Obligatory disclaimer: The following is in no way intended to infringe upon any copyrights; those belong to Sci Fi Channel, Jim Henson Co., Hallmark Entertainment, Nine Network Australia, the Farscape writers, producers, etc. This is for entertainment purposes only and is NOT FOR PROFIT, so please don't sue me.
Summary: Zhaan's madness returns and her companions must seek aid from a mysterious being while Aeryn and John come to terms with their recent experiences.
This story takes place between Jeremiah Crichton and Durka Returns. Spoilers up to Jeremiah Crichton. This is a sequel to my story entitled "Coming Back To Life."
This story is dedicated with gratitude to Laura Folden (Kitsah) for her unflagging support, beta-reading, and so many other things, not the least of which is her friendship. Also thanks to Kelly (ceallaig) for beta-reading, and Rick for editing.
Questions? Comments? Chocolate? firstname.lastname@example.org
When the ebbing tide retreats / Along the rocky shoreline / It leaves a trail of tidal pools / In a short-lived galaxy / Each microcosmic planet / A complete society / A simple kind of mirror / To reflect upon our own / All the busy little creatures / Chasing out their destinies / Living in their pools / They soon forget about the sea... / Wheels within wheels / In a spiral array / Patterns so grand / And complex/ Time after time / We lose sight of the way / Our causes can't see / Their effects" ~"Natural Science," Neil Peart, Rush (Permanent Waves, 1979).
"This moment may be brief / but it can be so bright / reflected in another source of light / when the moment dies / the spark still flies / reflected in another pair of eyes..." ~"Chain Lightning," Neil Peart, Rush (Presto, 1989).
Part One: A Trail of Tidal Pools
Aboard Moya: three weeks from Haidar
It was the dream again, the one that choked her with fear. Only this time it was different-very different. She no longer trusted her senses, so she did not know what to make of the visions. Lacking vital confidence, she feared the dream with greater intensity.
She had thought herself safe from the madness after leaving the New Moon of Delvia behind, but ever since she had helped Crichton enter the Dream of Endless Light, she had dreamed restlessly, always waking fearful and bitter at what she believed was impending doom. Each night the dreams had grown worse. But this had been different... before it had always been the same old fears, the same enemies. This time there had been something entirely new, and she was not quite sure whether or not she had conjured it herself-unless she was already mad, which was a prospect she could not face...
Zhaan picked her way across the pale, rocky surface of the New Moon of Delvia, toward the wizened figure in the orchard.
The priest squinted at her approach. "Took you long enough."
"I had to get up the nerve," she heard herself say. Pausing to gather her thoughts, she chose her words carefully.
"I know who you are." The Delvian greeted her formally; he appeared lucid.
"I know who you are," she responded, inclining her head. She offered him a small salute with joined palms. "I do respect your teachings, Pau Tuzak."
"And I respect your choice of murder victims," he replied sardonically.
That hurt. She felt the bitterness of the memory surface under his ironic scrutiny. She forced herself to speak. "What are you doing here?"
"The young refuse to tend the orchard. Sanctity Roots don't grow on trees, my dear." He chuckled a bit at his own joke.
"I need your advice."
He stared at her in surprise. "Oh, I have tasted of my darker impulse, I'm insane."
"What I am contemplating, is also a little insane." She could almost hear the resignation in her own voice; perhaps she had already made up her mind?
"Pau. Ninth Level?" he asked, with a sidelong glance. She nodded.
"When the darkness rises up from inside, that is normal," he said in the tone of a patient instructor. Then, his manner subtly changed; it became a grim warning. "It's when you reach down to pull it up," his voice rose savagely before he was able to bring himself under control. "-that the noxious warning sounds." His words hung ominously in the air. She blinked at him in surprise and then frowned.
Pau Tuzak wilted like a diseased vine, and he collapsed to the rocky ground in a puddle of bluish-grey slime, only to rise up molded into the reddish-skinned form of Liko with his untamed mass of hair. He was haloed by a dark shadow. Those gentle eyes gazed at her filled with compassion. He stretched out a hand to her that she reflexively reached out to meet. She watched their palms approach, his red skin stark against her blue, but as they touched, she felt a violent spasm of pain stab through her entire body. Her eyes widened as she realized that the dark shadow cloaking Liko had become the malevolent specter of what she instinctively knew was Maldis, his arms spread wide as he loomed head and shoulders above Liko, his mouth stretched into a widening maw of evil glee.
She jerked away and crumpled to the ground, staring at the vision in horror. Impassively Liko returned her stare and his mouth opened. But shockingly it was her own voice, her own words that she heard on his lips: "We all visit the precipice. Each one of us must find our own way down."
She clambered away from Liko's outstretched hand, lightning from Maldis crackling around his fingers, until she bumped into something behind her. Turning on her hands and knees, her horror escalated as she realized she had stumbled onto the cold, lifeless body of Pau Tuzak, laid out before her, with his hands crossed over his torso. The closed eyelids popped open with a startling suddenness, and she saw that it was no longer Tuzak who lay before her-it was herself. Madness-reddened eyes stared up at her expressionlessly. Zhaan knew that she was gazing upon her own corpse, poisoned by the tissue bile that had leaked into her brain.
"You tried to destroy me, priest!" she heard Maldis grate behind her. "But guess what? You failed. You tried to stop the madness but you can't stop the evil from rising up inside you! And when the madness has taken you over, I am going to eat your soul!" His maniacal laugh echoed harshly in her ears.
"No," she gasped in despair. " I must not go mad! I cannot-" Darkness swirled around her like a rising wind, whipping at her robes. "I must atone..." she whispered brokenly. "Goddess, I will atone!" The anguished voice of her one-time lover-no, murdered lover-amongst all the others she had harmed since then-cried out to her as a shriek. Weeping, she lifted her hands to press vainly against her head, as though she could block out the sights and sounds of the anger and violence that raged at her core-as though she could send these visions away. Inwardly, she curled into herself, while outwardly she stretched out her body, supine with her arms wide, over the non-distinct ground in the most humble expression of supplication that she knew. A tiny part of her recognized the dream for what it was, but the uncertainty and confusion of her spirit left her helpless.
She lifted her eyes to see a figure emerge from the scintillating curtains of light that suddenly swept about her. The storm had abruptly died away, leaving the faint sound of chimes hovering in the air, within mist and shadow...
It was the human. So simple and often child-like, she thought, but he had been her safety net once. Now, he scrambled toward her like he once had, concern etched in his face.
"Fight it," Crichton told her, the conviction and courage strong in his voice. "Fight all the things that betray you." He settled close to her, lifting her head into his lap. Amazing that this primitive creature could soothe her churning soul. She gazed up at him with something like thanksgiving in her eyes, and she lifted a hand to touch his cheek. He looked down at her with a mixture of anxiety and steadfast compassion.
"The Goddess has sent you to me," she murmured softly.
"Perhaps," Crichton's mouth spoke, but in a different voice, a female voice. "Perhaps not."
Zhaan's brow furrowed. Not again! Puzzled, she looked up at Crichton, only to see his face become hazy and transparent, like mist burning off in the strong light of midday, and another's appeared. It was a strong face, yet gentle and alien-featured-she did not recognize the species-with rusty hair hanging in two braids on either side of her dark golden-skinned face. Her eyes were huge and vivid green, slanting upwards surrounded by bold black markings that swept around her eyes and beyond to disappear into her hairline. She was remarkably striking, and very beautiful, Zhaan decided. Her astonishment faded, only to be replaced by a warm sense of well being.
"Who are you?" she asked.
The being hesitated for only an instant, barely noticeable. "My name...is Paala." Her microbe-translated words had an unusual accent that was as unfamiliar to Zhaan as the female's face.
"Your soul is in great distress, Zhaan. It troubles me to feel your pain. If you...come to me...I can help you."
"I have little trust left," Zhaan replied tiredly, with a dismissive wave of one beringed hand.
"I will not betray you, Zhaan. Your need cried out to me over great distance! I only want to help you..." She paused. "Your control is slipping, Zhaan. Come to me, before it is too late..."
Zhaan woke and stared into darkness, tears leaking from the corners of her eyes. Paralyzed by fear, she opened her mouth to pray the familiar mantra that always soothed her. "Kahalen..."
She stopped, the words dying in her throat. She was so frightened she could not even pray. Instead she shivered, oblivious to the tears that wet her face.
A Mer island on planet Meridea: the same day
Paala opened her eyes to the dawn-streaked sky and frowned. She breathed deeply as she emerged from trance. It was with some small effort that she tried to ease the troubled expression from her face. Below, the sea glistened deepest blue and gleaming silver as it rushed against the shore, but it provided her with no solace for the sudden turmoil that churned within. When she had sent her spirit skyward, the tide had only just begun to roll in; now she heard it much nearer, thundering ominously as it crashed on the beach beneath the dunes, underlining her own uneasiness.
She had come here in the dimness of pre-dawn and settled herself comfortably in the hollow of a dune for her daily voyage, free from the confines of this small planet and the watchers who hid beyond the bowl of the sky. She had felt herself rise up, up, beyond the planet's atmosphere and beyond its orbiting electronic eyes. She had turned, as was her wont, for a backward glance at the mist-shrouded sphere that had been her home for so many cycles, before she sent her spirit out into the darkness of the system, out into the cosmos. Those morning jaunts had become habit for her, as her body bathed in the warmth of the nearby star's first pale flush of dawn...
She reached out, sending herself out beyond the solar system, the sheer delight of the incalculable speed thrilling her to the core of her being, as she swept through the particles of space. She was capable of riding outwards a great distance; her need to travel had stretched her abilities beyond that of perhaps all but the most learned and elite of the Sisters. But today, she had no need for distance or for exotic locales and unfamiliar peoples. This morning, she had felt something tugging at her; she had felt a mind and a need beckoning to her over the distance. Fear tinged with despair had broadcast amongst the stars and cried out to her spirit, in search of solace and peace.
Drawn to it like a beacon she found herself gazing upon the huge Leviathan. She knew that it was not the ship that had attracted her, although there was something not quite right about it. She could sense the unborn offspring slumbering within the giant biomechanoid mother. Warily she realized that there was something about the offspring that its mother didn't know, something that startled and frightened her-something she had never seen before in a Leviathan. It was an effort to force her attention away toward what had drawn her here. There was something-someone else.
She pushed farther, extending herself tendril-like, until it was suddenly there before her, like a huge glowing, pulsating nexus, a misty spiraled column of life-force energy. It was old, yet strong and vital; the shimmering light was tinged with the darkness of uncertainty and violence that threatened to consume the radiant whole. She could both feel and See the battle for dominance between the light and dark. This was what had called out to her.
Vaguely she sensed the other life-forces aboard the Leviathan whose name she now knew was Moya, but she did not want to be distracted from that which had drawn her. On the periphery of her projection, she assimilated them into her awareness: a Luxan, Ka D'Argo, a Sebacean, Aeryn Sun, a Hynerian, Rygel XVI, and something that she'd never encountered before...she absently plucked the words from his sleeping mind: a Human? John Crichton. She felt their anxiety, a fear of being captured by Peacekeepers; she understood that concern. She filed their information away while simultaneously soothing the giant Leviathan and erasing any evidence of her visit from the creature's consciousness, lulling its Pilot into a semi-somnolent stage so her visit would not be detected through Moya's sensors. She maintained her focus on the being who had first captured her attention; she could always come back to the others. It was the Delvian, the one called Zhaan whose spirit had cried out into the darkness of space.
She drifted closer, brushing the edges of Zhaan's consciousness gently, until suddenly she was there, within. Curtains of misty pale blue liberally streaked with edges of darkness had pulsated about her yet she pushed further through them, searching for the center, for the core of consciousness with a deft touch. She watched only for a short while before urgency took hold: she made contact...
Now, once more within her body, she blinked up at the sky and reflected on the experience with a strange sense of forbidding-she wondered what the coming days would bring to her sheltered island shores.
She had no more opportunity to reflect as she shuddered then and gasped as the pain suddenly took her, stabbing through her every fiber as she curled into herself on the sand. When the pain finally subsided, she breathlessly considered its meaning. She stretched out her hand against the sand and fear-struck, she saw the brilliant glow emanate from her limb. She squeezed her eyes shut, and when she opened them again, the glow was gone. She lay there wonderingly, distracted from her contact with the alien, Zhaan, by this recent manifestation of her own intermittent illness. It felt like...she was changing...inside. Somehow, transforming. It frightened her that she had not yet determined what was causing it, much less how to cure it.
Uttering a quick prayer for forgiveness and protection, her conviction firmed: there were strange, fearful days ahead.
Research facility on Ridean continent, planet Meridea: the same day
"There it is again, sir." The young Ridean looked up at her expectantly as she bent to peer over his shoulder at the crystal display screen.
"As you can see, it's the same energy signature that we saw here-" He brought up the saved time frame, "and here." He turned his head, and then sprang back as he bumped his nose against her face; he flushed in embarrassment at the contact, but she continued to study the screen impassively.
"This is the same anomaly that Wist Station was tracking? You're sure," she prodded at his quick nod.
"Yes, sir. Wist forwarded their data just before Prefect Yassyr ordered them shut down for resource mismanagement and corruption." There was a note of concern in his voice, which she ignored. Yes, they are all a bunch of weak-minded fools!
"Every dawn...twice every dawn," she said mused aloud. "Have you located its origin yet?"
Reluctantly he shook his head. "We have a bead on the general area, but nothing specific yet."
"What is the grid?" she asked patiently, trying not to grit her teeth. It wasn't Ry's fault that their data was incomplete. She watched as he called it up on screen and she studied it for a brief instant before swearing softly beneath her breath. Ry heard it, of course, as her lips nearly touched his left ear, but he at least did not flinch at the savagery of her curse. "It is in the middle of the sea!" she exclaimed quietly, now careful that only Ry could hear her.
"Yes, sir, that appears to be the case."
"Amongst the savages," she murmured.
With hooded eyes she studied the vast network of islands beneath the grid, before straightening. "Download it all. Rip a cryptcase," she ordered watching intently as he complied. Surreptitiously, he handed her the tile-a small dot, no larger than the tip of her finger, safe inside a clear case; it contained all the data they had just finished examining.
"Stash the data, Ry-triple encryption, stand-alone storage," she said in a low voice. He turned to look up at her over his shoulder.
"Yes, sir," he responded crisply without flickering an eyelid. She nodded peremptorily, and then met his eyes finally. "I'm trusting you," she breathed, before turning on her heel. Without a backward glance she strode from the crowded control room.
Damn fools, she raged inwardly, maintaining her outward impassive expression. Wist had tracked this anomaly for over a cycle after the new satellite sensor system had gone online, and their efforts had been repaid by shutdown as soon as the Prefectory Council had discovered their "transgression." Now she was convinced that the reason they had been shut down had nothing to do with wasting resources, and much more to do with the origin of that anomaly-which seemed to correlate directly to the Mers.
Wist had tracked it to the Islands, and that had spelled their doom. The Council wanted to pretend that the Islands didn't exist, and so they had punished the scientists at Wist, who had discovered and then traced the signal. It was a foolish attitude-what exactly were they afraid of? Arousing the ire of the Mers? There had been zero contact between Continent and Island for over three hundred cycles-officially, that is. Unofficially, there had always been a bit of trickle between Cont and Isl to which CoastNav was conveniently blind. Her late father had been an unpopular advocate of allowing trickle to continue, while hard-liners insisted that it was poor social management to allow Rideans to defect to the Islands as well as allowing certain Mers to assimilate into their own carefully maintained society.
Of course she had disagreed with Father; trickle was bad policy, unofficial or not. But it wasn't until after Kel had disappeared that her anger at the Council's complacency had exploded. She'd known he was unhappy, but that was no excuse for abandoning his vocation and friends for...for...abomination. She didn't even bother to suppress her shudder of revulsion at the idea of Kel living amongst those savages on the islands. He belonged here, among their own people, working at the tasks for which they had been bred. He should never have been permitted to leave, and she held the Council responsible. If they chose to assert their authority, they could see that trickle was abolished. The Mers would be confined to their islands, and her people and her culture would remain pure and unsoiled by their filthy ways.
She came to a halt before the access panel, and she bent forward to be scanned. The panel flashed her name and rank in acknowledgement.
"Captain Vri," said a deep voice as she stepped through the entry. Automatically she came to attention, her eyes locked onto a spot on the far wall.
She heard a chuckle and then, "At ease, Eri." She stood down and turned toward the voice.
"Milo," she said warmly.
The elder Ridean, tall and immaculate in civil service uniform, smiled down at her affectionately as he approached. "I hadn't thought to see you this afternoon," he said.
"I have information that might interest you." You was a euphemism; she meant The Watch, but no one ever said that.
"Really?" He moved toward the bar where he proceeded to pour drinks for the two of them. She waited patiently until he turned and proffered a glass. With a smile and murmured thanks she accepted, and the exchange was made; she barely noticed him palm the cryptcase. She relaxed slightly. Occasionally she had to remind herself that she was doing this for Kel, but this was not one of those times. It was fully within her means to function as a Watch operator, so she did-it was as simple as that.
She was convinced that the anomaly they'd tracked was something very wrong and now that she knew it came from the Mers, she knew that whatever it was, it had to be stamped out for the good of her people. She felt no compunctions for serving those ends. She could only be grateful that she had found someone to whom to turn who understood her feelings about Mers.
Milo's people knew how to avoid scrutiny, and they would put the information to good use. Action would be taken. It was about time that someone taught those Mers a lesson, and Milo's people were just the ones to provide the education. Those dirty uncivilized Mers weren't going to spread their social disease to the Continent and suck the life from Ridean like they had stolen Kel away. Not if she could help it.
Four days later
She found him in the hangar, rubbing a cloth across the grey-white surface of the pod he called Farscape I. A clumsy craft, to be sure, but his devotion to the primitive machine was remarkable. For some time now she knew that he had been working on improvements to the pod-Moya's biomechanoid technology had proved useful in making the upgrades. As far as she was concerned, none of that really mattered, though. Crichton was just trying to keep himself busy and hopeful for the day he might return to his homeworld. If it kept him happy and occupied, it was all the better for the rest of them. She just wished that Rygel might find a similar occupation: his fits of boredom inevitably became her problem.
She tried to compose her thoughts as she watched Crichton polishing away. She had come to the realization that she needed to talk to someone, to try to tell someone what had been happening to her. It had been four standard days now that she had been plagued by those terrible dreams that each ended the same way: an unknown entity would urge Zhaan to come to her for healing. Each time, Zhaan woke increasingly more distraught than the last, and she was beginning to feel like she was at the end of her tether.
"John? John, I...may I speak with you?"
Crichton straightened and frowned at her quizzically. "Is everything all right, Zhaan?" He reached down for a clean rag and began wiping his hands as he walked over toward her.
"I'm not sure." She tried to laugh. "You see, I've been having these dreams..."
"Whoa, ho, hold on right there. What kind of dreams, Zhaan-nothing X-rated, right?" There was a mischievous grin on his face.
"X-rated?" She blinked at him curiously.
"You know...sex dreams. Well, never mind," he went on hastily at her blank expression. "It's probably just a human guy thing. Sorry, Zhaan, go on."
She smiled despite herself. "I think I understand. Delvians have these X-rated dreams, too. I find them quite pleasant actually."
"You would," he muttered. "But that's not what you came to talk to me about."
"No," she agreed. She paused. "Have you been dreaming lately, John?"
He looked at her oddly. "As a matter of fact, I have. Bad dreams. Ever since we left that damn planet behind."
"So have I," she nodded.
"At first, I thought it was just part of all that-you know-almost-dying stuff. But I still have those nightmares every time I sleep," he said, almost to himself. He laughed suddenly, bitterly. "It's beginning to make me a little crazy."
"I have been dreaming as well, John. They have been terrible." She winced at the memory. "I thought...perhaps they are a by-product of having touched the Dream of Endless Light."
"I'm pretty sure that Aeryn has been having them, too. Besides, she's been looking really tired and run-down lately-I don't think she's recovering too well...if we're all having bad dreams, then you might be on to something, Zhaan."
"Yes, perhaps," she replied absently, suddenly very tired. "I-I have to go, John." She found herself unable to speak of those nightmares; John would certainly think she had gone mad. She turned abruptly, leaving a preoccupied Crichton in her wake.
The following morning
She opened her eyes from dazzling whiteness and blinked slowly, painfully, as the world came into focus. A shape hovered over her, until Zhaan's face crystallized.
"Aeryn!" the Delvian cried out in a broken voice. Fuzzily, Aeryn noted the wet sheen that glistened on Zhaan's sculpted blue features.
"Z-zhaan," she croaked. "Wh-what's..." Alarm flared as she saw Zhaan's gaze flicker to the side and her face crumple.
"Oh, Aeryn, I'm sorry," Zhaan replied brokenly. "There was nothing I could do..."
"Wh-what do you mean? What's going on?" She turned her head to the side and first saw her arm stretched out across the space between her bed and the next, her hand clasped firmly-
"Crichton!" She released his hand and watched his arm flop limply down against the side of his bed. She attempted to prop herself up, ignoring the angry upheavals curling in her belly, and she pushed herself up off the bed. The waves of nausea gripped her, and her head swam, but she fought it as she lurched forward to land heavily on the edge of Crichton's bed. In fear and desperation she gazed down at him as he lay there, gray and frighteningly still. Aeryn Sun, former Peacekeeper Officer, had seen death enough times to know it when it lay before her. She turned her head away, but she was unable to suppress a low cry of pure anguish...this isn't happening...this can't be happening...she felt the hand on her shoulder through the haze of pain.
"He's gone, Aeryn. I'm so sorry."
"H-how long?" Her voice came out as a savage whisper.
"Not long," Zhaan replied. "He entered the Dream to save your life, Aeryn."
Nooooo..."And now he's dead!" She looked back down at him and reached out toward his face-
-and Crichton's eyes flew open and his arm snapped up to grab her wrist.
"That's right, Aeryn," he said in a metallic, distorted voice. "Thanks to you, now I'm dead!"
Horrified she scrambled backwards..."No..." But he rose up, grey and drawn, with his staring lifeless eyes wide and penetrating.
"No! This isn't happening, this isn't-"
-and her eyes snapped open. "...happening," she finished weakly.
"Aeryn? Are you all right?"
Crichton came into focus above her. She frowned and squeezed her eyes shut.
A dream? Not again...
Blindly she reached out and grasped his forearm.
"You're alive..." she breathed, barely audible. Her eyes flickered open and she released him.
"Yeah, Aeryn, I'm fine." Was that fear mixed with anxiety she'd seen ripple across his face? He composed his features quickly so she couldn't be sure. "I stopped by to check on you, and you were thrashing around...everything okay?" There was an odd tone to his voice.
"You're alive," she repeated, now in relief.
"Yeah, Aeryn, I'm alive. Sorry to dash your hopes, darlin,' but I'm still kicking." He smiled as she opened her eyes and met his frank blue gaze.
Her own fear and anguish melted away in a sudden rush of emotion, and she pushed herself up. Crichton didn't move away, so their shoulders touched, but she didn't shrink from the contact. She just sat there, stiff-backed with her face shrouded by long dark hair as she bowed her head. She sensed rather than saw John's face turn toward her, and then she heard his quiet voice, very near her ear.
"You're still having nightmares, aren't you?"
She was silent for a long moment before she could answer. "Bad dreams, yes." Don't push me on this, Crichton. Please.
She felt him shift on the low bed, and she squeezed her eyes shut behind the curtain of dark hair. She didn't want to have a conversation about her feelings. The aftermath of her recovery from the virus had proved to be difficult and confusing. The uncontrollable bouts of tears and anxiety had left her feeling helpless and weak, not to mention her struggle with the physical effects of withdrawal from the Dream.
She felt a touch, light as a soft sigh, and her breath caught for a long second. John very gently swept the hair back from her face and tucked it behind her ear. His gentle fingers lingered for just an instant longer than was necessary before his hand dropped away.
"Aeryn," he began quietly and she started breathing again. The tenderness in his small gesture was...comforting.
"I'm fine, Crichton," she said, forcing herself to face him. Their eyes met, and the expression in his eyes was like a knife twisting in her chest. She saw her own barely suppressed emotions reflected in his gaze. Too much pure oxygen, Aeryn...
Crichton looked away first, his face suddenly tired and drawn. Standing, he reached out and briefly squeezed her almost-bare shoulder, and then he was gone.
Later that evening, John found himself sitting near a porthole, gazing through the clear membrane that separated him from the vacuum of space beyond, lost in thought. He toyed with the almost empty cup before him, swirling the dregs in an absent motion. The alcoholic beverage was not unpleasant, and it was certainly welcome in his state of mind. It provided him with a numbness that took the edge off the mental turmoil that had plagued him since he'd woken in a cold sweat in the early arns. Not again! He'd taken off running for Aeryn's chamber before he could stop himself, and he had to force himself to slow down, to walk, to take a deep breath before barging in, only to find her in the grips of what he suspected was something similar to his own experience.
He'd dreamed she was dead-that he'd awoken from that damned Endless Light dren to find Aeryn cold and still beside him, with a tearful Zhaan hovering over him. He could still feel the vestiges of the bolt of anguish that had woken him in a panic of fear and grief. It was just a dream, John. Yeah, that's what they'd called that damned virus, and it had nearly killed both of them. Some dream.
The physical symptoms had all but faded in the intervening time since he and Aeryn had recovered enough to return to Moya. They were only a few weeks from the system with its unusual Sebacean colony and its nasty virus-catalyst, and John was glad to be heading in the opposite direction...
They had gone down to the surface, he and Aeryn, for much-needed supplies, and they had gotten much worse than they had bargained for. Aeryn had fallen into a mysterious coma that the local Sebaceans called the Dream of Endless Light, a peaceful state of being that stole the mind from the body. Faced with Aeryn's imminent death if she did not soon awaken, John had entered the Dream with Zhaan's assistance, in an attempt to convince her to return to the land of the living. The return had proved difficult for them both, and when, after some time, they each had finally returned to consciousness, their bodies and minds had been seriously affected. It had taken this much time to return somewhat to normal. Except for the nightmares, of course.
How many times was this now that he'd almost died? Worse, that he'd almost lost Aeryn...
How could he live like this, he wondered, as he tossed back the remainder of the dark blue liquid in his cup. It burned pleasantly as it went down, dulling the sharp edges of the black mood that had seized him since leaving Aeryn's chamber. He had tried to distract himself with chores all day long, but the black mood had only grown as Moya hurtled through the darkness of space. How could any of them live like this? This wasn't how his life was supposed to be.
Stolidly, he reached for the carafe and began to pour another cup, half-hoping that someone would stop him. As if on cue, he heard the soft thud of boots on Moya's surface, and he immediately recognized the familiar tread. He didn't need to turn around. He left his cup half-filled and thumped the carafe down onto the table's surface. He raised his cup as he heard the hiss of the refrigeration unit being opened, and he mockingly saluted in her direction.
"You've been avoiding me, Aeryn." Again.
The footsteps drew near until he saw her in his peripheral vision. He turned his head to find her studying him with an inscrutable expression, a shiny metallic packet and a flask in her hands. She carefully placed them on the table and then turned on her heel. She returned with a cup that was twin to the one cradled between his own hands.
"So what if I have?" she finally said, with a wry smile. She settled herself opposite him and reached for his carafe. He watched as she poured a steady stream of the blue liquid into her cup. He finally noticed the sheen of sweat that glistened on the bare skin of her arms. She was clad simply in the familiar gray tank-top and the loose black trousers she favored for her workouts. There were dark damp patches where she had sweated through the tank above the swell of her breasts. Immediately John diverted his gaze, looking up to find Aeryn's eyes on him. She raised her cup and returned his mocking salute.
John peered at her with a puzzled frown. "Do you mind telling me what exactly I've done this time?"
Instead of answering, Aeryn fixed him with an almost taunting gaze, and she tipped the cup back. John watched in amazement as she drained its contents in one long draught-he watched her throat contract as she gulped back the alcohol. The cup slammed down onto the table, and she reached for the carafe, pouring for herself again. Only this time, there was only enough left to fill the cup part-ways. With a philosophical shrug she dropped the carafe and gave it a little push off to the side. Again, she raised the cup to her lips, never breaking eye contact with John. But before she could swallow, he reached out and touched her arm.
"Aeryn?" he asked, confused by her uncharacteristic reaction.
She paused and lifted a single eyebrow in response, but she knocked the second cup back nonetheless. Lowering it to the table, she reached out for the flask she'd brought and pushed it over to him with a challenge in her eyes. John felt something shift fuzzily as a wave of frustration and defiance hit him. Fine, he thought. If this is the way she wants to play it...
He tipped back his cup and emptied it before pouring from the flask. A sweet-smelling greenish-yellow liquid streamed into his cup and noting the color, John was thankful his cup wasn't clear so he wouldn't have to look at what he was drinking.
He pushed the flask back at her, and then tilted his head quizzically to one side as she filled her own cup for the third time.
"So what are we going to do, see who can out-drink who?" he finally asked a bit fuzzily, in an effort to break the silence that stretched between them.
"I've had a bad day," she responded acerbically.
"Yeah," he in a flat tone. "I can see that."
To hell with it! He slowly brought the cup to his mouth and sniffed delicately. It actually smelled quite good. Sweet. She eyed him, once more issuing the silent challenge, so he knocked it back, and then brought the cup down slowly in surprise.
"Wow...that's very...good...stuff," he said finally when he was able to speak. The liquid was sweet and amazingly delicious. It also packed a wallop that went straight to his head. Suddenly he felt really, really good. Dimly he recalled what they had always said about mixing liquors...
"It's called dringmar," Aeryn said with a tiny smile after draining her own cup again. "And it is good, isn't it? Quite potent."
"Um, yeah," John responded, shaking his head slightly to clear it. "Tasty."
Then he cocked his head at her. "So are you gonna tell me what's going on?"
"No." He stared at her quizzically. "We're not going to talk," she said with a sneer. "We're going to get drunk." Shockingly, her mouth stretched into a beautiful grin.
Maybe it was the alcohol, maybe not. His astonishment dissolved as he shrugged philosophically. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em, eh, John? He reached out for the flask and poured himself some more. He'd get her talking yet.
When John woke into darkness the following day, he had a hazy recollection of Aeryn talking and talking and talking. For some reason he thought that he had been unable to shut her up! That couldn't be right...Or maybe he'd been the one talking. He couldn't quite remember anymore. Something about her trying to prop him up, or had that been the other way around? The details were all jumbled up and he couldn't recall what she'd been going on about.
None of that mattered though, when his head felt like she'd used it for her punching bag. He forced himself up to look around, and he frowned. For some reason, his quarters didn't look quite right...
What the hell-?
He rolled over gingerly and found himself face to face with Aeryn Sun. A completely unconscious Aeryn Sun, he discovered. He held his breath and somehow managed to back away off the bed without disturbing her. She lay there, pale and luminous in the dim light, dark hair spilling over the bare skin of her folded arms that pillowed her head on the otherwise pillowless low bed. Suddenly there was an ache in John's throat from the mere sight of her. He turned away a mite too quickly and immediately he regretted the sudden movement.
Fuzzy recollection was returning to him of them wandering about, arm in arm, giggling, after way too much dringmar. Perhaps he'd been assisting a thoroughly inebriated ex-Peacekeeper back to her room-? He couldn't be sure; his memory had fogged once again. He tried to make a mental note to never touch that sweet stuff again. It packed more wallop than Appalachian moonshine! He was relieved to note that they were both still fully dressed, but this was very definitely Aeryn's quarters. He was sure that she would be less than pleased to find him asleep beside her in the morning as proof of her lapse of judgment. Especially if she woke with even a fraction of the head he was suddenly clutching. He felt his stomach lurch as he forced himself to back away towards the entrance. He hesitated there for a moment to gaze at the long slim lines of her sleeping body. He'd never seen her so utterly relaxed and...peaceful. But then again, he had never watched her sleep before. Reluctantly he turned away, and clasping his head, he waved the gate open and stumbled out into the corridor.
He wasn't quite paying attention to his route as he tried to make his way back to his own quarters. In fact most of the time he wasn't looking at all. He lurched forward with his left hand over his eyes and his right hand trailing along the wall of the curving corridor. Then, through his misery, he felt a prickling along his spine and his hand fell away, as he concentrated fuzzily on the crouching form not ten paces away. Everything suddenly sprang into sharp focus.
"Zhaan!" He took one step in her direction and then abruptly stopped as she lifted her head weakly and thrust out a trembling hand to stop him. "Your eyes..." He could only stare at her in horror and then fearful concern. "The madness-"
"Yes, John," she said staring at him helplessly, her voice anguished. "It has returned. I have tried-Goddess forgive me, I have tried so hard to stave it off, but I..." she trailed off.
Head down, she was almost on her hands and knees and shaking. John's head was suddenly quite clear.
"What can I do?" John demanded fiercely as he moved to her side. His hands contracted into fists unconsciously, as though this was a battle that could be won with a quick one-two punch.
"Help me..." Zhaan lifted her head, red eyes pinning him with her desperation. "Help me, John..." And she softly collapsed.
The following day
Zhaan looked up at his approach and smiled at him warmly.
"Hello, John," she said.
"Uh, hi, Zhaan," he replied, averting his gaze. The Delvian was entirely nude. "I came to see how you were feeling."
"How I'm feeling? I feel fine, John. In fact, I've never felt better. I was thinking..." she trailed off as a confused expression crossed her face.
"Zhaan? Hello? You were thinking that maybe you wanted to put some clothes on?" he prompted after several microts of silence.
She recovered with a start. "Hello, John." He nodded and waited expectantly for her to finish, trying very hard not to look at her below the chin. She just blinked her red eyes at him. The silence stretched until she frowned slightly.
"Did you need something, John?"
He stared at her open-mouthed and then sighed. "Yeah, Zhaan-you were about to tell me what you were thinking. And you were going to put that on." He gestured at her robe across the low bed.
She cocked her head at him and her full lips quirked upwards.
"Hmm...do you really want to know what I'm thinking, John?" she murmured in a low, husky voice as she glided toward him. She lay one beringed hand against the center of his chest, and she smiled up at him coyly.
John had a bad feeling about this.
"I'm thinking," she whispered, as she leaned closer. "That I could velk you-" He frowned and tried to back away, but Moya's warm surface sprang up hard against his shoulder blades. "-until you couldn't walk anymore." She laughed softly, breathily, and then her demeanor changed like quicksilver. Her gaze hardened and her mouth thinned. "And then....I would break you in two," she spat. Her other hand shot out and seized him by the throat in a crushing grip. John's eyes bulged and his hands reached up in a vain attempt to loosen Zhaan's grip. He choked for air and his mouth flapped open as he tried to soundlessly protest, but his quickly fading efforts were to no avail.
Then he heard and felt something like a whip crack past his ear, and the vise around his throat loosened immediately and then fell away as he watched Zhaan crumple to the ground. John stumbled backward, one hand at his throat, before he lost his balance and landed hard on his butt. Painfully, he swiveled his head to see what had saved him.
D'Argo lowered into a squat beside him, watching Zhaan's inert form warily. Finally he turned his gaze toward John.
"Did she injure you?"
He shook his head weakly. "Thanks...big guy.." he managed at last. D'Argo nodded.
"I think she wanted to kill me," John said, massaging his throat gently. It would definitely be bruised, he decided.
"I believe she would have killed you eventually, had I not intervened," D'Argo agreed. "It is a good thing that I came by."
"You'll get no argument from me," he replied.
"Delvians, particularly priests, are known for their strength and speed. Their pacifist ways are often mistaken for weakness, but their enemies are quickly disabused of that notion." There was a note of admiration in D'Argo's voice.
"Yeah, she's a regular warrior woman," John muttered. "But she just tried to kill me, D'Argo!"
The Luxan shook his head. "If she had wanted you dead just now, you would be dead, Crichton. No, she was toying with you, saving your death for later." He straightened and moved forward. With one smooth motion, he hefted Zhaan in his arms and lowered her to the low bed, tenderly pulling a shiny golden sheet over her limp form.
"Great! Just great, Zhaan's turned into a homicidal maniac and it's my skin she happens to be gunning for. We have to do something to help her-before she kills one of us or the madness kills her."
"I don't think there is a cure for the madness," D'Argo replied slowly in surprise as he turned toward him. "How can we help her if we don't know the cure?"
"I don't know, D'Argo. The last time this happened, I joined her in Unity, which brought her back. But in her present state of mind-strike that-make that lack of mind, I think I'd wind up dead long before we even made it to the Unity part. And personally, I'm not ready to die quite yet."
D'Argo studied her with a hint of sorrow. "If one of us were ill, Zhaan would know how to help us," he said softly. "I do not want to see our comrade die. But I do not know how to stop it." John looked up bleakly to meet D'Argo's eyes. The Luxan returned his gaze steadily for several long microts before fury streaked across his features, and he turned in a sudden explosion of movement. He stormed out of the chamber in a swirl of tentacles, braids, and skirted coat. John could have sworn that D'Argo had been cursing in untranslatable Luxan on his way out as the faint guttural sounds reached him from the corridor. He looked over his shoulder and was surprised to see Aeryn standing in the shadows beyond the entrance hatch, wariness in her posture. She wasn't looking at him, though. Her eyes were fixed on Zhaan's face.
"Did you see all that?" he asked quietly, returning his gaze to Zhaan. He took her grunted response as an affirmation. "What did she mean, when she said she'd like to velk me?" he asked absently, but when no reply was forthcoming, he turned to see Aeryn staring at Zhaan with very wide bright eyes, and a tiny smile hovering around the corners of her mouth. Suddenly he had an inkling of what Zhaan had meant, so he didn't press the question, although he noticed a flicker of her eyes in his direction before she returned to her impassive study of Zhaan's inert form.
Hesitantly Crichton crawled forward and reaching out, he gently lifted one blue eyelid to reveal Zhaan's still-red eye. He sighed and then shifted back. When he turned to find Aeryn again, she was gone.
Aeryn left Crichton in Zhaan's quarters and stalked to the den to confer with Pilot. Just then Rygel emerged from a side corridor perched atop his throne sled and sporting a decidedly disagreeable expression.
"What the yotz is going on?" he demanded petulantly.
"Obviously nothing that concerns you, Your Lowness," she replied shortly, not slowing her pace. "We called you eight times!"
"I was sleeping," came his grumbling answer, as he sped his throne sled to keep up with her.
She didn't reply, trying to suppress the futile anger that threatened to overflow toward the small Hynerian.
"So?" he went on. "What was so important?" Unbelievably, he was actually looking down at her with the impatience of a commanding officer for a green trainee.
Aeryn rounded on him in fury, causing him to speed past her several paces before he was able to halt the throne sled and turn around. "Zhaan has succumbed to the madness once again, and she is unconscious. If we don't come up with something soon, she will probably die." She was unable to keep the worry from her voice.
"Oh." His broad wrinkled face fell, and he had the grace to look abashed. "Why didn't anyone tell me?" he mumbled.
Aeryn resumed her pace, forcing him to catch up with her. "We tried."
"Well how the yotz was I supposed to know that it was something serious? There's always something, you know. You people disturb me for every last thing-"
She ignored him and kept walking. She couldn't sit back and do nothing. There was only one other who might have an answer...
"I'm sorry, Officer Sun, but Moya's databanks do not contain any information on how to cure this kind of madness in a Delvian." Pilot's giant body drooped, and he sighed. "I don't know what else we can do." He blinked his enormous round eyes at her in consternation.
Aeryn sagged against Pilot's console in defeat. What could they do? Crichton had mentioned that Unity with him had given her the strength to repel the madness before, but that was useless in her current homicidal state. Determinedly, her hands tightened their grip on the console. They had to find a way!
Sleep that night did not come easily for Aeryn. Worry for Zhaan had permeated the day for all of them, leaving them frustrated and anxious. She lay there in the dark, the shiny gold sheet bedcovering pulled up to her chin, and suddenly a slow hot flush spread over her as memory struck. She'd gotten drunk with Crichton. All day she'd been avoiding it, but in the dark it was inescapable. She'd made an utter and complete fool of herself, of that much she felt certain. She had some sort of strange recollection of mindless babbling, and singing! -except now she realized that it had been her! She wasn't sure what had possessed her to do such a thing, to get dren-faced with the human, but it had felt right at the time. Unfortunately, she hadn't felt better in the morning, waking alone and cold, with a foul taste in her mouth, and Crichton's scent all over her clothes combined with the liberal perfume of spilled dringmar. She squeezed her eyes shut and tried very hard not to think about it.
Finally in her worry and confusion she drifted to sleep, as though a fog had suddenly taken her, and she found herself standing in a misty place. It was lit only by a flickering blue-white light; it was gentle, and it flashed and sheeted, offering eerie illumination. By that strange light she realized she wasn't alone.
D'Argo stood across from her with Crichton on her right, both of them slowly turning in confusion, plucking at their garments. They were strangely garbed, in nothing Aeryn had ever seen before: D'Argo wore a deep green tunic belted over loose brown trousers that came short of his bare feet, while Crichton was garbed in his customary "T-shirt," as he called it, and trousers, only they were stark white. They looked about as disoriented as she felt; also, they had a curious insubstantial look about them, as though they might fade away at a moment's notice. Immediately she adjusted into a posture of wariness, almost rising up on her toes in anticipation of danger. Her internal alarms were sending off loud klaxons, and she felt her insides twist slightly. Then she looked down and her eyes widened.
Zhaan lay before them on a low bier of some sort, clad in the shiny gold vestments of a Pau. Aeryn frowned and watched as John stepped forward and dropped into a crouch beside the bier and reached out to touch the motionless Delvian. Like he had earlier, he lifted an eyelid to reveal a single bright red eye. He made a small despairing sound in the back of his throat and vaguely slumped back onto his heels. Then he looked up and across Zhaan and seemed to notice Aeryn for the first time. He started violently, falling backwards on one out-flung arm, and he scrambled to his feet. Staring around wildly, he started again at the sight of D'Argo, and he backed away from all of them. He opened his mouth, which flapped soundlessly-
"What the hezmana is going on?" D'Argo demanded as he looked from Aeryn to Crichton both in bewilderment and frustration, his eyes constantly being drawn back to the seemingly unconscious Zhaan.
Aeryn frowned again. "I don't know," she responded, and then swallowed. Her hand crept to her leg holster only to find it gone, gun and all. Instead her fingers encountered a soft expanse of silky fabric, which drew her attention. She gaped as she looked down to see a gown hanging from her shoulders, sleeveless and pale, skimming her torso in a thin sheath to fall in smooth folds that touched the top of her bare feet. Her head snapped up in horror, and her hands rose automatically, one clenched at the fabric covering her abdomen while the other slapped against her chest, touching the bare skin above her bosom.
It all felt real. Stricken, she raised her eyes to find Crichton's gaze on her. "What the frell is this?" she burst in outrage.
"I don't know," he said quickly with a shake of his head. "If I didn't know better, I would say it was a dream..."
"A dream?" D'Argo scoffed. "What-this? I very much doubt it, Crichton." He had his hands on his hips, staring down his Luxan nose at the human.
"Then, what, D'Argo," Crichton threw back in clipped tones. "You have a better explanation? I mean, what's Zhaan doing here-and it's all misty and why are you two here, if I'm not dreaming? Huh? Granted, I wouldn't have chosen exactly this kind of dream, but who knows what the hell my subconscious is trying to assimilate. It's not as though my brain doesn't have enough to figure out, you know..." he was muttering by the time he trailed off, scrubbing his hands through short-cropped hair and beginning to pace.
"Crichton, what are you talking about it?" Aeryn finally managed, putting aside her own disorientation. It was almost a relief to have someone upon whom she could vent her irritation.
"This makes perfect sense, you know," he stared at her with a crazy grin.. "You know, the more I think about it, anyway. See, I've been worried sick about Zhaan, so that's why she's here, and I can't seem to do anything to help her. And you!" He burst into a peal of laughter, that grin suddenly rakish and a touch embarrassed. "It's not like you're a stranger in my dreams, Aeryn," he said softly. But then the mirth vanished as he wheeled on D'Argo, who was staring at him as though at an insane and slightly dangerous creature, his large hands flexing defensively. "But you," Crichton began, his gaze sliding sideways in puzzlement. "I don't know why you're here. Maybe you represent a threat to my masculinity." Then he shrugged and barked another laugh. "Freud would have a field day with this one!"
"Crichton!" D'Argo broke into the human's reverie, jerking John's attention back up at the huge Luxan warrior. He deliberately folded his arms across his broad chest and stared down at him with a mixture of annoyance and amusement. "Will you shut up?"
"Whatever you say, big guy," Crichton muttered, but kept silent, although his mouth had a sour twist to it.
Ignoring him, D'Argo met Aeryn's eyes. "Crichton," he began disdainfully, "thinks that we are a part of his dream, Aeryn. Now I don't know about you, but I don't feel like a part of anyone's dream. I think," D'Argo broke off to throw a disgusted glare at Crichton. "Both of you are part of my dream!"
"Now look here-!" Crichton broke in heatedly.
"Will you both just shut up!" Open-mouthed they turned back to her, perhaps finally seeing her for the first time. "Let me get this straight," she began irritably, waving irritably in Crichton's direction. "You think you're dreaming about me, so...what? I'm supposed to be dreaming about you two dreaming about me-? No, wait, I've got it. D'Argo is dreaming about me dreaming about you dreaming about me. Is that it? Wait. No, no, I said wait!" she snapped as Crichton opened his mouth again. "You know what? None of that matters-I have more important things to worry about! Where the frell is my gun!"
Crichton's mouth quirked up at the corners but he hastily suppressed the smile as she swung her head in his direction. D'Argo cleared his throat, drawing her attention.
The Luxan gazed at her quietly, his eyes suddenly soft as they swept her from head to toe and back up again. Aeryn became very aware of the thin garment she wore beneath his eyes, and she remembered the holoimage of D'Argo's Sebacean wife. Crichton's gaze darted from D'Argo to her and then back to D'Argo again.
"Now you wait just one cotton-pickin' minute, D'Argo," he burst out, fists balled at his sides. "This is my dream, not yours! You just keep your eyes to yourself!" He assumed a swagger as he walked toward her, ignoring the Luxan's glare.
"Hey, baby," he drawled in a low voice. "Haven't I see you in my dreams before?" He grinned at her with boyish charm..
Aeryn stared at both of them as though they had just grown three new heads, and backed away, her right hand still inching down her thigh toward the absent gun, while she cursed under her breath. She had no idea what was going on, but this was utter frelling dren!
Crichton followed her with that stupid grin on his face, and suddenly she just wanted to smack him and wipe that grin away. She wasn't even paying attention to what he was saying anymore-she just wanted him to go away! And sure enough, D'Argo was close on Crichton's heels, flowery Luxan poetry on his lips, but she wasn't listening. She'd had quite enough of this nonsense, and it was about time she put an end to it.
She gritted her teeth. "Why, unh," she jabbed, and twisted. "Won't. You. Just. Unh," she flipped and swung hard. "Leave. Me. Unh." Another jab and a head butt. "The Frell. Alone!"
She looked down at the two groaning bodies through flat eyes and felt a wave of satisfaction. She wiped her palms against the smooth fabric over her thighs, and realized she'd taken them both down while wearing that frelling sack. She began to stalk away from them, but not before she heard Crichton grumble to D'Argo:
"I guess that solves it, big guy. We're in her dream."
Shaking her head in frustration, she turned away and then started back at the sight of a shimmering figure close by as she turned.
They all stared at the female figure, dumbstruck. Once again, Aeryn assumed a wary pose, her right hand automatically searching for her missing weapon.
"Who are you?" D'Argo demanded from the other side of Zhaan's inert form. From the corner of her eye she noted his wide-legged stance with his arms hanging loosely at his sides. Even clad in the garments of a farmer, D'Argo cut a deadly figure.
The female glided nearer and spread her hands out at waist level, palms upward, as if to indicate a lack of intent to harm.
"My name is Paala," she said quietly.
"Well, Paala," she said, trying to seize control of the situation. "Suppose you tell us where we are and what is going on, hmmm?" She shared a quick glance with D'Argo and Crichton who both nodded in agreement.
"Are you responsible for all this Wait-are we still asleep? Did you bring us here?" Crichton added, gesturing vaguely. Aeryn frowned at him-she didn't want him to start talking and give away any advantage they might possess. Crichton talked too much.
The female paused for a few microts and then nodded her head.
"Your friend, Zhaan," she began, "is very ill-"
"Yes, we know that," Aeryn broke in impatiently. "But what does that have to do with you?"
"I can help her," Paala replied simply.
"Help her?" Crichton echoed. Aeryn turned to see him gaze at the female consideringly. "Help her how?"
They all returned their gaze to Paala.
"I possess powers that some might find...extraordinary. I have seen your friend's dreams, and I know the fears that haunt her. In fact," she said thoughtfully, almost to herself, "we may even have a common enemy." She appeared troubled, but then she refocused her attention on the three of them, jerking her eyes up from Zhaan's body. "I can help Zhaan to heal her mind." She held up a hand to halt their questions and continued, nonplussed. "I have been watching Zhaan's dreams for a few solar days. It called out to me in pain over space and time, and I have been drawn to it. She has been greatly troubled...
"She feared that the madness would overcome her once more-that she would no longer have the strength to fight it off. And indeed her own fears gave power to the madness and allowed it to grow strong. Now it is so strong that her dark impulses are unleashed and she has become a danger to you all. Worse, the madness is slowly poisoning her. Unchecked, the madness will ravage her until she is dead within as few as fifteen solar days."
Aeryn found herself staring at Paala in silence along with the others until finally Crichton spoke:
"You know all this from watching her dreams? How-I shouldn't even bother asking this anymore but-how the hell did you do that? Some kind of telepathy?"
"Mmm, yes," she replied, watching Zhaan distractedly.
"How do we know we can trust you?" Crichton asked more soberly, echoing Aeryn thoughts.
Paala's figure seemed to wilt for a brief instant, too quick for Aeryn to be sure because she responded so strongly.
"I am afraid there is no way for you to pre-determine my verity. You will have to judge my actions for yourselves. But know this: I have made it my life's work to help other beings. I have done nothing to harm Zhaan, yet by my inaction she will surely die and I will have failed. Please allow me to do what I can for her-for all of you."
Her words hung in the air and Aeryn suddenly felt very cold... I have made it my life's work to help other beings...Paala's words struck at a darkness deep inside her that she had tried to forget. In another lifetime it had been her life's work to be the perfect Peacekeeper-a gifted pilot-a soldier trained to obey, to do whatever was necessary to fulfill her destiny. One among many, she had told Crichton, without any concern for irrelevancies like morality or compassion. Yes, it had been her life's work to be a Peacekeeper, and all that entailed, and as such, she knew now, she had done great harm to other beings. It had been all that she had known-all that she had permitted herself to know.
The world was a different place now. Here she was, cheek by jowl with species that she would have shunned, even executed, in that other life. And within her body swam foreign DNA that another Aeryn Sun would have considered pollution-an abomination. In this life, she had somehow developed strange, inexplicable bonds to her shipmates-bonds that she feared for their hold over her but that she found herself unable to sever.
It was with some effort that she returned her attention to Paala, who now knelt above Zhaan, her hands cupping the Delvian's blue skull. She saw that both D'Argo and Crichton had come close to her and were studying her expectantly.
"What do you think Aeryn?" D'Argo asked, with a backward glance at the alien female.
"About what?" she asked crisply in an attempt to hide her momentary lack of focus.
"Should we go to this...Paala? See if maybe she can help Zhaan the way she says she can? Or maybe it's too risky and we should let it run its course." Crichton supplied.
She looked at both of them in turn. "Are there any other options?" A flicker of hope sprang to life as she searched their faces and then died as they both reluctantly shook their heads at her. "I have already asked Pilot for assistance, but he has no alternatives either," she said in defeat. She jerked her head in sudden anger and then met Crichton's eyes.
Frozen, Aeryn found herself staring at John helplessly, hating him, hating them all for making her feel so useless. Irrational, yes, but the ice and fury raged, unabated. She wanted to smash something. Then D'Argo spoke heavily into the silence.
"It would seem we have no choice."
Part Two: Chasing Destiny
Seven days later
The comm blared in short angry bursts, waking Eri from her deep sleep. One look at the link on her bedside table told her she had far overslept into the morning of her day off, and she cursed herself for wasting the time. Shivering in the room's chill, she crept from her bed and hurried to the comm panel. There was a coded priority communiqué waiting in the queue. Surprised, she checked the source: General Miloslo Vayel. Her breath caught and her stomach clenched. Milo! Why was it coded? Only if it was something to do with...he had never sent her any Watch transmission before, so what was so important that he would risk it, especially on her mid-level security system? They had always been so careful, because, as Milo explained it, there would always be those whose weakness and cowardice would try to smother the actions of loyal patriots.
She reached clumsily for her pad which she jacked into the panel and set it to download. It would be safer to view the coded transmission on standalone, as she didn't want to compound the risk Milo had taken. When the download was complete, she ran the sequence decoder that Milo had given her earlier, and waited for the message to appear. When it did, her breath caught and she frowned. But there it was in stark glowing letters on the pad's small screen:
SECURE DATA AND REPORT TO ME
She blinked at the message in surprise and bit her lip, but finally she shook her head and keyed the kill sequence. The letters vanished and she dumped the memory to erase it entirely.
She lay the pad down and immediately began to dress, haste making her fumble with the enclosures of her uniform. Before she left her quarters she paused before the mirror and stared at her reflection: this must be it, she thought. We can't fail now.
CAPTAIN ERI VRI, the access panel outside Milo's quarters flashed after she had been scanned, but the door did not slide open. Puzzled, she stood at attention, with her cap tucked neatly beneath one arm. In her right hand, she clasped an attache filled with cryptcases of her research. At the lab, she and Ry had ripped every last bit of their research onto cryptcases and safely locked them into the flat metallic container, which she now clenched nervously. The microts passed, and she bent to be re-scanned and again request entry. When she did, she was startled to see the message: PLEASE WAIT. She frowned and straightened. And waited.
Finally she heard a chime and the door slid open with a soft hiss. But there was no Milo to greet her. Instead, she found herself facing a stocky Ridean with an ugly face whose features were the exact opposite of Milo's gaunt, supercilious visage and his tall, thin stature. The Ridean brushed past quickly without bothering to acknowledge her. She looked away from his departing back and hesitantly peered at the room beyond before stepping through the entry. Her gaze swept one side of the long narrow chamber and then the other until she found him at the far left. He stood ram-rod straight, facing the wide bubble window, with his hands firmly clasped behind his back. She barely noticed as the door hissed shut behind her.
She took a steadying breath. "Sir."
He did not turn; instead he raised one hand and beckoned her forward. Puzzled, she moved to the far end of the chamber until she stood before the window beside him.
At last he turned to glance at her briefly; his eyes glittered with excitement. "Walk with me, Captain Vri."
She put the attache down on the floor and followed him as he stepped forward and touched his fingertips to the panel beside the window. As he did this, the bubble window parted down an invisible seam in the middle and retracted, allowing them passage onto a wide terrace that ran around this entire level of the housing complex. The low-walled promenade was one of the privileges of Sector A quarters.
A cold wind blew off the ocean in the distance and whipped at Eri's neatly coifed hair. Out here, she could not hear the soft whine of the bubble window closing; instead she heard the steady hum of the city that spread out before them. It was a gloomy wilderness of tall rectangular buildings and squat bunker-like structures that housed military and research facilities as well as the standard government space. Ruefully, she looked up at the leaden sky and wished that Aikeno Station would launch its experimental satellite network to control the weather soon-the capital had already had 52 days of cloud-cover and rain this cycle. The cisterns were overflowing and the engineers had already had to divert two serious floods that threatened New City.
Milo turned to her, his gray hair flying in all directions from the steady crosswind that swept the terrace. There was an air of suppressed excitement about him that she was unused to seeing. She knew that General Vayel was considered a cold, stern commander, and a strict disciplinarian. Milo had never been chilly towards her, though, treating her instead as daughter, and sometimes like a confidante. She had always enjoyed his good temper, even as his subordinates often saw the rough side of his tongue. He was known as a formal, dispassionate Ridean-a perfect officer-but nevertheless he could be exceptionally warm-hearted, and he had always been very generous to her. So she was doubly puzzled by his odd, taciturn behavior this morning. She wondered if perhaps she had failed him somehow, or failed their cause.
Casually he touched the emitter at his belt and immediately the wind died. Eri looked at Milo in surprise. She opened her mouth just an instant before she realized that he had engaged a privacy screen. Her mouth snapped shut, although the questions danced on her tongue. That stealth field technology was restricted to only the highest levels of state, military and science. But it was also only rarely utilized, because it was immediately discernible. Use of a privacy screen clearly indicated secrecy to any observers, and secrecy invited questions.
Milo met her her gaze, barely suppressing his almost gleeful agitation.
"It is done," he said.
She stared at him for several microts. "What do you mean?" she asked finally.
He arched an eyebrow at her in triumph. "Today we launch three carriers to the west on a heading toward the origin of that signal. E.T.A. is in four standard days."
"But what about the Council?" she asked incredulously.
He smiled dismissively, and waved a thin, long-fingered hand.. "That has already been addressed. Three council members were taken under house arrest this morning and their cooperation has been secured. We have nothing to fear from the Council. What is it? You look surprised! Perhaps you don't realize how long we have been planning for something like this..."
How could they do all that-in only a few days? Eri suddenly felt very cold. This level of activity was far beyond her expectations. She had no idea that the Watch had such power beneath its command. Their cooperation has been secured-the Watch had detained and coerced elected representatives of the Ridean people! For the first time, she felt a twinge of doubt. "And the carriers' mission?"
He laughed. "Seek and destroy, of course. They have specifically been charged with eradicating the source of the signal." He turned then and smiled down at her warmly, taking her chilly hands in his own. "We owe this to you, Eri. It was your data that allowed us to come up with a target and formulate a plan of attack. We've wanted to do something about this Mer problem for a very long time-to take decisive action rather than sit on our hands like the Council would prefer."
"What is the target?"
"A large island that our analysts have determined is the source of the signal. We believe the signal represents an offensive measure, so we're not taking any chances. I'm sure that your own research has shown you that the signal's activity has increased during the last eight days, which I find alarming. So we know they are stepping up their activities. Who knows what kind of nefarious plan they are hatching against the fatherland?"
Suddenly two things crashed down on Eri like a thunderclap and she flinched before she could stop herself, but Milo did not notice. First and most important, Kel was somewhere on those islands! If she was interpreting Milo correctly, this would be a bloody mission; she knew it would matter little to most if some dirty Mers were killed along the way: everyone hated them. Only, she knew Kel was out there somewhere, and she couldn't bear to think of him dying because of something she had set into motion! Why hadn't she considered this eventuality? Now...now it was too late. And two, they really had no idea what that signal was; that it was dangerous and offensive was pure speculation. She ought to know, as it was her research! The Watch was reacting to something they did not know or understand-of that much she was certain. And whenever there were unknown elements in an equation...this could end in disaster. And Kel could die.
Her mind raced as Milo gazed out contentedly at the canyons of the city. "If it is possible," she began cautiously, and swallowed. "I would like to go with one of the carriers."
Milo turned to her, astonishment written on his gaunt face. "Eri! Are you certain? It could be quite dangerous, you know-we have no idea what those filthy Mers are capable of."
She nodded shortly. "Yes, I am quite sure. I would like to be there. After all, it was my research that has brought us to this point."
"Yes, quite true." He studied her solemnly for a few microts, and then the chill and formality faded from his eyes. "Well, my dear," he smiled warmly, "I had not accounted for your courage. I am proud of you, and yes, of course you may go with the carriers, but you will have to hurry, as they are set to depart shortly. I will alert the Admiral that he is to wait for you, but not for long. We cannot afford any delay, nor any mistakes!"
"Yes, sir." She came to attention and saluted him crisply. Milo had always been so good to her, she thought sadly. She realized that if something went wrong, she may never see this man again.
He softened as he gazed down at her with the proud smile of a father. "Come now, why so formal? Let me kiss you, my dear, and then you must go." He leaned toward her and kissed her on both cheeks. With his hands on his shoulders he looked down at her fondly.
"Thank you, General," she replied, ducking her head. He clucked at her reprovingly, and she looked up. "I appreciate this, Milo."
"Go, Eri. There is no time to waste!" He released her and disengaged the privacy screen. A huge gust of wind blew her hair free from its confinements and whipped it into her eyes, causing them to tear. Blindly, she forced herself to turn and walk away, nearly shaking with terror at what she was contemplating. But she realized that this was her opportunity to find out if Kel was still alive...and maybe she could persuade him to come back. That thought alone helped her to square her shoulders and push the fear into a corner. That was her mission: bring Kel back.
The following day
Paala closed her eyes as the first rays of the nearby star lit her face in the red dawn. Her hands stilled and hung motionless in space, her fingers intertwined in the plaits of her hair. Finally, she sighed, her face basking in the warmth of daybreak, and she finished the braid on one side of her head before beginning on the other side. The hair beneath her fingers was rough and rust-streaked with age, no longer the shimmering tawny gold of her distant youth.
The secrets of that youth still tormented her, all these hundreds of cycles later. She had too many secrets, even secrets that she had hidden from the islanders. Awful memories haunted her, and sometimes the guilt was overwhelming. Yet she could never reveal her crime, or she knew she would be exiled from these good people as the murderer she was. Perhaps it was only her strong instinct to survive, but she still felt that she had something to give back to the universe, or despair would have forced her to end it all long ago. Instead she had spent the intervening centuries trying to atone. It would take the rest of her life to make reparation for the damage she had done.
None of that! She shook off the self-pity as she finished the braid and tied it firmly. Her arms dropped loosely to her sides as she turned back from the doorway of her small dwelling. Quickly, she shed her robe and nightdress, exchanging them for her customary wide-legged pantaloons and a loose, flowing long-sleeved tunic. She thrust her feet into worn sandals and then turned again toward the doorway.
She left the small dwelling place and struck out down the path to the dunes tufted with high waves of dune grass that rippled in the wind. She could feel the wind reshaping the sand around her. Over the cycles, she felt as though the wind had reshaped her, molding her into an image of its own making. What that image was, she could not say.
Paala made her way among the dunes, until finally she came over the crest, and the dawn-kissed shining sea lay before her, its waves rolling in across the sand. She felt herself drawn to the sun's warmth and the seductive sound of the gentle surf on the beach. A trail of light footsteps followed her in the sand as she made her way down the dunes toward their base, where she stopped and lowered herself to her knees. Arranging herself comfortably, she lay back in the sand, her hands crossed easily across her belly. She closed her eyes, although there was no real need to, and shutting off her external feed, she sent her inner sight winging heavenward. The prayers spilled from her lips almost unconsciously, in praise of the new day, of the sun, of the vibration of the molecules of the universe that surrounded her and filled her.
Let my Spirit rise up...
It was not long before her breathing slowed and she felt her consciousness sink to the necessary working level. Gradually, across the interminable trembling space between the exhalation of one breath and the intake of another, she felt the separation, like the first curl of smoke that rises from a ritual smoke-scent pot.
Let my Spirit rise up before You, like the pleasing scent of incense...
The separation of spirit from body required little effort now; it had been over twelve hundred cycles since the day she had left the Sanctuary and abandoned the outer ceremonies of her training. Once she had realized how to harness her talents, she had found that she no longer needed the rituals the Sisters had painstakingly taught her...
Some time later she stretched and sighed deeply, once more ensconced within her body. This morning, for the first time in days, she had managed to shake the sense of foreboding that had been her constant companion. The attacks had not stopped, however, if anything, they had increased in frequency and severity with each passing day. She felt as though something inside her was straining to burst free and... become. As though her physical body was melting away. It was bizarre and frightening, but she had no idea what to make of the sensations. Perhaps if she'd stayed amongst the Sisters at the Sanctuary, they could have told her what was happening to her.
A little prickle then intruded on her awareness and she turned her head in the sand to see the figure cresting the top of the dune. She rose, the sun pleasant on her back.
"Kel," she said warmly to the young Ridean who had become an acolyte of sorts, and a friend, over the last three cycles.
"Paala," he smiled, brushing back a tendril of dark hair that had escaped from the two braids he wore in imitation of his teacher. He was tall and straight, with gold-green eyes beneath thick eyebrows, a ready smile always playing about his lips. He had been a gift to her, a welcome companion, and a eager student.
She turned slightly and lifted her face to the sky, feeling the glow as though from within. She forced herself not to look down to see if she actually was glowing from within-she didn't want anything to ruin the beauty of the moment.
"They are almost here," she said softly, not needing to turn her head to feel Kel come to stand at her side, so they faced the dawn together, shoulder to shoulder. So often there was no need for words between them. She felt his light touch on her arm for an instant, and then he had left her side to make his way down through the dunes onto the beach, where he quickly shed his wide-legged trousers and tunic. Fondly she watched as his slim, muscled body, limned by the rising sun, leapt forward to meet the glistening blue waves. It was such a beautiful vision that she ached to see it: the sun, sand, surf, sky-and the child who frolicked joyfully amidst the natural splendor.
For Kel was like a child to her, although among both his own people and the Mers, he was accounted an adult. He had come to the Mers as a seeker, desperate and lonely, hungry for a different way of life. She had seen it happen countless times over the last hundred-cycles she had been on this planet (and on others), and she knew that it would continue long after she had gone.
Now she was unable to contain the laughter that bubbled up inside as she watched Kel leap and dive among the waves. It was a glorious sight. Finally, he lay on his back on the sand, his arms stretched out to either side as if to embrace the whole world. She sighed and then her gaze jerked heavenward, a slight crease marring her forehead. A cylindrical shape burst through the great dome of the sky high above.
She didn't need to look back at Kel to know that he was already scrambling to his feet. In moments he was at her side, hastily clad, and they were running hand in hand up the soft slippery dune slope.
The last eight days had been tiring and stressful. In an effort to sleep soundly, Aeryn had pushed herself to her body's limit when she took exercise, so that each night she fell into bed thoroughly exhausted. In conjunction with her attempt to combat the nightmares, Zhaan's madness had left everyone with strained nerves. Aeryn's ill-temper had increased daily until she found that she could barely utter a civil word. That is, if she spoke at all. Everyone had pretty much stayed away from her, Crichton included, once they had realized that it wasn't worth the verbal artillery or the frosty silence she maintained when she ran out of angry retorts. She wasn't entirely sure where all the fury was coming from, yet a small part of her acknowledged that she was out of control. And of course, loss of control meant she might slip and make mistakes. She ignored that voice. Her training had already failed her.
They had kept Zhaan confined to her quarters-it had been too dangerous to let her out-during the days it had taken Moya to arrive in orbit around Paala's planet, a blue-green orb called Meridea. Aeryn had insisted on piloting the pod down onto the surface; neither D'Argo nor Crichton bothered arguing. By that point they were too worried about Zhaan's wild fluctuations between near-catatonia, homicidal lunacy, and extreme delusion. Before they'd administered the sleep agent, Aeryn had gone to Zhaan's quarters and stood carefully beyond the locked gate, watching from the shadowed corridor. Even after she heard the vitriolic filth furiously spewing from Zhaan's mouth, she refused to admit, even to herself, the hopelessness of the situation
When they had emerged from the pod Aeryn had halted in her tracks, nonplussed as she looked out at the small crowd that had come to meet them. She froze: they all looked Sebacean! Something icy clenched inside her as she flashed back to the last Sebaceans she had seen in the Cloister. She forced herself to keep walking, and as she drew closer, she realized that although these locals were probably related to her species, they were not Sebacean: their eyes had an unusual pigmentation: gold-green irises, every one of them. Except the female who stood at the fore of the crowd: she was definitely not Sebacean, and Aeryn recognized her from the dream she had shared with John and D'Argo. Tall and willowy, the alien female was clad in loose garments with a reddish braid hanging over each shoulder. Her eyes were large, luminous green ovals that tilted upwards at their outer points, and her skin was velvety gold. Those eyes had locked onto Zhaan's limp figure cradled in D'Argo's arms, and with one sharp gesture she indicated that the tall Luxan should follow her. A path opened up within the small crowd and D'Argo followed Paala through the tall grass down the slope.
As Aeryn looked away from D'Argo's departing figure, she met the gold-green eyes of a dark-haired alien male who stood in Paala's vacated place as the crowd began to trickle away. He gazed at her steadily, and she found herself admiring him despite herself. As soon she recognized her instinctive response she clamped down on it angrily in suppression. The alien beckoned to them with both hands.
"Come," he had said with an inviting gesture. "Follow me."
"So what exactly is she going to do?" Crichton asked the alien after introductions were made. He watched Paala and D'Argo disappear inside a large pale structure, just outside the town and near the beach.
"Paala will first see that your friend is resting comfortably. I understand that you have sedated Zhaan?" At Aeryn's quick nod, he continued, his gaze flickering back to her intermittently. "Then she must meditate to prepare herself for the ritual-"
"Wait a sec-what ritual?" Crichton demanded.
"She will attempt the first healing: she will lay hands to first assess the damage, and she will try to restore functionality, so that your friend's reason and rationality are returned. This is a very preliminary step, but it allows a deeper working relationship with the patient."
"And what next?" Aeryn asked impatiently in a low voice as Crichton muttered, "I'm not sure I like the sound of that..."
"Next, she will undertake the second healing: she will join with your friend's mind and seek to repair the damage within. It may be necessary to repeat the second healing more than once."
"So, what-that's it? Paala's just going to do some hocus pocus and Zhaan will wake up a normal happy Delvian-if there is such a thing as a normal anything out here," Crichton finished under his breath.
The islander did not react to the human's muttered comment: "Not exactly. Paala will do all this, but most likely, it will require a greater effort than that alone. She has asked me to tell you that all of you, Zhaan's friends," his gaze included each of them in turn, "may be necessary if the first and second healings fail entirely or prove to be insufficient."
"Us?" Aeryn asked suspiciously. "Why would she need us?"
"I think I know why," Crichton said musingly. "When this happened the last time, I joined Zhaan in Unity. I've already told you guys about this, remember? I don't remember much of the actual Unity part, but what I do remember is that she had to see how I perceived her in order regain her own inner balance. So...will it be something like that?"
The islander, whose name was Kel, merely nodded with an air of distraction. His eyes drifted back to rest on Aeryn. "Something like that," he agreed. Somewhat disturbed by the inexplicable attention, Aeryn found herself looking away, but as Crichton continued to question him, she studied Kel from the corner of her eye with a mixture of distrust and a faint stirring of something else-remembrance, perhaps. He was tall and dark, with bronze skin and two dark braids touching his shoulders. But there was something about those eyes...he had strange gold-green eyes beneath heavy eyebrows in a finely drawn face, that reminded her of some...
She frowned, stamping the errant thoughts out. Concentrate, Sun. Pay attention!
"How long?" she cut in. Crichton turned to her in surprise, while Kel studied her patiently. She tossed her head and made a thin effort to hold back the flare of irritation. "How long is all this going to take?"
There was the crack: she saw uncertainty flicker across Kel's face. Crichton was pulling a face at her from the other side: be nice! She ignored him.
Kel sighed. "At least three days," he replied. " -but Paala will be able to better determine that once she has made it through these initial stages." He continued: "You have come at an auspicious time-one of our greatest festivals, Tiern'on is two days away and as long as you are already here, we would be honored if you joined us in our celebrations. For now, let me take you to the guest house where you can rest from your journey." He spoke quickly to forestall her argument: "Please. Allow us to share our hospitality with you."
She opened her mouth, but Crichton caught her eye and gently shook his head. She bit off her protest in frustration, and followed them sullenly into the village.
Crichton turned to her as they walked. "Are you okay?" he asked quietly.
"Yes, I'm okay," she snapped back at him with a sour twist to her mouth.
"All right! Fine, look, I'm just asking because you're acting just a little jumpy."
"Jumpy? I'm not jumping, Crichton."
"No, I mean, you're on edge, you're tense. You want to tell me what's wrong?"
He sighed. "All right, Aeryn. You know what? I get it. You don't want to talk to me. That's fine. That's great! I'm just going to leave you alone until you're in a better mood." He shot her a parting glance, and then muttered, "and I'm not going to hold my breath."
Quickening his step, he caught up with Kel who, despite his relaxed pace, was a few steps ahead. Kel turned to look at her again over his shoulder. Defiantly she lifted her chin to meet his gaze, but she was faintly disturbed by the considering she saw in his eyes as they touched her. Then he turned back to Crichton to murmur something that she could not hear. Both males broke into laughter at whatever was said, causing her to grit her teeth in annoyance.
Paala knelt beside the low pallet and settled comfortably onto her heels, composing her thoughts for the task at hand. Now that Zhaan was here and she was confronted with the living, breathing version of the mind she had touched, she found herself somewhat...overwhelmed. When she had first laid eyes upon the beautiful blue female, who, despite her drugged state, managed to exude an aura of...power, of magnetism-it was like crackling electricity had surged across the space that separated their bodies. Paala was forced to swallow a gasp at her own reaction.
The Luxan warrior, D'Argo, had gently cradled the Delvian in his arms, and Paala could see the obvious affection and concern he harbored for her. At her signal, he had followed her into the ziercola and carried Zhaan into the ziercolay, the inner sanctum. It was a large, sunken room with a vaulted ceiling and a small rectangular pool in the center. Its windowless walls were hung with woven tapestries, and the clay floor was scattered with hand-loomed rugs. Fat candles guttered in sconces around the chamber, and there were two lamps near a pallet on the ground. One hundred and fifty cycles ago, after she had first come to Meridea and settled among the islands, she had had the Mers build the ziercola as a center for healing. It was the ziercolay she used most, however, as it held a certain resonance that aided her in her healing efforts, as though it absorbed energy and radiated it.
After making sure that Zhaan was resting comfortably, D'Argo stepped back and regarded Paala solemnly.
"May I stay with her?"
"Yes," she answered with an encouraging smile. "I am sure that Zhaan will be glad to see a familiar face when she regains consciousness and sanity."
"You seem very certain. I hope for your sake that you are right, healer." There was a dangerous glint in his eye.
"D'Argo, I have been a healer and a priest for several hundred cycles. I do have experience in cases like this."
"Have you ever healed a mad Delvian priest before?"
She hesitated. "No," she said finally, squarely meeting his gaze.
"Frell!" he exclaimed loudly with a dismissive gesture. "Then Zhaan is doomed to die. Why have you wasted our time with false hope?"
"So little faith," she murmured.
"What did you say?"
"So little faith," she repeated. "Is your friend's life worth so little to you that you cannot afford to take the time to try? I offer no false hope, D'Argo. My skills are very real, and I have healed worse than Zhaan's madness before. Have you such scant trust that you will not take a risk for your friend's sake?"
"I do not trust anyone who offers miraculous cures. I have encountered too many charlatans to place my trust so easily. And you have not earned it yet."
"There will be no miraculous cure, D'Argo," she said softly. "No. Zhaan's survival must be earned-and not cheaply, I fear. If I am right, her madness has progressed farther than I had hoped. No, D'Argo-it will take all of us-all of you who call yourselves her friends, to save Zhaan. There will certainly be risk. It is a risk I am willing to take. Are you?"
He studied her silently for several microts while her words sank in. "Yes," he said finally, drawing himself up. "I am prepared to risk a great deal for Zhaan. And I am ready for whatever comes."
"Good, then," she smiled thinly as he knelt opposite her, on the other side of the pallet where Zhaan lay. He withdrew his Qualta blade from its rear harness and lay it on the floor beside him, as though he thought he might need it. He met her eyes briefly, and then he resumed his study of Zhaan's face.
Closing her eyes, Paala stretched her hands out over Zhaan's body and extended her senses. This was the first step: assess the damage. When her scan was complete she sat back on her heels and sighed. It was worse than she had thought.
Paala moved to settle herself behind Zhaan's prone body, lifting the finely shaped blue skull to rest in her lap. She began to breathe deeply, and the prayers automatically rolled from her lips as she closed her eyes.
She sank into meditative trance, until she had reached the appropriate depth. Maintaining her external feed, part of her awareness split off to keep watch from the outside. The Luxan watched both her and Zhaan warily, as though he was standing guard, and his large hands flexed in anticipation.
She channeled her remaining awareness deeper, reaching out to make the important connection with Zhaan's centers of cognizance and conscience. She stretched out toward the now-familiar column of energy that was how Zhaan's essence manifested in her Sight. It was still the churning black and blue nexus illuminated by a sickly green flickering light that she had kept watch on during the last eight days and nights. Cautiously she approached and extended herself to skim the surface of the nexus, and then she saw it happen, almost as though it were slow-motion: something, like an arm of lightning, streaked from the now-black nexus and seized her non-corporeal essence in a crippling, paralyzing grip. Her external feed looked on as she began to choke, her eyes bulging. Zhaan's eyes had popped open, and they were bright red, wide and staring, her mouth frozen in a rictus of rage. D'Argo was looking from her to Zhaan and back again in alarm as he realized that something had gone wrong.
"Zhaan!" he cried. Paala's external feed tried to connect with her body enough to communicate, while her inner awareness was being slowly ravaged.
"H-help me," she managed to say through frozen lips. "T-try-ing t-t-to k-kill me."
"Zhaan!" he said again, his eyes growing wild. He reached for the Delvian's shoulders and shook her. "Zhaan! You cannot do this!" She did not respond, and Paala felt her own struggle weakening as Zhaan's grip crushed her.
"Zhaan, no!" He shook her hard. "You are not a killer, Zhaan. She is trying to help you. Let her go! Let her help you!"
Paala felt herself...fade...
"Please, Zhaan, let her go..." He stroked Zhaan's face and looked down at her with a despairing expression in his eyes.
It did not happen all at once, but Paala felt the tiniest relief from the pressure. Too slowly, the crushing grip subsided, until Paala crashed back into her body as though she had fallen from a great distance onto solid rock. Her physical body collapsed to the clay floor, and she lay there, limp and exhausted, barely able to breathe.
She felt D'Argo move toward her and clasp her limp hand. "Paala," he said.
"D'Argo," she answered in a barely audible whisper. She swallowed. "Help me. I...need...to touch her head."
She felt him move and then she wasn't sure what he had done, but the next thing she knew, he had taken her hand and placed it on the warm, smooth head of the Delvian female.
Despite her weakened state, Paala forced herself to establish the link, and this time she lurched awkwardly toward the vortex that was Zhaan. Perhaps it was only her imagination, but it seemed several shades lighter than it had been only microts earlier, and instead of churning, it pulsated very slowly. She steeled herself for contact, and then plunged ahead.
What happened next was something she could not describe, even to herself. It was like falling endlessly, only with the knowledge that there would be no hard landing. It was like the softest, sweetest kiss, and the most passionate embrace. It was desperation and danger, recognition and affinity, music and a dance between hungry souls. It was almost like they...fell...into each other, and Zhaan's spirit reached out and clung to Paala as she clung to Zhaan, like two intertwined twigs in the midst of a great storm.
It was a communion of spirits, and Paala pressed further, pouring as much of her energy across the link between them as she could. Despite her own weakened state, she was desperate to affect the vital healing that would save this beautiful soul. She would not let Zhaan die. As if in response to her conviction, she felt a sudden upwelling of unfamiliar energy, as if from a deep, hidden reserve, and it raged beyond her control in an inconceivable outpouring of intensity.
Then everything went white.
When Paala opened her eyes, she was still lying on the floor in a curled-up heap, one hand on Zhaan's head. D'Argo stirred nearby and then he was scrambling over to her with an anxious expression on his face. He checked Zhaan first and then fastened his gaze upon her.
"Are you well?"
"Yes," Paala smiled. She pushed herself up to a sitting position. "In fact I feel better than when I began."
"You do?" He looked and sounded skeptical.
"Yes, D'argo. I'm fine. Why?"
He looked uncomfortable, and he shifted. "You were glowing," he replied reluctantly.
She stared at him in shock. "What do you mean?" she forced through stiff lips.
"You touched Zhaan and everything was fine for several microts, but then you began to glow-from inside. You were smiling," he faltered. "So I didn't interfere, but the glow became blinding, and then I lost consciousness."
"You lost consciousness!"
"Yes." He tilted his head at her quizically. "I woke to find myself flat on my back."
"How do you feel?" she asked almost absently, her mind racing.
"Fine." He studied her as she remained silent. "What happened, Paala?"
"Later," she said, with a dismissive gesture. "We must wake Zhaan." She leaned forward and lifted one eyelid. There it was-success! One beautiful blue eye stared up at her. Hastily she checked the other, and heaved a sigh of relief as she saw that it, too, was blue. Settling back onto her heels, she exchanged a glance with D'Argo and smiled. "It worked," she whispered.
He nodded while she began to rub the Delvian's wrists, and she sent a tiny trickle of her mind into the Delvian's brain to stimulate consciousness. Zhaan immediately responded by stirring, her eyes fluttering open and anchored onto Paala's face.
"Welcome to Meridea, Zhaan," she said gently. "I am Paala."
"I know," Zhaan breathed. She turned her head slightly to include D'Argo in her gaze. "Sweet D'Argo." He clasped her hand briefly. She turned back to Paala.
"Thank you. Thank you both."
Two standard days later
It was a strange figure, carved from dark wood, with long lines and curves. It appeared to be an avian creature of some sort, with long, slender legs, a slim body, and a long thin beak that was held vertical in the air. Zhaan studied the sculpture that stood on a small shelf with a curious expression.
Paala had brought Zhaan back to her own home in the aftermath of the initial healing. The moan of the sea was nearby and there was a salty tang in the air. Paala's dwelling was a humble structure, simply furnished, with all the tools for self-sufficient living at hand. It was clear that Paala lived as the islanders did: off the bounty of the land, and in a fair attempt at an environmentally harmonious existence. She had tried to explain the Mer way of life to Zhaan, and Zhaan had been impressed.
According to Paala, Meridea was a planet with only one continent far to the east, and the sphere was populated by two very different groups of people:
"The Mers live among a vast network of islands in the middle of the ocean. We are basically on the opposite of the planet from Ridea, the continent, separated from them by ocean on both sides. There is virtually no exchange between the two cultures, because neither the Mers nor the Rideans wish to maintain contact with one another. Rideans are technocrats who perceive the islanders as primitives, while the Mers see the Rideans as exploiters. What the Rideans do not realize is that the Mers are not primitive, ignorant, unwashed masses. Rather, they have merely foresworn any lifestyle that damages the sphere to which they claim a direct symbiotic relationship.
"But sometimes...there is movement between the two peoples. The Rideans call it 'trickle.' In fact, Kel was born on Ridea and defected to the west only three cycles ago. When he came to us, he was suicidal. You might say he was born with the soul of a Mer so the Ridean way of life was an abomination to him, yet until he made the dangerous passage to the islands, he did not understand how or why he felt the way that he did."
Now, as Zhaan contemplated the dark sculpture, she realized that these people practiced a similar path to her own. Love for all beings had always been the foundation of the Delvian Seek, and here on this beautiful sphere, these simple people had managed to achieve that ideal without conflict. It was a marvelous feat.
"Good morning, Zhaan. I've brought you some fresh clothes. How are you feeling?"
Zhaan looked up from her cross-legged position and smiled at the beautiful rust-haired female who crossed the room with a bundle of fabric in her arms. Leisurely, she pulled the blue robe back onto her body.
"Much better," she replied with a mischievous smile. "Thanks to you."
"Really?" Paala asked with a twinkle in her large liquid green eyes. "Somehow I thought you were to blame for keeping us up half the night. Or don't you remember?"
Zhaan immediately sobered and anguish filled her face. "Yes, I remember. I remember everything. I tried to kill you, Crichton and the others. All I wanted to do was destroy." Her voice was harsh and bitter, full of self-accusation.
"Zhaan," the alien female said gently. "Remember this. It was not your fault. You must not blame yourself like this."
"I should have been able to control myself better. If I had done so, the madness would not have overtaken me."
Paala lay the armload of fabric down on the bed in the corner of the room. She went to Zhaan, and kneeling before her, she took her by the shoulders. "What's done is done. If we spend our lives reliving our mistakes, how can we possibly move forward?" And then she stopped, as if she realized what she had just said. She laughed and shook her head. "If only I could take my own advice."
"You have been very good to me, Paala," Zhaan said quietly. "I appreciate your kindness."
Paala shook her head and smiled somewhat sadly. "This is what I do. It is what I have been doing for a very long time."
"What is that?" Zhaan asked, inclining her head. "I do not know anything about you, except that you have saved my life."
"Isn't that enough?" the alien replied lightly, averting her eyes, but Zhaan put out a restraining hand when Paala would have stood. It was clear that the green-eyed female was uncomfortable.
"Perhaps not." Zhaan met her eyes. "Why not let me be the judge of that? My comrades took a great risk in coming here. We could still be in danger."
"From the madman who is chasing you."
"Yes," Zhaan replied. "A madman with a Peacekeeper command carrier. And we have no offensive capabilities."
"You needn't worry about that here," Paala said quickly. "As long as you are with me, you don't have to worry about Crais."
"Moya is still in orbit." Zhaan tilted her strange blue eyes at Paala quizzically.
"I can protect her, too."
Zhaan stared at her without blinking for several microts, and then tried a different tack. "How did you come to Meridea, Paala?"
Paala ducked her head, suddenly looking very vulnerable. She opened her mouth to speak but then hesitated.
"A long time ago," she began in a low voice. She cleared her throat and started over. "A long time ago, I did something terrible. I vowed I would never let anything like that happen again. So...I...I made sure that I would not be tempted to break that vow."
She looked up and met Zhaan's eyes. "I have great powers, Zhaan, much greater than you know, and of course the potential for misuse increases exponentially. For me, it was foolishness and arrogance, not ill-will, but in the end, none of that matters. In the face of an evil act, motivations are meaningless."
"So you exiled yourself?" Zhaan asked.
"Yes. On this and a hundred other worlds. I have vowed only to use my power on the smallest scale; here, it means something to these people, to have a healer-priest in their midst. And I love the Mers for what they have given me: acceptance, affection, and loyalty. They have been very good to me, and I have tried to be worthy of them." Her voice shook with emotion as she finished.
Zhaan reached out to Paala and lay one hand along the velvety curve of the female's cheek. Paala brought her hand up to cover Zhaan's, and the two gazed at each other with a thin skim of tears shining in their eyes.
Through her emotion, Zhaan found herself contemplating Unity...somehow she felt that with Paala, it would be spectacular...
Later that night
Aeryn leaned one shoulder against the cool masonry of the ziercola and watched the small flames begin to lick the huge pile of driftwood. Kel had explained that it was tradition to hold the Tiern'on celebration around a driftwood bonfire-"Long ago, the people of these islands burned vegetation out of necessity, not caring whether it was dead or alive. Now, it is considered an honor to be among those chosen to collect driftwood from the shores and the fallen branches in the forests. Every Mer community in the islands gathers these dead bones of our sister trees to fuel the Tiern'on fire, the ceremonial fire, which illuminates the paths of both yesterday and tomorrow.
"The community gathers around the sacred fire to dance and sing, to tell stories of the past and stories of the future. So they remember where they came from, and where they are going...It is a very beautiful and special time for us," Kel had explained.
"You do this often?" Crichton had asked.
"Tiern'on takes place once every cycle...and many children are the fruit of this celebration."
Aeryn remembered John's snort at that and the considering expressions on both Zhaan and D'Argo's faces, but she had not immediately understood Kel's last comment; awareness dawned a heartbeat too late. Even Rygel had brightened, his ears standing up straight. But true to character, he had merely broken impatiently into the short silence: "Yeah, yeah, but you haven't told us anything important yet-what about the food? Will there be food at this Teernong thing of yours?"
Kel had smiled in the direction of the small creature with the disagreeable expression and then laughed. "Yes, Your Eminence. There will be a great multiplicity of food!"
"Good," Rygel had mumbled, only slightly appeased. "I am sure I shall be quite hungry."
Now, as Aeryn watched the flames dance around the edges of the great pile of driftwood, she saw the townsfolk gathering to form a wide circle of milling bodies around the bonfire. Outside this circle, great tables were heaped with food and drink, while music began to swell above the sound of animated voices: drums pounded rhythmically punctuated by the melodic trill of pipes. Small nuclei of people-she supposed they were 'families'-clumped together, until the bonfire was ringed by a wide swath of Mers. She saw Crichton and D'Argo settle into place near Rygel, with D'Argo eyeing the small Hynerian as though he didn't trust him to behave without supervision. Zhaan was some distance away with Paala, who appeared to address a small group of children. Aeryn studied Paala and Zhaan thoughtfully. There was an attentiveness in Zhaan's posture toward the rust-haired female that she couldn't remember seeing before.
An air of expectancy hung over the gathered crowd that raised the hairs on Aeryn's arms. It was difficult for her to find a point of reference on a gathering of this nature; the only thing that came to mind were Peacekeeper military holidays that celebrated historic leaders and heroes, like the Zelbinion's Captain Durka. Somehow, she sensed this was very different. Everywhere...it was all different. Nothing familiar...nothing safe.
Once she had thought that perhaps if she found others of her own kind...somewhere she could belong...but that hope had been dashed by the Sebacean colony they had only just left behind. She was beginning to realize that even amongst other Sebaceans, away from the Peacekeepers, she would still be a stranger. Just as she was changed and shaped by her experiences, the Sebaceans she encountered would be very different from anything she had ever known. That realization had grown every arn since they'd left the accursed planet behind. A kind of quiet devastation has fallen over her, a hopelessness that she attempted to push to the back of her mind to be buried beneath the myriad of duties and chores that living aboard Moya provided. But the stark conclusion that her precarious existence on Moya and the uncertainty of any kind of future as a hunted creature were all she had in the universe left her...empty. An aching void had opened up, and all she wanted to do was abandon her dignity and let it swallow her whole.
Tasting bitterness, she looked away from the happily humming crowd and stared off into darkness with stinging eyes.
From across the clearing, Kel searched the crowd around the bonfire until he caught glimpse of the offworlder, Aeryn Sun. From the moment he had laid eyes on her, he'd felt a spark of something between them...perhaps of affinity. She reminded him of someone he'd left behind in another lifetime.
Eri...she was his only regret. He had been unable to make her see or feel what he knew to be unshakable truths in his life, and so he had been forced to leave her in that other world, that other life, that was so very alien to the beautiful life he had now.
He hated to remember that life, because it only brought him pain and sorrow. What he remembered was the chill that had seemed to surround everything: the work they were assigned-the social structure-it had choked him with its sterility. Deep inside he had always felt that there had to be something more to life than that-than the rigidity, the rules, and the smothering pre-ordained duty. The only brightness he had felt amidst his growing depression had been Eri. But eventually, even her love could not penetrate the bleakness that had poisoned his life. She was truly a daughter of Ridea, and ultimately he had realized that he would have to leave without her.
There was something about Aeryn Sun that brought Eri back as if she was standing beside him. Perhaps it was something in her eyes and in the firmness of her chin that spoke of duty and breeding, of discipline and blind loyalty. But unlike Eri, he saw something broken inside Aeryn-a faith that had been lost, as if something she had always trusted and believed in had finally let her down. Gazing at her from across the clearing, he could see it in her posture and the tilt of her head. Lost and unanchored...just like he had once been.
Kel looked for Paala and found her nearby with Zhaan, who was looking healthier by far than she had when she had first arrived. There was still a pinched expression around the Delvian's eyes, which told Kel that the healing was not yet complete, but at least she had regained functionality. Paala looked very happy; there was a glow about her that Kel could not remember ever seeing. The two of them sat very close, and Kel almost thought he'd seen them holding hands.
He looked up again to find Aeryn Sun, and he was just in time to see her turn away. Kel's mouth firmed and he shook his head decisively. He couldn't let her walk away. Not again. He'd already failed once, and he wasn't going to let it happen again.
Tossing her head slightly to clear the hair from her shoulders, Aeryn slipped away around the corner of the building. She blinked rapidly to clear the stinging from her eyes and swallowed hard.
"This is...this is..." she muttered and swallowed again. "Silly. Right. So...I'm going to stop talking to myself. Now." She shook her head angrily as she left the stone-paved path that led back to the small town, and instead she struck out through the tall grass. The golden fronds rose up nearly to her elbows and tickled the bare skin of her arms as she passed through them. Her pace slowed and her arms lifted as she let her hands float atop the fuzzy grass-heads.
She had never been anywhere like this or seen anything like this before...
Ahead, the pod rested in a clearing on the outskirts of town, its grey cylindrical shape a hulking mass above the grass. It was both a jarring and familiar sight in that alien landscape. From here, the sounds of the festival had faded to a distant murmur, and she relaxed the tinest bit.
Aeryn, I know how I feel about you and I think I know how you feel about me. When I leave here, I want you to come with me. You can be so much more.
No! She tensed again, willing herself not to remember, and halted in her tracks before the pod, its grey metal shape anchoring her gaze. It was familiar, part of the new world she inhabited. But here on Meridea, it simply did not belong. Just like me. I don't belong anywhere.
Just beyond the bluff, through the waving grass, she could see shining water and the line where the dim lavendar sky kissed sea on the horizon. Here, the memory of that other time was unwelcome, as unwelcome as Crichton's persistent efforts to break through the shield she had carefully erected.
Where will we go?
What does it matter? Somewhere else.
I don't know how to live somewhere else.
You only say that because this is all you've ever known. In the right new place, you'll thrive.
"No," she said aloud, her own voice harsh in her ears. "I am not thriving, I am barely surviving. And I don't even know why. Why me?"
She forced herself to walk forward, until finally she stopped beside the stern end of the pod. The wind ruffled her hair back from her face as she looked out across the grass through unseeing eyes.
"I didn't want this, I don't want this, I don't want to be here!" Even muttered, her words sounded loud against the faint moan of the wind and the ocean below. All I ever wanted to do was fly prowlers! This is not how my life was supposed to be...
She reached out blindly until she felt the cool surface of the pod beneath her outstretched palm, and then she was leaning forward against her upraised forearms, her palms flat against the pod's slick exterior. She lay her cheek against her forearms and facing into the wind, she took a deep breath.
Quit feeling sorry for yourself, Sun! You're here now, so you might as well deal with it!
"That's what I've been telling myself for the last half-cycle!" she muttered aloud. "So why am I losing it now..."
She had never been one for self-analysis, but being away from the Peacekeepers had changed a great deal in her life. After her encounter with Namtar, she had been forced to question everything about her identity that she had ever believed. That transformation had irrevocably altered her.
That frelling Dream! She wasn't insensible to the fact that she had become increasingly less communicative since leaving the Sebacean colony behind, and far more irritable. She had pushed Crichton away time and again, even as part of her didn't want him to stop reaching out. She just hadn't wanted to face the choice that she had made: to return to her life and leave behind the peace she had finally found within the Dream. It was easier to be angry. And she had taken that anger out on everyone, even when it was unwarranted. Zhaan's illness had only aggravated her state of mind. And then there were those nightmares...
It was too much! Life as a Peacekeeper had been so much simpler. She tightened one hand into a fist and turning her body, she slammed her right forearm back against the hull of the pod, as she blinked rapidly. She was trembling again in sudden fury at the futility of maintaining any kind of dignity.
"Here you are," she heard from behind, and she froze. She heard the step now and the rustling of the grass as the figure slipped into place beside her. "I was wondering where you had gone."
She turned her head sideways to meet Kel's eyes, quiet pools of shining gold flecked with green. He gazed at her without expression, and then he turned to face into the wind, which swept his now-loose dark hair back on his shoulders. Aeryn faltered and returned her eyes to the horizon, not understanding the effect this alien had upon her. It was almost as if he reminded her of someone...
"It is very beautiful here," he said finally after several microts of silence had passed. "You chose your retreat well." At that, she swung her head to face him with flashing eyes but the protest died in her throat.
"Come," he said as he faced her and lightly touched her arm. "No one should be alone during Tiern'on. A great feast has been prepared and I would like you to share it with me, Aeryn Sun."
She found herself melting, the ice and fury dissipating beneath the warmth of his gaze. Wordlessly he turned, and she turned with him, not to follow, but to walk at his side through the tall grass.
"What were you hiding from?" he asked as he peered at her through the windblown strands of straight dark hair.
"I wasn't hiding," she began acerbically but then faltered: "I just needed to be alone...to be away from...everything." Why was she explaining herself to him?
"You have spent a great deal of time alone while you have been among us, Aeryn Sun. You spend little time even with your comrades." He stated this matter-of-factly as he continued to walk through the downward-sloping grass. When she did not respond, he paused in his step and looked her in the eye. "You are troubled."
"Yes," she heard herself answer. She furrowed her brow in puzzlement. Why was she even listening to him? They were walking again. She frowned in concentration. She looked at him sideways again. He smiled at her: such a beautiful smile, she thought with a start.
"Tonight is a time of celebration, Aeryn. Let your troubles go. If you wish, they will still be there in the morning."
She stared at him in astonishment and was unable to bite back her surprised laughter. With a start she realized she couldn't remember the last time she had laughed. Did I laugh with Crichton when I was drunk...?
"Yes," she agreed wryly. "They will still be there in the morning."
"Good, then. That's settled." He smiled again, and she realized that they were very near to the beachside bonfire. The steady rhythm of drums and the skirl of pipes mingled with the animated sounds of hundreds of voices that resonated with laughter, conversation, and song. Meeting his eyes, she smiled a bit stiffly. And then he was drawing her forward into the milling crowd, the thick odor of cooking food, and the infectious enthusiasm that was so tangible that it almost seemed visible in the flickering firelight.
Aeryn slipped her fingers into the wide handle of the double-handled earthenware mug and realized that the cup really did require two hands. Kel held the other handle as she cautiously brought it to her lips. The fiklah had an odd flavor: smoky but sweet with a dark, thick, syrupy consistency. She swallowed slowly and felt the warmth begin to spread.
"You're...sure that it's safe?" she heard herself say.
"Yes," he smiled, and then he was tipping the cup towards his own mouth to take a sip. She watched his throat contract as he sipped and swallowed, once, twice, three times. She closed her eyes and realized that she felt decidedly strange...detached.
"So this is tradition, right?" she asked. He nodded, watching her carefully.
She smiled suddenly and leaned forward. Somehow, all the fears and uncertainties that she had struggled with only a few arns earlier seemed distant, like something she could examine without connection.
"I've been...such a fool," she half-whispered to herself.
"No, Aeryn. You have been trying to make peace with yourself," Kel said gently, tipping her chin up. She met his eyes, glittering orbs of gold-green shimmer. He put the cup down. "You have seemed so...distressed since you arrived on Meridea. You should try to relax. For now, put the past away."
Put the past away...could she do that? Could she forget the terrible things she had done, the people-person-she had loved...and betrayed? Could she forget the life she had once had, the structure, the familiarity, and the sense of loss that still gnawed at her now that she knew that life was irretrievably gone? Could she put aside the fear that she really didn't know how to live, that she would never thrive, that she would always be scrabbling for a meaningless existence, scraping out survival and never knowing if her next breath would be her last?
"I don't know," she murmured.
"I think you do. I think you've been running away from the truth-I think you've known it all along, Aeryn Sun."
"That you will survive. You can and you will."
"How do you know that? You don't even know me."
"Don't I?" He laughed softly with a trace of bitterness. "I think perhaps I know you better than you think I do." When he proffered the cup again, she accepted it without question, swallowing several times.
"You see," he began after he had drunk of the cup himself, her hand guiding it as he tipped his head back. "Once there was a boy who lived far, far away from here. All his life, all he had ever wanted to do, was help people. He wanted to heal. But before he was born, his vocation in life had already been chosen, so he was given an appropriate education and spent the rest of his short life in research labs designing and running endless simulations for other researchers. He hated his life; he felt like he didn't belong. He had always felt that way, even as a child. And he had always felt, deep inside, where no one could dictate his behavior, that there had to be more to life than the life he knew. So...finally...he left to find that something more."
"And did he find it?"
Kel smiled. His features were indistinct in firelight and shadow with only the gleam of his teeth to indicate his expression. "Yes. Yes, he found everything he had been missing, and more than that."
"So...that's it? That's the end of the story?" She was faintly incredulous. It couldn't be that easy.
"Not exactly." He swallowed. "He had cared for someone, very deeply, but...she had never understood why he wanted anything more. She believed she was happy, and even though she cared for him, perhaps...perhaps even as much as he cared for her, she lost patience for his longing for a different life. It drove a wedge between them, until finally he realized that if he did not leave, he would whither away and die. He knew she could not-would not understand. So when he left...he had to leave her behind. And he will regret that for the rest of his life. That he will never be with her again. That she will never know the happiness that comes from true freedom."
"I...see." She paused lamely, at a loss for a response. What could she say? There was a ring of familiarity to his story; but it brought her right back to the past that she was trying to separate herself from. Is this what freedom means?
"Yes, Aeryn Sun," Kel replied and she looked at his in surprise before she realized that she had spoken that last thought aloud. "Freedom is making choices."
"Yes," she breathed, watching his glittering gold-green eyes. The fiklah had done something to her, something strange, because the next thing she knew, Kel's lips were on hers and she had her arm around his neck, one hand buried in the long flyaway strands of his dark hair. She wasn't sure how long they remained like that, wrapped in a warm, soft embrace. There was no thought involved, or emotion, only...sensation and peace. Later all she could distinctly remember was a sense of release from the terrible tension that had gripped her for almost half a cycle. Kissing him felt warm and safe...easy.
That is, until awareness came crashing down on her, and she pulled away with abrupt suddenness.
"I-I can't," she said unsteadily, staring at him wide-eyed. He returned her gaze, his eyes very sad all of a sudden. "I remind you of her, don't I?"
He nodded quickly, vulnerability written on his dark features. She reached out a hand and placed her fingertips over his mouth in wordless sympathy, and then she was unsteadily scrambling to her feet. She looked down at him for a few microts before turning, and she walked away.
From across the wide informal circle around the bonfire, Crichton looked up in time to see Aeryn pull away from Kel-had she been kissing him? He stared at them in astonishment as he watched her touch Kel's mouth with her fingertips, and then she was walking away.
The atmosphere at the gathering had grown more festive by the microt, and he had actually been enjoying himself as he watched the smiles and laughter of the Mers and the dancers who had begun to move into the wide-open space around the bonfire. He had kept an eye on Aeryn with Kel when he had caught sight of them slipping into place with platters of food. In fact, he'd been discreetly watching them for some time now, and had felt faintly jealous because Aeryn was actually talking and from their expressions, without foul language! He even thought she had smiled a couple of times. While he had tried to quell the mild jealousy, he wondered how Aeryn could talk to a stranger, when she wouldn't talk to him.
But now, as he watched Aeryn walking away from Kel, he only wondered why.
He got to his feet with a few words of excuse to D'Argo and Rygel, but D'Argo looked preoccupied. Following the Luxan's gaze, he watched as Zhaan and Paala stood very close together with their hands clasped between them. There was a distinct air of intimacy about them, a smile, a laugh, a secret glance shared, and then the two were turning away from the bonfire and the crowd and slowly walking into the privacy of outer darkness. Wow, Crichton thought, in surprise. I didn't exactly see that one coming. Although perhaps he should have: Zhaan had spent all her time with Paala since Paala had restored her basic cognizant functions two days ago. He looked down at D'Argo who had a slightly forlorn expression in his eyes as he watched Zhaan and Paala disappear from the outskirts of the crowd.
"Hey, big guy," he said softly.
D'Argo looked up, clearly startled from his observation. "Yes, John."
"Listen, I'm going to go look for Aeryn, okay? Do you mind-" He made a slight jerking motion with his head in Rygel's direction. The small Hynerian was busily stuffing his face, as he had for the last two or three arns. It still amazed him that the little slug could consume so much more than his body weight and not keel over. D'Argo's eyes looked over at Rygel and exchanged a conspiratorial glance with John before heaving a mock-long-suffering sigh. "Just keep an eye on him, willya? Don't let him get any funny ideas."
D'Argo grinned and then reached out his arms with his hands clasped, and he loudly cracked his joints. Rygel looked up with a touch of surprise.
"Hey! Are you talking about me?"
"I thought you were too busy filling your three stomachs to pay attention to anything else, Your Eminence," John chuckled.
"I will not have you insulting me behind my back!" The small creature turned away with a huff and resumed his mass food consumption. Both John and D'Argo snickered.
Finally, John turned away, and shoving his hands into the pockets of his black trousers, he made off in the direction he had last seen Aeryn. She had a head start on him, so it took him some time to find her, walking slowly down toward the eastern beach. From a distance, he watched her as he trailed along behind. While he followed at a discreet distance, he pondered what to say to her when he caught up. She had been so damn prickly these last few weeks! And this last week had been particularly nasty-they had all felt the rough side of her tongue on a fairly frequent basis, usually for no reason at all. She had been driving him crazy! He knew that she was going through some tough stuff-after Namtar, nothing had been the same anymore. As if she hadn't had enough to deal with by being exiled from and hunted by her own fellow Peacekeepers, the Namtar experience had thrown a huge wrench into the works. John couldn't imagine how he would have coped if it been his eye that the hulking mad scientist had poked with Pilot's DNA.
After her initial recovery from that transformation, she had seemed to adjust well, especially after she realized that she still retained some of Pilot's knowledge on Moya's operations. That seemed like nothing short of a miracle to John. It had been a long time since he'd studied genetics, but in his world, what had happened to Aeryn seemed rankly impossible. But this isn't my world, he reminded himself. Out here, anything can happen. I've got to get used to that.
The beach was a dim, eerie landscape, with large black jagged rocks poking up from the sand and glistening in the dark. If it had been Earth, he would have said that the ocean was at low tide but on Meridea, he had no idea if anything like tides applied. Looking up into the black vault of the sky, he did see a couple moons, but they were nothing like the bright white orb he had loved as both a child and an adult. At least the laws of gravity have to apply out here, right? There must be some constant principles in the universe. Peering upward, he studied the vast glittering field of stars that winked and flashed, their pale light vaguely reflected in the water.
It was times like this that he missed Earth the most. Usually it was a submerged ache that he tried to ignore, but...here he was on a planet that reminded him of his own beautiful sphere, and it was similar, but it could never be the same. On Acquara, he had thought he had found a place that was close enough that he could be happy, but in the end, he realized that he would never really belong there, either. No matter where he went in this miserable end of the universe, he would always be an outsider, he would always be the ignorant, backward alien who could barely tie his own shoes.
But I'm learning, he thought protestingly. I'm learning all the time! He had always been told that humans were the most adaptable creatures on the planet Earth-well, he was getting a first-hand opportunity to test that out on a slightly larger scale. Could he adapt to the universe? Could he survive? Well, whatever happened, he wasn't going to give up without a fight. What was it that Dad had said? Every man has to be his own kind of hero...
Yeah, Dad, you got that right. I just hope that if you saw me now, you would be proud of me.
He returned his gaze to Aeryn's distant figure and hastened his step as he saw her walk toward the cliff that loomed before them on the beach. It was like a great black tower of rock that reared up from the ocean, with jagged black teeth standing guard all around its sandy base. While he watched, Aeryn headed straight for the rocks and began to pick her way amongst them, almost as if she was going to...
Damn! He let out a disbelieving bark of laughter. She was going to try to climb that thing. He looked up again at the top of that cliff, and then back down to the base, where she was now scrambling among the boulders at the bottom. She was just a dim shape, black on black with her dark clothes and dark hair tumbling over her shoulders. Only her bare arms gleamed palely in the starlight. He quickened his pace. He was not going to let her climb that thing alone, no matter what macho ya-yas she had to prove.
By the time he got to the rocks, Aeryn was already well above him. As he looked at the steep, practically vertical incline, he began to worry that this whole thing was worse than a bad idea. But he couldn't let her go on ahead without him, so he began navigating the treacherous slope.
"Aeryn!" he called. "Wait up!" He looked up and saw her start-she looked like she was ready to lose her balance. His heart skipped a beat until she steadied. She turned to look down at him.
"Crichton! What are you doing here?"
"Trying to catch up with you-what are you doing up here?"
"Well, you can turn right around! It's none of your business and I don't need any company, Crichton!"
"That's too bad, Aeryn!" he yelled in response. "You're stuck with me, 'cause I'm coming up!"
"Frell you!" he heard and she renewed her climb.
He pressed forward, in a vain attempt to catch up, his hands and feet searching for grips and niches to propel him aloft. He didn't bother talking to her any further, as the physical exertion took him beyond conversation. All his attention was consumed with finding the next foothold, the next outcropping to drag himself up through the mass of black rock. Eventually he drew close enough to hear her harsh breathing. Concerned, he looked up and saw her sway unsteadily for a couple microts. He suddenly remembered that he'd seen her and Kel drinking from that huge-ass ritual cup of fiklah. One of the Mers had explained that it was a drugged beverage, to loosen inhibitions. John frowned. If she had had any alcohol, or whatever that stuff was, it meant that she wasn't as alert as she should be...and she was attempting something that he realized was becoming rapidly more dangerous.
Now, he was climbing in earnest. If she slipped and fell, while he was within reach...he wouldn't be able to forgive himself. Don't look down, he told himself, but he couldn't resist, and sure enough, he wasn't immune to a wave of vertigo as he saw the dangerous black rocks and white-capped water far below. John looked up quickly to counteract their effects, and he saw Aeryn nearing the top of the cliff. He pressed onward, every foothold bringing him closer to her. Several microts later, he was pulling himself over the ledge, where he flopped and lay, flat on his back, to catch his breath.
"What the hell is going on, Aeryn?" he asked as he lay there. He heard her voice somewhere behind him.
"Nothing, Crichton," she said tiredly. He flipped over and pushed himself up to look at her. She was leaning against a boulder surrounded by scrubby bushes. She looked waxy and pale, and she was breathing hard just as he was.
"I wouldn't call scaling a mountain 'nothing,' Aeryn. Something is going on here." He cocked his head at her. "Is it that guy? Is it Kel? Did he do something? Did he hurt you?"
"No!" Her head snapped up and she stared at him. "No," she said in a quieter voice.
"Then what is it?" He stood and walked over to her. "Don't shut me out, Aeryn."
She looked away. Pushing herself off the boulder, she walked past him to the cliff's edge and looked out to sea. Crichton turned to join her, and he realized that it was much lighter than it had been earlier. When he looked at the sky he realized why. There, on the horizon, was another satellite: a moon, much brighter than the other two already in the sky. Mentally he kicked himself for not remembering that other moon from Pilot's briefing. This one was bright like Earth's satellite, but much larger. It hovered just above the horizon like a white mini-sun.
He tossed Aeryn a sidelong glance. Her face gleamed palely in the moon's light while her open black vest flapped over the pale tank top, and dark tendrils of her hair whipped around her shoulders in the light breeze that blew over the cliff. He opened his mouth to speak when Aeryn suddenly frowned.
"What's that?" she asked with a note of concern in her voice.
"Where?" He tried to follow her gaze.
"There," she pointed out to sea, and he saw the small dark shapes in the distance.
"Islands," he said dismissively. "There are islands all around here. Kel said that Mer territory is a vast string of 'em."
"He also said that this island is at the eastern edge of the network," she replied. "And if that's an island-it's moving!"
"What?" He peered into darkness to see what she was seeing.
"Trust me, Crichton, it's moving, and-there! Did you see that flash? I have a bad feeling-" The ground suddenly violently lurched beneath their feet, and Crichton went tumbling.
"Aeryn!" he cried as the unthinkable happened-as if in slow motion, he skidded right over the edge of the cliff. His fingers scrabbled for something-anything to grab on to as he fought the momentum to break his fall. He grabbed at air-
-until his fingers finally found purchase, and he desperately clung to an outcropping that did not crumble away with his weight.
"Aeryn!" he cried out again, and he looked up in terror as he realized how dire his circumstances were. From this side of the cliff, he was looking at a straight vertical drop that would definitely kill him. Aeryn's anxious face appeared just above him, her mouth tightened into a thin, straight line.
"Don't move, John," she said in an amazingly calm voice.
"Don't worry, Aeryn," he gritted. "I'm not going anywhere."
"Take my hand," she said, reaching one slim arm down to him.
"Yeah, and we'll both wind up with a watery death," he muttered.
"Just do it!" she screamed.
He took stock of his situation. He was clinging to a small wide ridge of rock with both hands that were about two feet apart. He was afraid to move his legs in search of a foothold, because he feared he might shake his rock ledge loose, and then there would be nothing to break his fall. If he let go with one hand to grab at Aeryn, would he be able to hold on long enough for her to pull him up? In that case, would she even be able to pull him up?
He stared up at her frantically.
"Look, John, you're going to have to trust me. Take my hand. I won't let you go."
"I don't want to get you killed, too, Aeryn," he said, feeling the strain in his arms. He had to make a choice one way or the other soon.
"John." He looked at her face, and he realized she was terrified. "Please, John." She was pleading. "Just take my hand."
He met her eyes bleakly.
And he let go.
Part Three: The Ebbing Tide
Feeling the tingling after-effects of the sonic cannon blast, the advance team landed on the northeast beach, beyond the jagged rocks and the town lights. Eri climbed out of the boat and pushed the visor of her helmet up off her face and stared at the sky. It was a sparkling field of stars against deep blue, lit by the huge white moon Tirid that rose in the east: the night was calm and clear, with excellent visibility. She snapped her visor back down and squared her shoulders as the soldiers broke around her and began moving up the beach.
Quickly she opened her knapsack and brought out the modified tracking device. As soon as she had activated it and made the necessary satellite connections, it registered the satellite's slow sweeping scan of the region. This was her excuse for joining the advance team: to track down and obtain close-range readings on the anomalous signal in its natural environment before the Watch destroyed it. Holding the device before her, she began to move out across the sandy beach.
The ground heaved beneath them, breaking Zhaan and Paala apart and flinging them to opposite sides of the bed. Plaster rained down from the ceiling and decorations smashed onto the clay floor. Dazed, they both lay there for several microts, Paala slumped against the wall and Zhaan sprawled against the other side of the bed. Finally Zhaan lifted her head.
"Paala!" she cried out, scrambling over to her.
"I'm fine," Paala said fuzzily, as she pushed herself to an upright position. "Just a little...bruised."
"What happened?" Zhaan asked as they both hurriedly began disentangling their garments from the bedding and pulling their clothes back on.
"I'm not sure," the other female replied. "But that felt like a sonic shockwave." Zhaan stared back at her without comprehension. "The Rideans," Paala explained and Zhaan suddenly understood.
"But I thought they never bothered the islands."
As Paala buttoned the front of her tunic, she moved to the window and peered out with Zhaan at her shoulder. "As long as I've been here, they haven't. And from what the Mers tell me, it had been even longer before that since the last Ridean incursion into these islands."
"Then what can they possibly want now?" A terrible thought occurred to her: perhaps the Rideans were attacking the island because of her presence-hers and everyone from Moya.
"I don't know, " Paala answered as she ran a slim-fingered hand through her disheveled hair. She fixed Zhaan with her steady green gaze. "I may need your help," she went on.
"Whatever you need," Zhaan replied fervently, clasping the other female's hand. Paala turned and smiled at her, and then she was tugging Zhaan toward the door, and they stumbled out at a jog.
"John." He looked at her face, and he realized she was terrified. "Please, John." She was pleading. "Just take my hand."
He met her eyes bleakly.
And he let go.
His eyes clung to hers grimly as Aeryn seized his free arm and began hauling him up. The lurch of the motion caused him to lose his precarious grip on the rock ledge, so that for an instant he swung by her grip alone, hundreds of feet above the gnashing black teeth below. John wanted to hurl, but he tightened his mouth and reached for something, anything, with his free arm. Meanwhile, she was somehow pulling him, seemingly by brute strength alone. Cords of muscle stood out in her neck and along her arm as she slowly drew him up with one arm.
At last he managed to make contact with something solid, and he grabbed on and tried to ignore the shooting pains in his arms and shoulders. After an eternity of pulling and scrabbling at the cliff's face, John scraped over the edge, first one leg up, and then the other, until he lay there, face down and panting. His heartbeat raced frantically from the massive adrenaline surge.
John forced himself to roll over onto his back, and he turned his head to find Aeryn sprawled beside him. Her chest heaved from the exertion, and sweat glistened on her pale skin.
"What the hell just happened?" he managed at last.
She shook her head at him, still breathless. "Not an island," was all he heard her mutter.
"Right, so what then?"
"Felt like a sonic blast," she answered, recovering her breath.
"A what? "
"Never mind." She scrambled to her feet, and as she did, the ground beneath them rocked again, although less violently than it had the first time. On her hands and knees, she exchanged a quick glance with him.
"Right," John muttered to her unspoken comment. "We need to get out of here." They both stood, and he turned away to explore the cliff-top. It was a mostly-flat clearing, but to the rear, the cliff rose up in a sharp right-angled rock face. There was no way to scale that route without equipment, and even that would be risky. On two sides, the cliff was a steep grade, like what he and Aeryn had just climbed; the mountain extended beyond them and to the far side in a ridge that maintained a less severe incline of boulders and other rock fall combined with hardy tall grass.
"Remind me again why I followed you up here?" he sighed as he stared down that still-treacherous slope.
She shot him a dirty look. "Don't ask me! I have no idea why you do anything, Crichton."
"Right," he answered. "Well then answer me this, little miss peacekeeper, why the hell did you come up here?"
She looked away. "Look, let's just get out of here, all right?"
"No!" He reached out and seized her arm. "We'll leave, but I want you to talk to me, Aeryn. Tell me what's going on."
"I don't want to talk, Crichton!"
"But you can talk to Kel?" She stared at him in shock. "Yeah, Aeryn, you've been talking to him for the last two or three arns, or did you forget?"
She didn't say anything, but he watched her swallow.
"So what's up, Aeryn? You've been a pain in the ass to live with for weeks now, but I've already accepted the blame for you guys having to come after me for three months, but I can't keep apologizing for everything, especially when I don't know what exactly you're upset about. It just seems like every time I turn around, you've got another bug up your ass! And if you don't mind, it would be much easier to swallow your bad moods if you told me what's going on every once in a while, instead of making me try to guess!"
"Look, I'm sorry if I've made you uncomfortable, Crichton, but there are some things I have to deal with alone."
He stared at her. "Right," he said, subdued. "Just so long as you realize you can talk to me when you're ready."
She met his frank blue gaze and conceded. "I will." She sighed. "Come on, we'd better go."
As Paala and Zhaan made their way down the path toward the town, they saw Kel in the distance at a dead run.
"Paala!" he cried out, waving up at them. Cutting through the tall grass, they broke into a dash until they breathlessly met further down the path.
"You felt the shock?" he asked with anxious eyes. He took Paala's arm as if to reassure himself that she was well.
"Yes," Zhaan replied. She watched as Paala and Kel exchanged a worried look.
"It was a sonic blast," he said in response to Paala's unspoken query. "Which means Rideans are near, probably just offshore."
"Is anyone hurt?" Paala asked.
Kel shook his head. "I don't think so. Everyone is pretty shaken up, though. We had to evacuate the beach because the blast sent huge waves all the way into town. Unfortunately, the bonfire, though, and the festival, are all gone. The water subsided pretty quickly, but everyone is still frightened."
"Come on," Paala said. "We need to hurry."
It wasn't much further to the town, but as they veered slightly, Zhaan realized that they were heading just beyond it to the ziercola. She could see the watermarks where the ocean had surged and then receded, leaving sea-slime and underwater vegetation behind. Peering out into darkness, she wondered what lay out there that would try to harm these good people. But if there was anything she had learned in her many centuries of life, it was that there was always someone who would try to harm another. Instead of love, conflict seemed to drive the universe, and that pained her.
She suddenly realized that she didn't know where any of her friends were. She had last seen Crichton, D'Argo and Rygel around the bonfire, and she couldn't remember when she had last seen Aeryn. Silently she scolded herself. She had been so wrapped up in her own problems and the joy of Paala's company that she hadn't thought much about any of her companions lately.
She activated her communication badge.
"Pilot, are you there?" she asked in a high, anxious voice.
"Yes, Zhaan. Are you all right?"
"Yes, Pilot, I am well, but we have trouble down here. I don't know where the others are. Can you help me locate them?"
"Of course, Zhaan. I will try to patch you through."
Paala drew her into the ziercola and then further into the inner ziercolay. Somehow, the water had not penetrated that interior clay room with its colorful tiled floor.
Kel seemed to know exactly what Paala had in mind as the green-eyed female went straight to the pallet and lay down. Kel knelt beside her as if to keep watch. Waiting for Pilot to re-establish communication, Zhaan signaled to Kel that she would join them in a moment, and just then she heard D'Argo's voice calling for her. Relieved she hurried out of the ziercolay and met the Luxan in the outer chamber. He was wet and his long red braids look bedraggled. Under one arm, he held a noisy wriggling Rygel and in the other he held the Hynerian's throne sled.
"Zhaan!" he exclaimed in obvious relief. "You're safe!"
"Yes, D'Argo," she smiled and then sobered. "I'm fine, but we need to find Aeryn and Crichton. I don't think anyone knows where they are."
"Zhaan," she heard Pilot's voice crackle from her badge.
"Yes, Pilot," she replied quickly, not breaking eye contact with D'Argo. The Luxan bent to lower Rygel and his throne sled to the ground. The Hynerian, did not stop complaining of course.
"You miserable Luxan!" Dripping, Rygel glared up at him.
"I should have let you float out to sea," D'Argo said irritably as he regarded the small creature with impatience.
"Hynerians are an aquatic race," he said disdainfully. "And I don't need your help!"
D'Argo bent and faced him menacingly. "One day you will regret those words, Rygel." He straightened and refocused his attention on Zhaan.
"Aeryn and John are safe," Pilot said, "and they are both on their way back to meet the rest of you. Just one microt, and I'll patch you through."
"Thank you, Pilot," Zhaan murmured.
"Zhaan!" she heard from the small badge. "Are you okay?" It was Crichton.
"Yes, yes, I'm fine, Crichton," she laughed in relief. "I'm in the ziercola with D'Argo and Rygel. Can you meet us here?"
"Yeah, Zhaan. We'll be there as soon as we can. Did you feel those quakes?"
"Yes. Paala and Kel believe it was a sonic blast from the Rideans." In the background she heard Aeryn's exclamation: "I knew it!"
"Thanks, Zhaan," Crichton responded. "Sit tight. We'll be there soon."
Paala knew she had to work quickly so she lowered herself into trance with dizzying speed. The sense of foreboding that had come in the wake of her first encounter with Zhaan was back with full force. She tried to ignore it. She couldn't afford to be distracted from her purpose.
Her astral awareness separated from her body, and she sped upward until she hovered high above the island. The view was deceptively peaceful as she surveyed the small land mass and the surrounding waters. There! She pinpointed the massive ship floating halfway from the horizon.
Paala pondered what to do. She had no idea what had aroused the Rideans-it made no sense for them to strike out after they had maintained the peace for so long. Unfortunately, right now their hostile intentions were crystal clear.
But what kind of effort would be necessary to stop them? She couldn't let the Rideans hurt her beloved people! More than any of the communities she had lived among, the Mers occupied a very special place in her heart, and she felt she owed it to them to protect them and keep them safe.
Just then, she felt a tingle and her senses told her that the cannon was about to go off again. Suddenly furious, she didn't stop to think: she acted. As if in slow-motion, she felt the sonic blast begin to unleash. Faster than sound, or thought, she threw up an invisible barrier around the entire island, like a great impenetrable bubble. Grimly she watched as the blast bounced harmlessly off the dome. The repercussion sent huge waves bounding away in the opposite direction-large enough that they threatened to swamp the city-sized ship.
Stretching her senses slightly further, she found two other ships. She broadened her scan, but she found nothing else-not in the sea nor in the air-that might be offensive. Concerned that the other ships might try to attack any of the other islands, she automatically erected invisible spheres around each of the three ships. She smiled in satisfaction. Now they would be unable to launch anything: aircraft, projectiles or sonic blasts.
Then the realization of what she had just done crashed down upon her. She had violated her vow! She had sworn to never reach out with her powers and do anything like this ever again. For twelve hundred cycles, she had kept that vow-until now.
Back in the ziercola, her body shuddered as she rebounded with a slam, and she began to sob low cries of anguish.
The tracking device had remained silent since Eri had left the boat behind. After splitting up for reconnaissance, the advance team commandos had maintained intermittent radio contact. The quiet was broken only by their low serious voices in her helmet's earpiece. Eri shrugged uneasily inside the heavy battle dress required for maneuvers such as this. It has been a long time since she had last taken part in any training exercises; the heavy battle pack and uniform, not to mention the service weapon at her waist, were unfamiliar weights to which she was unaccustomed. All soldiers were provided with battle training as a matter of form, but most officers were not tracked into active duty, so they were rarely called upon to exercise those skills.
Before she was born, the Bureau of Genetics had already determined that she would serve Ridea as a military service officer specializing in communications tech. That was what she had trained for from the time she was a small child, and that was how she had served her people for the last twelve cycles. It had been a rewarding life, full of its own triumphs and disappointments, namely Kel's defection.
But now, she was about to throw it all away. She didn't harbor any rosy illusions of how this might end. If she found Kel, she realized she may have defend him from her fellow officers, and that might mean taking extreme measures to ensure his survival. And if she managed to do what she planned, Milo would certainly be less than pleased with her for possibly jeopardizing their mission.
The device suddenly flashed, catching her eye. The satellite had locked onto the anomaly! Quietly, she spoke into the link embedded in her helmet, and she began issuing coordinates for full-team convergence. And then she was off and running through the sand and tall grass.
Kel waited at Paala's side with as much patience as he could muster, but that patience was eroding fast. He was deeply worried, mostly about Paala, but also about what might happen to the Mers if this Ridean incursion was the first wave of an invasion. It made him sick to think that the community that had welcomed him and saved his life, might be swallowed by the technologically superior Rideans. The Mers' way of life would come to an end, and Kel couldn't think of any way to prevent that catastrophe from happening. The Mers were peaceful and nonviolent-and they only wanted to co-exist in harmony with one another and with their sphere. They would seek a pacific solution such as dialogue between the two cultures. But Kel knew that while his beloved Mers were trying to create dialogue and promote cooperation, the Rideans could and would decimate the entire island population with their abominable technology.
Only no such conflict had ever happened before in any living memory. The Rideans had always left the Mers alone-and for good reasons. Vast ocean distance separated the Continent from the Islands, so it was inconvenient to mount crossings. More importantly, however, the Mers had few, if any, exploitable resources. The actual land mass among the islands was just enough to support the Mers' small population, but there were no significant metal or mineral deposits that might attract outsiders. So what, Kel pondered, had instigated this attack?
While he was lost in thought, a sound penetrated his reverie. He refocused his attention on Paala and was astonished to see tears leaking from beneath her closed lids. She was crying, sobbing, he realized, as if her heart would break. He reached out immediately and took one of her hands, but she pulled away.
"Paala!" he said urgently. "What is it? What's wrong?"
She turned her head away from him, and his dread increased. Just then, Zhaan came back in to the ziercolay. She must have seen Paala's tears because she quickly knelt beside the alien female and exchanged a questioning glance with Kel.
"Paala, my dear," she began, reaching out to the female. "What is wrong?"
Paala squeezed her eyes shut and cried harder, abject despair lining her face. Kel stared at her in shock. He had never seen her like this before, and it frightened him. He looked up and saw similar alarm reflected in Zhaan's eyes.
"What happened?" she asked him.
Kel shook his head. "I don't know," he replied, at a loss for an explanation. "One microt she was in trance, and the next she was crying. She won't tell me what's wrong."
Zhaan's mouth firmed. "If we don't know what's wrong, we can't help her. Do you hear me, Paala?" She bent over the other female and gently cupped her hands around Paala's face."We are here to help you, my dear. Tell us what is wrong."
"Noooooo!" Paala erupted at them in a dizzying fury of fists and kicking legs. She began to scream as she fought to get away. Kel stared at her in horror as she huddled into the corner of the room, cowering away from them as if she feared them. Her eyes were wild and her clothes and hair were disheveled. "No," she moaned tearfully.
"Yes," Zhaan said firmly. "What happened?" Her tone brooked no dispute.
Paala turned away. "I c-c-can't," she sobbed.
Zhaan went to her and clasped her hands tightly around Paala's fists. "Yes, you can," she said sternly. "We can't help you if you won't tell us what's wrong!"
Paala turned her head to the wall and quieted.
They waited, until finally she began to speak.
"Twelve hundred cycles ago, I committed a crime," she began in a low, ragged voice. "I was young and arrogant and foolish, but there is no excuse for what I did.
"When I was orphaned as a young child, I was taken in by the Sisters of the Sanctuary who recognized my species. They raised me and trained me in the use of my powers for several cycles. However, as I grew older, I became very strong in those powers, and after a while I realized that my abilities even surpassed those of the Sisters.
"My sin was pride. Now I know I was far too young and foolish, but then I believed that I had learned all there was to learn. They taught me rituals and prayers that I thought unnecessary because it was so easy for me to reach out with my powers. I thought I didn't need them because I was so strong. Rituals and prayers were only for the weak.
"So I left the Sanctuary behind; I ran away. I thought they were holding me back, and I wanted to go out into the universe and use my powers, not learn about them! So that's what I did...I went out into the universe and began touching everything I could, changing every evil I could. I became addicted to my own sense of power, and the good that I could do-that only I could do. You know what they say about power...I had become a nomad, a slave to my addiction. What I didn't realize was that my powers were greater than my ability to control them, and they were surpassed only by my arrogance in believing I did control them.
"One day..." she faltered. "I came upon a system whose sun was about to go supernova. There was one main populated planet, and they had already prepared to evacuate. Great ships had been constructed and were being sent out: great colony ships that carried everything those people could save: flora and fauna, art, history, wildlife, their culture, and of course, themselves. They had thought of everything, planned for everything. They had just enough time to clear the system before their sun blew, and then they would be safe. There was just one thing they hadn't counted on."
She looked directly at Kel and bleakly met his eyes.
Dreading her answer, he forced himself to speak. "What?" he asked through suddenly dry lips.
"Me," she replied, and then she laughed softly, a terrible, bitter laugh. "I thought I could buy them some extra time, so I reached out to that star and I twisted. It was only supposed to slow the reactions down, and instead they sped up! When I realized that the sun was about to blow, I tried to stop it, but it was already too late. I couldn't make time go backward; I couldn't undo what I had done. All I could do was stand by and watch it happen.
"That sun went supernova before it was supposed to, and I watched as the entire system, and all those people, billions and billions of them, were incinerated by the blast."
She shook her head. "If I hadn't interfered, they would have escaped; they had enough time. But I played god, and I destroyed them!" The tears leaked out of the corners of her clear green eyes.
Kel stared at her silently, in shock. He had always suspected that she had a dark secret, but not like this! This was just...just heinous.
"I don't expect your understanding, or your forgiveness," she said softly. "I understand that there can be no forgiveness for what I have done. But I vowed on that day, that I would never do anything like that again. At first I thought I would never use my powers again, but as time passed, I realized that they were too much a part of me, and that I did have the potential to do great good. So I confined myself to the small, and the local, to the bumps and scrapes of people's lives. I promised myself I would never interfere on a large scale in anything ever again."
"What has changed, dear Paala?" Zhaan asked, one beringed hand reaching out to brush tears from the other female's velvety cheek.
Paala met her blue eyes. "I broke my vow."
"How?" Kel asked.
"I tried to stop the Rideans, so I erected a dome around this island, and spheres around each of the ships they have sent against us. The dome protects the Mers from any outside attacks, and the spheres prevent the Rideans from launching any."
"And what is the evil in that?" Zhaan countered. "You're trying to save lives! There comes a time when we must forgive ourselves for the sins of the past. We are all fallible, no matter how small or great we may be. We all make mistakes. Let them be a lesson to make you stronger, Paala."
A commotion arose from outside the ziercolay, and Kel thought he heard a familiar voice. All three of them turned toward the doorway in time to see Aeryn and Crichton step through, both panting for breath. The beautiful Sebacean female stood there agressively, a pulse rifle hanging from her shoulder.
"Aeryn insisted on going back to the pod for reinforcements," Crichton explained, jerking a thumb at the weapon. She shot him a dirty look.
"There are soldiers behind us. Armed. I saw them in the hills just outside town as we were coming in. They looked like they were searching for something," she explained with a toss of her dark mane of hair.
They all jumped as they heard a shout erupt from D'Argo in the outer chamber. Kel was close at Paala's elbow as they all scrambled to their feet to find out what had happened.
A figure stood in the center of the room, framed by the open door. All in black, with a dark helmet, the figure stood with a scanner thrust out before him in one hand, and a blaster in the other. One look at D'Argo clutching his arm told Kel that the intruder had fired and had made his mark. Aereyn raised her pulse rifle but Crichton put out a hand to still her, and she reluctantly subsided. Paala streaked across the room to the injured Luxan while he remained transfixed by the leveled weapon.
Kel watched as the Ridean's helmeted head turned slightly as if to take all of them in. Something tickled at the back of his brain; he thought there was something familiar about that posture...
Without lowering the weapon, the Ridean brought his scanner hand to his helmet, and using his arm, pushed up the visor. For the second time that day, Kel stared in shock.
It was Eri.
In sudden fury, he pushed his way forward and walked straight into her weapon, until he was a mere pace away. She stared at him with huge, wide eyes, her features frozen.
"What are you doing here, Eri?" he demanded savagely. "Why are you hurting these people?"
"I-I-" she stuttered and then stopped. She lowered both the weapon and the scanner and awkwardly fumbled to put them away. Removing the helmet, she didn't look away, but suddenly there were tears in her eyes, and her mouth trembled. Belatedly he realized that she was crying.
"Why did you leave?" she asked in a high, pleading voice. "Don't you know how much I...how much I..." She couldn't finish, so she just stood there, staring back at him with an awful expression in her eyes.
Kel was dizzy from shock.. This can't be happening, he thought.
"Tell me what's going on," he said finally. "Why is this happening, and what are you doing here?"
So, in a dull monotone, she told him. About her research and the anomalous signal. Paala, he realized, she was tracking Paala. About Milo and the Watch. And finally about coming out here to-
"I don't need to be rescued," he said softly. "I'm never going back."
"You don't know what you're saying!" she cried. "How can you-" she looked around in bewilderment. "-Live here. In all this-this-"
"This is my home now," he replied. "These are my people, my friends." He shook his head gently as he returned her gaze. "There is nothing for me back there-that life almost killed me. This is my life now, and I'm happy."
"Please come back, Kel."
He reached out a hand across the short distance between them, and laying it on her shoulder, he squeezed gently. He swallowed hard against the painful lump in his throat. After all this time, the emotions were still there...just as strong as they had ever been.
"I'm sorry, Eri..."
Her face contorted, and the helmet dropped from her hand with a startling smack on the tiled floor. Dazed, it took him a few microts to feel the first blow as she struck his chest with her balled fist.
"But I love you!" she screamed. He stared at her helplessly, feeling all the uncertainty and pain of those unhappy cycles in Ridea crash down around him-and all the hurt and regret of missing her since he'd been away. His hand tightened vise-like on her shoulder in what he knew must be a painful grip.
"Kel!" he heard Aeryn's voice behind him.
"Step aside!" He looked up in shock to see another black-clad, helmeted figure filling the open doorway, an assault rifle aimed at him. Eri turned partways and then froze.
"Captain Vri!" There was surprise and puzzlement in the soldier's otherwise crisp voice. He returned his attention to Kel. "Step aside from her," he repeated threateningly.
Eri raised her hands placatingly, and Kel saw them tremble. "Put your rifle down, soldier," she said.
"I can't do that, sir!
"I'm asking you to stand down, soldier!"
"I can't do that, sir!" he yelled, sighting along the rifle at Kel. "Step away!"
From the corner of his eye, Kel saw Paala leaning over D'Argo and shaking her head.
"No," Paala said evenly.
"Stand down!" Eri screamed.
In a blur, he watched the soldier tense-
-there was a flash-
-Eri jerked against his chest-
-she fell into his arms as they both collapsed to their knees-
-the soldier crumpled in front of them-
-Aeryn lowered her pulse rifle grimly-
-Kel looked down to see Eri's ashen face and the huge smoking scorch mark across her chest-
-and Paala screamed: "NO MORE!"
Through a haze of tears, Kel looked down at Eri and brushed a hand against her cheek. No, she can't be dead. Please, don't let her be dead...He lowered her to the floor, and he felt a rush of relief as he realized that she still breathed, albeit faintly.
"I never stopped loving you, Eri," he whispered.
"ENOUGH," Paala said in a vast, echoing voice, and Zhaan stared at her in amazement. "THERE WILL BE NO MORE KILLING!" Her voice literally rang in Zhaan's ears. There was rage in Paala's green eyes, but also determination. Then, as the Delvian looked on, the alien female convulsed violently.
"Paala!" Zhaan cried in alarm.
Paala had begun to glow. At first it was like a faint haze of golden light surrounding her body, but then she realized that it was coming from inside, from within-from beneath Paala's skin. As the convulsions stopped, the glow slowly brightened and intensified, until all Zhaan could see was the brilliant light. She threw up a hand to shield herself from the glare and looked back at the others. Her friends: Aeryn, John, D'Argo and Rygel were just staring in plain dumbfounded shock, while on the floor, Kel bore a fearful, anguished expression, torn as he was between concern for the dark-haired Ridean female and for Paala.
The glow flared and then solidified vaguely into Paala's shape. Her entire body seemed to be made of light. Only her vivid green eyes remained of her physical body. Paala looked down at herself almost curiously, holding her luminous hands out before her.
"It is...strange," she said. "I have resisted...this...for so long...but I understand now."
"What is it, Paala? What has happened to you?" Zhaan asked anxiously in the silence that followed the other's words.
"I am....transforming," she replied, and she turned to Zhaan. Zhaan had the impression of a dazzling smile from the other female.
"Into what?" Zhaan asked.
"Something...more," Paala replied in a tone of satisfaction. Zhaan saw Aeryn flinch, and then Paala was moving-not quite walking-she seemed to float toward Kel. She bent down and lay one glowing hand against the scorched center of Ridean's chest.
"She will not die." The glow emanated from Paala's hand and enveloped the Ridean female's entire body. When Paala removed her hand, the glow slowly faded, and Eri's eyes fluttered open.
"Kel," she whispered. His arms tightened around her in acknowledgment and thanksgiving.
"Thank you, Paala," he said softly.
"Ah, Kel," Paala replied. "I think I will miss you the most, when I leave."
"Where are you going?"
"I'm not sure yet. I...feel that there is...something waiting for me." She turned and faced Zhaan. "Zhaan," she said warmly. "There is still one last thing I must do for you." She gestured to the others. "Come, gather around Zhaan and hold hands. Come," she went on, "none of you will be harmed. Zhaan needs all of you now."
She waited while they complied and Zhaan found herself in the center of a circle of bodies: even Rygel hovered in his throne sled and held hands between D'Argo and Crichton while Paala clasped hands between Aeryn and Crichton.
As they linked, Zhaan watched as Paala's glow radiated outwards through both John and Aeryn on either side of her and through them into D'Argo and Rygel, until Zhaan stood encircled by a ring of light and bodies. Overhead, a misty dome formed, and as she turned around within it, she heard her friends' voices in her head. At first they were just whispers, and then the images began to flicker against the misty dome, and she realized with a start that she was seeing herself, through their eyes. There, played out before her, were all the memories that her comrades had stored...of Zhaan, the counselor, of Zhaan, the mediator, of Zhaan, the chemist, of Zhaan, the priest...all the countless ways that they each saw her: some good and some bad, but they were all her, and they were all real. Through their eyes she realized that she could not fear the past and her own worst self, but that she had to believe that she could always be greater. Why had she forgotten so easily everything her faith and training had taught her through the cycles?
Zhaan laughed, oblivious to the tears of joy that streamed down her face. She wanted to embrace them all.
"Thank you," she smiled through the tears.
"I have a gift for each of you," Paala said as Zhaan collected herself. "Prophecy, if you will.
"For you, John Crichton: there will come a time when your life will flash before your eyes. Protect your secrets carefully and do not succumb to the chair.
"For you, Ka D'Argo, there will come a time when a great sacrifice will be required. Choose your companion wisely, for he shares his luck, and you will not die.
"For you, Rygel XVI, there will come a time when you may believe that all is lost. For you, the greatest sacrifice may be required: to let others believe you their betrayer while you bargain for the faintest hope of survival.
"For you, Aeryn Sun, there will come a time when the past must be faced and its truth will set you free.
"For you, Pa'u Zotah Zhaan, your great enemy will return, but you must not succumb to your fear, lest he destroy you forever.
"Now, you must go quickly, or you will be trapped on this world. Its destiny is not yours."
The circle dissolved in an iridescent shimmer of light, and they all blinked at each other. Zhaan gazed at the light-being who was Paala, and tried to hold back the tears.
"I will miss you," she said at last.
"Beloved Zhaan. Perhaps someday we shall meet again. Now please, you must go. Run!"
Paala watched from atop the grassy bluff as the cylindrical pod lifted off into the starry sky and disappeared in a wink of light. Nearby, Kel stood with the Ridean female. Paala turned to Kel and reached out to touch him.
"Goodbye, Kel," she said. "You have been a good friend to me."
He nodded with tears standing in his eyes.
She rose up into the air, glowing ever brighter, until finally she began to speak in a voice that would be heard everywhere on Meridea at once:
"For hundreds of generations, you have divided this world between you, between Mer and Ridean. No more! From now on, you shall depend upon one another for your survival, or there will be no more survival. This world must unite to save itself for a greater future. Today, your partnership begins."
From command, Crichton, D'Argo, Zhaan, Aeryn and Rygel looked down on Meridea and saw the entire planet enveloped in a shimmering golden light. And then it winked out, leaving a pretty blue-green sphere.
"So what was that?" John asked.
"Pilot?" Zhaan prompted.
"All electrical activity on the planet has ceased," Pilot answered, astonishment in his voice.
Zhaan nodded to herself. "She wanted to bring them together, I think, and this was the only way she knew how."
"Wow," Crichton said, shaking his head. "I can't believe she just did that."
They all departed eventually, until Zhaan was the only one standing before the viewport. She smiled as she watched a ball of golden light streak away from Meridea and disappear into the stars.
She held out her hand as if to once more touch the friend who had saved her life.
"Thank you," she whispered.