See Letting Go: Aeryn and Letting Go: John for the other sides of "A Bug's Life."
I'm not really sure when things got completely out of control. Maybe it was the minute we stepped on this frelling Leviathan. Maybe it was when the virus was released. Or maybe it was actually an entire cycle ago, when we were first sent on this impossible mission.
Whenever it happened, it did, and now we have to deal with it. I have to deal with it. I am the commander, after all. This squadron, this mission - and everything that's happened because of it - are my responsibility. My fault.
We had been limping along through the emptiest regions of space, desperately hoping we could make it to the base, yet knowing we couldn't, when the Leviathan appeared. Sanctuary. Safety. Or so we had believed. Then it became my worst nightmare. I realize that now.
But it's coming to an end. And now... now I have a chance to turn the nightmare into something different. Something better. The Captain, standing stiffly next to me at the control board, has increased our speed towards the coordinates of the Gammak Base. We will arrive soon, and this will all be over. All of it....
Here, in the middle of the Uncharted Territories. Near a Peacekeeper Gammak Base that no one was supposed to know existed.
Why was it here? Did the crew know about the Base, or was their location merely a coincidence? All of my questions were overshadowed by the blinking lights on the control panel of the Marauder. We were leaking Cesium fuel; we would never make it to the Base in time to deliver our dangerous cargo. We will have failed to complete our mission. Our only chance was the Leviathan.
When I hailed the ship, indicating our intention to board, there was a long moment of hesitation. Out of the ordinary, to say the least. And now is not the time for surprises, I thought. But we had no choice, so I brushed my uneasiness aside and prepared the team for arrival.
We boarded the Leviathan, exiting the Marauder and moving immediately towards the cargo doors, weapons at ready. Hassan and I were in the lead, followed closely by Thonn and Rhedd. That was all, I mused bitterly. There were no others. Not any more.
Even as the doors were opening, her voice carried clearly into the hangar. "Identify yourselves," she challenged. "Regiment. Assignment." The doors opened, revealing the Peacekeeper standing inside. My eyes swept over her and around the room, assessing the situation.
Somewhere in the far reaches of my mind, it registered that the Lieutenant was quite beautiful. The thought was immediately quelled by the more pressing matter of the pulse-rifle she held at waist-level. "Identify yourself," I ordered, tossing her words back at her as we entered the room. I briefly wondered what she was trying to pull. I outranked her - any fool could see that with a mere glance at my uniform - and she knew it. I could hear the others taking their positions as I waited impatiently for her answer.
"Lieutenant Aeryn Sun. Ustar Regiment, special duty assignment." She paused. "And you."
I accepted my role in the formalities without lowering my weapon. "Larraq, Captain. And my assignment's none of your business." My brow furrowed as I studied her. This Lieutenant Sun seemed nervous. Worried, even. Suddenly I wondered why a solitary Lieutenant had been sent to greet us. That was definitely not standard procedure.
"Having some trouble with your Marauder, Captain." It wasn't a question, and it certainly wasn't friendly.
"Cesium fuel leak," I stated succinctly. "We're lucky we found you."
I heard the defensiveness in her voice. Where was her captain? Why was she here alone? Or was she? Without lifting my gaze from her, I casually remarked, "Awful big ship for one little girl."
"Ah." She smiled smugly. "I can handle big."
I almost smiled back. Whatever the reason for sending a lone grunt to meet us, this Lieutenant had been the right choice. My reply was lost as the door behind her slowly swung open. I immediately turned my attention away from the Lieutenant, but not before noticing the swift look of concern that crossed her face, only to be concealed by the neutral mask that dropped quickly over her features.
The Captain of the ship strode confidently into the room. I straightened, a natural reaction when meeting someone of equal rank, briefly relieved that my time on this mission had not dulled the instincts instilled in me by my training. The light-haired Captain stopped, looking over my team as if evaluating us and finding us wanting. His smugness irked me, and I rolled my shoulders, shifting my hold on my gun to point directly at the new arrival. "Ease your weapon, Leftenant," the Captain ordered as he passed the woman who had greeted us.
To my surprise, Lieutenant Sun did not immediately comply. The Captain seemed surprised, as well, and repeated his order. I observed them closely as she slowly lowered her rifle. Something was not quite right here, I confirmed, my stomach clenching. Considering our mission, I could not afford mistakes or delays. I needed to take control immediately, even if the Captain didn't fully understand the situation. My nerves were already frayed, and I suddenly found myself desperately hoping they did not notice the small tremors in my gun hand as the Captain crossed the room towards me.
Once the Lieutenant's weapon was down, I respectfully lowered my own, as the Captain did not appear to be armed. That triggered another twinge of uneasiness, and consequently I gave no corresponding command to my team. "Smart move, Captain."
The Captain stopped in front of me. "What are you doing aboard my vessel, Captain?"
I tensed even more, which had seemed impossible a moment ago. Enough of this game. "Emergency situation. My team and I are on a Priority Rhedd 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... and you." I raised my weapon again to illustrate just how serious I was.
The Captain arched an eyebrow as if offended. "Oh, I think not."
The room erupted in weapons fire. The first shot knocked the gun from my hand. I crouched, grabbing my second weapon as I tried to pinpoint the source of the attack. DRDs. The little mechanical ship's helpers, and here they were firing on a Peacekeeper Marauder team. I was almost impressed. No wonder the Captain wasn't carrying a weapon - he had his own little army.
"You need my help. I suggest you ask nicely, Captain."
Though infuriated by this power struggle, I gave in, relinquishing control of the situation to the Captain. For now. As long as they cooperated, did what was needed to enable us to finish our mission - that was all I needed from this Leviathan and its crew. There was too much at stake to risk these petty challenges developing into something more. Right now my priority was completing this mission, getting the cargo to the Gammak Base. I had lost too much already to allow myself to be derailed by this Captain and his Lieutenant.
We strolled casually through the Leviathan's halls as if we were on a pleasure tour, not Peacekeeper officers completing a top-priority mission. However, the underlying tension never ceased. They were showing me their prisoners, and I was following obediently, but I didn't really care. I still had the feeling that something was wrong with this entire situation.
I turned my attention to the Captain. The man's speech patterns and physical stance reflected the rank indicated by his uniform, but something still wasn't quite right. Perhaps it was the way the Lieutenant reacted to him - not necessarily insubordinate, but something told me that she didn't fully trust her superior. Normally, that would be inexcusable. Of course, after this long without regular contact with a base, teams tended to become a little lax with the formalities of the PK hierarchy. It had happened to my own team, during this last cycle, I admitted to myself. The comparison was meant to reassure me, but I was still on edge. Something about their story just didn't ring true.
"So you re-captured them out there on a New Technologies training flight." I didn't bother to conceal the doubt in my tone.
The Lieutenant answered, something I had noticed she was prone to doing. The Captain seemed content to let her speak for him. "New Tech has been experimenting with Leviathan mastery without the use of control collars."
This was new. "How are you controlling the ship without a collar?" I directed my question to the Captain, hoping to force him to answer for once.
His reply was short and tense. "Neural control on the ship's Pilot. We control him, he controls the ship."
"Yes, I'd heard they'd been working on that. But every test flight so far, they've lost the Leviathan - and the crew." I took the opportunity to challenge him, even slightly. I was either dealing with a very lucky crew, or a very smart one.
"Well, so far this test flight has gone without a hitch... 'til you came aboard, Captain." He paused, his smile cold. "Tell me, what precisely is your mission?"
I couldn't believe he was asking that. I had already told him that the mission was Priority Red One; what part hadn't he understood? No wonder he usually let his Lieutenant speak for him.
Unless he was truly so presumptious that he actually believed he had the right to know. "You don't have the clearance to know anything about my mission, Captain," I responded derisively, bristling at his attitude, "but let me make it...simple for you. I've got one crate, and I've got to get it back into Peacekeeper control without delay." That was all he needed to know. It was at the same time enough, yet not too much.
"You see how simple it is?" I was beginning to lose my temper, but I fought to keep control. This whole operation would go so much easier if the crew simply cooperated with us, did what I asked. Easier and safer, I amended. But they don't know that, a little voice inside me chided. And I can't tell them, I echoed silently. Their frustration was warranted, though not sufficient reason to resist my orders.
"Well....you of course are welcome to travel back with us, however - "
"No no," I interrupted, near the end of my patience. "You see, you don't read me. This is urgent. I'll give *you* a set of coordinates to a base. We can be there in twenty arns."
The Lieutenant looked startled. "Twenty arns? But that would mean the base is out here in the Uncharted Territories."
Ah. So they *hadn't* known about the base. I had suspected as much. "It's a new Gammak Base. Secret. Need to know only, but since you'll be taking me there, I guess you ... need to know." I hated to reveal so much, but it looked like the only way to get the crew to cooperate. Yet by confiding in them, I let them know who had the upper hand in this situation. "And yes, it is here... in the Uncharted Territories."
After our little tour, the Captain left me alone with the Lieutenant. Officer Sun.
She had taken me to the Center Chamber for something to eat, and we found ourselves lingering over the food. The earlier tension we had experienced disappeared along with the Captain. Our conversation was peppered with flirting and light teasing, and for the first time in over a cycle, I found myself starting to relax. I let go of my worries about this mission, the stress, the mental and physical exhaustion, and simply concentrated on Aeryn. At one point I even found myself laughing at something she said - I couldn't remember the last time I had laughed...
I was fascinated by her, even with just this friendly discussion. She casually deflected my questions away from her current assignment and the Captain, so I was surprised - and more than a little disappointed - when she asked about my mission.
"So you said you've been out here in the Uncharted Territories for almost a full cycle, looking for whatever that thing is in the crate."
I didn't even try to disguise the relief in my voice. "And the sooner I get it into somebody else's hands the happier I'll be." She continued to stare curiously at me, as if waiting for me to go on. I deliberately kept my tone light, wanting to lose myself in this air of normalcy that had surrounded us. I didn't want to talk about missions and death and - I just didn't. I wanted to let go of all that, go back to simply being two people getting to know each other over a plate of forgotten food cubes. "Don't ask me, 'cause I'm not going to tell you," I chided with a smile.
Her smile was dazzling, almost enough to take away the tension that had returned the second she had mentioned the crate. "Why, 'cause you'll have to kill me then?"
Her joke brought it all back. The fighting. The loss. The death. "Just stay away from it, okay?" I snapped. In an instant the mood was gone, and I knew I couldn't get it back.
A look of disappointment - maybe even hurt - flashed across her face, and I immediately regretted my harsh words. I tried to steer the discussion back to more neutral topics, and for a while, we continued to chat like nothing was wrong. But the easy, comfortable atmosphere we had enjoyed earlier was over.
It wasn't long before the buzz of my earpiece interrupted us. I snatched it off the table and held it to my ear, but all I could hear was static. Not good. Almost immediately the Pilot's voice floated over the comm system. "A single shot in the cargo area." Definitely not good. With a growing sense of dread, I followed Aeryn out of the room, berating myself for removing my earpiece even for a moment.
Aeryn and I met up with Hassan in the hall, then proceeded to the cargo area. We positioned ourselves around the door, ready for anything. As it swung open, Aeryn confirmed that Rhedd was down. And then she saw the crate. The open crate. She peered inside, then asked the question I had so hoped to avoid. "What is *that*? What is going on here?"
I had to look for myself. Peering into the crate only confirmed what I already knew, and I simply stated the obvious. "It's escaped."
The Captain's voice floated in from the open doorway. "*What* has escaped?"
I ignored the flurry of questions from the Captain, instead focusing on Hassan's assessment of the situation. Then Aeryn spotted Thonn in a corner, and I felt a flash of panic as she approached him. I yelled at her to stop, and that's when I knew. I would have to tell them everything. To protect them. And to protect us.
It didn't seem as if we had time for an informative little chat, but that's exactly what happened. I explained the nature of the virus while the serving girl explained what she had seen. Finally, we had something to focus on. The Hynerian. And so began the chase. As I directed my team out the door, I aimed one last parting shot at the Captain. In all honesty, it was aimed equally at myself. I wasn't in a position to criticize, for my prisoner was just as free as his - and infinitely more dangerous.
Almost immediately my team ran into the rest of the 'prisoners'. I was relieved that the Captain had finally seemed to understand my sense of urgency and agreed that we simply needed to find the virus. Hassan reviewed the basics so everyone knew what to expect and then I took charge, dividing the two groups into satisfactory teams. Hassan and the Delvian had comparable scientific knowledge. Thonn and the Luxan prisoner were matched, brute strength with brute strength. I decided to keep Aeryn with me, while the Captain seemed content to keep an eye on the serving girl.
As we searched, I grew more and more impressed with the competency Aeryn displayed. She was thorough, yet quick. The Captain was lucky to have her - she would no doubt prove to be an asset to any team. I was glad she was with me. And not just for professional reasons, I acknowledged.
We continued to talk as we searched, but the conversation had a decidedly different air from the lighthearted discussion we had enjoyed before. My frustration, aimed mostly at myself, was evident. Aeryn, too, was obviously unhappy with the situation.
"When you first found this thing, why didn't you kill it when you had a chance?"
"That wasn't the mission," I answered defensively. Frell, how I wished it had been. "The mission was to capture one alive. That's what my team and I've spent the better part of a cycle doing out here...or what's left of my team." I couldn't help the note of bitterness that crept into my voice. They were my team. As commanding officer, I was responsible for them. And this.
"Why would anybody want this thing alive?"
That's what I had asked myself. Repeatedly. But I am a Peacekeeper Commando, trained to act, fight, kill - and take orders. Not to question. So, I gave her the only answer I had been able to figure out. "Study it. Aim it if they can. When you release a cloud of intelligent, controlled viruses among your enemy, a few arns later their entire army's now working for you."
"All right...capturing one is clearly a suicide mission."
"No, it was a challenge." It had been, at first. That's why I had signed up for the mission in the first place. But as time went on, it had become harder and harder to hang on to that idea. Now the response was automatic, but I wondered briefly if I still considered it to be true.
"A challenge?" Aeryn's look of disbelief shot through me. "A challenge that has cost you three members of your crew!"
"Four," I corrected automatically. Leine had been killed almost as soon as we'd started, and we had picked up Rhedd as her replacement. That hadn't been a luxury later. A wave of anger washed over me, and I lashed out. I was angry at myself, not Aeryn, but I took it out on her. "And it may cost a lot more than that before we capture it again."
I hated the way she was looking at me. I wondered what she saw - an honorable Captain, doing his duty by completing his mission, no matter what the cost? Or an egotistical fool, blinded by his false bravado and sacrificing everything for his own glory? Or maybe just a very tired, self- loathing Commando who wanted nothing more than for this to all be over. I stared into her eyes, trying to lose myself in them...trying to find myself. Her gaze was filled with disgust, anger - and a tinge of regret. I suddenly realized it was like looking at a reflection of my own tortured soul. That's what she saw in my eyes.
Unable to stand it, I turned away and stalked off, briefly wondering if she'd follow.
I hoped she would.
Relief came in the form of a slimy little toad, cornered in a vent and stunned into submission by a single shot of my stasis gun. I took a moment to relish the victory - much hollower now than it had been the first time - then issued orders to my crew for containing the host. I refused to let myself relax until Hassan had the body completely in the crate, safely locked up.
As Aeryn and Hassan worked on storing the host, I worked on cleaning up the other bodies in the cargo area. They were almost done when I heard Aeryn ask Hassan, "So what happens to the Hynerian once the virus has been leeched out of him?"
Hoping to spare her Hassan's graphically scientific explanation, I cut her off even before she had finished the question. "He doesn't know this, but he's already spoken his dying words." I felt another pang of regret. Prisoner or not, this was yet another life lost to this bug. And once my mission was completed, there would be more. Many, many more.
Hassan added her own two cents, but fortunately toned it down considerably. "It's not a ... pretty process," she explained. That was an understatement, I thought cynically. Closing the crate, she left the cargo area.
I didn't turn to watch her go. I was too busy studying Red's face. I sighed, and then found myself starting to speak. I didn't know where the words were coming from; I just needed to talk to her, to confide in her. "You know, I talk about the challenge of bringing in this fugitive virus, but...numerically speaking, I'd have to say it's winning." Angrily I zipped the bag closed over the face of yet another fallen comrade. Rationally, I knew it wasn't my fault. Not directly. But everything that had happened, or was yet to happen with this mission, would be attributed to my leadership - good or bad.
I stood to find Aeryn watching me, her light eyes pensive. In them I saw sadness. Sadness for my team, sadness for what this mission had cost me. I'd lost so much in the past cycle - my self- respect, my basic decency, my ability to determine what was right and what was merely a quest for power. I found myself desperately wanting to know that something good could perhaps come from it. Maybe that desperation is what made me speak so recklessly.
"You know, this may sound funny but...you ever think about going Special Ops?"
A brief light of hope flared in her eyes, only to be replaced by something I didn't quite understand. Regret, perhaps? Doubt that she was good enough for the elite? Skepticism that I would actually follow through with a recommendation for her transfer? "Me?" she asked, disbelievingly.
Crouching so I could meet her gaze at eye-level, I pressed on, suddenly inspired by my suggestion. "I've seen you in action. What are you doing in Ustar Regiment, huh? You're being wasted there... You're wasting yourself there," I finished passionately. She could do so much for the Corps if only given the chance.
And as I said it, I realized what had been eluding me since I first stepped foot on this Leviathan. Aeryn was too good to just be a grunt on a Leviathan Tech run. That's what had been wrong with this whole situation. Lieutenant Aeryn Sun was just as smart as her Captain, just as gifted. She was his equal, or at least should have been. Not his subordinate. She would have worn the uniform well.
And I suddenly found myself hoping that if she went Special Ops, it would be with me.
Aeryn looked down, then back up again. I had to stand and walk away, suddenly nervous to meet her eyes and needing the space to gather the courage for what I was about to say.
"Plus, I...I like the idea of having you nearby."
I zipped the bag on the original host in relief, glad to have it out in the open. I had told Aeryn that I had taken this mission because it was a challenge. That was only part of the reason. The other was the promise of my own team, my own assignments, when it was successfully completed. I trusted my team with my life, of course, but every team has their shortcomings. What was left of mine was no exception. But there was something different about Aeryn, something...more. I didn't know what, exactly, but I felt the need to reach out to her, to grab hold and not let go. Or maybe just the opposite - to let go of the past cycle, to find something new to hang on to. Something different. Something worthwhile and good. As soon as the virus was delivered to the Gammak Base, my first official request would be to have her transferred to my team. I could start over. I could start letting go.
But she never answered me. She just sat there, not moving. I waited anxiously for a few moments, until it dawned on me how inappropriate my comments had been. Even if she agreed to it, she knew that proper Peacekeeper channels dictated that I have the authorization of a higher- ranking official to change her assignment - and such requests were rarely granted. She had no way of knowing that I would undoubtedly have that authorization in a matter of arns. Besides, she wouldn't just desert her current assignment and responsibilities; drop everything and run off with any battle-weary Captain she happened to come across.
Or maybe it was just this battle-weary Captain. My ego hadn't stopped to consider that one, I thought bitterly.
Attempting to salvage what little remained of my pride, I turned to leave. "Bad timing," I said with a casual shrug, even though I felt anything but casual about this woman. "Let's just get this assignment closed out, huh?" Berating myself for putting her in an impossible position as well as revealing more than I had intended, I strode out of the cargo area and stalked towards Command, determined to find the Captain and get us the frell out of here.
Standing here next to the Captain, I can hear Aeryn coming towards us. Funny, I've already memorized the cadence of her walk, distinguished it from the others. I'm not sure if that pleases me or not.
I hear her talking with the Pilot, but I'm not listening to what she says. I'm too busy studying her face as she moves to stand next to the Captain, trying to squash the regret that is twisting my stomach into knots. I'll wait until we get to the Base, I decide. As soon as the virus is delivered, I'll explain everything. I'll ask again - and this time, I'll do it right.
Satisfied with my decision, I return my attention to the Captain as he answers her. "I want us at that Gammak Base and that bug off my ship as fast as possible."
I can't help but nod in agreement. Finally he sees the urgency in the situation. "I couldn't agree more," I reply as I take a few steps to stand in front of the console. I can hear them whispering behind me.
After a moment I hear the Captain moving to stand directly behind me, his insolent voice hissing in my ear. "It's... a rather large galaxy, Captain. How did you ever manage to find something as tiny as a virus?"
"Perseverance," I answer, refusing to be goaded into yet another argument.
Aeryn apparently senses the same tension, as she tries to interrupt. "Larraq, about the Gammak base we're head - "
"You must be a very patient man, very methodical man..."
"I'm a good tracker." What the frell is his point? What is he trying to do? Confused, I suddenly wonder if the whispering I heard earlier was an argument. An argument about my proposition to Aeryn. That would explain this re-birth of hostility.
Then the Captain laughs, and I truly begin to worry. "Oh, I'd say a great tracker."
Before I can question his intentions, Thonn calls to me from the hall. Grateful for the interruption, I turn towards him. The look on his face makes me falter, but his words stop me in my tracks. "The Maintenance Bay? Lieutenant Hassan? She's dead - executed. The stasis gun - it's destroyed." I can sense the Captain moving behind me, but I ignore him. Another comrade lost. But how?
We all turn as the Luxan and serving girl come running into the room - I'm honestly not surprised to see that both of them are armed. The Luxan yells, "Don't move!" but I am already reaching for my gun.
I raise my weapon defensively, only to be shocked when Aeryn yells "No!" and knocks my hand away, throwing me off balance, then kicks the rifle out of Thonn's grasp just as he fires. What the frell is she doing?
Then the Delvian is there, yelling and pointing. "The Virus is still loose! I believe it's in Crichton!"
I freeze. No. It's not possible. Not again. We had it, it was over... And 'Crichton'? The Captain? As we turn to look at him, he laughs. *It* laughs. Already anticipating our next move, the smile fades from his face and he lashes out to hit Aeryn, knocking her into Thonn. I advance, only to take a stinging blow to the face. Even as I stagger backwards, the Luxan manages to hit him with his blade. The Captain - or what was the Captain - goes down and we instantly are on him, trying to subdue him.
In a moment, I realize our mistake. My mistake. We have done exactly what the virus wants. It is over, finally over - and I have lost. A tingling sensation races up my arm and spreads over my body. Before the numbness takes hold completely, I can hear the Delvian in the farthest reaches of my mind.
And then I am forced to let go.