Feedback: is what I would happily learn the Charleston for at Scapekid@email.com (translation: does a one-legged duck swim in a circle? Of course I want feedback!)
Rating: PG-13 (occasional strong profanity, but little else that would be borderline)
Archive: By all means, all I ask is that you drop me a line as you do so and keep my name attached.
Disclaimer: I do not own John Robert Crichton Jr. or Aeryn Sun, or any other Farscape character, word orsetting. They come from the wonderfully twisted imaginations of Brian Henson, Rockne S. O'Bannon and many other fantastical creators. I can only lament the fact that I am not one of them.
Spoilers: Mild things through Season two I suppose.
Author's Notes: Firstly a note on the title, it is taken from the title song on Tracy Chapman's album "Telling Stories" and was, although not the inspiration for this story, an immeasurable source of strength. It made me finish. Secondly, a note on when this is set. It is some time in Season Three, however in this version of events Aeryn did not die, or 'die', neither did John lose his speech. Or, if you prefer, those things did happen, but have long been resolved.
I hate the mines. I'm cold, I'm hungry and I need to piss.
It's the little things that get to you, you know? Like mud. I have discovered that I really, really, really can't stand mud. It gets between my toes, under my fingernails, in my hair, over my clothes, everywhere.
They took my shoes. I mean, why would they do that? I need my shoes.
The guy in front yells out a whole bunch of swear words I've never heard before and probably couldn't pronounce even if I was inclined to try. Which, quite frankly, I'm not since I'm freezing, covered in mud, and busy trying to jump over the rock Curse-boy just marched straight into. Not easy since a) I've got dead weight chains around my wrists and ankles and b) I'm chained *to* Curse-boy. Apparently he doesn't give his chain gang buddies any thought when he's lurching forward and trying to writhe in agony.
But it's okay. I've got the routine down: push off with the ball of your foot at the last possible moment; let the mud squish through the cracks between your toes; take a blind leap forward and hope you don't crash into anything else. Damn, I wish there were some light down here.
Christ on a comet, here we go.
Well, the good news is I am safely clear of the rock. Ladies and Gentlemen, John Crichton has landed. More than can be said for his module, but we'll give him a 9.8 for effort.
The bad news is, I think I'm about to be punched very hard in the jaw. At least I hope it's the jaw. Apparently the burbling thing behind me didn't take to kindly to having his chain yanked. Quite literally. Straight into that damned piece of stone sticking out of the ground, which I think has to be vindictive as well as pointy.
Ah. Here it comes. Swish in the air and --
"Crichton," she hisses in my ear. "Crichton."
Aw shit. She's mad at something. My head hurts, go away.
She's nudging me now. She's not going to leave. I'd better --
I can't open my eyes. Frell, I can't open my eyes! Why the hell can't I open my eyes?
"Aeryn," I manage. I'm a little incoherent but screw it. I may be blurry on the particulars, but I'm pretty damn sure I just got hospitalised by Two Ton Freddie, my rear neighbour Chain-ganger. You know, if I was masochistic that could sound a little kinky.
Where the hell did *that* come from? I think I have concussion. I can't open my eyes and I suddenly find I need the term for a male dominatrix. It's the only explanation.
Wait. I can hear her talking to me. I gotta make myself listen.
"...all right John," she's saying. "The lights are very bright in here. You won't get used to them for a while, and they don't want you panicking when you wake up. It's just fabric over your eyes."
"Eye mask," I say, a little clearer now. Make me think I'm blind. Great way to stop me from panicking.
"We call 'em eye masks. So we can sleep on the aeroplanes. You think they'll wake me up for the feature film?"
There's a sharp exhalation and I don't need to see her to know the expression that'll be on her face. I want to see it anyway. Clumsily I reach up and manage to push away the eye mask. I crack my eyelids.
Big mistake. The world's gone supernova.
I pull the mask back down quickly, sunspot after images flashing all over the place. But I saw her, so I'm happy. Yeah, she looked pissed off, but that doesn't matter. I don't get to see her much anymore. It's always so dark.
They've cut her hair, I think. It was shorter, not quite to her shoulders. I wonder what they did with the rest of it? Maybe they sold it like they sold my shoes.
She looks nice covered in filth. She looks nice anytime. I wish I were really wearing an eye mask; I could just be on a plane somewhere over an ocean, somewhere over Earth. Aeryn would make a good airhostess, she's uni-lingual, and she could Pantak Jab all the passengers who complained too much.
"Excuse me sir, I asked you to stop throwing food at the man in seat 21A," whap.
Okay. Maybe not. I definitely have concussion.
Shit, she's talking again. Nod; act like you've heard it all.
"...don't know you're awake yet. Don't tell them or they'll put you back on duty. Just lay still," a pause. Hurried. "I've got to go, I'm not supposed to be here."
A sweep of air and she's left. I'm getting good at sweeps of air and what they mean.
I should go after her; they're going to make her go back to mining. I should go and, I don't know... I should go after her. Do something heroic. End up back in the Medbay. End up with her mad at me as a cat in a rain barrel.
I should go after her. I'm just so tired.
It was bad, but it wasn't the worst. I have survived worse, and, God willing, I will again.
No, not God. I don't have a right to him anymore, or maybe I don't want one. Either way, he isn't listening. I let him go; I let a lot of things go.
What made this one stand apart from the others, what stopped it from sliding down into the messy corner of my brain reserved for critters and crap and crazy ass bastards who want to kill me, was an image that fell into my mind while we were drinking raslak in a Commerce Planet Cafe. It arrived and sat there for a long time, annoying, and I couldn't get rid of it.
Maybe it saved me. Or maybe it just pushed me that little bit further down my rocky road. Not that I can go much further. Anyway, I always preferred Chunky Chocolate Chip.
What I saw first, when I finally got the nerve to peel back the mask, grit my teeth, and push through the explosions, was another set of eyes staring back at me.
Well, I lie. What I saw first were my blankets. The underside to be precise. Blankets make a surprisingly effective light filter. But nobody wants to hear about the underside of my blankets and the five or ten minutes I spent in the agony of sight. So I'll stop digressing and get to the interesting part. The eyes.
One of them was blue, and one was brown. I guess in its self it's not so odd. Hell, Alex had one eye brown and one blue. But these were something else. They were intense. They were look-straight-through-you Superman eyes. Ice and black coffee. They said 'you better watch out, because I'm gonna get through this.' They belonged to this kid.
He was maybe three. He was barefoot and topless, and one leg of his pants was ripped off at the knee. Sebacean, with tangled black hair. Just standing there, staring at me, not shivering in the cold. Kids should shiver when it's cold.
"Hey," I said.
He didn't say a thing.
"Do you speak, buddy?"
"Look, it's okay, I'm not gonna hurt you."
Nope, nada, nil. Just standing there. I think he might have blinked once in the entire time I spoke at him.
"Do you even understand me? Translator microbes? Parlez-vous Francais? Habla Espanol?" I asked, uselessly.
Some official looking guy - meaning he had a gun - realised I was awake at that point and came over to shove me back down into the pit. The boy wandered quietly away.
"Do svidanya, kid," goodbye.
He is standing in the sepia toned grass, small hands squashed above his eyes. The sun is melting, metallic in a heat haze across the neighbouring rooves. In front of him, silhouetted in stark black is his hero. At two he has not yet heard how his grandfather flew X-15s into the upper atmosphere, or how he shot down fighter planes over Germany in the First World War, and he will hear all these things in time. But this is the pinnacle, being picked up by strong hands in the last of the evening light, this is as good as it gets.
There is no day or night here. For a few hours they put on the Sanity Lighting. It drives us crazy. To call it orange would be an insult to the colour spectrum. It looks like puke.
Some worker went postal on us today and killed three men. He just flipped out and hacked the guys up with his pickaxe, so they shot him. The guards, I mean. We never see their faces because they have helmets and body armour. They're like storm troopers who know how to aim.
People are saying that the third man might have lived, but why bother? Cripples make bad slaves.
I don't know how long we've been here; I lost count after twelve days. Like I said, it's hard to keep track. You work, and if you're not working you sleep. Or you try to sleep.
You can hear them grunting like hippies under the rooves of the caves. Sometimes the sounds are too one sided for comfort. Sometimes there are screams. And sometimes, Aeryn lets me hold her and I am in heaven.
She says we have been here for sixty-four days. Except when she tells me fifty-three.
I saw him again, in dim flickering light on the far edge of the cave. Someone started a fire, and the guards haven't come around yet to force them to douse it. He toddled up to the flames, like a moth. No, that's not right, moths walk straight into death because they're too stupid to realise what they're doing. This kid isn't stupid, the eyes I saw staring back at me in the Medlab weren't stupid in the slightest. He walks toward the fire like a dying plant leaning to the light. He knows what's going to happen, but he needs the light.
One of the women spits at him, tells him to beat it. Another cuffs him upside of the head, hard. The boy takes the knock, he staggers, but doesn't cry, or yell, or anything like that. Raising his hands to cover his eyes, he starts mumbling something. I have the strangest need to hear what he's saying so I leave Aeryn sleeping and creep nearer, straining to catch the words.
"Little boy get into bed," it's a child's voice, slipping over the words, lips twisting to get them out, disjointed without a sense of beat or rhyme. "Just you rest your sleepy head. Sleep away your little cares, your worldly pain no more than nightmares."
He finishes, and starts over again as the heavy hands come down. The first belongs to a meaty, grey skinned creature, and his carelessness makes me want to scream. It's a casual thing, the fist swings out and the child topples over, mumbling a nursery rhyme, the cadence of his voice unwavering. Others join in, like I said, casually. No effort, just something to pass the time. Why does that make me a thousand times angrier than I would be if they were trying to hurt him? The ones furthest away throw rocks, and the sick fucks are probably taking bets. "I'll give you ten if you can hit his temple," Jesus, what am I doing thinking that?
I'm gonna do something. I can't watch this. My fist connects with a chin; everything becomes a tangle of limbs. In a moment of strange reflection, I think I may have momentarily become The Flash. How I covered the distance between where I *was* and where I am now (a free for all brawl right next to an open fire) is a mystery to me. Fortunately, I do not have long to think about that, because with every passing nanosecond I'm increasing my chances of ending up back in hospital.
"Get the frell out of it," a nasal voice whines, accompanied by the static-crackle of a cattle prod. Or whatever they call it in this neck of the universe. One of the squirming mass of critters to my right pushes all the air out of its body, suddenly and painfully. Now we've attracted the attention of the Gestapo, I really don't have much of a desire to be hanging around here.
I guess they're happy enough dominating the others, because they don't pursue me as I wriggle free, grab the kid and run for it. Sometimes being of the lesser and decidedly more puny races can be an advantage. We're not such great cat toys.
Frelling dren. Even in the piss-poor-far-away-dying-firelight I can see the bruises starting to form on his back.
He catches up with reality, and stops mumbling.
"What does it mean?" I ask.
"It's not real," he breathes. "It's a bad dream. It's all a bad dream."
"Did your mom tell you that? Where is she? Come on, we'll look for her."
I pick him up. Not good. His eyes go wide for a split second, and then shut down all together, squeezing his entire face into a crumpled ball. A breath goes in, and does not come out again.
"Hey, hey, I'm not gonna do anything bad to you," he's still not breathing.
This is, -- what's he trying to do? Make me put him down. He's trying to make me put him down. "It's all right, little guy, I'm putting you down, here, look, I'm putting you down."
His feet touch the floor, for an interminable moment he stands, breath still held. Just when I think he's going to pass out, he exhales, and pulls air back into his lungs in great gasping gulps. He runs off into the permanent night, and I've lost him.
"Where's your --" I stop. She's dead, I realise. He has no parents now. Maybe he wasn't trying to make me put him down. Maybe he was just trying to wake himself up.
I find Aeryn awake when I return.
"Where have you been?"
"Doesn't matter," I shake my head, reach over and push a stray strand of hair behind her ear. "What matters is I think we should bust out of this joint. I'm fed up to the back teeth of being in Dutch when I didn't do jack."
As usual, she gets the gist if not the specifics. "We tried that before, remember? It didn't work. They are armed, Crichton, and we have nothing."
Yeah. Yeah, sure I remember. I've still got the scars.
I think I'm losing it. Nah, I don't mean in the all-encompassing mental sense. Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt and had it shrink in the wash. I mean *it*. Earth. It's all sliding away.
Today, I think I can understand how that guy must have felt when he fell over the edge and swung his axe to the side a few times instead of straight down. Sixty days of hacking, digging, the sound of metal against stone, every day, all day, not even knowing what we're mining. It pounds and pounds and I can hear it in my sleep.
You deal with it however you can. I guess for one man it was rampaging with a big pointy thing. Maybe it was his own version of suicide. I slip back into my mind and pretend I'm not here. I think about home, my family, a fishing holiday in Georgia. It was hot day, lazy, too many flies and not many bites on the lines. I was trying to teach Jenny how to cast. She was terrible, but man, it was a good holiday, like the whole world had slowed down.
I can't remember the name of the lake. I've been there, fishing, nearly every day for the past two months, or however the hell long I've been here, and I can't remember the name of the goddamn lake. I'm losing it all. I can feel every single muscle straining across my back and shoulders, every drop of sweat soaking my issued, filthy jump suit. I can't escape to that place anymore, it's just another reminder of how far I've fallen.
Earth boy. Yeah, right.
Somewhere along the way I stopped with the Terra-babble. I mean, no one got it. When I was tossing out food cubes I could ask if they wanted 'fries with that' as much as I frelling well liked and all I'd get was weird looks and annoyed frowns and somewhere down here in the dark I just didn't see the point anymore.
I guess it used to make me feel safer, like I was in control of the situation. Crack a joke Johnny-boy, it's the one thing you're good at.
A little like Braveheart. Imagine the corny Scottish accent.
"You can take my life, but you can never take my sense of humour!"
Her eyes challenge him over the rim of her glass, fine-boned fingers cradle her Raslak, and he has the familiar and disconcerting feeling that she is laughing at him.
"So," she prompts.
"It's not fair," he grins. "You never tell me any embarrassing stories about *your* childhood."
"Such as it was," shrugging, sipping her drink.
"Come on, Aeryn. You must have some good memories. Just something that makes you laugh when you remember it."
"Like the time you drank too much, passed out in your educational facility's function and woke up chained to a street lamp in your underclothing?"
"Well, actually, I wasn't wearing my underclothing, but yeah, like that."
"Not really," the cup is set down on the table, small ripples pooling outwards and lapping against the inner edges of the clear container. "At least none you'd really appreciate."
"Oh," John nods. "Right. Soldier stuff. Then just...just, tell me anything. I'd like to know. It doesn't have to be funny. Something about *you*. Tell me about your parents - I've told you all about mine."
"You know as much as I do."
"So tell me again."
"You are very odd, Crichton."
"So I have been told," he smiles, and Aeryn shakes her head.
"I guess," she says simply. "It was the moment I realised adults were not infallible. Did you ever have a moment like that?"
"Yeah," finishing his drink, pushing the glass across the table. "Of course I did. Everyone does."
But he never got the chance to tell her. They came then, like cold shadows with steel fingers, to take them away.
I've got a hole in the wall. It's a little damp, and a little wet, but I don't think anyone else has found it yet, and being cold and wet is just right when you need a place to stash your beer. There's a tidy little black market going down here. Bribe the right guard, trade some clothing, a knife, some shiny rocks, get Fellip Nectar. Okay, maybe it's not Sam Adams, but it's alcohol and I suddenly feel the need to get very, *very* drunk.
Down the hatch.
It definitely ain't Sam Adams, hell it's not even frat house moonshine, but boy is it working.
Frell, she's not supposed to be here. I was supposed to drink myself into happy land, pass out, get up with a hangover and she wasn't supposed to fucking know.
Smash, smash, smash, smash, lets smash all the empty bottles against the wall, that'll hurt his head. She's doing it on purpose. Shut up, Aeryn, you're not gonna find anything in them.
"Stop it," lately all our conversations seem to involve severe incoherency on my part.
She throws the last empty bottle across the cave. I think she hit someone, god that's funny. Why was that funny? It doesn't matter, laughing is good. It's all good.
She hit me.
"Oh don't pretend that hurt, Crichton," she hisses, furious. "You've got so much alcohol in your blood stream it'll be at least a weeken before you feel dren."
"Good. Was th' point..."
Sweep of air. She sat down next to me.
"Why?" it's bad. She doesn't sound angry now, just hurt. Gees, I'm too drunk to feel guilty. She does this to me all the time, she calls and I come running. Well I'm sick of it. I'm sick of it all. I'm sick of this whole turd-burp end of the universe.
Yeah, so I said that once before and we all know how *that* ended. Buckwheat to the rescue and I was never so glad to see them. But that time I couldn't cope without my world. This time I have to find it again.
I just want them all out of my face. I want everyone to leave me alone. I wanna take a razor and scrape all this alien crap off of me. It's everywhere and it's in my brain. I have to get it off me; I have to take back my world.
"Like frell I'm going to leave you alone like this!"
"Shut up, Aeryn. Don't want you here. Get away."
"You're kar'da, John. You'll feel terrible in the morning. Just get some rest okay?" she's got this resigned parent tone going. Like she thinks this is the worst I can offer. She's treating me like a kid, I hate that. It makes me wanna act like one and I can be a real brat when I put my mind to it.
"What the fuck does 'kar'da' mean?" I'm gonna regret this in the morning. "Another little alien word? You mean drunk? Pissed? Off my face? Rat-assed? Yeah, I got a million and a half of 'em locked in here," gotta whack my thumb against my temple, shit I missed. "At least I did, 'til you an' Zhaan an' D'Argo and all the other...all the other... You made me forget. I can't remember them. All I frelling wanted was to be me, s'not so much to ask is it? Scorpy wanted wormholes and Crais wanted a Leviathan gun ship and D'Argo wanted his son and they all got them. I just wanted t' be me. But you're turning me into a freakin' alien. So leave me the hell alone!"
I stumble to my feet. See? I'm not so drunk. I can stand; I'm only using the wall to help me a little. Aeryn rises in one fluid motion.
"Sit down, John."
I reach over to brush her hand from my shoulder; I barely see its skeletal outline in the pitch. Co-ordination isn't exactly my forte at the moment and I slam her entire arm into the wall. That's gotta hurt. She puts up with so much from me. I'm not even going to apologise. I'm a jackass. Sorry.
"Just get out," I tell her.
Swish in the air. Gone.
There is a spoon, and it shakes as it makes its flighty passage to an old man's mouth. Blank lumps of meat and carrot catch in his moustache, fall and trail along his shirt, are deftly wiped away by the hands of a large soap-smelling nurse, hovering in patronising benevolence.
Understanding enough to realise he was not always this inept, that he has slid in his grace, and that falling to a state where even consuming chicken soup seems beyond his power holds something inescapably ignoble, he slams his fist down on the TV tray before him. He understands this much. He does not understand the how's, the why's, the when's or the before's. The frustration of memory rains upon him softly and constantly, collecting in small pools in his mind, trickling from one to the other, taunting him, letting in the damp. When there is no room left, it all pours out in a waterfall of anger and fear.
The staff drug him until he is docile, and leave him in his room until he will play nicely with the others.
John Robert Crichton Jr. crashes into the room just in time to see his Grandfather's fist hit the table, to see the soup fly up into the air, spilling all over him, to see the confusion and the large nurse take over.
"There now look what you've gone and done, Bobby."
"Mr. Crichton to you," his Grandfather half growls, poking at the liquefied mess, growing increasingly agitated because it is not helping. "Look at this, look at this damn mess you've made!" he knocks the tray-table over in disgust.
"Mr. Crichton, you spilled the soup, honey. Remember? Can you remember that for me?"
"Don't you sweet talk me, woman. I don't remember crap. Why should I? I was a fighter pilot. I don't knock over my god-damned soup. I don't knock over..."
The fire that burned in the eight year old boy, the "he'll never stay in a Home"s, the "I'll rescue him"s, the "how could you do this, Dad"s, melted in a heart gulping moment. Betrayal shifting suddenly from an uncaring Father to a Grandfather who did not love him enough to remember.
"Are you John? Here to see your Grandpa?" the nurse was asking.
"Grandpa? What are you talking about, woman, stop lying to me. I don't have a grandson. You think I'm stupid or something? You think I'm stupid? I'll give you stupid --"
And John could not longer hear, because he was running.
I woke up without a hangover, which annoyed me. Another thing to add to my catalogue of alien grievances.
"Dear Dad, DK, friends and family, you've just gotta try the beer here. Kick back, relax, down a bottle, maybe two, voila. You're happily off to Inebriation Central. And don't sweat it 'cause they haven't quite discovered hangovers yet."
I can see the lines forming now. Idiots.
I want my hangover, damn it. Waking up to the pleasant sound of a thousand untuned pneumatic drills in your head is Man's birthright. It's some kind of constant in our twisted little existence. Like football.
Besides, if I have a hangover I don't have to think about what happened last night, and yesterday, and every day since I got here. I don't have to deal with the conclusion I can feel creeping up on me, demanding my attention. It's big, and I don't want it.
You know, that Fellip bootleg crap was strong. I can't have drunk more than half of it. Hey, my hangover might have stood me up this morning, but I could always try again tonight, tomorning, towhatever. If Aeryn hasn't found my stash.
Shit. Where is she? More to the point when is it? I should be on a shift by now.
It looks like I'm gonna lose my stomach this morning after all, because it sure as hell feels like it just crashed through to one of the caves below. She took your shift for you. You bastard.
I had some kind of a plan. I was going to throw myself on her mercy, beg forgiveness, that kind of thing. Maybe even tell her why I did it. If I could even begin to make it make sense. But all that got thrown out the proverbial window. I am watching someone die.
Not from injuries, he's thin, gaunt, but unbroken. He's dying from exhaustion, from desperation, from hopelessness, from all these things. It is very, very quiet. A stillness settles over his features, a whispered breath of silence smoothing away the pain. His eyes stop, fixed and clear and staring out at a place forever beyond the reach of this phosphorescence.
If I grind my knuckle against my forehead hard enough maybe the bile will stop rising and I'll stop choking up tears. But somehow, I really, I don't, I don't think so. Is crying for a fallen stranger so bad? There is just too much. I can't bury him.
Small fingers touch the back of my neck, icy and scared. I half turn and pull the child into my arms, unthinking. The little boy from the Medlab, the little boy I found watching me from the shadows, hiding from the miners with stones and an idea to get in some target practice, the kid who watched calmly as I almost got decked again for defending him, the boy I followed to this place, he wraps his arms around my neck and soaks my shoulder. I hold him close and feel less desperate.
I stretch a hand out blindly as the sleep caves plunge back into darkness with the slowing whirr of a generator powering down. I was going to brush the man's eyelids, close them. But I don't. I remember the way he looked, and I decide to leave him, staring out at the things that made him happy.
I suppose we all carry a hidden memory, something that will keep us sane in the darkness. It kept Stark alive through the Aurora Chair, it let this man die with peace and dignity, and for me, I thought it was a lazy summer day of fishing. Now I'm not so sure, but I would not take it away from anyone else. So I leave his eyes open.
I walk away, still holding the kid, and he doesn't complain, and he is still breathing, so I keep walking. I have to find Aeryn. We have to get out of here.
"I can't move my body," he whispers.
"Temp," she stutters. "Temporary paralysis."
They are lying, eye-to-eye, nose-to-nose, surrounded by bodies in the heated darkness of a moving vehicle.
The relief in his expression is palpable. "It's not permanent?"
"Are you okay?"
She pauses for the barest fraction of a second. "No."
"What's the matter?" John bites back his frustration as he attempts to reach over, to touch her cheek, only to be abruptly reminded that he cannot move. Almost useless eyes close, willing the searing memories of energy whips and screaming Cafe patrons to fade so that he can devote his attention to Aeryn.
"Cold," is all she says.
He nods. "I think you've got it worse than me, I started to warm up after a couple hours."
With a supreme effort his rolls over, pinning her to the wall of the cargo transport. Perhaps human physiology is more resilient on this occasion, or perhaps it is just a blind refusal to be subdued, but he manages to raise his arm, drape it over his girl. It is not much, but it is enough, for now, to satisfy his desire to hold her, take care of her. He gives what he can in body heat and hopes he will be able to rip the people who did this to her into shreds.
"I was going to tell you something," he mumbles into her shoulder. But she is already asleep, and so the it remains unspoken, the thoughts hovering just behind consciousness, seeping through his mind. On the cusp of an unwanted realisation, John bends his mind to other places and other times. There are some things he is not ready to deal with.
The pictures in his mind wait, quietly, patiently, surfacing and sinking. Surviving, unwilling to be forgotten, they endure.
Kids always look peaceful when they're sleeping. At least, I'm sure he would if there were enough light to see him properly. He shivers when he sleeps, with every breath that comes out. It reminds me too much of a mouse I found on the sidewalk when I was nine. Some punks with hockey sticks had decided he'd make a good puck and by the time I got there it was bleeding and shaking, and there wasn't a damn thing I could do. At least this boy's not bleeding, but god, the bruises on his back would make linebackers proud.
I wrapped all the blankets I could find around him. Read: mine and Aeryn's. But they're full of holes and he's still cold, I can tell. He's used to it, which is worse.
At first, when she came back and I had to tell her she couldn't have her blanket, she was mad. Madd*er*, I should say. I showed her what I had to do with it, and she nodded, but she still hasn't spoken a frelling word to me, she's just sitting there, bolt upright against the rock.
Well I've gotta try. Let's get this over with.
"Uh, Aeryn," I cough.
"I'm trying to get some sleep, John. My shift starts in under an arn," rational. Cool as a fucking cucumber. Damn, I wish she wouldn't pull this shit on me.
"No, no, I'm taking that one for you."
"Look, it's not a question of generosity! You've been pulling every shift under the god damn sun, if such a thing even exists anymore, because I haven't seen any frelling evidence of it recently, and in the one decent period of time you'd managed to beg off, you go and cover for me, and you're going to collapse if you keep this up --"
"Know why?" she snaps, breaking me off mid flow. "Know why I was pulling every shift under this back-frelled sun that probably isn't even *attributed* to a deity? Because, Crichton, it occasionally gets me something. A favour, a blanket, food. Things that keep us alive. Yes, that's right, *us*. So apparently it *is* a question of generosity, because I didn't see you sharing, or even getting anything useful."
"Guilty. I was a jackass. I was a complete and utter bastard. I am absotively posilutely the worst excuse for a friend that has ever walked this or any other planet."
"It's all right," she murmurs quietly after a painful silence, turning her face away.
"No," I shake my head vehemently. "It's not all right. I did things, I said things --"
"I said it's all right, Crichton. You were dren-faced. You didn't know what you were doing."
"But I did. I knew exactly what I was doing. I was trying to hurt you."
Well, now I know it's a possible task. I just knifed her in the gut with a blade of spite. She is still as death, her lips move almost imperceptibly and a single word breaks in her throat.
"I," why did I do it? "I don't know. Actually, you know what? That's bullshit. I know exactly why. I wanted to see how far I could make myself go."
"I don't understand you," every syllable is diamond.
"I was going to tell you something that day when we were in the cafe, years ago."
"About seventy solar days."
"Two and a half months, two and a half years. Doesn't matter. I was going to tell you about the moment I realised adults weren't flawless or faultless or super heroes with day jobs. It was when I saw my grandpa, my father's father, in an old people's home. He had Alzheimer's. It's a disease that makes us forget things, anything, everything. Recent events go first, short term memory, then long term memory."
"Like the living death."
"Yes, I suppose. In a way. Most people are afraid of it, no one really recovers. We just drift further and further away. I wouldn't believe that he'd forgotten me, you see? I didn't want to believe he couldn't look after himself. I was eight. I went there, guns blazing, ready to beat up all the nurses and bust him out. But he didn't know me. He'd spilled soup all over himself and he was angry and confused and so... unrecognisable. He'd fallen so far from the man he was," I fiddle with the fastener to my jump, not knowing how to phrase what's coming next. It's still fragile and unformed in my mind. I'm afraid if I name it it'll break apart and I'll lose it, just when I'm starting to understand, accept. "I was angry with him for a very long time. I thought if he loved me enough then he would have remembered me. I'd always seen him as perfect; it crushed my world to know he was just another man, with a lower case 'm'.
"Truth is, I saw him slipping away from my world into a strange alien existence. I swore to myself that I wouldn't do that; I wouldn't willingly let go of everything I'd known, like he did. When I was mining yesterday, earlier today, whenever, I realised I couldn't remember the name of a lake where I fished when I was a boy."
There is an expectant silence, so I continue.
"Don't you get it? That image of my grandfather has been floating around my brain since we got here, and it annoyed the crap out of me. It scared me. Yesterday I realised why. I'm losing Earth. I'm changing, and I'm not doing anything to stop it. I'm letting go of my world. When I pissed off to Acquara, pulled the Robinson Crusoe stint, I couldn't live out here, be one of you people. Now I'm afraid I can. So I wanted to see how far I could make myself go. Some twisted part of my subconscious did the math and I thought," my head makes contact with the rock, I push my eyelids together and for the thousandth time, it seems, I find myself saying something that will harm her in some way. It's cruel; this life is just too cruel. "I was trying to get rid of the alien in me, I thought if I could hurt you it would prove I could live without you. And maybe I would still be the guy who took a wrong turn at the wormhole. But I can't."
Susurrations of fabric and the rippling air let me know she is moving long before she sits down beside me, pulling my head to her shoulder. Long, silent, shuddering sobs find their way from my body; I cannot hold her tight enough. Her lips brush against my hair and mine brush against her jawbone. We are silent.
"I can't go back there, Aeryn," I whisper at length. "Even if I found it again, I couldn't live there."
"I know," she soothes, stroking my hair.
"I know. I'm sorry too."
"I know how much Earth meant to you."
Smiling, I wipe my eyes, I pull away. "Well, you know, it's not like there's that much to miss. Except maybe Peanut Butter. And that bet I put on the 1998 Superbowl. I'll miss not collecting on that."
She laughs a little, and before I know what I'm doing, I'm leaning in and I'm kissing her. Just kissing. Lip against lip, no tongue, hell if this were in a movie it'd be hard-pressed to reach PG-13. Doesn't matter, though. I wouldn't change it, not even when she pulls away and changes the subject.
"Does the boy have a name?" I feel her moving past me and reaching out to brush his forehead. At least he's stopped shaking.
"Illuin, I think," shaking my head, I follow her example and reach out to touch him, make sure he's still there. "At first I thought he didn't have translator microbes, or he was a mute or something. But he understands even if he nearly never speaks. He said 'Illuin' when I told him my name. Man, he's messed up, Aeryn, and he's practically still a baby. He nearly made himself pass out trying to wake himself up from a 'bad dream', or maybe trying to force me to put him down. What do you do with a kid who uses his own pain like that? I don't know how to take care of him."
"You got him warm, I'd say it's a good start," I know she's frowning. When you spend the largest part of your life in darkness, pauses take on expressions of their own. "But Illuin can't be right."
"It's a diminutive, a nickname. It means 'blessed' or 'beloved' or something. But it makes sense. He must have come from one of the break away colonies, or one of the farming worlds. It's a common, if outdated, belief that names hold power, sometimes it's all they have to hold onto, and the conscriptors have to invent names for the records. His parents probably kept his name secret so no one would have power or dominion over him. Illuin may have been the only thing they ever called him out loud."
"Well, we'll never know now," I sigh. "I suppose that other man might have known."
"What other man?"
"Just this other man," I don't want to talk about that right now. "He died. I think he was looking out for the kid. He was humanoid, but not Sebacean, so probably not the biological parent, but," screw it, you can join the dots, Aeryn.
"But he saw a parent die."
"On top of everything else. I was there when it happened, and I don't know why, but he trusts me now. Maybe that guy was there when his real parents died. I don't know. God, you should see the bruises on his back," no, I'm not going there either. I might not know much, but I know that we're all getting the hell out of here and we'll fill in the details later. We don't have much time. "We have to get out of here, Aeryn."
"Yes," no protests, no reminders we've been through this, no sarcastic questioning of how I intend to get out of a heavily guarded slave mine, just 'yes.' And then she adds, "Crichton, if you're going to keep him --"
"Yeah," I reply abruptly. "I know. His mind is probably frelled worse than mine ever was. I have no idea how to raise a child, let alone *this* child. If I take him with me then I'm kissing Earth goodbye once and for all. I'm tied down. I know. But I can't just leave him here. Even if I could find him a family who cared, I'm not gonna do it down here. And I won't leave him."
"I was going to say," she's got the most amazing voice. "That you should give him a name."
"Oh," wasn't expecting *that*. "Yeah. Right. Got any ideas?"
"No, this is your choice, John."
"Illuin means 'blessed'?" I think I have an idea. "How about Benedict? That name means 'blessed' too."
"So instead of calling him 'blessed' in one way you're going to do it in another?"
"You're right it's probably a dumb thing to do."
"Is Benedict a name, or just another nickname?"
"It's a real name. I had a friend in school named Ben. He was a Benjamin, not a Benedict, but yes, it's a real name."
"Then I think it's a good choice."
He moves. He sits up. He speaks. He says:
He eats like a starving child. No, that's stupid. He *is* a starving child. Of course he's going to eat like one. Which is to say, he doesn't gulp it all down. He hides it. Hoards it. Stores it. I tried reaching out to hand him one of the food cubes piled protectively next to him, he batted my hand away reflexively, and then half steeled himself, half shied into the shadows, his body a living buffer. He would rather be broken but fed.
"I'm not going to take your food," I try to explain. "We're gonna bust out of here soon, Illuin --"
"Ben," he mutters, angry. He is possessive of anything he can lay claim to, and at this moment that consists of exactly two things. The food cubes and his name. To hell with the fact that I gave it to him, he's going to use it as a weapon now that he's feeling threatened. It's the only thing he has. I don't press the matter.
He is a survivor above all else.
"Ben," I agree, and drop the subject.
We're giving it a shot. She wasn't happy, mentioned something about Wile E. Coyote and it being her 'frelling turn to come up with a plan.' But we're giving it a shot.
Three of the six bottles of anti-Sam Adams I had left went to this real smart-ass guard who runs my line. Mix with rope burned ankles - "where the chains are cutting into my legs, Sir, they're getting infected and if I have to go to the Medbay and I miss work they'll dock my rations --" - mental note: thank you Aeryn, they're so realistic they hurt (also her Problem With Plan numero uno), sprinkle with unabashed weaselling and grovelling and Bob's your proverbial multi-armed critter. One chain ganger sans chains is good to go. Bribery is a marvellous thing.
"I'm only doing this 'cause you're such a puny little frell you couldn't hurt me if you tried," yeah right. Screw you alky boy. "And I'm gonna be watching you so don't try anything funny." Oh yeah, put your hand on your gun, that'll have me cowering. You're dumb. You have big ears. Know what? Let's combine your two redeeming features and call you Dumbo.
Ain't no way you're gonna be watching me for the whole damn twelve hour shift with your expansive fifteen second attention span. Water dripping from rocks in long, long dark tunnels isn't exactly the height of entertainment technology.
For the first time in what seems like forever I feel okay.
Time to wait for phase two. Damn, I feel so Star Trek. Evasive pattern Delta four, i.e. keep your eyes down and pretend to be a passive, subdued little slave.
I wonder how Aeryn's getting on. Oh yeah, problem #2 she had with the 'plan', you could hear the sarcastic quotation marks when she said the word, was looking after Ben. He's doesn't know her. He's scared of her. Why he trusts me I'll never understand; maybe he's psychic or something. Maybe I just inherited him when, well, when his father for lack of a better word, died. Maybe that's the way things work around here. Either way I'll take it as a good sign. He picked me 'cause he knows this'll all work, we're getting out of here. But he shut down completely for close to half an hour when I told him I was leaving him with her. It would have been easier if he'd screamed. He doesn't know how to throw a temper tantrum; noise would get him killed.
In the end he calmed down a little, started reacting again, and Aeryn calmed down a little too. She started teaching him to play rock-paper-scissors. He didn't get it, but at least by the time I ran for the wonderful company of Dumbo here, he was distracted enough to forget that he was busy being terrified.
Damn, we have reached our final destination. Looks like we're tunnelling today, my friends. On your left there are some absolutely fascinating stalactites and stalagmites just visible from your friendly neighbourhood guards' Maglites. Watch your step, folks, it's slippery and you wouldn't be the first to spear your foot. It's pretty much hack at rock from here on out so feel free to fast forward to the interesting parts.
Insert commercial break people, my mind's going AWOL for a while. Floating out there in space so I don't have to hear the constant clanging of the axes, or at least far enough away that it's no more than background static.
It's crowded down here. There's a change of shift happening in your area every two arns, maybe. The 'maybe' brings me to Aeryn's third PWP (problem with plan). To quote D'Argo, 'we have no time keeping device.'
Well, there's a line of workers moving on down there, and it's been about two arns, so I guess it's show time.
Dumbo and his wannabe storm trooper buddy are standing right behind me yakking about some crap or other. Thank you whatever gods or goddesses are up there smiling on me.
There's this breath that seems to go on forever, everything slows right down. The bow's being drawn those last few difficult inches, and any second we're gonna let fly.
I should have been a Ninja.
Man that was impressive.
Weren't expecting that, were ya? John-boy Crichton spins round with his pickaxe and Dumbo cops it right in the leg. Down he goes, axe still in his leg, bleeding and screaming, and all the rest of the chain gang staring in complete shock. Along with guard #2.
Big mistake, pal. I'm on an adrenaline rush and it looks like yours hasn't kicked in yet. Whap.
I think I punched him or something, can't remember for sure. You know how things go kinda hazy in the middle of a fight? Doesn't matter anyway, because by the time he'd gotten it together enough to give a little I had his gun. It's a good thing I took out Dumbo first, if this guy'd known I wasn't in the cuffs I might not have had as much of a surprise element, and I needed the edge.
"Move," I say, and I sound like just about every corny movie I've ever seen. "And I'll shoot. Don't think I won't. Erp boy's had enough, dude. So take off the armour and hand it over."
He pauses for a split-second, indecisive. He starts towards me, at least I think he does, and I pull the trigger. The force of the blast throws him against the opposite wall and he slides lifelessly to the floor, a knife dropping from his fingers. Ah, so he was coming at me. Damn him, there's a hole in the armour now. It'll have to do.
As I'm speeding away, I try to sort through the thoughts I should be having. I killed a man. Well, I've done that before. I always had someone to blame, an excuse. Intellent viri, strange people taking over the ship, semi-insanity because of a neural chip, I don't this time. I killed a man. I'm sorry I had to do it. It's not the best or proudest moment in my life. But you know, I'm okay. And I think I might just be okay with the fact I'm okay. Maybe it's the adrenaline, maybe it's because everything seems so much simpler when you're running. Maybe excuses are all they ever were. Crutches to my sanity. But like I said, I've been to that brink and it's not so scary. I'm not going to create a problem where there is none. I can sort through this later. For now, I'll just run.
"Now *that* is a bonfire."
"Shut up and help me get into this uniform," trust Aeryn to ruin a perfectly good moment of gloating. "Frell, the leg piece is covered in blood."
"Hey, I'm sorry, the guard in question was a little reluctant to let go of it."
She gives me a distasteful look, and drops Ben into my arms. He keeps his large eyes on the unearthly scene, his arms go around my neck, but beyond that I might as well not exist to him. Everything further back than the far edge of this cave is going up in flames, and mayhem is reigning. It looks like the fire issue (and, coincidentally, PWP #4) was resolved somehow or another. I'm not going to ask how, I have a sneaking suspicion it involved a Pantak Jab on a large and almost certainly hairy prisoner. If I have occasion to use the lovely hand basket I picked out and this all goes to hell, the fewer people who I *know* are gonna enjoy beating the crap out of me, the better.
Matches, or fire starters of any kind are highly valued commodities down here and invariably end up in the hands of the meanest and biggest bullies we have to offer. It seems, however, that for our perfect little ex-PK nothing is impossible. Maybe it's just because she's big and mean. Streams of screaming people, smoke and blaring sirens bear testament to her handiwork.
"It really is a fascinating application," she says, pulling on the unbloodied leg piece.
"What is?" I look up from checking over Ben.
"The explosives," she says. "I mean, it's so simple, yet effective. The wick can be made of any fabric and it soaks up the liquor. It explodes fabulously when you light it and throw it."
"I'm surprised you wouldn't have known about something like this already."
"Why would we? It's far too low tech to be of much use."
Ben twists in my arms. "You said you liked it," he speaks pensively, slowly. For a second he looks as though he might say something, but decides against it, frowning in confusion and burying his head in my shoulder, lip quavering. I can feel his fists balling up, his whole body tensing in frustration; he's trying not to cry.
"Hey, buddy? Come on, it's okay," I rock him a little against my hip. My mom always used to do that for me. "She didn't mean to confuse you," come on Aeryn.
"No, I didn't," she adds quickly. "I just meant that on a wider scale they wouldn't be of much use. For smaller operations like this they're fine. I like them very much."
He goes limp in my arms, and I guess that's about as much of an acceptance as I'm going to get.
"I think he's okay," he coughs. "We have to get out of here, Aeryn. They're dealing with the fires and the smoke's really pouring in here now. Pretty soon they'll have this place locked down again and your little distraction isn't gonna help us."
She pulls on her helmet. "Let's go then."
We jog off towards the lifts and upper levels, aiming guns at prisoners thinking to get one in on the guards in the chaos, and trying to hide the shortcomings of our uniforms. Thankfully they all seem to preoccupied to ask why we're carrying a little boy with us.
"I tell you," Aeryn mutters as we round a corner and I use Dumbo's magic swipe card of power in the elevator console. "The distraction wouldn't have been so 'little' if I'd had more bottles."
"It was just a saying, Aeryn. I wasn't judging you, it was spectacular. Didn't I say it was some bonfire?"
"Well, I had to bribe the guard. I left you as many as I could."
She's staring at me.
"Yeah, yeah, and I was the idiot who drank half of them. Are you never going to let me forget that?"
"No," she says with a damn sight more enjoyment than I like.
The elevator arrives, and we go upwards.
I think I love these helmets. They have the *best* inbuilt sunglasses.
I'm standing on the asphalt ground of the launch strip, and I have never been so glad to be half blinded by sunlight. It still exists.
Yeah, I know, it's pathetic, I still think of *the* Sun even though I've seen hundreds, thousands, and I'm probably never going to settle under a single star ever again. I think about the sky in the same way. *The* sky. The *only* sky.
You can take the boy away from Earth but you can't take Earth away from the boy.
I disproved that one. At least, I thought I did. There is a fiction between reality and memory, in the space between sleep and wakefulness, full of wishes and dreams and rose tinted glass. I am no longer from Earth in the same way a snowflake can no longer be called a snowflake after it has melted. But like the snowflake, I carry a part of the cold clouds and winter storms with me. I carry a part of Earth with me. The better part. The part that tells me there is a single sun and a single sky and everyone is here beneath them.
Tentatively, because I do not want to wake him, I adjust the cloth covering Ben's eyes. It has been close to twenty days since he crept slowly into the Medlab, and the sunlight is glorious. I wish I had a helmet for him. I want to show him the sky.
I will. Aeryn will finish prepping the transport pod, and we'll be away from here before the mine sorts itself out and realises two of its guards are shanghaiing a shuttle. We'll find Moya. Somehow. We'll stop on many planets, and I'll show Ben the sky over and over and over again.
"Are you ready?" Aeryn asks softly.
"Yes," I say, breathing deeply. "Yes, let's blow this popsicle stand."
The story ended when I left the mining colony, but I'm sure that someone somewhere once said that no story ever really ends, and so for those of you who want a happy ending take this:
We arrived on Moya to joyous celebrations. Ben still refuses to sleep in his own room, but no longer runs, not screaming at the sight of Rygel. Yesterday, Aeryn kissed me.
Use it well; it's the best you're going to get.
Picture a memory to keep us sane:
A boy and his grandfather in a deep field of purple flowers. The boy has come out to offer lemonade, but stays, forgetting, for the time being, that he is angry. They sit, and talk, and play, and push each other, tussling, rolling. They chew on grass stems and they tell stories about flying machines. Lying on their backs, staring up, violets frame the brilliant blue bowl of the sky.
They exist purely in the present. Soon, when they return to linear time, the boy will remember that details such as names and dates and the Pledge of Allegiance are supposed to be important, and his grandfather's forgetfulness will bother him once more. For his grandfather, the greased edges of memory will be all the more difficult to catch hold of, and the world of violets will seem all the more appealing.
But for now, he puts his arms around this child who brings him lemonade and calls him "Gramp", whispers to him the secrets of fighter pilots, and feels less desperate.