Disclaimer: Thanks, guys, for allowing me to borrow the Farscape crew to take through Robert Louis Stevenson and H. Rider Haggard territory, with just a bit of B. Traven. All are dead novelists, but Stevenson was Scottish! We're not so sure about Mr. Traven.
Time: Most definitely before Liars, Guns and Money.
Rating: Hard to imagine that John and Aeryn could spend that much time in bed together and still leave this a PG.
Spoilers: Of course not.
Archiving: Talk to my literary agent, Larry the razor tooth vorlag.
"I assume you're here looking for the treasure, Captain."
That wasn't directed to me. For some reason, most beings took one look at Crichton and decided he was the Peacekeeper Captain. I was used to it by now and I found it easier to do my own work if I kept a low profile.
Before Crichton could answer, Chiana shoved between us with Rygel right behind her.
"Treasure?" Chiana's face lit up in a smile. "Well, that is interesting. I hadn't heard...."
Rygel interrupted. "Interesting is too strong a word, Chiana. Persons of our wealth and status have little interest is some tawdry tale of a lost shipment of marjules, or such."
Chiana took the hint. "You're right, of course, Ryg. But I get so bored! Perhaps we could look around, just for giggles?"
The woman who ran the inn snorted. "If you want to know about the treasure, you'll pay just like everyone else."
I smiled. We had no spare funds to waste on treasure hunts, or anything else, so if Rygel wanted to pay for information, he'd have to spend his own money. This planet might be entertaining after all if I got to watch Rygel part with his own money.
Rygel bristled. "See here, woman. We are guests in your establishment and expect..."
"Some rooms and three meals a day." John finished for Rygel.
He turned to the woman who ran the inn. " Our transport pod's hetch drive is on the fritz. So, we had to land here. Our Leviathan will start backtracking our course and will eventually show up here. I'd give them about five solar days until they show up. The medicines we gave you will pay our bills until then, right?"
The woman gave John a sour frown and nodded.
John smiled at her. Human charm would do him no good with that one, I could see. John started moving us away from the innkeeper. "Okay, people, nothing to see here. Move along. Move along."
Before we got two steps away, I reached over and out my hand down the front of Chiana's blouse. I pulled a map out, turned and handed it to the woman.
"Thief!" She bellowed. "Someone must pay for the damage to the map. Someone must pay for the precious knowledge this thief has purloined from me. The secrets of the caves are beyond price. The value of..."
"Any treasure map you'd sell by the dozen has to be pretty low. What's the price on these things?" John gestured to a stack of maps.
She replied, "Fifteen Drundian thalers, or one hundred and twenty Brovalk thogs, or thirteen thousand...."
I interrupted her. "The sign behind the desk says the maps are two Drundian thalers. We were just at Drund, Chiana. You must have two thalers. Pay the woman."
"Pay her! I will not, Aeryn. Even two thalers is way too much." Chiana complained.
The innkeeper kept talking, too. "That's an old sign. I've changed the price. I have a right..."
"Silence!" I roared. "You!" I pointed to Chiana. "Pay the woman two thalers, now." I turned to the innkeepers. "And you will take it."
Chiana tried to outflank me. "John. Are you going to let Aeryn get away with this?"
John smiled at Chiana. "Of course not, Pip."
John turned to me and put his arm around my shoulder. "Aeryn, you know you can't have Pip pay this woman two thalers. You have to include a tip, so the cost to Chiana is three thalers, right Babe?"
I smiled sweetly at Chiana.
"John." Chiana wailed.
"We're big tippers, Pip. Four thalers. Care to go for five?"
Chaina turned away and rummaged in the front of her blouse. She turned again and slammed four thalers down in front of the woman.
The innkeeper continued to whine. "I only get four thalers and you may get a treasure beyond belief. Where's the justice in that? It's not fair, I say."
I looked at her while she continued to complain. She was Sebacean I was sure, but in spite of the black Peacekeeper pants and shirt she wore, she was no Peacekeeper, or ex-Peacekeeper. She was older than I, shorter and heavier. She had once been quite muscular, but was now running to fat. I decided she probably was from a Sebacean agricultural colony. She also talked more than a certain human I knew.
I decided I'd had enough of her. "This is the planet Kavkas. The treasure is the famed lost treasure of Admiral Deniken. Deniken was a Peacekeeper admiral about a hundred and thirty cycles ago. The admiral was something of a fanatic about the Peacekeepers. "
I noticed John smile out of the corner of my eye. " More of a fanatic than usual. He became obsessed with the idea that the Peacekeepers were becoming soft and corrupt. He gathered a group of conspirators around him and plotted a coup against First Command. He was betrayed and fled into the Uncharted Territories with a handful of followers and the treasure he had raised to pay for his rebellion. "
That interested Rygel. "And the treasure was?"
"Admiral Deniken's command included the planet Themmengol. The treasure was the annual out put of Themmengol black pearls."
Rygel's eyes bugged out and he seemed to be having trouble breathing. "The entire frelling annual frelling output of frelling Themmengol black pearls?" His voice was barely above a whisper. "That's worth...worth....worth..."
"More than you can imagine." I finished for him. "The Marauder Deniken had stolen was found here, but no treasure or any trace of him or his followers was ever found. "
The innkeeper laughed mirthlessly. "The Peacekeepers came here and stayed for a long time. They conscripted members of my family to work here. But the whole planet is honeycombed with caves, so that even tens of thousands of workers found nothing. Eventually the Peacekeepers left, but people keep showing up here to search. My father, loony old bastard that he was, brought me here and finally died here. All I have left is this miserable pile of stone of an inn he built around our ship."
The innkeeper started to walk away, then stopped. "Oh, I will give you a free piece of information. The seas here are the home of a species of sea snake that would make no more than a bite of any of you, even the big Luxan. The Peacekeepers lost thousands of workers trying to search the caves that ran into the sea. After all, old Deniken could have found a way to keep the sea snakes away, couldn't he? That would explain why no one ever found the treasure."
Before she had turned around Chiana and Rygel were out the door. D'Argo came up to me, looking embarrassed.
"Aeryn, Chiana has had a difficult life. She's changed a lot since she came aboard, but she sometimes reverts to her old ways. I'd hope, that is I believe..."
I cut D'Argo off. As far as I was concerned, Chiana's time aboard Moya had taught her very little, but I didn't want to argue with D'Argo. "She's a shipmate and I intend to treat her as such, D'Argo." That could be taken a number of ways.
D'Argo smiled and headed out the door after his lover.
"Coming, Sunshine?" John asked.
"You don't expect me to follow them around, do you?"
John laughed. "Would you rather be there when they start something stupid, or wait until they get everything totally frelled up before we have to clean up after them?"
I sighed and followed John out the door. He stopped on the porch of the inn and was looking at the planet before us. Not much of a sight, even for a human who seemed to be fascinated with each new planet. Personally, I never wanted to see a new planet again.
An undulating plain ran from horizon to horizon. The ground was covered with a scrubby species of short bushes that were a sickly gray green in color. Although we were near the planet's equator, it was cold and looked like it would rain at any minute. Straight ahead of us was a cave entrance with a rickety looking ladder leading down into the darkness.
"There's no Sherlock Holmes and no Dr. Watson, but the Hound of the Baskervilles ought to be showing up for dinner any time now."
As usual, I had no idea what John was talking about, but the innkeeper had followed us out and she did.
"What did you call him, Peacekeeper?"
"The Hound of the Baskervilles. A great big critter that looks like a huge dog. All fur, fangs and claws, wrapped up in a very bad attitude. He's a fictional beast on a planet a long way from here."
The innkeeper gave John a strange look. "He may be fictional elsewhere, but he's real here. There's a monster that guards the treasure. All fur, fangs, claws and a bad attitude describes him. Be careful. He eats treasure hunters."
She turned and went back inside the inn.
"If anything happens to any treasure hunters, I don't think I'll go looking for a mythical creature, just the nearest innkeeper, John."
"Come on, Aeryn. We'd better get down there before Rygel starts wearing a gold earring and sporting a parrot."
I now knew better than to say anything in response to that.
By the time we got to the bottom of the ladder, it was clear that our three treasure hunters had taken off in three separate directions. I could hear Rygel yelling in a tunnel behind us, D'Argo bellowing to our right and Chiana's gleeful screams to our left.
I looked at John. " It's nice to see your abilities to plan for this group haven't changed, John. Shall we wait at the inn?"
I started to climb back up the ladder, but John stopped me. "Just a microt, Sunshine. I want to look around."
John walked over to one of the tunnels leading away from the small open space where we stood. I counted seven tunnels in all. John had pulled out a small power light and was looking at something by the tunnel's mouth.
"Aeryn, what do you make of this. The light in here isn't too good."
It was a series of meaningless geometric designs and signs painted onto the wall of the cave. I checked and all of the other tunnel entrances had similar designs painted by them.
"If I had to guess, John, I'd say the people who came before us painted signs on the tunnel entrances. One of these designs probably says "Tunnel one," and then "Tunnel two", and so on. The next set of treasure hunters to come along did the same thing in their own language. And the third set and the fourth, and so on. Something probably also says "Not a frelling thing here."
"Okay, let me check one tunnel, Aeryn."
John walked down a tunnel and soon came staggering back, pinching his nostrils with his fingers. "Whoa. Someone lost their lunch in that tunnel."
Now that was interesting. "How can you tell they lost their lunch and not breakfast or some other meal, John."
John stared at me. "Aeryn, quit kidding around." He then went down another tunnel.
A half an arn later John came back. "I checked about twenty or so tunnels branching off from this one and they all have something written by them. I'd guess that our friends are wasting their time. I bet every tunnel for a hundred metras has been checked in the last hundred cycles."
"That's just occurring to you, John?"
John grinned. "Treasure hunting in the Uncharted Territories isn't my bag, Aeryn."
John started back to the ladder. "C'mon, Sunshine. I'll buy you a cup of tea at the inn."
When we got to the surface, John headed for the inn and I headed for the transport pod. John suddenly noticed I wasn't with him.
"Hey! Where are you headed for, Aeryn."
"The transport pod, Crichton."
John caught up with me as we boarded. I took the pilot's seat and we lifted off.
"With just our planetary maneuvering system and a blown hetch drive, we'll be a while getting to Moya, Aeryn."
I grinned at John. There were few enough times that I confused him, rather than the other way around. . "We aren't going to Moya. We're just taking a look at the surrounding area from altitude."
I reached over and started making adjustments on the control console. "I've adjusted the pod's sensor's to show us differences in heat. The surface of the planet should be slightly warmer than the caves beneath. And any openings to the caves should show up on the scanner as slightly cooler, like that one."
I swung the pod around and hovered over a small hole almost covered by brush.
"Frell. Look at the trail leading away from the hole towards the inn. Someone's been here and walked back to the inn. No treasure there."
I checked more entrances to the caves. Only one had no signs of activity around it. We landed and found that it led only to a small cave about the size of our cells on Moya.
We got back in the pod and took off again.
"You never seemed like a material girl to me, Aeryn. Why suddenly decide that diamonds are a girls best friend?"
"Crichton, if your question is why I want to find the treasure, the answer should be obvious." I stared at John expectantly.
He stared back and tried to look like he'd figured out why I wanted the treasure. He failed.
"If I can just get enough money together, I can fund a program to produce a superior breed of translator microbe that just might, might, mind you, make human speech intelligible to normal beings."
John looked uncomfortable. "I guess being deficient can be a bother to the normal people around me," he said stiffly.
Frell! Why did this always seem to happen? "John, you know perfectly well that if I thought you were deficient in any way, you wouldn't be sitting here beside me. I was just teasing you." I smiled at John and got a smile in return. Time for a change of subject.
"Do you remember Chelliotte, the commerce planet we were on about three monens ago?"
John nodded. "Nice wealthy commerce planet. Trade links to the Royal Planet and the Universe beyond. So convinced of their own superiority that the only job we could get was..."
"I remember, John. But that's not my point. I went to one of their shipyards. Window-shopping, I think you call it. They build a series of small warships for anti-piracy work. Pirates try to be fast enough to outrun anything they can't outgun and well enough armed to outgun anything they can't outrun. The warships Chelliotte builds are masterpieces of speed and firepower."
John grinned. "That's my Aeryn. Show her a pretty warship and she's putty in your hands."
I rolled my eyes. "John, be serious. All we have to defend Moya is half of an antiquated defense screen that usually fails in action and my Prowler. If we had a real warship, we could use it to defend Moya or to check out commerce planets for Peacekeeper activities without risking Moya. We could do all sorts of things we can't do now."
"So, Aeryn Sun gets a new toy to play with in place of her old Prowler."
I knew I was going to frell this up. I just knew it. "John, this is a warship we're talking about. It needs a crew."
It took a microt, but all of a sudden John smiled. "D'Argo, he'd be perfect as a crewman for you."
John was not going to make this easy. "D'Argo is the only other trained warrior we have. He'd have to stay on Moya to run their defense if things went wrong."
John made a show of thinking. "Pip. You'd love bossing her around. She's your crew."
I just glared at John.
"Not Chiana? Of course! Rygel. A small crewman for a small warship."
I kept glaring at John.
"Zhaan. Sure, the two of you girls could have a ball together. You could have slumber parties and ..."
"You and I would be the crew, Crichton." I kept glaring at him.
"Of course we would, Aeryn. There's nothing we can't handle together, right? And, I'd be honored to serve under Captain Sun on the good ship Aeryn's Revenge. "
He was smiling and there was that glint in his eye. But he sounded sincere, so I decided I wouldn't toss him out of the back of the transport pod. Not today, anyway.
Then something caught my eye. "Wait. There a very small cool spot showing up just at the edge of sensor range."
I turned the pod towards the spot on the sensors. Soon, we had landed by a small outcropping of a granite-like rock. I pushed a few bushes aside and found a cave entrance. The entrance was almost straight down and was under a small rock overhang.
"Nobody's been here since these bushes grew up, that's for sure, John." I leaned forward to look and suddenly John had his hands wrapped around my middle.
"Hold up, Aeryn. The rock you're standing on could give way and you'd be a goner. Be careful."
I was conscious of John's hands on my stomach; their roughness, their warmth, their tenderness. It would be so easy to lean back and relax in his arms. So easy and so foolish. I pushed John's hands away from me.
"I'll be fine, Crichton. It's late and we aren't equipped for treasure hunting. We'll head back to the inn."
It took us a half an arn to get back to the inn. Everyone had gotten back before us and was busy eating dinner when John and I sat down. John sniffed the bowl of food placed in front of us. It was some sort of porridge with a stack of food cubes by it.
"A dip for the food cubes? Uncharted Territories nachos? You have got to be kidding me."
John dipped a food cube into the porridge and took a small bite.
"At least it doesn't taste bad. It doesn't taste at all." John looked around for the innkeeper. "Hey, what's you're name by the way?"
The woman looked up from her bowl and scowled. "Charran."
"Is this all the food we get for our payment? This is not what I was looking forward to. I was hoping for a nice steak, smothered in onions, with a baked potato and an after dinner brandy."
Charran shrugged. "If you want to go gather more food, be my guest. All I've ever found here that's edible is the lichens this porridge is made from."
Rygel broke into the conversation. "What about them? Why do they get better food than we do?"
Rygel pointed at the other two persons in the dining room, each sitting at opposite ends of the room. One was a tall green furred amphibian, with webbed feet and hands. The other was completely covered by a gray robe and cowl. Even his hands weren't visible as he ate. The sleeves of his robe would cover a bowl and when he removed it, the food was gone.
Charran gestured at the other diners. "They brought their own food with them." She went back to her own bowl.
Rygel stared at each of them in turn as if trying to decide which would be most likely to share with a greedy ex-Dominar. He apparently came to the correct answer and went back to eating out of his bowl.
Soon, Green Fur finished and walked over to us. He was wearing a pair of pulse pistols in a fast draw rig and looked like he thought he was very dangerous. He stopped in front of our table.
"Don't bother looking for the treasure. It belongs to my people and I intend to take it back to where it belongs. And I won't have any pity on anyone who gets in my way, understand?"
I had been covering him with my pulse pistol from under the table since he had stood up. I was a little surprised when John slid his hand out from under the table with his pistol in it and pushed the gun into the being's stomach.
"There are five of us, and lots more on our ship heading here. And if you can't threaten any better than this, Kermit, you're in a world of hurt. Now, put both your hands on top of your head and go upstairs and go to bed. And if I ever, ever see your hands near those pistols, I'll kill you."
Amazingly, he tried to bluster. "This is unacceptable. The pearls are ours by right. I refuse to accept such treatment from a gang of Peacekeeper mercenaries."
Rygel peered at him. "You're not from Themmengol. Where do you get the idea the pearls are your people's?"
He stared back at Rygel in amazement. "My people are the Parsafans. We conquered Themmengol fair and square until the Peacekeepers immorally and illegally drove us out. Of course the spoils of Themmengol are ours."
John pushed the muzzle of his pistol a little deeper into the Parsafan's stomach. "Scat. Go away. Leave before I get angry. More to the point, leave before the lady with me gets angry. And put your damned hands on top of your head."
I smiled at him and raised my pistol to aim it right between his eyes. He put his hands on his head. But he still wasn't done.
"What are your names, Peacekeepers?"
John sighed. "My name is Butch Cassidy and the lady is the Sundance Kid."
"I am Sulla of the family of Gwroon of the clan of Potalla."
Having suitably impressed us, the Parsafan finally left. John and I tracked him with our pistols until he disappeared up the stairs to the sleeping quarters of the inn. When we looked back, the other guest in the inn had finished eating and was standing up, looking at us. He stared at us for a few microts and then turned and went upstairs. Throughout the meal, I hadn't gotten a glimpse of him under his robe.
John followed him with his eyes until he was gone. "Brother Cadfael there has the right idea. I'm more worried about him than our green gunsel."
Charran busied herself clearing the tables and disappeared into the back of the inn. D'Argo looked around conspiratorially and leaned forward.
"Don't worry. Tomorrow we'll go find the treasure and be rich beyond our wildest dreams."
"Not my wildest dreams," grumped Rygel.
D'Argo glared at Rygel. "The Peacekeepers may have had tens of thousands of workers and all the machinery they could bring, but they never had a Luxan nose to help them."
"You can smell the treasure, Bro?" John asked.
D'Argo nodded. "Just the barest hint of grach with just an overlay of peltast. And I noticed some slight casaen.
John looked at me, but I had no idea what D'Argo had said.
D'Argo cursed under his breath. "How can I explain the variety and texture of scents to races that effectively have no sense of smell? Trust me. I've heard what Themmengol pearls smell like and..."
D'Argo shut up as Charran came into the room with a small blonde girl. I had seen the girl before. She seemed to do the hard, dirty work for Charran. She was also Sebacean, and might once have been a Peacekeeper. Probably a tech, but perhaps a failed warrior. She was dressed in a shabby gray dress and heavy boots. Her hair was cut short.
"Time for bed," announced Charran. "We haven't the power to heat the inn at night, so off to your beds to keep warm. Dartha here will show you the way. The Hynerian has paid extra for his own room, so he'll go on the far end. The Luxan and his girl in the center room on the right and the two Peacekeepers in the center left."
"The Peacekeepers together? Oh no, not together." I was not sleeping with John.
Charran shrugged. "Sleep with who you wish. Sleep outside and freeze solid for all I care."
"I'll pay for a room of my own. I have some possessions to trade."
"There are no other rooms, Peacekeeper. They are all taken." Charran started to walk back to her quarters.
"I'll sleep down here in front of the fire."
Charran turned around. "I'll not have my blankets damaged on the rough stones by the fireplace. And the fire will soon go out. You may well freeze in here."
John came over and stood by me, being very careful not to touch me. "Aeryn, come on upstairs. It'll be okay."
Chiana giggled. "You might even enjoy it, Aeryn." She waited just a microt and then added, "But I doubt it."
I took a step towards Chiana and she backed up behind D'Argo. John intercepted me and stood between the two of us.
"Pip, I'll talk to you later. D'Argo, it's bedtime for you two, okay?"
Once the others had left, John put his arm around my waist and started walking us up the stairs. I looked at him and tried to think of something that didn't sound immature, or foolish, or for that matter, truthful. Nothing occurred to me. Dartha followed us up the stairs and opened the door to our room for us.
John smiled. "There we go, Aeryn. The bed is big enough for the Luxan Olympic Gymnastic Team to do their floor exercises on. Okay?"
It was big. I nodded and walked over to the far side of the bed. Dartha had disappeared. "This is my side, John. You take the near side and stay there."
"My side, your side, right Aeryn?"
John smiled and hopped in bed fully dressed. I got in and pulled the blankets around me. I pushed the thoughts of the day from my mind and in a few microts I was asleep.
The long, high-pitched wail woke me. I found John right next to me. I'd deal with him later. I leaped over him and landed on the floor, my pulse pistol in my hand. I strode to the window and looked out. It was pitch black. I fumbled for the night vision monocle in my pouch. By the time I got it on, the wailing had stopped and John was standing next to me. I carefully scanned the area I could see, but nothing moved. Whatever had made that wailing sound had gone.
"What was that, Babe?"
"I have no idea. And what did I tell you before we went to sleep?"
"I told you to stay on your own frelling side of the bed, Crichton. Didn't I?" I was starting to lose my temper. I carefully controlled my emotions.
"Aeryn, what happened here just now?"
What the frell was Crichton trying to do? "What the frell are you trying to do, Crichton?"
"Just humor me, Aeryn. Tell me in detail what happened."
I stopped to get the facts in order. "I heard the wailing sound and woke up. I found you next to me. I pushed myself over you and on to the floor. I drew my pistol and..."
I could see Crichton smile in the dark. "Whoa. You pushed yourself over me and landed on the floor?"
I saw what he was getting out, but he insisted on explaining it to me.
"If I had moved over to your side of the bed, you would have had to have crossed the whole bed to get to the floor by the window. I didn't move, Aeryn, you did."
John reached out and touched my arm. "I can feel goose bumps on your arm. You're cold, Aeryn."
I pushed his hand away. "I am a Sebacean. I'm bothered by heat, not cold. And, I'm a warrior. I'm trained to ignore discomfort and to function no matter what."
"Aeryn, I'm not a Sebacean and I'm not a warrior. But, I'm tired and I'm freezing. Please, just get back in the bed next to me." John sounded tired.
I laid down and moved slightly back towards my side of the bed. John walked to my side of the bed and began pulling the blankets over to our side of the bed.
"I'll double up the blankets over us, Aeryn. We'll be warmer," he explained.
John got back in the bed and made a production of pulling the blankets around us. By the time he was done, he had his arms around me.
"Good night, Aeryn. You'll be okay."
His lips just barely brushed my forehead. Just lightly enough that I couldn't accuse him of kissing me. And he was right, although he didn't know it. From the few times I had been in his arms, I knew I'd be happier and feel safer than I ever had before. In a few microts we were asleep.
We woke at dawn to the sound of D'Argo pounding on our door. In spite of complaining about stopping for breakfast, he managed to eat as much as John and I put together. Almost as much as Rygel. Chiana was no help, of course.
"I was glad to hear you had a good time last night, Aeryn."
What was that little thief talking about now? "Pardon?"
She giggled. "I heard you screaming last night. I didn't know you had it in you."
I started to get up, but John pushed me down with his arm. I glared at him and turned back to Chiana. "That was outside."
"Outside?" She grinned maliciously. "My you two are adventurous, aren't you?"
Fortunately for Chiana, John intervened. "Pip, one more word and you are in big trouble with two people you can't afford to have trouble with."
I was surprised when D'Argo added, "Three people you can't afford to have trouble with."
Chiana glared at all of us but she shut up.
As soon as we had eaten, D'Argo wanted to be off to the opening of the caves. It took all John and I could do to convince him that we had to stop at the transport pod and properly equip ourselves.
"All we have to do is follow my nose. I already have all the equipment we need. All we are doing is wasting precious time. Those other treasure hunters will beat it to us."
Chiana giggled again. "I'll vouch for D'Argo's equipment."
Finally, equipped with pulse carbines and pistols, ropes, a med kit, lights, night vision monocles, food cubes and water, we started into the caves.
"Finally!" D'Argo raged. "If I was as slow in smelling out the treasure as you are in hunting for it, we'd be here forever. Now, are you ready to be rich?"
Five arns later we were still ready to be rich, but hadn't found any treasure. D'Argo's temper hadn't improved.
"I know the frelling treasure is here. I can smell it, and it's below us."
John put a hand on D'Argo's shoulder. "Sorry, man. We've been down about fifty side passageways in this cave and none of them go down, or if they do, they just lead to a big cave with no exits."
D'Argo kicked a stone that flew past Rygel's head.
"Be careful you frelling Luxan savage." Rygel screamed.
"Why? Did I miss your mouth? That rock is the only thing on this planet I haven't seen you eat, toad." D'Argo screamed back.
In five microts Rygel had his hover throne at the top of the cave roof, screaming insults at D'Argo while D'Argo returned the insults and tried to jump high enough to drag Rygel down. I wondered why I bothered, but John and I managed to calm D'Argo down. Rygel wisely stayed at the top of the cave, though.
John was starting to get angry, too. "Look. Everybody settle down and relax. I'm going to check down this passageway. Aeryn, keep them apart, okay? And if you can't, you have my permission to let them kill each other."
"Like I'd need your permission," I muttered under my breath, but loud enough for everyone to hear.
John was back in a few microts, and he didn't look mad any more.
"We need a bigger boat," was all he said.
"Crichton, what the frell..."
He cut me off. "That's what the guy in Jaws said when he saw the critter and all the teeth. We need a bigger frelling boat."
I started down the passageway he had just been in.
"Aeryn, stay here. There's a critter down there. And it's all teeth. All big, big teeth."
I turned to John. "Then there's nothing to worry about is there. If he's all teeth, he has no legs and can't get to me, right."
John looked embarrassed. "Aeryn, that's not what I meant."
"So you exaggerated a little, John?"
D'Argo pushed past us. "Down there? We can get to a lower level?"
Soon we were all staring down into hole in the cave floor to another cave floor below us. D'Argo knelt and inhaled deeply.
"Definitely grach with a noticeable overlay of peltast. And the same casaen. The treasure is down there."
D'Argo started to drop down to the floor of the cave below us. John stopped him.
"Whoa, buddy. There's a critter, a big critter down there."
I had carefully checked the floor below us. "John, the floor is covered with sand. If there was a large critter there, he'd have left large tracks in the sand. I don't see any. "
We all peered down and I even let John borrow my monocle so he could check for himself.
"Well, I saw it. He had a big, bushy tail. Maybe he used his tail to cover his tracks. "
D'Argo, as usual, was impatient. "Crichton, I am not going to remain poor and lose the chance to free my son because you think you see a critter. We are going down and we're going now."
I had to act quickly before the treasure hunt turned into a battle. "D'Argo, it won't hurt to be careful. You're tall enough to drop to the floor of the cave below. I can cover you from up here as well. As soon as you're down, John can drop and watch your back. Then Chiana, and then me, and finally Rygel. All right?"
John suggested we tie a rope to a rock outcropping near us so we could climb back up quickly if we had to. In a few microns we were following D'Argo down a new tunnel to wealth.
Two arns later, we were still following him. Suddenly, he put his hand up to stop us.
"There's a slight breeze. I can smell the treasure to our right, just ahead of us." Suddenly he took off at full speed. We ran through the cave tunnel, trying to keep up. Suddenly, I heard him ahead of us.
"Dren. Dren. Dren. Dren!"
We caught up with him. John and I took one look and agreed with him. "Dren."
John started laughing. "Yep. Even my deficient human nose can scent the grach. And there is a smidgen of peltast. Not to mention the casaen. No doubt about it, D'Argo. Once you get through scraping the treasure off of your boots, you can make a fortune in the organic fertilizer business."
Both Chiana and Rygel turned on D'Argo. "This is your treasure? This is what your famed Luxan nose has led us to?"
D'Argo nodded miserably.
I knelt and examined D'Argo's "treasure" briefly. "Something quite large left this pile of dren here, and I'd say it left it here not long ago. I wouldn't be surprised if it had lots of teeth, too."
John smiled at me and the rest clutched their weapons and peered into the darkness.
We headed back, being very careful to keep everyone covered with our weapons. We got a surprise when we got back to the rope we had left when we climbed down to this level.
"Frell. I know I tied that rope securely. I know how to tie knots, I was a frelling Boy Scout."
D'Argo's mood hadn't been improved by the day's events. "Well, I suppose the frelling rope untied itself and flew down here?"
John looked like he was going to lose his temper, so I spoke up. "The rope was tied securely enough to let Chiana down earlier without pulling loose. Remember, we have two other treasure hunters out there."
My friends turned and stared into the darkness and brought their weapons up. Frell! I would be glad to get off this planet even with no treasure.
"Rygel, use your hover throne to fly up to the next level and tie the rope off again."
Rygel was difficult. "Me? Go up yourself, Peacekeeper. Stand on D'Argo's shoulders. He makes a good ladder, if nothing else. "
Everyone turned to stare at Rygel. Their weapons followed their eyes. Rygel knew he was outvoted and outgunned.
It took Rygel another quarter of an arn to edge up to the level above us and make sure there was no one waiting in ambush. A few microts after that, he tossed the end of the rope down.
"All right, it's tied off up here."
I turned to D'Argo. "You go up first. You're the strongest, so if we need to get out of here in a hurry, you can pull everyone up."
D'Argo nodded and started pulling himself hand over hand up the rope. Halfway to the top, he fell back with the rope still in his hands.
"Rygel!" D'Argo boomed. "What the frell is going on up there?"
For a microt I was afraid something had happened to Rygel, but no such luck.
"I'm a Dominar, a being of principal, intelligence and wit. But, I don't tie knots."
"I'll tie knots for you, you little toad!" D'Argo screamed. "I'll tie knots in you."
It took another five microns to calm D'Argo down and get Rygel to tie another knot. This time D'Argo made it to the top easily, followed by Chiana and then John. I tied a loop in the end of the rope to stand in, so I could be pulled up and still have on hand free for a weapon. Just as I was being hauled up, I caught sight of something moving far down the cave. Something very, very large.
I told everyone about what I had seen, but they seemed too tired and disappointed to care, except for John. He just seemed satisfied that he had been proved right about the critter.
We made better time returning since we didn't have to check out every side passage, but we still didn't get back to the inn until after dinner had been served. Charran refused to cook us any more lichen porridge, so we ate a few food cubes and went up to bed.
This time John did kiss me ever so slightly on the forehead. I intended to say something, but I didn't want to sound too angry. By the time I decided what to say, so much time had passed, that I'd appear foolish if I complained about the kiss.
We met again in the morning over breakfast. D'Argo, Chiana and Rygel had decided to go back to the spot where we found the dren and continue looking. D'Argo felt the smell of the dren might have been covering the smell of the treasure. I told them that John and I were flying out to a cave we found to search it.
Rygel smiled. "It would seem fair that if we find the treasure, it should be divided three ways, then. Correct?"
"By that logic, Buckwheat, if we find the treasure, you get nada. Correct?"
Rygel stared at John in horror. "No! Not correct at all, I mean that allowances should be made based on who is involved in the discovery. It wouldn't be fair..."
"Guido, you don't know squat about fair. Whoever finds the treasure, if we find it, we divide it up evenly. One share for everyone, including Zhaan, Pilot and Moya."
Rygel was aghast. "Pilot and Moya! They have no need for treasure. What could they possibly want or need? This is just a plot to get an additional share. Aeryn will use her friendship with Pilot to grab his share and that of Moya. This is scandalous!"
I reached over and grabbed Rygel around the throat. "No, Rygel. Scandalous would be if I used part of my share to put a huge frelling reward on your useless head and then kicked you off of Moya. Scandalous would be if John and I used you as a food ball and shot hoops with you. I can think of many other things that would be scandalous? Would you like to hear them, toad?"
John put his arm on mine to settle me down. "You don't quite have your human expressions down yet, Babe, but you're doing better. "
Rygel decided to quit while he was still ahead, to use his term. I didn't think he had ever been ahead.
A half an arn later, John and I were at the entrance of the cave. Closer inspection showed a steep but climbable slope leading down.
"All right! No marks of any kind here. I don't think anyone has ever been in this cave, Aeryn."
There was only one way to go, so we started down the cave. An arn later, we found him.
"From his uniform, he was a Peacekeeper, John." I knelt by the body and tried to go through his pockets and pouches for any information he might have. Everything seemed to be gone.
"He looks like he's been frozen solid for a long time, Aeryn. Can you tell how long he's been dead?"
I turned him over. "From the style of his uniform, not more than thirty cycles. Or perhaps only a monen ago."
I noticed the hole in his uniform coat and turned him over again. A matching hole was in the back. I walked over to a small alcove in the tunnel wall and sighted back to the dead Peacekeeper.
"What is it, Aeryn?"
"He was murdered. He was walking back to the cave entrance and someone was waiting for him in this little niche. When he passed, he was shot in the back and his pockets cleaned out."
"And you can't tell whether this happened last monen or thirty cycles ago?"
I shook my head and we both drew our pistols. When we started down the tunnel again, John suddenly took the lead.
"John, the peacekeeper was shot in the back."
John grinned at me. "So I'll check any places where he could be hiding before we go past."
"Unless he, or she, or it, followed us down here and is already behind us, getting ready to shoot now. That is assuming the killer hasn't been gone for thirty cycles."
I let John worry for a few microts. "We'll walk side by side, you on the right, me on the left. Every five steps, check over your left shoulder. I'll do the same."
We walked for another three arns and checked out several short tunnels with no result. Finally, we came to a where the tunnel widened out into a mammoth underground cavern. Ahead of us was a short beach and then a huge expanse of water. Even with my monocle at full power, I couldn't see the end of the cave.
"Whoa, Aeryn. Hold up. We don't want to get any closer. Remember the sea snakes Charran told us about?"
"I don't think we're any where near the sea, Crichton. " I started towards the beach when John grabbed my arm.
"You were raised on a spaceship, and I was raised on a planet. That's the smell of salt water. This world may have fresh water oceans and salt water lakes, but I doubt it. Just back away from the surf, Gidget."
John busied himself looking for a rock and apparently only a particular shape would do. Finally he found one that suited him.
"Okay, Aeryn. Let's see if I can still throw a little heat."
I had long since learned not to ask a human why a rock should be called heat, especially when it was ice cold. But John threw the rock with a peculiar side arm motion and it skipped over the surface of the water. It skipped three times and then disappeared into a very large mouth. The sea snake lifted its head out of the water and headed for us. John opened fire and I followed suit. The snake was thrown backward by the force of our pulse pistol shots. Before he could head our way again, the surface of the water erupted with other sea snakes, attacking the wounded one.
"Come on, Aeryn. We're out of here." John took my hand and we ran.
Checking every place where an ambusher might lurk, it was nearly dark when we got back to the surface. Neither John or I relaxed until we were back in the cockpit of the transport pod.
"Well, no treasure today. We may not have a future as Kirk and Spock on our own spaceship, Aeryn, but we'll still do okay."
After two days of hard work and disappointment I was perhaps too short with John. "Crichton, when will you ever learn that we don't have a future? Why is that so difficult for you to grasp?"
I was too busy with the take off procedures to notice John's reaction, but he didn't say a word all the way back to the inn. I thought that perhaps he was finally giving a little thought to our circumstances.
Even through dinner, John remained quiet. He spoke only when asked a question and then only as little as possible. After dinner, we all headed for bed. When I came out of the bathroom after using the dentic, John wasn't in our room. I decided he must have wanted to talk to one of our friends and got in bed. After a quarter of an arn, I decided to go looking for him.
He was wrapped in one of the gold blankets from Moya in front of the now cold fireplace.
"Crichton, what are you doing?"
"I'm trying to sleep. What does it look like I'm doing?"
I got a very familiar feeling. John was upset and I was supposed to know why. There ought to be a law forbidding frelling humans from leaving Earth without a complete written instruction manual accompanying them.
"You look like you're going to freeze solid. Now lets go back upstairs to bed."
"I'll be fine here, Aeryn. You go back to the room."
I was angry enough to do so, but I couldn't leave John by himself to freeze solid.
"Crichton, come with me now. I am tired and we both need our sleep."
"Aeryn, I told you..."
"What are you two doing down here?" Charran had poked her nose out of her quarters.
"I'm trying to get some sleep. Will you ladies both just leave me alone?"
"You sleep in your rooms. I don't want you Peacekeepers down here. Back upstairs, now."
John was getting angry. "Look. I'm paying to sleep here. I can sleep where I frelling well want."
"You'll sleep in your rooms. And if you don't like that, you can both sleep outside. And anything more from you, Peacekeeper, and all of you can sleep outside. Now go upstairs."
I held my hand out to John. "Do you want to get us all thrown out of here, Crichton?"
John ignored my hand, but headed upstairs. Once we were in bed, John surprised me by turning away from me and staying on the edge of his side of the bed. I moved over next to him and he moved all the way to the very edge of the bed. I put my hand on his shoulder only to have him push it off.
I never thought I'd say these words, but I had to. "John, we have to talk."
"I'm sorry, Aeryn. That's my line. Your line is, we talk too much."
I lay next to John trying to decide what to do next. Suddenly, he turned around to face me.
"Sorry, Aeryn. You're right. We do need to talk. I apologize. I obviously misunderstood you from the very beginning. I'm sure I've been a giant pain in the ass as well as making a fool of myself. I'll leave you alone from now on. I am sorry, Aeryn."
A very large instruction manual was needed for humans. "John, what the frell are you talking about?"
John was silent for a few microts. Apparently he was having as much trouble with talking as I was. "I, uh, thought we had a future together, but today you disabused me of that idea. You said we had no future together."
At least I now understood where I had gone wrong trying to talk to John. "John, you don't have a future. I don't have a future. None of our friends have a future. Or rather, we all have more or less the same future. You will be hunted down and captured, tortured for your knowledge of wormholes, and executed. I'll be hunted down and sent into the Living Death, then chained up somewhere as an example. The rest will be executed, except perhaps for Pilot and Moya, who may be enslaved."
I put my arm around John and he slid an arm around me. I moved closer to him.
"When did you become such an optimist, Sunshine?" In spite of the seriousness of our problem, John sounded happy.
"It was different when it was only Crais chasing us, John. Eventually, he'd run into a Peacekeeper vessel that would give him orders to leave the Uncharted Territories that he couldn't ignore or pretend he hadn't received. Or he'd run out of supplies and have to go back to a Peacekeeper base. Or maybe his crew would mutiny. Sooner or later we'd be rid of Crais if we could just keep away from him long enough. Once First Command got him back, they might not have enough evidence to court martial him, but they'd never let him near the Uncharted Territories again. Not if they didn't want a command carrier going missing again."
"Now it's different. The Peacekeepers are after all of us. And they won't stop until they have us. Do you have any idea how valuable the wormhole would be to the Peacekeepers?"
John nodded. "I thought I did. Maybe I don't."
"Suppose the Delvians rose against the Peacekeepers. First Command could assemble a fleet from the borders with Lux, from the Ilonic border, from Hyneria, from the Uncharted Territories, and they could assemble it in a few solar days using wormholes. Otherwise, it would take months to assemble a fleet that large. Then, they could crush Delvia with overwhelming force and send the ships back to their normal patrol areas before anyone even noticed they had left. That's what a wormhole could do for them. "
"Even if we killed Scorpius, destroyed his command carrier and every Prowler and Marauder he has, and then killed the entire crew, down to the last tech, it wouldn't do us any good. The Peacekeepers would just send more ships, more warriors, and more bounty hunters after us until we're caught. Wormhole technology is that important."
"And once Scorpius, catches us, he'll kill us all once he has the wormhole technology. He told you that unique is valuable, John. Once he has the technology, he'll kill you to keep you from ever duplicating your wormhole research for anyone else. He'll kill the rest of us just to make sure that we don't have some small clue about wormholes that would be valuable to some other researcher. Then Scorpius himself will be unique and uniquely valuable."
"And I am going to do my best to see to it that our deaths are as costly and painful to the Peacekeepers as possible."
"It sounds like you take this personally, Aeryn?" John was starting to understand.
"I do. I was a Peacekeeper all of my life. And then I was declared irreversibly contaminated and my whole life was taken away."
"I didn't know that still bothered you, Aeryn."
"It does, because I eventually discovered that what had been taken away was worthless. I was contaminated when I was a Peacekeeper, not after being with you. You, and the rest of my friends, have made me something far better than I used to be. Something more, as someone once told me."
John pulled me against him and I rested my head in the crook of his arm and relaxed.
"I want every Peacekeeper, every bounty hunter, every mercenary, every critter we meet to know that I am not contaminated. Not any more, I'm not. And even when we're dead, I want them all to wonder and worry. How could a renegade, a few escaped criminals, a Leviathan and one odd human have caused so much trouble? And I want the Luxans, and the Ilanics, and the Delvians, and even the Hynerians, to wonder what might happen if a few of them decided to oppose the Peacekeepers. And when that happens, the Peacekeepers will be done for, even if they do have wormholes."
John nuzzled my ear. "And Aeryn Sun has to do all of this all by herself?"
"Who else will do it? D'Argo is a trained warrior, but he often thinks with his mivonks. Rygel would sell us out if he could. Chiana might not sell us out, but I don't trust her. Zhaan is still a priestess, even if she was once a revolutionary. She values peace and harmony too much for my liking. Pilot and Moya are not warriors and never will be."
I reached up and stroked John's cheek. "A long time ago, I believed humans were deficient. I know better now. Even with the DNA I have from Pilot, you understand our technology better than anyone in the crew. I don't understand your philosophy and most of the time I disagree with your ideas, but they seem to work better than mine. You are a remarkable creature, John Crichton."
"Oh, the feeling is mutual, Aeryn Sun."
"You may be remarkable, John, but you aren't a trained warrior and there is an enormous amount you don't know about the part of the Universe you're in. I have got to try to impose order and discipline on what is nothing better than anarchy. I have to try to lead this crew against the Peacekeepers, even if they don't agree or appreciate my efforts. Even if it kills me, because failure will kill us all."
"And you can't have a partner to help you, I guess."
"Personal indulgences can fracture a small crew, John." I felt a surge of pain from the last time I had said that to John." I must be a leader."
I would never have continued if I hadn't been angry and upset. "When I'm facing the Living Death, my one great regret will be that I was never able to give you the children you want so much."
"Aeryn, we can have children. We learned that after the Royal Planet."
I was nearly ready to cry. "I will not bring children into this Universe only to have them watch their parents be executed and then be executed themselves. I will never agree to have children, John. Never."
"Never is a very long time, Honey."
"Please, John. I know you're eternally optimistic. I'm realistic. But I can't stand arguing with you right now. Please just go to sleep. Please."
John did kiss me. He lightly brushed his lips across mine. If he had done any more, I would never have been able to stop myself.
We woke to the sound of pulse weapon fire.
"Aeryn, once we get out of the Uncharted Territories, we are never buying an alarm clock!"
John and I rolled out of bed and headed for the door to our room. We opened it quickly and peered out. The second floor was clear. I pulled my head back in and looked at John. He was laughing.
"Pip and D'Argo aren't dressed yet, Aeryn. I saw them looking down the hall to us, so it looks like it's up to us. At least they're having a good time, even if it is freezing. D'Argo said it was great sex."
In a microt I thought of at least a dozen replies that I'd like to make, but settled for glaring at John.
"This is serious, Crichton. Somebody's having a firefight down there."
"Okay, we'll go to the landing at the end of the hall and check it out. Okay, Sunshine?"
I nodded and we headed for the landing. When we got there, I identified a familiar voice below us screaming hi head off.
"Rygel! It had to be that little toad. Shooting's too good for him. He'll die slowly once I save his useless hide."
"Aeryn, lets not count our Hynerians before they hatch, okay?"
Hezmana knew what that meant, but I nodded. John and I took a quick look over the railing at the dining room below.
"Kermit the frog is at the far end of the dining room. I can't see who he's shooting at, but it isn't Rygel, I can see him in the middle of the room."
"Sulla's target is the being in the robe. He's right under the landing. I can shoot him easily."
"We'll take them alive, okay, Aeryn? I'll go long and take out Kermie. You just drop down behind him and put him out of business. Okay?"
It wasn't okay. I knew it wasn't, but I just nodded to John. John headed down the stairs and snuck between the tables until he was behind Sulla. Just as John stuck his pulse pistol in Sulla's back, I dropped down behind the robed being.
"If you move I will kill you. My partner has captured your opponent. Drop your weapon, now!"
He lifted his head to make sure John had neutralized Sulla and then dropped his pistol. "I am the aggrieved party, Peacekeeper. I had only wished to proceed with my affairs, but now it is necessary for my safety to dispose of Sulla. Do you intend to execute him for his unprovoked attack?"
That got Sulla's attention. "Lies. Lies. I am innocent. That foul creature ambushed me. I barely was able to escape his assassination attempt. He is the one who should be disposed of. If you don't, he will murder all of you, Peacekeeper, to steal the treasure that is rightfully mine."
D'Argo and Chiana came down the stairs and joined us. We managed to quiet Sulla and his enemy down and turned to Rygel. He was as big a help as he ever is.
"I don't know anything. I was hungry and I came down here looking for some food. The next thing I knew, I was being shot at. I have no idea who started it."
Well, the first sentence was true.
John turned to the robed being. "Did you accidentally shoot at Rygel, or do you think Froggy did?"
I saw the cowl shake. "No. He fired at me. That foul being intentionally tried to kill me because he believes his race was cheated out of the treasure. He knows I am more capable than he, and will find the treasure. He should be terminated."
That set Sulla off. "Lies and more lies. I am near to finding the treasure. He tried to murder me and murder your innocent friend who was a witness to his villainy. He must die and I will see to it that he does."
I didn't even get a laugh out of someone calling Rygel innocent.
John was losing his temper. "So you both want to kill each other?"
"Yes," was the response from both.
John glared at them and then smiled. What was he thinking?
"Okay, we're all going outside. Aeryn, take their pistols and follow me. D'Argo, Pip, you come with us, too. "
We all walked outside and John started walking around the inn, looking for something.
"John, what are you looking for?"
"A nice flat space, with... Right here, Aeryn. That's what I'm looking for."
John was standing on a small rise overlooking a flat piece of clear ground.
"Okay, Aeryn come with me and bring Obi-Wan's pistol."
We walked down the slight rise and stopped.
"Okay, people. You want to kill each other and I'm ready to oblige you. You two stand here back to back."
The two beings moved as John directed.
"Now, this is how it's going to go down. Aeryn and I will hand you your pistols. You will not move. Aeryn and I walk back up the hill, covering you two all the way. When we get up there, I start counting. At the count of "One", you take on step forward. When I say "Two" you take another step forward. Each time I count, you take one step. When I get to "Ten", you'll stop and you'll be facing away from each other twenty paces apart, right?"
The two beings nodded.
"I'll say "turn" and then you can both turn and fire away. If anyone turns before I say "turn", the four of us will shoot you full of little yellow bolts of light. Got it?"
We backed up the hill, covering the two beings. When we got to the top, John asked D'Argo and Chiana if they had heard him and understood what was to happen.
D'Argo nodded and smiled at John. "Where did you learn this manner of fighting, Crichton?"
"It's an old Earth form of settling disputes."
D'Argo laughed. "I hadn't known you humans were so advanced."
John looked disgusted and then sighed. "You and I'll cover Sulla and the ladies can cover the other one. Okay?"
We all nodded and John started counting.
"One." They each took a step. I held the sights of my pistol on the head of the robed being. I was sure that if anyone was going to cheat, it would be Sulla, but I wouldn't take any chances. John continued to count.
"Six. Seven. Eight. Dren."
I kept my eyes on my target. I was not going to let John down.
"Sulla fell into a damned hole."
When John said that, I relaxed and looked towards where Sulla should have been. He was nowhere to be seen. We started down the rise while John explained what had happened.
"He just took a step and fell right into a frelling hole. Surprised the dren out of me. Be careful when you get to the hole, guys. Sulla may shoot at the first thing he sees up here. "
We got to the hole and stopped, unsure of what to do next. The robed being reached over and passed his hand over the whole. I thought I felt a slight tingling as he did so.
"Sulla is not down there. It is five wapti to the bottom, an easy drop."
"If I had five waptis to drop, I might take you up on that." Amazing. Crichton could be unintelligible using other people's language.
The robed being figured Crichton out though. "The drop is about twice the height of the Luxan. It appears the floor of the cave is covered in sand."
John wasn't sure. "You got all that from waving at the cave?"
But it was too late, the robed being had dropped down into the cave and was gone. His voice drifted back up, however.
"Sulla is gone. There is a tunnel down here that slopes steeply down. I do not see any of the markings found in the previously explored caves."
D'Argo started to follow him, but John put his arm out to stop him. "Whoa. Let's get our gear before we go spelunking. I'd like to find my way back to the top if we do strike it rich."
Somehow John and I got our three greedy treasure hunters outfitted and back down into the cavern. Rygel didn't even complain about missing breakfast.
After a half a metra, the tunnel split into four smaller tunnels. D'Argo stood at where they branched out from and inhaled deeply. "Sulla went down the tunnel on the far right. The other one took the tunnel on the far left. I would not care to come upon either of them unprepared. We should follow the other tunnels."
John glanced at me and I nodded. "Okay, let's pick a tunnel and follow the yellow brick road."
D'Argo rumbled. "No, John. We should cover both tunnels. You and Aeryn take the one on the right and the three of us will take the one on the left."
John started to argue, but D'Argo wouldn't hear of it. "My son is in a slave pen somewhere. I will not let him stay there a microt longer than necessary. If we explore the two tunnels at the same time, we get done that much faster."
There was noting to do but agree with D'Argo. John and I had walked for an arn when we heard from D'Argo on the communicator.
"John.....ryn. Need h.....in a big....and shot me. Now."
"D'Argo! You're breaking up. Repeat what you said." John yelled into the communicator. "Aeryn, we have to go back. Where are you going."
I was heading further into the tunnel. "John, I can see just a little flickering of light ahead on my night vision monocle. I think it's pulse weapon fire. We need to keep going down the tunnel. If we try to go back it'll take arns to get to D'Argo."
John and I ran down the tunnel toward the flickering light. It was pulse weapon fire ahead. We slowed and came to a stop at the entrance of a monstrous cavern. Slightly to the left we could see Chiana, hunched down behind a boulder, firing at someone hidden in the shadows ahead of us. D'Argo was lying beside her, and not moving. Rygel wasn't moving, but he was screaming at the top of his lungs.
I leaned over to whisper in John's ear. "John. I can see the muzzle flashes over there. Move to the right and we can get him in a crossfire with Chiana."
When John was in position, I nodded to him to start shooting. If I'd figured out the configuration of the cavern correctly, when John started shooting at him, the assailant would move. Then I'd get him. When John fired the return fire stopped. Then I saw a flicker of movement to my left. Perfect. I held my sight picture and squeezed the trigger.
"Frelling, frelling dren!" I screamed.
John was at my side in a microt. "What's the matter, Aeryn? You okay?"
I sighed. "I'm fine. I had him right in my sights and just as I fired, he went behind a rock formation. All I did was spatter him with some rock chips. Dren!"
"Could you tell who it was, Babe?"
I thought about that for a microt. "He looked like he was wearing a robe, but he seemed fairly big. Maybe it was Sulla trying to throw us off the track. Maybe it was someone else. I don't know."
We trotted down to where D'Argo, Chiana and Rygel were. D'Argo was sitting up, I was relieved to find. He and Chiana were having a noisy argument.
"I am fine, Chiana. There is no need for us to abandon the treasure hunt today. It's a scratch and nothing more."
"A scratch! It's a scratch that's bleeding dark blood. Now turn over so I can work on your back."
"I am not going to allow my son to become a slave because I was scratched. Let me alone, woman!"
I knelt behind D'Argo. "Then you'll allow him to become a slave because you're dead. The scratch, as you call it, is quite deep and is bleeding. And the blood is dark. Once we clear your blood, I can patch the wound with what I have in my medical pouch. But to keep you alive, I'll need the medical kit Zhaan prepared for us. That's back at the transport pod. Now lie down and I'll start work on the wound."
D'Argo growled, but turned over on his face. I moved over to him, but Chiana pushed me away. "I'll do this, Aeryn."
It took Chiana forever to finally hit D'Argo's wound hard enough to cleanse his blood, but eventually we were on our way. I took the point and John brought up the rear. Chiana supported D'Argo and Rygel made enough noise to allow every bounty hunter and Peacekeeper in ten light cycles locate us.
"Rygel, if you don't frelling shut up, I'm going to put a pulse burst in your throne sled and you can devote your energy to walking instead of whining."
"You wouldn't dare. I could never keep up with you on foot. I might run into that assassin or the monster in the caverns."
"And the downside of that would be?" I growled.
We finally made it to the surface and had the inn in sight. I dropped to my knee and brought my pulse carbine up when I saw it. A pile of gray cloth, just like a robe I had seen. It was the robe, with it's wearer was still in it. I pushed the cowl back and quickly determined he was indeed dead. He was a skeletal looking creature, his skin mottled in dark and light brown. His head had been crushed and deep slashes covered his arms and his chest. I located his weapon and checked it. It appeared unfired and as near as I could tell hadn't been recently cleaned.
John moved up beside me. "Dead?"
I nodded. "His weapon doesn't appear to have been fired and it looks like he was slashed or battered to death. I think we should take D'Argo to the pod and then pay a visit to Sulla."
Between the three of us, Rygel being no help, we managed to treat D'Argo who wanted to go with us after Sulla and also go back to treasure hunting. I gave him a central nervous system depressant Zhaan had said was safe for Luxans and soon he was starting to go to sleep.
While Chiana fussed over D'Argo, I talked to John. "There's a back door to the inn, John. We'll go in that way and check out the dining area first and then to Sulla's room. All right?"
John nodded and checked his pulse pistol. We headed for the inn. As I walked in the back door, I thanked the gods and goddesses I didn't believe in. Sulla was sitting in the dining area with his back to me.
John and I were able to walk up right behind him. I pushed my pistol in his ear.
"One move Sulla and your brains will be all over the floor."
He only moved his mouth. "Cowardly Peacekeepers. You refuse to face me and dishonorably come at me two to one. You disgrace yourselves. "
John took Sulla's guns. "Murdering our robed friend counts as honorable?"
Sulla looked at John. "I have murdered no one."
"Someone was murdered?"
I whirled to face the speaker. It was Dartha, coming through the back door with a bucket of the lichens we ate.
John nodded. "The being in the cowl. We found him dead outside about a half an arn ago. Our guess is that Sulla made him an offer he couldn't refuse."
"That's impossible, Captain. The two of them came back within microns of each other. About an arn and a half ago. They sat in the dining room and ate while I watched. Then the other one left again. I just left a few microns ago. I was only gone long enough to retrieve the bucket of lichen I had left soaking in the water outside. You have to soak it, you know."
Sulla had regained his courage. "Lies. Peacekeeper lies. What else can one expect from such persons? Return my weapons to me at once, Peacekeeper."
John removed the chakan oil cartridges from Sulla's pistols and returned them. "I'd leave them unloaded if I were you."
Charran stuck her nose out of her quarters to find out what had happened. When John told her, Charran immediately began complaining about having a corpse in front of her inn.
"I'm sure he just did it to bug you." John snarled at her. But Charran kept complaining.
"Fine, I'll bury his body."
"In the ground?" gasped Charran. John just glared at her.
I walked back to the pod to get some entrenching tools and tell our friends what had happened. We got D'Argo back to his room, then John and I went outside. We picked a place near the corpse and started digging.
"Not there." I turned to see Dartha standing with a shovel over her shoulder. "There's rock just a little way down just about everywhere around here. I'll show you where you can bury him."
John picked the corpse up and we followed Dartha to a place behind the inn. "Bury him here. I tried to grow dalla roots here once, so I know the soil is deep here."
As we started digging, John started talking to Dartha.
"You're a Sebacean, right?"
The girl nodded. "I'm from Apollanaredent. It's a small agricultural world far from here."
John smiled at her and she smiled back. "How'd you end up here, Dartha?"
She looked back and forth at us, probably deciding how much she could trust us. "My older brother was too good with computers. He got conscripted by the Peacekeepers as a tech. My mother and father tried to work the farm with just me, and my two little brothers, but it wasn't working out. I got a chance to ship out on a starship and figured I could send some money back to help my parents."
From the amount of cleavage she was showing John every time she shoveled and the way she let her skirt ride up, I had a good idea what sort of work she did on the ship.
Dartha frowned. "The Captain liked me. So did the Chief Engineer. In the end, the Engineer stabbed the Captain. He put us off here and said he'd send someone back for us. He never did and the Captain died after about a monen. Charran lets me stay in exchange for my help. There's a lot that needs to be done at the inn."
I turned and looked at John. "So men who like you get stabbed, Dartha?"
Dartha just nodded. John smiled at me and then winked. "If it's the right woman, Aeryn, guys don't mind."
John and I hopped out of the hole we had dug. Dartha held up her hands to be pulled out by John. When he pulled her up, she made sure she fell against him, the trelk.
John lowered the body into the grave. "Frell. I don't even know his name, Aeryn. Do you know anything about him, Dartha. His name, his race, or anything about his burial customs?"
Dartha shook her head. "We don't ask questions beyond whether someone has enough to pay."
We filled the grave back in and went back inside.
We were just in time for dinner. Sulla was in a happy mood, which did nothing for John's and my mood. Chiana had stayed upstairs with D'Argo. We took their dinner to them and found D'Argo was still feeling bad.
"I'm cold. Only Peacekeepers or humans could find this planet habitable. I think I contracted some sort of a virus in that frelling tunnel."
Suddenly D'Argo shuddered and his teeth chattered. "Frell. It's getting worse. John, get me up tomorrow. I'm going with you to look for the treasure. I'll be fine after a good nights rest."
John and I exchanged glances. We both knew if D'Argo went out with us, we'd probably be carrying him before we had gone a metra. I started to tell that to D'Argo, but John interrupted me.
"Fine, Bubba. We'll check in on you tomorrow. In the meantime, Aeryn should give you some more of Zhaan's medicine. Right, Aeryn?"
I nodded and D'Argo mumbled something unintelligible. I gave him a shot of the medicine and he almost instantly fell asleep. I turned to Chiana.
"He probably won't wake up tomorrow morning, but if he does, he'll want to go with us. We do not need an ailing Luxan in those caverns. So you be sure that you wake up before D'Argo does and give him another shot. That'll keep him out until we get back."
Chaina smiled at me. "Thanks, Aeryn. I appreciate this."
"Chiana, I am simply trying to...."
Chiana put her hand on my arm. "I know what you're doing, Aeryn."
Shortly, John and I were wrapped up in our bed. Suddenly, the stillness of the night was split by a high pitched quavering wail. John and I leaped out of bed and headed for the window, fumbling for our monocles. We scanned the area, but could see nothing.
John put a hand on my shoulder. "I think we should stay in bed next time unless he knocks at the door and says he has room service breakfast in bed for us."
The morning found D'Argo sound asleep. Chiana would stay with him, and, I was relieved to hear, Rygel decided not to go with us. We started down the tunnel that Sulla had accidentally found the day before. Sulla, we heard from Dartha, had left before dawn.
In an arns time, we were at the cavern where D'Argo had been wounded. We stopped by the entrance to the cavern, wondering if Sulla or someone else was laying in wait for us.
"To quote Ward Bond, I was born ready, Aeryn."
I was sure that John was never ready, but I saw no point in mentioning it. We trotted across the floor of the cavern and arrived at the other side without incident. There were two tunnels on the other side. One appeared to go up towards the surface. It may have been the one that our assailant yesterday took. The other appeared to go down. We headed down.
In a half an arn, I noticed something. "John, it's getting warmer. Can't you feel how hot its getting?"
"Only a Sebacean would consider this hot, Aeryn. But I think you may be right."
Suddenly, I heard a sharp crack and felt the ground beneath me give way. "John!" I had fallen halfway through the floor of the cave when John caught my hand.
"Hang on, Aeryn. I've got you."
John had one hand in mine and was trying to pull me up, but the leg of my pants was caught on the rough edge of the rock where the floor of the cave had given way.
"Just a sec, Aeryn. Just a sec and I'll have you. Frell."
The floor under John's back foot cracked and his foot shot through the thin layer of rock. We watched for a split microt while a tiny crack emerged between where John's foot went through the crack to where my feet were. Then the rock shattered and we started falling. We weren't falling straight down, but at a steep angle in a narrow tunnel. I tried to brace my legs against the tunnel walls to slow us down. My arm was almost wrenched off as I suddenly stopped.
"You okay, Aeryn? I managed to get my feet braced against a couple of rocks sticking out of the damned wall. Are you okay?" John shouted.
I managed to look up at him. "I'm okay, John. My arm is going to be sore, though. Can we climb back up?"
John stared up the rock chimney we were stuck in. "I can't see any handholds or anything, Aeryn. Give me a microt."
Then I noticed it. "John it's awfully hot here. I mean really hot."
"Dren! We had to find Death Valley. Just a sec....Dren!"
I saw one of the rocks John was braced against give way and fall past me. John tried to hold on, but he lost his hold and we fell further. Then I was falling free with no tunnel around me. I tried to get my legs under me, but before I could, I slammed into another rock floor.
The first thing I noticed was the heat. The second was that John was groaning next to me.
"Are you all right, John."
"Where the Hell is Alan Quartermain when you need him?"
"I'm functional, but that's about it. You?"
"I won't last long in this heat, John." I pushed my fear down and started breathing slowly and easily. I had to remind myself not to panic, and that's never a good sign.
John pulled me to my feet. "We can't go back the way we came. The drop was too far. We have to go on."
We hadn't gone more than a few dozen paces when the tunnel we were in opened out. To our left was a river of molten lava, running just below us. I could see the waves of heat blasting up at me.
"Come on, run. We have to get out of here before you go into heat delirium."
I started running. We were on a narrow path with a sheer wall rising out of sight on one side and a drop into molten lava on the other. I stumbled and I stumbled again and went to one knee. John grabbed me by my belt and hauled me to my feet.
I tried. I concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. Somehow I found myself face down with John yelling something at me. Then I was on my feet. I had one arm over John's shoulder and he had an arm around my waist with his hand grabbing my belt. I stumbled again. I pushed myself to my feet and then felt John turning me around. Were we going back? No. I had gotten turned around. I think. I staggered a few steps and fell again. I tried to get my feet under me when John lifted, but I collapsed. John yelled at me. I looked up at John. I had something to say to him. What was it? I found myself looking down into the lava. Slowly I understood. John was carrying me over his shoulder. Wasn't he? I was laying down on the rock again. John was yelling at me. Why did he yell at me like that? Then he was gone. John was gone. Gone. Made sense. Push a man away, he goes. Why stay? Should have said, said, something. John. Gone. Head hurts. John? John left. If not John, who? Tunnel again. Hit head. How am I moving? Come on, Aeryn. The air is nice and cool. Inhale. Breathe deeply. Come on, babe, you can do it. I can do what?
"Come on, Aeryn. Snap out of it. It's nice and cool here."
"Whooo! Welcome back, Honey. What's your name?"
"Name? What kind of frelling human game.."
"Tell me your name, now."
"What race are you?"
Strange. "Sebacean. John, why ask? You know who I am?"
"I just needed to make sure you're all there, Aeryn. I've got some water for you. Just lie where you are for now and get your strength back. I found a little tunnel running away from the lava. I had to leave you for a few microts to make sure it didn't lead to worse heat. Then I had to crawl backwards through the tunnel hauling you by your feet. Sorry if I bumped your head there, Honey. "
John held the canteen to my lips. and I emptied half of it before my discipline took over and I remembered we might need water later. I tried to sit up and was surprised to find I could barely lift my head. I rested my head in the crook of John's arm and relaxed. So many things to say when I was facing death. So many other things to consider when the fear of death was gone. John put his other arm around me and in a few microts I was asleep.
I awoke with a start. "John? John, where are you?"
"Right here, Aeryn." John knelt down beside me. "How do you feel?"
I sat up and then stood up. "I feel fine. How long was I asleep?"
"A little over nine arns. Hungry?"
"Nine arns? Why did you let me sleep for so long? We have to get out of here. Who knows what's happened at the inn while we've been gone." Suddenly I realized how I sounded. I stared at my boots and tried to think of a graceful way to ignore what I had just done. There wasn't any.
"I shouldn't yell at someone who's just saved my life. Thank you, John. I probably wouldn't have been in any shape to go anywhere if you had tried to waken me. And I'm starved."
John just smiled and handed me a package of food cubes. He talked while I ate.
"We can't go back the way we came down here, we know that. And we can't keep going in the tunnel where the lava is. The ridge we were running on disappears just after the tunnel that brought us in here."
I swallowed. "And here is?"
"A very narrow ledge. It ends in a sheer drop on every side. So, we get to jump."
"Jump? To where."
John walked to the edge of the ledge we were on and pointed down. Below us I saw water rushing along.
"It's a pretty good drop, but the water looks deep, so we should be okay. Ready?"
"We're not jumping, John. We'll go back through the tunnel and see if we can get back up the way we came."
"Are you nuts? Unless you can slam-dunk over King Kong or something, we aren't ever going to get back up that way. It's just too frelling high. Now come on, Aeryn."
"I can't swim."
"I said, I can't swim."
"GI Jane can't swim? Oh, God, Aeryn, that line is perfect. You really mean to tell me you can't swim?"
"I was born in space and lived almost my whole life in space. Where do you think I'd find water to swim?"
"The Peacekeepers never figured you'd end up on a planet with water on it one day?"
"As a Cadet, I was scheduled for swimming lessons. I took a day of classroom instruction, but I had to testify at a Spacecraft Accident Investigation Board. Another Cadet violated a safety protocol. I was supposed to get a makeup class, but I never did." I didn't think I had ever felt as foolish as I did now.
John was laughing. "What are you worrying about? The damn fall will probably kill us."
John reached over and put his arms around me. "Crichton. This is not the time or the place for this."
John laughed again. "I'm going to put my arms around you and grab onto your belt. You do the same with me. Then we jump. "
We wrapped our arms around each other and John edged us closer and closer to the edge.
"John. I really think..."
John lifted me off my feet and stepped off into thin air.
The next thing I knew, I was under water, struggling to reach the surface. John and I still had a hold of each other and I could feel John moving. He must be swimming. Then I was on the surface.
"You okay, Aeryn?"
"Yes." So far.
"Okay. Now, try to float on your back. Relax, arch your back a little. Relax, Aeryn."
"I am relaxed, Crichton."
"Aeryn, you're as rigid as the first day I ever met you. Loosen up."
"What do you mean by that, Crichton."
"I mean...Shit. Inhale, Aeryn."
I managed to gasp a lung full of air before John pushed me down. I could feel us bouncing along the top of the tunnel while underwater. Then, we were on the surface again.
"Woo. You okay?"
I inhaled several times before I could answer. "I'm fine, John."
"That you are. Okay, I have your belt in one hand and the back of your vest in the other. I'll keep a good grip on one or the other. You're doing good, Aeryn."
I was. I was floating on the water. I tried moving my arms as I had seen John do. "This swimming isn't so difficult. I think I'm getting the hang of it, John."
"You're doing fine, Aeryn. If my monocle is working, we have sheer rock walls on either side of us and a river stretching out in front of us. You see anything?"
"No. Just rock and water."
We floated along for a while. Once or twice we saw small rock projections we might have been able to hang onto for a while, but nothing we could climb on, and no way to get out of the river. Something was strange, however. I couldn't quite figure out what it was.
"Do you hear something, John?"
"My heart pounding like an old Chevy pickup on a dirt road. That's about it."
"Your aural nerves must not be any better than your optic nerves."
"Yeah? Well the deficient human is keeping you afloat, so far."
Frell. Frell. Frell. Why was he so sensitive? I never made an issue of the fact that he could stand extremes of heat that would kill me. No, and he never made such an issue of my heat sensitivity. He never insulted me about my physical limitations. Of course he's sensitive when I bring it up. When would I learn?
"John. I do not think you're deficient. In fact, I think...."
I stopped. I could hear it clearly now. John could, too, I could tell.
"Dren! Aeryn, head for the wall, now. Look for somewhere to hang onto."
I did my best to kick and paddle as John was doing, but I couldn't see anyplace where we could grab onto the wall. It was smooth.
"John! What is it?" It, whatever it was, was much louder now, and we were starting to speed up.
"Waterfall. There's nothing to hang onto. We're going to go over. Hang on tight. Don't let go of me."
I could hardly hear John over the noise. Water fall. That sounded ominous. I looked ahead of us and could see only a curtain of mist across the underground river. I looked in John's eyes and wished I hadn't. If someone familiar with water was frightened, it was serious. Then we were into the curtain of mist and just as suddenly falling. We slammed into the water with enough force to knock the air out of me and then we slammed into the bottom of the river. Thankfully, we started to float up.
Float? John wasn't swimming. He had let go of me and was limp in my arms. My lungs were burning when we finally broke the surface.
"John!" His eyes were closed and I wasn't sure if he was breathing. Then he made a strange, strangling noise and coughed up a little water and then began to breathe. He was still limp, though. I got him on his back and looked around. Through the night vision monocle I could see a beach about a quarter of a metra to my right. There was little current, as we were in a huge underground lake. I started swimming, trying to copy what I had seen John do. I held on to John with one hand, paddled with the other and kicked with my feet. I kept the beach in sight and very slowly swam toward the beach.
I felt something shove against my foot. I stopped and looked around me. Was it one of the sea snakes? No, I was in fresh water, I was sure. I waited, but nothing further happened, so I started swimming again. Finally, I felt sand beneath my feet. I had reached the beach. I dragged John as far up the beach as I could, just in case there was something in the water.
I checked John over as best as I could. Humans were similar to Sebaceans and also maddeningly different. I decided that as soon as we got back to Moya, the two of us were going to sit down with Zhaan and learn everything we could about human medical needs.
I laughed. I couldn't help it. I was vowing that I'd sit down with John and let him talk about humans until he could talk no more. It was funny. It also brought a lot of other thoughts to the surface of my mind.
Frell! I had to do something. I touched John's face. Warmth! John was cold and he needed his body temperature raised. I remembered that from a conversation with John because it seemed so strange for a Sebacean looking being to want his body temperature raised.
I found a large rock on the beach. I carefully lowered the power setting of my pulse pistol to minimum and aimed at the rock. Success! The power was just enough to heat the rock without destroying it. I dragged John over by the rock and checked that he was still breathing. Then I sat down to wait by his side. I didn't have long to wait as it happened.
John coughed and sputtered and raised his head, then dropped it back on the beach. "What happened? Where are we?"
"We're on a small beach past the waterfall. Are you all right? Do you need more warmth?"
John managed to lift his head off the sand. "I hurt all over, and feel like I'd have to get better to die, but aside from that, I'm okay. How did you heat the rock? Rub two Girl Scouts together?"
I ignored the last question. "I used my pulse pistol on its lowest setting to heat the rock. I remembered you saying something about humans needing to keep warm. How long before you think you'll be ready to leave?"
"Oh, I'll be right here looking at the beautiful scenery for a long time, Aeryn. A cycle or two, maybe more."
"Check your vest, Babe."
I looked down. My vest had become undone and my breasts were completely exposed. I whirled and zipped up my vest.
"Crichton. I have...I mean... How dare you..."
"You really didn't expect me not to look, did you?"
I managed to glare at John until I got behind him and could smile.
"If you'll be okay, I'm going to have a look around. Keep your hand on your pulse pistol. I felt something bump us out there. It might be nothing, but I want to find you here when I get back."
"I'll be okay, Aeryn."
I found a series of tunnel entrances just a little way up from the beach. The first dead-ended after a short way. The second started to go downwards shortly after the entrance. Soon, it was headed almost straight down. The third one I tried headed back towards the surface. There! I could see a little light through my oculars. This must be the way out. I hurried back to John. He was still there.
"John. I found a way out, I think. Ready?"
"Aeryn, come over here."
I walked over by John. He was staring up into the dark.
"Put your monocle on the highest magnification and light intensification you have and tell me what you see."
I did so, and looked up. "What are those?"
"Murals. Paintings of somebody that used to live here. I hope they don't mind the mess."
"John, nobody lives on this planet except the people at the inn. There's hardly anything to eat on the planet, and little in the way of metals."
"Who knows what's in these caves. Or, they could have just landed here for a little bit. Maybe a scientific outpost, or something."
"Why paint then?"
"Don't Peacekeepers have any painting of famous battles or admirals? Statues of Peacekeepers raising the flag over some lesser race?"
"They hang up battle trophies captured from their foes. Nothing like this."
I stared at the paintings. They showed members of an unknown race going about their daily routine. Working on vehicles of some sort, digging in the tunnels, gathering in a large group and many other things. One thing I could tell from the paintings. These beings thoroughly enjoyed everything they were doing. No, Peacekeepers would never do anything like this.
Far out on the underground lake I heard something slap the water, hard.
"What the frell was that, Aeryn?"
We drew our pulse pistols simultaneously. "I told you I felt something push against my foot while I was dragging you here. That might be it."
"Or worse, it might be them. Time to leave, Aeryn."
Two arns later we were back on the surface, metras away from the inn and it was already dark.
John tried to cheer me up. "It could be worse."
I stared at him. "How?"
"It could be raining."
A half an arn later it was raining. If he had said one more word, I would have pantak jabbed him, even if it meant I had to carry him all the way back to the inn.
We were almost on top of the inn before John saw it. I headed for the inn, but John put his arm up to stop me.
"Aeryn, check out the area behind the inn. Aren't there two graves there now?"
Now there were two freshly dug holes behind the inn.
"Crichton, I think we had better be very careful going inside."
We slowly approached the back door of the inn. I grabbed the door handle and looked at John. He nodded and I jerked the door open. John dove through the open door as a pulse bolt sizzled over his head.
"Pip. Damnit, don't shoot. Don't anyone shoot."
I pushed past John, who was still trying to stand and grabbed Chiana. "What the frell do you think you're doing? Don't we have enough trouble without you using us for target practice?"
Chiana was trying to apologize and simultaneously argue with me. D'Argo came roaring around the corner and Rygel peered out at us from the dining room. We were all screaming at each other. Finally, John took me by the shoulders and pulled me away from Chiana and D'Argo.
"Aeryn, D'Argo, Pip. Let's all just settle down, okay? Aeryn, you have every right to be upset, but taking Pip's head off is not an option."
John turned to Chiana. "And you have no business shooting first and asking questions never, Calamity Jane. Back off."
Chiana turned and stood behind D'Argo.
"Okay, D'Argo. Who's on boot hill?"
Even if we didn't understand the words, the meaning of John's question was clear.
"It's Sulla. And where the Hezmana have you two been? You left yesterday morning."
John put his arm around my shoulder. "Aeryn and I were just out fooling around."
D'Argo looked at us incredulously. "You were what?"
"D'Argo, it's a long story. We can tell it better sitting down."
Chiana peeped out from behind D'Argo. "Would you, both of you, like some nice hot food?"
John grimaced. "Nice hot lichen flavored library paste? I'll pass."
Chiana laughed. "No, real food. Rygel bought all of Sulla's food from Charran. It wasn't until the deal was done that he discovered it has a spice in it that Hynerians can't tolerate. He tried to weasel out of the deal, but Charran just laughed at him. I offered to take it off his hands. Guess what? I made the only offer. I'll be happy to share."
We sat at the table and Dartha brought out the first real food we'd had in a long time. D'Argo explained what they knew about Sulla. It wasn't much.
"Rygel found him about a half a metra from the inn. He was badly slashed and his head was beaten in. I saw no tracks around the body, but I did notice an odd scent that I hadn't run across before. I can't identify it, though."
John and I described what had happened to us. With warm food in us, it was no time at all before John and I headed for bed.
I awoke at dawn and went to the bathroom to use the dentic. When I got back, John was still asleep.
"John. It's time to get up."
John just groaned. I sat down on the bad and pulled the blankets back.
"Are you all right?"
"I have a headache that won't quit. Be careful, I feel like my head is about to explode."
I decided that last remark was human exaggeration, but John did appear to be ill.
"You stay here. I'll go down and get some food and bring it back up to you."
Naturally, John sat up. "Breakfast in bed with Aeryn Sun in a charming little bed and breakfast in the Uncharted Territories. Now that sounds like a plan. But, I want to see if I can function. I think I got a little concussion yesterday. Now I need to see if I can still remember the game plan."
I suppose that made some sort of sense to John, so I helped him out of bed and downstairs. The others were eating breakfast downstairs. Not surprisingly, Rygel was complaining about the money he had lost buying food he couldn't eat.
Chiana smiled at him. "Ryg, what would have happened if you ate the food with those spices in them?"
"I'd swell up to twice my normal size. I'd look hideous."
I picked up a container of some sort of meat. "If you don't shut up, I'll see if I can force feed you until you're bigger than D'Argo." He shut up.
I started to help John eat breakfast, which let everyone know he was not feeling well. D'Argo seemed to take it as a personal insult.
"I assume you won't allow a little headache interfere with the treasure hunt. The amount of time you wasted in the last two days is unacceptable. We need to find that treasure."
"D'Argo, we need to not end up as critter food. Both Aeryn and I had a very bad couple of days. I'm sure Aeryn is raring to go, but I'm not."
I was not going to allow D'Argo to bully John into going out again. "If John is ill, I'm staying with him. I'm the only one with any medical knowledge that might be applicable to humans. And, remember, something out there killed two armed beings. We should stay here today and all go out treasure hunting tomorrow."
D'Argo shot to his feet. "I am perfectly capable of taking care of any critter that this miserable planet is capable of producing. The three of us will continue the search now."
Rygel laughed. "Speak for yourself, Luxan. I prefer to trust my survival to an ex-Peacekeeper."
D'Argo started to say something to Rygel, but I cut him off. "Is Chiana capable of taking care of any critter you two encounter. It might go after the weaker appearing of you two."
That gave D'Argo something to think about, but Chiana reacted predictably. "I am perfectly capable of looking after myself."
Both John and D'Argo just stared at her.
"Well, I am. I took care of myself for a long time."
"Pip, if the critter is male and even vaguely anthropoid, you'd have him digging up the treasure for you in a half an arn. But for all we know the two dearly departed were supermodels back home, and the critter killed them. You stay here."
D'Argo stared at Chiana. "You will stay here with the others if I go hunting, won't you?"
Chiana smiled. "Of course I will, D'Argo. You know I'd never go hunting after a valuable treasure without you."
D'Argo didn't say anything for almost a micron. "Arrrgh. I'll stay here."
Chiana giggled. "Good. I think I can keep you occupied."
John finished his breakfast and we went back up to our room. He insisted that I didn't have to stay with him and I insisted that if I didn't, I wouldn't know if he was all right or not. I won the argument and sat down to check over my equipment while John slept.
By evening, John was feeling well enough to eat dinner downstairs and to resume his confusing stories about Earth. This one was particularly odd, even for John.
"So, if the batter bunts, and I run out from behind home plate and grab the ball, I throw it to who?" And Abbott answers, "Of course."
D'Argo looked confused and Chiana was giggling. I decided to go outside for a bit. Suddenly, I saw something moving away from the inn. I put on my monocle. It was Dartha. I didn't like the idea of her being out at night for a number of reasons and decided to follow her. Soon I discovered that I was following Dartha, but Dartha was following Charran. Charran was carrying a large sack.
Charran stopped at the entrance to one of the innumerable tunnel openings and threw the sack down into it. She looked briefly into the tunnel and then headed back towards the inn. Dartha knelt by the tunnel opening for a few microts and then left, too.
I gave them plenty of time to clear the area and then crept up to the tunnel entrance. I peered down and saw that the sack was still there. Then I felt a blast of mist in my face. I held my breath, but I could feel myself weaken. Frell, one of those trelks had booby-trapped the tunnel entrance and I had walked right into it. I pitched forward into the tunnel.
I landed heavily on the sack. I held my breath for as long as I could before I finally inhaled. Luckily, not enough of whatever I had been sprayed with stuck to me or my clothes. But, I was stiff to the point of immobility on my right side. I managed to stand up to prove to myself I could, and then knelt to inspect the sack. It was full of raw meat. I could only quote John and think that this could not be good.
Suddenly, I heard a scratching sound coming towards me. I looked down the tunnel and there was the critter. A huge beast, covered in rough fur, his colossal fangs clearly visible through my night vision monocle, his enormous claws scraping the floor of the tunnel. I reached for my pulse pistol but it wasn't there. I looked down, and my holster was empty. Frantically, I looked around for my pistol, but couldn't find it. The monster was almost upon me, his huge head looming above me. He slowed down, doubtlessly having noticed me. He slowly came closer, lowered his massive head and sniffed at me. I had one chance. Hit him hard and try to get past him and away before he overcame his surprise. I aimed for his nose and hit him as hard as I could.
"OOOOWWWWWW!" The monster reared back on his haunches and grabbed his nose with both forepaws.
"You hid my node. Why did you hid my node, you big Peacekeeper bully?"
That, I hadn't been prepared for. I was so shocked, I didn't run past him as I had planned.
"I beg your pardon?"
"You should beg my pardon. You hit my poor nose. Do you have any idea how sensitive my nose is?"
The beast took his forepaws away from his nose and gave a few exploratory sniffs.
"I should have known better than to try to be polite to a Peacekeeper," he grumped.
"I am sorry. But I thought you were going to attack me, the way you sniffed at me."
The creature pushed his muzzle a little way towards me and inhaled again. "I was merely being polite. I was sniffing you to identify you and keep your scent for future reference. You were being invited to do the same to me, of course. Although, I doubt that your tiny Peacekeeper nose could smell anything worthwhile."
I took a step forward. "I do apologize. But I'm not a Peacekeeper."
He sniffed again. "A likely story. Next you'll be telling me you're a harmless Delvian with a skin condition."
"I used to be a Peacekeeper, but now I'm not. I don't want to be anything like a Peacekeeper."
He leaned close to me and sniffed for several microts. "I suppose no true Peacekeeper would sleep with a member of what they consider a lesser race. So, I suppose you're really not a Peacekeeper. But, that's no reason to hit me."
I felt that I was blushing. I hoped the being with me didn't notice. "You can tell I have been sleeping with a non-Sebacean just by smelling me?"
"I determined what the sleeping arrangements at the inn were by standing outside and sniffing several nights ago. You and the Sebacean looking, but not Sebacean smelling, gentleman were in one room together all night. I suppose you slept, but it's really none of my business. The Hynerian sleeps by himself, which I can well understand. The Nebari and the Luxan sleep together also. Well, sleep is the wrong word, I don't think they've gotten two arns sleep a night. Last night I heard her suggest that they.."
This I did not want to hear. "Fine. You have an excellent nose and hearing. My name is Aeryn Sun."
The being held out his massive paw and I let him take my hand and shake it. "And I am Doctor Lah Rhee, Professor of Ethical Studies at the University of Vorlag. Oh, I know what you think. The University of Vorlag is where they do nothing but drink alcoholic beverages, frolic in the surf, and chase members of the opposite sex. I'll have you know that the University does have its serious side. As a matter of fact, I'm on a sabbatical to do some research in my field right now. Several cycles ago, I read a magnificent work, On Political Ethics, by a Pa'u Zhaan. I've have been informed..."
I had to break in. "Pa'u Zhotan Zhaan?"
The Professor smiled, a somewhat unsettling sight. "Yes. Do you know her? I have been searching ever so long for her. She seems to be, em, sort of...."
" A fugitive. Zhaan is on our Leviathan right now. She should be headed for this planet. With any luck, she'll be here in a solar day or so."
"Oh, my. Pa'u Zhaan here? Oh, Miss Sun, could I prevail upon you to introduce me? I would be so appreciative. Does she ver discuss her work with you? Perhaps she has discussed her views on..."
"Zhaan is a fugitive from the Peacekeepers, just as the rest of us are. We haven't had much time for philosophical discussions so far."
Something occurred to me. "How did you end up here?"
"That Charran. She has heard of our abilities and wants me to smell out the treasure for her. She stole my clothing and equipment and put me down here. She also moved my ship and has a vital part of the hetch drive hidden somewhere in her quarters. I'd just walk in and demand my property, but she has apparently convinced everyone that I'm a dangerous beast." The Professor gave me a significant look. "I might just get shot before I could explain myself."
I mumbled another apology.
"Oh, dear. I hope I haven't upset you, dear lady. There, there. Everything will turn out for the best, I'm sure. " The Professor put a surprisingly gentle hand on my shoulder.
"Well, everything will be all right now, Professor. We can walk back together and confront Charran, and warn my friends about her."
"I don't mean to tell you your business, Miss Sun, but I would feel safer if you advised your friends of my position and peaceful nature first and then formulated a plan to neutralize Charran, and only then would I care to arrive."
I thought about that. "You may be right. I have at least one crewmate who has a problem with what he calls "critters".
Something suddenly occurred to me. "I need to find my pistol first. I don't want to face Charran, or for that matter, Dartha, unarmed. I don't trust either one of them." I started looking through the rubble around me.
"It's about two paces behind you and one to your right, behind a triangular shaped rock."
I looked, and there it was. I checked it over and slid it back into my holster.
"Professor, you don't know anything about the two beings who were killed here, so you?"
The Professor scratched his massive head. "I didn't know either of the two beings. I wasn't even around to be properly introduced, so I'm afraid I don't even know their names. I was rather deep in the caverns when both were killed. I did catch the scent of blood and moved closer to the surface, but by the time I got close, others were around and I got no distinct scent that might have been the assailant. I am sorry."
"Well, I'll be off. How will I contact you to let you know it's safe?"
"I think if you just say conversationally, "It's quite safe, now, Professor." I'll hear you."
"Your hearing is that good?" I asked skeptically.
The Professor smiled again. "You didn't by any chance hear what your companion mumbled in his sleep about you last night, did you? He referred to a substance called honey. It took me a bit to figure out that that refers to you. Some sort of sweet..."
I immediately cut him off. "I'm sure all of your senses are excellent."
I started looking down the tunnel, getting my bearings. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I think the nearest exit is off to my left." I started walking past the Professor.
"Can't you just leave by the tunnel you entered by? It's much closer to the inn."
I stared upwards. "No. It's far too steep for me to climb."
"Oh, allow me, Miss Sun. Just climb on my back and hold on very tight and you'll be back on the surface in no time at all. "
The Professor lay down on the ground. I jumped on his back and grabbed a hold of his massive head. Suddenly, his tail started wagging furiously, and he started making little yipping noises.
"Professor Lah Rhee. What's the matter?"
The Professor yipped for a few more microts. "Oh, dear me. Please don't grab me right behind my ears like that, Miss Sun. There's a very large cluster of nerves there, and, er, the feeling is very, very pleasurable?"
I let go and put my arms around his neck. "Better, Professor?"
"I suppose so."
The Professor sat on his haunches and looked up at the hole that I had fallen through. "Ready, Miss Sun?"
In a split microt, the Professor leapt and we were on the surface.
I leapt off and checked the area for any enemies. "All clear, Professor. I'll contact my friends and we'll go after Charran. I'll call you sometime after sunrise."
"Thank you, Miss Sun. I certainly appreciate your assistance." With that, the Professor leapt back in the cavern and was gone.
I started walking back to the inn. I hadn't covered quite half the distance to the inn, when I heard my name.
"Aeryn. Where the frell have you been? I was about ready to roust everybody out of their beds and start beating the bushes for you. Don't you know better than to go walking around with some killer critter around."
I smiled at John. "I guess if I allow a human to get that close to me, my training must be failing me." Frell. Frell. Frell. I could see John tense. I had insulted him.
"I'm sorry, John. I didn't mean that the way it came out. I just met the "critter" you're so worried about, and he's actually quite nice. I was just too busy thinking about what he told me to be paying proper attention, that's what I meant."
John relaxed and smiled at me. I took his hand and I told him what I had learned as we walked back to the inn. By the time the inn was in sight, I had told him all about my adventure that night.
"You and this Professor are right, Aeryn. Charran's quarters are in her father's ship that the inn is built around. I'm not sure we could shoot our way in if we had to. We'll brief D'Argo and Pip and take her down at breakfast."
"We're not going to brief His Uselessness?"
"Spanky's disappointed us too many times in the past. We'll surprise him this time."
By the time a half an arn had passed, we had talked to D'Argo and Chiana and were back in our bed.
We rolled out of bed a little after dawn. Charran should have been up and working on breakfast. D'Argo and Chiana were waiting for us when we opened the door to our room. Both were armed. I wasn't too impressed with Chiana's abilities in a firefight, she was, if anything, more inept than John. I made sure that everyone remembered that Dartha was also down there and that I didn't trust her either, although I didn't know why.
As we were standing there, Rygel zoomed by on his throne sled. "Hah! I'll be first for breakfast."
John grinned at the receding back of the Hynerian. "Well, in this case the early bird gets more than the worm, maybe. Rygel is heading for a little surprise."
However, it was us, not Rygel that was surprised. Charran was not in the dining room, or anywhere else as far as we could see. But Dartha was.
I walked up to the girl. "Dartha, where's Charran. We would very much like to talk to her."
Dartha shrugged her shoulders. "I don't know. She never sleeps in late. She should be up by now."
"Well, don't you think you ought to go into her quarters? She might be ill, or hurt, or anything."
Dartha just stared at me. "She never lets me into her quarters. Never."
Fortunately, Rygel spoke up. "I saw someone at the cavern entrance out front when I came down. I didn't really see them, just a quick flicker of motion. Since we're all here, I suppose it was Charran."
John edged around me and smiled at Dartha. "Or it might have been the treasure hunting critter who just polished off Charran and Red Riding Hood. We'd better check her quarters, just to be safe. You don't have to help us, just don't bother us, okay?"
By the time Dartha made up her mind, John and I were in Charran's quarters. The door into the inn led to the pilot's console of her ship. We drew our pistols and slowly and thoroughly started checking.
"Charran was a damned packrat, that's for sure. The place is full of junk. Food, clothes, mining equipment. God knows what some of this is."
"It's how she makes her living, John." I'd remember that later.
We worked through command to her bed, which hadn't been made. Next was a storage area and last was engineering.
"Aeryn, over here. The hatch."
We opened the hatch carefully and looked down a rickety wooden staircase to the caverns beneath the planet.
"Nice. Her own private set of tunnels. She can sell tickets to the old tunnels to the tourists and search through the virgin tunnels for the loot."
We turned to go back to our friends to tell them what we'd found. I was still suspicious of both Charran and Dartha as well. I was sure she was Charran's accomplice, whatever was going on here. It would be too hard to keep everything secret from your only employee. And if Charran would kidnap Professor Lah Rhee, what else would she do? John was coming to a similar conclusion from a different perspective.
Just as we got back to the door leading back into the inn, John put a hand on my arm. "Aeryn, can you trust this vorlag character? Do you think he's really kosher?"
I thought before I answered and thought I did quite well. "I might be getting soft hearted towards the members of the lesser races, all things considered, but I do feel I can trust the Professor. If for no other reason than that his reaction to being hit by a much smaller person was to pull back, not to attack. And John, I don't trust Dartha. I think it would be a mistake to tell her we know about the Professor. She may already know about him."
I got a grin from John. "Okay, I think we'd better get to Charran before she finds the Professor, let alone Gilligan, Mary Ann and Ginger."
No, I didn't ask.
Dartha was no help at all. She didn't seem to know anything about Charran, the tunnel under the inn, or anything else. No one else seemed to be coming up with a plan, so I did.
"D'Argo, you take Chiana and Rygel and go down the tunnel right outside in case Rygel did see Charran heading that way."
Apparently, neither D'Argo or Chiana had enlightened Rygel about Charran and the Professor. "Crichton? Aeryn? What the frell is this all about? I've never seen you get so upset about a missing breakfast. I have a feeling you're not suddenly becoming civilized due to my sterling example, either."
"Spanky, there's a tunnel under Charran's quarters that no one knows about. We think she's found the treasure and is just waiting to grab the next Leviathan that comes along to make her getaway."
"Our treasure? You're letting that yotz steal our treasure? What are we waiting for?"
They headed out the door and I turned to John and Dartha. "Okay, we go back in the ship and check out Charran's private tunnel."
In a few microts we found ourselves at the foot of the stairs, looking down a long straight tunnel. I adjusted my night vision monocle and spoke to John.
"Crichton, I want you to stay here with Dartha while I take a look around."
"No way, Aeryn. Charran probably knows these caves and you don't. She could set herself up in a perfect ambush position and you'd never know it until it was too late."
I dragged John away from Dartha. "Crichton, what did I tell you upstairs?" I glared in Dartha's direction and then at John. Before John could argue, I was gone.
I headed down the tunnel, being careful to stay against one side of the tunnel and being very careful of any place an enemy might hide. As it happened, Charran wasn't hiding. She lay in the center of the tunnel, a stream of blood running from her slashed neck. I knelt to check her. It was pointless, really. She was quite dead.
"Frell. Frell. Frell." I muttered to myself. Who did this? Could I have been wrong about the Professor? I heard a scrape behind me, and stood.
"Crichton, I thought I told you...."
A spray of mist hit the side of my face. The same mist I'd been hit with when I'd tripped the booby trap the night I met the Professor. One entire side of my body went almost completely numb. I tried to get out of the way, but Dartha's foot slammed into my stomach, knocking the wind out of me. She slammed my head against the tunnel wall and ripped the pulse pistol from my hand. My legs wobbled under me and I slid back against the tunnel wall.
"Surprised, Peacekeeper?" jeered Dartha. She covered me with my own pistol and slid her own pistol into a holster. At her waist was a device I'd hoped I'd never see again, a radiation rod. One burst and my mind would be gone.
"Where's John?" I mumbled, half of my mouth paralyzed.
"Your Captain? I gave him a nice spray and then a blast of radiation to his brain. He'll be well into the Living Death by now. You're next, unless you'd like to talk now. How about it, Peacekeeper? You tell me where the Picture Room us and I'll give you a nice quick death. Fair trade?"
"What the frell are you talking about? I don't know any picture rooms." If she thought John was in the Living Death, I had to keep her talking until he could get help.
Her leg snapped put and kicked my leg out from under me. I fell face down on the floor of the cavern.
"Listen, you Peacekeeper bitch. The treasure is mine, and my family's. I want it and I want it now. I know that the treasure room is beyond the cavern with the paintings of the underground creatures. I know you found that room. I heard you tell your friends about it. Now frelling talk."
I had to keep her talking. "I can't help you. There's a lava flow before the picture room, as you call it. We almost died before we stumbled into a side tunnel that led to an underground river. I have no idea how to get back there. And the treasure is no more yours than it was Sulla's."
For that, she kicked me again. "Liar. You got back to the surface. My family suffered and was nearly destroyed because of that treasure. It's ours. How about a little heat to help you think."
At least she was talking. "We were hurt and disoriented. We just managed to stagger back to the surface and stumble back. I have no idea where we were."
She laughed unpleasantly. "Disoriented? I'll disorient you, bitch. My grandmother was Admiral Deniken's Operations Officer. She gave up her career and her life for the Peacekeepers and Deniken's dream. My father spent his career in meaningless office jobs and never got a promotion, because of grandmother's devotion to reforming the Peacekeepers. The cowards in First Command were afraid he might try to overthrow their corrupt rule. My brothers and I weren't allowed to become Peacekeepers. Not allowed. How dare they. I found some notes that Grandmother made. Deniken set up a bolthole on this planet in case things went bad. But Grandmother's notes were incomplete. If I can find the Picture Room, I can find the treasure. But I haven't found the frelling Picture Room, bitch."
Oh, did I ever have her talking. "Let me think. Maybe I can help you, but I'll have to lead you to the cavern with the paintings in it."
Her boot slammed into my side. "Not nice, Peacekeeper. Keep you alive so your underlings can rescue you? I think not. How could you two stand to be around those beasts? You've become more corrupt than when Grandmother was alive. When I find the treasure, things will change, Peacekeeper."
I managed to laugh at her. "Things won't change very much if you kill me and can't find the treasure. How are you going to explain our disappearance to the Luxan, and the rest? Do you think they'll just leave without any currency after putting in all this work? Don't you think the Luxan will track you down and tear you apart just for the fun of it? You weren't very smart, killing everyone else, leaving yourself as the only suspect."
That got to Dartha. "Shut up, Peacekeeper. Frell. Let me think."
I had the feeling that thinking wasn't Dartha's strong point. "You've been looking for the treasure for cycles and have no clue where to look. You killed everyone else searching for the treasure, so now you're the only suspect. When the rest of our troops get here on the Leviathan, they'll chase you all over his planet. How long do you think you can last?"
Dartha was screaming now. "I didn't kill everyone. That was that stupid frelling bitch Charran. She killed people like Sulla who were alone and careless. She lived off of their food and sold the rest of their goods to other treasure hunters. It was the only way the stupid bitch could survive on this useless planet. She left large, well-armed parties like yours alone. I only killed people who got in my way, or looked like they might steal my treasure."
Dartha was starting to come unglued, to use a human expression. I laughed at her again. "Like the Peacekeeper we found in the cave leading to the sea snakes?"
Dartha kicked at me again. She was so enraged, she only scraped my arm. "He would have stolen my treasure and given it back to the Peacekeepers. You don't deserve the treasure. You are all so corrupt and..."
Before she could finish, John slammed into her back. Dartha sprawled forward almost on top of me.
I managed to kick at Dartha's head, but my other foot slid out from under me and I only caught her shoulder. She staggered back and I went after her. I caught the barrel of a pulse pistol across my cheek.
"Don't frelling move, either of you." Dartha screamed, covering us with the pistol. She backed away from us a pace of so. She pulled the radiation rod from her belt, looked at it and threw it down.
"Frelling piece of dren. All right, Captain. I can start shooting pieces off of you at low power, or would you rather tell me where the treasure is?"
John tried. "Look, we'll be happy to let you have the treasure. "
Dartha cut him off. "Liar! You're all alike. You'll never change. You're corrupt and incompetent. You live with beasts."
I carefully avoided looking at the huge dark shape coming up behind Dartha. The Professor stopped right behind Dartha and then he lowered his massive head and blew lightly on Dartha's neck. Dartha whirled around, but before she could fire her pistol into the fanged face confronting her, the Professor's tongue shot out and he licked her face. Dartha fired, but her aim had been spoiled and her shot went wide.
I stepped forward, kicked at the back of her knee and she fell to the ground. John kicked at her and the pistol flew from her hand, landing between us. She reached for the pistol at her waist, screaming at us. I held onto John and steadied myself, then kicked her in the neck with my good leg. I felt a solid crack and she collapsed.
Both John and I went for her pistol, but I got there first.
"Sorry, Crichton. I believe Wynona is still in Dartha's holster."
I knelt by Dartha, but my first impression was right. Her neck was broken and she was dead.
"Oh, bother," said the Professor. "What ever has happened here?"
John turned and stared up at the Professor. "Aeryn, is this what a college professor looks like around here?"
The Professor held out his hand. "Professor Lah Rhee, Doctor of Ethical Studies at the University of Vorlag, at your service, sir. You are doubtlessly the non-Sebacean gentleman who sleeps, if nothing else, with Miss Sun."
John took the Professor's hand and shook it. "If nothing else? Well, I'm glad to find that you're not the kind to kiss and tell, Aeryn."
That took a microt to sink in. "Crichton, what the frell do you mean, kiss and tell?" But John was busy with the Professor.
"Say, does you school have a football team. I'd like to see a couple of you guys in some pads. I'd guess from your lack of any thumbs that you'd need a good quarterback. As it happens, I played a little ball in college. Let me explain the game a little to you, you start with eleven men on a side. Well, not men per se...."
The side of my body that had been numbed was feeling like pins and needles. John and I helped each other back to the inn while we filled the Professor in on what had happened.
We contacted D'Argo on the communicator and they arrived at the inn shortly after we did. Well, almost arrived in the case of Rygel. He refused to come in, or get anywhere near Professor Lah Rhee.
"It's bad enough that I'm still poor, and that you had to kill the only person who might have helped us locate our treasure. Now you expect me to sit with some critter?"
John came to Lah Rhee's defense. "Hey, Rygel, he's okay. He doesn't fart helium, or try to sell his friend's to the Peacekeepers. So far we haven't discovered any bad habits the Doc has, so we might ask him to replace you as the designated hitter. You can be the designated hittee. Now shut up."
Professor Lah Rhee cleared his throat, making a sound much like a volcanic eruption. "Excuse me, but was it your intention to find the treasure?"
That was too much for Rygel. "Of course it was, you yotz. Professor, my eema."
"If the treasure is in one of the tunnels leading from the large cavern with the murals of the underground dwellers, then I think I know where it must be."
That set everybody to yelling at once. It took John and me several microns to settle them down.
"How do you think you know where the treasure must be," D'Argo demanded.
"I can smell where it must be." Lah Rhee said simply.
"You! Smell?" roared D'Argo. "Luxan's have the finest olfactory organs in the Universe, and I haven't been able to find anything."
Lah Rhee drew himself up looked down his massive nose at D'Argo. "Luxans? Younger vorlag's refer to Luxans by the slang term "stone noses."
"Stone noses." If I had thought I had heard D'Argo roar before, I knew better now. "Stone noses. You fraud. You liar. You couldn't possibly smell something I can't. I refuse to take any further part in this hoax."
Obviously, D'Argo was outvoted and we found ourselves heading down to the cave John and I had exited after finding the murals. Lah Rhee explained.
"I found a blank wall where there was a strong scent of Peacekeeper and of their equipment. As I had no interest in helping Charran find the treasure, I did not investigate further. However, I now postulate that treasure must be there, hidden in some sort of a room behind the wall."
The Professor turned to D'Argo. "Can't you smell the odor of Peacekeeper now, Mr. Ka D'Argo?"
"I don't smell any Peacekeeper, other than Aeryn. I don't smell any, because there is none. This is a complete waste of time."
Chaina pulled D'Argo aside. "Maybe it is and maybe it isn't. But even if it's a billion to one chance, can we risk not having the currency to buy Jothee?"
D'Argo had no answer to that one, but stayed at the tail end of our group and still looked unhappy.
"We're here." The Professor gestured to a blank wall at a T-junction in the caves. We all examined the wall, but could find no seams or openings. D'Argo loudly proclaimed there were none and that he could smell nothing out of the ordinary.
It took twenty microns of searching before Chiana pushed a protruding rock and the solid rock wall suddenly parted. We dashed in and found a small Peacekeeper command center with six frozen bodies sprawled on the floor. One body, that of a young woman, sat in a chair in front of a computer. I pushed the chair and its occupant away and then started reviewing the files in the computer. My friends were tearing the command center apart looking for the treasure.
"There are no Themmengol black pearls here. "D'Argo had muttered that under his breath. He looked both angry and unhappy.
"No pearls? No treasure? We're frelling poor again!" Rygel wailed.
Chiana just looked sad and said not a word.
I finished reading the last report on the computer. "No, there are no pearls here. Deniken knew that someone in his inner circle had betrayed him to the Peacekeepers. Almost certainly, one of the people lying dead here is the one who betrayed him. Deniken decided to kill all the members of his staff, and then hide his ship in the caves until the hunt by the Peacekeepers died down. Then he could continue his revolt. That didn't work, as you can see. The woman in the chair was Deniken's aide, and the only one to survive the initial firefight. She was dying, but had enough time to write a short explanation of what happened here. She also said what happened to the treasure."
That got their attention as I got up and walked to a small filing cabinet that D'Argo had already looked through. I reached in the cabinet and soon found what I was looking for.
"A years production of pearls would be quite heavy. A Peacekeeper in good condition could move it from place to place, but only slowly. Not what you'd want if your running from the Peacekeepers. Deniken sold his pearls for more portable wealth. These."
I handed a small leather case to Rygel. He opened it and his eyes bulged in surprise.
"Bonds. Hynerian Treasury Bonds. Bearer bonds. They're worth billions in currency. Tens of billions. Hundreds of frelling billions. We're rich. We're rich. We are frelling rich." he whooped.
Chiana let out a whoop and kissed D'Argo. John put his arms around me. I almost pushed him away, but I saw Rygel closing in on me with a strange gleam in his eye, and I pulled John to me and we kissed.
John broke the kiss and whispered in my ear. "John Crichton, reporting for duty, Captain."
I smiled back at John. "Remember that you are now under my command, Recruit Crichton."
In an arn, we were back at the inn and found a second transport pod parked in front.
"Zhaan, start pricing cathedrals in downtown Delvia, babe, we are loaded."
Zhaan stared at John and turned to me. "What John would like to say, if he could, is that we're rich." I explained.
With six people telling her the story, it took us about ten times as long to tell Zhaan what had happened, but eventually she understood.
"I think we should thank the Goddess and vow not to use our new found wealth for selfish ends."
No one disagreed with her openly, but everyone looked at Rygel.
We opened up the kitchen and started the celebration. We had hardy gotten past a "toast" from Crichton, when Rygel let out an ear splitting howl.
"We're poor. We are POOR!"
We all stared at Rygel. John reacted first. "Rygel, what the Hell kind of scam are you trying to pull here?"
"We're poor, you dimwitted yotz. These bonds are worthless. Worthless! Worthless, do you hear me."
Zhaan cut him off. "Rygel, if there is one thing I know about Hynerians, it's that the only thing more important to them than food is currency. They have the most stable currency in the known Universe. Their banks are the most conservative, but the safest known. No Hynerian government would even dream of issuing bonds and not honoring them. Unless you are saying these are counterfeits?"
Rygel looked glumly about. "No these are real. But they are utterly worthless."
We all stared at Rygel. "Okay, explain, and it had better be good."
"These are 39 Denka bonds. I had them issued myself nearly one hundred and thirty cycles ago. Back when I first became aware that my cousin Bishan was plotting against me, well, seriously plotting against me. When I found he was negotiating with the Peacekeepers."
Rygel stared icily at me and I stared just as icily back at him. I was not a Peacekeeper.
"I needed funds to try to bribe the Peacekeepers myself, or recruit mercenaries, or hire some assassins. I'm sure you know the sort of things that are the daily concern of great monarchs. "
John started to say something, but Rygel cut him off. "And bear in mind, whatever you may think of me, I never made a deal with a creature like Scorpius and his ilk to keep myself in power."
I thought of several reasons why no such deal was made, none of which involved a sudden attack of morality on Rygel's part. But, I held my tongue and Rygel continued.
"I sold the bonds to loyalists, for a number of reasons. To raise funds for myself, of course. To judge the loyalty of many of my nobles and force them to attach themselves to my cause, or declare themselves traitors. To judge the resources of my supporters and their fervor for my cause. Why, I remember, there was this one old biddy, and everyone thought she was as poor as could be. Bishan hated her for some now forgotten slight. She came up with a thumping great contribution to my cause. She ended up with her head on a pike behind Bishan's throne, of course. I'm not sure I blame Bishan in her case, she was..."
"Rygel! Will you continue." D'Argo barely raised his voice, but his anger was apparent.
"Certainly. To make a long story short, Bishan executed anyone found with 39 Denka bonds. Oh, the Imperial Hynerian Treasury will honor the bonds, but as soon as you're out the door, the Ministry of State Security will be waiting for you. Then your head goes up on a pike. I assume Deniken bought these when I was still in power and no one outside a small circle knew my throne was in danger."
Rygel looked around the room. "I'm sure you think I'll offer to take them off your hands to dispose of safely, or some other ploy to gain all of this for myself. But you are wrong. I know that no one in the Universe would pay for these bonds. In fact, I don't think you could force anyone to take them except on pain of death. Bishan has learned ruthlessness from the Peacekeepers. I suggest we put them in the fire. And bury the ashes in the deepest cavern."
We all were silent, imagining our personal losses. John broke the silence, as usual. "Well, at least I've lived long enough to see Rygel burn money."
Rygel started feeding the bonds into the fire. Closely watched by Chiana and D'Argo, I noted. Zhaan and Professor Lah Rhee withdrew to a small nook and began a philosophical discussion. I got up and left. I wasn't surprised that John followed me out. I stopped between the front door and the staircase.
John rested his hand on my shoulder. "It'll be okay, Aeryn. If we can't dazzle them with our footwork, we'll bury them in bullshit."
I had no idea what that meant and I didn't care. "We never get ahead. We're always running just barely ahead of our pursuers. We're always reacting to someone else. We can never make them react to us. You'd think just once things would work out for us."
John slid his arm around my waist. I knew I should object, but I just couldn't. "I'll just have to try harder. There has to be a way. Some way to get ahead of our enemies. I can do it, I know I can. I just have to work harder."
John leaned over and whispered in my ear. "Aeryn, when you had us split up tonight to go after Charran..."
I pulled away from John and turned to face him. "Crichton, I do not need to be told when I frell up. I'm perfectly aware that I made an error that could have killed you. You needn't remind me."
"Aeryn, I'm not pushing your nose in it. I just want you to realize that you will never turn this crew into a little group of Peacekeeper wannabes. "
"John, I am doing the best that I can. I am trying as hard as I can." What did John expect of me?
"I have an Earth saying you're just going to love."
I waited. Normally, I would have made a remark, but I was just too tired and disappointed to argue with John.
"I know you're working hard, Aeryn but are you working smart?"
I was hurt by that remark, but I just couldn't force myself to reply. It must have shown.
"Aeryn, I'm not trying to insult you. One look at Chiana, let alone Rygel should convince you that this bunch will never be the sort of disciplined, highly trained, heel clicking, jump to it, death or glory command you're trying to find some way to make them. Work on their strengths, Aeryn."
"Sure. No one will ever figure out what we'll do next, will they?"
"John, we don't know what we'll do next."
"I must have gotten overheated today. You're starting to make sense."
"You need a partner to back you up, the rein you in when you get too Peacekeeperish, to bounce plans off of, to be there for you, to watch your back."
"I suspect the parts you watch are lower than my back."
"I watch all of you, Aeryn. I always will."
I looked into John's face. He wasn't smiling, but he had that little twinkle in his eyes. "A partner? An equal partner? Fifty-fifty? Won't we just argue all the time, John?"
John sighed. "A junior partner. 51-49. And you're the 51."
Somehow, John again had his arms around my waist. Frell it. I leaned forward and rested my head on John's chest. "We can try it, I suppose. Do you really think you can be a junior partner, Recruit Crichton?"
"I think so. And as your partner, I should tell you that you've made a big mistake on this planet."
"That's what comes of hanging around with humans, I suppose."
"Before, you've always been very careful not to let me know how you felt about me. One minute it's a kiss and the next it's my hormones."
I looked up at John. He was smiling, so he wasn't angry. "John, I don't want you to think that I have been deliberately confusing you. I did not set out to..."
"I know, Aeryn. But if your biggest regret is not having children with me, that tells me something about how you feel."
I knew that telling him that had been a mistake. But not an irreparable one, perhaps. "Don't forget I'm an alien, John. The urge to procreate is very strong in all creatures. A desire for children in a Sebacean doesn't necessarily mean the same as that desire in a human female."
"I'll take my chances, Aeryn."
I thought for a microt and then slowly laid my forehead back on John's shoulder. What's the point of having a junior partner if you can't relax on his shoulder and do some thinking? John kept one hand around my waist and used the other one to stroke my hair.
I didn't hear them coming until it was too late. Rygel went past us on his hover throne and grinned at John. I heard D'Argo and Chiana walk past us, and when they went up the stairs, I saw Chiana grinning madly at us. D'Argo ignored us completely, except for a slight twinkle I saw in his eyes.
I lifted my head off of John's shoulder and looked back into the dining room. Zhaan and Professor Lah Rhee were deep in conversation.
"Time for bed I think, Crichton."
"Right you are Captain Sun. I have to get up early tomorrow and start planning a very long future for us."