Damn it to hell.
One second, I'm kissing a pretty, warm, sweet, smart lady who's the nicest thing to happen to me since I got out here. Next second, I'm about to get killed by one of my shipmates. I knew kissing Gilina was a bad idea; I knew it at the time and I still did it. We're supposed to be working, we barely know each other, and we're right in the middle of hostile territory.
Which, judging from Aeryn's little explosion, just got more hostile. Great.
For a second there, as she was standing over us, hefting that component -- and not incidentally reminding me that she can make mincemeat of me without half trying -- I thought she was gonna throw it. Just smash me and Gilina to pieces and tell whatever story she liked to D'Argo and Zhaan. For just a second, I thought she was going to.
She didn't, of course; just said through her teeth, "Sorry for interrupting" and went stalking off into the corridors, mad as hell.
It wasn't the anger that made me go after her, scrambling away from Gilina with barely a word and only one quick look into her contrite eyes. Trust me, I'm in no hurry to die and taking on Aeryn in a temper is a quick way to do just that. Look at the way she damn near decked me this morning when I pulled her off Gilina.
No, Aeryn's temper wasn't what sent me running after her. It was that one, tiny second when I knew she *wasn't* going to kill us. When I looked in *her* eyes and saw what might have been one tiny, infinitesimal shred of hurt.
She's ignoring me, of course; standard Aeryn maneuver. Wonder if she was born with it or if they include that in Peacekeeper training -- 'When forced to deal with a weak, annoying Human, just ignore them and eventually, they might go away'?
Nope, she's still playing stone wall, holding the component that I *know* weighs a ton over her head with arms that look like Miss Bodybuilding USA. She's strong as hell and she uses that strength like a shield to keep everyone else at arm's length. 'Get close to me and I'll flatten you, and enjoy myself doing it.'
Not this time.
"Aeryn! Would you wait? Look, what the heck's the matter with you!?"
The corridors are pitch dark, lit only by my flashlight and some light panels on either side, but I can see enough of Aeryn's face, when she finally stops and turns to look at me, to recognize the expression.
Yep, there it is. Aeryn Sun Patented 'Crichton-You-Idiot' Look Number 3. I get that one a lot. Thing is, I'm not quite sure why I'm getting it this time. Or why I'm getting this weird variation. I mean, okay, Gilina and I were supposed to be working on the defense screen, and it is kind of a life-and-death situation, but the way Aeryn's going off, you'd think we killed someone!
"I'm sure you can see how heavy these things are," she informs me as she swings the component down, her voice sharp enough to cut through steel, and cold enough to freeze it along the way. "There's at least ten more of them back there. Do *not* come down that corridor without one!"
Then she picks the damn component up and starts stalking off again, end of conversation.
Yeah, right. Not even.
"Would you stop?!?" I shout at her retreating back, scrambling to keep up. The lights are flashing now, blinking off and on like strobe lights. I'm going to walk into a wall yet.
"Hey!" She's still ignoring me. "Hey, look, what happened back there was--"
"None of my business," she snaps back over her shoulder without even bothering to look at me. She doesn't seem to be having any problems seeing where she's going.
"Yes, it was!"
Okay, that stopped her. Midstep, thunking the component down to the deck. I catch up, and think fast. How do I calm her down when I don't even know why she's so angry? And how can she think it's none of her business? We're frien--... well, shipmates.
"You and I are shipmates," I tell her out loud, as calmly as possible. That's right, John, low voice, soothing tone, no sudden moves, try to make her understand *before* she rips your throat out. "What I'm trying to say is...." Damn it, I'm a scientist, not a public speaker. Okay, the straight-forward approach. "Haven't you ever just... clicked with a guy?"
And that's what it was, a click. The first time I saw Gilina, trying to get off of the bridge, or whatever they call it, with D'Argo and Aeryn both shooting at her, something clicked. Maybe because she needed my help, maybe because she's so completely unequipped to take Aeryn on -- DK always used to hassle me about my 'white knight' complex. Maybe because she understands about technogeek stuff, where Aeryn and D'Argo just look at me like I'm a wuss if it doesn't involve new and unique ways to blow things up. Maybe just because she looks so damn much like the girls I went to college with, about a million lightyears away.
It doesn't matter -- the click's there. And after this last month or so, all alone in space with a bunch of people who couldn't care less if I lived or died -- well, maybe Zhaan would.... Anyway, I'm not about to walk away from a little Human, or Sebacean, contact.
"What? Clicked?" Aeryn, of course, is looking at me like she has no clue what I'm on. Maybe she *doesn't* have a clue -- Peacekeepers don't seem to be big on mutually-supportive interpersonal relationships. Or at least, Aeryn isn't. Gilina seems to do just fine....
"Yeah," I stumble, hoping I don't sound as stupid as I feel... and actually a little curious now. I don't know much of anything about Aeryn, about her life before Moya. Just her ship and her guns. "You know, found a guy attractive?"
And that's when she goes all defensive on me. Weird; I can practically see the shields pop into place. "Yes, it, but it... I didn't let it..." She's the one stuttering now, fumbling around for words. This is new. Unique, even. "In the beginning I found you -- interesting."
What? Huh? "Me."
Want to back up there a second, Officer Sun? Because I *know* I didn't just hear you say that. I know I didn't just hear you say you'd been attracted to me.
You think I'm an idiot. A helpless, ignorant weakling who can't be trusted to go to the bathroom without someone opening the door for me, much less be trusted in a fight or, god forbid, in a conversation. You treat me like dirt when you can't just ignore me, and try to deck me if I push you one centimeter past where you want to go. You're a Peacekeeper, forced to associate with 'lower life forms' and letting us know how you feel about that with every other breath.
You're a gorgeous, strong, intelligent woman who is so far out of my league that the thought never even crossed my mind. Well, okay -- crossed it and then got the hell out before you read my mind and flattened me for it. You don't need me, you don't want me, my only use to you is as a punching bag.
So you didn't just say that. I know you didn't.
Except she keeps going. Looking massively embarrassed and like every word is being dragged out of her, she still admits, "...Yes. But only for a moment!" Rushing to cover, it doesn't really matter, let's just drop the subject.
Okay. Fine by me. I didn't want to know this, I don't want to go here. Not now. Maybe not ever.
"Good. That's... good." Great, that was really eloquent. John, you moron. You *are* as dumb as she thinks you are. "I mean, it's good to be on even terms." Oh, yeah. That's a big improvement.
At least she's not doing much better. "I agree," she assures me, looking like she wants to run for the nearest airlock. And throw one of us out of it.
"Yeah, umm..." Okay, that's it, I'm leaving. "It's also a good idea to... clear the air...." Turn around, exit stage left, get the hell gone. I cannot deal with this right now. I turn and head down the corridor without even attempting to make a dignified retreat, and I can feel Aeryn's glare burning into my back all the way down the corridor.
Women. A million lightyears from home and they *still* manage to confuse the hell out of me.
Gilina's waiting back at the defense shield grid, worried and trying to hide it. I try to smile at her; she starts to say something, then goes back to work tracing cables instead, without asking any questions.
Good thing. I don't know what to do with the ones I've already got.
Aeryn doesn't fool me, not really. She thinks she's tough as nails, and in some ways, she is. When we're in the middle of a fight -- which we are just way too often, thanks -- there's no one I'd rather have watching my back. Except that I always wind up watching *her* back, while she goes running forward into the jaws of death like she's looking forward to the party.
Yeah, she's tough, a regular Amazon -- until something sneaks up and hits her in the emotions. Like when Gilina told her about the rest of her unit being demoted, made into 'grunts' because of her 'treason'. She went so white, she looked like someone had just punched her in the gut. She got over it fast, went back to being invulnerable -- but she was hurting.
Actually, as near as I can tell, Aeryn's hurting pretty much all the time. She just hides it by being angry all the time because she doesn't know what else to do with it -- I'm guessing anger management is also not high on the list of Peacekeeper training courses. So she finds someone to use as a punching bag instead. Usually me.
It's not like I mind... Okay, yeah, I mind. It's not exactly a bunch of laughs, being treated like a second-class citizen all the time. But I understand about pain these days, believe me. God, I miss home....
"John?" Gilina calls me over to where she's wrestling with a couple of panels. I finish soldering in a few loose connections, then head over, happy to be around someone who appreciates that, when it comes to gadgets and making things work, I'm a reasonably smart guy. Which is a lot more than Aeryn and the others usually give me credit for. One more reason to like Gilina.
"What's up?" I ask, kneeling next to her.
"This is the last part of the defense screen," she tells me, her brow furrowed in concentration. "We need to reset the polarity, then shunt the magnetic flow through the panels."
"Then the screen turns solid, the holes close up and the Sheyangs can go find some other sandbox to play in. Works for me."
We work together like we've been doing it for years -- assembling components, plugging in connections, checking electric flows -- while Zhaan keeps us updated on the Sheyang ship, which is definitely not into playing well with others. We are running out of breathing room fast. Gilina's face is covered with dirt and soot from electrical shorts, her hair is in her face, and I keep resisting the temptation to reach over and brush it back. But this is *really* not the time.
"When I kill the bypass," she explains as we work, "the two polarities will be attracted to each other, strongly."
*No kidding*, half of my brain comments snidely. The other half tells the first half to shut up and pay attention.
"So you have to hold them apart," Gilina continues. "Because if they touch each other, this whole room could be vaporized."
We finish and get up, Gilina heading for the controls, me grabbing the panels and bracing myself. "They're going to pull incredibly hard, " she calls.
"Okay." So where's Aeryn when I *really* need muscles? Off battering some helpless components into pieces, probably.
"Ready?" Gilina calls. "Now!"
And two elephants immediately lunge against my arms and try to mate with each other across my chest. And they're glowing, that electric blue glow that says "You're about to be charbroiled" to anyone over the age of two. I hold on through sheer force of will, suddenly losing all ability to think or worry or do anything other than keep these panels apart.
Which is why D'Argo's grim voice through the com channel comes as such a rude shock. "Aeryn. Where are you?"
"Maintenance bay," Aeryn's voice grunts back, apparently still hauling around components like they're made of foam. "What's the problem?"
"We think one of the Sheyangs got on board the Zelbinion."
Oh, *great*! That's all we needed! "How in the hell did that happen?" I demand, fighting down panic. It's not time to panic yet -- I'm sure there'll be lots of opportunities real soon now.
"Not important," Zhaan tells me, her usually calm voice taut with worry. "What is, is that he may be heading right toward you."
Of course. Where else would he be heading?
"You gotta stop," I shout to Gilina.
"Not once I've started the process."
I bite back everything I *really* want to say, and settle for, "Then finish the process!" The 'right *now*' doesn't need to be said, I hope.
"I'm working as fast as I can," Gilina shouts back.
Sweat is running down my face, soaking my shirt, and my arms are about to give it up as a lost cause. Any second now, something is going to come blasting through those doors, and I'm not going to be able to do a damn thing to stop it. Or to protect Gilina.
The decision isn't really hard. "I want you to get out of here!"
"I won't leave you," she shoots back without even stopping to think. Man, she's been hanging around Aeryn too long.
Aeryn's voice echoes through the communicator, sounding righteously pissed, obviously talking to Today's Special Friend. "On the ground now! Do it!" I know a few military police she could give lessons to. Okay, she's got him, we're safe now....
Aeryn's com channel suddenly goes dead for a second; I can hear her muttering and swearing under her breath when it comes back on.
So much for that. "Gilina," I say very carefully, very seriously. "I want you. Out of here."
She looks back at me, her eyes wide with fear before they go determined. "If you die here, John, I die too."
*Definitely * going to keep her away from Aeryn from now on.
Trapped in the middle of a dead ship with a suicidal Peacekeeper tech, and a kamikaze raider tearing down on us, and until Gilina finishes the damn process, I can't even defend myself, much less her. How the hell do I get myself into these situations? All I can do is stand here and wait for something to come kill us.
Unless Aeryn gets here first.
"Aeryn, where are you?"
"He keeps blocking my route, forcing me to take the long way around!" she calls, panting. "You may have to defend yourselves!" She sounds like she's running hard, which is reassuring in a weird kind of way. She's not going to give up on us.
Unfortunately, that's not going to do us much good right about now, when my hands are still full of nuclear-bomb-level electromagnetic panels. "Look, Aeryn, it's a long story, but I kind of got my hands full here," I tell her, clinging to control with my fingernails. "So you're just gonna have to get here!"
No answer, which means she's trying. But so is something else -- something that looks like it should be swimming around in a pond, but is big enough and well-armed enough to take over any damn pond it likes. I can see just enough of it through the window in the door to send my stomach into my shoes.
"Better get here fast," I tell Aeryn hoarsely. "Because Froggie's outside the door right now."
I'm hoping Gilina can't hear Frog-Boy trying to get in, but I know she can. It's not stopping her; she's still working like she's got no nerves. Only her ragged breathing gives her away.
"Aeryn's gonna get here." I don't know if I'm reassuring Gilina or myself. We've got time, it's a thick door, Aeryn is more than a match for this thing. "Come on, Aeryn. Come on."
Then I see the first blast of flames start eating *through* the door, and realize where they came from.
"They spit fire?" I yelp. "How come nobody tells me this stuff?! How come nobody tells me they spit fire?!" For one insane second, resentment at everyone's lousy briefing takes over from fear, and I yell "Aeryn!" like it's her fault.
Then the door starts melting and fear takes the lead again. "Come on Aeryn, come on Aeryn, come on...." I barely notice myself chanting it over and over, like pressing the elevator button to make it come faster. Aeryn will get here in time, she will. I *know* she will.
And then there's no time left. I swear under my breath as a 200-pound flounder dressed in armor and lots of weapons climbs through the remains of the door. Gilina doesn't even look up, sweat mixing with what might be tears on her face as she frantically works to finish the job, and save both our lives. All I can do is buy us time.
"Hi there, big guy." He's not impressed. I keep going, my voice speeding up with the rush of adrenaline. *Come on Aeryn, come on Aeryn, come on Aeryn...* "Look, as you can see, it's not likely we'll hurt you, so just take anything you want. But if these two panels touch---"
Hell! He takes a deep breath and it's suddenly barbecue time. I lunge aside, trying to keep my feet under me, my head from bashing into the wall and, oh yeah, the magnetic grid from exploding. Gilina's even faster, hitting the deck and staying there, but it was close enough to *really* piss me off. Mad starts canceling out scared-to-death again.
"Look, gashole!" I yell furiously as I catch my balance and shift in front of Gilina, blocking her from Froggie's view and hoping she takes advantage of it. "You kill us, you kill yourself!"
Froggie is still not getting the concept. "You had your chance to retreat," he informs me smugly. Lethally.
"Come a little closer then," I dare him insanely. "Let's just find out what happens when these panels touch!" Come on, get within reach, give me a chance to do some damage.
But no. He starts gearing up for another damn dragon impersonation, and there's nowhere to hide from this one. *Come on Aeryn, come on Aeryn, come on Aeryn...* Gilina is still scrambling around behind me and I brace myself. If nothing else, I might be able to block her from one more blast, give Aeryn just a little more time. *Come on Aeryn, come on Aeryn, come on Aeryn...*
He opens his mouth to fire -- literally -- but suddenly there's a blur of motion above me. Instinctively, I hit the dirt next to Gilina. Then Aeryn is standing over both of us, her pulse rifle is firing and Froggie explodes in a flash of heat and light.
The panels are dead -- Gilina must have finished the process just as Aeryn made her entrance. I'm more interested in knowing that Froggie is dead, thanks. And Aeryn... Aeryn doesn't even bother to look at me, or Gilina crouching behind me.
"Sorry about the mess," she says, more than a little smugly, then casually strides off. I bet she's not even breathing hard.
It would be really annoying, if I wasn't so damn relieved. Gilina leans her forehead against my shoulder and I lean back against her, staring at Aeryn's retreating back for the second time in less than an hour. And fighting the urge to start laughing.
I never doubted her.
After we get the defense screen installed on Moya and Gilina leaves, ready to rejoin Crais and his maniacs, I find myself wandering out to what Zhaan calls the terrace. Well, actually, I don't know what she calls it, but the little microbe thingies translate it to terrace. Pilot tried to explain to me about the force fields and stuff that hold the atmosphere in while still letting us see out, but I didn't catch half of it. All I know is, standing out here, it seems like I can see half the universe.
And I have no idea which direction to look to find home. If I can even see home from here.
Probably not. Wherever we are, it's a pretty good chance a little bitty G-class star like the sun doesn't even rate a mention on the charts. It's really not that important in the grand scheme of things -- if I've figured out anything since I've been out here, that's it.
That still doesn't stop me from looking.
Saying good-bye to Gilina was both a lot harder than I thought it was going to be, and not nearly as hard. In all the time I've been out here, she was the first person I really connected to, the first person to really remind me of home. And seeing her leave, knowing I was probably never going to see her again, was like saying good-bye to home again.
But, at the same time, I've done that before -- stood out here and stared at the stars and accepted, somewhere deep inside, that I am probably never going to see Earth again. I'm getting good at it. I think I could maybe even live with it, if I wasn't so worried about Dad and DK. They think I'm dead, I know they do, and I've got no way to tell them otherwise. No way to know if they're okay.
Home isn't a place, you know? It's people. My dad, my best friend -- they're my home. And for a few short hours, Gilina felt like she was.
Maybe that's why I'm out here avoiding everyone. I could probably talk to Zhaan about it, and she'd be really calm and really sympathetic -- and really blue and really alien. D'Argo... yeah, I can see sitting down to a nice heart-to-heart with him. Not. Pilot, much as I'm starting to like the guy... well, his home is Moya, and they're never going to be apart. Homesickness isn't something he's going to understand. And don't even talk to me about Rygel.
Aeryn might understand -- she lost as much as I did when we escaped from Crais that day. Her ship, her unit, everything she knew. Her home, for what it was worth. But, in some ways, she's more alien to me than all of the others put together, for all that she looks as Human as I am -- or maybe *because* she looks as Human as I am. Her reactions are different than I expect, her emotions, her reflexes. No, if I'm avoiding anyone out here, I'm avoiding her.
Gilina reminded me of home. Aeryn... Aeryn reminds me of just how far away home is.
I can't stay 'outside' forever. I'm the only one on board who understands how that defense screen operates -- okay, I'm the one who installed it and knows how the displays should probably look. So I wander down to talk to Pilot, who sends me up to Command so we can run some more tests.
And Aeryn's there, staring out the forward view screen with her thumbs tucked into the front of her belt -- 'Look at me, I'm in control.' Of course. I'm not even surprised, just keep going and head straight for the main console, tossing Aeryn a casual "Hey," as I check the readings Pilot is sending up. The screens are up and functioning, and it doesn't look like any part of Moya is going to blow up anytime soon. Cool. At least something good is coming out of this mess.
"A greeting I shall never understand," Aeryn comments, without looking away from her intensive study of the stars outside.
No problems with the power flow, the magnetics are stable... huh? Oh. Hey. "It's kind of all purpose," I explain absently, already losing myself in the problem at hand. "Lets the other person decide what they want to talk about."
"What if they don't want to talk?"
Pilot ups the power to the screens, which take it without much more than a flicker of the readouts. "Then they say, 'Hey' back."
Aeryn barely even stops to think about it. "Hey."
That surprises me, pulls me back out of the comforting paths of electrons and power couplings. I sneak a quick look at her; she's still staring out the window, not looking at me, her face blank. But it's not her usual icy, 'stay away from me' mask -- this one is almost... sad. Vulnerable, even.
I look back at the readouts, trying to act casual, then give up and lean on the console instead. The hell with subtle. "Well, now the first person that doesn't want to talk can be trumped if the second person senses that they really need to." I look straight at her, then very deliberately say, "Hey."
She looks sideways at me at that, and one side of her mouth turns upward in what could almost be, wonder of wonders, a smile. I offer a crooked smile back and for just a second, there's some communication happening. Which surprises both of us, so we look away, staring back out at the stars.
"I hate being ambushed," Aeryn finally says.
Right. The fight thing. Figures she's still stuck on that. "Well, you got him in the end. That's what counts."
Whoops. That's 'Crichton-You-Idiot' Look Number 2 -- set for stun, though. "I wasn't talking about the Sheyangs."
Ah. Got it.
You could deal with being ambushed in a fight, couldn't you Aeryn? Just start kicking and shooting until you kill anything in your way or get killed. Very straightforward. But when you get ambushed by your own emotions -- you can't handle that.
Well, I can't help Aeryn much in a fight, but this... this I know about. "You know, on my world, they say that loss is the hardest emotion to deal with."
"On my world, showing pain is a sign of weakness," she shoots back. And for some reason, I see Gilina, standing there telling me she didn't want to be 'executed for failing to try'. Jesus, Aeryn, what the hell do they teach baby Peacekeepers? And why do you want to go back so bad?
"How could you not feel pain after all you've been through?" I demand, wanting her to hear herself, hear what she sounds like. Like all she has to do is pretend she's not hurting, and it will all go away?
She just gives me a look, shields up. "Don't presume to understand me, John."
I sit on the first three things I want to say to that, none of which will do any good. Don't understand you? Aeryn, I understand. Believe me. You may mystify me 99 percent of the time, but right at this second, I understand you better than you can possibly know.
I'm talking before I even know what I'm going to say, thinking out loud what I'd been thinking to myself on the terrace earlier. The thoughts I was sure Aeryn wouldn't understand. "If I somehow, someday, get a chance to return to my world... Walk around my old neighborhood, see my old house, Dad's truck, best friend's bike on the lawn... And then I get a chance to go inside, and walk through the living room upstairs to my room...."
I have to stop, to breathe before I can get the next part out. "And then I think, what if everyone were dead?"
That's the hard part, that's the part that really makes my gut wrench, makes me hurt so badly I know it's never going to go away. Thinking about everyone gone -- DK, Dad.... Coming home to find that home had already left, and I didn't even know it.
Aeryn's listening, at least, really listening as I keep going, saying out loud everything I've been trying not to think to myself. "What if all my friends, my family, were lying there, dead. What would it be like to go home again?"
My voice just winds down, and I stop talking, try to stop thinking. One hand sneaks into my pocket, fingering the puzzle ring. Dad's lucky charm... Next to me, Aeryn is silent for what seems like a long time. Then she simply says, quietly, "I stand corrected."
We don't look at each other, probably afraid of what we'll see if we do. Finally, Aeryn turns and walks out of the room, her boots thunking softly on Moya's deck.
I look back out the forward view screen at those stars, then past them, and wish with everything in me that I knew what one of them was the Sun. That wishing hard enough could take me home.
Then I take a deep breath and bend back over the console. I can't get home right now, but maybe I can keep us all alive long enough to find a way.
I'm not going to give up, Dad. I swear to you I'm not going to give up.
You can read Kiki/Aeryn's version of events here.