Disclaimer: Anthony Hope won't sue me, with any luck, so I'll attribute this to DK in its entirety. Rating: About what you'd expect. Time: The future. That wonderful 'shippers future where John and Aeryn love each other. Archiving: Only places with liquor licenses. Instructions for reading: At every page, drink a shot of tequila, eat a bit of salt and some lemon. Repeat until you say, "Damn, I have to write Claudia Black about this Dad guy!"
"There goes Moya's starburst." John said under his breath. I checked the readouts out of habit, but starburst was unmistakable.
"Come on, Crais. Do it, dammit. Don't wait around trying to be a frelling hero." John was still mumbling.
"I think Crais will manage to avoid heroics, he's quite an accomplished fugitive."
John snorted. "A regular Dr. Richard Kimble. But the only reason he's any good at being a fugitive is that he's had lessons from the best."
I looked very thoughtful. "I don't think I taught him so much."
Before John could react to that, I saw Talyn starburst. I let myself breathe again.
John grinned at me. " Don't relax just yet. We still have the damned Peacekeepers to worry about, Aeryn."
I went back to the readouts. They were the same. "I can't tell what class of ship that is with only the transport pod's sensors, but it's one of the older long range Patrollers. I doubt if a Retrieval Squad or someone working directly for Scorpius would use anything but a top of the line ship, so it was just bad luck that led us to run into a routine patrol out here."
I noticed one readout, and smiled grimly. "The ship won't have more than four Prowlers and I can see them maneuvering to get back aboard. They're going after Moya and Talyn. As long as we stay here in the asteroid field, they won't see us and then they'll be gone."
"Leaving us where?" John asked.
"Here, of course. I'll be busy with the sensors, so you get to work on the map fibers and answer that question."
An arn later we had our answer.
"The exact geographical center of nowhere. There isn't one habitable planet that we can get to. Frell, there's hardly a damned uninhabitable planet anywhere on these fibers." John tossed the fibers disgustedly aside.
I leaned over, picked up the fibers and handed them back to John. "Then you'll have to be creative, won't you?"
I stood up and John put his arm around me.
"Speaking of being creative, we could try..."
"...to get some sleep." I finished for him. "Or, at least I will. Our oxygen is limited as well as our water, food and fuel. I've shut down everything non-essential. Now I'll shut myself down for a while until you tell me you have a plan."
I kissed him lightly and walked back into the cargo area. Within microts of wrapping myself in a blanket, I was asleep.
When I awoke again, I could hear John singing quietly.
"Some people claim,
There's a human to blame,
But I know, it's not
John Crichton's fault."
I smiled at him as I sat down at the controls. The sensors still showed nothing but a sun and a few orbiting lumps of rock that had been there when I left.
"Singing to keep your spirits up, human?"
"No, Miss Sun. Singing to celebrate. I found us a place to go, I think."
I moved over as John showed me what the map fibers indicated. "There are no habitable planets anywhere near here. According to the fibers, this is a huge interstellar desert with no oases anywhere. But I found one."
"A habitable planet? Where the maps say none exists, John?"
"No such luck. What I found is a gas giant with a nice ring of ice around it. Ice turns into water and with the power from the pod, we can crack water into hydrogen and oxygen. We'll have something to breathe and to drink, at least. The longer we can last, the better chance we have that Moya or Talyn will find us. We can be there in less than a solar day at our best economical speed."
I looked at the fibers, but I couldn't see a better place to go. If there was one, John would have found it. "We'll still be short of food and fuel and it would be a miracle if we could find cesium pure enough to fuel the pod's engine. Food is out of the question."
"Less we scare up a little budong, Aeryn. Since I solved the water and oxygen problem, you get to kill the budong, Ah reckon."
I recognized the accent and tried to copy it. "The secret to budong huntin' is havin' the raht bait. And Ah jist happ'n to have a lil tender hu-man astronut handy."
John turned and stared at me. Then he smiled. "You are just getting too good, Darlin'."
"Don't ever forget that, Crichton." I teased.
Two solar days later I was busy feeding chunks of ice into the water purification unit. John had left the water cracking machinery and headed for the cockpit.
"John, whatever's in the cockpit is not going to get us much oxygen to breathe. And it'll be full of impurities." I called to him. I got no reply. I shrugged and continued my work. John could just go outside and get more ice if his batch didn't get broken down into useful oxygen.
"Aeryn, can you come here, Honey?"
I dropped what I was doing and ran to the cockpit. "What is it?" I asked.
"I thought I saw a ship on the sensors. Straight ahead at about ten o'clock high, and maybe twenty thousand metras. If it is there, it's behind that big frelling boulder that looks like Crais's fat eema." John tapped the readout screen.
"Crais is our..." I began.
"Punishment for our sins." John finished. "Whoa! There it is, Aeryn. It is a damned ship."
We looked at each other. John's hand rested lightly on the long-range communicator. "Okay, so what's out there but Peacekeeper patrols, Scarren patrols and the occasional pirate?"
I examined the reading from the sensors. "Us, obviously. Very few peaceful, helpful traders or other honest types would come into a section of space so devoid of planets of any sort. And so full of Peacekeeper and Scarren warships as well."
As another asteroid swung in front of the ship, I made some last minute calculations based on the readouts. "The ship is small, much smaller than most warships. And, it's not in our data base."
John rested his hand on the back of my neck. "If I had a really good pilot, I'd sneak up on him. Keep those damned rocks and ice chunks between us until we could get an idea if he's armed, or what."
I gave John my most disgusted look. "If you had a really good pilot? You don't know a good thing when you see it, human."
John buried his head in my hair. "Oh, I do know that, Aeryn."
Four arns of maneuvering found us landing on a rocky asteroid. As it turned, we'd be able to see the other ship that was now only a few thousand metras away from us.
"They left the garage door open." John commented as the ship came into view. That was true. A hatchway big enough for our pod to enter was open to space.
I moved back to the sensors. This close, I could use our passive sensors and not alert our neighbors.
"The main engine is shut down, but the heat signature indicates it's still operational. Even if it's not, we can probably get more fuel and some food."
John looked at me strangely. "That ship isn't Hynerian, is it? I'm not going to have to eat majules for the whole trip back am I?"
I shook my head. "Not Hynerian. But, while I can't positively identify the ship, I just have the feeling it's Sebacean."
I glanced at Aeryn. "Sebacean? Not Peacekeeper, just Sebacean?"
Aeryn went back to the sensor readouts. I noticed a strand of hair resting on her cheek and started playing with it. Aeryn pushed my hand away. She hates to be distracted when she's busy. I love distracting her.
"I can't get anything definite, John. It just looks Sebacean."
I tapped the communicator and glanced at Aeryn. She nodded.
"Unknown ship, this is Leviathan transport pod. Do you copy? Come in."
I repeated the inquiry three more times and got only the same background noise from space as a reply.
"Aeryn, if we walk in, we could be in the middle of a ship full of critters, god-like aliens or mad scientists. I bet whoever belonged on that ship left and left so fast they didn't close the door behind them. I don't like it."
"You'll like trying to eat hydrogen a lot less, John. We haven't got another choice."
I reached out and brushed a strand of her hair back. "And I hate not having any choices, Aer."
We headed for the other ship. Not so unsurprisingly, once the pod was inside, the hangar door didn't close behind us. In another quarter of an arn, Aeryn and I were in our suits standing in the hangar examining the air lock that led to the interior of the ship.
Aeryn examined the controls to the air lock. "I think the problem is that the personnel air lock is jammed on the other side. The ship's computer probably shut all the controls down until someone cleared the jam. I think no one is left on board, so we'll have to get inside and clear the jam ourselves."
"I assume the critters who caused the jam will thank us for that."
Aeryn gave me a look I couldn't quite decipher through the faceplate of her space suit. But, in a few microts we found a small air lock used to move parts into the hangar from the rest of the ship. There was just enough room for one of us to go through at one time.
"Okay, Aeryn. I'll give a blood curdling scream if things aren't good on the other side." I bent down to enter the hatch, but Aeryn stopped me.
"We need a soldier to go through first, John. That way, if there is a problem, I'll handle it. Quietly." Aeryn slipped through the hatch and closed it behind her. I could hear air being pumped in.
The fact that Aeryn was right about who should go in first didn't stop me from hating it. All I wanted was to get Aeryn someplace where she'd be safe and happy for the rest of her life. If the inhabitants could be taught to make a pizza and brew beer, I could live with that, too.
Finally, I could hear the door on the other side opening. No gunfire. No screams. I had the air in the airlock vented and climbed in. In a few microts, I was in a short corridor that ended in a T. Aeryn was at the other end, checking in each direction, her pulse carbine handy.
"Everything's clear so far, John. The jammed airlock should be to our left and then another left." Aeryn took off, leaving me to cover her back. At the first corridor we turned left and then stopped. I moved up to stand by Aeryn and then we moved into the corridor, our weapons pointing at whatever had jammed the air lock.
There was really no chance that she wasn't dead, but I checked anyway. She was. I stepped back and examined the area.
"John, she was shot a good ten paces from the air lock. You can see the blood trail where she crawled back to the air lock and tried to cycle it open before she died."
"Yeah. She wanted to get the hell out of Dodge with her friends, but they left without her. "
I suspected that wasn't true, but I didn't want to argue with John. I pulled the woman's body away from the door and started re-pressurizing the docking bay.
"Aeryn! Every critter on the ship is going to hear that."
I turned, took John's hand and moved him back down to the end of the corridor. "If that's true, we need to know they're coming. You can see them coming from the junction of the corridor. I'll stay at this end. Let me know when the critters arrive."
I waited for a hundred microts or so. Sure enough, John asked a question. "Okay, Miss Sun, what are we doing?"
"I doubt if anyone is aboard this ship, but if there is, we'll hunt them down properly. We'll start at one end of the ship and work to the other. And, I want to check the docking bay."
Finally, the docking bay was re-pressurized and we walked back into it. I stood by the personnel airlock and looked down the bay.
"I thought so, John. Look at he configuration of the bay and the position of the ships. There are two personnel pods similar to ours, a much smaller runabout, and a bulk hauler of some sort. If our pod wasn't here, any one of them could exit without moving the others. I don't think there was another vessel to escape on. I think the crew is still aboard and probably dead."
John nodded. "Sometimes I hate it when you're right."
We walked to the end of the bay and entered the engine room. The crew there had hastily armed themselves with whatever was at hand. A laser welder. A fire extinguisher. A heavy metal bar. It did them no good. They were all dead. On the opposite side of the ship from the docking bay was the cargo area. It took us two nerve wracking arns to check out all the crates, cases, drums and bales. One of them hid the body of a woman. Shot at very close range.
John found the first dead crewman who was armed. He appeared to be in some sort of uniform. He wore light blue trousers and a dark blue jacket. And a holster for his pulse pistol.
We continued to carefully search the ship, finding only the dead. One level above the bridge, we found where the crew had made their last stand. They had erected a barricade of hastily thrown together furniture and ship's fittings. Two more men in the blue uniforms and weapons were there as well as a man in a white uniform who also held a pulse pistol.
Beyond them was a large suite of rooms, luxuriously furnished. The living room was empty. Furniture was knocked over and damaged. An expensive wall hanging lay on the floor, half charred from a pulse blast. Next was a bedroom. In it was a huge bed, a table designed specifically to allow the occupant of the room to put on makeup and a huge, open closet.
"A woman lived here." John said, looking around.
"I should have know you'd arrive at that conclusion, John. Why do you think so?"
"Her closet's full of dresses." John pulled a few out, examining them.
"It means nothing. They could belong to someone's trelk."
John motioned me to come over by him. "Come here for a sec, Aeryn."
He held a filmy black gown up against me. I pushed it away. "If your hormones are through for now, Crichton, we have work to do."
John held another long dress up against me. Thankfully, you couldn't see through this one. "Crichton, if you..."
"Whoever wore this was about your height and build, Aeryn. Or about the size of the first body we found."
I started to frame an apology to John, but he kept on talking. What else is new?
"This is a fairly luxurious ship. Probably someone's yacht. The Good Ship Gaudy Taste gets hit by kidnappers, out to kidnap, well, whoever. They kill off the crew and grab their target, the woman we found. Just as they're about to take off, she tries something. Goes for a guard's gun and gets shot. The kidnappers leave."
I thought about that. "What is anyone doing out here in a craft like this? Why is anyone out here in the middle of nowhere at all? Why did the kidnappers just leave? Why not take the ship, or at least loot it? "
John shrugged. His invariable answer to having holes poked in his theories.
"Aeryn, we don't know there's nothing out here. Just that the map fibers say there isn't anything. And, how do you know the ship isn't looted. Maybe they got the captain's prize collection of baseball cards and headed off to celebrate."
John put his arm around me and pulled me close. "Anyway, we have a ship and a way to get back to Moya. Let's get busy."
I nodded and started to pull away. John pulled me back.
"Aeryn, what about the crew? Should we bury them is space? Keep them as evidence? What? You're the expert on Sebaceans."
I thought about it. "Peacekeepers would want to be buried in space, but I suspect other Sebaceans wouldn't want that. I saw a cold storage facility in the cargo area. We can put the bodies there and decide what to do with them when we get back to Moya and Talyn."
It took two more arns, but we finally put the last corpse in the cold storage facility. With all of them together, I noticed something that I had missed seeing them individually.
"Do you notice something about these people, John?"
I was surprised at the way John snapped back at me. "Yes, Aeryn. These people are all dead and they all got shot down without a chance. I noticed that right away."
I turned away from John slightly, unsure of what to do. I heard John come up behind me.
"I also noticed you have a dumb boyfriend, Honey." He put his hands on my shoulders and pulled me back against him. I reached up and took one of his hands in mine.
"Your girlfriend is a little slow these days, too, John. I should have caught this at once. Everyone has some shade of blue on, and everyone has an insignia of some sort. A small triangle."
I felt John crane his head around to look at the bodies. "Does that mean anything, Aeryn? Gang colors? A Sebacean bowling league?"
"I don't know, John." I pulled away from John and started to walk away from the dead. "It doesn't matter. We'll get the ship running and headed back for Moya and Talyn. We'll probably never find out any more about this ship than we already know."
Four arns later I wasn't so sure.
"The whole frelling computer system, John." I kept working at the console, but I had the feeling it wasn't going to do much good. "I can get some control over some of the ship's systems, like life support, lighting and some other systems, but not over navigation, communications or the engine room controls."
John thought for a while. "So we just sit here? We'll last longer than on the pod, but the same result at the end of it all."
"Not necessarily, John." That got his attention. I just hoped I could make good on my idea." Navigation was stopped and the ship came to a dead stop. I assume that's when they were boarded. I think I can tell the computer to just resume operations and go to where the ship was headed for in the first place."
John ran his thumb across his lips. "So we arrive God knows where with a cargo of corpses. Any chance no one will notice?"
I shook my head. "This ship is too expensive to be heading for some commerce planet where no one notices anything, ever. I think when we arrive we'll have to explain who and what we are."
There were endless problems with that. Who and what we were, even without a ransacked ship and a dead crew, could get us killed.
Finally John spoke. "I hate not having any choices."
I shrugged. "We could stay here for a while and see if Talyn or Moya find us."
John shook his head. "I'm betting the kidnappers will be back to loot the ship, or another group of thugs'll find us before our friends do. We should head for home, or rather where ever this ship calls home. And we should take the crew. Anyone waiting for us will know something happened to the crew anyway. Maybe their families will appreciate the gesture."
I turned back to the console and started working.
"Need any help, Babe?" John ran his hand lightly along the back of my neck.
I shook my head. "There's no room for more than one person at the control panel. If I need any help, I'll call you." I turned back to the controls.
"I'll take a look around the ship, Aer. I'll keep in touch."
Aeryn nodded but was already lost in the job before her. That's my girl. More than she ever thought she'd be. To tell the truth, more than I ever thought she'd be. Aeryn will surprise you.
I walked through the ship to the suite we had found. I was sure that whatever had happened here involved the occupant of that luxurious suite. Aeryn had never seen how the very wealthy lived, even Peacekeeper admirals were a rather puritan bunch. May they all choke on their dedication to duty.
I felt a chill run down my spine as soon as I entered the suite. Nothing seemed out of place or missing. Everything seemed ominous. I spent a half an arn checking things over. Examining objects I had no idea the purpose of. I was probably examining the local version of a blow dryer and ignoring a dozen potential murder weapons in plain sight. No, wrong. Aeryn had been through here with me. If there was a weapon here, she would have spotted it.
I gave up and wandered towards the cargo bay. We had been more worried about hidden assassins than evaluating the cargo for its usefulness to us the first time we checked it out.
I had Wynona out as soon as I heard the slight thump on the far side of the cargo bay. I quickly crossed the bay, but found nothing.
I tapped my communicator. "Aeryn, do we have any sort of internal sensor system?"
"Yes, Why do you ask? Trouble?"
"I don't know. I heard a thump here in the cargo bay. It might have been a cabinet door blown closed by the atmospheric system. It might have been anything."
"I'll have the sensors on in a microt." I could hear Aeryn working.
Suddenly the lights went out. I jumped as far as I could from where I was standing and slammed into a cargo container. That hurt.
Just as quickly the lights came back on. "John! Are you there? I accidentally turned the lights off. Are you all right?"
I breathed a sigh of relief. "Yes, Aeryn. Just be careful, okay?"
"John, I have the sensors on now. Nothing shows up in the cargo bay except you. Do you want me to come down?"
"No, stay there. If there is anything, you'll have control of the ship from there. Check the rest of the ship. Life signs, movement, power sources, anything."
I waited while Aeryn checked.
"There are only two life signs, John. You and me. No movement, no power sources, nothing out of the ordinary."
"Okay, I'm coming back up. I'll make some noise just so you'll know it's me."
"If you make noise, of course I'll know it's you."
I jumped at nothing about ten times on the way back to command and Aeryn. At least I think it was nothing.
Aeryn smiled when she saw me. "I think I've figured out how to get the computer set to turn back on and continue the voyage. We should get some sleep and both of us check it in the morning."
I nodded. I was tired.
There was a small cabin just off command. John and I headed for it. After cleaning up, I got in bed first and waited for John to join me. He did, but positioned himself facing away from me and towards the cabin door.
"John? Wouldn't you be more, em, comfortable, facing me?"
"I've been freaked out ever since I got on the good ship Elm Street. I keep expecting to see Jamie Lee Curtis running from a maniac or her mom in the shower. I don't think I can sleep with my back to the door."
That all pretty much made sense to me. I wasn't sure I liked that I understood it. I wasn't sure I didn't though, either.
"John, we could trade places. That way you could see the door and me." I thought that was a sensible compromise. But I was dealing with John.
"Yeah, but that would put your back to the door. Anything coming in here would have a perfect shot at that lovely back of yours. Better if they have to get through me."
Obviously rational argument was not working. There was nothing out there. John was just jumpy. It was a shame that physical force was out of the question.
"I understand, John. Really, I do."
John sighed. "I'm glad, Aeryn. I know..."
"I did pay close attention when we were on the Ancient's version of Earth, you know. All those Earth women dress so revealingly and enticingly."
"Aer, what does that have..."
I didn't let up. "And they use scent, perfume, I think it's called."
"That has nothing..."
"Most of all, they understand you much better than I do. When you get to Earth you'd be ashamed to introduce your plain, grubby, smelly, dumb alien girlfriend to your family and friends. I always knew that the day would come when you'd realize it. I'm just sorry..."
"Aeryn, dammit." John rolled over and rolled almost on top of me. "After all the cycles I've spent out here, you understand me better than any human ever will. You know as much about scent, perfume, I think it's called, as any woman this side of Chiana, who taught you all that you know on the subject. And," John smiled and pulled my tee shirt up over my head, "you dress as revealingly and enticingly as anyone."
John did manage to get to sleep facing me. Eventually.
The next morning we started checking my work on the computer. It took almost a full solar day to check and cross check everything, but at last we were ready.
"So, do we push a button? Count down backwards from ten? What?"
I looked at the forward view port. "John, we're moving. It worked."
John grinned at me. "Of course it did. I expect you to have this puppy housebroken and sitting up and begging in a weeken."
I sighed. "At the rate you're starting to make sense, I'll end up introducing myself as Aeryn Sun, human, before too long."
John laughed, but the laugh stopped and he ended up looking at me strangely. Good.
After a few solar days, we settled into a routine. We slept in the cabin near command. In the morning we'd try to decrypt the computer programs, especially the ships logs. We desperately needed anything that told us where we were headed. Anything about the ship we were on. We found nothing.
In the afternoon we examined the cargo. Most of the cargo seemed to be supplies of one sort or another for the ship, but there were some high value, low bulk goods that should have been taken by any sensible pirate. After dinner we checked the rest of the ship, from the engine coolant system in back to the sensor array on the front.
Two weekens into our flight, I made a discovery.
"John, I think I know where we're going. We're headed for a solar system about five light cycles ahead. We're headed straight for it. According to the sensors, it has habitable planets and I'm picking up communications from there."
"And the communications say?"
"Be alert for an insane human and his gorgeous girlfriend." I answered.
"Say what?" That got his attention.
"Actually, John, I'm getting the most boring planetary weather report possible. But it's in Sebacean."
"Okay, Aeryn. Can you pipe another channel to one of the other consoles here?"
"To listen for news of a missing starship?" I asked.
John nodded. "Or publicity shots of Scorpius meeting with planetary leaders, Scarren admirals throwing out the first ball at the World Series, the Public Execution Channel. Anything we can find that will tell us anything about where the frell we're headed."
In the next arn we found out a little about our destination. It was a Sebacean colony, established thousands of cycles ago and apparently forgotten by the rest of the Universe. It appeared they knew little and cared less about the Universe around them. Given the amount of lifeless real estate any visitors would have to go through to get here, it wasn't surprising the place had gotten lost. It was hard to sum up an entire culture based on an arn of listening to their communications, but if no one blamed us for the dead bodies, we might be safe for a while. That was a very big "if", however.
"John, we have company." I pointed to the sensor screen. A small dot was moving rapidly toward us. I worked on the console to try to identify the newcomer.
"Not the best news, John. It appears to be a warship. Not a big one by Peacekeeper standards, but armed and faster than we are. Even if we could figure out how to get this ship to go anywhere else."
"Okay, Aer. If they don't get many visitors, they'll be sending the welcome wagon out. Just in case, they'll be in a police car. We'll be okay. Nothing we can't handle, right?"
John smiled and I smiled back at him. I knew him well enough to know he was terrified something would happen to me. He knew I was terrified something would happen to him.
I kept working the sensors to get more information on the ship.
"The ship is smaller than the Peacekeeper Patroller than chased us. But it's fast and well armed, none the less. A bit old fashioned by our standards, but lethal considering we have no weapons on this ship."
John stared hard at the image of the ship on the screen. "Aeryn, it might look better if we contact them first. We don't want them to think we have anything to hide. Like a load of bodies, or the Uncharted Territories most wanted fugitives. Give them a call."
I activated the long range coms. "Calling patrol vessel. Come in."
I waited for a few microts and repeated the call. Then again, and again, and again.
"John, I don't like this. The ship should respond to us. Unless they're not interested in talking."
John peered at the sensors and the com. "Can you try a different channel or something?"
"They should be monitoring all channels and the comm was set to the frequency I'm using, but..." I changed the com frequency and repeated the call. This time I got a response at once.
A male face appeared in the clamshell. "Why the frell aren't you on the secure channel? Why the...Um, Your, I mean , who, what happened?"
"My name is Aeryn Sun. My shipmate and I found this ship abandoned and drifting in space with the crew dead. We restarted the engines and it brought us here."
"Dead? By the Goddess! The whole crew dead? Everyone?" He was visibly upset.
I tried to calm him down. "We have no idea how many people were on this ship originally. Some of them could have been taken hostage by the pirates."
The man stared at me. He cleared his throat. "Did any of the dead look, er, familiar."
That was an odd question. "We have never been in this part of the galaxy before. We wouldn't know anyone. We did store the remains of the crew in a locker."
He seemed to make a decision. "Remain in the command section and prepare to be boarded. Place your weapons on the command console. Any attempts to flee will be dealt with severely." He closed communications.
I looked at Aeryn and shrugged. I put Wynona on the command console and she put her pistol next to it.
"It doesn't make any difference, Honey. The boarding party will outnumber us and even if things go all wonky and we managed to out shoot the boarding party, their ship would still blow us apart."
Aeryn just nodded. She knew how much I hated to see her in danger and I knew she felt the same about me. If I ever found a place where Aeryn would be safe and happy we'd settle down there and a hundred Earths wouldn't ever get me to leave.
The boarding party surprised us. It was, in its entirety, the officer who had contacted us initially. He stood in the hatchway, covering us with a nasty, large pistol. He walked over and took our weapons off the console and then turned and bowed, slightly.
"Lieutenant Fans F'Han Tarlenheim, Royal Strelsauan Navy, at your service. You are?"
Aeryn introduced us. "Aeryn Sun and John Crichton."
Lt. Tarlenheim had his eyes riveted on Aeryn. I was used to it. Tarlenheim was Sebacean and male. Who wouldn't stare at the Radiant Aeryn Sun? I also hated it.
"You are a Peacekeeper, of course?"
Aeryn shook her head. "I was. I never will be again."
Tarlenheim managed to tear his eyes away from Aeryn and look at me. "And you?"
I shook my head. "I failed the physical. They found I had a conscience. Totally inoperable"
Tarlenheim returned to staring at Aeryn. I could get to dislike him very easily. He was tall and on the lanky side, with dark hair and eyes and a pencil-thin mustache.
"Where are the remains of the crew?" He asked politely.
Aeryn gestured towards the back of the ship. "We put them in a cold storage facility aft of here. We can show..."
The Lieutenant cut her off. "I know where it is. You will precede me, if you please?"
It was phrased as a polite request, but the gun pointed at us was a great incentive to cooperate.
Once in the cold storage room, Tarlenheim proceeded to check all of the dead. His reaction seemed to be equal parts rage and relief. Finally, he turned to us and gestured at the door. "Back to command."
Tarlenheim went straight to the communication console. "Sub-Officer Grenz, respond."
A face appeared in the clamshell. "Sir, Central is requesting we respond. Per your orders I haven't responded, but I think..."
"Thank you." Tarlenheim cut him off. "You are now in command. You will patrol on a reciprocal course of this ship and investigate any untoward events, people or ships. You will maintain complete communications silence and you will provide no information to the crew. I believe that you have sufficient fuel and supplies to remain on patrol for a monen. That is all."
"Sir! I must protest." Grenz squeaked. "You must tell us the status of Her..."
Tarlenheim slapped the communications console, cutting off communications.
Tarlenheim turned back to Aeryn and me. "All right, tell me your version of the events on this ship."
I glanced at Aeryn. I didn't like his referring to our "version of events" and she didn't either. Aeryn sensed that Tarlenheim wanted her to talk and so she began. Sensibly, she started with our finding the lifeless ship in the ice rings of a giant gas planet. To my surprise, Tarlenheim never asked what a Leviathan transport pod was doing in the middle of nowhere. I had a bad feeling that Tarlenheim either knew a lot more about what was going on, or a lot less. Neither thought was too comforting.
It took two arns to cover in enormous detail the events of the past several solar days. Tarlenheim acted like he'd happily have us repeat our story until our tongues curled up and died, but he got a call. He waved us to the far end of command and carried on a whispered conversation with someone.
Tarlenheim motioned to us to move back. "We're in orbit around the third moon of our home world. It's a small moon too far out to be useful except as a base for certain government activities that require privacy."
That, I didn't like one damned bit. I edged a little closer to Tarlenheim and willed Aeryn to stay out of the way. Fat chance! Aeryn smiled at Tarlenheim and took a step closer to him. He was smart, the bastard, he stepped back quickly and covered us with his pistol and, to my shame, he grabbed Wynona and pointed it right at Aeryn.
"Please," He said with a smile. "We wish you no harm. You should consider yourselves our guests."
Of course, no one ever says, "Relax. We only want to murder you and bury the remains on a miserable rock no one ever visits."
Aeryn continued to smile. "If we're your guests, can we leave?"
Tarlenheim smiled back. "Of course. You can't take this ship, it doesn't belong to you, after all. And I can guarantee you that there is nothing in the range of your transport pod except the Triple Monarchy. So you may as well stay right here."
I could really get to dislike Tarlenheim.
About a quarter of an arn later, I heard a bump. Someone had docked with the ship.
Surprisingly, Tarlenheim's reinforcements consisted of one man. He was a big dude, looking a little like a retired NFL lineman, big and blocky but light on his feet. He was older than Tarlenheim and had white hair, cut very short and a bushy white mustache. Aeryn had the same effect on him that she had on any other male. He stopped in mid-stride and stared at her.
"By the Goddess, Tarlenheim! I thought you were exaggerating, but she's, she's..."
Words failed the newcomer. Happens to me when I look at Aeryn, too.
Tarlenheim smiled broadly. "Aeryn Sun and John Crichton, may I introduce Colonel Sapt, Commander of Queen Flavia's Own Guard Regiment. Colonel, this is Aeryn Sun and John Crichton, the people I told you about."
Sapt just stared at Aeryn. I could get to dislike him, too.
Finally, Sapt snapped out of it. He bowed to us, slightly. "My apologies. This ship was carrying our Queen, Flavia, on a trip to the Outside. However, Tarlenheim informs me that her body was not found. Is that correct?"
Aeryn and I nodded. Just in case a nod meant something different around here, I added, "All of the bodies we found were put in storage and inspected by Lieutenant Tarlenheim."
Aeryn continued for us. "We assure you we had nothing to do with this tragedy. We'll be happy to give any evidence that we can to any investigation, or help in any way we can."
I broke in, "Please believe us, we had absolutely nothing to do with whatever happened to your Queen."
Surprisingly, that got a bark of laughter out of Sapt. "I believe you. No one would be mad enough to send her to us." He gestured to Aeryn.
That was not good. Before Aeryn could say anything, I jumped in. "Colonel Sapt, Aeryn has been a Peacekeeper, and I know I look like I might have been one, but we have nothing to..."
Sapt broke in. "I'm not the least bit concerned that you are Peacekeepers, Mr. Crichton. And, I am certain you had nothing to do with this. No one in their right mind would try something like this."
I glanced at Aeryn. We were missing something, big time. My mind raced, trying to see what we were missing. Tarlenheim came to our rescue.
"Perhaps, Colonel, our guests would like to see a picture of Queen Flavia." He hit a control and a picture of a young woman came up. It took a few microts, but then I saw it.
"Christ, Aeryn, that's you!"
Aeryn snorted. "In spite of your fantasies, I am not blonde, John."
I grabbed her arm and dragged her over to the clamshell. "Look, Honey. It's you. A blonde you, but you. The eyes, the nose, the lips, everything. It's you, Aeryn, except for the hair."
Aeryn stared hard at the image before us. "Well, maybe. A little bit."
Tarlenheim nodded. "Not just the face, either. Queen Flavia is about Aeryn Sun's height and weight, and their bodies are nearly identical."
He gave Aeryn an appraising stare I didn't like at all.
Tarlenheim kept showing pictures of Queen Flavia. The more that I saw of them, the more I saw that John was right. She did look like me. Frell! She could have been me.
I tore my eyes away from the pictures and turned to Sapt, the senior officer here. "I really don't understand what this is all about, or what you expect of us."
Sapt leaned back against a console and began to explain. "We left Peacekeeper jurisdiction twelve hundred cycles ago. We wanted to live our lives without the regimentation that the Peacekeepers wanted to subject Sebacean society to. We found this system by luck in the middle of a veritable interplanetary desert. There's hardly a planet, let alone a habitable planet for nearly a hundred light cycles. But here, there are three habitable planets."
Sapt tapped some instructions into the console and a graphic of three planets came up on the clamshell.
"Strelsau was the first planet to be settled and still provides the name of the entire system. Eventually, we settled on a second planet, Graustark, and lastly we settled Strackenz. We who were born on Streslau tend to refer to our entire nation as Streslau. Our neighbors on the other two planets refer to us as the Triple Monarchy."
"Having been lost for so long, we have no desire to be found again, but we do have to keep up with the Outside. We maintain a few very long range ships to trade with the Outside and keep up on the news of this end of the galaxy. It is traditional for our monarch to make a trip so that she will have some knowledge of the Outside."
John spoke up. "So who went after Freddy Mercury?"
That got the usual blank looks, so I tried to ask a coherent question. "Who would try to kidnap the Queen?"
Tarlenheim answered at once. "Mikeela the Red, of Graustark. She thinks she's a Peacekeeper, the bitch. She not only has reason to attempt this obscenity, with her so-called personal guards, she has the means."
Sapt snorted. "We have no proof and we have other possibilities. We can't misjudge the situation, Tarlenheim. The cost of an error on our part might be civil war."
Tarlenheim stared at his feet, but I had the feeling he hadn't changed his mind.
John spoke up again. "Look, we can't tell the players without a program and we don't have a clue what's going on here. Give us a break, will you?"
Sapt looked closely at John. He was obviously trying to figure this strange Sebacean male out. He had no idea how much figuring he had in front of him.
"Mr. Crichton, we are aware of the looming war between the Peacekeepers and the Scarrens. Both Peacekeeper and Scarren patrols have clashed on the edges of our interstellar desert. Either, or both, sides could decide to explore this area of space in hopes of finding something useful. Eventually, they'd find us. Most of our population is perfectly satisfied with the status quo. They have no desire to come to anyone's attention. Not the Peacekeepers, and certainly not the Scarrens. There is, however, a small minority that supports the Peacekeepers and wants us to contact them and offer an alliance against the Scarrens. Their leader is Crown Princess Mikeela of Graustark."
"The one who kidnapped Queen Flavia." Interjected Tarlenheim. Sapt glared at him and continued.
"Queen Flavia is to wed Grand Duke Rhennert of Starkness. Starkness is the poorest and least developed of the planets, being the last one colonized. Many on Starkness resent their poverty and blame the richer worlds. A few passionate nationalists would like to see the wedding called off. They would like to see Strackenz an independent world. Insanity, given their poverty, but they say they would rather be poor and free than wealthy slaves."
I noticed John nodding. "We have that type back home."
Sapt saw an opening. "And home is Mr. Crichton?"
John smiled. "Third star from the right and straight on till morning."
Every once in a while I wondered what my life on Earth would be like. The rest of the time I knew I'd end my days on a planet of lunatics with the lunatic I loved the most.
Tarlenheim saw an opening, too. "And if Queen Flavia conveniently disappears the next in the line of succession is Mikeela. Very convenient."
Sapt sighed. I had the feeling this argument had been going on for cycles. "We have no faction that supports the Scarrens, but there have been ionized cesium trails found near us that are consistent with Scarren technology. We have intercepted a vanishingly small number of coded communications that resemble Scarren cyphers."
Tarlenheim snorted. "Consistent with. Resemble! No one can find an actual Scarren within a hundred light cycles. And the reason is simple. There are none."
"Lieutenant Tarlenheim, my duty is to protect my Queen as is yours. I must, must, do you understand, consider every..."
"Possibility." Finished Tarlenheim. "And consider them while our Queen is a prisoner of her own cousin, Mikeela."
John stepped between the two men and pushed them back. "Okay, folks. Move along. Nothing to see here."
Both Sebaceans stopped and stared at John.
"Okay, Now that I have your attention, what do you two want with Aeryn and me?"
Sapt cleared his throat and looked at Tarlenheim, then at John and me. "Nothing, really. Just a small..."
That was all John needed. "Nothing? Okay, we can handle that. We'll just go have some lunch and leave you two to get on with it."
John walked away from them and took my arm and headed for the passageway. We almost made it.
"Wait!" Roared Sapt.
John sighed and we both turned around.
"You bellowed?" John asked politely.
Sapt didn't like this, I could see that. Neither did I. Neither did John.
"We need your help. Whoever has kidnapped our Queen intends to move quickly and stage a coup d'etat. If they just wanted to sow panic and confusion, they would have killed Her Majesty. They must be planning to use her as a figurehead for a new government. We need Aeryn Sun to pretend to be Queen Flavia for a short period."
"That's all, folks." I stared in disbelief at Sapt and Tarlenheim. "Send Aeryn out to be a target for how many factions? Oh, that's right, you people don't frelling know how many people are gunning for your queen. You don't even know that this Flavia is alive. You think their plan must be to keep the queen alive. Well, my plan is to keep Aeryn alive."
Suddenly, I was interrupted. By Aeryn.
"John, we need to talk."
I turned and stared at her. "Talk?"
She nodded. "Talk."
Frell. I had spent cycles trying to get the unbending Miss Sun to talk. Now she had to talk to me. Aeryn smiled at Sapt and led me back out of command. We stopped in a passageway just past the airlock.
I intended to have my say. "Aeryn. No. Don't listen to them, listen to me."
Aeryn put her hand up to silence me. "I was born a Peacekeeper, John."
That threw me. "You're not a Peacekeeper anymore, Hon."
Aeryn leaned against me. "I spent my whole life, before I met you, believing in what I was doing. Believing, that all the pain and suffering we inflicted and endured was for a greater good. That it all meant something. Something important. I didn't mean a frelling thing."
Aeryn stopped and looked up at me. God, those eyes.
"Since I've met you, I've done some important things. I fell in love with a mad human and had my life turned inside out. I've helped keep people I care for safe. Now, I have a chance to do something that means something. Something important. Even something that a mad human might try."
I could tell I was losing this. "Aeryn, we don't know a thing about these people. They could be as bad a bunch of thugs as the people they're fighting."
Aeryn nodded. "That could be. But they don't deserve to have their Queen kidnapped and her crew murdered. One thing we do know, the people who took this ship are murderers. They need to be stopped."
Aeryn put her arms around my neck and pulled me to her. She kissed me lightly on the lips and then pulled away, smiling. "Do you think I'll ever be human?"
I gently kissed her forehead. "You bet. Shall we go meet your new subjects, Your Majesty?" If you can't lick 'em, join 'em, I always say.
We walked back into command. Sapt and Tarlenheim looked like they were ready to explode. I should have told Aeryn to let me do the talking, to try to get the best deal we could from them. To protect Aeryn as much as I could.
"We'll do it, Colonel Sapt." She said brightly.
Okay, next time I'll know better.
Sapt smiled hugely. "Excellent, Aeryn Sun. But, we need only you. Mr. Crichton can stay at the Naval Base on the inner moon."
Aeryn gave Sapt her "I'm-very-stubborn" look. "John will come with me. We're a team. Butch and Sundance as it were."
I enjoyed the blank looks she got from Sapt and Tarlenheim. I could enjoy Aeryn being a human.
Sapt drew himself up and assumed his "I'm-a-frelling-colonel" look. "Miss Sun, we are experts in matters concerning our own nation, I assure you..."
"And I assure you, Colonel Sapt that my husband and I are experts at handling criminals, critters and even the occasional God-like alien. And I do not work without my husband. Ever."
Now, that was absolutely fascinating.
Sapt started to turn purple. "Husband! Husband? You're an ex-Peacekeeper. Do you expect me to believe you've strayed so far from your training as to have a husband? That is totally absurd."
Aeryn just smiled and put her arms around me. "John, Darling, I do love you so much. Should I show everyone just how much that is?" Aeryn ran her finger along the line of my jaw and up to my ear. Then she blew in that ear. I let my hand drop down to her gorgeous behind. I gave it a little squeeze. This was going to be fun.
Colonel Sapt ruined the moment by giving up. The one guy I needed to be immovable on this and he turned out to be Colonel Sanders. Frell.
Sapt really looked like he was going to explode. "All right. I think we have a solar day to brief Aeryn Sun on the Queen. Any longer and I'm afraid..."
"We have no time, I'm afraid." We all stared at Tarlenheim. "A Search and Rescue tug spotted us in orbit. They asked their command why Her Majesty hadn't notified everyone of her return. The message has been working its way up the chain of command. We now have First Minister Seelig demanding to know why he wasn't advised immediately of the Queen's return."
Sapt sighed. "Crichton, take Her Majesty to quarters and see that she's properly dressed." He suddenly looked a little embarrassed. "You do have some experience with formal court wear, I hope." His voice said he knew that there wasn't a Peacekeeper alive who had a clue how to dress for anything but combat.
"Sure. Dress blues, shower shoes and a light coat of oil. No problem." I took Aeryn's arm and headed for the Queen's quarters.
Aeryn called back over her shoulder. "We'll do fine, Colonel."
We got to the Queen's stateroom and Aeryn immediately undressed. I fumbled mindlessly through the Queen's under wear drawer trying to find something for Aeryn. Hey, you try to do something with the gorgeous Aeryn Sun standing around, wearing nothing but a smile and waiting politely while you look for clothes for her.
"You have no intention of finding any clothes for me any time soon, do you, John?"
I sighed and quickly handed Aeryn a black panty and bra set. "See, I was looking for black, Peacekeeper colors. Just like your regular under things."
Aeryn rolled her eyes and stared at the clothes in her hand. "Aren't these a little flimsy, not to mention sheer enough to see through?"
She couldn't get me on that one. I pointed to the open drawer. "That's the only kind the Queen has. It's not my fault, Honey."
Aeryn stared in the drawer. Sure enough, rows of sheer, flimsy undies awaited the Queen. "Maybe, but you should get along with the Queen perfectly." Aeryn sniffed.
I opened the next drawer. "Aha, hose."
Aeryn elbowed me aside. "Hose? I know what a hose looks like, John. Now what are those things?"
I picked out a pair of black hose. "No pantyhose here. Maybe I can invent that and leave my mark in the Uncharted Territories." I glanced over at Aeryn who was, more or less, patiently waiting for an explanation of hose.
"Er, hosiery, long socks, you wear on your legs, Aer."
She sighed. "And of course you can see right through them. Well, I have no doubt if you do make your mark in the Uncharted Territories, it'll be with women's underwear."
I examined the hose. "Hmm. Looks like the tops of these adhere to your thighs, Hon. Here, sit down on the bed and I'll help you get them on."
Aeryn sat. "This is a first for you. Getting a lady on a bed to put clothes on her."
I sighed as I ran the hose up one leg and then the other. To think that I had thought this was a bad idea. I suddenly pushed that thought away hard. It was still a bad idea. Any idea that put Aeryn in any more danger was a very, very bad idea.
Aeryn stood up and I stopped to admire her. I must have stopped too long.
"Crichton, they're expecting the Queen in a solar day and I don't intend to arrive wearing nothing but this."
I decided that Miss Sun needed a little needling.
"Sorry, I was just trying to remember the ceremony. Somehow it completely slipped my mind. The mind is funny that way, I guess."
That put Aeryn on her guard. "Ceremony? Am I expected to perform some sort of ceremony as Queen?"
I walked over to the closet. "I meant our wedding ceremony. When I became your husband?"
"I shouldn't wonder you forgot about asking me to marry you, John. There I was, a lost ex-Peacekeeper, dealing with emotions I had never imagined existed within me, totally alone, and with an alien I soon learned that I loved. You were busy learning all about the new Universe you had found, speaking in Earth gibberish when I most needed you and flirting with every female for ten light cycles." I watched as a dozen conflicting emotions played on Aeryn's face.
"Flirting?" I managed to get out.
She nodded. "Poor Gilina, Lashala from Acquara, and Princess Katralla and Jenavia Chatto. We can't forget Jena, can we?"
I felt terrible. "Aeryn, you were always so damned in control. Aeryn Sun, ten feet tall and bullet proof. You never said anything."
"No, I never did. Emotions aren't easy for me." She quietly replied.
"I've told you I never want to be apart from you. You're part of my life, no matter what. " That sounded terribly inadequate once I had said it.
I pulled Aeryn close to me. "I never asked you before because Peacekeeper's have no concept of marriage and Earth customs have little meaning out here. Will you marry me, Aeryn Sun."
Aeryn nodded. "I never thought it was important either. I never thought about a long term relationship as a Peacekeeper. Once I had left them and found you, it was enough that we were together. I just told Sapt we were married to throw him. The Sebaceans who leave Peacekeeper jurisdiction usually try to be as little like Peacekeepers as possible. He thinks we may be Peacekeepers. I wanted to make him think otherwise. A married Peacekeeper would be as unlikely as anything he could think of."
"Sapt doesn't trust us, Honey. If we're not Peacekeepers, he thinks were mercenaries or renegades, or something bad."
Aeryn smiled. "Well, he's wrong, isn't he?" She leaned her head on my shoulder. "I just said we were married and all of a sudden I just so wanted to be your wife. I don't know why it became so important just then. It just did."
The moment was broken by Tarlenheim pounding on the door. "Your Highness. Are you ready?"
I yelled at the door. "Keep your shirt on. Aeryn isn't decent. In a microt."
I grabbed a long blue gown out of the closet and helped Aeryn pull it over her head. Tarlenheim kept knocking on the door. When I was sure Aeryn was covered, I walked over and opened it.
"Crichton, please remember to refer to Queen Flavia properly. She is not named Aeryn. A slip of any sort could be disastrous."
I was about to tell him what he could do with Queen Flavia, but stopped. Frell, he was right. I could spend the rest of my life bitching about Tarlenheim, but I had to keep Aeryn alive at all costs.
I decided I'd better bring a little problem to his attention. "One little thing, Tarlenheim. Queen Flavia is blonde enough to star on Baywatch. Aeryn isn't."
Damn. He just smiled. He walked over to a case sitting on a large dresser and took out a ring. He fooled with the ring for a microt and started to put in on Aeryn's finger. I stopped him just in time.
"Sorry, Tarlenheim, this is my job." I put the ring on the third finger of Aeryn's left hand. I leaned over and whispered in her ear. "With this ring, I thee wed." Both Aeryn and Tarlenheim stared at me. I'd explain that to Aeryn later.
Tarlenheim did something else with the ring. Aeryn's hair turned honey blonde. "A little something I assume Peacekeepers wouldn't be aware of. The ring will keep your hair blonde, but don't ever take it off, Queen Flavia."
Tarlenheim and I headed out the door. Aeryn stayed where she was. We stopped and stared at her and she lifted the hem of her dress slightly to reveal her bare feet. "Shoes? I imagine I wear them, John."
I searched in Flavia's closet. All of her shoes except for some slippers had stiletto heels. "Um, Hon, I'm not sure you'll be able to walk in these. Walking in high heels takes a little practice."
"Well, John, I'd better start practicing now."
I knelt before Aeryn, feeling a little like Prince Charming finding Cinderella. How would Aeryn react to that story? I put her shoes on.
Aeryn took a few careful steps and then a few more. Then she whirled and kicked hard with one foot, bounced back while directing a punch at an imaginary foe. Then she did a cartwheel and landed in front of me. She smiled and leaned forward and kissed me lightly. "You're right. These do take a little getting used to." Then she headed out the door. Never underestimate Aeryn Sun.
Sapt was pacing command when we got there, having about four conversations over the communications system. He turned and bowed to Aeryn, er, Queen Flavia. "Your Highness. We are making for home. We are doing everything to make sure that things aren't rushed. Your safety is upper most in our minds."
Sapt was interrupted by a voice form the clamshell. "Sapt! I demand that you bring Queen Flavia home at the fastest possible speed. She isn't safe out there in space. If you don't..."
Aeryn interrupted. "I have every confidence in Colonel Sapt's plans for my protection. I have, after all, been in great danger."
The other man babbled for a few microts. Of course, Your Highness, I am only...." Sapt cut the communications.
"That's Seelig, your First Minister. A good enough sort for running an interplanetary government as long nothing goes seriously wrong. And things have gone seriously wrong."
Sapt pulled Aeryn and me over to one side. "You two have a lot to try to learn about us in just a short arn or so, but we may have some help." He held out a box that appeared to hold a dozen or so tiny clear slugs, wiggling around. "These are small transmitters. Put them on the skin behind your ears and they melt right into the skin to the bone. Then we can communicate with you. We can tell you the names of people you've known all of your life. Useful things like that, Queen Flavia."
I hated that. "You're going to put something in Aeryn's head?"
Aeryn took one and placed it behind her ear. In a microt it was gone. "You don't have to have one, John. "
I quickly grabbed one and put it behind my ear. "Like hell."
We spent the next arn being talked to by both Tarlenheim and Sapt about everything that had ever happened to Queen Flavia and the Triple Monarchy. I noticed that the more time that passed, the more hysteria crept in to their voices.
I did find out where I fit into everything, though. "Crichton, we've informed the press that you are a Sebacean who signed onto Queen Flavia's ship and, that in the attack on the ship, you heroically stood off the pirates after everyone else but you and the Queen were killed. The pirates fled as you approached this system. Can you manage that?"
I nodded. "The good Lord willin' and crick don't rise."
That got the usual blank expressions from Sapt and Tarlenheim. Aeryn groaned under her breath.
"I beg your pardon, Crichton?" Sapt finally managed to ask.
"Smile when you say that, stranger." This was fun.
Aeryn finally ended my fun. "We do have a serious purpose here, John."
I grinned at her. "I know that, Queen Flavia. My point is that even if we had a monen to try to teach Aeryn everything she needs to know, it wouldn't be enough time. You can forget about trying to get Aeryn to memorize Queen Flavia's life. It won't work. The only way this will work, is if you keep everyone who might recognize that Aeryn's a phony as far away as you can manage. Tell them the Queen has developed the galloping colly wobbles and is highly contagious. Tell them there's a plot against her life, since there is one. Keep everyone away from Aeryn, dammit. It's her only chance."
Sapt started in. "Crichton, we can't possibly keep everyone away. Everyone is..."
He was interrupted by a harsh metallic clang. "Too late for anything else now." Said Tarlenheim. "We've arrived Ambleve Orbital Station. We'll take a Royal Shuttle down to the planet from here. And the press is just on the other side of that door."
I peeped at the monitor to see what was outside. Several dozen Sebaceans with what I hoped were cameras and recorders were being held back by about three times as many cops.
"Anyone outside we ought to avoid?"
"The whole frelling lot." Sapt growled.
We walked down to the access port of the yacht and left. I got between Aeryn and the paparazzi and put my arm around her. I whispered in her ear. "Your Majesty, you've just been through a battle. Put your head down and look sad. You just lost a shipful of your friends. Don't do anything that will alert the media to the truth."
I doubt that Aeryn understood what I was trying to do. If the Peacekeepers ever ran into reporters, they probably shot them. Luckily, one came to our rescue.
"Why the frell is a Peacekeeper Captain allowed access to Her Highness?" One of them bellowed at us.
Sapt stopped and the reporters focused on him while I got Aeryn onto the shuttle.
"Captain Crichton is a Sebacean and not a Peacekeeper. He saved Her Majesty's life and has been appointed a Captain in Her Majesty's Guards. His duty is to protect her as he has already done so well." Sapt replied. The reporters made notes, took pictures and invented heroic quotes for Captain Crichton.
We were in the shuttle and Sapt followed us in. We headed for the planet below. I kept an eye out and determined from the position of the terminator that we would land in the middle of the night local time. Perfect. We could sneak Aeryn into the palace while everyone was asleep.
We hopped out of the shuttle and into the local version of a stretch limo. All we had to do was make a quick trip down a broad avenue and into the palace.
They were waiting for us at the gate to the spaceport.
"Jee-sus." There were hundreds of them. No, thousands and thousands. People were jamming the sidewalks from the spaceport all the way to the palace. They cried and waved and smiled. I could hear them call to Queen Flavia.
"Goddess bless us, Your Majesty."
"Long life, Queen Flavia."
Aeryn leaned over to me. "Still think they're as bad a group of thugs as the Peacekeepers or Scarrens. John?"
I smiled at her. "That's one for the Radiant Aeryn Sun. But all we need is a small group of thugs, Honey, to frell things up."
Aeryn spent the rest of the ride waving shyly to her subjects. She wasn't one to go overboard emotionally, so she probably acted like a queen who'd just survived an assassination attempt.
That gave me a chance to scope out the palace. It was an imposing pile that Sapt told me had been built slowly over the centuries. It sat in a forest about the size of New Jersey. Well manicured and well lit paths wandered through the woods. There were placid lakes and rushing streams. Small, rustic looking cabins were set well back from the road. When we passed close to one, I realized they were about the size of your average Southern mansion. The palace seemed to ramble on forever. It was mostly some local analog of white marble with additions and towers of other materials added on later. The whole place was lit up like a Hollywood premiere.
We came to a screeching halt in front of a massive front door. Sapt had a dozen or more guards waiting for Queen Flavia, as I must now always call Aeryn. We walked into a scene of complete chaos with hundreds of people milling around in a huge entryway, all trying to talk at once.
I recognized Chancellor Seelig bellowing at Sapt and Queen Flavia. "Your Highness! Sapt! I absolutely demand..." The rest was lost in the general pandemonium.
I grabbed Sapt. "We need the offensive line to open some holes. Line your guards up in a wedge formation with Queen Flavia and us on the inside. Then head for the stairs and her room. There are too frelling many people who know her in here."
I took a good look at the soldiers of the Guard. They looked like they belonged in a road company production of something by Gilbert and Sullivan. They wore riding boots polished to a glossy finish and tucked into those were black riding breeches. They had a light blue coat that ran to the mid-thigh and bright red trim at every seam and huge shoulder boards. The whole uniform was topped off by a brightly polished gold helmet topped by a two foot long green feather. They may have looked like they were about to start singing something from "The Pirates of Penzance", but they were carrying pulse rifles.
Sapt got his people lined up and I yelled, "Head 'em up and move 'em out." We started up the stairs, pushing the milling crowd out of the way. When we got about half way up, Flavia suddenly stopped and turned around to face the crowd below her.
She raised her voice and cut through the babble of the crowd. "Please forgive us. I have lost many friends and there is still danger. Please go about your business. Those who protect me will go about theirs." Then she turned and walked up the stairs. You could have heard a pin drop.
Once we got to the second story, the crowd thinned out remarkably. We still had to walk through an endless series of hallways, stairways and rooms, but we finally arrived at Flavia's quarters. I had a brief chance to stare at the size and opulence that the Queen lived in. We were in a reception room bigger than most houses on Earth. Through a door at one end, I could see a queen sized bed. Then Flavia was overwhelmed by three blondes who were being hysterical over the fact that Flavia had been in danger. They threw their arms around Flavia and sobbed and screamed.
"Flavia! It must have been horrid!" Sobbed the first blonde.
"You were so brave. I would have just died." Cried the second.
"Praise the Goddess. Praise the Goddess." Moaned the third.
Flavia stood there wondering what to do.
Suddenly, another blonde walked into the room and took charge. She was petite and if she had been human I'd have said she was on the far side of forty, but still a beautiful woman. She was dressed in a dark blue high-waisted floor length gown that seemed to be the fashion locally.
She clapped her hands. "You three, leave now. Her Highness needs to rest. Out! Out!"
The three young blondes looked to Flavia for support, but got none. Slowly, they were shooed out of the room. Then she turned to Flavia. "Your Highness, you should change and get ready for bed. Colonel Sapt, gentlemen, will you excuse us?"
The blonde hustled Flavia off to another room. I looked inquiringly at Sapt.
He gestured towards the departed blonde. "Lady Orlika Chavanne. She has been Her Majesty's governess and tutor since she was a little girl."
Tarlenheim took over. "And one of the few ladies in the Queen's entourage that..."
Sapt cleared his throat noisily and glared at Tarlenheim. I made a mental note to find out about Good Queen Flavia's entourage ASAP.
Flavia and Lady Orlika came back in the room with us. Flavia had on a long white gown, belted at the waist. Underneath I could just see a sheer white nightgown. I mentally kicked myself for putting myself in a position where I wouldn't be able to be alone with Aeryn.
Lady Orlika smiled at us all. "If I may ask a question, gentlemen?"
"Please tell me who this lady is, since she is definitely not Queen Flavia."
John smiled at Lady Orlika and took a step towards her. I stepped away from her, blocking her way to the door. Sapt just bellowed.
"Lady Orlika! This is your Queen! How dare you insinuate she is not? I should have you..."
Lady Orlika turned away from Sapt and towards me. "I believe that Colonel Sapt is loyal to the death to our queen, as I am. You are most certainly not Queen Flavia and you'll never pull of this impersonation without me. And I won't help unless you tell me what's happening and why you're impersonating Queen Flavia."
Sapt kept on bellowing, now joined by Tarlenheim. I glared at them, "Shut up you two. If she figured out I'm not Flavia in a few microts, we'll never fool anyone on this farbot planet." I noticed that John was smiling hugely. I was glad someone was enjoying this.
Before Sapt or Tarlenheim could object, I told Lady Orlika what had happened to Queen Flavia's yacht and how John and I had come to be aboard that ship. At the end, Lady Orlika nodded. "Your resemblance to Queen Flavia is an amazing coincidence, but the story is too fantastic to be anything but true. Colonel Sapt. Lieutenant Tarlenheim, Captain Crichton, and Your Majesty, I am at your service." Lady Orlika made a deep bow to me. Then laughed. "Your Majesty, you must reply to my bow. Just nod your head."
Sapt pushed past John and grabbed Orlika by the arm. "How did you discover this was not Queen Flavia? How will we keep others from finding out?"
Orlika laughed. "I've been attending to her highness since she was a baby. She has no scars on her skin and no calluses on her hands. But that isn't how I became suspicious. Her Majesty has led a sheltered life and one in which she was able to have her way far more often that was proper. Queen Flavia would have had a hysterical fit along with those three ninnies I threw out of here, and she would have demanded someone be punished for putting her life in danger."
"She's spoiled?" John asked.
Not surprisingly, everyone looked at John. Being most used to John's manner of speech, I spoke first. "We hope not, John. She'll only start to rot if she's dead."
John got that half confused, half angry look he gets when he says something that makes sense only to him. I was used to seeing it. "No, I mean, not spoiled like meat gone bad. I mean spoiled like throws a fit to get her own way. Selfish. Egotistical."
Sapt and Tarlenheim started to berate John for insulting their Queen. Orlika cut them off. "Not quite that bad, Captain, but she can be difficult."
Sapt began to mumble under his breath about disloyalty and insults, but Orlika and I glared at him and he stopped. Then Orlika started shooing the men out of the room. "Her Majesty needs her sleep. She's had a very difficult time."
John gave me a long look and then grinned. "I'll be in a little bedroom at the far side of the reception room, Your Majesty. Let me know if you need anything."
Orlika looked shocked. "If Her Majesty requires anything, she'll not be asking for you."
John's grin widened and he waved at me. I smiled back and then we both headed for our respective bedrooms. I stopped suddenly when I walked into my bedroom.
"Is everything all right, Your Majesty?" Said Orlika from behind me.
"The bed is about the size of my quarters at home. And, is that a food refrigeration unit by the bed?"
Lady Orlika sounded shocked that I lived like that. "If you need a small snack at night, or a soothing drink, they're right there. Of course, if you need something more substantial, we can inform the Royal Kitchens and they can...."
I just laughed. "I have few needs, Orlika, and you sent my main need off to another bed. Good night."
I took off my robe and noticed Orlika was still standing there. "Do you need something else, Lady Orlika?"
She blushed slightly, then spoke. "I understand you were a Peacekeeper and that you are actually married to Captain Crichton?"
I smothered a smile. "I love John very much and we are married."
Orlika thought for a microt. "He must be a very unusual man."
I nodded. She didn't know the half of it.
I woke up the next morning to find Lady Orlika hovering over me. "Time to arise, Your Majesty. Breakfast is on the table there." She stopped and stared at the floor. "Captain Crichton would like to join you for breakfast. I said it was highly unusual, but?" She left the question lingering.
I thought about it. "He is my bodyguard and I am the victim of a plot. These are unusual times."
Orlika nodded and let an upset John in.
John and I had a quick breakfast and then Orlika sent him out. "Her Majesty needs to get dressed, Captain Crichton. I can handle that better than you."
John almost said something, but smiled and waved good bye.
I waved Orlika away. "Lady Orlika, I'm perfectly capable of putting on my own clothes."
"I disagree, Your Majesty. You need to wear the proper formal gown, with the correct insignias and orders of rank for today's ceremony."
"Ceremony?" Frell. What was this?
It took half an arn for Orlika to dress me and to put more jewelry on me than I had ever imagined existed. Each seemed to have some significance. A ring with the black stone had been worn by an ancestor at the last great battle fought here, some 600 cycles ago. I wore a tiara whose stones were from each of the three worlds and signified our unity. On my right wrist was bracelet had been worn by a Peacekeeper defector who had helped lead my people to their new home over a thousand cycles ago. For some reason it could only be worn on the right wrist. No one remembered why anymore, but the Queens always wore it on the right wrist. There was an entire chest of such baubles, each of which had their own story and significance. Blue was the royal color, as I had surmised. Virtually everything I wore would have some blue in it.
The ceremony was my welcome home. Queen Flavia had been gone for slightly over a cycle, learning about the Universe beyond her realm. Apparently, the ceremony had to be rescheduled to account for the numerous deaths in my entourage. The joy of the homecoming would be tempered with sadness.
Properly dressed, at last, I walked out of my quarters to find John, Sapt and a dozen bodyguards waiting for me. John wore the dress uniform of my Guards. He winked at me and I smiled back. I decided I liked him in a formal uniform, or out of a formal uniform.
We walked through the Palace and arrived at the throne room. Orlika had warned me what to expect. I halted at the doors and was announced. A flunky with the voice of a Peacekeeper Tactical Instructor bellowed, "Her Highness, Queen Flavia of the Triple Monarchy, Lady Protector of Streslau, High Duchess of Graustark...."
He droned on through a list of titles and honorifics that would have made Rygel jealous while I looked around. The throne room was about half the size of Talyn's landing bay and was packed with people. Virtually everyone was dressed in some shade of blue, the national color of my temporary home. Orlika had told me who would not be wearing blue and why. I needed to keep an eye on them. I scanned the crowd and found two groups, one in black and one in scarlet, both near the throne.
Suddenly, John cleared his throat and I noticed the introduction had stopped. I began walking to my throne as everyone bowed deeply to me. I nodded absently to them and finally reached my throne and sat.
Chancellor Seelig appeared in front of me. Tall and thin, he had silver hair and wore a beard. He was dressed from head to toe in blue. He was upset and seemed incapable of staying in one place. He shifted from one foot to the other and moved his hands constantly. "Em, Your Highness, this joyous occasion has been marred by, er, a most dreadful, er, quite dreadful, mischance. Em, not so much a mischance, ahem, but, really, that is to say..."
Seelig really was out of his depth when confronted with political violence. I nodded, doing my best to appear shaken and upset. "Thank you, Chancellor Seelig. I appreciate your deep felt concern." Actually, I would have liked to have fired him and put John in his place, but apparently my powers as Queen were limited. Seelig gratefully moved back in the crowd.
I heard a voice in my ear. "Your Majesty, this is your cousin, Crown Princess Mikeela of Graustark."
Mikeela was dressed all in black, as befitted someone who wished to ally the Triple Monarchy with the Peacekeepers against the Scarrens. She strode up to the throne and, just barely, bowed. Her lack of respect caused a murmur to run through the crowd. She turned slightly and let her gaze linger on John. It lingered for far too long for my taste.
I glared at her. "Thank you cousin, you have been eloquent in expressing your sadness." Mikeela jerked her head around to stare at me. Well, I could be as rude as she.
Mikeela bowed, deeply, this time... She spoke too softly to be heard by anyone but me. "My condolences on your loss, Cousin. You seem to have acquired a bit of a backbone in your travels, as well as an interesting male. I'll enjoy having him around me."
I smiled back at Mikeela. "I think you'll never enjoy anything that's mine."
Mikeela looked shocked, then recovered and bowed. Then she walked back to her black clad entourage.
The radio sounded in my ear. It was Sapt. "Your Highness, that was very unlike Queen Flavia. I mean, unlike you. If anything you are a little frightened of Mikeela. She has used her position to form a bodyguard that rivals your own household troops. And, unlike you, she has no compunctions about using them."
I turned away slightly so that I could talk to Sapt without being noticed. I caught John grinning hugely. "Sapt, perhaps it's time we become the ones who have fewer compunctions." I received only a strangled snort as a reply.
Tarlenheim took over. "Your Highness, Your Intended Husband approaches. Grand Duke Rhennert of Strackenz."
I heard John start to laugh. Then I saw why. "Sapt! Are you farbot? Do you think I have any ...intention." I stopped. John was laughing so hard into his radio, that Sapt couldn't have heard me.
John finally got control of himself by ducking behind a decorative curtain and turning his radio off.
"Your Highness!" Whispered Sapt's voice in my ear. "Grand Duke Rhennert is your Betrothed! Please! You're frightening him."
I turned away from Rhennert so that I could talk to Sapt. "Of course he's frightened! He's a frelling infant. He's a child, you farbot fool."
Sapt tried to quiet me down. "He's a bit small for his age, Your Highness, but he's thirteen cycles old. He is the male heir to the Grand Duchy of Strackenz. He's your betrothed, Queen Flavia."
I steeled myself and turned back to Rhennert. He had noticed my anger and had stopped a good ten metras from the throne, looking like he'd rather face a Scarren that his Betrothed. I beckoned him forward, smiling at him. He moved towards me, but he didn't look any happier.
He began speaking in a high pitched voice, that soon started to break. "My Beloved. I am overjoyed that you have returned safely to us. My heart soars like a drannit to find you safe among us once again after your trip to the Outside."
Rhennert droned on for a good three hundred microts, occasionally loosing his place in his prepared speech, or mispronouncing words. I looked him over. He was skinny and had lank brown hair that stuck up in back. He was dressed entirely in blue, as was appropriate. Only a small red handkerchief betrayed his allegiance to Strackenz. About half of his followers were dressed in blue. The rest wore shades of red. Those who wore blue favored the marriage and the continuance of Strackenz as part of the Triple Monarchy. Those in red felt that Strackenz should declare independence. Standing in front of the independence supporters was a girl who appeared to be about Rhennert's age and who had the brightest red dress on that I had ever seen. She also was glaring at me as if she wished I were dead. Maybe she had done more that wish. I lifted my hand to my mouth and spoke to Sapt. "The girl in bright red in front. Who is she Sapt?"
"Lady Ennira Frohn. Rumor has it she and Rhennert are... friendly."
Finally Rhennert stopped talking. I smiled at him. "Thank you, My Betrothed. Your kindness and concern is noted and appreciated. " I nodded to him and he fled back to his supporters.
I muttered into my radio. "And your actions have been noted also, Crichton. I suspect Rhennert will share my bed before you do again." I didn't mean it. But I'd enjoy keeping John worried for a while.
Sapt's voice as back in my ear again. "Your Highness. We have a delight for you. Your favorite opera, "The Captain from Kopenick" will be performed. It combines just the right amount of joy and solemnity for this occasion. It tells the tale..."
I cut him off. "How long is the frelling thing?"
Sapt didn't answer at once. "Five and a half arns, Your Highness." He finally said.
I managed to control myself before the Little Prince became so terrified of Queen Flavia that he left town forever. I had no interest in Sebacean opera and there were some interesting developments.
I called her on the radio. "Your Highness? My humble apologies. This is serious business and I should stay focused." I was sure Aeryn wouldn't stay mad at me, but it wouldn't hurt to be apologetic. I was rewarded by a vague "harrumph" through the radio.
I took that as forgiveness. "If everyone thinks it's safe, I'm going to look around. A bunch of people are heading for what looks like the bar to get lubricated for the opera. They might get a little talkative."
Aeryn's only reply was to turn and glare at me. I smiled and headed for the bar. I pushed my way through the crowd and an overworked flunky handed me a drink of some sort. I took a sip and decided anything more than a sip or two was a bad idea. I looked around and discovered the crowd had backed a good dozen metras away from me. I edged towards a group having a lively conversation. As soon as they noticed me, they all headed away. Two more tries at being a great conversationalist left me wondering if my deodorant had let me down. I made one more try. I got behind the bar and snuck up on a group in blue who were thanking the Goddess that Queen Flavia, (The Goddess bless her!) was well. As soon as they saw me, they turned their backs to me and left. I walked back in front of the bar and stared at the hundreds of people who were busily ignoring me.
"I'll talk to you, if you don't mind me telling you how handsome you are."
I turned around. "Okay, but you'll have to put up with me telling you how beautiful you are." Only her white hair and a few lines around the eyes betrayed the fact that she was probably older than my great grandmother, but she was still a beauty. I would never get over how long people lived around here. She was tall and slender, but still curvy in the right places. I suspected that she might have some artificial help with the figure and the face now, but she must have broken hearts by the bushel basket when she was younger.
She laughed. "I'm Baroness Lenza Gautier. You, are Captain John Crichton, Queen Flavia's newest," she stopped for just a microt, "guard." She took my hand and we started walking through the palace. I noticed people still got out of my way.
"Captain, we came to the middle of the Uncharted Territories to get away from the Peacekeepers. Except for Mikeela and her people, everyone is prepared to dislike you."
We walked into a small library, filled with books, data spools, fibers and data readers. Lenza walked me to the far end. No prizes for figuring out that we couldn't be seen from outside the library. Well, I was here to ask questions and she was the only person who'd talk to me, so far.
"So, My Lady, you're one of Mikeela's people?" I asked.
She laughed again. She had a nice laugh. It reminded me of a Sebacean lady I was madly in love with. "Not at all. I'm not everyone."
"And I'm not a Peacekeeper."
She turned serious. "Even if that is true, no one believes you're anything but a Peacekeeper, or a mercenary in their pay. Or even worse, you're not in anyone's pay, yet, and available to the highest bidder. Which will make all the lower bidders nervous."
I thought about that one for a microt. "That is not good."
"Being Queen Flavia's lover makes it even worse, Captain Crichton." A hint of a smile was back in Lenza's eyes.
"Dear Captain Crichton." She stopped for a microt. "May I at least call you John?"
"John, everyone saw how you put your arm around Queen Flavia's waist and behave in a very protective manner last night when you arrived. You glared at everyone and kept your arm around her the entire time."
I couldn't remember having my arm around Aeryn's waist. She had been very close and I was terrified that something would happen with hundreds of people milling around the palace. I probably did have my arm around her.
Lenza continued. "The Queen's maids say you sleep in a little bedroom just across the reception area from Flavia's bedroom. Well, to tell the truth, they say it appears you slept there. Or that you made it look like you slept there. No one has ever slept in Flavia's private apartments before, let alone a male from Outside. I must tell you, there's not a maid in the palace who thinks you were in your own bed last night."
Suddenly, she changed the subject. "Do you think I'm still beautiful, John?" Before I could reply, she took my hand and ran it from her breast to her bottom. I felt myself blushing. I managed to notice that she had nothing on underneath her dress. Everything under there was pure Lenza and a very erotic Lenza at that.
"Excellent." She said and dropped my hand. "You blushed. You're not some jaded operative, I think. I do believe that you care for our Queen. That makes you very dangerous in a number of ways, John."
I finally got my voice back. "You couldn't just ask?"
There was that lovely laugh again. "Oh, John. When I was much younger, I was quite scandalous. More than seventy cycles ago I went to the Outside with Flavia's mother, Anthea. I jumped ship and explored the Outside for several cycles with my lover. It ended badly, though. He died and I came home in something resembling disgrace."
I raised an eyebrow. "I have trouble imagining you feeling disgraced."
"Correct, John. But I have learned a lot about men in my time. I never met one who could blush to fake embarrassment. No, you do have feeling for Flavia. All of those who oppose Flavia's marriage won't want to see her with a strong, capable man beside her."
"Whoa! Flavia will have Dennis the Menace for a husband. He'll be by Flavia's side, not me."
Lenza frowned slightly. "Oh! You may yet turn out to be just a nice, handsome young man who's out of his depth among all these political plotters and playful partiers."
She leaned into me so that I'd know which she was. I took a step back.
She turned serious. "John, the marriages of the Royal Family have been political for as long as we've been here. We can't expect that people who marry under those circumstances will love each other or even be able to stand each other. So, no one will be the least bit surprised if Queen Flavia confines her relationship with Rhennert to having enough children to insure the continuation of her line and considers you the love of her life. They will not like it, since they all think you're a Peacekeeper, but they accept that sort of relationship. And you will be in danger."
Lenza looked at her timepiece. "Dear! I'm afraid I won't find any nice young man here to comfort me. Perhaps a nice young Guardsman is in the area."
Lenza gave me a dazzling smile and left the room. The sight of her wriggling out of the room could have aroused a marble statue. I let out my breath and waited a microt. Then I walked out of the room.
"Hello, Peacekeeper. Enjoying Lenza?" Called a cheery voice.
He was tall, dark and handsome and he knew it. Dark curly hair and a pencil thin mustache framed blue eyes that almost looked like they were laughing. He was dressed in a black uniform, so I assumed he was one of Mikeela's people.
He bowed slightly. "Ruprecht F'Han Hentzau. You humble servant, Captain Crichton."
The smile said he was anything but humble. I walked away from him. He fell into step with me. "Mikeela wants to see you. She sent me along to find you. I saw you with Lenza and decided that barging in would be most ungentlemanly. Luckily, you didn't take much time at it. You know, Lenza has all sorts of former lovers in high places. She can be mightily unpleasant if you cross her."
"Personal experience?" I asked, still walking.
"Several dozen times. She is unbelievable. As a poor country boy, new to Court and dazzled by all the glitter in the Capitol, I naturally gravitated to a kindly, older woman for guidance." He let out a long, salacious sigh.
I decided I'd better get this over with as quickly as possible. "So, where's Mikeela?"
He pointed to a closed door just up the hall. "Mikeela the Red awaits. Don't worry. She doesn't spit fire until after dinner and she hasn't cut anyone in half all day." Hentzau opened the door and waved me inside.
"Captain Crichton is here, Mikeela. I managed to wrestle him from the grasp of the lovely Baroness Gautier. I hope he's in good enough shape to talk." Hentzau said lightly.
One of Mikeela's entourage, a balding, thick-set man growled at Hentzau. "Your frelling impudence will go too far one day, Ruprecht. I hope I'm around when that happens."
Hentzau bowed deeply, smiling all the time. "So do I, Uncle."
Mikeela pushed her way past the uncle to me. "Shut up, you two." She reached out and took my hand. "Captain Crichton, I need to know what instructions the Peacekeepers have sent. What forces can we count on when the day of deliverance comes?"
Sebaceans must have gotten rid of all the ugly genes in their gene pool. As with all Sebacean women I had seen, she was gorgeous. She had flame red hair that was longer than Aeryn's and hung loose down her back. Her black gown covered her from the neck down, but it was skin-tight. I doubt if she had seen her feet from a standing position in years. The skirt of her gown was slit to the hip and revealed long, well muscled legs.
Well, no time like the present to disillusion her. "I have no idea what you're talking about. I'm not a Peacekeeper and I have nothing for you."
Her hand tightened on mine. From her expression, she just might start spitting fire and cutting people in half. "What! Surely, you can't be serious!"
She looked around for confirmation that I wasn't serious. No one said anything.
What the hell, I couldn't resist. "I am serious and don't call me Shirley."
She tried to translate that and then smiled at me. "These are my closest supporters, Captain. You need not fear that anything you say will reach Queen Flavia's ears."
I disengaged my hand. "Anything I have to say, I can say to you with Queen Flavia present. That's because I have no messages for you. I have no messages for you because I'm not a Peacekeeper."
Mikeela drew back from me. "This is impossible. All of our plans. All of our efforts. All of our..."
She was interrupted by Hentzau's laughter. The whole collection of them turned and glared at him. I was happy that someone had drawn Mikeela's attention away from me.
Hentzau wiped a tear of laughter away. "The Peacekeepers are far smarter than we anticipated. If we succeed in overthrowing Flavia, we must turn to the Peacekeepers. Who else will save us from the Scarrens? But what if we fail? Well, if we fail, the dashing Captain Crichton will be conveniently placed by dear Flavia's side to steer her away from the Scarrens and to the Peacekeepers. Either way, the Peacekeepers win. I honestly doubt if Captain Crichton knows anything at all about us. If he's caught and tortured by the Scarrens, he won't be able to betray us."
Hentzau put his arm around Mikeela's waist. "I'm afraid we'll have to go back to plotting a revolution on our own, Mikeela."
Mikeela looked like she was about ready to explode, but I noticed, she didn't push Hentzau's arm away. Eventually she controlled herself and spoke to me. "My apologies, Captain Crichton. I do hope this conversation will remain confidential. No matter what your superiors might think, we are the best hope for the Peacekeepers."
One of Mikeela's flunkies ushered me out of the room. Mikeela glared at me all the way out of the room. Hentzau smiled and waved at me. That boy could get on my nerves.
A buffet had been set up outside of the throne room. I decided I had enough time for lunch before I had to go back to protecting Aeryn from the local opera.
The voice was loud enough to carry, but strangely high pitched. Turning, I saw that I had been insulted by a little girl. Okay, not so little. In a few more years she'd fill out her bright red dress nicely, but not today. Well, that's John Crichton, always in trouble with the ladies.
I gave her my best heart-melting grin. "Sorry, little girl. I'm not a Peacekeeper and my parents were married. Now, if you'll excuse me, I want some lunch."
For a guy with younger sisters, you'd think I'd know better than to treat a girl who thought she was all grown up like she was a little girl. She got red and looked like she was either about to pop me one, or cry. "I am not a little girl, you Peacekeeper bastard. Do you know who I am?"
I looked around the room. "We have a little girl here who doesn't know who she is. Can anyone here help her?"
"I know who I am, you welnitz! I'm Lady Ennira Frohn and Rhennert loves me and not Queen Flavia." She clapped her hand over her mouth. I guessed that she wasn't supposed to mention that little detail. She was obviously too young to understand how acceptable extra-marital affairs were with royalty.
I started to move past her towards what looked like the makings of a nice sandwich. She got in front of me again. "Rhennert will never marry Flavia and Strackenz will never be a part of your filthy Peacekeeper's Empire. Strackenz will be free and independent." Then she surprised me by hauling off and slapping me. She must have either had lots of practice or she was a natural. It hurt!
Okay, I had a teenage girl in full hormonal berserk mode. Naturally, I didn't let things be. "Get lost, little girl. If you don't, I'll give you a spanking."
She took a step backwards. "You wouldn't dare!"
I smiled and took a step forward. Luckily for me, she took off towards a group of red clad teenagers at the end of the hall.
"So, while I endured five and a half frelling arns of screeching until my butt was numb, you hung around with a bunch of trelks and enjoyed yourself."
Now that was a mistake. John smiled. "If you're having any problem with that lovely behind of yours, I'll be happy to massage it for you."
That sounded very nice, indeed, but I was still a little angry with him. "No, as soon as we finish dinner, we're going to read the briefings Colonel Sapt's prepared for us and then get to bed early. We have more of these useless ceremonies tomorrow."
"Bed?" He never gave up. Lucky for me.
"All alone. I know that trelk you met says the queens have traditionally recreated with whomever they wanted, but we don't know that. She sounds like the sort who thinks everyone frells everyone else just because she frells everyone."
John shrugged. "We could ask Sapt. He's our expert."
I snorted. "Ask Sapt how he'd feel about a Guard Captain frelling his Queen dead? I certainly won't ask that question." I reacted before John could speak. "And neither will you, Captain Crichton. That is an order from Your Queen." Hmmm. Being a Queen could be useful, and fun.
John started to argue, but I threw a pile of briefing reels at him. Two arns later I sent John off to his bed after a brief kiss. Oh, all right. It wasn't that brief.
I awoke at the sound of a slight thump. It was on the side of my bed towards the window and not towards the door. I rolled out of the bed and grabbed my pulse pistol just as the bed exploded. I fired two quick shots. Frell. I had surprised them by shooting. They never expected Queen Flavia to be armed. Now one was on one side of the huge window that covered one end of my bedroom, taking cover behind a bulky cabinet. The other was on the floor. He was right... there! I fired and was rewarded by a scream. The unwounded one began firing rapidly and I had to duck. I could hear him yelling to his accomplice to get out, fast.
The door burst open, and I recognized John diving through firing at the unwounded assassin. I heard a scream and the wounded one ran across my field of fire. I shot him and he slammed into the window and fell four stories to the ground.
"You all right, Aeryn?" John sounded worried.
"Queen Flavia is fine Captain. One is over by the far wall. You hit him, but he might be playing pussy."
"Possum." Said John. I wondered what that meant. "Flavia, I'm going to turn on the light. Get ready."
The light came on. John had hit the assassin in the head. There was no possibility that he would ever be a danger to anyone again. John walked over to him.
"Flavia. There's a frelling secret passage into this room. I'll kill that moron Sapt for putting you somewhere like this. Where is he?"
John's tirade was interrupted by a burst of pulse rifle fire. Before I could do anything, John had me around the waist and had dragged me back behind the bed and then got on top of me.
"Crichton! This is no time for fooling around!" Even as angry as I was, I noticed my use of human idioms was improving.
John whispered in my ear. "Flavia, I'm not fooling. This is how we protect Presidents and such on Earth. Anyone shooting at you will hit me instead."
Humans! "Any pulse pistol blast that hits you will go through you and me and about half of the very cold floor we're laying on!"
John rolled off of me. "Sorry."
I looked out the shattered window. A sizeable fire fight was in progress outside. "It looks like Mikeela is starting her revolution. First she assassinates me and then she takes out my loyal, but leaderless troops. I'll show that red haired trelk a thing or two."
I tried to get up, but John held me down. "Honey, Flavia is not the blood and guts type. She'd never go out there. Let Sapt handle it."
I pulled away. "If Sapt could handle things, we couldn't be in this mess." I thought for a microt. "I thought you were going to kill Sapt for putting me in a room with a secret entrance? Now you're trusting him with our lives?" While John considered that, I pulled away from him and headed for the door.
"Dammit, Aeryn. Wait a microt. You're not going anywhere without me."
We reached the ground floor and found ourselves behind a low wall bordering a garden with about twenty loyalist troops. They were firing on a wing of the palace that was across a wide courtyard. We were a good fifty metras from the nearest enemy.
"Queen Flavia!" Yelled one. "Please, Your Highness, you must leave. It's too dangerous here."
I sprinted to the end of the wall and promptly caught the hem of my full-length nightgown on a tree. "Frell!" I yelled and grabbed a soldier, took his knife and hacked away the lower part of that idiotic gown.
I looked over the wall at our enemy with John at my side. I could see movement going back in to the palace. Frell! They were going to keep us pinned down here with part of their troops and move the rest through the palace until they were behind us.
"Flavia, you'd better look at this." John held out a night vision monocle. "Those troops are all in your Guard's uniforms. It might be Mikeela's troops using Guard's uniforms to sneak in here, but we just might be shooting at our own troops."
I grabbed the monocle and said a few words Flavia probably didn't know. I turned to the troops around me. "Who's in charge here?"
That got no response. "Who's the senior?"
That degenerated into a discussion of who went into the Guard the earliest. This was getting us nowhere. I grabbed the nearest soldier. "Who has a communicator?"
"A communicator, Highness?" He was puzzled.
"Yes! A frelling communicator."
"We don't have any, Your Highness."
That was too much! "How the frell do you communicate?"
The soldier tried to answer. "Well, usually, there are orders posted when we start a shift. The Commander of the Guard will brief us if..."
John interrupted. "Flavia, I saw a telephone of some sort in the hallway just before we came out."
My troops appeared to be useless. I nodded to John and we headed back inside the palace. "Stay here and fire into the courtyard, but not at anyone. Those may be our troops." I yelled back over my shoulder. The troops just stared at me. We crawled to the doorway and on inside, not standing up until I got into a small alcove and saw the communicator.
John trotted down to the main hallway and checked in both directions. "Flavia?"
I turned and looked at John. He was laughing. I'm glad someone found this disaster amusing. "Yes?"
"When you crawled away in that cut down nightgown, you gave your troops a good look at what they're fighting for."
I looked down. He was right. "Frell! How do you work this communicator?"
John ducked back and a pulse rifle blast hit the floor of the main hallway.
I ran over to John. He had dropped to the floor and had stuck his head out into the hallway just long enough to get a look at who was attacking us. "Fla., they're in the uniforms of your Guards, but I think I recognize one from today."
"And he might be a frelling traitor, John, leading Mikeela's people in dressed as loyal Guards."
John shrugged. "One way to find out." Before I could stop him, he yelled "Queen Flavia's here with me! Are you loyal to her?" Then he rolled into the hall and lightly stood up.
"It's the Peacekeeper! He has the Queen. Don't shoot!"
That was followed by, "Shoot him!" And that was followed by more arguing. I stepped out into the hall.
"Captain Crichton is doing what you should be doing, guarding my life at the risk if his own. Now lower your weapons and tell me who's in frelling charge of this frelling cluster frell!"
At least the arguing stopped. It took another fifty microts for an elderly looking lieutenant to step forward and admit that he was senior.
"I am the senior officer present, your Highness." From his expression, he knew he had not done well.
I stopped and took several breaths. These people weren't trained Peacekeeper Commandos. But I had little idea what the frell they were. The lieutenant was saved from a tirade from his Queen by a fusillade of pulse weapon's fire from outside.
I turned to the unit. "There are friendly troops just beyond that door. They're the ones you've been shooting at. When we go outside, don't shoot at all unless you're positive it's at an enemy.
I grabbed what I hoped was an intelligent soldier. "You! Get on that communicator by Captain Crichton. Get on it and stay on it until you get Colonel Sapt. Tell him we have a firefight between elements of my Guard and that I want it stopped at once! At once! Do you understand that?" He nodded and grabbed the communicator from John's hand.
"The rest of you, pay attention to what Captain Crichton and I say and do. You'll be all right."
We moved into the courtyard to the wall. To their credit the troops I had left there were holding their fire. I could see at least two firefights in progress. It sounded like a third might be going on in the back of the palace.
"Report!" I said to the nearest group of soldiers. One answered me. "I got the night sight on my pulse rifle working, Your Highness. The people over by the tower are wearing our uniform. I'm sure I heard old Corporal Olgaf screaming. The firefight by the ballroom looks like it's also between our people. We haven't fired a shot."
I nodded at him. "Very good, Lieutenant."
"Your Highness? I'm a lance bombardier in the..."
John cut him off. "Don't argue with your monarch, Lieutenant. She's too stubborn."
Before I could give the orders to try to stop the firefights between my own troops, Colonel Sapt arrived with almost fifty troops.
"Your Highness. May I see you in private?" I pulled him back into an alcove in the garden. "Your Highness. I have failed you and wish to submit my resignation. You can hardly have any trust in me after this. I underestimated Mikeela's people and over estimated our own. You can only..."
I had heard enough. "Shut up, Colonel! I don't have the time or the ability to find a new Guard commander now. When this is over, I may accept your resignation. Now, how are we going to straighten out this gigantic shambling cluster frell?"
It took nearly two arns to stop all the firefights. In the end, we had one last sniper to account for. John and I crawled up behind him. He was shooting into a cluster of trees in the front of the palace. John, Sapt and I crawled up beside him.
"Your Highness!" He was shocked to see me, to say the least, but at least he had the sense to point out the tactical situation as he saw it. "There were about ten of them over there in that grove of trees. They just stood there while I shot at them They were extremely difficult to bring down, but I think I got them all."
I thanked him and sent him off to join the rest of the Guard in their barracks. I assured him that we could handle it from here. The three of us rose and walked in to the grove. It was littered with motionless forms.
"Sapt, do you know who they were?" I asked.
"Your Highness, I believe that one is your great grandmother, Eldira VII and just beyond her is her husband, Haakon the Wise. I believe that we can have them all repaired and back on their plinths. I'll have that soldier punished for destroying these statues."
I almost lost my temper. "You will not punish him. He attacked what he thought was a superior force and kept at it until he thought it was destroyed. He's one of the few people I've seen tonight that at least tried to behave like a soldier."
I carefully reined in my temper. "Sapt, what the frell is wrong with my Guards. What happened?"
Sapt was silent for a while. I repeated the question more forcibly. Then he spoke.
"You Highness, there hasn't been a war here in six hundred cycles. Gradually the other regiments were disbanded as unneeded. Only the Guard remained. There are the occasional pirates out here, of course, so a small Fleet was maintained, but ground combat forces seemed an unnecessary luxury. Gradually, the Guard became a purely ceremonial force. They have a wonderful choir and their band is excellent. The Regimental Weapons Company has no heavy weapons, but they are in charge of the Royal Fireworks. They provide attractive officers for Royal Balls and when it rains, they carry umbrellas for the nobility when they have to go outside."
John had heard enough. "This is what you expected to protect Aeryn with? A bunch of umbrella jockeys? Are you completely farbot? You have Peacekeepers and Scarrens around, not to mention Mikeela's bully boys. Didn't you at least consider the possibility that you'd be up to your frelling ears in a ground war? What kind of a Colonel are you?"
Sapt drew himself up. "I have offered my resignation to Her Highness. She has chosen to keep my services. I am not accountable to a Sebacean mercenary who...."
Sapt stopped. He stood stock still and then he seemed to sag. "My apologies, Captain Crichton. I have placed your wife in danger for my own purposes and have failed to protect her. You have every right to expect redress from me. However, I did all that I could to try to make the Guard combat worthy. But Chancellor Seelig was afraid that any attempt to re-militarize the Guard would provoke Mikeela, not to mention what the Peacekeepers or Scarrens might do."
John relaxed. "Sapt, I'm not interested in nailing your hide to the barn door or anything. I just want Aeryn to be safe. You do everything in your power to keep her safe and we'll get along just fine. First, do you have a safe place for her to sleep tonight? And can you find some dependable Guards out of this bunch?"
Sapt nodded. "There is a guest room in our barracks. I supervised the construction of that part of the building myself. There are no secret passages or other surprises. And, we have a dozen or so Guards who used to be Policeman or Forest Guards. There's one who used to be a hunter of krav 'vuns on the southern continent. All are trained with weapons and accustomed to danger. They'll guard Queen Flavia tonight."
John smiled. "No, I'll guard Flavia tonight. They'll just help."
We started back to the barracks. There was one more thing to do tonight. "Colonel Sapt, how many people are in the Regiment of Guards?"
"A few over six hundred, Your Highness."
I thought for a few microts. "It's been a long night for everyone. Colonel, please parade the Regiment for my inspection at the third hour past sunrise. Good night, Colonel Sapt. "
We had arrived at the barracks and my new quarters. I found that the indefatigable Lady Orlika was there with clothes and a midnight snack. I allowed her to put me in another floor length nightgown and then I told her what clothes I'd need for tomorrow. As I expected, she wasn't happy. "Your Highness, such attire is not suitable for someone of your station. Might I suggest..."
"No, you may not suggest." I snapped. "Just provide the clothes I need." I softened my voice. "Please Orlika, if we are to survive these days changes will have to be made." She nodded and left.
I sat and ate with John. Neither of us said a word until the food was gone. Then John stood and stretched. "Time for bed, Flavia. There's a spare bed just down the hall from here." He moved to put his arms around me, but I backed way.
"Aeryn? Is something wrong?"
I reached down and took the hem of the nightgown and pulled the whole thing off over my head. "Captain Crichton, you will stay with your Queen tonight."
John shook his head. "Flavia, there's all kinds of people around here. Someone would find out. This is not good. Now listen..."
"No you listen." I lifted him up and put him on the bed. "This is a command, Captain. The only thing I expect you to say for the rest of the night is, "Please, more, Flavia." is that understood?"
He must have understood.
Orlika sounded like a motorboat, "but-but-but-but." Aeryn paid no attention to her.
"But, Your Majesty, your attire is, is, is un-describable." She moaned.
Aeryn stood in front of a mirror and adjusted the gunbelt on her right hip. Once again, she was dressed in black leather.
Aeryn got her "don't frell with me" look in her eyes. "Lady Orlika, if we're going to keep Streslau from either dissolving in civil war or being over run by outside forces, things have to change. One of the things that need changing is my Guard. And I can't change the Guard unless I change and leave the old Flavia behind."
Orlika nodded. "Yes, Your Highness. I agree with you. It's just that I can't help but feel that things are changing for Streslau and changing forever."
Sapt knocked on the door and told Aeryn that the Guard was assembled. He didn't bat an eye at her leather clothing.
We walked outside where Aeryn stood on the top of a short staircase in front of the barracks, not more that six steps above the mass of the assembled Guard. Aeryn looked them over. The muttering in the ranks told me they were looking her over, too.
Finally Aeryn spoke. "You are my Regiment of Guards. You have sworn to protect me with your lives if need be."
That got some more muttering in the ranks. The sergeants worked to silence the troops, but weren't completely successful. Aeryn continued.
"However, I know that you did not enlist with the thought of becoming real soldiers. You have not been trained for it, and your equipment is either non-existent or barely functional."
Well, at least they had stopped muttering in the ranks. Now they seemed to be trying to judge how fast they could get out of this chicken dren outfit.
Aeryn gestured to her leather outfit and her pistol. "When I visit the Outside, I acquired some knowledge of what it takes to be a soldier. You are not soldiers."
She stopped to let that sink in.
"Therefore, I release you from your oath of loyalty and from service in this Regiment. However, I wish to recruit a new regiment and to train them to be soldiers. Go back to your barracks. Those who wish to leave, please do so with my good wishes. Those who wish to stay, please return her in one arn."
Aeryn looked over the assembled regiment. There wasn't a sound. "Regiment! Dismissed."
They stayed in formation for a few microts and then fell out and headed back to the barracks.
"I frelling hope I did the right thing." Aeryn finally said under her breath.
I leaned over and whispered in Aeryn's ear. "I'll follow you anywhere. That's the best position to watch the most beautiful butt in the Universe."
I noticed one man was walking towards us, not back to the barracks. He stopped and saluted Aeryn. He was short and wiry, with thinning blond hair and a permanent tan. "Sergeant Vorbeck, Your Highness. Reporting for duty. I'm a little sorry to see the easy days pass, but my years hunting on the south continent should come in handy to you and any of the lads who stay."
Aeryn held out her hand and Vorbeck shook it. "Glad to have you, Sergeant. I hope you aren't my entire army."
In about a quarter of an arn, people started to leave the barracks. Some kept right on going, but more seemed to stop and wait in front of their Queen. Aeryn breathed a sigh of relief. "At least I have the makings of a regiment. But how the frell am I going to train all these people?"
"Baron von Steuben." I said, without really thinking.
"Baron von Steuben?" Echoed Sapt. "Never heard of him? Where's he from? Where did you meet him?"
Aeryn interrupted. "I have a feeling he's from Captain Crichton's home planet. He's probably a linebacker or something. Perhaps even a stooge."
Sapt, naturally, had no idea what either of those were. "No, Baron von Steuben was a soldier for my, er, colony. He was from elsewhere, though. He had the problem of teaching military skills to a large untrained group. So, he got whatever more or less trained people he had and trained them first. Then he made them officers and sent them off to train the others, just as he had trained them. If you take the people who were police, or whatever, you can train a small group of a dozen or so. Then have each of them train a squad of ten or twelve people."
Aeryn thought for a microt. "What do we do with the rest while I train our leaders? Just have them stand around?"
I shook my head. "They can do PT. Er, physical training. Running, marching in full packs, stuff like that."
Aeryn grinned. "It should work if we get good recruits."
Sapt walked to the edge of the stairs and looked at the assembled recruits. "I'd say we have about four hundred and that the bad ones have left, Your Highness."
The next part I didn't like. "Aeryn, are you going to be needing me for a while?"
"For how long and why?"
I shrugged. "I don't know how long. Sapt said they had intercepts of what they thought were Scarren codes being sent off planet. I'd like to try to track down where they were sent from."
Aeryn looked at Sapt. "The records are in the Royal Library, Captain. We lack the military technology to either break the codes or determine their point of origin."
Aeryn nodded. "All right, John. Check out the library.
Sapt pointed it out to me. "It's the building with the green dome at the far end of the Palace. I'll write the directions for you. The Palace can be a little confusing until you get used to it. It can be a problem."
Aeryn grinned. "Captain Crichton should be right at home in a confusing situation."
I headed for the Library, but stopped next to Aeryn. "I'll get you for that little remark, Honey."
Aeryn gave an exaggerated sigh. "Promises, promises."
Sapt was used to it, but Vorbeck looked like he couldn't believe his eyes.
Sapt was right. The Palace could be a problem. My particular problems were wearing red clothes and the local equivalent of acne.
I smiled at Lady Ennira Frohn. Her vocabulary hadn't improved, but this time she had brought company. She had three young men dressed in bright red uniforms. They looked like they might be old enough to shave and probably considered themselves rough, tough hombres.
The biggest stepped forward. "We're going to hurt you, Peacekeeper bastard."
I smiled back and kicked him in the knee. He howled and went down. The two others stupidly looked at each other. I kicked the biggest one in a place that would make him useless on dates for a while and turned to the last one. He sensibly hid behind Lady Ennira.
"You coward. Get him!" She screamed. No use. He was halfway down the hall, putting as much distance as he could between us.
That left only Lady Ennira. Surprisingly, she just stood there glaring at me. She was either too stupid to realize I was mad as Hell at Aeryn being threatened and was looking to take it out on someone. Anyone. Or, she was smart enough to realize John Crichton had given up being nasty to girls about the time he noticed they were different. I decided to find out which it was.
"The last time I ran across you, I thought you needed a good spanking. I was right, but I didn't do anything about it." I waited a microt and added, "Then."
She started backing away. "You wouldn't dare! I am a Lady! No one has ever hit me!" She turned around to run away and slammed into a wall and fell on her face.
I knelt beside her. "You people are really starting to annoy me. You don't look like you have much natural padding, young lady."
She blushed furiously. "I'll tell. I'll tell everyone that you attacked the four of us. If you..." the sentence ended in a squeal as I lifted her up and then bent her over my knee.
"What do you think, Lenza? Should I do it?"
Lady Lenza walked out of a deep alcove with a suspiciously well groomed Ruprecht F'Han Hentzau on her arm. "I think not, Captain. She deserves it, certainly. But if she finds she enjoys it, I'm afraid you'll have an admirer for life." She looked serious for a microt. "How did you know we were here?"
Ennira had turned as bright red as her dress and couldn't say a word. I released her and she stood up, regaining a little of her dignity and courage. "This Peacekeeper bastard attacked us without cause...."
Lenza slapped her, hard. "Do not lie, girl. Ruprecht and I saw the whole foolish attack on Captain Crichton. Now go. And if I hear any "anonymous rumors" about this, I'll start my own rumors and I assure you, I'm better at character assassination than you'll ever be."
Lenza nodded to me. "My apologies, Captain. We're not usually so idiotically political. If you had arrived at any other time, you would find a civilization devoted to the important things of life." She gave Hentzau an appraising look. "Speaking of which..."
They headed for parts unknown. Hentzau turned and smiled at me. "You should have spanked her. Get them started early is my motto."
I continued down the hallway and in fifty microts decided I had gone the wrong way. Four hundred microts later I had upped that to completely lost. I found myself in a huge, high-ceilinged room. The ceiling was some four stories above me, but here was no way out except the door I had come in through. I walked over to a window to try to get my bearings. I could just see the green dome of the library to my right. I moved a step to the side to get a better look and something zipped past my ear and hit the window beside me. An oily liquid started to spread on the window pane. I whirled and drew Wynona. I saw a flash of movement on a balcony two stories above me. Before I could fire, it was gone. I turned to look at the window. Whatever had missed me was eating its way through the glass.
I tried to find a way to the balcony, but after going down a narrow hallway for a dozen steps, I decided I'd be better off heading for the Library. I made it with nothing worse to show for it than a reputation as a very nasty person with a poor elderly maid. At least I think she was nothing but a maid.
Sapt was right about the military technology of Streslau. It took me all day long to narrow the search down to an area of about a third of the main continent of the planet. At this rate, the Scarrens, if there were any, could breed an army to conquer the place before I found them.
I looked outside and saw it was dark. I had planned to walk back on the outside of the Palace to avoid any unpleasant surprises. A walk through the dark was not my idea of a good time. At least not by myself. I headed out of the Library with one hand on Wynona, looking in fourteen different directions at once. Then I saw my salvation. A gaggle of twenty or so maids, headed for the residential wing of the Palace.
"Hi, ladies. Headed for the Queen's quarters?" I gave them a nice reassuring smile. If I was going to use them as cover from an assassin, I should be nice to them.
One tall red head decided she was the leader. "Yes, Captain Crichton. We're you in the Library?"
"You bet. Looking up a few books on romance."
They giggled. The redhead smiled at me. "I would have thought you would be adding to the library, Captain. Stessa here cleaned up your quarters after your first night in the Palace. What did you say about him Stessa?"
A slender brunette turned bright red. "Dova! Don't you dare! The Captain here could get us in trouble."
Dova laughed. "Yes, I'm sure he could." Her smile suggested that trouble with Captains was high on her agenda. I decided we'd better move this along. I put one arm around Dova and the other around Stessa. "Why don't we all head for the main palace together? Did I ever tell you the story about the time I had to take a very precious commodity, Coors, it's called, from the planet Texas to some friends in Atlanta? No? Well, it was like this..."
When we arrived back at Flavia's quarters, Dova was still with me, although the other maids who had dropped off at their duty stations said she wasn't on duty at Queen Flavia's. Dova said she didn't care what her Queen thought. I kept quiet and wondered what the new, improved Queen Flavia would say.
We turned the corner into the barracks just in time to catch Flavia storming out of Sapt's office, yelling "Well, frelling find him!" back over her shoulder.
Dova stopped at the sight of her Queen in black leather and with a pulse pistol on her hip.
"Crichton! I might have expected you'd be with some trelk." She stopped in front of Dova. "Who the frell are you?"
Dova was having trouble taking in the changed Queen and said nothing.
Aeryn turned her around and pushed her. Not a hard push, you understand. "Go!"
She turned to me. "I put off having dinner afraid that you were in trouble Now dinner is ruined."
My, my. Aeryn Sun worried about a ruined dinner. She walked into her quarters and I found myself following after her before she locked me out. She was sitting at a table, eating like she'd like to be chewing my behind off instead. I sat and began eating.
"Well, did you frelling learn anything, Crichton?" Crichton. She was angry.
I started to tell her about my meeting with the charming Lady Ennira and Lenza and Hentzau. When I mentioned the attack on me on my way to the Library, she shot to her feet. "What! Someone shot at you and you just stupidly went about your business? Crichton are you farbot? How could you..."
"How could I do anything." I asked, reasonably. "Whoever shot at me was long gone after the first shot. What should I have done? Asked the Laurel and Hardy Irregulars to cordon the area? They'd probably kill themselves or me. Drag you in? You're a bigger target than I am. If there's one thing that would bring the shooter back, it'd be another chance at Queen Flavia."
Aeryn turned and strode over to the window and stared out into the blackness. I walked over and put my arms around her waist. "Honey, don't stand in the open window, in case there is a sniper out there. Come back and finish dinner."
Aeryn reached up and closed the curtains with way too much force. "I'm tired. I'm going to bed." Aeryn got out of her leathers and spent a few microts getting ready for bed. I followed her into bed and turned out the light. As soon as the light was out she was in my arms. I could tell she was still angry, but not with me. It'd take a little bit to work off her anger.
Sure enough, in a while I felt her relax. Then she pulled herself closer to me. "We both do the same thing. We risk our lives and never say a word to each other about it. If I did, I'd be begging you to never leave my side, no matter who else got hurt because of it. We'd both feel like dren later, of course."
I hugged Aeryn. "I know, Honey. Every time you go off somewhere, doing something dangerous, a little part of me dies. If we ever get free of the war, I'm going to find someplace where you'll be safe and happy and we'll never leave."
Aeryn kissed my cheek. "Is there someplace like that on Earth, John?"
"Not Earth, necessarily, Aeryn. Anyplace where you're safe and happy will do just fine, believe me."
"I don't believe you, John. You've talked of nothing but Earth for cycles now. If I was the cause of you never seeing Earth again, you'd resent me."
"One little microt, there, lady. I have talked about a lot of things other than Earth. The woman I love is right up there on my list of favorite topics."
I decided I'd better be serious. "Aeryn, I don't know where in the Universe Earth is from here. I could spend the next hundred cycles zooming through wormholes and never be in the same galaxy as Earth. And I'm a human, Honey. I don't have a hundred cycles."
Aeryn thought about that. "We could look together for Earth."
"We could do a lot of things together."
When I got up the next morning, I found I had a bodyguard.
"A bodyguard, Aeryn?"
Aeryn looked very serious, Always a bad sign. "I could send a squad with you, I suppose."
I went back to eating my breakfast. I let Aeryn worry a little bit. At least I hoped she was worried about my reaction to a bodyguard.
"Okay, Rambo. I'll go off to the dangerous library with my bodyguard. He does know what a library is, right? He has seen a book before? Dragging his knuckles on the ground won't make too much noise for the librarian, will it?"
Aeryn just smiled. As much as I loved that smile, I wondered what she had in store.
"Sergeant Foros, come in now, please." She called.
Sergeant Foros was female, about my height, and had all the curves of a beanpole. I looked at Aeryn. "This is my bodyguard? I knew I wouldn't get Kevin Costner, and Whitney Houston is a no go, but I at least thought I'd get Jesse Ventura."
Sergeant Foros just looked at me. "You know, Your Highness, when one of my grandchildren gets pushy, I just remind them of the years I spent teaching hand to hand combat at the Police Gymnasium. Before I retired and went into the Guard, that is."
Aeryn kissed me good-bye. "At least I know you won't come home with some with some trelk."
I shrugged. "You never can tell. If Sergeant Foros starts our relationship by beating the dren out of me, I may fall in love with her. It has happened."
As I walked away, Queen Flavia, the Flower of Sebacean Womanhood slapped me on the butt, in full view of about a dozen Guards.
By lunch, thoughtfully provided by the library staff, I was getting somewhere. I had maps of Streslau piled up around me, orbital photos, and readouts of every suspicious "Scarren" transmission. I had decided that the transmissions were coming from a desert that straddled the equator north of the capitol. That was one place a Sebacean would stay away from and a Scarren would love. It also meant that the search party would consist of one human with a tolerance to heat no Sebacean could match. I'd damned well need to figure out where they were hiding before I started into the desert. It was just too frelling big.
"You're a naughty boy." A voice behind me said.
I smiled. "Yes, I am, Lenza. But I'm afraid I'm too busy to be naughty right now and besides, Queen Flavia gets all my first class naughtiness."
Lenza frowned and sighed dramatically. "Woe is me. A poor old lady, bereft of male companionship in the twilight of my years."
I glanced at Foros, who was smiling. I guessed that Lenza's interest in male companionship was well known around the palace.
Lenza leaned over me, giving me more of a view than I was sure Aeryn would allow. "What are you looking for? Boka fish?"
"What?" Boka fish was a new one.
Lenza tapped a carefully manicured fingernail at a spot on the map. "Boka fish. That's the only reason anyone goes to the Taklamakan Desert. See, there's dear old Prince Argave's fishing lodge."
I looked up at Lenza and then quickly looked down. Damn, she had moved closer to me and was leaning over even more. "People go fishing in the desert?" I asked.
She laughed and sat down on the arm of my chair, leaning against me. "No silly boy. When it rains on the Kormoran Plateau, that causes flashfloods in the desert. The water all flows to the lowest point in the desert, which becomes a lake for a few weekens. The Boka eggs from the last time hatch when the water hits and then you have delicious Boka fish. Before they die they lay their eggs in the lake bed, which dries up after a while and starts the whole thing all over again."
Lenza slid off of the arm of the chair and onto my lap. "I can't imagine why no one goes there anymore. Everyone who was anyone used to have to go hunt Boka fish with the Prince. I suppose it's just a sign of my advancing age that I think about these things." She leaned into me, pushing her breasts against my chest. She quickly took one of my hands and put it on her lap. I hadn't noticed her skirt was slit up the side until I found my hand on her thigh. I removed my hand and slid one arm under her knees and the other under her shoulders, managed to rise from a sitting position and carefully set her down.
She looked at me sadly. "Flavia is very beautiful, isn't she?"
I smiled at Lenza. "Beautiful and more. And we have a history."
I bent over the map. "What can you tell me about the fishing lodge?"
She sighed. "Are you and Flavia looking for a little place to go? Someplace where your rather noisy passion might pass unnoticed?"
I tried to think up a good answer to that one. Luckily, she giggled first. "John, the whole palace knows about you and Flavia and no one really cares. Those who hate you and Flavia would hate you if you were absolutely chaste. Those who support Flavia are in favor of your liaison. They see how you've changed Flavia for the better in the time you've been together. Flavia really was a rather shallow and silly girl before her trip to the Outside."
I stared at the map. The more I looked, the better I liked the idea of a Scarren base at the old fishing lodge. The desert would be perfect cover for them. No Sebacean in his right mind would go there. But, any Scarrens here would have to have Sebacean allies who would need to see their Scarren bosses occasionally. A little work and the fishing lodge would be a perfect hideout for the Sebaceans in this plot.
I felt a hand on my butt. "You're incorrigible, Lenza."
"Most men don't complain." She laughed. She did move her hand, though.
"Maybe Flavia and I will take a little trip. Since the assassination attempt, we've all been worried about her. A vacation would be good for her and cut down on the number of potential assassins we'd have to deal with."
I looked at the map again. "There's nothing else out there, is there?"
She bent over the map. I neatly dodged out of her way. "There was a research station further into the desert. It was abandoned about the time dear Prince Argave set up his fishing lodge." She stopped for a few microts, then continued. "I went there once with a few friends. We thought we were very daring to brave the desert like that. Even though the cooling system was going full blast, we took off our clothes and doused each other with water."
I asked her if she remembered where the research station was. If I didn't get her off the subject, she'd probably ask me to go skinny-dipping in one of the palace's decorative pools.
Lenza looked at the map. "It's at a place called Zendai. It was almost due north of the fishing lodge, I think. You might look on the high-resolution orbital photographs. It was quite a substantial building. It wasn't demolished or anything, so most of it should be standing."
Thankfully, Lenza decided I was no more fun and headed off to look for someone who was more fun. I sat down with a set of high-resolution orbital shots. It took over three arns, but I finally located a rectangular structure to the north of the lodge. I checked every photo I could lay my hands on to make sure it wasn't a shadow or an optical illusion. In one of the more recent photos, I thought I could just make out some kind of tracks leading to the old station.
As my bodyguard and I left the library, I started making plans. Aeryn and I would head out at dawn with a few of her best trained Guards, search the place and be back before anyone knew we had gone. Hopefully, with some Strelsauan traitors and a few Scarrens to boot.
Three days later as we approached the fishing lodge, I wondered how I had been so optimistic. The quick raid I had decided on had been vetoed by Sapt.
"Are you completely farbot, Crichton?" He had bellowed. "This is Queen Flavia whose life you're risking. I will not stand for it. With new recruits and the people the Queen has trained, we have over a hundred Guards ready for combat. And everyone of them will go with you to the lodge."
That had been the start. Keeping the movement of over a hundred soldiers secret had proved impossible. News that the Queen was accompanying them had spread like wildfire. Chancellor Seelig had complained that Queen Flavia had a duty to stay in the capitol. Mikeela had gleefully begun rumors that Flavia and I were fleeing for our lives, leaving the Triple Monarchy in the lurch.
The Free Strackenz Movement, which had been bitterly opposed to the marriage of Flavia and Rhennert, suddenly went into a snit at the possibility that Flavia would dump Our Rhennert for the mysterious Captain Crichton.
From there, it just got more complicated. We had to take a full communications crew so that Flavia could be in touch with the government at all times. A dozen maids had to be rounded up since it was assumed that we were unable to do things like make our own beds. Cooks were next. A few press aides followed. Since there were press aides we had to have reporters along. This went on until we looked more like the circus coming to town than a military reconnaissance.
Aeryn sat fuming in the back of an air-conditioned truck while her Guards made an attempt to secure the lodge to her satisfaction. "Look at Team Denka. They're ten microts behind schedule. If there's a trap, they'll be totally out of position." A few microts later she exploded again. "Frell! What is Field Sergeant Paulus thinking? He's made his whole team perfect targets."
The Guards would have been better off walking into an ambush. Once we had determined that the lodge was empty and likely had been for cycles, Aeryn assembled the whole company and made them do it all over again, with her screaming at them every dench of the way. When two teams managed to arrive at their assigned positions to set up a perfect crossfire, Aeryn had praised them as loudly as she had cursed them earlier. They all had huge smiles on their faces by the time she was done.
She knelt down in front of a sweating, dirt covered sergeant. "You keep that up sergeant, and your unit will be the first to truly be Queen Flavia's Guards." The smiles were almost audible.
I spoke up. "Always remember one thing and you'll be fine. Your job as soldiers is not to die for your Queen and Country. It's to make the other poor dumb bastard die for his."
The soldiers gave me a puzzled look, but Aeryn grinned. "Listen to Captain Crichton."
In another six arns, we were set up in the lodge. It was then I discovered an uninvited guest.
I whirled around. "Hentzau! Who the frell invited you here?"
"The Queen, of course." He grinned at me.
"Which Queen? Because I guarantee you it wasn't me." Aeryn had snuck up behind Hentzau. She kept going and stopped next to me. Her hip rested against mine, and her arm curled around my neck.
Hentzau, as usual, kept smiling. "I'm positive you invited me over for breakfast, Your Highness." He assumed an exaggerated pose of confusion. "Oh dear. I might have had a breakfast date with someone else. How foolish of me. Well, nothing can be done about it now."
"What did you call Captain Crichton?" Aeryn asked, smiling at Hentzau.
"Play actor, Your Highness." Now that Aeryn was smiling, his smile increased ten-fold. "He just pretends to be a Peacekeeper. Then he pretends not to be a Peacekeeper. Then he pretends to be a soldier. What you need, Flavia, is someone that doesn't pretend."
Aeryn kept smiling warmly at Hentzau. Before he knew what had happened, he was on his knees with his forehead pressed against the floor and had Aeryn's boot against the back of his neck. She had his arm held straight up in the air. That must have hurt.
Aeryn kept smiling. "I know exactly what I need, Hentzau. And I have it. And if you aren't very, very careful, you won't have anything anyone needs. Clear?"
Hentzau nodded and Aeryn released him. He got slowly to his feet to find Aeryn was still smiling. He nodded and left us as fast as he could.
"That should convince him you're not the shy, retiring Flavia everyone knows and loves."
Aeryn shrugged. "The pro-Peacekeeper party wants it both ways. If Mikeela wins, they have control. If I win, they want to have Hentzau to have control of me. I just advised him that the "pro-Peacekeeper" party already has me."
I thought about that one. "Are you sure that's a good idea?"
Aeryn shrugged again. "As far as I can see, our biggest danger is that Mikeela will try to stage a coup against Flavia. If Flavia is already on their side, why try?"
"Where did you get to be so smart?"
Aeryn just laughed.
By sundown the Sebaceans were beginning to wander away from the lodge. Only a couple had ever been anywhere near a desert and they all wanted to play tourist and be able to tell big lies about their adventures when they got back to the palace.
Aeryn and I stood together in a pool of shadow by the lodge. "Perfect! There are so many people stooging around, I'll have no problems sneaking out of here. I have a pack and a rifle stashed a little way into the desert." I leaned over to kiss Aeryn goodbye.
"I know. I put my pack and rifle next to yours."
Aeryn shushed me. "Don't make so much frelling noise. How do you expect us to get out of here?"
"Aeryn, you cannot go. You are Queen Flavia until further notice. You have to stay here. What'll happen if you go out there and something happens to you? What'll the good people of the Triple Monarchy do for a Queen?"
"Horse feathers!" She snorted.
"What did you say?" I couldn't believe she had said that.
"Horse feathers? That's an Earth expression isn't it?" She looked at me suspiciously. She sometimes suspected that I changed the meanings of Earth expressions just when she had learned them. I did, of course.
"Yeah, but I don't think I ever used it. Aeryn, you're starting to make up Earth cultural references. This is strange."
"Crichton!" Aeryn grabbed my arm as I tried to walk away. "Don't you dare try to change the subject and then leave me. You want to know what'll happen if I go out there? The same thing that'll happen if I stay here, that's what. I am absolutely not going to spend my life here. I am not going to marry that child and have just enough children by him to continue the royal line. I am not going to have Captain Crichton as my lover whenever the royal duties will allow the time. If anything happens to me tonight, the people of Streslau will have to get rid of Mikeela and her Peacekeeper friends and anyone farbot enough to want the Scarrens here. And they'll have to handle the separatists on Strackenz and the totally unprepared guard and everything else. Because no matter what happens, I won't do it. They may end up with frelling Lenza on the throne, but the Strelsauans will solve their own problems one way or another and without me." Aeryn did something to her ring and her hair returned to its usual gorgeous black.
Sometimes I do know better than to argue with Aeryn. Not this time. "Forget it, Aeryn. This is a desert. Desert? You know, hot? And you're a Sebacean. You get heat delirium. You are not going out into the desert. We'd have to walk all of the night and a part of the day to get to the waterhole on the map and another night and damned near a half a day to get to the research station. I can do that, no sweat. You can't. End of discussion."
"John, I have a space suit with my gear. It has a cooling element in it. I have enough power cells to keep it going for a weeken if I have to. I can last as long as you can in the desert. When we rescue Flavia, assuming she's there, she and I can trade off on the way back."
Damn! I hated being out-thought by the woman I love. "Aeryn, listen to me."
"No." She leaned over and kissed me. We both strolled off into the desert.
At night the desert was cool and we made good time. Two of the larger moons provided enough light to see by so we didn't have to depend on our night vision monocles. John kept asking if I wanted water or to stop for a rest. After the fifth time, I told him as nicely as I could that if he asked me one more time, he'd regret it.
"I already do, Honey." He replied.
Frell! He sounded worried. I was sure we had thought of everything, but one area John had a lot more experience in than I, was in dealing with deserts. Still, he was silent for the remainder of the night. Shortly before dawn we stopped and he helped me put on the spacesuit. He went over the checklist twice and was still worrying about nothing as I started walking away from him.
"Aeryn! Dammit! I just want to check those seals one more time. Hold up."
I turned around. "John. I love you. You love me. But I've put on more space suits than you've ever seen. Now, I am ready to go. My space suit is sealed perfectly. Any questions?"
"Yes. Do you tend to forgive the men who love you when they're way overprotective?" He asked quietly. I didn't reply. He already knew the answer.
By mid-morning we reached the cave John had found on the old map. If the map was correct, there would be a spring inside the cave. Even if the map was wrong, we'd be out of the sun and heat.
We entered the cave and headed to the back. There was the spring. I gave John a hug and then started taking my space suit off. John checked my forehead. "Are you too hot, Aer?" Before I could answer, he had dipped a square of cloth into the spring and was wiping it over my face. The water was cold and felt wonderful. With John trying to cool me down, I carefully packed my space suit away.
"Aeryn, take your pants off."
"John, I do love you, but don't you think there's a time and a place for that? And that this is not the time and place?"
John dropped to one knee and started unbuckling my boots. "Very funny, Hon. Your boots and pants are thick and trap heat against your body. " In a few microts, I was down to a pair of black shorts and a tee shirt. John spread a blanket out for us. I snuggled up next to him.
"Are you cool enough, Aeryn?" John still sounded worried.
"I'm fine, John. Really, I feel fine. I'm not the least bit over heated. " I kissed him and then started to drift off to sleep.
"Like you'd tell me," was the last thing I heard.
I felt John move and came instantly awake. "What is it?"
"Time to get up, Hon. It'll be sundown in a half an arn. Time for chow. Damn, what I wouldn't give for a cup of coffee. I just can't start a day without coffee."
I handed John a cup of some local hot beverage that he insisted tasted like dish-water, whatever that was. I noticed that he drank it, though.
"For a man who can't function without this coffee, I can remember a few nights when you've done, um, adequately without any coffee."
John grinned. "Imagine what I'd be like with a cup of Joe every morning."
I pretended to consider that. "You'd either make me a very happy woman, or you'd keep Lady Lenza mildly amused for an arn or two."
"Don't remind me of her. My great hope is that Crais comes to rescue us and she drags him into her lair and keeps him there."
By sundown, we were on our way through the desert night towards the abandoned research station. We discovered that the brush was heavier than it had been on the first leg of our trip. We had to push our way through it, or when it got too thick, to go out of our way into a narrow canyon until we could get back on track. By sunrise we were a good four hours away from the station. John helped me into the space suit and I turned the cooling unit on. Thankfully, I could feel the cool air circulating in the suit.
"Honey, we could stay here through the heat of the day. Approach the station at dusk."
I shook my head. "No. If there are any Sebaceans in there, they'll be able to function outside in the cool of the night. Even in the inside where it's artificially cooled, they'll be wary of exposing themselves to heat. Arriving at noon will be best."
After three arns, the temperature was more than twenty five per cent above optimal for a Sebacean. John was sweating and his face seemed flushed. I cursed myself. I knew humans had a much higher tolerance to heat than Sebaceans, but I had never determined just how much more heat they could take, nor for how long.
"John, are you sure you're all right?"
John stopped and took out his canteen and drank. "I'm fine, Aeryn. This is a nice day at the beach at Cabo San Lucas, or maybe the North Shore of Oahu. I'll be sure to take you both places when we hit Earth. We'll rent a nice air-conditioned place right on the beach and stay inside all day long and frolic on the beach at night. Everyone will think we're vampires. It's a shame, though. I'd love to see you in a bikini."
I just stared at him. "That's the trouble with loving a human. I can never tell if you're delirious, or not."
"I'm just disgustingly normal, Aer."
We continued our march through the heat of the day. In another arn, we were peering through our oculars at the abandoned research station.
"It looks like no one has been there for cycles, John."
"Spoken like a true space girl. Look at the wood used on the second stair going up to the front door. It's lighter than the wood around it. That's because it's newer, Aeryn. Somebody has been doing a little do it yourselfing"
I looked carefully through the oculars. "Are you an expert on local wood? That could be just a lighter colored piece of wood that was put there fifty cycles ago."
John put his arm around my shoulder. "You just hate it when I'm right, Honey."
"No. No matter what, we have to proceed as if there were armed enemies inside." I checked the building again. It was a concrete rectangle, with two very small windows on either side of the front. On the left was a large open door that probably led to a parking place for ground vehicles. To the left were three wooden steps leading to a personnel entry door.
"Aeryn, check this out." John had moved a half a dozen metras to the left. I moved over by him.
"See, Honey. There are no windows on the end of the building. This thing was built to keep cool air in. They used as few widows as they could. All we have to do is sneak up to the side of the place and then up the stairs and inside before anyone knows were around."
I checked the area. "As good an idea as any."
John laughed. "Man, you just hate it when I'm right."
"If you want to see me hate something, just have something go wrong, John."
We got up and ran towards the station. We stopped at a blank outside wall and I peered around the corner at the stairs, much to Aeryn's disgust. Naturally, she wanted to be the one who stuck her beautiful face around a corner to see if anyone was there to shoot it off.
"Clear, Aeryn. Ready?" She nodded and we rushed the stairs. In a split microt, we were inside. I smiled. The place was air-conditioned. The long abandoned station was occupied. After a short entryway, long corridor ran to the right and left. I leaned over and whispered in Aeryn's ear. "You go to the left and I'll go to the right."
She started to argue, but I shushed her. "We don't have time to argue. You go left and I go right. Okay?" She nodded and went left. I hoped that there was nothing there but a garage and a storage area. I headed to the right. After a dozen metras, I turned right. Ahead of me I could see light and hear something. I edged down the hallway, trying to look in every direction at once and point Wynona at everything in sight. I finally stopped at an open doorway. I took a quick look in and just as quickly pulled my head back. Inside I had seen a cell and a form inside the cell covered by a blanket. The cell was dark, but I just thought the form might be female.
I took a longer look. Hanging on the wall was a key. Okay, it might not have been the key to the cell, but how many keys did you need around here? I slowly walked in and grabbed the key off the wall and headed for the cell. I stopped and looked for alarms or booby traps. Seeing nothing, I slid the key in and turned it. The door slid open silently. I opened it all the way in case we had to make a quick escape.
"Your Majesty, I'm here to save you. Get up. We have to get out of here."
The form on the bed exploded towards me, hammering me in the ribs and kicking Wynona out of my hand. She slammed me back against the bars of the cell and then out onto the floor. She straddled me and dug her thumbs into my windpipe. I gathered my strength and hit her as hard as I could in the solar plexus. She sagged a little bit and loosened her hold slightly. I got a breath and hit her again. Then I hit her as hard as I could and she pulled back.
"Aeryn, dammit, stop!" I screamed. At the sound of her name she stopped and stared at me.
"You took your time getting here." Came a voice from the doorway. An unfamiliar Sebacean in black leather had us both covered. I looked for Wynona. She was about a metra from my hand. With Aeryn sitting on me, I had no chance to reach it.
The gunman smiled, "Your friend should be with us soon. I didn't hear any pulse weapon fire, so our trap for her must have worked." He heard a scrape behind him and turned around in time to be hit in the chest with a pulse rifle burst.
Aeryn Sun walked into the room and stared at the woman sitting on my chest. "Frell me dead." They both said in unison.
What followed was about fifty microts of pandemonium. Two nearly identical women asking who the frell the other one was. I finally screamed loud enough to get both of them to shut up. I picked up Wynona and leaned against a wall and tried to think of how to explain this to them. Frell! How was I going to explain this to me?
"Aeryn." I began.
"Yes?" They both replied. I tried again.
"Aeryn with the pulse rifle. Did you check out the rest of the building."
She sounded offended that I'd ask, but said that she had.
"Okay, Aeryn with the pulse rifle, keep an eye on the hallway, just in case. Aeryn with one eye, sit down. I'm going to try to explain this. I think."
I decided to sit down with my back against the wall so I could watch them both. I slid down the wall and tried to marshal my thoughts.
"I saw Aeryn with one eye before. At the time I thought it was a dream or a nightmare or something. But now that I see that she's real, I think I got a look into an alternate Universe, or parallel reality, or something."
I pointed to the Aeryn with one eye. "I'm going to tell you what happened to you. If I get something wrong, let me know. Otherwise, just let me explain. Okay?"
"Your name is Aeryn Sun. Your father was named Talyn and your mother was named Xhalax. You.."
"How the frell do you know that? No one knows who my parents were except me." She yelled at me.
"Aeryn, shut up." I told her. She managed to do that. Maybe this one would be easier to get along with than my Aeryn. Ha! Fat chance.
"You were a Prowler pilot on Captain Crais's Command Carrier. You were chasing an escaping Leviathan named Moya who had been taken over by her prisoners. You were caught up in starburst and dragged along behind Moya. They captured you and kept you alive. Zhaan didn't want to start her return to the Delvian Seek by killing someone and Rygel thought you might have value as a hostage. D'Argo voted to kill you."
I stopped and looked at both women. They were looking at me as if I had gone farbot. So what's new?
"You tried to escape by goading D'Argo into a fight by insulting his family. You thought you could beat him and escape. But D'Argo won and you lost your left eye in the fight. That's why you wear a patch over one eye. The others managed to stop D'Argo from killing you, and much later you escaped. By then, you had been a prisoner for over a cycle. You knew the Peacekeeper's considered you irreversibly contaminated. Going back would only have meant the living death. So you stayed away from the Peacekeepers and made your living as a gunslinger. An enforcer. A hired gun. Right so far, Aeryn with one eye?"
AERYN ONE EYE
I nodded at the Peacekeeper doing the talking. If he knew that much about me, he must be high in the Peacekeeper ranks. Was he a Disrupter or a Tech? The fact that he was so easily beaten by me argued he was a Tech. That he had a perfect copy of me with him also argued that he was a Tech, but a Tech with skills far beyond anything I had ever heard of. Something about him told me he wasn't a standard Tech or Peacekeeper grunt. He was too relaxed. Too unofficial. Who ever heard of a Commando Officer debriefing a captive while sitting against a wall? And a Military Tech Officer would have had a dozen toys in use by now to make me more than willing to talk. Frell. He didn't need me to talk. He knew more about this than I did.
I looked at the woman. Frell! Frell! Frell! She was me. A Commando, too, I was sure. Just like me. She was slightly different, too. Not as different as the man, but not quite your orthodox Peacekeeper Commando. Was she a clone? A robot? Something I couldn't even imagine?
My mind raced. They hadn't killed me right off. That was good. They hadn't started the interrogation in any of the usual ways. He was giving me information. Hezmana! They needed me for something. I relaxed slightly. No! Don't be a frelling fool. Never relax in their presence. Don't relax until you're far, far from them. But Disrupters were known to be unorthodox. Frelling contaminated themselves, some said. If I do this right, I just might live.
The man was talking again. "I saw you on a planet out of Shane or an old John Wayne western. You were in a bar and some little girl tried to blow you away. She didn't make it. Care to fill me in on the parts I missed?"
What the frell was that? Some sort of spoken code? No, he was talking to me. He expected my to understand it. Okay, the part about filling him in I understood. I could tell him what had happened to me after I escaped from Moya. Frell! I had to be honest since I didn't know how much they knew about me. But being honest would probably get me sent for a radiation treatment and the living death. I took a deep breath and started talking.
"I escaped the Leviathan Prison Ship Moya after slightly more than a cycle of imprisonment, Sir." I watched him. Okay, he obviously expected me to call him sir. I continued.
"We were in orbit around a mining colony called Tiomoshoara, Sir. I escaped with a pair of issue pants, a tee shirt and a knife. No boots, no jacket. No other equipment. I got a job hauling slag from the mines. I managed to steal some shoes and a piece of cloth I wrapped around me."
I stared at them as I talked. What was coming up next would tell whether they would kill me or not. If I only knew how much they knew about that time.
"The planet was freezing cold, Sir. Just rock and a barely breathable atmosphere. I needed someplace to sleep, but I had no money once I had paid for food. Sometimes I was able to fight my way into a few warm places, by power generators, and such. There were armed guards everywhere, Sir."
Frell! I was making a mess of my story. I was trying to avoid telling them what they probably already knew. Well, now was the time to find out.
"I recreated with others in exchange for a place to sleep, Sir." Recreated, my eema. Frelled and beaten by a succession of thugs who enjoyed having a Peacekeeper to humiliate. "Not all of them were Sebaceans, Sir." I carefully observed the two. Surprisingly, neither seemed to react. The woman kept her eyes moving at all times and her pulse rifle aimed at my heart, but nothing more. The man seemed oddly upset about my story, but he didn't display the disgust at my actions that I knew they both felt. I waited for a reply. Finally I got one.
"Okay, " the man said, "what happened next?"
I took another deep breath. They knew everything. That was the only possible explanation for them ignoring what I had done. They had known for a long time and the disgust had worn off. But, I was still alive. I continued.
"There was a Luxan named B' Graat. He, well, he sort of liked me. He loaned me a pulse pistol so I could hunt for runaway miners who lived in the hills and raided for food or women. There were bounties on them, Sir. I killed five in one monen. I made enough to buy a pulse pistol of my own and a few other things. I was good at it, Sir. In a cycle I had made enough buy passage to another planet. There was a battle between to factions of fisher-folks who operated on the new planet I went to. So I got a new job."
The man interrupted. "I saw you in a bar. A girl challenged you and you shot her."
Frell! I had never seen this one before. He had not been in the bar. I knew it. Unless he could change his appearance like a shapeshifter. I suddenly looked at both of them. Were they even Sebacean? I had to get a hold of myself. If I kept this up I'd be so confused and disoriented they'd kill me for being absolutely useless.
"Yes, Sir." Suddenly I flinched. A burst of pain tore through where my left eye had been.
The woman threw something to me. I caught it and stared at it. A field medical anesthetic stick. She hadn't asked the man if she could give it to me. Was she really in charge? Did they know so frelling much about me that they had planned out what to do in every possible situation? I hadn't had to do so much thinking when I was a Peacekeeper. I activated the end of the stick and pressed it just below my left eye. In a dozen microts I couldn't feel any pain at all. That was so good.
"You drink to dull the pain. You drink too much." Said the man.
"Yes, Sir." Yes, frelling sir, I wanted to scream. You live for frelling cycles with your eye throbbing. You wonder what will happen if you lose the other eye. How will you die once no one needs to fear you?
Frell! If I survived these two, someone else would kill me. Why did I fear death? My death had never seemed important before.
"The planet was called Serengretti, Sir. Nothing but a run down commerce planet. One local clan had hired me to take out some competition. I thought back to that day. Where had the man been when he saw me?
"Ehrni! Didn't I tell you to keep my frelling glass full?" I had yelled.
I was dressed in a pair of dirty black Peacekeeper issue pants and a black tee shirt. I had a pulse pistol riding on each thigh and a pulse rifle lying on the bar she I standing at. A short, almost globular being, raced over to refill my glass.
I was in a shabby bar on a poor planet somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Daylight shone through the poorly made wooden plank walls and the floor was packed dirt. Fortunately, it rarely rained here. I tried to remember everyone in the bar. No one looked remotely like the man or the woman.
"SUN!" The scream surprised everyone in the bar.
A young girl stood in the doorway of the bar. She was dressed in ragged clothes, but had an embroidered scarf wrapped around her head. At her hip was a pulse pistol.
"You killed my whole clan, you Peacekeeper bitch. I'm all that's left but I'm here to kill you."
I had turned to face the girl. "Go away, little girl. The S'Fanta clan didn't want to pay to kill off children. And I hate to kill and not get paid for it."
We two stood facing each other. Suddenly I drew and a bolt of yellow light went through the girl and her gun clattered to the floor. The girl followed it.
Ehrni peeked around the end of the bar. "She's dead."
I snorted. "Of course she is. I don't miss."
"No you don't, Officer Sun. That's why I need to hire you."
I turned to face the speaker. He was a tall Sebacean, seated at a table near a window. The man opened his coat to show he was unarmed. "Will you allow me to buy you a drink, Officer Sun and propose a business deal to you."
I walked over and sat by him.
"My name is Macton Tal and I have a problem with a Luxan. I believe we'd both be happier if he was dead."
I smiled and the man started running his hand over the inside of my thigh and outlining his plan.
"That's pretty much the way I remember it, too, Aeryn." If I hadn't known better I would have said he was sad.
"What happened next? I missed the rest."
Did he? Or did he just want me to embarrass myself by telling what had happened next. Frell the both of them!
"He wanted to recreate. We went to his ship. He had some food. Real Sebacean food and something to drink. A cadet would have known better, Sir. He had spiked something. I woke up with a bigger head than usual and with my hands cuffed behind me. Macton Tal was gone and two others had replaced them."
"I doubt he was Macton Tal." The man said.
I nodded. He could tell me it was frelling Bishan XXI if he wanted to. "What you said about the alternate Universe? I heard them. They said the experiments had led them to a reality discontinuity, but that it wasn't any good for their purposes and they could only access one. They said I was all they had gotten that was marginally useful."
"What did they want?" he asked.
"I'm to impersonate a Sebacean. I don't know who or why. Just that I was to stay here and wait."
"What were you promised in return." The woman asked that. I couldn't bring myself to think of her as me, just as the woman.
"Restitution of my rank and a return to duty." Neither one of them reacted to that. Frell, if they were Peacekeepers, who was I working for? If I was working for Peacekeepers, who were they? Frell! Time to try to make a deal.
"You have your own replacement for the Sebacean I was supposed to impersonate, Sir. I know I don't rate reinstatement. I'll help you in any way I can, Sir. Tell me what to do and I'll do it. No questions asked. I'll never talk about this. Not ever. Just let me walk away from this when it's over."
The two of them stared at each other for a microt. I could tell they were communicating. The woman really was me. I could almost tell what she was thinking. If only I could get some sort of handle on the man.
The man spoke. "We don't have any need for your services at this point. Things have changed. However, your services are appreciated. We can't get you re-instated, of course. But we can have a doctor look at your eye and at least eliminate the pain if not restore your vision. After that, we can provide you with sufficient funds and transportation to a commerce planet where you can begin your life again."
"Thank you, Sir." I said quietly. Frell! They were going to kill me. When someone like me was no longer of any use, they got killed. I had to get out of here, but how could I cross that frelling desert. How were they going to cross it?
"Aeryn?" We both looked at him, "Yes?" We said in unison.
He smiled. He did that a lot. He must be a Disrupter. "Aeryn with the pulse rifle, I didn't hear any weapons fire. How did you get rid of the other one?"
"I got rid of the other two with my small pulse pistol. They were making such an effort to be silent while planning their ambush, I decided I'd better be quiet when I sprang mine. The noise didn't reach back here I suppose."
The man stood and stretched. "Okay, let's check out the garage and make sure Daddy didn't take the T-Bird's keys away. Then we can get the Hell out of Dodge."
A hundred microts later it didn't look much like we'd be leaving any time soon. "Frell!" The man said. "You couldn't have wrecked the calorics on this buggy better if you'd tried, Aeryn." He stood up and kicked the useless ground vehicle.
"Sorry, John." He would be standing right where a shot going through him would hit the engine.
"Not your fault, Babe."
These people were the strangest Peacekeepers I'd ever met.
"Sir, can't we use your vehicle to leave here?"
Both smiled as if I'd made a joke, but it was the man that replied. "We don't have a vehicle, Aeryn. We walked here. The other Aeryn has a space suit. The thermal controls let her function in the heat of the desert. We'll just have to have you two share the suit until we get back. We should be okay."
They must have seen that I thought they were farbot. I tried to think of something to say to that. He had walked here in the desert heat? That was so unbelievable that I couldn't even contradict him.
The woman spoke. "Don't worry. He only sounds farbot. We'll make it."
"Okay, ladies. We'll need water. Aeryn with the eye patch, do they have any here?"
"Well, go get it. We have about a half an arn until sundown. Aeryn, get your suit out and check it. I don't want anything going wrong. I'm going to see if they were dumb enough to leave anything around to identify who's involved in this dren."
The woman obligingly busied herself with a suit. The man started pawing through data spools that had been scattered on a desk. I headed for a supply cabinet I was familiar with, I walked down the hallway expecting a shot in the back at any microt. I turned unto another hall and entered the supply room. It was still where I had seen it. A spare pulse pistol. I checked the chakon oil cartridge and found it full. Then I sat back to wait to see who came for me. I didn't have long to wait.
"Aeryn! Where the frell are you? We have to get going." He walked into the storeroom and I rammed the muzzle of the pulse pistol into the side of his head.
"Who the frell are you? What the frell are you? All this talk about alternate timelines and that dren, you sound like a frelling Tech. But the woman is a Commando and she obeys you. But you two don't act like any frelling Tech and Commando I ever saw."
The man remained calm. Perhaps he was a Disrupter after all. "Aeryn, put the pistol down. You want to know who I am? I'm someone who cares about what happens to you. All I want to do is get all three of us out of this in one piece."
I pushed the pistol into the side of his head a little harder. "Do you think I'm frelling stupid? No one cares about me. No Peacekeeper ever cared about another. And no non-Peacekeeper could care about one of us. Talk!"
He smiled. "Velorak cared about you. You turned him in, but you felt like dren afterwards. You cared for him. And your mother cared about you. Enough to tell you that she had cared for your father. That you weren't an assigned birthing."
Now I was scared. "No one could possibly know about how I felt about Velorak or about my mother. What the frell are you?"
"Some one who does care for you, although I don't know why if you'd do this to him." I felt the barrel of her pulse rifle against the back of my head. Frell! She had snuck up behind me.
Suddenly I was tired of the whole frelling thing. I reversed my pistol and handed it to him butt first, but kept my hand on it. When he took the butt, I moved my hands up and covered his finger on the trigger.
"Just kill me now. I'm frelling tired of being used. I'm tired of being lied to. I'm tired of the whole frelling thing. You're going to kill me any way, one way or another. Just kill me now and get it over with." I started pushing his finger against the trigger. "Just kill me, please. I don't want to be left here or in the desert to die by denches or go into the living death. Kill me, please."
He managed to pry my fingers off the pistol and tuck it in the back of his belt. For some reason, I found myself with my head resting on his shoulder and both of his arms were around me. "Aeryn, I'm from a race called humans. We don't get the heat delirium. I can handle the desert with no problems. We planned to use the space suit to bring Queen Flavia back. She's who you were supposed to impersonate. We expected to find her here. We'll take you back and everything will be okay, Aeryn."
I pushed him away. I was determined to die with a shred of dignity left. "I can't go with you. Why do you think I was in a cell? Why do you think I attacked you as soon as you opened the cell? I knew the people who brought me here would never reinstate me. Peacekeepers who are irreversibly contaminated are never reinstated. I tried to escape. I didn't know we were in the middle of a frelling desert until I got outside." I pulled up the leg of my pants so they could see my leg, still red and raw from the pulse pistol blast that had wounded me. "I can control the pain as long as I'm just walking around in here. If I have to march for two nights, I'll never make it. You have no choice. Kill me and let me die with dignity." I stood to attention and waited for one of them to shoot me.
The man knelt and examined my leg. "Aeryn, can we fix this with the stuff in our medical kits?"
The woman bent over and examined my leg. She pulled out her medical kit and started working on the leg. The man stood and walked away. "I'll see if I can find the water. Be back, Hon."
I stared down at the woman. Somehow I couldn't think of her as Aeryn Sun. "I don't understand this. I don't understand you. And most of all I don't understand that frelling human at all. Why is he doing this?
She laughed. "You already understand everything now as well as I do after all these cycles. As to why he's doing it, that's simple. He doesn't let his friends die. Neither do I."
She pulled the pant leg down and stood. "Okay, Aeryn Sun. Your leg is as good as I can make it. Now lets go."
I decided it was pointless to try to make sense out of either one of them. I followed her down the hallway.
We left the abandoned research station about an arn before sunset. I kept a close eye on the new Aeryn. In an arn she started limping, but kept up with us and never complained. She was my Aeryn all right. Whoa! That was a very strange thought. We kept marching towards the waterhole.
"John." I stopped when Aeryn spoke.
"What is it, Babe?" We had been marching most of the night and now were only a few arns from sunrise.
"We made a wrong turn. This isn't the canyon we came through coming here. We're headed away from the cave."
I looked around me. "You sure, Hon?"
I should know better than to ask that kind of question. She was sure. I checked the canyon walls. They were too steep to climb, even if they were only ten metras or so high.
"There was a fissure in the canyon wall about a quarter of an arn back. We could climb back up there and get back on course." Aeryn One Eye was as sharp as my Aeryn.
"Turn around people."
A half an arn later, I had fallen down the damned fissure three times and my Aeryn had fallen once. It was no use. We headed for the entrance to the canyon. By the time the sun rose, we were a good three arns behind schedule. I helped my Aeryn into the space suit and offered Aeryn One Eye the use of my arm to lean on. She looked like she was going to hit me and then curtly declined. Could I handle having two Aeryns around? Hell, could I survive two of them?
Three arns after sunrise Aeryn One Eye was starting to limp badly and then stumbled badly. I lifted her up. She looked like dren.
I looked at My Aeryn. "Okay, Hon, we'll put the space suit on this Aeryn and I'll rig a sun shade out of our blanket. We'll rest for a while and I'll douse you with water."
My Aeryn didn't say a word. She just stripped off the suit and put it on the other Aeryn. She was only wearing her black PK BVDs. I helped her lie down and started pouring a little water on a cloth and wiping her with it.
"You gonna be okay, Hon?" She just nodded. Christ, now that was scary. Normally Aeryn would at least glare at me for suggesting she wasn't 100 percent in control of everything. In another half an arn, Aeryn One Eye looked like she might be ready to go. I switched the suits. Aeryn One Eye actually started out pretty good, but in another half an arn she started to stagger and then she started getting the shakes. I looked at My Aeryn through the faceplate of the suit. She looked like dren, too.
"Hon, I'm going to carry her. In a half an arn, we'll put her back in the suit and then I'll carry you."
"John, don't be a fool. You can't carry us through this heat." Aeryn could barely whisper.
"Aeryn, I can't leave either one of you, either." Unless I have to, I said to myself. I bent over and got the other Aeryn over my shoulder and started off again.
In half an arn we switched, but My Aeryn refused to let me carry her. She staggered along by my side and I managed to get an arm around her waist and held her up. Pretty soon I had the other arm around the other Aeryn in spite of her being in the suit.
"Aeryn, what was the name of the Scorvian spy you fought on Moya?" I asked.
Aeryn tried to stop but I pulled her along. "What the frell are you asking that for, John."
"What spy?" Mumbled Aeryn One Eye in the suit.
"Just answer the question, Aeryn."
"Matalla. She was frelling Matalla." Aeryn glared at me.
"I need to tell if your mind is starting to go, Honey."
"We need to worry about your mind, Crichton." She replied.
I dragged them on for nearly another arn. I had to stop. "I think we're lost ladies. Even going as slow as we were, we should have gotten to the cave by now."
My Aeryn staggered a little and turned around, then grabbed me. "Too far." She whispered. She waved vaguely behind us. Then I saw it. A little grove of stunted trees near where he cave was. I grabbed both women and headed for the cave. "I love you, Aeryn. " I said as I gently kissed her forehead. "What would I do without you?"
In two hundred microts we were in the cave. I picked My Aeryn up and carefully placed her in the spring. I pulled the other Aeryn out of the suit and put her in the water, too. My Aeryn put her hand on my arm and pulled me to her face. She whispered in my ear, "You'd be frelled without me, human. And don't you ever forget it."
I checked the Other Aeryn. She looked a lot worse than My Aeryn. Her skin had been hot and dry and her eyes seemed to be out of focus. As I put her into the water, she had shuddered and started twitching slightly. I got as much of her under water as I could and then went in with her. I held onto her so that only her face was out of the water. "Aeryn? What was your father's name, Honey?"
She turned and looked in my direction. "Tal, " was all she could manage.
After a quarter of an arn, My Aeryn sat up in the spring and very slowly waded over to the two of us, keeping most of her under water.
"Aeryn, are you okay?" She looked better, but I wasn't sure she was better.
"I feel like dren. I'm so tired I could sleep for a monen, but my body temperature is about normal and no permanent harm has been done. " She began checking the Aeryn I was holding onto. The Other Aeryn's eye opened and seemed to focus.
"How do you feel, Aeryn?" She asked quietly.
"Too hot." Was the only reply the Other Aeryn could manage.
We sat there holding her in the water and talking to her for another arn before My Aeryn was finally convinced she had recovered without any permanent damage.
I picked the Other Aeryn up and put her down on the blanket we'd brought. Aeryn laid down next to her and I examined both women.
"She's skinnier than you, Aeryn. She's had a harder life. She has more scars, too." I wondered if there were other Aeryns in other Universes like her.
My Aeryn chuckled. "She never had a good human man to take care of her before. She'll be all right now."
I wondered what life would be like with two Aeryns. Twice as interesting or twice as complicated? My Aeryn tapped the blanket beside her and smiled. I tried to lie down on the outside of the blanket, but Aeryn insisted I get in the middle, in case the Other Aeryn needed help.
"Are you two going to be okay?"
My Aeryn nodded. "We're both very tired, that's all. I think that Pilot's DNA may have changed my susceptibility to heat a little. I seem to be in better shape than she is."
I took Aeryn in my arms. "We'll sleep here tonight and rest some more tomorrow. We'll go back to the fishing lodge tomorrow night."
Aeryn didn't reply. She was asleep.
At dawn, I was awoken by the Other Aeryn trying to get up to get to the spring for a drink. I pulled her back down onto the blanket and got her some water. I held her up and helped her drink. When she was done, she smiled at me, then frowned. "Why did you save my life? It was not a tactically sound move. I'm a totally unknown factor to you. You would have been far smarter to kill me."
Before I could reply to that one, My Aeryn replied for me. "You'll just have to get used to the human way of doing things. He always does things the hard way. And somehow it always works out the best way. And, I suspect John is a little in love with you."
That confused the Other Aeryn. "How could you love me?"
I ran my finger along the line of her jaw. "She's right. You'll just have to get used to the way I do things."
The two Aeryns rested for the rest of the day while I scouted around. I figured that any Sebaceans would be keeping a low profile in the heat of the day. I was right. I didn't find a thing. I came back and napped a little. I decided I could get used to sleeping between two Aeryns, until one of them killed me for it, that is.
They both sat up and stared at the entrance of the cave. In a microt, I heard it, too. The low rumbling sound of an engine. Someone was headed our way. Both Aeryn's grabbed weapons and headed for the cave entrance. I got there just as they were about to go outside.
"Hold it, ladies. You stay here. You're the reigning Queen around here, one of you anyway. Your loyal guard captain gets to go out and look around."
The Other Aeryn started to push her way past me, but My Aeryn grabbed her. I swear, neither said a word or even changed their expressions, but My Aeryn convinced the other that I should go.
I crawled out into the scrub bushes surrounding the cave and then got to my feet by a large rock. I saw a familiar figure headed towards me with a squad of Guardsmen in tow. "Colonel Sapt! Nice to see you. A little hike for the troops, or did you just want a little night air?"
"Crichton!" Sapt bellowed and headed for me. "Is Her Highness safe? Where the frell have you been? If Queen Flavia is injured you'll regret it." Sapt and his troops spotted the cave and headed for it.
"Colonel, Queen Flavia isn't exactly dressed to receive visitors." I improvised. I didn't want a squad of even out best troops finding out about the additional Aeryn.
Sapt turned on me. "Queen Flavia is, is, is..." Words failed him.
"Is a big girl now. We just came out for a little romantic interlude in the desert. You weren't worried were you?"
From the look on his face when he got to me, he had been worried. I bet the Guards had had a lovely time with Sapt as worried as the father of a teenage girl on her first date. Oh, I had taken a girl out on her first date. I hoped Sapt wasn't quite as bad as Mr. Wells back on Earth. I was sure Mr. Wells had forgiven me by now.
"Colonel Sapt, please send the Guards back to get the vehicles. How many men and vehicles do you have?"
Luckily, Sapt figured out there was something going on other than a little moonlight snuggling. "I have eight vehicles and twenty seven Guards in addition to myself. There was no need for more as there are only a few places in the desert..."
I waved Sapt into silence as the Guards headed for their vehicles. I lead him to the cave. He broke into a smile when he saw My Aeryn still in one piece. Then he saw the Other Aeryn, eye patch and all. "Your Highness, " To be on the safe side, he seemed to be addressing both of them. "What's happened to you?"
"Nothing." Both women answered in unison.
"Sapt, I don't have much time to explain this, so pay attention." Sapt turned to face me. " There's a Peacekeeper who's doing research in wormholes, a way to travel great distances in no time at all. I think he also found a way to enter some sort of alternate Universe. No, don't ask. I can't explain any of it any better than this. They brought the Aeryn Sun with the eye patch back to this Universe, intending to use her to replace Queen Flavia. We rescued her. We assume that as long as we have all of the imitation Flavias, they won't do anything to the real Flavia. So we have to get back to the Palace and let them see our Flavia and try to track down the real one. Okay so far?"
Sapt just nodded and looked at me blankly. It was nice to see someone having as much trouble with the things that happened in my life as I did.
"Good. Now, we can't let anyone know that there are now two Aeryns." I turned to My Aeryn. "Honey, when the Guards and the vehicles get here, I want you to be the center of attention. Talk to everyone, congratulate them for finding you, just make sure no one pays any attention to anyone but you." Aeryn nodded.
"Sapt, I need you to get the Aeryn with one eye a head cloth of some sort and a blanket or something to wrap around her and bring it here. Then make sure there's a vehicle parked close to the cave and away from any other vehicles."
In the distance I could hear engine noises headed this way. "Okay, Sapt and Aeryn, you're on." Aeryn smiled at me and left with Sapt. That left me with the Other Aeryn, who was watching me carefully. Not suspiciously, not like she had a question about what I was doing, and not in an unfriendly way, either. Not for the first time, I wondered how this was going to work out.
In a quarter of an arn, Aeryn One Eye and I were in a small truck by ourselves. She sat on the front seat with me, wrapped in a blanket. After we went around a few curves, she had slid over next to me. She looked at me for a few microts and then put her head on my shoulders and went to sleep.
My Aeryn stopped at the fishing lodge to supervise the return of the mob that had accumulated there to the Palace. I kept going and arrived back at the palace in a few more arns. I snuck the Other Aeryn in to the palace and into Queen Flavia's renovated and hopefully assassin proof quarters. I found a closet about the size of my original quarters on Moya and settled the Other Aeryn in. I spent the next two or three arns debriefing her about her experiences, to no avail. Aside from the one comment she overheard about the reality discontinuity, she had heard or seen nothing that would give me any hint as to what was going to happen next. But all the time she watched me with the same unreadable expression on her face.
"John?" My Aeryn called.
I stuck my head out of the closet when I heard my name called. "In here, Honey. I'm debriefing the Other Aeryn."
My Aeryn walked in. "As long as that's all you're doing." Her grin said she didn't mean it.
I told My Aeryn that I had found zilch and suggested she try. Aeryn's knowledge of the Peacekeepers might suggest a question that I wouldn't think of.
"Aeryn, I have one thing to check out here in the Palace. I'll be back by dinnertime." Damn! Both of them gave me that same unreadable expression. Then they turned and looked at each other. They were communicating, I knew it. Having two Aeryns around who were so on the same wavelength was going to be spooky.
I walked out of Flavia's suite and asked a guard for directions. He smirked at me, but I didn't care.
Lady Lenza's quarters were what I had imagined. Very feminine and mostly consisting of her bedroom I was mildly surprised she didn't have a mirrored ceiling or a trapeze over the bed, but maybe that wasn't a Sebacean custom. She was glad to see me.
"John, it is so nice to see you here." She threw her arms around me and hugged me and stayed in that position. Luckily she was full dressed, or at least as fully as she ever was. She concentrated on groping me and I tried to ask some questions.
"Lenza, I need to know if you told anyone about my trip to the research station at Zendai." She froze for a microt and then pushed herself away from me. Frell!
She fixed her smile back in place while my mind raced. "John, I'd never tell about your little trysts with Flavia."
The slight flicker of her eyes over my shoulder was all the warning I had. I threw myself to one side just in time to miss a blast of heat that slammed into the wall. I drew Wynona and took a useless shot at my adversary. A frelling Scarren! Lenza was working for the Scarrens. The Scarren lumbered around the room trying to get a clear shot at me while Lenza screamed at him to kill me. With his shot lined up the Scarren pointed his fist at me and then stared over my shoulder. Then he collapsed into a heap on the floor.
"Put down the weapon, Lenza." Called a familiar but unexpected voice.
Lenza had a pulse pistol halfway out of a drawer by her bed. She cursed and let it drop.
"Very good, Lenza. The liquid this thing shoots will freeze a Scarren and I'm sure if it hit you, you would lose that fire that I so enjoy." He said.
"Hentzau?" Hail John Crichton, Prince of the Obvious.
"Play actor! How good to see you again. Are you playing Scarren hunter today or spy." Hentzau grinned at me.
Lenza took a step towards Hentzau. He motioned her back with his pistol. "Darling, kill this Peacekeeper. We can be together. We can have anything we want. We can have everything."
Hentzau smiled sadly. "If it were only that easy. But I fear that my personal agenda would suffer greatly if I allowed myself to become allied with you, or the Scarrens. And the two ladies behind me would doubtlessly kill me if I were so foolish as to kill Captain Crichton."
"Frelling right." Said the Aeryns, again in unison. My Aeryn pushed past Hentzau and stood by me. The other one tied Lenza up, none too gently, either and pushed her over onto her bed. I couldn't help thinking this probably happened to Lenza all the time.
I sat on the edge of the bed. "Lenza, do you want to tell me what happened?"
"Frell you! You frelling Peacekeeper piece of dren."
That was a definite no.
In the wall was the door to another secret passageway standing ajar. The Scarren had come through there. Someone had to find out where it went.
"Aeryn, let's check out Countess Dracula's secret hideaway. She probably has old boyfriends in there, but you can never tell." My Aeryn nodded.
I turned to the Other Aeryn. "Keep an eye on Lenza and Hentzau. I don't entirely trust him."
Hentzau was desolated by my remark. "Play actor. I'm cut to the quick by your remark. After all, I could have killed you that day you were headed for the library. But I didn't. I deliberately missed."
That got my attention. "You missed? You frelling shot at me?"
He nodded and grinned at me. "Mikeela insisted, old boy. Said you were too frelling dangerous to her plans to live. You are, of course, but that's hardly a reason for me to kill you." He shook his head. "It took me ages to get dear Mikeela back in bed with me. Two whole solar days, at least."
I gave up trying to figure out what he was up to. "Hentzau, whose side are you on, anyway?"
He seemed genuinely surprised by the question. "Mine. Who's side did you think I'd be on?"
Aeryn and I had our usual debate as to who would go first into the dark secret passage. I won by reminding her that she was still the designated Queen. Aeryn and I stepped into the dark secret passage.
If I ever get to design my very own palace, I'll leave the secret passages out. If they're an absolute necessity, I'll make sure that they're spacious and well lit. The passageway was so dark I had to feel my way down. Each and every frelling step seemed to be a different width and height from all the rest. Naturally, neither Aeryn nor I had our night vision monocular. I counted the steps and tried to figure out how far down we had gone. I was sure we were underground.
I put my hand up and stopped Aeryn. I leaned back to whisper to her. "I think there's a light ahead. Be careful." Aeryn put her hand on my shoulder and squeezed lightly.
The passageway turned once more and broadened out. Sure enough a tiny light was ahead of us. It was still so frelling dark that I almost walked into the bars of the cell,
"Who's there?" Called a very familiar voice.
Remembering the last time I did this, I was more cautious. "Your Majesty?"
"John, there's a control for the light here. I'm going to turn it up." Aeryn whispered to me.
When the light increased, I saw Queen Flavia standing there. Dirty, bedraggled and tired, but alive.
"So, your imposter is here." She snarled at us. "I assume you're going to kill me now. Well, go ahead you frelling cowards. Kill an unarmed woman in a cell."
Aeryn and I stood for a second, finally I found my voice. "We're not here to kill you, Your Highness. My name's John Crichton and this is Aeryn Sun. We work for Colonel Sapt. We're here to free you. We caught Lady Lenza and the Scarren." I suddenly had a horrible thought. "Are there any other Scarrens or any of Lenza's people down here?"
Queen Flavia just looked blankly at us.
"Your Highness, about the Scarrens?" I started.
She laughed. She was about a dench from being hysterical. "No, no one else is down here. No one but me. No, that's not right. No one but the three of us. Just us. The three of us." Maybe a dench past being hysterical
Aeryn found the key and opened the cell. Flavia stood there for a microt and then sped out of her cell, then we helped Queen Flavia walk back up the stairs to her Palace...
When we got back to Lenza's bedroom, we found Colonel Sapt had joined us. The Other Aeryn nodded to Hentzau, "He said we needed to bring the Colonel in on this."
Sapt bowed deeply to Queen Flavia. "Your Highness, my apologies for my failures will have to wait. For now, it's important that you are alive. I'll take charge of Lady Lenza." He turned to Lenza, "Baroness, I arrest you for high treason. I assure you that I will personally command the firing squad that ends your life." He grasped her arm and started to leave.
Hentzau stopped him. "I'm not sure that is the best idea."
Sapt drew himself up and just barely managed to avoid hitting Hentzau. "Listen, you insolent puppy, your bedmate is a traitor who almost delivered the Triple Monarchy into the hands of the Scarrens. Do you think I'm going to allow someone like that to go free just so you keep frelling her?"
Hentzau just kept smiling. "Yes." He paused. "Well, yes and no. I'm afraid I've seen the last of our lovely romps in bed, dear Lenza. But, a treason trial will lead to the disclosure that good Queen Flavia was impersonated by Aeryn Sun, and, er, another Aeryn Sun." He turned and grinned at me. "How did you manage to find two of them, Crichton? You must tell me? Can I have one of my own?"
I managed to keep both Aeryns from knocking him on his butt, and he kept talking. "Most importantly, you'll have to let everyone know that Scarrens have an interest in us. That they have been here and tried to replace the Queen." He stopped, and for once in his life looked dead serious. "I guarantee that once she hears that, dear Mikeela will try to overthrow the Queen and proclaim herself Queen. She doesn't have the support to succeed without starting a civil war. If war starts, it'll eventually draw in the Peacekeepers and the Scarrens. "
Sapt glared at Hentzau. "What do you expect out of this, Hentzau? The Goddess knows you're the last person in the Universe I'd expect to find worried about a bloody civil war."
Hentzau laughed. "I want to be rich, powerful and happy. And I need a rich, powerful and peaceful monarchy, where every faction owes me. I'm afraid the Peacekeepers and the Scarrens aren't known for the sort of decadent luxury I plan for myself."
Sapt looked around the room and asked Flavia for support. "Your Highness, you can't let this, this, person avoid punishment for her treasonous acts?"
I nodded. "I'm afraid Hentzau's right. Mikeela's just looking for an excuse to try to rebel. Once she does, the Free Strackenz people will try to take their planet out of the monarchy. You'll be fighting a three way civil war before you know it."
Aeryn chimed in. "John's right. The Guard Regiment isn't strong enough to fight off Mikeela's troops, let alone try of hold Strackenz."
Sapt was almost beside himself. "Your Highness, I beg you not to allow her to go free."
"Certainly Colonel Sapt. Just explain how we can do so without starting an un-winnable civil war." Flavia snapped back at him.
We all stared at Sapt. He finally just sat down heavily in a chair.
Flavia straightened her dirty dress and shook her hair into some semblance of order. "Baroness Lenza, the Triple Monarchy has been your home. We have provided you with a good life. A life anyone would consider better than what we would have with Scarren masters. Can you tell me why you have done this?"
Lenza gave her a nasty smile. "Frell you, you gutless little trelk."
"If I may?" Hentzau asked. If I hadn't known him better I would have said he was being extra polite. "Maps aren't the only thing found in the Royal Library, you know, Crichton. I found a most wonderful report from Lenza's trip to the Outside so many cycles ago. I think it explains dear Lenza's sudden interest in the Scarrens."
Lenza spat at him, but missed. "Shut up, you insolent bastard. I won't have you defile his memory with your lies."
For once Hentzau shut up and we all waited to see what Lenza would do. Finally, she started to talk. "Seventy cycles and more ago I visited the Outside with the only man I ever loved. We left Queen Anthea's ship together, Casso and I. We were young, foolish and in love. All of our lives, we had been protected by our wealth and position. We found this wasn't enough to protect us in the Outside." She swept the Aeryns and me with a stare that was filled with hatred. "The Peacekeepers conscripted us for one of their idiotic campaigns against someone. Conscripted us! We were conscripted as common laborers." She stared at me and continued in a mocking tone. "You know about recreation, don't you, Captain Crichton? I'm sure your two identical trelks provide you with endless hours of amusement. You can have all the sex you want, can't you? Of course if you're a conscripted laborer, you're expected to be grateful if some Peacekeeper bully notices you and decides to recreate with you. Casso, my love, my only love, tried to stop him. Casso was murdered by the Peacekeepers. I fought the bastard. I scratched and bit and screamed obscenities at him. He and his friends thought it was funny. A laborer who thought she was too good to frell a Peacekeeper."
Lenza looked around the room. For the first time, she looked old. She continued. "I was raped repeatedly by the Peacekeepers for three quarters of a cycle before I escaped. I managed to locate one of the trading houses through which our limited trade with the Outside was conducted and got passage home. And when I returned, I found out that no one cared. No one cared what happened Outside. No one here knew or cared about the Peacekeepers. But I knew about you bastards, Crichton. And I vowed that I would do everything in my power to destroy the Peacekeepers. I made friends and allies. I became rich and powerful, but I never made political power an end in itself. I was content to let everyone think me a happy, stupid trelk, only interested in her next party or her next lover. But I knew that one day I'd find a way to strike back at you bastards. Finally, the Peacekeeper-Scarren conflict moved into this area and I was able to contact a Scarren patrol and offer my services. The remainder you now know. It's a shame. I would have loved using that stupid one-eyed trelk against her own kind. I would have loved watching you two Peacekeepers die as well. I would have killed the man first, I think. How do you think Aeryn Sun would have reacted to your death, John?"
I shook my head. "Lenza, Aeryn and I are not Peacekeepers."
She laughed bitterly. "Please don't treat me like an idiot now that you've won, John."
Aeryn put a hand on my arm. "She's just too smart for us, John."
Lenza rose from her seat. "I hope that you all die slowly at the hands of the Scarrens. I hope Crichton and Hentzau die the slowest." She made a mocking bow to Queen Flavia. "Now, if you will forgive me, I have work to do."
Queen Flavia stopped her. "Baroness Lenza Gauthier, you have for cycles flaunted your immorality at my court. I can no longer bear the sight of someone who whose only goal in life is the seduction of others into your own decadent life style. You are banished from my court to your estate at Zantig. Colonel Sapt, please take her there and away from my sight."
Sapt, with Hentzau's help led Lenza from the room.
In another half an arn, we managed to sneak the Queen back into her quarters. Then, the Aeryns and I were comfortably ensconced in the closet while Lady Orlika fussed over Flavia and got her ready to resume her life.
"It's a shame Lenza won't be punished for her crimes." I said.
Both Aeryns gave me the "stupid human" look I had seen before. Finally the Other Aeryn spoke. "I suspect that Lenza is about to have a nasty accident, John."
I thought about that one for a while.
In two days we were ready to leave. I had traded my Guards uniform for a drab gray maintenance man's uniform and headed to Queen Flavia's quarters. Flavia was just finishing breakfast in her bedroom. She shooed Orlika and another woman out. She looked one hundred percent better than when I had last seen her. Her hair was tied neatly in a pony tail behind her smile was nearly as radiant as Aeryn's. She was dressed in a long blue gown that covered her from the throat to the ankles and was belted around the waist.
She smiled and took my hand. "John, I will never be able to thank you for saving both my life and my kingdom. I discovered something while I was a prisoner. At first I was so frightened I couldn't even think, but after a while I found I was paying attention to my surroundings, trying to figure out how to escape. How to turn the tables on my enemies."
She laughed and sounded just like Aeryn. "I wasn't able to help myself, but I learned one important lesson." The smile increased and she put her arms around my neck. "I need a strong, intelligent man beside me." She undid the belt of her robe and shrugged her shoulders. The robe fell to the floor, revealing nothing but Flavia. "I need you, John." She started to kiss me. I managed to pull back and squeak an emphatic "No!"
Flavia looked at me is shock. I started to babble about loving Aeryn, needing Aeryn, wanting no one but Aeryn. And, I threw in a few things about being chased by every being in the Universe with a desire for a wormhole weapon and a bad attitude. Apparently I got through to her. She picked up her robe and slipped it back on. She didn't bother with the belt and there was enough of Flavia showing to keep me resolutely looking elsewhere.
"You're passing up me, and all of the wealth and power of the Triple Monarchy, Captain Crichton?"
I managed to get out, "You bet."
Flavia looked at me with considerable curiosity. "Aeryn Sun is a former Peacekeeper, isn't that so?"
"She wouldn't understand that we'd just be recreating and that otherwise our relationship would be business?" She asked.
I didn't believe that one for a microt. Flavia didn't have the look of a woman who wanted a little recreational sex. She wanted everything.
"No, Your Highness. Neither of us could accept that. Ever." There! I actually managed to look her in the eyes when I said that.
Flavia shrugged. "Aeryn is a most unusual woman for an ex-Peacekeeper."
She didn't know the half of it. I just smiled and nodded. Flavia smiled, too. Thank God. "Will you send Sapt in when you leave?"
I told Sapt to see the Queen and headed out through a back way. Aeryn was waiting for me in one of the little used rooms in the Queen's suite. She smiled and threw her arms around me. She easily picked me up and put me down on a couch. A long, comfortable couch. She broke the kiss long enough to shed her black tee shirt and then got busy taking my shirt off.
I ran my finger under her eye. "They fixed the scar, I see."
She nodded and started kissing me again. When I didn't respond, she broke the kiss and stared at me. "What's wrong, John? I know I'm as pretty as the other Aeryn. I'd have to be. The eye they gave me isn't functional, but it looks nice." She stared down at her breasts. "Am I too thin? Are they too small? Is it the other scars?" Poor Aeryn suddenly didn't look any happier about this than I was. I reached down and fished around on the floor for her tee shirt. When I found it, I helped her back into it.
"John, I thought once the Queen was done with you, that we could recreate. I thought you had, em, feelings for me. I know, oh, frell, I don't really know. Not about feelings anyway. But I feel, well, that I feel something for you." She buried her head in my chest. "Frell, I am totally frelling this up, aren't I? What am I doing wrong, John?"
I started to stroke Aeryn's hair. She relaxed a little bit. "You are every bit as beautiful as any Aeryn in the Universe. But I love my Aeryn. I've known her for cycles now and we had a lot of trouble getting to where we are now. But in those cycles I've found out that Aeryn Sun has qualities neither of us dreamed she had." Frell, I wasn't explaining this too well, either. "Aeryn, I've loved my Aeryn too long and shared too much with her to ever love anyone that way. Even if it is another Aeryn Sun."
"I'm not as good as she is?" She sounded sad and very tired.
"When I first met my Aeryn, I told her she could be more than just a Peacekeeper. More than a just a soldier and she is. God, Aeryn is so much a part of me, I don't think I actually exist without her. She's strong and gentle, and wise and foolish, and happy and, and happy." Okay, I frelled that one up. "And you'll be more, too. You are Aeryn Sun and you have all of the abilities and talents of my Aeryn and you are going to be successful, and happy and you're going to find someone who will show you more love than you ever thought existed. You will have such a wonderful life, Aeryn Sun."
Aeryn left her head on my chest. "And I'm going to have this life without you? I could come with you, back to Moya. I wouldn't mind being second."
I hugged Aeryn a little. "Yes, you would. You're still Aeryn Sun and you'll never be satisfied with being second at anything. My Aeryn would hate it and, to tell the truth, I'd hate it too."
Aeryn pushed herself up and sat on the couch. She was careful to look away from me. "Sapt is trying to think up some cover story to explain my being here. I suppose I'll end up commanding the Queen's Guards one day. I suppose that will be something more than I could have been as a Peacekeeper."
I stood and she did too. I put my arms around her and hugged her. "Aeryn, I came halfway across the Universe to find the woman I love. And I've found another Aeryn Sun now. If you consider how wildly unlikely that is, it's a sure bet that you'll find a man who'll love you and who you'll love for the rest of your life. You can't miss."
She nodded and I bent down and kissed her lightly. She remained there, staring at the wall as I left.
I reached one of the service corridors and waited for Aeryn. She should have been waiting for me. To my right, a panel opened in the wall and a woman in a gray maid's outfit walked out. A beautiful woman in a maid's uniform. A beautiful, brave, compassionate, funny and wise woman. Her black hair was neatly tied in a bun and her blue eyes swept over me. Her face had that carefully neutral expression that Aeryn used when she didn't want to talk about something. She swept past me and headed out of the palace.
"You saw everything." Not a question you note. I was just stating the obvious. Aeryn kept walking, looking straight ahead.
Finally she had to say something. "I'm a little surprised that you didn't take them up on their offer. I'd imagine that three of us would be your idea of heaven."
We walked a little farther. Frell! I had to ask, even if she killed me for it. "The three of you? You mean if I had decided to stay, you'd have still stayed with me?"
Aeryn stopped suddenly and turned to me with a stricken look on her face. Then she started to blush and she promptly started staring at her feet. I put my arms around her. She was as stiff as a board. "Aeryn, if you saw everything, you must have heard everything. You know exactly how I feel about you. And only about you." Aeryn relaxed and I pulled her close to me. We stood there hugging until an officious Guardsman came along and sent us packing with a sharp, "Move along you two. Do that on your own time."
The Rassendyll was fast. Sapt had said he'd give us the fastest of the couriers they used to keep in touch with the Outside. I was sure we could outrun any Peacekeeper vessel we ran across and that meant we could outrun anybody else we ran across. Just as well. Rassendyll had less weaponry than a Prowler, so we'd better be able to outrun anything.
John and I sat on a bench seat in the tiny command center of the ship. John was busy learning his way around the new ship.
We had a long journey ahead of us. I may as well ask the question now. "Why do you love me, John."
John froze for a microt and then grinned at me. "I'm just a poor human, Hon. I won't live long enough to list all of the reasons I love you."
I rested my head on his shoulder. "Very funny, human. But I'm serious. Even now I don't handle emotions well. Or always act on them wisely. I suggested that you would have wanted to stay with Flavia and the other Aeryn. I know perfectly well that you would never do that, but I accused you anyway. Sometimes I think that I push you away just to make sure that you'll come back. And that one day, if I'm stupid enough, you won't come back. I suggested that your not asking me to marry you was all your fault. I'm sure if you had asked about marriage before this, I'd have been upset that you wanted to tie me up in some ridiculous human customary relationship. I do love you, John. I don't always show it in the ways I should, but don't ever think I don't love you."
John didn't say anything. I waited and he still didn't say anything. I waited some more, and still he was silent. Finally I had to lift my head off his shoulder and look at him. He was smiling, the welnitz. I put my head back on his shoulder and stared out at the stars around us. It wouldn't do to let him see I was smiling, too.
He started twirling a little strand of my hair around. "I love you because under all that emotional armor the Peacekeepers put on you, there is the finest woman in the Universe struggling to get out. And the more I see of Aeryn Sun without that armor, the more I love you. And when you're completely out you'll make me the happiest human in the history of the Universe." He leaned forward slightly and kissed my cheek.
I let myself slide down until my head rested on his lap. I returned his smile with all I had. And he thought he was lost in a strange Universe.
Authors note: If you think the Other Aeryn is familiar, you may have seen her in "It's a Wonderful Farscape." Aeryn with no John interested me and I've been trying to find a place for her in a story. Then I found a plot for a story with an Aeryn Sun look alike. Well, if you have two "Aeryns", why not three? So far I have managed to keep from writing a fanfic where John and Aeryn land on "The Planet of Billions of Aeryns", but you never can tell. Could John, Aeryn, Aeryn and Flavia have another rendezvous with destiny?