Disclaimer: He's dead and English? Hot damn! Dad has him a plot. That is, David, Rockne, Brian, guys, I'll be borrowing the characters again if that's OK?
Time: Second Season. After TWWW and before the Princess Trilogy.
Rating: How would I know? I haven't written any more than this.
Archiving: If I see this on Napster, I'm suing.
Author's note: If anyone finds anything familiar in this tale of rebellion, terrorism, oppressed minorities and war financed by illegal gem sales, the reader is reminded that this is only fiction.
"It tastes sort of like coffee. Try it."
Rygel sniffed at the cup in front of him. "I say it smells like dren and I say frell it." Rygel pushed the cup as far away from himself as he could manage.
I turned to D'Argo. "How about you, Big Guy? You Luxans are tough guys. Certainly, you wouldn't back off from a drink like Rygel does."
I thought I almost had him, but...."Crichton, I do not agree with Rygel about anything. But, in this case, our opinions, they, um, run parallel. It's undrinkable." D'Argo did leave the cup in front of him.
I turned to Zhaan. Certainly my favorite flora would appreciate this. "How about it, Blue Girl? Is it good to the last drop?"
Zhaan looked embarrassed and I knew I had lost another one. "John, it's, well, it is medicinal. Didn't you say?"
I grinned to cover my embarrassment. "Coffee on Earth is a slight stimulant. I don't know about this, but it tastes a lot like coffee. But it's not a medicine."
I turned to Aeryn, who was sitting next to me. "Aeryn, come to my rescue here, please."
Aeryn looked serious, stared at the cup, and took a sip. "John, you don't need me to rescue you. If you want to buy some of this local "kauphy", then do so."
Rygel snorted. "We can't spend our hard earned funds on so-called luxuries that have probably been sitting in a warehouse on Kashgar for cycles while the original buyer searched for a bigger fool than himself. If even a Peacekeeper won't drink this "kauphy", it must be dren of the vilest sort. A Peacekeeper's idea of dining pleasure is food cubes, after all." Rygel looked smugly around the table.
Aeryn picked up her cup and took a long sip. "As an ex-Peacekeeper, I say that if John wants to spend his share of our funds on food, he's entitled to do so." She smiled sweetly at Rygel and the others at the table. "Does anyone disagree with me on that?"
Even Rygel agreed with that. Best of all, Aeryn turned and winked at me. Not a great wink, she was still learning, but she winked at me.
I leaned back with my "kauphy" and looked at Kashgar from the outdoor café on the 170th floor of our hotel. The City of Kashgar sprawled across a dozen or so big islands and hundreds of smaller ones in the ToDoLoCo Sea. Bridges that looked too impossibly fragile to remain standing connected the islands. The islands hosted slender pastel towers that rose for hundreds of stories, separated by parks and gardens, so you never felt you were in a city.
Unlike most of the cities in the Uncharted Territories, Kashgar, was only about a hundred cycles old. The planet's location made it the perfect trade center for a dozen or so up and coming planets. By the standards of Delvia, Hyneria or Lux, it was nothing much, but by Earth standards, or what we had lived with for the past cycle, it was heaven.
I looked at blue skies, white clouds and a deep green sea that all could have been from Earth. Hundreds of sailboats sliced gently through the water. After our first successful cargo run, I had taken Aeryn out for a sail. She had been suspicious of the human idea of "having fun", I think, when I first suggested it. But soon, she was having the time of her life. She laughed like a kid let out of school unexpectedly, and, once she got the hang of it, soundly thrashed me in a water fight in a small bay where we anchored. By nightfall we were at this same café, snuggling with each other and being "friend" close.
"Captain Crichton?" I was jolted out of my memories by one of the waiters.
"Yes. I'm Captain Crichton." On Kashgar, Peacekeepers were little more than a vague, unpleasant rumor, so I was the Peacekeeper Captain of Moya. My loyal crew discovered that the captain had to handle all of the paper work involved in interstellar business and approved my promotion unanimously.
The waiter held out an envelope with what looked like my name in Sebacean script. I opened it and found a picture of Chiana. I tried to figure out why Chi would send me a picture of herself from her expedition into the local version of Rodeo Drive, but there was nothing else in the envelope.
Aeryn, as usual, came to my rescue. "John, push the little tab a the bottom of the picture."
I looked at Aeryn, but took her advice. The picture started moving. The first thing I saw was a gun moving up under Pip's chin. Then I heard her speak. "Crichton, do what they say. They'll kill me otherwise." The picture stopped moving.
Aeryn took the picture out of my hand. "There's a note on the back, John. "The two Peacekeepers are to come alone, to Dworka Beni, Firt ghem. Mid day tomorrow. Or she dies"."
D'Argo reacted in character and went berserk. He was half way to the elevator by the time I caught up with him. My translator microbes weren't doing a thing to what he was bellowing, but they didn't need to. I knew what D'Argo was saying and what he intended to do.
I managed to get between D'Argo and the elevator.
"Crichton, get out of my way, I'm going to that address and..."
"And get yourself and Chiana killed. Do you think the kidnappers will have her there? Do you know anything about this sort of thing?"
D'Argo stopped and thought, but only for a microt. "And you do? What do you know of such dishonorable things?"
Well, it was a start. "What do I know? I grew up on Hawaii Five Oh. Ask me anything, anything at all, about Miami Vice. Do you know what Rick did in the pilot of Magnum, P.I.? Do you know who Joe Friday was? Do you even know the difference between a consigliere and a button man?"
If D'Argo ever started to think rather than react, I'd be in big trouble. I tried to dredge up details of every kidnapping I'd ever seen on TV. "D'Argo, these people are professionals. They won't have Chiana anywhere near the place where they make contact. The contact there will be a low-level hoodlum who won't have been told anything except what to tell us to do next. You go roaring in there, and you'll get yourself and Chiana killed. Let Aeryn and me handle it."
Aeryn! She was the second Peacekeeper, obviously. Once again I had assumed her into this. Chi was not her favorite person.
"Aeryn, you okay on this."
Aeryn gave me one of those looks I could never figure out. "Oh, I'm okay on this."
"D'Argo. Let's go back to the table and try to think our way through this. Think, right?"
"I believe I may be of some assistance, Lord Captain."
I turned to face the newcomer. He was a local. Humanoid, but with a head the size and shape of a bowling ball. The black hair that only grew on the top of his head was neatly braided and hung down his back. He was dressed in the local equivalent of an expensive business suit. A baggy jacket and even more baggy pants of a dark blue silk-like fabric. An embroidered panel on the lapel of his suit proclaimed his family, social and financial status, but I couldn't read the highly stylized markings.
"I am Treffor Ban Torral, of the Tranquility Division, Policy Research Branch, Physical Analysis Section."
He bowed to each of us in turn. "Perhaps we could all return to your table, Captain Crichton?"
Once we were seated again, I turned to our guest. "So be of assistance."
"The address given is not in the City of Kashgar. It is one the Mainland where the City has no jurisdiction."
Aeryn spoke up. "Excuse me, but isn't the Tranquility Division, responsible for law and order on Kashgar?"
Ban Torral smiled. "Your second-in-command is quite worthy, Captain Crichton. "
I smiled at Aeryn. "Lieutenant Sun is invaluable to me. I don't know what I'd do without her." I thought Aeryn would have smiled at the compliment, but she didn't.
Ban Torral continued. "The League of Aigsberk, the trading alliance that founded and runs Kashgar City limits its jurisdiction to the City itself. The balance of the planet is not our concern. We are a trading alliance, not a government and the League finds government an expensive annoyance."
That was news to me. "So what is it that's outside your jurisdiction? Outside of the City, I mean."
Ban Torral started the Chamber of Commerce speech. "Mines and farms, mostly. Near the City there are factories that subcontract to firms here in the City. Fifty eight per cent of the food requirements are met from the mainland with the balance from fishery ships based..."
That was enough. "Whoa, hold up. I'm betting that the local FFA did not kidnap our crewmate. Who out there are we dealing with?"
Cops are blunt spoken everywhere, I guess. "The City is rich and the mainland is poor. There are several bandit groups that wish to either move into the City and enjoy its advantages, or have the City expand to cover their own operations which would allow them to grow rich. They are little more than bands of armed savages. One of those groups is responsible for your friend, I'm sure."
That was enough for D'Argo. He grabbed Ban Torral by the throat. "Which group? You're a frelling policeman. You should know. Who and where are they?"
A half a dozen locals headed for us, pulling some sort of weapons out. As good honest merchants we had turned our weapons in when we made port, although I suspected both Aeryn and D'Argo had slipped something by the Customs. I grabbed D'Argo's arm, which was like trying to arm-wrestle a Grizzly. Aeryn grabbed the other arm and we both screamed at him to let go before he got us all killed and doomed Chiana. He released Ban Torral just as the reinforcements arrived.
Ban Torral rearranged his clothes, straightened his hair and checked his throat while I apologized. Suddenly, he waved his bodyguards away and stood. "You might wish to teach your crewman some manners, Captain Crichton. I assume that it is his woman who has been taken and will over look this incident. But I would advise you to be very careful for the remainder of your stay here. For your information, the address you seek is about a metra past the end of the Teb Bridge. The hotel can assist you in finding one of the companies that can transport you there and back. Good day to you, Captain."
With that, Ban Torral turned and left, his bodyguards in tow.
I slowly let my breath out. "D'Argo if you ever do that again, I'll cut you out of my will."
D'Argo at least had the sense to look embarrassed at what he'd done. He mumbled what sounded like an apology and suddenly left.
Zhaan rose and followed him. "John, I should go with D'Argo. He isn't going to handle this well."
Now that was an understatement. "Stay with the Big Guy, Zhaan. He doesn't handle anything well that he can't break."
I noticed Rygel was following her. "Sparky, are you all concerned about D'Argo?"
Rygel must have been copying the looks Aeryn gave me when I did something especially human. "Really, Crichton. I must reconsider some our my investment strategies for this planet in light of the information that there are large scale criminal conspiracies at work here."
"Okay, but if you get any IPOs for the Mob, just keep your priorities straight and don't sell any of us to them." From the look he gave me I knew I should kick myself for putting an idea in his head.
I turned to Aeryn. "Any thoughts, Aeryn?"
"I don't like what just happened, Crichton."
"Aeryn, who likes a kidnapping?"
There was that look. "I mean I don't like the fact that a member of the local secret police was conveniently sitting near us and able to fill us in. And from the number of his bodyguards, a senior member, too."
"What! The secret police. You mean like the Gestapo? Major Strasser of the Third Reich threatening Rick Blaine? How do you know?"
I know, I know. Never let Aeryn think you don't have absolute confidence in her. She gave me a look that set a new record low for me. "I'm supposed to keep everyone safe, Crichton. I'm a warrior. That's what I do on Moya. If I hadn't let you distract me with your sailing and smurfing, I'd have been better prepared for this. Now if you will excuse me, I have a lot of work to do." She stood and walked away without a good bye or smile. I was Crichton, Motley Earp Fool, again.
I sat there for a few microts and then headed for my room. I checked the local database, but found nothing about what to do about a nasty infestation of kidnappers. I checked Aeryn's room, but she was gone. I could hear D'Argo. As a matter of fact, I could feel his voice shake the walls of my room. I decided I didn't need that. I sat and tried to think of every kidnapping plot I had ever seen or heard of. None of it was comforting.
I moped around until well after midnight when I heard Aeryn moving around in her room.
I knocked on her door and was rewarded with a growl that might have been an invitation to come in. So I did.
"Crichton, what do you want? Can't you see I'm busy?" Aeryn was up to her ears in data discs, printouts, maps and things I didn't recognize.
"Aeryn, the invitation is for two Peacekeepers. If only one shows up, they're going to think I'm off somewhere plotting a rescue. We're both going to have to go there, so you'd better brief me on whatever you've learned. "
Aeryn glared at me. "You? Plot a rescue?"
"That's right, Aeryn. As far as anyone on this planet is concerned, I'm a dangerous Peacekeeper Special Ops Captain and you're my comic sidekick. And if you believe the kidnappers don't think that way, I'd like to hear your explanation, Gabby Hayes."
I really thought she was going to throw something at me for being right, but she calmed down.
"Crichton. Ban Torral is either lying to us or to his superiors about the mainland. There are more than just some bandit gangs operating there, although that's all that the City will admit to. There's a full-scale rebellion on the mainland. The League has had to hire a brigade of mercenaries from off world to control things. The League controls the City and whatever part of the mainland its soldiers occupy, and the rebels and/or bandits control the rest."
"Mao Tse Tung." I said without really thinking.
Aeryn glared at me.
"He was a revolutionary political leader on Earth. One of his contributions to Earth strategy was the idea that cities, even though they are rich, populous and powerful, ultimately depend on the countryside for food and raw materials. He conquered the countryside of the most populous county on Earth and eventually the cities fell to him."
I almost thought I saw a glimmer of interest in Aeryn's eyes. Then it was gone. "Interesting, but useless, Crichton."
Aeryn sat back and stared past me for a microt. "Our first problem will be to get past the mercenaries and onto the mainland. They want to keep weapons, food and of course funds from kidnappings from crossing into rebel territory. That I've taken care of. We're a pair of free lance Peacekeepers looking for a little dishonest work to pass the time and make a little money. We're headed for a gang leader called Gold Hat, if anyone asks. I've cleared it with the appropriate check points."
I wondered exactly how that was done, bit decided asking questions about details would just convince Aeryn that I didn't trust her and aggravate a bad situation. I just hoped that Aeryn had gone into hard-as-nails Peacekeeper mode because of Pip's kidnapping and not because I had somehow screwed up again without realizing it.
"Intelligence about either the rebel movements or bandit gangs operating on the mainland is nearly nonexistent. The League either has a near perfect counter-intelligence system or they don't know a frelling thing that could be of any use to us. What little I did learn is that the address we were given is in a no-man's-land, controlled by no one. "
Aeryn gave me another of the indecipherable looks of hers. "After that, it's up to you and Mimi Rice."
That might have been an attempt at a joke, but I didn't think so. I let it be.
"Crichton, we have to get up early tomorrow and I don't know how long the day will be. We need to get some sleep."
I wanted to ask Aeryn why she had changed, to tell her how much I hated putting her in danger, even for one of us. I wanted to tell her how much I needed her and how much she meant to me. But I was afraid that if I tried, she'd only push me away. So, I left.
"Aeryn, are we going to Beirut? This is a tank"
Aeryn pulled her head back out of the armored vehicle she had hired to take us to the mainland. "This is from the company that the hotel recommended we use to travel to the mainland "in comfort and security" as they put it. I assume the hotel personnel know their own planet well enough to make a better choice than we ever could. Do you have a better idea?"
I looked around me. The sidewalk was full of people going about their business. Families, groups of businessmen, shoppers. Large, shiny cars passed in the street. Everything looked so peaceful, I had trouble believing we needed a large, heavily armed vehicle to leave the City. Then again, none of these happy, peaceful people seemed to find it unusual to see a tank parked downtown. We didn't get so much as a glance from the passersby.
"No worry, Bossman. Shervi will get you to the mainland and back. Since I'm here, you know I made it back before, right?"
Shervi was the owner of our taxi. A local, he was dressed in a gray one-piece suit and carried some sort of weapon slung across his back. He had a driver, and a gunner with him. The three didn't look like they would give Aeryn or D'Argo much trouble, but they were as tough looking as anyone I had seen on the planet.
Aeryn started to interrogate the gunner and I lost interest, as I couldn't follow most of the conversation. I walked over to D'Argo and Zhaan. Earlier, Rygel had waved good bye vaguely to me from his room while working the planetary database. I had asked both D'Argo and Zhaan to suggest forcefully to Rygel that selling us out to who ever was behind this was a very bad idea. I'm sure D'Argo made that point to him.
"John." D'Argo looked at me, then at Zhaan, then Aeryn and back to me. "John, I trust you, but you know I....that is, I'm sure...."
I decided I'd better say something before he started crying or something. "No problem, D'Argo. John and Aeryn are on the case. Butch and Sundance ride again. We'll have her back in no time, Big Guy."
D'Argo slapped me on the shoulder with enough force to buckle my knees.
Zhaan put her hand on my neck, just under my ear. I braced for something, but nothing happened. "John, do be careful and look out for Aeryn. We'll be waiting for your return. For the return of all three of you." Zhaan ran her hands around her head in the Seek blessing.
Look out for Aeryn. That was a joke. I was about he last person in the Uncharted Territories that John Wayne Sun would ever pay attention to once she was in her Peacekeeper mode.
"Crichton! We don't have all day. Are you coming or not?"
Aeryn was sitting in the tank and I hurried to join her. Once inside, I had a look around. This was a tank on the outside and a limo on the inside. We had comfortable bucket seats, a view in all directions courtesy of a holographic viewer and even a selection of food and drinks.
I picked up a bottle and was inspecting it when Aeryn snapped at me. "Crichton. That's an alcoholic drink. We don't need you impaired today."
For some reason, that hit a nerve. "Thanks for the advice. I was planning on showing up at the kidnappers too wasted to even move. But you've made me see that would be a tactical error."
Aeryn turned and I expected an explosion, but only got another long stare that I couldn't decipher. I turned and watched the peaceful City pass by.
About a half an arn later, we came to a stop in front of a bridge that led to the mainland. We had hit our first roadblock.
Shervi called out to us as he opened a door on the side of the tank. "All out, Bossman. Soldiers want to see us before we go."
The first thing I thought of when I saw the soldier waiting was to wonder where the picnic was. The ant soldier growled and motioned us to a group of his fellows clustered around a bunker entrance. No, not an ant, but close. He was taller than D'Argo, but impossibly slender by human standards. He was covered with a thick blue-gray armored shell. His equipment seemed to attach directly to him. His weapon looked like a cross between an assault rifle and an eggbeater.
His commander looked up as we stopped in front of his bunker. "Captain Crichton and Lieutenant Sun? You wish to proceed to see the one known as Gold Hat? On business?"
That last was delivered with such a sneer, that I knew he didn't believe for a moment we were just happy, peaceful Peacekeepers, looking to turn an honest dollar, or whatever the local currency was.
Aeryn stepped past me and handed over some sort of official looking document. "Excuse me, Captain Crichton. I'll give this being our pass."
Whoever Aeryn had bought off or scared off to get the pass, it didn't impress our ant officer much. He examined it thoroughly and then announced he would have to inventory our weapons and ammunition so none of it ended up staying on the mainland. Aeryn was seething, but he was apparently within his rights.
Our pulse pistols were inspected and the serial numbers copied. The amount of chakon oil we carried was carefully measured. Then they went to work on Shervi's tank. Apparently that was the usual signal for Shervi to offer some money to the soldiers and everyone to go about their business and live happily ever after. The mercenary officer wasn't having any today, though. Whether it was Aeryn's pass, or something Shervi had done in a prior life, or what, I never knew, but the ant officer made his soldiers do a more thorough inventory than they had ever done.
I walked past the bunker to try to get a look at the mainland when something caught my eye. Did they ever catch my eye!
"Aeryn. Come over here. Have you ever seen anything like this?"
Parked about fifty meters beyond the bunker were two tanks. They were bigger than ours and looked more heavily armed. But that wasn't what attracted my eye. One was fire engine red with some sort of gigantic white flowers painted around the turret. The other was painted in a bright yellow and black checkerboard.
"Aeryn, on Earth, military vehicles are painted to match the surroundings, to blend in so they won't be seen. Unless there are some yellow and black trees around here I haven't seen, those are painted to stand out."
"They're showing off, Crichton. Hot dogging, I think you've called it."
I didn't like the way she looked at me when she referred to hot dogging, but I had no real basis to complain and didn't.
"The mercenaries tanks are invulnerable to any weapons the rebels, much less any bandits, around here have. So they show off and dare the rebels to shoot at them. One day, perhaps, the rebels will teach them a lesson. These soldiers aren't very professional. "
That last part was probably the first time all day that she hadn't implied that what ever was going wrong was my fault. I decided to follow it up.
"But if they get the rebels to open fire, they locate the rebels and can shoot back, right?"
"Crichton, if these so-called soldiers would leave their bunker and patrol like real soldiers would, they'd have no trouble finding the rebels, and finding them first. All that they are doing is sitting around fat, dumb and happy waiting for the rebels to locate the nearest arms dealer. Then, boom. I should have known better than to...."
The tank's engine and Shervi's yell to come on or be left behind drowned the last part out. We both trotted back to the tank and climbed aboard.
There was more traffic on the bridge than I had expected. Suddenly we passed a column of several hundred people. All were wearing a dark green poncho with a red stripe on one side. Similarly dressed, armed men were scattered along the column.
"Hey, Shervi. Who are those guys?"
"Shift workers, Bossman. Lots of jobs in the City too dirty, too boring, too dangerous for City people to do. Neighborhood leaders on the mainland hire their people out to City companies. They get a cut from the workers, use that to buy guns to control their neighborhood. More guns, they control more people. More people, more workers, more guns. Start all over again. Simple, Bossman."
Aeryn broke in. "That's absurd. Even Moya's DRDs could do ninety percent of the difficult, dangerous and repetitive jobs for the City."
Shervi laughed. "Maybe so where you come from, Bosslady. Here machines are expensive and people cheap. Best part, people make more people real easy. Not so easy to make more machines."
We passed another, larger, column of people, on the bridge. I also noticed that all of the vehicles on the bridge were in groups and had armed guards. Renting a tank suddenly seemed like a good idea.
Once over the bridge, the planet changed drastically. The open, green spaces vanished. The slender towers were replaced with shacks patched together from plastic, cardboard and tin. Happy shoppers were replaced with sullen bands of young men gathered on street corners. A little girl, no more than six or seven, watched us pass and then gave us the universal one finger salute.
Trained, well armed, disciplined mercenaries were replaced by a bandit roadblock. As we turned down a narrow dirt street, a cart was pushed out in front of us, and a dozen or so armed men waved for us to stop. Shervi sped up and crushed the cart and maybe one of the men. A couple of dull thunks were all that told us we were being shot at.
Shervi laughed. "Bandits. Nobodies. Third rate punks. This close to the City, anybody with real weapons gets killed by mercenaries. And nobody have any weapons that threaten Shervi." There was a pause, and he added, "Yet."
We drove over or past three or four more roadblocks before we stopped for one. Boulders were lined up across the street and some sort of a heavy weapon could be seen poking out of a ruined house, pointed right at us.
Shervi apologized. "Sorry, Bossman. New group on the mainland. I don't know them and they have pretty good gun over there. I go talk."
Fifty microts later Shervi was back. "They want you two, Bossman. Called you by name. Captain Cry-Ton and Lieutenant Sun. They want you to walk over by barricade."
Aeryn and I left the safety of the tank and walked. The soldiers weren't impressive. I was surprised that the first thing I noticed was that their weapons were dirty. I had been here way too long. I could smell alcohol on them. I could smell more than that when I got close. They had no uniforms to speak of, just dark colored clothing, mostly. One man was wearing a shirt that showing several men frelling a woman. She didn't look like she was having fun.
As soon as Mr. X-rated Shirt saw Aeryn, he started talking. The kind of trash talking that street gang members on Earth would try on a woman. I tried to get between him and Aeryn to stop the fight I saw coming. I needn't have bothered.
The second group probably didn't impress Aeryn, but they impressed me. They were dressed more or less uniformly and appeared comfortable with their weapons and they definitely were not drunk. They certainly impressed the soldiers at the roadblock. Even Shirt Man tried to look sober and military.
"Captain Crichton? Lieutenant Sun? Come with us please."
"Hold up, Audie Murphy. Who are you and why should we go with you?"
"We know who you are and where you were coming for your shipmate. Who do you think we are? Advise your City friend to turn his vehicle around and get out of here while he still can. We'll see to it that you get home."
Good enough for me. I waved to Shervi and told him to go home.
We followed the soldiers up an alley to their vehicles.
I recognized the vehicles from old newscasts on Earth. "Technicals."
"Crichton, what the frell are technicals? Do you recognize any of this?"
Me and my big mouth. "Not really, Aeryn. Technicals were vehicles used in one of Earth's wars. Just large ground vehicles with various heavy weapons on the back, just like these."
We got in one of the trucks and took off. All we saw was more shacks, more angry people and more misery. We stopped at the remains of a large, well built house. A few decades earlier it might have been someone's vacation house. Now it was someone's headquarters, I'd guess.
One of the soldiers turned to us. "Go inside. Someone will meet you."
Inside, we found the house was built around a large courtyard. A dozen or more soldiers stood around, covering us from every angle. Ahead of us were three locals sitting at a table. The middle one was a fat man, dressed in saffron robes. To his right was a middle-aged woman who looked too prosperous to be part of this. To his left was a skinny man dressed in a patched, but clean set of coveralls.
The one in the middle started the conversation. "Ah, Captain Crichton. How good of you to come."
That last part was so absurd I didn't bother replying.
"We are the Liaison Committee of URP."
"You represent Earp?" Aeryn sounded like she was about to go ballistic.
"Yes. The United Revolutionary Parties. We represent the poor and disenfranchised of this planet. We are oppressed by the greed and....."
I cut him off. "We gave at the office. You can skip the propaganda. You know why we're here. Let's get on with it."
He seemed upset. I suppose keeping politicians from making their speeches does that. It didn't quite stop him, though.
"Please express our sorrows to Pa'u Zhotan Zhaan. My group are followers of a branch of the Delvian Seek, ourselves. We would not do this if it were not necessary. You see, our leader, the Esteemed Gorbal Tenk, is the younger brother of the Goddess."
Now that was news. "Your leader is the younger brother of the Goddess?" I tried hard to keep the disbelief out of my voice.
"Certainly. Fifteen cycles ago, the Goddess appeared to Elder Tenk in a vision. She told him that the City was an abomination in her eyes. She commanded Elder Tenk to...."
"...gather the gullible and foolish and get them killed in droves." The next speaker was the woman.
She continued. "That's the Goddess's local representative, Sliman Sark. The Goddess's devotees appoint their military officers based on their religious orthodoxy, rather than on their military abilities. Tactical realities are ignored in the pious hope that the Goddess will provide a miracle or two to make up for their lack of weaponry, training, leadership and organization. The result is that their soldiers have a higher casualty rate than anyone else in URP."
Sark tried to look pious and above it all, but didn't quite pull it off. "We also provide more soldiers than any else in URP. We also kill more of our enemies than anyone else in URP."
I had the feeling this argument had been going on for as long time. Sark turned to me.
"This is Lady Abella Rohhr, Captain. She represents the United Front, a group that..."
"...would like to do to the people what the City is already doing to us. She represents the landowners, merchants and factory owners who would crush the people if only the City weren't crushing them. I'm Mila Svorz, Captain Crichton, of the United Peasant's and Worker's Army. I'm afraid we're the only revolutionaries in the United Revolutionary Parties. I'm sure you couldn't care less, so let's get down to business, if I may use such an un-revolutionary term? We have something you want and you have something we want. A trade is in order, is it not?"
Svorz was smiling and I'm sure he was having a ball. I'd bet he'd cut all of our throats with that same happy grin on his face.
"First, I need to make sure that you do have something we want. I want to see Chiana, now."
Svorz laughed. "But, of course, Captain. You wouldn't want to be cheated, would you?"
He turned in his seat. "Bring the woman out."
Pip walked out of a doorway dead ahead of us, a guard on either side. She looked all right, but her hands were pinned behind her back.
"Hi, John. Hi, Aeryn. Sorry about this. Some days a girl just can't do anything right. How's everybody? I hope D'Argo didn't explode into a jillion pieces when he heard?"
"Hi, Pip. Can you tell me what the best possible hand in poker is?"
"What? I'm glad to find you aren't worried about me, Crichton. I'm doing just fine here. Wouldn't you rather just talk about the weather?"
"Just answer the question, Pip, or we're out of here."
I saw realization dawning on her face. "I get it. You want to make sure I'm me. Right. Well, the best hand is the royal flush. It's an ace, a dominar, a dominarette, a John and a ten, all in the same suite. Uh, the suites are clubs, diamonds, shovels and.....and the livers."
Close enough. "Good to see you Pip."
The guards hustled Pip back out of our sight.
Sliman Sark seemed to have recovered his position as leader. "Captain Crichton. The Liaison Committee oversees major operations of interest to all of our member parties. You are curious as to what we need you for, correct?"
I just nodded at him.
"We have few modern weapons. We have money, we have means of getting that money off world, and we have contacts among the arms merchants. We don't have the expertise in spacecraft piloting to bring the weapons here and our experiences with smugglers have been unsatisfactory. Our last mission was a failure, costing our best trained space crew and a consignment of very expensive weapons. "
Sark was warming to his subject. He had major potential as a religious politician. "Our luck changed when we acquired an ex-Peacekeeper Marauder and you conveniently arrived on planet. Your job is to go off planet and pick up the Marauder, make contact with out agents and accept a consignment of valuables. You will then rendezvous with a ship and make another trade and then trade for weapons at a designated point, and bring the weapons back here. In return, you get your shipmate back. Fail us and she dies. In addition, we will kill your friend D'Argo and, I'm afraid, even Pa'u Zhaan. The latter killing would be an appalling waste, so I hope you will be cooperative, Captain. If you and Lieutenant Sun are foolish enough to return here, we will kill the two of you. I trust this clear to you, Captain?"
Well, at least he hadn't passed the collection plate.
When my dad first went into space, every launch was front-page news. By the time I made my first shuttle flight, we'd get five seconds on the nightly news. Dad once said he hoped he never saw the day when space flight was as common as city buses. He didn't see that happen, but I was living it.
The URP had smuggled us back into the City and onto a transport taking miners to various off world mines. There were no seats, just a huge empty expanse with plastic ropes hanging down to grab onto. The place was as crowded as a New York subway at rush hour. A being with spikes all over him was pushing into my back. In front was a fellow who appeared to be all mouth. He was filling it constantly with what looked and smelled like long dead fish. But I was reasonably happy.
I had immediately figured out what the ropes were for and grabbed one. Aeryn just stared at me hanging onto an old greasy, plastic rope. Then we took off. The artificial gravity cut in and cut out. The driver managed to slow down and speed up every few microts, and I swear he managed to hit something in the vastness of space regularly. Aeryn got thrown in to our neighbor and got a face full of fish breath. I put my arm around her and pulled her to me. She glared at me, but didn't move away. After a while she even put her arms around me and held on. After an arn she even leaned forward and rested her head on my chest.
I leaned down and murmured in her ear, "This isn't so bad, is it Aeryn?" Getting no reply, I kissed the top of her head. She pulled away, glared at me and pushed my arm away. After she was tossed against our neighbors a few times, I decided to try to talk some sense to her.
"Aeryn. If you end up with a sprained wrist or something, you won't be much use as a warrior to anyone. Hang on to me. I promise not to bite." That last line was a mistake, but Aeryn did let me put my arm around her again. She did make sure she kept her distance, though.
After three arns, we got off. We had reached a mining colony on a moon of a local gas giant. It was covered with what had probably once been a clear dome. Now you could hardly see through most of it, and there were large metal patches in it. As we passed one patch, I could distinctly hear the hiss of escaping air. This was more like the Uncharted Territories I was used to. Trash everywhere, strange, unpleasant odors, falling down buildings and poorly fed, unhappy people.
One of those people stepped out of a doorway in front of me.
"Well, hello. Care for some fun? One of you will be fine and two will be finer. How about it?"
Great. My very first interstellar hooker. She was dressed in a diaphanous violet dress that left nothing to the imagination. She was built too much like a collection of beer kegs for a human's taste and I thought for a microt about teasing Aeryn. I turned to Aeryn and smiled, then I saw the hooker's hand coming at me. I dodged and felt the blade of the knife skitter along my leather coat. The hooker drew back to stab me again and a pulse pistol shot took her in the throat.
I threw Aeryn to the ground behind a pile of trash.
"Crichton! You don't need to protect me after I've shot your assailant. What do you think you're doing."
By way of explanation, I pointed to a long silvery needle sticking out of the building about at he level of where Aeryn's throat had been.
"I think I saw some movement in the doorway across the street, Aeryn. We need to...."
Aeryn didn't care what I thought we needed to do. She took off across the street, shooting as she went. I caught up with her in an empty store front.
"He, she, it or they are gone, Aeryn. " Still, Aeryn insisted we search the area. We ended back at the dead hooker. Aeryn looked at the needle.
"That's not much of a weapon. From the depth it penetrated, it couldn't have had much initial velocity and it's too light to do much damage."
She was starting to pull the needle out when I stopped her. "I'd bet it's poisoned, Aeryn."
"More Earth weapons, Crichton? Are you sure we don't have an invasion of alien humans on our hands?"
If she hadn't sounded so serious, I would have thought she was making a joke.
I bent over the dead woman. "Why did that woman try to kill me with you right there? Didn't she know how dangerous that was? What kind of hit men, hit beings, would take on two armed Peacekeepers with a knife and a blowpipe? "
Aeryn turned and pushed her face right into mine. Her voice was low, but definitely angry. "I don't know, Crichton. I can't be expected to keep you and the rest of the crew of Moya alive and know the answer to every inane question you can come up with. The total number of warriors on Moya is one ex-Peacekeeper and one Luxan who has been thinking with his mivocks for a while. We're being chased by a full peacekeeper Command Carrier, unless Scorpius has been reinforced, of course. Then, every bounty hunter in the Uncharted Territories is looking for us, not to mention every bandit, pirate, or slaver who thinks a Leviathan would be easy prey. Oh, and then there's Captain Crais who has a Leviathan gunship that doesn't belong to him. We don't know what, if anything, he may want with us."
She backed away from me and started walking away. "If you need to know so badly, try tracking down her friends and asking them. Maybe she was desperate. Maybe she was crazy. Maybe she used some sort of chemicals that affected her thinking. I don't know, Crichton. And I don't care."
I tried to apologize to Aeryn, not entirely sure what I was apologizing for, but had no luck. I was partly at fault, of course. I was used to thinking of Aeryn as the indestructible ex-Peacekeeper Commando who would always be able to provide any violence needed if my ideas didn't work out. I had suddenly gotten a glimpse of just how much pressure we, no I, was putting on Aeryn. But Aeryn would never be able to accept that she wasn't the indestructible ex-Peacekeeper Commando that would always arrive in the nick of time, just like the US Cavalry. I thought to myself. "Okay, John. All you have to do is take some of the pressure off of Aeryn, violence-wise. No problem. Sure."
We finally go to where the Marauder was hidden. It was under a tumbled down hanger guarded by a tall cadaverous, gray skinned being. He must have recognized us.
I nodded to him.
"Your contacts are down the tunnel." He motioned with his shoulder towards a large concrete pipe across a wide walkway. It looked like it sloped downward.
"Okay, lead us to them."
He laughed. "Get frelled. Those are vampires down there. You go." He turned and walked away.
"Fampires? What the frell are fampires, Crichton."
"Vampires, Aeryn. Legendary beings of Earth legend. They didn't exist, but they were supposed to be able to turn themselves into flying creatures and they drank the blood of their victims to live forever."
"But they're not real?"
"Not on Earth, Aeryn. I don't know about in the Uncharted Territories."
We walked to the entrance of the pipe. It was pitch black inside. Aeryn pulled her oculars out of her pouch and put them on.
"All right, Crichton. Follow me."
"Wait a minute, Aeryn. I go first, and I go with the oculars. The contact is expecting the big, bad Peacekeeper Captain and they'll expect him to be in front. Hand over the oculars." I held out my hand for the oculars.
"Crichton, the contact, if they have any brains, will expect the Peacekeeper Captain, if he has any brains, to have someone in front of him in case of trouble. I go first and I keep the oculars."
"Except the big, bad Peacekeeper Special Ops Captain isn't looking for a fight. He's just here to pick up a package. Not start Intergalactic War Three. The oculars."
Aeryn turned around and glared at me.
"Aeryn, you know I'm right. A real Peacekeeper Special Ops Captain would walk in there like he owned the place and would never consider that some lesser race would give him any problems. Am I right?"
Aeryn didn't say anything, but handed me the oculars. As we started down the tunnel, I took Aeryn's hand. She pulled it back.
"Aeryn, you can't see in here. I don't want to let everyone in here know where we are by having to talk to you constantly. Now take my hand." She stood there for a couple of microts, and then took my hand.
We walked down the tunnel for what seemed like forever. It only had a slight slope, and ran straight. Then up ahead I saw someone squatting on a ledge above us. I stopped about ten feet in front of him.
"So, are you our tourist guide?"
He laughed softly. "Those little toys are better than I thought, Peacekeeper. I didn't expect you to see Horthy."
Aeryn was trying to push her way in front of me and our new best friend, but I pushed her back behind me.
Horthy jumped down, "Follow me, Captain,"
About another twenty microts and we came to barricade across the tunnel. There was a passageway in it just big enough for us to get through. Manning it were about a half a dozen young men, armed with clubs and knives. I noticed they were all shorter than I, only about five feet tall. Horthy was a comparative giant at about five and a half feet.
After the barricade, the tunnel widened out and started to branch out. Suddenly, we were in a large, open space, lit by a couple of small torches. There was just enough light for us to see where we were going. I decided to hand Aeryn the oculars. I had been the macho Special Ops Captain long enough. Now if things went bad, I wanted Aeryn to have any advantage she could come up with. The thought crossed my mind that I had promised myself not to depend so much on Aeryn. If only I could figure out how.
We stopped in front of a long, low table. I could see two dim figures sitting in behind the table. Horthy walked around the table and sat on one end.
"More light for our guests." The voice sounded like that of a girl. In response to her command, more torches were lit. I could barely see our contacts, but I suspected that this was a blaze of light to them. Horthy was on our right. On the other end was an old man with a long white beard. From the way he looked past us, I suspected his vision was nearly gone.
In the middle was what appeared to be a young girl. Pale white skin, long black hair and, as near as I could tell, black eyes. She was dressed in a long, clingy dress that showed the body of a girl. I had been in the Uncharted Territories long enough to come to no conclusions about any of them. White beard could probably see better than Aeryn, Horthy was probably a little girl and... and I was just going to confuse myself thinking like this.
"Good day. I am Captain Crichton, Peacekeeper Special Operations. You are our contacts, I presume?"
"Correct, Captain." The girl smiled at me, displaying two needle like fangs.
I should have expected it, but I didn't. The spooky atmosphere and the fangs caused me to take a slight step backwards. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that Aeryn hadn't moved. I thought I saw her frown.
The girl stopped smiling. "It appears you have already made up your mind about us, Captain. Please take the package prepared for you, and leave." She held out a small leather bag.
"No, please. I haven't made up my mind about anything. It sounded like you wanted to talk about something. Go ahead. "
There was a long silence. It dragged on until I thought I had better just take the bag and go. Then she spoke.
"Very good, Captain. Always make your judgments based on information you gather yourself. Very professional. Just what we would expect from the Peacekeepers. I am Ssherbandi. I am the hereditary ruler of my people, the Govans. We are called, by some, vampires. I regret to inform you, Captain, that we cannot change ourselves into giant barrabos and fly invisibly through the night. We cannot give you the secret of eternal life, as we do not know it. We cannot bite your enemies and turn them into your slaves. We can do little for you. We are a despised minority, here and everywhere in the Uncharted Territories. We are required to live here, where the authorities can keep an eye on us. Our home planet, wherever it may be, must be a dark place. We cannot stand the light. It burns our eyes and our skins."
"We do get some amusement from the legends that we bite our enemies in the neck and suck their blood out. Our teeth evolved to suck the juices out of fruits on our long, lost home world. We are herbivores."
That surprised me. "You're veggie vampires?"
The three exchanged glances like they weren't sure their translator microbes were working. I had seen that look a lot.
"We eat only plant life, Captain Crichton, if that was what you meant. We don't eat people."
I thought briefly about Zhaan and wondered how they'd feel about her, but I just nodded my head.
Ssherbandi continued. "We can own no vehicles or space ships, for fear we would be able to outrun the authorities. We can neither sell alcoholic beverages or enter places where they are sold. We might make someone drunk and make them our slaves. We can hire no one of another race to work for us. I will not bore you with the long list of restrictions on us. We live here and support ourselves by our ancient trade, the cutting and polishing of gems. We can be of little use to you as allies, I'm afraid, Captain."
I thought this over for a few microts. "So, why are you involved with the rebellion on Kashgar. Do you hope the revolutionaries will provide a fairer government?"
Horthy laughed and Ssherbandi smiled, showing her fangs. "When the authorities have a problem, like the air supply being contaminated, food and water supplies run low, or there are cave ins in the mines, they blame us. Some of us have to leave here for supplies or to deal with the authorities. If they're caught above, they die. Of course young attractive women may be given an option. Sometimes we are able to ransom them later. Once the last of us is chased down here, our enemies run into the barricade you passed through. They scream at us, take a few shots at us and eventually leave. A monen, or a cycle later, we go through the whole thing again."
"So the revolutionaries protect you from the authorities in exchange for your help?"
From the looks I got from all concerned, I could see that the reputation of the Peacekeepers was taking some serious damage. "No, Captain. We help the rebels so that they won't tell their supporters that all of their problems are caused by the Govans. So their supporters won't come to kill us."
I reached out and took the bag and opened it. It was full of bright gems.
"So why not use your skills to make enough money to buy weapons to protect yourself. Play the rebels off against the government. The mining colony isn't that big. You could hold the balance of power here. "
White beard answered that one. "That would be foolish. We have always survived by staying underground until those on the surface forget about us. Any other action would be suicide."
Neither Ssherbandi or Horthy contradicted him, but I thought they looked like they might have thought about a more active defense. Horthy spoke.
"Besides, Captain. No one would sell us arms. Both the rebels and the government would be offended. No arms seller would risk their displeasure for selling us a small number of weapons."
I put the bag in my pocket. "You right, of course. The Peacekeepers would not find you to be valuable as allies. Will you guide us back out, Horthy."
Horthy rose and led us back to the entrance of the tunnel. We soon found ourselves back on the surface. Horthy stopped and started to go back down.
"Hold on, Horthy. Stay here for a microt. I may have something for you."
I went into the Marauder and opened the small arms locker. Aeryn was right behind me.
"Crichton, what are you doing?"
"Relax, Aeryn. I'm just taking a few pulse pistols to Horthy. The Marauder has enough weapons for it's normal crew. We don't need them all, and once we're back on Moya, we have all the weapons we need."
I put four pistols in a large bag and threw in a few dozen chakon oil cartridges. I stood up to find Aeryn standing between me and the hatch. She was frowning. I tried to think of a good way to make this seem like the sort of thing a Peacekeeper would approve of.
"Honestly, Crichton. That tunnel is straight for at least a metra. A pulse carbine will be of more use in convincing a mob to go home well before they get to the barricade than four pistols will be when the mob actually gets to the barricade."
She reached behind me and pulled a carbine out and added it and a large box of cartridges to the bag.
I gave Aeryn a smile. "You old softy, Aeryn."
"Crichton, there are perfectly sound military reasons to make allies of these people. For one..."
I winked at Aeryn and left before she had a chance to continue. I walked over to Horthy and handed him the bag. He looked at it and then at me.
"What I said was true, Horthy. The Peacekeepers will never consider you as allies. Remember that." I turned around and walked back to the Marauder. When I turned around at the Marauder's hatch, Horthy was gone.
Aeryn spent the next three arns going over the Marauder from top to bottom. Eventually she joined me in Command.
"So, is the Marauder a keeper, Aeryn?"
"We have no choice, Crichton. Of course it's a keeper. It's all of 75 cycles old if the data plate in front is accurate. It has been repaired a dozen times or more with non-Peacekeeper technology, and the logs have all been erased, so I can't tell what sort of damage has been done that isn't apparent without a major inspection. But it'll do."
A quarter of an arn later we were on our way to our next rendezvous.
"Aeryn, am I wrong, or is that a flying saucer ahead of us?"
I should know better by now. Aeryn couldn't manage to look angry or disgusted. All she could manage was to look tired.
"Crichton, it's an extremely oblated spheroid. It might be a frying saucer on Earth, but not here."
"Sorry, Aeryn. Can you at least tell me how big that thing is? It's hard to tell with nothing to judge scale by."
Aeryn checked a few readouts before answering. "I estimate it's about a quarter of the volume of Moya. I can calculate the displacement if you need it." Her voice said I'd better have a very good reason if I wanted the displacement."
"No, Aeryn. Volume is fine."
We were guided into a landing bay that was much smaller than Moya's. There was room for just us and another vessel. The other ship was a little bigger than ours, and built like a tin can. If ours looked like it was one step away from the scrap heap, this one looked like it had been pulled out of one. It had more patches than hull and none of the windows matched. A large cargo hatch hung drunkenly down the side of the ship. I wondered how they managed to get it shut. At least that wasn't my problem.
We got out of the Marauder and a voice told us to go to the end of the passageway. We did and found ourselves facing a blank wall. Then, suddenly we were facing a new passageway. At the end was a patch of light and we headed for it. As we walked along, Aeryn put her hands on the wall.
"Crichton, I think this is a living ship."
"Another Leviathan, Aeryn? It doesn't look anything like Moya." Since I have no idea what other Leviathans look like, I expected a blast from Aeryn.
"No. It's not a Leviathan, but I don't know what it is. But I'm sure it's a living ship." This was about the first time I had seen Aeryn interested in anything since we'd started this trip.
"Very good, Lieutenant Sun. You are to be congratulated on your choice of a subordinate, Captain Crichton. This is indeed a living starship, but not a Leviathan."
I looked toward the end of the passageway where our host was. He was a quadruped, about as high as my hip at the shoulder, and skinnier than any Earth four legged animal that I had ever seen. He was a nice palomino color and had a head more like a man's than anything else.
"In our language he is the Ship and we are the Crew. When we are in contact, we are all the Ship." He lifted his forefoot and a short spike at the end of his foot slid out of the floor. He put his foot back down and the spike neatly slid into the Ship again. "The Ship is not sentient like a Leviathan. When we are in contact, we merge into one mind and are the Ship. Depending on which, and how many, Crew are a part of the ship, we have different personalities. If mostly Navigators are in contact, we are very curious about the Universe and very mathematical. If mostly Traders are in contact, we are acquisitive. But come, we have dinner and meet the other passengers."
Our host led us into the light where two humanoids sat eating. When they saw us, all Hell broke loose.
The male drew his pulse pistol. The female grabbed his arm and forced it down, away from Aeryn and me.
The man was screaming. "Peacekeepers! They're mine, Ship. I'll pay any frelling price you want, but they're mine."
The woman screamed at him. "Put that down. Do you want to get killed?"
Our host pushed himself between Aeryn and I and the others.
""Gilead Sahm. Cease at once or die. Galil Sahm. If your brother does not put his weapon down, we will have no choice but to kill him."
Three more Crew arrived, each wearing a helmet of some sort. I noticed that something had extruded itself from the Ship's walls when the new Crew arrived.
"Aeryn, don't draw your pistol. Those things sticking out of the walls are weapons, I think. The helmets are some sort of aiming devices for the Crew. One's pointed at our friends, but one is right behind us with a bead on us."
Aeryn slowly removed her hand from her pulse pistol.
Finally, the man holstered his pistol and sat. His sister sat beside him, but kept an eye on Aeryn and me, as well as on her brother.
The Crew-being took a position halfway between us.
"Captain Crichton, Lieutenant Sun. I must apologize for this. We were not aware that these Sebaceans had any hatred for Peacekeepers in them. Your race is not familiar to us. However, I assure you that the Ship will not allow, under any conditions, any harm to befall you while you are our guests. We will all die before we allow our hospitality to be dishonored."
He turned to the Sebacean male. "Do you understand this Captain Sahm?"
Sahm stood and made a stiff little bow to our host. He was a little shorter than I was, but a bit heavier. He had bright red hair, worn in a queue down the back of his neck, and a full, bushy beard.
"Those are Peacekeepers, Ship. You don't understand what they are like. You don't know what they are capable of. Allow me to kill them for you. You'll regret it for the rest of your very short lives if you don't. I'll happily pay damages. Name your price."
Ship started to explain their policy about murdering fellow passengers again. Absolutely, says John Crichton. Murdering passengers should be a major no-no.
I turned my attention to the sister. Voluptuous was the first word that popped into my mind. Her red hair hung free and loose, all the way to her butt. She had on a pair of brief, tight shorts that showed off her legs. I had to admit I hadn't seen a better pair since the last time I looked at Aeryn. Speaking of a better pair, her blouse was open all the way to her navel. She was staring straight at me and smiling. Well, showing her teeth. I decided she was more of a predator showing her teeth to her prey.
I glanced at Aeryn. She was looking around with a slightly bored air. I decided that was the way a Peacekeeper Captain would handle this. I tried to look bored by the whole thing.
Finally, Bonnie and Clyde were sent to their quarters without their dinner and Aeryn and I were asked to sit down and eat. The Crew who had met us joined us.
"I cannot stress enough, Captain Crichton, how seriously we take our vows of hospitality. I do not know the reasons for the animosity of the other Sebaceans have for you, but we had no reason to believe that two pairs from the same race would be anything but amicable. I believe that I have impressed on the Sahms the importance of peace and order on Ship. But, can you possibly enlighten me on the reasons for their hatred. Are they personal enemies? Are you from rival clans, perhaps? We would like to avoid such embarrassments in the future."
I glanced to Aeryn to see if she had any suggestions, but she just shrugged.
"Sorry, Ship. We don't know the Sahms personally. As far as I know, they have some personal grudge against us Peacekeepers, and we just happened to be the first ones they ran into."
The Crew nodded. I'm not sure he was convinced, but I wasn't about to tell him the truth. We finished a bowl of multi colored library paste, made our apologies and headed of to our quarters. These turned out to be about the size of a closet. It was just two bunks and a little walkway between them with a locker at the end.
Aeryn sat on her bed for a few microts and then got up.
"I want to check the power couplings on the Marauder. They sounded like they had some vibrations in them on the trip here. I'll be back in a thousand microts."
Aeryn was out of the door and gone before I started thinking. The Sahms, especially the brother, looked like they might be willing to risk death to kill a Peacekeeper. I suddenly didn't like the idea of Aeryn sitting alone in a Marauder with her mind on the engine, not matter what the Ship said.
I stepped out into the passageway. When I had entered, our quarters had been at the end of the passageway. Now the passageway ran to my left and tight. Had our living ship changed its configuration?
"Ship, how do I get to our Marauder?"
"Turn left and go to the end of this passageway and make a left, two rights and a left and you will arrive where you wish."
After the first turn, I suddenly was sure that someone was following me. "Good thinking, Crichton. To you, Aeryn is the only real Peacekeeper here, so she's the only one in danger. To the Sahms, you're the big, bad Peacekeeper Special Ops Captain. Naturally, they want to kill their most dangerous enemy first."
I found an alcove and moved back into the shadows. A few microts later I was rewarded by the sight of Galil Sahm tiptoeing down the passageway. As she passed me, I saw a small pulse pistol tucked into the back of her belt. I stepped out behind her and pulled her pistol out. She whirled to face her own pistol.
"Good evening. Looking for a Peacekeeper? Need a little instruction in tracking? Or the care and feeding of pulse pistols?"
She didn't say a word, but if looks could kill, I'd be one gone Peacekeeper.
"Ship. This is Captain Crichton. I found Galil Sahm tracking me with a weapon. I'd appreciate if you could keep a little better track of our wandering Sebacean girl."
The Ship's voice replied from what sounded like about an inch from my ear. Then I looked to my right and found an extension of the ship looking at me and no doubt hearing and smelling me as well.
"The situation is anomalous, Captain Crichton. She was behind you, but also heading for her ship. Her weapon was in her belt until you removed it. Is it your intention to punish her for an infraction?"
"That's your job. Tell you what, can you just keep her weapon until Lieutenant Sun and I get back to our quarters? And how about letting me, or Lieutenant Sun, know when the Sahms are in the area? Okay?"
What looked like a mouth opened in the wall and I put the pistol in it. The Ship swallowed it. "We will keep you and your subordinate informed if the Sahm's approach, Captain."
Galil smiled at me. "It must be wonderful to be a Peacekeeper. To be so superior, so perfect, so far above all of the lesser races. To be able to do any frelling thing you want with no consequences. Tell me, what's it like for you, Captain Crichton? Is it as perfect as you seem to think it is?"
All right. Captain Crichton, obnoxious, contemptuous Peacekeeper Special Ops Captain, front and center. I could do this. All I had to do was imagine one part Scorpius, one part Crais and one part Sparky. For pure arrogance with no basis it was hard to beat Buckwheat.
"We bring order to a violent and dangerous Universe. You would do well to remember that. Our attitudes are based on our service." Not bad. I would have to remember to look down my nose a little more.
"Your service. Your frelling service. Frelling dren. You're out in the Uncharted Territories in a Marauder that can outrun or outshoot ninety nine percent of anything you'll ever run into. Don't make me laugh."
I did look down my nose. "I assure you, I haven't spent my entire career in the Peacekeepers in the Uncharted Territories. I could tell you stories that would curl your hair."
She gave me a stare that Aeryn would have loved. Dren! Another Earth expression that was meaningless to Sebaceans. Well, at least I didn't have to try to remember the plot of "The Wild Bunch" or "Apocalypse Now" to impress her with my Peacekeeping past.
"You wouldn't believe the places my duty has taken me to and the dangers I have faced." True enough. She wouldn't have believed a word of the truth.
"You've heard of the Darfur Campaign, haven't you, Captain." Her smile was getting nasty.
"Of course." Well, no, not a clue, actually. I decided that The Adventures of Captain Crichton in the Darfur Campaign would have to be classified Unbelievably Secret, Burn Before Reading, if she ever asked.
"Would you believe I was there at the Final Assault, Captain? And my brother, and many of our family?"
I nodded like I had some idea of what she was talking about.
Her smile got wider, but no nicer. "My family are from Dushanbe. Do you know of it?"
I decided if she needed to ask, it probably wasn't that well known. "Never heard of it."
"No reason for you to have heard of an agricultural planet that does nothing but provide you with food, taxes, conscripts and anything else you feel like taking, is there Captain?"
I decided I was probably taking more than a good Peacekeeper Captain should.
"Is there a point to this, Sahm, or do you intend to get around the Ship's restrictions by boring me to death?"
Her smile faded and I thought she might be thinking about taking a punch at me. She didn't, though.
"When my grandfather was a young man, he started out trading with a little intra-atmosphere shuttle. By the time my brother and I went into space, we had five interstellar ships. Oh, nothing to compare what you are used to, but they were our own. Our whole family, our whole commune, depended on those ships for our livelihood. Not to mention tens of thousands of people on a dozen other agricultural worlds."
"Then the Peacekeepers came and needed our ships and our crews. Just for an administrative landing on an already pacified part of Darfur. Our crews would be paid for their time and we'd be compensated for any damage to our ships. You know what happened, don't you, Captain?"
"Of course." The Sahm's Interstellar Lines Fiasco had probably been in all the papers, but I hadn't a clue. I just sat there and looked superior.
"Of course, you know, Captain. You just don't frelling care, do you? By the time we got there, there were no pacified areas left on Darfur and the invasion force was fighting for its life. We were happy to try to help our troops. We were proud to be of service to our Peacekeepers. Can you believe that?"
Her smile was all gone, replaced with a sneer.
"We lost all five ships. Four were destroyed in space and all the crews and troops aboard died. Only the ship with my brother and I on it managed to reach the planet, but that ship would never fly again. My brother was wounded badly, even I was hurt a little. See?"
She turned her back to me and lifted her hair up to show me a nasty scar on the back of her neck, running down under her shirt.
"Eventually, Darfur was pacified. How many soldiers and how many ships did we really lose, Captain? I personally saw two Command Carriers blow up. I saw several cruisers crash into Darfur's moons. I saw a lot more dead than you Peacekeepers ever admitted to, but we were proud to be of service."
She stopped and I thought that she was waiting for me to make a comment. Something very Peacekeeper-ish. Something cold, uncaring, nasty.
"Dren happens. Get over it."
That did it. She despised me totally. Too bad. She and her brother would probably have liked all of us, if I could tell the truth. But would they ever believe the truth? Not a chance.
"Dren happens. Get over it. I'll have to remember that, Captain. Dren happens. Well, the dren that happened to us was that payment for the surviving crew, compensation for the families of the dead, compensation for our lost ships would be delayed. Delayed until Command could build replacement ships for those destroyed at Darfur. Until they could replace all of the dead soldiers lost at Darfur. Peacekeeper promises, a Peacekeeper's oath meant nothing. My family protested, we complained, we made nuisances of ourselves to Command. Finally, my grandfather was told to shut up. He was being unpatriotic. He should be proud that the great, wonderful Peacekeepers had allowed him to sacrifice his family, friends and our livelihoods for the greater glory of the Peacekeepers. And when he didn't shut up, they sent him to a labor camp. We haven't heard from him in all this time, Captain. Do you think, perhaps, he's died for the glory of the Peacekeepers?"
"I complained. I complained to a Peacekeeper Captain. He tied me up and beat me until I was unconscious. Then, after working up a sweat, he decided a little recreating was in order."
She stopped. I knew she was expecting a nasty remark from the Peacekeeper Captain. I couldn't have said a nasty word to her at that point if my life depended on it.
"Later, I managed to keep Gilead from going after the Captain. Even if Gilead killed him, it would have left too many of you left in the Universe. But, we remember the Captain who raped me. We'll remember you, Captain Crichton. We'll remember your little trelk, too. We'll remember you all."
She stood back from me and smiled again. It was no more convincing than the earlier ones.
"How about it, Captain? Wouldn't you just love to take me back to your quarters, tie me up and beat me until I'm screaming with pain? Wouldn't it excite you to frell my brains out then? You would be able to frell my brains out, wouldn't you Captain? I'd hate to think that you wouldn't be able to do anything more than beat a woman to a pulp. Wouldn't that be a shame? All those big, strong muscles. Surely, that one little muscle wouldn't let you down? "
At least I had an out.
"Sorry, Galil. I'm not in a mood to be punished by the Ship for attacking you. The Ship was very clear about the rules, weren't they? Besides, I'm quite content with my current partner." I hope Aeryn didn't hear about that remark any time soon.
Galil smiled, and started to pull her shirt out of her shorts. "Oh, your little black haired trelk? Really, Captain! A woman who actually enjoys that sort of frelling can hardly satisfy a man like you."
Suddenly she stopped and looked at me strangely.
I realized that I was not acting in character and she was starting to wonder about me. A real Peacekeeper Captain would be enraged at Galil's insults to the Peacekeepers, not to mention the personal insults. I should have been screaming, raging, throwing things, kicking loose objects and threatening all and sundry with the Living Death, and to Hezmana with any inferior Ships and Crews. I decided it was too late to go berserk. No, Captain Crichton was one cold, cruel, controlled Peacekeeper son of a bitch.
I smiled at her. I tried to make it as real a smile as I could manage. "Sorry, Galil. I'm not buying any today. See me after payday." I started to push past her.
"It's the trelk, isn't it. You care for her, don't you, Captain."
Damn. Earthmen heading for the Uncharted Territories should be issued with a fool-proof poker face. I turned back to face her.
"Lieutenant Sun? You are joking." I tried to sound as if I was about to laugh in her face.
"You don't care for her? You're not heading for some love nest in the Uncharted Territories where you can be together? Fleeing from enraged Peacekeepers? Irreversibly Contaminated?"
"Galil, I'm the last person who'll ever be thrown out of the Peacekeepers as Irreversibly Contaminated." That was true. I'd be the last one they'd ever let in the Peacekeepers, too.
She laughed. "You're right, Captain. Anyone who believes the Peacekeeper dren like you do would suicide at once if you were ever Irreversibly Contaminated. "
She gave me another insincere smile and leaned up against me. "My grandmother was a shaman. Oh, I know, an educated man like you doesn't believe in the superstitions of a bunch of ignorant farmers. But, there are many things that can't be explained by your science."
If she quoted that line from Shakespeare, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy", I was gone.
"I have the power, Captain. I'm not trained like my grandmother, but I do have the power. I curse you, Captain. And I curse your trelk. You and your trelk will fall in love. You will flee into the Uncharted Territories and be pursued by the Peacekeepers for the rest of your life."
What else could I do? It was so perfect a curse, I just had to laugh.
Before Galil could react, I heard a woman's scream and a pulse pistol shot. I shoved her to the floor and took off to where the Marauder was parked. Frelling dren. I should never have let that psychotic Sebacean hold me up. If anything had happened to Aeryn.........I couldn't complete that thought.
I skidded to a halt in front of the Marauder with my pulse pistol drawn just as half a dozen armed Crew arrived. Aeryn was standing over a moaning Gilead Sahm, covering him with her pulse pistol. I asked Aeryn what had happened at the same time she started to explain it to me. At least two of the Crew were trying to interrogate both Aeryn and Gilead simultaneously. About that time, Galil arrived, screaming bloody murder.
Finally, everyone got calmed down and Aeryn was told by the Crew to explain what had happened.
"What happened! This piece of dren tired to murder me. He waited for me to turn my back and then threw a sharpened piece of steel rod at me. I heard something, turned, drew and shot. I managed to hit his weapon and deflect it." Aeryn pointed to a half-melted steel rod on the floor near her.
"He tried to run and I subdued him."
Gilead looked up at the Crew. "Peacekeeper lies. I was working on my ship and dropped a tool. It never came anywhere near her. Then she attacked me. I demand to be allowed to punish her. It is my right."
The Crew seemed to discuss this briefly, then turned to Gilead. "We have reviewed the surveillance tapes. Your story of dropping the tool is false. You propelled it at Lieutenant Sun with great force. You have violated our hospitality."
The Crew doing the talking turned to Aeryn. "Lieutenant Sun, do you intend to punish Gilead Sahm?"
Aeryn raised her pistol and aimed at Gilead. "You're frelling right I intend to punish him."
Before she could fire, I screamed at her. "Lieutenant Sun. Lower your weapon at once."
Aeryn did stop and stared in shock at me. "Do what?"
"Holster your weapon. Now." I didn't have time to explain to Aeryn.
"Are you completely out of your frelling mind? You expect me...."
I couldn't let this get out of hand. "That's enough, Lieutenant Sun. Replace you pistol in your holster and return to your quarters at once and remain there. That is a direct order, Lieutenant. Now."
I thought Aeryn was going to shoot me instead of Gilead, but she slammed her pistol into its holster and stomped past me without a word.
The Crew approached me. "Do you intend to punish Gilead Sahm for his transgression?"
I breathed a sigh of relief. "That's your business. But, I don't want either of the Sahm's to have any access to anywhere that Lieutenant Sun and I are or will be. I want them completely separated from us for the rest of the voyage, understand? Whatever happens to them other than that is up to you."
The Crew congregated again, discussing things in their joint mind. "It will be so, Captain Crichton. We apologize for our failure in this matter."
I turned on my heel and stalked past Galil. I snuck a look at her expression as I passed her. One part relief that her brother was still alive, one part apprehension at what the Ship would do, and about ten parts hatred for me and all Peacekeepers.
I stopped for a second outside of our quarters. I wasn't looking forward to this. Finally, I opened the door. Aeryn was lying on her back on her bunk. She turned and stared at me. The sort of a stare you'd give to a particularly nasty looking bug, part curiosity and part revulsion.
Her voice was very soft when she did speak. "He tried to kill me, Crichton. He. Tried. To. Kill. Me. Do you frelling understand that, Crichton?"
"Yes, Aeryn. Believe me, I do understand that."
"And you don't care, Crichton. Your Earth prejudices against violence have been catered to, so you don't care?"
"No, Aeryn, it's my Earth prejudices against risking your life that I catered to."
That got her attention. "What the frell are you talking about, Crichton? My life had already been risked by the time you got there."
"Aeryn, Galil Sahm stopped me in the passageway on the way to the Marauder. She tried very hard to goad me into attacking her. If I had been a real Peacekeeper, I probably would have beaten her to a pulp and she would have been overjoyed. She and her brother hate Peacekeepers. Enough to risk their lives, maybe even lose their lives to kill a Peacekeeper. They're crazy enough to try and I'll tell you why."
I explained about their ships and the Darfur Campaign and their father and Galil's rape.
"And John Crichton, with all of a cycle experience in the Uncharted Territories, decided this all by himself?" Aeryn was trying to sound sarcastic, but she sounded too unsure of herself to pull it off.
"Okay, don't take my word for it. Ship, hey, Ship. Wake up. We need to talk."
The Ship was right there. "Captain Crichton? Is there a problem with the Sahms again?"
"I need some information, Ship. What would you have done if Lieutenant Sun had killed Gilead Sahm?"
The Ship thought that over for a few microts. "The point is moot, Captain. Lieutenant Sun did not kill Gilead Sahm, or anyone else."
Damn. That wasn't the answer I was looking for. "But if she had, Ship, what would you have done?"
The Ship thought some more. "Are you asking a hypothetical question, Captain?"
This Ship was making me homesick for Pilot. "Yes. A hypothetical question."
"To answer your question we would need a full description of the hypothetical incident. For instance, a complete description of the weapon, the manner of its use, its inherent lethality, the person or persons involved, the involvement or non-involvement of Crew, the precise reaction of the injured party, the injuries or lack of same suffered by the injured party, the precise time and location of the incident, a history of any prior relationships between all parties to the incident, including Crew...."
That was enough. "Okay, okay, Ship. I get the point. Let me re-phrase the question. If one passenger deliberately attacks and injures or kills another passenger, you punish the survivor, right?"
The Ship sounded offended. "Of, course, I believe we explained that to you, Captain Crichton when you boarded."
This was nothing like what I'd hoped for. "Thanks Ship. You've been a big help."
"You're more than welcome, Captain Crichton," the Ship replied brightly. Sarcasm seemed to be a lost art in the Uncharted Territories.
I turned to Aeryn. "Look, Aeryn. I might have been wrong about the Ship. Maybe the Ship would have let you shoot Gilead. But believe me, the only thing I had in mind back there was your safety. I could never let anything happen to you. I care about you, I worry about you and I'm concerned for you every microt. I know that probably sounds bogus, since I do end up putting you in danger too many times, like right now and ever since we started this cockamamie trip. But Aeryn, if I could find a way to make sure you were happy and safe forever, I'd do it, no questions asked. Do you believe me?"
Aeryn stared at me for the longest time. Finally, she got up. "I have to check out the Marauder's engines. I didn't like the integration of some of the non-Peacekeeper technology I saw."
I got up and followed her out the door.
"You don't need to go with me, Crichton."
"I know, Aeryn, but I will. Just to be safe."
When we got to the hangar, the Marauder was alone. The Sahm's ship was nowhere to be seen. I hoped that the Ship hadn't killed either of them. As much as I loved Aeryn, I didn't want those two to suffer any more. As cold as it had sounded then, "get over it", was probably the best advice I could have given Galil. They could kill Peacekeepers until there were no more left and they would never be happy. Then again, they probably would never be happy if they gave up their vendetta against the Peacekeepers. Just as I was too frightened of the consequences to tell Aeryn that I loved her, I was too scared of the possible answer to ask the Ship what had happened to the Sahms.
I hung around the Marauder while Aeryn worked until I got tired and bored. Aeryn didn't seem to mind when I headed back to our quarters. As I laid on my bunk I tried to figure out my relationship with Aeryn. After I explained to her why I stopped her from shooting she didn't seem to be mad at me any more. But what was she? Disappointed in me? Confused? Uncertain of me? Some Sebacean feeling I couldn't begin to understand?
I fell asleep and when I awoke, Aeryn's bunk had been slept in, but she was gone. I wandered off for some breakfast of multicolored library paste and arrived just as Aeryn was leaving.
"Hello, Crichton. The Ship has some circular things this shift that are almost edible. I'll be at the Marauder. I think I've figured out why the power links seem so frelled up. Later."
I re-played that short conversation over in my head for an arn, trying to figure it out. After a while, I decided that Aeryn had been marginally friendly to me.
I headed back to the Marauder to see if I could confirm my theory. But Aeryn was hanging upside down in the Marauder's engine and all I could see of her was the soles of her boots. Having a human kibitz while you're in that position would probably piss anyone off. I decided to wander around the Ship. Three arns later I had seen about three metras of corridors and maybe three Crew. I finally went back to our quarters and stared at the walls.
"Yes, Ship, what is it?"
"You have visitors."
At first I thought the Sahms were headed for me, but that made no sense.
"The people your employers told you would contact you are here. We would suggest you meet by your vessel, as there will apparently be a transfer of cargo."
I told the Ship to alert Aeryn and then to send our visitors to the bay where the Marauder was. I arrived just as a ship slid in through the hull of the Ship. Aeryn was standing by our Marauder and I joined her. I was sure I looked every other inch a Peacekeeper.
My visitors were octopi. Octopuses? Octopussies? They had eight legs. About a dozen walked over to us.
"That's me. You are?"
"Your con-tac. You hef no nid for my nem. I hef dealt wif Picekippers b'fore. Don't lek. Here."
For some reason his translator microbes didn't work very well, but he handed me a package wrapped in some sort of blue paper about the size of a brick. When I took it, I found it was much lighter than a brick. I stared at it and then at my contact and then at Aeryn. Neither was any help.
Finally, my contact took pity on me and pulled a tab on the package. The paper split open revealing a tightly packed brick of some sort of vegetable matter.
"Ve hef fefty fer more for you. Test?"
I held it up to my nose and inhaled. It had a sweet, soft scent. Suddenly, those nights watching Miami Vice came back to me and I knew where I was and what I was doing.
"Primo. Our people will be very happy. " I turned to Aeryn. "Do you know what the street value of this is?"
For once, Aeryn was flustered. "Sir, um, I don't think, er, that this is used for, em, streets."
I tried to give her my best South Florida narcotraficante leer. "It's a good thing I need you to be gorgeous, lethal and smart and not funny, Lieutenant Sun. We'll put this on the cigarette boats, run it past the Bahamas and into Miami, and let our dealers take all the risks."
I just hoped that none of our eight legged friends was a Sonny or Rico, just itching to bust us. Well, if somebody was undercover, I'd give them the Head of the Uncharted Territories Cartel, Rygel. Any cop who got within a metra of Rygel would know he had Mr. Big, and let Aeryn and me off with some community service.
Whatever had been translated to my contact didn't bother him, even if he didn't understand it.
"And, contact, in return, you expect, these, I assume?" I held out the package of gems to him.
"Yez. Your frens hef teken ker uf us. From you, Picekipper, I just don' wan to see anoder wun uf you again."
His crew put fifty-four more bricks into the Marauder and one of them even re-wrapped the brick that had been opened for my inspection. From the extreme care that they used in handling the bricks, I had the feeling that I just become a Major Organized Crime Figure. As soon as the Marauder was loaded, they left without a word.
As soon as their ship slid back through the Ship's hull into space, the Ship spoke up.
"We are not familiar with your race, Captain Crichton. But We must confess to being extremely impressed. I never would have imagined having a dozen of them aboard and living to tell the tale of them backing down before only two Peacekeepers. "
I winked at Aeryn. "Those bozos, Ship? Why they would just be a light workout for Lieutenant Sun, here. "
Aeryn leaned over and whispered sharply into my ear. "Don't worry too much about how safe and happy I am, Crichton." With that, she headed back into the Marauder, and I headed back to our quarters wondering why I ever opened my mouth..
The next morning Aeryn's bed hadn't been slept in. I hurried to the Marauder and found her asleep on the deck in the engine room.
"Aeryn. Wake up, sleepyhead. Breakfast time."
When she awoke, she saw me and smiled briefly, then her expression changed to something more neutral. But I had seen the smile.
I smiled at her all through breakfast, which wasn't easy since they were serving leftover library paste. Twice I almost thought she was on the verge of smiling back.
I walked Aeryn back to the Marauder and decided I'd better acquaint myself with our ship and busied myself in the cockpit while she worked on the engines. Once, I saw her staring sat me, but she quickly turned away.
Suddenly, the Ship interrupted us. "Captain Crichton. You are at your destination. If you ever need transportation again, please contact us. We would be privileged to have you aboard again."
Aeryn came up to the cockpit and got the co-ordinates of our destination on the planet. In a few microts we had left the Ship.
The planet was unbelievably beautiful. Behind us was a vast prairie, with, what else can I say, amber waves of grain blowing in the wind. There were no purple mountains, but a gentle slope was ahead of us and on top of it was a building straight out of a PBS Jane Austen mini-series. A large, two story gray stone building with a thatched roof and a chimney with a wisp of smoke coming from it. It was surrounded by trees and a huge green lawn. In the distance, I could hear the roar of an ocean.
Standing in front of us was a little girl and her dog. Okay, this being the Uncharted Territories, she was probably and ancient crone and a local hit man. But she looked like a little human girl, with long brown hair in pigtails, a gap toothed smile and a print dress. Only a scattering of gray freckles on her face showed she wasn't human. Her dog could have come straight from Earth, though.
"You must be Captain Crichton and Lieutenant Sun. I'm Mardi and this is Pellew."
Luckily for my sanity it was the girl speaking and not the dog.
"Welcome to Tun Tavern. My father sent me down to get you, although I suppose it would be hard for anyone to miss us. It's not like there anything else on the planet. Well, come on, come on."
She turned and ran ahead of us, calling to her father that company had come, to her dog that he should behave, and to us, to "Come on, come on."
The inside was as impressive as he outside. The floor was highly polished hard wood, with a scattering of bright rugs. To our right was a large room filled with comfortable looking chairs and tables with a fire in an enormous fireplace. To the left was a highly polished bar, with row after row of bottles and a huge mirror behind it. Also behind the bar was the bartender.
"Hello, Captain, Lieutenant. I'm Tun. Welcome to Tun Tavern. Did you have a good trip?"
I thought about that. "We got here, I can say that."
Tun laughed. "That's all I can ask of my customers, all right. That they get here."
Tun was gray haired and about the size of D'Argo, and seemed to like to smile and laugh. He was a bit pudgy and had a beer belly. He apparently liked his own food and drink, which his a good sign, I suppose. He looked to me to be in his fifties, which meant he could have been born that morning, or at the dawn of time.
Tun beamed at us. "Come, Captain, Lieutenant. Your first drink is on the house. I'll bet you'd like some ale, wouldn't you."
Aeryn tried to turn down the drink, but Tun wouldn't hear of it. "What? A dry customer at Tun Tavern? Why my reputation would be destroyed forever. No one would ever come again. How can such a beautiful and friendly looking young lady do such a thing to an old man like me? Here, here, let me pour you a small one."
Before either of us knew it, Tun had poured as a mug full of ale each and brought out a half a dozen dishes of munchies. The green ones tasted like peanuts.
Behind the bar were pictures, weapons, charts, and a host of less identifiable objects. One was a full color hologram of our host and Rygel.
I smiled at Tun. "So, you know Rygel, too. Join the club. How did you happen to run across Spanky?"
Tun looked a little strangely at me and then smiled back. "I don't think I ever heard anyone call His Highness Rygel X, "Spanky" and live to tell the tale. You must be quite old for a Sebacean, Captain Crichton."
It was my turn to look strangely and then decide to smile. "Call me John. And I actually know Rygel XVI. So far, he hasn't tried to kill me for lese majeste. So far, anyway."
Tun turned and smiled at Aeryn. "Your lady is as beautiful as rumor has had it. I trust she is as intelligent and as lethal as well?"
Aeryn blushed, but said nothing.
Tun continued. "I knew a lovely Peacekeeper, once. Three hundred cycles ago it was. She was hunting a band of K'Birr slavers. A bad group, but....."
With that, Tun was off on one tale of the Uncharted Territories after another. I managed to contribute some highly edited reports of our adventures in Moya. I even told him a story about my only experience in a demolition derby. Being a good Peacekeeper, I changed the story so we were mounted in tanks. And rather than being put out of commission by a '73 Dodge wagon, right off the bat, I told Tun and Aeryn how I had defeated the notorious Dukes of Hazzard.
Tun was filling our mugs for the third time when he turned to Aeryn with a smile. "Certainly, a Peacekeeper, or former Peacekeeper, such as yourself has many tales to tell, Officer Sun?"
Tun was too well informed for my tastes, but I had no reason to distrust him.
Aeryn smiled back, one of her radiant smiles. I wondered just how the ale was affecting her.
"Call me Aeryn. There is one funny story I know. Would you like to hear it?"
If Tun didn't, I certainly wanted to know what Aeryn thought of as funny. Both Tun and I encouraged her.
"When I first was trained as a pilot, we flew scrub runners. Simple aircraft, really. One of my comrades was named Tyl. She soloed about a weeken before I did and was ready to go out on her first long cross-country flight. She was so busy getting her scrub runner ready and going over her navigation and everything that she forgot to pee before she took off. When she was about three arns out from base, and over a huge forest, she suddenly has to pee. She looks around and there's no place for her to land, no open spaces at all. So she looks at her map. There, about five metras away is a little open space on a hilltop. It had just enough room on it to hold a scrub runner. "
Aeryn took another swallow of her ale and ate a handful of chips that I thought had been soaked in turpentine.
"She got out of her runner and ran down the hill into the trees to pee. She left the engine of the runner on, and there must have been just enough of a wind to blow the runner down the other side of the hill from her. Just as her runner goes crashing down the hill, along comes an instructor pilot and a student in another runner. Naturally, they think they've just seen a runner crash. They land and run down the other side of the hill to rescue the pilot. Just then Tyl comes back up the hill, wondering what the noise was. But when she finds her runner sitting where she left it, or so she thinks. So, she climbs in, and off she goes to complete her cross-country flight. About that time the instructor and her student discover that there is no pilot in the downed runner and their runner is taking off. Worse yet, their comms won't reach to base. "
Aeryn stopped and looked at us to make sure she had our rapt attention. She did.
"Tyl did her cross country and headed back to base. Once there, she calls in for permission to land. But Landing Control's sensors show only an instructor's runner, not Tyl's. So they tell Tyl that they can't locate her on sensors. Will she fly to the north and do a loop so they can pin point her? Tyl does and, of course, the sensors still show that Tyl's runner isn't anywhere near, but an instructor's runner is, flying the pattern they asked Tyl to fly. Landing Control decides it's some instructor doing a security test by pretending to be Tyl, who's in another runner. So Landing Control directs her to a spot where they have a full Security detachment. Security is expecting an instructor, but find only Tyl. So they get suspicious and put Tyl in confinement until they can confirm she's who she says she is, and explains why she's in an instructors runner. Tyl, knows she's in the same runner she started out in, right? Eventually they checked the hill where Tyl landed and found one angry instructor. I think Tyl got every additional duty available until she got assigned to a Command Carrier about a cycle later."
Tun and I laughed. Tun slapped Aeryn on the back. "By the Goddess, Aeryn, I don't know how people can say Peacekeepers have no sense of humor."
I could have given him some pointers, but since Aeryn was smiling at me, I kept my mouth shut.
Tun looked at some sort device behind the bar. "Ah. Time for me to be cooking dinner. Why don't you two go out back and watch the Sea for a while. It'll give you an appetite, if you need one."
Aeryn headed out back to a large patio overlooking the sea. Aeryn stopped by a low stone wall. I stood right behind her. Beyond the wall, the ground fell away sharply to the breakers and rocks below. It was late afternoon and the sun sparkled on the sea. Sea birds that might have just possibly been related to sea gulls soared over the water.
Aeryn was a little drunk, I thought And happy. I decided to try to talk to her.
"Aeryn, don't do this to me. I just can't handle it."
She sounded vaguely distressed at me, but not mad. "What am I supposed to be doing to you, Crichton?"
"What you've been doing since we got the note about Chiana. Calling me "Crichton," as in Crichton, rhymes with stupid. Acting like I'm the village idiot who should be out looking for a bigger village. Just shutting me completely out of your life."
Aeryn stiffened. "Do you have any complaints of my performance as your comrade?"
"Of course not, Aeryn. But I remember that this happened once before. You were dying and planning to go off in your Prowler alone. If I hadn't asked the right question at the right time, I would have woken up one day and spent the rest of my life wondering what happened. So now, when you're angry because your Prowler's systems aren't optimal, or you have a Sebacean headache, or whatever, I have to run off to Zhaan and ask if she can identify any symptoms of some dread Sebacean disease you might have. Or, I go to D'Argo and ask if Lo'laan was ever like this. That makes me feel like an idiot, of course, but I do it. Whatever our relationship is, I think I deserve a little more from you."
"Crichton, don't you think I don't feel guilty about what happened to you? Do you think I just ignored it?"
Now I was confused. "Why would you feel guilty?"
"I know myself and I know you, Crichton. I should have known that I couldn't just go off and die by myself. I should have known that I'd have to tell you. And I know that you wouldn't have sat by like a good Peacekeeper and let me die. I should have anticipated that you'd try for the Gammack Base. If I had told you immediately, possibly we could have found another Sebacean colony, or a ship or something. If I had told you immediately, if I had thought, I could have used Lieutenant Hassan's ID and gone to the Gammack Base myself and been treated. Perhaps with my alien male servant with me. The least I could have done was to brief you and Chiana on what to expect. As it was, it was all I could do to remain standing when you left. I couldn't have behaved more stupidly and look what it cost you."
I put my hands on Aeryn's hips and she leaned back slightly. "Aeryn, that is so very Aeryn Sun. Something goes wrong, and it's all your fault. So you put your head down and charge."
"Don't you think I've seen the pain and fear in you since then, Crichton? Everyone, even you, has noticed the difference. And I know I'm partly at fault. Don't tell me I couldn't have done better, much better."
Aeryn sagged a little and leaned into me a little more. "Aeryn, you are not part of the problem. You're part of the solution. It was Leatherman and the rest of the Village People who tortured me. It was you that got me out. No one else could have done that."
"And no one but me put you there to begin with, Crichton."
"Okay, Aeryn. What about what I did to get into that fix?"
That stopped her. "What you did? You did nothing."
"How about my little trip to Acquara?"
Aeryn was silent for a good fifty microts. That stumped her. "Acquara? Crichton, that has nothing to do with this."
"Aeryn, you have trouble believing this, I know, but back on Earth I'm considered a good, solid, professional pilot. Not Chuck Yeager or Yuri Gagarin, but a good, solid professional."
For once Aeryn didn't make any remarks. "I accept that."
"One of my first memories is sitting in our house in the desert at Edwards, listening to my Dad and his pilot friends talk about flying. They knew. Stay focused. Stay in control. Stay alert. Don't lose it. Don't panic. Don't get angry. Don't get scared. Stay in control and think, think, think and you won't screw the pooch. That same philosophy was drilled into me from the day I started flying. Don't ever give up and don't ever lose it."
"I understand, Crichton. My training was similar."
"So what did I do when things got hairy? I got mad. I stopped paying attention to what was going on around me and worried about my ego. I went for a little flight from a pregnant Leviathan and she starbursted on me. At he worst possible time, of course. Murphy's Law strikes again. And you spent three monens looking for me. If I hadn't lost it, if I had followed my training, if I had done what I knew was right, we would have passed the Gammack Base three months before Larraq got near the place and none of that would ever have happened."
Aeryn snorted. "And the Peacekeepers would have a new biological weapon by now. That would have been an even bigger help, Crichton."
I smiled. "You can't have it both ways, Aeryn. If we stop the Peacekeeper's new weapon, we meet Larraq and friends and then on to Scorpy. And while we're at it, I screwed up with Larraq, too. We should have killed them all as soon as we could. My ego again. John Crichton, Peacemaker, taming the Uncharted Territories. If we kill Larraq and his team, no problem."
"Crichton, you never would have accepted killing those people in cold blood. You know that."
"I wouldn't have accepted it then, and I'd feel guilty as Hell now, if we had killed them. But that doesn't mean killing them wasn't the best way out. They all ended up dead anyway."
"Is this supposed to make me feel less guilty, Crichton?"
"You bet, Aeryn. You are not in any way at fault in this. Not one little bit. Aeryn, I'm alive today and I just may stay that way because of what an ex-Peacekeeper named Aeryn Sun has done to keep me alive."
Aeryn moved slightly against me. I almost thought she was embarrassed at the compliment.
"Really, Aeryn. I'm alive because you've taught me how to stay alive in the Uncharted Territories."
"I hadn't realized I was the only being on Moya that ever talked to you, or showed you anything, Crichton."
"Let's see, Aeryn. D'Argo on technology in the Uncharted Territories." I deepened my voice, "If it doesn't work, kick the frelling thing. If it still doesn't work, kick it hard."
I thought I felt Aeryn laugh.
"Now, Rygel. He knows more about lying, cheating and stealing than anyone in the Uncharted Territories. If I had his skills, I'd probably be Scorpy's boss by now. But I don't have Rygel's skills and I never will, because Rygel doesn't share."
"Chiana? Well, if I can ever get out of trouble by batting my eyes and wiggling my butt at someone, I've had the best teacher around. But I don't think that'll work for me."
"Zhaan. Okay, she's told me about religion, philosophy, psychology, botany and medicine. Not to mention some things humans don't have words for. But, I don't have the technical background to understand what she says. So, aside from some information on Delvian politics, I haven't gotten much from Zhaan. "
"Pilot? He can explain how he runs Moya, but I can't use the information unless I can plug myself into Moya."
"Then there's Aeryn Sun. When I blew up a rifle trying to shoot a tabloid..."
"...a tabloid, she chewed my butt royally. The next day she started teaching me about every single weapon on Moya. And briefing me on every other weapon she ever heard of. And when she was done, she taught me how to fly a transport pod. And, complaining of my incompetence every metra of the way, Aeryn Sun taught me how to fly her beloved Prowler. And, she talked to me about technology, Peacekeepers, Moya, the Uncharted Territories, and any number of other topics. Oh sure, I had to talk her ear off to get her to talk to me. I think she only talked because she got tired of listening to me. But it worked. "
"I'm here because Aeryn Sun took a great deal of her time to make sure I was able to take care of myself. And Aeryn Sun should never, ever think that she is responsible for anything bad that has ever happened to me."
To my surprise, Aeryn took my hands from her hips and pulled them around her waist. I pulled her close to me, and inhaled the smell of her hair.
"Aeryn, I know better than to push you. All I want is for you to tell me that you're not dying of the Sebacean Creeping Crud or something. I just want to know you're all right."
"I'm fine, John. Really, I'm just fine."
We stood there, watching the sea, the sky and the birds that swirled above us. She had called me John again.
I was surprised when Aeryn started speaking. "Velorak told me that I was special, but I didn't believe him until it was too late. You've told me I'm special and there are times when I feel I'm the most important thing in the Universe to you. Sometimes, just the way you look at me gives me a feeling that I have never felt before and that I can't begin to describe. And sometimes I feel like I'm a thing that means nothing at all to you, except in some incomprehensible human way that I will never understand."
That speech took me by surprise. "Aeryn, believe me...."
"John, please let me speak. You always say that I never tell you how I feel. That I never talk. Well, now I am talking and I want you to listen."
"Rygel tried to betray us to Scorpius. If he'd succeeded, I'd be in the Living Death, chained up in some public place in Scorpius's ship as a warning. You wouldn't have any mind left. Our friends would be dead and Pilot and Moya would be slaves. And when I suggested that we should throw Rygel off of the ship, you said that he has his moments. Can you imagine how that made me feel? I almost died from a damaged paraphoral nerve and you almost died from the Aurora chair because Rygel and Chiana had to try to steal something that was useless. How typical of Rygel. At least Chiana helped make it up to me by going with you to the Gammack Base."
"Not that I feel Chiana has done much to deserve our help after the trouble she's been to us. I was sorry that her brother died, but she had no business taking my Prowler down to the cemetery world. We have nothing, nothing, other than the Prowler to try to defend ourselves. Chiana is not the pilot she thinks she is. She isn't even as good as you are. She could have destroyed the Prowler easily. Then where would we be?"
"And D'Argo. He almost killed Moya by his insistence on helping Nilaam. Once he'd seen how badly he'd frelled up, it was his responsibility to help her die, as he should have done originally. That woman could have killed all of us if she'd decided she didn't want to give up the youth and beauty she'd recovered. But you just had to go down and help him. "Oh, Aeryn, stay with Pilot and Moya while I go try to talk a Luxan who usually thinks with his mivocks into killing his lady love."
No, I hadn't said that, but I wasn't going to interrupt her for a correction.
"I'm the first admit my debt to Zhaan. But, do you have any conception of how dangerous Unity with a Delvian Pa'u can be? No human has ever tried anything like Unity. You didn't even know something like that was possible when you were on Earth. No planning, no discussion, no forethought. Just John Crichton deciding to do something foolhardy and dangerous."
"And here we are trying to help Chiana, who probably won't appreciate it. And D'Argo, who should be here to help, isn't, because for all his warrior skill's, he's too young and immature to do what has to be done. So here we are."
"Here the two of us are, John. "Aeryn, you okay on this?" you said. Of course I'm okay on this, John. I have no idea why you have to help everyone you meet, but I'm okay on it. I wish I knew why. I wish I knew if you felt something for me, or if you just have some human compulsion to push your way into the life of every being you meet and try to do something, anything."
Okay, no pressure, John. Aeryn is about that far from telling you to get lost. All you have to do is talk to her like you've never talked to anyone else in your life.
"Aeryn, I know I've made mistakes. I've made far more than my share of mistakes. Some of that is because I usually have only the slightest idea what is going on. I do lean on you for support more than I should. It's just that you're so damned competent at what you do. But, I suppose it's mostly because I do believe that people, whether human or Luxan, or Delvian, or Nebari, or Sebacean, or even Hynerian, can be good and will be good if given the opportunity. I believe that I should give people that chance to become more. And keep giving them that chance until they prove that they don't deserve it. And I know that we have too few friends in this end of the Universe to let even one get away from us. "
I desperately wanted to babble to Aeryn that I loved her and would cheerfully throw Moya's whole crew out the nearest airlock if that's what she wanted. But I knew she'd never believe me. Even I wasn't sure that I would throw all of them out the airlock for Aeryn. Once again, I was too afraid to tell Aeryn I loved her. She was still mad at me. Suppose I drove her away?
"The first person I wanted to help was you, when D'Argo wanted to leave you with the Peacekeepers. I took a chance and I was right. That was the best decision I ever made in my life, because you mean so much to me, Aeryn. "
I took a breath and marshaled my thoughts, but I suddenly couldn't talk. Something warm, wet and very Sebacean was in my mouth. Damn. Aeryn kept surprising me with how fast and how strong she was. Not that I had any reason to complain, mind you. I pulled Aeryn against me as tightly as I could. Then I bit down lightly on her tongue, trapping it in my mouth. She tried to pull away briefly, but stopped to see what happened next. I started teasing the tip of her tongue with mine and running my hands up and down her back. Then I released her tongue and slid my tongue into her mouth. She bit down lightly on it and...
Tun was standing there smiling. I glanced at Aeryn. She wasn't all stone faced and embarrassed, as she had been before when we'd been caught fooling around. She stood next to me and acted like it was the most natural thing in the world for us to kiss.
"You might want to eat out here, Captain. The weather will stay nice and the view is quite pleasant." I couldn't have agreed with that more.
Tun and his daughter moved a table out and had it set in a few microts. I don't know what any of the foods were, but they were delicious. Aeryn and I didn't talk much at dinner, but she did keep an eye on me. I wasn't sure exactly what went on in her mind, but I thought she might be happy with the way the day had gone. I certainly was.
When Tun had cleared the dishes away, Aeryn rose and came over by me, looking down at me. Deciding if she liked what she saw, maybe. Suddenly, she was in my lap with her arms around my neck and her lips next to my ear.
"John, if you had any sense at all, you'd invite Chiana or Zhaan, or both to share your bed."
"Well now, Mama Crichton's boy John, he don't have a lick of sense."
Aeryn giggled slightly. "I'm a warrior. A soldier without an army or a cause, except for a few misfits that I barely understand." Aeryn kissed me briefly to let me know that while I might be a misfit she didn't understand, she didn't mean it in a bad way.
"We've been running through the Uncharted Territories for more than a cycle now. I hate running. I hate the man we're running from, but as much as I try, nothing gets any better. And then too, all of a sudden I have these wonderful skills with a living ship and a being that I'm a part of. Wonderful, fascinating and frightening skills that I can't begin to understand or appreciate in just the short time I've had them. And there's you to worry about. No, that's not right is it? There's us to worry about. I'd better do more of that in the future."
Aeryn kissed me again. A long, slow, soft kiss. Suddenly she broke it off.
"And one more thing, human, if you think you're going into any kind of danger in the future without a Commando trained ex-Peacekeeper around, then you are a more foolish creature than I had ever imagined."
Nothing I could do but say, "Yes, ma'am."
Suddenly Aeryn stood up. "John, it's dark."
"Happens every day about sundown, Aeryn."
"John. This planet has a solar day of only 17 arns. Tun said our contact would be here at dawn tomorrow. We need to get some sleep if we have to get up at dawn."
I smiled at her and she gave me a not too convincing frown. "We need to sleep, John."
She bent down and kissed me lightly, and then was off to her room. I followed her upstairs and went into my room.
Us. Now there was a word I could really appreciate.
I woke up when it was still dark. Something soft, wet, and, I suspected, Sebacean, was pressing down on my lips. I put my arms around Aeryn and pulled her down on top of me.
"No, John. We have people to meet." Aeryn lifted herself up with her elbows on my chest.
"People to meet at dawn. The sun isn't up, yet." I pulled her down for another kiss.
She pushed herself back up. "John."
I recognized that tone of voice.
"Tell me, Sunshine, have you ever thought about getting a job as an alarm clock?"
"An alarm clock. They have them on Earth, to wake you up in the morning."
"On Earth, you had a woman to come into your bedroom and wake you up by kissing you?"
I recognized that tone of voice, too. "No, Aeryn. An alarm clock is a machine. It plays music or makes a noise to wake you up. I mean, my Mom used to come in and wake me up when I overslept. I hated alarm clocks. No, I mean she didn't wake me up by kissing me."
I decided to quit while I was ahead. Or at least not too far behind.
I got dressed, tolerated a dentic in my mouth and was ready to go. As we left my room, I took Aeryn's hand in mine.
She stopped and stared at me. "John, you're holding my gun hand."
"So I am. Okay, I'll let it go if we run into trouble."
I dropped Aeryn's hand before we reached the bottom of the stairs.
There must have been twenty of them in three groups in the main room of Tun Tavern. None of them looked friendly. Tun bustled over with our breakfast. It looked like the Uncharted Territories version of ham, egg and bacon. Green eggs, no less.
Tun leaned over to talk to us.
"The old smuggler captain that was your contact had an accident last night. However, the crew hasn't decided who the new captain is. You have a private message from Officer Ghada, the bluish lady on the right." He indicated a tiny scrap of paper by my plate.
I glance at Ghada, who was a nice mottled skin, ranging from eggshell blue to midnight blue. She was about five feet in every direction. I read her note.
"Trust no one but me. The others will kill you."
I handed the note to Aeryn under the table. Before I got a response from her, the next would-be captain approached. From what I could see that stuck out of his baggy robe, he looked like he was descended from a race of walruses, including a lovely set of tusks.
As he shook my hand he gave me another piece of paper. "Captain Crichton. I am Officer Dhalbreg. Your servant, sir. It is a pleasure to work with the Peacekeepers, of whom we've heard so much. And, of course, your second in command. A most competent young woman, I'm sure. I am in charge of Command, Navigation and Communications aboard the Palankinko, our ship and Officer Ghada, " He motioned to the blue lady, " is in charge of Engineering. And Officer Sassanid is..."
"...going crazy listening to you talk." This was from a woman who was at least ninety five percent humanoid, except for a mass of light green curly hair around her head. I could tell she was ninety five per cent humanoid since that was about how much of her was showing. She had a pair of bandoleers crisscrossing her shoulder that just barely covered her breasts. The rest of her clothing was a wide leather gun belt that did manage to cover the other interesting parts, and sandals.
She smiled at me and pointedly ignored Aeryn. "I'm in charge of Gunnery and Ship's Troops, Captain Crichton. If you'll bring a sample of the goods, we can take it to our taoseach. He's too old and frail to leave orbit, I'm afraid. We've had to set our gravity at 50 percent of nominal for him. But do finish your breakfast."
With that she smiled again and shooed the others back to their tables. I glanced at the note from Dhalbreg.
"I am your friend. They are your enemies."
I showed it to Aeryn. She moved over to whisper to me. "You stay with the ship and I'll go meet the who ever, John."
I hated the next part. "Forget it, Aeryn. If they don't get the genuine Peacekeeper Captain, they'll suspect a trick. They'll think that I'll sacrifice my crew and cheat them. Or call in more Peacekeepers. Besides, as good as you are, I don't want to risk you against twenty or so hoodlums. I'll have a better chance of out thinking them that you will of out shooting them."
Before Aeryn could make the reply I was sure she was about to, I stood up. "All right, Lieutenant Sun. You return to the Marauder. Keep the weapons ready and keep in touch with the Task Force. Understood?"
Aeryn gave me a glare that would have frozen my blood if I hadn't known that she was showing concern for me. "Sir, I think..."
"No, Lieutenant. I think. You obey. Correct?"
We walked out of Tun Tavern and headed for the Marauder. Aeryn went through the personnel hatch while I waited outside. In a few microts she returned with one of the bricks of vegetation that we had to trade. As she handed it to me, I saw Sassanid out of the corner of my eye. I tucked the brick in my jacket and turned to her.
Perfect timing. Before I knew what was happening, Sassanid had one arm around me, and the other down the front of my pants while she tried to push her tongue down my throat. She pushed me against the Marauder so she could use her other hand to grab mine and place it against her breast. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Aeryn watching us. This was not good. Finally, Sassanid broke the kiss.
"I have heard of your Peacekeeper recreation. You have a most sensible attitude towards these things, Captain. I will enjoy this very much. Oooh! And I think you are starting to enjoy yourself, too."
I was wondering how it would feel to die at the hands of a jealous Sebacean when Sassanid started nibbling on my ear. Then she whispered in my ear.
"The idiots on the ship wish to kill you and then your second in command. Even the fools in my team go along with this. I tried to explain to them what Peacekeepers are like, but they are too stupid and too greedy. I will get the taoseach out of danger while you take care of these idiots. I'd appreciate it if you'd leave enough alive to run the ship. Okay, we're done now."
She removed her hand from my pants, but stood there looking at me.
"Well, business before pleasure, as we Peacekeepers say."
Sassanid turned slowly and headed towards their transport pod. I glanced at Aeryn as I followed after Sassanid. Aeryn's face was completely and carefully blank.
When we go to the ship, Sassanid did go ahead to help the taoseach, what ever he was, get ready. I was left with Ghada and Dhalbreg while the rest of the crew headed after Sassanid.
I could see the crew gathered in a large bay, just ahead of me. I had to do something quick. To my right were a set of six of what I hoped were light switches. I stopped and Ghada and Dhalbreg took a pace before they noticed I had stopped. I put a hand in the small of their backs and pushed as hard as I could. Then I hit all of the light switches, and the lights went out. I drew my pistol and fired into the bay screaming, "Kill him. Shoot. Shoot."
I threw myself to the floor. In the bay I could hear screams and see pulse weapon bolts flying. I waited about thirty microts until the firing died down a bit and he screams got louder. Then I turned on the light switch closest to he bay. Success. A light went on in the back of the bay, lighting up the crew, but not me.
"All right. Throw your guns into the center of the bay where I can see them. Do it now!"
Above the screams and moans I could hear Sassanid yelling. "Do as he says, fools. Didn't I tell you this would happen?"
Sassanid was the first to throw her pistols onto the floor. Taking them out had lifted her gun belt enough to establish that she was a natural green. The weapons of her crew followed.
I stepped into the bay. "Everybody, behind your captain. And everybody keep your hands where I can see them."
Seated next to Sassanid behind a small table was a being that looked like an ancient shell-less turtle. All green and wrinkled, and not much taller than Rygel. And, he had the only pair of glasses I had ever seen in the Uncharted Territories. He cackled as he peered at me.
"Peacekeeper, all right. You idiots are lucky he has a sense of humor. He didn't even kill any of you." He turned his head around almost 180 degrees and spoke to a smuggler behind him. "Porshub, will you please start working on the wounded while the Captain and I have our chat?" He turned and faced Sassanid, "With your permission, of course, Captain Sassanid?"
Sassanid grinned at me. "I think that's up to the other Captain."
I knelt at the table, which put me at about eye level with the taoseach, whatever he was. On the table was a collection of small tools and implements, the purpose of which I couldn't guess.
The taoseach gestured to me and then to the table. "Would you care to do the honors, Captain?"
I stared at the table. I took out the brick of vegetable matter I had carried up from the planet and put it down on the table. I didn't know if I was supposed to snort, chew, or smoke the stuff.
"Taoseach, I think I know an expert when I see one. You do the honors. Besides, I'm not familiar with your equipment and how it's used."
I knew I'd made a mistake as soon as the words were out of my mouth. "Not familiar, Captain Crichton? How many frelling ways are there to brew tea in the Universe, Captain?"
Tea? Sonny Crichton, major tea smuggler? I managed not to look more foolish than I felt. "Well, of course, tea of this grade is not for Captains such as myself. It's prepared by experts for Peacekeeper Admirals and such. There's a great deal of, em, ceremony and ritual involved, of course. I've only had this quality of tea a few times."
The taoseach cackled again. "As it should be, Captain. Quite civilized you Peacekeepers have become since I was a young fellow."
I silently hoped he never got to meet the civilized Scorpius or any of his associates.
The taoseach started fiddling with what was apparently a little tea pot and a heat source. He scraped a bit of the tea off of the brick and added the water. Soon, I could smell the tea. If it tasted as good as it smelled, it should be excellent.
The taoseach poured two small cups of tea and slowly sipped his. He gestured to me. "Please, Captain Crichton. Your opinion of the tea."
I picked up my cup and held it under my nose for a second. "I think you will be amused by its presumptuous bouquet." I took a small sip, "Hmmm. A somewhat flinty taste initially, but with a definite non-fruity after taste." I put the cup down.
"The taoseach was beaming at me. "Really, Captain. You say you've only had tea of this quality a few times? The Peacekeepers have developed a sense of humor since I last was around them. You know as well as I that this is the finest Acenese tea. Your offer is four cases of pulse carbines, six carbines to a case, plus ten chakon oil cartridges per carbine for each of fifty five bricks of the tea?"
The taoseach sounded a little unsure of the deal. I thought he might be expecting me to renege on the deal and ask for more, or maybe a little something for myself.
"That's the deal. I trust that's fair to you and Captain Sassanid?"
The taoseach, Captain Sassanid and the whole crew were one giant smile. "Most fair, Captain. Oh, most fair, indeed."
Captain Sassanid took over and started directing her crew to load the weapons into their transport pod. I walked over to the pile of weapons in the middle of the floor and pulled out her pistols. I handed them over to her.
"I believe these are yours, Captain Sassanid?"
"Yes, I believe they are, Captain Crichton. However, I thought you might want to go to my cabin for a more informal presentation and a more informal thank you."
I quickly decided against that one. "I think I should get back down to the planet and my officer."
One day I would be able to interpret the stares that women in the Uncharted Territories gave me. But his wasn't the day. Eventually, Sassanid gave me a friendly smile. "My impression was that Peacekeepers recreated freely with all and sundry. Lieutenant Sun must be a very unusual and talented woman. And a very lucky one, I think."
"I think you will find that Lieutenant Sun and I are both very unusual Peacekeepers, Captain."
In another few microts I found myself heading for the planet and then I was at the personnel hatch of our Marauder confronting a scowling Aeryn with Captain Sassanid at my elbow.
"Everything went well on the ship, Captain Crichton?"
"Of course, Lieutenant. We get two hundred and twenty cases of carbines for our fifty-five bricks of tea. Captain Sassanid's crew is starting to bring the cases over now."
Soon the trade was done with and Sassanid's happy crew was heading back to their pod. Sassanid grinned up at Aeryn who was still standing in the hatchway.
"You have a very talented Captain, Lieutenant Sun."
Just then I could see death and destruction in Aeryn's eyes. Luckily, Captain Sassanid continued. "He shot almost half my crew, but didn't kill a one of the rogues. I can't imagine why he did that. Showing off, I suppose. It's a shame I didn't get to recreate with him, though. I would have enjoyed discussing his strong points and weak points, assuming he has any, with you."
I managed a few insincere remarks to Sassanid and the deal was done to everyone's satisfaction. I breathed a sigh of relief as the hatch swung closed.
As I turned, Aeryn was right behind me. Before I knew it, I was pushed up against the inner hull of the Marauder by a very calm ex-Peacekeeper.
"What happened up there, Crichton?"
"Aeryn. Nothing happened."
Aeryn's calm was starting to evaporate. I could just about see sparks coming from her eyes and smoke pouring from her ears. She had my wrists and forced them to my sides.
"What. Happened. Up. There. Crichton."
"Aeryn, you're jealous."
"Crichton, I am not jealous. I am curious. That little green haired trelk was too ready to praise your non-existent combat skills and too willing to deny any knowledge of anything else that, that, that you point and shoot."
"Aeryn. Really, you are jealous. Really." I couldn't help smiling. That was a mistake.
"Crichton, I am not jealous. I am curious. I will be jealous in five microts if you don't tell me what happened up there. And if you still don't tell me what happened five microts after that, I'll be..."
I leaned forward and kissed Aeryn. "Nothing happened, Sunshine. Nothing that you have to worry about, anyway. "
I told Aeryn what had happened. I'm not sure she believed all of it, but at least she did believe that nothing had happened between Captain Sassanid and I. By the end of my story, I had my arms around Aeryn and she was relaxed. I tried a quick kiss on her forehead. She didn't object, so I kissed her cheek. Then her lips. After a few microts, she backed off.
"Business before pleasure is the human saying, I believe, John?"
You really have to watch what you say around Aeryn. At least I was John again.
Soon, we had the Marauder heading for space. As Aeryn set our course, I considered what might happen between a lost human astronaut and an ex-Peacekeeper in the two days it would take for the Marauder to get back to Kashgar. As soon we exceeded the speed of light a horrible high pitched squeal erupted from our engine room.
Aeryn scrambled towards the engine room. "Crichton, take the controls. That's got to be those frelling non-standard power links. Cut to fifty per cent power."
The next three days were a nightmare. The engine squealed constantly, and threatened to die on us. We were never able to go above half our normal cruising speed. Aeryn stayed in the engine room manually keeping the engine going. She only managed a few hours of sleep while I watched the engine. While I had the watch, I could only control the engine if it was a quarter power. At this rate, it would take us a weeken to get back to Kashgar.
At the end of the third day I went back to the engine room to find Aeryn sound asleep on the deck. I turned the engine down to minimum power. I bent down and picked Aeryn up. She woke up, a little.
"Crichton. The engines have failed. Put me down."
"No, Sunshine. I turned the engines down so we have just power for life support. You need some sleep,"
"John. Put me down. We have to get back to Kashgar."
Aeryn was so tired she was mumbling and I was having trouble understanding her.
"Aeryn, we need to get to Kashgar in one piece. Now go back to sleep."
"John, put me down. I can walk and you know I hate to be taken care of."
"I know, Sweetheart. That's why I like taking care of you so much."
I got to the bunks and leaned over to put Aeryn in one. I tried to stand up and found Aeryn had her hand wrapped up in my tee shirt. She gave me a little pull and I found myself in a tiny bunk with Aeryn. She mumbled something I couldn't make out to me, but I managed to get myself all on the bunk before I fell asleep.
"What the frell was that?"
"What the frell was that?"
Aeryn and I came awake asking each other the same question.
Aeryn was the first to figure it out. "We're being boarded, John."
We headed for the hatchway with our pulse pistols drawn and arrived just in time to meet our visitors.
"Captain Crichton. It's us. And you don't want to shoot us."
It was Mila Svorz and Lady Abella Rohhr, our contacts from the revolutionaries on Kashgar.
"Well, Larry and Moe are here. What happened to Curly?"
Svorz didn't understand the Earth reference, but he gave me a happier than normal grin. "Sliman Sark had an accident. The Goddess's troops tried to assault a dug in mercenary battalion. The mercenaries were strongly supported by artillery, and had command of local space. The Goddess's commanders were an unusually pious group of idiots and decided to attack with one regiment after the other, allowing the mercenaries plenty of time to decimate each regiment before the next one attacked. By the time four of the Goddess's regiments were wrecked, Elder Sark had become, em, unnecessary."
I didn't like the sound of that. "How did he die. Accidentally shoot himself while cleaning a pistol? Fall down a flight of stairs? Fall out a window?"
Svorz's smile got larger. "I have no idea of the details, Captain. All are quite probable."
I had the feeling I had given Svorz a few ideas. Frell it. "No point in stopping there, Svorz. He could have been killed resisting arrest. Or committed suicide before being arrested for treason. Or shot by an enraged husband."
"Very good, Captain. I think we may have more in common with the Peacekeepers than I had thought."
I'm sure they did, but I was the last person who wanted to see them get together.
Lady Rohhr interrupted our little political science seminar. "You are barely under power, Captain. Is there a problem?"
Aeryn answered that one. "A problem? If you consider this whole frelling Marauder one problem, then is suppose it's a problem."
Aeryn launched into a technical discussion of the Marauder's failings that soon left me behind. Rohhr seemed to follow it well enough and suggested bringing a few engineers over from their ship. I didn't like having any more of the revolutionaries around, but I didn't think they'd take a hint. Four engineers from the rebel's ship managed to get our speed to about three-quarters normal. A little over a day later we landed in a clearing in a dense forest about 200 metras from Kashgar City. A group of rebels came out of the trees and started unloading the weapons.
I decided it was time to have a little talk. I picked Lady Rohhr. She seemed to be slightly less psychopathic than Svorz.
"So when do we get Chiana back."
"As soon as we've unloaded the weapons, we'll contact our people in the City and have her released. She'll be waiting for you when you get back."
"Forget it. I don't want to be working for you forever. Have Chiana sent here, before you leave."
By way of a reply, Rohhr sighed and slid bonelessly to the ground. Behind her was Svorz, was pushing a pistol into the side of Aeryn's head.
"Drop your pistol, Captain, or I'll kill Lieutenant Sun."
Aeryn reacted true to form. "Kill him, Crichton. Kill him."
I saw that Svorz had pulled Aeryn's right hand almost up to the back of her neck. Her pistol was on the ground a few feet away from her feet. Aeryn was trying to kick Svorz, but he had her bent back so that she couldn't do so. She flailed around with her other arm, but couldn't connect either. All the time she was screaming, "Kill him."
Svorz was screaming at Aeryn to stop struggling or he'd shoot her and screaming to me to drop my weapon. I was trying to aim at Svorz, but I knew I wasn't a good enough shot to hit him and I couldn't take a chance on killing Aeryn.
I screamed at Svorz. "If you kill Aeryn, I'll kill you. Being a revolutionary martyr is very boring. Not nearly as much fun as being a live revolutionary. Look...."
The conversation ended with a neat hole appearing in Svorz's forehead. He fell and Aeryn dived for her pistol, screaming for me to get down. She crawled over to me and we scanned the forest where the shot had come from.
A voice came from the forest. "Captain Crichton. Please, put your weapons down. We mean you no harm. We have no desire to offend so powerful a group as the Peacekeepers. We want to be your friends."
Into the clearing stepped Treffor Ban Torral, our friendly, local secret policeman. Aeryn and I slowly rose, covering him with our pistols. Behind him we could see two dozen or more of the ant-like mercenaries. We holstered our pistols.
"Thank you, Captain." He looked at the two corpses on the ground. "Well, this worked out quite well, I'd say. Please believe me, we are not in the least bit interested in harming you. As a matter of fact..."
He gestured back towards the trees. In a few microts Chiana came out between two mercenaries.
When she saw us, she took off running for us. She took the last ten feet in a giant leap and landed in my arms.
"John! Am I ever glad to see you. I knew you'd get me back."
My reply was lost in Pip's kiss. I tried to push Pip off without upsetting her. I suddenly found I had another pair of strong, and I suspected, Sebacean, arms helping me get Pip off of me.
"Hello, Chiana. Aren't you going to thank me for helping to rescue you?"
"Oh. Thanks, Aeryn." Pip looked like she was about to jump me again.
Aeryn put an arm around me and pushed a hip between Pip and me.
"John and I saved you. Together. The two of us. Both John and I."
I'm not sure how Aeryn did it, but a clear message was sent to Chiana. At least I now knew Aeryn could send a clear message when she had to.
Chi giggled. "You and John? Together? Rescued me?" She gave Aeryn a hug and then gave me a small hug. Then she stood back and looked at us.
Trying to follow this wasn't getting me anywhere. I turned to Ban Torral.
"Why do I suspect that you finding us and Chiana isn't a complete coincidence?"
Ban Torral grinned. He was in a mood to brag. "We have our supporters within the rebels and managed to find about this dreadful kidnapping, but not in time to stop it. When Elder Sark died, we were able to approach one of his subordinates, who felt his own position had become, shall we say, tenuous? That gave us access to your crewmember and the location of this place. We were here in a position to save you when needed, Captain. Surely you can appreciate our assistance and so advise your superiors?"
I thought about that for a second. "I have another scenario, Ban Torral. How about you have an ambitious underling of Sark's on your payroll, who sets up the kidnapping? Then he arranges for his own troops to attack a dug in mercenary position. Sark is blamed, fatally, and your boy moves another notch up the food chain. You arrive here with Chiana just in time to watch Svorz waste Lady Rohhr. That must have been an added bonus. Then the last member of the Liaison Committee dies. You end up with a mole at the highest level of the revolutionaries and a nice valuable cargo of weapons. By the way, I wouldn't try using the Marauder for anything. Try a new coat of paint on it. Maybe you'll find a sucker."
Ban Torral was still smiling, but I could see he was thinking hard. "Very good, Captain. As I said, we wish only to be friends with you. So the truth is perhaps in order."
I grinned at him. " I have a friend, a retired monarch. He always tells me that honesty is a policy."
Ban Torral continued. "As I said when first we met, Captain, The League of Aigsberk, our masters here on Kashgar find governance an expensive luxury. They expect us to run a trading center and not a government. They, of course, don't expect their trade to be interrupted by civil war. So, they insist that we suppress the rebellion, but object to every expense of doing so. We are constantly criticized for expenditures for the mercenaries. The situation is intolerable."
Poor Torral. His bosses didn't understand him. Wait until he meets Scorpius. He continued.
"We were able to make our own arrangements with the gunrunners who supply the rebels. They have no objections to taking payments from two parties as long as nothing is traceable to them. And I doubt that Sark, Rohhr or Svorz will be complaining about the being swindled."
I was beginning to think Ban Torral just might have a future in Peacekeeper Secret Police work.
"So, Captain, the weapons will go to some actual bandits who control a fairly large area and want no truck with the rebels. The pulse carbines you brought will go along way to keeping their area free of rebels."
Ban Torral walked over to a case of carbines and opened it. "Of course, we have no need to import chakon oil. We have our own supplies, readily available." He twisted open a chakon oil cartridge and revealed it was full of ...
"...Chewing gum?" The cartridge was full of thin sticks wrapped in paper that looked like chewing gum.
"We call it bliss, or cava here on Kashgar, Captain. Sold to addicts, it will provide us with a great deal of money to pay our mercenaries. In addition it will help us maintain a docile work force and soak up extra funds that might otherwise find its way to the rebels. Don't you agree that this is an elegant solution to our problems, Captain?"
"Ban Torral, I think you are just what the Peacekeepers are looking for in the Uncharted Territories." He took it as a compliment and I wasn't willing to disillusion him.
We flew back to Kashgar City, courtesy of the mercenaries. Pip was reunited with D'Argo. I'm surprised they managed to make it back to their room before they got reacquainted. We decided, over Rygel's strong objections, to leave Kashgar behind before the rebels figured out what had happened to their weapons and their Liaison Committee. We worked our butts off for three days converting our spare cash into supplies and moving it up to Moya. At the end of the three days, we starbursted.
I walked into my quarters dead tired. Fast asleep on my bed was Aeryn. I started to tiptoe over to the bed, then I saw her eyes open.
"No point in trying to sneak up on a commando trained Peacekeeper, even if she's asleep, is there, Aeryn?"
"No, John. I hope you weren't expecting Zhaan or Chiana, or both, to be sharing your bed?"
I grinned at her. "No, I wasn't even expecting you."
She was fully dressed except for her boots, so I took my boots off and laid down beside her.
She spent a good fifty microts staring at me. "Something is wrong, isn't there, John?"
I nodded. "For a while there, I thought I might just be helping some freedom fighters, instead of a bunch of fanatics, willing to kill anyone who got in their way to advance their own version of paradise. Instead I armed a bunch of crooks, became a drug smuggler, and helped the bad guys suppress a lot of people who really need help."
Aeryn looked at me for a few microts. "You didn't cause the situation on Kashgar. You did your best and you did get Chiana back."
"Is this supposed to make me feel less guilty, Aeryn?"
"You bet, John. You are not in any way at fault in this. Not one little bit."
I knew better than to argue with Aeryn when she starts quoting me to me, so I decided I'd try to out my arm around her. She didn't object.
"John, you've told me about your father, but I have told you very little about mine. I know very little about him, but I did hear this story when I first went aboard Crais's ship. It seems my father....."
I relaxed and listened to Aeryn. Tomorrow was another day in the Uncharted Territories. Maybe tomorrow I'd tell Aeryn that I love her.
NOTE: Something very like what happened to Aeryn's friend Tyl actually happened at Ft. Wolters, TX in about 1966. The rest of this story is, of course, entirely fictional. Who would finance a revolution by selling tea?