The Rock

By Bob Hutchinson (UCSBDad)
Copyright 2001

Disclaimer: I don't own John and Aeryn. I only have a collection of HUGE furry 'shippers. Want to trade for Aeryn Sun, DK? Rating: Rated X for eXtreme John and Aeryn Sex. (Well, that ought to make them pay attention.) Time: Oh, gee. Sometime in the future, maybe? Mid season three? Late season twenty-four? Archiving: Yes.

Columb Bechar drifted slowly in space, an ugly and unloved piece of rock. It drifted more than a dozen light cycles from the nearest star and more than twenty light cycles from any inhabited planet. It was even farther from any civilized world. Too far from any civilized planet for anyone to notice.

Even with a map fiber, it had been nearly impossible to find. Without one it would be impossible. It was a place spoken of in whispers. It's existence denied if you spoke too much about it. A place far from any watching eyes. A place for those who needed the privacy that dark shadows provided. A place where anything could be had, for a price, that is. A place for outcasts, misfits, renegades and outlaws. A place for people like us.

"Why would any self respecting used Prowler salesman hang out here?"

I hid a smile and turned to John. "Officer Buffa is not a used Prowler salesman. He is, like us, running from the Peacekeepers."

John leaned over my shoulder to examine the readouts in the cockpit of my Prowler. "So how do we know he's not setting us up?"

"We don't. And he doesn't know were not setting him up. That's why he's hiding at Columb Bechar. It's safe for just about anyone if you have something to buy or sell and you don't want anyone to look too closely at you. Unless someone decides to rob you and kill you, of course."

"Oh, of course. Aeryn, this is not a good÷"

" idea?" I let John see my smile this time. "Correct, human. You are learning. But, to quote a human I know, the gate is crooked but it's the only gate in town."

I was rather pleased with my use of human idiom. "And former Officer Buffa is about the safest person to buy a used Prowler from. He was the worst pilot I ever ran into.'

John chuckled. "Oh, worse than the human? Now there is a man with a problem."

John became serious. "So how come he lasted so long in the Peacekeepers. I thought bad pilots were terminated with extreme prejudice."

"Buffa always managed to keep his flight ratings at just barely acceptable. Out of thousands and thousands of Peacekeeper pilots, someone has to be the worst, just as someone has to be the best. He was just never bad enough to be demoted."

John waited for a few microts. Then he spoke. "Until?"

"Buffa always was usually given easy missions. Hauling techs to a damaged ship, or something. In combat he'd be buried in the middle of a formation where he couldn't do any harm. Then a hotshot Command Carrier captain decided that everyone had to do the easy missions and the tough ones. Buffa was sent on a long range recon, missed an entire enemy task force and got his carrier badly shot up. He knew what he faced when he came back, so he never came back."

John rested his head on my shoulder. I pushed it off, but gently. "So this Buffa wants to sell his Prowler? Does that make sense?"

"I'm sure Buffa never had a persistent human to force him to learn how to maintain his Prowler with no techs around. And he certainly has no Pilot DNA. According to the starship captain we got the information from, Buffa deserted less than two monens ago. I imagine he wants to get rid of his ship while it still is worth some currency "

"So we're buying a lemon?"

I tried to fathom that question and quickly gave up. "We're buying a Prowler that, at the worst, will provide us with spare parts for my new Prowler. At best, we'll have two Prowlers instead of one. One for me and one for D'Argo." I knew I had made a mistake as soon as the words were out.

"Yeah, D'Argo. The Luxan kamikaze. Did you ever consider you might need a wingman who doesn't regard every Banzai charge as a good idea?"

There was nothing for me to do but continue the argument that had started earlier. "D'Argo is the only other pilot we have who was trained in space combat. He also knows this section of the galaxy far better than you. He'll recognize problems before you do, John." I didn't add that I could fly in combat without being too distracted by D'Argo's safety.

"Yeah. He'll recognize problems and head straight for them. But I'll be his back up and fly if he can't, right."

I considered that. "Well. Chiana is technically a better pilot than you are÷."

That was too much for John. "Pip? A better pilot than me? No way, Jose. Listen, Aeryn if you think Chi is getting the Prowler before me÷."

"I'd be wrong. You get the Prowler if D'Argo is unavailable. Chiana may be the more proficient pilot, but she's too undisciplined. I'd be even more terrified of going into combat with her than I am with you."

"I'm not that bad a pilot, Missy."

"No you're not. But you do need more training in space combat. A lot more training. D'Argo and I have both had ten times the training you've had and we've both flown in combat. You're still in the recruit training stage. Early in the recruit training phase."

John ran his hand along my cheek. "Training with an ex-Peacekeeper? That could work."

"It won't work if we can't find Buffa and if we can't shut the deal."

"Close the deal, Aeryn."

"Whatever."

John looked over my other shoulder at more readouts.

"Aeryn. I don't see anyone scanning us, or any other signs of life on that rock. Are you sure someone's home?"

"The people who are there won't use active sensors. That would be like asking for unwanted visitors. But they'll have passive sensors on us, even if it's only a being with oculars keeping an eye out."

I flew a circuit around Columb Bechar looking for the landing bay.

"There it is, John. That fissure in the surface."

"You sure, Aeryn? I wouldn't want to try to back out of there. It's just a hole in the wall.

I couldn't resist. "That's why I brought you along. In case I need anything done backwards."

John grunted. "An ex-Peacekeeper with a sense of humor? This can't be good."

I ignored John and concentrated on flying. Up close, the opening was not that narrow. Ships much larger than my Prowler could enter. Then I saw it.

"You were worried about no one being home, John?" I gestured to my right. "We're being tracked by a gun pod set in the wall to our right."

I watched the pod. Its movements were jerky and slow, as if the fire control system was in poor repair. Useful information if we needed to leave in a hurry.

"Straight ahead, John, there's light."

"A light at the end of the tunnel? Okay, as long as it's not a train coming."

I tried to match that sentence up with something that would make sense and failed, as usual. One day, John Crichton, one day.

I turned left and saw the docking area spread out before us. "Take a look around, John. Do you see anything familiar? Anything out of place? Anything dangerous? Anything at all? Anything out of the ordinary?"

John leaned over each of my shoulders and strained to see as much as he could while I concentrated on landing.

"They all look like something George Lucas thought up after a three day toot, Aeryn. But nothing looks familiar. Did you see anything?"

I shut down my engines and gestured to the left with my chin. "The bright orange ship is a Burlian smuggler. They'd happily sell their own mothers, but we shouldn't have to worry. They're hydrogen breathers. Their race is violently allergic to oxygen, oxygen breathers and anything contaminated with oxygen. I doubt if any have left the ship, even in environmental suits." Which makes me wonder why they're here, I thought to myself

Then I turned and gazed fondly ahead of us and to the right. "And then there's that beauty."

John leaned his head on my shoulder. "Sorry. I see only one beauty and she's in here with me."

"No, John, the Prowler. A newer model than any I've ever seen. They were only being tested when I left the Peacekeepers."

"Left the Peacekeepers? I remember you needed a little push."

I ignored that. "Look at the deeper dorsal spine. That's a new counter sensor suite. It makes that Prowler far stealthier than mine. The engine is smaller, lighter, more fuel efficient and more powerful than mine."

"Darlin', your engine is as powerful as they come."

I elbowed John in the ribs. Lightly. "Are you ready, Officer Crichton?"

"Ready, willing and very able, Captain Sun."

I opened the canopy and stood up. From that vantagepoint I looked at the other ships in the docking bay. There were some two dozen ships. I didn't recognize any particular ship designs, but I recognized the breed. All, except the other Prowler, were larger than my ship. All but four were built for speed and firepower. Those that emphasized speed would belong to smugglers. Those that emphasized firepower would belong to pirates. The other larger, more capacious ships would be traders, looking for a bargain or selling odd lots of contraband to the smugglers.

As John and I leaped down, I saw our reception committee. Three anthropoids in full battle armor, their features concealed by their helmets. Their weapons were pointed at us.

"We don't see many Peacekeepers here. They must be allergic to something on this rock." Their leader snarled at us.

I reached over and put a small packet of currency on the wing of my Prowler. "You still haven't seen any Peacekeepers. We're just passing through, looking for as friend and hoping to make a profitable deal."

One of the guards edged close enough to us to grab the currency without getting in his friend's line of fire. They examined the packet and then their leader stepped forward. He looked John and I up and down. He took in our Peacekeeper Special Ops uniforms and my Captains bars.

"Right. No Peacekeepers here. You'll probably find your friend hanging around the main bar in the central square, just off the command center." Then the three backed away for a few steps and continued their rounds.

I waited until they were well out of sight. "Good. I assume they contacted their central command before they took our bribe. That means whoever's in charge here accepts us at face value. A couple of Peacekeepers sent to buy back a valuable ship. You stay with the Prowler and I'll go look for Buffa."

I hadn't even gotten turned before John had my arm.

"Stay with the Prowler? Not a chance. We're a team. We stay together like Butch and Sundance. Starsky and Hutch. Cagney and Lacey. Fred and Ginger."

This would be difficult. "John, look up. What do you see?"

John looked up. "What am I supposed to see?"

Frell. For some reason John was sensitive about his poor eyesight. I should have phrased the question more diplomatically. Well, no time for tact now.

"There are sensors and automated pulse weapons mounted from the ceiling that should cover the whole docking bay. I said 'should" because they don't. Most of the sensor heads I can see are inoperative. The pulse weapons haven't been tracking us. They're all frelling useless. And we can add the fact that the guards take bribes. In a place like this, that means someone stays here and guards the Prowler or we may have to walk back to Moya."

John agreed. "Sure. No problem. I see your point. You stay here and I'll go see Honest Buffa and make a deal on some used wheels."

For some reason John occasionally tried to protect me from the Universe. It was equally endearing and infuriating.

"Crichton! Buffa is fleeing from the Peacekeepers. If you show up, he'll start shooting. Or hide. Or take so long deciding to trust you and make a deal, we'll all die of old age. He knows me and he knows what happened to me. He'll talk to me, not shoot."

"Aeryn, listen. I want÷"

"I'll be careful, John. And at the first sign of trouble, I'll use the comm. Okay?"

"Yeah."

I smiled at John and turned and left before he had time to think up any other reasons to delay.

At the end of the docking bay was a tunnel and at the end of the tunnel was the central square. A huge rectangular chunk had been cut out of the rock and then filled up with every manner of loot and looter in the Galaxy. To one side was a simple table with a being selling some sort of intoxicant. From the look of the patrons, it was powerful stuff. Next to it was a pink building that was obviously a restaurant. Soft music came from inside as well as delicious smells. I could see living servitors serving well-dressed clients. The smell of real food made my mouth water.

Hmmm. If we had a little time, perhaps John could take me on a "date". I had wondered what one would be like.

I was so interested in the restaurant that I almost walked into a pair of Peacekeepers in full battle armor. I froze when I saw them. My hand slid towards my pistol. The eyes of the nearest Peacekeeper grew wide with fear and he gestured to his companion. They turned in unison and pushed their way through the crowds as fast as they could. It took me a microt to catch on. They were Peacekeeper renegades, too. And more frightened of me than I was of them. They probably thought a battalion of troops were right behind me.

The square was jammed with beings, buying and selling. Selling themselves, buying others. Artificial joy was traded for very real death. Every nook and cranny was filled with merchants trying to entice passers by while yelling at the top of their voices.

I pushed my way through the crowds to the main bar. I looked for Buffa but didn't see him. Suddenly a long, well muscled leg shot out and barred my way.

"Officer Sun. How good to see you again." I knew the voice and turned to face Jenavia Chatto. She was wearing a dark green skirt slit up the side to the top of her hip and a matching top that, barely, covered her breasts. Her hair hung loose, but her makeup had changed from what she had worn on the Royal Planet. She was still beautiful, the trelk.

"Excuse me, Chatto. I'm busy." I tried to push past her, but she kept her leg up while balancing on the tall stool at the bar.

"Really Officer Sun. Oh, excuse me, Captain Sun. My congratulations on your promotion. You must allow me to buy you a drink to celebrate your promotion and we can bring each other up to date."

Jenavia knew I was a renegade, so why was she treating me like a real Peacekeeper Captain? She must want something and be willing to trade information with me.

I nodded and she ordered a drink for me. When the bartender put it in front of me, I stared at it.

"Really, Sun. I do you think I'd try to poison you?"

I said nothing, but pushed the drink away from me.

"Be that way if you wish. But, I have a great deal of admiration for you. Very few Peacekeepers could have survived so long on their own. Fewer still could have survived aboard a ship with a crew of former Peacekeeper prisoners. I was impressed with how you handled John."

That I didn't understand. "How I handled John?"

Chatto smiled at me. "Keeping him off balance. Luring him into his module and pretending to want to kiss him. And then becoming angry when he responds. I imagine he has no idea what to expect from you. The poor being must be totally confused. Do you use the same tactic with the Luxan?"

I very carefully controlled my anger at both Chatto and John. "What I do is none of your concern, Chatto."

"Oh, but it is. I wouldn't have taken such trouble to leave a listening device in the Luxan's quarters back on the Royal Planet otherwise. It's a shame I couldn't get near John's quarters. Well, the intended of the heir to the throne needs to be well guarded. I would have loved to have observed you and John. But D'Argo and the Nabari did enough talking. It's amazing what they can do and still have time to talk."

I silently apologized to John. "I'm surprised you didn't learn all you needed about John at the lake that night."

Her eyebrow rose and her smile broadened. "My. I really hadn't expected John to tell you about that. I suppose he decided to try to keep you off balance, too. By the way, is John with you?"

Not trusting myself to speak, I nodded. I was sure she could find out soon enough if she didn't know already.

"Good. I'm looking forward to renewing our acquaintance."

"John and I will be gone as soon as we complete our business."

Jenavia smiled. I didn't like that smile one bit. "I think not. John will be staying here with me."

"WHAT!" I didn't bother to keep my voice down. Half the customers in the bar stopped to stare at us.

Jenavia kept her smile in place. "John will be staying here with me."

I tried to think of something to say, but my mind was blank I was so angry.

Jenavia leaned close to me. "Sun, a grunt like you can't possibly appreciate what you have in John. What the possibilities of someone like John are. You'll just sit there and play your little games with John and eventually get him killed for no reason."

I managed to keep my voice down and interrupted Jenavia. "Listen, if you think I'm going to hand John over to a Peacekeeper Disrupter, you are out of your frelling mind."

"Hand him over? Do you think that John would stay with you when he has the chance to be with a woman who values and understands him? Do you think I can't take John away from you any time I wish?"

If I had to listen to any more of this, I'd end up killing her.

I took a deep breath and spoke to her in a nearly normal voice. "Fine. Flaunt yourself at him all you want. He's far too smart to want to run off with a Peacekeeper Disrupter. He knows what'll happen once you're done with him, or once your superiors are done with him."

She kept smiling. "I admire John's intelligence most of all."

I stood up and hoped she'd put out a leg to stop me so I could break it. She didn't, but she kept talking, and smiling.

"Why are you and John here, Sun?"

I thought about how to answer her. I should tell her to shove her question up her eema. But, if she was so sure John would go with her, she might be of some use in finding Buffa.

"We're looking for former Officer Buffa. We're interested in buying his Prowler."

"Buffa? You've come to the right place. He's in with the Dux Belloram." She gestured to towards the command center.

I wasn't familiar with that name. "The Dux Belloram?"

"The being in charge of Columb Bechar for the last three cycles. The previous ruler of Columb Bechar had a nasty little accident. Buffa has been trying to sell his services to the Dux as a mercenary pilot, but Buffa's reputation has preceded him, I'm afraid. I'm on my way to the command center right now."

Before I could say anything Chatto had slipped past me and was halfway to the doorway to the command center.

I tried to follow her, but two heavily armed and armored guards at the entrance stopped me.

"One at a time for audience, Peacekeeper. Go to the back of the line" He gestured to where twenty or more people were standing.

I pointed to Jenavia's retreating back. "I'm with her."

The guard chuckled. "She didn't say nothin' about you. Back of the line, Peacekeeper."

I reached inside my jacket and took out another packet of currency and held it up. "Front of the line."

He took the packet and I stood right where I was. I stood there for nearly three arns. Then a tall skinny being came out and looked self importantly at the crowd in front of the door.

"Audience is over. Leave. Go away." He turned and walked back inside while the guards started to close the doors. The people standing behind me started to disperse.

I grabbed a guard. "What about my currency?"

He laughed. "You're still first in line, Peacekeeper. If you're here in the morning, you'll be first again. Of course, you'll have to talk to the day shift about staying first."

The door slammed in my face. I looked round and saw that the people near me were getting a good deal of enjoyment out of watching a Peacekeeper being put in her place. I decided to go back to John. Maybe he could think of a way to get us inside.

The first thing I noticed when I entered the docking bay was that John wasn't standing in front of the Prowler. Then I thought, he'd be sitting in the cockpit. Then I wondered why he wasn't opening the cockpit canopy for me.

I ran the last twenty paces with my pistol drawn. "John? John, where are you?"

I opened the cockpit and found it empty. Then I smelled a faint odor of burnt chakon oil. Someone had fired a pulse weapon nearby. A small burn mark in the floor of the docking bay confirmed my suspicion. I turned completely around, searching everywhere for John. I was completely alone.

"That bitch!" I snarled under my breath.

I strode back through the central square, not caring who I pushed out of my way. I knew better than to lose control like this, but I didn't care. Not then.

Suddenly, I saw a flash of green ahead of me. Chatto! I ducked behind some bales of Delorian silkite until she was well ahead of me. Then I followed her. She turned into a nice quiet, empty corridor and strode down it as if she hadn't a care in the Universe. Finally, she pushed aside a curtain and disappeared through a doorway. I stopped outside her quarters and strained to hear her. As far as I could tell, she didn't have John with her. I knelt and peeked under the curtain and saw that the trelk was faced away from me. That was all I needed. I pulled my pistol and pushed through the curtain.

She turned around and I rammed my pistol between her breasts. "Tell me where John is or I'll start shooting off parts of you that you'll miss the most. Where is he÷."

I felt a sting on the side of my neck and pulled the trigger. I fell backwards, amazed that while my brain had told my finger to press the trigger, my finger had done nothing. I slammed the back of my head on the hard stone floor. My breath was knocked out of me. I tried to inhale, but couldn't. I stared straight up, totally unable to function. I saw Chatto bend down and remove my pistol from my hand. I cursed to myself that I was going to die without being able to help John. Then I felt another sting in my neck and saw a miniscule shiny object float up to stop at the level of my face.

"I've restored your ability to breathe and speak, Sun." Chatto sounded completely relaxed and in control. Well, she was. "Has something happened to John?"

I inhaled and managed a reply, even though I still had a little trouble talking. "You. Stole. Him."

Chatto sighed. "Try to do a little better than that, grunt. Can you explain what happened?"

I managed to tell her what had happened when I had returned to our Prowler.

"And you, naturally, assume that I'm responsible."

I glared at her.

Chatto leaned over me and placed the barrel of my pistol under my chin. "I could have let you asphyxiate. I could still kill you right now. Now think, grunt. Why haven't I killed you?"

I still glared at her, but had to admit to myself that I had no idea why I was still alive.

"Let me explain it to you, Sun. I. Did. Not. Steal. John. Is that simple enough for you to understand?"

I nodded.

"If I wanted John, which I very much do, I wouldn't go after him with a pulse pistol. I need John alive and functional, and for that matter, very co-operative. And I assure you, I don't need a pulse pistol to take John from you."

I still didn't like or trust her, but I had to admit to myself that she made sense.

"All right, Chatto. You obviously can't use John if he's dead." Chatto understood what I was referring to by "using" John. She just smiled.

"You obviously have some sort of relationship with John, Sun, even if it's just the realization that he's a valuable ally. And I am aware that you don't like or trust me. But, we both want to find John for our own purposes. I propose a truce and an alliance between us."

I thought for a few microts. "And when we have John?"

Chatto smiled her frelling so-superior smile. "John can make his choice. It is possible that he won't trust a Peacekeeper under any circumstances. But I think I have a good chance."

"All right, Chatto. A truce and an alliance, and then John can choose for himself."

Chatto did something out of my line of sight and I felt another sting on my neck. Then I felt a stinging all over my body. Then I felt almost normal.

Surprisingly, Chatto held out her hand to help me up. Even more surprisingly, she held out my pulse pistol, butt first.

"Take it, Sun. You'll probably need it before we're done."

I took the pistol and stood looking at her.

"Sun, if you decide to kill me, I have more little booby traps like the one that got you initially. You'd never get out of here alive."

I returned my pistol to my holster.

"And, Aeryn, I suggest you start calling me Jenavia and stop acting like you'd like nothing better than to start shooting parts off of me. A very effective threat under other circumstances, by the way."

I just glared at her.

"Think, grunt, think. I'm still alive here, and able to do my job, because I pay well and make myself useful to the powers that be. And I don't bother people who don't bother me. But most of all I stay alive because there just might be a Command Carrier and a regiment of troops standing by in case I need a little help. As far as anyone here is concerned, you are Captain Aeryn Sun, Peacekeeper Special Ops. And you're here to back me up. As long as everyone believes that, we'll be a lot safer and better able to help John. If anyone finds out that you're just a renegade with no troops to back us up, we might just all three be dead."

I relaxed a little. "Certainly, Disrupter Chatto. And how have you been, dear Jenavia?"

She chuckled. "On second thought, a more formal relationship might be in order, Captain Sun. I don't think anyone will believe we're friends."

She walked over to a small couch against the wall and sat down. "Do you have any ideas why John might have been kidnapped?"

I shook my head. "The Scarrens want John for his wormhole data. Scorpius wants John to keep wormhole data from the Scarrens. The Nabari want him to lead them to Chiana and then to her brother. We have lots of enemies, but no one I know of here."

Suddenly an idea occurred to me. "Why do you want, John?"

Chatto stood back up. "Come with me, Sun."

We walked towards the back of her quarters. After the first room was a kitchen, then a large and luxurious bedroom, dominated by a large bed.

I couldn't resist. "Is this where you make yourself useful around here, Chatto?"

"And where I'll make myself useful for John, grunt."

Past the bedroom was a large door. Chatto stopped in front of it. "Captain Aeryn Sun. Peacekeeper Special Ops. Entrance only, but no access to any information or systems." With that, the door opened and we walked through.

After the bedroom, the office was a surprise. Very neat and utilitarian. Not at all what I expected of Disrupter Chatto.

Chatto sat down at an information retrieval system on her desk. "What do you know about the political situation, if anything?"

I shrugged. I'd better play Aeryn Sun, dumb grunt for a while. "Everybody in the frelling Universe is trying to kill us. What more do I need to know?"

Chatto ran her fingers over some keypads and a holographic representation of this end of the galaxy appeared.

"This map shows the Sebacean Worlds, the Hynerians, the Delvians, and so forth, and over here." Chatto gestured to one end of the map.

"The gold area, here, is the misnamed Uncharted Territories. We've got some patrols and bases here, as well as recon and intel assets all through the Uncharted Territories. Not enough, not any where frelling near enough, but some."

Chatto gestured to a mass of stars at the other end of the map. "And here, on the far side of the Uncharted Territories, are our soon to be enemies, the Scarrens. They're why I was on the Royal Planet and why I'm here. The Scarrens are taking over planet after planet in the Uncharted Territories. As many as they can."

I snorted. "So what? Most of the Uncharted Territories isn't worth having. I know, I've been chased through most of it."

Chatto ignored me. "Most of the planets they take over are home to nothing but a bunch of barbarians, barely able to work iron into weapons to kill each other with. A few, a very few, are about as advanced as John's people and even fewer are capable of interstellar travel. But the Scarrens back the strongest, most warlike nation on these planets with crude, but effective weapons. When their clients take over the planet, the Scarrens recruit and arm regiment after regiment of troops for their clients to invade other planets. The few technically advanced societies are given equally crude starships. Nothing but metal tubes with a simple hetch drive run by a fusion plant and some directed energy weapons. They load them up with barbarian troops and go off to conquer other planets."

This made no sense and I told Chatto so. "So what? A command carrier could destroy ships such as you've described by the thousands. A Peacekeeper regiment could flatten any number of lightly armed barbarian troops. Why should anyone worry about the Scarren's new colonies?"

Chatto looked slightly disappointed in me. Which was what I wanted.

"Sun, these aren't Scarren colonies. They are independent nations that have close relations with the Scarrens. Doubtlessly the local warlords think they have a closer relationship with the Scarrens than is actually the case, but they won't find out about that unless it's too late."

I stared at the map. "I still don't see the problem."

Chatto continued. "Sometime in the future, five cycles, ten cycles, twenty cycles from now, we'll be distracted by someone. Lux, these Nabari, maybe the Scorvian-Ilonic War. I don't know who, but you know as well as I do how many enemies the Peacekeepers have. When we can least afford another problem, a horde of barbarians will pour out of the Uncharted Territories. Yes, where we have command carriers or other major fleet units, or large garrisons, we'll shoot them to pieces. But isolated patrol ships and weak garrisons will be overwhelmed. Planets without a strong Peacekeeper presence will be over run and destroyed. Peacekeeper defeats will encourage others, like the Delvians or Hynerians, to attack us. Then, and only then, we'll find ourselves facing the Scarren Fleet."

I stared at Chatto. "Frell. That could work, I think."

"The best part is, for the Scarrens, is they won't attack us until they're certain they can beat us. The initial attacks will be by barbarians who officially have nothing to do with the Scarrens. Oh, our diplomats, such as we have any, will scream at the Scarrens, but the Scarrens will simply deny they're involved."

I thought about it. "So the Peacekeepers flatten the Scarrens first. Where's the problem?"

Chatto applauded me, ironically. "Spoken like a true grunt, Sun. The only way to solve problems is to shoot them. But it won't work. Oh, there are plenty of admirals who'd like to try, but it still won't work. Even if we do manage to defeat the Scarrens, the damage it'll do to us in terms of destroyed ships and dead soldiers will leave us at the mercy of our other enemies. We'll be run out of Delvia, Hyneria and all the other worlds we occupy. We won't even be able to hold onto all of the home worlds. We might just be destroyed."

Chatto stared at me long and hard. "You don't really care, do you, Sun?"

"I'm irreversibly contaminated, remember? And in the cycles I've been gone, I've discovered that there are other things in the Universe besides being a Peacekeeper." Frell. That sounded a little too much like I'd found an interesting human to keep me company. Back to being the unimaginative grunt.

"Can you make me care, Chatto?"

She grinned. "I can make it worth your while to care. You operate in the Uncharted Territories and have a reputation for being anti-Peacekeeper. But the Scarrens will still kill you if they catch you. All they'll see is another Sebacean. I can provide you with money, weapons and contacts. I can give you a place to run and hide when the Scarrens do come. Once John agrees to come with me, of course."

I laughed bitterly. "Let's find John first. And now you can tell me why you want John. Do you expect him to send all the Scarrens through a wormhole? Scorpius hasn't had much success, has he?"

Chatto leaned back and looked at me, appraisingly. Like she was deciding how much of the truth to tell me. She finally decided.

"I've learned a few things by myself out here. After all, I'm a Disrupter. I'm trained to work with other races and not be contaminated. It's a shame you can't be more than a grunt, Sun. You've been remarkably successful, but you're still a grunt in your mind. You still believe what the Peacekeepers told you because you can't imagine anything else."

This was not how I wanted Chatto to be thinking. She was too smart and too dangerous for me to have her find out the truth. Better she think I had learned nothing. "Skip the propaganda, Chatto. Tell me why you want John."

"Propaganda. Very good, Sun. It is propaganda. The Peacekeepers are the natural Lords of the Universe, to be kept pure at all costs so we can rule the lesser races. It's dren. If I wasn't able to depend on some very capable non-Sebaceans who are as afraid of the Scarrens as I am, I'd be dead by now. If you'd think about it, you'd realize how much you depend on John and D'Argo and all the rest."

Chatto was way too close to the truth. "Dren, Chatto. Can you stop babbling and tell me why you want John?"

Chatto shrugged. "John is the perfect person to start convincing the Peacekeepers that we have to ally with the so called lesser races."

I laughed. She had exactly the right person in mind to break the Peacekeepers of the habit of dismissing everyone else as inferior, but no Peacekeeper would ever accept that. They'd stubbornly die as the superior race they thought themselves to be. And die they would if Chatto was right about the Scarrens.

Chatto glared at me. She knew what I thought. "Laugh, grunt. But I know a lot more about the upper echelons of the Disrupter Corps than you do, and a lot more about the Peacekeeper High Command than you do. There are a few people that accept that change is necessary if we are to survive. A few more who can have change forced on them to save their positions and power." She stopped and a slow smile spread over her face." And, there are a few who have had some interesting sexual contacts who can be blackmailed into helping us."

Chatto leaned forward and looked very serious. She was good at this. "John looks Sebacean enough to fool anyone without a full medical examination. And he's smart and capable enough to fit into a level of civilization he couldn't have imagined a few cycles ago. And ruthless and tough enough to make fools of some Peacekeepers I could name. John would be the wedge. Accept that John is their equal and they have to accept that others might also be their equal"

I almost laughed in her face. "You expect the Peacekeepers to just accept John and not execute him out of hand or send him off to a Gammack Base to be studied? You can't be frelling serious."

Chatto sighed. Once again I had disappointed her and acted like a grunt. Well, good for me. "Not all Peacekeepers. Just a select few. A few in just the right places to put the Peacekeepers in a position where they'll have to change instead of die. A revolutionary elite, if you like."

I thought about this, seriously. She just might be right about the Scarren's plan. I had a clear enough view of the Peacekeepers now to dismiss the idea that they were invincible because they Peacekeepers. They were spread thinly between the stars. Given a crisis away from the Uncharted Territories, a horde of barbarians could come smashing through their defenses and do enough damage to let the Scarrens launch a successful offensive. And what then? A Scarren victory was possible.

Her idea about using John to convince any part of First Command to give up their cherished notions of superiority was absurd. But it made just enough sense that someone clutching at straws would try it. Chatto was afraid of the Scarrens and ready to grasp at straws. Assuming this wasn't a Disrupter Corps plot to grab John for his wormhole knowledge. How many people in the Peacekeepers would love to see Scorpius taken down a little? Securing a functional wormhole where the Scarren half-breed had failed would be sweet to many Peacekeepers. Frell! All I had to do was get John back and get the frell away.

"It all sounds like some stupid Disrupter plan to me, Chatto. Let's just get John back and let him make up his mind by himself."

Chatto giggled. "I was hoping to help him decide."

So was I, but I didn't mention that.

"So where do we start looking, Disrupter Chatto?"

"We go see the Dux Belloram at his command center, of course."

And off we went, back down the hallways to the central square and the command center. Chatto swept past the guards at the command center door and on into the command center itself. Once inside we stopped. We couldn't go any further since the so-called command center was jammed with people eating, drinking, and talking. Music was playing and I could see some people dancing. At least they had their arms around each other and were moving. A fight broke out between two large ursanoids. Before it spread, two armored guards moved in, using the enhanced strength of their powered armor to flatten the two brawlers and leave them lying bloody on the floor.

Chatto and I pushed our way towards one end of the huge room. I could see that a long table ran down the sides of the room, filled with people eating and drinking. A pair of women were dancing in the open space between the tables. At the far end of the room was a raised platform with a half a dozen people seated at a table.

Chatto pulled me to her and yelled in my ear over the din. "The Dux Belloram and his staff are seated at the far end. His favored clients and retainers are at the tables. The lesser beings stand. I'm going to try to get word to him that I want to see him."

I looked at the madhouse. "Frell that. I'll go talk to him now."

Chatto tried to stop me, but I brushed her off. "Sun, wait a frelling minute. Frell, wait."

I started to walk past the two dancers when one turned on me.

"Going somewhere, Peacekeeper?"

She was tall and strongly built, but didn't seem to be particularly dangerous. I was worrying too much about John as it turned out.

"I'm going to the Dux Belloram." I started to push past her again, and again she blocked me.

"Don't even think about it, Peacekeeper." The other dancer had moved away and the crowd around us had quieted down. That was all the warning I had, but it was enough.

She pivoted on one foot and snapped a kick at my head. I dodged it and managed to grab her booted leg near the ankle. I kicked her hamstring as hard as I could and was rewarded by a grunt of pain. I tried to hold onto her leg, but she let her other leg fold under her and I lost my grip as she rolled away from me.

She rolled to her feet and faced me. I could see she was favoring her injured leg, so I feinted at that leg with a kick. As she reached for my foot, I drew the foot back and threw a punch at her neck. I missed the larynx, but I still hurt her. She shook her head, grunted and gave a strangling cough. I took a chance and kicked at her uninjured leg. I connected just to the side of the knee and felt her ligaments tear. She fell to the floor, clutching her knee. I circled behind her and leapt on her back. I grabbed her hair and slammed her head in to the rock floor.

I started to stand and sensed a pair of armored guards on either side of me. Sure enough, a pair of armored hands grabbed me from each side and I was carried to the main table. Another guard lifted the injured woman up and carried her along.

We stopped at the table and the man sitting in the center of the table stopped eating and looked at me.

He smiled at me. "So, Peacekeeper, since you've defeated my Principal Wife, you are now my Betrothed. Excellent! I've always wanted a Peacekeeper connection. Come sit with me, Beloved."

Frell. Frell. Frell.

Chatto slipped in between the guards and stood by my side. "Captain Sun is a Peacekeeper, of course, and as such is totally averse to any sort of long term relationships. She did not understand that she was challenging Takya to be your Principal Wife and is unable to serve in that position. The Peacekeepers would be very unhappy with you should you press this issue, Dux Belloram."

He snorted. "I rule here, not the Peacekeepers. She will be my new Principal Wife."

Chatto moved over to whisper in my ear. "I told you to stay with me, Sun. Well, there's no other choice. After your honeymoon, I'm sure the Dux Belloram will be happy to institute a search for John. Perhaps in another cycle when a challenge is in order again, you can lose and then leave."

I turned to Chatto in shock. "That's it? You frelling bitch. If you think I'm going to spend one microt with this third rate dictator of a fourth rate lump of rock, you're even further out of your frelling mind than I thought. Once I get out of this÷."

The Dux Belloram interrupted. "What? You refuse the Dux Belloram?" He roared. " This is unheard of. It is an insult by the Peacekeepers to my dignity. The marriage is off. I cannot wed this, this Peacekeeper. You two will sit with me and discuss my just demands for reparations for this cruel and unjustified insult." The Dux Belloram gestured for the two of us to sit by his side.

Suddenly he stood to his full height, which turned out to be considerable, and bellowed to the assembled mob. "Where is the music? The dancing? The eating and the drinking? The fighting? Is this not the house of the Dux Belloram? Do you all insult me with your silence?"

The crowd resumed their activities with a great deal of haste as the Dux Belloram stood and glared at one and all. I decided he might just be a Sebacean, but certainly the largest I had ever seen. He was taller than D'Argo and even more heavily muscled. His dark hair was worn long and loose. Underneath a costly embroidered robe, he wore some sort of body armor and carried a pair of well-used pulse pistols in a sash around his waist.

As we walked around the table to take our seats, Chatto hissed an explanation at me. "You just had to interrupt the frelling dance, didn't you, grunt. It was a just a highly stylized ritual combat between the Principal Wife and the Second Wife. No one would have gotten hurt if you hadn't interfered. The Dux Belloram has no desire for a Peacekeeper consort and certainly not for you, if he has any sense. So he had to be enormously insulted at your refusal and decline to marry you. But, now he has to get compensation from the Peacekeepers for your frelling insult, or lose face with his people. I hope for John's sake the Dux doesn't want more than I can give him."

I didn't care about Chatto's problems. "I doubt if any man is capable of wanting more than you can give."

Chatto laughed. "Perhaps I'll suggest that the two of us show our respect and admiration for the Dux in private. He'd enjoy that."

I very carefully got my temper under control, and by the time I did, we were seated. I managed to sit between Chatto and the Dux. Soon the two of them were deep in a discussion about a supply of new weapons, which Chatto seemed happy to turn over to the Dux and some intelligence on a pirate named Krajina, which she either couldn't or wouldn't supply. As the negotiations dragged on, a man walked out to the open space where the wives had danced. He had a young girl with him and they bowed to the Dux Belloram. He waved vaguely to them and continued the conversation with Chatto.

The man and the girl backed away and then stood facing each other in the center of the floor. High pitched, shrill music began. The man also might have been part Sebacean, but was far leaner than any Sebacean I had ever seen. The girl was anthropoid, but clearly not Sebacean. She was dressed in a full-length dress that seemed to be composed of many squares of cloth.

Then the man strode to the girl. Her hand swept out and a knife barely missed the man's face. When the girl withdrew her knife, a square of cloth floated to the floor and a deep gash was left in her forearm. Every time she attacked , the man avoided her and left her with one less piece of clothing and one more wound. In ten microns the girl was nude and covered with gashes. At last she threw herself at the man and aimed a blow at his neck that seemed as if it must connect. But the man turned at the last microt and the knife missed. He grabbed her hand and twisted the knife out of it. Then he drove his other fist into the girl's stomach. She collapsed. He walked over to the Dux Belloram and bowed again.

The Dux nodded. "She has spirit, if no skill. Train her, Perram." The Dux turned back to Chatto and continued their conversation.

Perram bowed and walked off. Guards had already removed the unconscious girl.

I suddenly realized something about myself. Five cycles or more ago I would have been disgusted at seeing such an inept performance used as entertainment. The girl had strength and excellent reflexes, but obviously no skill with a knife. Now I was disgusted at the performance itself. Why should someone suffer to entertain others? Frell. I had changed.

Suddenly, I noticed that Chatto was standing up. I rose and saw that the Dux Belloram had stood up also. He reached over and put an arm around me and said, just loud enough for the others at the table to hear, "Too bad Captain Sun, you'd be an interesting Principal Wife." The he pulled me into an embrace and then he slapped my bottom. Hard.

I pulled away and smiled sweetly at him and said, just loud enough for his friends at the table to hear, "If you ever touch me there again, I'll start by shooting off your÷.'

Chatto grabbed me and started pulling me away. "We thank you, Dux Belloram, for your generosity." She bellowed over my threats.

She dragged me the edge of the crowd and then stopped. "Sun, will you try to remember we're trying to rescue your shipmate and friend, John? Stop thinking like a grunt. No, not that. Just stop thinking, if that's what you call what you do. Just let me worry about how to save John and save yourself for damaging people when we need it and when I tell you to."

I decided to ignore that. "So what did you learn?"

Chatto looked like she was going to continue arguing with me, but apparently thought better of the idea. "In return for some obsolete missiles that the Dux will, I hope, sell to a smuggler that operates in Scarren territory, I managed to break up your impending marriage. Please don't thank me for bailing you out of the mess you got yourself into."

She stopped as if she expected me to apologize. I didn't.

"I also found that they know nothing about John, except that their one functional surveillance unit in the docking bay picked up flash of a pulse weapon firing this evening. One flash. But nothing else that would be of any use to us."

That I didn't like. "One shot. If John fired, then he would have won the fight. Which means÷." I couldn't continue the thought.

Chatto glared at me. "Which means he lost."

Something suddenly occurred to me. "You antagonized me to get me to insult the Dux Belloram with that dren about having to be his Principal Wife for a cycle, didn't you? You did that so he would have to refuse me by being insulted in public."

Chatto laughed. "Sometime you do surprise me, grunt."

She stopped laughing when we saw Takya, the Principal Wife coming towards us.

I pushed Chatto to one side and dropped my hand to my pistol. Takya only smiled.

"The Dux Belloram asked me to interrogate some beings who are known to pay close attention to the doings of others, Captain Sun. You need not fear me."

I started to give Takya a list of reasons why I didn't need to fear her, but decided against it. Getting information about John was taking too long as it is.

"Thank you, Takya."

Takya smiled and gestured to Chatto. "This is for Captain Sun's ears. It is her crewman who was lost."

Chatto looked like she'd start to argue, but backed off instead.

When Chatto moved away, Takya slowly looked me up and down. "He is more than a crewman, isn't he, Peacekeeper?"

Frell! I couldn't afford to have people thinking I wasn't behaving like a real Special Ops Captain. I started to deny it, but Takya waved me into silence.

"It is of no importance to me how you wish the Universe to see you, Captain Sun. No one has seen your crewman and none of those who make it their business to see and hear what others do know anything. The Dux Belloram is appreciative of the support he receives from the Peacekeepers. He has ordered his guards to patrol everywhere in search of your crewman and has told all who value his protection to report any knowledge of this Officer Crichton at once. "

Then she paused.

"But÷"

"But? What the frell is the "but" about, Takya. Isn't the Dux Belloram in charge here? What the frell do you mean by "but"?"

Takya shrugged her shoulders. "Others have cut their own caves into this planetoid. Some we know of, and some we only suspect and, doubtlessly, there are some we are ignorant of. Everyone who comes here does so because they value the Dux Belloram's hospitality and the many goods and services available here and not at more, shall we say, rigidly, administered places. But all answer only to themselves and would violate the Dux Belloram's hospitality if they thought they could do so successfully."

"Violate hospitality? Oh, I'll violate a lot more than hospitality if I don't find John in one piece and frelling soon. I'll let them know÷"

Takya put her arm on mine. "Captain Sun, your devotion to your missing comrade, Officer Crichton, is admirable. Doubtlessly this is all part of your famous Peacekeeper training."

In other words, don't frell up by using John's first name in public and acting like he's that important to you. I glanced at Chatto. She didn't appear to have noticed my little outburst. When I turned back to Takya, she was walking away from me.

Chatto walked over and I told her what Takya had told me.

Chatto smiled at me. "Well, speaking of people cutting their own caves, it's about time we talked to the Kremmennchugg."

"The Kremmennchugg? Who the frell are they?" But Chatto ignored me and started walking through the central square. I caught up with her and tried to ask who the Kremmennchuggs were, but she ignored me.

Finally, we turned into a long, but well lit tunnel. At the end of the tunnel was a large pool of water. Chatto walked into the water until it reached her waist. She turned and motioned to me to join her. We stood there in the cold water for a dozen or more microts. I was about to tell Chatto to go swimming by herself when the water around us erupted.

A dozen or more snake-like forms darted back and forth in front of us. A glance over my shoulder showed there were two or three behind us. I had my pistol out and almost fired. Then I saw Chatto was standing by me, completely unconcerned. I lowered my pistol and then holstered it. The critters continued to weave around us. One stuck his head in my face, all huge teeth and rotting fish breath.

Finally, Chatto spoke. "Stop! Dulwasstor, show yourself."

The snakes slunk off, leaving one of their own behind to face us. Dulwasstor, if that was his name, stood before us. He must have been very long, but most of his body was underwater. I noticed he had spindly arms just below his head.

"Peacekeepers. Welcome to my home. What can I do to help you?"

"This is Captain Sun, Peacekeeper Special Ops."

Dulwasstor lowered his head almost to the water. "I degrade myself before you, Captain Sun. I am your slave."

I glanced at Chatto.

She gestured towards the being. "Dulwasstor and his people were genetically modified by the Peacekeepers. There was a water planet that we had trouble with. After a few not very successful Peacekeeper raids, somebody thought about doing a little genetic engineering on these beings. The arms and the teeth are our doing. But, as luck would have it, the confederation that hired us ran out of money and the project was scrubbed. Dulwasstor and his people weren't needed after all. Regrettably, the modifications had inadvertently made it impossible for them to return to their own planet. Something about too much nitrogen being absorbed in their blood. Oh, and, of course, we hard wired absolute loyalty to the Peacekeepers into their brain as a precaution. In spite of the fact that they hate us, Sun, we have no more loyal subordinates than Dulwasstor and his people."

Dulwasstor lowered his head before Chatto. "You are correct, Disrupter Chatto. How may I serve you?"

"Who has been here in the last twenty arns and why."

Dulwasstor thought for a microt. "Thessalaki the smuggler was here some ten arns ago, Disrupter. He was alone and wanted information on our home world. He wishes to smuggle inexpensive intoxicants. The second was Ferhat Abbas. He came with one crew person and left alone." Dulwasstor laughed soundlessly. "The crew person had been disloyal. This is no longer a problem."

Chatto thought for a microt. "All right. You will advise me immediately if you come across any information about a Peacekeeper. He's missing and we want him back."

Dulwasstor smiled. "A most unpleasant thought. A Peacekeeper held captive in the many tunnels of this planetoid. How sad for him. But, I have no means to contact you."

Chatto raised her voice. "You will get any information you have to me if you have to crawl, yourself, through the tunnels until your skin dries and flakes off, do you understand me?"

I stopped Chatto's rant. "Dulwasstor, we Special Operators are always prepared for contingencies." I removed a spare communicator from my pocket and handed it to him. "I always carry spare equipment. This should function, even under water, for several solar days. Contact me at once if you have any information about the Peacekeeper, or any other information we may need."

The snake leader bowed. "As you order, Captain Sun."

Chatto turned and walked back out of the water with me following her. When we reached the main tunnel again, I stopped her.

"Why the frell didn't you ask about John? Tell Dulwasstor who were looking for?"

Chatto shook her head slowly. "They hate us, Sun. And if they can think of any way to sabotage this, they will. Peacekeeper programming only goes so far. They will never attack a Peacekeeper, but a human wearing a Peacekeeper uniform is a different matter."

I sneered at Chatto. "Oh, and where is the great alliance of beings you want to oppose the Scarrens. Dulwasstor and his people don't get to join?"

Chatto gave me a strange, sad look. "No, they'd pick the Scarrens over us even if the Scarrens gave them a written guarantee they'd be exterminated right after the last Peacekeeper died. They hate us that much. As they should."

By the time we reached the central square, Chatto had gotten her old spirit back.

"Ferhat Abbas is a smuggler who's just made a very successful run. He and his crew should be drinking and whoring for days. He shouldn't be planning his next run for a couple of weekens. I'm suddenly curious as to why he suddenly has to dispose of a disloyal crew person."

Chatto turned on her heel and began walking towards a large, noisy tavern. We stopped at the open door of the tavern. Inside beings I presumed were Abbas's crew were drinking, singing and fondling their women, or men, while a very loud band of musicians tried to deafen the lot.

"You stay here, Sun. A Peacekeeper Special Ops Captain at this little party is not a good idea. Before I could ask any questions, Chatto swept through the door. Everyone seemed to know her. She was offered drinks and a place on a half a dozen laps. She laughed and talked to a dozen beings from different races but quickly made her way to a large man sitting alone at a table in back. Chatto sat down on his lap. He put his hand on her thigh and began stroking it. I could see them talking, but it was impossible to tell what they were saying. Chatto seemed to be enjoying herself, though.

Then, Chatto and the smuggler captain rose from the chair and walked out a back door. Chatto turned briefly and smiled in my direction.

Frell! Chatto was going to go frelling off and frell the frelling captain while John was held in some frelling cave. I quickly walked around to the back of the tavern. There was a little alleyway in back. I could see Chatto rubbing herself up against Abbas, writhing against him. The trelk couldn't even wait to get to her room. Then Chatto sagged back against the wall. Abbas drove his fist into her stomach.

"What the frell do you Peacekeepers want with me, Chatto?" Chatto spat in his face. I had to admire her spirit if not her timing. Abbas slammed her head against the stone wall behind the tavern.

I drew my pistol and stepped into the alleyway. "On the ground now, Abbas!"

Abbas turned and quickly dragged Chatto in front of him. He had a pistol pointed at Chatto's head.

"I think not, Peacekeeper. You drop your weapon or I'll shoot. If you decide to shoot, the last thing I'll do is pull the trigger and kill the Disrupter. Do you want that?"

I fired. As it happened, the last thing he did was to lose control of his bowels.

Chatto walked toward me, slowly. "I'm going to assume that you absolutely knew he'd be dead before he could kill me and don't you dare say one frelling word to me until we get back to my quarters."

I ignored her. "Why did he want to kill you?"

Chatto glared at me. "He wanted to know why a Peacekeeper Special Ops Captain was interested in him. He thought you wanted him."

I thought about that for a microt. "Why? He had a good relationship with the local Peacekeeper Disrupter. I assume he had a good relationship with you, didn't he?"

Chatto nodded.

"So why panic and try to kill you just because I show up?"

Chatto smiled. "Well, grunt, my guess is he had something to hide from the Peacekeepers. But now that he's dead, we may not figure out what it was in time to help John. Assuming it had anything to do with John."

"You're welcome, Chatto."

She stopped and looked at me for a few microts. "Thank you, Captain Sun."

Chatto continued to limp towards her quarters.

I grabbed her arm and stopped her. "You aren't seriously considering just going back to your quarters and going to sleep? What about John?"

"Listen, grunt. I'm sure John would very much like to be rescued by two women who are alert and awake enough not to frell everything up. If you want to go wander around this rock until you fall over, be my guest. I have had a long day and a very bad night. Suit yourself."

Chatto pulled away from me and headed down the corridor. I cursed her silently, but followed her. I knew too little about this place to do John any good. Frighten the wrong person and they might kill John to silence him. Frell! Frell! Frell!

Back at her quarters, Chatto gestured to her couch. "You can sleep there. The security system recognizes you, but I wouldn't recommend walking into my bedroom with a drawn pulse pistol."

I glared at her. "I'm probably the only person on this station who hasn't brandished their weapon in your bedroom."

Chatto turned and walked into her bedroom without a word. I lay down on the couch and tried to think of what I should do next. The next thing I knew, Chatto was shaking me awake.

"Up and at 'em, grunt. We have places to go. I've been in contact with some people from my office this morning."

I staggered into the bathroom and quickly cleaned myself as best I could. When I came out, I couldn't help but notice that Chatto had a new, more revealing dress on. It was black, covered her from head to toe and was almost completely transparent. She was freshly made up and I noticed she had on perfume. I was more conscious of my own smell and appearance. For just a microt I wanted to look and smell like Chatto when we found John. I quickly pushed that thought out of my mind. If Crichton chose appearances over competence, he could have her and he was welcome to her.

We walked back to the central square. We headed for a place that actually had a front door. It seemed that most patrons on the various establishments on this rock left by being thrown out when they got too obnoxious or too poor. We were obviously headed for an upscale establishment.

The door was opened by a man whose sole function seemed to be to stand there and make sure the clientele didn't have to open a door on their own. It turned out to be a gambling establishment. I recognized various games of chance. Peacekeepers were used to great risks and had little use for accumulating great amounts of currency, so they tended to be heavy gamblers and equally heavy losers in places like this.

Chatto whispered to some functionary who waved us into a small alcove. I took the opportunity to look over the clientele. Most appeared to be ship's captains or senior officers, enjoying themselves between voyages. Most were male and most of the women with them looked beautiful, knowing, and very expensive. The d»cor was gaudy and obviously expensive. A thick maroon rug with a complex pattern covered the floor. The tables for the gamblers were a deep, rich wood. The walls were splashed with bright colors.

I bent over to whisper in Chatto's ear. "It looks like a frelling Llibarian brothel."

She chuckled. "How do you know what a brothel looks like, grunt?"

Before I could reply, or break something, the functionary returned and whispered to Chatto.

She drew me a little way away. "Ginsizz wants to talk alone. He's a gutless little yotz, so I expected that. Two dangerous people in his office are probably more than he can handle. You stay here." She walked away.

I started to head after her. "Frell that. The last time I left you alone, you nearly got killed."

Chatto turned and pushed me back against the wall, hard. My hand dropped to my pistol. Chatto laughed.

"I probably will get killed one day, grunt. Shot by somebody I trusted too much, Or too little. You'll probably die similarly, but with less style, of course. But I still know my job better than you do, so start following orders, grunt, or start shooting. And pray you can find John without me."

She walked away and I stayed where I was. While I was planning assorted murder and mayhem, a fancily dressed waiter walked over and offered me a drink.

"Compliments of the house, Captain."

I took the glass and swirled the blue drink around and looked at the customers. One of the few female customers was watching me closely with a nasty little smile on her face. She had a crowd of pretty boys with her, although she looked like she needn't have paid for male attention. Frell, I'd be glad to get off this rock. Then the woman lifted her glass and silently toasted me. I raised my glass in return and started to drink.

Chatto's hand slapped the glass from my hand and her foot slammed into the waiters mivonks. He doubled over in pain and Chatto grabbed him by the hair and rammed his head into a wall. He became very docile. Chatto started to drag him off.

"Chatto, what the frell is going on? What did the waiter do?"

Chatto continued to the back of the casino, making sure to ram the waiter's head into every solid object she passed.

"He's no waiter, Sun. He's a pimp. And your drink was a very broad spectrum aphrodisiac. It's cheaper than hiring, you know."

We pushed our way through a door at the back of a casino. We were in an office that was, if anything, in gaudier taste than the casino outside. A small, slender anthropoid was sitting behind a very large desk. He wore a bright pink jacket with a collar than went all the way to the top of his head. His hair was long and dark. He had a protruding jaw and fear in his eyes.

Chatto threw the pimp onto the desk. The casino owner scrambled back, but his guest only laid on the desk and sobbed.

"Ginsizz, what is this piece of dren doing in your casino? And why was he offering Captain Sun a drink? A very nasty drink?"

Ginsizz tried to brazen it out. "I have bodyguards, Chatto. Do not attempt to intimidate me."

He did have guards, too. Very large ones. Dumb ones, too, I guessed from their reaction to our entrance. They were still waiting for Ginsizz to tell them what to do, rather than start to spread out, or draw their weapons, or anything sensible you'd do if two violent Peacekeepers seemed to be intimidating your boss. Perhaps "intimidating" was too long a word for them to understand.

Chatto laughed. "You have bodyguards? Captain Sun has a Peacekeeper Special Ops team. A team aboard a command carrier, with a regiment of regulars and a nice contingent of Prowlers and Marauders, as well. Would you care to meet them?"

I smiled sweetly at the bodyguards and they started backing away, moving their hands away from their weapons.

Ginsizz saw the light. "He came to me and offered ten thousand in currency. He said a rich and foolish young lady was coming here to see a genuine pirate's base, assured that her father's wealth and status would protect her. If I had known he was targeting a Peacekeeper, I would have informed you at once. I would have torn his eyes out with my own hands. I would never÷"

Ginsizz was interrupted by a pulse pistol blast the seared his ear and ruined a gaudy, pornographic painting behind his desk.

Ginsizz grabbed his ear and howled, the bodyguards and I went for our guns, and Chatto screamed, "Shoot his frelling hand, his frelling hand."

I shot the pimp cleanly through his hand and the tiny pulse pistol he had carried fell to the floor. The guards proceeded to fill him full of little bolts of yellow light, as someone had once described them. When it was all over, the pimp was dead and Chatto was enraged.

"Ginsizz, you find out who he was working for. If you can't find out who he worked for, I want to know everybody he's seen, talked to, or asked about since he got on this rock. Do you understand."

Ginsizz nodded his head so enthusiastically I thought he might hurt himself. "Of course, Lady Jenavia. I will oversee this myself. His every secret will be yours in a solar day. I promise you."

He was still making promises when we left.

I made a point to look for the woman who had toasted me an almost caused me to drink the aphrodisiac, but she was no where in sight. I mentioned her to Chatto.

She thought for a few microts. "Captain Cuchilla, a nasty, sadistic lady. I will have to do a little something about her appreciation of Peacekeepers, but I rather doubt she'd be involved in this. For many reasons she has a great deal to gain by a Peacekeeper presence in this part of the Uncharted Territories. Oh, and Captain Sun, you're welcome."

"Thank you for saving my life, Disrupter Chatto."

Chatto smiled, but then the smile faded. "Something smells. Is it you, Sun?"

I tried not to blush, but I did. "I was in a cramped Prowler for two days coming here. I was in a filthy alley last night, if you'll remember. I wasn't given time to shower or anything this morning. And I didn't÷"

Chatto waved away my explanations. "I didn't get a good shower myself. So, I know where we'll go next."

A quarter of an arn later, Chatto and I were in an enormous tub, filled with soapy water and pouring scented oils on ourselves. I tried to watch Chatto without being obvious about it. She was beautiful and had an excellent body. I didn't doubt that her training included how to keep a man satisfied and making a fool out of himself over her. I carefully pushed that particular feeling down. John was far too intelligent to go off with Disrupter Chatto. He was too loyal to his friends to desert us. He had accepted an enormous amount of abuse from me without ever deciding to leave before. I wished I hadn't thought of that last one.

A young woman walked into the room and knelt by Chatto. Chatto motioned for me to come over to her.

"Captain Sun, this is Mirika. This is her establishment. You'd be surprised how loose people's tongues and thoughts get when they're in here like this.

Mirika got right down to business. "The late, unlamented Captain Abbas was here briefly last night. He had his officers and some local women with him. He bragged of having acquired a powerful and generous patron. A being who would make him wealthy and respected. Wealthy enough to retire."

Chatto smiled. "A wealthy and generous patron? Did he provide any further details?"

Mirika shook her head. Chatto sighed and made a gesture to Mirika, who stood and walked out of the room

"Frell. Well, Sun, that helps a little. Abbas was a relatively wealthy captain. He owned his own ship and had investments in a number of places in the Uncharted Territories. And, he was a very greedy man. Someone wealthy and powerful enough to pay him well enough to consider retiring suggest someone very powerful and wealthy, indeed. Something like a government? Scorpius, perhaps?"

That name made my stomach clench. I pushed my way through the water to push my face into Chatto's. "If this is some frelling Peacekeeper plot to get John for the Peacekeepers, I'll kill you and Scorpius and every Peacekeeper I can before they kill me. Do you understand that?"

Her smile just got wider. "How many times have you frelled John, grunt?"

That was the last thing I expected to hear from Chatto and I responded without thinking. "That is none of your frelling business, Chatto. John is my business. And he is very much my personal business and none of your concern."

Chatto was enjoying this. "I think our little grunt has changed since she met John Crichton. You might actually have feelings under all that Peacekeeper emotional armor you still wear. No Peacekeeper would react like that to being asked how many times she's frelled a good-looking man. What about it, Sun? Do you care for John?"

I stopped and forced myself to look calmly at Chatto. I replied as calmly as I could. "What I am now, what I have done since leaving the Peacekeepers, and what I feel, if anything is none of your concern. But if Scorpius is in any way involved in this, we had better find John and get him off this miserable rock as soon as possible. Right?"

Chatto rolled her eyes. "Wrong. If Scorpius is involved, John is much safer with a Peacekeeper Disrupter to protect him than he would be depending on some renegade."

That was unbelievable. "What? John has managed to stay alive and out of Scorpius's hands for cycles now. How can you possibly believe that you are capable of standing up to Scorpius? One word from your superiors and you'd have to hand John over."

"And under your protection, Sun, he was captured twice by Scorpius, driven to the brink of madness and, if rumor is correct, he even tried to kill you. Scorpius is neither trusted nor relied on by the upper levels of First Command. Scorpius cares for no one but himself, and too many people know it. My superiors would never allow Scorpius to have John. The order to hand John over would never be given. And Scorpius is not the only person interested in John, is he? How about the Scarrens? They captured John at least once, didn't they? He escaped with no help from you, didn't he? Or the Nabari? Are our reports correct that it was John that rescued all of you from the Nabari mind cleansing?"

I glared at Chatto and tried to find a reply that didn't depend on what I found was a deeply held and very emotional belief that John was better of with his friends on Moya than anywhere else in the Universe. Frell! Admit it, he was better off with me.

Before I could come up with an answer, Chatto's face softened.

"Sun, we have to find John first. If we don't, none of our arguments will be of any interest to John."

She stopped and slowly looked me up and down. "I underestimated you. Given a choice between two beautiful, competent and lethal women, John's choice would be more difficult than I had thought."

Chatto turned suddenly and walked out of the tub. I followed her. She didn't see the smile on my face.

Another quarter of an arn and we were back in the central square. My uniform had been cleaned, right down to John's well-worn Calvins. I actually felt good. Until Chatto opened her mouth.

"Stay in your quarters for the rest of the day? No frelling way, Chatto!"

"Sun, you absolutely can't go with me for my next inquiry. The people involved will not, repeat not, talk to me if you are anywhere near me. End of discussion."

She took me back to her quarters and into her office. She set me to going over her security records to see if I recognized any names or saw any faces that might be familiar. After three arns, I was starting to see the same faces again.

I left Chatto's quarters and went back to the central square. A few coins in the right hands, and a hand draped suggestively on my pulse pistol, got me the information that Chatto had headed for the landing bay. A few more coins got me to the ship.

It was a run down looking freighter, with every hatch tightly sealed. A quarter of an arns examination got me two pieces of information. Someone had gone to a great deal of effort to make the freighter look more run down than it was, and there was a garbage chute that should lead into the ship.

I crawled to the chute and slowly pulled myself in. Frell. And I had just gotten myself clean, too. I crawled through mostly liquid garbage and tried not to imagine where it came from. In a few microns, I was inside the ship. I quickly exited the garbage processing station and found myself in a large hold, filled with all manner of cargo. From the layout, I decided the engine room was behind me. Probably any prisoners would be held forward, so off I went. I was halfway across the hold when I heard a scrape behind me and turned. Something slammed into the back of my head and I fell forward. I tried to raise my pistol when I saw a boot aimed at my head. After that, all was darkness.

I came to a few microts later. My pulse pistol was gone and I was held off the floor by two large pincers. I turned and saw that my captor was some sort of insectoid, walking on four feet and holding me up with the other two. I aimed a kick at him, but he was covered in a chitin-like armor and my foot just bounced off. Turning the other way, I saw a short, round being carrying my pistol and running to keep up with my captor.

We walked through the cargo bay, and on into the crews quarters. A dozen or more crew members saw us and followed. Their comments were not encouraging. Eventually we reached a spacious and well-furnished room. Chatto was enjoying a bottle of wine with a being I took to be the captain. The shorter of my captors whispered a report in the captain's ear.

"Friend Chatto, it appears your subordinate has disobeyed you and attempted to board my ship. Is not execution the appropriate punishment for it?"

Chatto smiled. "It will be punished. But it is useful and it will be missed if it does not return to it's command carrier, Friend Dorwag."

Friend Dorwag opined that things had gotten damnably lax since he was a young man and that in his day, he'd have seen me dismembered, slowly and with the appropriate ceremony. But he eventually conceded that Chatto had a point. There was a short, whispered conversation between Chatto and Dorwag and then the insect put me down. My pistol was handed to Chatto. In a few microts we were out of the ship. Chatto silently handed me back my pistol.

"Still nothing but a frelling grunt when the chips are down, aren't you, Sun? Didn't I tell you that you couldn't come with me? Not under any circumstances? What part of "no" didn't you understand?"

I didn't have the time for this. "What did you learn about John. And who are those beings?"

Chatto stopped and looked like she was about to explode. Then she let out a breath.

"They didn't see whatever happened to John. Another ship, since left, was in the way. But they have very good surveillance devices. They recorded the single shot that was fired, and analyzed it. It was a Peacekeeper pulse pistol shot. They sent a man out to check, but he found only a pistol by your Prowler. Not wanting to keep incriminating evidence around, they left it where it was."

"There was no pistol when I checked and found John gone."

We stopped by my Prowler and carefully searched the area. There was still no pistol.

"You didn't answer the second part of my question. Who are those people in that ship?"

Chatto let out an exaggerated sigh. "Friends."

"I know they were your frelling friends, but who are they?"

"The Society of Friends. A criminal conspiracy that used to operate a great deal in space that is now controlled by the Scarrens. A cycle ago I met a member who, shall we say, had problems. In return for my help with his problems, I became a member of the Society. Actually, our goals and our means aren't that different. But they don't like frelling Peacekeepers sneaking onto their frelling ships through the garbage chute."

Chatto leaned over and sniffed at me. "You must have stopped to completely cover yourself in dren in there. You stink. Well, you fit right in at our next stop."

I thought about what Chatto had said. I knew nothing about her. I had assumed she was a loyal Peacekeeper, ruthless, professional and dedicated. Could I have been wrong? Was Chatto loyal only to herself? Was she really a criminal pretending loyalty to the Peacekeepers? Could her palpable hatred of Scarrens be a cover for her real beliefs? Frell. It wasn't often I wished Rygel was around, but the little toad might have been useful about now.

We walked through the hallways of the planetoid amidst stares, pinched noses and a few nasty stares. At the end of a hallway, we started walking down a circular set of stairs cut into the rock. As we went further down, the air got stuffier and smellier.

"What smells down here, Chatto?"

"You mean aside from you? This is where the Scavengers live. They handle all of the waste that this place generates."

We were stopped by a stooped, gray skinned being wrapped in an old blanket. He inquired politely as to what we needed.

"We need to see the Old One."

The being shrugged and waved down the hallway. "You know the way, Lady Chatto."

The Old One lived up to her name. Her gray skin was wrinkled and covered with scars. She wore what once had been a fine leather coat that was far too long for her. She crouched atop a chair, decorated with odds and ends thrown away by others.

Chatto introduced me and gave a brief explanation of John's disappearance.

"A Peacekeeper pulse pistol was fired and then dropped in the landing bay. But someone took it away."

The Old One rubbed her chin. "Such a weapon is valuable. Many might take it. It is not necessary that it was one of us."

Before Chatto could react, I held out some currency. "That weapon is very valuable to me. Very valuable." I held the currency up before her eyes.

She thought for a microt and then motioned to one of her people who had been squatting nearby. He rose and rummaged in a container nearby. He returned with something wrapped in a piece of cloth. Inside was John's pistol.

"That's John's. That's Wynona?"

Chatto looked at me quizzically. "Wynona?"

"John named his gun after some female entertainer on Earth. I never did understand it. But it is his weapon."

I paid and thanked the Old One and we left. As we walked back, Chatto thought out loud.

"You say John was a fair shot. So perhaps he didn't get one shot and missed. Perhaps he hit his assailant. But, maybe he was attacked by a group. He hit one, but the rest got him and dragged off the injured one and John. Or it was the Dux Belloram's guards. Their powered armor will turn a pistol shot at close range."

I had an idea. "Maybe it was a Scarren. One of them could take a pulse pistol shot and not even notice it."

Chatto laughed a bit nervously. "A Scarren? I hope not. Given what my mission is here, I try very hard to make sure that any Scarren activity within fifty light cycles is reported to me at once. I hate to think one could get onto this rock without my knowing about it."

Unless you work for the Scarrens, I thought to myself.

Aloud I said, "Where next?"

Chatto wrinkled her nose. "To my quarters so you can clean up. Not only are you offensive to me, but the being we'll see next would hardly be able to stay within a metra of you like that."

A half an arn later, clean and fresh, we walked into a small business off of the central square. At the back of the shop stood a being I had thought I'd never see again.

Chatto took my arm. "Don't get worried, Sun. Vorlags are as peaceable a group as you'll ever find."

I almost laughed. "Unless you antagonize them by taking their clothes away and dropping them is a freezing tunnel with only raw meat to eat."

Chatto stared at me. "I hope you've never done that to this Vorlag."

As we walked closer, I saw that this was not Professor Lah Rhee. He looked enough like him that I suspected he might be related. He was, of course, a quadruped, and covered in thick brown fur. I could hear his tail thumping with happiness on the floor.

He sat at the back of his little shop in back of some sort of display case. Little tables were jammed into the front of the shop, each with one or two customers eating from small bowls. The Vorlag himself was smiling broadly at one and all. Like the professor, he wore a long, embroidered robe. His was a bright red and the embroidery was colorful flowers.

"Jenavia," He rumbled. "How good it is to see you. And you've brought another beautiful Sebacean lady to sample my wares. Excellent. Here, please sit next to me. There's plenty of room."

The Vorlag gestured to two heavily armed men seated near us. "Will you gentlemen please move a little so these ladies can join me?"

Even if he didn't own the shop, I'm sure almost anyone would be happy to obey a being nearly ten times my size, with a huge set of razor sharp fangs and hands full of equally sharp claws.

We sat down by the Vorlag.

"Moh, I would like to introduce Captain Aeryn Sun, Peacekeeper Special Ops. Captain Sun, this is Moh, the razor tooth Vorlag."

Moh reached over and gently but firmly shook my hand. "I'm so very pleased to meet you, Captain Sun. Any friend of dear Jenavia is certainly a friend of mine."

I shook his hand. "I met a vorlag once named Lah Rhee. He's a professor at the University of Vorlag. Do you know him?"

"Alas, dear lady, I do not. He was deeply fortunate to have met such a lovely Sebacean lady as yourself. I count the day I met my sweet Jenavia as one of the finest days of my life. I confess that since meeting dear Jenavia I have become just the least bit smitten with her. Alas, I fear we will always only be friends." He sighed dramatically.

I glanced sideways at Chatto. She didn't seem to be embarrassed by the effusive praise from our furry companion. But what Moh said next drove almost all other thoughts out of my mind.

"May I get you some iced cream?" Moh was starting to open his display cases, which I realized were refrigerated.

"Some what?" I managed to ask.

Chatto answered Moh. "Please do, Moh. My usual please and the same for Captain Sun." Chatto turned to me. "Iced cream. It's a Vorlag delicacy. I can't say that I've ever tasted anything like it."

I tried to keep my voice steady. "This iced cream, Moh. Are you sure it's a Vorlag delicacy? You didn't adopt it from another race. A race that looks remarkably like Sebaceans?"

That had tipped Chatto off to who I was talking about.

"John eats iced cream?"

All three of us were trying to talk and it took me a few microts to quiet the others. "I'm looking for a man who was apparently abducted from the docking bay. He looks Sebacean. Most people can't tell unless they give him a full medical examination. He calls himself a human. He's mentioned a human delicacy called ice cream many times. Could you have been in contact with his world? Could the Vorlags have gotten ice cream from a planet called Earth?"

Moh stared at me. I noticed he inhaled deeply. "Vorlags have made and eaten iced cream for thousands of cycles. And I know of no Vorlag who has ever spoken of a planet named Earth or of a race called humans. Word of a race so like Sebaceans would certainly speed through the cosmos, so I suspect no vorlags have contacted these humans."

Moh inhaled deeply again. "You care very deeply for this human."

It was a statement and not a question, so I didn't reply. I still didn't want any official Peacekeeper reports to contain any information about how John and I felt about each other. In spite of Chatto's assurances, it might just give the Scorpius another way to threaten John.

I noticed that both were watching me closely. Frell! I had to reply. "You can tell this just by smelling me?"

Moh shrugged his shoulders. "I can smell several races on you. You associate closely with a Luxan and a Nabari and others. But most of all, I smell the scent of an unknown race, which I presume is this human. And, Captain Sun, I smell a great deal of fear on you. As you do not appear to be in any danger, I then presume that the fear is for your companion. You are very unusual for a Peacekeeper Special Ops Captain. I would not have believed such as you were capable of such great fear for the safety of another, and certainly not for what must be a member of an unclassified species. You are indeed unique, Captain Sun."

Chatto reached over and scratched behind Moh's ears. "Aeryn is indeed unique. She's too unique to be Special Ops. She really should transfer to the Disrupters."

Moh let out a small yip of pleasure and Chatto stopped scratching. Then he busied himself making the three of us each a bowl of iced cream and a tall, cold glass of some liquid.

Moh placed a bowl and a glass in front of me. "Captain Sun, you should eat a small spoonful of the iced cream and follow it with a small sip of the drink."

I did so. The iced cream was sweet and the drink was tart. The combination of the two opposite sensation in my mouth was very pleasant.

I smiled at Moh. "This is excellent, Moh. The balance between the sweet and the tart makes the two together better than they are apart."

"Ah, you understand the Great Balance, then?" He smiled widely at me.

"The Great Balance? I'm afraid not. What is it?"

"Ah, Captain Sun. It is the belief that it is necessary for the entire Universe to be in balance. Sweet balanced with sour. Evil balanced with good. Hate balanced with love. Ugliness balanced with beauty."

I glanced at Chatto. She seemed to accept the Vorlag's philosophy. "The sweet is balanced with the sour today. But, I think we have a little too much evil, hate and ugliness."

Moh laughed, a deep throated rumble. "You have cut right to the problem of the philosopher, Captain. Not what is the desired end, but where and what are the means to that end. Have you considered studying philosophy, Captain?"

I had to smile. "If there were less evil, hate and ugliness, I might do that. Is the Great Balance the Vorlag's religion?"

Moh grew serious. "Many Vorlag's believe in the Great Balance. More do not. Many who are not Vorlags believe in the Great Balance. Many more do not. We strive."

Chatto put down her spoon and pushed the bowl away from her. "We need to continue with business, my friend. Have you smelled the human before? And if so, when?"

Moh though for a microt. "I noticed him briefly for a few microts at the same time I noted Captain Sun's scent. I remember it well, since it was when I also scented the Scarren."

"What!" Both Chatto and I reacted together.

Chatto took the vorlag's arm. "Why didn't you let me know of the Scarren, Moh. You know how they feel about us."

Moh looked embarrassed. "I told the Dux Belloram at once. I assumed that he would advise you of the presence of the Scarren. He holds no love for them either, or so I thought. The scent of the human and the Scarren disappeared within a few microts." Moh reached across the table and gently took Chatto's hand in both of his. "If you need assistance or protection, I am yours to command."

Chatto stroked his hand gently. "My friend, you are too peaceable to be of assistance against a Scarren. But, many thanks for your offer. You must excuse us now. Captain Sun and I have some things to do."

As soon as we are out of Moh's shop, Chatto pulled me into an alcove. "Frell. The Scarrens. Even if John hit him with his one shot, the beast would never notice. That explains Captain Abbas's new found protector. And how that pimp managed to get close to you. The frelling Scarren has paid off or scared off the Dux Belloram."

Chatto smiled at me. "Does your Leviathan have room for a small Disrupter? I may have to leave Columb Bechar sooner than I had imagined."

I stared grimly at Chatto. "We're not leaving here until we've found John. One way or the other."

Chatto laughed. That was habit that could get irritating. "May the gods I don't believe in protect me from a grunt in love."

I knew I blushed, but I didn't care. "How I feel, what I feel or even if I feel, is none of your frelling business. Do you understand that, Chatto?"

Chatto kept her irritating smile. "I no longer believe that John would of a certainty prefer me to you, Aeryn. I imagine when a Peacekeeper commando trained pilot, born to duty, falls in love, the effect must be something to behold."

I could not believe she was still talking while John÷..Yes. While John was doing what? Suffering? Dying? Floating dead in space?

Chatto kept talking. "I meant what I said, Aeryn. You could be a great Disrupter. You and John both would be. It would be so easy. Aeryn Sun and John Crichton would die with plenty of witnesses. Then, I'd recruit a nice Sebacean couple for the Disrupter Corps."

I was close to losing control. "Chatto. Instead of standing here talking, we need to look for John. Do you frelling understand that?"

Frell. I was losing it.

Chatto started walking off. "Aeryn, if John was dead the Scarren would have left him in front of your Prowler as a warning to Peacekeepers. Which mean they either know him and want him as John Crichton, human worm hole builder, in which case he's fine. Or they want him as your Peacekeeper subordinate, in which case they'll want to know all he knows about me and Captain Sun. And since that's nothing, they'll keep him alive for a long time before they give up."

I was about ready to start removing Chatto's smile one tooth at a time, but stopped myself. "You can't know that. You have no idea where John is or what's happened to him."

"Wrong again, grunt. I know where he is. I just don't know how to get there."

"Chatto, you are really starting÷"

"Temper, temper, Aeryn. I have my own sensors all over this rock. There are only two areas that I don't have sensors. Two areas that my good friend the Dux Belloram insisted that he needed to be free of my sensors for little projects that wouldn't hurt the Peacekeepers, but that he didn't want First Command to know about. I tried to plant sensors in those areas, but I was never successful. But, I know one little docking bay he has for his friends is off the control center. A Scarren carrying a Peacekeeper would pass too many of my sensors around the control center, not to mention people in my pay to get past unnoticed."

I found we had walked to the docking bay. Chatto gestured to the far end of the bay. "The other hidden docking bay is down there someplace. There's a maze of maintenance corridors and such there. I tried to send someone in there to scout it out, but he never came back. I tried to set up sensors at that end of the bay to track anyone going into the other docking bay. I've paid off enough people to have a rough idea where the bay itself is, but I've never been able to locate the entrance."

We had stopped in front of the orange colored Burlian smuggler's vessel John and I had first seen only a few days ago. Had it only been a few solar days? I felt like I had been looking for John for cycles.

Chatto picked up a small piece of metal and threw it at the ship. It bounced off their defense shield and landed back at her feet. She picked it up and threw it again. "Wake up in there. This is Peacekeeper Disrupter Jenavia Chatto and Captain Aeryn Sun. if you don't talk, I'll have your ship torn open and interrogate you while you choke to death on oxygen."

The defense shield stayed up, but a hatch opened and I could see a pale worm staring out at us. "Depart. We mix not with oxygen breathers. We have no business to be done."

Chatto moved as close to the hatch as she could without touching the defense shield. "I need to talk about a being who was here at the ship over there. We can do business if÷"

The next thing I knew, Chatto had been thrown back onto the hard rock of the landing bay by the suddenly expanded defense shield.

Chatto picked herself up. "Lying sack of dren. They wouldn't be here if they didn't mix with oxygen breathers and do business with them. I'll make frelling sure their mixing and doing gets frelled."

I grabbed her elbow and jerked her around to face me. "We have to find John, not salve your wounded pride. Now how the frell are we going to find him?"

Chatto gave me a look filled with offended dignity. "We go to the next ship and ask if they saw anything. Then we'll bribe the bastards for what little they might have seen."

Chatto headed for a sleek looking warship further down the docking bay. As I got closer, the sleekness started to fade. What I had thought had been a mottled paint job was actually scorch marks from hits on the hull. One or two had apparently penetrated the hull. One gun turret had taken a direct hit and seen up close was obviously useless. A second was merely damaged. The missile tubes I could see were empty.

Chatto pointed with her chin at the ship. "Those are the Toogs. They're the losers in some local civil war in the vicinity. Their ship is, as you can see, worthless. How the frell it got this far is beyond me. They're not mercenaries, or pirates or smugglers. They see them selves as the last hope of what anyone with any sense sees as a lost cause. They get their crew occasional work here loading or unloading ships or anything else that requires little intelligence. The rest of the time their officers bore anyone who will listen about the justice of their cause. Captain Rack'am seems to believe that he can convince me that his one ship can overthrow the new Toog government and then the Toog will be the Peacekeepers greatest friends. I am really not looking forward to seeing them. The last thing this area needs is a shipful of fanatics shooting up defenseless merchant ships or colonies. And certainly not courtesy of the Peacekeepers."

We walked up to the boarding ramp. At the top a sentry called to us. "Halt. State your business."

Chatto sighed. "Peacekeepers Jenavia Chatto and Captain Aeryn Sun. To see Captain Rack'am."

The sentry turned and called out over her shoulder. "Officer of the watch. Two Peacekeepers to see the Captain." An unintelligible reply came from inside the ship.

The sentry motioned us to come aboard. "Please come aboard, Peacekeepers. We'll advise the Captain of your presence."

Once inside the ship, I got a surprise. The sentry was hardly into puberty. She almost could have been Sebacean except for her dead white hair. She wore a dark grey shirt that was far too large for her. The belt around her waist had had extra holes added to stay around her slender waist. On the left hung a metal sword in a scabbard and on the right was a holster. I noticed that the belt sagged to the left and suspected that the holster was empty. Her uniform was completed by a sea green kilt with a representation of a rising sun in orange on the left hip. I also noted she was barefoot.

After a few microts another soldier, if I could call him that, approached. He was older than the girl, but only by a few cycles.

He halted and saluted. "The Captain will see you both at once. If you will follow me?"

Without waiting for a reply, he turned and walked down a narrow passageway. Chatto and I followed.

The ship looked no better on the inside than on the outside. Anything that hadn't been shot up had been disassembled by the crew for repairs. Little looked like it had been actually repaired though. I saw no more that a dozen crew. Most were too young, like the sentry, or too old. A few had obvious disabilities that either hadn't or couldn't be repaired. All were shabby and underfed.

We arrived at a door at which the officer of the watch knocked and then opened for us. Inside were the Captain and his senior officers. The Captain was the first person I had seen who wasn't too young or too old. He was as underfed and shabby as the rest of his crew. His executive officer was an elderly woman who looked like she was having trouble staying awake through the proceedings. One man was missing an arm. The remaining two were young enough to have been Peacekeeper Cadets, but no more. Except for a few questions from the woman, the Captain did all of the talking.

And talk he did. As soon as Chatto explained what we were there for, the Captain began a series of non-negotiable demands in return for whatever it was he knew about John. I would have happily paid anything he asked except for his continuous gloating over being able to finally blow his opponents and, I would assume, a large number of civilians, to atoms.

After nearly four arns of negotiating, the Captain grudgingly agreed to Chatto's offer. He would get a supply of small arms, food, medicines and some currency. The currency might be enough to get someone to repair his vessel to the point it could leave Columb Bechar. I hoped the whole frelling ship disintegrated as soon as it left the rock.

The Captain called in another young girl. She had been on sentry duty and had seen John attacked by the Scarren.

"Yes, Sir. I saw the Peacekeeper standing guard at his Prowler. The Scarren dropped behind him and the Peacekeeper whirled and shot. Nobody but a Peacekeeper could have turned and shot so quick, Sir. Didn't do him any good, though. The Scarren just slapped the pistol out of his hand, grabbed him and took off."

I had a small silent laugh at John doing something only a Peacekeeper could have done. After a few microts thought, I decided John had spent the last few cycles doing things Peacekeepers could never do.

Chatto interrupted. "Which tunnel did the Scarren go into?"

The girl looked at her Captain, who nodded.

"The first tunnel on the right. No doubt."

With that, Chatto and I said our good-byes and headed for the first tunnel on the right.

"We're in luck, Sun. This tunnel only has two lesser tunnels branching off from it. We should find the entrance to the other docking bay in no time."

Two arns later we were still looking. We had been down the main tunnel and both side tunnels twice. Chatto and I had kicked, knocked and pushed every storage crate, barrel, box and rusted machine in sight and still hadn't found out how to get to the other docking bay, assuming the frelling thing existed.

"Frell this, Chatto. I'm going outside for a look around."

I started to walk back to my Prowler when Chatto grabbed me and spun me around. "Outside to look around in your Prowler? Sun, are you farbot? There'll be a Scarren ship in there. The Scarren didn't walk here and no one would have brought him in without my people finding out about it, so he has his own ship. He might, just might, have a fighter no bigger and no more powerful than your Prowler. And, he might be out of his ship. But, most likely he has a larger vessel with a couple of crew on it. They'll see you coming and blow you to atoms before you know what hit you. That'll do me no good, John no good and it'll certainly do you no good. Now help me look for the entrance and ÷"

She stopped talking when the muzzle of my pulse pistol touched her neck. "I said I'm going to look for John." I started to back off, covering her with my pistol.

Chatto smiled. "Crais is a bigger moron than I ever thought to have thrown someone like you out of the Peacekeepers."

For some reason I had to reply to that. "No, if I had stayed, I wouldn't be like this."

Chatto laughed.

In a few dozen microts I was in my Prowler and was exiting the main docking bay. The gun that had tracked John and I on our way in remained still. Either the Dux Belloram's gunners didn't care about me, or they knew someone else would kill me.

The surface of Columb Bechar was covered in craters, fissures and cracks big enough to admit a fighter or another small warship. The first one I tried was just big enough to get my Prowler into, but was empty. So was the second. And the third. On the eleventh one, I got lucky. Ahead of me was a Scarren fighter. Since I was still alive, the Scarren must be alone and inside Columb Bechar. I landed next to the fighter and put on my helmet. I blew the air out of my cockpit and jumped down to the surface of the bay. A few small lights cast a dim glow. Then I saw it. A small inflated tent under the wing of the fighter. I walked over to it and tried to look inside, but the tent material was opaque. It was large enough to hold a human, though. I leaned against the material and yelled.

"John!"

The sound would travel through my helmet, the flexible material of the tent and any atmosphere inside.

"Aeryn? Aeryn, is that you? Wooo hooo. Am I ever glad to hear your voice. Can you get me out of here, Honey?"

I took a deep breath and pushed my emotions down very hard. This was no time to frell up.

"Do you have a space suit on, John?"

"Fraid not, Aeryn. If you cut open the tent, could I make it to the Prowler?"

That took only a microt to decide. "No. I had to park on the far side of the Scarren fighter and I blew the air out of my cockpit. By the time I re-pressurized, you might be dead. Did you see how the Scarren got in here? We know which tunnel he came through, but can't figure out how he got here."

"First tunnel on the right, Aeryn. Just past the first branch tunnel is an old machine. It has a lever on the right hand side. Push it away from you and then towards you. Then you can push the machine back and there's a set of steps going down. Follow the yellow brick road to the lost human."

Crichton! He could give precise directions and throw in something that made no sense. Well, at least I knew it wasn't a Scarren pretending to be John.

A little bit of emotion slipped past my defenses. "Are you all right, John? Are you hurt?"

"Oh, I can put in for a Purple Heart for a dented ego, but that's about it. You didn't think to bring a pizza did you?"

"No." Another bit of emotion slipped past. "But if there's a pits-sa anywhere in the Uncharted Territories, I'll buy it for you. We'll be back for you in a few microts, John."

I got back into the Prowler. I couldn't use my Prowler to shoot up the Scarren's fighter because John was too close. I though about putting a few pulse pistol bolts into the Scarren's cockpit, but quickly discarded the idea. Get John out safe, then worry about the Scarren.

I flew back into the main docking bay. Chatto was waiting for me.

"The first branching tunnel, there's a machine. Pull the right hand lever back and then to you. Then you can push the machine and there's a flight of steps. Come on."

I was a dozen steps ahead of Chatto. I got to the machine and pushed the lever away and then to me. I put my shoulder against the machine and pushed. Nothing! Chatto arrived and we both pushed.

"Frell! What the frell is wrong!" I pushed the lever away from me as far as I could. Then I pulled it back as hard as I could. Chatto and I braced ourselves and pushed. There! It moved. The machine moved. I could see a sliver of light at the edge of the machine. We pushed again and it moved enough to reveal a stone step. A yellow stone step.

In a quarter of an arn our muscles were screaming, but it was open enough that we could go after John. At the end of the tunnel was a door and on the door was a frelling lock. Of course! The Scarren would have to lock John in.

Chatto pushed me away. "This is my line of work, grunt. The Scarrens haven't built a lock that I can't pick. She pulled a tiny tool pouch out from somewhere in her hairdo and began to work.

"Oh, easy. Almost too easy. But÷.There."

There was a click and the door slid aside.

"Hi, honey. I'm home," said John as he staggered out.

"Why thank you, John. I understand that "honey" is a term of endearment on Earth." Chatto grinned and held out her hand to John.

Frell! I had just stood there looking at John. I quickly grabbed John's other hand. Just as well we both had a hold of him. He was in worse shape than he had let on.

"How are you really, John?"

"Lousy, Aeryn. No food since I last ate with you in the Prowler. Damn little water. Too damned cold in there. Hard to sleep. Air pressure is low, too. I've got a Hell of a headache. Just another shitty day in paradise."

The two of us half carried John down the tunnel.

"We're only a little way from the Prowler, John. We'll be aboard and out of here in no time. We'll leave the Scarren a little something for his ship before we go."

We dragged John up the steps and into the tunnel headed for the docking bay.

Chatto glared at me. "We have a deal, Sun. John has a right to hear my proposal. You don't make his decisions. Back off."

"Back off? The frelling Scarrens that you have such a close eye on grabbed John under your frelling nose. I might as well give him to the Scarrens instead of to you."

We stepped out into the well lit docking bay.

"You don't make that decision, grunt. John does. He decides where he goes."

"No, Peacekeepers. I decide where he goes. He is my slave."

The Scarren stepped in front of us. Frell. We had almost made it to the Prowler. I drew my pistol and moved in front of John. I noticed Chatto pulled a tiny pulse pistol from somewhere in her dress and pointed it at the Scarren. John, as usual, was doing something foolish. He was trying to push past me to get between me and the Scarren. As I said, his attempts to protect me were equal parts endearing and infuriating.

"Get out of our way and you won't get hurt, Scarren." Chatto growled.

He laughed. "Oh my. Two pistols?" Then he snarled at us. "You are right, I will not get hurt. Not by those weapons."

"Then you'll be hurt by these weapons." The voice came from behind the Scarren. It was a trio of the Dux Belloram's guards in their powered armor. Their leader patted his rifle. "This shoots a spray of liquid oxygen. It's cold enough to freeze a Scarren solid in a tenth of a microt, or so I'm told. Would you like to find out?"

The Scarren turned so he could see both us and the guards. "You have no right to interfere in this. He is my slave and I am taking him back. Leave me."

The guard shook his head. "Disputes are settled by the Dux Belloram. Private settlements tend to end in gun battles that are bad for business. Settle this before the Dux Belloram or we settle you now."

Chatto ostentatiously replaced her weapon. "We'll let the Dux Belloram decide. Sun, holster your weapon."

I wished I could tell her what she could holster, but it was pointless. We'd be lucky to beat the Scarren and I knew we couldn't defeat the guards, too. I holstered my pistol.

The Scarren headed for the control room with the guard's leader right behind him. The remaining guards fell in behind the three of us.

Chatto leaned over to try to whisper to both John and I. "The Dux Belloram is trying to play both ends against the middle. How very convenient that a patrol with a weapon that would stop a Scarren just happened to show up! I'm sure the Dux Belloram will make a nice, tidy profit today."

Chatto turned and smiled at John. "Don't worry, John. Peacekeeper bases are a lot closer to Columb Bechar than the Scarrens are. The Dux Belloram will get as high a price as he can, but he'll come down on our side."

I wished I was that confident.

When we reached the central square we started attracting a crowd. From the comments the crowd was making, they didn't like Scarrens. However, they didn't like Peacekeepers either. A rock sailed past my head and bounced off of John's shoulder. I drew my pistol and scanned the crowd, but couldn't spot the thrower.

As we walked through the square, we picked up a few more of the Dux Belloram's guards and a lot more bored, drunken and professionally violent hangers on, just looking for something to do. By the time we all started squeezing into the Dux Belloram's hall, they were one part boisterous crowd and one part violent mob. It took the Dux Belloram's guards nearly a quarter of an arn to quiet everybody down and force a path to end of the hall where the Dux was sitting.

The Scarren spoke first. "This is an insult to all Scarrens. This Sebacean is my slave. I demand that my property be returned to me and that I be allowed to proceed to my next destination unmolested."

Chatto interrupted. "He has no slave. Officer Crichton is a member of the Peacekeepers Special Ops. We thank the Dux Belloram. Captain Sun and Officer Crichton are on a long and complex mission. I'm afraid that they will have to leave your hospitality now."

Chatto took John's arm and started to walk past the guards. For a microt I thought it would work.

"Halt!" The Scarren screamed and quickly stepped in front of John and Chatto. "This is mine!" He yelled as he reached for John. Chatto pushed in front of the Scarren and John backed away. For a microt I thought Chatto was going to fight the Scarren then and there.

"This is my domain. I demand silence and your attention." The voice if the Dux Belloram roared out and his guards moved to separate Chatto and the Scarren.

Before the Dux Belloram could speak again, the Scarren spoke.

"Dux Belloram. I recognize your authority and value your hospitality. I propose that this be settled in accordance with your laws. There is a dispute between myself and the Peacekeeper. It should be settled between us. To the winner go the spoils. I challenge the Peacekeeper."

I pushed through the crowd of guards and strode up beside the Scarren. "Fine. I'll fight the Scarren."

The Scarren laughed. "No. The Sebacean male is mine. He will fight. If I win, he remains my slave. If I lose, the male can go with his female."

I turned to the Dux Belloram. "Sir, Officer Crichton is not well. He has been mistreated by the Scarren. I will fight on his behalf. This is a matter between the Peacekeepers and the Scarrens. Not just between Officer Crichton and this Scarren."

The Dux Belloram shook his head. "Our ways are clear in such matters. Officer Crichton must be the one to fight." He raised his voice. "Clear a space for the two combatants."

This quickly degenerated into a pushing and shoving match between the guards and the mob that had pushed into the hall. Chatto continued to argue with the Dux Belloram. I took John aside.

"John, as soon as the fight starts, run for the Prowler. Chatto and I will follow you and we can all leave together."

John smiled. Hezmana, that was good to see. "Aeryn, there are twenty or thirty guards in tin suits in here. And bunches more outside. And one humungous mob that wants to see a Scarren-human Texas Cage Match. How do I get past all of them?"

John put his hand on my shoulder. "Besides, I've killed three Scarrens so far. This'll be number four."

"John, you killed three Scarrens because you had÷" No. That argument was pointless. "John, try to stay away from him. You're more agile than he is. Wear him out. Wait for a chance and take it."

"That's our plan then? Hope we get lucky?"

I touched his cheek. "No, I hope you get lucky. Be ready in case I come up with an idea. Be ready for anything."

I dropped my hand to my pistol. Immediately, I felt a gun barrel nudge my back. I looked over my shoulder and saw one of the guards. Another was behind Chatto. By the time I turned around again, John was moving out into the open space the guards had cleared. The guards were barely able to hold back a screaming crowd of hundreds of spectators. If the Scarren was little loved, everyone knew an unarmed Peacekeeper was no match for a Scarren. They were howling for blood.

The Scarren lumbered after John. John kept his distance. Every time the Scarren headed for him John nimbly dodged to one side.

"Cowardly Peacekeeper. You would let your female fight for you, but do not dare face me? You will need much training to be a good slave. I will enjoy training you."

No matter how much the Scarren bellowed, John kept his distance. Then one of the crowd took a hand and suddenly pushed John towards the Scarren. He swung at John, but only landed a glancing blow on John's shoulder. That was enough to send John sprawling onto the floor. John quickly rolled to his feet, but not before the Scarren let loose a blast of heat from his outstretched arm. John managed to dodge to one side, but a dozen or so spectators weren't as lucky. They screamed in pain and tried to push away from the Scarren, but the hundreds behind them kept them penned in place. A bottle soared out of the crowd, but the Scarren contemptuously batted it aside. The Scarren raised his arm again to send a blast of heat at John, and once again John dodged aside and the spectators caught the full force of the blast. This time a pulse pistol shot caught the Scarren in the shoulder. The Scarren headed for where the shot had come from, momentarily forgetting about John. John closed quickly and kicked the Scarren behind the knee as hard as he could. The only result I could see was that John retreated limping a little. The Scarren swung at John, missing him badly. Then he turned to face the screaming crowd, looking for whoever had fired at him.

One of the Dux Belloram's guards pushed into the space between the crowd and the Scarren. Those in the front of the mob were trying to push themselves back, but there were many more behind that only wanted to push forward to see the fight. The guard, in full powered armor, stood before the Scarren. If the Scarren would just attack, the other guards would come to their comrade's aid and I might be able to get John away in the confusion. One guard was enough to seriously injure the Scarren, and several would kill him.

The voice of the Dux Belloram boomed out over the roar of the crowd. "I would suggest you use your muscles and not your built up heat on the Peacekeeper. Otherwise we'll have a riot on our hands and I can guarantee the safety of neither participant."

The Scarren turned and nodded to the Dux Belloram. He put his head down and headed for John. John backed off, then turned and ran straight for the Scarren. Without thought I screamed, "No!" but that one word was lost in the pandemonium. The Scarren bent over to grasp John as he attacked. Then John suddenly slipped and fell on the floor, sliding into the Scarren with his feet raised. Both of John's feet slammed into the Scarren's knee and he lost his balance and started backpedaling. Before he could regain his balance, the Scarren toppled over backwards into the crowd. Half the crowd was trying at all costs to avoid the enraged Scarren and the other half was fighting to see what had happened. In a handful of microts, the Scarren bulled his way out of the crowd, looking for John.

"Peacekeeper scum. When I have defeated you I will take your women as my slaves as well. I will make you curse your mother for giving you the life I will slowly take away."

Before he had finished the last sentence, the Scarren charged. John dodged him and struck the Scarren with a bottle he had somehow grabbed from a thirsty patron. The Scarren turned and faced John again. Amazingly, he had a small cut on the side of his face. The Scarren stopped to run his hand over his face and stare at the blood he found there. The rest of the crowd was equally amazed. The Scarren's thick skin should have been able to withstand a pulse pistol blast. A bottle should have caused no injury.

Again, the Scarren roared and charged John. Again John dodged and swung the bottle at the Scarren. This time the bottle broke, leaving a long gash down the Scarren's arm.

John must have been as surprised as everyone else. The Scarren got close enough to throw a punch at John that caught him on the arm. John was knocked to the floor, but the Scarren stood, looking at his bleeding hand.

John attacked while the Scarren stared at his injured hand, kicking the Scarren in the knee. This time the Scarren howled in pain and went down on one knee. John dodged behind the Scarren and raised both his hands, fingers interlocked over his head and drove them into the back of the Scarren's head. The Scarren fell forward. John moved to kick the Scarren in the stomach and chest. The Scarren roared and staggered back onto his feet. He stood up, weaving from side to side. John threw a punch at the Scarren, which he blocked. But he howl of pain let everyone know how much damage blocking John's punch had caused. John threw another punch, slamming into the Scarren's chest. The Scarren tottered and John hit him again. This time the Scarren took a step back and then a step forward and fell on his face. John lifted his foot over the Scarren's neck and drove it downward. The crowd was so silent I could clearly hear the snap of the Scarren's neck.

John grinned at me. "Four!" Then his knees buckled.

I managed to get to John before he fell over.

"Damn, Aeryn. I have got to learn to pick on people my own size."

I propped John up against the Dux Belloram's table and started examining him.

"How are you? Are you injured? How the frell did you do that?"

John's smile faded. "I feel like dren. That bastard's punch is like getting hit by an eighteen wheeler. He really got my shoulder and my chest, Aeryn, but I don't think anything's broken."

I carefully lifted John's tee shirt. Chatto had joined us and was wiping some of the Scarren's blood off of John with one of the Dux Belloram's napkins. I wished she had used his head and told her so. Loud enough for the Dux Belloram to hear.

Chatto announced she was going back to her quarters for a while. Fine with me. The quicker I got John away from her and her mad schemes, the better.

I pushed at a bruised spot on John's chest.

"Ow!" John jerked slightly.

"Good! No bones broken, just a really nasty bruise."

"You couldn't ask?"

"You might be in shock, John. You'd say you were fine and then fall over ten microts later."

John leered at me. "Just wait until I get a chance to inspect your chest."

There were so many things I thought of to say that I just stood there, looking at him.

"Do we have anything to eat, Aeryn? I'm starved. And thirsty."

The spell was broken and I helped John to the end of the table and sat him down in a chair. I sat on the arm of the same chair.

John reached for a bottle, but I stopped him. "Bad idea. Sofalso is a very powerful intoxicant, I'm not at all sure a human should have it at all and certainly not in your condition."

John brushed my hand away. "Just what the doctor ordered, Aeryn."

John picked up the bottle and quickly put it back down again, a grimace on his face. "Christ, Aeryn. Sofalso is what? Sebacean for kerosene?"

"It's a Hynerian delicacy."

"Of course it is. Who else but Spanky would drink something no one else would steal?"

I reached over and took a blue jug away from one of the guests at the table. He didn't mind, or at least he said nothing if he did.

"This is made from a local fruit, John. Very nourishing. It'll replace lost electrolytes and minerals."

"It's not Sparky-Ade or something, is it?"

As usual, I had no idea how to answer that. I had long since given up answering about half of John's questions. John took a sip and then a long drink.

"Hey, that's good. Reminds me of orange juice. What's to eat?"

John grabbed a large bowl and a spoon from our neighbor at the table. Before he got the spoon to his mouth, he dropped the contents on the front of his pants. His hand was shaking.

"I'll do that, John."

"Aeryn, I'm a big boy now." His hand shook again and he rattled the spoon against the side of the bowl. I took the spoon from his hand, filled it from the bowl and lifted it toward his mouth.

"A good choice, John. Very nourishing. Stewed convallos gonads have many÷."

"Stewed what?" John put his hand in front of his mouth.

"Stewed convallos gonads. In a brissat w'eller sauce."

"Pick something else, Aeryn. And don't tell me what it is."

I knew better than to argue with John by now. Didn't I? I picked up a bowl of stewed vegetables and started feeding him. Before the bowl was empty, Chatto was back.

"You didn't kill that Scarren."

John shrugged. "Everybody here thinks I did. That'll be good enough for the next Scarren I run into."

Chatto rolled her eyes. John was starting to have that effect on her, too.

"The Scarren was poisoned. I found traces of the poison in the blood I wiped off of you. A very fast acting multi-spectrum poison. It attacked all of his body systems so that now matter where you hit him, it did enormous damage."

John and I both asked the same question. "Who did it?"

Chatto shrugged. "Not I, or any Peacekeeper I'd bet. The poison is organic and grows only on the Scarren home world. They keep very tight control over it. Believe me, I've tried to get some of it. And I don't think any other Peacekeepers have succeeded. And if another of our operatives was working here, I'd have found out by now."

I put the empty bowl down. "Who could get the poison? The Nabari? Scorvians? Who?

Chatto shrugged. "I have no idea."

"Okay, Jenavia. Who here poisoned the Scarren? You have the program, who are the players?"

Chatto thought for a few microts. "There were several hundred people in here for the fight. If I had to guess, the poison was probably administered when the Scarren fell into the crowd. There were a couple of dozen beings close enough to lightly brush some of the poison onto the Scarren's skin. But the poison could have been sprayed onto the Scarren or thrown, or delivered in any number of ways. And by just about anyone. Almost anyone on Columb Bechar will kill for money. And many people here have no desire to see Scarrens anywhere in this area. The Scarrens are too controlling for the types of business beings on Columb Bechar."

"However and whoever delivered it, once on the skin, the poison would have broken down the skin and entered the muscles and then into his blood stream. Once in the bloodstream, all of his organs would have been affected. He would have been dead in a few dozen microts even if you had never hit him."

John frowned. "But from the killers point of view it looks better if this wasn't an assassination, but a fight with one tough Peacekeeper who is now on the Scarren's most wanted list."

John looked into Chatto's eyes. "And you have no idea who might have done this? You don't have any usual suspects to round up?"

Chatto shook her head. In spite of how little I trusted her, I believed her. This time.

Chatto suddenly smiled. "John, could I talk to you privately for a microt? I have an idea you might just enjoy."

John glanced at me. I shrugged and indicated he should go with her. She took Johns arm and walked to a small alcove near a pillar. Chatto had her back to me so I could see John's face. She reached up and began to stroke his cheek. I saw John smile. She leaned forward and whispered in his ear. He laughed. She put her arms around him. John leaned down and kissed her lightly. Then he wiped the grin from his face and started slowly back to me.

A million thoughts went through my mind. He's leaving me for her. Of course he is, you frelling dolt. When did you ever give him a reason to stay? Did you think he'd put up with your Peacekeeper moods forever? Did you ever think about what he's been going through with you? Because of you?

"Ready, Aeryn?"

He was standing in front of me. "Ready?"

"Yeah. To go."

"Go? Where?"

"Moya. Large bio-mechanoid? We live there, remember?" John gave me a strange look.

I snapped put of my panic. "Certainly. What did Chatto say?"

John smiled. "She offered me a front row seat for the destruction of the Scarren menace, the chance at a new beginning for a Human-Sebacean alliance, and the best sex in the Universe."

"And you said?"

"I said I wasn't sure the Peacekeepers were any better than the Scarrens. And that I was working on my own Human-Sebacean alliance. Oh, and that I already knew who the best sex in the Universe came from."

I put my arm around John's neck and pulled him into a kiss. I held until just before the point that I knew I wouldn't be able to stop and then broke the kiss.

"I almost thought I lost you."

"Aeryn, I wasn't worried for a microt. I knew that Scarren would never stand a chance once we both got on his case."

As I said, John sometimes tries to protect me. It's an infuriating and endearing trait. Right now it was endearing.

I turned to Chatto. Any disappointment had been erased from her face. I pitched my voice so both Chatto and the Dux Belloram could hear me.

"Jenavia, I think that a company of Commandos and a squadron of Prowlers might be in order here. Should I recommend that when we return to the Task Force?"

Chatto pretended to consider that and we both glanced at the Dux Belloram. He was, to use a phrase I didn't quite understand, sweating bullets. His attempt to play the Scarrens and the Peacekeepers off against each other had failed badly. I thought that Chatto was going to have fun in the future.

Finally, she shook her head, looking just the least bit regretful. "No, Aeryn. That much military presence would frighten off the customers who find Columb Bechar so useful. But, I'm sure I can make an arrangement with the Dux Belloram."

She turned and smiled sweetly at her intended victim.

The Dux Belloram smiled as sincerely as he could and invited Chatto to sit next to him. John and I headed back to the landing bay and the Prowler.

"Damn!" John said as soon as we entered the bay. I had my pistol out and was scanning for enemies. John pointed to an empty space on the bay.

"Officer Buffa took his Prowler and went looking for greener pastures. Too many Peacekeepers, Scarrens and other low life for his tastes, I suppose."

I stopped at the Prowler. "We're rich. If we can't get Buffa's Prowler, we'll get another. Or we'll buy another fighter. There are enough around that we can take our pick."

I looked at John sternly. "And Crichton, your piloting skills can use some work. You fly us home."

"Me? All right. Say, how about a little detour. I know this planet with great rings around it, and maybe we can get some music on the radio."

John continued to talk as I settled in behind him. Some things never changed.

******************************************************************************

The Acolyte entered the presence of the Master and knelt.

"It is done, Master. The body and all traces of the Scarren were loaded into his ship and the ship sent into the nearest sun. I myself saw it explode. In a few monens, as people leave and new ones arrive, all that will be left is a vague rumor of a battle to the death between a Scarren and a Peacekeeper."

The Master smiled, a savage grin breaking his furry face. "You have done well and deserve a small reward."

The Master began to prepare a small, but carefully thought out bowl of various iced creams. The Acolyte hesitated and then asked a question.

"I am curious, Master. Why is the survival of a Sebacean woman and this Human male needful for the Great Balance? They are capable enough beings, I suppose, and well-trained soldiers, but they hardly seem important enough to justify our taking action against a Scarren. Many things could have gone wrong and we should have been exposed, making much hard work useless."

The Master assumed a serious expression. "I confess I do not know their place in the Great Balance. I only know that the Great Mother House directed our actions. Therefore I acted to bring the Universe into balance as I have sworn to do. As we have sworn to do."

He handed the Acolyte the bowl. The Acolyte took it and began eating.

THE END