Disclaimer: Absolutely no SACC members were injured or killed in the making of this fanfic.
Rating: Good question.
Timeframe: Hey, the future, when else?
Archiving: Oh, to Hell with it. I absolutely forbid anyone but Kiki and Perri, or Oboe Crazy to archive this. Unless you make me a better offer.
I read the line of print for the third time to make sure I had read it correctly. The words were still there.
"John? Is something wrong?" Aeryn moved up beside me and started scanning the area for threats.
I tried to keep the excitement out of my voice in case this was some horrible mistake on my part. "I can read the fifth line of print in the hotel register."
"Excellent, Crichton. Now, if you can be taught some manners as well, you might be suitable as a footman in one of my palaces."
"Put a sock in it, Sparky. I mean it's written in a human language. It says "Michael De Reuter, Rotterdam. That's a human name and Rotterdam is a town on Earth."
I looked up at the being behind the desk. Our good fortune had landed us at the best, or at least, the most expensive, hotel on Shan-Tilley. The Hotel Shan-Tilley was very retro. It was filled with actual people who pretended they did all the work for you, instead of machines.
I gave the desk clerk my best grin. "I'd really like to meet with Mr. De Reuter and talk about old times. Which room is he in?"
A lot is different in the Uncharted Territories, but there are some universal constants.
"I'm afraid, Sir, that our guests expect, and deserve, privacy while they enjoy our accommodations. I wouldn't dream of violating a guest's privacy."
I reached into my pocket and slid what I hoped was a sufficient tip towards him. His hand quickly covered it up.
"I can, of course, advise Mr. De Reuter of your interest as a fellow….."
"Human. I'm John Crichton, human."
The tiny smile he had favored me with disappeared.
"Human? I had thought you and your lady were Sebaceans. Human, you say? What ….exactly is a human, Sir?" From the sound of his voice, nonentities like humans were lower than whale dren in his mind.
I heard Aeryn make a growling sound in her throat that I hadn't heard before. She started to reach over the desk towards him.
D'Argo also decided to be helpful. "I'll be happy to explain humans to you, little man," he roared.
Behind the clerk, what I had thought was an heroic statue was starting to rumble into life and move to back the clerk up
I grabbed both of my friends and pulled them back. "Careful, amigos. Mighty Joe Young back there doesn't look too happy."
Whatever it was looked like an ape on steroids; half white matted hair, half armor and all attitude. Even from the other side of the desk, I could tell that his breath would probably kill us even if he never threw a punch. Being on a civilized planet meant that our weapons had been politely confiscated at the spaceport. This was no time for a fight.
"Aeryn, D'Argo. No rough stuff. I'll find De Reuter by myself. I'll bet he's as anxious to meet a fellow human as I am."
Aeryn and D'Argo backed off, the desk clerk favored us with another smile and our ape friend moved back into this alcove behind the clerk.
"Aeryn, remind me to take him off our Christmas list. Take both of them off."
A horde of uniformed flunkies escorted us to our suites of rooms. Local architecture went in for rustic simplicity. Our room had a living carpet and furniture that grew out of the floor. The ceiling and one wall were some sort of force field, so that you got the feeling of the great outdoors without the bother of rain or mosquitoes. From what I had seen, I doubted if there was a building on the planet more than two stories tall.
I walked outside to the terrace and was soon lost in thought. I thought I knew all of IASA's astronauts, even the ones just starting their training. De Reuter wasn't a name I had ever heard before. He'd be Dutch if he was from Rotterdam, and there weren't that many Dutch pilots qualified for space flight. I tried to remember every astronaut I had ever heard of from every space program on Earth. Was there a Rotterdam in the US? Could he some other nationality, but living in Holland? A sharp stab of fear caught me. Had I actually gone forward in time when I went through the wormhole? De Reuter might have been born a century after me. No, I wouldn't even consider that possibility. I was going home to Earth to see my dad, my sisters and all my friends.
Suddenly, I realized Aeryn was standing beside me. I turned and took her in my arms. She remained stiffly at attention, with her arms at her side.
"Aeryn. I will never stop loving you. I will never leave you."
Aeryn relaxed slightly, but kept her arms at her sides and didn't look at me. "I know, I know, John."
Aeryn didn't sound like she knew. Sure, I had been absolutely loyal to Aeryn since I the day I told her I loved her. But that wasn't what worried her. What could happen here in the Uncharted Territories? I mean, the worst pick up line in the Universe has to be, "Hey, Baby. Want to go cruisin' in a Leviathan being chased by a lunatic Scarren half-breed Peacekeeper?" A chick magnet it is not.
The rest of the ladies on Moya were no threat to her, and she knew it. Zhaan had decided I was an interesting project to while away fifty cycles or so, but nothing personal.
Pip? Well, Pip was Pip. About a weeken ago a half-naked Chiana had stormed into my room and thrown herself into my bed. She spent the next half an arn explaining D'Argo's latest transgression in their on again, off again love affair. Having made herself feel better, she said good night to Aeryn and me and left as suddenly as she had arrived. I think that convinced Aeryn I was truthful when I said my sanity wouldn't handle dating Chi.
Aeryn's worry was what might happen if we returned to Earth and I found myself among billions of human women again. I didn't worry, but I knew both Aeryn Sun and Earth women. Aeryn didn't.
"Aeryn, you know…"
"I know, John. But we've had a long day. We should get some sleep now."
With that, she pulled away from me and headed into our suite. I followed her into the bathroom and started on my dentic. I would never get used to those damned things. I noticed Aeryn was dawdling and decided she wanted me out of there. I finished quickly, and got in bed.
Aeryn walked out of the bathroom a few microts later in her Calvins and a black tee shirt. She gestured to the patio outside. "I'll be outside for just a few microts, John."
"Okay, Honey. I'll wait up for you."
She stood quietly outside looking at nothing for about a half an arn. I was about to go out to talk to her, when she suddenly turned and came back inside. She stood by our bed and stared down at me for a few more microts. I had moved over to the edge of the bed and patted the open space on the bed between us and held out my hand.
"There's hardly any room between you and the edge of the bed, John." She did take my hand though.
"That's because I like to have you as close to me as possible, Aeryn."
Aeryn put one knee down next to me and then rolled over me to land in the center of the bed.
"But, I like a lot of room."
I moved over to her and put my arms around her. To my relief, she snuggled up against me and rested her head on shoulder.
"Aeryn, I owe it to my family, to my friends and all of Earth to try to get home. Earth needs to know what's out here."
"I understand that, John. I'll never try to stop you from going home. I want Earth to be my home, too."
"And I will never put anything ahead of your safety and happiness, Sunshine. If I have to, I'll have Moya stand out beyond the orbit of Mars and we'll communicate with Earth by radio. We can trade back and forth with Earth using shuttles. How much chocolate do you think we can get for a faster than light drive?"
Aeryn snorted. "You'd cross half the Universe and stop within a few million metras of your home? Forgive me if I'm skeptical, John." I could see her smile in the dark, so I wasn't too worried about her skepticism.
"I'll hire a division of Luxan mercenaries to guard you. Nothing Earth has could stand up to them."
Aeryn sounded shocked. "Ten thousand D'Argos on Earth? Add ten thousand Nabari women, and there'd be so much confusion on Earth they'd never notice a missing astronaut wandering around with a Sebacean."
"I'm serious, Aeryn. I don't know how I'd manage without you and I have no desire to find out."
"Hmph! It sounds like you don't think I could take care of myself on Earth, John. Remember, I'm a Commando trained ex-Peacekeeper. I can take care of myself."
It was my turn to hmph. "Remember what happened on the "Earth" the Ancients set up for us? You were captured immediately by "humans"."
"Ah, John, I wasn't captured by humans, I was captured by the Ancients pretending to be human. They had to use their powers to put me in danger to get a human reaction from you. And they did."
I detected a slight smirk in Aeryn's voice. "Okay, Aeryn. You'll do just fine on Earth."
"Well, I hope so. I can't imagine sitting in Moya with ten thousand Luxans, all swearing they'll never be captured again, and ten thousand Nabari women, snerching everything in sight."
"You'll do better than fine, Aeryn. Your face will be on every front page on Earth as soon as we land. The New York Times, the Washington Post, the London Times, Pravda, the Sydney Morning Herald. You'll be an overnight media sensation. Then it'll be the newsmagazines. Time, Newsweek, the Economist, Der Stern. Oh, and then you'll do the talk shows. We'll skip Jerry Springer and that sort. Oprah will love you, though. You can do one of those Barbara Walters Specials, too. Yeah, You and Barbara Wawa. It'll be perfect. Your face will be in front of every single person on Earth before you know it. And what a beautiful face it is."
"So, I'll be famous?" She didn't sound too happy about that.
"Oh, not just famous for being famous. You can do all sorts of things on Earth. Sports would be a natural for you. Golf. Sure, I can see it now. "Tiger" Sun takes the British Open by a hundred strokes. Or tennis. I can just see you standing at center court at Wimbledon in a little black leather skirt, accepting the trophy."
"A black leather skirt? Won't that be awfully revealing, John? Can't I wear my leather top, too?"
"Of course, Aeryn. I meant in a leather skirt and top."
" But I want to play the sports you talk about, football and baseball? I bet I'd be good at those with you to help me."
"Sorry, Sunshine. Those are for men only just about everywhere. There are a few women's soft ball teams, but the pro leagues are strictly male."
"That's absurd, John. With my strength, eyesight and reactions, I should be better at any sport…"
"Sorry, Sunshine. But I do not want you anywhere near a three hundred and fifty pound Refrigerator. Remember, what I did to you when Tralltix'x came a calling?"
I had a sudden fantasy of Aeryn in a cheerleader's costume. A short black skirt, a tight black sweater and two red pom-poms. My fantasy smiled at me and started cheering. "Crichton, Crichton, he's our man, if he can't do it, no one can." My fantasy jumped and kicked above her head with everything bouncing nicely.
"What are you thinking about, John? I've seen that expression before."
Time to change the subject. "Actually, I think business would be better for you. How much chocolate can we get for a faster than light drive? What a dumb question! With the technology you have, in six months after we get to Earth, you'll be The Donald, Bill Gates, Sam Walton and Ross Perot all rolled into one."
"If I'm going to be rolled with anyone, it's going to be an astronaut named John Crichton, I think."
"Then politics. Here's the deal, Aeryn. You'll be Senator Sun, from the Sun Belt, no doubt. Maybe Florida? That's where I left Earth from. Then it's a hop, skip and a jump to the Oval Office. I just hope you have a few minutes each month for the First Gentleman. I won't settle for an intern, you know. The Presidency will require a Constitutional Amendment, of course, but one smile from you and that's a foregone conclusion."
"I haven't understood a word you've said about Earth, John. When we go to Earth, I suppose I'll have to stay with you, whether I like it or not."
"Like it or not? Wait a minute. What's this "or not?"
I could see her smile in the dark and I knew I had no worries about "or not". The smile moved closer to me and Aeryn's lips touched mine briefly.
"We have a lot to do tomorrow, John. Time to sleep."
Aeryn snuggled up against me, preparing for sleep. Then, suddenly, she hugged me. "And I love you so very much, John."
Pip had a surprise for me next morning when we all met for breakfast. She was leaning on D'Argo's shoulder, so I assumed their love affair was on, at least through breakfast. "For your information, John, Mr. De Reuter is out today, but I know where he'll be at the second hour of the night. Care to guess?"
I smiled at Chi. "Not a chance, Pip. You always manage to surprise me, one way or the other."
Pip loved to surprise people. She looked around the table to make sure she was the center of attention. She was. "Tonight Mr. De Reuter, of Rotterdam, Earth, will be visiting the home of Mr. Osto Stilicho."
That was a surprise, to say the least. Mr. Stilicho was the cause of our good fortune. His ship had lost power and was headed for a very rocky moon when we starbursted into the system almost on top of him. Moya had no trouble picking the ship up with our docking web and pulling it to safety.
By local salvage law, we were entitled to one quarter of the value of the ship we had saved. And what a ship it was. Stilicho was one of Shan-Tilley's richest citizens and it was his yacht we had saved, with him on it. It was built with only the best of everything and even Rygel was impressed with the décor. He claimed it was almost as nice as his smallest yacht, back before Bishan had put him out of the Dominar business. High praise, indeed, from our luxury loving ex-Dominar.
I smiled at my friends sitting around the table. "Well, we'll have to spend the day at the Admiralty Court filing our salvage claim, so what would be more natural than to drop by Mr. Stilicho's house tonight to bring him up to date?"
We spent the day at a series of government offices whose inhabitants seemed glad to see us, interested in helping us, and pleased to be of service. Apparently word had spread that we were the saviors of one of Shan-Tilley's movers and shakers and were about to become disgustingly rich ourselves. All the wealth on Shan-Tilley wouldn't help us with the Peacekeepers, but we'd end up with enough food and supplies to keep us from having to come near a commerce planet again for cycles.
By nightfall, we were all headed for Stilicho's mansion, and, I hoped, a visit with a man from Earth. The cab let us out at the walkway to his mansion. Some walkway! I've seen Interstates that were shorter. D'Argo, Pip and Rygel were arguing about whether I was typical of humans or not.
"I say another human cannot possibly be more confusing than John is, it isn't possible." D'Argo rumbled.
"What would a youngster like you know about the possible? I've ruled 600 billion subjects, and Crichton could be the very best of his breed. " I thought Rygel was being complimentary until he added, " Although I doubt it."
Pip seemed to feel that having twice as many humans around would be twice as exciting.
Aeryn held my hand so tightly that I would have said something if I hadn't been holding hers just as tightly.
Strangely, the door to the mansion was wide open when we got there. We stopped for a few microts. Then we heard the unmistakable sound of a pulse weapon being fired inside the house.
We charged through the door and then came to a stop. The mansion was huge and we had no idea where the shooting had come from. D'Argo and his sense of smell came to our rescue.
"Almost straight ahead," he bellowed, " but slightly to the right. I smell burned flesh. Maybe one hundred paces or so."
Aeryn took something out of a pocket and started forward. "D'Argo, John. Stay well behind me and keep the others behind you."
I glanced at D'Argo. "No way I'm hiding behind Aeryn."
D'Argo laughed. "Shall we?"
We arrived at the corpse on either side of Aeryn. Normally, Aeryn would have chewed the two of us out, but it seemed pointless. The corpse had been badly torn up by close range pulse weapon fire, but it looked like Mr. Stilicho's luck had run out permanently. A quick check of the area, and the fact that no one came to see what the commotion was all about, convinced us we were alone in the mansion.
We called the police, who arrived with commendable speed. They also investigated with irritating thoroughness. We must have each repeated what had happened to what seemed like every cop on the planet and then were taken downtown to repeat the whole performance.
About two hours before dawn, we were dragged before Commissioner D'Ussart. He was a small, fussy man who seemed very unhappy. He got right to the point.
"I've read the reports, Captain Crichton. It doesn't look good for you."
I was Peacekeeper Captain Crichton again. There was a tiny chance that any local bounty hunters or PK spies would accept us as a Peacekeeper Leviathan with a somewhat unorthodox crew, and not as the very wanted people we really were. I did say the chance was tiny, right?
I had no idea what D'Ussart was babbling about, so I kept quiet. He obliged me by continuing.
"We haven't run into any of you Peacekeepers, yet, Crichton, but we've heard plenty about you. The way I see it, you went to Stilicho's place and seeing how rich he was, decided you wanted more money. He told you to go stuff it and you got rough…"
Before he got any further, he had six angry people yelling at him. After a few microts, I decided the yelling wouldn't help. It took me another fifty microts to get everybody quieted down. Before I could start on D'Ussart, a new voice entered the conversation.
"A nice theory, D'Ussart, but not one that's in accordance with the facts, I'm afraid. The residence surveillance logs show clearly that Captain Crichton and his crew were outside the mansion when the shooting started."
D'Ussart looked angry and servile at the same time. "Counselor Madrileno. Those logs were under police seal. You have no right to them or to information from them until…"
Madrileno interrupted him. "As the Counselor in Law of the deceased, I believe I have a legal right to be kept apprised of the investigation? Are you really going to prevent me from gaining access to those records by bureaucratic delay? "
"Of course not, sir. I merely meant…" Now D'Ussart was starting to look scared.
I decided I'd better run with this. "Excuse me, Counselor Madrileno? Captain John Crichton of the Leviathan Moya."
Madrileno smiled at me. "I know who you are, Captain. I've been reviewing your salvage claim for my late client. If you will just wait for a microt?"
He turned back to D'Ussart. "As with many people who value their privacy, Mr. Stilicho did not have surveillance systems running inside his residence, so there is no evidence from that source. The records do show that the entrance control system was turned off briefly about three hundred microts before the Captain and his party arrived. Your technicians are unable to say whether the system was turned off from the inside, or if someone gained control of it illegally from outside. But, in any case, the records do absolve these people. There is no question that they were outside when my client was killed. I presume Captain Crichton and his crew are free to go?"
D'Ussart knew when he was licked. "Certainly, Sir. And anytime you need our records, please let me know. I'll be most happy…."But he was talking to Madrileno's back.
Madrileno stopped me as we left D'Ussart's office. "Excuse me, Captain. May I have a word with you?"
Under the circumstances, I decided he could have a whole dictionary if he wanted it. Little did I know.
He drew me over to a small alcove away from my friends. Madrileno oozed wealth and power. Strangely, though I felt like I could trust him, as far as I could trust any lawyer.
Madrileno gestured back to D'Ussart's office. "You've seen D'Ussart. He's terrified of offending any of the rich and powerful of this world who may have been involved in my client's death. He'll have one of the servants charged now, I suppose. Anything to close a case that could be dangerous to his career."
I wondered about that. "Stilicho had the sort of enemies who'd barbecue him with a pulse rifle?"
Madrileno chuckled. "This is the Uncharted Territories, after all, Captain. The most honorable of us may have to do things to survive out here we would prefer not to do. And Mr. Stilicho was not the most honorable of us. He was, in my opinion, no worse than most, though."
"Your point is, Counselor?" That was from my gorgeous ex-Peacekeeper.
Aeryn had walked over to stand by me and D'Argo was close enough to over hear us, I noticed, and the rest of my friends were close behind him.
"As Mr. Stilicho's Counselor in Law, it is my responsibility to see to it that his estate is passed on to his designated heirs, assuming those heirs had no part in his murder. As you can see, the police will be a hindrance to that end. I want you to investigate the murder."
That got a fine "Hmph." from Aeryn.
I looked at Madrileno. "You want me to be a private eye? A shamus? A gumshoe? A private dick? You want me to do the Sam Spade thing? You don't have private eye's on this world to do this?"
Aeryn rolled her eyes. "You'll have to excuse Captain Crichton, Counselor. He often talks like this, except he usually makes even less sense. However, I should point out that we have extremely important business to take care of. Important Peacekeeper business, I might add. If you can just see to it that our salvage fees are paid, we can be on our way."
Madrileno grinned. "Are you aware of the elements of a contract under our law, Captain? Salvage is a form of oral contract, I suppose. But one where one party has an unseemly advantage, don't you think? I'm not sure that a good counselor couldn't argue that no real contract had been agreed to."
Aeryn looked like she was about to try to take Madrileno's head off. I had to act quickly. "Whoa, Sunshine. Just stay frosty there."
Madrileno continued. "And of course, a certain Peacekeeper Command Carrier which is a half a dozen systems away from here could also be the victim of some truly creative legal obfuscation concerning the whereabouts of a unique being and his easily identified shipmates."
He had us.
"And to answer your question, Captain, we have no class of people who handle this sort of investigation other than the police. Does your, er, branch of the Peacekeepers have such?"
I smiled. Aeryn just groaned.
I agreed to play Philip Marlowe and we all went home. Aeryn and I were so tired by this time we fell asleep without a word between us. Well, not without some form of communication.
We got up early and we all headed for Madrileno's office and a brief description of the people, places and things I'd need to know about for my investigation. Stilicho had blown into town on an ill wind with a sack full of probably ill-gotten gains about a dozen cycles ago. He had a partner, or probably an accomplice, named Thulamord. The two of them had turned their stake into one of the biggest firms on Shan-Tilley. Naturally it was called Stilicho and Thulamord. Stilicho had married into the local aristocracy. However, of late, it was rumored that the two partners had a falling out. The falling out seemed to take the form of each partner trying to loot the assets of their joint company for their own personal gain.
Once we were out of Madrileno's office, I turned to D'Argo. "Dollface and I are headed over to the Stilicho place. You get out on the street, put your ear to the ground and let me know what's shaking."
D'Argo stared at me. "If I assume that position, the people passing by will be shaking with laughter."
I should have known better. I turned to Chiana. "Pip, see if you can find anything about the late, lamented Mr. Stilicho. You know more about how to do that than I can ever tell you. Keep the rest of the crew in line."
Pip smiled at me. "I'm in charge?"
This was followed by, "She's in charge?" from the rest of the crew.
Aeryn and I left the four of them arguing. I wondered if you actually could buy information at a shoe shine stand. Were there shoe shine stands in the Uncharted Territories?
I also started window shopping. "Aeryn, so you think they have any trench coats here? Or a nice fedora? You know? A hat. A Borsalino is what I really need."
I suddenly found myself against a wall with a pair of blazing blue eyes leveled at me.
"We do not have the time for French coats or bedora's or Borsa….whatevers. And if you ever call me Dollface again, I'll make sure you have something wrapped around your head."
That said, she stormed off down the street with John Crichton following behind shooting apologies in all directions.
Intuition. That's what you need in the private eye game. The ability to size up a situation and see behind the façade that's put up for you. To see the ugly truths living in the pretty Potemkin villages. To be able to read between the lines and find the mean, unpleasant truths hidden among the friendly lies. I don't know what it was, but I was convinced that the Widow Stilicho was not mourning the Mister. What was it? I didn't know exactly. It could have been the twelve piece band punching out happy tunes in a living room the size of a football field. The hundreds of happy couples dancing, smooching and punishing the Stilicho's' pantry and liquor cabinet. It might have been the feminine squeals and masculine laughter coming from upstairs. It might even have been Mrs. Stilicho, who had draped herself over me like a tired kitty on a sunny sofa. Her hair was golden and hung beyond her waist. Her eyes were a lemon yellow. She had on a bright red and gold dress that probably was not considered to be widow's weeds locally. It looked like it had been spray painted onto her.
She ran her fingers under the neck my tee shirt and smiled. "Captain Crichton, how good of you to come to see me in my hour of sorrow. How tragic that you saved my husband only to be near him when he died." Her smile grew more predatory. " I see you're admiring my dress. It was spray painted on me, you know."
Can I call 'em or can I call 'em?
She started to nuzzle my ear. Suddenly, a Sebacean hip pushed her away and Aeryn had both arms wrapped around me.
"Oh, Captain. You've brought a friend to my party. Lovely. I have heard how naughty you Peacekeepers can be with your recreating. Would you like me to find a few close friends and an empty room? I'm sure we can find someone to suit your little dark haired friend."
Aeryn looked like she was ready to make our widow a little sadder, if not wiser.
I made sure I got to the Widow Stilicho before Aeryn. "I'm afraid Aeryn and I aren't your typical Peacekeepers. We're very loyal to each other."
Mrs. Stilicho smiled. "Loyalty is a commendable quality in soldiers, I'm sure."
"I'm talking total loyalty to each other, Mrs. Stilicho. To put it bluntly, you can forget about frelling me."
Mrs. Stilicho's smile faded to a sour frown. "How boring. Well, thank you for your condolences. I'm sure you can find your way out, Captain." She turned and started walking back to the party.
"If I do that, I'll have to tell Counselor Madrileno that I haven't completed my investigation of your husband's death. He won't disburse the estate to his heirs until the investigation is over. According to Counselor Madrileno, you're the main heir?"
She turned. "Counselor Madrileno. And now you. How utterly tiresome. Can we at least find a room so the party won't be spoiled?"
At about the third try we found one that wasn't occupied. Not that any of the occupants would have paid any attention to us. Mrs. Stilicho found a bar in the back and poured us some drinks. I took a small sip of the clear drink she offered me. It seemed to be a little less alcoholic than wine. Then I noticed Aeryn shaking her head slightly. What was this stuff? Mrs. Stilicho was already on her second glass.
"You have questions, Captain?"
I might as well keep going as the blunt, plainspoken Peacekeeper. "You don't seem to be overly broken up by your husband's murder. Don't you think people might just suspect you of something?"
That managed to get a solid laugh out of her. "Oh, Captain. Someone should have briefed you on my husband and myself. I was a thing to him. I was a prize he had won to prove how rich and powerful he was."
I grinned at her. "How so?"
The grin was a big mistake. Mrs. Stilicho headed back to me with her third drink about half gone and put her arms around me.
"My family are the Hengsts. You know of them of course."
No. Never heard of them. "Of course," I lied. I assumed the lady would feel obligated to run through the family tree for me.
"My family were wealthy and cultured people who arrived on this planet five hundred cycles ago on the first colonization ship."
Wealthy and cultured people usually didn't bother to leave home to settle the wild frontier, but it sounds better than admitting The Ancestor robbed a bank, impregnated two girls and flunked second grade prior to immigrating.
Mrs. Stilicho planted a loud, wet kiss on the shoulder of my vest.
"My family once owned some five percent of the land surface of this planet. The Hengst family was wealthy, powerful and respected throughout this sector. Our family estate was a center of culture and learning."
I silently wondered if Mother Theresa had ever dropped by for some lessons in humility, too.
"But things changed. Bad decisions were made and our position is society slipped. My father tried to recoup our fortunes by off planet trade. That put him in conflict with my husband, or I should say, the man who became my husband. My husband destroyed my father financially by manipulating bank loans, spreading wild rumors of off planet crashes of my father's ships, and by pirating some of those ships, I believe."
The Widow Stilicho managed to disentangle herself from me long enough to grab another drink. By the time she thought to look for me, I had moved three steps to the right and she was in no condition to try to find me.
"My husband was a low born thug, but he longs to appear to be one of his betters. Once my father was ruined, he offered to allow my father to remain in our hunting lodge if I would marry him. The brute had everything we owned. It would have been impossible for us to, to, to…"
Work for a living came to mind, but I held my tongue.
Mrs. S. had managed to latch on to me again, but then found her drink was gone. She staggered off in the general direction of the bar.
"My husband filled our home with his disgusting little trelks. Maids, laundresses, communicators, and such he called them. But I knew what they were. It gave me great pleasure to fire the whole lot this morning."
Mrs. Stilicho managed to remain upright by the bar and stared more or less in my direction.
"And can you tell us where you were last night, ma'am?" For that matter, I thought, can you tell us where you are right now?
"I was with my cousin, Vingin Hengst. At his home in the Salamedar District. He had a dinner party. Fifty or more people saw me arrive there in the afternoon and I didn't return here until the police came to notify me of my husband."
Mrs. Stilicho headed for the door. "Now Captain, I take great pleasure in telling you and your trelk to get our of my house."
She stumbled out and into a good-looking young man's arms. They ended up on a couch and I decided we'd better leave before Aeryn was too badly shocked by the goings on.
No such luck. Aeryn was watching the goings on with obvious interest. "John, I don't think we've ever tried that."
I grabbed Aeryn's hand and headed for the front door. "That's because we don't have enough people on Moya to try something like that, nor the equipment. Aside from the fact that…"
"No. I mean the two on the balcony. They appear to be using null gravity gear…"
"To display their shortcomings, Aeryn."
Once we were out the front door, I took a deep breath and changed the subject. "Okay, Aeryn. What was she drinking? It didn't taste too strong to me."
Aeryn took my arm. "Carynthian brandy. The alcohol content is only about seven or eight parts per hundred, but it has other consciousness altering properties. If we'd had half as much as she did, you'd still be talking and you'd be making sense to me."
I thought I'd just been insulted, but decided to keep my mouth closed.
"Come on, Aeryn. Let's take a walk around the scene of the crime and see if the murderer has returned."
Aeryn frowned. "That isn't likely. And weren't we thrown out?"
"Mrs. Stilicho told us to leave her house. We, however, are in her yard." Phillip Marlowe couldn't have put it better.
The yard was built of the scale of Yellowstone Park, but roomier. I wondered if there was a secluded wood where a human could do some serious cuddling with an ex-Peacekeeper. I had about decided I didn't want to be, shall we say, surprised by the Widow Stilicho on her property, when we almost walked into a pond.
"Excuse me, Sire and Lady. Do you require directions to the main house?"
The speaker was more or less humanoid, but reminded me of someone out of a Third World famine report back on Earth. He was my height, but couldn't have weighed a hundred pounds. He had a slightly greenish cast to his skin, and I thought, two long braids hanging from the side of his head. Then I noticed the braids moving against the wind. He was dressed in a long kimono-like garment that had been hitched up over his knees so he could work in the pond.
"No, the lady and I were looking around. I'm Captain Crichton, investigating the murder of Mr. Stilicho. And you are?"
He stepped put of the pond and did a curtsey to Aeryn and me. "I am Xue Essop, the gardener, Sire and Lady. The death of the master is most unfortunate."
Aeryn decided to contribute to the conversation. "How long have you worked here, Gardener?"
He smiled. "Forty two cycles I have served the Hengst family. My father and his father before him served the family and my children do so now and will continue to do so when I am no longer able to serve."
He was an old family retainer, and better yet, an old Hengst family retainer. I wondered if he'd shed many tears at the unfortunate loss of Osto Stilicho.
"Did the police question you?" I asked.
"No, Sire. They arrived before I awoke and my wife advised them I was still asleep."
"So you saw nothing last night, being asleep?"
"Oh no, Sire. I was awake and working in this very pond. The peradanas bloom only at night and have a lovely aroma. I have always put bouquets in the mistress's living quarters. I have done this since she was so very small."
"So what did you see?"
Honesty warred with loyalty on his face and, for once, honesty won.
"I saw two persons leaving the back of the house after I heard the shots."
"Could you identify them?"
From his expression I knew he'd be able to tell the truth. "No. One was a man, and the other a woman."
Aeryn smiled at him. "Could you describe either of them in any way?"
Xue Essop the gardener thought about that one for a microt. "The man was larger than I."
Well, that let out Rygel, who had an alibi anyway.
"The woman had light colored hair."
Aeryn and I asked the same question at the same time. "Blonde?"
The gardener nodded.
"You didn't tell the police any of this?"
"No, Sire. They did not ask."
We spent another few microts with him, but that was all he knew.
I turned to Aeryn. "Have any idea where the Salamedar District is? This seems like a good time to check the Widow Stilicho's alibi."
Aeryn grinned. "I think I can manage. After all I'm not the one who lost my entire home planet."
I smiled back. "We'll be okay as long as you don't have to climb any rock faces."
I cursed myself the second the words were out and saw a flash of pain in Aeryn's eyes. I spent the next arn telling Aeryn how much I loved her, how badly I needed her and how much she meant to me.
Vingin Hengst's family home was less impressive than the Stilicho place, in more ways than one. It wasn't as large, and it obviously had no one like Xue to manage to gardens. They looked badly overgrown and once we got inside, the rooms looked like they had gone too long without a cleaning. I wondered if Vingin was one of the Hengst's who made those bad decisions.
Eventually the threat, made to various underlings, that Counselor Madrileno would sit on the family inheritance until Rygel grew old and generous brought the Prodigal Hengst to the shabby library he had the butler stash us in. I had enough time to notice that the only dust free books in the library were a set of pornographic novels with short words and many pictures. Fortunately, Hengst arrived before Aeryn got curious about what I was reading.
I hadn't gotten my mouth open when Aeryn strode across the room and took Mr. Hengst's hand in hers.
Aeryn positively gushed. "Oh, Mr. Hengst, sir. I'm so pleased to meet you. I have heard so much about your illustrious family. I do hope you can help us, Sir. It's only a small matter and then Counselor Madrileno can release your cousin's inheritance to her. Of course, then, we'll have to leave. That would be sad, would it not be?"
Aeryn had put her other arm around Hengst and was pulling him close. "Your cousin, Mrs. Stilicho was here last night, wasn't she? She did arrive in the afternoon and stay until the police arrived?"
Hengst managed to confirm the alibi for Mrs. Stilicho and put a good hundred microts into bragging about the family and trying to grope Aeryn. Somehow, his hands always managed to go where Aeryn wasn't.
Eventually, we said our good-byes and Aeryn and I headed for the street.
I gave Aeryn a quizzical look.
She smiled back. "I got close enough to him to smell a faint trace of Carynthian brandy on him. And his hands are slightly puffy, especially around the fingernails. That's a sure sign of very heavy use of the brandy. I'd guess that Mrs. Stilicho could have left, come back with the victim, shot him, and dragged the corpse through the house behind a band left again and came back, all without Mr. Hengst being any the wiser. I'd bet his guests were in no better shape, too."
I gave Aeryn my very best grin. "Aeryn, what would I ever do without you?"
"I don't plan on letting you find out, John."
We made it back to the hotel and the desk clerk was happy to tell us that Mr. De Reuter was still not back. Our friends were at dinner, though.
Pip had gotten absolutely nowhere with the information gathering. She had, however, acquired a new wardrobe and a few dozen pieces of jewelry so she'd fit into the proper milieu. I reminded her to keep the receipts so we could put it on our expense account with Madrileno. She favored me with exactly the same look Aeryn gives me when I say something she finds unbearably human.
Silly me. That would mean she bought something. I wondered if the crewwomen of Moya have mass meetings to discuss keeping the human Crichton in his place.
"Expense account?" That was our resident Hynerian Scrooge.
"Yes, Rygel. We can charge reasonable, I say again, reasonable expenses to Madrileno."
Rygel smiled. "Eating would seem to be reasonable. We can't very well catch a master criminal if we starve to death first."
Before I could say anything, Rygel had the waiter over and was ordering four of everything on the menu. Since it looked like he had already had one of everything, I hoped Madrileno was either understanding, or knew a lot of ex-Dominars.
Soon, dinner was over and Aeryn and I were upstairs, snuggling in our bed.
"The Stilicho's certainly aren't a good advertisement for marriage, John."
"Aeryn, the Stilicho's aren't a good advertisement for anything. And that has nothing to do with us. You're not a trophy wife and I think I've avoided becoming a low born thug."
"I know, John, but I worry. Humans pledge to stay wed until death do they part and half the marriages end in divorce rather than death. If I ran Earth, marriage would be until death."
I'd have to remember to keep Aeryn away from Liz Taylor when we got home. "Human's make allowances for errors, Aeryn. And most people who divorce get married again. Human's just like being married. I'd like to be married to you, but you turned me down."
Aeryn pushed herself away from me. "I did not turn you down, John Crichton. We are engaged to be married and I intend to be married to you, once we're on Earth."
"Okay, Aeryn. I'm sorry. But you know what I mean."
Aeryn pulled me closer to her. "No. I don't know what you mean. We've discussed this before, John. I spent most of my life as a Peacekeeper. There is no Peacekeeper equivalent to marriage, even if I considered myself a Peacekeeper, which I never will again. And I found out on the Royal Planet that I'm not even a proper Sebacean anymore. I didn't fit in. I don't believe in their ways, their laws, or their gods. It's the same with every other planet in the Universe, except Earth. I cannot swear to love and cherish you before gods I don't believe in, under laws I don't consider mine, or a culture I have no connection with."
Aeryn kissed me lightly. "Earth is different. I'm marrying you, a human. I'm joining your family, your society and your planet. I'm announcing my allegiance to your entire Earth culture. I'll be swearing eternal love and loyalty to something I passionately believe in. I believe in John Crichton and being the best wife and mother and member of his family I'm capable of being. I will be the best Sebacean-American and the very best human I can possibly be."
I thought about it. We had been over this before. "Zhaan could marry us. A tenth level Pa'u and our friend. That would work for me, Honey."
"But not for me, John. The Delvian Seek marriage rite is for members of the Seek. For people who totally accept the tenets of the Seek. I do not accept their pacifism. To me their pacifism would accomplish nothing but giving the Universe to the Peacekeepers. I cannot honorably marry you and lie about my beliefs at the same time, John."
Aeryn pulled me closer and nuzzled my ear. "Besides. Is only being engaged to me that bad? Would marriage be that much different?"
I had lost again. "It's a human thing, Aeryn. Or maybe a guy thing, or even a John Crichton thing. I just want to say to Earth, when I get there, this is my wife, the radiant Aeryn Sun Crichton. And, I'd like to say the same thing to every planet in between here and Earth."
I got another hmph out of Aeryn. "If we stop at every planet so you can brag, we'll never reach Earth."
"It's not bragging if you can do it, Aeryn. But at least we'll have plenty of time to plan the wedding."
"Plan the wedding? How complex can a simple ceremony be? You, me, a human priestess, and we're done. Right?"
"You have a lot to learn, Honey. This will be the first human-Sebacean marriage in history."
I saw something flash in Aeryn's eyes and quickly corrected myself. "Well, the first on Earth, anyway. And the very first one was a shotgun marriage, anyway. It shouldn't count. There should be an asterisk beside it in the record book."
Aeryn was smiling again. I smiled back. "This will be bigger than Chuck and Di's little bash. A lot bigger. Those Hollywood weddings, Liz and Dick, Liz and Dick, Sean and Madonna, Streisand and Brolin, they'll be small potatoes compared to us. We'll probably have to put bleachers in the Grand Canyon to find enough room. And you'll be a vision is white."
"White? I thought I'd wear black. It really is my color, John."
"Sorry, Sunshine. White is the traditional bride's color on Earth."
Aeryn frowned slightly. "Traditional? Well, I suppose we can find a tailor to do a white leather suit for me."
"Sorry. No can do, Sweetheart."
"Tradition again, John?"
"'Fraid so. You'll wear a floor length gown, probably with a train. A train is a length of cloth that drags behind you so you need a small girl to carry it for you."
"John, that is too much. I had enough trouble with that absurd dress you got for me on the Ancient's version of Earth. I can't possibly do anything in that outfit. What if we're attacked? What if I need to defend myself? What if…"
"Tradition, Dear. Nobody will attack you. And, you'll be wearing a veil. A sheer piece of cloth over you face. It dates from the time when marriages were arranged and the groom didn't see the bride until the wedding. That way he'd be surprised when he met his new bride."
"And if the woman looked like a Drovalian sand hog, he'd be stuck in the marriage before he found out, right?"
"You're learning Aeryn."
"I suppose I may as well wear the dress. With that veil, I won't be able to see any trouble coming anyway."
"Maybe we can use Rygel as the train bearer? Um, no. Ring bearer? No way. That'd be the last we'd ever see of the ring. Flower Hynerian? He'd eat them, sure as shooting. Rygel in charge of the reception? We'd somehow end up with nothing but Hynerian mojules to eat. Good old Spanky. Always s a problem."
Aeryn seemed very serious. "I did say that there was nothing the two of us couldn't handle, but I'm not sure about Rygel."
"My Dad will give you away, I guess."
"Give me away? I'm not sure I like the sound of that."
"Normally, the bride's father gives her away to the groom. It symbolizes the bride's leaving her old family and entering a new one."
Aeryn was staring off into space. She did have a family. A mother she met once and a father she'd never seen. I'd better keep going.
"My sisters and Zhaan and Chiana will be the bridesmaids. D'Argo will be the best man. I always expected it would be DK, but I'm afraid D'Argo gets the nod. Anyway, DK can arrange my bachelor party."
I could have kicked myself for that remark.
"What's a bachelor party?"
I know what you're thinking. Why not just tell Aeryn that a bachelor party was a little get together with the groom's friends? They had some cookies and milk and went to bed early so the groom would be fresh for the wedding. She might never find out what a bachelor party was.
You can think that because you've never held Aeryn Sun in your arms and looked into those incredible blue eyes. You've never realized that all a man could ever want in the entire Universe was right there with you.
I couldn't lie to Aeryn to save my life. I could lie to her to save her life, but that was not my current problem.
"Uhm. Well, what most people think of as a bachelor party is the groom's friends get together and they drink too much, and they have some young ladies over."
"Young ladies?" I heard a little bit of suspicion creep into Aeryn's voice.
"Friendly young ladies, sort of, Aeryn."
"Ah. Like friends of the bride. DK and your other friends would invite Zhaan and Chiana over? They'd have a little party to get to know each other?"
"No, Aeryn. I mean very friendly ladies, extremely friendly young ladies." I had to tell her. "I mean they're trelks, Aeryn."
"Trelks? The night before you marry me you're going to be with a lot of Earth trelks?"
This was not good. "No, Aeryn. That's the Hollywood version of a bachelor party. It's not much like real life. I went to two bachelor parties in Houston when we were getting funding for Farscape. A bunch of us guys went to a strip club, had some alcoholic drinks and went home."
Aeryn sounded very distant. "Strip club? And a strip club is?"
This was getting difficult. "A place where ladies dance to music and take off their clothes."
"Ladies? Attractive young ladies? Take off all of their clothing? And the men watch? This is how human males prepare for marriage?" Now she sounded offended.
"Female humans, female brides, also have parties, too, Aeryn. There are male strippers. I hope you're not telling me that Peacekeepers don't enjoy looking at attractive members of the opposite sex, cause I don't buy it. I can just see the Chippendales dancing for a bunch of female Peacekeepers. Yes, I can see it clearly, a bunch of rowdy lady Peacekeepers on shore leave. They're eyeing the guys, putting dollar bills in their underwear, shouting and stamping their feet. Hollering, "Hey baby, looking good." Don't tell me female Peacekeepers would never do anything like that?"
"Crichton, I'd never spend an evening looking at a bunch of Clydesdales dance around naked if I had you to look forward to."
"Aeryn, Clydesdales are horses and….that's very sweet, Aeryn."
I could swear Aeryn blushed, but it was dark so I might be wrong.
"Anyway, I'm not having a bachelor party, Aeryn. I'm going to lock myself in my room and go to bed at sundown. As a matter of fact, I'm going to be with you every second from the time we land until we marry. No trelks, no bars, no strippers, no bachelor party."
"Is a bachelor party traditional, John?"
"That's not the point, Aeryn. I don't want one."
Aeryn moved forward and kissed me. A very nice kiss, indeed.
"Aeryn, I said…" Well, I tried.
"It's traditional, John."
"Your best friend in the entire Universe will drink alcohol with you. Then we'll play some music."
I inhaled. "We?"
Aeryn nodded. "And then I'll dance and take off my clothes. And then you'll dance and take off your clothes."
As many times as I had admired Aeryn's radiant smile, I had never noticed just how wicked it could be.
"And if you are very, very good, Crichton, you might just get lucky."
"I already did get lucky, Sunshine."
Aeryn and I practiced a little for the party and eventually fell asleep. We needed a good nights sleep. Fat chance.
The sun peeped over the horizon like a teen-aged pervert peeking into the girl's locker room. I was awake. Aeryn was awake. Commissioner D'Ussart was awake. But Xue the gardener had pulled his last weed. He was asleep for good.
One of the police finally pulled Xue's body out of the pond where we'd met him.
D'Ussart walked over to me. "It's pretty clear what happened, Captain Crichton. Xue got into an argument with his employer and murdered him. He knew he couldn't get away with it, so he took the easy way out. Killed himself."
Really, D'Ussart was good enough to be Lieutenant Braca's assistant. "D'Ussart, are you trying to tell me he drowned himself in two feet of water?"
D'Ussart didn't know what a foot was, but he got my meaning.
"He's a Parrelletian. They have dense bones and muscles. He'd drown easily. That's the way I see it and that's the way the report is going to read."
Aeryn was kneeling by Xue. "I assume the report will explain the low power pulse pistol hole under his ear?"
D'Ussart swore and walked over to Aeryn. She obliged him by lifting the ear up and displaying a small hole.
"So he shot himself while standing in the pool. This changes nothing. I'm sure we'll find the pistol in the pond someplace."
Aeryn smiled nicely at him. "And I'm sure the resonance prints from the chakon oil in the pistol will match the chakon oil residue in the wound?"
D'Ussart balled his fists and headed for Aeryn. Then he thought better of it. I got to him just as he stopped and got between the two of them.
D'Ussart turned to me. "Don't you tell me how to do my job."
"I wouldn't dream of it, Commissioner." God, no. We'd be here until I had a long white beard.
I decided to change the subject slightly. "Did you talk to his wife?"
There was no change in D'Ussart. "Of course we did. She knows nothing. There's no reason for you to bother her."
"We'll just drop by to pay our respects."
Mrs. Essop was even more skeletal than her husband. Two little girls were crying noisily at one end of the room while two slightly older boys watched and cried silently. Mrs. Essop had a crying infant in her arms.
"Mrs. Essop, I'm Captain Crichton and this is Officer Sun. We were looking into the death of Mr. Stilicho for Counselor Madrileno. Believe me, when we find who killed Stilicho, we'll catch whoever killed your husband."
She looked at me with no expression on her face. "My husband will still be dead."
I had no answer to that. "I would like to ask you some questions, though."
"Certainly, we owe it to the Mistress."
She sent the older children out back. The infant was now in full throat.
"Here, let Officer Sun hold the baby."
Mrs. Essop nodded and I handed the child to Aeryn, who looked like I had just handed her a ticking bomb and asked her to cut the red wire.
"Aeryn, put your hand under his butt, here, and use the other hand to pat him on the back. I think he needs to burp."
From the look on Aeryn's face, my translator microbes might as well be dead. Away from Momma, Junior let out a howl of epic proportions.
Mrs. Essop was no help. Mrs. Stilicho had left with the whole household after the party, or rather had just started the party moving elsewhere. The only ones on the estate to do any work had been Xue and two of his older sons. She had seen nothing, heard nothing and knew nothing. However, she didn't think Xue had told anyone else about seeing the couple leaving after the murder. And she hadn't told D'Ussart.
Junior and I ended our conversations together. Mrs. Essop hurried past me and I saw that Junior had burped and left the evidence on Aeryn's vest. Junior went back to Momma and I asked if there was a bathroom handy. Mrs. Essop pointed to the back of the house and I hauled Aeryn off. An acrid, unpleasant odor was rising from Aeryn's vest.
I got her into the bathroom and took off her vest. I'd have to remember that trick if I could just learn to stand the smell. The goo washed off easily enough and it didn't appear that the leather had absorbed any. I held it up to my nose and decided Aeryn and I could live with it.
I turned and was about to compliment Aeryn on the view when I noticed her expression.
She noticed me staring and crossed her arms over her breasts. "I can rescue you with a Prowler or back you up with a pulse pistol, but I don't seem to be very good at this. My training makes me a good partner or comrade for you, but not a wife or mother."
"A good partner is a good wife, so you're better than you know. You just have no experience at marriage. And you did just fine with Junior out there."
Aeryn didn't quite believe me. "I did?"
"Darlin', babies eat, sleep, cry, shit and burp in about that order. You did exactly the right thing. You'll be a great mother, Aeryn. And I'll be there to help."
"Help means you'll take off my top at every opportunity, I suppose?"
"I'll happily do what I have to, Sunshine."
I held Aeryn's vest out to help her into it. She thought for a microt and then dropped her arms. I stared for a microt and helped her into the vest just before she got mad at me for taking so long.
"John, how long do children, em, do that sort of thing?"
"A human-Sebacean baby? I don't know. Human babies would need this for about two cycles, I'd guess. A couple of times a day."
"Two cycles! A couple of times a day? You're not serious."
"Aeryn, you'll be a great mother. I know."
"You'd better be a frelling brilliant father, Crichton."
We headed back to our hotel and the start of the rest of our day.
We picked up Spanky and headed for our next suspect. Serr Walso Thulamord had been Stilicho's business partner. Madrileno's rumor had it that the partners had not been getting on well.
The headquarters of Stilicho and Thulamord sprawled across a fair sized hilltop. As usual on Shan-Tilley, no part of the building was more than two stories tall and at least half the walls and ceilings were force fields. Aeryn and I were carried along by some sort of horizontal escalator, while Spanky floated behind us.
Thulamord's outer office was big enough to use as a driving range, if the occupants hadn't minded. The occupants were female, attractive, dressed to show their assets and all were blondes. From the amount of work going on, the bottom line of Stilicho and Thulamord didn't depend on any of them.
Thulamord could have been human or Sebacean, but was neither according to Madrileno's records. Serr Thulamord's antecedents were vague to say the least, but I suspected there was a Post Office wall or two in the Uncharted Territories with his picture on it.
Thulamord came out form his personal office looking happy to see me and eager to help. That was enough to convince me he was bent. He was big, but running a little to fat. Exactly like a successful gangster who didn't burn off the calories by running from law anymore.
"Captain Crichton? I'm Serr Walso Thulamord. I wish to do all in my power to help you with your investigation into the unfortunate passing of my friend and partner. How may I help?"
I motioned to Spanky. "This is my financial adviser, Dominar Rygel XVI of Hyneria. I understand Counselor Madrileno advised you have your records available for him?"
Thulamord smiled and started to take Rygel and me into the office. Then he noticed Aeryn and stopped.
"My, Captain. You certainly have a fascinating assistant. Perhaps you'd care to pick one of my aides and we could go and compare techniques?"
I almost told him to go put some moves on Aeryn, but decided that would be cruel and unusual punishment.
"Officer Sun is a trained Peacekeeper Commando. The first time she met me, she beat me up, knocked me on my butt and proceeded to ask some very forceful questions. You might have better luck, of course."
Thulamord looked at me like I was farbot and walked back into his private office.
I glanced at Aeryn and it was apparent she had heard. That didn't make my next suggestion any easier.
I walked back to her. "Aeryn, I want you to go have a little talk with Thulamord's harem."
"What makes you think they're capable of speech, Crichton?"
"I agree he didn't hire any of them for their filing skills. And, it might be in his best interests if he weeded out any of them that were smart as well as attractive."
Aeryn raised an eyebrow marginally.
"The dumber they are, the less likely they are to figure out any shenanigans the boss is up to."
"So, why should I waste my time with those trelks?"
"Because they might just let something slip that they don't understand. Or, one of them might be smart enough to say something useful. In any case, if I'm wrong, you waste a couple of arns with the shallow end of the typing pool. If I'm right, we could blow this case wide open."
Aeryn rolled her eyes. "The things I do for you, Crichton."
"And I love you for them, Sweetheart."
Aeryn had turned away quickly, but I hoped I had gotten a smile from her for that remark.
I entered Thulamord's office and noticed Rygel was gone. No. I heard the sound of chewing and belching and soon found Guido in the middle of a stack of data nodules and a collection of rapidly emptying plates.
"I thought His Eminence might need a little snack." Thulamord said helpfully. Thulamord either knew his Hynerians, or Rygel's fame had preceded us.
The next three arns were murder. Watching Rygel eat is not pleasant at any time. Watching him eat when he thinks the free feed might be stopped by the arrest of his host is like watching one of the grosser nature programs on Earth. Worse, every other word was in praise of how well organized, how clear, how precise, how well documented Thulamord's records were.
By early afternoon, Buckwheat had had enough, in all senses of the word.
He fawned over Thulamord. "Serr Thulamord, I have rarely had the pleasure of examining such a perfect set of books for a business of such magnitude and complexity. I could only wish that, on Dear Hyneria, I had had such a talented…"
I decided to break in. "Rygel, the Noble Prize for Cooking can be presented later. We have places to go."
That started Buckwheat up again. "And the snack, what perfect mojules. Where ever did you get the exploding crustaceans to go with them?"
I opened the office door in time to hear female squeals and see Aeryn heading for the door. One of the blondes was on her hands and knees depositing her lunch on the floor.
I caught up with Aeryn. "Aeryn, what happened?"
She kept walking and didn't look at me. "She had an accident. She tripped and accidentally rammed her stomach into my fist."
Happens all the time with Aeryn Sun. Aeryn had calmed down slightly by the time we got back to the street. Rygel caught up to us and announced he was hungry.
I groaned. "Spanky! You can't be hungry after what you ate."
"That? You heard Thulamord. That was a snack. I need lunch. It's almost two hours after planetary noon."
Aeryn started walking away. "There's a restaurant over here, Rygel."
Being outnumbered, I gave up. As we walked, I tried to put my arm around Aeryn, but she shook it off. She stalked into the restaurant and slammed herself down in a chair.
I decided to deal with Napoleon XVI first. "Okay, Rygel. Your take on this is that Thulamord is legitimate? He's honest?"
Rygel just stared at me for a few microts. "Crichton, I cannot imagine how someone as intelligent as you can be around me for any length of time and not benefit from it."
That threw me and it must have shown on my face. I did manage to avoid saying "Duh."
"Crichton, to keep tax records in Hyneria, I hired reasonably competent and honest people at reasonable salaries. They produced reasonably accurate records with a limited number of errors. I won't bore you with how I kept them honest. To produce perfect records I would have had to hire regiments of expensive Counselors in Law and accountants. That would have cost more money in salaries than I would have saved by the improved records. A compromise, you see?"
I nodded. I thought I could see what was coming. Suddenly, Aeryn lightly placed her hand on mine. I took her hand in mine and glanced at her. She was still too angry to talk to, but was settling down. I squeezed her hand and turned back to Guido.
"Crichton, the only reason a sane business being would have such perfect records is to conceal the fact that the records are fraudulent."
I smiled. "So Thulamord's a crook."
Spanky nodded solemnly. "I believe the human expression is that he's so crooked that they'll have to screw him into the ground when he dies. I did get a few ideas as to where, other than in his records, to look for evidence of his crime. I'll be busy at the public data base for the balance of the day."
"So, the big question is, was Thulamord stealing from his partner?"
Spanky looked like he was lost in thought. Then he burped. "Pardon, Crichton?"
"Was Thulamord stealing from Stilicho?"
"Perhaps. Given the low level of taxation the wealthy here accept, he may have been. Or both may have been stealing from smaller investors, customers, or suppliers."
I spent a few microts thinking that over. "So he had a motive to kill Stilicho. But why would he take one of his boytoys along for a hit?"
Surprisingly, Aeryn answered. "Maybe he likes blonde, female assassins, as well. Perhaps he took along a little gift to lull Stilicho's suspicions. Perhaps another blonde….Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. I don't know, John."
I decided it was time to talk to Aeryn. I hoped she had decided it was time to talk, too.
I stood up, still holding Aeryn's hand. The restaurant was designed to look like it was outdoors instead of indoors. I found a little grove of trees and walked Aeryn inside.
"What happened, Aeryn?"
Aeryn tried to glare at me, but didn't quite bring it off. "I told you, John."
I decided to wait. Only a few microts passed.
"They are dumb, John. I could hardly get an intelligent comment out of any of them. They talked about clothes, makeup, perfume, men, sex, oh, yes, and money. Some of them used words with more than one syllable."
"That usually doesn't make you mad, Sunshine."
"They talked about me."
Aeryn stared at her feet for fifty microts, or so. "The blonde I hit, Thulamord's personal assistant, said I dressed like a crewman off a tramp spaceship."
I made a show of inspecting Aeryn. "Boots, leather pants, vest, equipment belt. Yep, all there. Exactly what I'd want if I were trusting the lady wearing them with my life. Which, by the way, I do, all the time."
Aeryn still didn't look up. "She said I had no understanding of using perfume. That I smell. Like she's a Luxan."
I leaned forward and inhaled. "Prowler fluid, chakon oil, sweat from your practice area. I smell hard work, courage, discipline, compassion and love."
Aeryn looked up. She was smiling. "You and your frelling human sincerity, Crichton. I get angry enough to last an entire weeken and you make it sound like I was being complimented."
"You are, Sweetheart, by me. Did she say anything else?"
"She said the only way I could get a man would be to knock him down and sit on him."
"That approach has been known to work, you know."
"Now that you mention it, I did meet the most interesting man that way."
I leaned a little forward and put my hands on the top of Aeryn's butt. "And I'm willing to bet that no one said anything bad about your butt."
Aeryn's eyebrow rose. "Correct. And that is because…?"
"Because, any fool can plainly see that it's the most beautiful butt in the entire Universe."
I ran my hands lightly over Aeryn's butt. "And it's not just beautiful to look at. It's an absolute delight to touch, as well."
Aeryn put her arms around me and dropped her hands to my butt. "I agree. I don't want to seem conceited, but my butt is a lot nicer than yours, I think. Isn't "pudgy" a human word, John?"
"Pudgy? You're calling my butt pudgy?"
Aeryn looked very serious. "Probably just the translator microbes. But you should spend more time working out. Scientific research is all right in its place, but it won't help you fight off a bounty hunter. I could give you a little help."
We walked back to the table. The patrons were making a show of not noticing us. I presume they were thinking about the stories they'd heard about those wacky Peacekeepers, always recreating. I waited until we were in the middle of the tables and slapped Aeryn on her butt. Everyone pretended politely not to notice. As I was about to sit down with Sparky, Aeryn goosed me. Hard. Ah, those zany Peacekeepers.
Aeryn and I decided to walk back to the hotel. About halfway there, a long black ground vehicle stopped and two humanoid males got out. I did a double take. One was small and slender with brylcreemed hair and slightly protruding eyes. He was dressed in a tight, dark suit. His friend was a little larger and wore a trench-coat and fedora. I could see his pistols in the pockets of the trench-coat.
The smaller one opened his mouth to speak, but I beat him to it. "Joel Cairo and Wilmer the Gunsel, right?"
I craned my head around to look in the car. "And you have the fat man, Casper Guttman driving. How cool is this."
I got four puzzled looks for the price of one. The skinny one blinked and decided to try again.
"I'm afraid we don't know your friends, Captain Crichton. We are in the employ of Sada Bellunca. He begs that you accompany us and have lunch with him. He has information that may help in your inquiries. I would strongly recommend that you accompany us. I believe that you and he can have a mutually beneficial and highly profitable relationship"
Damn! He even sounded a little like Peter Lorre.
Aeryn broke in. "Captain Crichton and I are not going anyplace with three strangers, even if only one of you is armed. Forget it."
I gave them my best Bogie impersonation. "Yeah. You can't expect me to get into a car with your partner standing there with his gats in his pockets."
"Crichton. What do human domestic animals have to do….?"
Aeryn may not have understood the human reference, but "Wilmer" and "Joel" did. The gunsel slipped his guns out of his coat pockets and handed them butt first to Aeryn.
"Joel" smiled. "Perhaps Officer Sun would feel better if she protected all of us?"
I wondered briefly how they had known that Aeryn was the one who should handle the artillery, then nodded to Aeryn. She took both weapons and we got in the back of the car.
A half an arn later we were at Bellunca's little shack. Put it up against Hearst Castle and pick 'em. We walked past a swimming pool slightly smaller than Lake Erie just as four young ladies walked in. Between the four of them they were wearing about one bikini's worth of swimsuit. All four had long black hair and blue eyes and they smiled at me.
"Hello. You're new here, aren't you? Care to swim and relax and….."
Aeryn put her arm around me. "Mine." was all she said.
The girls looked disappointed. "You won't share?"
Aeryn smiled. "I don't share. Not him, anyway."
The girls laughed. "We wouldn't either."
We found Bellunca sitting on a terrace with a view of forest and lakes that made me ache for Earth. His lunch probably would have been too much for even Rygel. The table had enough food on it for ten or twelve big eaters, or maybe two Hynerians, but he was the only one seated. Hovering over him was a wizened old man that I took to be a butler.
"Please, Captain Crichton, Officer Sun, sit down and join me. Don't worry about Sirama. He won't harm you."
I hadn't worried about Sirama, unless he decided to die and fall on us. I looked at Aeryn. She was looking at me. We both turned to Bellunca.
"Oh, dear. You two are not from this sector, of course. How foolish of me. Sirama is a Keban Poisoner. He can excrete at least five different poisons that could kill you from where he is now without leaving a trace. His knowledge of poisons is supreme in this entire sector. I employ him because my love of food leaves me open to assassination by poison, I'm afraid. I'm always trying new recipes and new chefs."
I looked at the spread Bellunca had on his table. Then I looked pointedly at Sirama. "You sure know how to do lunch, Mr. Bellunca."
Bellunca reacted with horror. "Captain, please. I wouldn't dream of ruining a lunch by trying to kill you. That would be uncivilized. Really."
Given Bellunca's taste in women, I sat Aeryn down on the other side of me. I turned and faced Bellunca. He didn't look like someone who lived to eat, but then who would have believed Rygel could eat like a school of piranhas. He was about my height, but much thinner. He was dressed in loose white pants and a high necked white jacket. As he moved, I noticed changes in the color of his clothes.
He busied himself playing host. "Officer Sun, I have assembled a few Sebacean treats for you. I have a minaconjou roast with some banac sauce, a regrettably small bowl of talapes, grey, of course. And a rather nice sebbeno. And I've found some raslak for you. I'm afraid the Peacekeepers invariably drink a rather undistinguished vintage. I think you'll find Orrabo raslak unlike anything you've had before."
As near as I could tell her meal had your basic food groups, blue meat, grey veggies, a potatoid and a nice wine.
Bellunca looked embarrassed. "Captain Crichton. I fear that I have failed to find foods of your home world. In spite of appearances, I find that you are not Sebacean, but from a planet called Earth."
I nodded. I wondered how easy it was to come by the information that I was from Earth.
Bellunca continued in the same apologetic tone. "I had thought that my data bases had the culinary records of every planet imaginable. I was so embarrassed to find Earth is not in my records."
I grinned at him. "Don't worry. Now that you have one human here, there'll be a Starbucks on the nearest street corner before your know it. Then you'll be up to your ears in Mickey D's."
Bellunca looked at Aeryn for help, but she was too busy eating to do more than shrug her shoulders.
I found a couple of slices of bread and started working on a sandwich. I found a few slices of what looked like ham and a little cheese. A little more meat from here, and a cheese from there. A carrot tasting slab of something. A garnish of lettuce-like leaves and a bright yellow "mustard" that turned out to taste like beets. I was about to take a bite when I noticed Bellunca staring at me.
"What exactly are you doing, Captain?"
I remembered I was eating with the Uncharted Territories Galloping Gourmet. I had probably committed the local culinary sin of eating red meat with white wine or some such.
"Sorry. I'm making a sandwich."
"And that is, Captain?"
Whoa! The man never heard of a sandwich? "It's a slice of bread with meat, cheese, and vegetables, or whatever with another slice of bread on top. A man who wanted a portable food to eat while he was gambling invented it. You can't very well have a dinner plate on the card table while you're trying to fill an inside straight."
Bellunca was starting to look a little like Rygel. Talk about food and watch the eyes light up. "Interesting, Captain What system do you use to choose what meats go with what cheeses and what vegetables?"
I shrugged my shoulders. "You just go with the flow."
Bellunca had figured out by now that asking Aeryn for help was a non-starter. But, he picked up a slice of bread and began putting his sandwich together.
Finally, after a quarter of an arn, Bellunca got down to business.
"I was quite distressed to learn of Stilicho's death. His death will cost me over a million Crowns. I am not a man who enjoys losing money, Captain. And certainly not a sum like that."
I thought for a second. "I'm sure Counselor Madrileno will see to it that Stilicho's estate pays his debts. What's the hitch?"
"I have no proof of the loans I made to Stilicho. I made loans to Stilicho with no collateral other than his word and with no written records of the transactions."
I tried to figure that one out. I wasn't too sure how much a million Crowns was, but I did know it was not chump change.
"You loaned a man a million Crowns under those conditions? No offense, but that's hard to believe."
"I'm an unusual businessman, Captain Crichton. Let me explain. Let us assume that you were a businessman on Shan-Tilley, and that you do business off world, and lastly that you have a partner that is less than a perfect gentleman."
I had a feeling I knew where this was going.
"Assume you trade heavily with Upanishad, a planet rich in natural resources, and poor in the amenities of civilization. It lacks police, courts or any sort of formal government to protect the poor but honest businessman. So the businessman must hire men to enforce his rights. Men of somewhat violent natures. So if your competitor burns down your warehouse, you burn down his warehouse. And if you're smart, you put a missile into one of his ships, and throw a bomb into the bar where his crews drink as well. And you keep doing that until your competitor doesn't bother you."
I remembered Upanishad from Rygel's discussion of Thulamord's records. He and Stilicho had had extensive interests on Upanishad.
I summarized. "Okay, so Stilicho can't go to most banks and say he needs some cash for a trip to Thugs-R-Us. The banks won't want to get involved. Easier to just raise the interest rates on car loans. Stilicho needs a steady supply of ready cash to pay his goons off. So Stilicho turns to a loan shark."
"A loan shark, Captain?"
"A shark is a very dangerous Earth critter. It's a killing machine whose only byproduct are little sharks. People who loan money like you do are called loan sharks at home."
"Loan shark. I like the sound of it, Captain. I do like the sound of it."
Bellunca smiled. Not a pretty sight. "Stilicho was in a battle, a war, with his partner Thulamord for control of their company. Each was trying to steal from their mutual company for their own personal benefit. Stilicho was losing, but not so badly that he couldn't have turned it around, Captain. Stilicho had made an arrangement with a captain by the name of Fewwes. Captain Fewwes is an unpleasant, but heavily armed, gentleman, with an unpleasant, but heavily armed, ship. Fewwes had taken a dislike to Thulamord many years in the past and would be happy to avenge himself, for only a modest price. For one hundred thousand Crowns, Fewwes was going to raid a convoy and destroy or take only ships and cargo that were destined for Thulamord. It should have been enough to put Stilicho back on top."
I nodded. "Except that Stilicho's dead."
"A man in my position cannot be seen to lose money, Captain Crichton. As you are aware, there are a number of people who would be happier with Stilicho dead. I'm afraid I have no idea which one of them might have killed Stilicho. But I intend to find out. If I am unable to recover my loans from the killer, I'll certainly see to it that an example is made. Please be aware that my entire organization and its resources are at your disposal if you need them. You'll find that my organization is quite widespread and efficient."
Buried in the offer of help was the threat that if I caught the killer and was offered a bribe to look the other way, Bellunca could make payback a bitch.
We finished lunch and then piled into the car with The Maltese Falcon crew. Aeryn still insisted on carrying the pistols.
She gave me another of her patented inscrutable looks. "You're going to be insufferable, aren't you?"
"Yes, you. With your sand wedges and your lone snarks. You're going to turn the entire Uncharted Territories into another Earth. The whole sector will be talking and acting just like you."
I took Aeryn's hand. "I use Earth terms because I'm the only human in this end of the Universe. I need to remind myself that I am human, and to remember what being human means to me."
I lifted Aeryn's hand and kissed it. "And, I use Earth terms when I'm with you so you'll be comfortable with them. And so you'll remember what you mean to me. You and I are going to Earth, Sweetheart."
Aeryn looked a little embarrassed, a little happy and a little frightened.
"And the first thing I'm going to do when we get back is get you a hero."
"I have a hero, thank you, John."
"And a Dagwood for me."
"A Dagwood, John?"
"Dagwood. Blondie's husband."
Aeryn smiled. "Oh no. This isn't about blondes again? You seem to always be around blondes, somehow."
"Not me, Sunshine. I'm strictly a raven haired Sebacean ex-Peacekeeper type of guy."
Aeryn relaxed a little, put her head on my shoulder and enjoyed the ride. I noticed that the two pistols remained aimed at the occupants of the front seats.
I had our gangsters drop us off in a park a little way from our hotel.
"Come on, Aeryn. Let's take a nice romantic walk. The moons are out, the sky is clear, the city lights are beautiful, and the most beautiful woman in the Universe is with me. Life is good."
Aeryn is a born realist and usually has no use for my romantic notions. On the other hand she wants to learn about humans and she does humor me if it isn't too inconvenient. Sometimes.
I took her hand and walked slowly through the park. Suddenly, Aeryn stopped and turned to me.
"You are soooo right, John. This is so romantic. Kiss me."
She didn't give me a chance to think about it. She had her arms around me and was kissing me hard enough to make my head spin. She backed me up against a tree. She broke the kiss and nuzzled my ear.
I expected sweet nothings in my ear, but this was Aeryn Sun. "A ground vehicle started following us when we got back to town. Now, we're being followed on foot by a man who's just a little bit behind us. Follow my lead, John."
Aeryn raised her voice. "I think you like this, don't you, John." She rubbed the outside of my thigh.
"Oh, God, Aeryn. That is fantastic. How do you do that? I've never had a woman do anything like that before. Don't stop."
Aeryn giggled. I didn't even know she could giggle. "Oh, you don't want me to do this?" She moved her hand to my hip and patted it lightly.
I moaned. "Yes, yes. Do that, Aeryn. More. Aeryn you are fantastic. There's no one like you and nothing like this in the Universe, Babe."
Aeryn whispered in my ear. "The little pervoid's curiosity is getting the better of him. He's no more than five paces away, almost directly to your right."
I could just see him in my peripheral vision. I put my lips against Aeryn's ear. "I see him."
I moaned and then, "Now!"
He didn't have a chance. He went for his gun, but Aeryn pantak jabbed him and he went down in a heap. I picked his gun up off of the grass and Aeryn searched him as he started to come to. Aeryn pulled a wallet out of his coat.
"Frell." Was all she said. She handed the wallet to me and I examined it.
"Frell." That said it all for me.
"Frell." Said Senior Detective Odullo groggily, from his position on the grass.
We took Odullo on down to Commissioner D'Ussart and complained about being followed by the local flatfeet. D'Ussart threatened to arrest us for assaulting a police officer. I threatened to have D'Ussart arrested for impersonating a police officer. Aeryn had the presence of mind to call Counselor Madrileno, who managed to convince the two of us to call it a night.
We got back to the hotel to find that Pip and the rest of our friends weren't back yet. Aeryn and I headed for a quick shower and bed.
As soon as I got in, Aeryn rolled over to me and put her arms around me and held on tight.
I kissed her lightly. "How's everything, Dollface?"
Aeryn stiffened and pushed away from me. "Dollface? Why do you call me that? A doll is a miniature simulation of a human, used to teach immature female humans maternal techniques. I am not…"
I kissed Aeryn lightly again, quieting her down. "Aeryn, dolls are toys that girls play with. They are made to have beautiful faces. All I'm saying is that you're beautiful. And you are."
Aeryn pulled me close again. "All the time we're been together and we still don't understand each other."
"Darlin', I understand you well enough to fall in love with you. Isn't that enough?"
"Of course, it's just that I wish you could understand me completely. You have no idea what being a Peacekeeper was like. Not that I'm complaining, mind you. You wouldn't love me if you had been a Peacekeeper. But you have no idea what my life is like, even now, after not having been a Peacekeeper for so long. I'll always be, to some extent, what the Peacekeepers made me. And you'll never understand what I lost and what I gained."
"Honey, I've been lost in the Uncharted Territories, for cycles now. I may never see Earth again, but I have a home. I've got some idea of what you're going through."
Aeryn smiled. "No, you don't really. You were always more, John. You were never just an astronaut, or just a scientist. You were an athlete, a son, a brother, a lover, a friend. So many things. I was never anything except a Peacekeeper. I never wanted to be anything else. I never imagined being anything else. No one I knew, with one exception, even thought that more than a Peacekeeper was possible and it was certainly not desirable."
Aeryn stared into my eyes. I knew she was thinking about Velorak and wondering about me.
"When Velorak suggested I could be more, I had no idea what he was talking about. I didn't discover what he was talking about until way too late."
Aeryn smiled. "And then I lost it all. A few words at the wrong time and it was all gone. And what did I have in place of my life as a Peacekeeper? A frail, clumsy, inept, ignorant, totally lost Sebaceanoid looking man who told me I could be more. I was so desperate that I listened to him. I went with him and a band of fugitive criminals. After a few solar days, the shock wore off and I decided it made very little difference. Obviously Crais would catch us all in no time and kill us all. Or, my new shipmates would decide an ex-Peacekeeper was a crewmember they could do without and toss me out an airlock. Or, my new friend would manage to kill both of us with his clumsiness."
I had to break in. "Aeryn, what ever happened to that Sebaceanoid looking man? Did I ever meet him? He doesn't sound familiar?"
Aeryn laughed. I loved that sound. "As I recall, I kissed him and he turned into a handsome print."
"Prince, Aeryn, prince."
Aeryn kissed me. I didn't turn back into a frog.
"But things changed. When the draks took over Moya and I was dying of heat delirium, you were concerned about me. You made sure I stayed alive. I'm sure the others, then, would have let me die and been happy about it. When Namtar changed me for his experiment, you wanted to help. You wanted to fight Namtar to force him to change me back. You did fight him and won. No Peacekeeper would have done that for me. A genetically damaged Peacekeeper, let alone an ex-Peacekeeper would have been an object for contempt to them. No Peacekeeper would have asked a member of a lesser race for help, like you did with Kornata. I discovered that I found you to be interesting. More than interesting. We became friends and, briefly, lovers."
"I think we've been lovers more than briefly, Sweetheart."
I got another kiss for that one.
"But no matter what happened, I kept my distance from you. I maintained my defenses. I knew that one day you would leave me and return to Earth, where I could not go. I was, usually, content to remain friends and keep myself safe from the strange human."
I knew what was coming next. I pulled Aeryn to me.
"And one day, out of nowhere, the human was telling me that he loved me and that he would never choose Earth over me, or anything over me. He said I was his whole life. And every defense I had built up collapsed and I was completely vulnerable. More vulnerable than I had ever been in my entire life. More vulnerable and more frightened."
" Aeryn, I will never stop loving you. I will never leave you. Aeryn, you have nothing to fear from me. Not now, not ever."
"I know, I know, John."
This time she sounded like she meant it.
"But, I hate being vulnerable as only a Peacekeeper could hate being vulnerable. And I accept that fear, and hate, and vulnerability. It's a measure of how much I love you and how far I have traveled from when I was a Peacekeeper."
Aeryn pulled back a little and looked me in the eye. "If I lost you, John, if you died, I'd survive. I'd mourn you and I'd avenge you. Then I'd spend my life trying to find Earth. I'd let them know what a being they had produced. I'd do everything in my power to see to it that Earth is ready to survive in the Universe."
"Aeryn, forget it. You are not going anywhere near Earth without me. It's too dangerous."
I got the smile I got when Aeryn Sun knows she has me. "And how are you going to stop me, John? I'd only be going by myself if you were dead."
"Don't underestimate us Earpmen, Aeryn." It was weak, but the best I could do. I hated the thought of Aeryn ending up in an Earth prison.
"But if you left me, John. If you ever said, "I don't love you any more Aeryn Sun", well, I'd survive. But I could never trust anyone again. I couldn't love anyone else or allow anyone to love me. I would never be anything more than I was when we first met. I would never, ever be more. More is a man that I love and who loves me. A family, and children. Although I admit children scare me, too. More is finding out all the things I can do and be and doing them and being them. I can't be more without you, John. I know you love me. But that fear is always in the back of my mind and it always will be. The fear that I will never be more. The fear that you will leave me."
I held Aeryn as tightly as I could.
"Aeryn, you think that going to Earth is a danger to us. You think that I'll get to Earth and find millions of human women who understand me. I won't. I'm the only human who has lived in the Uncharted Territories. The only human who has lived among aliens. There are a billion things that have happened to me that have never happened to a human being. Who I am right now is more due to the Uncharted Territories than to Earth. And when we get back, I'm going to need some one who understands what happened to me out here. I'm going to need you more on Earth, Aeryn, not less. And the first thing I want to say when we get back is "Hi, it's me, John Crichton, and this is my wife, the radiant Aeryn Sun Crichton."
Aeryn hung on to me for dear life. I decided we'd better change the subject.
"Mr. and Mrs. Crichton are going to have a great time on Earth. If nothing else, I'll have years and years of my salary due me. We can have a ball."
That got Aeryn's attention. "A small, globular plaything?"
"No, Aeryn. We're going to have fun. Everything we missed doing running for our lives in the Uncharted Territories, we're going to make up for on Earth. And everything you missed as a little girl, we'll make up for on Earth."
"John, I don't recall missing anything as child."
There was no point in trying to explain that to her. "I'm going to make sure we get all of the best toys, Aeryn."
That threw her. "Toys? John, those are for immature non-Peacekeepers. We are both non-Peacekeepers, but we are adults of our species."
She stopped for just a beat.
"At least I thought we were both adults."
"See, Aeryn. You're starting to learn about Earth already. The difference between men and boys is the cost of their toys. Our toys will be skis, ski boats, scuba gear, tennis racquets and golf clubs. We'll try every sport on Earth. We'll go everyplace on Earth. Scuba diving in the Bahamas, surfing at the Banzai Pipeline, back packing in the Rockies, and white water rafting on the Colorado. We'll see every movie, every Broadway play, every concert from the Grand Ole 'Opry to Grand Opera, from Oldies to heavy metal, and we'll tip every street corner musician we see. We'll travel, all over the US, Europe, Asia, Africa. Well, maybe we'll skip the Third World and anywhere it gets hot. I'm not taking any chances with you."
Aeryn was trying to break in. "Third world? I thought you didn't even go to your moon, anymore? The Wockies? The Bonsai Pip Line? John, are we ever going to have a chance to be together?"
That stopped me. "Aeryn, the whole idea is to be together. Anything you don't like, goes right out the window. If you hate baseball and football and love croquet and badminton, so be it."
Aeryn snuggled back up against me. "I'm not saying that we can never do any of those things, because I want to do them all. But, all my life, I've had things to do that were important. And I'll have important things to do on Earth. Getting our technology explained to humans will takes tens of cycles alone. And when the first Earth interstellar craft leaves, I expect that John Crichton and I will be on it. How could we allow others to do without our expertise?"
"Aeryn, how could I not want to spend my life with you?"
We got up just after dawn. Just in time for our shift if we were still aboard Moya. Habits are hard to break. We went down to the lobby for some breakfast and found Pip waiting for us.
At first I didn't recognize her. She was wearing a bright orange dress that came to just above her knees. Over that, was a loose black duster that dropped to her ankles. On her head was a large cylindrical fur hat that looked like something out of "Dr. Zhivago." Pip had a choker of some sort of gems around her neck, sparkling bracelets and a ring that was far more understated and sophisticated than I had come to expect from Chi. She was surrounded by a group of hotel employees.
"Well, John, Aeryn. I'm glad to see you up and around. Aeryn, if you spent any more time in bed…"
"I'd be just like you, Chiana." Aeryn was developing a sense of humor.
"If you two will just wait until I leave a few instructions…" She turned away from us.
I didn't have time for this. "Pip. We don't have anything to do until we meet Mrs. Stilicho's sister this evening. Aeryn and I are going to grab a bite. We'll see you later."
Pip turned and smiled sweetly at us. "We have two places to go first, assuming, of course, you have some interest in what were trying to do here? I'll explain on the way."
Chiana turned and I glanced at Aeryn. She shrugged her shoulders.
Chiana gave her instructions. "Rawl, please see to it that the hairdresser is ready for me when I return. It should be no later than the fourth hour of the afternoon. Pem, please make sure the new blue dress is ready for me. Petka, I will be dining with General D'Argo in our suite, please see to it that, at the very least, an acceptable vintage of Luxan wine is served. Shwem, you have my suitcase and the hamper with our food for the day? I understand the food on public transport is not up to my standards and barely acceptable to Peacekeepers. "
That got a suppressed laugh from the assembled servants. I noticed they bowed or curtsied and said, "Yes, Lady Chiana." when spoken to.
Chiana turned and swept out through door of the hotel with a bevy of servants and two bemused crewmates in her wake. Awaiting us at the curb was a limousine that looked like something out of Hollywood in the 1920s. It was all waxed black paintwork and polished chrome. Shwem, I assumed, was the maid who got in front with the driver with the food. The driver put Chiana's suitcase into the trunk. Rawl opened the door and put a small footstool down for Chiana and helped her into the limo. Aeryn and I were left to climb aboard by ourselves.
The rest of the servants lined up behind Rawl, who was obviously in charge.
"Good luck, Lady Chiana. Everything will be ready for your return."
The only thing they left out was three cheers and a chorus of "For She's a Jolly Good Nabari."
As soon as we got going, Aeryn spoke up. "I see you are enjoying yourself, Chiana. Is there any real point to this masquerade?"
Chiana lifted an eyebrow and gave Aeryn a surprisingly ladylike stare. "Really, Aeryn. Mr. Stilicho was one of the planet's richest men. His wife is one of what considers itself aristocracy on this world. I was sure that the rich and well born would love to gossip about each other, but not to a fugitive from an escaped Leviathan. But they would talk to Lady Chiana."
I grinned at Aeryn's discomfort. "And who did you say Lady Chiana was, Pip?"
I just know the two of them were meeting behind my back. Chiana gave me a perfect Aeryn Sun "Frell, the human is acting human again." stare.
"John. You don't tell people you are important. Only unimportant people do that. You allow people to discover that you are really very important, but are trying to appear meek and mild."
Aeryn looked over Chiana's outfit and pointedly looked around the limo. "This is meek and mild? What would you have done if you wanted to appear noticeable?"
"Oh, Aeryn. Once you're discovered, you can only play the part the audience expects of you. People will believe anything if they think they were smart enough to pry it out of you."
I needed to get this back on track. "So, Pip. Who is Lady Chiana?"
Pip drew herself up and looked down her nose at me. "I am an ambassador from Nabari Prime. Unofficial, of course. Complete plausible deniability."
Pip was enjoying herself and obviously expected us to drag the "truth" out of her.
I decided I'd play along since Aeryn didn't look like she would. "An ambassador to?"
"His Highness, the wealthy and powerful, rightful Dominar of Hyneria, Rygel XVI. And of course to my good friend and spiritual adviser Pa'u Zhotan Zhaan, exiled head of the Delvian Seek."
"And the message to these worthies is, Pip?"
Chi smiled. "The message is the support of the renowned General Ka D'Argo, whose host of fierce Luxan troops are probably even now in the vicinity. And as it happens, I'm his mistress."
That got Aeryn's attention. "Now there's something anyone on the planet will accept without you having to force the truth onto them. Anyone close enough to your suite to be kept awake all night by you and D'Argo…."
"And, I'm the betrothed of Admiral Crichton."
Oh, yes. That got Aeryn's attention, too.
"The betrothed of Admiral Crichton? You're telling everyone that you and John are to, to, to….."
"That's right, Aeryn. Of course, it's an arranged political marriage. It ties a powerful Peacekeeper task force commander to certain Nabari factions. But, everyone knows that my heart belongs to D'Argo. And, they're quite upset about John's faithlessness. But then again, Admiral Crichton's task force could reduce this planet and D'Argo with it, to a cinder. Not a man to cross, that Mad Jack Crichton. Rawl and the rest think it's quite a tragic love affair, actually."
"Tragic, is it? I'll show you tragic, you little Nabari…."
Aeryn lunged for Chi and I grabbed Aeryn around the waist. Kind of nice actually, if you don't mind the possibility of an enraged ex-Peacekeeper turning on you.
"Aeryn, Honey, settle down. Chiana is just trying to get information. I'm sure Officer Aeryn Sun is my Special Ops officer, or something. Right, Pip?"
I should have known better. "No, actually. Aeryn is just a recreation partner for Admiral Crichton. One of hundreds, actually. That's Mad Jack Crichton for you. Love 'em and leave 'em."
I managed to get Aeryn settled down and started on Chi again.
"So where are we going and why, Chiana."
Pip smiled at me, somehow managing to exclude Aeryn. "We're taking a mag lev train to a farming town about an arn and a half from here. We're going to meet one of Mr. Stilicho's first personal secretaries."
I lifted an eyebrow. "So?"
"Ten cycles ago when Stilicho first got wealthy, I mean really wealthy, rich enough to take over the Hengst family business and marry the daughter, he had a secretary. Abri Coderra is her name. Young, blonde, very attractive, and very friendly, if you catch my drift. Very friendly to Mr. Stilicho, even after he was married."
Aeryn snorted. "Wonderful! We get to meet another Chiana."
Pip ignored her. "She had some sort of dreadful accident. No one knows anything about it, although there are lots of fascinating rumors. She left the hospital, went back to her home village and apparently never leaves her mother's house."
I nodded for Pip to continue.
"Stilicho has had nine other personal secretaries since then. All young, blonde, very beautiful and willing to do anything for the boss. And they all have no family or friends."
Aeryn laughed. "So Stilicho had a lot of little trelks to keep him happy. So what?"
Chi laughed back. "As it happens, after about a cycle, they all decided to take a job off planet. Way off planet. But no one saw them pack their belongings, it was all done by people Stilicho sent. No one saw them leave at the spaceport. They supposedly went from Stilicho's office straight to one of his ships. None of them told anyone about their new job. They just vanished off the face of this world leaving Stilicho behind with a story about how they suddenly took a job far, far away. And no one ever heard a word from one of them after that."
This was not good. "So Stilicho could have been a serial killer?"
Both women looked at me. "He's crazy. He probably hated a blonde, pretty woman and couldn't kill her, so he kills women who are like her. Over and over, until he's caught."
They still stared at me. "Okay, maybe serial killers are just on Earth. It's probably the fault of our lack of a good genetics program. But that's too many coincidental secretaries in space for me."
Aeryn stared at me. "People like that are allowed to continue to exist on Earth?"
"Unless they are useful, then we use them. Just like Captain Durka."
Aeryn blushed a little and murmured "Sorry." in my ear.
Pip had one more surprise. "But secretary number ten was only hired a quarter of a cycle ago. She is back in Shan-Tilley City and we'll see her this afternoon."
We were approaching what seemed to be a public transport station of some sort. "Two quick things I learned, John. One, Stilicho was expecting some sort extremely valuable shipment from off planet. Something that would give him the money to finish off Thulamord for good. Then, Mr. De Reuter, of Rotterdam, had made quite an effort to meet Stilicho. Said he would pay well for some sort of information, but no one knows what the information was."
We pulled up to a train. Lady Chiana, of course, had a private car. Admiral Crichton and Officer Sun traveled with her ladyship. I had half expected we'd be in steerage. Shwem, the maid, bustled in after us weighed down with food and luggage. She gave me a disgusted look as she passed me, headed for Chiana. I put my arms around Aeryn and nuzzled her ear. Shwem stared daggers at Aeryn and Chi deliberately looked away. Aeryn pushed me away. No public displays of affection for my ex-Peacekeeper.
I winked at Aeryn. "Good thinking, Officer Sun. We wouldn't want the servants noticing us."
Aeryn looked surprised for just a second. Then she gave me a wicked smile. Followed by an even wickeder kiss. Shwem looked like she would swoon.
The private car had comfortable chairs around a dining table, thick carpets, a huge picture window on one side and a large sofa at one end. As soon as we got in, the train started up. I wondered if they had held the train for M'Lady Chiana.
When we got settled, Pip asked Shwem to serve breakfast. I hoped Shwem didn't decide to poison the Faithless Mad Jack Crichton. If she did, there was probably a great country and western song there someplace. I decided to chance it and found some toast that actually tasted like Earth bread. On it went a blue jelly of some sort. This being the Uncharted Territories, it was more likely the excretions of elderly snails, but it was good. I tried a hot liquid that looked like coffee, but tasted like hot prune juice cut with old motor oil. I finally managed to find a clear citrus juice that was okay.
After a few bites, Pip insisted on changing her clothes. Shwem grabbed the suitcase and headed for what I supposed was the little alien girl's room at the end of the car. I asked Aeryn if she was okay and she mumbled something affirmative around a mouthful of food.
It took Chi a half an arn to change. When she came out she was in a blue, high waisted gown. Her hair was all done in curls and I noticed she had a black ribbon around her neck with a cameo showing the profile of a Luxan. All together, she looked like something out of Jane Austen with just a touch of Bram Stoker. After getting my approval for her new look, Pip announced that she was tired and intended to lie down on the couch and nap. Aeryn muttered something about how much time Chiana spent on her back and Shwem turned up her nose at the two of us, then turned to fuss over the poor, abused Lady Chiana.
Somehow we arrived at our destination without a servile insurrection. No limo was waiting for us, but the village taxi was there. The driver knuckled his forelock and said, "Yes, M'Lady" to everyone in sight, including Shwem and me.
Abri Coderra lived on a farm on the outskirts of town. The house was a large wooden box, but with an opaqued force field for the front wall. I stood in front and wondered how to attract the attention of anyone inside. Aeryn came to my rescue by lightly brushing the force field with her hand. Once again, John Crichton, Ph.D. was defeated by alien technology, in this case, a door bell.
I knew it was Abri Coderra as soon as a part of the force field cleared and I could see inside. She was still young, beautiful and blonde. She looked at us, but didn't say a word.
"Miss Coderra? I'm Captain John Crichton and these are my friends, Miss Sun and Lady Chiana. We're investigating the death of your old employer, Osto Stilicho, and …."
That was as far as I got.
"Get away from me! Leave me alone! Go! Get out of here!"
She looked absolutely terrified. I doubted she could have summoned the will to walk away from the force field, or even to opaque it again.
"Miss Coderra. We mean you no harm, but we…"
"If you mean no harm, why is she here?" She was pointing to Aeryn and starting to shake.
"Aeryn is a friend of mine and means you no harm, Miss Coderra." Frell, she looked like she was going to fall completely apart.
I turned to Aeryn. "Aeryn, look harmless for Miss Coderra."
Aeryn tried, but Aeryn Sun trying to look harmless looks like a very dangerous woman trying to fool you into thinking she's harmless.
"Abri? Who's there with you?" Around the house came the local version of Farmer MacGregor. This version came equipped with a scythe that was about five feet of vibrating, serrated blade. He might have been her brother, or boyfriend, or just a family friend, but he wasn't going to stand by while we tried to have a civilized conversation with Miss Coderra.
"What are you doing here? Are they bothering you, Abri?"
Abri Coderra was too frightened to say a word, which was enough for her protector. But just as he looked like he was going to wade into us with his scythe, Pip stepped in.
"Abri is sure lucky to have such a good friend as you. I wish I had someone who would watch over me."
He stopped and that was all Pip needed. It took her about two hundred microts to convince him that she was his new best friend. Add another two hundred microts and we had all we were likely to get about Abri Coderra, which wasn't much. The man was a cousin, Herv, and lived and worked on the farm. All he could say was that something terrible had happened in Shan-Tilley City that Abri was unable or unwilling to talk about. She never left the house and only rarely left her room. Money came regularly and in fairly large amounts, large amounts for a farm town, that is.
Herv walked us back to the taxi. "I'm sorry I couldn't be more help, Lady Chiana. The family has tried to find out what happened to her in the city, but she won't say a word. I even went to the city to try to learn something about two cycles after she came home. All I found out is that city police aren't friendly. One of them beat me up for hanging around the Stilicho house."
That rang a little bell for me. "You don't remember the cop's name, do you Herv?"
"Sorry, I don't, Captain. He didn't introduce himself, exactly. Is it important?"
"Probably not, Herv. Probably not." But I wondered what beat D'Ussart had eight cycles ago.
A quarter of an arn later, we were back on the train heading for the city and secretary number ten, Martsi Vohn. Pip changed again while Aeryn and I had some lunch. When she rejoined us, she was wearing a conservative, dark green pantsuit.
"We'll have to knock out a wall in Moya so you can have a bigger closet when we get back, Pip. Are you going to buy anything else we'll have to haul around?"
Pip rolled her eyes. "I don't buy these things for fun, John. Moving in Shan-Tilley society, I dress as a child of wealth and privilege. In farm country, I dress as a large landowner. And, for meeting Miss Vohn, I dress as a businesswoman. I know how to fit in to my surroundings." Chi headed back to the sofa to rest.
The last sentence had been said looking directly at Aeryn. Just briefly, I thought I saw something, maybe fear, anger or pain, in Aeryn's eyes.
I put my arms around Aeryn and kissed her cheek. "You'll fit in anyplace, Sweetheart. And I won't have to worry about bailing you out of jail at 2AM." For once Aeryn didn't worry about being seen being nice to the human. She put her head on my shoulder and relaxed.
An arn later we were back in the city. Rawl had brought the limo and bowed and scraped Pip into the back. Shwem, the maid, headed back to the hotel with the remains of the food and Pip's spare clothes.
"My Lady, I do wish you'd allow me to accompany you, or one of the others could…"
Chiana cut him off. "Really, Rawl. I'll be with my betrothed and one of his officers. You wouldn't begrudge us a little time together, would you? I'll be fine." Aeryn rubbed her hip against mine and smiled lazily at Rawl and Pip. Rawl turned red and looked like he was going to explode on the spot.
A bit later we were walking up to Martsi Vohn's home. I confidently brushed my hand against force field and drew it back in a hurry as a blue spark burned my hand.
Aeryn ran her hand over the force field. "John, you just barely have to touch the field. Otherwise it appears you're trying to force your hand in."
"All right, Missy. Just wait until you have to program a VCR."
A part of the force field cleared and I saw Martsi Vohn. She could have been Abri Coderra's little sister. I wondered what the other secretaries had looked like. I stopped worrying about it. If Stilicho had been a serial killer, it was way too late now for any justice.
"Miss Vohn? I'm Captain John Crichton. Counselor Madrileno asked me to investigate the death of your employer, Mr. Stilicho. These are my associates. May we come in?"
Vohn dropped a part of the force field and we came in. Martsi had a larger apartment than I imagined a lot of local secretaries had. All the furnishings looked first class, although I couldn't tell what some of it was. Martsi was well dressed and off hand I guessed she dressed expensively. Why not? Stilicho could afford it. Suddenly, I wondered if he recycled his gifts and felt a cold chill go down my spine.
"I'm afraid I can't help you, Captain. I was Mr. Stilicho's secretary and I was with him a lot, but I was no where near him when he, he.."
I could see she was starting to tear up and took her arm and started to steer her to a seat. Surprisingly, Pip pushed between us and sat with Martsi on the sofa.
"Mr. Stilicho must have been a great boss, I guess?"
Martsi started crying. "I know what they've told you. That I'm some kind of trelk, or something. But, it wasn't….Oh frell. You'd never understand."
Pip put an arm around Martsi's shoulder. "You'd be surprised, Martsi." Chiana pointed to Aeryn and me.
"See those two?"
Martsi looked at us and then nodded.
"John loves Aeryn and Aeryn loves John. You wouldn't believe how much those two love each other. And you wouldn't believe how different they are in some ways and how absolutely identical they are in others. But they love each other like nothing I've ever seen."
Martsi was looking at us and starting to wonder where Pip was taking this. Me too.
Pip went on. "I spent most of the last cycle being jealous of Aeryn, because I love John, too. Oh, not like Aeryn does. I love John like I love my brother. And since I know nothing can come of it, I'm very careful not love John as anything but a brother. Besides, there isn't another woman out there in the whole Universe that I'm as close to as I am to Aeryn. How could I even think of John as anything but a friend? But still…."
Martsi was still crying, but she started talking. "Mr. Stilicho's wife hated him. She despised him because he wasn't one of the aristocracy. What a joke. Our aristocracy got their estates by killing off the members of a previous colony on this planet and stealing their land."
Martsi turned to face Aeryn and me. She held her chin up and tried to look brave. "Osto loved me. Oh, yes, I know about the other women he had. Certainly he slept with other women. Who wouldn't, married to that witch of a wife? She made life miserable for those other women and drove them away. They didn't love Osto like I did. Why should they stay and be made miserable? Osto was going to leave his wife and leave the planet with me. That's why his wife murdered him."
"Miss Vohn, are you…" Aeryn was about to try to inject some reason and sanity into Miss Vohn's fantasy life. I knew Martsi would never accept that.
"Excuse me, Aeryn. But Miss Vohn, do you have any actual proof that Mrs. Stilicho murdered her husband? Were you present when she killed him? Do you have holograms? Recordings? Anything?"
I could see from he r expression she didn't. She probably hadn't even thought about proof. Mrs. Stilicho was a bitch, and must have murdered her husband. That was enough for Martsi. Being enough for Captain John Crichton, or any reasonable legal system, was another story.
"So you have no proof we can take to the police? By the way, did the police ever talk to you?"
Martsi looked confused. "No, the police never talked to me. But how can you defend her? Of course she killed Osto. Who else could have murdered the poor man?"
There were nine sets of fathers, brothers, and boyfriends somewhere in the Universe that had a motive, but Martsi would never believe that. I did tuck away in my mind the fact that Commissioner D'Ussart had failed to interview a major witness. Could he be that dumb or that incompetent, or was he playing his own game? If I was going to take up murder for fun and profit, I'd sure like a flatfoot on my payroll.
I rubbed my eyes. This was starting to give me a headache. "Mr. Stilicho had business enemies. People who play very rough. Ever heard of a planet called Upanishad? They play big boy rules there. It's full of people who'd kill Stilicho or anyone else for fun, let alone for the profit they'd get."
Surprise. Martsi hadn't thought of that. I decided to work on Stilicho's plan to dump his wife and head off for an Uncharted Love Nest with Martsi. Martsi seemed to be thoroughly naïve. She accepted Stilicho's word without anything to back it up. As far as I could tell, there was no actual evidence anywhere that Martsi was anything other than an employee to Stilicho. No love letters. (Try asking about love letters in front of three women sometime.) No holograms of the happy couple. No public meetings at a little motel on the outskirts of town with a nice register of the guests. No gifts with an autographed love note attached. Nothing. Stilicho was being a pain in the ass to me even dead.
Eventually, we said our good-byes and put Pip back into the limo for her tragic rendezvous with the romantic General D'Argo. I thought about waiting until all the hotel employees were in the lobby when Aeryn and I got back that night and carrying Aeryn over my shoulder into the hotel screaming, "Me Tarzan, you Jane." Even after I explained the allusion to Aeryn, she didn't do anymore than lift an eyebrow and walk away. I took that for a polite no thank you.
Aeryn and I took a cab to the Club Shan-Tilley. This was the hangout of the well bred, snobby and obnoxious in the City. A couple of mere Peacekeepers could never have gained entrance into the august precincts of the Club without Counselor Madrileno. Madrileno had publicly vouched for our noble birth on our homeworlds and privately threatened to hold up the inheritance until Hell, or the local equivalent, hosted the NHL playoffs. Pip's hints to the local nobility that Admiral Mad Jack Crichton could whistle up a couple of cruisers and giggle while vaporizing the Club probably hadn't hurt, either.
The Club looked like Hollywood's version of a staid English club. All elderly men snoozing in overstuffed chairs, silent butlers carrying sundowners to the thirsty and a slightly musty feeling about the whole place.
I offered Aeryn my arm. "May I escort you into the Club, Lady Sun."
Aeryn gave me one of her looks, but apparently decided I had some sort of plan that required me to hold her arm. I had no plan other than touching Aeryn Sun. A good plan under any circumstances.
The Hunter's Bar was the liveliest part of the club that I'd seen. There was actually music in the background and the funereal toned conversations were gone. I thought about really cutting loose and chuckling, but thought better of it. The bartender pointed out Bashi Hengst, but I could have picked her out of a crowd after meeting her older sister. She was younger, blonder, prettier and probably drunker than her older sister. I introduced us to the sprig of nobility. She was every bit as gracious as I had expected.
"It took you two idiots long enough to show up. I hope I won't ruin your business dealings by trying to give you some actual evidence to go with your preconceived notions."
I put my hand on Aeryn's and hoped that was enough to keep her from rearranging Miss Hengst's perfect teeth.
"Pardon, Miss Hengst?"
She replied with a very poor imitation of John Crichton doing a great Humphrey Bogart impersonation.
"Pardon, Miss Hengst? Do you think I'm stupid, Crichton?"
Stupid was not the word I'd have used, but it would have been a start. I was positive Miss Hengst would keep me from having to mention that fact by not giving me a chance to get a word in edgewise.
"Allow me to try to force a few facts on you before you give my beloved sister everything she doesn't deserve. When Stilicho first suggested to Father that he marry into the family, do you know who he suggested for his bride?"
Just a hunch, but the lovely Bashi Hengst would have either been first or second choice.
"He wanted to marry me. I'm prettier than Orda, a far better dancer, infinitely better at running a household, an excellent hostess, I know how to keep the servants in line and I'm considered quite knowledgeable of wines, both local and imported."
She stopped and seemed to be waiting for us to gasp in admiration at her skills. I made a mental note to tell Aeryn that if I ever criticized her, all she ever had to do was say "Bashi Hengst" and I'd instantly fall down and worship her. Then again, maybe a little cuddling would be sufficient instead of worshipping.
"As soon as Orda saw that Osto was interested in me, she threw herself at that man. She was disgusting. How could a Hengst have so little pride as to behave in such an unladylike manner."
I know I would have paid big bucks to see the Hengst sisters competing for Stilicho. I wondered if a poor wandering human could make a living writing soap operas in the Uncharted Territories. Dream on, John.
"She got him, of course. Do you know why she wanted him? Because she couldn't bear to be parted from our estate, our friends and our position in society. She couldn't stand the thought of giving up everything she had, even if it meant subordinating herself to that person!"
I wondered if she realized that we were wondering why little Miss Bashi had wanted Stilicho. Surprisingly, she had thought of it.
"I, of course, would have gentled Osto and turned him into a man Shan-Tilley could be proud of."
Bashi took another gulp of what I suspected was Carynthian brandy. Did this run in the family?
Bashi peered in my direction and continued. "Orda had her little revenge, of course. I am on a pitiful allowance that my dear sister makes every effort to reduce. I live in an apartment near here. An apartment! I, a Hengst. Two bedrooms, a tiny little bathroom and not even a semblance of a formal dining room. Do you know I can only afford one servant? One person to help me dress, and bathe. To cook and clean and look after my guests. Such guests as will drop by, in my reduced state."
I decided to go for the gold. "Miss Hengst. Do you have any actual proof that your sister murdered her husband."
She took another swallow and stared in my general direction. Really, she didn't miss by much. "Proof? Stilicho was about to be destroyed financially by the equally odious Mr. Thulamord. Do you know what he intended? Stilicho was going to flee the planet and take Orda with him. She'd end up living on some disgusting little frontier planet while Stilicho lorded it over some collection of pirates and thugs. Orda would never have allowed that. What more proof do you need?"
I tried to explain that my understanding of local law was that something more than a motive was needed. The concept of proof was apparently too much for her.
"Borsoff. My guests are ready to leave. Please escort them out and insure they do not return."
Borsoff was the bouncer, I suppose. Like many bouncers, he looked like he was hoping we'd try something. I wouldn't have bet on him against Aeryn, but I wasn't giving my favorite ex-Peacekeeper a chance to become offended.
After Borsoff had hustled us out the door, I turned to Aeryn and winked. "For he to-day that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile, this day shall gentle his condition."
Aeryn stopped and gave me a quizzical look. "What?"
"It's a quote, Aeryn. Hengst using the word "gentle" reminded me of it. It's about a soldier and how he feels about those who fight beside him."
Aeryn wasn't sure if I was teasing her or complimenting her.
I decided to tease. "How do you manage to dress and bathe with no maids, Aeryn?"
Aeryn looked very serious. "There is this man who tries to help sometimes, but he's usually more a hindrance than a help."
I gave Aeryn my most sincere sorrowful smile. "Perhaps he'll stay away then, if he's no help to you."
"Oh, I didn't say he was no help at all. You have no idea how useful he is when I need to undress."
"Do you at least have your own cook?"
Aeryn looked even more serious. "Certainly, John. I have a man who arranges my food cubes so they look like a face. Or at least that's what he says."
I took Aeryn's hand and we walked slowly back to the hotel.
Big mistake! Pip was stomping back and forth in the lobby with hotel employees bobbing around her like toys in a child's bathtub.
"Where have you two been? You couldn't have forced yourselves to listen to that farbot Hengst woman for a quarter of an arn. She couldn't give you an actual fact…"
Suddenly Pip stopped and smiled. "Of course, you two….That is, why shouldn't you?"
Chi had a one track mind.
"Pip, we walked back to the hotel. We like the exercise. Nothing else."
Chiana winked at us. "Sure, John. You and Aeryn are big on exercise. Who isn't?"
Aeryn took a step towards Chi. "Chiana, are you doubting John or me?"
I decided I'd better stop this. "Pip, what's up? Why are you waiting for us."
Pip gave me her "I've got a secret." smile. "I know where someone is going to be tonight. Someone you want to meet."
Right now I would have passed up the whole crew of suspects if they were presenting me a signed confession that they were all part of a vast right wing conspiracy to do in Stilicho.
Then Pip said the magic word. "De Reuter. He'll be at the Black Hole tonight."
I groaned, but I knew I'd have to go. "The Black Hole?"
Pip was enjoying this. "Only the very best people go there. Very exclusive. That is, you have to have a lot more money than brains or at least be interesting."
"Which are we, Pip?"
"Both, John. We're both. And we have a reservation in the central bar. THE place to be."
I took Aeryn's hand. "As the great human writer Jean Paul Sarte once said, "Let's went, Cisco."
Aeryn started to pull away. "I'll stay here, John. You'll want to talk about Earth and I'll just get in the way, asking questions all the time. Not understanding anything."
I moved us a little away from Pip. Pip, wisely, decided to closely examine a painting on the far wall. "Aeryn, I need you with me. You know I do. Earth without you is unthinkable."
Aeryn stared at her feet for fifty microts, or so. "Suppose he doesn't like me? Suppose he feels humans shouldn't…..be with non-humans?"
"If he thinks that, he's an idiot. I believe you've told me once or twice how many idiots Earth has produced. How many high quality idiots we'd have needed to build a bucket of dren like my module. How many idiots we'd need to….."
"All right. All right. I'll go, John." Aeryn didn't look happy about it, but she'd go for me.
Aeryn smiled at me. "If he talks like you, I'll need to see if I have to breed some much stronger translator microbes."
"Aeryn, have I told you lately that I love you?" I kissed her on the cheek and she turned so I ended up kissing her lips.
Pip saw all was well and whistled up a crowd of servants. Two maids fussed over Chi, who was in a long, tight black dress and enough diamonds to finance an African revolution or two. A maid brought Aeryn's long black leather coat and Rawl brought mine. Rawl helped me into it, twitched the collar of my vest around and fussed over me for a few microts.
"Excellent, Admiral Crichton, Sir. And Lady Sun is stunning."
We were hustled into the hotel limo and were on our way.
"Okay, Pip, what has Rawl discovered all by himself? With no help from you?"
Pip was the picture of injured innocence. "Oh, that. He discovered that I had confessed my love for D'Argo to you and broke off the engagement. Amazingly, you turned out to be in love with Aeryn. Who turns out to be Lady Sun, a member of a powerful Peacekeeper family, and a brilliant scientist, tactician and test pilot. Her defeat of the Scarrens on the Royal Planet is the stuff of legends. Not to mention…."
I had to laugh. "Pip, you have a future on Earth, too. Either advertising or writing for soaps."
Aeryn broke in. "Just don't get too friendly with a particular human."
"Aeryn, I told you and Martsi Vohn how I feel about John. I meant every word of that."
Aeryn grinned. "I'd accept that, if it wasn't for that dren about you being closer to me than any other woman in the Universe."
Pip suddenly looked hurt. Even Aeryn noticed it.
Aeryn was starting to catch on, but this wasn't her strong suite. "Er, that is Chiana, I mean, you said, well, I thought…."
My turn. "Pip, you know both Aeryn and I are your friends. Always will be, too."
Pip gave Aeryn a slight grin. "Everyone I knew on Nabari has squeaky clean minds by now. The people I knew when I was running with Nerri are dead, or have forgotten me. That leaves you and Zhaan. Don't get me wrong, Zhaan is great, but she's trying to be my mother. That won't work. And that leaves you."
Aeryn did her best. "Chiana, you are my shipmate and my comrade, and I suppose we are friends, of a sort. In spite of the fact that I'm angry with you more often than anything else." Aeryn glanced at me," I'm not very good at this yet, am I?"
Chi grinned at Aeryn. "Sort of like you and John in the beginning, right? I hear you couldn't stand him. Thought he was hopelessly deficient. Who knows, we'll probably end up best friends in the whole Universe."
Chi rattled on. Aeryn leaned her head on my shoulder. "I never thought you were deficient. Maybe a bit slow, but that was only to be expected. I may have used that word, but…."
I kissed her. Who wants to listen to the woman you love try to explain away that she started out thinking you were the village idiot looking for a bigger village?
The Black Hole was well named. Everyone seemed to go in and no one came out. It was jammed with people of every type the Uncharted Territories had to offer. There was a band at each end of the room. One seemed to be composed of electric tubas and the other of some sort of a torture chamber for cats. Both gave me a headache. Pip walked us to the Central Bar, which was right between the two bands.
Aeryn yelled in my ear. She didn't look like she was having fun. "Do they have anything like this on Earth, John?"
I yelled back. "'Fraid so, Sunshine. But I'll start you off easily. How about a Righteous Brothers concert for starters?"
"I thought you had sisters?"
I put my arms around Aeryn and started humming the tune of "Unchained Melody". In the corner of my eye I could see Chi heavily tipping the bartenders and waitresses and pointing me out to them. I hoped she'd find De Reuter for me soon, before I went deaf.
Five arns later, Chi had seemingly talked to everyone in the place and no one had seen De Reuter. Pip was settling in for the night. I was tired and Aeryn looked like she was planning the mass murder of the bands. I said my good-byes to Pip and headed for the door with Aeryn. We almost made it.
"Have a drink, Peacekeeper. When Captain Gullhy Fewwes drinks, everybody drinks." I had a drink pushed into my hand by a short muscular humanoid with an ear to ear smile.
"Go ahead. It's Sebacean ale. Nothing but the best for Gully Fewwes' friends."
The name finally made an impression on my brain. "Captain Fewwes? You wouldn't be doing a job for Osto Stilicho, would you?"
Fewwes emptied his glass. "I don't talk business while I'm pleasuring, friend. I'll be happy to talk to you tomorrow if you need something. You are?"
"Captain John Crichton. I'm investigating Stilicho's murder for Counselor Madrileno. I hear you were paid to do a little job for Stilicho. I'd like to talk about that."
Fewwes motioned to the people around him. About five unpleasant and obviously armed men edged closer to Fewwes. "I don't talk about clients. Not ever. You've had your drink, friend. Now you should leave."
The next thing I knew, Aeryn was on top of me and I was on the floor. There was a moment of silence followed by pandemonium. Fewwes' bodyguards had their guns out and were spraying a balcony on the other side of the bar with pulse weapon fire. They headed across the dance floor screaming, shooting and pushing people out of the way. I saw a few yellow bolts zoom past them from the dance floor area. It looked like the Black Hole was about to experience it's first fire fight.
I looked back at Fewwes. He was sprawled across a table with a fair sized smoking hole in his chest.
Aeryn yelled into my ear over the din. "John. Someone above us shot Fewwes. It looks like Fewwes' bodyguards have started a fight with everyone in the place with a weapon. Follow me."
Aeryn and I crawled out of the bar and made it out to the street. Chi was standing by the limo looking calm, cool and collected. Three truckloads of cops arrived while we stood around like the innocent bystanders we were.
"John, you and Aeryn take the limo back to the hotel. I found a interesting group of people."
Chiana was gone before I could ask her a single question.
Within fifty microts Aeryn was asleep and snuggled up against me. She was still asleep when we got to the hotel. I slipped my arms under her shoulders and knees and lifted her up. She woke instantly.
"I'm perfectly capable of walking, John."
"I know you are, Sweetheart. I just enjoy doing this sort of thing."
She thought for a few microts. "All right. As long as you don't make a habit of it."
I carried Aeryn to our room and got her out of her clothes and into bed. I joined her, and within microts we were both asleep.
We got up late the next morning and went for a late breakfast. We joined Rygel and Zhaan at a table. We found out from Zhaan that Pip hadn't come back yet and D'Argo had gone after her. That was about all I needed. D'Argo and Chiana in a Texas Cage Match right here on WCW. Sometimes I wondered if my life wouldn't be easier with Scorpy.
Rygel was surrounded by data cubes, plates, data crystals, platters, data strips, bowls, data readers and lots, and lots, of food. He was staring intently at data scrolling by on a screen on some sort of a machine. I couldn't make heads or tails of the data.
"Found anything on Thulamord, Asta?"
Rygel ignored me and concentrated on the data flashing on the screen. Finally, the screen went blank and a bowl of wriggling worms slid out in front of Rygel.
Rygel finally noticed me. "That idiot chef couldn't cook banta without killing the worms. Can you think of anything more disgusting than eating banta with dead worms?"
I watched Rygel wolf down a handful of writhing worms. "Eating banta at all comes to mind."
Rygel snorted. "I may take pity on you poor, uncivilized humans and incorporate you into my Empire. The culinary benefits to Earth, alone, would mark me as a most enlightened Dominar."
Aeryn snorted back at him. "I'd suggest you equip yourself with an army that can outfight an ex-Peacekeeper if you plan on taking Earth. And right now, you have no army."
I can't ever remember seeing a sci fi movie that featured aliens invading Earth to bring humans disgusting food. The thought of Earth defended by Aeryn Sun was certainly high concept, though.
"Rygel, I need to know if you've found anything out about Stilicho and Thulamord. Especially if Thulamord was robbing Stilicho blind."
Rygel polished off the last of the worms. "I have nothing that would be considered proof, even here, but I'm certain that both Stilicho and Thulamord were robbing their own company. The only question was which one would steal the most and end up stealing the whole company from the other. Thulamord seemed to be the more talented thief, but there is evidence that Stilicho was getting ready for some legal, and not so legal, maneuvers that would need a lot of money. And there are rumors that he was expecting the money soon."
Rygel got a faraway look in his eyes. "I wish Chiana were here. She lives and breathes thievery. Think of what she could be with the proper tutors, equipment and a positive role model."
"The mind boggles, Sparky."
Aeryn and I lazed around the hotel until after lunch. Then it was into the limo and off to the hunting lodge where Brata Hengst, loving father-in-law of the dear departed lived. After an arn's ride through amber waves of grain we got to the purple mountains and eventually arrived at the hunting lodge. It was a great, rambling pile of rough hewn logs and stones, and about the size of the Titanic. Surprisingly, there were no walls or windows made of force fields. I knocked on the door and Godzilla answered. It spoke, so it wasn't our friend from Tokyo, but he was close.
"That's me. In the flesh."
He frowned. "Where else would you put your flesh?"
I decided enlightening him would be no fun. "We're here to see Mr. Hengst. Counselor Madrileno set up the appointment, I believe?"
Godzilla moved away from the door and we walked in to a hallway.
"Wait here. I'll tell him you're here." Godzilla turned and lumbered down the hallway. I expected him to spit fire or at least crush a train, but no luck. I turned to find Aeryn working on a door lock.
"Aeryn. You've been around Pip too long."
I heard a click and the door slid back. Aeryn ignored me and walked in. What could I do? I followed her. In the center of the room was a huge stuffed animal. It had eight legs, long red fur, a set of curved horns on its head and a set of teeth that didn't make me think it was a vegetarian. Body parts from equally ugly critters adorned the room. Aeryn's attention was drawn to a large, well-filled weapons rack at the far side of the room.
"I thought I smelled chakon oil." Aeryn pulled a rifle out of the rack and started to inspect it.
"Aeryn! Hengst isn't going to appreciate this."
She ignored me. "Stilicho and Fewwes were killed with a heavy pulse rifle. Something like a weapon you'd use on a beast like the one in the center of the room. These have been cleaned recently. All of them. Either Hengst is very careful with his weapons or he didn't want someone wondering why a heavy pulse rifle was recently cleaned and start trying to match resonance prints from the deceased with the chakon oil in these weapons."
I put myself between Aeryn and the door. "I know someone whose idea of fun is to clean her weapons. Maybe Hengst is the same."
"You know someone who works very hard at being ready to protect the man she loves when he does something foolish. If I didn't work so hard, which doesn't seem to be appreciated, Hezmana knows what would have happened to you by now."
I put my hands on Aeryn's shoulders and blew lightly on her neck. "I thought I showed my appreciation at every opportunity. Perhaps later you can…."
I jumped when Godzilla snarled at us from the doorway. "He'll see you."
Aeryn put the rifle back and we followed Godzilla down the hall. Hengst was sitting on a balcony overlooking a stretch of forest. He didn't look happy to see us. And, he didn't look any older than I did. I'd never get used to the long lifespans out here. Other than that, he was a distinguished looking man with a blonde goatee and yellow eyes. He was well muscled and fit. He looked like a big game hunter and, to me, he looked like a killer.
"So, what do you two want?"
Ah, direct and to the point. "I'm Captain Crichton and this.."
"I know who the frell you are and I couldn't care less. I want this nonsense over with and the two of you out of my frelling life."
Ah, the discrete charm of the old aristocracy. If Godzilla hadn't been hovering nearby, I would have liked to take some time aggravating M'Lord Hengst.
"So, how about telling us what you know. That shouldn't take long."
He either missed the insult or didn't care. "I despised my son-in-law and everyone knows it. I'm happy he's dead and everyone knows it. I haven't left the hunting lodge in over a quarter of a cycle and the whole staff can vouch for that."
Well, with Godzilla standing by, I'd testify to anything that the boss wanted.
"Now, if you two will get out of my house, I'll.."
Aeryn cut him off. "Who has access to the weapons in this house?"
Hengst gave her a nasty smile. "Like the one you were handling in the trophy room? The security system makes sure no one has access without my permission. And you needn't ask, because no one has had my permission to use the weapons for over a cycle. Now if you two will leave, I can get back to my life."
We got back to the hotel and found that Chiana and D'Argo were deep in a loud discussion over their relationship. We quickly decided to leave before D'Argo reached the hotel room trashing stage. I made a mental note to thank God, or who ever, for Aeryn. Zhaan was meditating and Rygel was almost comatose from over eating. He did manage to moan that he'd gotten no further in his investigation of Stilicho and Thulamord, A Criminal Conspiracy. Aeryn and I ate an early dinner and went widow shopping. Shan-Tilley was short on used Prowler dealerships or public firing ranges, so Aeryn got bored early. I could have walked around the city all night, but going home with Aeryn Sun has its advantages.
Aeryn slid into bed with me and nestled nicely in my arms.
"Aeryn, we've seen all the suspects and I don't have a clue whodunit. Do you have any ideas?"
Aeryn looked like she was surprised I'd ask and then looked pleased I had. "No. Anyone could have killed Stilicho."
"Fortunately, I do my best thinking in bed with you like this."
Aeryn promptly moved to the middle of the bed.
"Hey, what gives, Aeryn."
"I know what kind of thinking you do in bed with me. We'll never solve this that way. Perhaps, I should move to a different room, John. We can discuss this over our communicators."
"That'll never work. I can feel my mind starting to fail now from lack of Aeryn. The victim is a Mr. Silly Cow? No, that's not it. Swill Coo?"
Aeryn rolled her eyes and moved back into my arms. I hugged her. "There we go. I almost have this solved, Aeryn. All you have to do is stay right there."
"I thought Earth communications kept everyone up to date on criminal activities. Shouldn't you be able to solve this with all the training you've had?"
"Aeryn, watching the World's Most Dangerous Police Chases, or the World's Dumbest Criminals, or even old Humphrey Bogart movies is not exactly training for criminal investigations."
"All the talking you did about those southern mice.."
"Aeryn, that's Miami Vice."
"Whatever. All that time you spent studying those, and you learned nothing?"
"Well, I did learn the murderer is the last person you suspect."
"Of course it is. After you've caught the killer, why would you go on and suspect someone else?"
"An ex-Peacekeeper with a sense of humor is not going to solve the mystery, either."
I spent some time stroking Aeryn's hair and getting my thoughts in order.
"Our first suspect is Mrs. Stilicho. She despised her husband and may have been worrying about her hubby going broke and having to leave the good life behind. According to Madrileno, she inherits virtually all of Stilicho's wealth. And I think Mrs. Stilicho is the last person who'll learn to love virtuous poverty."
Aeryn disabused me of that notion. "I'd say her sister and father are as interested in keeping the family wealth as Mrs. Stilicho. I'd guess that even if Mrs. Stilicho only did inherit, the father and sister would have a better chance of getting some money out of her that they would from Stilicho."
I thought about that for a while. "Okay, maybe all three are guilty. Dad pulls the trigger, Sis goes along for moral support and the Widow Stilicho arranges an alibi for herself. Then they can split the pie."
Aeryn then managed to demolish her own argument.
"Most of which is rapidly being stolen by Thulamord, John. I think Mrs. Stilicho and her family love money more than they hated her husband. Her husband was the one person who could out steal Thulamord. I can't see Mrs. Stilicho or her sister stopping Thulamord. Her father couldn't stop Stilicho originally. I'm not sure Mrs. Stilicho would allow it to happen and I don't think her father and sister could have killed Stilicho without his wife's help. They had to have had help getting past the security system."
"I'm not sure she's smart enough to think that way, Sweetheart. She hated her husband, so kill him. Instant gratification. "
Aeryn's lips brushed mine. "You just don't know how ruthless and cunning women can be when something important is involved."
I kissed her back and then broke the kiss. "Who's getting off the track now?"
Aeryn moved back a little and assumed a serious look. "How about the gardener, Xue?"
"Xue?" I hadn't seen him as anything but a victim and told Aeryn so.
"He loved his mistress enough to go out every night and pick flowers for her for tens of cycles. If Stilicho abused her, cheated on her, don't you think Xue would be angry?"
"Then who killed Xue?"
Aeryn thought for a few microts. "Maybe D'Ussart was right. Maybe Xue did kill himself after the murder. If his honor demanded that he kill Stilicho, perhaps it would demand he pay the price for that killing."
I saw the hole in that story immediately. "And he was clever enough to shoot himself and then hide the weapon?"
Aeryn sealed the hole. "His wife. She doesn't want the family blamed for the death of Stilicho. She still has the children to worry about."
Frell. That made sense. Another suspect added to the case. "Okay, do you think Xue did it, Aeryn?"
"Me neither. That brings us to Thulamord. If he was winning the battle to take over Stilicho and Thulamord, he had no reason to kill Stilicho. But, if Stilicho had a big hunk of change coming, maybe Thulamord decides to settle things permanently. Thulamord has the stones to do it and the brains to do it so there are no obvious clues for us to find."
Aeryn thought some more. "So Thulamord, as a suspect, depends on who was most successful in stealing the company assets. And that answer depends on Rygel 's abilities to penetrate both men's cover stories."
We said it together. "We can't depend on Rygel."
"That brings us to our untrustworthy loan shark, Bellunca. If Stilicho thought he was going to lose and was going to split town with everything that he could carry, Bellunca might have had him killed to make an example of him. Nobody runs out on the Bellunca Loan Shark Company and lives. It makes a snappy jingle for your ads."
"That probably makes sense, but whether Bellunca has a motive depends on how Stilicho was doing in the looting of his own company."
"Worse than that, Sweetheart. It depends on how the murderer thought Stilicho was doing."
Aeryn moved on to the next suspects." Abri Coderra and the family and friends, if any, of the other nine missing secretaries?"
I shook my head. "Abri doesn't look like she could kill time, and her cousin Herv doesn't come off as the cold blooded killer type. Besides, if he's the killer, who was the blonde woman that left with him after the murder?"
Aeryn smiled. She was starting to enjoy this. "So, we've decided that the male and the blonde who left after the murder are the killers?"
I thought about that for a while. "Most likely. Okay, it could be a maid and her boyfriend sneaking off to make some whoopee. I've never been able to figure out why all the house staff was given time off. It may be important, and the fact that De Reuter was supposed to be there may be important, but I can't figure it out. It's the same with the possible avengers of the secretaries. They all may have had fathers, brothers, boyfriends, but we can't find any of them."
"John, what would a maid and her boyfriend do with whoopee once they had made it?"
I slid my hand under Aeryn's tee shirt by way of reply. She almost let me get away with it before she pushed my hand away.
Aeryn got us back on track again. "Martsi Vohn, the current secretary?"
I shrugged. "What's her motive? She loved Stilicho. And she gets no money out of this. I have a gut feeling that the answer to this one depends on who gets the biggest payday out of Stilicho's death." I'd remember that line much later. Sometimes I even amaze even myself.
"Hmmm. Jealousy? A woman in love can be very unforgiving if her man strays. We know Stilicho didn't love Martsi. If she finds out, she might be mad enough to do anything. If one of Stilicho's enemies found out, Martsi could have been talked into letting the killer into Stilicho's estate. That would explain the blonde and man leaving after the murder."
"But we still don't know who the killer might be. Martsi would have known enough about Stilicho to know all of his potential killers. By the way, you do know Chiana means nothing to me, right?"
Aeryn positively purred and kissed me. "You are the last person who'll have to worry if it comes to that, John."
I decided I felt marginally reassured about the fact that Aeryn would leave me alive if she ever thought I had cheated on her.
Best to get Aeryn back on the subject. "Grandpa Munster and Little Orphan Annie?"
Aeryn was getting good at this. "The Hengsts? Motive, maybe the opportunity and a weapon. Personally, I have a bad feeling about them."
Interesting. Aeryn wasn't one for hunches, a far too human concept. "Anything you can put a finger on, Sweetheart?"
"Not a thing, John. Sorry. How do you think Captain Fewwes fits into all this?"
Another question I hadn't expected to be on the final. "Fewwes was supposed to be an old enemy of Thulamord. And was doing business, monkey business, with Stilicho. But, anybody with that many bodyguards has a lot of enemies. I don't know if his murder is connected. Somehow, it seems like it should be, but I just don't know, Aeryn. "
I rolled over and stared at the ceiling. Hezmana knew I'd never get any thinking done if I looked at Aeryn, even if she was my favorite thinking partner. After an arn of fruitlessly trying to make sense out of what I knew, I turned to Aeryn. She was, sensibly, asleep.
We awakened later than usual and eventually strolled downstairs for a late breakfast. D'Argo and Chiana were occupying opposite ends of the dining room. There was a distinct chill in the air between them. Their battle last night had not led to a joyous rekindling of their love. Rawl and the rest of the hotel staff were beside themselves with grief over the tragic end of the romance of fair Lady Chiana and gallant General Ka D'Argo. For once, I didn't seem to be getting blamed by anyone for anything. I wondered how long that would last.
Eventually D'Argo came over to us. He slumped down in the chair and growled at me.
I decided to test my newfound blamelessness. "So, how is it going, D'Argo?"
"John, I will never understand that woman. When I finally found her last night, she was…"D'Argo seemed to notice Aeryn for the first time. I had noticed he seemed to have more than his share of problems with "guy things" in front of Aeryn. Why, I had no idea. He finished lamely, "..she was being unladylike."
Aeryn naturally jumped right in. "Chiana is often unladylike, D'Argo, but what seems improper to warriors such as us," Aeryn was nice enough to gesture around the table to include me in the warrior convention, "is quite normal for a Nabari who spent her formative years living by her wits."
D'Argo shot to his feet before Professor Sun could lecture any further on Nabari mating habits. "John, Aeryn, there is a Jase temple here that teaches the unarmed combat techniques of the famed Krait Masters. I wish to study those while we're on the planet. Excuse me." Like that he was gone.
Aeryn turned to me. She looked confused. "I'm not doing too well at being Chiana's friend, am I? I was trying to help D'Argo put Chiana's shoes on."
I love Aeryn. I love Aeryn. I love Aeryn. I just have to keep that in mind. "Help him stand in her shoes, Sweetheart. But reminding him that Chiana has probably slept her way through the Uncharted Territories isn't going to help."
Next up, Lady Chiana. She was bearing up bravely to the tragic end of both her arranged marriage with good old Admiral Mad Jack and now the loss of General Ka D'Argo. Pip quickly scanned the room to make sure she was the center of attention. She was. She leaned over us and in a stage whisper audible through out the room, sobbed, "You are so fortunate, Lady Sun. May the Goddess bless you both." She swept out of the dining room, a tragic, lovelorn figure, having the time of her life. Rawl and the rest of the servants followed her out.
We found Rygel parked behind a stack of plates. He advised us that he had no luck in deciding who had been winning Stilicho vs. Thulamord. He did tell us that Zhaan was deep in a philosophical discussion with a priest from a highly carnivorous race. Aeryn and I decided we could skip that one.
This left me sitting on a balcony with a very decorative ex-Peacekeeper and without a clue. Everyone I knew about had a motive and probably the opportunity. Better yet, the missing secretaries provided the possibility of suspects I didn't know existed. Sonny and Rico never had this problem.
Dinner came and went and I was still alone with Aeryn on the balcony. And I had no idea what to do next.
Rawl came up to me with what looked like a small microwave oven. He probably wanted to make Lady Chiana's favorite food and needed some recipes from he ex-fiancée.
"Admiral Crichton, Sir?"
"A Miss Martsi Vohn for you, Sir." He placed the microwave down beside me. I suddenly got the idea. It was a phone. Okay, John, you can figure out how to talk on the phone. You're a big boy.
I stared at the phone. The phone did nothing. I stared at Aeryn. Aeryn did nothing. Aeryn stared at me. I did nothing. Aeryn smiled at me.
"Need help, Admiral? Blonde problems?"
I tried to look appealingly helpless and suavely macho at the same time and failed miserably. Aeryn put what looked like a spoon in my hand and tapped the top of the phone. Martsi Vohn appeared on the screen.
I spoke into the spoon. "Yes, Miss Vohn."
"Are you alone, Captain?"
This was interesting." Of course." I lied . "Why do you ask?"
She lowered her voice. "I'm at the Stilicho estate. I've found something that….I don't want to talk about except in person. Can you come over here now?"
"Certainly. I'll get Officer Sun and be…"
"No. Please, come alone. I've found something…something that might mean that Osto…. didn't love me. It may mean nothing, but after everything I said about how Osto felt about me….He may have had another lover besides me, but …I don't want anyone to know. Oh, Frell."
She started crying. "I'll open the security system for you, Captain."
The screen blanked.
Aeryn smiled. "This may be a break. Are you ready?"
"I am, but you're not. She said alone. She's a very unhappy young lady who's just found out that Stilicho was a rat with a capital R. Besides, one thing we're sure of, Martsi Vohn didn't kill Stilicho. She might have been involved, but she's no killer. I'll be okay, Aeryn."
Aeryn looked like she was about to unload on me and I braced myself. Then she reached behind her web belt and pulled something out.
"Here, carry this just in case."
I took it. It was a triangular rock. "You're giving me your pet rock?"
Aeryn didn't bat an eyelash at the human reference. "It's a pulse pistol. It's made out of ceramics, mostly, so it won't get picked up on a security scan. Hold the large end and point the small end and push anyplace on top and it'll fire. There are no sights, but you can't hit anything you can't touch with the barrel when you fire anyway, so you should have no problems."
"Thanks." I kissed Aeryn.
She kissed me back hard. "Don't you dare get hurt, Crichton."
Love will do strange things to you. It can turn a meal of food cubes with the woman you love into a feast. It can freeze your heart when a pulse pistol blast misses her by a hair's breadth. It can give you the greatest joy and plunge you to the depths of despair. It can make you panic over the most trivial events. And a simple grin from the right woman can make your day. Frell, it can make your whole life. It can confuse you. It can elate you. It can worry you. It can run you through every emotion you ever had and make you find a couple of new emotions. Love can be heaven on Earth and it can be the depths of Hell. Love has done all this for me, and much more.
Love left Martsi Vohn lying face down on a marble floor in a darkened mansion with her head in a pool of blood. I pulled Aeryn's pistol and knelt beside her. She was dead. I heard the soft scrape of a shoe behind me, but I was too late. I felt the pistol in my back and froze.
"Very good, Captain. Now don't move."
She took the pistol out of my hand.
"On your knees with both hands on your head, fingers interlaced. Now!"
So what else could I do?
There was a little light, so I could see Mrs. Stilicho when she moved in front of me, staying far enough away from me to stay safe. I let out a laugh when I saw her accomplice.
"I was right. Oh, boy, was I ever right. The murderer really is the last person you'd ever suspect. Who'd suspect Osto Stilicho of his own murder?"
Stilicho laughed with me, or maybe it was at me. "Very good, Captain. I was despairing of you ever solving this murder. So I've had to help you solve it, I'm afraid."
I nodded towards Martsi's body in front of me. "Did you have to do that to help me?"
Mrs. Stilicho laughed. It was not a nice laugh. "You wouldn't deprive me of my fun, would you? Not that Martsi provided me with the fun I'm used to."
Sure, drop a king sized piece of a puzzle on me and I'll find where it fits, sooner or later. "It was Mrs. Stilicho. Stilicho never had any trouble with disappearing secretaries until he got married. And Abri Coderra didn't panic at the sight of me, she was afraid of Aeryn. How could I have missed that one."
Stilicho put his arm around his wife and smiled. "I always found it entertaining to see just how much emotional and physical pain I could put these little trelks through, once they were convinced we were in love. But, to my surprise, I found my wife was able to take pain to new heights."
Mrs. Stilicho returned her husband's smile. "I really didn't appreciate my husband until I discovered his little hobby. I was fascinated at how much those women would put up with willingly. But I was curious how much they could take, unwillingly. I never appreciated how erotic absolute power, the power of life and death, was until I married Osto. Of course, my first attempt was not completely successful. Abri lived, but she was so terrified of me, she never bothered us. The money kept her and her family quiet and I could imagine her spending her youth, growing old, still terrified of me. I did better with the rest."
What a pair. "We Peacekeepers have a saying. All power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely."
They laughed. " I couldn't agree with you more, Captain. My wife and I find corruption enchanting."
Mrs. Stilicho leveled her pistol at me. Mr. Stilicho continued. "I'm afraid it's time for you to die Captain. It'll all be quite simple when my wife explains it to the police. Martsi fell in love with me and became insanely jealous of my beloved wife. When I told her I didn't love her, she killed me. Then she determined to murder my wife. Fortunately, the valiant Captain Crichton suspected Martsi and followed her here. Martsi confessed this to my wife and then the good Captain confronted Martsi. Both Martsi and you died in the gunfight, leaving only my poor widow alive to tell the tale."
I had to admit to myself that the story would convince D'Ussart. Of course, D'Ussart would believe Mrs. Stilicho if she said the Easter Bunny did it. I had a small hope. The Stilicho's liked to brag. If I could keep them talking about how smart they had been, they might let down their guard long enough for me to try something.
"Can I ask a question? You were losing to Thulamord, right? That's why you killed Captain Fewwes. He double crossed you."
Stilicho took the bait. "Very good, Captain. Yes, Thulamord had put me in a very difficult financial position. But, my people had been skimming the very best gemstones from our ice mines on Loovoo for cycles. I had built up a considerable stash of stones. All I had to do was get them past Thulamord's people at the mines, and I'd have enough money to seriously weaken him. If Fewwes had raided Thulamord's convoy, the financial damage to Thulamord would have been fatal. But Fewwes was more greedy than I had imagined. He bypassed Thulamord's ships and captured the ship I had my gems on. Financially, I was finished. "
I nodded. "So, your plan didn't work and you had to run. Where did you get the fall guy?"
They looked blankly at me. "No one fell, Captain."
"Sorry, old Peacekeeper slang. The guy who died for you, he's the fall guy."
Stilicho smiled at me. "I'm almost embarrassed to tell you this, Captain. He died because I panicked. When the engines on my yacht failed, I naturally suspected sabotage. If my personal security had been penetrated so badly that an assassination attempt had nearly succeeded, it meant my people had decided Thulamord had won and would sell me out to try to save themselves. I could trust no one. I had to flee immediately."
"So, you had a double ready to die for you?"
"Dear Martsi found him about a half a cycle ago. He looked vaguely like me, and with some surgery, he was made to look identical. He was used to take my place so that Thulamord would be looking for me in one place while I was actually in another. The idea of killing him didn't occur to me until you brought me back to this planet. A bit of inspired improvisation, I'd say."
Stilicho was enjoying himself. His wife was looking antsy about leaving me alive for so long.
"The original plan was simple, Captain. My double would die and in the confusion, I'd slip off planet with my wife."
Another piece fell into place. "Xue saw the two of you leaving that night and naturally he had to die."
That puzzled them. "Xue?"
I turned to Mrs. Stilicho. "Xue the gardener. He put sweet smelling flowers in your bedroom for your entire life. He came to you to tell you what he knew about your husband's death because he cared about you."
Even for a cold-blooded killer, Mrs. Stilicho was proving to be a disappointment. "Really, Captain. You don't expect me to remember the servant's names, do you? He came to me and told me he had seen us. Oh, he said he couldn't recognize us, but what if he were lying? Suppose he tried to blackmail us? I had to kill him. Surely a Peacekeeper would understand that."
I thought about it. "Certainly, a Peacekeeper could."
Stilicho seemed glad to get past my odd concern for the hired help. "I was ready to flee with what little cash I had on hand. But D'Ussart surprised me. He returned my body to my dear widow almost at once, satisfied with her identification of me. He didn't do a retinal scan, or a DNA type, he did nothing."
I interrupted Stilicho. "You didn't waste your money bribing D'Ussart, I hope?"
That amused Stilicho. "Of course not, Captain. The man is a fool and an incompetent. I'd never waste money bribing the likes of him."
I was vaguely disappointed that D'Ussart wasn't a crook, just useless.
Stilicho continued. If he kept this up, he might bore me to death. "Imagine my surprise when the Shan-Tilley Space Authority notified my dear wife that there had been no sabotage of my ship. The engine failure was an accident, pure and simple. But I found myself in an enviable position. You see…."
I finished the sentence for Stilicho, "You were dead and nobody was looking for you. The perfect time for a little payback."
Stilicho nodded. "I was in a perfect position. Instead of having to flee with whatever funds I could scrape up on short notice, my widow could dispose of my estate quite profitably and I could begin again off planet. And I could plan my revenge against Thulamord and the others who had failed me."
I snapped my fingers. My hands were off the top of my head now. "I got it. Godzilla, the bodyguard at your father-in-laws hunting lodge. He's not the old boy's style at all. He was there protecting you. That's where you hid out. And you used one of the heavy pulse weapons there to kill Fewwes."
Both Stilicho's laughed. "Very good, Captain. You can imagine his disgust at finding his son-in-law was not only alive, but planning to sell the hunting lodge out from under him. No matter, Godzilla, as you call him, is keeping an eye on Lord Hengst."
That made me feel better. The Stilicho's apparently had no back up close if I did manage to try something. Of course, I still had to try something against two armed killers.
Stilicho continued. "You were an unexpected problem, Captain. You, and Madrileno. I assumed the estate would be dear Orda's in no time and we could leave. I hadn't counted on Madrileno's dedication to the letter of the law or your abilities to keep the investigation going. Time is of the essence her, Captain. The longer I have to stay on planet, the greater the risk of being found to be alive."
Something occurred to him. "Peacekeepers are a rarity in this part of the Uncharted Territories. I hope you aren't a typical specimen. You seem far too dedicated and competent for my liking. Not the sort I'd like running things at all."
"You're breaking my heart, Stilicho. I think you'll find I'm a sweetheart as Peacekeepers go. Wait until you meet my pal Scorpy. You'll love him."
"I've arranged passage off Shan-Tilley with a former Peacekeeper named Bialar Crais. Do you know him?"
Now I just had to laugh. "Brother Crais? You bet. Just tell him you killed John Crichton. It'll make his day."
Stilicho looked disappointed. "Captain Crichton, such a transparent ploy. I'm surprised at you."
Now that had possibilities for irony. Stilicho tells Crais he's Captain Crichton's best bud and Crais tosses the pair of them out an airlock, thereby avenging me. No, never happen. It was just too ironic.
Mrs. Stilicho decided this was enough. "I'm sorry I don't have enough time to have some fun with you, Crichton. I've never tortured a man before. But I think I know how I can make up for the loss. Officer Sun will no doubt come looking for you. She thinks I'm a drunken weakling, so I'll have the advantage of surprise as well as numbers and weapons. She'll give me a lot of entertainment while waiting for Crais. I understand Peacekeeper women are supposed to be very tough. I'm really going to enjoy seeing your Officer Sun again."
Before either of them could do anything else, a shadow detached itself from the wall behind them and slammed their heads together.
"I don't know, John. I don't think she'll be too happy when she sees me again."
I let out a long, slow, shaky breath, "Trust me, Aeryn. If you want happy to see you, I can do happy to see you."
Aeryn stepped across the unconscious Stilicho's and put out a hand to pull me up. I took it and found myself upright with a pair a strong Commando-trained arms around me.
Aeryn whispered fiercely to me. "You listen to me, John Crichton. There is nothing in the Universe we can't handle together. The operative word is together. Don't you ever, ever, even think of going anyplace even vaguely dangerous without me again. If I hadn't been able to sneak in when they turned off the security system for you, I could still be out there while, while….."
Aeryn relaxed her grip on me a little and rested her head on my chest. I almost thought I felt a tear fall on me.
"You and me, Aeryn. Butch and Sundance. Wherever we go, we go together, Sunshine." Okay, I lied to Aeryn. I'd never be able to put Aeryn in danger if I could help it. I suspected she had the same ideas about me.
We called the cops. My perfect timing continued. The duty officer was Commissioner D'Ussart. He almost had a fit when he found out he had to arrest some people with a little money and power. Aeryn quietly explained to him how unhappy powerful people like Thulamord and Bellunca would be, not to mention the friends, if any, of the late lamented Captain Fewwes, would be if he didn't arrest the Stilicho's. In case he didn't get the point, I screamed the same facts into this face. We did, barely, manage to get through the night without being arrested.
We got back to the hotel late and I got up early. I don't sleep well after almost being murdered at the best of times, and Madrileno called at the crack of dawn for my personal report on the Stilicho case. I left Aeryn snuggled up in the bed and went off to do my civic duty. If I could have thought of a halfway good excuse, I'd be there with Aeryn still and I told her so. Her battle hardened Peacekeeper soul took over and she sent me out the door with the promise of better times to come.
I didn't make it back until afternoon. The suite appeared empty.
"Honey, I'm home."
"I'm in the bathroom, John. I'll be out in a microt."
I sat down on the bed. I was afraid if I didn't sit up and not lie down, I'd be asleep for the next weeken.
"How was the meeting with Madrileno, John?"
Now that was the 64 dollar question. "Fine. Madrileno is planning the Stilicho's defense. He thinks he'll be able to plea bargain and get them off with a light sentence."
"What? That's unbelievable. The Peacekeepers would have had them both shot by now. How could something like that happen?"
I had been out here too long. Peacekeeper justice was starting to look good to me. "The Stilicho's can afford an awful lot of justice. Stilicho arranged to sell his share of Stilicho and Thulamord to Mr. Bellunca. He gets a lot more than he could get from Thulamord, or anyone else, and Thulamord now has to worry about Bellunca. I'm betting Thulamord ends up leaving the planet in a cycle."
"That's absurd, John. Can't you do anything about it?"
"I tried, Aeryn. I managed to get Xue's family and Abri Coderra a nice, fat financial settlement. That, it turns out, is good public relations. No nasty side issues at the trial for one murder. Everyone is happy, except for the dead and maimed. Madrileno said he'd look into what happened to the other secretaries. I think that means that someone will make sure nothing is ever found of them and any relatives of an inquisitive bent will be taken care of, one way or another."
I yawned and almost decided to lie down. "Even better news. The Hengst's will be paid off to keep their mouths closed. M'Lord Hengst gets his mansion back, as well as his hunting lodge and a nice chunk of change. Sweet little Bashi gets a trust fund for her silence. I hope the lot of them drink themselves to death. Slowly."
What the frell was taking Aeryn so long? She was not the sort to hog the bathroom. "The only actual good news I have is that Madrileno is pushing our salvage settlement as hard as he can. He wants us off the planet so we can't talk to any of Stilicho's enemies."
Aeryn walked out of the bathroom. No, Aeryn glided out of the bathroom. No, an angel appeared in front of me. Aeryn's long, black hair hung around her face in curls. Aeryn was wearing makeup. Red lips, a touch of rouge, eyeliner, eye shadow and mascara. She was wearing a tight white dress that stopped at about mid thigh and also showed a very respectable cleavage. She even had on high heels.
Aeryn walked slowly towards me. I stood up and stared. "Aeryn, I'm speechless. And that isn't easy to do."
Aeryn smiled her full supernova smile. "Do you like it? You told Zhaan once about a dress that Alex wore. Chiana had this made here from the description. And there's a place in the hotel where they fix your hair, and do makeup. You're sure it's all right? I feel a little strange like this."
I put my arms around Aeryn. A distant part of my mind noticed she didn't have anything on under the dress. I hadn't described Alex's underwear to Zhaan, I suppose.
"I can't possibly take you to Earth now, Aeryn. I wouldn't stand a chance with every male on Earth after you. I'd never get near you again."
Aeryn laughed. I loved that sound. "I assume my pantak jab still works. You won't have any trouble with anyone, of either sex, between us on Earth or anywhere else."
I kissed Aeryn lightly on her forehead. "You know I love you because of the person you are. For your courage, your compassion, your intelligence, your honesty and your spirit. I don't love you for your looks, but when I look at you now, I can't help but think just how lucky I am to have you."
She looked up at me. "Really, John. How could anyone choose a life long partner based on physical appearance?"
I wondered how I had ever gotten the idea I needed to teach Aeryn Sun about love. I leaned forward and started a kiss that should have lasted a weeken. I couldn't have been kissing Aeryn for more that a few days when she pulled back.
"The door, John."
Yes. We have a door. A nice one. An excellent door as doors go. But I didn't want to kiss the door. I moved to Aeryn again. She moved away.
"Someone's at the door, John."
I listened. Something that sounded like one of Rygel's gentler belches got my attention. I'd never get used to his place.
"It's got to be D'Argo. Luxan's have some sort of sixth sense about this sort of thing. I'll get rid of him, Honey."
It wasn't D'Argo. My friends from Mr. Bellunca and The Maltese Falcon were back. With them was a scruffy looking humanoid with a dark beard and long hair. The one I had nicknamed Joel Cairo smiled at me.
"Captain Crichton, or is it Admiral Crichton? Mr. Bellunca has asked that we bring you your salvage fee. You'll notice that Mr. Bellunca has added a considerable bonus for your excellent work. I was not wrong when I advised you that this could be mutually profitable, was I?"
"Wilmer" smiled and handed me a check. I looked at the amount. It was double what we had expected. Money isn't everything, but this would certainly keep the wolf, and the Peacekeepers from our door for a long while.
Joel continued. "Mr. Bellunca also knows the value of family and home."
Somehow I doubted that, but I wasn't about to contradict his men.
He turned to the third man. "May I present to you, Michael De Reuter, of Rotterdam. And thank you for your assistance, Captain. Mr. Bellunca remembers those who have helped him."
With that, the two gunmen left.
I stared at De Reuter. "You're human. You're from Rotterdam. You're from Earth."
I was amazed, ecstatic, overjoyed, shocked, surprised and stunned. Then I was crushed.
"No to all three, I'm afraid, Captain."
I stood there with my mouth wide open for what seemed like forever. I think I managed to get out a weak "But…"
He must have taken pity on the poor, confused human. "Perhaps I could demonstrate?"
With that, Michael De Reuter started to blur at the edges and slowly transformed himself into a cloudy, white sphere that nearly filled the room. Then he returned to the human form I had first seen.
"I'm a construct, a made thing, a machine. I'm sorry, Captain, but being non-biological, I can't use translator microbes. I have other means of making myself understood, but they can sometimes be clumsier than the microbes."
He stopped for a second. I hoped an intelligent reply or question wasn't expected of me. I was fresh out.
He shrugged and continued. "I was created some 170 million cycles ago in a far distant galaxy as a scout for my creators. My mission was to explore the Universe and report back to my creators. Among my abilities is the capability to mimic various life forms, as I am doing now."
I managed to croak out, "So you're from long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away?"
He nodded. "Something, I suspect a war, damaged me. I lost a great deal of my programming and no longer knew where my creators were. But my drive to explore was still intact. For all those millions of cycles I have been exploring the Universe and storing data for when I once again find my home. Although, I suspect that after all the time that has passed, my ultimate mission may prove futile. But, I do as I must."
I managed to find my voice. "Why were you going to Stilicho's that night?"
"I wanted to buy some data on the surrounding area for my creators. Stilicho's company trades over a wide volume of space and has much information that would be useful to me. I have much that would be useful to them."
"But you can tell me where Earth is? How to find my home?"
"I'm afraid not. While I occasionally travel on local ships, I usually travel by boring my way through a series of alternate dimensions as yet unknown in this area of the Universe. These dimensions do not correspond to reality as you are capable of understanding it. In fact, I do not believe that you, or anyone I have met in the last eleven million cycles, has the mental capacity to translate the navigational data I use into useful data on the location of Earth, or anywhere else. The best I can do is to advise you that I think you are much farther from your home than you realize. I hope that is a help?"
I stared at him. "Better than nothing, I suppose."
Suddenly, he brightened. "I can give you information about Earth as it was when I left it. Would that help?"
"When did you leave?"
"Shortly before noon on April 8th, in the year of our lord 1627, from a small ship in the Nordsee."
"Not much use, I'm afraid. Thanks though. Late word on the Pilgrim's progress wouldn't do me much good."
De Reuter smiled and made his good-byes. I turned to Aeryn. Tears were streaming down her cheeks. She ran to me and put her arms around me.
"John, I am so sorry. I know how much this hurts you. How much you wanted to find that De Reuter could help you, us, get home."
I had suddenly come to another realization. "Actually, you don't know how much this hurts, Aeryn. It isn't that bad. What I find is that Earth without Aeryn Sun would be intolerable, but Aeryn Sun and no Earth is doable. As long as I have you, Sunshine, I'll be just fine. So make sure you stay close."
Aeryn looked up at me. She had another of her expressions. This was her "I think you're pretending not to be human for my sake, John," look. "You're sure everything is okay?"
"What kind of a gal is going to accept that there is anything more important than her in her guy's life, Aeryn?" I gave her a brief kiss.
Aeryn pulled away. "Yes."
"You said that if I ever decided we should get married, all I had to do was say yes. I said yes."
Now that threw thoughts of Earth right out of my mind. "You want to get married?"
"Well, not if you're getting cold teeth about it."
"Cold feet, Aeryn. And, no I'm not getting cold feet. Just making sure. Why did you change your mind?"
Aeryn looked very serious. "If marriage is so important to you, it should be important to me. Because you are the most important thing in my life, John Crichton."
"And I may never find Earth, making the big Earth marriage a no go?"
"John Crichton! I never want to hear such talk from you again. You will take me home to Earth. You will find a way to make me safe on Earth and you will work very, very hard at making me happy there. I promise you, you'll work at it."
"Yes'm Miz Sun. Sho' thing, Boss."
"And you'll teach me all about Earth. I especially want to see the movie, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid that you always talk about. I think that after the first six months of our honeymoon, we can take a break and watch a movie. Okay?"
I stared at Aeryn. "Six months and then we take a break?"
Aeryn just smiled. Did I mention what a wicked smile she can have? I kissed her again and I was determined that nothing was going to interrupt this kiss. Aeryn reached behind her and did something at the back of her new dress. It slid to the floor and confirmed that she had nothing on under it. I moved my hands upwards to her…"
Suddenly, I was brought back across the years to the present, my home and my youngest daughter.
"Dad, it's, well, kind of gross to think of your parents doing that sort of thing."
"Didn't you and I have that little talk about how you got here, Sunshine?"
"No, Mom and I had that little talk. Your little talk was all about how Uncle D'Argo was going to have a chat with the guys I dated before they took me out."
"What! I never mentioned anything at all about…"
Aeryn stuck her head into the room. "You certainly did, John, and you know it."
Curses, foiled again. Surrounded by beautiful dark haired, blue eyed women that I love and who knew my every weakness, I surrendered.
"All right, all right. I know when I'm licked."
Aeryn laughed. "No, you never have known that, John."
She turned to our little Sunshine. "It's way past your bed time, young lady. Off to bed with you, now."
"Mom! I haven't heard the end of Dad's story yet. I can't go to bed."
Aeryn came over and sat beside me. I grinned at her. "Good idea, Aeryn. We'll present a united front."
I got two disgusted looks for the price of one.
Aeryn adopted a very severe expression. "Young lady, you have heard every one of your father's stories a hundred times and the end of his stories is always the same. And besides you need your sleep since tomorrow's a school day. Bed. Now."
"Mom, that isn't fair. You're always telling me about the years you spent being chased around the…"
I broke in before this degenerated into, well, one of our usual family discussions.
"Aeryn, I can finish the story long before you two ever get done arguing."
"Who's arguing?" In perfect unison, too. Like mother, like daughter.
While they were laughing, I started. "After many adventures, Moya brought your mother and I, and all our friends to Earth. And when I arrived, I said, "I'm astronaut John Crichton and this is my wife the radiant Aeryn Sun Crichton." Although I had told your mother a hundred times that I was going to say just that, she hadn't quite believed me. She blushed, looked confused and then she smiled such a beautiful smile, that all of Earth began to fall in love with her, just as I had. But, that's another story."
Our daughter giggled, got up and collected her homework. She kissed both of us on the cheek and ran upstairs to her room.
"Just as I planned it. I'm all alone with a beautiful woman who can't resist me."
Aeryn laughed. "I never could resist an appealing Earthman."
I kissed Aeryn gently. "Aeryn. I will never stop loving you. I will never leave you."
"I know, I know, John."