See Letting Go: John and Letting Go: Larraq for the other sides of "A Bug's Life."
I stretched my body, feeling tired in mind and soul. My body hurt but the pain was bearable and, in some small way, comforting. I was alive. I was alive, and I was myself. So were my comrades.
I turned my head slightly toward the man who had fallen asleep at last on the spare cot D'Argo had brought for him. John's oddly youthful face was troubled even in repose, brows furrowed. One hand was stretched out toward me. On the ground next to him was the rod he'd used to kill Hassan.
No. I corrected myself meticulously. John didn't kill Hassan. The virus did.
John killed Larraq.
I shifted a little, trying to stem the sudden flood of grief. An awful lot of grief for a man I'd known only a few arns. Perhaps I was only feeling my typical post-battle disquiet...yes, perhaps that was the cause of my restlessness. Usually a little drinking, a little gaming, maybe some exercise had always helped erase my dead comrades' faces from my mind. Wounded now, I couldn't do any of those.
The first thing I'd learned as a Peacekeeper was that if you let death get to you, you might choke in the next battle. If you choked, you deserved what you got...but if you choked, others would surely die. So you dealt with it the best you could, and you went on. You named them to yourself and let them go, knowing you might be next to be so erased and accepting that, too. Hassan. Thonn. Rhedd.
And the last seven arns had been exactly that--a battle, but a battlewithout lines, where your friend could turn out to be your enemy if you turned your back for an instant. The only thing I'd been certain of was that the virus had to die. I didn't even know whose side I was on. I'm not even certain that we won.
I wondered idly if Crichton were right--there was a sort of reunion after death with all of your friends. If so, I wonder if Larraq knows who won. I wonder if he knows...
Several Arns Earlier, Transport Hangar
I dug frantically through the pile of PeaceKeeper uniforms, hoping beyond hope that I'd find a suitable captain's jacket. I'd found one, but it didn't fit. The Peacekeepers would be here soon.
//Frell...// I thought as I reached the bottom of the barrel. Nothing...
"Do we need to have a Captain?" Crichton leaned almost casually against another storage carton, his tight voice belying his easy posture. "Couldn't we *both* be Lieutenants?"
"Don't be ridiculous," I snapped, and then instantly regretted it. Crichton didn't know. I took a quick breath to calm myself. I was edgy, ready for battle, and it was showing. "If we don't have a Captain," I explained more patiently, "then the Marauder captain outranks us, and we have to do what he says. Besides, no ship would be out in the Uncharted Territories--or anywhere else--without a ranking officer."
"Can't we modify this one?" He held up the broad Captain's jacket and examined it.
I shook my head. "No time." I fancied I could almost hear the approaching Marauder, even though it was metras away from Moya still.
Crichton exhaled heavily. "I guess that's it for my masquerade idea then. Pilot..."
"Wait." //I'm insane. This will never work. Never.// I snatched the Rhedd and black jacket from Crichton's hands and held it up against him.
His blue eyes widened. "No way."
"Can you think of a better idea? No? Well then..."
"Aeryn, I'm a *Human!*"
My lips quirked up in a sardonic half-smile. "And not one single alien we've met has known you weren't a PeaceKeeper. I didn't. John, you said it yourself--get their leak repaired and they're gone in a rash."
"Whatever. We'll do it exactly the way we planned earlier. Just don't let the other Captain bully you. You've earned your rank and you know it. Oh, and Crichton, let me do most of the talking."
"*All* of the talking." He shook his head ruefully and starting shucking into the jacket. "I must be nuts."
"You and me both." I stepped back and looked at him thoughtfully as he did the last fastener on the Captain's jacket. "Well, I have to admit, at least you look the part. Now let's just hope you can act the part, too. Make sure your commlink is open and you pay attention. Things may start to happen really fast, and ...."
"Quit worrying, ok?" John told me. "It's going to be fine."
"I'll believe that when it's all over and we're still alive." I scooped the lieutenant's uniform into my arms and took off for the hangar at a dead run.
Crichton stirred in his sleep, mumbling softly in his dreams. The hand extended toward me twitched, fingers curling in on themselves.
I studied him quietly, still feeling that peculiar restlessness. He'd been here since I'd woken up, had sat with me through Zhaan's examinations, my fever and delirium. D'Argo had finally brought down the spare bed Crichton now slept on, and had offered to sit watch, but Crichton had refused to leave.
He'd even sat with me through my fits of temper--confined to bedrest, I'd gotten bored and restless and taken it all out on him. I didn't usually give in to cursing but I'd let it all out. On John. Who deserved my anger least of all the people I knew, and endured it with the most grace.
It was just...he looked so much like the people I'd been forced to leave behind, and was the least like them in so many ways. I'd never really believed he would pull it off, but he had. And when he'd come walking into that hangar like he'd owned the place....
"Identify yourselves." I shouted over the noise of the transport's landing, my voice stretched thin with apprehension and a little fear. I never would've let so much slip when I was a Peacekeeper, but as my training failed me, so did my control. "Regiment. Assignment."
The tall Captain and his blonde lieutenant stalked through first, weapons trained on me. "Identify yourself." The captain said, his eyes challenging. He moved with an easy grace, alert and purposeful and wary. The other two soldiers came through next, the four of them fanning out to cover the entire bay in well-trained precision.
Five-man team plus captain, all with the highest level of training. file://So they're missing two.// I kept my cannon trained on the captain.
"Lieutenant," now that's a laugh, "Aeryn Sun. Ustar Regiment, special duty assignment." Yeah, right....'special duty assignment.' Irreversibly contaminated and completely lost. "And you."
The tall Captain nodded slightly. "Larraq, Captain. And my assignment's none of your business."
Frell. I knew it couldn't be that easy. Even nearing the end of her pregnancy, Moya could have smoked a damaged Marauder with ease, but Crichton had argued vehemently that they needed to find out who these Peacekeepers were and what they were doing out here. Had Crais called for reinforcements, or was there some deeper meaning to their presence?
I glanced over at the blonde Lieutenant, expecting another introduction. But the woman only hefted her gun, and I reluctantly turned my attention back to the Captain. The very handsome captain, I realised belatedly. "Having some trouble with your Marauder, Captain."
"Cesium fuel leak. We're lucky we found you." His light green eyes were suddenly curious.
I heard the implied question and ignored it. "You think." My lips twitched into a mocking smile.
Larraq appraised me calmly, still curious. "Awful big ship for one little girl."
"Ah. I can handle big." //Bigger than you can even imagine, so don't *even* bait me...my training's going but it's not that far gone, not yet...//
The door opened behind me with a soft chime, ending the rapport between me and the handsome Captain. The commandos tensed, guns trained on the door. I kept my gun aimed at the Captain, anxiety causing my fingers to tighten on the trigger.
file://I must have been crazy. Crichton's not Captain material, he's not even a soldier. They'll see right through him...//
But Crichton walked past me as if he owned the Hangar, the ship and everyone in it. Including me and the extremely handsome captain. "Ease your weapon, Leftenant," he commanded.
I caused Larraq to doubt Crichton first, it was me. If I'd just lowered my gun, then Larraq would have seen Crichton as someone I respected and obeyed. But I hesitated. Why?
Because, I thought sourly, I can't admit that he could pull it off. As if, by convincing them he's a good Captain, you had to admit he was good. And you're not ready to give him that kind of power. That kind of accceptance. Because if you do...
I sensed rather than saw Crichton's surprised glance back at me. "That *is* an order."
Slowly, reluctantly, I complied. Larraq's eyes flicked between me and my "Captain", observing, judging the relationship between us. He lowered his own weapon, but his commandos kept theirs armed.
"Smart move, Captain." Larraq commented softly.
I held my breath. He was challenging Crichton's authority. file://Don't let him bully you, Crichton. Wear the uniform like you mean it.//
"What *are* you doing aboard my vessel, Captain?"
//Good man.// I kept my face impassive.
"Emergency situation. My team and I are on a Priority Redd One mission. We need your boat here to complete it. Therefore, under Article Four-One-Four Decca, I hereby assume command over it, your crew..." His covetous glance took me in, still standing at attention behind my Captain, "...and you." Larraq's eyebrows lifted, slightly mocking.
Crichton's blue-green eyes slid dismissively over Larraq's team. They hefted their weapons, waiting for his countermove.
"Oh," he said, so quietly I could barely even hear him, "I think not."
And all hezmana broke loose.
Crichton won that battle, whichever way I looked at it. He'd kept Larraq off balance and convinced them he was a Captain. But even as they walked out of the transport hangar on a tour of the ship, I couldn't take my eyes off Larraq's face. At first I'd told myself I was keeping my eye on the enemy. Then I just couldn't stop following him, watching him, absorbing every motion. It had felt so good to be home, to pretend, even for those few arns, that I was a Peacekeeper again; that I wasn't losing my edge.
"You....ever fly anything sexier than a Leviathan?" Larraq's deep-set green eyes were intent on my face. I couldn't look too long without suddenly having to avert my eyes to keep from blushing. file://What is the matter with me?// "Let's see...I started flying scrubrunners at fourteen cycles, then a half-cycle later a KL-80, then an 81. And then Prowler attack school at 16." Only the best were chosen for attack school, and to be chosen so young was quite an honor.
Larraq's eyes widened slightly, then his face relaxed into a half-grin. "Sixteen? Why'd you wait so long?" He teased.
I searched his lean, tanned face for a reaction. //Trying to get a rise out of me...well... // "I had to. My feet didn't reach the pedals." I couldn't quite contain my grin. I *missed* this sort of friendly rivalry, the flirting, the subdued bragging. We both laughed, and I was lost again.
//Stop it.// I looked down, trying to focus. //You're a fugitive on an escaped Prison Transport, not a soldier. Not anymore. Get the job done.//
"Soooo...you said that you've been out here in the Uncharted Territories for almost a full cycle? Looking for whatever that thing is in the crate."
"And the sooner I get it into somebody else's hands the happier I'll be."
Not just something valuable, then, but something dangerous. Maybe the reason two of his team are dead. My eyes narrowed, studying him, asking him obliquely.
He smiled teasingly again. "Don't ask. Cause I'm not going to tell you."
"Why, because you'll have to kill me then?" Relax, talk to me...
But the grin dropped off his face like it had never existed. "Just stay away from it, okay?"
Then we started having to put people into body bags.
Rhedd. Hassan. Thonn. Larraq. I recited their names to myself again, trying to let them go.
Whatever happened, I'd known that I'd lose one of them. Crichton. Or Larraq.
And despite my knowledge that there wasn't really any choice at all, part of me kept insisting that the Peacekeepers on that Gammak base wouldn't know anything about me. I could go home. With Larraq. Resume my life, serve under the best Captain I'd ever seen in all my cycles as a soldier.
Of course they'd discover the truth soon enough, and sentence me to die the Living Death, my body betraying my mind inch by slow inch, and finally my mind going, too. But I was so hungry for that life that I almost didn't care.
If I stayed with Crichton, I'd never get another chance to go home again, even for a little while. I would just get more and more lost, watching the others leave one by one. Crichton would leave too-he'd find a way home, somehow.
Earth. I'd sworn I'd never go there again. Ever. And then.when he'd finally left.I would be alone.
So I left John and followed Larraq.
Left John to Chiana and the Virus.
"Well, I think that under the circumstances our little masquerade is over." John half-sighed, staring at me, the dead Peacekeeper and the partially open crate by turns. Chiana was unusually silent, but I never paid much attention to Chiana before and wasn't about to start now.
I felt breathless, edgy, lost. The Peacekeepers and Larraq had just left at a run and I itched to follow him. file://Them.// I corrected myself quickly.
"Under the circumstances those soldiers are primed to shoot at anything they do not trust The only thing that is over is our chance to take them by surprise." //Yeah, surprise. Hello, Larraq, I'm a traitor.// "This is a disaster, Crichton. It is a grave misfortune that that uniform did not fit me." I sneered, flicked a quick contemptuous glance at his uniform and ran after the other soldiers.
That was John, then, not the virus. If Zhaan hadn't put it all together, those would have been the last words I ever spoke to him.
I don't know when he stopped being John...I couldn't tell.
That was the most terrifying thought of all, that all unwitting I'd made my choice between Crichton and Larraq and hadn't even known I'd made it.
Larraq's rangy form crouched reluctantly by Rhedd's corpse and tugged the body bag higher over his head, preparing to close it forever. I knelt by the crate that now contained only Rygel, who had spoken his last words. I'd once predicted that he'd die at the hands of a Peacekeeper.
"What are you doing in New Star Regiment, huh?" Larraq's words startled me out of my silent vigil. "You're being wasted there. You're wasting *yourself* there."
My mouth pressed into a thin line and I stared down at the body bags and Rygel's coffin. I'd seen too many of those--but that was what it meant to be a Peacekeeper. How many other friends would I see die at the hands of soldiers?
"Plus," Larraq continued softly, "I like the idea of having you nearby."
He shut a bag, closing off that life forever. A shiver ran up my spine, into my heart. I felt suddenly like the bag had closed over *my* head...but it had been slowly closing over me for months, really...ever since I met Crichton.
Larraq shook his head, putting his dead comrades behind him once and for all. "Bad timing. Let's just get this assignment closed out, huh?" He strode out of the room, confident that I would follow.
After a while, I could.
I didn't know, I didn't know that it wasn't John. That the virus was talking to me, arguing with me, mocking me.
My fingers tightened and twisted in the gold bedsheets.
I didn't know then, or later when it was in Larraq.
"....I'm doing exactly what a Commander in my position would do." The virus whispered at me with Crichton's lips. "These commandos are not *stupid*." It hesitated, its cold blue eyes studying me. "I'm doing my part--you do yours. Get the damned information."
I stared angrily at the viewscreen, trying to subdue my instinct to shout back at him.
The virus paced toward Larraq. "It's...a rather large galaxy, Captain. How did you ever manage to find something as tiny as a virus?"
"Perseverance." The easy boasting manner was gone, replaced by a Peacekeeper captain at full attention. Larraq had allowed himself to relax and one of his soldiers was dead.
I sucked air in through my teeth, feeling Larraq's pain. Crichton wouldn't understand, couldn't understand what it was like to lose part of your team. It was like cutting off your own arm--you knew something was dreadfully wrong but you had to go on cutting. That was the essence of Peacekeeper duty.
"Larraq," I jumped in, trying to distract the thing I thought was Crichton, "about that Gammak Base we're head--"
"You must be a very patient man--a very *methodical* man."
I blinked. What the frell was Crichton doing...
"I'm a good tracker."
"Oh, I'd say a *great* tracker."
Then all hezmana broke loose. For the second time.
The lightest of touches on my face startled me from my reverie.
"Sorry," John whispered, his face still puffy from sleep, "didn't mean to wake you."
"How you feeling, any better?"
A small grin spread over his tired face. "That's my stoic. Would you like a little cheese with that wine? Really improves the personality."
As always, I was a little nonplussed by his offhand remarks. I'll never understand you, John. Not like I understood Larraq, not like the way I fit with him....
Larraq held me pinned against him with incredible ease, holding both my arms in one hand. He shot Thonn--how ironic, that the Peacekeepers were taking each other out--but I managed to stop him from shooting Crichton or D'Argo.
Now I faced them across the length of corridor, just like I had so many months ago when I'd been declared irreversibly contaminated. Crichton had spoken up for me then because he hadn't wanted to see me hurt. But now all of their lives were at stake, and not just their lives but the lives of everyone in this section of the galaxy...
No more body bags. //Never again. If it has to be, then let the last one be mine.//
"Crichton," I grated out, struggling for air, "you just do what you have to do."
"You know," the virus whispered, "this Larraq guy, he really liked you."
The knife cut down, through the uniform, into my heart. The virus threw me forward, of no more consequence than a thing, a diversion so it could get away. Like a Peacekeeper would.
John caught me, somehow. He lowered me gently to the floor, and then ran after the virus.
I gazed up into his worried blue eyes. John's eyes. A little sad, a little tired, but completely his own. file://I don't know how I could ever have thought you wouldn't fit that uniform. I had it backward. It was the uniform that didn't fit *you*.//
No more body bags.
But this choice, too, was an illusion. John would return home, so would the others. I'd known that for too long to deny it now. And I would die alone, someday, maybe someday close and maybe someday in the far distant future.
We all die, one way or another, and knowing that I knew the only important thing was now. No, I wasn't a Peacekeeper any longer. I was just me--irreversibly contaminated and completely lost.
Not a lot to work with, but I was all I had.
So I named my dead to myself--all of them, from the first creature I'd killed to my Peacekeeper comrades long since lost to space. Some were only faces, some only hunks of metal from a ship I'd destroyed, with no names or faces at all. I named them to the most recent, still so fresh in my mind.
Rhedd. Hassan. Thonn. The virus. Larraq.
My own past, and the future that might-have-been.
And then, looking into John's eyes, I quietly let them go.