I. Everybody Comes to Rick's
When she walks into the bar, Crichton knows how it will end. It's funny, in the kind of twisted way his life has redefined "funny". There aren't any more simple joys, just absurdist ironies, Monty Python thrown into a blender with O. Henry, and then fate hits "puree".
The gift of the frelling magi, indeed.
She looks different. Not older--Crichton has aged, of course, but she could still be the young woman in that cell, pulling off her helmet, but for the caution in her eyes. Her hair is shorter, wavy, and lighter. It makes her face rounder.
It doesn't matter, not the hair, not the green robes and the stranger beside her: he recognizes her instantly.
Sparky's in the back, haranguing the kitchen staff, so Crichton taps his earpiece and orders Jake to let them in. Jake steps back, his scales shimmering in the spotlight at the door, and waves them through.
The house is crowded tonight: another shipment of refugees just came in and they're scampering between the tables, looking for hope in the roll of loaded Luxan knucklebones and diluted third-rate raslak. The Indari quintet is wailing away in the corner, ignored by all but three drunk Hynerians Rygel's been avoiding all night.
Aeryn and her companion move toward the bar, their eyes scanning the crowd. It's a drop or a rendezvous. Crichton taps a few commands into the pad on the table, fingers his earlobe, and decides to stop postponing the inevitable.
He raises his head to look at her directly, and her double-take is straight out of a Saturday Night Live skit. She almost stumbles, but she's a professional, and she murmurs something to her companion before moving towards him.
He's not about to get up, but Crichton nods to the chairs on the other side of the table. They both sit, angled towards each other to cover the entire room. Aeryn doesn't really look at him.
The man speaks first. "You're the owner?" Crichton is sure he's never met him before, but damn he's familiar. Dark, intense, dangerous. A little bit like Larraq.
"One of 'em."
That gets a quick glance from Aeryn, before she returns to scanning the room. Crichton wonders who she's looking for. Her pal raises an eyebrow, waits a long moment for Crichton to add anything.
"My name is Sel Tevlin. My wife and I are here to meet someone."
Wife? He's never heard a Peacekeeper described that way. "Wife," Crichton repeats, and lets it roll around on his tongue. He looks at Aeryn but she's ignoring him. She looks strained.
"I know who you are. I know who you're looking for. But you're too late."
Tevlin frowns. "What do you mean?"
Crichton leans back and snags three glasses, the silver-sheen of the good stuff, from the bar. At a nod Bex hands him a flask of raslak. He uncaps and pours three shots, the glasses shimmering iridescent as the liquid fills them.
"Let's have a drink. To old friends, right? Cause we're all old friends, aren't we? Any friend of Aeryn Sun is a friend of John Crichton."
He throws back the shot and pours another one. Tevlin sits there, perplexed- -man's not as smart as Crichton thought--and Aeryn frowns. He's blown her cover, not that he cares.
Sure, frown, honey.
"Gotta drink to old friends. Long lost friends, like you. And Chiana."
Aeryn's head jerks up at that one. Just how stupid do you think I am, anyway?
"Except--oops! You just missed her. Chiana's gone. Chiana got shot three days ago, running through the marketplace with Nebari on her tail."
That got them, and he feels just a little guilty about it, because Aeryn closes her eyes for a moment, and maybe it's grief, maybe it's guilt, maybe it's at least responsibility. That'd be good. That'd be a start.
Tevlin is out of his depth, and grabbing for the only thing he recognizes. "That's who we were supposed to meet. You're sure she's dead, then?" God, Aeryn hasn't told the asshole a damned thing, has she?
Crichton held Chiana's hand, blood smearing the gloves, drying on her lips, but she was gone when he got there, just meat like all the others. "Yeah, she's dead." He slams the shot glass to the table and fills it again. Aeryn's is empty now, and he sloshes the raslak into that one as well.
But he's paid too much attention to the alcohol, to twisting the knife, and missed seeing Braca come in. Braca looms behind Aeryn, as much as the little guy can, and reaches across her to pick up the flask.
"You've got the good stuff out, Crichton. What's the occasion?"
Aeryn goes still, but it's hopeless; Braca swings a chair around from the next table and sits down before blinking in surprise. "Well, frell me dead if it isn't--"
Crichton interrupts him, not because he cares but because there's a good chance Tevlin and Aeryn have weapons the door scan didn't detect, and he's seen enough blood recently. "Mike, meet Sel Tevlin and his lovely wife. Tevlin, this is Captain Braca, head of station security."
Tevlin gives Braca a sharp look. "You're a Peacekeeper."
Braca shrugs and takes a swig straight from the flask. "I was." He puts the flask back on the table and meets Tevlin's eyes challengingly. "We all used to be something else."
Aeryn fingers her glass and speaks into the tension between Braca and Tevlin. "Where is she now? Chiana, I mean."
The shimmer of Crichton's glass is fading as the raslak cools. He rolls it between his palms to revive the glow. "Gone. Corpses are spaced immediately, per order of station management. Funerals are forbidden, but they don't mind wakes. So you could call this a wake, right?"
"Did she--" she cuts herself off, glancing at Braca.
Mike shrugs. "Tralk deserved it. You don't snurch from the Establishment. She knew that." He stares at Crichton for a moment, switches to Aeryn and Tevlin, and Crichton knows he's still got that Peacekeeper brain going. He'll figure it out, but it's in his best interest not to look too friendly, and so he kicks back his chair and rises, hand caressing his pistol.
"Make sure you remember that, Crichton. Establishment doesn't forget." And Braca stalks off towards the betel tables, where Sparky will make sure he wins eleven credits for every ten he loses.
"He's right, you know." Crichton sets the glass aside. He's too angry for a proper wake, and it wouldn't be fair to do it without Rygel anyway.
"About what?" Aeryn's eyes meet his fearlessly.
"The Nebari are dangerous, and I won't cross them." Tevlin opens his mouth to protest, and Crichton shakes his head. "Whatever Chiana was doing for you, she failed. And she's dead. And I know who to blame for it."
He's not guttered, but he's been drinking since he got the word, the crystal Chi slipped him that morning is pressing uncomfortably against his hipbone, and he really needs to take a piss. He stands up, resting his palms against the table for support, and stares at Aeryn. She stares back, and neither of them look at Tevlin.
He can't tell if it's still there, whatever they had. She's with Tevlin now, with the Resistance. She left, and she never came back. Crichton can't tell what she's thinking when she looks at him, but he remembers the taste of the soft spot behind her ear, and the way her voice would break--
"Jake can show you out."
Of all the crappy little bars on rundown stations at the ass end of the universe, she had to walk into mine.
The lights are on in his suite when he returns after seeing the last of the night-shift out the door of the bar. He can't call the rooms 'home', although he's lived here, near the bar, for close to four cycles now.
The ambient lighting is low: by the station-clock, it's about four hours before the work day starts. He imagines, as he pads down the hallway, that he can feel the huge station turning, feel the centrifugal force pinning his feet to the ceramic tiles. Other places in the UTs use artificial G, and Moya had some sort of system involving gravity bladders, damned if he knew what they were, but this station, perched as it is on the edge of the Long Dark, is too broke for any of that. The designers, now long dead, went for easy to repair. It reminds him sometimes of his uncle's old Chevy, built tough, replacement parts easy to come by. Uncle Roy had kept that damned thing on the road until one day the front axel just dropped out from under him.
Crichton twitches at the thought, and wonders about the long term integrity of the bulkheads and girders holding out the vacuum. There aren't nearly enough ships in dock to save the entire population.
The door to his rooms is closed, but slides open when he palms it: unlocked. Crichton draws his gun and moves in fast.
He pauses after three steps.
Aeryn sits at his table, the light from the lamp pooled around her. Files and flimsies are scattered over the top of the table. She turns to look at him, and the light hits only one side of her face, a stylized portrait of an old lover.
"Find anything interesting?" he asks.
She shakes her head. "No, but I had to look."
"For the thing Chiana stole for you." He keeps the gun in his hand, although he's lowered it. He still tastes Chiana on his lips, her clothes fill more than half the chest at the foot of the bed, and Aeryn is alive--and he still wants her, despite it all.
There's a bottle of raslak on the shelf behind her. He pulls it down and offers it wordlessly. She shakes her head, and he pours himself one anyway.
"Chiana--Crichton, I'm sorry. I didn't know. We didn't know what it was, or why she took it for us. I didn't know."
The raslak is smooth, even cold, and he slams it back. He'll pay for this in the morning. "There's a lot you don't know, Officer Sun."
Chiana didn't tell him what was in the chip. She came in late, snuggled in close to him, whispered something in his ear, and was asleep before he even rolled over. When he left in the morning she was still there, bundled under the blankets. He slapped her on the ass as he left, his mind on breakfast and finding a new laundry service, since the old one was complaining about too many bloodstains in the tablecloths.
She swung through the bar around mid-day, twitchy with nerves and dressed for data-mining in smooth black and grey.
"Hey, old man," and the sharp chin ground into the top of his shoulder, small hands plucking at his belt.
"Hang on," and he slotted the last flask of raslak into the thermal unit. Then turned and caught her hands. "You're up early." Freed one hand and ran his finger down her nose, pulling it away as she snapped at it. Small white teeth, red tongue, grey lips.
"Got a thing," she said, and swiveled her hips.
He couldn't say he loved her involvement with the Resistance, but it kept her moving, kept her happy, kept her from leaving him for good to search for Nerri. Word was that Nerri was last seen in the old Scarran territories, now ravaged and zombified under the Nebari. He didn't want Chiana anywhere near there, not that he was about to say so.
"A thing, okay. Gonna be gone long?" He liked to worry, it gave him something to do.
Sharp grin. "Nah. But keep this for me, wouldya? Can't get caught with it, not today." She pressed it into his hand, a tiny data crystal barely larger than her pinky nail. Then spun away towards the door, tweaking Rygel's earbrow on the way out.
"Pip!" But she was gone.
He doesn't tell Aeryn any of this, doesn't mention the crystal still deep in his pocket.
"Collateral damage, right Aeryn? That's all she ever was." He needs to be angrier than this.
She went away and she never came back, and he bled for her.
"I told you, we didn't know it was her until after she'd stolen it."
"Would it have mattered if you did? No--you still needed your data. Your help. Your runners, your dealers--" He cuts it off, finishes the shot. Doesn't pour another.
"I know," and her voice is low, god, that tone always got to him. "I know you can't trust me anymore, it's been so long, but frell you, Crichton, she was my friend too!"
He looks at her, finally, and there are tears in her eyes. She always wept beautifully, resentfully. She's a spy now, working with the Resistance. He heard there were ex-Peacekeepers out there, moving from planet to planet, raising funds, performing sabotage, buying weapons. He thought sometimes she might be one of them, that maybe Chiana would see her. But Chiana never said, and there had to be so many of them, so many ex-Peacekeepers trapped in exile as the empire crumbled under the Nebari onslaught.
"No," he says, and slams the glass onto the table so the flimsies scatter. "No, I don't think you have any friends anymore."
The stuffy room is dark but Antin's not asleep; she hadn't expected him to be. Aeryn takes off her clothes and piles them on the chair. She puts her pistol on top, within reach as she climbs into the bed.
He shrugs and the small bed wobbles. "No more information than we already had. People here are more afraid than I expected."
She nods. Tomorrow will be more of the same, asking questions, sounding out loyalties, looking for weaknesses.
"Who is he, this John Crichton?" It's the question she's been expecting.
She rolls over to face him. "Someone I used to know. He's not Sebacean, and he has no love for Peacekeepers." It's true, as far as it goes.
Antin turns on the light and looks at her carefully, dark eyes considering. "Is he going to be a problem, Aeryn?"
He knows her too well. Five cycles of deception, of escapes and ruses and arn after arn of crushing boredom in small transports would do that. There is little she can hide from Antin, and little she wants to. She rolls on top of him and puts her hands on either side of his face.
"No, Crichton won't be a problem."
He smiles that knowing smile that had caught her eye from the microt they first met, and kisses her. She responds by nipping at his lips and rubbing her breasts against his chest. They have not had any privacy for this since before the message from Chiana, and she needs the release.
She needs a hot, fast frell. And Antin is more than willing.
John Crichton is not going to be a problem.
Same bat time, same bat channel. It's a little quieter in the bar tonight; the refugees are all cleaned out, re-evaluating their situation. Crichton sits at his usual table, drinks his usual glass of raslak, picks at some bearnat stew.
"I heard who came by, Crichton." Rygel drops a damp hand on Crichton's shoulder. "What did she want?"
"Hey, Sparky. Not much, just the keys to the kingdom." It won't be funny until he has more to drink, and he knows better. Last night was the first time he got drunk in a long time. He likes to think he did it for Chiana, but now he's not so sure.
Rygel drops his chair to conversational height, and stretches. He lost a lot of weight when they were all first separated, and he's never gained it all back. He looks sleeker than when they met, although the scars from the business on Esstarg will never entirely fade. He's the public face of Rick's, the one who deals with the staff and the customers. Crichton brings the cash, handles the vendors, keeps Braca off their backs, uses his gun when he needs to. It's a profitable arrangement, enough to keep them in hot water and raslak.
Hot showers and good raslak. There was a time when he wanted more than that.
"So?" Rygel prods. "What are you going to do?"
"About?" Crichton tips his glass and watches the colors dance.
"Aeryn, you frellnik!"
He shrugs. There's some activity at the door; he sees Jake step back to let Mike swagger in, for once wearing his uniform coat. Two more of Mike's goons follow him, and then someone else, a dark-haired woman in Nebari grey.
Braca turns to the woman and points his chin in Crichton's direction. The woman leads the way, swaying hypnotically among the tables, apparently oblivious to the way the other patrons draw out of her way.
Grey isn't very fashionable here now.
"Company, Sparky." But Rygel has already seen them. He dithers for a moment, and then sighs and sticks his ground. Crichton wonders sometimes what he ever did to deserve this kind of loyalty from Rygel. Maybe once he kicked a puppy.
Braca pulls a chair out for his companion, and then seats himself. She shrugs her grey coat off her shoulders to reveal a high-necked black gown, sleeveless. She's familiar, looks like she could be either Sebacean or Nebari--or maybe something in between. God knows there's more Sebacean hybrids out there than the Peacekeepers would ever admit.
"New friends, Mike?" Crichton waves at the bar for drinks. Halfway through the motion, he remembers how he knows her, through the haze of cycles.
"John Crichton, this is Administrator Grayza, the new Nebari liaison to Amnina Station. Administrator, John Crichton."
The last time he'd seen this woman she'd been working for the Peacekeepers. He wonders how that changed, but decides it's safer not to ask. A lot of people have found their allegiances changing since the war began, and a lot of them ended up here, outside Nebari or Peacekeeper jurisdiction.
Bex puts a round on the table; with her usual tact, she's chosen the best of the fellip nectar. Crichton picks his up and toasts with it. "Welcome to the back of beyond, Administrator."
She doesn't touch her glass. "I remember you, Crichton. You used to be dangerous."
He shrugs. "Yeah, well, that was then, this is now."
She curls her lip; it looks like something a cartoon villain would do. "Braca tells me you're not much of a threat anymore. Just as well. I like your bar: I'd hate to have to kill you."
"I like my bar too. I'd hate to die." He's long since stopped laughing at his own jokes, but he allows himself a smile.
"Crichton lost his wormholes, Administrator." There's Rygel, always so helpful at looking helpless.
"Lost?" She arches an eyebrow, tries to look playful. It doesn't work.
"Long story. Bex! Another round for our guests."
"All right." She taps her hands on the table for a moment, then lays them flat. "If you're no threat to the peace, then you're a friend of the Establishment, Crichton. And you can help us. We recently lost a piece of information, a dataset, which was stolen under--well, under unique circumstances."
Braca shifts uncomfortably. "Chiana stole it, Crichton."
"And?" The crystal is still in his pocket. He hasn't dared to leave it anywhere since Aeryn's visit last night, since he realized how important it was.
"We think she may have hidden it somewhere. Somewhere you could help us find it?" Grayza lifts her voice at the end of the sentence, but it's not really a question.
"Sure, because I know all about everything my bed-warmers do." Crichton allows a little of the rage to feed into his voice. "No, she gave me nothing. No, I don't know where she might have stashed it. No, I'm not about to help you."
Grayza stares at him for a long moment, and for a few seconds he's back on the command carrier, two guns in his hands, blood humming with the exhilarating knowledge that there was nothing left to lose. He was wrong, then.
He could kill her now, but the goons are ten feet away and even if he survived, he'd hate to see the bar or Sparky get shot up in the crossfire.
"Well, then." She stands and brushes off her dress. "I'm sure we'll be meeting again. Perhaps you'll be more accommodating. Captain," she says with a nod to Braca, and stalks off through the crowd.
Rygel farts, and the rest of the conversation takes place in soft, but highpitched tones.
"Crichton, are you mad? She's with the Establishment!" Rygel's face is flushed greener with fear.
"Besides, she knows who was here last night." Braca leans closer, drops his voice to a falsetto whisper. "The Establishment knows Sun and her friend are here for that data. They came to see you, Crichton. The Establishment will kill anyone they need to, to get it back."
"It's not my business, guys. Let it go. I'm done with politics. Grayza can swan around all she likes, but I got nothing for her, and I got nothing for Aeryn." Crichton stands, irritably, and heads for the office. There must be some bookkeeping to be done.
He ignores Rygel's voice, hissing, "Of course you do."
The books won't balance, and Crichton finally drops the stylus in frustration. He can't blame the books; he can't concentrate. Too many old memories coming back to life. Grayza reminds him of Scorpius, which reminds him of wormholes and the Chair. Aeryn--Aeryn reminds him of everything.
There's a tap at the entry, soft like Chiana used to do, but it's Braca, looking more serious than usual.
"What is it, Mike?" He gets along with Braca pretty well nowadays: four years on a boringly remote station, away from Peacekeepers, wormholes, and Scorpius, will do that. Braca no longer has anything to prove, and Crichton doesn't have anything to lose. It doesn't hurt that neither of them can go home now.
Braca glances around the office as if he's never been here before, stares at the tottering pile of flimsies on the desk, and meets Crichton's eyes for a moment before looking away again. "You should give her what she wants, Crichton."
Crichton shrugs. "What if I don't have what she wants?"
"Fine, if you want to play it that way." Braca looks a lot more somber than he has in cycles, and Crichton wonders if this is the act, or if that was. "But Chiana's dead, and you don't want to be next. The Resistance doesn't care who gets caught in the crossfire."
Chiana. The rage wasn't gone after all, he discovers; it's just been simmering, waiting for a chance to boil over and burn anyone in range. He pushes himself to his feet and looms over the smaller man. "Dead like Chiana, Mike? Cause it wasn't the Resistance that killed her, was it? And you wouldn't happen to know who pulled the trigger?"
Braca shakes his head, whether in denial or refusal of the question, it's not clear. "Don't get involved, Crichton. Don't get between the Resistance and the Establishment. They'll crush you." He looks for a moment as if he's actually concerned about Crichton's welfare.
And then he's gone, and Crichton leans against the doorway, breathing deeply, letting the anger drain out again. Fuckers. All of them.
There are rooms on the station with clearsteel windows looking out at Amnina VII. The favored few who can afford them get direct sunlight, and see the weather change on the gas giant below as the station spins on its axis. The rotation is much faster than Crichton is comfortable with, and it spooks him to realize that the station sees dawn six times per solar day.
The rooms that he can afford are cramped and musty, probably once used for storage in the semi-legendary glory days of this station. He has a main room with a bed in the corner and a desk under the pendant central lamp, the entire space barely three strides across. A tiny alcove with a cooking unit and a chiller, where he occasionally throws together what he likes to call a casserole. And a tiny bathroom, barely large enough to shower in.
On a station, the fundamentals are precious: the hot water the bathroom provides is far more important than the space he could have had for what he's paying. He tries not to think about how long it's been since he walked on green grass.
The data crystal is foggy with information. Crichton triple-checked that all his system linkages were severed before dropping it into the slot on his pad. He takes a breath and hits the activation switch; this is why Chiana died, why Aeryn has stepped out of memory to haunt him.
The space over the pad blooms like his mother's daffodils in March, flowering with data, images, equations, gigabytes of textual discussion in a script he doesn't recognize. There's a flash of familiar blue, and he taps the pad to freeze it in place. The picture is stilled; Crichton turns the pad from side to side, and then, suspicious, expands the image.
There's no question: the hologram hovering over his table contains the telltale blue kaleidoscope of a wormhole, spinning in place.
Sparky lied: Crichton didn't lose the wormholes. He just stopped looking for them, refused to see them, buried the information. He had taken one wormhole ride too many, seen things that couldn't be--that weren't possible in any nightmare, and ran for home as fast as he could. Ignored the possibilities tingling in his fingertips, burned his notebooks. Ditched the Farscape module, finally, when he felt his resistance beginning to slip, and watched weeping as she fell into a small white star.
He still dreams sometimes of the things he saw, and shocks himself awake. If he's lucky Chiana isn't there to soothe him, curled against his back while he shudders; it's too embarrassing even after all they've been through together. Jack turns from the barbecue, his gums black, his smile too wide. Aeryn screams on the Chair, Crais and Scorpius embrace him as a brother, Olivia shrieks as the Scarrans split her open--no.
It's been long enough now that he can pretend the knowledge isn't there, curled in the back of his brain like a frog wintering in the mud at the bottom of a pond. In other circumstances he wouldn't have been able to get away with it, because wormholes were the dream weapon, were the only chance against the Scarrans. Wormholes were the A-Bomb, the H-Bomb, Nagasaki and Hiroshima, victory in the face of otherwise inevitable defeat. Everyone wanted wormholes.
Except everyone ignored the Nebari until it was far too late, and now they're too busy dying to pick Crichton's brain.
The data crystal rests in its slot, and the information spins in place above the desk, children on a merry-go-round in green-red-blue clothing. Crichton watches it, dazzled once again by possibility.
II. I Came to Casablanca for the Waters
Amnina Station is a drenheap: more crowded than most Aeryn has seen, less dirty than a very few. The crowds of refugees sweep through the halls, carrying her along with them as soon as she steps out the door of the tiny guesthouse. She knows better than to draw too much attention to herself, even here where Sebaceans are common. So she touches her belt to confirm her pistol is secure, and lets herself be carried along.
They spill out finally into the vast central marketplace, the crowd scattering into the maze of booths, and beyond into the narrow passages between the beds of the hydroponic farms. When Aeryn cranes her head back, she sees across to the other side of the squat cylinder, looking both up and down at the heads of shopkeepers and beggars.
She picks her way among the booths, dodging persistent vendors waving samples of cloth, preserved fruits, antique jewelry pawned for passage out or just another week of food and air. In the back of one rickety stand, behind stacks of yellowing lace, she sees the matte black of weapons parts.
"Officer Sun, what a pleasure."
She rests her hand on her weapon as she turns, but she knows this voice, even after so many cycles. Miklo Braca wears a battered Peacekeeper jacket over a wrinkled civilian tunic. He looks much the same as he did six cycles ago, but for the close-clipped beard and a little extra weight. She has wondered what became of him; the stories about his disgrace and exile are conflicting and unlikely.
"I'm no officer, any more than you are a captain," Aeryn replies, glancing at the insignia on Braca's coat.
He bristles immediately. "I earned my rank before--" And stumbles over it, whatever he was about to say.
"Before you were exiled?" She smiles and glances over his shoulder to see if anyone is watching them. "I'm certain you did. Crais always said you were the consummate Peacekeeper."
"Fine talk from a deserter!"
Aeryn shrugs and saunters on; Braca follows. "You never saw my file? I was the perfect Peacekeeper, too, Captain. But you know as well as I do that's not enough."
There is someone following her. She can't identify them, can't tell even whether they're Sebacean. A smallish figure in a dark robe, lingering over the rusted cans of marjoules three stalls back.
She can't lose them with Braca here, and it's clear he needs to tell her something: this posturing is pure bravado. She waits, steps along to the next stall, fingers a wooden ornament painted in brilliant greens and blues. It looks like a flibisk mated a Luxan, and she puts it down in distaste.
"You're here for that dataset Chiana stole." His voice is low, and she thinks he knows they're being followed too.
She hmmms enquiringly, and picks up another item, this one a small knife, its hilt carved elaborately in sweeping curves. The sheath is lined with a soft green cloth, the entire thing small enough to slip into her sleeve if she wishes.
"Mistress likes?" The stall owner sees her interest, bustles over to her eagerly.
Braca's voice drops even lower. "Crichton's got it."
"How much?" She asks, and over the reply, "How do you know?"
"Where else would it be?" Braca's irritated.
Aeryn frowns, not understanding the connection, and the vendor drops his price five krindars.
"You didn't know." Braca smiles, his face greasy in the stagnant light spilling from the mirror arrays overhead. "She was his lover. Has been for years."
Ah. Aeryn nods abruptly, and the knife is hers, for more than she can afford. She looks at it in distaste: it's too rich for her purposes. She slides it into her belt.
"What's on this dataset you're all so interested in?" All she knows is that it's immensely important: Chiana wouldn't say what it was. And that Chiana would only meet them here on Amnina Station, out of Nebari territory.
She'll think about Chiana and Crichton later. It's been cycles, after all.
"I don't know," he answers, and she looks up in surprise. So much attention for something completely unknown. Everyone knows it's important, and nobody knows what it is.
"Why are you telling me this?" Braca was never an ally before, and the Nebari are powerful, even here outside their boundaries. Very few will risk the wrath, or even the attention, of the Establishment.
Braca shrugs, his face bland, his eyes shuttered. "Because Crichton's a fool, and I remember how much damage he can do when he's trapped in a corner." Then he smiles unpleasantly. "And I'd like to see that bitch humiliated."
With that, he's gone. She watches him stride through the crowd, the shoppers giving way before the tarnished authority of his captain's coat, and adds the problem of an exiled Peacekeeper captain to the question of the missing dataset. Her watcher is still with her, she notes, and she realizes she can't lead a spy to her meeting.
There's a small tavern across the alley. Aeryn sighs and prepares herself for some bad raslak and a stressful few arns of trying to lose a tail while not looking like she's doing it.
She's wrong: it's a cafe, not a tavern. Less crowded than the street outside, and someone had made an attempt to clean the windows. Mirrors redirected light in through the ceiling. But the place was bedraggled enough to show her how Crichton's bar attracted such wealthy clientele by contrast.
A dozen rickety tables lined with benches, only a handful occupied. A sourlooking Luxan woman nurses an infant in one corner, while two shabby Sebaceans negotiate with a sleek Nebari youth in tislot furs.
Aeryn goes to the serving window and taps on the shutter.
"Yeah?" Beneath the translator microbes the language sounds guttural and unfamiliar.
"Brindle tea." The tea, when it appears, is reassuringly hot, despite the battered cup.
There are stacks of fliers piled on a long table next to the counter; Aeryn snags a few on her way to a table and sits down. Facing the door, back to the wall. There's a rear exit past the counter on the right, probably leading out into the maze of hydroponic yards.
Keeping a casual eye on the door and the outside traffic passing by the windows, she leafs through the fliers. Mostly advertisements for 'handlers' and dealers, people who claim to offer high prices for goods carried wearily from system to system and now to be sold in the desperate hope of funding one last flight. People offering tickets out of the territories, out of the war zones--to where? she wonders.
That's the problem, in a kila nut. The Scarran Empire is gone, subsumed under Nebari authority. Aeryn has heard that the Kalish, surprisingly, are fighting the hardest, but the Establishment in Katratzi has never acknowledged the presence of a resistance of any form. She wonders sometimes at the irony that made the Scarrans, of all peoples, fold so quickly under the Nebari, when even the Hynerians fought to the last. In any event, the ocean of refugees will find no safety with the Scarrans.
Nor with the Peacekeepers. Peacekeeper High Command is still independent, if its authority is fraying. But they have lost dozens of systems to the Nebari and the sphere of Peacekeeper influence has shrunk to less than half its former size. They have learned, to their chagrin, what Durka discovered so many cycles before: that even a command carrier is no match for a Nebari host vessel. The count of dead is beyond reckoning; the Nebari prefer the ease of conversion by contagion, but have no patience for resistance.
Amnina Station is far from the worst place these refugees could have washed ashore. Aeryn passed through Dam-Ba-Da a quarter-cycle before, and the wave that crested at that desolate place left nothing but the toughest alive. Petty warlords ruling tiny fiefdoms of ragged tents, dirty children of a dozen races strung out on Charrid opiates cut with grolak powder, mobs surrounding the spaceport screaming for a way out as more and more refugees landed--she shakes the memories away and takes another sip of her dank tea.
A familiar profile passes the window and then Crichton swings through the door, crossing the cafe without hesitation to settle into the chair beside her. It creaks as he balances it onto its rear legs and leans against the wall.
"So I was pretty drunk the other night. Guess I owe you an apology."
She shrugs. Words are words, and she has heard many of them in the past cycles.
They sit without speaking. He goes to the counter, gets a mug of something dark green she doesn't recognize, and sits down again.
Aeryn reads some more of the fliers, watches the deals being made in the far corner, sips her cooling tea. Her follower hasn't shown himself, and she wonders why. Maybe she was mistaken, but five cycles' experience tells her otherwise.
Crichton has relaxed beside her, the tension binding him loosening as they sit quietly. He pulls a pad from his pocket and makes some calculations, grunts with annoyance, and clears the screen.
"Why are you here, Crichton?" She hadn't intended to speak, it just happened.
"I do a lot of business in here," he answers without looking up from the notes he is making. "Am I disturbing you?" He swivels his head and meets her eyes for the first time since he sat down.
The light in the bar the other night was kinder to his face than this redirected sunlight. He looks noticeably older than she does now, the tiny wrinkles around his eyes embedded in place, a sprinkling of grey clearly to be seen above his temples. But the eyes are the same, the body still strong, despite some new scars on his hands, a notch in his earlobe. He still keeps his hair short. She remembers suddenly what his hair felt like under her hands, the way the strands spread between her fingers. She swallows.
She doesn't have time for this. Her meeting is in less than an arn. But her life is no longer her own, and she might never have this chance again.
His face is carefully bland. She remembers this expression, this tension between them, when he's desperate for her to give him something, and she has never known what. Nothing she gave him was ever enough.
"I didn't know that you and Chiana were lovers. Please believe that." That was the easy part. Not an apology, because of what use are they?
He nods, and closes the pad. As he sits back in the chair, his eyes on her, she continues.
"When I left, things were bad. You remember."
Another nod. His eyes flicker to the window and back to her. She trusts him enough to let him keep watch for her, while she examines his responses.
"And the guerrillas, they weren't--it wasn't any better."
"Then I heard about the Resistance, that there were Sebaceans fighting the Nebari. It was something I could do."
His expression hasn't changed. "And you married Tevlin?"
"Peacekeepers don't do that."
The skin around his eyes loosens a little. "So . . . why didn't you come back?"
The question she knew he would ask, the question she doesn't want to answer. "Tevlin isn't just my comrade. The reason I joined the Resistance, the reason I'm with Antin--with Tevlin--now."
Crichton cocks his head forward, checks the door, looks back at her.
"Who is he?"
This shouldn't be this hard. She hasn't even seen this man in six cycles. "He's Velorek, Crichton. Who I knew before I met you, before I came to Moya."
"Velorek." The name falls quietly from his lips, and they twist as if he just realized his drink was sour. His eyes narrow. "Forgiving guy. Didn't you betray him to Crais?"
She grimaces in acknowledgement. "He managed to escape somehow, and when the war--"
Crichton cuts her off, grabbing her arm bruisingly. "Shit, it's Grayza!"
He's right: there are two Nebari soldiers and a dark-haired woman in the doorway of the cafe. They're all looking towards the far corner, but it will be mere microts before Crichton and Aeryn are spotted. It's too far to the rear exit.
"We can't be seen together--"
This time she cuts him off. In one smooth move she rises, swiveling on her left leg, her hand placed for balance on his shoulder. Before he can begin to respond, she settles comfortably again.
Except now she's astride his lap, nose to nose, blocking both of their faces from view.
He looks surprised only for a moment, and then brings his hands to her waist to keep her stable. She drops her face down next to his, letting her hair brush against him, her skin against his. She feels the bristles of his beard against her cheek as she hisses, "Can you still see her?"
"Yeah, she's still there." His voice has dropped, and there's a low rumbling tone in it that makes her catch her breath and reconsider her strategy. She had at least six other ploys she could have used to avoid detection: what made her choose this one?
Misplaced pride, she realizes. Or something stupider, something likely to get her killed if she indulges it. Something like the memory of his hands on her in the darkness of Talyn's command. But now she's committed: there's nothing she can do except indulge it.
She argued with Antin about their cover for this mission: she feels too vulnerable in the light pants and flowing overtunic of a middle-class woman from the rim planets. Now she curses him doubly; through the thin cloth, she can feel the tiniest move Crichton makes, and the warmth of his body is speeding up her pulse. He smells like John, and it's almost more than she can bear to be pressing this close to him, her hands on his shoulders, his breath in her ear.
Six cycles wasn't long enough to forget it all. It's almost a shock to hear him whisper, "She's looking this way."
They cannot allow themselves to be seen together. Aeryn slides her arms around his neck, and his eyes widen as she matches his lips with hers. She feels his hands flex once on her hips, then one of his hands cautiously rises to brush up her neck and come to rest in her hair. It's not delicate or sensuous, however: it is merely there, the way his mouth and lips and tongue are there. Crichton is following her lead, but he's playing for the audience alone.
When he pulls away, some dozens of microts later, she doesn't follow. He pushes her hair out of his face. "They're gone."
She's supposed to get up now. She stays where she is for a long moment, breathing, and allows herself the luxury of the softness of his hair on her fingers, his warmth beneath her. He shifts his weight, his eyes darkening, and she finally slides off his lap, stands up gracefully.
The couple at the table next to them are staring. Aeryn raises a brow in return and sits down behind her cold tea.
Crichton turns a hard eye on her. "What was that little display--"
But there's a figure turning into the doorway, and Aeryn realizes her follower has arrived. She sees green tentacles within the hood of its robe: it's a Scorvian.
Frell. Time to go.
She's out the rear exit in three heartbeats, dodging her way through the low plastine railings of the hydroponics, heading for the taller groves where she knows she can lose a Scorvian in the heady scent of flowering trees. She's not alone, though: Crichton pounds along behind her, muttering obscenities but following her every move.
She ducks as a narrow pulse blast slices a branch off a threkom bush an arm's length away.
Sex and pulse fire. Just like old times.
And she laughs.
He's not going to keep it together much longer. First the kissing, then way too much running, dodging through fields almost the length of the cylinder, and now they're crouched in a farmyard, getting shot at by--
"Aeryn, what the frell is going on?"
She waves him to silence and pokes her head around the wobbly fence. Then she nods, and skitters backwards, into the narrow passageway between two beds of--well, something. Spilled water from the beds has turned the floor here into a smear of mud. The mud on the ground has stained her knees and hands, but she ignores it, heading deeper into the rows of crops.
They scramble along between the rows crouched to waist-height, occasionally peering cautiously over the blue-green vegetation. Whoever was shooting at them is moving parallel to them but in the same direction, towards a stand of tawny-leaved trees with green blossoms on the branches.
Aeryn tenses to race forward, and Crichton locks a hand around her arm. He puts his mouth to her ear. "No. Tell me who that is and why he's shooting at us."
She exhales through her nose in that impatient way she has, and sits back on her heels, pistol held loosely in her hand. "He's a Scorvian. He's been following us for days, I don't know why. I think it's about the dataset."
She nods and wipes one dirty hand on her pants. "We've heard they've signed a pact with the Nebari."
The Nebari again, fingers in every pie. "So. Got a plan?"
"Uh-huh." She taps her nose, and nods at the trees up ahead. Crichton peers at the foliage, baffled, and then realizes what it is.
Fentak trees bear a rich and oily fruit, something like a cross between an olive and an avocado, but when they're in flower the stench is overpowering. On planet, fentak orchards are always planted downwind of residences. And Scorvians, like Luxans, have very sensitive noses.
He draws his pistol--Winona long since lost and he's past the juvenile habit of naming his guns--and checks the charge. Looks up to see her doing the same, and can't help but smile. God knows what she wants from him or what she's become since she left, but Aeryn Sun can still kick righteous ass.
"Lead on, Macduff!" And he prepares to lay down some covering fire while she dashes for the safety of the trees.
He sends a flurry of shots over the plantings, and sees the Scorvian, a short figure in brown, duck for cover. Aeryn disappears into the trees, the dull green of her tunic indistinguishable in the foliage.
Crichton stays where he is, crouched on one knee, a hand for balance on the rim of the vegetable bed. He can feel the mud soaking through his trousers, and it seems a long time before there's a shout from the Scorvian.
Next a pause, and then three shots, probably at random. She's unlikely to be hurt: she's not stupid, after all. But there's a choked cry and the sound of something crashing in the branches. The only things at this end of the cylinder are workshops and storage, so with some luck all the noise and shooting will go unnoticed.
They could be lucky. He's sure it must have happened in the past; everyone gets lucky once in a while.
The Scorvian takes a few steps toward the trees, coughs, and looks around. Crichton ducks and presses himself into the ground, counting soundlessly. At 'thirty', he takes a peek: the Scorvian has one hand over its nose and is approaching the orchard cautiously, gun in the other hand.
This has to be carefully timed. If Crichton moves before the Scorvian is into the trees, the smell won't disguise his approach. If he waits too long, the Scorvian may find Aeryn first, maybe get the drop on her.
It's not a complicated plan, just one requiring some finesse and good timing.
Which, of course, is the problem.
Because he's ten feet behind the guy--a squat, ugly figure with dull green tendrils trailing down his back--when something alerts the Scorvian. Crichton sees his ears perk and he starts to turn, so Crichton lunges forward and manages to close with him, grabbing his gun arm and forcing it down before it goes off.
Crichton is a lot taller, but Scorvians are strong, and suddenly they're rolling around in the mud, neither of them letting go of their guns.
Twisting suddenly, Crichton gets a little bit of leverage, enough to ram a knee into the Scorvian's stomach. That turns the corner, and pretty soon he's got the guy on his back in the dirt while Crichton methodically beats him senseless. Bam! Bam! Bam! He's aware he's doing a lot of damage to his hands, but man it feels good to hit somebody for once.
He draws back his right arm for one last smash to the Scorvian's pudgy jaw, and someone grabs his hand. "Hey!" He yanks for a moment before turning to look at her.
It's Aeryn, looking down at him with that same damned expression she always has when a plan goes wrong. But instead of saying anything, she lifts her other hand and shoots the Scorvian in the head.
Crichton blinks. The Scorvian's face is blank, the wound a tiny charred dot in the center of his forehead. "Woah. That was. Shit." Crichton stands up awkwardly, trying not to touch the body, and staggers backward.
Breathe, breathe. Don't vomit. That's Aeryn but he's on Amnina Station, not Dam-Ba-Da or the command carrier or any one of dozens of other shitholes. He shakes his head violently.
"Crichton?" She looks a little concerned. "What is it?"
Breathe. "Nothing, nothing. I'm--haven't shot a guy in the head in a while. Took me back."
She hesitates and nods, as if this makes sense, and slips her little gun into the waistband of her pants. It's a cute gun, tiny and quiet. Doesn't seem like the sort of thing Officer Aeryn Sun would carry, but this is Aeryn Mark III, the Mata Hari model, successor to Peacekeeper Aeryn and Exile Aeryn.
While he's thinking about version numbers, she's grabbed the Scorvian's ankles and begun pulling him into the orchard.
She pauses, tilts her head in inquiry.
"I got a better idea. Someplace where nobody'll ever find him."
And that's how John Crichton teaches Aeryn Sun the wonders of the Amnina Station Reclamation Ponds, where all organic matter goes to be reprocessed.
He feels like he's stepped off the spinning station and gone EVA. He needs to get away from her, but she won't let him. "You'll be picked up immediately looking like that. Our room is close by, and you can clean up before going home."
She's right about both.
She knocks on the door softly, tapping rapidly and then saying a few soft words he doesn't catch. That he's not supposed to catch, probably. The door opens and they step inside.
It's one of the bland and characterless rooms common to temporary housing across the universe. Looks like a Motel 6 except for the texture of the carpeting and the color of the painting on the far wall.
"Aeryn!" Tevlin--Velorek looks unhappy, but he lowers the gun in his hand. "You missed the meeting. And why did you bring him here?"
"Nice to see you too, buddy." Crichton decides he's been running around too long, and goes to hold up the wall. There's a clock on the table: the bar's been open for an hour and he's not there to oversee it. Marvelous.
Aeryn frowns and throws her sodden jacket on a chair. "We ran into trouble. That Scorvian finally made his move, but Crichton helped me with him."
Velorek's head jerks up. "And?"
She shrugs. "He was clean, no information. He must have been after the dataset."
Crichton snarls in frustration, and they both look at him. "Frell the dataset, already What he was after--what you're all after--is wormholes."
Velorek blinks, but Aeryn's eyes go wide, and Crichton can see her putting all the pieces together. "Wormhole technology," she breathes. Shit. His problems just got a lot more complicated.
"Yeah, wormhole tech, goddamnit," agrees Crichton, and drops into chair. Man, he's sore. Been a while since he's done any hand-to-hand.
"How do you know?" Velorek asks. He hasn't put his gun away, and he keeps glancing from Aeryn to Crichton and back. Suspicious: Crichton doesn't blame him. He wonders whether Aeryn will tell Velorek about that little mouth-tomouth sequence in the cafe.
Aeryn pours something into a cup and hands it to Crichton. It's raslak: Crichton tosses the raw alcohol back. It'll do until he gets some painkillers. He coughs, wipes his mouth on the back of his hand, and examines Velorek.
He didn't pay much attention to the guy the other night. But now that Crichton knows, he sees it's the same guy as in that recording. Short hair, darker complexion than Aeryn's, intense brown eyes. A lighter build than Crichton's, but then Velorek was a tech, not a commando. Doesn't mean he's not dangerous, and if he's been in the Resistance all this time, he's probably deadly.
"Crichton," Aeryn nudges. "This is important."
Crichton has as much as admitted he has the data. Might as well tell them the rest.
He opens his mouth, but before he speaks he sees Chiana again, that last morning. Happy, bouncing. Secretive. Alive. And Aeryn nuzzling him in the cafe, the scent of her hair making him dizzy. Now she wants him, now that he has something they can use in their war. Velorek frowns at him and fingers the gun.
And Pip is dead.
"No. No, I don't think I'll tell you." He slugs back the last of the raslak and pushes his chair back from the table. "Thanks for the drink."
"Crichton, wait!" Aeryn takes a step forward. Velorek starts to raise his gun, but Aeryn puts a hand on his arm.
Crichton shakes his head. "No. I don't trust your judgment. You get people killed, for no good reason. And I don't feel like getting killed for your little crusade." It's the truth, if not all of it.
"Crichton." Aeryn's voice is low and beseeching. He drags his gaze to hers. "Please, just listen to us. Will you do that?"
He just wants to be gone, but he nods reluctantly, the memory of her body hard against his still fresh in his mind.
Velorek shrugs at Aeryn, but keeps his eyes on Crichton.
Aeryn says, "Do you know what the Nebari are doing out there? Have you seen it?"
Aeryn shakes her head. "No, you haven't." She leans against the wall wearily, and the muddy green paint leaches the color from her skin. She looks old and tired. "Their contagion didn't entirely work. When they attacked, only a small number of people were infected, not enough to take over entire planets."
Velorek breaks in. "We still don't know why they attacked when they did. I suspect they had some kind of catastrophe on Nebari Prime, but we have no solid intelligence."
Aeryn shrugs and continues. "Their mind-cleansing techniques work only temporarily, and require a lot of labor to implement. Once they've conquered a planet, they take control the old way, through political manipulation and military force. But--"
"But the Nebari insist on conformity," picks up Velorek.
"Yeah, I remember that," notes Crichton, crossing his arms. "When do you get to the point?"
"The point, Crichton," says Aeryn, with a venomous look, "is that those who don't conform don't get cleansed, they get killed. And the Nebari definition of 'conform' is very narrow."
Velorek nods, his eyes locked on Crichton. "By our estimate, of the planets the Nebari have taken since the beginning of the war, they killed between ten and twenty percent of the civilian population within the first half-cycle."
There's a silence. The two spies look at Crichton expectantly.
Aeryn tilts her head. "And what?"
"And that's the big news you have to tell me? Tell me something I don't know. The Nebari pogroms are old news." He has his hand on the door latch before Aeryn catches him. He doesn't fight her when she pulls him around to face her.
"Crichton, you used to care. They're killing millions of people. Why won't you help us?" He never would have thought he'd hear Aeryn Sun begging. And he's not now: she's demanding, not pleading with him. The hell with it.
"People change. People die. Me, I don't give a rat's ass anymore." He wrenches his arm out of her grasp and thrusts through the door.
The only sound in the small room is Antin tapping on his pad. Aeryn peels thankfully out of the sodden tunic and pants, and uses some of the tiny amount of hot water to sponge off her arms and torso. Conditions on Amnina Station are far superior to many of the places she has visited in the past several cycles, but it has been almost half a cycle since she had an actual shower.
There was never a shortage of hot water on Moya, even when they had no food to eat.
"You know we can't leave it like that."
She looks up, startled, and pulls her shirt over her head. Antin isn't looking at her, but at the material on his pad. The thin spectrum of light from the overhead sconce makes his scar look purple against his jaw.
"Because of the wormholes."
He nods. She never told him about Crichton, about the wormholes; at first because it hurt too much. And then the war happened, and Crichton fell out of sight, and it became irrelevant. But Antin isn't stupid, and he had his sources in High Command long before she came to find him, grieving and torn from John's death.
He smiles suddenly, and closes the pad. "We have an appointment tomorrow. The Administrator would like to speak with us."
"You think they suspect us?" They had brought nothing incriminating with them, other than their weapons. The material on their pads was the standard data any traveler would carry; all the important information--names, contacts, coordinates--was memorized.
He turns one hand over, palm up. "What can she know? We are Tevlin Sel and Renta Strekam, travelers from Bendini. Our papers are in order and the Establishment has no real power here. They can take no one into custody without the station manager's approval."
"But she knows me. I met her a long time ago, on Scorpius' command carrier."
He nods. "But they don't know me. And they have no evidence you've done anything wrong. I think," he says, and then pauses. "I think we should meet with them. We may learn something."
"Fine." Politics and strategy are his arena, as security and logistics are hers. Barring an emergency, she'll follow his lead.
A grumble from her stomach reminds her that she hasn't eaten all day, and she is crouched on her heels, rummaging through the packet of food, when he speaks again.
She turns her head to look at him, her hands busy unwrapping a small package of food cubes.
"This wormhole technology, it's powerful?"
The whole time John was dying, Talyn shuddered as the wreckage of the dreadnought had bounced off his hull, tiny pieces of crumbled metal, weaponry, people: according to their scans, nothing larger in size than the palm of her hand had survived Jack's wormhole weapon. John--this John--had been right, then, to take it away from Scorpius. But things have changed.
"Yes. I've seen it do--terrible things."
He smiles again, his face alight with enthusiasm, the smile that had captured her when she first met him, so many cycles ago. The smile he had worn when she betrayed him.
"Then we must obtain it for the Resistance."
She lets her hands still. "I know."
"You know him. Convince him, tell him anything you need to. We could turn the war back on the Nebari, send them home like a scalded fentak. Wormhole technology, Aeryn!"
He's stopped smiling. "Talk to him, shoot him, frell him. I don't care, Aeryn. Get the dataset."
III. Human Life is Cheap
It's still a few hours before closing when Crichton finds his way back to the bar. He stopped at his place for a shower and a change, swapped out the stained grey pants for a pair of battered black pants and a green shirt. At this hour he doesn't need to look presentable anyway.
There are plenty of people in the house when he comes in through the rear door. Bex nods to him from the bar, and Sparky zooms up as Crichton is pouring himself a large mug of water.
"Crichton, you're beyond late! I had to pay the linen supplier, and I expect to be compensated." Rygel sounds the same as usual, but his earbrows are flattened in worry. He's no fool, and he can tell something's offbalance.
The water is cool but stale. The residents of Amnina Station have learned not to think too hard about the water reclamation system.
"Sorry, Ryge. Something came up." Crichton checks the clock and realizes it's the end of Bex's shift. He taps her on the shoulder and points to the door. She gives him a dimpled smile and disappears into the back. Rumor has it she's got a new girl, a Delvian chit on one of the lower levels.
Rygel isn't satisfied. "Well, next time, you should warn me!"
"With what, my telepathic mind? Besides, ain't gonna be a next time." Crichton pours a fellip nectar for a Sebacean in a red jacket and a raslak for a girl with purple skin.
"Oh, I've heard that before." But Rygel moves off, and the grumbles fade into the general hum of the bar.
It's late and Crichton is starving, but there are fried chips of some sort in a container under the bar, the local version of pretzels. He munches on a few while he pours raslak and fellip nectar, puts a few bowls of chips on the bar, swipes the bar down and sends glasses back to the kitchen to be cleaned.
The room seats about fifty on narrow chairs around tables covered with pale green cloth. The bar itself--Crichton insisted on having a bar--is a length of imported wood, a dark grain with a green tint from a planet the next system over. The hammand-side wall is the showpiece, though: a huge mural of sunrise over Delvia, the rays of the doubled suns shooting through the sixteen rings and splintering into all the colors of the spectrum. Crichton had hired a brain-fried Indari triad to paint it; when one of them died before finishing, they'd left him in the lurch and he had to have Rygel finish it. In the dark, that corner is hidden behind one of the tables.
The crowd is as varied as usual: Sebaceans, Luxans, Indari, Ilanics, a scattering of Nebari, three Kalish at the bar, a few other races Crichton doesn't recognize. Two Luxan women and a Kalish child are huddled in the corner, chanting, keeping the beat with the flat of their hands. Three people in grey robes crouch on the floor nearby, keening softly and drinking steadily from phallic green bottles of Scarran liqueur.
More refugees. There's always more refugees.
"Crichton." A hand slaps down on the bar and withdraws to expose a few coins. "Two raslaks, not the cheap swill."
Braca looks cheerful, and Crichton peers around his shoulder to see a paleskinned young man with an anxious face at the next table.
Crichton pours the raslak into two of the nicer glasses. "Pretty; your taste is improving, Mike."
Braca sneers at him as he takes his drinks, and saunters back to his table. The boy will be yet another one of the desperate looking for a way out, looking for a refuge. There are more of them every week, and Amnina Station is beginning to creak under the strain. The boy won't know that Braca can't help him.
It's not quite that there's nowhere to go, but the routes outbound are as limited as the routes inbound, and nearly every one now terminates in a war zone.
The most popular transit route at the beginning of the war went to the sector where the Royal Planet held sway. But about two cycles ago trade from that region trickled to nothing, and the freighters stopped coming in on that vector. Word was that the Empress had fought too hard, and the Nebari had brought one of their host vessels against the planet. After that, the fight went out of most of the other systems in that area.
It has been a long time since Crichton thought of his daughter, or of Katralla, but Aeryn's presence on the station has muddied the waters, stirred up a lot he thought he had forgotten. The tall pyramid of the palace, shimmering in the sunset, is now ruins. The Empress in her pride, Katralla and Tyno's love, the possibilities captured in the child she bore--all dust now. Like Chiana.
Crichton, you used to care.
He used to want something.
He shakes his head and pours another drink, and another, serving the alcohol, passing bowls of chips across the bar, making change for krindars, decks, and raw Indari stones, as the refugees drink and scheme and seduce themselves into forgetfulness. Anything will do to pass the time while they wait for the future to save them from the present.
Last call can't come soon enough, and when it does, Crichton wipes down the bar one last time before tossing the rag in the sink and heading for the door. All he wants is a bite to eat and the comfort of his own bed. Mindless oblivion for seven arns doesn't seem too much to ask.
But despite his exhaustion, oblivion refuses to come. Too many thoughts jostle for placement in his mind, none of them clear. Refugees and war, wormholes and Aeryn, Velorek and Sparky and the Scorvian dying under his hands. Chiana dies over and over again. Braca sneers, Grayza ponders him coyly, and the harrowing mouth of a wormhole threatens to swallow them all.
Crichton swings his legs to the floor, pulling the blankets over his shoulders. Sleep isn't happening, and he knows better than to try to force it. The dreams are always worse if he drugs himself.
The data crystal is in the pocket of the pants he left slung over the chair. He can almost feel it in his hand, the edges sharp against his fingers, the endless potential, the all-consuming mystery of the equations it holds. In the darkness, he can believe the shadows are equations crawling up his arms; his hand itches for a pen.
It's the crystal or another night spent staring at the rusted ceiling too unnaturally low, or dreaming of a billion deaths on a hundred worlds. Crichton lurches to his feet and shoves his hand into the pocket, muttering resentfully.
Chiana knew exactly what she was doing when she left this with him.
There is a Nebari consulate, but the meeting is held instead at station security, a dingy complex near the portmaster's offices. The walls here are thin, and Aeryn can hear howls from the station prison next door. One of Braca's subordinates, a squat Bloodtracker in a pristine blue uniform, escorts them to Braca's office.
Although this is his domain, Braca stands stiffly behind Grayza. At a courtly gesture from Grayza, Aeryn and Antin sit down on hard straight-backed chairs. The similarity to a courtroom is intended, Aeryn is certain.
"Tevlin and Renta, innocent travelers according to your papers." Grayza drops a pad on the desk. "You're no such thing, are you? Spies and thieves."
It's cool in the room, but Braca is sweating lightly. Grayza looks much the same as Aeryn remembers her: a dark-haired woman, unnaturally pale for a Sebacean, who favors necklines that plunge halfway to her navel.
Antin looks uncertain. "I'm sorry, Administrator, but I'm sure you're mistaken. We're no spies. Renta and I just arrived--"
"Please. Both Captain Braca and I have met Officer Sun before. Don't lie to us."
Crichton's eyes had been wild, his face strained, but the hands holding the guns on Scorpius and Grayza had been utterly steady. Aeryn can still smell the sweat in the air, taste the fear that permeated every moment on the command carrier. There was never any chance that Grayza would have forgetten them.
"It's true that Renta is not my birth name." Aeryn wishes desperately for a weapon. Even after five cycles, she's uncomfortable in these situations. "But Peacekeepers are hated in many regions: I thought it wise to take another name."
"There, you see?" Antin is implausibly cheerful; his guise of good-natured imbecile has saved them more than once. "And my name really is Sel Tevlin, you can see it on my papers right there. It's all a misunderstanding." He takes Aeryn's hand in his. "Now may we go about our business?"
Grayza smiles but taps her finger on the desk. Braca places his hand on the butt of his pulse pistol.
"You're so . . . entertaining," she purrs. "You may go, in a moment. But you won't leave the station until you tell us where you've hidden the dataset."
"Dataset?" Antin tilts his head in apparent confusion. It's all a game, like the ones they play on Bedi Prime, with the kessel shells and beans. What does Grayza know, what does Braca know, does Crichton really have it, and if he doesn't, where did Chiana leave it? Did Chiana really succeed in the first place? Did even Chiana know what it was?
Braca begins to draw his pistol, but stops at a minute shake of Grayza's head. She purses her lips and languidly scratches the side of her breast. Braca's eyes are fixed on Aeryn and Antin, but Aeryn can see the tension building in his jaw. She wonders if the rumors she heard about Grayza are true after all. Crichton may be in more danger than he suspects.
Grayza sighs, examines one of her nails. "Fine. You don't know where the stolen dataset is, or what it is, or that it's been stolen. I wish you luck convincing the Scorvians, Kalish, and Peacekeepers of that, when they arrive at your door. They are unlikely to be as patient as I am."
At "Peacekeepers," Braca twitches noticeably.
There is a long pause, during which the prisoners next door begin pounding on the walls. Grayza rolls her eyes. "Escort them out, Braca."
He should have known better. Once a wormhole-obsessed monomaniac, always a wormhole-obsessed monomaniac.
It's not the Ancients' data; that's clear from the start. This is a different notation system, an asymmetrical structure, based on premises Crichton isn't familiar with. It costs him some time, and credits worth a week of air on research through the station library, to identify the source. When he has his answer, he sits back astonished: the dataset was compiled by Nebari scientists.
Which is so counter to what he was expecting that it shocks him out of his research-induced fog. He looks around and sees that his room is a shambles. Papers are scattered over the table, he's still just wearing the shorts he went to bed in, and there's a bottle of some blue Luxan grain alcohol lying on its side on the floor.
He checks the pad: it's early evening, and he should have been at the bar an arn ago. "Lovely." His mouth is cottony and his mind fuzzy from loss of sleep, but the concepts are beginning to bounce around, as if he has a pinball game going in his brain.
Once upon a time an Ilanic scientist came to Moya, and he had a quantum singularity to study, and that caused a whole mess of problems. But the thing that matters now, the kernel of truth, is that the Scorvians were after that research project, and Chiana told a story about a Nebari experiment that destroyed an entire star system.
It's enough to make him run a long way, if there were anywhere to run: the Nebari have been working on the wormhole problem for a very long time.
Crichton's just scared himself out of thinking about this any more. It's late already, so he skips a shower and throws on clean clothes. Rygel is going to give him an earful, and justifiably. Crichton shoves the pad and the crystal into his pocket, and pulls the door to behind him. As the door to the room closes, something creaks, and yawns, and stretches, in the back of his mind.
Not just Rygel, John.
The office isn't really one. It's just a cubbyhole off the kitchen, supplied with a chair, a triangular table ever-piled with dirty cups and sheafs of flimsies, and a small viewscreen showing the geosynchronous view of Amnina from the station cameras. Right now it's cloudy on Amnina. Actually it's always cloudy on Amnina: the planet is a gas giant.
Crichton is supposed to be paying invoices and lining up a new fellip nectar supplier; the last one had bowed out, complaining about the tariffs the Nebari were demanding. Instead he's staring at the viewscreen, trying to remember the last time he felt the warmth of the sun on his skin. And determinedly ignoring Harvey.
When he was in graduate school he'd gone to San Francisco once for a conference, and a friend who lived in Berkeley had talked him into crossing the Bay for dinner. Neil had picked him up at the hotel after work, and they drove across the Bay Bridge just at sunset. The sun rested on the edge of the world, perfectly posed under the Golden Gate Bridge. Fog rose slowly from the water as the air cooled and the wind came in off the sea. Crichton remembers turning in the car, peering over his shoulder, watching the lights of the city, the clock tower on the Ferry Building all lit up, the sailboats and ferries crossing the dark water. The light on Alcatraz blinking on-offon while some NPR reporter with a deep voice talked about local politics.
Christ, he's so fucking homesick.
But you have a solution for that, Crichton. Just make a wormhole and take yourself home.
And now Harvey's back, the undying bastard. Harvey pined away after John destroyed the Farscape 1, and he'd really thought he'd seen the end of the guy. It was nice to have some quiet in his head for a few years, but he'll never admit that he felt a little lonely with only Rygel for company.
You saw what happened last time we played that game, Harvey. Just cause I got new data, doesn't mean I'll take those kinds of risks again.
"Not that way, you frellnik! If you use that scrubber you'll scratch the--" Rygel's voice, a constant in the kitchen at this hour, cuts out sharply. Crichton cocks his head, then looks down at the notes he's doodled on his pad.
When he speaks again, Rygel's voice is as sour as Crichton has heard it in the last few cycles. "Oh, it's you, is it? You can go, Rellin."
There's a long pause and rustle of cloth. "You're thinner." It's Aeryn.
Crichton can hear Sparky sneer when he answers. "That will happen when you're chased from system to system and end up on a dump like this. And before you ask, I haven't gone home to regain my throne because your war is in my way."
Another pause; Crichton would love to watch this but he expects that as soon as he moves the conversation will end. "Where are the others?"
There's a muffled crash: Rygel just dumped a load of dirty plates and cups into the sink. Fifty thousand light-years from home and they're still doing the dishes. "You care?"
Crichton can't help it; he grins at that tone in Aeryn's voice. She never did have much use for Sparky. Not enough patience, not enough humor, and some things just don't change.
"Fine. You heard about Chiana. That mad Luxan went home to fight. He was still alive about a cycle ago."
"What about Moya--"
"No," Rygel snarls. "You don't get that story from me, Peacekeeper."
The kitchen is silent. There's too much grief in the air now, and Crichton's smile slides away in the wake of that memory. He draws his hands over his face. Once upon a time there was a Leviathan . . .
"I need to see him, Rygel."
"And what about what we need? You're trouble. He's better off without you."
"Please." Silence, and water splashes while Aeryn, uncharacteristically, waits.
". . . Oh, fine. Go, through there. Damned body breeders--"
Crichton looks up to see her there in front of him. There's a sequence of grumpy bumps and crashes from the kitchen, and then the door mercifully closes behind Rygel.
She's changed into something more familiar, a close-fitting black jumpsuit covered with a grey robe. If he squints he can almost imagine she's the same woman he met nearly ten cycles ago, back before he had grey hair or learned how to kill. Back before everyone started dying.
"Yeah?" He waves at the other chair, which is really just a shabby crate. She ponders it a moment, and then sits gingerly.
"I know I don't have a right to ask."
Frell. He groans. "You want the dataset too."
She leans forward, props her elbows on her knees. "Do you want the Nebari to win, John? You're no safer here than anywhere else. They'll be here soon."
"Christ, Aeryn! How stupid do you think I am?" He stands and slaps his hand down on the desk. "You think you know about wormholes because you were there at Dam-Ba-Da. You don't know shit about these things."
She frowns, and he feels a twinge of remorse, reminding her of his twin's death. But it's gone, because she barely reacts to it. "I know they're powerful, I know they can--"
Fuck. "No, you don't get it." He shouldn't tell her, he really shouldn't-- she's with Velorek now, in more ways than one--but god he needs to tell someone. "Wormholes are more than just weapons, Aeryn. I can change the past with them."
She straightens up on the crate, a frown creasing her forehead. "What?"
"You heard me. I can make things not have happened. Make different things happen." He's tried for five cycles to forget everything he saw that day, hour, whatever--that interminable time, the horror of running from one reality to another, all wrong, all off, some so twisted he still wakes shuddering. And she wants to use this ability?
"And that's bad." She's trying to understand. She still trusts him enough to respect his judgment.
"Got it in one, baby. You don't want anyone using this. Remember the monastery? Multiply that a thousand times."
She blanches and nods, and thinks for a moment. Then cocks her head in confusion. "But. But it's--didn't Chiana steal it from the Establishment?"
"They never cracked it." He leans against the wall and nods at the pad on the tabletop, its screen silvered in sleep mode. "Nebari have on/off minds, very binary. Wormholes are quantum, non-causal. They can't make it work in their system." Thank heaven for small favors.
Her hair brushes her shoulders as she nods again. The look on her face is familiar but the mind behind is sharper, more informed. "Then what will you do?"
The forever question. "Hell, Aeryn, I don't know. I should probably destroy it, but--"
She drops her hand to her waistband, and Crichton remembers the tiny pistol. She's not gonna let him destroy it. There's a gun under the table, but there's no way he can reach it in time.
"Listen to me. You don't want this. It's not just bad for Nebari, it's bad for everyone!"
Talk about binary. She's nodding in agreement but her hand is still by her gun. Crichton thinks furiously. She's between him and the table, where the pad sits hopelessly exposed. He can't reach it before she shoots him, and there's no guarantee she wouldn't. The old Aeryn Sun never hesitated to hit him, and the new one has the lives of millions to justify anything she does. Nothing is impossible.
He meets her eyes, and they're huge, dark and open and so very sad. She's as trapped as he, not between inertia and memory, but between the past and her new duties, between compassion and necessity.
Her hand slips into her pocket. "John--"
And then all hell breaks loose.
IV. You Must Remember This
There's a howl of outrage, a flurry of pulse fire, and a burst of screams from the bar. Aeryn spins and leaps to the kitchen door. She feels Crichton come up on her right, and he puts his palm on the door to push it open, but she shakes her head and shoulders him aside.
Instead, she eases it ajar and peers out. It's darker in the bar but light enough to see the crowd by the entrance, and the customers huddled against the far wall.
"What is it?" Crichton hisses, unable to see because she's blocking the way. He's close behind her, his hand warm on her back.
"Nebari, looks like a full squad," she answers softly. "I see Braca too. They shot your bouncer."
"Aw, frell," he mutters. "Figured I had a little more time."
The door moves suddenly, and Aeryn jerks back as Rygel slips into the kitchen, his thronesled abandoned. "Why are you still here? They'll be here in microts, Crichton, you have to go!" The little dominar looks unfamiliar at knee-level, face serious, earbrows flat.
"Shit." Crichton looks stubborn, and curls his hand around the gun Aeryn didn't notice him drawing. "I can't let them shoot up the place, Sparky--"
"Rygel's right, Crichton. They wouldn't be here if it weren't for you--the best thing you can do is leave. Let's go." She grabs her robe off the chair and slings it about her shoulders.
"But--" He's skeptical, but stashes the pad in the lower left pocket in his jacket. Aeryn makes a note of that.
She doesn't know how long he might have stayed trapped in indecision, but there's a crash from the bar, and a short blue Delvian male careens through the doorway. Right behind the Delvian are three Nebari troopers.
Aeryn shoots the first Nebari before he finishes his sentence.
Crichton drops the second, his pistol roaring in the kitchen, and-- shockingly--Rygel kills the third, shooting from behind a cabinet with a tiny silver gun she'd never seen before. The Delvian cowers in the corner.
Breathing fast from the shock and supremely conscious of the shouts and footsteps in the next room, Aeryn grabs Crichton's shirt and heaves him at the back door. "Now will you run?"
And they do.
She has no idea where they're going, but John leads her surely down one narrow dim hallway after another. They take the second left and the third right, moving down a level, out of the retail district into something that looks more like warehouses and factories. The shouts behind them die away after a while, but Crichton keeps moving, approaching every crossing with care, keeping his hand near his gun.
"Where are we?" Aeryn whispers finally, when they have come to rest shoulder to shoulder in an narrow entryway behind some shipping crates. The alcove reeks of animal dung and rotting vegetables.
"Two levels down from the docks on the Lerg ring." Crichton is out of breath, and swipes a hand across his face, resting the back of his head against the wall. "Shit, that was close."
"You think?" she answers, and he snorts a laugh, eyes sliding sideways at her. She's unprepared for the way her heartrate speeds up.
After a moment his breathing steadies. "Hope Sparky's okay."
She thinks about it, forcing her mind away from the heat pervading the three denches that separate them, from the the way that sweat has darkened his hair. "He should be--they're after you. And maybe me."
"And he's pretty good at hiding." But Crichton keeps frowning. After another dozen microts, he straightens. "Let's go."
"Where?" She tucks her robe out of the way and steps out into the passageway alongside him. Within a few turnings they're in the flow of business traffic, passing hover carts full of supplies trundling this way and that, Sebaceans and Indari and Luxans running errands and making deals in the doorways of warehouses, day-laborers heading back to their narrow dwellings.
Aeryn keeps her robe in place, more to hide her weapon than for any other reason. Sebaceans are common here, and there's no reason for anyone to give her or Crichton more than a passing glance.
"Hey! There he is!"
She whips around to see a Nebari trooper on a walkway overhead, pointing at Crichton and yelling into his comms.
Aeryn fires at the trooper and he ducks for cover, but it's already too late; a squad of station security has spotted them and is pushing through the crowd. She can see the lead trooper speaking into his comms, and now the word will be all over the station where they are and what they're wearing.
Crichton yanks her through a door into a shop. He swears viciously in a monotone as they dodge between barrels and workstations, ignoring the shouts of the workers in the shop, and burst out through the back into a narrow hallway running towards station-center.
Pausing for a microt, Aeryn tears off her grey robe and stuffs it into a waste bin by the door. John's a dozen paces ahead of her, and pulling ahead, but not for long. She catches up just as they hit the next turning and pulse-fire begins to splatter and spark off the walls around them.
"We have to lose them!" she yells, as they peel around another corner, Crichton ricocheting off the wall.
"No shit, Sherlock!" he yells back. This corridor is shorter, wider, designed for industrial uses, and the equipment along the walls provides some cover. They duck behind a shipping crate and start shooting. Aeryn manages to hit two of their pursuers, which is enough to make the rest of the squad pull back around the corner.
"That won't keep them for long." She checks her cartridge: getting low. "And I'm running low."
Crichton pants heavily beside her. "I have an extra cartridge but it won't fit your weapon."
"Yes, I noticed yours is bigger."
She grins when he chokes, and then he sobers. "We need to move before they pin us down. Braca's got men all over the station."
They start moving down the hallway, covering each other. The troops behind them are still out of sight.
Crichton pauses. Aeryn fires at a grey helmet poked cautiously around the corner behind them. She waits for Crichton to move again, but instead he's staring hard the other direction, where the corridor intersects with a much broader one.
"What?" She fires three more times, trying to give them some time. Why isn't he moving? She's almost out of oil now.
"I think we're cut off. Coming to the docks was a stupidass idea. Sorry, babe."
"You sure?" She stays on one knee facing the way they'd come. There's nothing between their location and the corner where the troops are but several locked doorways and the shipping crate they're crouched behind.
"Yeah. I took a wrong turn--that's the main throughway ahead of us, and it's gotta be crawling with security. Fuck!"
"Break into a shop?" she suggests dubiously. She fires another precious shot.
He shakes his head, and then pauses. "Wait." He looks down the corridor, eyes focused on the plates of the ceiling, and counts. "One, two, three, four, five! Gotchya! Okay, we have a plan."
"Is it good?"
"Hell, no. But it's better than dying." With a nervous look both ways, he climbs on top of the crate and pokes his finger into a tiny depression in the ceiling. A narrow panel pulls back and slides sideways into the roof.
"Chi showed me this. C'mon, Aeryn!"
She can hear voices and shouting from around the corner. Reinforcements have arrived. "You go first, I'll cover."
Aeryn fires fast, splattering the corner with pulse fire, driving the troops back. On the sixth shot her pistol flares and sputters: she's out of oil.
"Right." He grips the edges of the hole with both hands and lets himself swing out, and then with a grunt and a twist reaches upward. Another grunt, and he pulls himself all the way up into the roof, his boots disappearing into the unknown. "Okay, now you." His voice is muffled.
More shouting, this time from behind them, from the main corridor. They're trapped. Aeryn shoves her now-useless gun into her belt and scrambles onto the crate. But she's too short to reach the entry.
"Aeryn, come on!"
The skin between her shoulder blades is crawling, and she jumps for it. The rim of the opening is sharp but good enough to hold her there, her feet swinging. She kicks instinctively and fumbles her left hand upward, right hand straining.
Crichton's hand meets hers in the darkness, and yanks her up through the entry.
He hits something with his foot and the panel closes. It's a narrow vertical space, without enough room to stretch her arms out in either direction and when she tries to stand, she cracks her head on something hard. Crichton is perched on a narrow lip above her, his feet propped against the walls; she's wedged between his legs, facing him in the darkness. If she could see, her eyes would be about level with his chest.
"How long do you think?" she asks softly, just to give herself something else to think of.
He shrugs, she thinks, from the way his legs move. Her hands are warm.
"Couple hundred microts." His voice is very low, and clipped. This was his idea, she thinks with a touch of resentment.
Crichton has had some stupid ideas in the past: it's his specialty, after all. But he really wishes he'd planned this whole thing better. Because getting trapped in a very tiny space with a very warm Aeryn Sun was a very bad idea.
Her hands are draped over his knees, which he never before considered one of his erogenous zones. He tries not to tighten his legs around her, just to feel her chest move as she breathes. They're too tightly interwoven in here for either of them to move at all without making any noise, and that's the one thing they can't do.
There's shouting below, muffled voices, and the tromp of boots on the hard corridor floors. He holds his breath instinctively, and can feel Aeryn stiffen. He chews his lip.
It was a lark when Chiana showed it to him, this series of access ports for the now-defunct robotic drones that used to maintain the station systems. Between the fifth and six light panel in each of the secondary corridors was a hatch, but he's never expected to use it before now. Life on Amnina Station isn't boring, but it's been a long time since he had to actually hide from anyone. He kind of liked that.
On the other hand, he has to admit he kind of likes the puff of Aeryn's breath against his shirt, the tingling in his skin where her hands rest. He'd rather the fun tingling sensation didn't move any further north, though.
Some things never change.
There's some more yelling below, and then the sound of boots moving away. They don't move, though. Just breathing quietly, waiting. Sebacean sweat is sweeter than Human, he's reminded, and saltier than Nebari.
He thinks about Chiana. And about Velorek. He wonders if Aeryn knew Velorek wasn't dead when she left Moya. If maybe that was why she left.
And then Aeryn says softly, so softly he can barely hear her, "John. What happened to Moya?"
Way to break the mood, babe.
He pulls in a breath, and then another. There isn't the tiniest bit of light in their cubbyhole, and it's going to be hell trying to find their way out without making a godawful amount of noise.
"We weren't far from Nebari territory when the war broke out." He keeps his voice as low as he can without whispering. He doesn't want to tell this story, but it's right that she hears it. He just wishes he wasn't the one to tell her.
"Me, D'Argo, Chiana, Rygel. We dropped Jool off a while before, and left grandma with her. We were trying to dodge some Scarrans who were after us."
It's so quiet he can hear her swallow. The pipe grinding into his back is freezing, he thinks it's part of the station life systems, but at least it keeps the temperature in here to a manageable level. Throwing Aeryn into a heat-induced coma wasn't in any of his plans.
"First we knew there was a war, we came out of starburst into a battlefield. Nebari had come and gone, and left a convoy of freighters gutted. We picked up the survivors, a couple dozen Sebaceans, and headed for the nearest commerce planet. I--we didn't get the scope of it, yet. Figured it was a one-time deal."
Aeryn shifts minutely, and rubs one hand in a circle on his knee. Crichton thinks it's probably unconscious. She's not cruel, just not all that insightful.
"So we're a day out from the commerce planet--"
He grinds his teeth. "Mena--no. Minadar Seven. Figured it was far enough from the Nebari border."
"But you were wrong?" Her hand has stilled now but somehow he can feel the tension in the way her fingers are gripping his legs.
"Shit, Aeryn, if you want to hear this, shut the frell up!"
She shuts up. But her hands stay where they are. He can hear her breathing.
"D'Argo got sick. We didn't know what it was." Aeryn stirs but says nothing. "So when we got there, we all went down. Took two pods, and I brought the module cause I was looking for parts. D was too sick to fly."
He's really trying not to remember that day, but it's no good. Arguing with the portmaster about their refugees, because these innocents don't belong on Moya, but needed to find refuge somewhere. The scene at the Diagnosan's, with Rygel trying to haggle them down and Chiana just desperate to get D'Argo some help for the hallucinations and the vomiting. Standing in the middle of the market at sunset, trying to figure out where the nearest mechanic was, when his comms came to life.
"So we were down on the planet, and Pilot commed me that there was a ship coming into the system. Something huge. I tried to tell him to run, that we'd meet up with them, but he decided to argue--"
The fire in the sky, burning across the world above the crappy little city, while the locals stared at the lightshow in amazement. Chiana crumpled in his arms boneless, tears streaking her face, Rygel shocked into silence. And then the screaming began, as the Nebari turned their weapons upon the planet.
"They shot up the whole place. Hundreds of people died. We lost one pod, hid the other and stayed in the mountains for weeks. Pilot--Pilot said goodbye. Said he was sorry."
Nebari host vessels can destroy a command carrier. A leviathan, no matter how brave, how loving, hasn't a chance.
"They're dead, then."
"Yeah." His mouth is dry, and he doesn't want to talk anymore.
He frees a hand from where he's been grasping the ledge next to his hip, and wipes his eyes. He feels her let go of his legs, but instead of moving back she moves her hands forward, patting her way carefully up his thighs to his hips, and then up around his back. She brings the rest of her body closer, until she's pressed awkwardly against him, her breasts squashed against his stomach, her arms tight around him.
John puts his hand on her head, smoothes the hair under his palm, and listens while she shudders against him, her breath catching and heaving. The skin of her neck is satin beneath his fingers in the silence and the darkness.
She pulls away finally, and it's cold where she was. He focuses on her voice, gravelly in the darkness. "We should probably go."
"Yeah. I don't think we should go back to your rooms, or mine."
Her body, still trapped between his legs, shifts rhythmically. "Then where?"
Their options are limited; Braca will have all the station security watching for him, and will probably be guarding the docks and their quarters as well. "Who on this station can we trust not to blow the whistle right away?"
There's a beat, and then a ghost of a laugh. "Frell, Crichton, you've got to be kidding."
"You got a better idea?" He shrugs, and realizes that his ass is entirely numb. It's going to be painful as hell to get out of here. "I've known Sparky for nearly ten cycles. He may bitch us out, but he won't turn us in."
"Fine. How do we get out of here?" She sounds dubious, but she wasn't with them that endless winter on Minadar, or the cycles since, when Rygel stuck with Crichton like a particularly foul-tempered leech. They're never gonna like each other, but Crichton trusts Rygel more than he does Aeryn at the moment. Soft hair and steely curves be damned.
As expected, it's harder to get out of their hiding place than it was to get in, and both of them are bruised and scraped by the time they quietly drop to the floor of the hallway. The station is on a twenty-arn cycle, and it's now late into station night. No pedestrians can be seen, nor any evidence of the troops who had been chasing them.
Crichton leads Aeryn on the most roundabout and irrational route he can conceive of, heading for the residential levels near the outer rim. Rygel hates low-gee, says it makes him bloated. That the housing here is also cheaper isn't something Rygel is willing to admit.
The former dominar of six hundred billion subjects lives at the end of a shabby dead-end hallway whose residents don't get regular trash collection. Crichton avoids a pile of something green and sticky as he stands to the right of Rygel's door, and raps softly. Aeryn is back at the corner, keeping watch for security.
Nothing. Crichton raps again, a little harder. "C'mon, Sparky, open up!"
Finally there's a grumble and the door jerks open. "Frell, it's you." Rygel is wearing a rich brocaded jacket that would almost be attractive were it not for the color, an unfortunate chartreuse. It clashes.
"We gotta go to ground, Rygel. Gimme a break." They both know Rygel will give him shelter, but the courtesies must be observed.
Sticking his head out the door and peering down the hall, Rygel grumbles once more, and then pulls back into the room. He leaves the door open, and Crichton waves Aeryn forward before moving inside.
No residences on Amnina Station are designed for Hynerians, so the room, thankfully, is large enough to stand upright in. That doesn't mean it's pleasant, or particularly clean. There's a definite reek of spoiled food, and Crichton suspects the pile of clothing in the corner has been there for at least half a cycle. On the opposite wall is an entryway leading to the bathroom. Rygel mumbles something in a resentful tone and disappears through that door.
"Hey, Sparky, you got any news for us? We've been kind of out of the loop." Crichton relocates some empty food containers and sits down on the table, which is low enough to serve as a bench for Sebaceans. He controls a smile as Aeryn steps cautiously around the room, touching nothing but examining everything. Who knew spies were so fastidious?
There's a splash from the other room, followed by Rygel's voice, echoing off the water. "Kind of you to ask after me. I was grossly manhandled by those thugs of Braca's, but they were only interested in you and Aeryn. They took all the files from the office, Crichton, and I hope that doesn't mean we lost our last copy of the contract with Dubeez. If we did, I expect you to cover the difference when he makes us renegotiate."
"Yeah, yeah. Sorry about the goons, Ryge. Not like I had any choice in the matter." That's a dig, but Aeryn merely raises an eyebrow. She's found what looks like a clean cup, and pours water for herself from a tap in the corner.
Aeryn drinks deeply, and says, "Did you find out why they moved on Crichton, Rygel? I met with Grayza this--no, yesterday morning--and she appeared frustrated but patient."
Something in the bathroom goes blurt. Crichton winces.
"Not directly, but"--and here Rygel peers around the corner of the doorway-- "I heard one of the Nebari say something about interrogating a spy."
Aeryn puts the cup down on the counter. "Antin." She turns, her gun in her hand already.
"Aeryn, no." Crichton gets between her and the door.
"Crichton, out of my way."
"Crichton's right, you stupid frellnik." There's a sequence of splashes and Rygel waddles out of the bathroom, wrapped in something iridescent green and dripping water on the sticky floor. "They're watching for you. He's bait, for you and for Crichton."
"I've rescued him before."
Crichton leans back against the door. "I just bet. But. Why go right up against Grayza if we can work around her somehow, huh?"
Rygel cocks his head, ever suspicious. "Crichton, what are you thinking of?"
"Shell games, baby. Shell games."
V. Here's Looking at You, Kid
The smell of the room has faded, or Aeryn has adjusted to it. There's a bubbling hum from the other side of the room, where Rygel is invisible beneath a rich pile of stained bedclothes. There are no other beds in this tiny apartment, but Rygel grudgingly loaned them a blanket.
Crichton refused to say any more until he had more information, and Rygel refused to go gather intelligence until after he'd slept. So they're staying, at least for a few arns. She wonders if they have started torturing Antin yet.
Crichton is asleep beside her, his head propped on his unlaced boots, curled slightly away from her under the blanket. The only light in the room trickles out of the bathroom, and does not illuminate anything so much as it outlines them. She can hear the hush hush hush of the air circulators, and the floor beneath her shivers minutely as the station turns and flexes, spinning in place above Amnina.
It was too easy to take the pad from Crichton in the confusion of leaving their hiding place in the roof. Aeryn wonders what Chiana would say about that, that the Peacekeeper had become much more like the thief in the cycles since she'd left Moya. But Chiana is dead now. And Chiana might not approve that Aeryn had stolen it from Crichton.
It's been three arns now, and she straightens, walks around the room, stretches. She'll give him another arn and then wake him up so she can sleep. She needs to be sharp for what comes next, needs to be able to outthink Grayza and Crichton. She can't lose Antin. The Resistance can't lose him.
It was never the right time to look for Moya, although a dozen times she nearly went anyway. But the war began, and Antin was injured, or the cell on Delvia was lost. There was always a reason not to go, and after some cycles there was no more word of the leviathan and her haphazard crew. Not even any stories about Crichton, the name that had cast such a long shadow in the cycles before the war.
Now, at least, she understands why. It doesn't make her feel less guilty. Zhaan never said anything directly to her, but who else would have been able to look after Moya and Pilot? Aeryn abandoned her post. It was the only thing she could do; looking at the curve of John's neck, she knows she was right to go. But she was also wrong, and only now, so many cycles later, has she learned the price for that decision.
She rests her weight against the wall next to Crichton and sinks down to a crouch. It's a position she can hold for arns on end, although John always grumbled about the damage she was doing to her knees.
She has a new duty now. She thinks Moya would understand, even if Crichton doesn't.
There's a cough, and Rygel rolls over and scrambles out of bed. He digs through the pile of clothing on the floor, selects something with a grunt of satisfaction, and shrugs into it. When he looks up, he meets her eyes in the semi-darkness, and even from across the room, she can see the way his earbrows dip.
Gathering the robe about him with a certain majesty, he stalks across to her, pausing to touch a panel on the wall that increases the lighting to an eerie blue luminescence. He holds himself erect and glares at her, eye-to-eye as they have so seldom been.
"You're no good for us. For him. You shouldn't be here, Peacekeeper."
Once, she would have sneered. She wonders if he recognizes that. "I haven't been a Peacekeeper for a long time."
He narrows his eyes and nods reluctantly. "So you say. You should still go." With that, Rygel turns and slips his tiny gun into the pocket of his robe. At the door he pauses, his small hand on the latch. "If I'm not back in three arns, Crichton knows where my cache is: hide there. Don't let him leave until I come back. He'll get himself shot--or worse." The worry in his voice doesn't extend to his face. And then he's gone, leaving her alone in the blue light.
She moves after a few hundred microts to the floor, and begins to stretch, leaning forward and sideways, holding the position and counting off her heartbeats in the quiet. Treblin side and then hammand, forward and back, flexing muscles, tendons, ligaments. Feeling the pull, anchoring herself to this moment. Preparing herself for action.
A voice distracts her. "Hey." Crichton is watching, his eyes heavy-lidded with sleep.
Aeryn nods, keeps her hand wrapped around her ankle, and rolls onto her back, curling her spine against the thin carpeting on the floor. She keeps her eyes on Crichton, though, and he cocks his head sideways, meeting her eyes as she turns.
"So did you really think I wasn't gonna notice that you swiped the pad?" His voice is soft, almost unconcerned. But there's no sleep in his eyes anymore; they're bright with malice. "Wouldn't do you much good, anyway."
He rolls over into a crouch and crosses the distance between them on his hands and knees, until he's right next to her. Aeryn says nothing, unsure, but aware of the vulnerability of her position, on her back with one knee next to her ear. Moving might be unwise.
Crichton is very close; she can feel his knee brush against her shoulder. He places a hand on the back of her leg, just above the ankle. The touch shocks through her, and she can't restrain a sudden intake of breath. From this angle his smile is unfamiliar.
"Why wouldn't it?" she asks, as he begins to run his hand up her leg, smoothing behind her knee. The jumpsuit she wears is sturdier than the clothes she wore yesterday, but still thinner than leathers are. His hand is very warm, and the air in the room is suddenly thin. She makes herself breathe evenly, deeply, her eyes on his.
"The only thing on the pad is notes. I kept the dataset secure." He curls his lower lip over his teeth, just a little, keeps smiling. His hand is halfway up her thigh, now, stilled. Aeryn can feel his wide palm, feel the fingers flex minutely, sending twitches up and down her nerves. His eyes flicker for a moment, and she wonders if the neural clone is still there. Which gives her the answer she needs.
"I'll give it to Scorpius, then."
And then she moves, whipping her leg down and pushing off her elbows to roll as fast as she can the other direction. It's enough to get her to her feet, but not enough to find a weapon before Crichton is upon her.
He's not slow, and he's not weak, but she has learned far more since she left Moya than she ever taught him then. He has a hand on her only for a microt, and she spins out of his hold, forcing him back with a flurry of blows and a kick to the side. It leaves Crichton breathless and angry, clutching his waist and scowling at her from a safe distance.
"The Aeryn I knew would never go to Scorpius."
"People change. Isn't that what you said?"
If the dataset isn't in the pad, he must have it on him. She steps sideways, a dench closer; he matches her, circling towards the door, weight balanced. He's recovered faster than she expected.
"You have no idea what you're dealing with, do you? Use it wrong, and none of us would ever be born!" He kicks aside a box of Rygel's trinkets, and the clatter echoes against the bare walls. "It's fucking terrifying!"
Coward, she thinks, although she knows it's false. "I saw the bodies on Bedi Prime, Crichton. And the refugees on Dam-Ba-Da. And I saw six command carriers crushed like marjoules." There are nights she cannot sleep for dreaming. "Frell your risks! Millions are dying now, and that data could save them. You think the Nebari would leave Earth alone?"
He shakes his head, resisting her. He won't see it. "Now you even sound like Scorpius."
She's conscious of time passing too swiftly, of Antin in Grayza's hands, of the rumors of Nebari movement in the sector.
"Scorpius wasn't always wrong." And she leaps forward to grapple with him, John's body straining close to hers.
This time he breaks her hold, gains some distance a body-length away. She'll wear him down: he can't hold her off forever, but she needs him willing, needs his knowledge.
She rushes him again, and he lurches sideways, slipping on one of Rygel's silken robes. Aeryn shifts to counter, and realizes too late it's a feint. He comes up with a bowl in his hand, flinging it into her face.
She knocks the bowl aside, but the contents are liquid, something green and sweet. It's in her eyes, on her face, and before she can clear her vision she feels his hands on her. He bears her backwards, until she slams up against the wall so hard the room swims about her.
For the moment, she's trapped. She blinks the liquid out of her eyes to see John, his mouth flat, eyes narrow. His hands grasp her upper arms tightly, his weight anchoring her to the wall.
"You can't. You can't give it to Scorpius."
She swallows, and looks at his face, the face that sometimes, even now, she dreams of. This is John, and she realizes she will have nothing of him that he does not give freely. But people are dying out there, dying every moment she delays here, and the dataset is the only thing in six cycles that's given them even a whisper of hope. When she speaks, her voice is harsh, broken.
"Then give me another option."
A microt, breathless, the very air unmoving, the room silent. And then:
His mouth crushes hers, his hands are in her hair, his body pressing hers against the wall, and she fights to touch everything she can of him, clawing at his back and nipping at his lips. They're dueling for dominance, competing even in this. He grinds himself into her against the wall, as she cants her hips and pushes back.
It's not the sweet passion she remembers from Talyn, not the delicate fumbling from the false Earth so long ago: it's rage, it's famished hunger, it's a fall from a high place with no ropes, two bodies tumbling through open air.
She was not celibate, and she was not unhappy, in those cycles apart. Antin is an experienced and considerate lover. But his hands are not as warm on her breasts, he doesn't make her moan with the pressure of his knee between her thighs; her skin does not threaten to ignite like this.
John's shirt is off now, her jumpsuit undone to the waist, and she snarls while she fumbles with his pants. He laughs into her collarbone and shifts away long enough to lose them, and then returns, warm hands--oh, so warm-- discarding her jumpsuit while his mouth trails down from her jaw line to her nipples. His hands are calloused, rough on her skin, moving fast, not caressing: she grabs a fistful of hair and brings his mouth back to hers. Warm, wet, rich mouth, the taste she didn't know she remembered.
There's no time for the bed, or even the blanket on the floor. She's never been so hungry, never needed like this. She puts her hands on his shoulders, and without a word John hikes her up, bracing her against the wall. She wraps her legs around his hips, shifts her weight, and down--he's in. It's smooth and hard and risky as a prowler run in Nebari territory.
It's too fast, it's too hard, too strong: the control is slipping from them. She closes her eyes, throws her head back, pushing and grasping at him, but he's there, his scent, his gasping breath, the sound of him grunting and she's grunting too, rocking in rhythm, pushing him harder, pulling him in. An endless moment in midair, spinning and falling, tangled together as the air rushes by. Until her eyes fly open again--it's too much--and she jerks, strains, convulses about him, banging her head against the wall in her climax. Within microts he follows her, with a strangled cry and a final thrust that ends with an unexpected stagger sideways.
"Shit!" John braces them both against the wall, gasping. After a moment, he lifts his head and peers at her with a rueful smile. "You okay?"
For the microt it's gone: all the distrust, the despair, the misery she saw in his eyes when she walked into the bar. It's just John. Aeryn runs her hand up his sweat-slicked neck, fingers the damp hair at the back of his head. And smiles. "Yeah. But you can let me down now."
Aeryn looks dubiously at the offering. "What is it?"
"Dunno, but it's better than food cubes," John replies, and smears some more of the paste onto a cracker. "If not much."
There are a dozen tiny weapons parts laid out on the cloth Aeryn found in Rygel's cabinet. John wonders if it's bed linens, or something more personal, and then stops. There are things about Rygel's domestic arrangements he can go to his grave happily ignorant of.
They moved at station morning, per Rygel's directions. His cache is a small store room two levels up from his residence. But he still isn't back, and John is beginning to worry. He needs Rygel's information, but he also hopes the little slug didn't get himself into any trouble. He's lost enough old friends.
Aeryn takes a bite of a cracker, raises an eyebrow, but finishes it and reaches for another. John can't remember how long it's been since he ate. Yesterday morning, maybe. And in between there was the shooting and the running and the sex. Which it is probably a good idea not to think about too closely.
Chiana is still dead. The Nebari are still everywhere, and Grayza won't stop until she has the dataset. He's got to come up with a plan.
He's starving, and the crackers aren't doing the job. John wanders over to one of the cabinets and starts rummaging again. "Nope, nope, nope, god that looks disgusting, nope, nope--hah!" He pulls out a small box carefully sealed with import tape. "Sparky's been holding out on me!"
"Hmm?" Aeryn looks up from where she's disassembling her gun.
"Grolak!" He waves the small package triumphantly. "This must have cost him a mint. Hope it's not stale."
They share the grolak, Aeryn careful not to drop any crumbs on her weapon. John studies her as she eats, the way she keeps one hand free, the way her eyes don't linger in one place for very long. When her glance crosses his, he reaches out and touches the notch in her collarbone. There's a scar there, a white line two inches long.
"What's this from?"
She swallows, licks the crumbs from her lips. "A Trenfi who tried to sell us to the Nebari on Dam-Ba-Da."
He nods, takes a drink of water. He's digging in the box for the last piece of grolak when he feels her hand on his face. She traces his jaw line with the back of her fingers, and ends by catching his earlobe between her forefinger and thumb. The cool touch sends an array of signals down his spine he decides to ignore.
"Where'd you get this?" She fingers the notch for a moment before letting her hand drop away.
He catches her hand before she pulls it back, and holds it in his, interlacing his fingers with hers. "You're gonna laugh."
She raises a brow. She's pulled her hair back to work on the pistol, and she looks exactly the same as she did so many years ago. It's unsettling. It's reassuring.
"Chiana did it."
That does shock a laugh out of her, and then she sobers, turning her hand to rub her thumb against his palm. "I'm sorry, John."
"I know." He'll let himself think about it soon. He's hiding from the realization that this time Pip's not coming back. She's dead, and he said goodbye, but it's going to take time for it to be real. So many people have come and gone and come back; it feels like she's just away on another one of her trips.
"Hey." Aeryn squeezes his hand, and he looks up. She is intent on him. "I'm not sorry I'm here."
"Be careful what you wish for," he says ruefully. "It's not over yet."
"I know," she says, and drops his hand. Then adds, with her eyes fixed on the gun she's cleaning, "But I wanted to make sure I told you."
This he didn't expect, and he sits there for a moment, realizing that this is not the Aeryn who left, before picking up the empty grolak package to throw away.
"Tell me about Velorek." It's easier than he expected, to ask.
She looks up at him in surprise. Then frowns a little. "What did you want to know?"
"How'd you find him? Is he--I dunno. Is he a good guy?"
"I heard a rumor, and followed it. It was a long time ago. After I left Moya."
John waits, and watches while she fiddles with the parts in front of her. She's nervous, he realizes. "Aeryn?"
She looks up, finally, and her eyes are large, her face drawn with worry. "He is a good man, John. He's my leader, and my partner. I would die to protect him."
After a long moment, Aeryn turns back to her work.
Time to change the subject.
"So," he says. "That leather-freak bastard is still alive?"
"Scorpius?" The parts slip together smoothly, and she holds it up to sight down the barrel. "Yes. He had some trouble after we blew up his command carrier, but managed to work himself back into power by the time the war started. We've had some dealings with him occasionally." She meets his eyes, then, perfectly composed. She isn't about to apologize for anything she's done, John can tell.
He swallows what he was about to say. "Bastard's got more than nine lives. But how did Grayza end up with the Nebari?"
She starts to answer, but then the door slams open and they both spin to face it, guns in their hands.
VI. Anything Can Happen
It's just Rygel. Aeryn pulls him in and checks outside carefully before closing the door and latching it. Rygel brushes himself down and snatches up the now-empty box of grolak.
"Whatchya got for us, Sparky?" Crichton drops back onto the floor, while Rygel shakes the last crumbs of grolak out into his hand.
Rygel gives him an evil stare and scarfs the crumbs down before answering. "It's a frelling mess out there. Rumors are flying, Braca's goons are searching the whole station for you two, and everyone's convinced the Nebari are going to oust station management."
"Any of that true?" Aeryn asks from where she leans against the wall.
The purple silk slithers to the floor and John looks away as Rygel finds something else to wear in one of the cabinets. "Yes, no, maybe? But one of my other sources, someone reasonably reliable, says the Nebari broke through the line at Bendini Secundus. If it's true, they'll be here within fifteen days."
Shit. Eleven thousand people on this station, and nowhere near enough time to get them off. Crichton frowns. "Who told you?"
"Bex' sister, you remember her." Short girl, knew too much, loved to play games with information systems. John suspects she fed intel to Chiana but tried not to know. They were all safer that way.
"We can't stay here," says Aeryn flatly. "I need to meet my contacts, get Antin out, set up a cell before the Nebari arrive."
"What, your famous resistance can't fight off the Nebari and save us all?" Rygel's tone is sour, but it doesn't mean John disagrees. The resistance has done precious little of any value so far.
Aeryn shrugs. "We're no match for them in open battle. Not without--" And she breaks off, catching Crichton's eye.
Something yet to be resolved. Something they'd dodged dealing with. But there was no time. They have to move now, and Crichton can't make any decisions about the dataset until he has time to study it. Right now they need to get Velorek and Aeryn out of here, and keep Grayza and the Nebari away from the dataset. Fine.
"Okay, I got an idea. Rygel, you got a filtered comm here?"
"Of course!" Any other possibility is unthinkable.
Crichton nods. "I need to make some calls."
They argue, of course. When have they not? Aeryn thinks it's guaranteed to go pear-shaped. Rygel agrees, until Crichton offers to sell Rygel his half of the bar, and then suddenly Aeryn is outvoted. In the end, she agrees, but she stands against the far wall, her arms folded in disdain, when Crichton places the call.
The system clicks, snaps, and mutters as the call finds its way from one node to another, hiding its origin in the maze of comm signals inhabiting the station. If Rygel's wrong, if it's obsolete, if the Nebari have new systems- -then they're dead. If Braca knows about Rygel's little hideout here, they're dead. If Crichton can't sound convincing as hell on this call, then they're dead.
"Yes?" A bored young face answers, a Sebacean hybrid, his shock of white hair tipped in purple.
Crichton puts on an ingratiating smile. He's got the comm arranged so the only thing behind him is a blank wall, and the other two are out of sight. "Tell your Administrator Grayza that John Crichton needs to speak with her. I want to cut a deal."
The youth blinks at him lazily, then the screen silvers--he's on hold. "How long?" Crichton hisses.
"Two hundred microts, give or take," replies Rygel from where he sits hunched at the other end of the room. He's got as much to lose as any of them now, and he knows it.
Crichton grinds his teeth as the microts slip by. The line can only be masked for so long, and then the security systems will crack it. The question is how fast he can make this call before the system betrays them.
Forty microts later, the screen comes back to life. It's Grayza, her hair gelled flat, wrapped in something dark.
"Crichton. I understand you want to make me an offer." She arches a brow, positively predatory. He wonders if she files her teeth for fun.
"Yeah." He fishes the data crystal out of his pocket. He doesn't look at Aeryn--can't risk Grayza realizing he's not alone--and holds it up for her to see. "I understand you want this."
She blinks once. Crichton doesn't dare hold his breath. It's the only bait he has, and if she doesn't bite none of them will get off this station alive.
"Why shouldn't I just take it from you? We'll find you eventually." She's going to bite.
He shrugs, shoves the crystal back into his pocket. "It's encrypted, and I only need ten microts to destroy the data. You want to risk that?" Play it cool, like she's got nothing he needs.
Grayza purses her lips and nods sharply. "Very well. What do you want in exchange?"
"Not much. Get Braca off my ass. Re-open my bar." Now for the big leap, and pray she buys it. "Get the damned Resistance out of here."
"Really. I would have thought you were friendly to the Resistance." Her eyes are the strangest color: a weird blue-purple he's never seen on a Sebacean before. Or a Nebari, for that matter. Right now they're a little dilated, and he wonders if maybe she's stoned.
Or, well, Nebari. Could be mind-cleansing. Certainly she's been far more agreeable than he expected.
"I don't get involved in politics. And they're causing trouble, losing me money. Wasn't for them my bar would still be open." He puts resentment and greed into it, the kind of disdain Rygel exhibits at negotiations with vendors.
It seems to work. But-- "I'll need an assurance of your goodwill." She smiles, then. "I have one of the Resistance spies. You bring me the other, and I'll not only re-open your bar, I'll make sure you have the exclusive Nebari contract. You won't ever close."
Rygel waves at him frantically; it's too close, they'll lose the secure window. Crichton smiles back at Grayza, not too warmly. She wouldn't expect it. "I think I can manage that. I'll contact you in two arns with the location for the exchange."
He reaches for the comm to disconnect, but Grayza forestalls him, no longer smiling. "Don't think you can deceive me, Crichton. The Establishment cannot be tricked."
"Wouldn't dream of it, Administrator."
And with that he's off, twelve microts to go before the security goes out. He feels the sweat trickling down his neck. This is going to get messy.
Starting right away. Aeryn pulls herself away from the wall and stalks over to him. She glares down, arms still folded, one hand tapping restlessly against her upper arm. "This is a deeply stupid plan."
John shrugs. "Not stupid, simple. We get her to meet us with Velorek, we jump her and run, using her for a hostage. If the Nebari are really coming, there's no way anyone would risk killing her to try to catch us."
"By 'we' you'd better not be including me, Crichton." Rygel looks as though he's about to change his mind, but it's too late to back out now.
"You're fine, Sparky. Aeryn and I can handle it." He hopes. This will be harder to deal with than a single Scorvian in an orchard. He'd give a lot to have D'Argo around.
Aeryn shakes her head decisively. "It won't work. We don't have enough weapons." She turns and goes digging through a pile of Rygel's linens on the shelf. "I'll have to get us more."
"What? Aeryn, you can't go out there--" John grabs at the length of orange cloth she's shaken out, but she twists away and begins to fold it about herself with the same precision she'd used to clean her gun earlier.
Within moments she's bundled, only her eyes visible, and they dip modestly away from him. "I have to. I have contacts here, and they can get me guns. No one will notice a farm girl from Bendini."
"A farm girl? Jesus, Aeryn, no, this is crazy--" But he can't stop her, except by force, and they've had enough of that.
She stops before the door and leans close to him, the musk from the robe scenting her breath. The only thing he can see is her eyes, dark and thoughtful. "This is what I do, John. I'll be careful. Stay here." And she's gone.
She's going to betray you, John. Harvey uncurls and stretches like a sleepy child. His footy pajamas have little sailboats on them, surfing wormholes. John wants to swat at him, but Rygel's in the room, and he's lost the knack of hiding his responses.
Instead he ignores Harvey and sits back down at the table, unfolding the pad so he can take some more notes. The dataset unfurls before him, columns of equations and images of modeling results falling into neat array in the air above the table. Within moments he's lost in it, vaguely aware of Harvey pouting in the corner. He'd forgotten the joy of this, of following the data deep into himself, and out of himself into the universe. It's huge, it's beautiful, it's a roller-coaster of the mind, and he'll ride it until it throws him off.
The two voices, one inside, and one outside, speak simultaneously. Crichton shakes himself, and looks up to meet Rygel's worried gaze. Harvey's hunched on a rocking horse, glaring at him. "Yeah, Ryge?"
"This is a bad idea."
"What?" Rygel had supported it. Possibly more out of greed than anything else: he'd wanted to get his hands on the bar ever since Crichton bought it. So why the change in heart?
Rygel shuffles uncertainly. "I don't trust her."
"Hell, no. I don't trust anyone within half a metra of the woman. We'll be careful."
"I don't mean Grayza."
Crichton puts down the stylus. "You're serious."
"She's a spy, Crichton! She's in this to rescue her lover and get that dataset. She's been gone for twice as long as we knew her; how do you know she isn't working for Scorpius now? Or the Nebari?"
"Oh, for frell's sake, Rygel--this is Aeryn!" He pushes back from the table and stands up. His back is stiff from bending over the low table, and he stretches carefully, still sore from last night's acrobatics.
His earbrows lowered, Rygel nods in agreement. "And she's exactly the same as she was when she left? Just like you are? And me?"
Caught, Crichton meets his eyes for a moment and then glances away. Harvey nods madly in agreement with Rygel, and for an unstable moment Crichton wonders if they're in cahoots. "Doesn't matter. She won't betray--us. She hasn't changed that much."
Sure she has! hisses Harvey, rocking harder.
Rygel groans and rolls his eyes in frustration. "Body-breeders! Crichton, she's got you by the mivonks and she'll cut them off to get herself away if she has to. Oh, please," he adds, at Crichton's start. "You think I wouldn't notice? You both reek."
"I don't want to hear it, Rygel." Crichton checks the oil on his pistol. Still dangerously low. And it's getting late; they have to finish making the arrangements.
"Fine. But don't expect me to pay for the funerary arrangements. You've bankrupted me as it is."
Crichton chokes back a laugh. Rygel paid far less than Crichton's half of the bar was worth, but it's not as though he has time to find another buyer. And at least Rygel knows the people and won't lay off the staff before Crichton's out the door. He needs the cash, Sparky wants the bar: it's a fair trade.
Still . . . "Ryge, you sure you want to stay? If the Nebari are really coming?"
And when exactly did he decide he was going with Aeryn? Probably about the time she wept for Moya, clutching him in the dark. Whenever it was, he knows he can't stay here anymore, knowing she's out there now. Knowing there's something he can be doing.
Rygel pulls his head out of the cabinet, a stray leaf of something dangling from his lip. "I'll be fine. Even the Nebari need to drink, and I know how to keep the place profitable. It'll be a relief not to have you underfoot, eroding my authority."
John chews his lower lip for a moment, and finally nods, ignoring the fear in Rygel's voice. Crichton can't make him leave, and there's no guarantee any of them will be safer away than on Amnina Station. Now he just needs to find the rest of them a way out without getting anyone else killed in the process.
He checks the time, realizes it's time to make some more calls. Finishes with one last message to Grayza, this one sent text-only. *Second arn, outer ring docks, sector lerg-42. No guards."
Now they wait.
The bag throws off her balance as she moves through the corridors of the station. Orange is not good camouflage now, with the empty passageways and the grey-green metallic walls. But it's safer than the alternative, so she watches her trail and takes a roundabout route to their tiny cubbyhole.
No one follows her.
Crichton is hunched over the pad on the floor, muttering to himself as she comes in. Rygel closes the door behind her with a meaningful look she can't be bothered to decipher.
"I got the weapons," Aeryn says as she slings the bag down, scattering the flimsies Crichton has surrounded himself with. The bag lands with a satisfying clunk, and Crichton jerks up, startled.
"Oh, you're back." He rubs his eyes, clearly bleary with lack of sleep, and then closes up the pad, stuffing the flimsies into his jacket. He peers over into the bag as she opens it. "That enough, you think?"
The bag is full of weapons: four pulse pistols, sixteen oil cartridges, a disassembled rifle, and a set of sonic grenades mounted on a bandolier. "We'll die before we run out," she shrugs, and he groans a laugh.
"Right. We got about an arn, we should get moving." Something in Crichton's back creaks as he levers himself off the ground, but he shakes his head at her offered hand. "Need to stretch out, I'll be okay."
The small room is dank with mildew and the smell of sweat. Rygel watches silently, arms crossed, earbrows down, as Aeryn strips off the orange robe. The pulse rifle is rapidly stripped, assembled, and loaded; she slings it across her chest over the grenades, and hides everything under the orange cloth, carefully draped. If nobody looks too closely, she may get away with it.
Crichton takes two guns, but doesn't have holsters for both, so shoves the second in the back of his pants. His empty pistol he leaves on the floor without a glance. Aeryn watches as he secures the pad inside his jacket.
"So," he says, loading his pockets with cartridges. "Where'd you get all this?"
Aeryn shakes her head. "Everything else in place?"
"Yeah, I got us three slots on an outbound freighter leaving in four arns. But Aeryn, I mean it--" and he catches her arm. "Who gave you all this?"
"She's a spy, Crichton. Why even ask?"
Aeryn doesn't shrug off Crichton's hand. "Just a contact who I have no reason to believe supports the Nebari."
"Yeah, but who?"
She remembers once hitting him with a pantak jab in order to win an argument. It wouldn't work now. She swivels, and his hand falls away, but instead of turning to the door, she steps closer to him. He looks tired but alert, face set with purpose. They are poorly armed, tired, grossly outnumbered if Grayza reneges on the deal. In all likelihood she will never see Antin again.
"Why are you doing this, John? Helping us?" She doesn't touch him, it's too important for that, but stands close, smelling the stale sweat, seeing the oil smudges on his jacket. The grey scattered through his hair, the way his eyelids twitch at her proximity, and his nostrils flare.
He lifts a hand toward her face, hesitates, and touches her tentatively on the shoulder. His fingers curl gently over her skin, move in a tiny circle on the point of her shoulder. But his voice is guarded, his face closed. "Better than dying. Better than watching you die."
"Right," she replies, and steps back. Her breath is ragged, and she steadies herself before speaking again. "Then stop asking me who my contact is. I can't tell you."
They pause. The gear is loaded. Aeryn has no luggage, no belongings other than her weapons and the filthy clothes she wears. His face solemn, his stride awkward and yet grave, Rygel crosses the room to face her. Aeryn drops to her haunches to meet his eyes. She's not convinced he'll survive on Amnina Station by himself, but he cannot be forced, and she cannot take a Hynerian into her cell, especially not one as memorable and inflexible as Rygel XVI.
"I don't trust you, Peacekeeper," he says, with a hint of the old bite in his voice.
She nods. There is nothing she can say at this arn that will convince Rygel. He will not betray them, and that's all that matters.
"But--" he adds, after a pause. "Prove me wrong." And he bobs his head to her, one exile to another.
"Ryge--" says Crichton from behind her, and puts a hand under her arm to pull her up. She allows it, although she knows he's as tired as she is. "I'll be in touch. Don't do anything stupid."
"Stupid! Why, you crack-brained mammals, thinking that I'd be the one to--" It's all by rote, but the sound of Rygel's ranting is a comfort until the door closes behind them, and they are on their way.
Crichton walks along beside her, stride loose, right hand not far from the pistol on his thigh. Aeryn doesn't remember the last time she slept for more than an arn at a stretch. They ate what little food they had, and drank the stale water Rygel had cached in the storeroom, but she feels off-balance, unprepared. She wants to be reassured that it's Crichton beside her, wants to believe things are between them as they were so long ago; but it's a lie, and she knows it. They're not the same: he has changed, and she has changed more. It shouldn't make a difference if it comes to a fight, but she fears it will.
She has one last move to make, one last feint. And then it may be over. One way or the other.
VII. A Wow Finish
Time has become fluid and meaningless, flowing past and stuttering to a halt at certain moments; Aeryn has only a vague comprehension that it must still be station night, for the passageways are empty and poorly-lit.
As they walk, moving silently, staying out of residential districts, Aeryn looks about her at this place that Crichton has made his home. It's no leviathan: there is nothing warm in the station manufacturing, no curved organic lines or soft gradations marking transitions. Hard, sensible corners, black, grey, green surfaces. It's a lot like what she remembers from the false Earth; and that might explain, if anything can, why he has stayed here so long.
The outer docks were once, she expects, full of activity. Amnina Station is close enough to the main shipping lines that it was a major port of call. But the Long Dark presses hard upon it from the rear, and the war makes shipping hazardous. There have been no great freight haulers discharging cloth, grains, or fuel onto these echoing docks for cycles now.
The vast reaches of the docks stretch out before them, lines and ductwork hanging loose from the ceilings high overhead, gantries and hovercarts dusty with disuse. The doors between docks are almost as large as the airlock doors on Moya.
They slip along the inner wall of Dock 43, watching for soldiers, guards, any evidence that Grayza set a trap. But they find nothing but a nest of vermin that skitter away as they approach, hooting softly. Crichton jerks, but keeps his hand away from his gun. "I hate those things," he mutters.
They fetch up against the bulkhead separating Dock 43 from 42. The doorway is open, but from here they can neither see nor hear anything from the next dock. Aeryn can see no evidence that anyone passed this way recently, but there are other means to access Dock 42. Anyone could be waiting for them on the other side of the door.
"Time?" she asks quietly.
"Just about," Crichton replies, but stays where he is, leaning against the bulkhead wall, looking out at the echoing dusk that is Dock 43. His fingers drum on the butt of his pistol, and his left hand clenches rhythmically on his belt.
"Aeryn," he says after a moment, "you know we've got a snowball's chance of making this work, right?"
She leans against the bulkhead next to him, her shoulder hard against his. "I know."
"Why do I let you talk me into this shit?"
"I talked you?"
"Hell, yeah. Wasn't for you I'd still be a well-behaved businessman, selling diluted raslak to the refugees and letting Braca cheat at the tables. I'm a member of the Chamber of frelling Commerce! Well, I would be, if there was one. What was I thinking!"
Aeryn can't contain a smile. "You were bored."
She's so tired, and the bulkhead is so supportive, and just for a moment Aeryn lets her head rest against John's shoulder. Velorek is thinner than John, and--she admits--while they may be lovers, this isn't the sort of thing they do. She turns her head, shifts closer, and he moves enough to put his arm around her. He keeps his gun arm free, as she knew he would.
Mere microts from battle, the enemy only as far from them as the width of this bulkhead, and she wants nothing more than to take this man into a corner and curl around him until neither of them knows where one skin begins and the other ends. Instead she wraps her arms around his waist, pressing as close as the weaponry dangling from her shoulders will admit.
His breath whispers in her hair, his pulse beats against her lips, and his hand traces random patterns up and down her spine. She's past the point of shame: no Peacekeeper would allow herself such weakness just before a battle. What she wants--well.
She pulls away just as he says, "Babe, it's time."
"I know." The orange robe has slipped, and she tucks it up, but keeps it loose enough to lose when the moment comes. When she is finished, she meets his eyes.
"Aeryn." John raises a hand, like he did earlier, but this time he cups her cheek with his palm, traces under her jaw, and ends with his hand resting easily on the juncture of neck and shoulder. "We okay?"
He looks friendless and alone, standing here with her, at her demand, to save her lover, her comrade. But she knows better than to think he is here only for her: John's never that simple. And John has never been friendless, she reminds herself, thinking of Chiana, and of Rygel. Prove me wrong.
She puts a hand on his chest, fingering the soft grey cloth of his shirt within the opening of his jacket. "I think. I think we could be."
In response she wins a slow but brilliant smile. "Guess that'll have to do." He straightens, shrugs his shoulders, cracks his neck from side to side. "Okay, let's do this."
They approach the airlock door cautiously. Just before they reach it, Aeryn hisses in frustration and stops. John cocks his head, and then nods when Aeryn positions her hands awkwardly in front of her, as if bound. It would be more likely to have her arms pinioned behind her back, but this way she might be able to hide her weapons for a few microts longer. Enough, maybe, to get the edge they need.
John moves around behind her and nods forward with his head. Sensible, that the hostage would go through the doorway first, but her mouth goes dry as Aeryn steps openly into the doorway.
Dock 42 looks just like Dock 43; equipment abandoned here and there, a pile of empty shipping cartons off to the right, a decrepit hovercart stalled forever in place further down. Between the crates and the hovercart, standing openly in the dim blue light in the middle of the dock, are two people.
There's a jab in the small of her back, and Aeryn moves forward, keeping her face still. Pacing forward, allowing her anger to build, and her hope. There's a chance Grayza will believe the story. A chance Antin won't give them away. A chance--
"Stop there." Grayza, a slim figure in a close-fitting grey coat, waves a pistol at her. They are about three body-lengths apart.
Next to Grayza, swaying almost imperceptibly, is Antin. He is dressed in dull green laborers' clothes, and his hands are bound behind him. His eyes are unfocused, but for a moment Aeryn thinks she sees him tense with recognition. Then he fades again. She is not sure whether he will be able to help in his own rescue, and realizes that there's no chance of it when she recognizes the collar around his neck.
Antin will be lucky to come out of this encounter with his life, much less help his own escape.
Aeryn takes one last step and stops, keeping her face grim, her mouth set. Crichton comes up beside her, gun in hand. The four of them appear to be alone but for the abandoned equipment.
"You told me not to trust him," she hisses at Antin, hoping he's aware enough to follow her cues.
Antin blinks slowly, peers at her, and then turns his head to look at Crichton. "You--you bastard--" but then stops at a desultory wave from Grayza.
"So," she says. "Do you have the dataset?"
Crichton nods, and keeps the gun on Grayza while he digs in his pocket with his other hand. When he holds up the crystal it sparkles green and silver, verifying its origin. Then he closes the crystal in his hand.
Aeryn shifts her weight minutely, flexes her fingers. Grayza appears to be alone, but there are places in the girders, or behind some of the equipment, where soldiers could be hidden.
"So you're gonna take care of this for me, right? I want proof from you--a written order from the Establishment. That's the deal."
Now, Crichton, Aeryn urges.
"That was the deal." Grayza, smiles triumphantly. "But the deal has changed."
A Nebari trooper steps out from a warehouse doorway, rifle trained on Crichton. Another appears from behind a packing crate, and another shows his head above the stalled hovercart behind Grayza. Aeryn wouldn't be surprised if there are more.
"The fuck!" Crichton takes a step sideways, camouflaged as a step back, moving Aeryn out of his line of fire. "We had a deal! The dataset for my bar!"
Grayza hasn't stopped smiling, and keeps her gun trained on Crichton. "Did you really think I didn't know its contents? That I would take back a dataset we already have, and leave behind the one man who can interpret it?"
Frell. It's the same problem as always. Crichton and his wormholes.
"The Establishment knows you're the expert on wormholes. You're coming with me to Nebari Prime, where you will put your skills to work for the good of the Establishment, in the interests of peace. You should be--"
Aeryn doesn't need to hear why Crichton should be honored. She spins, pulling the rifle up as she turns, and shoots through the robe, dropping the soldier to their left. Crichton dodges as Grayza fires, and shoots back wildly. He throws up enough fire to cover Aeryn as she shoots another of Grayza's men.
But they're in the open, unprotected and outnumbered, and another two soldiers come running through the warehouse doorway. Crichton and Aeryn dive for cover behind the nearest pile of shipping crates.
Maybe, with luck, they can pick off Grayza's support. But Grayza hides behind the hovercart, leaving Antin out in the middle of the floor. As Aeryn watches, Antin spasms and collapses. "Bitch used the collar," Crichton snarls.
Aeryn nods, shoots twice more, and pulls out one of the grenades. She keys the grenade and lobs it overhand. It hits the ground on the far side of the hovercart and explodes. Someone howls, and she smiles grimly.
They're still pinned down, and there's no reaching the doorway they came in through. Crichton chews distractedly on his lower lip. "Shit, shit, shit. All she has to do is call Mike for the cavalry, and we're toast."
"Braca?" Aeryn raises a brow, takes a quick look around the side of the crate to see if they're being outflanked, and pulls her head back in as a pulse blast splatters against the ground. "That would be . . . interesting." She's spotted two more of Grayza's men, which brings the total up to six.
Crichton fires six times over the top of the crate, completely at random. "Why's that?"
Before she has a chance to answer, there's a new sound. Lots of sounds. Loud footprints, shouted orders, and the deep pounding blast of a pulse cannon.
A voice crackles over an amplifier, echoing disorientingly around the huge chamber. "Stand down! Stand down, by order of Station Management!"
Aeryn looks over her shoulder, towards the doorway to Dock 43. Ten fullyarmored members of station security trot into the dock, pulse rifles at shoulder height, faces hidden behind silvered helmets. Their leader, shorter than most of them, puts his hand to his mouth, and the voice booms out again. "Put down your weapons!"
"Because," she says, unable to hide her smile, "he's my Resistance contact."
There's no time to react to that bombshell, because three troopers are ten feet away, and they don't look friendly. "Drop your weapons!" snaps the woman in front, and maybe this is a good idea for once.
Aeryn lays her rifle down, and Crichton follows suit, then stands cautiously, hands at shoulder-height. The troopers wave their rifles towards the center of the room. Crichton and Aeryn shuffle out into the open. With luck there won't be one last sniper hidden in the girders, ready to take a potshot at them.
Grayza has her back to the hovercart, her gun still clutched in two hands. The soldier beside her is barely alive, propped upright but blood seeping from huge rents in his uniform. Grayza's face is paler than before, if that is possible, her eyes brilliant with rage.
"You treacherous little man, I hope I'm here to see it when the host vessel turns this station into a million molecules of dust. You've doomed everyone here."
"Put the gun down, Administrator." Braca's voice is even from inside the helmet, his pistol hanging loose at his side. Soldiers flank him, rifles leveled at Grayza. There are several more soldiers off towards the far doors, herding two of the Nebari out of the dock.
She laughs harsh and long. "So you can shoot me unarmed? You haven't the mivonks. Shall I tell your men about that? About how I had to--"
Crichton doesn't see Braca move, but first there is a flash, then there's a dark spot on Grayza's breast, and then she falls, mouth still open. The stain spreads over her grey coat, and the blood is surprisingly red. Crichton had forgotten she wasn't actually Nebari.
With a quiet thunk, Braca swings the shield of his helmet back. If he's angry, he doesn't show it. He looks tired and thoughtful, and he reaches out with one foot to jiggle Grayza's maroon shoe. She doesn't move.
"Um, Mike? Can we put our hands down now?"
Braca blinks and turns to look at Crichton and Aeryn. "Oh. Right. Binda, stand down. These two are--"
"Allies? Pals? Buds?" Crichton suggests.
"-- no threat."
Aeryn goes back for their guns. Crichton studies Braca. "They'll come after you."
"Maybe." Braca turns to his second, a Kalish woman Crichton has seen in the bar a few times. "Send a message to the Establishment, usual salutations. 'Our most sincere apologies, Administrator Grayza has tragically met with an accident in a malfunctioning airlock.' Apologies, etc. Then get rid of this, and make sure the consulate doesn't find out." He kicks the body again, a little harder.
"Sir," she responds with a snappy salute. "But what about her guards?"
A scowl breaks the blandly disdainful look on Braca's face. "Put them on one of Keddle's long-haul miners. By the time they get back it won't matter anymore."
There's a touch on Crichton's arm, and Aeryn slips his gun back into his hand before stepping away again. He follows her to find Velorek being treated by a medic in a security uniform. Velorek leans against the hovercart, breathing heavily. He looks pale but unbruised; whatever the Nebari had done to him, it wasn't the usual kind of torture. His face lightens when Aeryn drops to her knees beside him.
"Aeryn! I wasn't sure--"
She shakes her head and takes his hand. "You should have been."
"I know. And Crichton--forgive me for doubting; it's been so long since I met an honorable man." Velorek smiles openly, his eyes still a little vague but sharpening rapidly.
Crichton shrugs uneasily. "What was I gonna do, let them kill you?"
"You could have." The sincerity in Velorek's voice is unsettling. Whatever Crichton's reasons--and he's not so sure he can explain them to himself--he didn't get himself into this for Velorek's sake. He glances at Aeryn, but she's checking Velorek for wounds, despite the medic's assurances.
They're gonna need some time together. Crichton wiggles his hand a bit at Velorek and wanders away. He ends up leaning against the wall by the door to Dock 43, watching the cleanup in progress. Braca's team is more competent than he'd have given them credit for. Grayza's men are hustled off with little fuss, the wounded cared for and removed on stretchers, the bodies jettisoned through the airlock. He wonders if station management will identify a traffic hazard for local shipping, or if there's some technique by which to speed the descent of the corpses into atmosphere.
Cremation by gravity. There are worse ways to go, he supposes. Thinking about it is easier than thinking about what Grayza said, about wormholes, about rumors and reputations--
He's been studiously ignoring Aeryn and Velorek, deep in his own not-veryprofound thoughts, and he starts a little when she speaks. She stands a foot or so away, her head cocked. "Hey," he replies.
"Come here," she says after a moment, and taking his arm, draws him through the doorway into the dim quiet of Dock 43.
While his eyes are adjusting to the darkness, she latches onto him, lips hungry against his. It's so completely unexpected John freezes, and then he slides his fingers into her hair and kisses her back. She's got her hands under his shirt, nails clawing down his back, sliding into his pants, hands everywhere, mouth everywhere--lips, neck, jaw, ears. He can't control her, doesn't want to, but he's so confused and finally he has to stop, breathing hard.
He wraps his arms around her and pulls her close, letting his hands move up and down her back, letting his heart rate ease. She rests there, but he can feel the tension in her shoulders.
She knows, too.
"I can't go with you."
"I know." Her voice is muffled against his shirt. He feels the dampness, and hopes it's not tears. He's seen her cry enough in the past.
"Had to be fucking wormholes." Anything else, maybe he could pull it off. But the word's out now: the Nebari will be looking for him. And--he admits-- he's never gonna make a spy. He's a bad liar, and even with the microbes it's obvious he's not from around here. Blending in is not something he's good at.
He would put her at even greater risk than she already is. And what she's doing--she and Velorek--is too important for him to screw it up.
Where I'm going, you can't follow. What I have to do, you can't be any part of. Crichton had never pegged himself for the Ingrid Bergman role.
"I should have known," she says, and pulls back to look at him. Fuck, she is crying. He wipes at the streaks on her face, and she turns her cheek into his hand. "Chiana wouldn't have given it to you otherwise."
John blinks as the pieces fall into place, and sags back against the wall. "That little--! You think she planned it all?"
"No," Aeryn replies with a reluctant smile. "But I think she knew it was wormholes. She was smarter than you knew, and she knew you were--"
"Bored? Cold? A fucking bastard?"
"Stuck," Aeryn suggests, and he can't deny it.
Shit. John shakes his head in disbelief. Set up from the very beginning. By Pip. Whose involvement may explain their current situation, but it doesn't offer any solution.
Aeryn's leaving with Velorek. And taking her eyes and her hair and her lips and her long long legs and her resilient soul with her.
Speaking of which, "Hey. You've been holding out on me! Braca is your contact?" He shakes her, just a little, and she shrugs him off, and puts one hand distractingly on his belt. Long fingers tickle the skin of his waist, sliding inside his pants, retreating upwards, diving lower: his breath starts to come short again, and he growls, grabbing after her.
"Braca was exiled from the Peacekeepers, but he's still Sebacean," she says, blocking one hand but allowing the other to curl around and cup her ass. "And he hated Grayza and the Nebari. He was just looking for a good excuse to turn on her."
John pulls her closer and grinds against her helplessly. "And you convinced him. Can't say I mind--" his voice trails off as the signals his groin is sending rewrite the language centers in his mind. It's all he can do not to spin her around and fuck her against the wall again. Not that Aeryn is likely to argue with that plan.
The skin under her jaw is dizzyingly soft against his lips. But they can't do this here, they're mere steps away from Braca, his men, Velorek--"Aw, shit, the time!"
Aeryn lets go of the handful of shirt she'd been clutching, and looks up in confusion. Then her face clears. "Oh, the transport."
"Yeah. You've got--" he checks, "less than an arn."
"Right." She steps back, straightens her jumpsuit, smoothes her hair. Double-checks that her gun is secure inside her belt. Within moments she's transformed from a woman flushed with lust to a soldier, all passions tucked out of sight.
They can't stay. It was hard enough to find these berths, with someone trustworthy who can keep them hidden from Nebari scans. If the rumors are true, the Establishment will be here soon enough, and none of the three of them should be here to meet them.
"You'll leave soon?" she asks.
John shrugs, his back pressed against the bulkhead wall. "Yeah, I'll find something today or tomorrow. One berth is easier than three. And a lot of guys owe me favors. Including Mike," he adds, after a moment.
Her hair catches against her shoulders as she shakes her head, throwing off reflected light from the doorway. "I don't want--" Her eyes are too bright, and he can't help but pull her to him again, this time gently, as if she were fragile.
But she's not, she's the strongest person he ever met, and after a few moments she straightens again. Her hands wrap around his head, fingers weaving themselves into his hair, and she draws his face down to meet hers. They kiss long and breathlessly, murmuring meaningless words, memorizing the taste and feel and smell of each other. In case this is the end, in case they don't get lucky again.
And then it's over, and they step apart.
"Where will you go?" she asks as they step back through the doorway. Braca's still there, talking to Velorek out in the middle of vast expanse of dock. Braca's men bustle about their cleanup operation, and John wonders how much Velorek knows, how much Aeryn will tell him on the long quiet trip back to the war zone. He decides he'd rather not know.
"Somewhere quiet where I can study this," and he taps the pocket where the dataset lives. "Gonna take some time."
She nods, not looking at him, as they walk across the dull grey floor towards the others. John steps over a bloodstain. Halfway across the dock he feels her fingers brush against his, and he opens his hand to receive something small, round, warm from her grasp.
"Next time, you find me," she murmurs, and John looks down to see what it is she's given him.
It's a silvery metal disk, worn smooth with handling; he sees it in his mind's eye, spinning in the air against the brown-and-gold of lost Moya's dusty ceilings. He holds it in his hand, fingering the surfaces, turning it over and over, as they cross the echoing expanse of the dock in silence. Sticks it in his pocket finally, lodging it next to Chiana's data crystal.
"Yeah," he says, as they come within earshot of Velorek and Braca. "I'll do that."
John fixes her smile in his mind, the way her eyes glint, the swing of her stride, as she gathers up Velorek and loads him onto one of Braca's troop carriers for the transit to the passenger docks. She doesn't speak to John or look at him again as they power up, and only Velorek glances back at him as they all disappear through the port-side entrance to Dock 42.
Braca remains behind, leaning against the hovercart, his eyes unfocused as he mutters into his comms.
Crichton stands in almost the precise location where Grayza died. Aeryn's gone. He turns around, once, looking at the towering walls about him, the empty spaces where products from a thousand worlds were once stored and sold and used, the dark windows of the airlocks, the tangled cables and corroding ductwork above.
The station spins and groans, air pumps through the ventilation system, and the gas giant beneath them swirls with storms. Ships carrying news of war light-years away latch onto the station; refugees flow from planet to planet carrying loss and horror in their baggage; men and women die in battles and in alleyways, crying for their mothers; cold men sit in cold rooms and plan the death of worlds.
John Crichton shrugs, and checks that his gun is firmly seated in its holster. "Hey, Mike."
Braca looks up from the notes he's making. "What is it, Crichton?"
Crichton waves toward the exit. "Time to go."
Braca nods and joins him. As they walk towards the doorway, Crichton wraps a friendly arm around Braca's shoulders. When Braca stares at him in confusion, Crichton shakes him, and grins into his baffled face.
"Mike, my friend, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."
It's time to get back into the game.
Please post a comment on this story.
Title: Bellum Interruptum
Author: cofax [email] [website]
Details: Standalone | R | het | 154k | 06/06/04
Characters: Crichton, Aeryn, Rygel
Summary: Of all the crappy little bars on rundown stations at the ass end of the universe, she had to walk into mine.
Notes: AU, crossover. Spins off canon at 322.
Disclaimer/Other: Not mine, never were.
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