trouble for this?"
"I think you need the space, John. You're all I'm concerned about right now."
Space. Hah. He'd had all the space he could take. The vast endless distances of vacuum. The nothingness. The silence. And to think . . . he'd left that to come back to this?
He allowed himself to be taken back to the rental cottage. Under escort, of course. His dad did everything, talked to everyone, assured them that they would be back in the morning, that everyone needed to cool down. Taking over and running the show, like Colonel Jack Crichton always did.
John walked into the rental feeling separated from reality. Suddenly everything in the UT: Moya, the aliens, even Rygel, felt more real than the Earth he'd returned to.
House arrest, more like.
It was raining outside. A storm was coming in, pounding its way through Sydney, cleaning all the dirt, all the scum from the streets. Yeah, right. Wishful thinking. He stood in front of the windows and watched. It looked like he felt. His father came, stood next to him, handed him one of two beers. "Sure you should have one of these?"
"Trust me. It's just what I need." He took it without blinking from the view. "Down the hatch."
He wasn't in the mood for one of his dad's infamous talks. "Dad, please. Don't. Just . . . just drink your beer." He took a swig, ignoring the pleasure from the familiar taste. Damn. I'm away for over half a year, I dream about being back, seeing him, telling him everything . . . and all I can do is sit here and hurt him.
"Sorry," he offered finally.
"Everything. What's happened here." No, that was too localized a concept. "If it weren't for me, what I did, none of this would have happened."
"There's nothing to blame you for, John."
No way that he could explain that he disagreed. After a moment - a microt - he gestured to the window. "Look at that, Dad."
A siren began its mournful wail, an alien sound, after all he'd gone through. "That's it. Earth." Lightning crashed. "Minus the sunshine." All he'd dreamed of. All he'd wanted to come back to.
His father looked over at him. "Are you scared, John?"
"Yeah." After all he'd been through in the UT, he felt no shame in admitting that. Fear had become a daily dose. But he'd learned to live with it, he'd coped, because everything had been so strange. Here, where he thought he would be able to understand . . . he didn't. He took a final swig of his beer, set it down. "I can't do that again, Dad. I can't go back there and pretend."
"I know, son."
You know, he thought, after his father had finally turned in for the night, silences thick and heavy between them, but you're not helping me. He leafed through the magazines in the living room. All seven months old. You're helping them.
This was too unreal. Time had stopped. His father . . . acting like his childhood version of a father, brave, heroic, but ultimately cardboard. Earth was stuck in some sort of weird time warp. Everything was two-dimensional. The Day the Earth Stood Still.
This can't be real.
"I'm just in shock," he muttered. Shock. At seeing Gilina like that. At feeling so much rage at all of them: Wilson, Cobb. Even Gilina herself.
You should have fought back, Gilina.
He should have taught her how to fight. She could have learned. He should have insisted. Shouldn't have let her keep to her data libraries, her circuit relays, her long talks with Pilot about biomechanoid science. Her old Peacekeeper ways. He should have made her spar with Tauvo, learn more commando tricks. Never mind her assertion that she wasn't, that she couldn't. Her ingrained dislike of Tauvo, a warrior. Cultural conditioning. John was okay, he was practically a tech, and so something she could understand, but she wouldn't accept Tauvo. John should have made her, somehow. He could have tried harder. Coulda, shoulda, woulda.
Too late for those kinds of thoughts, Johnny boy.
He turned on the TV. Reruns. He threw the remote across the room, listened to the plastic break against the wall. Goddammit, they were doing it to the rental, interfering with the TV signals. His dad had to know. Why was his dad going along with this crap? Why couldn't he just goddamn watch some TV, catch up with ER and Friends? Assuming they were still on?
He went to bed already tired and edgy, hoping that when he woke up . . . he didn't know what he wanted to wake up to. Moya? Earth? Gilina alive.
Woke up with a nagging headache and that damn feeling of déjà vu. Grabbed the newspaper to read the comics and found he'd already read them before.
Too unreal. The sheer effort they were expending, just to keep him in the dark-- It just didn't make sense. What was so important? What would letting him know what had happened in the world, who had won the Superbowl, do to their . . . experiment?
"Let's go, John."
Stared blearily up at his father from his place on the couch. He didn't want to go. What are they going to do for an encore, autopsy me? He stifled a hysterical giggle just in time, choked down his sudden desire to leap up and scream 'Beam me up, Scotty!'
They went to the lab again, silent in the car. His father tried to start a conversation a few times, but Crichton watched the world roll by from behind the glass. So many of the people looked familiar, or was he just reacting to being able to look in all directions and see human features? The roads were as familiar to him as his bedroom; he and his father had taken the same route many times, their last trip here, testing the Farscape module.
Weird, to think he'd stood upon Moya's terrace and watched star systems in much the same manner. Weirder still, to find that memory more real, more vivid, than this strange grey version of Earth he'd come back to. He felt numb, insulated from everything around him.
They were carded into the lab. The security guards all stared at him; he was surprised he wasn't arrested right off the bat. His father's influence, of course. Everyone spoke in hushed voices.
So who died? Oh, yeah, Gilina. Remember her? The woman you killed? Did I ruin your experiment? Good.
The feeling of unreality was getting stronger. When they hit the waiting room, he turned and walked towards the men's room. Stalling for just a little more time, 'cause he wasn't ready to face Wilson just yet. Just thinking about the guy made him feel dirty. He needed to clean up. Maybe he'd wash away the dust and the grime and he'd be seven months younger and this would all be some strange, psycho trip.
He'd been in the UT for seven months now. You'd think I would have gotten used to the concept of being totally screwed over by now.
He stopped in his tracks.
Yeah, he had gotten used to shit like that. So much that it was normal.
Seven months of lost time. People he knew. Only people he knew. Even when he saw them on the street, or in the labs. Wilson. Cobb.
Places he knew. Déjà vu.
So much effort: the TV reruns, the comics, the magazines. Aimed at who? 'Cause they sure hadn't treated Gilina - the ostensible alien - with kid gloves. No, they'd goddamned cut her open just to see what made her tick like some disposable toy. So who were they really watching? Who was the lab rat?
A goddamn experiment--
People he knew. Places he knew. Everything was familiar; he'd yet to see one new place. His eyes fell on the door before him: the men's room. I've been in there. He took three steps to the side and came up before the woman's bathroom. "But I've never been in there--" He flung open the door.
It was . . . something. Something, glimmering orange and yellow light filling the doorway. Opaque. He turned back to his dad. To . . . whatever looked like his dad. Definite feelings of unreality. "Who are you?" he asked quietly.
"You did well, John. Most species don't do as well."
It looked like his dad. It acted like his dad. His heart was bleeding again, god, it hurt so goddamn much. He took a deep breath, choking past the bile. "What is all this?"
"Everything here is a physical creation from your memory."
"But you're not real." Let's just cut to the chase.
"Well . . . I'm not your father."
He didn't dare ask the next question; didn't dare not to ask. "And what about my friend?"
"She's real, living matter. Since she came with you, through the wormhole we'd created from your memory, we decided to use her in our trial." He turned and gestured, and suddenly the wall between the waiting room and the lab was gone. Gilina was inside the containment cell, looking out through the glass.
His knees were suddenly weak. "Gilina!" She was scared; he could see it in her face, hear it in her voice.
"John, get us back to Moya!"
"They didn't kill you?"
The thing that wore his father's face replied. "Of course we didn't kill her. We created her corpse."
"Why? Why would you make me think that she was dead?" He was suddenly, blindingly, angry. So angry that he couldn't think straight. He was furious with her, for having been dead, for not having fought back. It was irrational, but it was there, leaving a bad taste in his mouth. He whirled to face the puzzle. He would deal with this anger later; it had nothing to do with her, and everything to do with him, his own expectations put through the wringer of this fucked-up little acid trip.
"We needed a human reaction, John . . .your reaction."
Rage again; chaos boiling out of him. He lunged forward, grabbing the mockery of his dad by the shirt and whirling him around, slamming him against one of the building's supports. It was quite satisfyingly solid. "You made me think you were my father!"
* * *
Time meant nothing anymore. She floated through the weightlessness, her body drifting like her thoughts. She was just a piece of debris, floating through the darkness of space.
She was dimly aware that there had once been an Aeryn Sun who would never have survived this long. That there had been a personality, a pilot, a Sebacean, a female.
Now she was simply void.
A glimmer of light, reflected, roused a sliver of consciousness. She came to herself like a system going through its initial boot phase, subroutines coming to life.
Her eyes: a crescent of light, silvered from the curve of a hull.
Her senses: twitched her fingers; tested her toes. Rediscovered the dimensions of her body. Felt the brief whispers of atmosphere moving between her skinsuit and her deepspace suit, like phantom fingers, gentler than any man she had ever known. Softer than any emotion.
A phrase formed in her head, a question that surfaced as gently as a gas bubble moved through liquid.
Her eyes: the hull was closer now, limed in light from the closest star. It was rapidly expanding to fill her field of vision. She could not miss it.
Confirmed: on target.
Her mind began to query the data available to her. Speed?
Within acceptable parameters.
A brief movement of her head; she saw reflections of the light from the curved bubbles of two deep-space helmets, barely seen though they were only handspans from her.
She keyed passive sensors to life. Five objects. Four tell-tales.
Twenty percent casualty rate.
She could pick out details in the hull now, and a smile formed of its own accord, cracking her lips.
Within acceptable parameters.
She would still be able to complete her mission.
The four commandos came to rest lightly against the hull; the fifth body hit, then moved off, deflected on a divergent course. None of them looked at it; none of them tracked its trajectory.
Fourth found a hull seal; motioned to it.
She'd had over two solar days, nearly the maximum suit time, to become used to the darkness, as they'd drifted through space; she had no need of helmet lights to see the gesture.
They entered as quietly as they'd arrived, moving with machine-like precision. Tracking. Arming. Targeting. Programmed subroutines humming into existence.
The ship slept silently, unaware.
* * *
Section 4: A Bug's Life
Gilina had managed to do it. While Larraq and his crew had been doing their R&R and secret science experiments, she'd snuck on board their Marauder transport and downloaded all the data spools.
He'd been terrified for her, but he'd asked her to do it anyway, and she'd agreed, because she knew that, ultimately, she had no choice. She'd accepted that much, at least, about her new life.
They had to risk it. The Marauder data banks represented a treasure trove; had offered too much information to replace, in one fell swoop, core components of the data spools that Moya had lost as a result of NamTar's data crystal trap. What they'd managed to scavenge from the various commerce planets they'd tripped across as they bumbled their way across space had not been enough, had been barely a drop in the bucket of data that NamTar had wiped. Crippled as she was, lost within her own senses as well as within space, Moya needed data to fill her memory just as much as they needed to get home. Anything, even something woefully out of date, would serve to hold back the madness spiraling within the Leviathan's brain, the whirlpool that dragged at Pilot's quickly fraying sanity. Even if it was Peacekeeper data spools that hadn't been updated within the past cycle.
At least something in this masquerade had gone right. God, he could hope.
He smiled at her, and held her hand for a few moments. Her left hand. She was still kind of funny about her right, and the scars.
"I was really scared," she confessed.
"I know, baby. But you did it."
"I'll go upload the data now."
He squeezed her fingers. "Keep out of sight."
"I will." Her face glowed with relief at the notion of a task she could do, and do well, and he felt a quick pang of guilt. She hated this, hated the danger. She did it for him. Time and time again, and he'd seen how she'd begun to bite her nails to the quick, how her fingers bled during each time of crisis. Each time he asked just a little bit more of her. She never . . . never seemed to be able to build on those accomplishments, in the past. At least this was sneaking around getting data, interfacing with machines. She was okay with that. Better she did this than try to deal with Larraq and his goon squad.
Comms crackled. "We've found him," Tauvo reported.
He dropped Gilina's hand, feeling the rough, bitten edges slide through his fingers. Chiana was still drifting in the background. "Location?"
"On the way." He collected Chiana, smiled once more at Gilina, and set off. They arrived at the Center Chamber at the same time as Zhaan and Hassan. He heard Tauvo telling Larraq, "He's trapped, but you don't have a clear shot."
John wished he'd been able to get together with Tauvo before they'd set off on their Sparky hunt. He still didn't like having to play the Captain, but since it had been too great a possibility that some of the commandos might have known Tauvo as a pilot, and wondered how he'd jumped to command rank so quickly.... And, as Tauvo had pointed out, this whole thing had been his idea in the first place.
Larraq was aiming carefully. "If I miss, it takes this stasis gun several microts to recharge."
"We don't have several microts." Hassan, queen of the obvious.
"Why not just use a regular pulse rifle?" Chiana seemed nervous. And he thought Pip had acclimated better than that. Then again, she hadn't been aboard that long, and she'd become more familiar with the half-mad Leviathan than the gentle Moya who had welcomed him.
"No," Larraq responded, "No, I've got to take him alive."
D'Argo and Thonn arrived, crowding into the space behind them.
Rygel's voice echoed through the chamber perfectly. "What the yotz are you going to do with that?!"
"Certainly sounds like the Hynerian," John muttered.
Hassan heard him. "It's supposed to. That's exactly what the virus does."
"Listen to me!" Rygel called. "Let me explain! I'm not the man you want! It's that creature, isn't it? The thing in the box?"
Chiana briefly blocked his view of the access chamber. He craned his neck, and she began moving towards her, her finger outstretched. He stared at her....
* * *
He rebounded off the corridor wall and sped down hall, D'Argo hot on his heels.
Movement up ahead. Oh, God. Oh, God, no--
He felt a brief moment of relief. It wasn't Gilina. He'd been so afraid the virus would have read his mind, or emotions, and sought out Gilina as a bargaining tool. Gilina, who couldn't even go hand-to-hand with Chiana without getting her ass kicked up and down the training mat, who had tried so hard, and then cried for nearly an hour afterwards, begging him never to make her go through that again.
Tauvo could handle himself. So long as the virus didn't transfer itself into his body, he could at least hold off Larraq long enough.
But no. Larraq was some sort of special commando type; he easily put Tauvo in a stranglehold even as John watched. John and D'Argo skidded to a stop in the middle of the corridor. Larraq pulled a long knife from his personal armoury and smiled at the two members of Moya's crew.
"Stay back!" His eyes were mad, and he grinned at John. "I learned a lot from the time I spent inside you."
"You fugitives want to stay away from that Peacekeeper base as badly as I want to get there. So here's what we're gonna do - you're going to let me into that Marauder ship without any interference - and then you're free to blast yourselves as far from here as you want."
"If the virus is allowed to spawn," D'Argo said softly, "it could contaminate thousands of species before it's able be contained again."
No pressure, big guy.
Larraq smiled at them through Tauvo's curly hair. "I'm sorry - was that a problem?"
Tauvo still struggled, caught in the other man's iron grasp. "John, don't let him do this!"
Larraq looked down at his victim. "I would take you . . . but you have no status. You are of no use as a host." He quickly pushed down on the knife. John watched it happen in slo-mo, dimly aware that D'Argo started forward. Larraq pushed the suddenly limp Tauvo at them, whirled, and ran towards the docking bay.
As they grabbed Tauvo, John caught D'Argo's eye. They nodded at each other, telepathy in action, and then John took off after Larraq. The virus couldn't re-infect him. D'Argo would take care of Tauvo. He pulled his gun as he ran.
* * *
Aeryn dropped her duffel bag, keyed her new rack, and sat down heavily.
A quick look around. Empty, of course.
Not many Ghosts on this station.
She ran her hand lightly down the side of the new uniform. She still felt strangely disconnected from everything here. There were lights, there were people in the corridors. And the noise.
It wasn't the existence of others that bothered her, the long lines at in-processing, crowded corridors and mess decks. She'd never been alone, not really, not during training. Not even during that final test, when she'd come up with the idea of floating for two solar days through deep space in order to do a stealth insertion of a heavily armed warship.
It had been an unthinkable gamble, but it had worked.
She'd been part of a unit; part of a team. She'd become accustomed to working in the small, dark spaces of a troop ship, or the large dark expanses of space. Relying on her people.
Now she was drifting, nothing to do but wait.
Having never been through this type of training before, never kept in touch with those she'd known who'd gone through it, she could still be certain that what she and her unit had endured had been something more. Scenarios had come fast and furious, drills and field exercises and simulators. Throughout the interrupted rest periods, the summons out of the showers, they'd coalesced into a solid team, suffering only a twenty-seven percent casualty rate overall. Low by commando training standards. They'd done so well together, she'd thought that perhaps, after the final test, they'd go to a Carrier as a ready-made squadron, but no. She had been proven wrong.
They had gone. She had not. Something had gone wrong. She had received her packet, been transported here on the fastest shuttle, arrived to find cryptic orders assigning her a rack space, and ordering her to wait for the arrival of her unit.
Her new unit.
She had spoken to no one but the inbriefing officer. No one else seemed to be aware that she was here, waiting in the dark, ready to move on. No one else seemed to know where she was going. She only knew it was to something different entirely.
She hadn't been surprised to learn that there was a Gammak base in the Uncharted Territories; she had stopped being surprised by how much she didn't know in the last three quarters of a cycle.
She thought she'd stopped reacting, too, gotten over foolish emotions like that, but then she had arrived here, and the camaraderie of the past few monens had been stripped away, and she saw herself again, scared. Alone. Adrift.
She needed to become better. To become harder. If only for her new role.
She was dressed the part; the uniform had been issued to her upon arrival to the Gammak base. The material was rough to her hands; unfamiliar. The armour was padded differently than the commandos who crewed the Marauders, serving as heavier shock troops. This was expensive, lightweight.
An Ensign, even, as a result of the training. She hadn't known about that until she'd arrived here. She hadn't known about the posting until she'd arrived, either.
This . . . was it as a promotion or a disgrace?
She was one of them now. One of the Black Ghosts. Those who walked in the darkness of deep space, who flitted along the edges of the Fringe, flirting with the Scarrans, the Nebari, the unknowns. Those she had scoffed at before, when she'd seen them on transports or Carriers, sitting alone, apart. Scruffy, no recognition of rank. No understanding of rules.
She would be irreversibly contaminated, but now it would be acceptable; it would be a part of her job.
The lights weren't on; she had no need of them. Darkness didn't bother her. The training had accomplished that much; the training that was labeled commando, but had obviously, in her case, been the precursor for so much more.
No, the darkness no longer held any trepidation for her. The silence did: it wasn't the emptiness in between comms chatter, or the weariness of a task done and a moment's rest before they pressed on. It wasn't the easy quiet of sleep or the spent breaths after recreating.
It was the silence of nothingness. Ten racks, all empty; no sign of recent occupation. Ten racks. They wouldn't be filled, even after the arrival of her new unit. That much she had learned from training. The only reason she was here, the only reason she would be added to a unit that had already been working as a smooth machine for cycles, was that casualties had been taken. A slot was open.
She wondered how many other newly minted graduates would be joining her at this Gammak base, or if they would pick up any other new members at other bases.
Why a Gammak base?
She pulled out the flimsy she'd been given, tilting it to catch what light she could get. She didn't need much light to read; she'd memorized the brief words.
She'd tried to access the public personnel files at Marauder's Moon, as the base was affectionately called, but there had been nothing on Larraq, just an entry. Of course not. He was a Ghost. He barely existed.
The empty space breathed heavily on her bare skin, and she shivered. She was one of them now, and she was so alone.
* * *
He frowned as he caught a glimpse of the dark-haired woman in the hallways. His eyes flicked over her, categorizing instantly. Commando training. Dressed like a Ghost, though, with the special matte synth armour.
Why was she so familiar?
A glint of reflected light off her features, and he knew instantly. Facts whirled together, depositing the answer for his convenience. She had completed her training. As he'd suggested, she'd been reassigned to a Ghost squad.
How ironic, that she would end up here, waiting for them to arrive.
As he was waiting; Larraq was supposed to be delivering a package for one of his projects. Not his main project, but one had to have several hobbies. Not to mention options. One of the experiments, the neural controller that Captain Larraq had assisted so ably on, was still viable, but the subject hadn't been exposed to the full suite of tests yet, and he himself was personally loathe to trust the certainty of neural control. There were always . . . unforeseen consequences. It was excellent as a backup, perfectly acceptable when there was no other alternative.
It was his job to find alternatives, even if the research occasionally proved to result only in dead ends, frustration. No, frustration was his own failure; there was always an answer. He just hadn't looked hard enough, hadn't looked in the correct places. He detoured down one corridor. What a miserable excuse for a delay. That a project so relatively low in his priorities would cause such problems offended his sensibilities. At least when the Aurora Chair malfunctioned, he could always call in techs to solve it. As he'd done now, which gave him time enough to see to these side projects.
He moved impatiently into the lab, accepting a flimsy from one of the waiting techs. Frowning, he checked over the data; didn't find what he was looking for. This was not acceptable. Out of the thousands of personnel on the base, they couldn't find a one reasonable match?
"What are the parameters of your search query?"
The tech gulped. "As you requested, sir. Anyone bred for pilot, commando, or infantry training."
He paused as he considered what she hadn't specified. "What about assignment status?"
"Well, sir, of course . . . only permanent staff."
She swallowed heavily. "Because I assumed you would be monitoring the results of the testing, sir, and preferred that the subject were in a controlled environment, with scientific. . . ." Her voice trailed off.
"You assumed incorrectly." He handed back the flimsy. "Perform the search again. Widen your parameters to include anyone currently on this base." When she remained frozen, he sighed internally. "Now."
She moved quickly to her console, her fingers flying. He waited, ruminating on the great genetic odds that discounted her from being a test subject. Now that was almost a pity.
Finished, she handed him the updated flimsy with hands that shook ever so slightly. Without even a glance at the text. He took it without comment.
The positive results sprawled across the top, immediately drawing his attention. He read it, and once again, the irony was a delicate, dark flavour on his tongue. He smiled to himself, and knew his aide and the tech started at the sight. Oh, but he was pleased.
He'd known from the beginning that she was special, but he hadn't known how special. He had helped create something of her once. And now she could serve him again.
What a lovely thought.
* * *
The tech bustled around her, doing one of the incomprehensible things that the tech class always did. She'd barely ever noticed what they actually did before; now Aeryn watched this one closely. She'd become used to not having them around in training; deepspace Marauder ships carried special mechanoids, capable of fixing almost anything. Expensive, but worth the cost, and a better use of available space than a tech.
"Yes," the tech replied. "You're going to be assigned to deep space. We're going to give you an updated spread of all the inoculation microbes we've got, just to make sure you're at best operational capacity."
She could feel her eyebrows rising. "But you're going to put that thing in my eye."
"Well, if we were simply working at the double-helix level, we'd be able to inject it as normal." Her tone was scornful. It was the 'shut up, you stupid grot' tone that Aeryn hated most about techs.
She reached out and grabbed the woman's arm in a hard grip. Very hard. "What exactly are you doing to me?"
"You aren't . . . questioning orders, are you, Ensign Sun?" The voice was smooth, cool, level.
Without loosening her grasp, Aeryn turned her head to meet the newcomer. Her face was schooled, so she knew she showed no outward sign of surprise. But he was looking for something, and so she even deadened her eyes.
"No, sir." She met his gaze squarely. "I'm gathering intelligence."
Something moved across his face - or the parts of it she could see through his mask. Or perhaps she was reading his eyes, but she knew, she sensed, that she had surprised him.
"A commendable trait. After all, once the procedure is done, it's rather moot to question it then." His voice was completely at odds with his appearance. Cultured, controlled. He wasn't Sebacean; not with that skin texture, those features. His . . . dress was no Peacekeeper uniform.
The tech was completely silent. Aeryn considered the possibilities. He hadn't introduced himself. Neither had she. And yet he knew her name. "Exactly, sir."
He picked up the syringe from the unresisting tech and moved closer to the chair. "It won't take long, Ensign Sun."
She blinked. Deliberately. "You still haven't told me what it is. Sir." She made herself breathe calmly. Evenly. Had she gone too far?
The tech was attempting to disappear.
He stopped, considering her. And then he smiled. "No, I haven't. But I will be honest with you, since you ask so nicely." He gestured with the syringe in his hand. "This is an experimental serum. It is intended to enhance certain characteristics in your genetic makeup. The purpose of this inoculation is to provide you with better odds of survival when encountering such deep space anomalies as you are expected to meet."
"Have the other members of my unit been inoculated?"
"No." He shook his head. "Not everyone has the required chemical makeup, unfortunately. You are one of the few to receive this particular blend."
Lucky or unlucky? He hadn't distinguished, and she didn't ask. He was still watching her; she thought she perceived amusement from him. She waited, knowing from long experience that superior officers had shorter patience than infantry. He finally sighed. "They have received others, of that I can guarantee you. Sometimes we cannot provide a panacea for everyone, and instead have to tailor in order to allow for personal parameters." He held up the syringe.
"Will I perceive any difference?" Her voice didn't quaver, did it?
He considered her question gravely. "This is not intended to make you any less an effective tool for us, Ensign Sun. We have already invested too much in you to throw you away so cavalierly. After all, why make you any less effective in your duty to Peacekeepers?"
A warning. A reprimand. And a choice, subtle in those words. A great truth, one she known all her life. A duty. Her duty, to obey. After a moment, she leaned back in the chair and widened her eyes.
* * *
She was almost perfect, he thought, reviewing her most recent records.
It made wonderful reading while he waited for the Banak slave to be collected for another session in the Chair. Her idea for her final test - drifting through deep space with minimal life support systems, no power signature, realistic tumble, relative speed - had allowed her to infiltrate the ship designated as her target. Applying her pilot's skills to a tactical problem in such a unique way.
He wondered if she thought it had been a scenario. There had been no room for error; deepspace suits carried only sixty hours of environment in them, when used as she'd used them. One mistake and she would have died, she and her unit.
She hadn't made that mistake, or any of the myriad of others. Her timing had been perfect; she had arrived in the ships' crew sleep cycle. He wondered if, and how, she'd known about that. He made a mental note to ask her someday. He was certain he would get the chance.
She was nearly perfect already. As a pilot, she possessed the refined skills of an artist. As a tactician, she was as precise as his Command and Control computer. Perhaps she was the perfect solution to this side project. He personally didn't care; he did expect that the tech chosen to receive the serum would prove to be more suitable for the project, and eventual baseline testing.
Granted, with her pilot's skills, perhaps she was better engineered to actually succeed in the kinesthetic requirements of the test. And, of course, there were other, unpredictable factors. The stress of assimilating the changes could be faint and few, or it could be very disastrous, indeed.
It would certainly be interesting to see how the Pilot DNA would enhance her existing capabilities. He personally was just as curious to see what other abilities she might demonstrate.
* * *
Section 5: Hit the Nerve
He couldn't believe they'd made it this far.
He was all too conscious of time, time. Time Tauvo did not have. Tauvo was dying, trapped on Moya.
He'd had to come. When he'd seen Tauvo thrashing in his room, coughing up gunk and moaning for his brother, he'd known he had no choice. Zhaan had been able to hook Tauvo up to Moya to filter his blood of toxins, gain a little more time. D'Argo, worried about the effect on Moya herself, had left Zhaan's lab, had refused to do anything but watch and worry over the Leviathan.
If I think I got it bad, just look at D'Argo. He takes the blame for crashing Moya's memory, then causing her pregnancy . . . yeah, it probably sucks worse to be him than me.
On the other hand, he's on Moya, safe and sound, and I'm sitting here smack-dab in enemy territory.
He surreptitiously watched Chiana working the room. Pip was, had been, absolutely amazing. It had really been her help that had allowed him to get this far.
God, he wished he could believe in luck. Because then he could pray that it would hold a little longer.
No. Luck would have been Gilina providing a perfect match.
He tried to concentrate on what the guy next to him was saying. Something about Chiana, of course. The strain of playing Larraq was getting to him. He'd grilled Tauvo on all things Peacekeeper prior to leaving Moya, but even Tauvo hadn't known that much about Larraq's type of super-commando.
Apparently, neither did anyone else, and the standard Peacekeeper Captain Villain shtick seemed to be working well enough.
* * *
She stumbled down the corridor, one hand reaching for the wall. She knew it was there, could feel it throbbing beside her even as sight splintered into a million points of light.
What the frell was wrong with her?
Her thoughts whirled through her head, chaotic, shimmering. She heard colours, she saw smells. Food tasted strange. Vision was more than blurred; she noticed wires, conduits, heard what they transported, heard them buzz with energy. And she could hear those around her breathing.
It had begun two nights ago, fading in and out. She'd spent three painful arns shivering in her rack, glad for the privacy of the room. Her skin had changed, becoming waxy in texture, taking on a dappled purple hue in colour.
That had faded. Now remained simply the chaos in her head, her thoughts colliding. She would wait, and it would pass. It had to. She had . . . she had a duty.
And, in the meanwhile, some raslak should slow her thoughts down, and numb her fears.
* * *
Chiana practically shimmered, she shone so bright. She sparkled, she laughed, she drew the eye.
Well, she'd told him that she would provide distraction. She was certainly distracting, all right. Anyone in the room with a drop of testosterone was hooked. John expected to see wagging tails and drooling tongues at any minute.
But then it was his turn to be distracted.
Hello. . . .
Perhaps she wouldn't have drawn the eye in all the bars on Earth. But she would have drawn his.
It wasn't her looks. Or maybe he should say, it was more than her looks. He preferred blondes - obviously - and he'd learned to hate the sight of hair pulled back in that horrible Peacekeeper style. But she had something. It was the way she moved, the way she carried off a presence. The way she held herself, wrapped tightly. It drew his attention the moment she walked into the lounge, as though she'd called his name from across the room.
She seemed almost vaguely familiar, though he would have sworn that he'd never seen her before. She wasn't looking at him, so he watched her openly, listening to the buzz of conversation in the background, the PK stiff asking him how much he'd paid for Chiana. He answered absently, something noncommittal.
She was alone.
That was different. A Peacekeeper, alone? Running around without their team members and rah-rah cheerleader squad?
And . . . something was wrong. He couldn't put his finger on it, but as he noted the way she moved, it came to him.
She was in pain.
Yet no one seemed to notice. Actually, incredibly, people moved out of her way; if not consciously, then at least regularly. She threaded herself between the crowds, heading to the bar, and when she put out her hand, it trembled ever so slightly before she steadied herself.
How could no one notice? The longer he watched her, the more she seemed to stick out like a sore thumb. What's wrong with this picture? Were PKs just bred with an insensitivity gene, or what?
Damn, but she seemed so familiar. There was something about her--
When the realization came, it crashed into him, and his heart leapt into his mouth. She moved like Larraq. All except for the pain part. She was dressed like Larraq's goon squad, too.
He'd been ignoring his companion too long. He couldn't afford any distractions. He had Tauvo to think of.
* * *
It was beyond painful. Noise came in solid waves, pinning her to where she stood. It had taken her long enough to reach here, swimming through sound, prickles of awareness tracing skeletal fingers over her skin, and now she could only stand still and let it strip her down to raw layers.
It was though she was being watched, and she could not bear the feeling. She ordered raslak, her voice rough, and picked up the cup with shaking fingers.
The cup nearly slipped through nerveless fingers when the name slid through her consciousness, sidled in between the noise, echoed hollowly inside her mind. Captain Larraq.
She turned her head slowly, narrowing her eyes, trying to force focus through her lids. Her vision splintered and swam, but she focused, she held on, and in a moment, she saw him, the man his companion had called--
He was talking to some drone, his back to her. Thoughts sped up and collided. Why hadn't she been told when he had arrived? Why hadn't he summoned her? What had she done wrong? Did he not know she was here?
Did he expect her to report to him now? Later?
Oh, if only she could regain the void she'd lost, if only she could find again the dark stillness in her center. She'd had the way of it once, drifting in space. Why had it gone away?
Where would she find it again?
The noise, the pain--
Larraq was her Captain. He would help her; he had to, she was a part of his unit. She was his duty.
She wavered to her feet. The room swayed around her, revolving, shattering like dust, but she knew his voice now, held it like a lifeline. It took only enough to follow the path, and as she set her steps, it seemed that she had come this way before.
No, she was so dizzy; she could only focus on his back. Turn around, she begged, turn around and help me.
As though he heard her, he turned.
A shock burned through her at the sight of his face. Oh, she was too ill: she was on fire with fever, her thoughts were quicksilver in her brain, firing all at once: He sees me look at his eyes, he's clean, beautiful, who is he speaking to, why is he afraid, there's something wrong--
Slow down what the frell is happening to me--
There was something. There was fear . . . ? in his eyes.
Thoughts narrowed, swept down to focus. There was something wrong. Captain Larraq was a Ghost. What would he have to fear from her? She stared at him, and her thoughts spun down, settled on words.
"You're not Captain Larraq."
The fear clouded his eyes, stiffened his body, and now she was sure. Anger burned alongside fever. Larraq could have helped her. If he was here, in her Captain's place--
In one sudden movement she was on him, pinning him against the wall, her elbow in his throat, rough words spilling from her mouth in raging shrieks. "Imposter! What is your rank and regiment? Rank and regiment now!"
She could feel the rhythm of him underneath her skin; he scorched her, reset her to the pounding of his pulse. Their eyes locked, and the shock danced again down through bones and arced. She nearly cried out at the sensation: pain, pain, oh lovely pain, I'm bleeding. She was being emptied of all that she was while the sensations fused her to him, burned them together.
The shock spread out in waves, with the two of them at its center. They were caught, she by the fear in his eyes, he by something in her own, she didn't know, she could hear only his breathing, she could feel his heart pounding; she was drowning in the whirlpool of his gaze.
touch hurt me bleeding fear pain touch you bleed
Someone was demanding that she release him; no one touched her, she was a Ghost.
"Explain yourself, Ensign Sun."
The voice was a cool balm to the fire inside; it brought sense and sanity. She swung her head, breaking the electric blue contact, seeking out the source of that voice, the familiar, blank, black form. The void--
"This one," there was no need to indicate who she was talking about, "is not Captain Larraq." Her voice was slurred.
There should have been questions, demands for proof, accusations of drinking or chemicals - given the evidence of her current state, it was almost inevitable. She was slandering her new Captain in front of what could only be the Commander of the Gammak base. Everything she had worked for, everything she had become, all to be lost.
But she was to be surprised.
"He is not Larraq," came the bemused comment, and suddenly, the creature beside her stiffened. "No, he is not. Indeed, he is not even Sebacean. He is an imposter. A . . . Human."
She didn't understand; her senses were fading from her control, a miasma of shimmering information overload. Only his touch kept her grounded, his touch and that voice: triangulating her into the here and now.
"I have been aware of his existence for several monens, and have been looking for him for half that time. I was . . . not aware that he was so close at hand. It seems I have you, Ensign Sun, to thank for bringing him to my attention." A gesture summoned guards. "Take him to a cell. This one will go to the Chair."
She nearly cried out at the loss of contact. Take away the shock and everything was sapped from her, even the pain, which had allowed her space to breathe, to spill. Away from those eyes, she lost herself again, melting.
The voice cut through the chaos of threads, thoughts, that spilled out of her. "You do not look well, Ensign Sun." His face drifted closer to hers, so close she could almost make out features. "You do not look well at all."
"I--I don't know . . . what's happening to me." She gasped for air, for sense, for a center.
"Then we shall find out. It will be the least I can do." He gave her his arm. As she touched him, she felt the cold seep in, ice crystals hardening her bones and muscles and reforming her around the void. She felt his eyes on her, but couldn't make out his expression, not even when he supported her gently back to his lab.
* * *
Section 6: Uncharted Territories
"As you've no doubt noticed," the dry voice held a perfect edge, "we have a new member among us. Lieutenant Aeryn Sun."
She looked around at her new unit. They were ranged in the mess, sitting with no account to rank or seniority. No command tags on their uniforms. She had no idea where she fit in, who she was to them. Who they were to her. Why she was here.
She'd had time to adjust to the notion of meeting up with Captain Larraq at the Gammak base. She'd had his name on her orders. Then everything had been frelled beyond belief.
Captain Rayn smiled, and in his eyes she read amusement. He knew what she was thinking.
"We're lucky," he continued. "We have only one name to remember. But she, well, she has to remember eight. So we'll keep it slow, and when we meet her again within the next few arns, we'll repeat our names, so she'll get it right sooner."
Was he mocking her?
"My name is Captain Rayn."
The willowy blonde lounging on - actually on - one of the tables laughed. "I don't think she's likely to forget that one, Cap'n."
"The ever-present mouth over there is Commander Kur. The brute over there is Senior Officer Janak. The young grot is Sergeant Sariv. Sergeant Marat is trying her best to ignore us - she's usually fairly quiet, and too nice for the likes of us. Officer Leej is piloting us currently - you'll meet him later; blink and you'll miss him - and Officers Kwin and Darwa are doing a final weapons check." He crossed his arms and slouched against the table, black hair falling untidily over one eye. "We're a fairly new unit; most of us have only been working together for less than a cycle. Normally you'd come in as a trainee, get the lowest bunk and the worst rats, but you've been sent to us with different instructions."
She kept her face blank; she didn't know what he meant. Which instructions? Certainly not those written on her orders. Had she carried anything else? It was frightening to think that she'd not come to her senses for some time - at least two weekens. Everything after Scorpius had led her away from . . . from the Human, until the world suddenly reasserted itself into a transport pod, was a black hole.
Luckily she'd found herself clutching a set of orders, however succinct they were, and the pilots of the transport pod had been well-briefed, if brief in speech. They'd shuttled her to a small Decca cruiser, unloaded things she hadn't even realized she'd packed, and left her.
Her orders had told her merely to report to Captain Rayn aboard the Binion. No ship coordinates, no docking station. No other explanatory text. As soon as she'd come down off the transport pod, Captain Rayn had been waiting for her, and he had only smiled and called her by name.
"You're coming very highly recommended, and you'll fill our Third slot."
She knew she displayed no outward reaction; well, perhaps maybe a tic at the edge of her eye. She would work on that, when she had a spare microt or five. Right now she had to adjust to his words. A Third? In a unit? Already? She'd just gone to Ensign a monen ago.
Images - memories? - flashed through her mind. Scorpius had helped her; she had some cloudy memory - vision? - of another inoculation, and some half-remembered comments about readjusting the dosage for her sensitivity. Had Scorpius done this as well? And if so, why? What had she done for him, to earn this?
"Your original posting was a detail for the Uncharted Territories. Science stuff. Not bad. Can be fun." His voice was his weapon of choice, finely honed. "I hope you didn't have your heart set on that. We don't do that sort of thing."
There was an exchange of sly looks, muffled laughter.
"So what are our orders, Cap'n?"
"Kur, how predictable you are."
"And how annoying you are. Our orders?"
Aeryn looked at him, to see how he would take the insubordination. He smiled, and now it was meant to include them all. "Coincidently enough, science has something to do with it." He paused, and now he was very serious. Aeryn could taste the mood change as it dominated the room, felt it pass from one to the other.
Rayn activated the holo tank. Three star systems sprang to life. "We've received intelligence reports indicating there may be a forward-deployed Scarran Gammak base in one of these systems. Apparently there's some research being done into new sources of energy to power massive weapons systems or transport systems. Pick your favourite rumour. What does Intel have to say? They're just telling us that two renowned Scarran scientists have disappeared from their central worlds, and they want us to find out what they're up to. Our mission is to find the Gammak base where they've holed up, secure any knowledge or status of current level of research, and destroy anything we leave behind. I know you're all excited about that last bit."
The words made sense, and yet they didn't.
"And, as usual, we need to be quick about it. High Command is concerned that the Scarran technologies may be outstripping our own abilities. So, as usual, we are sent to steal, borrow, and beg."
Going to the Scarran Fringe: that was no surprise to her, it was either that or the Nebari Fringe. The Scorvians were still too involved in their own little feudal struggles to be of much concern. No, no surprise there.
But Third? In an established unit? Promoted into a line officer slot? Yes, that did surprise her.
* * *
John shuddered in the darkness. A faint noise echoed off the walls; it sounded like a small, dying animal. He knew he was making that sound, but he couldn't stop. He couldn't stop. Stop. Whimpering. Shuddering. Dreaming. Remembering.
"What the hell was that?"
He was afraid to sleep, because then he would dream. He couldn't bear to be awake, because then it wasn't a dream. Then it was memory.
Concentrate on the good times, John. Remember the good times.
Gilina jamming the Aurora Chair with a shorted conduit, using her powers for good. Crais realizing that Tauvo was alive, his friend. Crais smuggling him out of the Gammak base, using his ident chip to get him onto the surface. Crais saving him from Scorpius, and their return to Moya. Bialar and Tauvo's reunion.
But the bad times crowded in.
Any scene with Scorpius. After his return to Moya, the first few painful days, where he'd screamed himself awake, expecting to see his life displayed before him.
His choice to collapse around Gilina. Bad timing. She'd needed comforting, after infiltrating the Gammak base because of him. Brave of her. She'd slipped in ahead, helped him pass through the genetic scans, figured out how to get Tauvo's required genetic mod. He'd thought that would make her more confident.
He'd been wrong. She'd managed to do all of that, help them with their escape, and then she'd promptly broken down.
She'd been back there. Seeing what she'd lost. Walking through her life, an interloper. She'd wanted to stay. He'd seen it in her eyes. But she had rubbed her burned hand and turned, followed them back to Moya.
Just when he needed her most, she had been distant, held herself apart, angry. He'd needed her . . . to be strong. So he didn't have to be. For just one moment.
He hadn't gotten it.
After that, Gilina's growing frustration with his inability to talk about it, to tell her what was so wrong about seeing his life, his memories. He'd tried to tell her. About the physical pain that memories caused when they were ripped out. About the way that the Chair invaded your life, your memories, your self. But he couldn't, he'd choked up with remembering the pain, the invasion, and she had stood apart from him, scared by his reaction. In the end, after the tears and the pain and the drool, he'd told her he had no words to say, no way to put it that was understandable. She'd said he wasn't trying to make her understand.
He'd asked her why he had to make her understand, why couldn't she just accept?
Silence, as they'd stared at each other across the decking.
Don't forget the sequel, John.
He made himself remember. Memories were precious. Memories were his.
The sequel: the scene where he'd told Gilina he needed some space. Moving out of their shared quarters.
God damn you to hell, Scorpius.
What happened? How had he blown his cover? What had he done, what hadn't he done, that had tipped off the commando with pain in her eyes and steel in her fingers?
What had she done to him, to make him freeze so suddenly, to make the world stop around them? That sudden snap, inside of him? Would he ever know?
You'll never see it coming.
Sleeping. Waking. Walking.
Eenie. Meenie. Minie.
The whispers inside his mind.
Moving out of quarters with Gilina had been better for both of them. It was safer. He didn't want her to see him like this, not at night. She didn't want to see him like this; her frustration at his inability to just shake this off, regain his balance, be the strong man, the man with the plan, baffled her. They were both angry: she for having had her choices made for her, even though it saved her life at the time; he because he didn't get the type of acceptance, understanding, from her, never mind that it was his failure to communicate which was the problem.
His fault. He'd brought her on board, he'd made her come back, he couldn't properly tell her what was going on.
Just lock him in a cell and throw away the key.
A flash, a vision, a nightmare.
No, no, not the Chair. . . .
* * *
Aeryn frowned at the navigational unit. That didn't make sense.
She pulled the casing off and looked at the wiring. Ah. There was an intermittent short at the circuit bridge, which interrupted the messaging pulses to the processor. The processor timeout was set to half a microt; forever in machine time, the standard. She fixed the short in a few microts and replaced the casing.
"You're quite handy with tech."
She steeled herself not to whirl. She hadn't heard Rayn; how long had he been standing there? Had he meant to insult her?
"That's a compliment, by the way."
Ah. She breathed more easily. She'd been on board for less than a monen. The awareness of being in between worlds - not quite commando, not quite Ghost - was still her dominating sensation.
"Where did you learn to tech?"
"I didn't." She put her tools away and began running a full diagnostic on the nav unit. "Not formal schooling."
"You just picked it up as you went along?"
She frowned. "It's a recent interest." Fairly recent. Ever since she'd left the Gammak base, in fact. Prior to that, any exposure to tech had left her feeling confused, frustrated. Now, it was as though she could hold the concepts in her head, and tracing a problem in circuitry was coming as easily as she would trace a route on a map. Given all the other sensations she felt inside, she was more than happy to follow circuitry; it provided her with focus, calming all the thoughts that blurred together at times. "And we were always told - in training, that is - that in our new units, we would be expected to do some cross-training."
"I'm surprised they told you that."
"I think it makes sense."
"Of course it does. Which is why we've always done it. But that doesn't mean that the High and Mighty Command actually admits aloud to it, or accepts it for mainline troops." He paused. "If I'd known you were familiar with nav systems, I would have asked you to take fewer turns in Command and more time down here, nursing this baby. It's been causing us no end of problems for monens."
Nothing serious enough to warrant a stop, or perhaps their mission priorities had always been higher? Regardless, she wasn't sad she'd not indicated this interest aloud. She loved piloting. The Decca-class cruiser, named as homage to the lost Zelbinion, was more powerful than anything she'd flown before. It couldn't match her Prowler for maneuverability, of course, but this was a different sort of flying. And when she missed her Prowler, well, there were six ships clamped on to the hull.
He picked up one of the components she'd been playing with in her spare time. "Which star system do you think we ought to check first?"
Was this a test? "I don't know," she admitted.
"You haven't thought about it."
Censure? "I wouldn't know where to start, sir." As a Third, it would be some time before she had to think like a Command officer.
Rayn. Pretty name. She liked it.
"I've got the raw data loaded on the Command and Control console. Look at it when you get a chance. Tell me what you think."
She wasn't sure if she'd said that aloud, or he'd just read the look on her face. "You're smart, Aeryn Sun. I've been watching you. You're quiet, but you pick up things real fast. You're on my team. You need to start acting like a part of it."
Her back straightened automatically. "Sir, if I've been failing you in any way--"
"No, you haven't. But you've done yourself a disservice." He put down the component, all pretense of whiling away time gone. "You're still caught between the worlds. I can see it. We've all been there. You were raised to know that what's back there--" His vague gesture indicated all that they had left behind. "--what's back there is what you should be. Everything out there, where we're going, is against your upbringing. Everything you've now been trained to be is wrong.
"Most people don't want to be Ghosts. I don't think you did. You just went where they told you; you reported to the proper places at the proper times. You took the proper training. Well, you're here now. There's a part of you that wishes you were still back there, where you know the rules. You know what time to eat, what time to sleep, when to recreate. They tell you where to go and where to die.
"You don't belong there, Aeryn Sun. You're not a part of that world anymore. If you don't step into ours, you're going to leave yourself alone. I don't think that's what you want, either."
She stared at him; she scrambled to keep all those little pieces of herself from spilling out, from flooding her like a rising tide. She pawed through her self, searching for the comfort of the void, and she came up empty. Empty.
"I didn't think . . . I was allowed to want."
"Back there, no, you can't. Not unless it's a prescribed emotion. But out here? Sometimes it's the only thing we have."
"But . . . then I'll never be able to go back."
"It's already too late, Aeryn. You just haven't accepted that yet."
* * *
It was too late to go back.
Tauvo watched his brother. Eagerly. Frightened. The former Captain was prowling around Moya's Command, stalking to read one console, then the other. Learning the dimensions of his new world.
Did he know, yet? Had he accepted? That it was too late for Tauvo to go back?
Do you know who I am, big brother? Do you know who I've become?
He'd wanted to see his brother again. Been overjoyed to find out that Bialar had been the one to save John from the Chair, to smuggle him out of the Gammak base. So Bialar hadn't known that John was his friend, had simply seen his younger brother in John's memories and reacted. Taken John away from Scorpius, only to have met his younger brother trying to infiltrate the base. For the Human.
No, Bialar hadn't accepted it. Not yet. Not fully. Big brother. Always thinking about him. Protecting him.
Do you know you're not in charge here?
Tauvo had grown a bit, here in the Uncharted Territories. A bit. He'd grown out from under his brother's shadow, as John would say.
John and Bialar. That wasn't going to be good; Tauvo sensed it already. Not on John's part, of course. John wasn't like that.
But Bialar was.
He hasn't taken your place, big brother. Can't you see that? No one has taken your place. But neither has anyone sheltered me here, like you did.
John had picked up on it already. Called Bialar 'Crais' instead of by his given name. A way to distance himself, a verbal space that included shadings of rights, respect. He'd also done the physical portion, keeping out of the way. Tauvo hadn't really seen John, talked to him, in some time.
He felt the urge again, strong, to go check on John. Something about him wasn't right, hadn't been, since his time in the Chair. The drawn look was still in his face, and his eyes were always red-rimmed. Tired. John had told him that it was sleeplessness. Tauvo had asked Bialar about the Chair, about how it worked and what to expect, but Bialar hadn't known, hadn't really cared. At the time he'd been told anything about the Aurora Chair, it was only a means to an end, an information conduit from John Crichton to Tauvo. He hadn't cared how it worked, only that it would, and Scorpius had assured him it would.
Bialar was here now, and hackled at the mention of John's name.
John has Gilina, anyway. Bialar has . . . me. Needs me.
Anger crossed his brother's face, marred the Captain's features Bialar had erected for himself oh so long ago. Tauvo remembered, recognized the signs. The storm was coming.
He needs me. Even though he doesn't know it yet.
So he stayed with Bialar.
* * *
Rayn watched as his new Third entered Command and went straight to the C&C console. He hid a smile, returning to his review of the logs.
That was the second solar day in a row. Which was good. They were scheduled to enter the first system in less then ten arns, and then the tedious part of the search would begin. Not something he was looking forward to.
Janak dozed over the environmental console, his hulk dwarfing the machinery. Marat was piloting, her pale hands dancing slowly across the controls. Time passed in that tableau, the hum of the ship throbbing imperceptibly around them, the soft sounds and movements of people working at their duty stations. Aeryn still hadn't shifted from her position when he moved to her side.
"Any new ideas?"
She started, a quick movement that was turned into a shrug. That deep in the raw data, eh? He'd been right about her. There was something . . . special. Something intense. He'd known it before reading the report that came with her. Now if he could only turn it the right way--
"No ideas at all." It was a measure of frustration that she snapped - as much as she ever snapped - at him. "I don't know how to look, Rayn. I review the data, but I feel like I'm concurring with Intel. Everything sounds plausible. Nothing seems to blink in red code and say, 'Yes, right here, look here.'"
He smiled and leaned back against the console, watching her. She was a beautiful woman, striking in her looks and poise. When she was focused, she took his breath away, but he'd never been the recipient of that energy. When he spoke to her, she was always working on something; he could feel her mind somewhere else. It wasn't that she wasn't listening to what he said, it was just that . . . he didn't require enough of her. He wondered, for a brief, guilty moment, how it would feel to have the entirety of that attention. It must be glorious--
Nine arns and counting. He resettled against the console and thought of how else to reach his goal, what other method of infiltration he could use. "How do you find someone on this ship?"
One eyebrow rose. "I call them on their comms. That's obviously not what you mean." She frowned. One finger tapped the console in precise rhythm. "Well, I try to figure out where they might be."
That was the reason why he'd specifically asked her to do this. He'd noticed that about her: she had the uncanny ability to find any member of the crew. It had been remarked upon in the mess deck, when she was otherwise occupied at another station. "How?"
"I don't know. I just think of where they might be. I know where they're not - wherever I've looked, obviously."
"It's a big ship. Not a Leviathan, but it would still take you several arns to check all the spaces. So what else?"
"Well . . . who they are." Her gaze drifted across the viewscreen in front of them. "Marat works on the maintenance bay consoles when she has a moment. She likes working there after shift, not before, so she won't have to interrupt what she's doing and report on duty. She'd rather sleep less than interrupt herself when she's on a sensor trail, or trying to decrypt a comms transmission. Janak, he walks the Tier Five corridors. Because it's an auxiliary level, there's no traffic in the halls. He can even run as long as he wants without dodging people. He doesn't like the gym."
Janak was staring at her. So was Marat, her pale eyes wide. Rayn felt a certain amount of awe - did she realize she not only knew where, but why? This was beyond his expectations! - but he maintained his professional face and his calm voice. "And the difference is?"
She had a dry sense of humour. "You know them."
"More than that. I live with them."
"Would that matter?"
After a moment: "I don't know."
"Then experiment." He looked at the chronometer. "We'll be in-system in approximately eight arns. I won't ask you to have something for me by then, but I will always welcome suggestions."
* * *
"Let her jump!"
"What's that gonna do for her?"
"Who cares? She wants to!"
"Well, did you ask her what she really wants?"
Ah. Yeah. That was the crux of the matter. Isn't it, John?
"She obviously wants to jump!"
How could she have said that? Didn't she care about Pip? Even Tauvo had cared, and had talked to Chiana. Not that it had helped. Tauvo had a crush on Pip; he wasn't going to do anything to piss her off, even if it did save her life.
He'd been right - Peacekeepers were genetically lacking any form of compassion.
No, John, she was just telling you to give Chiana the ability to choose. The one thing you took away from her, the one time it really mattered.
Why was he reliving the past?
A face flashed before him - dark hair, blue blue eyes boring into his, dragging him down into a maelstrom of pain and fear--
John shuddered and hit the side of the corridor. Blinded, he went down, sliding his back on Moya's bulkhead, guiding him to the floor.
He didn't know how long he was down. No DRDs came skittering down the corridor, curious to find out what was going on with the Human now. Pilot still had most of the DRDs tending Moya, constantly feeding data - any data - into the maelstrom of the Leviathan's mind. The PK data spools they'd dumped from Larraq's Marauder had been only enough to keep Moya finely balanced on this side of sanity, and to provide Pilot with some sort of breathing room. Oh, yeah, there were others worse off than him.
Get a grip, John. Eyes gritty, cheeks wet, he rubbed a shaking hand across his face and wondered how soon he could manage to get up.
Help, I've fallen and I can't get up!
He giggled. Should call Tauvo over the comms and explain that one to him. He'd like that one, he's starting to sound like a human himself, the way he'd throwin' 'round the slang. Oh, yeah, he's ready for Earth.
Murphy bit him on the ass; Gilina suddenly came into view around the bend of the corridor. Stopped. Stared at him. Fuck Murphy. He waved blearily to her, waggling his fingers. "Hey, baby."
Back straight, she wheeled and walked off.
"Damn," he sighed, rubbing his eyes again, "you're right. Maybe we shouldn't talk."
He couldn't explain it to her. He didn't know how to, he pushed her instead, and she went away, angry with him for pushing. Because he always did. Pushed her. To be something more.
A small part of his mind screamed after her. Goddamnit, fight me, come back here and make me listen to you. Don't just walk away!
The larger part was just screaming.
* * *
Five habitable planets. Assuming that any Scarran base would be heavily guarded, they'd had to do their scans with passive sensors only, which didn't have nearly the range of the active sensors. Of course, the active sensors would light up their presence and paint a bright electromagnetic target on their hull.
Between having to use passive sensors, staying within planetary and lunar shadows, asteroid fields, monitoring planetary emissions and communications frequencies, five planets had taken over a monen to thoroughly survey.
She stared at the opened patch panel, her hands working automatically while her mind ran down well-worn paths. One system down, two to go. No one had pressured her, but she felt a tingle of something just the same. An expectation. It came only from Janak and Marat; Rayn was merely . . . watchful.
Footsteps in command; she recognized them absently without having to look up from her work. Rayn.
"Decision time," he muttered.
Apparently his thoughts paralleled hers.
She patched the final conduit through the nav board and crawled out from underneath the table. Rayn shook his head and blinked at her.
"Aeryn. Didn't realize you were here."
"We keep blowing that circuit. The load we're putting on it doesn't explain the consistency of the problem, so I rerouted and created a bridge."
He stared at her. Not in the way that most Peacekeepers would - the 'what the frell are you going on about?' look - but accepting, and pleased.
There was a warm feeling in her stomach, and she suddenly felt dread. She didn't want to fail him.
"How are you?" he asked.
"I still don't have an answer for you."
"I'm used to hearing either 'I'm fine', or 'I feel frelling awful,'" he said mildly.
She looked down, rebuked. "I don't know what else to do."
He moved to her side, a comforting hand on her forearm. His skin was dark against hers. "Here. Sit down." Guiding her to the tac table, he sat down across from her. "What have you done so far?"
"I've read everything. I'm going cross-eyed; I know all the facts Intel has scraped together on the two Scarrans. I referenced everything I could find in our logs about their planets. About their research requirements. I've run scans on the survey logs of the systems we've targeted as high priority, trying to figure out which planetary environments are most convenient and conducive to their research. But we don't have enough information on Scarrans, on the scientists, on the planets. The survey logs are incomplete, our data banks are definitely incomplete, and Intel only sends what they think we need to know, even when we ask for raw form!"
His hand moved to her forearm again, and she subsided beneath his touch.
"Peace, Aeryn Sun. Everything you have done so far is exactly the type of analysis that we needed."
"And what has it brought us? Nothing. I've had a few ideas, but I just don't know." Ideas, not feelings.
His hand stroked her forearm. "What's really wrong?"
Several microts passed. "I can't do this."
"Because . . . I'm afraid."
"Of losing myself. I could. I'm just learning who I am, but when I start thinking about this, I feel myself slipping away. Why can't I just--?"
"Do it halfway? Because then you're still you. And you'll never get into the mind of your prey if Aeryn Sun still exists in your thinking."
"I don't want to know how they think. I don't want to know who they are. I just want to get close enough to kill them."
"But to kill them, you have to get close. And you'll never find them unless you take that final step."
"But what happens if I can't - how do I come back?"
"If you know who you are, how could you lose that?"
* * *
Section 7: Out of Mind
Life and death, and these were the good days. Life in the UT. If he didn't wake up to see Scorpius, there was an equally good chance he wouldn't see his own face in the mirror.
Special guest star today: John Crichton as Gilina.
He worked quickly, trying to rewire the Defense Shield circuitry. That vulture vomit had really done a number on the wiring. As he stretched and moved, his arms brushed against breasts. It was an unfamiliar sensation.
Talk about a cross-dresser's wet dream.
There was a part of him that wanted to explore the sensations he was feeling: the slide of material against suddenly sensitive flesh, the differences in balance, center of gravity. These trousers weren't leather, but cloth; they cupped the buttocks, stretched across the tops of thighs.
But this was Gilina's body. He'd touched this flesh many times, fondled these breasts. He had kissed his way down the valley of this cleavage and nestled himself in the junction between these thighs. He had tasted this body.
There was a part of him that just wanted to have a moment of fun. Go off into a corner and be a guy.
He really didn't have time for this crap.
He continued working.
* * *
He looked up when she stalked onto the bridge.
There was a coiled tension in her body, a terrifying blankness in her expression. The difference - the sheer change - crackled across all those present in Command. Raised the fine hairs on his arm, triggering like proximity sensors.
Kur looked over at him, her own expression all too clear. What the frell?
He shook his head. Wait.
Aeryn didn't seem to notice, certainly didn't hesitate, but continued heading for the nav console.
Janak moved, as though he were going to circle back and block the exit, but Rayn shook his head at him as well. He wanted absolutely nothing to distract her, and he couldn't gauge what might break her concentration. Better that no one moved, no one said a word, until they figured out what was going on. They were only ten arns in-system, still another twenty to go before they reached the first planet.
A holomap came to life. Rayn didn't recognize the star system immediately; it wasn't one that Intel had listed as a likely target. Kur typed something into her console, and the information flashed across his display. It was a neighbouring star system, one deeper in the Fringe. Two planets had survey details, the others just a conglomeration of data reports from various passing ships.
On the holomap, one planet was suddenly ringed in red.
"There." Even her voice was different. Flat. Accented.
Kur's gaze dropped to her display, and Rayn saw her stiffen, could feel her tension spike. When she flashed the information to his screen, his mouth was dry.
It was a surveyed planet. It had been surveyed for the purposes of colonization. A Sebacean colony ship had been scheduled for arrival. A mere cycle ago.
He addressed them all. "Thoughts?" Aeryn didn't move, didn't lift her gaze, but continued to stare off into some distance, at something only she could see. Kur looked from him to Aeryn, and back again. Her brow was furrowed, and he could taste her thoughts. Trust Aeryn? She was an excellent pilot, a superb fighter in their workouts together, and she was so good at tech that it was hard to believe she hadn't been bred for it . . . but to go chasing off to another star system, on the strength of her word? Even knowing what only she and Rayn knew about their newest recruit?
Janak had waited long enough. "Yes."
Kur nodded. Finally.
Aeryn still hadn't moved; her gaze was fixated on the holo of the planet. He wondered where she was, how she had gotten there, and how long it would take her to return to them.
"Lay in coordinates."
He pitched his voice to her, though he didn't say her name. Wanted to see if she was still aware of who he was. To his surprise, she did so. He hoped that meant something still remained of her. That it would return to them, sooner rather than later.
* * *
It was a part of her. The void was there, cold within her belly, and it flickered into the forms of Scarrans she had only seen in imagery. Only met as data.
Scarran scientist Traurig. Scarran scientist Mriwt.
She felt them pushing and babbling at her, inside. Shading over her thoughts, using her. She heard them in her voice. When she tried to speak, tried to push past them, she couldn't find herself without losing them, too.
Rayn was counting on her.
It was too late to erect barriers against those ghostly presences. Couldn't keep them from flooding into her; couldn't keep herself from becoming more of them. Too much more. Too late. She knew them; they were riders in her head, whispering to her in voices only she could hear.
Aeryn raged, deep inside. In the smallest scrap that was her self, she screamed to remember what she sounded like, she cried to remember her pain.
They gave her data. They gave her information. Told her what she needed to know. The mission became her all, and she watched hungrily as she and the Scarrans merged, more and more. Yes. Come closer, come closer. Show me who you are. Let me learn you. Let me know you, and I will know where you are.
She needed to find them. Find them, and silence those voices.
* * *
Section 8: Long Live the Queen
Rayn watched her work out against Janak. It was a mismatch, of course; the Sebacean male outmassed her almost two to one, and had been doing this longer. She wasn't bad, of course; she could hold her own against most any Carrier's commando crew. It was simply that her partner was born to fight, whereas her own innate talents were what she'd been bred for, piloting.
Rayn had been born, bred to be a hunter. But when he looked into her eyes, especially now, something in him shivered. Something in him wanted to die before whatever was waiting, watching, came out from behind that frail barrier.
Yes, on a purely physical level, Janak outclassed her easily. But if Rayn had to match them, wits for wits, even weighing relative field experience . . . he would bet on Aeryn. Every time. Her records aside, what he'd seen of her since her arrival guaranteed that he'd bet on her against most, if not all, comers.
She was a hunter. He'd gotten a glimmer of that from the very first. When she had looked at him, and seemed to know what he was thinking. As though she could size him up in a microt. He wondered where she'd gotten that skill. Some tinkering on the genetic level? High Command always did that; the prototypes often ended up out on the Fringe, where any non-regulation idiosyncrasies would be tolerated in return for success. A proper breeding program would weed out any of the intolerable features in later generations. The failures, on the other hand, terminated themselves without the inconvenience of sending orders in triplicate.
She was a strange one, this Aeryn Sun. He'd known it before she'd even stepped onto his ship. Commando trainees didn't get sent out to play with the Black Ghosts. And a trainee, an ensign, would never have moved directly into the chain of command.
That had been his decision, and his only, which was why his unit hadn't questioned it, or resented her. He wondered if she realized that. After looking over her record, he could have done nothing less; he wouldn't deny either himself or his unit of the piloting and tactical skills she brought, and he wouldn't have any of her ideas or suggestions ignored simply because she was the most junior member of the unit. He'd outlined his plan with his Second, and when she'd reacted in disbelief at the notion, he'd shown her the imagery from the files he'd been given. The files that were already accessible only by a Level Four Gavin.
One of them showed their new member avoiding a fatal collision with an unusual craft. The other showed the results of her final test of training. Kur's reaction to that imagery file had been close to his own.
"She's not a Peacekeeper trainee, she's a frelling weapon."
Her personnel file had a recent entry, one that would have raised eyebrows anywhere in Peacekeeper territories. It was a notation by the Commander of the Gammak base to which she'd last been posted.
"Possessed of unusual skills."
It was cryptic both in context and content. Why would the Commander of a Gammak base, leader of over a thousand personnel under his direct control, write it into the personnel file of someone who should never have come to his attention?
Then Rayn had looked into Lieutenant Sun's eyes, and if he still didn't understand why the unknown Commander would have written it, or what he had meant by it, at least Rayn understood why it was in her file.
He'd watched her closely after that. Although never obvious, she observed them, all of them, all the time. No, he corrected himself; she wasn't obvious because it wasn't even clear to herself how much she picked up. Little things: facts, details. He could ask her a question, and her answer would be based on knowledge she hadn't known she'd possessed.
He'd noted the way that she seemed to be able to hold disparate facts in her head and assemble them into a sequence or pattern, and he'd wondered: if he allowed her access to all the raw data on their mission, if he gave her everything he himself knew, what conclusion would she come to? Where would she lead them? Would she see something that no one else had?
But had he pushed her too far? Ever since he'd urged her to lose herself to the problem, ever since she'd walked into Command and given them a new location, she had been . . . remote. Cold. When he looked into her eyes, nothing moved. Either the light had died completely, or something was in her place, waiting. Watching them.
He wasn't being fanciful. Two members of the crew had come to him and confessed to feeling nervous around her. No one had come out and used the word "afraid", but what she was demonstrating - the talent, skill, or witchery - was something no Sebacean born and bred to Peacekeeper training understood.
But it wasn't just the crew morale he was thinking of. He was a selfish Captain, to have that skill at his disposal, and yet want her back as well.
He should wait to see if she was actually successful; he shouldn't interfere until they arrived, and her skill, such as it was, proved out. Yes, he should wait, if he doubted; that was the right thing. But he didn't doubt her. He was certain that they would arrive, and he would find that she was correct.
He didn't look forward to that moment. Not because it would prove her right, but because there had been a newly established Sebacean colony on that planet, when it had been last heard from. A cycle ago.
Janak left the mat, and Rayn watched as Aeryn stared at nothingness for a moment, then stirred herself for some stretching exercises. He stepped forward, out of the friendly shadows in his corner. "You shouldn't tire yourself out."
She looked at him blankly, then returned to her exercises.
He joined her on the mat. "Aeryn."
He raised one hand, slowly, so she could see what he was doing, and so he wouldn't interfere in her stretches. Cupped her chin. "Aeryn, come back."
Something flickered in her eyes, something twisted across her face for less than a microt, and then nothing but that empty gaze once again. Like holding a mechanoid: skin cool, features blank.
His fingers tightened over her skin. "No," he insisted. "I want her back."
Her lips drew back, but he moved quickly, he'd been ready for this, and now he slammed her to the mat and pounced on top of her.
"No!" he shouted into her face. "You did it, Aeryn, you did it, but you come back to me now! You frelling woman, you wanted somewhere to belong? Well, you belong here now, so come back to me!"
There was a struggle going on within her; he watched it with horror and anticipation, never loosening his grip upon her - she would bear the marks of his touch, he knew, but he still did not dare to let go.
And then she blinked, and something moved behind her eyes. A tear.
"Rayn?" she whispered.
"Aeryn," he breathed, and then bent down to drink deep of her.
Her arms wound around his neck, and she clung to him wildly, desperately. She cried, great sobs wracking her body, as she kissed him, and he drank down her tears.
* * *
He loved her, but he wasn't in love with her.
How had it started?
She'd needed him.
No, that hadn't been it. He hoped that hadn't been the only thing.
When did I start to expect something larger than life?
He'd had glimpses of it, with Alex. He'd seen moments, between his dad and his mom. He'd seen partnership. Each one becoming . . . more.
When did I start to want that for myself? When did I start to expect that?
He'd kissed another woman, and look what that had gotten him. A princess, a kingdom, a daughter. He couldn't regret that last part, just the piece that meant he could never see her, never know her.
He'd met Scorpius again. A Scorpius he could touch, feel, smell. It hadn't helped. He'd tried hard to kill him - oh god, how he'd tried - but he still hadn't been able to strike the final blow.
He'd collapsed after his return to Moya, shaking. Too damn close. Scorpius. Again. Damn, damn, damn. Waited with excruciating stillness until Tauvo finally left the dining room, then gotten up. Had to make it to his quarters. Focus and get to his quarters. Walk step move just a little bit more - aw shit! Too late. It all crashed down on him, taking him to his knees in the corridor just outside his room. Shaking so hard his teeth rattled, his hands danced over the floor. He couldn't walk, he couldn't flop forward. And then the screaming started.
"John, what's going on?"
Of course she'd found him; his life worked that way. He managed to hide it so well from Tauvo, from D'Argo, but she was always around to see him at his worst. Ironic, that. Don't you love me for who I am, Gilina? Her voice had sounded so confused, so genuine. At the end of her rope. He'd suddenly realized the screams weren't just in his head, but in his voice. Wake-up call from hell. Welcome to the club.
If only you'd asked that several months ago, instead of demanding I figure it out then and there. . . . Too late, too late. He'd focused, found somewhere that wasn't shaking and sliding and falling, and she'd helped him into his room. He'd flopped on the bed, turned away, tuned her out, getting lost in his thoughts. Too easy to do.
He'd left the Royal Planet, in the end - he was who he was, and he wasn't a prince, he wasn't anything but a guy trying to find his way home - but he left a priceless treasure, and with priceless knowledge: the knowledge that he'd always expected . . . something more.
Everyone had their share of the learning. They'd scored on some data spools, and Pilot spoke calmly, for the first time in a cycle.
God, but his trade: a daughter for an epiphany that hurt like hell. Next time, Rygel could bargain with the gods on his behalf; Fluffy would probably get a better deal.
Now, half a galaxy away - a comfortable distance from there and then - he stared at the vial in his hands. The compatibility vial. Moment of truth. One kiss, and he would know if he and Gilina were meant for one another. On a genetic level, at least.
But that's not enough for you, John, is it?
Footsteps clicked across the floor. She walked into the maintenance bay; she came to overhaul Tauvo's Prowler. He'd told her countless times to teach Tauvo how to do it; she'd responded that it was her job, it was what she was good at. Just yet another occasion for a fight as she told him he was trying to take away everything she was. Not listening when he'd tried to tell her to grow, to reach.
Her face was directed away from his, the familiar curves set into a mask's edge.
When did we stop even trying?
She slid under the Prowler and popped one of the maintenance panels.
I know when I stopped. When I realized you wouldn't fight - not even for me.
"Gilina," he whispered.
She heard him. Her hands stilled. She looked over.
He turned away from his module, walked over to her. Leaned down. Her eyes never left his. Cupped her head, a familiar gesture. Kissed her lightly, softly.
Maybe she didn't know why he apologized. Maybe he didn't care if she understood. But his fingers lingered over her cheek for a moment before he turned back to his module, the vial tucked securely into his pocket, unopened.
* * *
"You think he's dead?"
Sariv nodded. None of them had wanted to say it aloud, but the looks, the nods, had become more obvious.
Marat didn't ask if he thought they were going to die. That was almost a foregone conclusion. Kur was dead, Janak was dead, the Captain missing for nearly a weekens. Leej had at least eight broken bones.
Aeryn had two.
The Sebacean colonists still alive - a handful, at most - would turn them over to the Scarran authorities rather than face the wrath of their masters.
How ironic that they had found their goal, come so close to completing their mission, when they had started off at such long odds. Well. They had simply rushed towards failure.
She looked over at Aeryn and shivered. There were moments that Marat wondered where the greater danger lay - without, in the form of the Scarrans, or here, in among them, in the figure of Acting Captain Aeryn Sun.
She had led them to this system, to this planet, unerring. She had known, somehow. Rayn had trusted that, and with good reason. Aeryn had gotten it right the first time. Out of all the places in the galaxies, all the corners of any star system, she had led them directly to their goal.
Marat still couldn't wrap her mind around the concept; it was too large for her to comprehend.
There were moments, during the trip in-system, that she'd been completely Aeryn Sun: generally quiet, with the ability to become acerbic and direct when speaking casually. Then there were the moments where she was - possessed was the only word for it. Something else looked through her eyes, spoke with her voice.
Those moments stretched into arns.
They'd found the base; they'd come down in Prowlers, landing on the far side of the planet and doing short hops during the hours of darkness to get closer, taking nearly a weekens to find a staging area close enough to the designated entrance to the base. There were Sebaceans on the planet, Rayn had reasoned; they could blend into the population. The Scarrans would be expecting an attack from space, not from the ground.
But the plan had gone wrong. Kur's Prowler had been shot out of the sky in that last hop; Deej and Rayn had been hit and had ejected. The Scarrans had better stealth technology than the Peacekeepers.
Most of the Sebaceans from the colony ship had been killed; some had been retained as servitors, but there was no way for the commandos to hide among them. The base was a Gammak base, scientific. The Scarrans had experimented with their captives. Changed them.
The unit had been forced to go to ground; they had met briefly to get orders and then scattered. Rayn and Janak had attempted to infiltrate the base itself via the targeted entrance - the only one they'd discovered during their hop scans - while Aeryn had collected the others and found a secure location from which to establish support. After a quick reconnoiter of the area, she led them to a conning tower.
"They'll look for us here," Sariv had objected.
"No, they won't," she had replied, her tone soft. As though she'd been discussing the flavour of food cubes. "They'll be looking for us in tunnels. They'll expect us to go below ground. They'll send someone up here to relay messages on, not to look for us."
Only two Scarrans had climbed into the conning tower. Both had been neutralized. Aeryn had broken two bones in her arm.
They hadn't been disturbed since then. Marat had begun monitoring the comms channels, busying herself with hands-on learning of the alien systems, hoping for word of their superior officers. She'd found the flagged reports that trumpeted the capture and execution of a Sebacean spy. No description had been given. After reading it, Aeryn had returned the flimsy. "Janak," she said simply, before turning away.
"Why Janak?" Marat had called after her.
"Because they'd have made an example of Rayn."
Arns had passed, then a day. Three. And still no word. Sariv had begun to fidget, when it was his turn to come in from patrol, his long thin fingers rubbing against one another constantly. Marat had lost her temper and told him to plait his non-reg hair, if he was so bored.
Aeryn had listened to the comms chatter, her gaze distant. Once in a while she moved to one of the consoles and typed in a few queries. Marat had seen her pulling up a map display of the city - if it could be called a city - surrounding them. The Acting Captain had looked at it briefly, very briefly, before returning to stare out the window.
Their coded knock sounded, and Darwa stepped silently to the door as Kwin walked in. Kwin sat down heavily, a short woman with a heavy burden of tired, and grabbed a ration bar from their dwindling pile. "No movement," she reported. "Have a fun time as sentry, Darwa. Say hi to the Scarrans for me."
"No more sentry watches." Everyone turned to look at Aeryn, who got to her feet. "We're moving."
"We have a fallback location?" Sariv asked, his fingers motionless.
"No," she replied, gathering her pack up with her good arm, "we're going into the base. We have a mission to complete."
Everyone stared at her for a moment. Darwa said, slowly, "We still going to try to complete the mission?" The grizzled grey veteran, trying not to question his superior officer. Are you frelling fahrbot, sir? No, Darwa wouldn't use so many words.
"We don't even know how to get in the base. The main entrance has more security now that. . . ." Darwa's voice trailed off. Marat could understand. No one wanted to mention Rayn's name to Aeryn.
"We're right above one of the hidden entrances to the base."
"What, right here?" Sariv's voice was mocking.
She took no notice of the disrespect. "Yes, right here." She pointed outside. "See that granary? Unusual traffic pattern; lots of flyers going by, but very few loaders. According to the infrastructure plans, there are quite a few access tunnels underneath. And it's the time--" she checked her chronometer, "--that the traffic usually dies down. Midday meal."
And Marat suddenly understood.
* * *
Sariv yelled and leapt aside as the Scarran heat ray passed dangerously close to him. Kwin, already injured from the past three confrontations, wasn't so fast.
Marat turned around and drilled the creature with their adapted weaponry. There was a clang as the projectile left the chamber, and the Scarran was impaled against the wall. Sariv jumped, pulling his knife, and less than five microts later, the creature shivered and died, gore leaking from the empty eye sockets.
Their pulse rifles had been less effective than throwing dren at a Luxan. Luckily, strangely, the areas they'd passed through hadn't been heavily guarded. Sariv hated that; he was waiting for the trap to be sprung.
The whole planet was a trap. Frell this, the Peacekeeper soldier thought, frell them all. So he was in an eerily empty, huge Scarran stronghold. So the lights kept flickering on, off, and the hum of some far-off power cells rose and fell in a strange, discordant song. So power conduits arced without warning, and the environmental system laboured in some sections, blowing foul air. He was tired of all this, and he was going to take it out on the next Scarran they ran across. And the next. And the next.
The unit hadn't run across maintenance personnel, even though he expected them at every turn, attempting to fix the obvious problems with the power grid. But no, there were no Scarrans just milling about the hallways. That was a definite plus.
On the minus side, there were some obvious guards. And their weapons weren't working. A definite minus.
That hadn't stopped their Captain - he left off the "Acting" designation without a thought - from overcoming every obstacle thrown her way.
One of the Scarrans had tried to trap them in a decontamination chamber. Aeryn had looked at the internal door circuitry, traced it, and blown it in less than five microts. When they'd heard the unit of Scarran shock troops heading down the corridor at them, she'd had them swarming into the environmental ducts. Leej, unable to move that quickly, had stayed behind to provide distraction and delay.
When the remains of the unit had come out, three sections over, and had no idea where to go, she'd had Marat tap into a console and hack the system for a schematic, never once prompting the sergeant to work faster.
When they'd been running into too many Scarrans at a time to make do with weapons of opportunity, she had found one of the supply closets, broken the seal, and told them to come up with a better solution. Then she'd turned away.
"Where are you going?" Marat had asked. Sariv had understood the tone in her voice. They didn't want Aeryn to leave them.
"To find Rayn," she'd said. "I'll be back in an arn. Make sure you have something useable before I return - we'll need it."
None of them had questioned her, just like none of them had questioned her decision to send Darwa back, with the tasks of readying the Prowlers for flight.
"We'll need a quick exit," she had remarked, and they had watched the short combat vet go without a second thought.
Less than an arn after she'd gone, Marat, Kwin and Sariv had cobbled together three weapons which threw with enough force to pierce Scarran hides and used ready-to-hand projectiles: pieces of support struts. The reaction required for the boost was provided chemically, with Scarran cleaning solution and the chakkan oil from their pistols' power cells.
That was definitely on the plus side.
They were literally pulling the base down around their ears when another Scarran unit had arrived. They'd taken four corpses for their one loss. Not bad.
Oh, frell, he thought, missed one.
The Scarran reached out and grabbed him, claws digging into his face. The smell of alien in his nose. The sensation of blood runneling down his face. His skin, lifting from his skull, a ripping as flesh was pierced--
The claws suddenly jerked spasmodically, and he was freed. Blinked blood, flesh, out of his eyes in time to see the Scarran buckle from behind. There was a tangle of limbs, alien screaming. Marat waded into the fray and placed a head shot into the Scarran.
It shuddered and died.
A creature of blood and gore rose from the corpse, suddenly morphing into a familiar form. Sariv stared at Aeryn, almost unable to process what had just happened.
An unarmed Peacekeeper. Gone hand-to-hand with a Scarran. For him. Two broken bones in her arm, and she'd come in hard and fast, taking the creature down off him, holding it until Marat could get in her shot.
She'd come back. She'd kept her promise.
She jerked her head in the direction of the corridor, droplets of blood spattering on him from the movement, adding to his own gore tearing down his face. "Let's go."
"Where's Captain Rayn?" Marat said as she took up point.
"Dead. I hope. Let's get out of here." Aeryn took one last quick look around, noting Swin's corpse. "Now."
She didn't seem to care if they were subtle, but rather chivvied them onward. "Let's go. We don't have much time."
Sariv knew she hadn't carried that much in with her, and she hadn't asked them for any supplies before she'd taken off. "Where did you set them?"
"I didn't." She seemed to know where she was going; she pointed them down corridors and led them through junctions with no hesitation. The three Scarrans they ran across, they neutralized as quickly as possible. Sariv went to kill the first one when she stopped him, shaking her head. "Don't bother. Let's go." As they'd passed the second one, she'd touched Marat, for just a moment. "Good execution," she'd said, nodding at their weapon.
Marat had stared at her. Aeryn's hand had left a smudge of blood on her already splashed jacket.
They'd entered a section of the base that was different; the walls changed from industrial grey to pale. They passed doors that were locked. They passed containment chambers.
"One of the biological research wings," she told them.
It seemed deserted. Where was everyone? Why weren't the Scarrans crawling out of the access shafts?
"They think they've neutralized us," Aeryn replied, and he started. Had he said that aloud?
He turned to look at her as they entered a main chamber. "With what?"
She came to a sudden stop and pointed behind them. "With that."
He turned to look. "Captain Rayn!"
Aeryn had grabbed him before he could take a step forward. She'd done the same to Marat. "Don't get too close to him. He's been infected by an intellent virus."
* * *
It was intended for Sebaceans only.
The Scarran scientist had succeeded, although only after much trial and error. Rayn had been the first test subject to come up positive.
When she'd finally found the lab where he was held, opening the door and walking in as though she belonged, it had been too late. He'd been infected; the virus had looked at her through his eyes and seen another host.
All the pieces had fallen into place.
Click. Snippets of data from the Intel reports: scientist Traurig/bioweapon engineering specialty/attributed creator of Cattax lung plague--
Click. Location of the lab: small Sebacean colony/rural agricultural environment/Fringe planet--
Click. Appearance of the lab, perceived in less than a microt: decontamination chambers/medical scanners showing the familiar double helix of Sebacean DNA/Sebacean corpses in biostasis chambers--
Click. The specificity of the intellent virus: no protective decon suit on the Scarran scientist/dead Sebacean colonists/the hunger in those empty eyes, so alien/the flare she'd seen when it turned and saw her--
The Scarran scientist, who had turned at her arrival, had laughed and hit the door release on the decontamination chamber that caged Rayn. She'd wasted the last charges of her pulse pistol on the Scarran scientist, since it was closer than Rayn.
Even as she'd run, lucid thoughts had whirled through her head, strangely clear and loud despite the blood pounding loudly in her ears.
Why had the Scarran been alone? Where was the rest of the support staff? Why was the base's power grid malfunctioning so badly, and no one attempting to fix it?
Another sudden wrenching inside her head, another puzzle solved.
Click. Scientist Mriwt/leading and only Scarran wormhole technology specialist/attributed creator of phased conductor array--
The flickering lights, the power surges, the failure of environmental in unused portions of the base--
Run further into the lab, not back the way she'd come. Couldn't; couldn't lead that thing back to her unit. Time focused, crystallized, each microt a delicate, precious thing, weighty with fact, consequence. Didn't have the luxury of being able to waste them, and so she examined each closely, slowly, turning facts around. Now that she knew what else waited for them, she couldn't allow it - them - to win.
She'd lost it long enough to find a schematic of the base, and read it as Marat had shown her how to do - emergency exits were marked, how thoughtful - and laid her plans. Pressing lit sections of the display allowed her to scroll up through the tiers. She scrolled down to find the subbasements.
The mainframe systems would be impossible to get access to . . . but one of the backup nodes was located close by. It wasn't marked on the schematic, but Marat had pointed it out to her; she remembered the shape of the icon. She could get there undetected by using access tunnels. Wiring took up a lot of space, enough space to fit one wiry Ghost. Pulling the information off the system wouldn't be beyond her capabilities, either - she was no tech, but she carried a worm program designed by techs that would download the required data. Merely plug in the datachip in the required slot, wait for the green blinking light: no special skills required.
It was what she had to do afterwards that would be difficult.
Aeryn Sun would have hurt to do it, so she took a moment. Shoved Aeryn Sun deep inside, down into a protective wallow of void, down where sense, sight, pain, all was gone. Only a soothing heartbeat, a blessed silence. It wasn't like the past, when she did something because she'd been ordered to, because there had been no other options. Now she did it to save who she was, who she had become, because what she had to do would destroy that still-fragile thing.
You showed me the way.
She stopped thinking then. She simply did. Crawled through the access chambers. Found one of the backup mainframe systems. Inserted the chip. Downloaded the data. Didn't bother to set the charges she had with her - it would be moot, to blow up the backup systems.
After completion of mission, it would be irrelevant.
Green light. Take out chip. Crawl back through the ducts to a vacated corridor; drop down onto the ground and uncoil. Locate the intellent virus. Allow it to see her again before she started making her way back to her unit's last location.
The timing was difficult - giving herself enough of a head start to be able to deal with any Scarrans that might delay her, broken bones notwithstanding, and yet still remain in the intellent virus' mind long enough for it to react, not think. Once the rest of the unit was found, there was less risk. They were tempting bait indeed; the virus wouldn't be thrown off their track.
Following the map she'd overlaid into her brain, they entered a secondary biological wing. Not the one in which it had been created - she couldn't be sure if it would recognize her ploy in time if it knew the layout; frustration was inherent and useful.
Three Sebaceans. Enough bait that it couldn't resist. She'd grabbed Marat and Sariv by their uniforms. Right. Remember that the bait worked both ways.
Don't think, just do.
She dared one quick look behind her. Good. The door was cycled open.
"Don't even think of getting close to him," she warned them. But they came easily with her, stunned by shock. Elite Peacekeeper troops unable to comprehend that the trap had been sprung, and it had closed on them.
She took more steps back. It grinned and came forward.
Millions of spores inside that body, swarming to infect others.
She backed them all into the decon chamber and hit the door release. There was enough power - that could have been a disaster, a part of her mind noted, think about that factor next time, incorporate that possibility. Just as the doors were whispering closed, one shot with her weapon and a strut was quivering in the center of the lab's control panel; arcing power; the doors cycled completely closed. One quick movement with her elbow through the interior control panels for the decon chamber caused a spark and a flare. The lab was dark.
"That won't stop him for long," Marat murmured, her voice shaky.
"I know." She turned away, releasing them, and went to sit down. The modified gun was heavy across her knees. She reloaded it from the stack of struts Marat had collected and bound together with strips of cleaning materials.
Marat and Sariv looked from her to the approaching figure of their Captain, at a loss for reaction. There was no point in watching the creature that inhabited Rayn's body; she knew what it would do. Eventually.
She had begun to feel the first shreds of impatience after half an arn. Marat and Sariv had come to sit next to her. She stank; the Scarran gore that coated her began to dry. Her clothes felt heavy, cold. Her arm ached.
The intellent virus finally found the emergency power overrides to the laboratory and cycled them on. Lights hummed, came up. The creature came to the door of the decon chamber and grinned, and pressed the release on his side.
Finally. She stood up; the other two stood to stand on either side of her.
The intellent virus took one step inside. Sariv raised his weapon. She reached out and placed one hand on the muzzle, forcing it down.
He stared at her. She didn't move, didn't blink, but whatever he saw in her made him put his weapon down slowly.
The intellent virus stepped further in. "You liked him, didn't you?" It addressed her. "He liked you. A lot." Rotated its hips suggestively. It was smiling, with his face. It was moving with his body, moving just not-quite-like him. Moving closer to her.
It took another step. It thought it knew her, just like Rayn had thought he'd known her. But he hadn't known, hadn't seen how much further the darkness went, how deep the void was, inside.
There hadn't been enough of him to fill it.
The creature was more than a body-length from the door. She whirled, grabbed a strut-projectile, threw it. The creature danced to the side, easily evading the missile, which flew out through the open door.
As she'd intended. She raised her weapon and fired, and the strut which ejected from the makeshift weapon went through flesh, went into wall. Pinning the host firmly back against the walls of the decon chamber. The virus screamed in frustration. She grabbed Marat and Sariv and shoved them bodily out the door. "Move."
Once out of the chamber, she looked back in. The creature was moving, stepping away from the wall, peeling itself off the strut section by agonizing section. It grunted, bleeding.
The bleeding started--
She pulled something from her carryall, holding it up to the light. Allowing the creature to see it clearly.
The wound gaped--
She set the timer, knelt, rolled it into the decon chamber. It bowled to a stop just beyond kicking distance of the creature.
The creature howled and pushed harder off the wall.
Great wet chunks of her self, spiraling off into the void--
She hit the door release, locked it, and turned away.
Left herself inside--
Marat was staring at her. So was Sariv. She could feel their gazes, heavy as guilt. "Let's go." Checked to make sure her weapon was reloaded. "We're not done yet."
* * *
He wanted to work through it; he wanted to be able to sit down, talk to her, them, anyone, figure it out. He cared, dammit, he really did. Talking to her would be the first step. But it wasn't just damn little Scorpies dancing in his head.
You're losing it, John.
"Yeah, I know," he muttered, and reached up to touch the corridor ceiling. Yeah, it was still there. Moya. He was here.
Gilina, dammit, why can't I talk to you, why can't you just ask me what's wrong--
Oh, God, he was trying.
Not D'Argo, couldn't be D'Argo, still racked with guilt over what he'd done with Moya, now there was a guy with problems.
"I used to be different. I used to be someone. . . ." Used to be able to laugh.
Have I stopped trying to fight back, too?
He looked down in surprise. He wasn't holding the tape recorder; he hadn't been leaving a message to his dad, he wasn't even on the terrace.
Who had he been talking to?
* * *
Marat watched her Captain, and she was afraid.
For her enemy. For herself. Fear ruled her world, determined her destiny; she barely clung to sanity in a rapidly shifting universe.
But Captain Aeryn Sun rode the turns as though she knew they were coming, and that scared Marat even more.
The Captain had known where to find the wormhole laboratories; she'd known to avoid them in favour of the power plants that fed the containment fields. She'd directed them to overload the phase capacitors, and had asked Marat only how to delay the settings. Everything else, she'd seemed to know.
She'd led them back to the Prowlers, never requiring a map to get them out of the base. That had scared Marat. There had been a rhythm to the Captain's movements, as though she was moving to some chronometer she'd set, running down a familiar path.
Darwa, glad to see them, hadn't understood when Marat had shot him the "be careful" look, and he'd been checked when his hurried enthusiasm for leaving was countered by the blood-crusted face and remote attitude of their leader. As though being able to leave the planet alive wasn't a slim chance, but rather a foregone conclusion. Darwa followed their lead, quiet after seeing Sariv's face - all of them strangely silent, what little remained of the unit, that is - and strapped himself into his Prowler.
The Captain had delayed takeoff, performing some personal countdown inside her head that none of them were privy to. When they'd finally taken off from the planet, blasting with impunity through the layers of atmosphere into the cool delicious freedom of space, they had not been challenged.
Marat had seen transports buzzing in from all directions, heading for the section of the base they had left behind. But none of them stopped to chase the Prowlers, and that frightened her even more.
What exactly did she do?
Marat didn't really know.
The Captain had remained the same throughout, regardless of the situation: foray into the wormhole areas, resetting of the finely calibrated safety parameters, retreat from the base, docking with their ship. All of these were taken as though they were simple tasks. She was calm. Collected. Unhurried. Questions were answered with a slow, decisive, somewhat remote tone. She listened to something inside of her, some chronometer that ticked and told her of deadlines the others could not understand.
Marat was more scared not to follow her.
They had loaded onto the ship, the pitiful remains of the unit suffused with the feeling of unreality, of having survived what they were not meant to experience and survive, Darwa the only one who had managed to walk on his own. The only one whose face had not been splattered in blood, whose uniform didn't wear a coat of gore. His horror was worn on his face, the age lines grooved even deeper.
The skin on Sariv's face had a horrifying tendency to peel up with his movements.
Marat had walked into the silent crew areas with a feeling that she had been removed from reality; that she was simply a leftover piece of consciousness, drifting. Even now, too often, she turned, expecting one of the others, hearing a conversation long dead.
"Like a ghost," Sariv had remarked when she'd mentioned that, and she had not shared her thoughts with him afterwards.
They had gathered briefly in Command, staring at the forward viewscreen. Nothing had happened for several long moments, then a blue pinpoint of light began to burn in the continent they'd lifted from just a short while before. The light grew, swirled into a vortex. Marat had watched as the blue vortex spread over the continent, melted over the oceans, and then finally swallowed the entire planet. She had looked sideways at Aeryn in the moment the planet had collapsed into itself; their Captain watched without expression, without comment.
Four arns after their exhausted arrival aboard ship, a mere two arns after their removal to a lunar orbit, she had ordered them to land on an asteroid. They'd actually achieved attachment, clamped onto the rock, and then she'd shut down all systems, ordering them into their deepspace suits, venting atmosphere.
And then they had felt the whisker laser of sensors play over their ship.
Scarrans, come to discover what had happened to their base. A Scarran dreadnought, finding that the planet they'd seeded, the planet they'd conquered, no longer existed.
It would have been humourous and triumphant to Marat, but for how much they'd lost.
Aeryn had not seemed worried, but continued to drift in Command, watching through the viewscreen. They'd been like that for eight arns. Gravity, heat, all were sacrificed for their continued existence.
After the Scarran dreadnought moved on, deployed fighters to hunt through the asteroid belt around the fifth planet, she'd ordered them to move further into the Fringe.
"Further?" Darwa had asked. It was as close to insubordinate as he got.
"They won't think to look for us there," Aeryn had replied. "And they will be looking for us."
How far are we going? But the question wasn't asked, so none of them knew what she planned.
Food was no issue - the ship's supplies would stretch to cover the meager crew easily, likely even for a full cycle, if required. Fuel was a problem; the Fringe wasn't populated with Peacekeepers bases or fuel ships. The biggest danger to them, at this point, was exhaustion: they were a limited crew, unable to run full station watches.
How long will we be out?
Marat remembered the escape from the planet, the blue vortex, and bent to the navigational console without a murmur of disagreement.
* * *
Section 9: Beware the Stranger
He fired a warning shot at Scorpius.
Tauvo whirled around. "What the frell was that?"
Shit. Lucky for him that had been Tauvo; Crais would have drilled him without a 'Whoops.' "I thought . . . I thought I saw something."
"The Vorc, or the parasite?"
Vorc? Parasite? Oh, that's right. Moya. Parasites. Vorc - strange pet that Chiana had brought aboard. To get the pests. He had yet to see anything other than the Vorc itself, but he would humour Zhaan and D'Argo on their bug hunt. They were finally getting over their guilt in their part of Moya's madness, and the loss of nearly all her personality, but any threat to Moya or her crew still threw both of them back into a state of serious hyper-paranoia.
Look who's talking.
That's why he couldn't mention this to either one of them. D'Argo was just finally starting to look happy, or at least very well-laid, and John wasn't going to fuck that up for him. Zhaan . . . she had her own problems.
Tauvo . . . well, Tauvo would listen, but then he would push. And John was afraid of what would happen. Would he push back?
No, he wouldn't do that to Tauvo. Tauvo was just as fucked up as he was, with Crais for a brother. Bialar was a stiff-necked pain in the ass, and just as hard to live up to as Colonel Jack Crichton.
Chiana would listen, but then she would overreact. Pip was still firmly a fight-or-flight kinda girl, with emphasis more on flight than anything else. And Gilina . . . well, there weren't many things he'd gotten right with her recently. He didn't trust himself to be able to not fuck that up again. It was his fault she didn't understand him; it was his lack of ability to communicate with her.
And you're not doing much to make it right, are you, John?
Whoa. He nearly shrieked aloud. That sounded waay too much like Scorpius.
Okay, get a grip, John. You're on board Moya; you're safe.
Tauvo was staring at him. He was glad he'd fired a warning shot. He wasn't so far gone.
I'm okay. I'm still okay. I'm okay, you're okay, we're all okay.
* * *
Psych Tech Keet watched the remains of the unit disembark from the boarding tube. They were a sorry lot, with patched and dirty uniforms, non-regulation hair, no filing according to rank. Couldn't see your face in their boots. He couldn't have picked out their commanding officer, and watching them now, he didn't feel qualified to make a guess. Perhaps the man standing with him, Lieutenant Bynth, could understand the vagaries of tatters on Ghost uniforms, but Keet didn't ask. Bynth was just here as the Captain's representative, not as a real expert.
Watching the woman in front, he made a mental note to get medical staff involved after his preliminary meeting. She moved as though she'd been run clear to the end of the galaxy, then dragged back. Perhaps she had; their brief transmission had indicated they'd been on the run from the Scarrans for several monens. Her skin was stretched over her bones, her eyes huge, hollow and staring.
They were in serious need of debriefing, that was certain, even if whatever information they'd managed to accrue would likely be out of date. Ah, well, it kept them busy and out of the way.
He frowned as he counted the final numbers. There were four? Given what he knew of their mission, and the fact that they'd been hunted by Scarrans - some spectacular mission failure there, he assumed - he was surprised it was only a fifty percent casualty rate. Wait, they had been hiding in the Fringe, likely going as far as the Uncharted Territories. They couldn't have gone into Scarran-controlled space, or they wouldn't have come back. No, they'd likely been hiding in some asteroid field in the Uncharted Territories for several weekens.
The second woman, shorter, pale hair and eyes, did limp, and her uniform was heavily stained on the legs. Her skin was sallow, sickly. Her gaze weaved back and forth, as though she couldn't hold a focus. Yes, Med was definitely needed.
A man, dark hair brushing his collar, face liberally scarred, a parallel to the oval of his face, most of the network of lines raw pink, newly-healed. Keet winced. Those scars . . . nothing could be done about them; as a grot, he didn't rate the reconstruction efforts that an officer would automatically garner. This man would be crippled with that face for life. Likely he couldn't stand wearing a mask over those lines, otherwise he wouldn't have shown his face. Not like that.
Another man, short, the best of the bunch. He walked without incidence. Grey hair. Alert eyes. Ah, a veteran. Likely the senior officer; he had that quiet, competent look about him.
The tall woman stopped in front of him. Didn't salute. He hadn't really expected her to, though he always hoped for better manners from a Peacekeeper. "Captain Aeryn Sun." Her eyes were as cold as her voice.
He darted a quick look at the grey-haired commando. Well, he'd been wrong.
Lieutenant Bynth stirred himself long enough for an introduction. "Lieutenant Bynth. Here on behalf of the Command staff. Welcome aboard the Drakkan, Captain Sun."
"Senior Tech Keet. Captain Sun, if you and your unit will come this way?" As they fell in, he checked his roster. Captain Sun? "I thought Captain Rayn was commanding officer of this unit?"
"He was." Her tone was flat.
Ah. Keet looked back down at his flimsy. "And Kur?"
"Dead." Her voice was completely level, no emotion whatsoever.
"You were Third."
A field promotion. He noticed that Lt. Bynth shot her an envious look. "How long ago did you inherit command?"
Unavoidable, though it would be a pity to strip her of her rank after such a long period of time. She would have just begun to take the benefits for granted. Too bad. They couldn't allow such a young officer to climb the ranks like that, however. It had to be earned the right way, with time and seniority, and the experience gained as a result.
Two tiers up, and they were at his office. The three grots moved into the room smoothly, and he watched them for a microt before he realized what they were doing.
They were sweeping the room for targets. Acting Captain Sun stood and waited, the short man at her side, and only when the woman nodded an all-clear did she step inside his office.
As though it was her due.
He tried not to stare. He'd dealt with his share of Ghosts; they were all paranoid drannits, but this. . . ! Deciding to leave the door open, he stepped inside slowly, and sat down behind his desk. Lt. Bynth took up station on a chair beside his desk, carefully not giving away any status. Keet toyed with the notion of insisting on a private audience of one until he took note of how they'd ranged themselves.
Acting Captain Sun had remained standing, but not at parade rest. No, she propped herself against the wall beside the door. And her eyes . . . her eyes watched him . . . hungrily. No, no, they were empty. Watching him as though, as though he could fill her up.
The pale female had taken up station in front of her, right at the door, practically blending into the wall. The shorter of the two males had moved to the wall opposite the door, and the scarred one loomed behind Sun. As though they belonged with her. Like they watched out for her, or some foolish nonsense, she barely their Captain three monens--!
Even in the light of the office, her eyes held dark shadows.
Well, if Lt. Bynth wasn't concerned, perhaps he wouldn't press the issue just yet.
Leaning forward, he called up his preliminary report on the display, burying himself in the viewscreen. "We received your coded transmission. We lost portions of the data string due to electromagnetic interference, however, so we'll do a quick review. Acceptable?" A quick look up.
"Right. Then. Your mission was . . . yes, yes. Your primary mission was to locate a rumoured Scarran Gammak base, neutralize the scientific experts, and return with the data. Hmmm. Here, yes, I see. You did find it."
"We found one hidden Scarran base."
He waited, but nothing more was forthcoming. Did she presume that was clarification? He waded onward. "So you made your way to . . . . the Centauri Six system, landed on the identified planet, and realized that there was a stronger Scarran presence than originally estimated."
"Sebaceans?" He looked up.
"A colony had been established less than a cycle prior to our arrival."
She looked over at the other woman, who stepped away from the wall at something approaching parade attention. The pale one - Sergeant Marat, if he wasn't mistaken - didn't meet his eyes. As well she shouldn't. "We don't have solid numbers, sir, but we estimate that less than five percent of the colony remained."
He felt rage at the Scarrans, hatred. This was why they were at war, and he felt a sudden flush of pride for his race. After a moment, he went on. "I see that casualties were taken by your unit."
"There were stealthed fighters in orbit above the base."
He hid a wince at Acting Captain Sun's flat tone; he'd heard rumours that Scarran technology was beyond Peacekeepers', but he disliked hearing it confirmed. "What casualties?"
"Primary casualties were Lieutenant Kur. Officer Deej was seriously injured."
The latter soldier was not part of the chain of command; so irrelevant. "What were the Captain's orders?"
"To regroup on the ground. Captain Rayn and Senior Officer Janak infiltrated the base. We were tasked with the fallback plans."
"Why only Rayn and Janak?" Bynth asked.
She transferred her attention to him; Keet felt the dislocation as her gaze left him, an almost physical relief. As though he wanted to slump down, take a deep breath away from her disconcerting eyes.
"Captain Rayn determined that a smaller task force would be more effective in infiltrating the Scarran base. The two senior officers were the logical choice based upon level of experience in tactical ops."
Keet tried to discern any shade of disapproval in her voice, but could find none. She displayed no emotion, either verbally or physically. "He was not successful, I take it?"
"Both he and Senior Officer Janak were captured and killed."
Only Bynth jumped at the arctic words. "Was any intelligence leaked?"
"I don't know."
Time to take control back from Bynth; show him who was boss down here. "Can you verify that both officers were killed?"
Her head turned, as though on servos, to stare at Keet. "Yes," she said simply, and he shivered. There was . . . something behind her words, and it was so dark and dangerous he was certain he didn't want to go there.
He coughed to cover himself. "What happened then?"
"We infiltrated the base and completed our mission."
"How did you manage to infiltrate the base?"
"Via one of the secondary entrances. Discovered on the basis of several days' intelligence."
"That was not a luxury Captain Rayn enjoyed?" He'd get her now, draw her out.
"He believed that, given the number of Scarrans and their security arrangements, the less time we spent on the surface, the more likely our mission would continue undetected."
Damn. "So you managed to get into the base. You were able to get some data?"
"We downloaded all available data prior to destroying the location."
He blinked. So did Bynth. "I'm sorry," he stammered, struggling to understand what he'd just heard, "did you just mean to imply that you succeeded in destroying their data banks?"
"Destruction of the immediate area assumes destruction of the data banks, test results, and key personnel involved in any Scarran research."
"You . . . did what?" He looked around at her unit. All of them stared back at him with completely blank expressions. "H--how?"
"The majority of the base assets were involved in researching wormhole technology. At the time of our infiltration, the Scarrans were attempting to chart proto-wormhole energy signatures by artificially inducing the creative process. Within the controlled environment of a containment chamber, they could vary the phase harmonics as data accrued." She paused a moment, as though to be sure that he had followed this explanation, and then continued. "We removed the interlocks from the containment chamber and set the controls to a timed overload."
It took a microt for it to sink in, and then Keet sucked in his breath. He wasn't a wormhole tech, he didn't know the science behind this level of energy manipulation, but suddenly her description of "the immediate area" took on a stark and grim edge. "You . . . opened a wormhole? On a planet?"
In the corner, Bynth choked, gagged, as he heard the translation, and understood exactly what she'd done.
She shook her head. "We opened a proto-wormhole. My understanding of the phenomenon is that it is a highly unstable reaction and given to phase disintegration."
He couldn't marvel at her understanding of the science; he was too busy reeling from the notion of what she'd done. She hadn't destroyed the base; she'd evaporated the planet.
Her unit didn't bat an eye.
"That is . . . certainly a spectacular way to achieve your mission objective," he gasped, searching for some way to regain balance, control. Something in him, the part that enjoyed being cruel, added, "Of course, from an official perspective, it's too bad we don't know the specifics of how far along in their research they were prior to your destruction of the base."
Bynth turned a meaty neck to stare at him.
Captain Sun didn't flinch, just reached into a pocket. "As I said, we were successful in our mission." The data chip clinked on his desk as she set it down lightly, firmly.
He picked it up and looked at it. "Where is this from?" A data station, he thought, or a science terminal. Maybe even from one of the scientists?
"I was able to gain access to one of the backup mainframes. The data is now several monens out of date, but it should still prove useful as an indicator of the relative level of Scarran technology."
Her voice was soft, calm, level. As though wiping all the information and killing a planet were all in a day's work for her.
He stared at her, and shivered.
Perhaps it was.
* * *
Darwa reread the ops plan on the flimsy, reaching up to scratch the back of his neck so his fingers wouldn't shake.
Looked up again. Yup. The simulator assembly, the one they were supposed to requalify on before getting bumped to class one, was a trainer unit, not a med.
Med units were designed not to kill you if you failed.
Sariv, sitting across the tac table from him, put down his own flimsy. The edges fluttered, catching Darwa's eyes, before it flattened across the table's surface. Sariv's scars showed white, shiny against his pale skin. Sariv still couldn't wear a mask comfortably.
Marat couldn't get much paler.
He'd do it, of course. Strap himself in. They all would. They had to. Duty. Wasn't like they had much of a choice.
Damn waste of resources, though. That he couldn't figure out. They hadn't pissed anyone off, not personally. Other than Scarrans, of course. But no one on this Carrier really knew who they were, so who wanted them dead?
Darwa looked at the other two, but they avoided his gaze. Staring at the flimsies. Probably hoping the words would reform into something that made more sense. Probably wondering why they'd gone through the bother of surgery, of muscular reconstruction, if this was the result. Waste of a few good weekens, of time and tech resources. He'd been around longer than they, but nothing he could do, think, would make any sense of this, or change the words. Nothing to say. Nothing.
The staging area was quiet. The only noise was a loud hum, the only sound leaking through the barrier into the simulator area, from one of the other trainers. It gyrated through some maneuver, moving smoothly on its gimbals. The pilot display was blanked. The viewscreen display was blanked. Darwa looked at the status screen. High score for a class seven run, and the pilot was racking up the points easily.
The Trainer walked into the room. Smiled at them, or at least curled his lips upward. "Any questions?"
None that would help. Darwa might have asked: why are you doing this? What have we done? What did we do that didn't follow our orders, that didn't succeed in our mission?
Instead he asked: "This is our qualifying ops plan?"
"Yeah. Pass this and you're back on class one. Active duty. Back to your old tricks. I'm sure you can't wait, eh?"
"No, sir," Sariv muttered.
"Should be easy for you guys. With your reputation and all. I mean, it's not like you haven't faced worse, eh?"
Alarm bells went off in Darwa's head, but he didn't say anything. Couldn't.
Marat opened her mouth, looked for a microt as though she would speak, but then pressed her lips together and turned her face away. Good, he thought. Don't make it worse.
The hum died as the simulator behind the barrier slowed, stopped. There was an explosive venting of gases, a clouding of the view.
The Trainer didn't need any encouragement from them, but continued sentencing them. "Since you guys flew with one of the best, I'm sure you picked up a few things from her. Know your way around these trainers and think they're easy flights." He smiled brightly, falsely. "Is everyone ready?"
They grabbed their helmets with stiff hands. Stood up. Stepped through the barrier into the simulator area. Darwa passed the red line marked on the floor, felt the gravity differential in his bones. Suddenly felt so old. So tired. Noted that feeling with a dangerous sense of objectivity.
My heart was pounding when we had to board that scoutship in Scarran territory, he thought, where Marat got hurt. A monen ago. My heart was pounding when we escaped the Scarran planet. Over three monens ago.
I felt more alive then.
The Trainer walked to the command station, where a tech was cycling down the occupied simulator. "Here." He passed over the ops plan.
"Just a microt, sir," the tech replied without looking up. "I need to finish the maintenance programming, and then I'll input your plan."
Precious time. Darwa hadn't thought he would appreciate any delay, but now it was treasured. The machine smell of the simulators, the rankness of old sweat. Paint. Lubricant. Typical training smells. He'd started out here, once. Had never thought, guessed, he would end here.
The tech finally finished and turned to pick up the flimsy. Darwa kept his eyes on the other simulator, not wanting to look at the Trainer's smile. The pilot had popped the canopy and was climbing out slowly. Carefully. Stiffly. Another figured followed the first. Darwa's eyes narrowed. The second, a male, wasn't suited for the simulator, anonymous in a flight suit. No, this one was armoured, armed. Wore a pulse pistol. An escort. A guard.
Darwa's eyes turned back to the pilot. Waited what seemed an eternity before the helmet was racked. Before familiar features were exposed.
"Cap'n," he whispered. Or maybe he didn't. Just a little breath of air, the faintest of sounds. A prayer, a plea.
The others stiffened. It was the first time they'd seen her, since she'd been taken away by the meds. Her face was paler than usual, her cheekbones still jutting from the planes of her face.
Hollow eyes, empty of . . . anything. She looked at them, through them, and only a flicker of recognition stirred. She nodded as she walked forward, past them. Darwa killed the sudden urge to stop her. To say . . . goodbye.
"Sir." The tech was frowning, raising his voice to catch the Trainer's attention. The Trainer was looking at the point spread of the other simulator. "Is this the correct ops plan?"
"Yes, Tech, it is." Finality.
The escort, as he passed Darwa, looked a little green around the edges. Darwa wanted to grin, but couldn't muster the energy. Didn't want to feel to care.
"I mean - only, if this is for class one requals, it's a little--"
"A little what?"
"Well, sir, it's only for class one duty, not special. Sir." The tech's eyes were darting between the Trainer and the unit. Trying not to say what everyone else was thinking.
You're out of your league, Darwa thought, surprised the man had even spoken up. And you know it, too. But thanks.
She had paused. The escort stopped, three paces behind her.
"But these are special pilots, Tech," the Trainer's voice was firm. Sneering. Carried easily throughout the room. "They're Ghosts, they can handle it. They're used to working under much more stringent requirements, after all."
The Captain turned slowly, as smoothly as though she were on the simulator gimbals.
Darwa watched the Trainer, who was now staring at the Captain. So that's why you're doing this.
"Val," she said, and nodded. Her voice was empty. Her eyes were cold.
"Sun. Imagine running into you here! So far from those days in Prowler training. I thought you'd be out on the Fringe or something, now you've left the rest of us active pilots far behind."
Technically speaking, the Trainer was no more an active-duty pilot than she was now, but Darwa didn't say anything.
Neither did she, but simply waited. The Trainer seemed to catch a glimpse of the escort for the first time, and snapped his fingers. "Oh, that's right. You were injured, weren't you? How bad was it? Must have been one frell-up, I suppose, to earn the guard."
The escort merely looked on, professionally curious.
She still waited, forcing him to find the forward momentum himself. Which the Trainer did. "I'm happy to tell you, Captain, that I'm about to move your former unit back to class one. Assuming they can pass the requals, of course. Since they're your unit--" and now his voice was scathing, "--we should only expect the best, eh?" His voice firmed. "The Tech was just about to program it in."
"That's a direct order, Tech."
And he wouldn't be able to disobey a direct order, Darwa knew. He was only a tech. The Trainer wore Lieutenant's sigils, giving him, in this microt, the right to mete out death as he saw fit. No one would question him later; who would care? Three grots? They were meant to be expendable.
The tech bent down to his task. Each keystroke hammered into Darwa's heart.
The Captain glanced at the escort before taking one step towards the Tech's station. The escort's fingers stretched once, over the pistol, then relaxed, and she moved forward to pick up the flimsy. Read through it. The Trainer merely grinned.
Darwa watched her face carefully. Nothing moved over it, no expressions showed through the fragile cage of bones. But in her eyes, something flickered. Something changed. He felt the crackle of energy, the focus gathering in the room, sliding past him to center on her. He shivered.
"An unusual ops plan. Challenging," she commented.
The Trainer shrugged, still smiling. "Should be easy enough for a class one to perform."
"Really?" She set down the flimsy. "How would you know that?"
"Because I designed it myself."
She nodded, as though she'd known. "And you verified it, of course."
The Trainer opened his mouth. Darwa kept his eyes on the Captain, heard no response. The tech finished typing. Keyed the simulator. A green light blinked under the canopy. Ready for them.
"After all," she said, her voice thoughtful, "you can't test it on class twos. That is, not according to Flight Training Regs."
"It's a valid exercise!"
She shrugged. "It may well be. You are, after all, a certified Trainer, so one would expect you, of all people, to know. But we do have to satisfy Training Regs, don't we?" Her gaze drifted around the assembled group. "Hmmm. It seems that the only qualified class one pilot we have here is . . . you, Val."
The Trainer stiffened. "Y-You can't--"
Her voice cut smoothly over his, a fine sharp edge. "The Tech has already programmed in the ops plan. I understand that he verified with you verbally that it is, indeed, the correct plan. You have every intention of running this scenario, and I concur. It's a challenging exercise. I simply think the Tech requires a signoff, a validation that all regulations have been fulfilled for a newly-designed plan." She gestured to the simulator. "At your convenience, Lieutenant."
Darwa's mouth was dry.
The Trainer looked at the Captain. At the escort, who didn't move to interfere, didn't say anything. At the Tech, who was staring down at his console.
She didn't flinch from that pleading tone. Her eyes were dark, still. "Lieutenant." Her voice was silky, but there was no triumph, no victory. It was all that more ominous, for that lack of emotion. "Is your design valid, or not? You will either test it, according to your department's regulations, or you will withdraw it."
Time ticked by, like heartbeats.
The Trainer moved. Darwa stared at him as the man slowly, carefully moved towards the green-rimmed canopy, picking up his helmet from a peg by the simulator.
She watched him go, her face blank. "Tech," she murmured, "reprogram the parameters for one pilot."
"Any other changes, Captain?"
They were all watching her.
The Tech punched in the change.
The Trainer reached the canopy. Stretched up, fingers trembling. Popped it. Climbed up the ladder, setting his feet carefully. Sat in the first seat. Sealed his helmet, his gloved fingers like dark creatures scuttling around his throat.
The canopy hissed closed, the light bar switched to red.
"Initiate scenario," she said calmly. "Blank all displays and show pilot status only."
They wouldn't be able to see the image of the pilot, of his reactions. Wouldn't see what he saw. Only his score, and his environmentals.
A show of mercy.
The simulator rose up, swiveled. Gases vented. None of them moved further away. Darwa felt Sariv look around at their unit, but didn't meet the man's eyes, only kept looking at the status screen, barely daring to breathe.
At just over three hundred microts, pilot life signs, already on the boundary, jumped into the red zone. Three hundred seventy-two microts. The simulator rocked on its gimbals, groaned under the stresses. Four hundred eighteen microts. Servos jerked as the machine crashed from side to side. Four hundred thirty-six microts. The simulator's pitch angled up sharply, the machine screamed. Four hundred thirty-nine microts. A sudden crash as the simulator reached its limit, an explosive venting.
Four hundred forty microts. Pilot life signs flatlined.
Less than five hundred microts. Darwa was shaken, terribly cold. He'd expected to last longer than that, he'd thought, yes, he would go, but not that fast, not that sudden.
The Tech cleared his throat. "Captain--"
"Yes." Terrifying calmness. Utter blankness on her face. Darkness in her eyes, a great, yawning depth that a man would drown in.
"I'll log the results, shall I?" He dared to look at her. "Testing has proved that the results were invalid for use as a requalification plan. I'll have to lock down that simulator until a crew can come in and clean it."
There was a shared moment of silence. Three released breaths, but she merely cocked her head.
"Thank you, Tech." She nodded at the rest of them, turned away. The escort fell in behind her, not giving them a backward glance.
Darwa's eyes followed her all the way out.
* * *
He was losing his mind.
"I can't lose my mind," he muttered, "it's the only thing I've got left."
Concentrating made it better. Chess. Golf. Life-or-death situations. Luckily, there were all these things, and more, on Moya.
I lost my sense of humour, too. The infamous Crichton charm. Gone. Down the hatch!
Had anyone noticed anything yet? He'd stopped thinking about trying to talk to them. Any of them. It was too hard. Gilina had stopped trying to talk with him. He couldn't blame her; it wasn't easy talking to a total prick. God, the things he'd said to her, when that T'raltixx thing had been on board--
He'd apologized, but they'd both known the hurt was too deep, too much. He'd done more than hurt her: he'd scared her.
She'd been afraid of him, flinching for days afterwards.
And that just pissed him off more. Yes, he'd been a bastard. Yes, he'd said things even he couldn't believe. But didn't she know him better than that? And so his anger grew - anger at her for not seeing, not staying to fight, but walking away.
That's the goddamned problem: you won't fight for anything. Not even for me.
She wanted him to fix it, get over it, go back to who he'd been, when they'd first met. The guy who asked questions first, fired last. The gee-whiz kid who wanted to believe the universe was a peaceful, friendly place. But he couldn't. He saw Scorpius even when he closed his eyes.
You'll never see it coming.
Poor Tauvo. Having to live with his brother, and his brother's actions. Everyone had thought that Crais was the logical one to talk to the baby, being a Peacekeeper captain and all. That Mustang, being the little hybrid he was, would find comfort in something like rank and culture. But Crais was changing him. They'd run off once or twice, done some weird stuff. Either Crais didn't have perfect control, or Crais wasn't leveling with them. You think you know someone.
He moved the piece. "Checkmate."
Scorpius picked up his king, laid it on its side. "That's . . . not what I meant."
John didn't respond.
* * *
"They let her out," Sariv said as he dropped into the empty seat. "She's gone from intensive to a standard med rack."
No need to ask who she was. Marat moved her mess tray slightly to one side, the better to accommodate Sariv's. "What's her status?"
"Class three restricted duty, according to the personnel files."
Darwa snorted, but said nothing.
"So why are we at class two?"
"Maybe they found out about Rayn and figured she might go critical mass."
Marat doubted that they had found out the true details of what had occurred on the Scarran base. All of them had told the basic facts - which hadn't told the story. They'd listened to the Captain's bare-bones retelling to the tech boot-shiner and gave similar versions when they were individually, finally, debriefed. No, more likely High Command, or at least the Captain aboard this gleaming spit-shined hulk of a Command Carrier, were worried about what she'd managed to accomplish, and wanted to watch her a while longer before granting her a class two. Class two meant a release from the medical section to normal quarters. Which wouldn't give them any leverage to restrict her movements. Marat remembered the escort, that dangerous day with the Trainer, and shivered. The escort hadn't interfered. The escort hadn't been assigned by Medical; the sigils had been wrong. The implications were . . . staggering.
The details of their most recent mission, however, had been restricted. Buried deep under layers of classification and eyes-only, allowing others - like the Trainer, like their companions in their racks - to believe they, she, had failed.
"Funny thing is?" Sariv continued. "There's already orders cut for her, ready as soon as she comes off of class three."
They didn't have to ask how he knew; neither Marat nor Darwa had assumed his interest in the tech girl who managed the medical unit to which the Captain had been assigned had been anything but convenient. He'd worn a mask until her interest in him would overcome the ingrained disgust for such scars. Marat barely noticed them anymore. There was a time when she would have winced away from any overt disfigurement on a Peacekeeper. Now it didn't matter.
"Orders for where?"
"Another Carrier. She's to report to someone named Scorpius."
He shrugged. "Didn't say so. But he must want her bad. The orders came in not three solar days after we came aboard."
Two weekens ago. "What duty station?"
"Doesn't say. But she gets to keep her rank. That's in the orders, too."
Darwa finished off his last scrap of food and shoved the tray away. "She gets to keep her rank, she's entitled to staff," he murmured.
"It's likely already been assigned," Marat noted.
"No, she's restricted duty. No need for staff. But. . . ," Sariv said, sitting up, "Carriers always need staff."
"True." She thought a moment. If she could find the right person, and he could let her near the right sort of interface. . . .
Yes, it could be done.
She smiled, and the other two at the table smiled back at her.
* * *
There was a time when he would have hated life-and-death situations.
Now they were his only moments of clarity.
There was a time when he couldn't have borne the thought of killing someone.
Now he'd give his right arm, and more, anything, to kill Scorpius.
My, how times have changed.
* * *
"Welcome aboard, Captain Sun."
She looked askance at the young Officer. Oh, yes. Escort. Standard forms for welcoming another Captain aboard a Carrier. Granted, she wasn't flag rank, she was a line officer, but it was still a courtesy to be followed. And so a boot-shiner attended her.
She wished she could believe that rationalization for the other's presence. It would be so convenient. So easy, to forget the past monen, believe it simply hadn't existed, that it was simply a fuzzy legacy of drugs and surgery.
They'd tried to Psych her, with drugs. But they couldn't reach her, buried beneath the void. Got that back just in time. They saw only the void. They were reassured by that. Must remember to keep that.
But they had kept her from moving into a class one designation, and it wasn't because of lingering health problems. Of that she was certain; she was in excellent physical health, and her scores in the simulators had been comfortably high. And so she looked now to this young Officer, face clear, eyes bright, and wondered how many other meanings she could construe for this formality.
I see too much in your face.
For instance, the mission to gather intelligence on how the new arrival was coping after the tedious transport journey. How she would react. Assurance that she arrived at her designated rack without fail. At least this was much more agreeable than an Inbriefing drone. Certainly safer than the escort who had followed her footsteps on the last Carrier, who hadn't worn Med badges, who hadn't said a word to her in all that time.
"Is this all the luggage you have?"
"Yes." She hefted her duffel. Not much to show, for nearly two cycles away from Command Carriers, the nerve centers of Peacekeeper culture. No, all she carried that was important was on the inside, packed securely under layers of scar tissue.
"What about your deepspace suit? Your armour?"
Obviously the Officer was not aware that she was on restricted duty, still on class two. "I was informed I could secure replacements here." Yes, because the ones she'd had in her Marauder had not survived repeated close calls with the Scarrans, not to mention the other hazards of the Fringe and Uncharted Territories.
Some of the medical attention had been valid. They'd gone into Scarran space and survived. Those mementos, too, came with her, packed neatly into her dreams.
"If you'll follow me, please?" The Officer turned and led the way. Aeryn followed, a part of her mind keeping track of the route, and cross-corridors. Noting landmarks, faces. If required, she would be able to trace her way back to any point on this route without a misstep.
Another part of her mind considered her new assignment, and the lack of information available to her. At one time, she would have fretted at that lack. In the last two cycles, she had become used to it.
Right at the second corridor, up one tier--
Her ability to maintain separate tracks of thoughts no longer bothered her; she did it as easily as breathing. There were times the clamour of thoughts was a welcome balm to the silence.
They passed into Officer's Country, the rarefied heights of which she had once only dreamed. Now she saw only too many people; she blocked the noise and the stimulus with long practice. The Officer stopped before a door and tapped in an access code.
"This will serve as your quarters."
More spacious than her medical rack; they had accorded her visiting Captain's quarters. Easily accessible for Carrier Security. Didn't require the full-time asset of an escort. "Thank you."
"Will anything else be required? I am at your convenience--"
"No, thank you." The drone didn't know anything Aeryn couldn't figure out for herself. The room was fine. A light already blinked on her console, waiting for her arrival; she was not surprised. The Officer hadn't stepped in. Good. Aeryn hit the door release and shut it on a surprised expression. Well, she was a Ghost, she had a reputation to maintain.
At least it didn't shut on her toes.
She dropped her duffel on the rack and moved to the console. First to recode it to her, and her alone. After that, the message light blinked ready. She hit the receive button.
Orders scrawled across the display. Appointment with the Commander, at his convenience, two solar days.
She turned off the display and looked around slowly, at her new cage. Nothing to do until then.
She went back to the console, called up the map displays, and studied them for a few microts, scrolling through the decks. Then turned off the display, coded her door locks, and went in search of Supply.
In the depths of the ship, of course. She followed the map of her head, avoiding transport tubes, until she got to the correct tier, located a Supply drone, and completed a requisition slip, handing it over silently.
The drone had looked at the list, looked up at her. "I'll have to verify these items."
At her obvious intention to wait, he sighed and fed it through the proper input, typing in the reqs. She waited, counting off the microts in her head. Two possible choices. The likeliest--
It beeped. His eyes widened, and he began to move faster, assembling what was easily at hand. The desk between them began to collect quite a pile.
I was right. She snagged the flight suit. "I'll take this now. Have the rest delivered to my quarters."
Ah, the privileges of rank. Or was it?
Once again, the long way - it was more scenic, it allowed her to cover more of the Command Carrier, get a feel for its corridors, its personnel, its sounds and rhythms. Finally that last step into the Prowler hangar bay, and a sensation that so flooded her system her knees nearly gave way.
The sights the sounds the smells--
How had she ended up here, a supplicant to a world that was once so familiar?
The moment passed and she managed a normal step into the hangar. Now to find the officer on duty--
Her response was ingrained: that voice, that tone, that word. All together, they worked on her automatically. She turned around. Raised eyebrows.
And Darwa, hidden behind a Prowler nose, if she was not mistaken.
"What a coincidence," she drawled.
"Isn't it?" Marat looked cheerfully innocent, her pale face a distraction from her calculating eyes. "I didn't realize you were here! Have you been assigned to this Carrier?"
"For the moment." She had been broken--
"So are we."
"Prowler detachment," Sariv said.
"Really." Patched together pieces of her self, hidden them beneath the void--
Marat shrugged. "Amazing how many Prowler pilot slots were open."
"I can't imagine." Especially since Marauder commando slots were also undoubtedly open, and had more stringent requirements.
"Not for class twos. Guess we're being given more recovery time."
Yes, that excuse had probably worked. "How long have you been here?"
Marat seemed to be looking for something in her eyes, or her expression. "Nearly a monen."
The pieces pooled deep within her, the broken edges melting together, not quite solid, but no longer separate.
"You busy?" she asked them. They were all wearing their flight suits.
They looked at each other and shrugged.
"Then let me find the officer on duty, get me checked out and changed . . . and let's go out." She smiled. Down in the dark spaces beneath the void, between the scar-struts and the pain, something shimmered and took form.
* * *
He watched her come in to his office, examining her carefully for signs of degradation. It had been nearly two monens since she had returned to Peacekeeper territories, two weekens since he had requested her transfer to his Command Carrier. Her arrival two solar days ago had been much-anticipated, but he'd had to put this interview off because of other priorities.
But now, finally, she was here.
She moved well, fluidly, like she'd been taught. Her face was blank, expressionless, and yet he knew that she'd caught the small gesture the aide had made as she'd passed, knew that she'd catalogued all the available things located in his antechamber that she could use as weapons. Knew she had done so automatically, at almost a subconscious level.
Was that multitasking capability a product of the Pilot DNA matrix, or simple survival of what she had endured? He wished he could have put her through a battery of tests, but there was no baseline data - other than personnel records - upon which to calculate a delta. Pity.
He'd assigned a tech to keep track of her movements throughout the ship, to log her console use and note her food intake. The reports hit his desk every three arns. He'd noted the immediate requisition of the supplies - one uniform, one flight suit, one deepspace suit, one set of battle armour. Smiled. He knew where her priorities lay. The flight recorder for the Prowler she'd checked out had been downloaded and reviewed. She'd taken the ship out to glory in the power of it, he thought, to fly to the edge and skim the blade's edge. She had managed to redline all but three of the systems onboard the Prowler, and copies of those flight logs were apparently circulating through the pilots.
But she was here now. She waited patiently in front of his desk, as though she could wait for arns, weekens, monens. He wondered if that, too, was a result of survival, or her altered DNA, or a facet of the personality she had been reared for. The information on the Pilot species included a personality profile with terms like patient, solid, level, but he could not apply any of those to her. A true pity she was no longer a valid experiment, unfortunately; even with baseline documentation, the stressors placed on her within the past few monens exceeded any biological test requirements.
Not that the designated tech sample had worked out any better, and that systematic trial had been according to scientific standards. He didn't begrudge the time spent on the project, and certainly not the loss of the tech; if Aeryn Sun was the result, the experiment certainly hadn't been wasted effort. She had been honed to a sharp edge; exactly what he had hoped, better than he had expected. The few reports Captain Rayn had logged prior to his unfortunate demise were telling, even in their brevity.
It was obvious, Scorpius mused, that the good Captain had been out of his depth with her. Rayn had done well, had recognized her superiority and accorded her a position relevant to her intelligence. He had encouraged her beyond sense, beyond reason, into a dark world where her senses ruled supreme, where she was free to move beyond the talents allowed and accepted by the confines of Peacekeeper training.
He allowed himself a small moment of desire: if only he had more of her! He wished he could use her against the Scarrans, deploy her again in the Fringe, for she had proved an effective weapon. Destroying an entire planet . . . ah, that was ambition.
But Medical and Psych insisted on being cautious, which he accepted and agreed to, and even so, he had more urgent uses for her. The medical restrictions only served to make sure she would report to him, and only him. Her rank he would allow her to keep because that, too, served to isolate her, and made her an even more effective tool for him to use.
He slid a flimsy across the desk. "Look at it."
He examined her expression as she read; it gave away nothing. But then, she had very little to give, and to lose, had she not? She had only what Peacekeepers had given her: pain, suffering, the sensation of being hunted, duty. Her medical discharge had come reluctantly, even after his urging.
He felt a sudden twinge of kinship, which he examined, then turned aside. "Do you know who he is?"
She shrugged. "He looks Sebacean."
"Looks, yes. But he is Human." He wondered if she remembered her interaction with John Crichton on the Gammak base, but he didn't ask. He didn't think it likely: the serum had been overly effective when combined with her unique blood chemistry, and had required further calibration before she had been able to function on a conscious level. "His name is John Crichton."
"What is a Human?"
"A species not unlike us in many ways. He can pass for Sebacean easily. In fact, in the past he has even been able to infiltrate a Gammak base, posing as a Captain." Still no flicker of recognition. Well, much had happened to her since then; it was no great matter. "Wormhole technology. You've seen its effects firsthand; you know the Scarrans have been experimenting with it. He holds the key to that technology, and I can no longer wait for his cooperation. Unlocking that knowledge has become a priority, and as such, so has he. I want you to find him, and lead me to him."
Now there was a response: she looked up at him; looked him in the eye, as so few subordinates were wont to do. Waited.
"I know what you can do." He smiled at her, a pleased, paternal smile. "I know exactly . . . how effective you can be. And so I offer you this as a way of . . . passing the time of your recovery."
She put down the flimsy. "I need to know more about him."
He smiled and handed her a data chip.
* * *
Bialar had imprinted Mustang, and he wanted Tauvo to move his belongings on board the growing Leviathan hybrid.
Tauvo couldn't. His brother didn't understand that, but the young ex-Peacekeeper pilot couldn't have explained it.
He didn't want to leave John.
John had named Mustang, when he was born. Moya had asked. John had said it was a "hot rod." No one had understood him.
The Human had been spiraling downward steadily, in both health and sanity. No one had noticed until it had been blindingly obvious: John firing at Rygel in the corridors; John screaming for Scorpius. John's conversations with empty air. Only when D'Argo had subdued him, and Zhaan sedated him, had Tauvo, D'Argo, Chiana and Zhaan gathered in the Central Chamber to discuss the situation. At which point Pilot admitted that he'd heard John's ravings at night, but hadn't known whom to inform.
"Why didn't you tell me?" Zhaan asked.
"Because when I asked Commander Crichton to whom he was speaking, he informed me he was under 'a lot of pressure.' He then told me that he was 'dealing with shit.' I did not understand him entirely, but I believed that it meant he was suffering from transit illness with symptoms localized in his intestines."
They'd looked at one another in dismay. John hadn't mentioned anything to any of them, and that surprised Tauvo. He and D'Argo had been with John since the beginning; they'd become, in John's words, "drinking buds," whatever sort of plant that was. John was never, even at his worst, at a loss for words, and he'd opened up to them before. Zhaan, a healer, seemed a natural choice. Gilina was obviously out; John had moved his belongings from their shared chamber less than a weekens after his rescue from the Gammak base, and the situation had seemed to stalemate from there. Both D'Argo and Zhaan had insisted that no one interfere between the two; D'Argo in particular had said the behaviour was understandable.
"He has been tortured," the Luxan had growled at the time. "We do not know the particulars of what happened. We should allow him some time to recover before we assume we are ready to hear what happened."
And I left him alone, didn't I? I went and placated my brother, because he was worried that John would take his place.
I even told him about how I'd dreamed of going to Earth, and I never told John.
Now was not the time for recrimination, but action. Tauvo cleared his throat and looked at his companions. "What do we do now?"
"I am running a diagnosis on him now, but I fear we will not solve this problem so quickly," Zhaan said. "We must watch him carefully. He is a danger to himself."
"And to others," D'Argo noted.
"I'll watch him," Chiana volunteered.
"Would having Gilina also take care of him be appropriate?" Tauvo asked, phrasing his words carefully. Do I even know if that's what John wants?
When was the last time I talked to him? Really talked to him?
"No," Chiana snapped. "That tralk thinks he's faking it."
"I heard them talking, once. In the corridors." She wasn't in the least abashed. "Gilina told him to get over it. He said he couldn't, that it wasn't that easy. She wasn't the least sympathetic!"
Tauvo felt as though a light had suddenly come on a dark room. "She doesn't know."
Zhaan looked over at him. "Doesn't know what, Tauvo?"
He managed to choke through his surprise. Of course. It had been so obvious to him, to everyone on board. Except Gilina. Because only Gilina chose to remain insulated, never venturing out on her own. Never getting into trouble. Not like the others.
"The soldier classes - pilots, commandos - and anyone as a line officer or above gets special briefings. We're trained to recognize combat stress, so we know what it is, and our bodies work through it better because of everything that's done to us. I don't know the tech or the biology behind it, obviously, but it's something we take for granted. We're the only ones exposed to it, and we know what to do about it, even if it's just soldier on.
"But Peacekeeper techs don't get that training. They're not expected to undergo anything as stressful as combat, and if they do, by whatever freak chance, they're simply medicated until they can be dealt with."
"John's health is the priority here," D'Argo rumbled.
"John may find reason to heal if Gilina is part of the process," Zhaan replied. "I will take on the task of attempting to make her understand what is happening with John. Pilot, let's find the nearest commerce planet. We may be able to find medical help for John."
D'Argo nodded. "I will be there when John wakes up. He may be disoriented."
Tauvo felt a stab of guilt. John was usually one of the first ones to notice when something was wrong. He was the one who, most often, made someone "open up," as he put it. As much as Moya's non-Human members scoffed at the technique, as much as they said John was talkative, everyone had benefited from it at one time or another. Humbling, then, that none of them had recognized the need in him.
Especially Tauvo, who, in his heart of hearts, had considered John to be a brother. How disappointing, how crushing. I failed you both, he thought. One by who I have not become, and the other, by what I could not see.
* * *
She remembered him. The glossy had been taken from a different angle, the hair was slightly different, the clothes some pale material, an unknown uniform.
It was the eyes. Electric blue. In the glossy, they shone with emotion - anger, or perhaps hatred. Not fear.
It didn't matter. She would remember him anywhere.
The rhythm of him underneath her skin; how he scorched her, the shock danced down through bones and arced, spread out in waves, with the two of them at its center.
She remembered: pain, pain, oh lovely pain, I'm bleeding.
The glossy crinkled underneath her fingers; she smoothed it with her palm. A gentle stroke of hand across a phantom stranger's image. She was alone here with him, locked into her empty quarters. A Captain's privilege. Her own private void. All else was shut out, the overrides disabled. She demanded the breathing space.
If they thought they were going to isolate her, they were wrong.
I thought I saw fear in your eyes.
She would find him. Needed to find him, look into his eyes again, and understand.
"John Crichton." She murmured the name aloud, tasted the flavour. Closed her eyes, holding the image in her mind. Created a space in the void for him. "Tell me who you are, John Crichton. Tell me where you are."
She opened her eyes and inserted the datachip.
The world of John Crichton. Sightings, conversations, image feeds. She swam through his worlds, she followed his footsteps, she was a ghost breathing over his shoulder, through his past. Cross-referenced prisoner files and met his friends. Remembered Crais and saw John Crichton through his eyes: a brief enemy, a welcome saviour. Recognized him now as a rival for affection, for perfection.
--There was an interlude, sleep, eat, defecate. Back to the console--
Saw the brief clip of the Aurora Chair. Backtracked in time, cross-referenced transfer files. Recognized her own part in bringing him there, and learned what had happened to him as a result.
The shock of pain, radiating outwards--
Learned all that had been taken from him.
Yes, she had to do that too, to understand.
Followed him, and hints of him. The rumours, the visions, the reports - from one-line sightings of what-might-be-a-Human to conversations from those who'd had contact with him.
Learned of the Royal Planet. Cross-indexed with the family line's history; learned the cultural implications of the small bottles, understood how he had so easily frelled up with one misstep.
You act based on what you think, feel, and not what you know.
Collapses in several commerce planets. She watched him degrade, wondering at his friends, who didn't seem to see.
Are they too close? Or are you not letting them see?
Go back to the beginning. Taste his thoughts. Listen to his words. Learn the cadence of his voice, learn the habits of his movements.
--Another interlude, and she stared at the bulkheads, allowing thoughts to swirl in her head, watching the patterns coalesce--
He had searched so desperately for his home, especially at the beginning. It had been frantic, desperate. He had taken every chance, regardless of the danger.
He no longer did that. Now he mistrusted. He waited, watched, tested.
He was growing ill.
She called up a solar map, focusing on certain systems. Highlighted. Readjusted the scale. Ran a parameter search.
She knew. Not where he was, but where he would be.
* * *
Scorpius scrolled through his files, opened the message again. It was brief, one line, easily memorized.
Located Human target. Will be present at referenced planet within next weekens.
He looked again at the attached solar map. After a few microts, he leaned back in his chair.
He checked the header. She had sent this . . . two solar days ago. No word from her after that; she continued to move through her daily routine of eat, sleep, fly Prowlers, as though nothing of import had occurred.
He had redirected the Command Carrier, moving towards the designated system, when another message came in. A message from John Crichton, one he'd expected. Fixing his coordinates on the same icy planet.
She was two solar days ahead of his own neural clone.
He constructed a reply to her.
Assemble small Marauder detachment for support mission. Staging time: one arn, Hangar Bay 3.
The Command Carrier was too slow. He would have to go ahead with a Marauder, with a full complement of commandos, and let the Command Carrier catch up. Attaching a half-complement of another Marauder detachment . . . as a support element . . . no, a training element, since the good Captain was still under a class-two restriction.
Not that anyone would question his actions, should he request her.
Yes, he would request her. If anything went wrong, he wanted this asset close at hand.
* * *
Section 10: Ice
He'd killed her.
He'd finished the job, on Moya, by putting his hands around her throat and snapping her neck before he'd fled down to the Ice Planet. But he'd started back on the Zelbinion, when he'd first met her. When he'd allowed her to stay in the room, be injured. When he'd taken her away from the life that was so known to her.
He'd made a mistake.
She had tried to change. For him. Had tried to become something else. Something more. But she couldn't become what he'd wanted, needed, her to be. Couldn't step out of her box. Safe there.
His mistake, as heavy and cold as the cuffs on his wrists. His mistake, lying dead in the coffin before him. She'd finally found her box. It was safe.
Her mistake, to have tried to stop him from taking the module.
As she'd stepped in front of him, denying him access to his module, as she'd demanded to know what he was doing, and why, he had howled inside. Now you care?
No, that was unfair of him. She'd known that Scorpius lived inside his head, whispered sweet nothings in his ear. At long last, she understood he hadn't been himself, and that had given her impetus to act.
So he'd killed her. Smiled, kissed, killed.
He hadn't wanted to see this, the cold corpse in the cryochamber, but he'd made himself. Face his mistake. Live with her death. Her death, on his hands. Like Lieutenant Hassan. How easily he killed, when he was possessed.
Can't blame that one on Scorpy, John. You've got a dark side that's got blue light specials for the wackos.
He traced her cheek with a cold finger.
"Say goodbye," D'Argo had said as he'd led John into the chamber. "As I never had a chance to."
Big D, you shoulda killed me when you had the chance.
Zhaan was watching him, worried.
"I loved her," he told Zhaan. "I just . . . wasn't in love with her."
Maybe that hadn't made sense to her. But it haunted him. Would I have still been able to kill her, if I'd been in love with her? Would that have been enough to stop me?
"I don't want to do this," he muttered. "I don't want her to . . . pay for this. For me."
"John." Zhaan took his arm, gentle. Gentle, gentle Zhaan. Maybe he should learn from her; how to kill a lover and then live with it. "John, she is dead. You need help. And she did love you, John. I do not think she would have begrudged this much."
"But I don't want this." I didn't want her.
"You have no choice," D'Argo rumbled. "It has been done." His eyes were gentle, John knew. The Luxan made the choice, so the Human wouldn't have to.
Damn them, they made it too easy for him.
He leaned forward, touched her hair. "Gilina," he whispered. A benediction; all he could give her in return for having taken everything from her. Starting with one choice: taking her with them. Ending with her life. She was going to pay for his mistakes, her currency the only thing that remained to her: her body. He had used her so horribly. Now he would be putting the final nail in her coffin.
The Diagnosian waited in the antechamber.
He looked up at D'Argo. "Don't put her in me. Please. I can't--" He couldn't say more. Begged instead, with his eyes.
D'Argo nodded. Slowly. Once.
"Let's do it," John muttered.
* * *
"This is boring."
It wasn't on the command channel; she hadn't officially heard it. Sariv, of course. No need to get after him for comms chatter - they were providing support only, hiding close to the planet's shadow, stealthed to minimum power and tumbling, using directional whiskers to communicate. Unless she managed to acquire a visual or blundered into the path of the directional, the Leviathan and her offspring would simply read and hear them as debris.
And the two ships were currently too busy; she'd had transport traffic to and from the planet, not to mention the threat of Scorpius and the obvious bait of the other Marauder. The hybrid had been in the upper atmosphere, playing guard.
Aeryn had watched the other Marauder insert into the atmosphere, one part of her mind clinically assessing the skill behind the maneuver, the minds behind the controls. They'd done a fairly decent job of getting onto the planet, but there was still something about them. The pilot was fast, quick, sharp.
She didn't know where that thought came from, just accepted it.
The other part of her mind wondered if Scorpius had ever told the other commando team of their existence, of their presence. She didn't think so. When she'd looked at their flight plans, prior to leaving the Carrier, and suggested taking her team on a least-time, redlined course in-system first, then positioning her Marauder by drifting in, he hadn't mentioned coordinating her movements with the other Marauder ship - the official transport for Scorpius, she'd noticed, as listed on mission orders - and she hadn't asked.
We're Ghosts, she thought, we don't exist. Until he needs us.
So she had inserted her team, prepared them. Watched Scorpius' approach in the other Marauder. That had been nearly a solar day ago.
She knew he would have backup plans. Plans rarely survived first contact with enemy, however, and so she had held in geosynchrynous orbit; ready in her Prowler, still clamped to the Marauder's hull. Darwa and Sariv were holding station in their Prowlers a few metras off. She wished she'd been able to leave a recon satellite or a sensor platform further out-system - as it was, she felt blind. Too easy for someone to sneak up on her flank, as the Scarran scoutship had proved.
The Command Carrier was still not close enough.
Everyone had stayed very, very quiet, powering down all systems to bare minimum, zipping into deepsuits in order to shut down even environmentals. Most Sebaceans weren't willing to do that - too accustomed to gravity, lights, atmosphere. That was one of their flaws. The other was never looking past the obvious - like wondering if, there was one Marauder, there might be two?
Getting crowded up here.
The Scarrans hadn't seen her, either, but gone down to the planet. Following the blood trail. She had maintained station, waiting. Scorpius would call if he needed her.
One of her sensors picked up a Marauder launch, and tracked it automatically. The ident showed it as Scorpius, returning to space. Pouring on the speed to reach the Command Carrier.
The Leviathan hybrid peeled off and pursued.
Incoming trans, long-range sensors. She hit the lockout on her unit's comms; she wouldn't have put it past Scorpius to have some way of listening to her people.
"I have a small task for you to perform. It is, unfortunately, a tedious task."
"I would like you to land on the planet and perform . . . cleanup duties. There were unfortunate difficulties with Scarran hostiles. My compliments, by the way, on managing to avoid them successfully?"
"They did not detect us, sir."
"If possible, I would like you to keep it that way. However, our presence has left . . . some indicators of our involvement. I would like that to be eliminated. Feel free to use your discretion. We will be breaking orbit immediately; upon your completion of this task, please make your way back to your Marauder and rejoin us at the Command Carrier."
Whatever he'd gotten, he wanted to take it back and secure it with the available resources of the Command Carrier as soon as possible. "Yes, sir."
"Oh, and, Captain Sun. . . ." A pause. "There is a chance you may find the Human on the planet."
He was still alive?
"If you do, please leave him in the same state in which you found him. That is an order."
He turned back, obviously surprised she would address him so boldly in such a time as this. "Yes, Captain Sun?"
"If I may suggest, sir? Low atmospheric flight until you reach the planet's shadow, and then a parabola around that third moon. Readings indicate heavy mass, which confuse long-range sensors."
He considered her image on the screen, and a small smile flitted across his thin lips. "Yes . . . thank you, Captain Sun. You may proceed at your discretion."
"Yes, sir." She reached up to toggle the docking clamps, changing her frequency to command channel. Scorpius had used directional tactical frequencies originating from the Marauder, which was even now speeding towards the Command Carrier. The Leviathan remained in orbit, but the hybrid was in fast pursuit of the Marauder; there was no point in remaining stealthed when the one ship that remained had no offensive capabilities. Unless the Leviathan was "looking" this way, she wouldn't notice the transmission. The hybrid might, but there was always a flaw in every plan.
"All units. Mission acquired. Marat, you're in command of the Marauder; go to minimum power and be ready to assume a tactical position. Don't give away your position unless you have to. Sariv, remain as high-atmosphere support and coordinate with Marat, same stealthed posture. Darwa, you're with me."
The clamps fired; she simultaneously tapped her nav thrusters for a quick separation from the Marauder, a seasoned pilot's maneuver. A quick drift out before she fired up her engines, not giving away the exact position of her Marauder. Within microts she was heading into atmosphere, Darwa on her wing.
She hadn't asked for any data from Scorpius; she ran her own high-alt sensor pass as they curved over the planet's surface. Triangulation with the surveillance passes she'd run while Scorpius was down on the planet presented her with two choices of where to set down; she chose to aim towards the closer of the two.
A tell-tale lit on her board. Movement across the surface. Sensors brought up enhanced visual.
A decision. "Darwa. I'm setting down. Provide aerial support. Find out if there are any more hostiles and take them out before they lift off."
"You want strafing cover while you come down?"
"No." She banked, leaving him behind. "I'll deal with this myself."
* * *
D'Argo growled at the quickly melting door. "I suggest a tactical retreat."
"This is a Qualta blade, which does not do well in the cold. That is a Scarran. An armed Scarran."
"Don't wanna risk it, eh? I gotcha." He looked around. "That looks like an exit - door controls."
D'Argo started going through, then reared back. "Wait! There's a hatch! Whoa! - I hate the cold!"
John risked a look back. "Freeze or fry!" He pushed past D'Argo and out into the storm. He dimly heard D'Argo mutter "freeze" before the wind tore at him, ripping all sound away except the howl of the wind. John tried to look back, but the snow stung at his eyes, blinding him. He staggered towards D'Argo, steering him away from the warm door. Well, currently, too warm and toasty. "No sign of the Scarran!" Had to shout to be heard over the wind. "Do you think he's following?"
D'Argo grunted heavily, churning a path through the snow. "Better hope he is."
A Command Carrier could have landed next to them, and he might - just might - notice, in this storm. Shit. "You sound like you got a plan."
"We're going to bring him out here, and see how he likes being in the cold!"
John, lighter, made his way through the snow more easily. They were hugging the outcrops of buildings, trying to stay out of the wind; he had yet to see another hatch. "And what if he likes it?"
"Look," D'Argo yelled, "one plan at a time!"
Check. "All right!" Was that an entrance up ahead? Oh, please God--
He checked behind them, and saw a dark shape materializing. "Here he comes! Hell, I don't think he likes the cold either!" And he looked really, really pissed off, too.
"Hah!" But D'Argo said nothing else; he was breathing heavily as they got to the entrance, tired from working his heavier mass through the snow.
John reached for the hatch. "Warm up the hot cocoa, baby! Here we come!"
D'Argo attempted to help. Nope.
Goddammit no not after all this--! "It's jammed!" he shrieked. "I can't believe this! You have got to be kidding me!"
"Unjam it!" D'Argo barked, before turning away.
"What?" John looked after him. "What are you gonna do?!"
In one smooth motion, D'Argo pulled his Qualta blade and fired. Once. Twice. Three times. Third time's a charm, John thought, but of course it didn't work that way for them. The Scarran roared and rushed them. D'Argo got two more blasts off before the charge on the blade died.
"Frell," he muttered, and pulled a dagger from his belt. John watched in horror as he waded into the fray, meeting the Scarran head-on. D'Argo managed one direct hit - into the Scarran's gut.
No, at it. The blade sheared off on the Scarran's thick skin. D'Argo was flung back by one great blow.
This is not our day. John turned back to the door, ignoring the sounds of the Scarran beating the crap out of his friend. He had to get the fucking door open--!
A pulse rifle fired. Once, twice. The energy danced across the Scarran's back, opening fissures in the armoured skin. He turned away from D'Argo, faced this new threat. Two more death rays danced over his face, but the Scarran still wasn't going down. John squinted. A figure, in the storm--
He saw the icicle. Didn't think, just grabbed it and yelled. "Hey! Hey, Horseface!"
The Scarran turned back to him. John jumped, aiming at the rents where the pulse rifle had clawed its way through its armour. Twisted.
Was hit with a sledgehammer as the Scarran roared and clocked him. It howled and collapsed, but he didn't care; his head rang, and he couldn't breathe. So damn cold--
The figure melted through the snow. He couldn't see, everything was grey and white. A voice - familiar - slid through his confusion easily. "Here." Like being in a crowded room, and suddenly someone had called his name: perfect audio. He blinked; saw the figure pull back the panel on the door controls. Tapped a few times. Opened the face of the unit, twisted a few wires. The door slid open.
D'Argo stumbled inside, groaning, but John's head was still ringing, he was still on his hands and knees, frozen to the spot. That voice. I know that voice--
Someone leaned down to help him to his feet. Touched him.
He yelled and pulled away, fending her off. "No!" His eyes focused with crystal clarity. He saw her, he saw her. Remembered the touch. Remembered everything. The touch, the shock as their contact had held him, pinned him, confused him. Trapped him. And then the pain.
Recognition in her eyes as well. Still the same drowning intensity. He couldn't look away.
She's caught, too.
"Not you--" he rasped. Something inside him whimpered.
"John Crichton." Soft, barely spoken, more like an indrawn breath.
"It can't be--" It can't be what? This real? This vivid? "Is this some kind of trick?"
She shook her head, not breaking eye contact. "I'm not here . . . for you."
"You--you saved me."
"I couldn't let you die. It wasn't in my mission orders."
"You're real." His voice cracked.
A brief, wintry smile. "So are you."
They stared at one another, caught in the corona of the energy between them. The storm locked all else out. He reached out, one trembling hand, slowly. Pushed his way through all that was between them and touched the side of her face.
That same sizzling contact. Awareness in both their eyes, pupils contracting. Shock.
"It's real," he whispered, but didn't stop there. Couldn't. Touched her hair. Cold silk in his hands. A bit had come loose in the wind, whipped her cheek. His fingers ached to tuck it behind her ear.
He drew back his hand; it felt so heavy, he could barely move it away. Like a magnet. Again something was whimpering inside of him, keening.
"What's your name?"
She blinked. No, she was withdrawing, moving back within herself - he couldn't help himself, he touched her again. Saw the spark jump, found the connection again. Like it snapped back into place.
"What's your name?" He wanted . . . something.
Her eyes were clear. "Aeryn Sun," she breathed. "Captain Aeryn Sun."
Captain. He felt as though he'd been punched.
She felt it too, through their shared connection. Drew back, and he let her this time. Her breath puffed in the storm. Snowflakes pelted her hair. One step back. Already blurred in the storm. Another step. Her outline was faint.
He wanted to call her back, but bit down on his tongue. No. No! Scorpius. Remember Scorpius, and the chip, and all that had been done to him.
She watched him; he knew she knew what he was thinking. "You're alive," she said softly. And then turned away and disappeared into the storm.
He stared after her until D'Argo stumbled back to the door, breathing heavily. Hurting. "John? We must go! Zhaan and Stark are waiting for us in the transport!"
One last look, and he turned away.
* * *
Dual track mode, as she called it. There were more than two tracks, but the main flows seemed to be set in two different paths, and the rest of them were minor thoughts only, not the great rushing strands of consciousness.
Track One: It hadn't been fear.
Thoughts flowed like water, twisting like a rope through her consciousness. Not fear. She didn't understand it, but she didn't have to, at the moment. She merely had to remember, so she could study it later.
For now, she still had tasking.
Track Two: Find the lab. The Scarran had been neutralized.
Sidetrack: He had fought the Scarran, even when cornered. She could have handled it, but he had taken his destiny into his own hands. She expected no less.
Focus. Find the lab now, remove all evidence. Her eyes tracked as she ghosted through the corridors, searching for movement. Darwa would be setting down at the second entrance and moving to intercept. Their pincer tactics would flush out most of the individuals who had contacted the Peacekeeper party.
She was not surprised when her comms beeped. "Captain Sun?"
"Sir?" Kept moving.
"Please meet us in the central lab."
She had a lock on his coordinates. "Yes, sir." Entered just as Lt. Braca was talking to Scorpius.
"Signal from the Command Carrier, sir. Moya and Mustang have both fled. Captain Sun," he turned to her, "your Prowler detail can pick us up and return us to the Command Carrier."
She nodded absently, looking around the lab, not interrupting them.
"The Marauder?" Scorpius asked.
"Plainly, Officer Corbrind overestimated his piloting skills."
Braca looked as though he seriously disagreed, but he managed to phrase it tactfully. "Well, perhaps Mustang is more formidable than we thought. Sir, Bialar Crais must be--"
She wondered if Officer Corbrind had been his friend.
"First Command has already taken care of that situation. Our task is much more important. We have a new Gammak research base ready to go into operation. Hundreds of techs are waiting to apply this - priceless information. Let's not keep them waiting, Lieutenant." As he passed Aeryn, he paused, his voice turning conversational. "Captain Sun. You used to be a pilot. What was your rating, when you were last in a Prowler detail? When you were considered an active pilot?"
She met his gaze, aware of Lt. Braca in the room. Aware of the currents. He knew her personnel file. She was certain of it.
"Excellent rating, I'm sure," he murmured, then swept out of the room. "Carry on, Captain," he said, his words floating behind him. "Please have one of your pilots pick us up on the surface."
She commed Marat. "Set down on the surface to take passengers back to the Carrier. We'll come back in our Prowlers when our mission objectives are completed."
The lab was quiet, machinery humming, as she reconned it thoroughly. No one left alive. A few bodies; the Diagnosian, dead. She stepped over its corpse, moving among the cryochamber units. The thought of being surrounded by all the dead didn't bother her.
Flashback to the Scarran lab--
No. She recentered herself, moved on, verifying that no one was hiding among the units. Movement from in the lab; she turned and saw Darwa coming in, pulse pistol at the ready. He nodded at her and began his own sweep.
"Problems?" she asked him.
"Bodies," he responded, gesturing with his pulse pistol. She nodded and continued on, moving through the rooms. Some of the cryochambers had been removed, she noted. Bipedals. Interons?
A unit blinked, having just completed its processing. She froze. She recognized that face.
Track Two: Gilina Renais/tech/assigned duty post: Command Carrier, Captain Bialar Crais/declared missing two cycles ago/declared fugitive one cycle, eight monens ago.
Track One: At first, she must have been a recreation partner of John Crichton - likely the only one; his loyalty seems strengthened by emotional attachment, an unusual reaction. But something went wrong, nearly a cycle ago. They were no longer seen together; they didn't talk to one another on forays to commerce planets.
The Aurora Chair?
And then the business on the Royal Planet.
She tracked movement automatically with the muzzle of her weapon, but it was only a corpse settling into place in another chamber.
What does he feel, in this emotional attachment? What does it provide him?
Was it a shock? A blow to the gut?
Now the tech was dead.
How does he feel now?
The face in the cryochamber showed a woman at peace, but Aeryn wasn't fooled. She saw the faint discoloration around the neck, recognized the pattern. She wondered who had killed the woman.
Images: the dead Diagnosian, the Human's appearance, his shakiness, the Luxan's protectiveness.
She'd known he had come here for surgery, though she hadn't been able to intuit the type. Only knew that it had been emergency, last-ditch.
He couldn't afford the surgery. They sold her body as piece parts, scrap, to pay for him. His friends arranged the transaction.
He would never have allowed it, never sanctioned it. But apparently they hadn't asked him for permission.
But he didn't want her inside him. She looked thoughtfully at the missing cryochambers. Interons. Perhaps.
She looked back at the cryochamber before her, studied the control panel, opened the cover, investigated. He would not want her here, sold for scrap. Thawing controls were there, so if she did this, clamped that wire, sequenced those three capacitors and overrode that circuit, so the fuse didn't trip--
A few microts' work.
The internal coils glowed yellow, then fiery red. The woman's features softened, melted, fused, burned, all while Aeryn watched. The capacitors sent across the charge in an eyeblink; it was a very efficient system, even when overloaded.
Darwa watched her curiously. "Cap'n? Did you want to get rid of everything?"
"Only what is associated with John Crichton and Scorpius." She jerked her head in the direction of the Diagnosian. "Get that into the cryochamber and burn it."
"And the bodies we've caused?"
Momentary flash of amusement: It's almost worth destroying the planet, just to avoid the cleanup process.
The void yawned above her, and it mirrored the darkness; she was going to drown in it.
Then his voice, in her head: "It's real." The wonder. The horror. And she willingly drowned in his eyes again, finding herself somewhere in there.
She had never wondered what had been in her eyes, when she had stared back at him that first time, her arm at his throat.
"Burn them all," she told Darwa, and even she knew her voice was cold, distant. "I'll go get the Scarran outside."
Fear, yes. Fear for what I don't understand.
The void was . . . gone. For the moment.
* * *
Section 11: Scar Tissue
It was a strange type of freedom.
He wasn't going crazy. It was a neural clone. Knowing that, he could adjust his thinking, deal with the effects. He found his sense of humour again. It was tattered, it was a bit sharper, harder, but he dusted it off and used it every once in a while.
He had named it Harvey, and it came visiting every once in a while.
It didn't make Gilina any easier to accept, but he was going to have to live with that.
Zhaan watched him closely, but Bluie had changed from the old days. This was Bluie after meeting Stark.
Even Crais had loosened up. John even called him Bialar, every once in a while.
Tauvo had asked him if he could return with John to Earth. When the time came. It had been . . . John's first real smile. In a while.
He dreamed of a shadowy figure that coalesced into a woman with raven hair and sky-blue eyes. Snow a blinding nimbus around her.
In her eyes, he saw wormholes.
* * *
Sariv was performing his flight checkout when Marat wandered over, her pale hair scraped back into a tail, a light bruise still on her cheek. It had been beautifully vivid two solar days ago, when she'd worked out against Darwa.
"We're going off class twos," she said without preamble.
"About frelling time," he muttered, toggling the switch for internal self-test. It was sticky. "It's only been, what, nearly two monens on this tin can?"
"Captain's still nowhere near a class one status."
He stopped his fiddling.
"And we're likely to be reassigned to a Marauder unit."
"How many open slots are here?" But that no longer mattered, did it? The Carrier was headed for a new Gammak base, where Scorpius and his staff would be offloaded. Sariv had figured it out. The Captain wasn't going anywhere, not if Scorpius got his way.
"Five. But that's not helpful. We're vets of the Scarran Fringe."
They could always use more, on the Scarran Fringe. "We'd go back there?"
She nodded. "Without the Captain."
He settled back against the hull and thought, his fingers automatically reaching for his face, slipping into the grooves of new scars underneath his mask. New habit.
She wasn't some demi-god from some backwater mythos. His Captain walked, talked, breathed, passed dren, just like every other Peacekeeper. She bled. Oh, did she ever bleed; on the inside, too. He'd seen that, right after their return from the Ice Planet. Every time she went out, did one of these missions, she came back a little more . . . different. Permanently different. Already some of the other troops, those that had warmed up to them, had told them how their Captain was different. Weird, off. Frelled beyond belief.
"She's not all there," one grizzled Sarge had told them, and nodded his head sagely. "I watched her during call, and I swear she didn't even blink the whole arn. Just stood there, watching us. Like we was some Scarran or something. She went up the ranks too fast, and now she's cracking. I'd be glad she was still on class two, and can't do any real damage."
What did he consider 'real damage?' Put her back to class one, she'd destroy planets. Oh, but you don't know about that, do you?
They'd have a new Captain, if both of them went to the same unit. If. Likely a vet of the Scarran Fringe as well. A 'normal' Captain. A new ship, a new crew. Familiar mission orders. Soon, everything would become as it had been, living among other Ghosts, sharing and living.
What about the rest of it? The data dumps from Intel, the fumbling for sense within the High Command directives, the first few arns in enemy territory, blind, deaf, and dumb? Working with spotty intelligence, unseen enemies, unknown force estimates?
He'd become spoiled, those monens in the Uncharteds, in the Fringe. She had thought metras ahead of everyone else; she always knew where she was going. There were times she didn't know what would happen when they got there, but she was never totally unprepared. She'd thought through the situations already, and the unit needed merely wait for all to be revealed to her before she decided on the plan of action.
All in those first few microts.
He'd begun to trust in that. She would know what to do, where to go. Even in the midst of a firefight, even having to lie quietly in an asteroid's curve for solar days, she would be calm, collected.
Like she'd been on the Ice Planet. No surprise at the arrival of the Scarran ship. He'd half expected her to check the chronometer and say something like "right on time."
As well as she knew her enemies, she knew them even better. She was their center, their brain. More than just their Captain, she was the force behind their unit. He was merely her hands, Marat her eyes, ears. Darwa her shadow.
She wasn't cracking - it was just the façade that was flaking off.
"What can we do?"
"I can stall for us," Marat replied. He didn't ask how. "But that won't last long."
"Do we tell her?"
"We have to. I can't fix it without some help from above. That we've lasted this long is only because the Senior Personnel Officer here is a nurfer who couldn't find his own backside with a target designator and a nav unit."
"Then let's do it." He didn't bother asking Darwa. He knew the answer he'd get.
* * *
An amusing conceit, to keep this rank. She knew what Scorpius meant by it, but he didn't know about her unit.
"Sergeants." Sariv and Marat. The Terrible Twosome. She racked her helmet on her belt and began peeling off her flight suit gloves.
A pause, and then Sariv spoke. "We're going off of class two."
She looked from one to the other, listening to the blunt words. Reading them, and the spaces between the words. "You haven't received notification yet?"
You weren't supposed to know, not until you had the official Medical notification. Your unit CO was copied, and you went back to your slot. Assuming your slot wasn't filled.
They no longer had a unit CO, not so long as she was on class two. From the expressions on their faces, she knew she was nowhere near that. Scorpius' doing?
"Congratulations." Her voice was flat.
"Thanks." Sariv's voice could have matched hers, tone for tone. "I guess after we unload everyone off at that new Gammak base, we'll be going back to the Scarran Fringe."
"Likely." His hands, she noticed, had fluttered. He'd almost reached up to touch his face, hidden behind his mask. He'd taken off his helmet, but he still wore his mask. He always kept that on, in the public places.
"Just when I got used to being here, and everything."
Really. The comms chatter during their last flight had been filled with talk of boredom. Of stagnation.
"We'll have to go into a new unit," Marat sighed. "I hate that."
"You'd rather hang around a homeported unit, if there was something to do?" Her voice was mild, curious.
"Yeah." Sariv darted a look at Marat. "If there was something for us to do."
"Hmmm." She thought for a moment. Yes, possibly. Perhaps? "Was there anything else?"
"Nah." They'd both eased back at her words, their posture relaxing. Sariv threw her an easy salute. "Thanks, Cap'n."
She continued on her way out of the hangar bay, peeling out of her flight suit. Stopped by her quarters in Officer's Country, depositing the equipment. Looked around momentarily.
Yes. That, too, should be changed.
She went to his office. He would be there.
Lt. Braca let her in. "This is rather unexpected. You didn't make an appointment, Captain." But he wasn't going to deny her entrance. Not after the Ice Planet.
"No, I didn't."
He waited a microt, then went and checked with Scorpius. "He can see you in a bit." No, he didn't like her.
She waited. After nearly an arn, she was allowed in.
"Captain." He rose from his desk, a strange courtesy. "You wish to see me."
She had to be careful; she could not demand, could not drive him. He saw through such tactics. "I was wondering about my next assignment, sir."
"Your assigned duty station is as a . . . resource for my requirements." He looked at her carefully before sitting down again. "You are aware that I will be removing to a Gammak base."
"Are you requesting a transfer?"
Deadly, silky voice. "No. But I cannot expect to move off of class two status unless I continue my training."
"And of course, your duty is to return to full status. Sustainment training?" He steepled his fingers. "What exactly are you thinking?"
"I would like to assemble a small unit, sir. Of commandos currently on class two. That will allow all of us to remain at the required level of performance during any field exercises without exceeding medical parameters for any given member of the unit."
"A Gammak base has established perimeters, sir, but there are always intel and recon requirements. According to the estimated flight plan, we'll be in the Nihle Gan system, adjacent to several systems that border on parts of the Scarran Fringe. We could deploy into those systems as recon assets, gathering intel without actually entering engagement ranges." She paused. "We would be within support distance of the Gammak base, which means we'll have lessened logistical and security requirements, and may be recalled back within sixty arns if so required." She paused. "Assuming that I am correct in my location of the Gammak base, sir."
He leaned back at his desk. "You've thought this through, Captain."
She stared him straight in the eye. "I'm bored, sir."
There was a twist of the lips, the merest twinkle in his eyes. What passed for a smile.
"Your service to me is exemplary. I choose not to do without your abilities at the moment, so I cannot spare you for a long reassignment." He paused. "But I cannot afford to have you be less than ready when I require it. I will notify Personnel that you will be assembling your unit."
"One more thing."
"For the moment." It paid to be bluntly and brutally honest with him; he would remember any lie, any misstep. "I wish to relocate ourselves to the proper quarters."
Now he did smile, a baring of teeth. "You wish to live in the Tomb?"
The Tomb was the name of the troop area assigned to Ghost units. "Yes."
He nodded at her, a strangely courteous gesture. "Then please do so, Captain."
* * *
Life was occasionally approaching normal.
It was his definition of normal that had changed. Now, normal was talking to a neural clone only he could see. Normal was being chased by the universe - every Peacekeeper outpost was a deathtrap, every Nebari ship a hostile enemy. And that didn't even count the Scarrans, of course.
But he had Zhaan, who watched him like a hawk. When she wasn't with Stark. At least that relationship was genuine. Genuine meant a lot to him, nowadays.
He had Stark, who drove him cr - okay, more crazy than he was. D'Argo, big D, the man. Tauvo, who had become a best bud, who had finally learned to balance the brother he'd been born with and the brother he'd adopted.
They'd tried to set up a basketball court on the terrace. It was a pain in the ass to find a b-ball that would bounce, but they found something on a commerce planet that kind of worked. It was disconcerting to make a pass and feel the blue fur gripping one's hands, but this wasn't Kansas any more, Toto.
They talked a lot about Earth, about Fourth of July picnics, dads. He told all the jokes he remembered, and Tauvo told him some Peacekeeper jokes. They were mainly about raw recruits making mistakes that blew everyone up, and generally sucked. John didn't mention the Earth girls, and Tauvo didn't ask.
Those talks helped, more than anything.
Crais didn't join in the pick-up games, of course; Crais still had a long way to go before he wasn't a stiff-necked bastard. John felt sorry for him, and was occasionally jealous. He'd never had an older brother. But then he remembered he had his dad, and figured it all came out the same in the end. The feelings, anyway. At least Tauvo had Crais, and they were home. More or less.
They thawed out one of the Popsicles; she came out all of one piece. Tauvo's jaw had dropped. John stared at the wall.
I can't do this for Gilina.
Turned out she blamed him for killing her cousin.
Welcome to the club, Jool. Line forms to your left.
* * *
Marat wandered into Data Retrieval and found a vacant console. She dropped into it, aware of everyone around her. Not many people, and they had a tendency to leave her alone. She was a commando on board a Gammak place - about as welcome as a drannit in a herd of dexxies. They gave her lots of space. That was good.
She browsed through public files, building a traceable log for her time. Scrolled through the message traffic - general bulletins, unit notices, training requirements, the news bits that Peacekeepers thought would interest other Peacekeepers. The public commando boards were, as usual, filled with how-tos on cleaning weaponry, comments on physical training.
She ran across the outdated announcement noting formation of a new unit and smiled. Their unit. A temporary unit, but formal nonetheless. Posted a monen ago.
A foray through the pilot boards. Nothing really new there, either.
Anyone watching would have seen a commando, just in from the field after a monen-long exercise, catching up on news.
Quick browse through the tech boards, which were copious on a base this big. No apparent interest logged here, no dwelling on any particular topic.
She slid a small datachip from her sleeve, popped it in the reader, executed. The program loaded onto the console immediately and told it that she was still on the boards; here were the logs. She opened a smaller window and typed in a command string.
Now to see what was really happening.
* * *
Well, he'd become used to seeing more than one of him. The Drak, Prehistoric and Post-Star-Trek JC. . . . Hell, the Uncharted Territories were taking any predisposition he had towards multiple personality disorder and making it real at every other turn.
But this one was just damn weird. He watched his other self. The perfect copy.
Or maybe you're the copy?
"Shut up, Harvey."
* * *
They were less than three arns out from the Gammak base when Marat had come to her quarters.
"Captain," she said slowly, "I think you should take a look at this."
Marat was rarely subdued. Aeryn had thanked her, taken the datachip, watched her Sergeant's back as the woman walked away.
Marat didn't know if she was doing the right thing.
Hmm. The datachip was light in her hand. After a moment, she inserted it into the reader and watched the view spring to life.
Then she had just watched.
"You were conceived . . . in love."
Her father's name was Talyn.
She had been born outside of Peacekeeper norm. And then Scorpius had . . . changed her.
The chip reflected tiny shards of light as she flipped it, end over end, through her fingers. The gold circuitry gleamed in the dimmed light of her quarters. Interesting, that the image clip would be part of her personnel file, the part even she wasn't allowed to access. Scorpius had probably seen it. Rayn? No, not Rayn.
She had thought it was a dream. For so long, she had thought it was a dream. Dismissed it from her mind as a childhood fantasy. A desire to belong.
She looked around her quarters. Heard the thrum of her ship beneath her. Could almost feel her unit moving along the corridors, in among the tiers. If she concentrated, she could hear them breathe.
Scorpius' gift to her.
How far she'd come, and where she'd arrived was not where she'd expected to be. She'd been singled out, isolated, changed. Her superiors had consistently sacrificed who she was in favour of what she could do.
But I'm winning. I finally have a place to belong.
She was not fully there. The void was still around her, protective, suffocating, a casing for the broken pieces. It allowed her to exist, because to demonstrate all that she was would bring about her immediate retirement, Peacekeeper style.
I tried to be the best Peacekeeper alive, and now I find that I'm not quite Peacekeeper any more. I'm not even . . . only Sebacean.
It was easiest here, out on the Fringe.
* * *
The blast only missed Tauvo's head by millimeters. Crichton yelled and tackled him. "Down!"
Shit! The retrieval squad had gotten way too close!
"Split up!" he yelled at Crais, and began tracking away, bolts following at his heels. Tauvo went with Crais, of course.
John saw the flash of buckle, saw the Peacekeeper commando take off after them. Goddamned bitch, he thought viciously. This freakin' Xhalax Sun is a real pain in the ass!
Apparently Peacekeeper commandos bred their women to be way tough.
Sun. Was she related to the other? He ran through the undergrowth, barely missing another fart-geyser.
Then again, Sun is probably the PK equivalent of Smith, for all I know.
How much longer until they could head back to Mustang? Ah, shit. Tauvo had the navigational unit. Great. He was lost. Why was he surprised? Just another day in the Uncharteds.
He set off to find Tauvo.
* * *
Lt. Braca waited at his door. "She's here again, sir."
He didn't look up from his contemplation of the flower on his desk. "Relay to her my compliments and tell her I approve, please."
"Yes, sir." Braca disappeared, and Scorpius continued his train of thought. A problem with the phase alignment of the ships; yes, that was likely one problem.
One problem among many.
When he finally left his office, several arns later, and headed for the labs, Braca fell into step beside him and held out a flimsy. "Captain Sun filed her mission plans, sir."
"Thank you, Lt. Braca. I assume she's already gone?" He didn't bother taking it. "Log it, please."
He could hear the young man practically gnashing at his teeth. He sighed internally. This was not acceptable.
"Lieutenant." He stopped, faced the other man in the corridor. "Do you know why I keep Captain Sun around?"
"Precisely. You don't know. Rest assured, however, that I have my reasons, and they are very, very good."
Not quite there. "When she comes to ask me if she can go back into the Fringe, I allow her. Without question, and without fail. Do you know why I do that?"
"Because she needs the vast wastes of space, Lieutenant. She is empty inside, and out there is the only place where she can truly be at peace. If she were here, she would try to fill that emptiness inside of her. It's a . . . very unique talent she has, and one I have found extremely useful on more than one occasion." He smiled. "Although useful to me, it is not so beneficial for her, or rather, for those who make the mistake of . . . arousing her interest." He paused to emphasize his point; looking at Braca, he knew he was making it well. "You do not want her attention on you, Lieutenant. You are not enough to fill that void inside of her."
Braca gulped. "No, sir."
"Good," Scorpius murmured. "I'm glad you made the attempt to understand her. It indicates a particularly sharp learning curve on your part."
* * *
Command was quiet, just the softest sounds of machine hum and human breaths.
She looked out through the forward screen, lost in the view. The stars swam in the black void; from their position in the asteroid field, everything moved slowly, so slowly as to seem still.
Her scars faded out here; the void lifted, lightened. Her center melted, the pieces commingling, and she was quiet, her thoughts at peace. It was the closest to silence she could get.
She stood there, in that pose, for two arns, and then her mental chronometer alerted her. Soon Darwa would be coming in to relieve her, to listen in on their deployed sniffers, waiting for signs of Nebari or Scarran incursions into a poorly-charted system.
Nebari, most likely. They had run into a scoutship a weekens ago, or rather, it had flown right past their noses. Making no attempt to hide. Power signature at maximum, transmitting messages over long-range comms. Marat had stroked the sniffers, tuned their delicate ears. The Nebari scoutship was returning to one of their heavy command elements, full of intelligence data.
Least-time course plotted back to Peacekeeper territories. Like a budong, the Marauder had risen out of the darkness of the asteroids and, like a budong, left no trace of its prey.
The next one should not be long in coming, and they could not rely upon the same combination of timing and placement.
She wandered through the files on the console, browsing through news, boards. Marat regularly updated their Marauder data banks with the latest from the Gammak base; what she brought aboard typically kept them amused for the three or four weekens they were typically on ex.
One entry caught her eye.
You didn't put this here accidentally, Marat.
A retrieval squad had passed through, receiving logistical support from the Carrier prior to departing to continue on mission. A retrieval squad, with Senior Officer Xhalax Sun in command.
Marat had linked the file, cross-indexing it to the mission boards. Not something that one would find in a Peacekeeper base's public files. The security ramifications alone would have been a nightmare.
Primary objective: Track and retrieve hybrid Leviathan. Secondary objective: Track and capture Captain Bialar Crais for return and sentencing. Tertiary objective: Track and capture Officer Tauvo Crais for return and sentencing.
No mention of the Human. Interesting.
She performed a search on the data banks, restricting her search to the public files downloaded from the base. Found only one file, a very old one, that mentioned John Crichton, and then only to explain what a Human was, should a Peacekeeper encounter the species. A note attached to the bottom indicated that rewards would be allocated to those who captured any Humans. And, even further back in history, listing of wanted beacons including data on the Human.
Scorpius is not yet willing to employ all assets in finding you, then.
But he had sent Xhalax Sun. Seeking in the biological mother what existed in the daughter? Did he wonder if he could breed true that instinct, that hunter?
He would think like that.
The Marauder's own data banks held more information on John Crichton, of course. Marat had made sure of that. From rumours to classified files - it was available to all the members of their crew. Aeryn personally oversaw the purging of files, prior to returning to the Carrier.
His eyes, his face. His touch. How strange, how painfully sudden, the first time. How . . . familiar, the second.
She was lost in her thoughts until Darwa came to relieve her watch.
* * *
"Sir." Braca motioned to him urgently. "Priority signal from High Command."
"My console, please." He keyed when the computer asked him to, verifying his rank and clearance.
He read the information. A Scarran dreadnought had left their home system, pulled away from the fleet and sent off, alone, on a course heading into the Uncharted Territories.
What did they want?
It had moved quickly, boosting to maximum speed the microt it had moved past planetary envelopes.
What had they learned?
The Uncharted Territories was not where most of the Scarran forces were concentrated. Massing, he knew, for the upcoming war.
He could wait, and he would eventually know where the Scarran dreadnought had gone. Word of its arrival would filter to him, and all would be revealed.
But that would be too late. Because he knew the Scarrans were aware of John Crichton's existence, knew of the wormhole knowledge that resided in his head. Since the inimitable Captain Sun had destroyed the Scarrans' wormhole data banks, they would be foolish not to simply hunt down the best source of that knowledge rather than replicate cycles of work.
He could not afford to wait. And yet - he could not afford to leave. The wormhole team he'd gathered was so close, it seemed, and closer every day--
"Lt. Braca." His voice carried across Command. "Prepare a priority transmission on long-range sensors. Recall Captain Sun's team here. Immediately."
Yes. It was time to use her again.
* * *
Section 12: Infinite Possibilities
Primary objective: Do not allow information or Human to fall in Scarran custody. Secondary objective: Secure wormhole information and/or Human.
She could feel Scorpius' voice in those words.
"I almost feel sorry for this Human," Sariv remarked.
She checked comms out of habit. He'd broadcast over her secure command channel, on a whisker, but it was still a risk. They were in Prowlers, not the latest tech craft.
"I'm not so sure," she responded.
"Even discounting rumours, consider history."
There was a momentary silence. What was he thinking of? The Ice Planet? The Shadow Depository? Any of the many rumours? If one knew where to look, there were so many stories. Scorpius had made sure she was aware of all the stories, knowing it would make her more effective.
She knew him so much better.
"So you feel sorry for the Scarran dreadnought heading our way?" he asked.
As much as she felt sorry for any combatant. "It occurs to me."
"I would be impressed."
"And you are not easily impressed." She checked their flight pattern; the two Prowlers were holding station on her. Darwa, as usual, was quiet.
Marat and the Marauder had been left further out in the system, waiting to confirm the arrival of the Scarran dreadnought in her sensor envelope, yet out of range of the Leviathan hybrid. That ship was lurking around the moon. Available evidence indicated the young biomechanoid had been blinded by the solar flares, but it still wouldn't do for them to be noticed. She altered her course to take more advantage of the planet's shadow.
She saw the energy signatures a microt before Darwa, and called it. "Pulse fire below."
She agreed with Darwa, more so because she knew he'd had some experience with them on prior missions. "Can you locate a target?"
"Don't see a staging area. I could pick off single units, but it's going to be like swatting dexxies."
"Do it. Sariv, support."
They peeled off from her wing, roaring through the atmosphere, the hulls of their ships brightening like stars.
She dropped through the layers of air, freefalling for a moment before thrusting into a flat arc that brought her parallel to the lie of the land. She flew nape for a blink of microts, and then the building was before her, and she strafed one pass at a few remaining Charrid troops, bringing support to two emplaced guns which boomed in faint echo of her shells.
She avoided their lines of fire when she swept back to land. Although she'd fired upon their enemy, that didn't necessarily make her their friend, so she dropped down behind some of the fallen ruins of walls. Dust flew, dust and debris. As she popped the canopy and swung out, she looked around briefly. Dam-Ba-Da. Not quite what she'd expected. Then again, she'd only seen this place in her dreams. She'd visited here in her mind, searching for the soul of John Crichton.
I found you again.
There was no giddy feeling; no rush of success at having come to the right place the first time. Again. In a universe this large, John Crichton would still act true to himself.
She knew him so well.
Flare goggles were added to her inventory prior to securing the Prowler. She'd done her reading. A quick sprint across the open; there was evidence that quite a few strafing runs had passed. No one fired on her. Darwa and Sariv were, as usual, doing excellent jobs. The next solar flares would undoubtedly scramble the Prowlers' sensors, but Sariv and Darwa would land before then, and take up station on other emplaced guns around the complex.
The main complex doors were secured. She looked thoughtfully up at the roof.
* * *
"I thought you said you booby-trapped the place!"
Furlow was, bless her cold little heart, banging the shit out of one of the Charrids with that honkin' big wrench of hers. "I did!"
"Well, you didn't do a good job!" They didn't have time for this. He and Jack had to get going on the phase coupler. Now that Scorpy was out of his head--
If only these damn Char-heads would just get out of his way. Rygel and Tauvo had their hands full topside, trying to keep them off his back, and the sooner he and Jack finished, the sooner they could get off this pla-- He saw movement from the periphery and ducked. Oh, shit, way too close!
The Char-head's arm exploded in a shower of gore, and John stared bemusedly at the Charrid, who promptly followed the disappearance of his arm. In a splatter.
That was too close.
John turned around to thank Jack, or Furlow, and suddenly found himself face to face with someone out of his nightmares.
Captain Aeryn Sun.
For one wild moment, he wondered if he'd conjured her out of thin air, to haunt him in place of Scorpius. I could deal with that. Maybe. Certainly he remembered their brief encounters with a clarity that freaked him out.
But when she cocked her head at him, he knew she was real.
"That was too close." Her voice was throaty, low, and he felt a response within him.
Damn, and we're not even touching this time. "Great minds think alike." He couldn't help it; he grinned. Then it hit him. She was here. Here. There was only one reason why she would be here.
Oh, shit. Like I don't have enough to deal with?
"John." Tauvo's voice crackled urgently across comms. "A Prowler landed not too long ago--"
"Thanks, Tauvo. I got it." Day late, dollar short, bro. At least this time he wasn't in total shock at her appearance. Since it was, yet again, a life-threatening experience, he could only assume that the effect lessened with more exposure.
But he wasn't going to try touching her anytime soon, either.
"Johnny? Who is that?" Furlow's head popped up like a gopher from among the debris of her shop. Jack didn't even bother to ask. Considering how much he'd been in John's head recently, John would have been surprised had the Ancient not run across something about her.
"You're here?" he whispered, and it was for her ears only.
"Later," she murmured.
"Are you a good guy or a bad guy?" Furlow was still hefting her wrench, and John had a frighteningly hysterical, if momentary, vision of the mechanic going after the Peacekeeper commando.
Sun looked at Furlow. "That depends on which one you are." She returned her attention to him. "My unit is securing your perimeter. Are the Charrids acting as advance scouts for the Scarran dreadnought?"
He gaped at her. "How did you know about it?" Why was he surprised? Wasn't she always three steps ahead of him?
She and Scorpius.
"I have a ship in system. We confirmed trajectory."
What had he been expecting, a direct line to the Psychic Network? "They got my wormhole data. Uploaded it from that computer."
Her eyes were flat as she tracked to where he pointed. "Ah." The damage to the computer itself was obvious. Well - he'd been pissed.
"I need to somehow . . . destroy the dreadnought."
She didn't laugh at him. That was a start. Okay, now she was nodding. That meant agreement, right?
He cleared his throat. "Your ship. Can it take out the Scarrans?"
She shook her head. "I won't use them like that unless there is no other option. A dreadnought is larger than a Command Carrier. Three Prowlers and a Marauder would have no tangible effect."
Had she just offered her help?
She met his eyes. "You don't happen to have another plan?"
"As a matter of fact," he said, "we kinda do."
* * *
Furlow was scavenging parts and Jack was assembling components. The thuds of incoming mortars occasionally rumbled through the building, but between Rygel, Tauvo, and her team, they seemed to be keeping the Charrids off their backs and contained to a perimeter.
She had held up a limpet mine, and he had nodded. Furlow's lab had suddenly begun sprouting limpets. Now he crossed over and watched her affix one to the remains of the computer. How many of the mines had she carried on her?
"If that is a greeting, I do not understand it."
They were being so careful around each other.
"Okay, I'll be blunt instead of cool. Why are you here?"
She considered him, then carefully crumpled one of the data spools underneath her PK-issue boots. "You. Our intelligence reported a Scarran dreadnought leaving their home systems. Given the current political climate, it seemed reasonable to assume there was only one other priority which would cause the Scarrans to devote a full battlegroup asset away from an established front."
"How'd you know it was headed here?"
She met his gaze briefly. "I didn't."
Something crawled down his spine and coiled in his gut. She'd guessed. No, she hadn't: she'd known. How? He wondered. How was she always two steps ahead of him, and in his head?
"Is Scorpius here?"
"No. Only myself and my unit."
That doesn't reassure me. But it did give him a little breathing space. Maybe. "Can I ask you a personal question?" When she looked up, he continued. "What's your primary mission objective this time?"
"To keep you and your information out of Scarran custody." Crunch. Another data spool consigned to the hereafter. "My secondary objective is to secure you."
He stared thoughtfully at the destroyed data spools.
She followed his gaze. "Insufficient data is often times more limiting than no data. If we fail, we cannot leave this around."
"Right." He believed that. He also had a blue-green planet to sell. In a swamp. "Why would you care?" he asked quietly. "If the Scarrans get the data. The Peacekeepers already have it. What's the difference? Why not just grab me and run?"
"There is no difference," she replied. Her voice was flat. "The knowledge is dangerous. Destructive. To all." She paused, and he wondered what she saw. "But I will see my mission through, John Crichton." It wasn't a threat, or a warning. It was a statement.
"I can't leave until I destroy that dreadnought."
She nodded. "Then we are united. For the moment."
"I'm not going to go quietly."
"I would expect no less of you." She knelt down, set another mine in the emptied data spool storage closet, met his gaze. "But I would think less of you if you attempted to escape before destroying the dreadnought."
There was something in her voice, the way she said those words, so calmly, like she was talking about running down to the store and picking up some things. Wake up in the morning, drink your coffee, save the world. Check. Yes, ma'am.
You know what your dad said, John. Don't argue with a woman.
"Do I have your word you're going to stay out of my way until then?" Was he crazy? Asking a PK commando to hold off on killing him?
She dusted her hands off and stood up. "Of course not," she replied. "I insist on helping."
* * *
They went out for recon and resupply. Former Peacekeeper Tauvo Crais had jerked back when he'd looked out of the emplaced gun, reached for the ammunition, and recognized her for what she was. And then a double take.
Yes, she thought, now you remember who I was, too. On your brother's Carrier.
"Relax," John Crichton had told him, reaching past to shove more ammo boxes on the gun. "She's on our side. Kind of."
He hadn't explained any more than that, and Tauvo Crais had volunteered nothing. They had finished unloading their boxes and sprinted for the Hynerian's gun.
"I told you I needed to come with you," he said, running easily beside her.
"And I agreed."
"Your guys are going to see you."
"Won't you get into trouble?"
"Depends on whether or not I get them killed."
He had almost laughed, though she was certain he hadn't quite understood.
They had been very careful not to touch.
* * *
"It's gonna work," he muttered. "It's all gonna come together." He stared at the coils in his hand. "I got it!" He looked up, a blinding smile, wanting to share. "Hey, Sun, I got it! It all fits, everything fits. I-I-I know how to do this. I--I can build this thing, I know what it does!"
There! That was nearly a smile moving her lips. He wanted her to smile, to share; he was contagious. "Jack," he whispered, still wondering at the knowledge unfolding in his head. He could almost trace the paths, wait impatiently as they downloaded, and then a moment of wrenching disconnect as what he was seeing suddenly made sense. "All right, he's uh, built it so it self-destructs after one use. That's - that's good, that's . . . smart."
She watched him over the white shell of the displacement drive. "Can it destroy the dreadnought?"
"Umm. . . ." John didn't want to lie to her. For some reason, it seemed important that he not lie to her. No matter what it means to you? She hadn't pulled her pistol since the last Charrid incursion, but it rode her hip, a silent reminder to him. Had she ever lied to him? "It could destroy a planet."
Something moved behind her eyes, but it was gone in a flash. "So he unlocked all the wormhole knowledge inside your head."
"Yeah. We kicked the Scorpy clone out of my head first, obviously."
"The Scorpy clone?"
"Yeah, you know, the neural chip?" He froze at her expression, his hands deep in the guts of the e-transmitter coils. "The neural chip he put inside my head. You - you didn't know?"
She shook her head, her face blank. "The Aurora Chair?"
He nodded, turning his face away from her. He had to get this thing done.
"Scorpius changed you, too." But before he could ask about those quiet words, she went on: "This new knowledge, what you've got inside your brain? Can you use it to get home?"
He sighed, but didn't stop working. Time was running out. "Yeah."
A pause. "Good luck, John Crichton."
It seemed odd, coming from her, and yet he had a sense that she meant it. He looked at her in surprise; she returned his gaze neutrally.
She did know him.
"Why are you a Peacekeeper?" he asked softly.
"I was born one."
"Why are you still one? You barely act according to the rulebook, you make things up as you go along. Hello, pot, this is kettle?" Off her look, he clarified, rummaging for another piece from the scrap that Furlow had scrounged for them. "It just seems that . . . you do too much, you know yourself too well, to be like the Peacekeepers I've known."
"Senior Officer Tauvo Crais and Captain Bialar Crais? No, I'm not. Like the Peacekeepers you've known." She looked and sounded momentarily amused, and his breath caught at the sight of her half-smile. "I'm a Ghost."
Maybe his microbes were malfunctioning now. "A ghost? What does that mean?"
One moment she was amused; the next moment, life, laughter, drained out of her, and it seemed like there was nothing inside. "It means I have something broken inside of me."
He opened his mouth to ask, but he heard a rattle, then the pistol was in her hand, and the Charrid was dead at their feet.
Furlow entered at that moment, and looked at the dead Charrid. "Big hole in the sewage outlet. Think I might'a found where the Charrids got in."
Captain Sun frowned. "Did you seal it?"
"Then we still have a flaw in our defenses." She tapped her comms. "Sariv?"
"One hostile penetrated the interior."
"How the frell did that happen? Where are they coming from?"
"Let's find out." She tapped out and quirked an eyebrow at John.
"I'll be okay. Go."
* * *
"Don't be the hero, John. Always be the one to walk away while the hero dies."
Dammit, he couldn't have done anything else.
". . . So we got one shot at this. The, ah, displacement engine will take out the Scarrans." He looked at her as he struggled the heavy mechanism back up onto the module. "I want my friends out of here. You don't want them."
She nodded. "We'll provide cover for them."
Staring at her, he hit his comms. "Crais? Stark? You need to pick up Sparky and Tauvo and get the hell outta here." Did he need to say something about avoiding the Marauder? Did Crais and Stark even know she was here? How much should he say over an open channel? "Sparky, Tauvo, get your asses out of those guns and hitch a ride."
Crais' voice came back over comms. "It is unanimous, John. We stay."
"Damn it, Crais! This is not the time! Think about your brother!"
Tauvo's voice came over the comms. "You can't make this choice for us, John!"
Betcha Sparky doesn't agree.
Crais cut in again. "Is there anything we can do?"
"Yeah." He finished reattaching the drive, breathing heavily. Concentrate. "It would be helpful to have the dreadnought directly, ah, in line with the mouth of the wormhole." He looked over at Captain Sun, wondering what she'd make of all this.
He saw understanding dawn in her face, then a rapid crash to horror; was momentarily surprised. She'd caught on damn fast.
"What wormhole?" Crais responded.
"The one I'm about to rustle up." He began edging his way down the wingtip. Knees were shaky.
"We will attempt to lure them. Good fortune."
John wasn't paying attention. His feet had given way; he slid in a heap to the hangar floor. Damn, this floor is cool too. I gotta good theory going here, DK. It's all about the floors. He couldn't get up. The Captain was there in a second, grabbing him with strong hands.
Contact. The shock made him gasp for air; gave him a jolt that brought him back to his feet.
"Crichton?" She pushed him up against the module, where he managed to steady himself. "Are you hurt?"
"No. No, I'm fine." Liar.
"What happened?" She patted him down professionally, and the pain was so great he almost didn't notice. Almost. "What did she do to you?"
They'd done so well until then. A team. Butch and Sundance. And then she'd gone, jumping out of the racing little four-by to get that Char-head off his ass. Because the gun wouldn't work. Probably because Furlow had sabotaged it before she'd sabotaged them. Him.
Don't ask, please don't ask, I don't want to think about it.
"No, she didn't do anything." He tried to pull away from her, but she held him back easily, staring into his eyes. Once again he was caught by them, thrown back in time to a Peacekeeper base, to a swirling storm. Only now he knew a little more about what he was drowning in.
Her voice was quiet, soothing. "What's the matter?"
"She didn't--" God, he didn't want to do this. Not now, not ever. Not when he was just beginning to understand the look in her eyes. Lifting his hand, he moved the backs of his fingers across the smooth curve of her cheek.
He was wrong. It only got better with time.
Her eyes flickered, her own hand came up to cover his. He closed his eyes. Oh, God. There was a weakness in his knees, his stomach was jelly. Bleeding inside; he was undone. He remembered their first meeting: the shock in her eyes as their skin had made contact. He'd wondered if he was going crazy, imagining the fire in that moment. He wondered what she'd felt, on her end.
And then the second time. She had been a fantasy spun out of snow. An angel, come to rescue him. Look, dad, she's gorgeous and she kicks ass--
Leaning forward, he rested his forehead on hers. God, he was so tired, and she was so cool. She allowed him, and he frayed beneath her touch. But she supported him, his face, even when he tried to duck away.
"What . . . is the matter?"
He closed his eyes; he couldn't look at her. Couldn't face her. He took a few deep breaths, but he couldn't support himself. It was natural to have her there, holding him up. His hands wrapped around the nape of her neck. If he'd been PK-trained, he could have killed her easily, snapped her neck. But Scorpy was gone, so instead he clung to her, a weak and dying Human. Alone in his head.
"Radiation," he said quietly. "Massive radiation." He pulled back, away from her. "I couldn't--"
God, he was drowning in her eyes.
"--help it." He gasped for breath. "I couldn't stop it."
He saw the slight shake of her head, felt it underneath his hands. Concern in her eyes. Concern for him. Or so he desperately wanted to believe. Her hand was still on his cheek, cool to his burning skin.
"There has to be something you can do."
"Yeah." Was that an ego boost, or what? He tried to grin, failed miserably. "I have to finish this."
He tried to turn away, to climb back into the module, but she dragged him back. "I'm flying the mission."
"No!" Fear, great, bone-chilling fear. He fought her, or tried to. "Listen, you don't know what to do."
"You will talk me through it." She pushed past him easily, her foot on the ladder.
He grabbed her, hands touching her intimately, roughly, dragging her back against him. Sparks flew; they gave him strength. "Damn it, Captain! This is not something I can coach you through! It's half intuition, it's half feeling. I know it like I invented it." He had. All of it. He was learning the drive; he already knew the module. She didn't. She was damn good, but he wouldn't let her do this. Couldn't.
She turned to look at him, and he felt it again, that slamming shock that punched him in the solar plexus and took his breath away. "You may still have time," she gritted out.
"You found me," he whispered back. "You found me . . . like that. Somehow. You've gotten inside of my head." You've gotten underneath my skin. "You know me, right? Right?"
She stared at him.
"Then you know I have to do this," he said softly, and swallowed. There was such an empty look in her eyes, he felt bereft. "Hey . . . I'll be back."
* * *
"Crichton? Are you . . . there?"
The voice drew him back from the depths. "Yeah," he mumbled. "I'm . . . I'm still here." He laughed weakly. "Told you I'd come back."
His dad had taught him to always keep promises made to a girl.
"Can you lock onto my coordinates?"
It was like wading through taffy, trying to come back to consciousness. He fumbled his way across the module's control panel. Coordinates. She was in space. She was floating in space some metras off, waiting in her Prowler.
Oh, yeah. Her mission. Right. Well, she was welcome to his sorry carcass, whatever good that would do her. "Got you."
"Maintain station off my ship, Crichton."
"Follow you. Gotcha." Well, he couldn't say that she hadn't been honest.
It took him a few minutes to realize that she wasn't heading planet-side, or out into the system. She was aiming for Mustang. She was giving him a fighter escort out to his ship; her ships, her three Prowlers, were not moving to intercept. Her voice crackled across an open frequency as she signaled Mustang and requested a docking web for his module, letting the universe know of her intentions.
Crais signaled him privately. "John! Are you all right? Mustang is preparing to fire the main cannon--"
"Crais, no! Mustang, don't do it!"
"John, are you sure? She's a Peacekeeper!"
So were you, Crais. "Not this time."
Bialar sounded dubious, but he agreed. "Deploying docking web. Stand by, John."
He just wanted to go to sleep. It was so damn warm. Was this what it felt like, the Sebacean heat delirium? Had he just found the human version? Damn, he should have asked Captain Sun. Lost chance.
He roused when the module touched down, but he couldn't manage the strength to pop the canopy. He waited, listless, until figures moved beyond the polarized filter.
He was very surprised to see Aeryn Sun when he opened his eyes. Very pleased.
"Hi." He smiled at her.
Something moved behind her eyes. "Give me your hand, Crichton."
That should have been my line, baby. Oh, too late, too late.
Crais supported his left side. They limped out of the docking bay, two Peacekeeper Captains and one washed-out astronaut. She didn't ask for directions, didn't comment on the hybrid Leviathan. Merely helped him through the corridors to the Captain's quarters.
He had a sudden urge to ask her if she was as lonely as he was.
Tauvo and Rygel came in silently, followed by Stark, as she helped him onto the bunk and stood back. Crais fussed over him a bit, nervous energy, but John kept his own eyes locked on hers.
Even Bialar looked strangely uncomfortable, deliberately ignoring the Captain. "The . . . radiation sickness treatments from . . . Mustang's emergency kits should--"
"Relax," John sighed. "It was a big hit . . . nothing to be done. And I hate . . . long goodbyes."
Crais sat down on the bed next to him. "Your sacrifice . . . does not go unnoted, Commander."
Damn, just when he was starting to get used to the cranky personality. He breathed through his mouth, finding it hard to get enough oxygen to his starving lungs. "Crais . . . you . . . find the better part of yourself. You . . . have to take care of them." Learn to love Tauvo as a brother, not as an image.
"I will. I . . . hope you can believe that."
John hoped he could live it. Crais stood up and put his hand on John's shoulder, a benediction.
John nodded. Goodbye, Bialar.
The Dominar had avoided the Peacekeeper Captain standing silently at parade rest, but now he looked mournfully at John.
"Hey, hey, hey . . .Sparky."
"They say . . . it's not good."
It wasn't contagious, either. "Sparky, come here." Rygel hovered closer. "My stuff--"
"You can't have it." John laughed weakly; he managed to get an answering laugh from the Hynerian. Until he started coughing, and Rygel's eyebrows drooped.
"It will be hard . . . not to think of you."
Damn, Sparky. "I'm gonna miss you, Dominar."
He couldn't hold his eyes open any longer; he heard Rygel hover out of the room. A throbbing pain grabbed him, a viselike grip around his ribs, and he slipped sideways.
"Stark!" Tauvo's voice.
Strong hands grabbed him, keeping him upright. Stark sat down next to him, touching his forehead with one hand, lifting his mask with the other, and suddenly the pain . . . receded. It didn't go away, but it loosened its hold on his chest, allowed him to breathe again. The hands released him.
Even in his pain, he knew who had touched him. Felt the energy, the warmth, spiral up from that contact. He'd grabbed on to that as much as Stark had held on to him.
Stark lifted his hand, but before he could back off, John reached up. Replaced the Banak's hand on his forehead.
When he opened his eyes, Stark nodded, stood up, left the room. He hoped Stark would take back his message. Maybe the other John would be smarter, wouldn't leave it too late.
"John." Tauvo sat next to him, touched him. Cleared his throat. "We had some good times, didn't we?"
He smiled. "I wouldn't change it for the world."
"John . . . you made me a better person."
"That . . . wasn't hard."
Tauvo nearly laughed, but his face grew sad again, and he blinked, his eyes wet. "I would have gone to Earth, you know."
"I'm . . . sorry you never got to meet my dad - my real dad. I'm . . . sorry I never met your dad." He tried to laugh; it came out as a cough instead. Tauvo's face was lined misery, and John ached to comfort him. "They say . . . it's a lucky or ambitious man who goes when he's ready. That said - Scorpius is gone. I'm at peace."
Tauvo's face was carved misery.
"I don't . . . hurt. I . . . I did some good things. I'm proud of my life. And I'm with . . . friends."
Tauvo clasped his arm, squeezed gently. "I'm going to miss you . . . brother." He stood up, his eyes wet.
John waited. He tasted Tauvo's uncertainty, in leaving him with the enemy. Tauvo was looking at him, asking him; he managed to get his tired muscles to move. His chin dipped slightly. His eyes begged. Tauvo nodded back, not fighting him. That was good. He didn't have the strength, and he needed this so much.
Only she remained. Aeryn Sun. Captain Aeryn Sun.
Please, he breathed. Stay.
He saw no pity in her eyes, no joy, no trumping success. Only a haunting kind of sorrow that he knew too well.
I feel it too, baby. It's what could have been. It hurts so much because I found out too late--
So quiet that at first he thought he'd dreamed it: "Do you want me to stay?"
"Yeah," he sighed, because he didn't have the strength to cheer. He uncurled his hand at his side, and after a moment, she placed her fingers over his. "You upset you won't be able to complete your mission?"
He smiled, feeling his weakness in his lack of control over his face, his eyelids. "Me too." His world narrowed down to the touch of her fingers across his skin. That felt so good, so much better than the heat/cold that licked at his head. Looking at her was so much easier than noticing the darkness that fogged the corners of his vision, especially when her pale skin glowed so brightly. "Are you going to be okay?" His voice was slurred.
He could barely see her smile. "My mission is complete, my primary objective achieved. Neither the knowledge nor the Human fell into the hands of the Scarrans." Did he imagine the catch in her voice? He hoped not.
"There's another John, you know. Another me." Forgive me, John, if I'm making the wrong decision.
"Don't," she said. Now her fingers touched his face, drifted along his cheek. He wanted to turn his face into her caress, but he couldn't manage his muscles, they were too heavy.
"I'm sorry," he whispered, and he wondered if she understood what he was sorry for. I want to tell you I'm sorry I didn't find you earlier.
"Don't be." Her voice was soft, soothing. "Don't go that way."
He smiled, surrounded by a wonderful, glorious Sun, his Sun, light at the end of the tunnel. "I won't."
* * *
Section 13: Fractures
"Okay . . . I'm gonna . . . piss you off now, man." The hologram sighed. "I ran into Captain Aeryn Sun again. You remember her. You can't forget her."
No, he couldn't. There were still nights he awoke, burning, her face vivid in his mind.
"I told her . . . about you."
"I don't know . . . if she understood. But listen. Listen. She's not . . . gonna come after you. Unless Scorpius . . . makes her."
And this is supposed to make me feel better?
"If she does--" A heavy breath. "--If she does, she's going to find you. Be honest with her. Be . . . yourself."
He took a deep breath; he needed it. Nodded.
"Oh . . . one more thing."
They both threw scissors. Of course.
The hologram smiled. "Good luck, John."
He stared at the empty spot for a long time afterwards, thinking. Wondering.
"Look at me. Now look at yourself. You know."
"Don't let Scorpius crack this."
Chiana entered the cell quietly, sat by his side. "You okay?"
He sighed, leaning in to her warmth. "Yeah."
She motioned at the mask. "You have anything interesting to say?"
"I pulled a damn Yoda on myself. Cryptic as all hell." Of course, he had been dying at the time, so maybe he oughta give himself some slack.
"Be . . . yourself."
It was gonna take time.
Tauvo still watched him at moments, half aloof, half pleading. I'm still the same guy, John wanted to say, but couldn't figure out how to say it in ways he hadn't already. They'd worked together to try and fix the prisoners' transport, and then to save Rygel, but John could tell that Tauvo had been distracted.
"It's irridium alloy; of course it'll hold. Just like the budong."
"Budong? What are you talkin' about?"
"You-- Just . . . follow my lead."
Yeah, there was much weirdness there. Crais, too, had been strangely silent, remote. Not so much the stiff neck as . . . mourning.
At least Stark and Zhaan were happy again, reunited. Maybe the only good thing to happen.
She touched his face, pulled to look him square in the eyes. "It's over, though, right?"
"No." It was just beginning. But he couldn't explain, and the enormity of what he was about to do left him at a loss for words.
She leaned closer, her breath soft on his lips. So soft and warm. With that lemon-scent that was Pip-- He pulled away, sighing. "No, Chiana."
"I know." She looked down, traced his collarbone.
He hugged her. "I'm sorry, Pip. I just can't. I can't do that to D'Argo - he's my friend. I won't . . . pull a Jothee."
She stiffened, but didn't move away.
"And I can't," he muttered, speaking into her hair. He knew she understood him. He'd said this before, several times. "I can't do that anymore, Chi. I can't have anything less than real."
"You remember her. You can't forget her."
"Why not just take what you can get?" Her voice was ragged.
Oh, Pip, he sighed. Because I had that, with Gilina. And it wasn't enough. I can't do that again.
He kept her with him, taking what comfort he could, storing it greedily, before he did what he knew had to come next.
* * *
"You're certain he's dead?"
Her voice came as though from far away. "I saw the body."
"Did you destroy it?"
"No." The word was cool, stark. "That was not indicated as a requirement on the mission brief."
"Ah. Correct." His voice matched hers; he felt strangely distant. "What was the disposition of the body?"
"His shipmates took custody of the remains."
The words didn't matter. Their import did. John Crichton, dead. All that wormhole knowledge, lost forever.
But he still had some of it. What he'd removed from the neural chip, what he'd remembered. He still had that.
"And the Scarrans?"
"Destroyed, including the scoutship they deployed in-system. The Scarrans received neither data nor body, as ordered."
Yes. She was very precise. Exactly as he asked.
"Dismissed," he said absently, and went back to struggling to accept a universe without John Crichton in it.
* * *
She had answered his questions. Precisely, exactly.
He hadn't asked the right questions. The death of the Human had taken him by surprise, had shaken him to the core.
If you think that was bad, you should have been in the room when he . . . went.
The moment he'd gone, she'd known. The room had darkened around her, and her breath had been strained, harsh. Silent. Empty. Cold. They stroked cool fingers through her hair, whispered endearments over her skin. The urge to simply give in, fall into the void, was almost overwhelming.
She had struggled back from that edge. Even now, days and light-years away, she fought for breathing space that wasn't simply darkness.
She walked out of the office in the lab, aware of goings-on around her, but focused on the exit. Let me out of here. Let me go back into space, where I can remember his eyes, his touch. Where I can allow him to fill me up, and not worry about who I might become, what I might lose.
"Excuse me. Captain?"
She paused. Looked over. A nervous tech was hailing her. An anomaly; one part of her mind automatically began tracking data, seeking a pattern. Another part wailed piteously. "Yes?"
Another tech tried to hush him, but he continued, watching her nervously. "You're a - you were a pilot, right?"
She had been many things. "Yes."
"We - I, I mean - had some questions - I've seen you in here before, working with him - you seem to - I mean -"
She didn't have that much time; she wanted to return to her cool empty space before she could be questioned. Before she broke again. "What do you want?"
He gulped at her tone. "Would you - would you look this over? Not the scientific data, of course, I know you don't care about that, but the flight information? Tell me if there's - anything unusual about it?"
She stared at him. This - the tech approaching her - wasn't one of Scorpius' tests; it wasn't subtle enough for that. Simply a brave boy, looking beyond his parameters for the answers. So she held her hand out for the flimsy. His hands shook when he passed it. The noise level in the room increased as the techs noticed the transfer.
Daring boy. Became used to the monster in your midst, have you? Who am I, to scare you after knowing Scorpius? She flipped the flimsy over, read more data.
"Experimental test?" She noted the coordinates where it had taken place.
"Yes. A deep space weapon."
A look, a single raised brow. "The test subjects escaped in the transport pod." A Boolite, a Hynerian, a Nebari, and a Scarran.
"Well, it's true, the prisoners escaped, but they were still blasted. The weapon was designed to work on metallic molecules, but it was supposed to be calibrated towards the organic spectrum. Yet the transport was completely destroyed. But then, look here - the transport's engines show a power fluctuation in the signature, here and here, as they were escaping, and then they cycle through maximum power - see that energy spike right there?" He ran a hand through short, regulation hair, his voice steadying as he wandered back into familiar territory. "Have you ever seen those types of fluctuations listed in the ship specs for that transport class?" He turned to the second tech. "Or maybe Tal didn't have time to get everything calibrated before they grabbed him?"
She flipped to the end of the report, scanned the text quickly. The ship had been found - well, the remains had been found, since its locator beacon was the only thing intact. Biological remains had been scanned in the debris. No need to sift through them; merely prisoners' remains. Given the type of weapon employed, she wasn't surprised about the Boolite. She noted that several messages had been transmitted from a Peacekeeper tech taken hostage by the prisoners - two messages over long-range comms. When had he been able to do that? What was the maximum boost of a standard transport's comms systems? It was not something she knew off-hand; it would be interesting to find out. The coordinates of the location of the debris - what was around there? Not likely to be any deep-space anomalies, but better to check that out anyway. Apparently the tech believed the problem could be traced back to the engines, but she would have ruled that out as a likely cause of explosion. Actually . . . she turned back to the data in the report. Too bad no analysis of the debris had been performed. Would it have shown the striations common in a cell drive overload?
Cell drive overloads were caused by locking out the overrides, by blasting out the controls, by dropping the containment shield-- In short, overloads were caused either by intentional damage or huge frell-ups.
"No, I haven't seen that power spike," she answered him. It was certainly an interesting fluctuation; it did not bode well for the maximum estimated life cycle of the transport's engines. "What was the test designed to prove?"
"That such a weapon mounted on a deep space platform would be effective against alien life forms!"
But of course. What else would a weapon do? She handed the flimsy back to him, suddenly tired of questions, answers, voices in her head and out. "They're dead," she said dryly. "It appears your test was successful." Walked out without a backward glance.
She needed to return to space, the emptiness. There, she could find herself. And perhaps, in the darkness, sifting through the broken pieces, she would find him.
* * *
Author's Note: This story was inspired by (a) a long hiatus to a newly-addicted fan (b) a deleted scene, and (c) some twisted sense of self-challenge. Those readers outside the U.S., or with access to the DVDs, might remember that Larraq and Aeryn had, in "A Bug's Life", a conversation about his type of commando, which they referred to as "Black Ghosts." When I began wondering where Aeryn would have ended up, had John not come into her life, I latched on to those few lines, and hey presto--
My absolute gratitude to Perri and Kiki: Perri, you started it all, and added the information required for me to fudge second season with a minimum of spoilers. Kiki, you got me, you really got me! Y'all are BRBs - Beta-Reading Babes!