The convulsions had ended several minutes before, and now even the fine tremors that had been shivering through Aeryn had stopped. She lay rigid and still in his arms, like a shell abandoned by its inhabitant. She was breathing. Barely. John held onto that fact the same way he'd held onto her through the seizures: because he had to. There wasn't anything else he could do.
"Ahh... I think... Yes." Kornata came closer, and examined Aeryn with unnerving attention, nodding to herself. "The internal changes have been completed; we should see -- there! Right there!"
"What? What's -- " John looked where the scientist was pointing, and saw a fine spiderweb of light working its way across Aeryn's skull. Waves of energy were spreading slowly downward, a St. Elmo's fire that remolded Aeryn's features beneath the protruding crust, reshaping them back into what she had been before. Crichton let out a breath he hadn't fully realized he was holding, amazed. The sparkling light beneath her skin spread faster and faster, but never as quickly as the quantum wave that had ripped apart NamTar and left Kornata's lab rat behind. For several moments, Aeryn's entire body glowed with energy, her form shifting too rapidly for the mortal eye to follow.
Then it slowly died down, and Aeryn went limp.
"Is that it? Is she okay? Why is this -- stuff -- still covering her--" Aeryn's real face was visible, but it was almost concealed behind a congealed mass of -- something, John wasn't sure what. Most of her body still had the crab-like shell covering on it, too, and he was dismayed to see that the clawed arms she'd grown during the first part of her transformation had also remained. He had the horrible thought that it hadn't worked, not completely, and that there wasn't a cure. Aeryn's going to be stuck halfway in between -- if she can even live like that--
"It's the dead tissue left behind," Kornata said soothingly, shuffling forward and laying her enormous hand on John's arm, patting him reassuringly. "It doesn't consume itself in the process if the changes are relatively minor--"
"Minor?! Kornata, Aeryn was being turned into a lobster! And you call that minor?!"
"She was changed using DNA from a single species, Commander. In such cases, the effects can be entirely reversed without damage to the subject, if it's caught soon enough. Unlike those who have had.... multiple graftings of alien genetic material." Kornata turned her face away, and Crichton was stabbed with the realization that she probably wouldn't be able to reverse the same effects on herself. He shook his head, trying to find words to apologize, but the alien scientist was already moving on, briskly saying, "Officer Sun merely needs to be cleaned up, and the extra features detached carefully, using a cleaning solvent. If you will let me take her, my team and I will do it -- "
"No." John clutched Aeryn closer, shaking his head vehemently. "I'm not letting her out of my sight."
"Commander -- the process won't be pleasant, and it will be very uncomfortable for her --" Kornata's distorted face creased in worry, her expression showing only concern. She had helped save Aeryn as well as destroy NamTar. Neither fact mattered to him, though, or to the gut-wrenching surge of protectiveness that reared up when Kornata suggested letting go of Aeryn.
"I said no! You can do it, but I'm staying with her." John stood up, shifting Aeryn's weight as carefully as he could -- not an easy thing to do with the addition of the crustacean features. He hoped he wasn't hurting her. Please, let her be *really* unconscious. He didn't want to think how much that re-transformation had to hurt; incredible as it was to watch, having your DNA unravelled and re-knit had to *feel* horrible. "Where do you want her?"
Kornata shook her head and sighed gently. "Through here. There's a vat of the solvent -- it would probably be best if we just immersed her..."
Floating. Pain. The pain was different from the pain before. Worse or better, she couldn't tell. Just different. The floating was new, though. So she concentrated on the floating, weightless sensation, instead of the helpless pain that she hadn't been able to escape. It hurt to think. It hurt to think about thinking. Everything was fuzzy, disjointed; memories were coalescing and melting away too fast to catch. Memories of knowing more, of analyzing her surroundings using terms she didn't understand, of perceptions categorized and forgotten before they were fully integrated. It had hurt, thinking like that. Now it hurt not to be *able* to think like that. So she didn't think.
Feeling wasn't much better, but it was improving. Aeryn kept her eyes shut in reflexive pain, knowing that if she opened them that the light would splinter and spear its way into her brain the way it had a moment ago. Blinding. She wasn't blind, but she almost wished she were. Her eyes hurt; the left one was especially sore. She wasn't deaf, although every sound seemed soft and unfocused, much farther away than it had been -- and yet her hearing still hurt with every audible noise. Why can't we have earlids like we have eyelids? An answer to that question hovered just out of reach of her consciousness -- something -- something about evolution -- about protective necessity -- then it faded away. No thinking. No thinking.... She wasn't dead. Being dead wouldn't hurt this much.
Sounds: voices. Rushing water. The same water she was floating in, possibly. It was warm and thick, more like the oiled baths of a pleasure resort than the hot tubs she'd soaked in after long treks with the Pleisars. Soft on her skin. Skin that felt raw and tender, scraped and sanded and burned. But so much better than before, when it had felt nothing, nothing at all, growing impervious to any touch....
Aeryn coughed, choking on the dryness of her mouth and the liquid in her throat. Strong hands caught her under her arms, lifting her a little out of the water, bending her forward slightly so she could gasp up fluid. "Sh-sh-shhhh... That's it, careful, breathe deeply, you just have to clear your lungs..." The voice was so soft, but it hurt her ears as if it came from a Prowler's screeching engines. Aeryn whimpered at the pain, coughed, hacked, and then gasped, until another voice cut in -- louder, but more familiar, though she couldn't think clearly enough to name the person who spoke.
"You're sure she's going to be okay, right? This is normal?" Careful, careful hands, lowering her back into the water. Gratefully, Aeryn sank downward and concentrated on breathing, her chest nearly spasming with pain. Maybe she was in some other species' Hell. Maybe she was wherever traitor Peacekeepers went when they died a coward's death. But that didn't make sense either, because conditions were improving, even if they were doing so at a very slow rate.
"It's expected. There will be waste products in her lungs and in her bloodstream; it will probably be a day or two before she's back to full strength. In the meantime, you'll have to make sure she eats, and consumes about twice her normal intake of fluids. Speaking of which...." A plastic straw was placed between Aeryn's lips, and fluid was squeezed into her mouth. She gulped at it greedily, until the voice was chiding her. "Slow sips, my dear, slowly ..." It tasted metallic, strange. Cool to her sore throat, even though she had to force herself to swallow. Protein fluid -- another random memory surfaced long enough to tell her that it had minerals and basic proteins in it that were necessary for all hominid species. The breakdown of the proteins was clear, the entire chain of amino acids glowing in her mind, then it was gone, leaving a pounding headache behind.
She moved, trying to touch her aching head, and the muscles in her arm tensed -- a good, familiar ache. Why was that good? Aeryn stretched again, felt her legs move, flexed her toes as cramps tried to form in her calves, and then she attempted to turn her head. Her neck muscles screamed in pain, caught on something. //Gods, why can't I...?// She remembered the feeling of calcium accumulating in her joints, the layer upon layer of protective skin and bone building up, the feeling of being trapped inside her own flesh -- She thrashed out blindly, a gargled scream slipping out as she remembered.
"Easy, Aeryn, easy! Take it easy, don't hurt yourself -- "
"John...? John!" Crichton. Crichton was here. What was John Crichton doing in Hell with her?
"You're going to be okay. Do you hear me? You're going to be okay, Aeryn! We just gotta get this junk off you -- "
"Get it away. Get it off," she croaked, shuddering, twisting, sending twinges of agony into every muscle of her body. John was holding firmly onto one arm. Someone else held the other, and was brushing at the crusted excrescence at her neck. It came loose, suddenly, floating away, and Aeryn turned her head toward Crichton when she could move. "NamTar. What happened to -- "
"He's gone, Aeryn, he's not here anymore. Remember? You saw him... de-evolve. He's just a lab rat now. Okay?" She could see better now, although everything was surrounded by glinting prisms of light. John was watching her, grey-blue eyes fixed on hers, anxiety for her written all over his face. She squinted at Crichton, panting with the effort of focusing, then nodded, exhaling painfully through her teeth. His expression relaxed minutely, and he let out a breath of his own. "Good. Hold still, I want to get this off your face."
"What..." He poured some of the fluid over her head, then lightly rubbed at the edges of her ear and cheek, and Aeryn felt something soften and give way, falling into the cloudy, green-tinged water. She stretched her jaw, opening her eyes and mouth wide, and tissue ripped on the other side of mouth.
John had come to see her. When she was... like that. He hadn't been revolted, hadn't turned away in disgust, when she'd been horrified to the depths of her soul at the sight of herself. Just stared at Aeryn and then asked NamTar how he could do this to her. Appalled, yes. But for her sake, not because of what she was.
"Careful, my dear, careful. We don't want to tear your skin..." Aeryn gagged, closed her eyes at the memory of NamTar calling her that, as the person on her left side gently worked at the material covering her jaw. Memory gave her a name: Kornata. NamTar's assistant. Another victim. Creator of that thing that had used her as a genetic culture.... The last of the mass on her face came loose, and she coughed, then inhaled violently, her nose and mouth finally completely clear.
NamTar had cared for her just as kindly. But he'd kept her a prisoner, completely unable to fight or move or even kill herself as she changed. She'd tried. He hadn't even bothered to laugh at the effort; just decisively removed the knife from her grasp, and mentally forced her back into her chamber. She'd remembered, then, what it had been like to think she was dying of the Heat Death months earlier, as well as making John promise to kill her before she reached the final stage. She had wondered if Crichton would do her the courtesy of killing her when she wasn't Aeryn any more.
But she was alive. She was herself.
"Hurts," she whispered, her breath dragging out of her in what was not quite a sob. Tears welled up in her eyes, but maybe they wouldn't know they were tears, since her face was still wet. "Everything... hurts...." Relief like she'd never imagined poured through her. Sebacean again. Whole again. Aeryn Sun, former officer in the Peacekeeper Corps, not a monster or a freak or a thing to be discarded in a corner.
She was never going to be able to pay Crichton back for this. Couldn't even try to think of what might be enough. Nothing would ever come close.
"The pain shouldn't last. A day longer, maybe. It's mostly stress, exhaustion. Treat it as you would any over-exertion, and the effects should diminish." Aeryn wouldn't have thought that a voice like Kornata's, so calm, so compassionate, would come out of such a twisted, misshapen form. But now she knew what it was like to be Kornata, her body trapped beneath layers of an additional species' characteristics, her inner self warping out of control, changing the person inside too. Even now that she had her own body back, her own perceptions, her own mind, she was still changed.
"Thank you," she whispered, lifting her head with an effort. "Thank you, Kornata."
Kornata's mouth twisted, and her smaller hand patted Aeryn's back gently, then went back to brushing the excess matter off of her arms. Aeryn floated, exhausted, her eyes unfocusing for a while as John and Kornata cleaned off her arms and neck. She kicked, feeling the crust on her legs come free, then she rubbed one foot against the other leg, brushing still more of the shell away. They'd left her clothes on, simply dunked her in a tub of emollient and turned on the jets. The dead skin was softening and floating free every other moment as she moved.
"I can do it now," she told John, when her fingers were free. "I want to do this myself, all right?"
"Go ahead." He wiped his hands off on a towel, watching her carefully, and Aeryn tensed her fingers. Then she reached down to her torso, beneath the remains of her shirt, ripping off the skin and shell that had been her extra arms, like Pilot's. But this material was dead and completely non-functional tissue now. She pulled one free, then threw it out of the tank, pulled the other out, dropped it over the edge, and leaned against the wall of the vat, spent. Her skin where the arms had been attached was sore, as if it had been burned by something vicious -- acid burns, or ice burns... If they weren't dead, I could give them back. Let Pilot have four arms again... Not possible, though.
There should have been some way to make it up to him. But from what little she could remember of what NamTar had told her, and her own then-multi-tasking brain had surmised, such an attempt would have required enough material to re-generate an arm from scratch. And NamTar had kept all the material for experimenting on her, and then himself. Not fair... But then, that was the whole point. NamTar wasn't interested in fair. He was interested in perfect.
"You okay? Want something to drink?" Crichton held out the squeeze-bottle to her again, and Aeryn mumbled an acknowledgement as he slipped it into her mouth. It still tasted odd, but it felt wonderful going down her throat. She wiped at her face, her eyes, brushing off the last particles that still clung to her as she drank. Swallowing, she finally batted the bottle away, tilting her head back against the rim of the tank, letting her eyes drift shut.
Pilot must have helped Crichton and Kornata; it would have been the only way for them to have fabricated an antidote so quickly for her. And, of course, what they did to NamTar... She'd never be able to repay Pilot, either. The others...The others were probably still on Moya, fighting about who got to go home. Aeryn remembered Zhaan caring for her when she had nearly died before; remembered D'Argo's respectful hand on her shoulder at the same time; and Rygel's almost-gratitude when she saved his life. Comrades. Such comrades I have.... And they would have forgotten her, let her go for a chance at home. Except for John.
Even if he could have gone, she suspected that he would never have left her to die. He'd meant it when he'd offered to take her with him. That hurt almost as much as the rest of it, knowing he'd been serious. There was no way she could deal with that. It was just too much.
"Who goes home... first?" she rasped, keeping her eyes shut.
"Nobody." John sounded grimly amused. "NamTar was playing them all for suckers. The crystal was completely worthless."
It was funny. It was so funny. Pilot lost an arm, she'd almost died, and it was all for nothing....
"Aeryn. Aeryn, c'mon, don't...." John slipped an arm around her shoulders as she laughed, knowing before she did that it was going to turn into shuddering tears.
Thankfully for John's already ragged nerves, Aeryn's crying jag lasted only a few minutes. She fell asleep as suddenly as she'd woken, exhaustion carved in every line of her face. Her face, the one that could only belong to Aeryn Sun, the one John had been terrified he'd never see again. Only Aeryn's eyes, gazing out from a monster's face.... No. The monster had been the one who'd tried to unmake her.
"Can we, uh.... Can we take her out of this stuff yet?" he asked Kornata, trying to keep control of his voice and almost succeeding. God, he was so tired, almost tired enough to collapse right beside Aeryn. How long had they been in this godforsaken place? Less than two days. All of this in less than two days. Time flies when you're panicking.
Kornata considered, running her hands and eyes over Aeryn's skin. "Yes, I believe the last of the residue is gone. You may take her out."
It was awkward, pulling a limp body out of a deep vat, and Aeryn wasn't exactly a featherweight even with all of the extra load gone. Still, he moved slowly and carefully and, with Kornata's help, managed to lay Aeryn gently on the floor. They toweled her off briskly, clothes and all, except where the sloughed-off tissues had left her skin red and tender. Aeryn almost woke enough to mumble protests, and some of the color started to return to her skin, some of the life to her face.
"I'm taking her back to Moya now." It wasn't a question; John didn't even look up from carefully wrapping Aeryn's long cloak around her. "And then, no offense Kornata, but we are getting as far away from this place as we can as fast as we can."
Kornata smiled sadly. "I don't blame you. I think very few of us will be remaining here, past the time it takes to restore ourselves as well as we may." She laid her grossly-oversized hand on Aeryn's forehead, in that mother/doctor gesture that seemed to bypass all species barriers, and nodded once. "She will recover fully, I believe. I wish both of you -- all of you -- the best of luck."
"Yeah. Thanks." He slid his arms under Aeryn and hefted her carefully, Rhett Butler style, which would have been a lot more fun if she'd been awake. A fireman's over-the-shoulder carry would have been easier, but she still seemed so fragile - he couldn't bring himself to do it.
"Here is more of the protein fluid," Kornata said, bundling up several of the weird squeeze bottles in some kind of bag, and carefully slinging it over one of John's hands, where it was trapped under Aeryn's back.
"Thanks. Thanks for everything." He started for the door, then stopped, looking at Kornata for what he fervently hoped was the last time. And maybe, somewhere underneath the last of the fear, hoped wasn't the last time. "Kornata? You might want to find a different line of work."
She smiled slowly, tiredly. "Perhaps. Or make this one safer. If we don't do it, Commander Crichton, someone else will. At least now, *we* know the consequences."
He thought about it, then shrugged as well as he could with an armload of Peacekeeper. Maybe she was right. Maybe not. Right now, as long as it never touched him or Aeryn or Pilot again, he didn't really care.
He left without another word, and without looking back.
Thanks to Pilot, Moya's landing pod docked without a shudder. "Pilot, are we clear?" John asked through the pod's communications system, not the comm that was open to everyone.
"If you mean, are the others someplace that is not the docking area, then yes, you are clear." There was no need to define who 'the others' were.
"Great." Aeryn seemed to be getting heavier every time Crichton picked her up, but there was no way he was going to try to wake her, even if she could have walked by herself. So much for the food cube diet plan. I wonder if we can pick up Richard Simmons broadcasts out here? I wonder if she'd kill me for mentioning it? "We're on our way to Aeryn's quarters."
A tiny troupe of DRDs came to meet them, helpfully clearing the corridors in front of them to keep John from tripping over anything on the floor he couldn't see past Aeryn's body. She lay awkwardly in his arms, dragging at his shoulders and back, but her face was turned against his chest, and he could feel her steady, blessedly normal heartbeat against his own.
Before this shore leave, John would have been shouting for Zhaan the second the pod landed, would have double-timed it for the infirmary as fast as he could run, might have let D'Argo take some or all of Aeryn's weight.
But that was before. Now... now, the infirmary didn't seem like such a safe place. And Zhaan was sure as hell not a safe person -- or D'Argo either, for that matter. But it was Zhaan's face that stuck with John, the calm, completely rational expression she'd used to try to make cutting off Pilot's arm sound totally reasonable. That expression, that tone of voice, had been comforting once, something safe to cling to in an insane world.
It made him slightly sick now.
No help there. So, I'll have to play it by ear. And if Aeryn wakes up in her quarters, at least she'll know where she is.
Pilot's arm, or the stump of it, had almost stopped hurting; he could feel his body trying to heal, to regenerate what had been torn away. He didn't dwell on the pain, or the anger, or the fear, but directed his attention to Moya. She hummed with him, disturbed by the actions of those people inside her, but functional and in good health. He savored the feel of her, his second half, even as he monitored the DRDs escorting Commander Crichton and Officer Sun, sent more DRDs out to watch the positions of the other three, prepared Moya for departure (And none too soon, he thought in the tiny part of his mind that was strictly his own) and did the thousand other things that he had been created for.
"Pilot? Can you get the door?" A DRD fed an image of Crichton to Pilot, as the Human strode down Moya's corridors carrying a limp, cloak-wrapped bundle in his arms. With surprise, Pilot realized that the bundle must be Aeryn Sun. How odd, to see the strong, ruthlessly capable Peacekeeper reduced to being carried like a child. Even odder, to realize that he had been, and was still, worried about her.
"Of course, Commander Crichton. How is Officer Sun?"
Crichton arrived at Officer Sun's quarters, DRDs scuttling out of his path, and Pilot triggered the door-open sequence. "Thanks," Crichton said, as he laid his burden down carefully on her bunk. "Kornata said she's going to be fine," he continued, panting from the effort of carrying Officer Sun. "She's gonna sleep for a while, though, and I, ah... I don't want her to be alone. At all."
Pilot understood what Crichton was avoiding saying, of course; it was highly unlikely that any of their other three shipmates would attempt to injure Officer Sun, but some things were best not left to chance. No one knew that now better than Pilot himself.
He fought back another surge of anger, focusing on Moya's propulsion systems until the soothing ebb and flow of power calmed him again. He was not supposed to become angry, or upset, or anything that could affect Moya or her passengers. No matter how deeply he wanted to. It was Moya who mattered, first, last and always.
"Understood," he answered Crichton, knowing the Human wouldn't have noticed the short (to him) pause. "I will change the keycode to Officer's Sun's cell, and keep DRDs in the vicinity."
"Thanks, Pilot," Crichton sighed, settling Officer Sun more comfortably on her bunk, and carefully tucking the cloak around her shoulders and the arm that had fallen free. An arm that was wholly Sebacean again, Pilot was pleased to note, and he assumed the rest of her body had followed suit. She did, indeed, appear to be on the road to recovery. A happy ending for someone, at least.
There was pleasure in that, duty fulfilled. Friendship, however tentative, fulfilled.
Crichton slumped to the floor beside Aeryn Sun's bunk and leaned his head back against it, his eyes closing in exhaustion. "Oh, and Pilot?" he roused himself enough to ask. "Kornata gave me some of that Gatorade stuff... um, protein drink... she was feeding Aeryn -- can a couple of DRDs grab it from the pod? My hands were kind of full and Aeryn's supposed to be drinking. I'd like to be drinking," he added wryly under his breath.
Pilot heard, but ignored it. "Certainly."
"If I fall asleep... no one comes in here. You shout out if anyone even comes close."
Aeryn Sun's sidearm was belted around Crichton's waist, within easy reach, Pilot noticed distantly. But "Understood," was all he said.
It was a moment's work to send the DRDs on their errands, but when he finished, Crichton's breath had already leveled out into the steady rhythms of sleep. Officer Sun's face was turned towards him, set in troubled lines; Crichton's arm lay stretched across hers as if he could defend her even in dreams.
Neither of them moved even when Moya did, casting her way back into space and as far away from this hell as Pilot and her propulsion systems could take her. Pilot withdrew the DRDs from inside the cell after they delivered their package -- to give Human and Sebacean some privacy -- but kept several outside the door, tirelessly guarding.
John mumbled and shifted, willing away the noise that was invading his dreams. They were weird dreams, about dancing lobsters and lab rats that suddenly grew fangs and running carrying something heavy and important in his arms -- but they were dreams, which meant he was sleeping, and that was what he wanted to be doing at the moment.
"Commander Crichton, please wake up."
He mumbled again and tried to move away from the voice. The lobsters were doing a Rockettes chorus line on stage at Radio City, complete with high kicks, and the lab rat was standing right in front of them, wearing an orange IASA jumpsuit and carrying a pulse rifle. Zhaan and D'Argo were at either end of the chorus line, each using one of Pilot's arms as a cane to match their top hats....
"John Crichton, wake up!"
Something tapped his shoulder and John jolted, suddenly wide awake. "Wha--?!?" He managed to focus and found himself staring at a DRD resting a few inches from his face, with extensions tilted forward to tap him again. Not home. Not his quarters, either. Where....? Another inch to his right, and he saw Aeryn, laying on her bunk exactly as he'd left her, still out cold.
Right. Aeryn. NamTar. Kornata. Bad Things. "Pilot?"
"At last," Pilot's voice said through the DRD. "I am sorry to wake you, Commander, but Pa'u Zhaan has just left Command, and is looking for you and Officer Sun. She wishes to know why we broke orbit around the asteroid."
"Yeah, I bet she does." Crichton shook his head, trying to clear the muzziness of sleep. "How long have I been out? Can't have been long."
"Not long at all, I'm afraid."
"Figures." John stretched and made it to his feet, frowning as his hand brushed an unfamiliar weight at his side -- Aeryn's blaster, or whatever she called it, belted around his waist.
He didn't need it; he was almost sure of that. And he wasn't big on guns under any circumstances, not really. But he didn't take it off.
Zhaan's footsteps came down the corridor after only a few moments, that graceful, non-hurried rhythm that always seemed to get her places faster than anyone else. Crichton leaned against the grate that was their only door and tried to keep his eyes open.
"John?" she called as soon as she saw him. "Pilot said you ordered him to leave orbit, why? D'Argo and I were going to speak to NamTar again--"
"No, you're not," Crichton told her flatly, not in the mood to be polite.
She gave him the look that meant 'Oh really?' in a polite steely kind of way. "And why not? It's a simple matter to reverse Moya's course--"
"No, it's not," Crichton cut her off again. Her eyes narrowed but, for once, he didn't care about ticking off the woman who had been, sometimes, his only ally. "A, you'd have to get through me *and* Pilot to get us to turn around. And you might not have a problem with that, but B, NamTar isn't there anymore."
That stopped her in mid-sentence. "Isn't... Isn't there?" she repeated carefully. He almost regretted having to tell her, until he remembered Pilot nursing the stump of his arm. His face, and his emotions, hardened. "Where, precisely, is he?"
Crichton shrugged. "That's a question for you philosopher types. Me, I'd say his body and brain just got turned back into the rat he was all along. Whatever he could have told you, it's gone. Give it up."
Zhaan's lips parted, and she shook her head slightly in denial. "Gone? No, there's must be another way. Perhaps his assistant..."
"Read my lips,Zhaan." Crichton spoke slowly and carefully. "Give. It. Up. It's over." She didn't seem able to find an answer to that, and he probably wouldn't have heard her anyway over the yawn that threatened to split his face open. "Look, Aeryn really needs to rest if she's going to recover, and I need some sleep too, so can we have this conversation some other time?"
"But..." Something suddenly seemed to burrow through the disappointment and self-interest, and click in Zhaan's mind. "Recover? Aeryn? What happened? Is she all right?"
Crichton leaned against the cell door and crossed his arms, studying Zhaan cynically through the gaps in the bars. "Well, you see, while you guys were wandering around trying to screw over each other, as well as Pilot, for directions, your friendly neighborhood gas station attendant was using Pilot's DNA sample -- the one *you* gave him, remember that? -- to try to turn Aeryn into Pilot. "
Zhaan's lips moved, probably saying something obscene in Delvian. Crichton plowed forward without listening, two days of fear, betrayal and angry disappointment spilling out. "Yeah, see, he wanted to know if he could steal Pilot's abilities for himself, but he had to test it on someone first. So he used Aeryn as his own private genetic petrie dish, and tried to turn her into the same kind of monster he was. Luckily, he didn't have as much success with her as he did with the three of you!"
Uh-oh, some warning part of his brain went off. Too far, dude. This is the part where she kills you. He ignored it, holding his ground and Zhaan's eyes with the foolhardy courage of rage.
Her face was still blank, but it was the kind of blank that meant someone working hard to keep it that way. "Is she all right?" she asked after a long moment, her voice kept under just as careful control. "Let me see her, I might be able to help--"
"No." The syllable hung in the air between them, a flat statement that was not open for negotiation. Zhaan blinked, her head going back as she seemed to actually focus on him for the first time. "She's been through enough," he continued in the same flat tone. He realized his hand had somehow found its way to his belt, close to, but not touching Aeryn's weapon, and didn't move it. "I don't want anyone else near her for a while. Not until she's better." And able to defend herself, was the unspoken finish.
An odd mix of expressions flashed across Zhaan's face -- outrage, insult, a trace of amusement as she took in the position of his hand (and that burned, oh yeah). And even, somewhere deep inside her head and quickly hidden, maybe even a trace of hurt. John saw it and felt it hit something down low in his gut, the place that still needed Zhaan to be his trusted shipmate, his friend. But the hurt, if it had existed, vanished quickly, and so did the moment.
She finally smiled, calmly, rationally. "As you wish. I trust you will change your mind if Aeryn's condition worsens?"
Not unless she's dying. But all he said out loud was, "Yeah. Right."
They stood in silence, looking at each other, for another long moment. Then Zhaan inclined her head, and took herself back down the corridor, her long gown whispering in the silence.
John let out a deep breath and sagged against the door, closing his eyes. That had not been fun. Not even one little bit.
"Commander Crichton?" Pilot's voice came instantly, and John looked down to find that a small herd of DRDs was still camped out outside the cell; Pilot was speaking through one of them. "Are you all right?"
John thought about it. "Yeah. Yeah, Pilot, we're all fine here. I don't think Pa'u Zhaan's going to give you any more trouble."
"I agree. You should go back to sleep, Commander Crichton; I will continue to monitor Officer Sun until you awaken."
"Right." Crichton yawned again, then stumbled back to Aeryn's bunk. She woke just enough to sip a few times at the protein drink he put to her lips, then slipped back into unconciousness. John indulged himself by touching his hand to her forehead, her cheek. Skin color normal, temperature normal, breathing normal... everything normal. If only he could say that about the rest of the inhabitants of the ship....
He took a moment this time to snag a blanket from the foot of Aeryn's bunk and wrapped himself up in it. Then, laying his head beside Aeryn's arm, where she would be able to see him the second she woke, he let himself drift back to sleep.
The stars fled by outside, as Moya took them further and further into the unknown.