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Little Acorns

by feldman

[Story Headers]

"I released the stasis."

John sits down hard on her bed, trying to absorb the meaning of that small statement. To look at her, standing tall and still with her arms crossed, slim and severe, it would be easy to forget that she's technically pregnant. But what's she's saying is that it's not a technicality anymore, a few cells of potential energy that she doesn't like to talk about--now it's been triggered. Now it's the real thing. "Aeryn, that's...I mean, when did this happen?"

"When we were at Katratzi, one of the times we were on Grayza's Command Carrier. I had the opportunity and I took it."

"On Katratzi." He tastes the familiar tang of disaster as he repeats. "On the Command Carrier."

Her question is rhetorical and sharp. "Where else could I do this?"

"They know, Aeryn. That means they know about the baby." He rises to his feet and closes the distance. "I don't care if they're techs, Aeryn, I don't care if they treated you just like a crewmember, they'd know you weren't crew and they sure as hell told Grayza."

She paces. "Scorpius already knows, and if he knows then the Peacekeepers know."

He enunciates each word. "Not necessarily."

"Besides, you think I walked up to a tech and asked him to release the stasis? What do you take me for?"

"Then tell me what happened." He forces himself to unclench his jaw.

She stops pacing and leans against a counter set into the wall. Her elbows jostle but her arms remained crossed. "I assumed that my file would have a record of my parapheral injury and the graft that was stolen. I went to a med station and asked them to check that the regenerated nerve was functioning properly. After an injury that serious, a soldier has to be vetted for service by a med tech before returning to duty. I'm not a Peacekeeper anymore, but it wouldn't be unusual for me to want such a thing checked, now that I had the chance to be examined properly."

"Is it okay?"

"Yes, but that was just a cover, an excuse to be in the med station." She waves a hand and focuses on the point. "They performed several tests, and they left me alone more than once. When I had an opportunity, I released the conception from stasis myself."

"You told me only a surgeon could release it."

"Only surgeons have the authority, yes. You have to be assigned to breeding duty and only high-level med techs, surgeons, can give you the proper clearance. But releasing a conception is a quick thing, done with a small device. I think it gives some kind of medication or shock." She gestures, making a fist and hitting the side of it into her belly, pressing an imaginary button with her thumb. "It stung a little."

"Why did you use it right there on the Command Carrier?" His voice is notching louder again. "Couldn't you just boost it and maybe use it at a later date when we weren't taking ourselves hostage?"

She stays where she stands but responds with heat. "Now it's my turn to think you're stupid. They would have noticed it missing at the end of duty shift. Either I released the stasis right then, or I didn't."

Take it or leave it. Now or never. "And you did." Hop on board, boy, because the train is pulling out of the station without you.

"And I did. And now I know for sure that it is growing."

The rest of the crew latch on to Aeryn's news as a welcome diversion after weekens coasting in the vacant expanses of Tormented Space, helping Pilot recover from his heroic EVA and in general relishing the novelty of boredom. With Pilot and Moya healed, they begin working toward more populated areas, in search of a Diagnosan to heal Chiana's weakened eyes.

Moya comes out of starburst to find herself surrounded by Leviathans, hundreds of them, moving through space like motes of dust in a sunbeam. Some are russet, some tan, some with patches the color of rusting copper. There are Talyn-sized ones pressed like limpets against the bellies of larger ones. The sight stuns everyone on command into several hundred microts of silence.

John whistles a falling note. "Jebus, it's a frelling fleet out there."

The spell broken, D'Argo taps his comm and heads for the nearest console. "Pilot, can Moya starburst again?"

"Yes, she can--but she refuses to." Pilot pops into view in the clamshell. "These Leviathans pose no danger to us, and Moya is already in contact with several of them."

"There are hundreds out there." Aeryn looks up from her own console. "What kind of crews do they have?"

"None, Officer Sun. They have no crews, no passengers and no Pilots."

"Huh." John steps closer to the view screen, next to where Chiana crouches like a kid right on top of the television. "Wild Leviathans."

Pilot tilts his carapace, and his voice is hushed. "Feral, to be precise. Leviathans are a constructed species, and were never wild."

"If they live out here in Tormented Space," Rygel motors toward the clamshell, "how is it they aren't crazy?"

"They seem to have adapted to that stress. Moya says that the females all live together in this Pod, and that they have recently encountered males. She is very excited."

Chiana asks over her shoulder, "Who wouldn't be?"

John raises his hand.

D'Argo considers the ships filling the view screen, thinking what it must be like to encounter so many of one's kind after such a long time apart. "Pilot, do you agree that they pose no danger to Moya?"

"Moya tells me that the Leviathans can help her somehow. Let me get back to you." Pilot's image disappears for a brief moment, then comes back up. The speed of his turnaround contrasts with a newfound diffidence. "Moya...has a request."

"What is it, Pilot?" Aeryn steps in, speaking for the crew before D'Argo can open his mouth. "What can we do?"

"It is very important to Moya, and with your help we can accomplish it far more quickly than if we had to rely on DRDs alone."

"Of course we will do anything for her that needs to be done." D'Argo takes back his spokesman role with crossed arms.

Pilot runs out of preface and launches into the demand. "She needs you to remove all of the non-Leviathan technology that has been installed over the cycles."

"Whoa, whoa..." John strides back to the clamshell, "even the zyntian filter?"

"The Leviathans will not accept Moya until she reverts back to a natural state."

"She's going to go off and live with these creatures?"

"No, Dominar." Pilot angles his head. "She wants to mate."

"Good for her!" Chiana lightly smacks the deck and stands up, nodding her approval.

Pilot clarifies, "She wants a child."

Chiana pauses, then nods again. Everyone else is quiet for another long moment, each in their own thoughts, most of them thinking about Talyn.

John hesitantly scratches the back of his neck. "Are you sure that's such a good idea?" Aeryn shoots a look at him, but she's behind him to the side, and he doesn't see. "Can't she uh, wait until we find a safer place? Like before with the contraceptive shield?"

Pilot bristles, a mirror of the look Aeryn's aiming at the back of John's head.

Perhaps a sense of the disquiet is what causes him to back-peddle. "I mean, Tormented Space can't be healthy for her baby."

Rygel adds, "And we need another crazy Leviathan like we need another John Crichton."

The look bounces again, this time from John to Stark, cutting the Banik off mid-giggle.

"The Leviathans tell Moya that if an offspring survives the first weekens of gestation, it has the adaptation to tolerate Tormented Space." In his den, Pilot leans over his console, seeming to come out of the clamshell up on command. "This is a rare opportunity, one she considers well worth taking."

"Fine." John raises his hands, abandoning the argument. "Okay."

Pilot barrels on, "And in phrasing this as a request, I was merely being polite. Moya will disable all non-Leviathan systems and she will mate. If you help us with the preparations we can accomplish this task sooner and reduce the amount of time we remain vulnerable. But DRDs have already begun removing the defense shield."

Newly arrived on command, Noranti tugs on Chiana's elbow pad. "We have a defense shield?"

Chiana shakes her head. "It's busted."

"How disappointing."

"You should have been there when it broke, you might've made a better Pilot than I did. I'm sure Moya's been screaming in his ear ever since she came out of starburst."

Noranti sighs and blinks. "The desire for offspring is one I've never experienced."

"I thought you were a grandma, Wrinkles."

"Oh, my progeny are several generations removed by now. I'm an ancestor." She shakes head in that spacey and pensive way she has. "When they were small, they were such messy little beings--"

"Messy?" Chiana wonders how grubby infants could be if the old woman thinks they're bad.

"Oh yes! And they needed constant attention. I just didn't like them very much until they matured and became interesting." Her tone turns rueful. "They all did the former but only a few did the latter."

Aeryn, Stark and John have already slipped out of command, so Chiana starts ushering the rest of the crew toward the doorway. "Well, you heard Pilot, let's get moving."

"Chiana," D'Argo's engaged his full captain voice, authoritative and deep, " we need to discuss this first."

"Discuss what?" Chiana turns to him, mouth open and head tilted back. "Just 'cause you're our Captain doesn't mean you get to tell Moya what to do."

D'Argo raises his hands in a calming gesture. "No one's saying that. Of course Moya can mate if she wants."

"Has anyone stopped to think why this is a monumentally bad idea?" Rygel zips over to the other two, hovering high.

"This will occasionally make us more vulnerable." D'Argo holds his hands out before him to placate both Rygel and Chiana. "But I don't see how we have much say in the matter."

Chiana jumps in. "Then what is there to discuss?"

Rygel answers, looking down on her from where he floats near D'Argo's head. "The great likelihood that the Peacekeepers altered Moya so that she can only produce gunships like Talyn."

The silence is broken by Pilot. "I have already stationed DRDs near the gestation chamber to analyze any offspring. If we detect any Peacekeeper tampering, it will be rejected, and Moya will try again."

"And what if the next one is the same? And the next, and the next?" Rygel glides over and down to face the clamshell. "What if she decides that something is better than nothing?"

Pilot rears his head up. "Moya promised her Maker that she would bring forth no more gunships. She will keep her promise. If she cannot have a normal child by a normal male Leviathan, then she will have none at all."

D'Argo's command voice mellows with concern. "We just don't want to see her go through the pain of losing a child again."

"This time is already different because it's Moya's choice." Chiana turns from the clamshell and cranes her head up to speak softly to D'Argo. "She's gone through all of that and she still wants to have another kid; what better mother could it have?"

The tactical display shows Moya drifting around the fringe of a cloud of ships. A feral Leviathan nudges along Moya's treblin side as she passes, causing a vibration that can only be felt. Chiana leans against Pilot's console. "Whoa, that one is sure friendly."

"This pod of females has never encountered a Leviathan in service before. They are curious."

"Is that why she wants everything taken offline, so they'll think she's wild, like they are?"

"She says it has to do with attracting the male."

"I thought there were more than one, you'd said there were 'new males' in this group."

"Moya has chosen the one she wants, and she has been signaling her willingness to mate." If Pilot had shoulders he'd shrug them. "But he has not responded. She is convinced that her non-Leviathan components are interfering with her electromagnetic scent."

"Changing for a male is never a good idea. Which one is he?"

A ship lights up near the center of the display. Chiana watches, and the male turns like a gauge as Moya circles the periphery. "He's watching her."

"Moya believes he is waiting for her. He has not mated since she arrived."

Chiana smiles. "She had him when she walked into the room."

Pilot leans toward her. "You may want to find a more secure place to stay. The sensor distorter has been removed and the zyntian filter is about to be taken offline. There may be sudden movement."

"Got it." Chiana darts across a walkway and out of the Pilot den.

"Captain D'Argo," Pilot hesitates, "once you power down the filter I will not be able to respond as quickly, and during the...mating process...there will be...many distractions for me to deal with. When Moya is sure of pregnancy she will let me know, and then we can reinstall all of the non-Leviathan systems, starting with the filter."

D'Argo solemnly nods. "Understood."

"You may disengage the filter."

He bends down and pops off the outer casing.

Stark stretches his hand out in front of himself, even though Pilot can't see him. "Pilot, is there anything we can do to help you?"

"Yes." Pilot switches to a ship wide broadcast. "No one is to enter my den until I say so. No one."

Pilot ends the transmission. After a long while the sound of tools being passed back and forth is broken by Stark's hesitant question. "You don't think he--?"

"In my experience, Crichton's the one he has to worry about barging in on anything."

Aeryn rises to her feet as John coils up cabling from the broken defense screen, now severed completely from Moya's systems. She tosses a spanner back into a tool carry-all on the floor and wipes her hand across her brow. "I'm leaving."

"Leaving where?" She's through the doorway before John can ditch the cables. He shouts after her as he jogs to catch up. "Where are you going?"

"I'm hot, John." She's walking fast, her eyes are wide and her face sweaty. "I need to get out of here right now."

He notices that it's warm, but it doesn't seem bad enough to warrant the reaction. It occurs to him that maybe she's more sensitive to it because of the baby, and that kicks him into protective mode. "Okay, let's take a Sunday drive, then. Let me get ready."

She breaks into a run. "I'm leaving now, I have to leave right now."

"Easy--" He grabs her arm and she swings her other fist at him, connecting with his shoulder. "Aeryn!" He wraps his arms and legs around her and takes her to the floor. She screams bloody murder and wrestles against him but she doesn't try anything lethal. He shouts over her, trying to get her attention.

Hell breaks loose over the comms, but Pilot filters everyone out but D'Argo. "What's going on? What is your location? Do we have intruders?"

Aeryn stills, and her scream sobs into a whimper. John can feel a friction burn on his arm from being pushed along the floor. He realizes that he's still talking to her, his voice a scared monotone. "Aeryn, baby, it's okay, calm down, it's alright, just breathe, we'll get you someplace cool, just calm down."

D'Argo takes on a similar tone, crooning through both of their comms. "John, we know you're near the docking bay, Chiana and Stark will be there soon--just tell me what's happening."

"It's okay, D."

Aeryn's voice is thin like a bare metal wire. "I need to go." She's stopped whimpering, stopped struggling, and John disentangles himself and helps her to her feet.

"I know. We're going. It'll be okay. Come on." Her hand is clammy in his.

"Is Aeryn alright?"

"Yeah, D'Argo, she's just a little hot that's all." Hot and overwhelmed and panicky--it's the last one that actually frightens him. "We're going to take the Prowler out while we can and get a breath of fresh vacuum, cool her off."

"Take a transport pod, the Leviathans may attack anything else. I'll open the docking bay manually."

He chivvies her into the docking bay and into a pod. The hair around her face is wet with sweat and tears and tendrils snake toward her cheekbones like spilled ink. Within minutes they're flying free.

He dials down the environmentals. Cold seeps into the tiny vessel and chills her ferocity, gives them both a measure of calm. John knows he's in over his head, but right now he can't even see the surface above. He's used to her scaring him with her detached menace, but this was raw fear.

When he calms down enough, it hits him that this is likely fallout from the Scarrans, the normal Sebacean fear of heat delirium amplified through the persistent application of torture. Gotta love the Scarrans. He reaches across, offering his free hand. She grips it tight, looking straight ahead through the view screen as they move away from Moya and come around.

The heat itself is easier to explain--Moya is preparing to mate.

The male is the same size as she is, but instead of bronze he's a Caribbean shade of blue. Even his running lights are the color of hot blue stars. He and Moya circle each other, turning lazily on every conceivable axis as their orbits around each other tighten, aerial maneuvers in slow motion, stunning amounts of mass going very fast for their size. Now they're almost touching, bellies maybe a few motras away from each other, head to tail like Pisces. They pass like daredevils without incident, pull away, and go through the sequence again.

He can see a slight reflection of Aeryn's face in the view screen, and she has the same open-mouthed, open-eyed expression that he has.

Moya and the male keep dancing this tango until all at once, during the last grazing pass belly to belly, head to tail, all the running lights on both Leviathans flare bright. The male wraps his tri-tail around Moya's head and shifts his own head into the hollow of Moya's tail.

They're connected, spinning slowly as one being. Sex in zero G. "I'll be damned. Leverage."

It's soothing to watch them spin, and Aeryn's death-grip on his hand eases.

With a violent flick, Moya and the male separate and drift apart. The male arcs back toward Moya and scrapes his nose down her hammond side and up her treblin side, causing her running lights to flicker and then flare as he moves off to a distant spot.

Her words ride out on a sigh. "It's done."

"Yeah." John shakes himself and activates the comm. "Hey D., how's the weather in there?"

D'Argo's voice has slipped into his hushed soft rock DJ tone. "Lighting is back to normal and the temperature is quickly falling to optimal. I'm opening the docking bay. I'll engage the docking web for you."

John turns to Aeryn. "You ready to go back in?"

She looks tired and a bit flushed, but there's no trace of the previous panic. She nods and smiles without showing her teeth.

"Okay." He switches over to comms. "We're on our way."

Her coloring is better when they land. She shrugs off his assistance and walks down the ramp under her own steam. It's not much cooler than it was when they left, but the air is drier and whatever triggered her panic seems to have disappeared.

"I'm hungry, how about you?" She sounds bright, almost chipper, and John studies her for a moment before nodding.

"Yeah, I could eat. Let's see if there're any leftovers in the kitchen."

D'Argo strums the shilquin and Noranti chops in counterpoint. Chiana thumbs through a book of baby names and John watches through the view port for anything that isn't a Leviathan. Aeryn is finishing her third bowl of the stew du jour.

Chi bends the book open to eliminate the spine shadow on the page. "How about this one, Mah-ree?"

John speaks without turning around. "Mary."

She sits across from Aeryn, so she shows the book to her. "What's it mean?"

Aeryn's mouth is full, and she chews while she reads where Chi is pointing. She shakes her head.

"Not good?"

"Bitter. It means bitter." John answers for Aeryn. "I'm going to keep watch with Ryg on command." He leaves and everyone's eyes watch him go except Aeryn's. She swallows, then drinks from her cup before she speaks.

"It says 'sea of bitterness'. Right there, that's the word for 'sea'."

"It probably means salty." Noranti scatters panek meal on the counter. "Most seas are salty. Makes the fish taste better."

"Sea is a good word." Chiana scans as she turns the pages. "Here's another one with 'sea' in the definition, Meh-reh-dit-huh. It's kind of long...Aha, this is better--Meh-ri, that just means 'sea'. Or this one Meh-ri-el." She offers the book for Aeryn to decipher the meaning of the words.

"Shining sea."

D'Argo stops strumming. "Why does it have to mean sea?"

Chiana gestures toward the view port with the book. "They look like they're swimming out there. You got any better suggestions?"

He quietly noodles on the shilquin as he thinks. "Just read the names out loud. When we hear a nice one, then we'll worry about what it means."

"We should pick some female names as well," Noranti punches into the dough, then begins kneading, "in case Moya bears a daughter."

She flips back and forth through the book. "Huh. I guess I was already in the females section. Hey, male names are shorter. How about this one, Sah-eed."

"Sah-eed." D'Argo repeats it, pleased with the sound. "What does it mean?"

Aeryn leans over to look where Chi is pointing and reads, "Happy."

Stark sets a piece on top of a stack of chips on Rygel's side of the tadek board and the whole stack changes color.

Rygel leans forward. "You're not half the blithering lunatic you pretend to be, are you?"

Stark lets a grin flicker across his face, but keeps rocking back and forth, staring at the board.

John walks in and heads straight for a console to check the sensor array. "Hear anything from Pilot?" There's a great deal of data streaming through the sensors, but all of it so far reads as Leviathan or background radiation.

"Pilot's about as talkative right now as this frellnik." Rygel pokes Stark, who grunts and continues to stare at the board. He hovers toward John. "Why are you so impatient?"

"I'm not impatient. It's simply that the sooner this is over the safer we'll be."

Rygel gestures with the tadek stick. "I'm sure Moya is saddened by your inconvenience."

"Rygel, I don't begrudge Moya at all, I just don't like how vulnerable we are right now."

"Moya brought us into Tormented Space. Who do you think bore the brunt of that torment until we could find a proper filter? Moya risked madness to keep us safe, and what she asks in return is that we don't get in her way for a few days."

"I know. We owe her. And I'm glad to do this, I'm glad she found something to make her happy. I just hope that it turns out for the best."

Stark has come up to John's side, his one hand picking at the sleeve of his other arm. "It's not about debts. It's about love."

"She loves us," Rygel hovers back to the tadek board, "and we owe her."

Stark gives John a sad doe-eyed look. "Children are the physical manifestation of the hope of their parents." He follows Rygel back to the board.

D'Argo and Aeryn are the only ones left in the room, with the scent of fresh-baked panek cooling on racks. Aeryn rolls each name off her tongue while D'Argo practices new songs on the shilquin.

Aeryn reads from the name book that Chiana left. "Zelene, sunshine. Zemirah, song of joy."

He takes a break from his complicated strumming. "Song of joy Sun?"

"Better than Sunshine Sun. What are you playing?"

"I've been wanting to practice some of the Earth songs I like." D'Argo glances out the view port as he begins a wandering strutting melody. "Seems like a good time to work on it."

"That one doesn't sound like the rest."

"I switched to Al Green. I think the Barry White is simply not suited to a single shilquin, I can't get the sound right." He shakes his head, disappointed.

"I like this better. Are there words?"

"Yes but they're in English. Chiana knows some of them."

Aeryn smiles, and goes back to her book. "Zera. Zerdali, wild ap-ri-cot whatever that is. Zilpah, dignified; Zilpah Sun."

"Remember this is also Crichton's child." D'Argo plucks quieter while he speaks. "Dignified might not be the best choice."

"Good point. Ziva, bright, radiant; Ziva Sun."

He shakes his head no, letting the shake evolve into a nod with the beat as he picks out a sensual melody.

"Zoe, life. Zohreh, happy; Zohreh Sun." Aeryn shakes her own head, lips pursed. Then her eyebrows dance up. "Zola."

D'Argo tries out the sound, plucking with each syllable. "Zola Sun."

"Zola, piece of earth; Zola Sun." Aeryn picks up the mug and takes a long drink.

D'Argo stops playing and gestures at the view port. "The male is returning."

The mug hits the table with a clunk. "I have to go."

D'Argo slings his shilquin across his back. "Okay."

Aeryn stops near the doorway, turns around, and has to look up to meet D'Argo's eyes. "Where are you going?"

"With you."

She makes a noise in her throat. "Fine. But I'm piloting."

John grabs the console as the gravity fluctuates and the ship goes into a roll. "Pilot, what's going on?"

Rygel hovers like he's on gimbals as the ship lurches around him. "They're at it again. Haven't you noticed the humidity rising?" Rygel hums as he chuckles. "Mating is a process, Crichton, not an event. Hmmm-mmm-mmm."

"Aeryn." John activates his comm as he heads into the corridor. "Get ready, we're going on another Sunday drive. Aeryn?" There's no response, so he breaks into a run. "Aeryn! Shit. Pilot! Pilot, where is Aeryn?"

There's a burst of feedback as Pilot engages the channel. "Officer Sun and Captain D'Argo are on a transport pod at a safe distance from Moya."

His boots squeak as he drops out of the run and into a slow walk. "Good. That's good. Can you patch me through?"

The floor lurches under his feet. When he catches his fall against a corridor rib, it's hot to the touch. "Pilot!"

Pilot growls, "Whatever it is can wait, Commander!"


Pilot cuts him off with a piercing wash of feedback.

"Hey old man, you stayed for the ride this time? Come on." Chiana plucks at the sleeve of John's t-shirt as she passes him at a run, heading toward the command deck.

He follows her, because if communications aren't totally frelled he might be able to reach the transport pod directly.

The gravity has stabilized but he can still feel Moya's every roll and turn. There's a wormhole about to open up and he can feel that point of space spinning around him, like closing your eyes on the teacup ride and feeling the sun traveling around your body.

The stars wheel and turn, and the male rises like a sun across the view screen, rotating on his long axis like a high diver. Chiana gasps and croons like she's watching fireworks. John sits cross-legged on the floor and closes his eyes.

Rygel lands his chair next to John. "Now you know what we were going through while you and Aeryn played voyeur."

Between the swampy heat and the wormsign careening around him he's feeling pretty sick. "I haven't been motion sick since the Vomit Comet." He opens his eyes in time to see the dorsal curve of the male eclipse the screen, running lights speeding across like the view from a plane about to touch down at night.

There's the wormhole smell. Like lake water up his nose. It's close to opening.

Chiana calls out, "Here he comes!"

There's a soft lurch and a thrumming that seems to go back and forth through the ship a few times.

"And now we spin!" She laughs, head back and twirling in a circle John can't watch.

He remains on the floor, letting his stomach settle as the wormhole spot turns in a simple orbit around him. "Three." He feels the wormhole well up. "Two." Feels the growth of the bubble slow. "One." Feels it pop. He points his finger at the floor and slowly raises it to the view screen.

Stars and Leviathans slip from the bottom left to the top right of the display. At the bottom edge, the wormhole appears. As it travels across they can see a few Leviathans steer into it and disappear. It slips off the screen, and a few moments later it closes.

He can't spot the transport pod visually, but when he gets to his feet and checks a console he can see where they're hovering out of harm's way. "External comms are out."

Chiana clicks her tongue "You have no sense of mood, do you?"

" beautiful." D'Argo watches the mated pair spin, bronze and blue. Then the wormhole opens and D'Argo notices that the transport pod itself is slowly turning.

Aeryn is transfixed, her whole attention on the Leviathans.

D'Argo checks the stabilizers and confirms that they're not stationary. "Aeryn, we're turning."

Her mouth is parted, her eyes wide and glossy. She grips the steering lever with a firm hand that's almost caressing the metal. Pregnancy has begun to soften her features, but the warm flush to her skin isn't from the baby.


She leans forward in her seat and arches her back. A sudden movement onscreen catches his attention and he sees the Leviathans have separated and the male is moving back toward Moya.

D'Argo keys a command into the center console, switching pilot functions to his steering lever. He keeps his eyes to the screen and watches the male run his nose up one side of Moya and down the other. He ignores the scent of Sebacean arousal and tries to think of what Lo'Laan might have done in his situation.

John hails the transport pod as soon as the power surges back into the communications array. "Aeryn, you okay out there? You get out in time?"

"I'm fine, John." Her peeved tone is just as reassuring as her actual voice. "We left before the heat had time to affect me."

"Good to hear it. Environmentals are coasting down to normal, you guys can head back in as soon as these two get some distance." John heads to the docking bay to meet them.

Chiana taps her comm. "Pilot, how's Moya doing so far without the filter?"

He appears on a clamshell for her and Stark. "Moya is concentrating on the mating cycle, and so far she is able to ignore the effects of Tormented Space."

They speak at the same time, each asking the same essential question.

"It is still too soon to tell if Moya has conceived. Female Leviathans come into fertility after the first mating. If she has retained this ability and they are both healthy, she will eventually conceive with this male. Then we will wait, to ensure that her offspring can survive here."

"Is there any way to keep the temperature from rising so much? Even if it's just one room? Aeryn's having trouble with the heat--"

Stark snickers.

Chi shoots him a puzzled look. He sobers, and she continues. "It'd be safer if she didn't have to keep going out in a transport pod. If not, if we could get a pre-frell warning," she smiles, "that'd be just as good."

Pilot tilts his head, nods. "I should be able to isolate a small portion of one tier from the temperature fluctuation...yes." He keys in a sequence of commands. "The tier section containing Officer Sun's room should remain unaffected."

"Thank you, Pilot."

Aeryn checks that the comms are off. "You seized the helm from me."

D'Argo keeps his gaze steady on the navigation. "You haven't told John about it, have you?"

"Told him about what?"

"That it's Moya's mating heat that's affecting you, and not the temperature."

Her laughter is nervous and it sounds odd coming from Aeryn. He turns to look at her. She stops forcing the laugh out, and D'Argo can see fear at the edge of her expression.

He calls her on it. "Something is happening."

She shakes her hair off her shoulder. "I feel...strange. Not bad, but..."

"But, what?"

Aeryn runs her hand along the steering lever, and blinks. "I feel Moya. I feel her like a Pilot would." The words come faster, like she's figuring it out as she speaks. "I'm good at Pilot things. I can still calculate control sequences without really thinking about it. I can tell her condition from the way she sounds and the way she feels when I press my hand against a wall. I never thought about it, I just did it."

D'Argo eases back on the propulsion, approaching Moya slowly. "And it's getting worse?"

"Not worse." Aeryn turns in her seat to face him. "It's not bad, it's just strange. It's almost like when I was bonded with Talyn--it's more information than I'm used to, that's all. It's distracting."

"You can sense how Moya feels by touching one of her walls?"

"A general sense." She shrugs. "Just, right now, I can't not sense how Moya feels."

D'Argo hesitates before he asks, "So...when you were doing your Stark impersonation earlier?"

"I wasn't expecting the reaction I felt from her." Aeryn blushes and replies with her impersonation of Pilot. "Moya was very nervous."


She clears her throat. "I don't think she'd mated before."

He drops the subject, easing the pod into the docking bay to land.

When he reaches to open the airlock, she grabs his wrist. "Don't tell John. He'd only worry more than he already does."

"Is it something to worry about?" He lays his other hand on hers.

"No. It's just distracting."

"Then as long as you have someone else flying for you when you have to leave, I won't mention it."

John hadn't noticed how the warm humidity had persisted even between Moya's bouts of fever, optimal plus two was a temp he could easily adjust to and ignore. Ten minutes in Aeryn's now chilly quarters and he notices how sweaty he's become during the day. "I'm gonna take a shower."

Aeryn nods, pulling a length of clean oily cloth through the pulse chamber of her gun. When he unbuckles his holster she holds out her hand. "I'll clean yours as well."

"Gee thanks, honey. That's awful swell of you to offer." He hands Winona off with a grin, grip first.

Aeryn shrugs. "I've got a cleaning kit open." She ejects Winona's chakkan oil cartridge, catching it with her other hand. She pauses to yawn, then tips the cartridge back and forth a few times to check the oil level.

He pulls his socks off using his toes, and shucks his shirt. He strips while she field-strips his weapon, clothes in a pile on the floor and parts arrayed on the bed. He expects she'll be asleep when he gets out of the shower. Gun cleaning is like tooth brushing or putting on lotion, Aeryn does it before bed to help her get sleepy.

They probably taught it to her like some kids learn bedtime prayers, by rote, to calm them down and reassure them, and to make certain the knowledge sunk in deep. Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my gun to clean.

When he gets out of the shower and opens the lavatory door, the room is dark. He makes a visual check before he turns off the lavatory light, plotting his course across the room and to the bed she's sprawled on, in her skivvies and dead to the world. The changes have been subtle so far, easily missed or dismissed. It seems like he's been living with the idea of this pregnancy for years, imagined her in all the stages of bearing, delivering and raising this child.

Compared to his fecund fantasy, the reality is both ridiculous and terrifying. An inch or two of extra pudge underneath the waistband of her under-shorts, a firm roundness still framed by her oblique abdominals and invisible when she's dressed. A precious thing, a materializing person he wants desperately to meet and love and protect, and there it exists, in that one spot of the universe, in the middle of the bed, in the middle of the person he's still learning how to live with.

He makes his way to her through the dark. Even her sheets are cool. He eases into bed, nudging her limbs out of the way and making a space for himself. She moves around in her sleep, turning, and he fits himself around her like she's a teddy bear. His one arm burrows under the pillow and his other crooks around her. He slips half of his hand under her waistband and palms the growing curve of her belly.

Chiana throws the hot sheet off herself and rolls onto her back. After a moment she tries lying on the floor, which is a bit cooler. Then she grabs the sheet, shakes it out, and folds it into a pallet, thinking it might make the floor softer.

She stands up, elbows cocked back and lips pressed together. She looks at the furry comforter, which is soft enough for the floor but would also negate the coolness of it.

She can sleep on cold cracked permacrete if she has to, she's done so for monens at a time. But only when she has to.

She exhales, gives up on sleep, and puts some clothes on. When she opens her door, a painted DRD activates itself and follows her. She stops by the kitchen and grabs a piece of panek, the DRD cruising next to her left foot.

She looks down at it. She thinks about repainting it, maybe blue like Moya's lover. What if Moya's child turns out to be blue? Maybe she should paint it a different color, like green? Maybe she shouldn't bother, since she may not have to look at it much in the future. "Ibiz."

The DRD whistles a question.

"Guide dog."

Ibiz beeps twice.

Chiana closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. "Command deck."

Ibiz bumps into her left foot, then rolls away. Chiana follows him, listening to the clicks and tones as he leads her through the corridors, ramps and turns on the way to the command deck.

Ibiz leads her into the room, then nudges against her foot to stop her. She reaches her hands out and makes contact with an instrument console. She opens her eyes. "Good boy, Ibiz."

He whistles.

Pilot appears on the clamshell. "Chiana."

"How's it going, Pilot?"

"Moya and I are well, if somewhat distracted. Officer Sun's quarters are at optimal minus two, and should not rise above optimal even if there is some warming during the next mating cycle."

"That's good to hear." The edge of the open wormhole peeks at the bottom of the view screen. Chiana looks at the chronometer because Crichton would want to know--nine hours since the last time she saw it open. She steps in front of the console and sits down with her back to it. "When is the next mating cycle?"

"I do not know precisely." Pilot tips his head. "Soon."

The wormhole closes and disappears. Chiana searches the star field full of Leviathans for Moya's mate.


"Yeah, Pilot?"

"When your eyes were injured, I was not able to help Commander Crichton with your DRD. The older a Leviathan is, the more sophisticated the DRDs become, and it was unwilling to accept my programming. Even though your sight has returned..."

Chiana looks away from the clamshell.

"I thought you might find a different setting more comfortable for your eyes." The view screen goes black, then flickers back on. "As they heal."

The magnification and contrast have been boosted, and the depth of field reduced. The Leviathans stand out clear against the distant stars.

"You can adjust the distance and focus from a control panel on the console. If you tap the green light in the middle, all settings will return to normal and the control panel is removed from the display. You can call it back up by tapping the green systems light on the comms panel."

Chiana darts up and finds her secret control panel. "Pilot--" Her view of the Leviathans blurs until she blinks and presses the heels of her hands against her eyes. She wipes the tears on her pants and smiles at Pilot.

"Chiana, Moya and the male are approaching each other once more."

"Got it." She activates ship wide comms. "For anyone who's still awake," Her throat catches and she lays her hand over her comm badge to clear her throat. "For anyone still awake, this is your pre-frell warning."

He wakes up just in time for the fellatio.

It's more disorienting than he'd have thought, and it takes him a few moments to parse the situation. He actually reaches to Aeryn's side of the bed looking for her and is concerned when he finds her pillow empty. There's a slurp and a surge of pleasure and it all clicks into place.

More or less.

Her room is cool, and it's deep in the sleep cycle. Remnants of the freshly closed wormhole are dissipating a few hundred metras behind the headboard. This part of space is riddled with them, and he's been gathering tag and release data on every one they come across. As he comes fully awake he gives a passing thought to the recording programs he'd set up, satisfied that all the relevant data will be waiting for him to look at in the morning.

Her nails scratch a gentle trail up his belly and across a nipple. He takes her hand and slips her thumb into his mouth and sucks his tongue around it. She moans and he feels the vibration travel from his cock up into his brain. He caresses down her arm and brushes her hair away from her face. He slides his hand down her back and curls his body after it, easing her onto her side and pushing his head between her knees with a trail of sucking kisses.

She's waiting for him to get to it, lightly caressing him from inner thigh to lower back and swirling her tongue achingly slowly around the head of his cock.

He can't see anything in the dark but he knows his way around her body by touch and scent, and he can taste her wetness when he's only partway up her thigh.

In case he thought about teasing her and making her wait, she pulls him out of her mouth against suction, then loudly takes him back in. Pop, slurp. Pop, slurp. It's maddening that he can't see this.

"For anyone who's still awake," Chiana's voice is in muffled stereo, coming from the comms on Aeryn's side counter and in John's pile of clothes.

John raises his head a few inches, so both of his ears are free. Aeryn's about to do the popping thing but she stops and listens.

Apparently Chiana was yawning, because she starts talking on the tail end of it. "For anyone still awake, this is your pre-frell warning."

In response, Aeryn does the popping thing, continuing right where she left off.

"Oh for fuck's sake." He stops teasing her, sliding his stubbly cheek lightly up the rest of her thigh and making it a Leviathan-style duet session.

John uses both hands to work the lather all over her scalp, and braces himself against the wall of the shower when she sighs and leans back against his chest. "Aeryn."

She hums.

"Let's get married."

She pulls back upright, yanking her head from his hands. "You don't remember? You asked and I said yes."

"No, no. Married."

"Well what's this, then?" She shows him her hand, fingers curled into a fist save for the ring finger sticking up. "Besides a way to lose a finger if it gets caught on something?"

"Not just a ring, but a ceremony and vows and we actually get married."

She steps under the spray and rinses her hair. "Ceremony and vows--didn't you do that already on the Royal Planet? I thought humans couldn't do that more than once?"

"Didn't you watch any soap operas on Earth?" He shakes his head and begins soaping himself up. "No. No, the Royal Planet doesn't count. Katralla's married to Tyno now, I was just a stunt groom for that one--well, stud groom might be more like it--you're distracting me. And you're hogging the water." He sets the soap into a wall niche. "Point is, there's no reason not to do this."

She trades places with him. "Fine. We can do it right now if you'd like. What's the vow?"

He rinses his hair and wipes the water from his face. "Aeryn, we can't just marry each other, we need someone to officiate, a priest or a judge. Hell, even the captain of a cruise ship."

Aeryn's coiling her hair to wring the water out of it, waiting for him to get to the point.

"We're five miles off shore, we could get D'Argo to marry us. We're already on the Love Boat."

Aeryn stops wringing. "You're not making any sense."

"It makes perfect sense." He changes tack, backing up and trying to explain. "Listen, it's a two part thing. The first part is that you want to, the second part is that you do. The desire, and then the action. You load the pulse chamber, then you fire."

"So what you're saying is that this second part is more important than the first."

He kneels down on the ceramic floor of the fresher and wraps his arms around her, resting his chin on the slight curve of her belly. "You get knocked up, then you set the baby free. You say 'yes', and then you say 'I do'."

The shower continues to spray, pelting his back and beading water on her skin as she peers down at him, tense and edgy, as if he just appeared out of nowhere, grabbed her, and offered her a Rumplestiltskin bargain instead of asking to set a date--in short, she's leery and grave, but willing to humor him if he'd just stand up and stop being strange for an arn at a stretch. "Of course I do."

Stark has been rocking and staring at the board for an eternity, arms folded and hands tucked into his armpits. Rygel finally smacks the table with his tadek stick. "Make your frelling move or forfeit it."

He darts a hand out, shifts one of his towers back two squares, and reburies his hand under the other arm once more.

With narrowed eyes, Rygel assesses the move. "Frell."

Stark stops rocking. "What are you going to do for the wedding?"

Rygel gestures with his game stick. "Grace it with my presence."

"I was thinking of setting up a Delvian sacred space for them to make their vows in."

"I have better uses for my time than playing Minister of Ceremonies to their two-person court."

"Chiana is going to sing. Noranti is making an aphrodisiac dessert for after."

"Trust Noranti to be both crass and redundant." Rygel pushes his tallest tower to the next forward square.

Stark watches the move, and nods ever so slightly.

Rygel bends his wrist and continues pushing the tower to the diagonal square next to it. "I believe that makes a high double. Let's see you wriggle out of that one."

"That's a lovely move." Stark smirks. "And I knew you wouldn't be able to resist it."

Rygel laughs. "Nice bluff."

"Is it?"

He laughs harder. "The saner you sound, the more I know you're making it up."

Stark plays with the buckle at his neck, murmuring to himself. "That's an interesting observation."

The dreams have grown along with the incipient bump under Aeryn's waistband. In tonight's offering, there's a smell of stale cigarette smoke and the echoes of bowling.

The alley is carpeted in a worn ugly blue pattern, and the yellow plastic chairs are that ergonomic shape that only looked good when Uhura was sitting in one. The place is empty except for a few people in matching shirts at the far end, and a mismatched pair in the lanes in front of John. He walks down the steps, past the line of chairs and crosses to the island of two chairs and a podium desk where they keep score.

Harvey sits in one scorekeeper's chair, talking in low tones to a girl with a long brown braid down her back, sitting in the other chair. She can't be more than seven or eight. A large black stereo headset, like the kind a DJ wears, rides high on her head, just above her ears.

John comes around to the front, behind the lanes and in front of the desk. Clear wraparound eye protectors distort her large eyes and make her look like a little bug.

Harvey leans down to quiz her. "What is the first rule?" He indicates the pulse pistol resting on the desk, which is also visible on the overhead projector, a black silhouette eclipsing the score sheet above John's head.

Her gaze flicks from Harvey to John, and back again. She reaches up and shifts the pistol so that it points to John's left. Her childlike voice is raspy, like her mom's. "Always treat the weapon as if it is loaded."

"And the other three rules?" From the outline, it looks like the pistol has been modified, the finger ridges smoothed out and the grip made skinnier to accommodate tiny hands.

"Never let the weapon point at anything I am not prepared to destroy. Keep my finger off the trigger until the sights of the weapon are on my chosen target. Be sure of my target and what is beyond my target." Her feet are shod in sneakers, and the loops and ends of the shoestrings dangle as she idly swings her feet above the scuffed linoleum floor.

"Excellent, child." Harvey hands her the pulse pistol, grip first. "Now, let's assess your proficiency."

She hops off the seat and takes the pistol, aiming it at the floor away from everyone's feet.

"Hello John. Hit the pin re-set, would you?"

"I was going to teach her baseball."

"Team sports? Not at all practical, John. Re-set the pins."

John leans down and presses the large red button on the ball return. He watches the little girl position the ear protectors into place with her free hand. "Does her mother know about these lessons?"

"Her mother adapted the weapon for her." Harvey pats the seat next to him, and John sits down with a sigh. The pins are racked and stacked, and the little girl waits at the end of the lane, pistol down at her side. "You will not be able to protect her forever."

"I know."

"As soon as she is able, she must learn to protect herself."

"I realize that."

Harvey turns his attention to the lane. "Proceed."

The little girl brings the pistol up and starts firing at the pins, picking them off one by one, right to left.

Harvey shouts, "Cover!"

The girl stops firing and executes a tumble roll, in a few microts she's slid underneath the ball return and is firing at the pins from cover.

Harvey shouts, "Secure the area!"

The little girl squirms, sneakers sticking out from under the ball return, squeaking against the wood of the lane. In a flash she's under the ball return for the next set of lanes, heading for the far end of the alley where the bowlers are.

"What's she doing?" John gets to his feet and starts running, but he's not even to the first ball return when she starts firing, and the screaming is over by the time he reaches her.

Harvey gets there right before John does, grabbing John's hand before he can fish the child out from under the ball return.

"What you do not yet seem to realize, is that she will have to be as hard you are to survive."

Stark makes almost no noise as he comes into the room and sits down at the work table across from Aeryn, but she follows him with her ears and begins talking to him without looking up from her work. "Hand me that circuit fuser, would you? On that tray, with the red handle."

He selects the tool from a tray down the bench and hands it to her. "Crichton wanted me to tell you that 'the soup is on'."

"Thank you." She slips the circuit fuser into the guts of the component she's working on.

"Are you going to come and eat?"

Aeryn slowly turns her wrist to hit the right spot with the tool. "No."

"Have you eaten at all today?"

"Haven't been hungry."

He shrugs. "Crichton is concerned."

Aeryn sets the fuser down, turns the component over, and activates a switch. It gives out a whir that winds down to silence. She sighs. "Wrong circuit."

"He's worried that you've been eating like a Kalish lately, going without food and then gorging like Rygel."

"Hand me that circuit cutter, would you?"

Stark waits for her to make eye contact.

Aeryn looks up from the component and gestures at the tool tray at the end of the bench. "Looks like the first one, with a black handle."

He reaches over to the tool tray and snags the cutter. "Are you coming to eat?"

She takes the cutter from him. "I'm not hungry." Her hands hold the tool and the component, and they lie loose on the table.

"I understand, but Crichton does not."

Aeryn makes a noise in her throat and goes back to work with the cutter. "Crichton has been taking an unhealthy interest in things that are none of his concern."

"You're not very smart, are you?"

Aeryn pulls the cutter out of the component, and her gaze pins Stark. He doesn't seem to notice the implied threat.

"It's a tool like any other." His words speed up and his voice rises. "You've used it, he's used it, you've been at the mercy of it, and you still don't recognize when it's in your own hand."

Her grip tightens on the tool in her hand, ready to demonstrate her complete understanding of its uses.

Stark catches himself, laying his hands flat on the table. His voice is soft. "You've got a hostage."

She's incredulous. "A hostage."

He keeps up his end of the stare.

"That's ridiculous."

"Is it?"

Aeryn digs the tool into the component. "Go tell Crichton I'll eat when I'm hungry."

Stark shrugs. "You're the boss--"

"What did you say?" She looks at him sharply. Not only English, but the same sound and inflection as if John had said it.


"What you said, why did you say that?"

He blushes and turns his face so the metal is prominent. "I'm sorry. Things slip out sometimes, I don't even realize it. I'm very sorry." He stands to go, but she drops the cutter and grabs his sleeve.


Half-standing, he slowly sinks back down onto the seat.

"It's okay. I wasn't expecting it, that's all."

Stark lays his hand on hers, pats it. "You and Rygel and I are the only ones left."

She slips her hand out from under his.

Stark lets his hand come to rest on the table. "Rygel told me about Talyn and Crais."

Aeryn slides the cutter into the component.

"Such strength and such innocence." He taps his fingers lightly. "It's hard to believe he has gone to the other side, I can feel his echoes."

She feels her way inside to the wrongly fused circuit, then activates the cutter. "Talyn or Crais?"

Her tone implies strongly that he should only be talking about one or the other, and not the unspoken third.

Stark rolls his shoulders as if shrugging off a hand. "I was never bonded to Crais. But Talyn...he allowed me to share his thoughts."

"You feel echoes of Talyn." She sets down the tool. "What do they feel like?"

"Powerful." His hand smoothes the tabletop. "Exciting. It's like love, in a way, it wraps around your heart and caresses it. Before it starts squeezing. Before it rips it free from your body and wrings every last drop of--"


He lays a hand on his chest and murmurs. "Still beating."

"Right." Aeryn considers going to the kitchen. If she stays, there's no telling how long Stark will want to talk. If she goes, John will pester her until she either eats or makes him angry. She sighs. Maybe she'll be hungry by the time she's finished this rebuild. She decides to stay and talk to Stark instead. "Are you sure you're feeling Talyn?"


When she looks up at him, he's staring at the component in her hands. She notices that he's shaved his head clean again, leaving only a warm shadow of the hair growing below the skin. If she went against the grain it'd be rough, but if she went from crown to forehead he'd be smooth. She scratches the pad of her thumb across an edge of metal. "Talyn what?"

"Liked you."

Aeryn turns the component over in her hands, bumps and edges under her fingers.

"Warm, like flying into the sun." Stark's brow furrows, as if he's either tuning something in or out. "And hollow, just out of reach, straining towards--"

"Desire." Aeryn plucks the circuit fuser from the tabletop decisively.

Stark lifts his eyebrow and his lips go soft in awe. "That's a good word for it."

Aeryn nods. "Yes, I suppose it is."

"Lots of that going around."

She hums in agreement, sliding the fuser into the component and searching by feel for the right spot. Her hands are sweaty and her grip isn't precise enough, she keeps overshooting the mark and having to reposition the tool.

"Would you like me to hold that still for you?"

His hand rests, palm up on the table between them, still and square like a solid bulkhead. She sets the component onto it. "Yes. Thank you. I've been working on this thing for days, and now that I have everything back together it doesn't want to work."

She turns it, moving his fingers into the right spots to hold it steady without blocking her way. His fingernails are dry and smooth. She grips the fuser in one hand, using the other to move Stark's hand ever so slightly until the component meets the tool.

In a microt the circuit is fused. She pulls his thumb away and activates the component. The sound purrs, and her smile starts in her chest and works its way to her face.

"Is that how it's supposed to sound?"


His fingers splay away from the component, bending at angles that only males' fingers seem to do. Something about the way the third finger moves. She notices that his breathing is shallow and fast. She lays her hand on the component, to pick it up from his open palm, but he closes his hand, fingers lightly over hers. "It's not going to detonate, is it?"

There are warm spots on the metal, from where he was. "No." She shakes her head, clears her throat. "No, it's part of the inertial dampener...for the guidance system of my Prowler."

His thumb is resting on top of the middle joint of her middle finger. The slightest motion slides it up to the bend of the joint and back down the soft side of the finger.

She feels the blunt edge of the nail graze along every nerve in her body, and it makes her itch for more sensation.

She pulls the component from his hand in the same motion that brings her to her feet. "I'm sure he saved some for me."

Stark looks up from his empty hand, mouth open with a question. She leaves before he can ask it.

Stark shakes his head as he watches Aeryn leave, trying to parse what just happened while still feeling the shiver of it. When the component she was working on rolls into the room, he looks at it for a moment, uncomprehending, before he follows its path back through the doorway.

He finds Aeryn, out cold in a pile on the floor next to the corridor wall. He darts back into the room, listens, and hears nothing. He peers into the corridor, sees nothing, and pulls his head back into the room. He activates his comm, whispering, "D'Argo..."

D'Argo answers but Stark shushes him.

His whisper has an edge of panic. "We have intruders on board."

D'Argo's whisper manages to be calm and commanding at the same time. "What's happened, Stark? Where are you?" There are muffled voices on D'Argo's end of the communication. "Is Aeryn with you?"

"I'm in the third tier workshop. Aeryn is unconscious."

After a moment, D'Argo replies, "Pilot assures me that there are no intruders on board. John, Chiana and I are heading your way to check the area. Noranti wants to ask you some questions about Aeryn."

Stark sidles around the doorframe, scanning the corridor again. Aeryn hasn't moved, but she's breathing.

Noranti's voice pipes through his comm, jostled and uneven. "Is she breathing?"


It's clear that the old woman is running while she's talking. "How is her color?"


"Is she flushed? Or peaked? Is she sweating? Is she lying still, or moving at all?"

Stark slides down the wall and reaches his hand out to Aeryn's arm. "She looks like she's sleeping."

"Oh! Good!"

Aeryn moves her arm, dragging her hand along the floor in a boneless sweep.

Noranti's dividing her sentences into breaths, not panting so much as conserving her wind. "She's probably...just fainted...if she's wearing...anything tight...go ahead...and loosen it."

Stark cranes his chin down and gives his comm a look. He can hear boot-steps pounding up the corridor. It's all he can do to get out of the way as D'Argo crashes down onto his knees and somehow skids right over to her.

"Aeryn! Are you all right?"

Her eyelids flutter and she squints up at him. "What are you doing here?" D'Argo helps her sit up. "Why am I on the floor?"


Stark stands up and steps back, making room for John as he runs up and half-crouches, half-ricochets off the wall and comes to rest on her other side.

"Aeryn, baby, are you okay?" His hands are all over, on her arms, her legs, her cheek, brushing her hair off her neck. His fingertips linger under the line of her jaw. He flicks a look up at Stark. "What happened?"

Stark describes an empty space with his hands as he shrugs, nervous. "She fainted."

Footsteps tap up the corridor from the other direction, and Stark turns to find a slim white barrel aimed at him and then tilted down toward the floor. Chiana smirks, then reports to D'Argo. "There's no sign of anybody or any thing. What happened to Aeryn?"

Aeryn shoos John's hand away from her neck. "I stood up too fast."

"You hit your head on something?" Chiana holsters her pistol.

D'Argo clarifies. "She fainted."

She crouches down to study Aeryn. "What's that?"

Noranti chugs up the corridor and comes to a stop, skirts swaying. Her third eye is squeezed shut like it's closed against the wind. "Circulatory...adjustment...quite common...early in the ...gestational...cycle."

Chiana whispers to D'Argo, "Sebaceans hit the floor when they're pregnant?"

"Lo'Laan and I were aware it could happen, however, she was not a fainter."

Aeryn gathers her legs under herself and shoves at the crowd surrounding her. "I am not a fainter."

"Sure." Chiana gives a lopsided smile. "You were just a little tired, that's all."

Aeryn glares at her, then sweeps everyone with the same look. She speaks each word as if she's arming it and placing it into position. "I appreciate your concern, but I feel fine."

John's the only one who doesn't wander a step back or to the side. "Honey, I didn't quite hear you that time, you wanna repeat that without leaning against the wall?"

Aeryn pushes away from the wall and stands straight. Her smile is furious. "Better?"

John returns the same smile, vicious and candy-coated.

"I uh, I'm gonna go finish my meal before it gets any colder." Chiana scratches the back of her neck and starts walking away. "Hey Stark, you hungry?"

"No," he says, following her anyway.

"Um. Yes." D'Argo claps a gentle hand on Noranti's shoulder and turns her in the same direction. "I think I'd like another helping of those roasted delpas, myself."

Noranti tries to shake D'Argo's hand from her shoulder, protesting all the way up the corridor. "But they're going to--"

"Be left in peace," D'Argo growls.

"But they're so cute when they're--"

"Left in peace."

Aeryn walks off in the other direction, John close behind. "I don't want to talk about it."

"Aeryn, what if you'd had a welding torch in your hand? What if y--"

"I do not want to talk about it."

"Fine. We won't talk about it. But you're getting a DRD chaperone just like we did for Chiana."

"No." She turns on her heel and gets right up into his face. "I am not ill. I am not injured. I do not need to put my feet up, get more sleep, eat when you tell me to or be escorted around the ship like a prisoner."

"Okay." John's voice purrs from his chest, sweet and sarcastic. "Next time you want us to leave you on the floor until you come around on your own?"

She whips around and continues walking, her pace quicker. "It's getting hot again. I'm going to my quarters."

John cracks his neck and follows her as she quick-marches down the corridors, the air growing cooler as they approach her quarters.

Noranti enters the kitchen in a swish of skirts, addressing D'Argo and the world at large. "Objective mediation! That's what the situation calls for."

"There is no situation." D'Argo sits down in front of his abandoned plate and pokes the food with his spoon. "Aeryn's just dealing with her changing biology, that's all. Lo'Laan was a hezmot to deal with during the first three monens." The food passes inspection, so he loads up his spoon. "The last three weren't very fun, either."

Chiana pauses as she takes her seat. "She's going to be like that the whole time?"

He waits until he's swallowed. "The Sebacean gestation is nine monens long, for Luxans it is eleven. Lo'Laan and I needed genetic assistance to have Jothee, and her pregnancy was carefully monitored from the very beginning." He scoops another spoonful but doesn't eat it. "Watching my son grow...was an amazing experience."

Looking at her plate, Chiana reaches over and squeezes D'Argo's hand before she begins eating.

Rygel glides into the room and straight to the warmer where he stashed his plate. He tops off his helpings and nestles it in his lap, then goes over to park at the table. "False alarm, then? Heh."

Chiana grips her fork. "Would you rather we were actually invaded? Then they could have joined you for dinner."

"Oh, I'm sorry, should I have gone running off with the lot of you to get knocked on the head and captured?" He waves his utensil like a scepter. "My sincerest apologies. Next time I'll be sure to do that instead of manning Command."

D'Argo nods. "Thank you, Rygel."

"It was a good suggestion, it pleased me to follow through with it. Although there's not much I could have done, in any event."

Now that he has their attention, Rygel twirls his utensil so that the tines point down. "Feel that air." He stabs a piece of roasted delpa. "The Leviathans are going to go at it again."

Noranti sets her plate down and sits at the table. "I think you're wrong."

"Smell the humidity, woman." Rygel takes a deep breath, nostril slits flaring. "You'll know I'm right when we start spinning."

"No, not you. I was speaking to the Captain." Noranti turns to D'Argo, lays her hand on his arm and whispers, "Those two are a pair, but they're not as one. They have to come together into some kind of unity."

D'Argo looks at her and she blinks a few times encouragingly. He turns back to his plate.

Chiana adds, "I think she's right."

He lays down his spoon. "I don't think it's any of our business."

"D'Argo, have you seen the way they smile at each other, but when the other one isn't looking the smile is gone?"

"No, I haven't."

"Yes, you have."

He closes his eyes and counts to five. " 'Never stand on the ground between a mated pair'."

"There's something going on between them and they need to work it out."

"Yes, exactly, they need to work it out."

"But they aren't."

D'Argo spoons his scattered delpas into a neat pile.

"How long until they blow up in all of our faces?"

Noranti murmurs in a sing-song, as if she just happens to be humming as she eats. "Ob-jec-tive me-di-a-tion."

Rygel raises his chair from the table a few denches. "You people must be screamingly bored to take such an interest in those two hapless farhbots." He motors away, depositing his empty plate and utensil next to the warmer. He says as he leaves, "I'll be on Command."

"Yeah." Chiana pauses with her cup in her hand. "We should all be playing tadek with Stark instead. He's not farhbot in the least."

Aeryn opens the cell door to her room and without slowing, walks over to the bed and falls down on it. John stays in the doorway, leaning against the frame. His voice is quiet. "You know I'm right."

She exhales sharply, a warning to him not to push.

He comes over to her and kneels down by the edge of the bed. He sets one of her boots on his leg and pulls the knot out of the laces.

She lifts her head, gives him a blank look, then lets her head fall back down with another sigh.

He peels off the sock and brushes it against the sole of her foot. He kneads her long slim foot until the red and white imprints of the boot have disappeared into pink.

Her breathing is deep, belly rising and falling in active counterpoint to her almost sleeping stillness. He pulls off her other boot and sock, and rubs that foot while he watches her.

She takes a deep breath to speak. "Quit staring at me."

"I'm not staring. I'm looking at you."

She reaches a hand out to him, and he stretches out next to her, his boots hanging off the bed. He lies on his side, head propped up. She opens her eyes, and presses her lips together.

"I was talking to D'Argo, you know what he told me?"

She bends her arm and tucks it under her head for a pillow.

"It's been ten weekens since we left Katratzi, so the baby is about ten weekens along." He takes her other hand, separates her index finger and holds the very tip of it. "And he's about the size of this last joint of yours here."

She smiles at him. "She."

He kisses her fingertip. "Okay, she."

She rolls over on top of him, pushing him onto his back and curling her leg around his. "Did he tell you anything more?"

"Yeah." He lifts his head toward her and she kisses him, her hand sneaking under his shirt. She breaks off the kiss and licks her lips.

"And?" She sits up, straddling him and plucking at his shirt. He sits up to untuck it and pull it off, then scoots so his back is against the wall. She sits astride him again and lets him pull her own shirt off.

He traces a finger between her breasts, barely confined in her standard issue bra. "Her heart is beating." He skitters his fingertips across their heavy curves, too tender recently to be much more than looked at. "She has brain waves."

Her long fingers gracefully work the buckle of his belt, and her smile is open and genuine. "She's thinking."

"Yeah." He kisses her, fingers diving into the soft coolness of her hair. She grinds against him leisurely. She kisses her way to his ear and whispers, "And?"

He whispers back, "And eyes and ears, and knees and elbows, and little buds that will turn into toes."

"And hands?" She traces the outline of his ear with her tongue, her thumb caressing the other in tandem.

"Something like hands, yeah. Pudgy little flat ones." His breath hitches as she slips his earlobe between her lips.

Aeryn rocks back, grinding against him before she rises up on her knees and moves away from the bed. Her smile beams at him as she unfastens her belt and leathers. "I think she'll have your hands." She slides the pants down her legs and turns to toss them behind her.

John thinks to himself, his hands, my hands, what difference is there at this point? I'm the dad now, or I will be if I can keep her safe, keep them safe.

He leans against the wall behind the bed and watches her strip down to nothing. Her skin is flushed despite the chill in the room, and the gleam in her eyes almost erases the image in his head of her crumpled on the floor like a broken doll.

Aeryn kneels on the bed and undoes the laces of his boots, helps his shuck off his own leathers and shorts. He pulls her up onto his lap again, enclosing her in his arms. He can't think of anything to say outside the boundaries of what she doesn't want to talk about. He kisses her instead, starting with her cheek and traveling delicately across her cheekbone. Her eyelid flutters as he ruffles her eyelashes with the tip of his tongue.

Her lashes are thick and straight, black and slightly bitter on his tongue, and he makes his way over to the other set to confirm the taste. She is still, barely breathing, waiting. He kisses her as if he doesn't want to disturb her makeup, even though she no longer uses that strange fairy sheen she wore when she was chasing him. When he stopped running from her, she stopped trying to look harmless and cute. She's not made for either of those. You don't put ribbons on a gun

He lays a trail of kisses down to her mouth, and breaks her spell of stillness. Her wicked smile returns and she takes him in hand. He reaches between them to cup her sex, and she shivers from the touch, already open and wet against his hand.

"Oh." He's about as hard as he gets, and when she strokes she isn't squeezing hard enough to do more than tease, but he's got her clit in a handy way and he wants to watch her come. He can feel how close she is, almost there before he touched her.

She rocks against his hand, eyes closed, mouth open,. Her areolas are darker than they were, and so hard that the skin around them is pebbled and her breasts are have taken on a different shape. He braces the small of her back and kisses his way down her chest.

She grinds against his hand and he shifts her clit from his fingers to the heel of his hand, slipping his middle fingers into her. He lays a soft tongue against one of her nipples, and she sucks in a breath and then freezes. He closes his mouth on the nipple and suckles, his hand trapped between them escalating the pace. Her muscles bear down and she comes against the palm of his hand, her fingers digging into his shoulders and her shout filling the room.

He slows, eases off, but keeps stroking her and dipping into her wetness as she shudders down the back slope of orgasm.

Aeryn leans back suddenly, pulling her nipple from his mouth with a wet 'snick' sound. Her eyes are wide open. She scrambles from his lap and off the bed.

He transfers her wetness from his hand to his straining erection, eager for whatever position she's just thought of.

She grabs her pants and shirt from the floor, and dresses faster than a fireman.


She shoves her feet into her unlaced boots and calls over her shoulder as she leaves, "I forgot something--I'll be right back!"

For a moment, John sits there on the bed, with only his own slick hand on his dick for company, "Be right...what...what the hell?" He jumps off the bed and chases after her, bare feet slapping on the chilly floor. "Aeryn!"

He'd run but he's not certain where she headed to. Instead he stalks up the corridor in the general direction that his dick is pointing, bobbing and weaving like a dowsing rod. He bellows her name again. "Aeryn!"

He hears it's her by the rhythm of the boot steps running toward him up the hallway. She turns the corner and he sees a piece of machinery in her hand. "Aeryn, what's going on?"

She keeps running past him, pausing only long enough to smirk and slap his bare ass.


By the time he gets back to her quarters, she's naked again, and she leads him to the bed as if nothing had happened. He balks.

"What was all that about?" He points to the piece of machinery, nestled between the broken down insteps of her paired boots.

She has the decency to blush and stop pulling him toward the bed. "I thought it was broken again. It took me three days to fix and I was going to re-install it when I...fainted. I had it in my hand. Once I remembered it, I had to check if I'd smashed it."

"Must be important."

"Inertial dampener for the left steering armature of my Prowler."


She takes hold of his flagging cock, as if it were one of the metal levers she uses to pilot her ship. "It gives a certain solid feel to the control." Her hand is graceful and her grip pleasingly firm. "It smoothes the responsiveness, eliminates any jerking movement that could translate to the trajectory of the ship."

"I see." Pleasure chases away the chill on his skin and he lets her pull him to the bed. He joins her there, tracing his fingers up from thigh to hip to circle around her breast. "And it couldn't wait until we were both finished?"

"Were you planning on being quick?" She rolls him onto his back and guides him into her.

"Not if I can help it." He takes her hips in hand and pushes in until he's buried as deep as he can go. For a moment he watches her, watches her body respond to him, reassuring himself that she's right here, right now, and she isn't haring off for a little while at least.

She starts fucking him slowly, bracing her hands on his belly in a way that pushes her breasts together. Her newly darkened areolas tighten up on their own, and she flexes around his cock. The skin of her chest is flushed and her eyes are locked on his, soft and dark. She leans back, bracing with her hands on his thighs and starts fucking him in earnest.

She's close again, already, and he wonders if the ability to go from zero to orgasm and back again in sixty seconds is a side-effect of Sebacean pregnancy. He wishes there was some kind of inertial dampener between the two of them.

The wormhole starts to cycle open, another tick in the nine hour cycle that it's been going through since they arrived in the Leviathans' neighborhood. The distraction is enough to keep him from coming despite the pleasure of riding out Aeryn's orgasm. Not because the wormhole itself is anything special, but because it's rising and setting around them.

They're spinning.


The wormhole escalates, the feeling of water up his nose stings and they're spinning again and they're fucking again and god--is she coming again, or is it still?

The wormhole slows to a stop over on his right as Aeryn squeezes around him so tightly that he pops right out of her, but she rides him anyway, gasping and grinding until the wormhole bursts and John bursts and Aeryn shudders to a stop.

She falls to the bed next to him, covered in sweat and as out of breath as he is. Presumably Moya and her lover have also flown apart to savor the afterglow. Funny, the timing on that.

He rolls toward Aeryn, reaches a shaky hand to brush wet hair from the side of her face. "Babe," he pants, "what...the frell...was that?"

She rolls onto her back and catches her breath.

He stares at the ceiling with her. His questions are flat and rhetorical, the elucidation of the patently obvious. "This isn't just heat delirium, is it."


"You're hooked into Moya, somehow. Aren't you."

She takes a deep breath and lets it out. "I think so."

"Right." He sniffs, coughs and clears his throat. "Anything else you want to come clean on? Nah, forget I asked. I'm sure it's on the list of things you don't want to talk about."

She stiffens but doesn't move away. "I knew you would overreact."

"Don't protect me from reality, Aeryn." He stands and grabs his pants off the floor. "If there's something wrong, tell me."

She watches him take a corner of her bed sheet and clean himself off, then slip on his leathers. She feels spent and a little hollow, and the question she hasn't been able to steel herself enough to ask for weekens comes out of her mouth as easy as breath. "Are you happy?"

He fastens his leathers slowly, the same careful look to his hands and face as he wore when he was building his tactical nuke. This is why she hadn't been able to ask, because she already knew.

His hands fall to his sides. "I love you."

She knows this too. And she has absolutely no idea why these two pieces do not fit together anymore. She sits up and pulls the blanket around herself.

He sits next to her on the bed. "You keep fighting me, hiding things from me."

"This thing with Moya is a distraction, that's all."

"A distraction."

She tucks her feet under the blanket. "I've always been able to sense how Moya is, a general feeling of her status."

He turns to her. "Always?"

She nods. "I know what it feels like to be a Pilot, and that sense has never left me. This is just more so, because of what Moya is going through. I knew you would worry, but there's nothing to worry about. When the mating is over, Moya will return to normal and my sense of her won't be so intense."

He slips his arm around her and pulls her in a loose embrace. "I just want to take care of you. The both of you."

She remembers something Stark said about hostages, but she curtails that line of thought, reaching behind to rub a sore spot on her lower back.

"Here?" He slides his hand down to the spot.

"Yes." She relaxes across his lap, laying her cheek on his warm leather thigh. He works the muscles on both sides of her spine with the heel of his hand, easing the soreness. She concedes, "I think I strained it when I hit the ground."

"I'm sure fucking my brains out afterward didn't help, either."

She laughs.

"Not so bad, is it? Letting me take care of you?"

She hums noncommittally. "I like this much better than your nagging."

"Then I won't even mention food. Even though your stomach just growled so hard I felt it against my leg."

She raises her head and sits up. "I wasn't hungry until now."

"And now you're starving."

She stands up and drops the blanket to look for her clothes. "Yes, now I'm starving."

Noranti is pounding something recalcitrant in her largest mortar and pestle, and she nods a greeting as Aeryn opens a cooling unit and starts stacking food onto a plate. "Try the delpas. They went over very well this evening."

Aeryn sets her plate on the counter Noranti's working at. "What are you making?"

Noranti tips the mortar over, sending coarse powder through a screen and into a bowl. "Almond flour."

Aeryn doesn't know what that is, but it smells good, warm and nutty. Noranti taps the screen and then dumps the leftover bits back into the mortar.

"You like making food?"

Noranti rubs her hands together and gets a good grip on the pestle. "Cooking us a wonderful way to think out loud, mixing, separating, transforming. Aren't you going to warm that up?"

Aeryn looks down at her plate and chews her food down to the point where she can talk out of one side of her mouth. "Why?"

Noranti clicks her tongue and takes her plate, hiding it in the warmer. "Because it will taste better that way."

"I don't mind how it tastes."

Noranti crushes the last bits and sends it through the screen. She pours the powder into a jar and secures the lid tightly.

"You're not going to use that for anything?"

"Later. It's for the wedding dessert."

Aeryn smiles with a furrowed brow. "That's not for days yet."

Noranti jabs a cheerful finger at her. "You see?"

Aeryn doesn't. She wonders if her plate is sufficiently warm yet. She taps her fork and eyes the warmer while Noranti wipes the mortar and pestle clean, takes some long thin dried black things and bashes them between the counter and the handle of her knife, and then shoves them into a different jar of something white and granular. Finally, she retrieves the plate and slides it in front of Aeryn.

"Those delpas, I just cut them up, sprinkled them with tarl root and salt and then roasted them. Some things are easy."

Aeryn divides her attention between the plate and the cook.

"The dessert I'm making has a lot of ingredients, none of which I'm very familiar with yet or likely to see again after we go through our stores of them. The techniques are fascinating, though, and I know what it should taste like when it's done. Olivia made me a video..." Noranti stops, looks left, right, behind the mortar, above the flame hood over the warmer. She shakes her head. "Somewhere. I think Rygel borrowed it again. Point being, some things are not done easily."

Aeryn nods. "I once had to pursue a mark for three solid monens before I had the opportunity to complete my assignment."

Noranti's extra eye shifts to blue and blinks. "So you know what I'm talking about."

"Not particularly." Aeryn looks down at her empty plate.

Noranti takes it, fills it, and slips it into the warmer again.

"You have children..." Aeryn leans her elbows onto the counter and can't seem to find the words for the rest.

Noranti tilts her head encouragingly.

"Did you carry them...inside?"

"Oh!" Noranti pats Aeryn's arm as her weird eye turns green. "I've not only birthed my own, I've helped others. You have questions."

Aeryn nods.

"Ask me." Noranti looks to the side, searching her memory. "When I was with the Tarkin freedom fighters, I assisted at two Sebacean births. I certainly don't know everything, but with D'Argo, I think we have most things covered."

"There are some things I'd rather not ask D'Argo."

Noranti flutters her lashes in a smile, but the smile fades as she takes in the serious expression on Aeryn's face. "What is wrong?"

Aeryn pauses for emphasis before she speaks. "I have not shat in five solar days."

Noranti nods her head once, goes to the cooling unit, and picks out a few pieces of vegetable. On her way to the counter, she retrieves Aeryn's plate from the warmer. "Eat. I will explain."

Aeryn picks up the fork but waits for Noranti to continue.

She begins to clean and cut the vegetables as she talks. "Your body is not only the place where you live, it is also sustaining a very fast growing child. You must learn to share."

Aeryn is dubious about this line of explanation. "Even dren?"

"Oh yes. Your body won't get rid of anything until you've squeezed every last possible nutrient out of it."


"Yes, amazing really, the changes it makes before you can even see it." Noranti piles the cut veggies onto Aeryn's plate. "I'm sure you're also passing water more frequently."

"I'm thinking of using my long-range flight catheter."

"I...I wouldn't advise that."

"I'm joking." Aeryn stabs a veggie piece with her fork. "Mostly."

John brushes his hand across the corridor ribs as he makes his way to Command, feeling them warm as he gains distance from Aeryn's room. He thinks about the Pilot DNA still buried in each of her cells, responding to Moya like a guitar string vibrating in sympathy.

He remembers when it happened, the person he was then. Wishing he had a tricorder to verify if something was safe to drink, thinking he could Captain Kirk his way out of any situation.

He remembers the way he pushed her and pushed her until she finally lifted her shirt and showed him what was wrong. How he wasn't going to help her until she opened up a little bit first. He had this idea of showing her the give and take of friendship by teaching her to say 'please'.

He used to be such a defenseless idiot, it's a wonder he stayed alive long enough to turn into a dangerous idiot.

He wonders what she'd tell him now if he pushed hard enough. It's a purely theoretical line of thought. They're past the please and thank-yous, past the games and the ultimatums. The last time he pushed her with his heart and his hands, she left.

There's so much between the beginning and now, it doesn't feel quite real. She died for him, and then he died on her, and if it isn't fate, then it's fait accompli. And now they have a chance to turn the ashes over into the ground between them and grow something.

He worries about how the Pilot DNA may affect the baby, aside from distracting its mother from eating unless she's freshly frelled. 'As long as it's healthy' is the clich, but he feels the truth behind it--don't ask for too much, lest you overlook something important. Claws and exoskeleton pale beside the very real odds against the child growing up whole and happy.

The less the baby looks like her father, the better off she'll be.

It occurs to him suddenly that maybe whatever Namtar did to Aeryn is what allowed the baby to be conceived in the first place. He drops his hand from the wall, and compulsively checks his shave as he walks. All those women he kissed on the Royal Planet and only two of them were sweet, the first like molasses and the second like honey. Hard and sweet like rock candy.

He thinks about the vow he's going to make. He's already offered his body, his mind, and his soul in turn for her, getting each of them back but all the worse for wear. At this point what's a promise?

He needs to talk to D'Argo about the ceremony. Make sure there's no gratuitous branding.

When he comes through the doorway into Command, the screen flickers in the corner of his vision. He stops just inside the door to take a better look, but it's just stars and Leviathans.

"Hey. You missed the wormhole." Chiana moves from a control console to one of the wall benches, and 1812 follows like the well-trained pet he's become. "How's Aeryn?"

"She's fine. She's having a late dinner." John calls up his instrumentation array and looks at the behaviour of the wormhole over time.

This one opens every nine hours, and the Leviathans pop in and out like commuters using a subway system. He looks at the communications log, comparing the times Pilot's taken it offline (diverting power for mating maneuvers) to the wormhole cycle. They only jive at a few points--the Leviathans don't give the wormhole much attention unless they're actually using it. The gaps in the communications log, however, might as well be the notches on John's bedpost the last few days, confirming what he'd already guessed and what she'd confessed. He has questions that the data won't answer. "You hear anything from Pilot lately? I need to talk to him about some things."

"Not yet. But the ships flew apart half an arn ago, so he should be checking in any microt."

"Chiana." Pilot appears on the clamshell.

"Speak of the devil."


"How's it going, Pilot?" Chiana wanders over to the clamshell.

"Very well, Chiana."

"Can I ask you a question, P-"

"I have wonderful news--Moya has conceived!"

Chiana whoops so loudly John thinks he may have pierced an eardrum. She skips over to him and grabs his hands. "Did you hear that? We're going to have a baby!" She throws her head back and turns him in a circle as she laughs and he finds himself laughing with her.

"Yeah," he chuckles. "I heard."

"Babies!" she shouts, shaking his arms. He scoops her up and twirls her 'round. When her feet touch the ground she bounces away toward the clamshell again. "So how does this work, when will we know that the baby's going to be okay in Tormented Space?"

"The offspring is nearly a solar day old, and all preliminary analysis shows it to be a healthy conception. It has been transferred to the gestation chamber and the DRDs report that the attachment is secure. Now that the offspring is being nurtured by Moya, growth rate has increased."

John asks, "Will Moya need to divert power like she did last time?"

Pilot tilts his head in silent consultation. "Unlikely. Moya says that this child feels different from Talyn. She does not have a normal pregnancy to compare Talyn to, but she believes that this offspring will be less taxing on her systems."

"That's good news, Pilot."

"We believe that within a weeken the offspring will achieve sufficient synaptic complexity that any difficulty with Tormented Space will be apparent." Pilot's voice softens. "The male has decided to accompany Moya until she is certain that the offspring will be viable."

Chiana slugs John on the arm and nods her head. "Good guy."

Pilot searches for words. "He is intrigued by her. By the fact that she has a Pilot and passengers, and still retains...her sovereignty...and by the fact that she desires offspring enough to risk the painful effects that this region of space has on her. He is honored by her choosing him." Pilot hesitates, then adds, "He is also enamored with her color."

Chiana gives John a look, lips pressed in a smile and eyebrows raised.

"Sweet nothings." John laughs. "He's a big blue Cyrano de Leviathan."

"I must attend to Moya." Pilot raises a claw to sever the clamshell connection. "Ship environmentals will return to normal within five arns."

"Come on." She grabs John's wrist and pulls him toward the door. "Ibiz, heel." The DRD chirps and zips along behind her left foot. "Let's go tell D'Argo!"

John can hear the shilquin all the way down the corridor, and it buoys his good mood even higher. He notes that both Chiana and he have adjusted their walking to the rhythm of the song, which niggles at the back of his head like he should know it, but he can't place it even when Chi starts humming along.

He follows her into D'Argo's room, and the amount of grey clothing scattered about confirms that those two are together, even if they aren't an official item. She shifts from foot to foot in front of D'Argo until he finishes whatever song or phrase he's working on.

"Guess what."

D'Argo asks mildly, "What?"

"Guess who's having a baby!"

D'Argo lays the shilquin aside slowly, looking back and forth from Chi to John and clearly thinking that it's got to be a trick question.

John is furiously curious about what kind of open relationship they seem to have worked out but he squashes it instantly. He doesn't really want to know. He steps in before D'Argo either goes into hyper-rage or suggests a threesome. "Moya is pregnant."

The joy spreads over D'Argo's face like the sun breaking over the horizon, and John smiles because it's the same look he got when he found out about Aeryn. He also smiles for a more selfish reason: it seems there will be no lack of potential babysitters when his own offspring arrives.

D'Argo activates ship wide comms. "Everyone, I've been informed that the mating has been successful and Moya is now pregnant." He clicks off. "Did Pilot say when it happened?"

"Almost a solar day ago," John fills him in, "apparently he's been testing it since then."

D'Argo nods and clicks back on. "The temperature and humidity should be back to normal in eight to ten arns, and Pilot will be monitoring the offspring. We'll know in a weeken whether it will be a healthy child for Moya." He clicks off again.

Chiana drops onto the bed next to him with a bounce. "We should celebrate."

John opens his mouth to take his leave but D'Argo interrupts him. "We will celebrate at the wedding. Pull up a chair, sit. We have a ceremony to discuss."

"Yeah, I wanted to talk to you about that." John finds a chair and turns it backwards, arms folded across the backrest.

D'Argo leans his elbows on his knees and Chiana kneels behind him, idly scratching his back while he talks. "Chiana and I have discussed this but we want to have input from the two of you, since it is your marriage that is to be sanctified."

John ignores the itchiness of his own back. "Aeryn's only edict is that she's not vowing to 'love, honor, and obey', and I can't really fault her on that one. We've agreed on 'love, honor, and respect' instead."

Chi rests her chin on D'Argo's shoulder. "Clothes, attendants, flowers."


"This is a solemn occasion, John." D'Argo lays a hand on his friend's leather-clad knee. "Everything must be special, to emphasize the importance of the bond you are creating."

"Duh." Chiana twists to her side and props her head on her elbow. "Even I know that much, and Nebari don't pair bond."

"Okay. Nice clothes. It'll give me an excuse to go through some of that crap we got on Earth." He rubs his nose. "Chi, can you help Aeryn find something to wear?"

She smiles. "I'll dress her up pretty and braid her hair if she'll let me. That makes me her attendant. Now you need one."

"You're awful quick with these particulars for a person whose species doesn't pair bond."

She shrugs.

"I'll ask Rygel. What's next, flowers? That's easy, we don't have them."

"But there're always flowers."

D'Argo explains. "She watched a fair amount of television."

"A Wedding Story. Every day after lunch, Noranti and I watched A Wedding Story and A Baby Story, except when we were traveling and then we taped it."

John scrubs his face with his hands.

"So Moya's first child, Talyn, was named after your father?" Noranti sits down next to Aeryn at the table, setting a hot mug in front of each of them.

"Yes." Aeryn sips at hers and makes a face. "I don't like coffee."

"Here." Noranti fetches a jar, drops a spoon of viscous amber fluid into Aeryn's mug and stirs. "That will help the taste and the coffee will help your current discomfort."

Aeryn looks into the mug, braces herself and takes another drink. Her brow furrows, but she keeps at it until the mug is drained.

Noranti grins. "If that doesn't kick start things, I don't know what will."

Aeryn sucks at her teeth. "It was gritty."

"Motherhood involves sacrifice." Noranti sips at her own mug.

Aeryn dips the spoon into the jar of sweetness and watches the fluid fall and twirl. "My mother was given the choice to either kill me or my father."

Noranti sets her mug down but keeps her hands around the warmth. "She chose your father."

"She chose wrong. She terminated a flag officer instead of an easily replaceable creche brat. I don't think she would have earned full clemency either way, but her choice made it clear that she was far too tainted by sentiment to be rehabilitated. So she was reassigned."

Aeryn turns the spoon so the thread of sweetness winds around, then slips it into her mouth and pensively sucks it clean. Noranti sips her coffee. Aeryn sets the spoon on the table and pushes her finger against the hollow, tilting the handle up and spinning it around idly. When she talks it's more like thinking out loud.

"When she got the chance, she tried to kill me. It seemed to me she had rehabilitated herself, carved the sentiment out of herself, cycle by cycle, kill by kill." Aeryn shakes her head, spins the spoon. "Maybe not."

"Sounds to me like she carved out all the good sentiment and made more room for the bad."

Aeryn studies the turning spoon as if waiting for it to voice its own opinion on the subject.

"What did you find, when you walked in her footsteps?"

"I didn't..." Aeryn's head shake stops along with the spoon. She looks at Noranti, who's sipping from her mug and watching the Leviathans as if she hadn't just verbally smacked her upside the head. Because she did think, down deep, that somehow Xhalax had found a kind of cold peace after losing everything, and Aeryn had desperately needed that peace, no matter how cold. "Yes. I guess, in some way, I did try to do what she had done."

Noranti pauses between slow sips. "And what did you learn?"

Aeryn grips the handle of the spoon. She'd lost herself for a time. The routines were Peacekeeper standard and comforting, and she was using her skills to do good things. She piloted at first, then she was given more challenging assignments. The command structure was more fluid and the objectives were...gratifying. It was like the Peacekeepers should be, the way she had thought they were back before she was outcast and had discovered how corrupt they truly were. "I found out..." She found several things to distract her from the pain, and it was good for a time. "I found out that I am tainted all the way through."

"Good." Noranti lays her coffee warm hand on Aeryn's forearm. "Now the question becomes, what do you do with it?"

John sprawls across the foot of the bed, feet and arms and head hanging down toward the floor. He pulls another napkin-sized sheet from a sloppy stack of colored paper and creases it corner-to-corner and then side-to-side. He watches his hands, measuring out a slow beat in his head as he goes through a series of folds, turning the flat plane of paper into something resembling a flower.

One summer Olivia folded these things obsessively, coloring and numbering the petals and writing fortunes in the heart of the flower. She'd follow him around, asking him to pick a color and a number, a color and a number. She'd hold the flower from underneath, opening it up along each axis the prescribed number of times, and then she'd lift up the chosen petal and read off his fortune.

She'd persist until he finally got the fortune that read, 'You are a stinky turd head.'

He'd learned how to fold the things so he could make her one where every fortune said, 'You are a stinky turd head.' She'd still kept following him around.

He sets the finished one aside and pulls a green sheet of paper off the pile.

Aeryn comes through the doorway and palms the door closed. He watches in his peripheral vision, keeping time in his head with the blossoming of the paper in his hands. Her combat boots stop at the uneven pile of flowers and she toes a pink one gently.

"What are you making?"


She drops into a crouch and he sets the newly finished green one in her hand. She watches him fold a purple one. Her voice is amused. "They're pretty. What are they for?"

He throws the purple one in the air and taps it like a volleyball at her. "Our wedding."

"Show me." She sits down on the floor, cross-legged, and takes a sheet of paper. He slows down the next one so she can copy him, and they make flowers for a time in the quiet. As they fold the last two pieces, she leans side to side to stretch her back.

He rolls off the bed, careful not to step in the pile of flowers. "I think we're done for the night."

She looks up at him, fingers working under the flaps to plump them into petal shape. "There're more?"

"Whole stacks. It doesn't help that Moya got a care package from every chain store in the free world." He offers a hand and helps her to her feet. "Your back is still bothering you, isn't it?"

She pauses before she nods.

He unclenches his jaw. He can hate the pause, but as long as she's telling him stuff he can't complain. "I'll rub it out for you, just let me dump these back in the box."

She helps him, scooping handfuls of paper flowers into the shipping crate. They undress for bed, and he lays down a pillow for her head and one for her hips. She stretches out on her stomach and he begins to knead the muscles of her lower back.

She tries to bury the groan into her pillow, but the room is quiet. He runs light fingers along her skin until she relaxes a bit, but when he massages again she whinges again. "It's worse than earlier."

She nods into her pillow. "Yes."

He draws out a yelp with the pressure of his thumbs. "Just your back, or anywhere else?"

She responds to the concern in his voice with a flat calm. "I strained a muscle, that's all."

He massages her a while longer. "It wouldn't hurt to check it out, though."

She breathes deeply, settling her arms around the pillow. "I'm not going anywhere."

"Just a quick look. We've got that med scanner just sitting there--"

"Six tiers away."

"We never did get a good explanation of why you fainted."

Aeryn's intonation is soft and sleepy. "Ask Noranti, it has to do with blood flow. I'm going to go to sleep now."

He presses the yelp spot and she squirms out from under his hands, pillow clutched like a blunt weapon. "Compromise. Tomorrow morning, we take a look just to be sure everything's okay."

She gives him a long weary look.

"What can it hurt? You know it makes sense."

"Fine." She tosses her pillow to the head of the bed and burrows under the covers. "Just to make you happy."

He works his jaw from side to side.

Later in the sleep cycle, Aeryn turns onto her side, onto her back, then onto her belly. This is even more uncomfortable, so she's back on her side, curled around a solidifying cramp in her stomach. Something's happening. Something very much like impending doom.

Something that hasn't happened in five, no, six solar days, counting today. With this realization, Aeryn's anxiety for the baby disappears, replaced by an increased urgency that sends her sprinting for the waste funnel, leaving John to mumble his questions to an empty bed.

As her body frenetically self-corrects its nearly weeken-long eliminatory stillness, she wonders how the human custom of drinking coffee every morning before duty shift could possibly result in greater work efficiency.

His voice slips through the privacy door that Moya had added after the cell had become Aeryn's room. "Y'all right in there, babe?"

She can picture him leaning next to the door, bleary-eyed, perhaps looking for his pants because he's about to rouse the whole ship if she doesn't respond. "I'm fine, John."

"Everything okay?"

Her brow furrows upwards and she leans her elbows on her knees. "I'm over the waste funnel, do you really want a full report?"

She pictures him scratching his temple. "Nah, nah, that's okay. You just jumped out of bed like an alarm was going off, I...I'm going back to bed."

She buries her face in her hands and massages her scalp, digging her fingers in and keeping calm. So what if she can't even drop dren in the middle of the frelling night without supervision? She loves him, even if she wants to crush his throat on occasion.

When she comes out he's deep asleep once more, but he senses when she slips under the covers. He moves around her, slipping limbs through hers and shifting his hot chest against her chilly back. He settles and sighs and she relaxes despite the sweatiness where their skin meets. Sleep hits her harder than the coffee did.

The smell of food wakes her up the next morning. Fresh-baked panek, by the smell of it. She climbs out of bed before she's really awake, years of military discipline demonstrated by the well-oiled routine of dressing, fixing the bedding, and brushing out her hair before she sits at the table and pulls the towel off the plate of food.

John folds flowers, glancing up at her. "Morning, sunshine."

"Thank you." She smiles at him, finishes her piece of panek.

"How are you feeling?"


He fluffs the petals and flicks the flower into the crate at his feet. "Ready?"

She brushes the crumbs off the table and into her palm. The sooner she goes, the sooner she can get to work on re-installing the inertial dampener.

He stands and offers his hand to her. "Don't look so glum. You're probably right, and I'm probably paranoid. Think of it this way, you get to prove me wrong."

"I'm not out to prove you wrong. I'd rather you gave me some credit, that's all." She stands up and takes his hand. "If there's a problem, I'll let you know. You have to trust my judgment."

"I know." He embraces her and kisses her on the cheek. "You know, with the scanner, we can take a peek at the baby."

That had not occurred to her. The baby was growing and she was feeling good--if nothing is wrong, why waste time running a diagnostic? Curiosity overwhelms her. She has someone inside of her and she can go see that person right now. Though to be completely honest, she feels her stomach knotting around the panek more than she feels the entity pushing up from under her waistband. She whispers against his neck. "Let's go see."

Stark is happy for Moya, and also glad for himself.

Every mating sent a tremendous amount of energy pouring into him. Life flowed in from the place where he had bonded with Talyn and made every part of him glow and yearn for more. Life ran up into all the cracks in the place where his body joined his soul, it spilled out of him and even sparked off Aeryn Sun.

Now that was interesting, though in retrospect, the same kind of interesting as dodging a pulse blast to the head. In the calm aftermath of conception, as the ship cools down and Stark comes more to his senses, he follows the analogy back and wonders if the pulse blast would come from John Crichton or Aeryn herself.

Either is equally likely.

Stark scrubs the soft side of his face with his hand. The apothecary lights are dim, and the scent of plants is comforting. It's good to just be in the quiet. The echoes of mating Leviathans ringing his head like a bell night and day had been a strain over the long-term, a constant threat to his equilibrium that wearied him and had stopped none too soon. He was running out of other things to focus on. Tadek can only be so distracting, and Rygel's been taking advantage of his distraction.

Stark runs back over the last few games and realizes exactly how badly he's been taken by Rygel, and how badly he has been playing. How disconnected he's been. How little it bothers him anymore to go from day to day and not focus on anything past that.

He brings himself back to the task he's chosen for today, to remember Zhaan and sanctify a space for something sacred. He didn't have much of a choice to come back to Moya or not to, and the mix of fresh pain and cold comfort is a puzzle and a trial. Everything reminds him of her, and makes her absence an unavoidable fact. She stayed with him for a long time, whispering to him on Valldon, easing his panic in the hold of the ship when the Scarrans found him once more. She cradled him in the bioloid couch and helped him focus so the Scarrans could take what they wanted from him and leave the rest untouched.

But he hasn't been able to sense her since. So today, he will give her all the time and energy she may need to touch him again from the other side. He will use everything in his power, every prop and well-worn trick to bridge the gap that's come up between them. He works his way around the apothecary, selecting things from shelves and jars and bins.

He lifts the hem of his shirt, piles everything he needs into the well of soft tan fabric, and makes his way to the observation deck.

The bubble-field that retains a warm drop of atmosphere over the observation deck is an innate part of Moya, and her systems have restored enough for it to function properly. Stark initiates the field and waits while atmosphere is cycled out to fill it, while that portion of Moya's hull heats enough to keep him from freezing.

There is still a chill when he steps out, but it's a welcome change from the swampy biology that's enveloped him for so long. The stars are sharp, and the pod of Leviathans speckle the sky with color.

He kneels and carefully sets down his load of paraphernalia. Useless objects. Crutches. Necessary only to those beings mired in their material existence. Those so spiritually impoverished as to think that anything non-material is therefore abstract, and can only conceptualize it by manipulating other objects. Frauds and charlatans who not only require a worthless piece of crystal or a twig of some revered bush to focus their meager concentration, but then imbue the crystal or the twig itself with the power they've somehow managed to harness from their self...

It makes him sick, to see them wave their toys about and chant meaningless words in supplication. How much more enlightenment can be gained by relying only on the power within oneself, the power of life itself? How much can be gained if one allows the life inside to connect to someone else? To bring individual lights together into a web of brilliance? How much is lost by this focus on things?

Little wonder she has left him alone.

His fingers scrabble across the deck to throw piece after piece at the sharp stars. They bounce off the bubble-field and skitter across the warm plates of the hull, and Stark sobs against Moya.

John powers on the med scanner and it runs through a warm-up sequence. Aeryn stands beside him, a hand on her hip and a hand on the scanner bed. He reorients himself with the control panel, remembering hours of pestering Jool to teach him stuff until she was satisfied that he didn't have any debilitating brain damage and could safely be ordered out of the infirmary and out of her hair. "Imaging, imaging," he hums.

Indicator lights flash that the unit is ready. He fiddles with the settings, trying to remember if the colors were counterintuitive or not, then figuring out again that pale blue means 'off' and bright red means 'on'. The display clicks on and just inside the frame the bones of Aeryn's hand are visible.

She moves her hand off the bed but he catches it in his and lays them both on the scanner. "I've gotta calibrate it."

She nods and splays her fingers out. He futzes and adjusts, and the display zooms in to show bones and tendons in a fine-grained greyscale image. He slides the plane of resolution up and down from her palm to the back of her hand. There's a smudge of pink at the base of her index finger and when he points it out on the screen she lifts her hand to show him a cut, ragged but healing. "Inertial dampener."

He makes a face. "Ouch."

She shrugs, and he grins because the way she's leaning against the scanner bed hitches her vest up a bit, and he can see that her belly has begun to nudge against her leathers, tilting the waistband down in front. The effect is a heady mix of adorable and sexy, even when tempered by her frankly impatient expression.

He zooms the display out to show the full bed, then reaches for her hand to help her up but she's already hopped onto the scanner, and the way she curls her lower back to swing her legs up makes the curve of belly disappear. When she lies out flat, her boots are more prominent than anything.

He initiates a general scan, and watches the display. The plane of resolution lifts from the scanner bed up through Aeryn Sun, the only areas of trouble are the rosy flares at her lower back and the knee that had bent underneath her when she fainted the day before. Inflamed muscles and nothing more.

He feels as if he's been walking about with steel bands around his chest and they've all been cut off. He breathes so deeply, so easily, that he gets a bit of a head-rush as he turns to Aeryn.

She's propped herself up on her elbows, the angles of her bare shoulders poking through the inky stream of her hair. Her eyes gleam. "Go ahead, I want to see what she looks like."

He tries not to grin like an idiot as he adjusts the zoom and focuses the scanner on the baby. Or rather, where the baby should be.

"Is there a problem?" Her tone is casual but he can see her pulse increase right on the display.

"Hold on a sec." He adjusts again, tries to jibe what he's seeing with that old Invisible Woman toy that Alex had on her desk (how many different ways did he try to fix that doll for her, so the innards wouldn't fall out? how many times did he step on that smooth green plastic liver?). He slides the scanner as slowly as possible and then stops. "Be still."

Aeryn freezes, knee bent slightly and neck craned so she can see the display. "What was--"

There's movement on the screen, the flash of a paddle-shaped hand as it rises into and drops out of the scanner's plane of resolution. John taps the control ever so gently, following the beckoning hand. He widens the depth of field so the slice of what they're looking at is thicker.

She is in three-quarter view, not quite looking at them and not quite in profile. Her head is huge, her eyes are closed and wide apart, her nose a mere suggestion. She looks like a newborn puppy or kitten. She looks like a little grey alien. She's the most astounding thing he has ever seen. She waves her stubby arms and the scanner faithfully shows each move of the miniature muscles and the tiny bird bones of her hand, like a black and white illustration come to life.

It is an awesome thing to see, and for once he's certain that Aeryn feels exactly the same thing because it's shining from her face so brightly it seems the scanner should be picking up rosy flashes of pride and joy.

Aeryn's voice is hushed and husky. "Her name is Zola."

John doesn't trust himself to say more than, "Okay," without sobbing.

Aeryn parts the curtain and steps into Chiana's quarters, but cannot find her at first in the mess of fabric and color strewn in heaps all over the main room. The lighting is dialed up bright, a confusion of color and things that sparkle and shine. Aeryn finally spots her as Chiana makes a beeline right over the bed toward her.

"I've sorted everything by color, so we can narrow it down right away by choosing the color and going from there." Chiana takes her by the hand and pulls her further into the room along a path through the heaped clothing.

Aeryn looks around and realizes for the first time that Chiana's world may not be as monochromatic as the woman herself, but it probably comes close. There is a blue pile with some purple. There is a dark red pile. Then there are piles of mixed green, yellow and orange, seemingly separated into distinct groups by brightness alone. Each pile is topped with a pair of items, a square and a length of fabric the same general hue as the pile.

Aeryn picks a piece from the top of a muted red and green pile, running the long piece of smooth shimmering fabric through her hand. It's pointed at each end, and a pattern of leaves flutters from the narrow end down to the wide end.

"Whichever color we pick, Crichton will match you. D'Argo says the Luxan wedding color is white, everyone's in white. I think it's to show off the bloodletting, myself." Chiana ticks off her fingers as she runs down the list. "Sebaceans, at least Lo'Laan's people, wear red. The Royal Planet people, which you missed, wore pink. Noranti says her people are born, get married and are buried naked. Stark says he doesn't know about Baniks, because slaves couldn't marry..." Chiana wiggles her remaining thumb.

Aeryn pauses in folding the tie. "And Rygel?"

She angles her head in a wry smile. "Rygel says that each of his wives wore the colors of her family, in the form of well-placed ribbons."

"I'm wearing more than ribbons." Aeryn taps the tie against Chiana's chest, but Chi doesn't take hold of it, just looks down and looks back up at Aeryn with a smirk.

"That's not for you, that's the pretty ribbon for Crichton's neck."

Aeryn folds the tie tighter into a silky springy ball, thinking about the humans all dressed alike, nondescript and submissive with handles around their necks. She doesn't like the image of John in that scratchy, flimsy uniform, bland and faceless like the natives. Every part of this ceremony has a meaning, and Aeryn is in way over her head. "Which color do you think we should choose? Which do humans wear?"

"All of 'em. Mainly white. Trust me, it's not a good color for you, which is why you won't find a white section here."

"No white. Right." Aeryn shrugs and takes Chiana's word for it.

D'Argo comes up the walkway and lays his hands on Pilot's console. "How is Moya faring?"

Pilot swivels toward D'Argo and blinks. "She is well enough, considering. She looks forward to the time when the filter can be reattached."

"And her child?"

"Developing normally so far. In another few days we should be able to see whether it can survive in Tormented Space."

D'Argo pronounces a Luxan benediction. "I hope with both my hearts that the child is healthy and strong."

Pilot inclines his head graciously. "Moya appreciates your concern."

"Pilot," D'Argo leans closer, his voice hushed, "are there any local transmissions or intel that you've been able to gather? I understand if you haven't been able to work on it."

"Yes, our discussion." Pilot taps something that gives off a burbling beep, and shifts his head closer to D'Argo, sheltering him with his carapace and speaking in a whisper. "There are no local transmissions in the breeding space here, but Moya has been able to gather a lot of information on the pathways and areas that these Leviathans inhabit, some of which are near the territories of planet-bound species. Although we will not be able to investigate beforehand whether any particular system or planet has a Diagnosan, some of these areas are rather large and populous. We should be able to find what you seek while avoiding unwanted attention."

D'Argo takes a deep breath and rumbles, "That is good to hear."

"Is she...worsening?"

"She does not tell me." D'Argo shakes his head slowly. "I do not know if they are getting worse, or simply not getting better. But she doesn't use her eyes the same way she used to. She has agreed to consult a Diagnosan."

It's as if all the extra heat and moisture in the ship has gathered and pooled into this one place, the gestation chamber. Rygel basks in the warm humidity, pulling a comb through his earbrows to keep them from frizzing. The offspring floats just beyond the port window, an oblate lump of copper-colored something nestled in a web of cables and tubes. DRDs zip in and out of the chamber through a tunnel ramp set into the floor, analyzing and servicing the developing life.

Rygel nods a greeting to John and goes back to watching the bustle.

"He's got running lights already." John steps closer to the portal and lays his hand on the plexipane.

"A few. More than there were an arn ago. Pilot informs me that they are part of the Leviathan neural system." He watches as John leans in closer to see through the portal better. Rygel notices that one of the DRDs coming out of the floor tunnel sports an extra tool arm, so he hovers his chair back and to the side for his own better view.

The DRD disappears then reappears, peeking around the edge of the portal. John's absorbed in the activity of the other DRDs, and doesn't see it coming. It stops, stuck vertically to the portal like a flibisk, extends the extra tool arm to the plexipane, and delivers a shock to John right through the window.

He jumps half a metra as his fist automatically draws back. He doesn't throw the punch, just freezes, then lowers his arm slowly to his side as Rygel laughs.

Rygel gestures with his brow comb. "You don't have a monopoly on being protective of your young, Crichton." He flicks his thumb along the teeth of the comb and grins. "If you'd come that close to even the lowliest breeding pool on Hyneria, you would have been blown into tiny bits to feed the tadlings."

John shakes out his arm. "That's a knee-slapper."

Rygel hums and chuckles. "I always liked watching tadlings play. It's comforting to know that life will go on past your own existence. That the things you do and the things you build will be remembered. Heh, or at best, prove useful and be taken for granted."

Aeryn surveys the room and picks one of the solid color piles. "Red."

Chiana scatters it all across the bed, dresses, pants, shirts, items that Aeryn wouldn't know how to put on, much less know the names for. "Strip."

Aeryn bends to remove her gun belt and boots, and is soon standing only in her skivvies. There's a clear space in front of a tall mirror, a portion of wall between ribs that has grown metallic and smooth. She remembers being in a sunlit bedroom on Earth, looking at herself in human clothes. Olivia had left her in privacy to try them on, until Aeryn had tired of talking through the door and insisted she come in to advise her.

Olivia had tied Aeryn's shoes for her, in silly looping bows that flicked as she walked. Looking down at the woman's bowed head, the relaxed solicitude with which she knelt and did this thing for Aeryn, she had puzzled over how familiar and how alien Olivia was.

The idea of siblings still grips her, people who were akin to John in body, who touched him and handled him the way no one else was allowed to, who even looked like him at odd moments. Family. She lays a hand on the modest curve of her belly, and realizes that this child is not only her own existing family, but part of that larger one as well.

The way humans reckon genetic relation, this child is like Bobby, and Olivia will be her Aunt. Even though Zola will never know Olivia, this makes Aeryn smile.

Chiana clicks her tongue. "I can see we'll have to start from scratch. Take those things off, too."

Aeryn follows Chiana's gaze down to her nearly naked body. The waistband of her undershorts has rolled down in front, and she tugs it up over her belly for the billionth frelling time that day. "What, my underwear?"

"Yes, your underwear."

"But what does my underwear have to do with anything?"

Chiana angles her head in a challenge, and brushes her finger lightly along the waistband. It snaps and rolls back down to rest at a point just above Aeryn's pubic bone. "You clearly have too much underwear. You need something cut lower, and a thinner material. Some of these clothes," she tugs a piece of red strapping from the pile on the bed and dangles it before Aeryn, "look best without anything at all getting in the way."

Aeryn eyes the piece of strapping with a dubious look. "Where does that even go?"

"You'd be surprised."

Aeryn grins. "Try me."

"You want me to attend to you during the ceremony?"

"Well..." John catches the narrow-eyed look on Rygel's face and he wonders if he should backpedal.

"I'd be happy to do you that honor." He nods and runs the comb through his earbrows leisurely. "Lend some sobriety and dignity to the affair, at least."

"They seem kind of pointless, but they're not as uncomfortable as they look." Aeryn turns in front of the mirror, eyeing the way the thong delineates the cheeks of her ass. "Okay, maybe not that pointless. But this thing," she hooks her thumbs through the straps of the lacy bra and pulls the cups away from her breasts, "itches like you would not believe."

Chiana shrugs and unhooks the clasp. She rubs out the red mark left behind on Aeryn's skin while Aeryn flings the bra across the room and onto D'Argo's head.

His tone is indulgently exasperated as he pulls the bra from his face. "Chiana, I have news..." He looks up from the construction of frothy red lace and wire in his hands to the tableau before him.

"D'Argo." Chiana steps in front of Aeryn, who peeks over her shoulder to watch. "We're a little busy at the moment."

He darkens to the tips of his tankas and ducks back behind the privacy curtain. His apology is shouted from down the corridor. "Bad time, sorry!"

Her lips pursed against a smile, Chiana explains, "We usually practice the shilquin this time of day."

"I have the feeling he's going to go practice without you."

They collapse with laughter into the waiting piles of clothing.

D'Argo is halfway to Command before he notices his hand's still clutching the red bra.

They choose a blue satiny dress, with low-cut briefs and a plain cotton bra to match. Aeryn spins slowly in the dress, getting used to the way the skirt flies out around her while Chi raids the piles of clothing for her own outfit, tossing extra underwear onto the bed as she finds them.

Chiana watches her for a while, noticing how she moves her body differently in the dress and how she fusses with the fabric to make it fit and lay smoothly on her body. "So, we have the clothes, now we need a ring."

Aeryn turns her head, sliding her hair off the shoulder in a way that Chi instantly recognizes as demure and calculating. "A what?"

Chi wants to know how Aeryn learned to be slinky. More precisely, who taught her and why she chose to learn. "A wedding ring for Crichton, to remind him of you and your commitment to each other. It's a symbol of the vow. Unless it's an evil ring, of course, then it makes you want to kill yourself."

"No evil rings, then." Aeryn turns to find her leathers, dress flowing out behind her. "Did we get anything like that from Earth?"

"We didn't get very many things with resale value." Chiana scoots off the bed and sweeps the flower-colored panties into a shipping crate. "It looks like we're going to have to make one."

"We need to get started now if we're going to have something for tomorrow." She's pretty sure she has an idea of what they're looking for, she remembers metal bands around the fingers of generals, escorts, the ring on Jack's hand when she helped him into the Prowler. "It goes on a finger, right?"

"Same finger as what you're wearing."

"Materials?" Aeryn pulls the dress over her head and Chiana takes it from her, lays it out flat on the bed.

"Gold, silver, platinum, titanium."

Aeryn mutters the list to herself a few times as she dresses. "I'm sure we can find something to work with." To think, that a woman had placed each of those rings onto each of those men's fingers. In Jack's case, the woman herself was gone but the ring remained.

Chiana slips her finger into her bodice and pulls out a small loop of cord. "It needs to be this big."

Aeryn takes the cord and lays it in the palm of her hand. The very size of the loop suggests the place she should start looking. "The defense shield."

Chiana follows her and works beside her, pulling out connector nodes and popping the ceramic middle part out so that only the metal rims remain, platinum and titanium. They are almost the same size of the loop of cord and if she fuses two or three of them they'll make a ring of the proper size.

Nearly all the rims have been dented and melted by intense heat, and the platinum ones are all discolored by the power surges that destroyed the shield. Together, they gut a whole panel before they have enough. The titanium ones are clean and shiny, and the platinum ones are stained interesting shades of yellow, purple and blue. They take them up to Aeryn's workspace.

Chiana sits at the worktable, sorting the pieces and looking for pleasing combinations. She glances up at Aeryn, who's pulling tools out of the equipment rack. "You know, besides me, you're the last person I'd have pictured with a baby."

Aeryn sets a handful of tools on the table and gives Chiana a measuring look before she goes back to the equipment rack.

"I mean, a baby is a major pain in the eema. What made you decide you needed one?"

Aeryn comes back to the table with a small component vise in her hand, and she plays with the little arms and clips before she sits down and starts talking. "The more I hear about them, the more dreadful babies sound. But it's a phase they go through, it can't be avoided."

"So you don't want a baby after all?"

"I want a child," she selects a titanium rim and clips it into one of the vise arms, "to teach and take care of. Someone to guide. I want to be a parent to someone."

Chiana offers her a choice of colored platinum rims and Aeryn picks a blue one. "Someone to love." The shading reminds Chiana of the way the sunlight looked at the bottom of the swimming pool.

"Yes." Aeryn sets it against the plain rim and uses the tip of a circuit fuser to weld them together. It's more complicated than that, but Aeryn doesn't have the words to explain it yet. She's been changed by the things that have happened to her, they are irrevocable and important, and they are greater than just herself. She learned that she can't go back to who she was, so she's decided to go forward.

"Like Bobby."

Aeryn's eyes are on her work but she smiles despite her concentration.

"You fell for that wide-eyed look of wonder, didn't you?" Chiana doesn't wait for an answer. "Wouldn't be the first time, that's for sure. Innocent Crichton boys are a weakness for you."

Aeryn lifts her eyebrows, carefully running the fuser along the meeting edge of the rims. "The voice of experience, I take it."

Chiana shrugs with one shoulder and wets her lips to speak but Aeryn holds her hand out for the last piece. Chiana lays another plain rim onto her waiting palm.

"Maybe you're right. Maybe he did remind me of John when we first arrived on Moya." Aeryn sets it against the blue band and fastens it with a few spot welds before running the fuser all around. "Bobby turned to all of us--you, me, D'Argo, Olivia, Jack--he was thirsty for information and for guidance. I liked teaching him and looking after him. I liked showing him things about the world."

"You know he caught you naked on camera, right? That time he 'accidentally' barged in while you were in the shower?"

Aeryn furrows her brow upward, tilting her head to the side. "Well he is, as you say, a Crichton boy."

"He pulled that with each of us. I think Sikozu helped his voice change when she chased him right out the front door that day wearing only her freckles."

"I remember that." Aeryn chuckles. "But wasn't his voice higher for a few days after that?"

Chiana giggles, leaning over the table. When she catches her breath she looks up at Aeryn through her bangs. "And I thought you were crazy for wanting to raise a baby. Now that I know you want to raise a teenager I know you're mad."

Aeryn reaches to her gun belt and pulls out a small piece of plastic flimsy, handing it to Chiana. She chooses a small-headed grinder and motions Chi away from the table.

Chi steps back, studying the strange grey face and stubby paw portrayed on the piece of flimsy.

"That's Zola." Aeryn activates the grinder and begins smoothing the inside and the edges of the banded ring.

"She's so strange...she's beautiful." Chiana runs the tip of her finger along the image of Zola's eyes and cheek, to the miniscule ear and down to the tiny fingernails, clear like Humans and Sebaceans. The child herself is a bit translucent, her bones and veins visible the way Aeryn's veins can be seen through her skin, but more so. The huge eyes and tiny snub of a nose make her look part Hynerian, but Chiana refrains from pointing this out. "This is what you've got in there? Do you think she can hear us?"

"She has ears, but she's in water." Aeryn changes out a piece of the grinder and begins polishing the ring. Chiana drifts back to the table now that the shower of sparks has stopped. "I hope she can hear. It will give her something to think about." Aeryn pauses to flash a grin at Chiana. "She's thinking."

"Whoa." Chiana looks at the flimsy again. "Have you tried talking to her?"

Aeryn switches the grinder off and lifts her goggles. "Do you think I should?"

"Well, if she's listening you might as well start talking to her."

Aeryn blinks and smiles as she unclips the ring and wipes it clean with the hem of her shirt.

The jewelry box creaks open and the gold band inside gleams. It's nondescript, but pretty enough, and Rygel plans to wear it on his thumb during the ceremony. He closes the box and tucks it back into a fold of his robe as he motors into the kitchen just in time. "Ahhh, the cake."

Noranti hums as she sets down the dirty bowl and hands him a kitchen implement coated in silky chocolate batter. Even though he wants to stick the entire beater in his mouth and suck it clean, he paces himself to make it last. After all, there seems to be another beater and a bowl where this came from.

Noranti dances from counter to counter, performing her food magic while Rygel savors each chocolaty tine of the beater in his hand.

Stark arrives too early for dinner, but he's mellow and almost coherent. Apparently he'd had some kind of spiritual epiphany while chanting out on the terrace and he's in a mood to share, so Rygel listens to him ramble on about Zhaan. He wonders how Stark could love that big blue bitch so much and completely miss all the bawdy and mercenary aspects of her character that had made her interesting.

Meal time comes and the rest of the crew gathers, swapping information and passing dishes. They seem to have effectively disappeared off the screens of their enemies but, as always, they will eventually need to risk being seen in a populated area in order to trade for supplies. It's the same debate they've had since Rygel crawled out of his cell through a crack in a duct, with a Peacekeeper keychip under his tongue and an asinine scheme.

Now they will have another generation to consider in their future asinine schemes: Moya's offspring is doing well so far, and the flimsy passed around the table shows that Aeryn's child is remarkably attractive, though she's likely to outgrow it.

Rygel feels indulgent and paternal. He blames it on the chocolate.

Aeryn never does get around to reinstalling the inertial dampener on her Prowler, instead she goes to her quarters, palms the lock on the door, closes the privacy curtain and looks down at her belly for a long moment. "Hello."

She feels awkward, and the only reason she continues is that she knows she'll be alone for the night.

John suggested keeping separate beds until the wedding night, which makes no sense to her except as another Human tradition that will make him happy. If nothing else, she's encouraged by the fact that he's willing to let her out of his suffocating care for a whole night. Seeing the baby on the scanner calmed him down in that respect, even though it bothers her that he derived more reassurance from a few pictures printed off the monitor than he had from anything Aeryn had said. Still, he's backed off and given her room to breathe.

So she'll sleep in her bed alone, and he'll sleep in his alone and perhaps they're supposed to be thinking of each other but Aeryn has decided to spend the evening with Zola.

"I know. I'll show you the pictures your Aunt Olivia gave to me." She slides a box from under the bed and lifts off the lid. "Your Aunt Susan made copies of the pictures and put them into books so your father would have them. I haven't given them to him yet, was never the right time. But we're going to give them to him after the wedding, how does that sound?"

It's idiotic, but she pauses as if waiting for an answer. She pulls an album from the box and sits cross-legged on the bed. "These are pictures of your father when he was small. Not as small as you are, but close enough." The more she talks, the easier it is, and Aeryn's mouth goes dry as she describes page after page of old baby pictures.

"That's your father." She squints as she mouths the caption, "Eight months...well, less than a cycle old. He's taking a bath and splashing the water all over. Your Aunt Olivia called that a willy. You won't have one of those. That yellow thing in his hand is a bath toy. We might actually have one of those in a shipping crate somewhere."

She turns the page. "This picture shows your grandfather holding your father, who's dressed up for a holiday. It says he's two cycles old and he's supposed to look like a 'teddy bear', but the costume is half missing. He looks more like the squirrels on the lawn. I hope that was chocolate on his face."

John hangs out with Chiana in D'Argo's room while they practice the song they're going to play at his wedding. Al Green of all things. Even though it was his own idea to sleep separately for the night, he doesn't want to go home to his empty quarters, so he folds flowers with them until his fingers are dry and numb.

As he leaves their room for the night, Chiana gives him a tie and pocket handkerchief in a deep jewel shade of blue, and D'Argo quizzes him on last minute details of the ceremony.

He hums 'Here I Am, Baby' all the way to his room.

He still keeps his junk and half of his clothes in his quarters, but he's been living out of Aeryn's room so long that the place feels abandoned now. His charcoal colored suit hanging from a knob on one of the wall ribs is just another odd piece of Earth, to go with the entertainment center, and the stacks of textbooks and photocopied journal articles that constitute a crash course in metallurgy he hasn't made time for yet. Even after he straightens the stacks, picks up the clutter and puts the videos and DVDs in boxes, the place still looks like a jumbled mess.

He tries to lose himself in his research but all he can concentrate on is that Aeryn's room is neat and clean, and has Aeryn in it. John gives up and hurries the morning by going to bed.

"What are you doing with her?"

"She's as much my child as she is yours." Harvey jiggles the infant riding on his hip, causing her to giggle and slap her slobbery hands on the armored epaulet of his coolant suit. "I didn't knock Aeryn up, either."

"Give her to me." John slides his hands under the baby's arms, turning her so she can see over his shoulder. "I'm not going to explain the DNA thing to you again. Just get used to it."

Harvey looks hurt, and John turns his attention to the baby. Her hands are cold and wet, one grabbing the t-shirt at his neck and the other playing with his bottom lip. She smells like baby powder and spit, and her eyes are green.

"I'm a neural clone of a sterile hybrid, and the only companion I'm ever likely to have is you. The idea of progeny is intriguing, however dubious or insubstantial the relationship may be. Do not think I won't care for her."

"Look, I'm sorry, Harv. But you've been pretty hot and heavy with the nightmares lately."

"The main theme is always survival. She will not change that fact." Before John can reply Harvey whips the burp cloth off his shoulder and snaps John with it. "The burning question I have for you now concerns this business with her mother."

John makes a big gulping face, chasing after the baby's fingers with his mouth. She giggles and tucks her hand under her chin, then lets it drift back toward John's mouth, enraptured. He catches her fingertips between his lips the next time, making gobbling sounds as he mock-eats her hand and she shrieks with laughter.

He doesn't want to talk to Harvey about Aeryn, but he can't avoid it any longer. "What's your question?"

Harvey straightens his cummerbund. "Isn't there something you want to ask me?"

John blinks. "You want to be a groomsman?"

Harvey manages to sound both hurt and snooty. "John, I am your best man." He swirls into a cloud of pink taffeta and tulle. "You don't suggest I stand on the other side, do you?"

The terrace has been warming and under atmosphere for over a day, and the hull is pleasantly toasty under his bare feet. D'Argo had insisted that John take off his shoes, as a sign of his earnestness. Even Noranti had backed him up, squeaky clean and smelling strangely like cloves and cinnamon. She felt that clothes at all were tacky, but she was willing to compromise as long as John and Aeryn were barefoot at least.

It keeps his mind off the tie and the stiff collar of his shirt and suit. Rygel zips through the doorway with a last tray of food, little dishes filled with delicacies that John arranges on an offering table at the far end of the terrace. The table of food and drink is ceremonial, a horn of plenty type of thing to represent prosperity and freedom from want. There's even a pitcher of water and a small plate of food cubes.

Stark lights the last of a series of firepots around the perimeter, and goes to work scattering handfuls of paper flowers all around.

With everything in place, they leave the terrace and gather just inside. John stands at the opposite side of the group from Aeryn.

He knew the dress would be blue because his tie is blue and Chiana said they would match. But to say that Aeryn's dress is blue would be like saying space is chilly.

Just after the sun sinks out of view, when crickets chirp and fireflies zip green across the black lawn, if you turn 180 degrees from where the sky is still stained orange and red, you'll see this shade of blue.

It makes her eyes the color of faded indigo, and strikes a balance between her sumi black hair and porcelain skin. Delicate straps and a curved neckline complement the delicate curves of her neck, her shoulders, and her arms. The skirt flows full from her waist to her ankles, satiny. Her feet are also bare.

Chiana ducks out to the terrace and begins strumming on the shilquin. D'Argo listens for a moment, then starts the procession out the doorway. Rygel has to nudge John in the arm with his hoverchair to get him moving.

D'Argo and Rygel are on each side of the offering table, and John stands before it, watching the doorway and listening to Chiana playing and humming Al Green. Aeryn comes through with Noranti and Stark in tow, each holding a sash of white satin. Probably got some fancy bed sheets from a linens chain, as if the beds on Moya conformed to the twin, full, queen, king standard.

Noranti hands Aeryn a sash and she drapes it over John's head and one shoulder. John reciprocates with the sash Stark offers him. He takes her hand, and D'Argo ties the ends of the sashes together.

Noranti pours water into a cup waiting on the table, and hands it to D'Argo. He offers the cup to Aeryn and then to John, and when John drinks he finds that the rim has been doctored with something bitter and acrid. D'Argo turns the cup, and offers it again to each of them. This time the rim is sweet like honey.

Rygel takes Aeryn's ring from his thumb and hands it to Crichton.

"With this ring, I marry you," D'Argo prompts in Luxan.

"With this ring, I thee wed." He slides the band up next to the engagement ring, completing the set and marveling at how profoundly simple the whole ritual feels. She glows in the light of stars, though to be objective there's probably more light coming from the fire pots in the corners and the Leviathans gamboling above.

Aeryn takes John's ring from Chiana's thumb. Her voice is husky and strong as she slips it onto his finger. "With this ring, I marry you."

He looks into her eyes as he listens to her pledge of love, honor and respect, and it's as if something clicks into place inside him. She is going to stay.

"With seven steps you become friends." D'Argo catches John by the elbow and leads them both around the offering table, intoning a phrase for each step, "Nourish each other. Grow in strength. Share your joys. Share your sorrows. Care for your children. Be loyal to each other...and remain friends lifelong."

Paper flowers rain down upon them by the handful.

It is now midday, and Aeryn has not been able to eat since the night before. Between Noranti's ritual ablutions and Chiana fussing with her dress and her hair, Aeryn wouldn't have had the time even if she'd felt like eating.

The scent of the cake is heady when the knife slices through. It smells so good that she feels lightheaded with hunger, and the solidity of John's hand with hers on the knife handle is steadying. He sets the slice on a plate, pulls off a chunk, and feeds it to her, stroking his fingertips on her cheek.

She does the same, enjoying the delight on his face and the brush of his tongue against the pad of her thumb. He kisses her gently, sweetly, and the taste of the cake and of him, the feel of the warm hull beneath her feet and his hands hot on her back combine into something dizzying. D'Argo's on the shilquin now, raucous and joyful.

John pulls back, and the look in his eyes and the smile on his face make Aeryn reluctant to say anything to disturb the spell. "I have to eat something soon."

"Didn't eat breakfast either, huh?" He puts the plate in her hand. "Chocolate almond with mocha filling between the layers and honest to god homemade vanilla frosting. Breakfast of champions."

The cake takes the edge off her hunger, if not the ache in her stomach, and she sets the plate down to give her belly time to settle. She takes John's hand in hers and shares a smile with him as they walk the perimeter of the terrace. She watches him in the corner of her eye, and the smile never leaves his face as he walks, and looks at the stars and gently squeezes her hand.

When she found herself back on Moya again, when she realized that her options had changed again, to include him again, she'd thrown herself onto this course with every resource that she had.

She pursued him the way he had pursued her, trying to get him to talk, getting in his way. She teased him with the English he'd taught her, and tried to be as harmless and enticing as she remembered him being in the beginning. For the longest time his responses were callous and cruel. As she had been to him in the beginning. He made her prove her resolve, her determination, made her show him for monens on end that what she felt for him wasn't a notion or a whim.

She would do whatever he asked of her to prove that she loved him, to elicit his trust again. That it came down to a wedding to make him this giddy and happy, a simple and beautiful ritual...well Aeryn had expected something a lot more dire and harrowing.

Now if only her stomach would stop hurting so she could get something more substantial to eat.

Noranti is dancing, Chiana is opening a bottle of wine braced between her thighs and Rygel and Stark are watching both of them with a running commentary.

And John looks as good as the cake, frankly. One the few humans who can wear a suit without the suit wearing him. Peacekeepers call it 'making the uniform', when a person somehow lends more authority to their clothes than vice versa. John makes the uniform. Their arms touch from shoulder to fingers and she can feel his warmth through the faintly lustrous fabric that wraps him like a package and pools charmingly on the insteps of his bare feet as he kicks through the flowers.

The cork pops and ricochets off the bubble-field, landing in a firepot with a flare and a happy outburst of shouting. John eyes the stars above and points out a spot. "Wormhole's gonna do the same thing in about a minute. You can see some of the Leviathans are queuing up to go through."

Aeryn feels like her belly may pop open as well, and when John sees the look on her face his attention snaps immediately to her. She explains, "I think it's the cake."

"Too rich on an empty stomach, I'll bet." He guides her over toward D'Argo, who stops playing and offers his seat to her.

"Aeryn, are you alright?" Everyone crowds around her in their pretty clothes and concern. Noranti shoves the wine bottle at Stark and takes Aeryn's wrist her hands.

"I'll be fine, I just have a stomach ache." The pain in her middle knots like a fist and she leans over her knees to catch her breath. Hands on her shoulders and hands brushing her hair out of her face, and this stabbing pain that came from nowhere and is making her very, very scared. She's too busy trying to breathe around the pain and the fear to parse the words coming into her ears.

By the time the cramp backs off enough for her to think again, she's being carried down the corridor at a run.

Noranti runs as fast as she can down the corridor, trying to keep up with D'Argo. She can smell, faintly, Sebacean blood. "Chiana."

The young woman drops back to jog next to Noranti, her pearly high heels clicking and the beads on her pearly dress sounding like rain. "Yeah?"

"I need you to go ahead of me and activate the scanner."

"How do I do that?"

Noranti gives her a series of instructions while she runs.

"Anything else?"

"Once it starts the calibration sequence, see if you can find something warm and comfortable for Aeryn to wear."

"Got it." Chiana runs over to John, slugs him in the arm and points to Noranti. Then she stops to pull her heels off before sprinting up the corridor with the sound of beads and bare feet.

John jogs over to Noranti and yanks her to a stop. "Come on, Granny, you're riding shotgun in the ambulance." Then Noranti's world turns upside down and she finds herself speeding down the corridor while looking at John's behind.

She's never been one to dismiss anything effective simply because it was undignified. She takes the opportunity to catch her breath, and when John sets her down in the infirmary she starts issuing orders even as her knees still wobble. She uses her calm voice of authority, honed over years of talking dangerous things out of the hands of children and adversaries alike.

"Get Aeryn on the scanner, D'Argo. That's good. Aeryn, I need you to lie as still as you can." Noranti bustles with buttons and keypads, nonchalantly tilting the screen so that Aeryn can't see it from where she lies. "Now, you let me know when you feel a cramp coming and when you feel it fade."

"It's not as bad right now." Aeryn takes a deep breath and loses some of the tension in her limbs. "It's not as sharp as before."

Noranti pulls Aeryn's hand from where it's clutched against her belly, and gives it to John to hold. He comes to the head of the bed and brushes Aeryn's hair from her face.

He kisses her head and uses the same tone of voice that Noranti has chosen, though less successfully. "It's gonna be okay, Aeryn. Gonna be okay."

Noranti studies the monitor with all three eyes and a neutral expression. She can feel D'Argo standing just out of her way, ready to pounce into any action that needs to be taken. She can hear John murmuring to Aeryn. She can see that Aeryn's heartbeat is fast, and she can see that the child is still moving, but appears both agitated and slow. The organ of communication between the child and the mother is under duress and there is some blood issuing from the connection. So far it is solidly attached, circulation to the organ, and hence the child, is still sufficient but not ample.

D'Argo is now hovering over her shoulder. She asks him, "Where is Stark?"

"He went to join Rygel on Command."

"Then I need you to do this, instead. Find one of those soft storage packs and fill it with hot water. Not as hot as soup."

D'Argo nods once and goes off to retrieve it.

Aeryn calls out that another cramp is coming, and Noranti watches it unfold even after Aeryn says she doesn't feel it anymore. Despite the nervous flexing of the womb, the birthgate remains tightly closed. Labor has not started.

Noranti lets out a cleansing sigh and arranges her expression before moving out from behind the monitor. If this crisis is to be managed with the best outcome, she needs Aeryn to trust her and to attain calm, to forget for the moment the doddering old witch that it usually suits Noranti's needs to be seen as. She schools her features into an expression of crisp intelligence and reassurance, forthright with the hint of a smile.

John has shucked his suit jacket and folded it inside out for a pillow under Aeryn's head. Aeryn's color is ashy and her stare is demanding.

"I can't say that this is not a dangerous development. The child is agitated and so are you. There is bleeding and great pain, and these are never normal. But the process of labor has not begun. The birthgate is still closed. There is no reason why this distress should not pass without harming either of you."

Aeryn rises onto her elbows. "What can I do?"

Noranti takes her hand and gives it a gentle squeeze. "There is nothing to be done but to keep you as comfortable as possible, to wait and to see what happens in time."

John's tone is sharp. "That's it?"

"This is something between the child's body and Aeryn's body. No matter what the outcome will be, there is no way to influence it." Noranti turns her attention back to Aeryn and squeezes her hand while she speaks. "Chiana will bring something else for you to wear. As soon as you're able to move we should get you cleaned up and resting more comfortably."

D'Argo jogs back into the room with his cuffs wet and a filled water pack in his hands. Noranti takes it and places it across Aeryn's belly just as another cramp curls the woman around her center.

D'Argo is familiar with the waiting game of being a male during any midwifery type of event, though the current circumstances are more worrisome than anything he went through with Lo'Laan. Once Jothee was conceived, selected and settled into the womb, the process was remarkable non-eventful until childbirth. The birth of his child was a sick haze of worry, boredom, and watching water boil while Lo'Laan made noises like she was in hyper-rage.

He sympathizes with John, who's murmuring and stroking Aeryn's temple like the fate of the universe depends on it. He knows that for John, it feels like it does. He aches for them both and he wishes he could give some of his strength to their child to see her through this trial.

D'Argo proceeds with the business of fretting, though if asked he'd refer to it as keeping busy. He sees the pile of his and her PK boots that Rygel had dumped onto the floor by the scanner bed before haring off to Command. He pairs them up and sets them aside, then goes to the back of the infirmary in search of something, anything to keep busy. He gathers a few blankets and pillows, more water packs, anything and everything he remembers having to fetch for Lo'Laan.

Stark couldn't get out of the infirmary fast enough. The distress in the air was like needles, everyone folding their fear to the inside and jabbing him with it. He chants as he scurries toward Command, and by the time he arrives he doesn't feel the need to roll into a ball and claw at his own head. He arrives in the middle of a conversation between Pilot and Rygel.

"How long has it been there?"

"It came through when the wormhole opened last, less than half an arn ago."

"And you're sure about the identification?"

The view screen changes to an image of a sleek ship magnified from a distance. Even if Stark hadn't known the shape on sight, the design of it, the very lines and shapes it's made from, all hiss Scarran.

Stark drops into a crouch and wraps his hands around the back of his neck. "Ishka nopovia pa'ak toveen, ishka nopovia pa'ak toveen, ishka nopovia--"

D'Argo rises to his feet in a flash. "A what?"

"Scout class by the look of it." Rygel sounds as curious as he does disturbed. "It's been on a straight course through the Leviathan pod since it popped out of the wormhole."

"Scarrans. That's wonderful news." Chiana doesn't even pause as she enters the infirmary, swears a blue streak and takes her armful of robes and pajamas over to where Aeryn is. "Motherfrelling Scarrans are just exactly what we need right about now."

D'Argo nods and raises a hand to indicate quiet. "Show me the visual."

Rygel's face on the clamshell is replaced by a view of the ship in question, a short-range scout fighter with a standard crew of two to four. "I think you'll find this next bit more interesting." A holo display appears, of an orange dot moving straight through a sparse field of large grey shapes. It approaches a massive one very close, nearly close enough to graze the hull, and it's flicked by the tail of the Leviathan as if it were an insect. The ship tumbles like debris.

"That's no stealth trajectory." Aeryn calls out from the bed, where she's leaning forward on her one arm to see the clamshell. "Looks like a dead ship."

"Maybe they don't want to blow their cover." John tries to ease Aeryn back down but she only leans farther toward the display.

"No sensible pilot would have gotten that close to a creature it was trying to leave undisturbed, and there are ways to alter the flight path without giving the appearance of doing so."

Noranti sets the water pack aside and Chiana helps Aeryn to her feet. Chiana drapes a fluffy green terrycloth robe over Aeryn's shoulders as they help her toward the fresher at the back of the room.

D'Argo asks, "Pilot, has there been any activity from the ship?"

"There has been no indication of comms traffic, or use of any weapons or scanning systems. There is no way to determine if they are passively scanning."

"It's a damn good thing Moya looks like just another Leviathan on scan right now." John's lacing his boots. "What are you thinking, D? Should we take Lo'La for a spin?"

D'Argo shakes his head. "Docking web."

Chiana yelps, "Are you farhbot?"

The procession toward the fresher stops, two stricken faces and Aeryn nodding between them. "If they resist the docking web, the Leviathans will recognize that they're not debris. But once they're inside?"

"They may have information that we can use, and we might be able to extract that information from the crew or the ship itself." D'Argo shrugs. "If not, then we've killed Scarrans before, and a Scarran scout ship may come in handy."

John walks over to Aeryn and pulls her into an embrace. She speaks just loud enough for him to hear. "We'll be okay. We're simply waiting for this to pass."

He cups her cheek with his hand, thumb stroking along her cheekbone. "My girls." He soaks up her self-assurance that the Scarran ship is the only thing to really worry about.

She wishes she could go with them, that she had a fight she could throw herself into. "Set up the docking bay so that you can use the Prowler's weaponry as well as Lo'La's. Don't secure their wrists in front of them or in back of them, they still have too much movement that way. Have them lie face-down and use waist chains to bind their elbows behind their backs. Muzzle them if you can. They'll be able talk but they won't be able to bite."

His smile is faint and tenuous, but it reassures her just the same. "You're going to make one tough mom."

A few microts after the guys have left at a run, Chiana feels Aeryn's arm around her shoulder grow heavier. She grips Aeryn's waist and steadies her on the way to the fresher. Frelling Scarrans. Motherfucking Scarrans.

The fresher is confined with three people inside, but they work as a unit. The blood on the back of Aeryn's dress gives Chiana pause, but Noranti helps Aeryn lift the hem and pull it off. Noranti examines it quickly, then bundles it with the stain inside and tosses it out the door.

Aeryn has stopped moving. She stands there with her thumbs hooked in the side straps of the human-style underwear, transfixed by the blood smearing out of the juncture of her thighs. When she meets Chiana's eyes she whispers, "She's going to die."

Something trembles inside Chiana but she quenches it in anger, lets the rage stiffen her spine to carry the weight. She answers in a chiding tone that carries over the spatter of running water. "Well, when has that ever stopped us from taking care of anyone?" Chiana slides the ruined underwear down and Aeryn clumsily steps out of them.

A sharp glance from Noranti makes Chiana realize exactly how that last bit had sounded, so she tries to recover, sputtering words out like water. "Besides, Zola is going to be fine. She's just being difficult like any other Crichton."

Aeryn gives her a brief strange smile.

They jog down the corridor, conferring with Pilot through D'Argo's comm. "Moya has agreed to your plan, Captain D'Argo, and we are making our way toward the Scarran ship. She should be within distance for the docking web in roughly 500 microts."

"I will let you know when the docking bay is secured, then you can bring the ship inside."

At a corridor juncture, John whacks D'Argo lightly on the arm and takes a left. "I'll meet you in a sec, I've gotta get changed."

D'Argo nods and continues toward the docking bay.

Aeryn's quarters are on the way to the docking bay, and John's sure there's enough spare clothing and weaponry to outfit him for the task ahead.

His tie is loose already so he pulls it over his head. The shirt buttons are harder to work while running, and he ends up scattering buttons in the corridor and feeling sheepishly like Superman.

He forgets about the second button on the dress pants, and rips it off as well when he strips in Aeryn's room. The leathers and shirt he finds are less than clean, but serviceable. He throws his boots back on and chooses a well-tended pulse rifle and as many cartridges of oil as he can find. At the last second, he snags Aeryn's comm badge from the table.

Rollers. Frelling hot rollers plugged into one of those adapters he modified to run small Earth electronics on a willing DRD. The DRD is gone and the rollers are scattered all over the table with makeup and the remains of two breakfasts, only one of them eaten.

He got married this afternoon.

One of the steering armatures of her Prowler is disassembled, and he carefully moves the pieces from the pilot seat to the jump seat, keeping them in the same pattern as before. The weapons power up without a hitch, and the oculars show him a readout of optimal on every system except steering.

She's been tweaking her Prowler since he's been in it last, and she's developed a real grease-monkey touch.

John can see Lo'La is already powered up, and the two of them are triangulated toward the massive airlock door that cuts the docking bay in half. "Okay D, I'm ready. Let's bag some Scarrans."

"Pilot, open the airlock door and initiate the docking web."

"Initiating docking web."

After a moment the air has been cycled out and the massive airlock door slides into the wall, exposing the landing platform and the passageway out into open space. They wait for the Scarran ship to arrive.

John thinks about being suspended in the moment of time between dropping a quarter into a whack-a-mole game and waiting for it to start, compulsively rearranging the grip on his mallet while he watches the holes for moles. It'd make a good Twilight Zone, waiting for the other shoe to drop but it never does, or it does right after the moment you've forgotten all about the other shoe.

And they wait.

He can't shake the dread now that he's alone with it. He's been doing everything he can think of to take care of her and the baby, pissing her off at every turn with his coddling and protectiveness. He hadn't realized how much he'd been relying on her unshakeable assurance that everything would turn out okay. He hadn't noticed how much strength he'd been taking from her confidence until it had shattered and her fear had cut him like shrapnel.

Hope is not the same as desperate need.

He draws breath to ask Chiana what's happening with Aeryn, the new ring an odd weight on his hand as he reaches to activate the comm, but Pilot speaks instead.

"The Scarran ship is not responding. The engines are still at hetch two output and Moya is reluctant to draw the ship inside until it ceases to work against the docking web."

"Sounds like dead weight on the gas pedal, D."

D'Argo always sounds like the voice of God when he's speaking from Lo'La, the Luxans must have excellent microphone technology. "A direct shot to the side of the thrusters will temporarily knock them offline without affecting the rest of the ship. They must be manually restarted by one of the crew."

"That's awfully handy."

"The Kalish who reported the design flaw had harsher words for it, but from what I overheard, that report still ruined his career. It is easier to eat a Kalish than to change every scout fighter in the fleet."

"Gotta love bureaucracy, man."

"And gossip."

"Dude, when it's as handy as that, it's not gossip, it's intel."

"It makes little tactical difference. The Scarrans have added a crewman to the affected ships, specifically for in-battle repairs."

"But we'll know right away if anyone's on-board to wind the key."

D'Argo powers up the engine system of Lo'La, which is duly noted on the Prowler's tactical display. "The docking web should hold the ship steady as you eliminate each thruster. I will provide back-up on your upper flank."

"I can't go anywhere, D, Aeryn's in the middle of a rebuild on her guidance system and I'm sittin' in a puddle of parts, here."

He can hear D'Argo smile. "Then I will return shortly."

"Keep me posted." Lo'La disappears off the tracking display before she lifts off.

"The Scarran ship is battered, and there is still no response to the docking web...I have disabled their hammond side thruster...still no response. Treblin side thruster is disabled. No response."

D'Argo is not a color commentary kind of guy. John's fingers itch against the targeting controls and he wraps his hands tighter to keep from activating the comm, mashing a piece of flesh at the edge of his palm between the aiming lever and the ring.

No news is good news. The Prowler is stiflingly close around him. Aeryn is in pain and Zola is in danger and all he can do is sit here and wait to kill Scarrans. No news is good news.

He mutters to himself. "No news is good news."

Schrdinger's baby.

The old woman examines the piece of toweling in her hands as if she's reading a fortune. "This is not as much as I feared. Hopefully it will begin to stop soon." She folds the toweling and lays it aside, glancing at the monitor as she passes.

Aeryn wants to ask what she did to bring this about, what she missed that allowed this danger to touch Zola, but she can't form the question. "And all I can do is wait."

"Yes, that's all any of us can do."

"I want to watch her on the monitor."

"It would be better if you could get some rest, sleep if you can--"

"Turn the monitor."


She swings her legs off the scanner bed, awkward with both the thickening belly and the wad of toweling shoved into an old pair of PK undershorts. Noranti slaps at her with open palms, shooing her back down onto the scanner bed. "Fine, you stubborn woman, I'll turn it. Worry yourself sick if you please!"

Chiana hops onto the side of the scanner bed and lays her hand on Aeryn's knee. Her face is calm but her eyes are a bit too wide as she stares at the monitor. "Zola's going to be okay, Aeryn."

She glances at Chiana and then turns her head to really see her. "I allowed my mother to die on Valldon. She fell from my arms because I didn't hold on tight enough."

Chiana holds her gaze while her fingers play with the drops of pearly beads on her dress. The idea of Aeryn having a mother is a strange one, but the idea of her being sentimental about her mother is even stranger. "She tried to kill you."

"Yes." Aeryn's eyes are wet but she doesn't cry. "And I still couldn't hate her. She risked everything to have me, and even when she regretted her decision, it didn't change the fact that she'd lied, stole, disobeyed orders and killed the man she loved so she could have a child, so she could have me."

Chiana looks at her hands and nods with a wry smile. "People do stupid things for the sake of family."

"I could have done so much more to make sure Zola was safe." Aeryn's voice is calm but her face is wet with tears. "She's the only family I have left and I was so careless, I--"

"Stop it."

"I could have--"

"Aeryn, stop it." Chiana grabs her hand and shakes it. "Don't be such a fekik. You did what you could do, and that's all you could do. And she's going to be fine because she's a tough bitch just like you."

Aeryn wipes her cheeks with her other hand, turning it to find a dry spot and even using her wrist. "Zola would have been safer inside you."

"Now you're being ridiculous. Would you want her to be like me when she grows up? Having all kinds of sex and adventures?"

"Yes." Aeryn's laugh hitches through a sob. "That would be a good life, don't you think?"

Chiana smiles. "She wouldn't know whether to kiss the boys or kick their eemas."


"They're more agreeable that way." The moment slips into quiet, and Chiana nervously plays with the beads of her dress again. "What you said...about Zola being the only family you have left...Zhaan said...she said we're a kind of family here, Aeryn."

Chiana looks up to see another set of tears slip down Aeryn's damp cheeks. She continues, "And you know how much Zhaan hated being wrong."

Aeryn does the oddest thing. She leans over and embraces Chiana, squeezing so tight around the ribs that Chi makes an involuntary squeak. On a dizzy impulse, Chi hugs her back and kisses her wet cheek.

After a few moments she lets go, and Chiana licks the tears from her lips, surprised at the salt.

Aeryn furrows her brow and gestures at Chiana's dress. "You should change before you pull off all of the beads."

Chiana gives her a one-sided smile, feeling the salty Sebacean tears drying on her own cheek. "As long as you don't kill Wrinkles while I'm gone."

Lo'La cruises into the docking bay behind the Scarran ship, landing where she was before with weapons primed and directed at the new acquisition.

John checks his displays. "I'm not getting any life signs on the scanners, D, how about yours?"

"The same." D'Argo powers Lo'La down, and his voice comes through the comm only. "But I'd rather take a look for myself."

John pops the hatch on the Prowler and shouts across the docking bay. "I don't suppose they left the door unlocked?"

D'Argo shakes his head. "Unlikely."

They cautiously walk around the ship, inspecting the damage to the hull and the fresh pulse blasts marking each thruster. The airlock door is sealed tight. "We could blast it, but if you want to have a working ship at the end of the day, we'll need some different tools to open this can."

D'Argo shoulders his Qualta rifle. "Go check on Aeryn. Stark and I will gather the equipment. I'll let you know if we need you."

John meets Chi just outside the infirmary. She's changed into her everyday clothes and she has a plate in her hand. "Aeryn's okay, the baby's okay. Actually, Noranti says the baby is less agitated, which is a good sign. Aeryn's still in pain and bleeding, but she's hungry and that's another good sign I guess."

John notices that the plate only has a few food cubes. "We've got real food, Chi."

"She asked for these. I think for her it's like makanchees."

"Comfort food."


John takes the plate from Chiana. He's tempted to rearrange the chunks of food cube into a smiley face but he can't bring himself to waste the time on a sappy gesture when he could be with her a few seconds sooner.

She's tucked under a blanket and dressed in green men's pajamas and a green bathrobe. The head of the scanner bed is raised a bit. Her hair is tucked behind her ears and she returns his tentative smile with a brief one of her own. He offers her the plate. "How're you feeling?"

"I'm okay." She eats the food cubes methodically. She seems tired and her eyes look pink but her color is good and she's eating.

He sees a cup and pitcher by the bed, and hands her a cup of water. She drains it and plucks the last cube from the plate. "What is the progress with the Scarran ship?"

"The ship's disabled and the crew is dead. We're gathering equipment to force open the airlock." He refills her cup. "Are you still in pain?"

"Yes. Less than before, but my back aches."

"Finish your water." John sets aside the cup and plate, then motions for her to turn on her side. He rubs the muscles of her back slowly. "Probably still hurts from when you fell. Might help if you walked a bit."

The words ride out on a tired sigh, conceding a weakness that galls. "I'm to lie here unless I need to urinate, and I'm to ask for assistance when I have to get up."

Noranti and Chi are at the other end of the infirmary, getting the latest from Pilot on the clamshell. He works the muscles slowly with his thumbs, trying to imagine that he's practicing for helping her though a healthy labor many months from now. He tries to conjure goodwill and radiate it through his hands. He tries to ignore the dread. Aeryn shifts against his massaging hands and he pauses. "Do you need a potty break?"

"A what?" Aeryn shakes her head as she grasps the meaning. "No, I went less than half an arn ago."

"Okay." John climbs onto the scanner bed next to her, fitting his body behind hers. She relaxes against him, and he slides an arm around to help her hold the warm water pack against her belly. "Like spoons in a drawer."

Her English is weary. "I feel like a spoon in the garbage disposal."

She's distracted by something, so John follows her stare to see that the scanner display has been turned so she can see. It's too late to look away, but Schrdinger's baby is alive, resting just like Chi said she was. The flutter of her heart beating is the flutter of a butterfly wing that causes a hurricane of relief in his own body. He whispers in Aeryn's ear, "ZolaTV?"

She nods, and tucks her head under his so they rest cheek to cheek. "It's a lot like guard duty. Preparing for the worst while being thankful for the boredom. Her heart has slowed in the last arn."

"Granny thinks it's a good sign that she isn't agitated."

Aeryn's voice is small. "I'm still bleeding."

He's aware of this already, but hearing the way she says it makes the relief in his chest turn hollow. He pulls Aeryn closer and their rings click together where their hands meet. The scanner is set to track, and follows Zola like an intrepid cameraman.

It's well past the evening meal time, so John swings by the kitchen on the way back to the docking bay and grabs what's available, stuffing chunks of cold roast beast into leftover rolls of panek. He picks up a pulse cannon from the armory, just in case.

Stark stands guard at the massive doorway that splits the docking bay in half, holding his pulse rifle in a tight and careful grip.

John hands him a sandwich. "How's it coming, Stark, any progress?"

Stark eyes the food and speaks with his monk voice, calm and deliberate. "The DRDs are working on the lock code, and we may be able to open it without damaging the door. What is this?"


He angles his head. "Thank you."

"Anytime, man."

D'Argo sits on a shipping crate, conferring with Pilot while he watches the DRDs stuck to the ship like yellow barnacles. One of them is parked over the lockpad of the door, eyestalks waving slowly.

John hands D'Argo a sandwich.

He makes room for John on the shipping crate. "How is she?"

"Fell asleep before I left. Noranti says it's still touch and go, and that she may need to rest like this until Zola's born."

D'Argo's eyes widen, pondering an Aeryn confined to bed for monens on end. He tries for a philosophical tone. "Harder things have been done for the sake of having a child."

There's a pop and a hiss and the DRDs scatter away from the Scarran ship.

In a second D'Argo and John are armed and ready. Pilot announces over the comms, "The DRDs have succeeded in opening the airlock."

D'Argo calls over his shoulder. "Stark, I need you closer to provide cover." He adds in a murmur, "Without hitting either of us in the back."

Stark jogs over. "Where do you need me?"

John waits until everyone's in place and D'Argo gives the nod. He reaches his hand out to the lockpad, which shows the same options as all the Scarran door locks he's ever encountered, starting with the one Nurse Ratched opened that led him to Aeryn. Scarran buttons are concave, with a deep hollow to hold the claw that's just big enough for a human finger. He sets his finger into the button and presses.

Servos whir and the door swings out with an oily hiss, revealing a set of stairs and a flood of vile liquid that spills down them, splashing onto the floor and all over John.

Stark squints his one eye and D'Argo reels as if struck. "Faugh!"

"Jesus fucking Pete." It reeks of rotting meat and it's all over his boots, leathers and shirt, still dripping in thick slops off the stairs.

D'Argo and John share a look. D'Argo says "Linfer" and John says "the wormhole."

Stark lowers the barrel of his pulse rifle. "What in the name of the Goddess is that mess?"

They both respond to Stark with one word. "Scarrans."

Aeryn opens her eyes to see the worried expression on Chiana's face quickly replaced by a sunny smile. "Good, you're awake. I thought you were having a nightmare."

The cramp hits like a soft punch to the belly. The water pack is lukewarm, so she digs it out from under the blanket. "I need to use the waste funnel."

"Sure, sure." Chiana helps her out of bed and braces her around the shoulders. Aeryn allows this, a bit lightheaded from standing up too fast. Chiana trades her another wad of toweling for the robe, and lets Aeryn urinate in privacy.

Alone in the little room, Aeryn sees how much blood she's lost, soaking the old toweling bright red and darkening the faded black of her undershorts.

If there's any preference to be had, she prefers being injured to being ill. Injury can be endured because it has to be, often there's a task at hand to be done, something to concentrate on to keep the pain at bay. Fear becomes a comrade, keeping a soldier awake and alert.

She's startled by a knock at the door.

When there's nothing to do but endure, fear turns on a soldier, conspires with her traitorous body to make her weak when she needs to be strong.

An arm sticks through the doorway. Aeryn numbly sets the old toweling into Noranti's hand.

"Aeryn, are you okay in there?"

What she wouldn't give to be crawling across a desert on a broken leg instead of being here, a helpless spectator to a bloody battle. She mouths her daughter's name.

"Aeryn, do you need me to help?"

The cramp comes again, deeper and sharper. Aeryn winces against it and feels dizzy. She kneels onto the warm floor of the small room and curls around the pain.

"Aeryn, do I need to come in and help you?"

"Don't you see? They melted just like Linfer, just like the PK pilots. Maybe it's something with the shielding. I may be able to figure this out now that I've got a whole ship to study." John treads carefully on the stairs, pulse pistol ready in his hands.

"You are not thinking of going in there." D'Argo's sick from the corrupt smell, and he has the feeling he's going to see his sandwich again soon.

"I can't get any messier than I am now, can I?" John's boots slosh through the thick fluid that still drips out of the ship, and he disappears into the dim interior.

Stark has taken on a color that clashes with the bronze of his mask. "That's disgusting."

D'Argo shakes his head and activates his comm. He doesn't want to step any closer to the ship and he's certainly not going to breathe deeply enough to shout. "What do you see?"

John pokes his head out of the airlock. "There's nobody in here and no bodies, either. Shit's all over the floor and the seats, hardly any on the consoles. Everything looks like it's on auto, I don't know how to shut it down."

"I do." Stark hugs his rifle. "But I'm not going in there."

D'Argo motions John down and looks with watery eyes at the gaggle of DRDs hanging back by the doorway. "Let's have this mess cleaned up so we can look at the ship without vomiting."

John rinsed off the worst of it under the chemical spill shower in the corner of the docking bay, but an oily film still clings and the smell follows him toward Aeryn's quarters. For a second time that day he strips his clothing off in the hallway before he heads into her room. He hopes that a good marinating in amnexus fluid will bring the boots back into service. He only has one more pair left besides the spares in Aeryn's room.

John runs the water in the fresher as hot as he can stand and starts scrubbing.

Chiana swallows, forcing the cold tremble in her throat back down into her stomach. Aeryn kneels in a pool of red, her hands painted with it, her body curled around something held to her chest. She is sobbing, over and over, "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

Noranti shoves Chiana aside, sweeps into the room, and sinks down on her knees in front of Aeryn. Chiana backs away, Noranti's words drowned out by the rushing sound in her ears.

She cringes against the keening sound and strides to the other end of the infirmary before she activates her comm. "Crichton, get down here."

Noranti's firm voice rides above the echoing cry. "Aeryn, hand me--"


Chiana's breath hitches. She shakes her head roughly and slips out into the hallway. "Crichton!"

"Chiana, " D'Argo answers instead, "What's going on?"

"Aeryn's in trouble. Where's John?"

"He's gett--"

"Fuckit--just get him up here right now!"

"I will."

It took three rounds of washing, but finally he can only smell the soap. He towels his hair and pulls out a clean set of clothes, struggling the leathers on over damp skin. He digs his spare boots out from under Aeryn's bed, noticing some extra boxes that he didn't remember seeing there before. He borrows a clean holster for his borrowed pistol and then remembers that he'd already borrowed Aeryn's comm. It's still attached to the filthy t-shirt, which is out in the corridor.

He's toeing through the nasty pile when he hears the comm go off. "Crichton you'd better be dead!" Chiana sounds so mad she could bite the head off a Scarran like a Slim Jim.

He taps it with his boot and leans down to pluck it from the shirt. "What's wrong, Chi?"

"Get down here now."


He rounds the corner at a dead run, blowing right past D'Argo running the other way. D'Argo skids a U-turn and follows him.

John just runs.

"I should have waited, I should have left her in stasis where she was safe, I should have waited until everything was safe and gone to a Diagnosan, and stayed in a safe place until she came out ripe and fat and perfect." Aeryn stoops underneath the weight of the hot water flowing down her back, her words tainting the sound of the shower like the blood coloring the water at her feet. "I felt her coming but I couldn't prevent it, I couldn't keep her inside where she'd be safe--"

Chiana reaches into the cubicle, grabs Aeryn by the shoulders and shakes her hard. "You're ranting, Aeryn. Stop it."

Aeryn brings her hands up, fingers spread, and looks at her palms. "She's so small, how could I not hold on to something so small when she needed me--"

Chiana slaps her.

Aeryn stops, her teeth chattering. Her eyes are rimmed in red and her face is pale.

"Listen to me. You need to dry off and come rest on a bed so the bleeding will stop." She pulls her out of the cubicle and cuts off the flow of water. She snags what must be one of the last clean pieces of toweling and briskly dries Aeryn's body as she stands shivering in the steam.

Noranti steps in, handing a set of clean bedclothes to Chiana. "D'Argo found John, they're on their way."

Aeryn catches Noranti by the arm. "What have you done with her?"

Noranti lays her hand gently over the fingers digging into her forearm. "Only cleaned her and wrapped her in a cloth. You may hold her if you would like, after you come out and lie down." She pries the fingers off her arm and ducks out of the hot little room.

Noranti stands in the infirmary doorway and one look at her stops John cold. She's wearing an expression he's seen before on the face of his mother, a grim sympathy. "Aeryn is going to be okay."

He sees the blood on the front of her skirt, as if she'd slid into home plate in a slaughterhouse. D'Argo's hand comes to rest on his shoulder and John feels weary and thick.

He hadn't realized how much he'd been tensed for this blow, but it's not a shock, it's more like something awful clicking into place. Deep down, he was never truly convinced that he could get away with having a family of his own. "Where is she?"

Noranti reaches up, lays a hand on his back and leads him into the infirmary. "She's with Chiana. She'll be out soon and then she'll need to rest. The bleeding has slowed and should stop after a few solar days."

She steers him to a low bed and slips away. He sits down heavily. The sweat of his exertion makes him clammy and cold. He looks up at D'Argo, and knows his Luxan face well enough to see that his own sorrow and anger and helplessness are shared by his friend.


"Yeah." His gaze falls to his hands, and he distractedly picks at the shredded cuticle of his thumb.

Noranti kneels in front of him. She carries a clean piece of cloth, wrapped into a small package. She gives it to him.

He holds it in his hands, and it weighs almost nothing. Reverently, he lifts the edges of the wrapping to reveal her nestled inside.

She is white, and still.

Her eyes are closed, her rounded limbs gently curled and as perfectly formed as the shells of her ears.

He cups his hand against her, and she is warm.

Aeryn doesn't follow her out of the fresher, so Chiana backs up and sticks her head inside the cubicle. "Come on, you need to lie down."

Aeryn doesn't answer, just grips the edge of the doorway and leans her head against the wall. Chiana can hear D'Argo speaking quietly on the other side of the room. Then she hears a choking kind of sob, and Aeryn winces. John is here, too.

He's letting himself cry now, the sobs and breath coming freely.

Aeryn reaches out and slides the fresher door shut. She squeezes her eyes shut, grits her teeth and taps her head against the wall.

Aeryn sleeps with her body curled around a pillow while he runs his hand up and down her back. He watches her, because he can't watch Noranti seal his child in a small box of stasis fluid. He listens to the little sounds, the clicks and vacuum whisper. He imagines Zola resting with her placenta as a pillow, a specimen instead of a child.

Aeryn wants a Diagnosan to tell her why Zola died.

She needs to know why her mission failed, but John would rather gouge out one of his own eyes than sit through that debriefing, hearing someone translate that clinical twitter into parcels of blame for either of them.

The torture. The radiation. The thousand little insults hurled at one hybrid cluster of cells from whenever time it was that she was conceived.

He begins to feel that Zola was awfully tough to have made it this far, to have waved at her parents from the monitor like a passenger on a train that just didn't stop at their platform.

Aeryn's skin is chalky, her limbs loose in exhausted sleep. His shirt is soggy from her wet hair and their tears.

Perhaps this short life was the best one they could offer their child, a life with the least amount of pain.

"You can look now, I've finished."

John lays a kiss on Aeryn's shoulder and walks over to Noranti. The bronze stasis box is square with rounded corners, unmarked and just large enough to hide a softball in. Too small to fit a person, yet there she is. Noranti's soft wrinkled hand gently rests on top, and her third eye glows blue at him.

"Aeryn's so pale."

"When she wakes, I'll have certain foods for her to eat, with minerals and salts to help replenish her blood." Noranti brushes imaginary dust from the box. "Once the bleeding stops entirely her body will quickly recover strength and fertility."

"You mean like before, right? With the stasis, and an embryo with a shelf life?"

Noranti's firm tone makes every word sink in. "I mean normal Sebacean fertility. She's not a Peacekeeper coming off breeding duty, we can't set up another stasis-response here. Perhaps the Diagnosan we find will know the technology for it." Noranti shrugs.

John shakes his head. "That's not important."

"Her health should return quickly, but I would urge you both to let a few fertility cycles go past before taking on the stress of another pr--"

"Granny," John lets out a breath and gingerly picks up the stasis box, holding it in careful fingers like a Rubik's cube or a puzzle box key to Hell, "making babies is the last fucking thing on my mind right now."

Chiana rises and falls with D'Argo's breath, stretched out on her back on top of the warm slab of his chest. This is far from the worst day she's ever had, and there are others aboard who have a better claim to being sad and exhausted, but that doesn't make her head feel any better.

D'Argo makes her head feel better. He slowly palms her skull, pressing and massaging the ache until only a warm sleepiness remains. She reaches up and glides her fingers from his lips to the tips of his tankas, enjoying the rumble of his sigh against her back. "Thank you."

He kisses her fingers. "My pleasure."

She rolls off her back and nestles against his chest, belly to belly.

He rubs her calf with the sole of his foot. "The Leviathans have been teaching Moya the layout of this region of space. As soon as she's willing to travel, we'll begin searching for a Diagnosan."

Chiana nods and tucks her head next to his, wishing he hadn't brought up the subject. She slips one of his braids between her fingers, back and forth.

His voice hums against her, soft and sleepy. "Talk to me, Chiana."

"About what?"

"About what's keeping you awake."

She shifts, propping herself up with one arm. "I don't want you to get your hopes up about my eyes, that's all."

His hand drifts up her arm and cradles the side of her head. "Because the damage might be permanent?"

"Because it might get worse again."

He turns them both over until she rests on the bed and he looks down at her. He brushes a fluff of her hair from her eyes. "If you can bear it, then I can."

"Stumbling after you wherever you go?" She'd tried for sarcasm, and she winces at the brittleness she hears in her voice instead.

"Of course not." He traces down the lines of her breast and stomach with his tankas. "You'll harness and ride me like your own personal gvarnokt." He snorts against her belly until she laughs.

Rygel supervises as Stark maneuvers a long bench through the doorway and into the crowded corridor. "That's the last of it, then?"

Stark sets the bench down and sits on it, flinging a tired hand toward the terrace. "Everything except the flowers."

Rygel hovers to the door panel and pauses for a moment, blinking solemnly at the stars. He clears his throat. "And your sacred space, any spiritual cleaning you need to do for that?"

"I took care of that."

Rygel shakes himself and presses the closure for the door panel, turns off the hull warmer, and disables the bubble field. He watches through the port window as paper flowers fly out into the vacuum on wisps of atmosphere. He mutters to himself, "Body breeding is such a dangerous way to go about it."

John drags himself toward his quarters, kicked out of the infirmary by Noranti with orders to let Aeryn sleep and go lie in his own bed. He hits the door lock but not the lights, and unbuckles his holster as he bends down to untie and pull off his boots.

Bone weariness pulls at him like undertow. He shuffles toward his bed to fall down into it and not sleep, but instead he kicks something blunt and hard that feels like it nearly rips off two of his smaller toes.

"God damn it!" He falls against his bed and into a puddle of water on the floor.

His eyes adjust to the faint light coming from the corridor as he remembers that the water was in a pitcher, with a bowl, and a plate of sweet panek, on a small table by the door.

D'Argo had planned the whole series of rituals for their marriage, beauty and meaning filling every nook and cranny of their wedding day. After the vows, after the party, John was to bring Aeryn to his home and welcome her. Then they would go back to the terrace by themselves, watch the stars, and contemplate their new life together.

He can just see the rim of the wide shallow bowl where he was to wash her bare feet while she ate the sweet little rolls of panek, sees only the dull glint of water. No broken glass on the floor, as if that meant anything at this point.

He got married this morning.

Pilot sinks his consciousness deep into Moya's physical experience. The analysis of the DRDs has been troublesome, basic connections in the neural template of the offspring seem to barely handle the test input, and without enough input the neural net will not program itself properly. The offspring is not developing as it should.

He clears the DRDs from the gestation chamber to limit distractions. He closes his eyes and his ears, lifts his sensitive claws from the console and he feels the connection between Moya and her child, feels the chaos that Moya is keeping at bay, and feels it echoing in the defective neural template of the offspring.

Moya senses it through him, and they confer, and they share their disappointment and their resolve.

They must try again.

The rustle is hushed and slick. It's a sound she should recognize, and the effort to identify it brings her a little further out of the muggy sleep.

The light in the infirmary is evening dim, and the blanket is tangled around her legs. She must have slept for a very long time, and from the way she feels she should probably repeat the process. Her body remembers first, hollow and sore. As she frees her feet she becomes aware of the padding in her undershorts and the memory sinks in that her daughter is dead.

She feels numb, and hyperaware. She wants to cry but she just keeps breathing instead, steady in, steady out, everything around her knife-edge sharp. There's a fluttering sound and a smack, followed by a mechanical purr. Rygel's set aside his magazine, and now he hovers at bed-level in front of her.

"I'm sure you feel a lot worse than you look, and you don't look very good at all." He gestures to a tray of food on a low shelf by the bed, a covered plate and a thermal pitcher. A set of clothes sits next to the tray in a neat stack.

She pulls the cover off the plate, condensation dripping onto something meat and something green. "Where is John?"

"Working on the Scarran ship with Stark."

She begins to eat out of habit, fueling the body so it can heal. The smell of the roasted meat makes her stomach growl and Rygel chuckles when he hears it.

She forks another piece of meat into her mouth, looking at her favorite pair of boots lined up as neatly as their beaten shapes allow, and the shirt folded human style into a flat square. She wanted him to stop pestering and hovering, and now he has. She realizes that she's chewed all the flavor out of the meat, so she swallows, feeling the lump travel slowly down.

Rygel fills a mug from the thermal pitcher and slides it toward Aeryn. "I took the liberty of eating your previous meals, since you were occupied."

"How long have I been sleeping?"

"Nearly thirty-four arns." Rygel describes the progress so far; DRDs cleaning out the ship and Stark powering the engines down.

The green food is leafy and spicy, and soon the plate is empty. She drinks from the mug, the light steam of the broth bathing her face with its smoky metallic smell.

"Everyone's been crawling around that piece of kotetse as if the secrets of the universe are hidden behind one of the panels. Noranti spent all of yesterday playing with what was left of the Scarrans. She doesn't know why they turned liquid but she says they died less than ten days ago."

Aeryn extricates herself from the bedding, takes her pile of clothes, and carefully makes her way toward the fresher. Rygel trails behind, talking all the way and adjusting his volume to carry through the door.

"Crichton says it doesn't matter when it happened on the Scarran ship, because the Scarran ship was in the wormhole and outside of our stream of time."

Rygel carries on but Aeryn has stopped listening. Her numbness has been punctured by one word, and she follows that word.


Time dilation, stepping out of time, adjusting the timeline.

She washes quickly and dresses. Her fingers shake as she fastens her leathers because she can't ignore the bit of slack in the waistband. She knows that anything but the quickest wash in amnexus fluid will tighten the leather up enough make them fit again. She shoves that thought away. There is no use thinking about continuing to live in this reality when her very skin hurts with the need to get out and the wherewithal to escape is at hand.

The food and the agitation have chased the weakness out of her body, and her mind surges with work to be done. She startles Rygel when she opens the door. He continues his update while she fastens her boots.

She has to find John, help him any way she can to work the equations, convince him that it doesn't matter what else happens as long as they manage to save Zola.

"I know you're not listening to me, Aeryn, but I do want to say one more thing."

"I'm listening." She lays her hands on her knees and takes a moment to rest before she heads for the docking bay.

Rygel's large eyes blink slowly and his hand jostles the altitude control of his chair. "I am sorry about what happened to Zola. If there is anything I can do, I am at your service."

Aeryn stifles the urge to cry because crying will not get her to the docking bay.

"Aeryn, you're awake." D'Argo approaches her up the corridor and turns to walk with her, his long legs easily matching her quick strides. "How are you feeling?"

"I'm still tired but I'll be fine. Where is John?"

"John is in the docking bay," D'Argo lays his fingers on her arm and eases her to a slower walking pace. "But now that you are up, Pilot would like to speak with you."

Aeryn hears the sympathy, the empathetic grief in his voice. It scrapes at the delicate shell she's formed over the pain and the imposition of it makes her angry. "I don't have a comm, he'll have to wait."

"Aeryn," D'Argo reaches for her arm again but she shakes it off.

"I'm sorry, D'Argo, I need to talk to John."

"Here, take mine." He pulls off his comm and presses it into her hand. "Talk to Pilot as soon as you can."

She nods and leaves him standing in the corridor, her mind racing around the task at hand.

She has to make John see that it's the only way, that they have to do everything they can, everything to get Zola back. She thinks her daughter's name, and is ambushed by a sense memory of blood heat and slick softness, the ghosts of tiny limbs and tough cord sliding in her palms, making them itch. She curls her fingers to dig the nails in, erasing the feeling, and shunning the sore paralysis of grief waiting for her beyond it. Any action, even engaging with wormholes, is better than the feeble immobility of mourning. If she stops and lets it happen, it becomes real, and Zola is lost forever. She walks faster.

How to begin?

She slows as she enters the docking bay because she still doesn't know what to say. The curve of his back looks both powerful and weary as he sits on the bench, bent over a thick book. She keeps walking, stamping down a small queasy flutter.

He hears her approach and closes the book, holding his place with a finger.

She has no set beginning in mind, she just opens her mouth and speaks. "I'm ready."

He sets the book on the floor and straddles the bench, making a space for her to join him. She continues to stand. He begins slowly, his voice raspy and delicate. "I don't know what kind of funeral rite you were raised with, but I wou--"

"No, I'm ready to go fix it."

He repeats with no inflection. "Fix it." His lips are parted and his front teeth meet on edge.

"Yes, we need to go back and fix this while we still can."

His eyes and mouth close, and his teeth click together as he swallows. He sits there for a moment, simply breathing as deeply and smoothly as he can. He speaks with his eyes still shut. "There is nothing to fix, Aeryn."

Her voice is like slate. "Yes. There is."

He finally looks up, taking in her red-rimmed eyes and her struggle to keep her mouth from twisting up in pain. She clings to the shreds of her disbelief, unwilling to acknowledge that for all he's risked in the past he could refuse to risk this for the sake of their child. He holds her gaze, his calm feeding her anguish, as if his lack of reply should be response enough. When he finally speaks, the word is less of a denial than a coup de grace.


She shifts gears and throws the emotion outward, shoving at his shoulders, "How can you sit there and choose to let her stay dead?" She strikes his shoulders again harder with the heels of her hands, powering the blow from her legs and sending him backwards on the bench. "Tell me, how?"

He catches his boots on the bench and curls back up, his calm equaling her desperate rage. "How do we save her, Aeryn?" He stands and closes the distance between them, his face right down in hers and his tone unmercifully methodical. "What do we do? How far back do we go?"

Tears spill unheeded, her coloring paler than normal and blotched with red. "As far as it takes."

"You choose, then. What do you want undone, Aeryn?"

"I want my daughter alive and safe. Our daughter."

His nostrils flare but he keeps his unemotional tone. "I'll ask again--how? We don't know why she died." He breathes around the catch in his voice. "I can fuck the whole universe sideways even when I'm just traveling aboveboard, never mind the inherent clusterfuck if I deliberately go backwards. Who are you willing to sacrifice? What are you willing to risk undoing?"

She's silent and pale.

"Rewind, erase, hit record. Where do you want to stop the tape, Aeryn? Before the wedding? Or before you popped the cork on her on Katratzi? How about," he slips the words into the air with a soothing and morbid calm, "...before her daddy died?"

She folds her arms under her breasts and tucks her chin down, her eyes looking to the side and at the floor.

"Some things can't be fixed, Aeryn." His voice is ragged and soft. "I wish she were here with us, our girl, our Zola. But I won't gamble everyone else I care about. God doesn't play dice with the Universe, because the odds on dice are too damned fair."

She lifts her eyebrows and then her gaze. "She's yours again now, is she? And not his?"

His reply is swift, escaping through a crack in his control. "Since when do you discern a difference?"

She presses the heels of her hands to her temples and turns toward the door. "I'm leaving."

"Aeryn, I'm sorry." He mutters 'asshole' to himself and follows after her. "I think it safe to say that we probably shouldn't discuss anything more important than dinner until we've had a chance to calm the fuck down."

"Please yourself, John." Her boot heels thunk on the keracrete floor of the docking bay, her thin voice barely audible above the sound. "Pilot needs to see me about something."

"About s--oh. Aeryn?"

She turns to glance at him, trying to pass off her brittle control as impatience.

"You don't know about it yet, do you?"

"Know about what?" Aeryn leans against the doorway, waiting for John to speak.

"Pilot wanted to tell you, he--" John pauses, then reaches for her hand.

"Wanted to tell me what?" His skin is warm as he lifts her hand and lays it against the skinsteel of a wall panel.

He watches her reaction intently. "What do you feel?"

Her eyes lose focus and her brow furrows. "Bad. Things are bad, but not frightening." Her hand slides against the wall, caressing, and she looks at John again. "We're not in danger, but what happened?"

"Let's go to Pilot--"

"No, you will tell me now."

He exhales. "The offspring wasn't healthy. Moya isn't pregnant anymore."

She pushes herself away from where she leans against the doorway and begins walking toward the Pilot den. He walks next to her and shares the silence until she speaks. It's a statement, and not a question. "This is because of me, isn't it."

"No it's not. That's why Pilot wanted to be the one to tell you, because he didn't want you thinking the two things were related."

"When did Moya's baby die?"

"It stopped responding to Moya's maternal hail a few days ago. Pilot says that growth had been slowing well before that."

"So it wasn't damage from the Peacekeepers."

"The baby was full Leviathan, just too much like Moya to handle Tormented Space."

The silence stretches all the way to Pilot's den.

Pilot watches her come up the walkway and slowly lowers his carapace to the side. "Moya and I are very sorry about your loss, Aeryn."

The words are dented by the time they escape her throat. "I'm sorry about Moya's baby, Pilot."

He extends an arm toward her and helps her climb onto the console. "We want you to know that despite the timing, what happened to you did not cause what happened to Moya."

Aeryn kneels and cradles the claw that Pilot rests on her leg. "But how can you be sure?"

"The offspring had been in distress for several days. We suspected that the interference of Tormented Space was causing problems in development, but Moya chose to postpone the decision to terminate until after the wedding ceremony."

John closes the distance and lays his hands on the console. "How long after?"

Pilot rears his head. "After Officer Sun took ill."

"I'm sorry, Pilot, I didn't mean to imply th--"

"I understand your concern, Commander Crichton." Pilot shifts his head back down and toward Aeryn, and taps his claw against her leg. "Moya and I were expecting difficulty. Even though this offspring was not viable, there was no evidence of Peacekeeper tampering. This has encouraged us that our problems will not be as great as we had feared. Moya is frustrated but determined."

Aeryn taps her fingers against the shell of Pilot's claw, the vibrations a gentle caress to the sensitive flesh inside. "Moya is also sad."

Pilot extends another arm and rubs that claw against her shoulders. "She is sad for you. She knows what it means to lose a loved child."

John draws close to Aeryn and rests his hands and head against her other leg. She mindlessly taps at Pilot's claw and runs her fingers through the hair at the nape of John's neck, as the fear that fueled her breaches through the containment field of anger. Physically caught between these two beings, held and kept still for the grief to capture her, she fractures and implodes, the sorrow finally spilling out on tears and ragged breath.

John curls an arm around her lower back and presses his face into her hip, holding tight against the shake in his own shoulders. She imagines sitting behind him in his ship as they tip down into a wormhole, risking everything for Zola, for one tiny being who never drew breath between birth and death.

They did well on Earth, fixed what was wrong and came right back, but the nurses at the memorial have screamed his name for hundreds of cycles. She understands why they are here instead of in his ship, even if it still hurts.

She wipes her wet face, bringing her breathing back under control. She cradles his head, rubs down his back and arm. He lays a kiss on the skin bared by the gap in her waistband.

Pilot telescopes his eyes out a bit, narrowing the eyelids. "Moya and I are concerned about your well-being during the next mating cycle."

Aeryn's voice is rough but freer. "Moya will try again?"

"Yes. We are confident that she will eventually conceive a healthy child with this male. The gestation chamber will be ready in three more days, and Moya will be fertile again after the next mating."

John stands straight, seemingly distracted by an internal thought.

Pilot dips his head and swivels his eyes to Aeryn. "We are aware of the difficulty that the mating cycle presents, and will delay it if you would like to evacuate into a transport pod for the duration."

"Unless Moya would prefer if I left, I would rather stay in my quarters while I recover."

When she gets there, Aeryn finds that her room has been straightened and all evidence of the wedding preparations erased.

She sets her comm on the table and lifts her holster from the hook on the wall. Her gun hasn't been fired since she cleaned it last, but she sits at the table and cleans it again, re-conditioning the straps and sheath of the holster before putting everything back in its place again on the hook.

She peels her clothing off, rubbing at the salt residue on the one leg of her leathers, wiping it away with the thin film of metal-oil clinging to her fingers. She gets into bed.

"Granny." John checks that no one else is in the kitchen before he sidles up next to Noranti. In the tone of someone trying to bum a cigarette or score a joint he asks her, "You got anything that will work for birth control?"

Noranti sips from her mug before answering cheerfully. "To ease labor pain or to hasten delivery?"

"Er," John rubs his hands on the tabletop, "to prevent conception in the first place."

Noranti sets down her mug. "That's completely different, then. Venikka. Oh yes, venikka will do nicely. Works in Sebaceans, and since you got one pregnant it should work for you as well. Strips the tools from your little sporecells." She wiggles her shoulders and then shakes her head, "They can't move and they can't open the door."

"What else does it do?"

"It will make you sleepy, but that will wear off in a day. The sporecells recover in a few monens. I'd recommend dosing every few weekens if you want to be certain that no life can be kindled when you..." Noranti smiles with all three eyes and gestures with her one hand as if she's a DJ scratching a record.

"Yeah, uh, that's good." John clears his throat. "Do we have any of that here?"

"I can make a decoction in a quarter of an arn. Give me two arns and it won't even taste bad."

"I don't care as long as it works."

An arn later she holds out a little salad bowl filled halfway with a muddy green liquid.

John eyes the concoction. "Venikka, huh?"

"Oh yes. I calculated the dose based on your weight. Then I added a bit more because the cuttings were a few cycles old. Not as strong as fresh."

The liquid smells like wet clay and new rubber-soled sneakers. He tips it back like he's draining the milk after a bowl of cereal and takes it in one gulp. He slams the bowl down, smacks his hand a few times on the counter next to it, and swallows painfully.

Noranti beams a satisfied smile, cup of water in hand.

"Holy frell, woman, that's foul." The water only serves to spread the taste around. "So when do I start shooting blanks?"

"Blanks, blanks..." Noranti mutters. "Blanks, yes, like ammunition. See? Love is definitely a kind of war, is it not?"

John nods distractedly, stealing her mug and knocking it back. The taste of honeyed coffee surprises him and actually kills the after-ick of the venikka.

Noranti blinks distractedly, but brings herself back to the topic. "You will start producing blanks in a few arns, and the venikka will also disable some of your live ammunition. But you still have a good supply of it, so, heh, discharge your magazine often."

John mutters darkly in a sing-song, "This is my rifle, this is my gun, one is for fighting, one is for fun."

"We should check your output in a few days to see how the disarmament is progressing."

"Oh joy."

Noranti gets up, refills her mug and pours another for John, then joins him again at the table. "I take it Aeryn is feeling better?"

"She's up and around. Still real tired. I think she was only awake for a few hours before she went to go sleep in her own room." He sips at the coffee, more to inhale the roasted scent of it than to taste it. "I just want to be safe with her."

Noranti nods and watches him yawn. "You should probably find a nice place to lie down before the venikka gets the best of you."

His 'yeah' turns into another yawn, this one flaring his nostrils and sucking his breath inward with a harsh vacuum sound. He pushes himself away from the table and stands, shaking his eyes open. "'Night, Gramma."

Noranti giggles even though she knows the next part phonetically by heart, "neitjonboi!"

The drowsiness is hitting him in waves, sloshing him down the corridors to Aeryn's room. She's already asleep and he's halfway there himself, flailing out of his boots and clothes and falling into bed.

She doesn't stir out of the balled-up position she's taken in the center of the mattress. He crawls under the covers and snugs his body around hers, against and slightly on top, like gerbils curled together in a sleeping pile.

Harvey sits on an exam bed and sings, his voice echoing in the space of the apothecary with the clean tones of a bugle playing taps. "Where have all the flowers gone? Long time passing..."

Their uniforms are so small. They are laid out on every other surface, and the smell of soot and blood hangs in the air with Harvey's low tenor.

"Where have all the flowers gone? Girls have picked them everyone. Oh, when will you ever learn? When will you ever learn?"

They've been triaged, with the ones nearer to the door still alive, if barely. Two older kids hustle in with a stretcher. They lower it to the ground just inside the door, ease a younger boy off, and take the stretcher away.

"Where have all the young men gone? Long time passing. Where have all the young men gone? Long time ago?"

John makes his way toward the boy, whose arm and side are bundled in scraps of an adult's torn uniform coat, the fabric soaked dark. The boy's face is scraped and dirty, and his uninjured hand grips a pulse pistol that's still a little too big. He looks like one of the Lost Boys.

"Where have all the soldiers gone? Gone to graveyards every one. When will you ever learn? Oh, when will you ever learn?"

The older kids bring in another casualty, scurrying past John and toward the back of the room where all the children are still. He follows them. They set the stretcher down and lift a girl.

Harvey slides from the bed to assist, cradling the girl's head and singing quietly. He eases her onto the padding of the exam bed as if she were only sleeping. Her face is dirty, her cuts bloodless, and her expression serene. She must have died in the first wave of destruction, without knowing she was hit, much less what hit her.

"Where have all the graveyards gone? Covered with flowers every one. Wh--"

"Shut up."

Harvey shrugs and hums a bit.

John lowers himself down onto the kneeler in front of the half-sized coffin, reaching out to lay his hands on the edge of the satin lining. Harvey kneels silently next to him. The bright thick smell of flowers tickles his nose like wormhole sign.

After a moment, Harvey speaks gently. "This is for the best, John. You know how much more painful this could have been, had we actually come to know her."

"You don't have to know someone to love them, Harv."

"Ah yes. And as we well know, acquaintance does not always equal love. Mutual benefit, however, naturally leads to mutual interest. Rest assured, our interests are always foremost in my mind."

"My mind, Harv."

"Exactly. And I was correct, was I not, that progeny would bring too much risk?"

John doesn't answer.

"What would you have done for this child, John?"

"Almost anything."

"Indeed. And that is an unacceptable level of sacrifice."

John lowers his head and says in the voice of a request, "Leave me alone, Harv."

Harvey stands and walks away.

John leans into the coffin and touches her soft cold cheek, kisses her smooth forehead.


Someone is shaking his shoulder.


"Wha-?" The room is over-bright and his limbs ache with sleepiness. He drags a hand out of the covers to clean the gummy lashes of his one open eye.

Aeryn is dressed, with her hair pulled back into a ponytail. He yawns and blinks both eyes open. She's still pale, but sleek and well-rested. Everything has been put back into place, even if it doesn't fit the way it should. Her voice is muted and even. "I would like to have the memorial for Zola tomorrow morning."

He sits up in bed and takes her hand.

She returns his squeeze and continues. "Whatever your custom is, I would like you to follow it, and I will follow my own. She will have both."

He nods. "Okay."

Her eyes focus in on him. Her skin is cool as she brushes something from his cheek. "Are you feeling alright?"

"A little under the weather."

"You should sleep then. I will turn down the lighting before I go." She stands, and helps him straighten the covers around him.

A small part of him is surprised that he's just been tucked into bed by Aeryn Sun, without a word about inferior biology or malingering. "Thanks." He yawns again and watches through closing lids as she laces her boots and heads out of the room. He lets the comfort of the bed wash over him, the bed his wife just snugged him into. He knows he's a sentimental fool but there it is.

She regards him over the collection of teacups on the table, her high round cheekbones, smooth forehead and translucent skin making her look as if she were painted by Vermeer. She's college age, in an MIT sweatshirt, but grace and composure mark her movements as she drops a colored tablet into each teacup. She is blonde to the point where her eyebrows and lashes are a subtle dusting of gold, making her face all the more open and earnest. "With all due respect, Dad..."

"You're an idiot." The second girl is a few years younger, dressed in worn jeans and a ragged Metallica 'Ride the Lightning' t-shirt, her hair nearly black and her eyes colorless grey. The cast of her features and her expression of exasperation remind him of Livvy. She pops the cap open on the bottle in her hand and splashes vinegar into each of the teacups. "Since when did you buy into all that 'father knows best' crap?"

The blonde stirs the mixture in one cup. "It does seem rather high-handed and authoritarian of you to make this decision without consulting her. After all, isn't she with you because of your willingness to be a father to her child?" She wipes the teaspoon with a paper towel, staining it green, then stirs another cup.

The brunette agrees. "Mom's going to be pissed."

John shifts in his chair, squeaking it against the linoleum. "Nice language--you kiss her with that mouth?"

The blonde nods to the brunette. "And there it is."

John demands, "There what is?"

The brunette lifts a water pack from the floor, opens the valve, and carefully fills each teacup halfway as she speaks. "Your concept of childhood is culture-bound and irrelevant. You want your life to be childproof before you become a parent, when you should be asking yourself what you need to teach us to survive in your world. We can learn it."

"That's what I'm afraid of. You shouldn't have to do the kind of things I've had to do to survive."

The blonde sets the teaspoon down. "I will do anything to save my people, and you cannot protect me from the duty and honor of that sacred trust."

"He's not worried about you, Princess, he's scared shitless of me." The brunette pulls up a chair, turns it backwards and sits with her arms crossed on the back. John notices the pulse pistol on her thigh, black straps over faded denim. "One more psychopath loose in the universe, leaving the same trail of bodies and chaos as her old man."

John nods. "Something like that."

She smiles a wide Aeryn smile. "Guess it's your job to teach me good family values, then, ain't it?"

John ignores the hair lifting on the back of his neck and pointedly looks at the cups of dye waiting on the table. "Why don't we color a few eggs and talk about it?"

The blond shakes her head regretfully. "We have no eggs."

The brunette draws her pistol and lays the barrel tip between John's eyes. "Somebody broke 'em all. Wonder who?"

He's dressed in his wedding suit, with a white shirt and black tie, and the dress shoes he'd worn to the IASA press conference and never again since. Everyone in the empty storage bay stands somberly around a table where a stasis box rests on a white cushion. Stark has chanted and Noranti is burning something sharp and piney, Rygel's words brought tears out of Chiana, and D'Argo has wailed as the Luxans do.

It's another potluck ritual but this time John feels anxious and empty. He can't remember any kind of funeral prayer save 'ashes to ashes, dust to dust', which is false because she's still in there, suspended now and forever at the hour of her death, amen.

Aeryn is dressed in battle-worn clothing, her leathers stained and ripped, the broken zipper of an old vest leaving her midriff bare, a seeming testament to the loss. She inclines her head to John, but he shakes his, let's her take the penultimate turn.

She clears her throat but her voice is cracked. "I was not taught to believe anything about death except its surety and finality. The ritual that accompanies death is one of appreciation. Acknowledgement of the duty that has been completed." She unsheathes a knife from her belt and lays it on the table with the point facing Zola. "When a comrade sacrifices himself to save you, we honor them by taking a ceremonial wound. Zola had no duty, and her sacrifice was meaningless."

It isn't the first time John has watched her attempt to explain a Peacekeeper custom. It is the first time he's watched her examine the basis of a practice and translate it into something she's willing to keep. It isn't simply "what we do", it's a ritual to express appreciation, and he unexpectedly appreciates that the evolution she's gone through is no less dramatic than his own.

"The meaning behind the ceremony, is that if I could have, I would have been honored to take that wound for her." She turns away from the rest and faces the table. There's the sound of her zipper, and the vest loosens between her shoulder blades.

John closes the distance toward the table and watches as she takes the knife, sets the edge against the skin between her breasts, and draws it down. He grabs her wrist and pulls the blade away. Blood wells and runs toward her navel as tears run down her cheeks.

"How does this help?" He asks her, gripping her wrist hard enough to squeeze the bones.

She holds his gaze as stubbornly as the knife. "How does anything help?"

Through the shock, he thinks he might understand. He releases her wrist and, as if in a daze, pulls his tie loose and unbuttons the clean white shirt. When is he going to need the suit again, anyway? He feels a little sick and a lot deranged, but he holds his hand out for the knife.

Aeryn accepts with a nod, relinquishing the blade. "Shallow."

It's sharp enough that he only feels the pull and the cold of the metal, and when the pain comes it's sharp and clean. She takes back the knife, cleaning the edge on the lining of her vest and re-sheathing it. John leans down and kisses the burnished bronze of the stasis box. "Goodbye, Zola Sun."

Aeryn lays her own kiss on the same spot of the cover and rubs it silently. She zips her vest as far as it will go.

He carefully buttons his shirt, picks up the stasis box and slowly heads for the door.

Aeryn follows John to the cabinet in the infirmary where Zola will rest until they find a Diagnosan. He slides the box home and turns to her, his necktie hiding the stain on his shirt. "Let me see your cut."

She fights the zipper back down, breaking it in the process. He pulls her to the other end of the infirmary and pushes the vest open, looking the cut over grimly. She asks him, "How is your own wound?"

"It stings." He reaches for a small spray bottle on a side shelf. "Nothing I can't spare. Unlike you, who's already running a few pints low."

"I am nearly recovered. I stopped bleeding two days ago." She lets him tend to her, cleaning the cut and misting it with a sealant to promote healing. The wound should be left untended, hopefully to scar, but she needs to feel his concern more than she needs to feel the discomfort.

"Noranti said you should give yourself a few months to recover before you go back to a full schedule of kicking ass and taking names." He blows on her skin to dry the sealant.

"I heard what she said." Aeryn's nipples tighten, and one peeks out from behind the bent teeth of the broken zipper. "And what Moya said about trying again."

John palms the eager breast and steps closer, leaning his forehead against hers. "Your vest is broken."

"So it is."

He rolls the nipple. "Seems awfully cold in here."

"You put out enough heat."

He chuckles and kisses her. "We shouldn't miss lunch. Noranti's got another piece of roast beast for you, and you need that meat more than you need mine right now. Here, take off that vest." He shucks his jacket and tie, and helps her put on his thin white dress shirt. He rolls up the sleeves and ties the stained shirt-tail into a knot at the level of her belt buckle.

She traces her fingers along the side of his cut, taking in the fact that he'd done this to himself like any honorable soldier would, because the action would mean something to her.

Even as days turn into weekens, as the wound turns into a pink scar hidden in the thatch of hair down his chest, she still wonders at it.

D'Argo brightens when he sees John coming up the corridor. "Stark wants to talk to you. He's accessed the navigation computer in the Scarran ship and he wants you to take a look at the information he's found."

"Sure, man, just let me drop by the infirmary and I'll meet you there."

"Are you feeling unwell? Aeryn said you've been sleeping a lot more the last few days."

"No, I'm fine, D." John unconsciously touches his hand to his pocket, to check that the vial is still tucked inside. "I just need to get something to Noranti."

"I can stop by the infirmary and drop it off for you. Stark is anxious to talk to you."

"Thanks, D, but I've got it."

"It's no trouble, won't take any time at all."

"No, I'd rather do this myself."

D'Argo stops and takes a long assessing look at John. "Are you sure you're feeling well? You look very red."

John chuckles and reddens even more. "D, I'm good, just drop it."

Suspicion flares and burns into a controlled authority. "No. If your health is compromised, for whatever reason, I need to know about it. We haven't been pursued lately, but that can change in a microt. I need to know the status of everyone on board."

John settles into a cold openness. "I'm not on the lakka, if that's what you mean."

D'Argo measures his friend, studies his eyes.

"I haven't been since Katoya's summer school."

D'Argo gestures without breaking his gaze. "What is in your pocket?"

"Listen D, you don't really want..."

D'Argo sighs like a high school principal.

"Alright, you asked." John pulls a glass vial out of his pocket.

D'Argo plucks the vial from John's hand. He unscrews the cap.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you."

"Dangerous?" D'Argo asks, but then he wrinkles his cheeks against the beak of his nose. "It smells like that window on LoMo--"

"Give it here." John yanks it out of D'Argo's grip and holds out his hand for the cap. "And the cap."

"John, that isn't what I think it is--is it?"

"Give me the cap. She was pretty specific about keeping it uncontaminated and I'm not up for running off another batch yet."

D'Argo hands him the cap, and walks with him up the corridor. "I think you are far too lenient in accommodating that old woman's bizarre whims. I would not provide her with any of my genetic fluid. She might want to cook with it."

John shoots him a look. "Dude, how can you eat her cooking if you immediately jump to a theory like that?"

D'Argo shrugs. "Still beats food cubes."

"Well, I'll keep that in mind, D, but don't worry about dinner. This is for something else." John slips the vial back into his pocket, leaving his hand in with it to keep it safe. He nods his head toward D'Argo without quite meeting his eyes. "And uh...thank you for the intervention back there, even if I didn't need it. I appreciate your eagerness to kick my ass."

"Anytime, my friend." D'Argo paces him for a while before speaking again. "I'm still curious about this errand of yours."

"You're gonna keep bugging me about this, aren't you?"


Noranti meets them just outside the infirmary and smiles when John hands her the vial. "Oh lovely--still warm!"

D'Argo snickers and John scratches the side of his nose, calling through the doorway, "I'll just get with you later on the results, okay?"

Noranti shouts back, "It'll just take a moment."

D'Argo gestures for John to precede him inside, smirking.

"I thought you said Stark needed to talk to me."

"You heard her, this will only take a moment. Stark can wait."

"Why do you look like you just found a peephole into the girl's locker room?"

D'Argo crosses his arms and looks smug. "I am simply fascinated that we are such seemingly different kinds of men, yet we are each willing to do anything, however mortifying, to father a healthy child."

"You think I...?"

"I understand your embarrassment, but as Lo'Laan eventually convinced me, there is no shame in it when the end result is life."

"What, are Luxans Catholic?" John shakes his head. "I've seen you man, you're randier than Captain Kirk, you'll tap anything with a nice ass and a smile."

"When I am lonely, I seek conversation." D'Argo tilts his head to indicate that it's not talking he's talking about. "I do not talk to myself."

"So Luxans don't...whack it?"

D'Argo shakes his head, a bit ill at ease with the newfound knowledge that there's a lot more masturbation going on in the universe than he'd imagined.

John crosses his arms and leans against the wall in pointed relaxation. "No wonder you guys get hyper-rage."

"Only Luxan males have hyper-rage."

"Heh. Then I'm thinking the ladies know something you don't."

The Scarran ship is not as impressive as Aeryn had expected, even when Stark shows her what he's found so far in the navcomputer. Once he leaves her alone with her Prowler, she settles quickly into the absorbing calm of working on her ship.

The fatigue hits only a few arns after the first meal, but by then she's nearly finished rebuilding the steering mechanism so she replaces stamina with will. She connects the last lead cable to the inertial dampener and slips the component into its niche with a satisfying click. She gives the steering lever a few test nudges and her smile is weary but genuine.

Once her Prowler is flight operational again she might just sleep for a few arns right in her cockpit. She only needs to refill the steering system with mechanoil, check the pressure, and make sure the seals are all intact.

The drum of mechanoil, however, is all the way over in the treblin side maintenance bay. She takes a deep breath and steels herself for the errand. After a few microts she pulls herself out of the cockpit and drops to the floor, losing her balance a little but remaining on her feet. She is stronger than yesterday.

John walks into the infirmary and notes with relief that Noranti is using some kind of visualizer to do the spunk-check. Her face is angled so that she's looking through the binocular viewpiece with one regular eye and one weird eye.

The other regular eye drifts unfocused while she speaks in a hushed monotone. "The results are mixed. Many of the sporecells are disabled, but there may be enough left with the tools to do their intended job. They look determined and angry."

"Thanks Grandma. What's the prognosis?"

"Tomorrow we will check again."

"Same time, same place?"

Noranti flutters her eyelashes and hands him a clean glass vial. He nods and heads out into the corridor, a solemn D'Argo by his side all the way to the docking bay.

Stark sees them approach and fairly skips across the bay singing, "Ka-tra-tzi! Ka-tra-tzi!" He hands a datapad to John and skips back to the Scarran ship.

John scrolls through the navigation coordinates and whistles. "He's right, this thing came from Katratzi."

D'Argo nods. "Look at the destination coordinates."

John walks slowly toward the ship with his eyes on the datapad, mumbling, "Why are these familiar?"

"Have you converted the time designation, yet?" D'Argo calls out to Stark, who pokes his head outside the ship.

"Oh, yes." Stark zips over to John, leans over the datapad, and strokes his finger delicately over the input square. Digits pop up on the screen and the picture clicks into focus. A time, a place.

"I gave them these coordinates." John looks up and runs his hand over the pitted hull of the ship. "More precisely, the Emperor did when we were wheeling and dealing on Katratzi. They shouldn't have gone into the wormhole."

D'Argo climbs the boarding stairs of the ship. "How did you determine that they came from Katratzi, Stark?"

"Aeryn told me."

John glances at the Prowler. "She was here?"

"Working on her ship, but she left."


Stark shifts from one foot to the other. "I heard that Moya is going to begin another mating cycle in a few arns, is this true?"

"Yea-ahp." John contemplates the probable nooner that lies ahead, and he's glad that he took the edge off this morning. He still isn't safe for her. If she responds to Moya the same way she did before, it may be a delicate negotiation to keep their marriage unconsummated until the venikka takes full effect. He works his jaw until it cracks.

Stark takes a deep breath, shaking himself out of his own thoughts. With a cryptic "More tadek, then," he heads out of the docking bay.

"Hey D, I've gotta get some tools out of the maintenance bay, anything you need while I'm out?"

D'Argo steps out of the ship. "Where's Stark?"

"Bugged out of here. I think he's looking for a safe place to hide out for Moya's date this afternoon."

"I think the heat bothers him. Well I'm done here. Stark is the only one who knows how to work the ship so far." D'Argo hits the keypad, retracting the stairs and sealing the door. "I can give you a hand if you'd like."

"Yeah, thanks." On the way, John outlines his current theory about how energy shielding might be the cause behind lethal wormhole travel, and they negotiate how much sampling he can do of the Scarran ship's hull without damaging its usefulness. They come to a workable compromise that makes neither of them happy.

Aeryn's body decides that if sleep isn't available, it will agitate for food instead. She pulls a cloth from her pocket, unwinds it, and eyes the shriveled strips of dark dried meat within. Djierki, Noranti had called it. Aeryn sniffs it, pleasantly surprised at the tasty scent.

She's still gnawing her way through the snack when she arrives at the maintenance bay, finds the correct drum in a maze of stacked shipping crates, and realizes that she doesn't have a container to carry any mechanoil back to her Prowler.

She sinks down onto the floor, legs crossed and back propped against the mechanoil drum, weighing whether to go searching for a container, or just go to bed. Right now she's going to finish her djierki and rest for a moment.

She doesn't realize that she's drifted off until she's awakened by the soft sound of clinking tools and D'Argo's purr of a voice.

"Lo'Laan and I knew that even if we succeeded in having a child together, we would never have grandchildren. It was a decision we had to make, the price of sharing a child. We wanted to become a family in flesh as well as in our hearts." D'Argo huffs a laugh. "Jothee ended up looking most like my father's sister, but when he's angry he has Lo'Laan's scowl."

"Family resemblance is a strange thing."

Hearing John's voice makes Aeryn dizzy, like a supple opponent pressing their thumbs against the arteries in her neck.

"Indeed. But I see now how selfish we were, denying our son the same chance to have what we had."

"You mean Jothee's..."

"Unable to sire children of his own."

"D'Argo, just because a person can't make a baby doesn't mean they can't be a parent."

Aeryn rubs a palm against her thigh. The resigned sound in John's voice brings back their fight in the docking bay. There are things she's afraid of hearing him say, about babies and obligations, but from the location of their voices she won't be able to leave without interrupting. She will have to wait until after they've gone.

"You thought you would have this chance with Zola."

Aeryn sets her head back against the mechanoil drum and concentrates on breathing like a sniper. Slow in. Slow out.

"I had a lot of dumb ideas, D. I knew they were stupid but I didn't care. Daughter, niece, Human, Sebacean, whatever she would have been, she would've had me wrapped around her little finger. A big red frayed Achilles heel for anyone who wanted to get to me, but I wouldn't have cared as long as she was alive and protected."

"You had already done as much for my own son. Do not think I will ever forget that. And one day you will have plenty of your own children, and they will give you just as much trouble. I know it."

There is a muted thump of cloth and John chuckles. "Thanks, man."

Aeryn takes a deep silent breath, wipes her cheeks dry and wonders how many children a Sebacean woman can have if she really puts her mind to it. Perhaps a full squadron? In a monen or two, she will begin applying herself. The smile feels wide and strange and very good.

"I am sorry about teasing you, John." The humor has left D'Argo's voice. "I did not realize you were seeking treatment from Noranti for infertility."

Her smile doesn't have time to fade before the next words shatter it entirely.

"It's okay D, it's...actually the problem is the opposite."

"The opposite?"

"I don't want to get Aeryn pregnant. I took something so I could be safe with her."

Aeryn reflexively grips at the crates on each side of her, as if explosive decompression were ripping through the compartment.

D'Argo clarifies. "A preventive."


A bench scrapes back, and there's a sound of clinking metal and footsteps heading toward the doorway.

"So Noranti..."

"Was checking to see that it's started working."

"I see."

There is a pause, which Aeryn fills by waiting for the red-black haze to dissipate from her vision.


"I have the feeling that I don't want to hear this."

"Don't tell Aeryn."

"My friend, I am in awe of your stupidity."

Aeryn sits, leaning against the mechanoil drum and balling and squeezing the cloth from the djierki into her fist. She waits until there is only the deep sound of Moya thrumming up through the floor, warm against her rear and through the sides of her boots.

She lets the feelings rage and tear inside of her, letting them ride her like the shiver of a fever, but she does not act on them. She considers.

First, she needs to clear her head.

She will not go to the exercise room, because she wants to hit something that will break. She will go to one of the storage bays where the Earth goods are kept, boxes and crates and shiny pretty things that will mangle nicely.

Aeryn rises, and walks calmly to her destination.

Her throat is raw and her hands scraped by the time she pauses to catch her wind and sees Chiana standing in the doorway, surveying the devastation. Torn cartons, ripped packing, the wooden chair that had been a delight to split apart. The excellent shard of wood she'd used to obliterate the feather pillows.

Chiana doesn't come in, just sings lightly, "It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas..."

Aeryn drops the shard of wood and straightens out of the crouch, panting.

"You're covered with fluff."

Aeryn rasps, "I know."

"It's sticking to the sweat."

Aeryn wipes her forehead, grimaces at her hand, and begins picking a sliver out of the palm. Chiana steps inside and starts pulling feathers out of Aeryn's hair.

"You wanna talk about it?" Chiana's tone is perfunctory but genial, because it amuses her to ask even when she knows the answer is no.

"Yes." Aeryn flicks the sliver away and rubs the spot on her palm. "But I'd like to get drunk first."

Chiana covers her surprise. "I've said the very same thing a few times myself." She takes Aeryn by the hand and leads her deeper into the storage bay. "Come on, I know where the skahch is."

Aeryn follows, too weak to resist even if she wanted to. "What's skahch?"

"And the pulse pistol asked, 'what's chakkan oil?' Trust me, you'll like it." Chiana finds the right carton and tears it open, lifting an amber bottle. "Crichton said it's unblended and older than he is, which means it's good."

Aeryn scoffs.

Chiana studies Aeryn. "So this isn't about Zola?"


"This is about Crichton."


Chiana's voice starts normal and then wheedles higher. "So, are you sure you want to talk to me at all, I mean, you're probably going to regret telling me even this much, you know, not to mention what the skahch is going to wash out of you, and while I'm glad to help you out, you know, a shoulder or a laugh or whatever, I don't know if it's a good idea to talk to me about anything real personal or confidential because I remember the last time you got all touchy about spilling your secrets so maybe--"

"Too many secrets already." Aeryn takes the bottle from Chiana.

"So then, you're not going to tell me anything that you're not also going to tell Crichton."

"I'd tell him first if I thought I could talk to him right now without ripping off his mivonks and shoving them down his throat."

"Heh, trust me, that kind of thing wouldn't put him in a mood to talk anything over." Chiana pulls another bottle out of the carton. "Tell you what, we'll get Pilot to cool down Crichton's room instead, we'll lock him out, get drunk and watch movies all day."

Aeryn cracks the seal on the bottle and takes a swig. She swallows, shakes her head and blows out a breath.

"We'll take some time, figure the problem out, and then you'll talk to him. Okay?"

Aeryn nods and takes another drink. "This stuff is making my ears burn. I like it."

Aeryn sits on the kitchen countertop seemingly absorbed in the minutiae of cleaning her pulse pistol. Chiana asks all the questions and Noranti does all the answering, all three of her eyes fixed on the pulse pistol.

"We know you gave something to Crichton to keep him from getting Aeryn pregnant again. What was it?"

Noranti answers quickly, if not eagerly. "Venikka."

"And what does that do? How does it work?"

"It disables the male sporecells so they cannot move toward the female counterpart. Even if it does find her, it can't make it inside to mix the genetic component. No mixing, no life."

Chiana looks horrified. "So," she tenderly grips her crotch and whispers, "he can't frell?"

Noranti watches Aeryn slide the chakkan cartridge home and explains. "Oh no! He can frell. At least, he was perfectly able to do so when I saw him last. The venikka only affects one's ability to impregnate, not the ability to mate."

Chiana peers through her bangs. "Well how do you reverse it?"

"After a few monens the venikka wears off and fertility is restored."

"So as long as you leave him alone he'll recover."


Aeryn takes a long slow drink from the bottle next to her on the counter.

"Is there anything else I can do for either of you ladies?" Noranti bustles behind another counter and starts pulling out utensils and jars. "Something to eat perhaps, or--"

Aeryn slams the bottle down and aims at the old woman. "Stretch your hands away from your body where I can see them."

Noranti complies, revealing a tiny pouch tucked between her fingers.

Aeryn does all the talking from now on. "Chiana, take that out of her hand."

Noranti lets herself be disarmed, switching to an imploring tone of voice. "I was only going to help you get some rest, that's all. You're clearly very upset and could easily do something that you would later regret."

Aeryn lowers the pistol and slides off the counter, loose but still graceful. Noranti notices the feathers in Aeryn's hair and the blood in the wrinkles of her knuckles, as if she had come straight from sacrificing a brace of rodesh to Inali Palum.

Aeryn looms over the old woman and her voice is low and precise. "You will cease drugging John Crichton without my express permission. He is to only consume the same undoctored food and water that everyone else shares. If I find that you have disobeyed me I will kill you. Have I made myself clear?"

Noranti reaches out and pulls a feather from the lock of hair over Aeryn's ear. "Should I also cease to help Aeryn Sun as well? It won't help either of you learn to trust the other, but if it will make you feel better..."

From her vantage point Noranti can see how the wetness gathers in Aeryn's eyes and is quickly blinked away. "Make some popcorn."

The lighting dims slightly and John realizes that he's broken into sweat from reading. There's a feel to the air like a summer night when it needs to storm but it never quite does.

He saves his work and stretches the cricks out of his neck and shoulders. He runs through a nearly automatic series of grooming gestures as he makes his way to Aeryn's room.

The familiar wobble in the gravity tells him that the mating dance has already begun, but Aeryn's room is hot and seemingly empty. "Aeryn?"

He wonders why Pilot couldn't spare her quarters this time but he knows Pilot won't respond to comms at this point. He hopes Aeryn's already on a transport pod and out of the heat, but he worries that she's gone out alone. He taps his comm. "Hey, Aeryn, are you still on-board?"

Noranti answers instead. "Aeryn is busy at the moment."

In the background, Chiana is giggling so hard she's gasping.

"What's going on, is Aeryn alright? It's getting pretty hot in here."

"Aeryn is fine, just indisposed." Chiana's howl of laughter is muffled halfway through. Noranti continues, "And we are all cool and comfortable, thank you so much for asking."

"Let me talk to Chi." Johns listens to the open channel as Chiana catches her breath and takes the comm. He can hear Cary Grant in the background.

"Whatcha want, Crichton?"

"Hey Pip, is Aeryn there?"


"Can I talk to her?"


"Why not?"

Chiana giggles again. "She's cooling off in the fresher."

"The heat's getting to her, isn't it?" John heads out into the corridor and starts running toward his own room. "Is she still conscious?"

"Settle down Crichton, Pilot turned the aycee on in here for Aeryn and it's cool as a cockember. We were in the middle of a movie when Moya started distracting her. She didn't want to leave the party to go hunt you down," now it's Granny who's giggling in the background, "so she's just taking a break to relieve a little tension."

John stumbles to a halt. "She's what?"

"You heard me." Chiana must have the comm right next to her mouth to pick up her throaty whisper. "She's pleasuring herself in your fresher."

John lets his mind wander into the shower with Aeryn; her skin wet, her mouth open, his new 15-setting shower massage cooling the heat between her thighs. Good clean fun.

His chuckle is breathless and his smile is sly. "I see. So uh, you guys are having girl's night out at my place, then."

"Something like that."

"I take it I'm not invited."


"Right." John turns around and heads back to Aeryn's room. He's got a hard-on and some free time, and every little bit makes him safer.

He tugs his comm off his shirt and brings it to his mouth, drops his own voice low and slow. "Well, since my wife has the situation in hand I won't disturb her. When she comes out let her know that if she needs me, for anything, I'm a comm-call away."

Chiana can't keep the dark giggle out of her sultry voice. "I'm sure she'll think of something you can do for her, Crichton."

Aeryn steps out of the fresher in a cloud of steam, dressed in black satin boxer shorts and a faded black t-shirt that's noticeably large on her. She twists the wet ends of her hair, wringing water onto a spot of floor that just happens to be covered by a sloppy stack of papers clipped into bundles.

She knows it's petty, but it's less damaging than breaking his nose. "What did I miss?"

"The husband found the broken bottle and the missing key and now he knows his wife is a spy, but they didn't confront her, instead they're poisoning her slowly, so it looks like she's dying from some kind of illness."

"The people she's working for?"

"No, the people she's spying on."

"Oh." Aeryn pads over to the bed and Chiana makes room.

"The poisoning was very neatly done." Noranti leans over the side of the chair and grabs the bottle of skahch from the floor, topping off her cup and handing the bottle to Aeryn. "Are you feeling better?"

"A little, yes." Aeryn snags a pillow and flops onto the bed, tucking it under her breasts as she lies on her stomach. "But it's not a long-term strategy."

Chiana sighs. "Never is."

"The problem is that Leviathans do not recreate." Aeryn rolls onto her side to tip the bottle back.

Noranti turns in her chair. "I beg to differ."

"What I mean is, Moya's whole experience of sex is tied up with mating. Moya wants a baby, and so Moya craves a male. And she will keep craving him until she gets what she really desires, which is pregnant." Aeryn sniffs the air suspiciously.

"So you have baby-lust coming from outside as well as from the inside." Noranti sips. "While your monogamous sexual partner is both infertile and infuriating."

Aeryn's sniffing leads her down to the pillow. She buries her nose, inhales and declares. "Frell."

Chiana reaches behind her. "Here, take mine."

Aeryn throws her pillow to the floor. "Won't make any difference, they all smell like him. The whole room does."

"Might be that t-shirt you're wearing. It wasn't exactly in the clean pile of laundry."

Aeryn rolls onto her back, her head at the corner of the mattress and her arms spread out over the floor, bottle still clutched in one hand. "I can't think straight."

"You can't walk straight, either."

D'Argo sips from his mug and considers the stars. "What could they be doing in there all day?"

John sighs. "Well from what I've heard, watching movies and drinking heavily."

Chiana bends toward the foot propped on her leg and dabs the small nails with an even tinier paintbrush. "Know what I think?"

Aeryn's bent her other leg to bring the foot closer, spellbound by the sparkly rose color already gracing each of those toenails. After a moment she answers. "What?"

"What do you mean, what?"

"I meant; what do you think?"

Chiana shakes her head, careful to keep her wobbliness from spilling any more polish on the bed. "I don't remember. Hey, where's Noranti?"

"She left."

"Yeah I know, where'd she go?"

"I don't remember." Aeryn stares at the glowing television. "No wait, I do remember. She got hungry and left."

"But we've still got plenty of cop-porn."

"And popcorn."

"That's what I said."

"No, you said cop porn, and there aren't any police in this one."

Chiana turns around to peer at the television, which throws a shifting peachy light into the dim room. "How can you tell if they don't have any clothes on?"

"In the police one they were frelling on the front of that painted vehicle with the lights."

"Hey, yeah, I do remember that one. Let's watch that one again." Chiana slots the paintbrush back into the polish and screws it tight. She climbs off the bed and lurches toward the pile of DVDs.

Aeryn flops back on the bed, kicking her dangling feet to dry the paint. "Open up that other bottle of skahch."

Chiana crouches and roots through the DVDs, taking a moment to admire the sparkly blue-green color on her own toes. "We opened it an arn ago."

"Hand it to me, then."

"Noranti took it with her."



"Yes, fuck."

Chiana stands, swaying. "You still want to kill him?"

Aeryn ponders this question.

"Hey, I remember what I was going to say." Chiana climbs back onto the bed and stretches out on her stomach next to Aeryn. "We figure he probably has your best interest in mind with the venikka, because of your health and this thing with Moya right now, and not wanting to get you pregnant because of what you just went through, right?"

"That was what Noranti said."

"So the real problem is that he didn't ask you or tell you he was going to do it. What you said this morning, you said there were too many secrets. So what I was thinking was that you already know his secret, dontcha?"

"I know this one."

"There could be more, fair enough. You and I could probably guess 'em, though. But if you want him to tell 'em to you, tell him yours."

Aeryn stops swinging her feet. "It's not that easy."

"Then don't tell him anything. Pretend you don't know about the venikka."

Aeryn shakes her head. "That would just make it worse."

"Way I see it, if you can't trust him, then he's kinda justified not trusting you. I mean, maybe he doesn't want to have a kid exactly right now, maybe he still misses Zola and doesn't want to run out and replace her just yet."

"I miss her too." The words have a cold blunt edge, in contrast to the heat of her glare at the ceiling.

Chiana stretches an arm out and lays her head on it, looking at Aeryn with sleepy eyes. "I didn't say otherwise. But last time you kinda sprung it on him, and maybe he doesn't want to be surprised this time around."

"How can it be different now than a weeken ago?"

Chiana slowly blinks a few times, trying to pin it down into words. "Choice, I think. This time he has a choice. And this time you're choosing him."

Her quarters are warm and the only light comes from the corridor outside, gleaming dim off the blanket and outlining the fine curly hairs on his legs and arms. He sleeps on his side and belly, one leg crooked up and his arms circled around the pillow mashed under his head.

It's not just his own pillows that smell like him now.

His expression is lax, mouth parted and hands open. He's kicked most of the blanket aside, offering his naked ass to the vent breeze like a radiator.

She stands and watches him sleep, the heel of one hand resting on the grip of the pulse pistol at her hip.

She doesn't want to kill him, or hurt him. She wants him to trust her and he just. will. not. Chiana's suggestion to tell him everything would be equivalent to feeding Rygel five courses of tannot root. Not a viable option.

Every handful of arns, Moya's normal functions--and therefore Rygel's work--are put on hold while she and the male wrestle. The matings are more frequent and lengthy than the last time, but Rygel takes the interruptions in stride. The sooner Moya is successful, the sooner they can leave this wretched and empty backwater and get to a place where Rygel can actually network.

Power flows into the long-range communications array and a status light catches Rygel's attention away from the view port, where he'd been watching the Leviathans school like deep-water oolnas.

He queues up the message and routes it to the main screen. The being has a face shaped like a wedge, with nostril slits high up between the small dark eyes and a soft beak of a mouth. The skin is bright green like apple-flavored taffy, the top of the head mottled and bumpy, and a cluster of pale circles grace each side of the head. The being tilts its head back and opens the nostrils wide in greeting.

"I am Nelet. I assist the Diagnosan Wiliansh. Do not let our rural location mislead you, the Diagnosan Wiliansh is quite familiar with the species Nebari and the species Sebacean."

Nelet has a way of clearly pronouncing her consonants that reminds Rygel of the pure tones of palace Hynerian. He decides that Nelet is female, and pretty in a severe but clean way.

"The Diagnosan Wiliansh has expressed an interest in the cases that you have presented. I would like to extend an invitation to you to visit our facility. If it would please you to enlist the expertise of the Diagnosan Wiliansh in these cases, please contact me through the communications routing code appended to this message."

The hushed sound of breathing stirs John from his light sleep. She sits on the floor, leaning back against the sloping leg of the bed near his head, one bare foot propped on the wall in front of her. He rolls toward her and touches her arm. "Aeryn?"

She leans her head to the other side as he lightly strokes her arm, sliding his fingers up under the loose cuff of her t-shirt. His eyes adjust to the darkness and he shifts closer to her.

"You okay, babe? Too much alcohol?" He leans his head over her shoulder, brushing the hair back with his cheek and letting the stubble graze the skin of her neck.

She takes a deep breath and the resulting scotch fumes scent the air with a faint smoky turpentine edge. "I'm thinking."

He nuzzles her neck, tracing the line of her ear with the tip of his nose. "Whatcha thinking about?"

"Frelling you."

He chuckles softly into the hair at the nape of her neck, because the way she said it sounded almost resigned and business-like. "And what conclusion," he brushes his lips on the delicate earlobe as he whispers, "have you come to?"

She drops her foot down from where it's propped against the wall, and she leans away from him. "That it's a bad idea."

He blinks into the near dark, before reaching out to cup his hand on her shoulder and pull her gently back. She still looks away at the wall, and it's starting to feel like one of those car conversations where one person grips the wheel and lays it all out for the other, never taking their eyes from the road.

"Talk to me, Aeryn."

"What," she huffs, "now?"

"You're wide awake and thinking, might as well talk while you're at it."

"Fine." She scoots around so that her back is against the wall. "We'll talk."

The collar of her t-shirt is stretched out and the cuffs askew, showing the curve of her pale neck and shoulders. Correction, his t-shirt, the old one that he sleeps in when he sleeps alone.

There's a component in his brain that's constantly trained on her, preoccupied with her, always trying to puzzle her out, and the sight of her in his oversized sleepwear and her own supple leathers slots into this component like fresh batteries. How can someone so dangerous be so vulnerable?

She speaks slowly, pronouncing each word with the deliberate care of someone trying not to slur. "I don't think it's a good idea for me to get pregnant again right away."

He can tell there's more, so he keeps his response short. "Okay."

"Perhaps not at all."

In the dark everything seems both intimate and unreal, and a sharp whiff of half-remembered dream cuts into his perception. Young women muses berating him about his fears, sirens in combat boots singing him into the shoals. Souls coaxing him, trying to convince him to let them into the world.

He sits up in bed, pulling the blanket to gird himself against the slight chill of the air and the turn of the conversation. "I thought you wanted to have a child."

"But it's not that simple, is it?" She squeezes her eyes shut and bangs her head back against the skinsteel of the wall, a loud thump in the quiet. Her voice remains calm. "We both have a choice now. I want to have a child, but what do you want?"

He'd been waiting for the right time to talk to her, after he'd figured out his own mind, what he wants and what he's ready to risk. Naturally, the subject got tired of waiting for him and pulled him out of bed in the middle of the night.

She continues in a dry whisper, her eyes closed and head leaning back against the wall. "Were you ever going to tell me about the venikka?"

He should be dressed for this conversation. It's not fair that she's wearing his shirt and all he has is a sheet. "Who told you?"

"I heard you tell D'Argo. Were you planning to tell me at all?"

"Yes." Should've checked behind the crates. Jesus, he's living in a fucking Three's Company episode. "You weren't exactly rational when I had to make the decision, so I figured safety first, talking later."

She doesn't stir, but does respond with the same snide heat. "So you decided you were more likely to frell me than to talk to me."

"I figured it the other way around. How was my shower massage?"

Her resignation returns. "An adequate substitute."

"Right." He scrubs his face. "Listen, whatever we decide about babies, Aeryn, we agree that you need time to recover your health, right?"

She nods, barely visible in the dark. He reaches his hand out, and when she finally grasps it he pulls her gently into bed with him.

"Once things return to normal with Moya, we can plan our own babies, okay?"

"You make it sound like a tactical assault."

"You've never been around a toddler." He coaxes her into his arms but she resists, sitting back on her heels.

"Noranti said you're still fertile."

"Yeah, a little--"

"And I'm still drunk. I can't sleep in this bed with you right now."

He crawls up behind her as she rises off the bed, snaking his arms around her to cup her breasts and pull her back against him. "You know, there are other things we can do besides the old in-and-out."

The words come out on an exhalation of scotch and arousal. "Stop that."

He rolls her nipples through the t-shirt and listens to the creak of leather as her thighs press together and slide. "Stop what?"

Her hand slips back between them, and when she wraps her hand around his hardening cock her back arches as if it's herself she's stroking. "Stop me from frelling you anyway."

"Yes, dear." He bats her hand away and concentrates on shucking her out of her leathers.

As much as he doesn't want to disturb her, D'Argo knows better than to try picking Chiana up while she's sleeping. The last thing he needs is a sharp boot in the mivonks. He lays his hand on her back and calls her name, letting her snuffle into the rumpled sheet of the human's bed. "Chiana, it's me, I'm going take you to your own bed now."

She rolls onto her back but her response is now muffled by her arm, thrown over her face to screen out the light from the DVD menu. "Where's Aeryn?"

"She's not here."

Chiana's eyes pop open then squeeze shut again. D'Argo notes the reaction, and takes it as confirmation that the Women's Evening Outside wasn't as innocent as John seemed to think.

Ever since he'd heard the women had hijacked this room, he'd been dwelling on his trip to the maintenance bay with John, wondering if the faint smell of Aeryn he'd noticed as they talked hadn't come solely from John's skin and clothes.

D'Argo hits the switch on the power strip with his boot, and the bank of audio/video equipment goes dark. "Are you too drunk to walk?"

Her body is boneless and immobile except for the slight motion of breath and the mouth that speaks. "No, I can walk."

He waits for her to stand, but she starts to snore instead. He gently grasps her by the forearms and levers her body onto her unsteady feet.

"Whoa..." Her eyebrows lift but her eyes don't open, so he sweeps her up over his shoulder and carries her to his quarters.

Aeryn clutches at his forearm buried down the front of her pants, but her fingernails are soft from her earlier shower sessions and they don't pierce, just bend. There's not much room for him to maneuver in the tight hot space between lips and leather, but she insisted that a physical barrier remain.

He'd smirked at her demand, thinking that those pants have always been more of a turn-on than a chaperone, but he consented. "S'okay, you can trust me. I'm not going to get you in trouble."

She rubs her cheek against his and pulls his other hand out from under her shirt to fellate his thumb. She smells like his Earth soap and shampoo.

"It's too bad," he murmurs in her ear, "none of our care packages from Earth have any condoms."


"Condom doesn't translate?"

She shakes her head slowly, swirling her tongue around the base of his thumb. He retaliates by slipping a second finger inside her and shaking the heel of his hand against her clit until she comes again, grinding back into him in a way that makes him glad he spent the afternoon beating off.

To be honest, a more effective check on his enthusiasm is a nasty suspicion about Aeryn's empathy with Moya.

She slides his thumb out of her mouth and sets her cheek in the palm of his hand, panting and finally at rest. She catches her breath, his fingers slow and soothing on the soft lips of her sex.

The Spanish Fly effect is much stronger this time around, and John is unpleasantly reminded of the power of pheromones, and the lure of things you can't explain or rationalize once your head clears. The body responds, overriding thought and will.

She's such a tiny being compared to this immense ship. An effect too small for Pilot or Moya to notice could have devastating consequences for Aeryn--hell, it may have had those already for Zola. What if Aeryn's body not only intercepted the signals to mate, but signals from the termination as well?

It's up to him to keep Aeryn safe and healthy while she rides this out, to take care of her when she can't take care of herself, to husband his better half.

Chiana waits until the game of tadek is finished, and Stark begins resetting the pieces on their home squares. Rygel notices her with a stately turn and incline of the head.

"This is for you." She sets a thermal carafe and a small sealed bowl on the table before him.

"What is this?" He squints in distaste as she unhooks a diminutive mug from her belt and fills it from the carafe.

"It's my thank you." She waits until the scent of the beverage steams up to his nostril slits and dilates them along with his pupils. "I know how hard you worked to find a Diagnosan for me."

He blinks up at her, obviously touched or maybe just gleeful. Whatever the motivation, the expression on his face makes the effort she's put into this gesture worth it. Well, almost worth it. She has spent the whole frelling day in the kitchen for this stuff.

Noranti wouldn't divulge the location of certain food stores until Chiana had not only shared some of the more esoteric knowledge that she'd picked up in her diverse travels, but also helped concoct and test the recipes involved.

Ten different hangover cures from liquid to solid are roiling in her stomach, and while she escaped having to wear any of the stinking plasters for headache, the suppository that she'd been forced to try (and then palmed and stashed down her bodice when Noranti turned her back) has melted and the skin itches like mad.

"This is very gracious of you." Rygel's fingers work as he determinedly forestalls grabbing the mug just long enough to serve the bare minimum of protocol. "I appreciate your gift and look forward to enjoying it."

Chiana lets him take a preliminary sip before she unseals the small dish and gathers a few of the tiny white fluffs between her fingers.

"Here's to successful negotiations." With great ceremony, she sets the small marshmallows floating onto the steaming surface of Rygel's cocoa.

Aeryn lies blood-soaked, the little girl with the gun and braid standing guard over her mother's body while John kneels down to rouse her. He kisses her as if to wake a princess, ignoring the sticky iron taste and willing the cold from her body and into his own. If only she'd told him about the danger, he could have prevented it.

"I can't leave you alone for a moment." Harvey's exasperated huff clashes with the tragic tableau before him. "Really, John, this is in bad taste even for you."

Harvey pulls him up by the back of his shirt and pulls him into another dreamscape, walking down a street planetside, a business district by the holodisplays floating in front of each shop.

"For a man who's spent the last few days servicing both himself and his wife in alternation, you're awfully dour. And I'm sick of the melodrama. Why don't you cease these morbid imaginings and go shopping instead?" Harvey shoves him up the street and leaves.

John turns around but there's nothing amiss behind him, and he's forgotten what he'd expected to see anyway.

She steps out of the shop in front of him, backpack loaded with produce. She's maybe seventeen and she looks like the fantastical lovechild of Aeryn and Olivia. There's a hint of Jack in the way her keen eyes assess the street.

John greets her with a broad smile. "Well that was quick. Hey, did they have any of those little--"

She yanks him by the wrist and shoves him into a niche between buildings. She hisses, "Shut the frell up!" and takes a position in front of him, to casually glance around the street. Satisfied that none of the passersby seemed to notice the dangerous albatross who is her father, she turns to him again.

"What was the point of those genetic modifications you went through if you keep speaking in your puen'dia native tongue?" She cuts his reply off with a wide-eyed glare and a curt, "Sebacean!"

"Lily!" Aeryn's voice pipes from both of their comms. "Stop dilly-dallying and come help load the pod."

John stage-whispers, "!'Dilly-dally' no es Sebacean!"

Lily squints at him as if trying to retain her righteous anger. "We're on our way." She smacks at her comm to cut off the transmission.

"!Tu madre hablando en Ingles!" John gasps, "!Que cojones!"

Lily sticks her tongue out at him, then pulls him up the street as if he were a recalcitrant dog. She teases him and leads him through dreamscapes until morning, and they never make it back to the pod where Aeryn waits.

Through her ragged breathing, Aeryn hears a shoe scrape against the floor. She lifts her face from her hands and blinks her eyes clear. She'd been coming to the natural end of the crying jag, so she welcomes the distraction.

"I...heard a noise, I didn't realize..." Stark bends in a bow and turns to leave. "I'm sorry."

Aeryn dries her face on her arm and hand. "I'm alright. Just sometimes I cry. Makes me feel better." She shrugs good-naturedly and stamps down the sob that wants to wriggle out of her chest. She saves it for the next time. "Clears my head."

Stark's glance is cast down at the tear-splattered datapad on the table in front of her, but there's nothing that interesting in the wiring schematic for a Prowler's atmospheric scrubber. "Grief is a difficult process."

Aeryn manages to nod politely, as she has done for all of the platitudes flung at her since her wedding.

Stark continues in the same pitying vein. "I wish there were something I could say..."

"What can be said beyond sorry? Nothing. But everyone keeps trying anyway." Aeryn scrubs her tears back into her loose hair and regains the shreds of her diplomacy. "I didn't mean to snap at you, I'm sorry."

"We make allowances for each other in times of loss," Stark murmurs, sitting on the bench opposite her. "Think nothing of it. Take your solace and release wherever you can find it."

Aeryn tries to put it into words, probing at the ache like a medtech examining an injury.

She'd been remembering her mother. Not the woman, but the image she'd lived with since childhood, less of a memory, more of a dream that her life kept reinterpreting for her. She'd been thinking about her own daughter, who never even had that much from her. "If I could have talked to Zola, even once...told her how much she was loved and wanted."

Stark shakes his head slowly. "This is not Valldon, and the dead do not speak to me anywhere else." He raises his eyes to meet hers. "But they do echo."

She watches him loosen the buckle on his neck. He pauses and she nods.

He lifts the edge of the mask.

Light bathes her face in warmth and soaks under her skin. Comfort and reassurance permeate her and it's like being held, like what she dimly remembers feeling before Zhaan wrenched her back into an awkward body stiff with cold. There is no place, and no time, and no pain.

She comes back to herself slowly. Stark regards her with an empathy that for once doesn't make her feel inadequate, but instead makes her feel sacred. She reaches her hand to his face and sets her fingertips against his cheek.

His palm slides down her wrist, hot against the skin of her inner forearm. She can smell a faint spiciness from his clothes. She realizes that 'stykera' is an old Banik word for 'bridge', spanning the chasm between life and death, an easy passage between.

His hand drifts up, fingers catching in her hair, the contact tingling her scalp and making her breath deep.

Death is gloriously indifferent to life, and life strives for the same indifference. She comprehends for the first time how Stark is both flesh and light, and never to be a whole of one or the other. His mask is loose, and his flesh infuses with the light that pours from his face, seeking her again as if to pull her to that place once more.


The voice slices through the haze in her head, bringing with it a wave of outside input that disorients her. The gravity is fluctuating and Moya is filling her with need. Stark's hand is tangled in her hair, his face denches from hers.

"I've been calling you but you shut your comm off."

She turns her head and the look on John's face clears through the remnant of fog.

It's unmistakable in the set of his mouth, his shoulders, his hands, the way he stares at Stark and can't look at her for more than a microt: he seethes with jealousy. She realizes what it must look like to him, and gently knocks Stark's arm away from her head.

"John." She pulls away from Stark and stands, her manner slow and still colored with the warm comfort of a moment before. "Stark was simply showing me something about the other side."

"Yeah." Cold mirth crinkles the corners of his eyes. "First stop on the tour I'll bet."

Stark surreptitiously buckles his mask and rises to his feet, his other hand held out in front of his body. "I should go."

Aeryn expects John to leave as well but instead he draws his pulse pistol. "You do that."

The barrel tracks Stark all the way out the door, and John stands for a moment, jaw clenched as tight as the arm that still aims the pistol into the empty corridor.

She's been here before with him, with the other him. Part of her is relieved that she's encountered something familiar, that she's finally making progress with him like working the codes of a sequence-lock.

Another part is frustrated. She remembers the way he closed himself off, pouted, refused to acknowledge that he had any claim on her affection or love. She steels herself for the delicate maneuvers of reassurance.


The barrel swings in her direction, followed by his gaze. He lowers his arm and walks up to her, so close that Aeryn can smell dentic on his breath. He looks at her, bristling with a barely controlled anger that brings Aeryn up short.

This is not what she was expecting.

"You got a thing for bad boys, Aeryn." His voice is low and deadly. "First Scorpius, now Stark. You're gonna get in trouble one of these days."

Caught off-guard, she responds with heat. "'Get in trouble', that means falling pregnant, correct? Didn't you decide that I'm not to be trusted with your precious babies?"

"Aeryn--" He reins his control tighter. "You can't deny that Moya's affecting you, and I don't want to see you suffer any more because of it. That's why we need to be careful for now."

She unsheathes the unspoken assumption. "You think Moya killed Zola when she terminated the feeble offspring."

His hesitation proves it to her. "I just don't want to take any more chances. It hurts, Aeryn, that there wasn't anything I could do to protect her."

"You think I allowed her to die."

"That's not what I said." The response is immediate, but it takes him longer to clarify, arranging his thoughts while he rearranges his fingers on the pistol at his side. "I know you can't control what's happening to you."

"Which is why you're here." She tucks her arms across her chest and the sarcasm doesn't quite conceal the hurt. "To keep your rutting tralk out of 'trouble'."

He tries for a light tone but the teeth he bares aren't a smile. "Your orgasm, hot and fresh in five minutes or it's free."

"You needn't bother. There's no point." The last thing she needs is another soporific session of cadet-style recreation, honing the appetite but never satisfying it. "If I wanted a pale substitute I'd use your fresher."

"Gee, honey, that hurts." His face is right in hers, and all pretense of rational discussion is gone. "I thought I was your pale substitute."

"Frell you Crichton."

He smiles, but the emotion wrinkling around his eyes isn't as pleasant. "You wanna frell?"

He cuts off her answer by slamming his pulse pistol onto the table and sending it sliding down to the other end. "Then frell your husband."

He catches her shoulders hard and kisses her, like the sparring kind of encounters she's only had with other Peacekeepers. It isn't sensual and tender. It's ruthless and willful. It sparks something in her.

She knocks his hands off and lets her lip curl. "What happened to 'safety first'?"

"Got the news today." He snatches her waistband and pops the fastener of her leathers as he jerks her body against his. "I'm as safe as they come."

She didn't want to make love anyway.

She drops her weight suddenly, pulling him off balance and then coming back up just as quick, shoving against his chest as her shoulder knocks against his mouth.

She ducks back to take her body out of his arm's reach but his fingers still clutch a front flap of her leathers. He yanks her down against the table and pins her with his weight.

Suddenly they aren't sparring.

Panting, he shoves her shirt up her back to bite and suckle at the skin, his weight pushing her belly and breasts against the table. The mound of her sex rides against the rounded table edge.

His hands slide under her loose leathers, grasping her ass, tugging the pants down to mid-thigh for access. She knocks the datapad to the floor as her hands search for purchase on the table.

This is going to be PK-style; intense, effective, every man for himself. Heedless single-minded sex, a pure expression of lust and nothing else. She's missed it.

She arches her lower back, angling herself against his hardness in offering. He braces one hand on the back of her neck and unzips his fly. She feels his knuckles and then the heavy heat of his cock against the cheek of her ass.

Yes. Her eyes close and she grinds back, rocking between the fingers gripping the base of her skull and the fingers slipping into her sex. She spreads her arms and catches the table edges in her hands, and anticipates the tightening of pleasure.

His fingers delve but any friction on her clit is accidental, only in the service of spreading her wetness. Her growl of frustration is answered by a fierce slap on her ass, his wet hand leaving a sting on the skin.

His grip on her neck presses, his weight shifts, and he's pushing inside her roughly.

The onrush of sensation hits her like a drug in the vein. She braces her legs, arches her back between the hands pinning her neck and hip, and lets him drive each thrust into her, balls deep and furious.

She's so wet it's nearly frictionless but she can feel the shape of him as if he were in her hand or in her mouth.

Ever since the first time she saw it she's been enamored with the emphasized ridge at the head of his cock. She's idly wondered if that flare was a human trait or a personal variation. Now she wonders if she can endure the sensation of it, each backstroke notching the sensitivity of her body ever higher.

Hand wrapped in her hair, shoving her face down, he frells her hard enough to shift the table. She has little leverage to thrust back but what overpowers her is the violent euphoria of pleasure. The approaching orgasm has the taste of impending doom.

Too much fuel in the pulse chamber; it won't burn, it will explode, but it's too late. She seizes with the brilliance of the orgasm, it flashes and consumes her, every nerve she owns catches the spark and burns bright and fierce. Her shouts become sobs as her body comes back from a state of overload.

His thrusts lose precision, gain emphasis and speed, and with grunts that whimper at the edge he grinds his orgasm into the ashes of her own.

If she weren't so exhausted she'd laugh. She was wrong about it being PK-style. Even a hard alleyway frell is all tied up with emotions.

He opens his hands slowly, releasing her bruised hip and the fistful of hair. His voice is hoarse and sick. "Oh God..."

She twists to look over her shoulder and sees that a sizeable chunk of her hair has caught in the ring on his hand and pulled out of her scalp.

"Aeryn..." He looks from the strands threading through his knuckles to her prone and ravaged body. His face is sweaty and flushed, the features twisted with self-disgust. "God, Aeryn I..."

Anger pours back into her and she grips the edges of the table.

Her thighs are hobbled by the leathers but she bends her knees and rolls them inward, rotating her legs at the hip to splay her calves outward. Did he really think that Peacekeepers could be used so easily against their will?

She slots the toes of her boots behind his weak legs and sweeps him off his feet. Arrogant bastard.

She stands. Her legs quaver from the orgasmic equivalent of starburst but her self-possession has returned. He's sprawled where she dumped him, staring up at her.

"So I take it that was consensual..." he lifts up on one shaky arm, "...just really fucked up."

She reaches down to clean the residue from herself, gathering the fluid in one hand before she tugs her leathers up with the other. The biochemistry is eerily similar, this Human stuff the same as that of a Sebacean man, same as that of the other John.

When chakkan oil degrades, the color darkens and the resulting pulsefire burns red. There is no difference that she can detect in the semen, no sign of the damage he's done to himself because he couldn't trust her.

She turns her study back to the man, currently bleeding from a split lip and trying to stuff his softening but obstinate penis back into his leathers.

He absently smears the blood from his lip and winces. "Aeryn, can you give me a hand up?"

She wipes her hand on his shirt before offering it to him. He sighs, grips her wrist and pulls himself to his feet.

He shadows her as she searches and finds the datapad, hesitating as he asks, "Aeryn, are you okay?"

Her gaze is on the wiring schematic but her brain is too full to take in the information. "I'm fine, just a little tired." When she looks up, the strangeness of him startles her.

He slowly reaches toward her chest, and with a tap she can barely feel, turns her comm back on.

"Oh...right." She clears her rough throat. "Thank you."

He examines the datapad in her hand, but if he notices the schematic or the dried tears marring the screen, all he does is murmur, "At least it's not broken."

"It's tough." She doesn't have the strength for this kind of coded conversation right now, all she wants is to go someplace quiet and figure out what the frell it all means. "I have things to do today."

He nods, looking down at his hand idly skimming the edge of the table. "Yeah, I do too. Laundry, for one."

"If I don't see you in the mess, I guess, I'll see you tonight?"

"Yeah, uh, definitely."

She eyes the module, the copy, scoured by sand and unstable anomalies and ravaged for spare parts.

She can sense Moya in her muscles and bones, and she knows that DRDs are even now transporting a newly conceived life toward the gestation chamber.

What if she had gone out on a transport pod while Moya reabsorbed the first offspring? Would she still have her daughter?

She touches the empty rack where the displacement engine had been bolted, runs her fingers over the solid drips of slag it had left on the hull.

Moya thrums with a reserved happiness.

Aeryn pops the canopy latch and climbs into the module, enclosing herself in the cockpit and dulling the input from the Leviathan. Sand grits under her heels so she brings her feet up and sits with her legs crossed. The humid scent of fresh sex drives away the memory scents of his acrid sweat and failing body.

She used to see this John as an excruciating echo of the one who died, a sensor shadow after a ship explodes but before the fragments have dispersed.

With time she merged that echo of the dead with the solidity of the living. This man, her husband, is John Crichton as much as the one before. As much as.

But not the same as.

For the first time in a very long time, perhaps the first time ever, she lets herself think of them as two different men. John and Crichton.

Whole boards are missing from the consoles above and below, bare wires springing up out of the holes. She aimlessly flicks dead lever switches back and forth. Such a primitive design, yet the click is somehow satisfying.

Her John would not have been so rough without asking. Her John died killing thousands of Scarrans, died content, and would not have wept over Katratzi.

She punctuates the quiet closeness of the module with the clicks of dead switches.

Her John was going to take her to Earth like bringing home a treasure. This John succeeded in going back home, but only pestered her to decide for herself whether she wanted to stay or to leave.

To be honest, she didn't much like either approach.

Her hip is sore, finger shaped bruises already blushing dark on the pale skin. A few days ago he'd clung to her and soaked that same spot with tears for Zola. Fierce emotions and cold logic and it makes no sense to her.

He can be ruthless, as if his mercy is reserved for strategic use. It reminds her of Scorpius, but that's a line of thinking she's too weary to pursue.

A fellip nectar would taste really good right now.

Aeryn admits to herself now in the confines of a space that smells faintly of sand and illness, more strongly of sex, that this man is not her John. He is John Crichton. The same adaptable Human with a slightly different life, and as a result, different responses.

Especially toward her, because she's left this man twice.

Her thumb plays with the ring on her finger. Evening meal will be soon, and she's very hungry.

Stark watches the text scrolling on the heads-up display. He looks like a street urchin, slumped back in a pilot-chair sized for Scarrans. John slouches in the chair next to him and opens his mouth to apologize.

Stark cuts him off with a distracted murmur. "Did you enjoy your lover's quarrel?"

John reminds himself that he'd driven Stark out of the workshop at gunpoint, and the man may have grounds to be peevish. John addresses his own behaviour first. "I over-reacted. I'm sorry, man."

"I guess," Stark's murmur is grudging, but he does pause the scrolling of the display to speak, "I should be grateful that you managed not to fire."

"Just so we're clear--if you touch her again, I will pull the trigger."

Stark acknowledges the statement with a tip of the head and a voice devoid of expression. "That's fair."

After a moment, he keys in a sequence and powers down the computer, then turns in his seat to face John, initiating a new conversation as if the previous one hadn't happened. "You've heard that Rygel found a Diagnosan."

"Yeah, he told me at breakfast yesterday." Though John had heard more about the Diagnosan's assistant, Nelet, causing morbid curiosity about the charms that had won the frog king's heart (or gonads, as it were).

"I suspect we will leave the Leviathan pod soon. Moya has conceived again and this mating cycle has concluded."

"With a bang." It's John's turn to murmur. He touches the tender bruise on his jaw and winces.

"And a whimper." Stark adds with a faded smile.

John rubs the back of his neck. "Have I told you lately how creepy it is when you do that?"

"Imagine my own discomfort, talking to you while hearing the echo of your brother."

"Brother." John turns pensive. "That'd make me, what, Onan?" In a microt he folds the thought inward and makes a joke to dispel the tension. "I thought of him as my evil twin."

Stark shuts his eye and speaks the phrase in Banik accented English, "Better half."

"Great. Now I'm haunted as well."

"He's gone, Crichton." Stark heaves a sigh and rises to his feet. "But souls leave a residue when they pass through me."

"You seem to have a lot of him sticking around."

"His residue is just particularly sticky."

John shakes his head and follows Stark out of the ship.

He pauses in the doorway but comes in without asking permission.

Each goes about their bedtime routine while keeping the other in their peripheral vision. He takes his time with his boots, giving her dibs on the fresher.

He strips but leaves his undershorts on. They exchange a sly accidental glance when she comes out of the fresher and he goes in.

The cut on his lip is a ragged maroon line, and he has to nudge the dentic to get it to clean the two teeth underneath the wound. It does a cursory job and skitters around to less frightening pastures. The bruise on his jaw is sore but experience tells him the swollen redness will fade by morning.

He gently takes the dentic between middle finger and thumb, petting it delicately with the tip of his index finger. "Hey, Doc."

Dentics are the closest thing to a pet he's had for years, a long line of periodontal caterpillars all named Doc. In truth they're more like a preferred brand of disposable pen, but they all seem to enjoy being stroked lightly on the back, and they respond in their own fashion. Doc curls against the pad of his thumb and cleans the grooves of his fingerprint.

Really it's Aeryn's Doc, Aeryn's room, Aeryn's bed. He rinses out the dentic cup and settles Doc into clean water. He finally catches his own eyes in the mirror by the door.

When his parents fought, Mom usually capitulated (too often and too easily John felt) and Dad always apologized (even when he won, sometimes especially when he won). No argument had ever lasted into the next day. 'Don't go to bed angry' and all that.

John wonders if shame and resentment are okay to sleep on, because if he waited until he was in a Ward Cleaver state of mind he'd go psychotic from lack of sleep first.

His parents had a system, incomprehensible to John until very recently, until he could see them through adult eyes. It was theirs, had been operating for years before his birth, and it worked. He doesn't know how to build anything close to that with Aeryn, where to even begin.

He begins with this: walking out of the fresher and lying in the bed next to her. She's left him a whole side, and enough slack in the blankets to join her.

She's on her left side and turned away from the empty space. A dim light remains near the fresher, and he touches a wall plate to extinguish it before he crawls under the covers, lying on his own left side behind her. She's also kept on her underclothes.

She shifts in the dark, a glance over her shoulder and then a slide backwards. He accommodates her body against his, her ass tucked against his belly and his hand under hers against the bare skin of her stomach.

On each side the movements are slight, spaced out over minutes, a low-key stretching, nestling, pressing dance as they not only fit their bodies together, but subtly grapple with limbs and hands as if tying themselves down for a hurricane.

He can feel her breath in the shift of ribs in his embrace, feel her pulse against the skin of his wrist, too slow to be his own heart beating. His knees draw up under hers, she slips a chilly leg between, and their feet hook them fast.

He slides his left arm under her head and burrows his face into the hair gathered at her neck.

If she notices his tears falling into her hair, she doesn't say. She simply slides her left arm out of the covers and curls the rest of her fingers in his.

Aeryn had carefully disassembled the cooling suit with an eye to preserving the tech of the thermal function, and was surprised at how remarkably simple it turned out to be. The genius of it was in the chemistry and the efficient circulation of the supercool fluid. Uncomplicated, and easily adaptable to her needs.

It's a more satisfying project than fixing the inertial dampener had been, and it gives her time to clear her head, time away from John--from this John. She'd told Chiana that there were too many secrets, and she still believes this, but telling them could be more destructive than keeping them.

Dark women surrounded her, supported her and walked her into a smaller room. Gentle hands removed her flight suit and sweaty clothes. The microbes translated their Sebacean dialect easily, but her fogged brain made more sense of the tender murmur of their voices as they eased her body into a deep tub.

She didn't have enough fluid to cool down a whole Prowler, but she didn't need it. She could adapt the circulatory system and use the chill of space to cool the pilot seat without having to send the ambient temperature of the whole craft down to dangerous levels.

Distorted recollections of being caught by a docking web and pulled aboard a marauder that should have been decommissioned before she was born; of being pulled free from the pilot seat and medicated right on the docking bay floor; of seeing blue eyes cringe with concern; of being shifted to the jumpseat and launching again.

Ideally, once the system was activated in the Prowler, the pilot's core temperature, her temperature, could be reduced without compromising the nimbleness of her fingers or causing her breath to condense against the canopy.

She was too ill to voice her apprehension in letting anyone else fly her Prowler, but after they launched, the smooth skill of the pilot calmed her. The fact that he'd put on a flight suit for warmth and let the cockpit chill down gave her a reprieve from the fever that allowed her body to sleep. She trusts whoever this pilot is, because he flies the craft as gently as if his own body aches with fever, and because she has no choice.

She remembers how hard it was to decipher the displays while burning with fever, how it rendered her helpless against the docking web. She salvages a set of those human lever switches from the spare module for the system controls. An easy flick, an obvious click, she installs them so that down equals on, up equals off. Even a limp hand thrown in that direction will activate the system.

*The shock of cold brought her around long enough to realize that the water was real, the women laying her in the tub were real, and most surprisingly, Scorpius was real.

She catches flashes of his black form between the bustling bodies of the women, and the memory of John arguing with the med tech on the docking bay floor of the Marauder shifts to something closer to reality: that of Scorpius making those demands and being reluctantly obeyed.

Then someone shook a large quantity of ice into the water with her, and she swooned in the merciful chill.*

When she came around again the first thing she noticed was the missing portion of his thermal suit, baring an arm from shoulder to hand.

"I've enlisted a technician to construct something for you to travel in." He shrugged his bare arm and rested it along his thigh. "She required an example to faithfully replicate the layering."

A wash of lighting from the windows threw the ropy muscles and knobbed joints into temporary relief, the skin so pale it fairly glowed. The hand was Sebacean but for the exaggerated curves of the fingernails. She started when she realized she'd been staring, sloshing the water in the tub and spurring another round of shivering.

His smile was faint but indulgent as he nodded to the limb. "If you are curious, I will let you."

She reached out and grazed her fingertips along his forearm. The skin was sickeningly hot to the touch, but instead of repulsing her, it made her want to cry. The muscles were relaxed and the skin soft except for flat patches that were tougher, like an enlarged pattern of pebbled freckles. Sparse hair grew between the freckles of Scarran, dusky blond and straight.

She pulled her hand back and rested it on the edge of the tub, not wanting to look as if she were trying to wash the contact off, even though her hand ached to slide into the icy water.

John leaned back against the wall behind her, thumbs hooked into the pockets of his jeans. He silently watched until only one woman remained, stationed on a chair by the door, absorbed in reading from a datapad.

He walked slowly to the side of the tub and crouched down. "He's read my journal, you know. And he knows it's the only impractical thing you've kept."

Tears mingled with the sweat on her face.

He rested his chin on the side, arm propped out over the water and lazily stirring the chunks of ice. "Do you think he's for real?"

She eats so that her body can heat the water and melt the ice, and eventually it will be warm enough for him to join her in the tub. She confessed, "I have no idea if any of this is real."

"You get used to it."

"Did you?"

His fingers circled in a vortex around a smooth piece of ice, to spin it without touching it. "What if he's telling the truth?"

"That all he wants is to save the Sebacean people."

"And skull-fuck the Scarrans while he's at it."

She clenched her teeth against the chattering. "And if he is telling the truth?"

"I don't know if you have any choice either way, Aeryn. At least for now."

"He wants amnesty."

"Like Crais." He chuckled. "Strange, how many of them have come to our way of thinking." His fingers slipped beneath the water and a cool hardness slid along the inside of her knee, his touch exerted through the random path of a chunk of ice.

"You think he can change?"

"It's up to him, whether he wants to."

John's voice is resolutely casual when he comms Aeryn. "Noranti wants to see you first, then she'll make the venikka. Apparently you two had a discussion regarding my medical care?"

Aeryn sets down the oilcloth and barrel, pleasantly surprised that the old woman not only remembers the agreement, but is also abiding by it. "Is she there?"

"She wants to see you in person. We're in her room."

"Tell her I'll be there soon." She assembles the rifle and closes the cleaning kit.

It's Aeryn's first time in Noranti's quarters, so her step slows to near stopping as she takes in the rich fabrics draped over the walls and spread over the floor. A pleasant stimulating scent makes her head feel clear, an odd contrast to the often musty-sharp smelling occupant. Both beds in the room are piled with pillows and screened with sheer fabric.

Noranti sits cross-legged on the bed at the back of the room, the bed-curtains open, a music player on her knee and human headphones lost inside her ears. She pulls them free with a grin. "Now the both of you are here!"

John rises from his seat at the side table to stand next to Aeryn. "And now I've got my signed permission slip."

"Good!" Tinny music issues from the headphones and seems to distract her for a moment. She brings her focus back to John. "But I still won't make you any more venikka."

"Are we out of it or something?"

"Oh no, no. We've got plenty for that purpose. I wouldn't suggest trying to prepare it yourself, though, the alkaloids must be sifted carefully to avoid the nastier side-effects."

Aeryn steps forward. "It's alright, I approve of it."

"I do not." Noranti switches the player off. "At least, not unconditionally."

"Right." John drops himself onto a fluffy seating cushion. He masks his anger in a weary tone. "And what conditions are you bargaining for?"

"Just one." Noranti gestures for Aeryn to be seated but she remains standing. "That you both agree to participate in mediation."

Aeryn takes a step forward to stand beside where John sits. "What kind of mediation?"

"Very simple. You will take turns, and each day you must tell the other person a truth, answer a question, or take my dare. As long as you participate I will provide you with the venikka."

Aeryn braces for the look she knows John will give her, but she asks it anyway. "What kind of truth?"

Noranti keeps her faint smile turned toward Aeryn while her eyes catch John's reaction. "Tell a secret, or answer a question. Or take my dare. I trust each of you to play fair with the other."

In her peripheral vision, Aeryn knows that John's eyes have been pinned on her since she asked for clarification. His answer is aimed at his wife. "Deal."

Noranti clears her throat and Aeryn doesn't need John's expectant "Well?" to know the ambush has closed shut.

Before she can speak, though, Noranti cuts her off. "Perhaps she'd like to discuss it with you first. Or maybe she's waiting to be asked. Quite possibly she's considering if this process will help her to understand you."

"I'm a simple guy, it's not that hard to figure me out." Aeryn's snort of incredulity brings him up short and straightens his back. He turns to look up at her, leaning out of strike range as a matter of habit. "You put her up to this, didn't you?"

"What? That's what I was about to ask you." Aeryn crosses her arms and studies the woman for a moment, reassessing the situation. "I agree."

John sighs. "Yeah, ditto."

"Very well!" Noranti untangles her legs and scoots off the bed. "You two go get started. The venikka will be ready after evening meal."

"Great. Dessert."

Aeryn offers her hand to help John up from the cushion.

He waits until Granny has left the room before turning back to Aeryn. "We could flip for it."

She grimaces but her laugh eases the tension. "No, I'll go." She steers him over to Noranti's abandoned bed and pushes him down. She remains standing.

He watches her left thumb play with the ring set, beautiful on her finger and laughable mere inches from her gunbelt. What does it mean to her to wear it? Chi says that Nebari don't pair bond, but neither to Peacekeepers. What does Aeryn even know about marriage?

Why hadn't he asked her that before?

Scratch that. He never asked because he didn't want to hear an answer that was different than what he wanted. Now they're playing by Noranti's rules and he has the feeling he's going to get an earful of things he doesn't want to hear.

"A secret, a question, or a dare," he prods. She looks like she's ready to spill a secret and each second she waits notches up his dread. "What will it be?"

Her body tenses as if ready to pace but she straightens her neck instead, settling her spine into parade rest. "I never planned to come back."

Not so secret, but it still hurts to hear her say it. When she doesn't continue, he asks, "To Moya or to me?"

"Either." She meets his eyes but her thumb still slides the joined rings round and round her finger. "Both."

"But he brought you back to Moya anyway."

She nods. "I didn't think I would live much longer. I came back to her because I didn't want to die alone."

"Best laid plans..." He clears his throat, shakes off the urge to say something cutting and cruel. They aren't here for that. They are here for the truth. "So why did you decide to come back to me? Because I showed up?"

"Because I didn't...I don't want to live alone, either." She turns on her heel and leaves him, just like that.

He wants to follow her, press her for more, make her admit that she's with him because it's better than being lonely. Make her break his heart completely. It would be easier, he thinks, if he was certain that she's only with him because he's the flesh and blood embodiment of a ghost.

But he is not unaware of how hard it was for her to confess that she needs someone, and so he stays put and doesn't ask her who it is that she really needs.

"You're kidding me."

"I am not joking."

Chiana stops braiding his hair and leans around his shoulder to look at him. "Not ever?"

D'Argo closes his eyes. "Only when medically necessary."

She refrains from laughing. "So, uh...did you enjoy it?"

He looks at her sideways. "I found it lonely and strange."


"Have you ever...done it yourself?"

There's hilarity trapped behind her serious face. "Every chance I get."

"Even now?" He hooks her with an arm and pulls her around onto his lap. "Am I not enough to satisfy you?"

She can't contain the laughter any more. "You are so cute when you're confused."

"The new offspring is growing much faster, and Moya says that it also feels easier. Pilot is almost certain that the child is fully adapted to Tormented Space." D'Argo pours himself a cup of water. "And Moya has come up with a plan."

"Moya has a plan?"

"Watch yourself." Chiana taps Rygel on the arm and ignores his bared teeth. "Why can't Moya have a plan if she wants?"

"I never said she couldn't. I'm just shocked that she could get any thinking done with all the frelling that's been going on."

"Just 'cause your brains are in your mivonks, doesn't mean Moya can't mate and think at the same time."

Noranti sets another bowl of food onto the table and sits, chiming in with a scholarly nod. "Motherhood requires thought."

Rygel swivels his chair toward her. "You were here for her last bout of maternal strategizing--mayhem and murder, damage all over the ship and crazed Leviathans battling among corpses!"

"I didn't find it troublesome at all." Noranti shrugs. "I was occupied."

John cracks his neck and steers back to the topic. "What's Moya's plan, D?"

D'Argo pauses a moment before he speaks, to let everyone settle at the table and focus on him. "Moya has made friends with the Leviathans in this pod, some of them very old mothers with several generations under their guidance. Two of them were in service as ships before they came to this region of space, and they feel a special bond with Moya."

Aeryn sets down her fork. "Does she want to go free and join them?"

"No. She enjoys the company of the pod but doesn't want to follow it." D'Argo catches the eye of everyone around the table. "Pilot wanted us to understand how Moya feels. She prefers the freedom she has traveling with us."

Chiana murmurs, "She loves us. When we don't tink her off."

"The elder mothers have shared some of their wisdom with Moya, taught her how use the resources that gather in this spot because of the wormhole, given her advice on how to regulate herself more efficiently to grow and feed her child. And they have offered her additional help."

Rygel lifts an earbrow. "What kind of help?"

"Resources, gifts of materials and expertise." D'Argo describes a shape with his hands. "Extra DRDs."

Stark softly giggles, and John's "Huh," sums it up for everyone else.

D'Argo eats a few bites, then continues. "Before they'll give this gift to Moya, the elder mothers want reassurance that we won't harm the extra DRDs. Some Leviathans have DRD systems that won't accept intruders, and since we're considered part of the DRD system--"

"Since when?" Rygel holds his fork like a sceptre and taps it against the arm of his sled. "I may have condescended to assist her on occasion but I am no one's service drone!"

"Chill out, Dominar, no one's asking you to do the dishes." John passes him a platter of something fried.

"Moya had to explain our situation in a way for the pod to understand that she was free to make her own decisions. So we became a handful of organic servicers who trade our technical skills for passage."

"What does Moya need us to do?" Aeryn scoops out a helping of something yellow and pasty. "How do we reassure the elder mothers?"

"We visit them."

"Just visit them?"

"Visit them, be as polite and harmless as possible, and bring back one of their DRDs unharmed."

Noranti beams. "Like going to Earth!"

"Complete with lovely parting gifts." John raises his cup toward his mouth, speaking before he drinks. "And once we show that we can play nice with the neighbor kids?"

"When Moya receives the new DRDs in good condition, the elder mothers will allow the pod to freely share their resources with her. It will be small gift from each Leviathan, but combined they can make a big difference. If Moya also conserves starburst, she may be able to complete her pregnancy in less than half the time it took for Talyn."

"That will delay our arrival at the clinic." Aeryn turns to Chiana, blinking. "What do we know about the risk to your sight if treatment is postponed?"

"The doc is pretty sure a few monens won't make a difference as long as it doesn't get any worse." Chiana appears more absorbed in her meal than the topic, but she does pause to give Aeryn a reassuring, if anxious grin. "It'll probably take surgery to fix them. I'm not exactly heartbroken about postponing it."

Noranti mutters, "Diagnosans are always too quick with the knife. Butchers."

Chiana sets down her fork. Apparently she's also gone pale, as the markings on her eyes and cheeks stand out like they were blacked in kohl.

"Surgery is a scary thing." John's voice breaks through the appalled silence. "But in my experience it can save your life."

"Heh, and your sanity."

"Well said, Dominar."

Noranti hmphs.

John glares at her.

"While medication is a gift from the Goddess," Stark attempts to be the voice of reason, "not everything can be fixed with drugs."

"You'd be surprised what can be learned through guided visions, old patterns of thought broken through and replaced with new ways of thinking." Noranti gathers her silverware and sets it on her plate. "The body and mind are intertwined, and health in the one promotes health in the other."

"But you cannot escape the mechanical demands of the body." Stark taps a knuckle against his mask. "Anything corporeal is at least partially defined by the matter that constitutes it. If a bone is broken it cannot be mended by the mind or spirit alone, it must be wrenched straight and bound until the mechanical processes of the body are able to heal it."

"On that note." Chiana rises and take her leave, stowing her half-eaten dinner in a cooling unit. Aeryn meets John's eye and he nods. She leaves her dirty plate and follows after Chiana.

Lost in scholarly debate, Noranti and Stark clear their dishes and wander away from the table.

"Yes, yes, but the healing process itself is an extension of the mind," Noranti absently stacks the dishes on the counter and shouts over the clatter, "and, as you say, the spirit, and can therefore be hindered or driven by the strength of the spirit, the will of the mind..."

Stark's voice gains a manic edge. "But the spirit is finite, and while it can do amazing things with the mind and the body, there is always a price to pay for these miracles. Always."

"Have you ever witnessed the Penom-shu mind-jumpers? They can switch their consciousness with you, inhabit your body while you inhabit theirs--"

"That's something I never want to repeat, all bloated and pasty like this mashed webnosh." Rygel disposes of his dirty plate and glides out with a panek roll clutched in each hand.

"...and the things you can do with their bodies!" Noranti's voice fades down the corridor. "Such flexibility and rigorous training you would not believe..."

"Well." John sips at his water. "You learn something new everyday."

D'Argo chuckles.


"Nothing, nothing."

"No, spill it."

D'Argo pushes the scraps of food around his plate, then looks at John with sincere eyes. "I regret teasing you about masturbating."

John manages not to spray down the whole table, just his own plate.

"I realize now that the Luxan thinking on self-gratification is not as widespread as I assumed."

John tries to cough the water out of his bronchial tubes, his face burning red.

"I also realize," D'Argo's voice slides lower and smoother, and his eyes smile, "how very gratifying and, well, sensual masturbation can be when shared."

John controls the cough, fist pressed to his mouth and bugged eyes pink and blue.

D'Argo stands. "We should all rest well tonight and prepare for tomorrow. We will have to take the transport pods in shifts to visit them all." With a companionable whack on the back, D'Argo leaves John to his coughing fit.

"I'll bet you thought I'd forgotten!" Noranti breezes into the kitchen as John's sliding the last stack of clean bowls onto the shelf.

"Hey Brunhilde, done scaring the kinder?"

She dismisses the comment with a jaggle of her raw woolen locks as she opens a cooling unit and plucks out a small glass tube. It frosts in the warm air of the kitchen, the green contents thick and slushy. "The taste will be milder since I made it the long way. I also cut the dose, so you'll need to see me again in about eight days."

He reaches for the tube but she snatches her hand away. Her weird eye narrows and gleams red. "I am trusting the both of you by not insisting that I observe these exchanges."

"We're playing by the rules, granny." John rubs his forehead with his dishpan hand, leaning the other on the counter. "Today was Aeryn's turn. Tomorrow is mine."

Noranti shakes her head. "I trust your word and her word. What I'm concerned about is that you be gentle with each other."

He nods as if accepting advice and allows her to pat his hand. "One thing."

"Name it."

"Apologize to Chiana."

If anything, she looks startled.

"You were out of line at dinner." He tosses aside the damp scrap of toweling he'd used on the dishes. "If you can't help, don't hurt either."

"It wasn't my intention to cause any distress to that poor young slip of a thing." She gives him her best Granny Clampett fidget, looking as innocuous and abashed as any tiny old woman layered in gunnysacks, which is to say, quite a bit. Which is to say, he almost buys it. "Aeryn already suggested that I talk to her, and I hope I was able to ease her anxiety."

"Aeryn's full of good ideas, isn't she?" He controls the smirk.

"Quite." Noranti sets the flat-bottomed tube onto the counter. "And tomorrow she will also have another of your secrets. Have you decided which one?"

He takes the tube and tucks it in the ammo pocket by his knee. "Goodnight, Noranti."

She calls out after him, "One day you'll have to tell her about Grayza."

He hollers back up the corridor, "G'night Granny." He doesn't walk fast enough to miss her giggled "Neitjonboi!"

John finds Aeryn in his room, lying on her side across the end of the bed with her head propped on her elbow and 'Notorious' on the screen. Her boots are paired neatly by one speaker, and his pillows are scattered on the mattress.

He joins her, moving a pillow to sit on the edge of the bed in front of her, turned toward and looking down on her where she lounges. The pillow is damp.

Aeryn powers off the equipment, cutting Ingrid Bergman off in mid-flirt. "She's with D'Argo."

"She okay?"

"She will be. I told Noranti to be careful the next few days, because Chiana is good at retaliation."

"Won't do much good. In my experience, Chi always serves her vengeance cold."

"Yes, exactly." She shares a smile with him, and he doesn't fight the urge to kiss her. He leans down just enough to meet her, and for long moments it's their sole point of contact.

Without breaking the kiss, she rises up to rest her hand on his thigh, and by hesitant inches turns and pushes him down on his back.

He shifts further onto the bed, driven by her touch, shedding his boots and shirt and gunbelt under her ministrations. She draws the tube out of his ammo pocket and sits back to study it. Her weight on his hips is solid, and her expression sober. "This is it?"

His excitement cools, pinned underneath her as she studies the drug. He realizes that she sees it as another chemical barrier between them, another feint. He concedes to himself that she might not be too wrong. "Yeah."

She nods and her only other motion is to tip the tube back and forth. "Makes you sleep?"


She looks at the light filtering through the venikka. She'd agreed that he should take it, but she doesn't give it to him. Instead she leans over to set it on the floor. "Later, then."

She pulls her shirt off, but when he reaches for her she pins him with a hand on his chest. It covers the thin pink scar from Zola. His hand circles her wrist and he pulls her down to rest on top of him. They embrace scar to scar, breathing each other in for a long moment as their skin reacts to the touch of the other, as they begin to talk in the easiest way they know how.

She paints his body with her hair and her kisses, catching him and holding him in her hands, her arms, her mouth, her thighs. Cradling him in his sheets, and cocooning him in her body, slow and sweet. It's a flavor that he's never tasted before from her.

He soaks up the contact like sustenance, trying not to care if this is how she made love with the first John. Trying to submerge himself in this aching tenderness without questioning if it's somehow a reminiscence of that other man's touch. Most of all, trying not to wonder why she's doing this, now, to him.

One of her arms slides under his shoulders and the other around his head, caressing his neck and ear while she rocks him inside her and clings to him like a Harlow monkey. He runs his hands through the sweat on her back and where their cheeks press together their tears mix as well, bittersweet and better than blood for a change.

So different from the violence that consummated their marriage.

As their bodies recover and settle into sleep, he kisses their salt from her face and her lips. Even the venikka can't chase the taste of her from his tongue.

The drug is merciful this time, and leaves him dreamless. When he wakes the next day, many of the others have already left for their errands.

The elder mother is massive and everything is in scale with her size, the landing lights of the pod barely touch the dim recesses of the cavernous docking bay.

"Good morning, Great Grandma," John mutters as he sets the pod down and powers it off. "Just think of me as a big ole DRD."

The burnished texture of the walls is the first thing John notices when he steps onto the deck, and it reminds him of burled oak. He's greeted by a delegation of DRDs, which skitter and zoom in a welcoming bee dance before they lead him out of the bay and deep into the ship. "Morning guys, where're we going?"

There's a faint scent to the atmosphere inside of this ship, a woody tobacco smell that matches the dark gleaming patina of her flesh.

There are no door controls, but the DRDs have all-access passes. He feels like Indiana Jones being herded along by the natives, and the image grows stronger when they show him the problem inside the neural cluster.

"Crap, guys. Your Shiva lingam is missing."

Rygel coasts out of the pod and surveys the gaggle of drones waiting for him on the docking bay floor.

They wave their eyestalks, just as unimpressed as their subject of study.

"Well? Take me to her!"

The gaggle parts and a large flat DRD trundles forward.

Rygel knows authority when he sees it, so he lowers his thronesled closer to floor level. The large DRD is dimpled with ports for the other drones to socket into, and Rygel decides that it must be a higher-level functionary, a Secretary or Minister perhaps. He addresses it formally. "I am here to speak with the Elder Mother."

The Minister makes a low-pitched binary sound, somewhere between a regular DRD beep and a Luxan fart. It turns and trundles out of the docking bay.

"Yes, thank you." Rygel detests functionaries.

"Hello?" The cavernous bay echoes back to him, so Stark edges down the stairs. "I am here."

This time a smooth whirring answers back, and two DRDs come appear from the other side of Moya's transport pod.

Stark kneels on the deck to press his head and palms to the floor. "Greetings. How may I be of service?"

They beep in turn as if calling out roll.

"I'm to take one of you with me when I return to the Leviathan I came from. Which one of you has been chosen for this?"

They call roll again, flickering their eyestalks as they beep.

"I am to choose?"

They whistle in unison.

"Oh." Stark examines them nervously. "That's not what I expected."

"Something must have attacked." John surveys the mess, recreating the process that led to this snowballed series of failures. "Maybe one of those predatory plants."

He looks around the chamber and shakes his head "No, whatever it was went right for the neural cluster, didn't mess around. Also didn't entrench itself anywhere else in the ship, so you were able to beat it right here before it severed anything else. Still, did more damage than the little guys could fix."

He crouches down and runs his hand along the encrustations that had formed as the ship tried to heal the breach of conduit on its own and failed. He whistles, impressed at the enormity of the injury and how long the ship must have lived with it.

A DRD whistles back, and he sees that they've raided his transport pod and brought back every tool bag they could find, balanced on their backs like women with huge baskets perched on their heads.

John lifts the bags from the DRDs, arranging them in a workspace around the injury. "I can do the heavy lifting, but I'll need you guys to do all the delicate work. Okay?"

It would have been a Pilot den, if the Leviathan had allowed one to bond with her. Instead, the catwalks are narrow and the place where they meet is stubbed around the periphery with docking stations for Ministers. There is a clear space in the center where one regular DRD sits, shiny and new, eyelights shining a crisp blue.

Rygel parks his thronesled at the juncture of catwalk and center platform, and proceeds through to the center. He greets the shiny DRD as if it were an Ambassador, and an equal.

The Ambassador brightens its eyelights and rolls toward Rygel.

"If you will allow me?" Rygel walks behind the Ambassador and hooks his hands under each side of its carapace, grunting as he lifts the weight. By the time he makes it back to his thronesled his muscles feel like Gummi Bears. The thought makes him hungry.

He presses a switch to slide out the foot platform, and once the Ambassador is settled, he takes his leave.

"Hello boys, how's it hanging?" Chiana skips down the stairs right into the group of DRDs waiting for her. "I brought a friend. Hope you don't mind."

The locals scatter back to form a circle around her feet and she sets 1812 down in the center of it.

"His name's Ibiz."

Eyestalks flutter like they're being stripped back and forth by hurricane winds.

"He's my guide."

The DRDs form two tight groups and one group peels off into the corridor.

Ibiz beeps, circles back, and nudges Chiana's foot. When she follows him, the second group brings up the rear.

Stark sits cross-legged on the deck. His back is a tired curve, and the pair of DRDs have parked themselves by his knees.

One is healthier than the other; more recently built, cleaner, and equipped with two extra tool arms. The difference does not make Stark's decision any easier. If he chooses the better DRD, the elder mother may deem him a selfish plunderer. Yet to choose the lesser DRD would shortchange Moya, the Leviathan whom he serves.

Not to mention the possibility that the worn DRD may have the benefit of greater experience, and in truth be the more valuable asset.

Stark lets out a ragged sigh.

D'Argo treads lightly on the stairs and moves slowly, doing his best to make his massive strength appear gentle. He remembers learning to hold his infant son, balancing delicacy with reassuring firmness, and he aims for that feeling as he crouches on one knee and lets the waiting DRDs inspect his outstretched hand.

They cluster around him, beeping and touching him with their eyestalks and tools.

"Hello," he croons.

They crowd closer, jostling each other, tool arms grasping at his sleeve and poking at his arm and hand.

A tool is stuck into his flesh with a sharp jab, and all the DRDs fall back several denches and wave their eyestalks at him.

D'Argo studies them just as intently. "I will not hurt you, and I would prefer if you returned that courtesy."

A DRD rolls forward and deliberately cuts through the sleeve of his jacket.

D'Argo sighs, and remembers the fortitude he learned in Jothee's toddler years.

Ibiz has switched himself to full guide-dog mode, and the DRD escorts echo his every beep and click just a microt after him. The effect is confusing at first, but kind of cute. After a few turns Chiana joins the call and response.

Ibiz clicks that a smooth left turn is ahead, and when the DRDs click back Chiana also chants, "Left!"

Ibiz whistles that a steep ascending ramp is ahead, and Chi sings out over the echoing DRDs, "Going up!"

They come through a doorway and Ibiz beeps out a high-pitched version of his catwalk warning. They've reached the cognitive center of the ship, but instead of a massive console where a Pilot would be, there's a ramp spiraling up to a center point taller than D'Argo. All along the upward spiral DRDs are plugged into the wall of the ramp above, and as Chiana and Ibiz approach they pull out and clear the ramp, zipping out of the chamber along the other three catwalks.

At the base of the ramp, Ibiz beeps out a stop and swivels to face Chiana. The front and rear guard of escort DRDs circle around her and Ibiz signals twice more for her to stop.

"You want me to stay?"

Ibiz whistles and bobs his eyelights.

"Okay." Chiana doesn't like this at all.

The lights brighten enough for her to clearly make out the whole chamber, even with her impaired vision. She divides her attention between the doors and Ibiz. He rolls up the ramp, and each time he turns out of her sight she follows his particular buzz with her ears. She doesn't like this at all. She came here to bring back a DRD, but if it comes down to it, she'll bring back Ibiz before any of these other little drannits.

Ibiz reaches the top, and with a surge of his locomotor he sockets himself into the primary DRD slot at the center of the spiral. In a handful of microts, the whole chamber freaks out.

"Try it now, at minimum flow." John turns his face away but keeps a hand on the lower juncture box between the old conduit and the repaired section.

Amnexus flows down through the main vein, hits a juncture box and is divvied into six smaller tubes. A couple yards down the line, near the floor, the six tubes converge into another juncture box and the amnexus flows into the next section of main vein.

"Okay, let's up to it moderate flow."

This is where his first repair job had blown out, spraying hot amnexus and years of accumulated silt all over the room. The DRDs had cut the flow off within microts, but four of the six tubes that he'd used to bridge the gap in the huge bore main amnexus vein had popped out of the juncture box he'd rigged.

Luckily none of the bridge tubes had been damaged, just the seals connecting them to the junction box, so they didn't need to harvest another graft, just clean up the mess, flush out the rest of the silt and hook everything back up.

"Let's ease it up to a maximum flow, guys."

Now they're rigid like fire hoses, but there's no sign of leakage or stress. So far, the repair is holding.

Noranti descends the transport pod's stairs and finds a pack of DRDs waiting for her. She crouches down, picks up the one closest to her foot and hikes back up the stairs.

The lights blaze bright in the chamber and the DRDs surrounding Chiana flee in every direction. The Leviathan thrums and roars her engines. Chiana bends her knees and elbows and edges up the spiral ramp, ready to climb up the side and wrench Ibiz out of his port. She knows the way back to the transport pod, the inverse and reverse of the song they all sang on the way here, but she doesn't want to leave him here. He's her back-up, her defense screen for when she's surrounded by the black.

DRDs flood onto the other three catwalks like a yellow flood, converging on the center and climbing the walls of the chamber. Chiana climbs the spiral ramp like a steep staircase, steadying herself by gripping the edges of the higher turns.

Ibiz disengages and zips down the ramp, squealing his all-clear signal and bobbing his eyelights. When he reaches Chiana's hands he stops to burble and purr at her, slowing his song down as he does so.

"You sure?"

Ibiz pops out a tool arm and rests his gripper on the back of her hand.

"If you say so," Chiana looks around at the yellow horde covering every wall of the chamber and every catwalk but the one they came in on. "But one false move and we're getting the frell out of here, okay?"

Ibiz dims his eyelights.

"I'm just saying, these guys are a little spooky."

Ibiz makes a percussive burping sound. Chiana lifts him and sets him down on the catwalk. "So what do we do now?"

Ibiz beeps a pause, and a few microts later a single DRD trundles up their empty catwalk and comes to a stop at Chiana's feet. Ibiz trades eyeblinks with it, and then nudges Chiana's foot.

She glances back at the sea of yellow covering every available surface of the chamber, then hurries out with Ibiz and his new friend.

Stark is determined not to weep, but the more he looks at the pair of DRDs in front of him, sitting patiently, the more he's loathe to separate them from their home and from each other. Elbow propped on knee, he rests his metal temple on his hand and stares at them, his eye wet with tears.

He will take the newer DRD and hope it's the stronger of the two, better able to endure the permanent separation from his brethren. He just can't bring himself to do it just yet.

D'Argo comes down the stairway with a tight expression and a DRD clamped under his arm. His pants and jacket are shredded, and the smooth tough hide of his boots are scraped and gnawed.

"Took you long enough." Rygel hovers up to him. "What happened to you?"

"I retrieved a DRD."

Rygel huffs and follows him as he walks to Moya's Pilot den. "Looks like you got mauled by a pack of flibisks."

"I'm fine."

"Your clothes are ruined and your arm is bleeding!"

"All of my wounds are running clear, I made sure of it on the way back."

"All of your wounds? What the frell happened over there?"

"I do not want to talk about it. Is everyone else back?"

"Aeryn just left to visit the pod's matriarch. Crichton is on his way back with his own DRD, and Stark keeps saying he's leaving but he doesn't. Everyone else has taken their prize to Pilot."

"So of the seven elder mothers, we are only waiting on those last two."

"You'll probably have to send a retrieval team for Stark."

D'Argo turns on his heel to face Rygel. "What's the problem with Stark?"

Rygel chuckles. "His Leviathan is making him choose the DRD to take."

"Frelling Hezmana."

The presence of the Leviathan envelops her even before she disembarks, but what surprises her most is how different this ship feels compared to Moya.

This Leviathan is patient and humorous, and Aeryn wishes she could talk to her in words instead of these upwelling impressions and feelings.

The hum of the ship strengthens, and becomes audible, a numbing vibration coming from small circulation vents in the docking bay. Her hand brushes low on her hip but the closest weapon is back on Moya.

The sound articulates.

Aeryn has been on long-range journeys where the empty starfield and constant engine noise are transformed by the bored brain into more interesting mirages, and at first she refuses to believe what she hears. Then the sounds repeat and slowly resolve into words.

Aeryn turns, asking the air, "Binok?"


The articulation is clearer now, and Aeryn wonders what language the ship is speaking that her microbes are translating into Sebacean. "Binok, my name is Aeryn Sun."


The hairs on her arms and neck spike against the material of her flight suit. "Yes."


"We help her, and she helps us."


"No, we are not."


"Podmates." Aeryn considers this. "I've never been part of a pod, so I couldn't say, but we travel with Moya and live inside her, we take care of her and defend her."


Moya's first friend. Aeryn closes her eyes against the remembered screams, tinny from the spy'corder because it wasn't anything memorable until she'd been confronted with it later. She swallows, but her voice still shakes. "Yes."

In the silence a lone DRD glides up and prods Aeryn's boot. Binok's voice flows through the ventilation system again, "...fffollllow..."

Binok has been silent as the DRD leads Aeryn deeper into the ship. Her flight suit is hot and less than useless, her helmet stowed back in the transport pod. Hairs fly loose from the ponytail gathered on her neck, sticking against her jaw and giving her an itch to distract herself from the memories and the dread.

They arrive at the Pilot den. Rygel and Chiana had described how the den would look different, but despite the dim lighting and the variations of coloring, it looks too familiar to Aeryn. The DRD escorts her all the way down a catwalk to the console rising up from the floor, then it zips out of the chamber as if chased.

Aeryn waits.

When John reaches Pilot's den, D'Argo wrinkles his nose and greets him first. "You smell like laundry."

"Amnexus leak." John shifts the DRD under his arm and there's a distinct crackle from his stiff shirt. "I got hosed down and didn't have a choice but to let it air dry."

Chiana swings one of her feet off the side of Pilot's console. "I think your pants shrunk."

"And you'd be right. Leathers are water-resistant, but amnexus fluid? Forget it. These are worse than wet Levis." John sets the DRD a row with the other newbies, lining the edge of the console. Once they complete the set, the pod will begin sharing their resources with Moya. "Who are we waiting on?"

Pilot pauses with his claw hovering over the new DRD. "Stark and Officer Sun." He's been in a much better mood since they re-attached the Zyntian filter a few days ago. Pregnancy suits him and Moya both.

"Aeryn just left." Chiana eyes John's obvious discomfiture, among other obvious things. "We're about to send someone to go get Stark."


"His Leviathan is making him choose the DRD to take." D'Argo's patience has clearly been worn to fraying bits. "He can't bring himself to do so."

"So he has access to comms?"

"Yes, his Leviathan is allowing it."

"I'll see if I can talk him down, but," John turns on his heel and heads out of the chamber, "first I need to get cleaned up."

D'Argo's reply is dry. "You do that."

"These pants have gone beyond friendly--they're starting to molest me," John mutters to himself on the way up the catwalk, trying to loosen the leather that's been molded by moist heat to every bump and divot of his frame. "I'm gonna have to wriggle out of these things like Houdini out of a straitjacket."

"Hey old man, let me know if you need any help with that."

He turns in the doorway but there's no use shouting across the distance and D'Argo's howl of laughter. He grabs his crotch, flashes her a winning smile, and makes his exit.

John was planning on a quick shower but under the hot water he notices how wiped out he is, and for a while he leans against the wall and lets the shower massager pound on his back. Knees locked and head propped on his crossed arms, he may have even slipped into a light doze.

Venikka hangover.

He cuts the hot water off and soaks his head under the icy spray to clear the fog. A faint amnexus scent lingers in the lavatory, and D'Argo's right, it smells like clean laundry to him now. He towels off and pads into his room to get dressed. Maybe there are some real terrycloth towels in the Earth stuff, something the right size and shape to wrap around his waist against the post-shower chill. He wonders what Aeryn would think of that look. Probably make a crack about skirts.

He sits on his bed and takes a deep breath. He slips his hand under the mattress, a practiced motion, a familiar spot. It's there. It always is, waiting for him. He pulls his hand out, scratches his neck through the wet hair at the nape, makes the decision. He rises and gets dressed.

Binok chooses her own moment to speak, and the advantage of this chamber is apparent as soon as she does. Her voice is no longer a sentient breeze from the ventilation shafts, it is a true vocal sound that fills the chamber.


The voice thrums under her breastbone, and a part of Aeryn's mind takes the anxiety and runs off in a Crichton direction. How does Binok produce the sound? Modified vents? Could Moya speak if she had a throat to make sound? Do Leviathans have a language that can be spoken? They live in silent space, how could they hear each other if they did? Where did Binok learn a spoken language?

"You have killed a Pilot."

She manages to throttle that line of thought and focus entirely on the here and now. "Yes, I have."

"How did it feel?"

Aeryn's posture of attention wavers. She's out of her rating with this conversation, so she chooses her only weapon against emotional talk, frank honesty. "I felt nothing. Later, when I knew better, I felt shame."

"You killed a Pilot. Then you became a Pilot for a time."

She doesn't know where to look when she speaks to Binok, so she looks all around the chamber. "Yes, for a few solar days."

"You still feel Leviathans, and they feel you. Even damaged ones. Even free ones." Binok's voice whispers in the cavern. "Come closer to the Pilot space."

Aeryn approaches the console, which is higher and smoother than the one on Moya.

"Come inside the Pilot space, Airnsnn."

Aeryn removes her gloves and hooks them on a catch at her waist. The console is warm to the touch as she braces her hands and hikes herself onto the ledge. She swivels to bring her legs over and looks down. Despite a lifetime of military discipline, she startles and shouts.

"Stark?" John uses his softest Jimmy Carter voice, though truth be told it's President Carter by way of Dan Aykroyd. "How's it coming there, Stark?"

"I'm on my way back."

D'Argo rolls his eyes and John nods. "Yeah, I heard you're just about to leave. Are you near the transport pod?"


"Good, that's good." John lets the smile permeate his voice and tries to phrase the question in the sneaky way his mother had of nagging diplomatically. "The DRD that you're bringing back, it's waiting for you on the pod, right?"

"Why would it be?"

Well that frells that tactic. "Where is the DRD, Stark?"

"It's one of the two in front of me."

John refrains from asking which one. "Are they playing a little 'my side/your side' with you, Stark?"

Stark chuckles half-heartedly, and John suspects from the sound that he's also rocking back and forth.

John opens his mouth to speak but Stark cuts him off. "I know which one to chose, but I can't bring myself to take him away."

D'Argo's silent exasperation is hard to watch with a straight face, but John manages.

"It seems like such a horrible thing to do, to take it away from the only home it's known--"

"Stark, take a deep breath, man." John shares a quizzical look with D'Argo. They'd watched the guy forcibly defrost an Interon just to make a point, and yet he can't pick a puppy out of the litter. "Listen to me, man. The DRD that goes with you is leaving his home ship, but he's not going to be alone. We've got a whole group of ex-pats just like him to hang out with, a DRD from all the other elder mothers we've visited. And once we get all of the special guests over to Moya safe and sound, the other Leviathans are going to give her a whole bunch more. He'll have friends here."

"I'm not a child, Crichton."

Ladies and gentlemen, President Carter has left the building. "Then suck it up, Stark. Pick up the DRD, buckle him up in the transport pod and get your ass back here."

"You don't understand."

"Frell that, I do understand. I think whatever angst you're wallowing in is not about the happy friendly DRD who's getting sick and tired of waiting for you to take him on his field trip. I have no idea what you're working through, Stark, but you're on Moya's time right now and the sooner she gets all of her little, yellow, different visitors the sooner her baby shower gets under way."

There's no response, and John can picture him rocking sullenly.


"Do you think he really wants to come with me?"

"Yeah, man." John's voice has softened to his own patient pitch. "I think he's excited about Moya's baby."

"Hadn't thought of that."

There's a scuffling sound and murmurs that John can't make out. He's holding absolutely still, as if that will somehow encourage Stark. He hears the sound of a transport pod's stairway retracting and finally, he has to check. "Stark, how's the DRD taking it?"

"He seems--it looks like he's in good spirits so far."

"I hear they like car rides."

"We've cleared the ship and are rounding about for Moya."

"We'll put the porch light on." John shuts off the comms and lets his head fall back with a groan while D'Argo heaves a huge sigh.

"I'm glad we didn't have to come after him."

"Yeah well, takes one to know one, I guess."

D'Argo snorts. "Yeah."

For a moment John just blinks at him, but the Luxan doesn't even try to hide his amusement. He takes a deep breath and crosses his arms. "What happened to your other braid?"

That cuts D'Argo short. "What do you mean, my other braid?"

"Your other braid." John gestures toward the tankas and frowns. "The left one, there. It's missing."

D'Argo reaches up like he's checking his shave. "No, it's--" His hand encounters the stubby tassel end where a moustache braid should be. "Frell!"

Only a husk is left, brittle and dry.

"I show you my secret, because you will understand."

The armored plates are thinned to transparency, and the tough flexion material at the joints has broken down enough that the whole exoskeleton has collapsed into the center of the console.

"I do not regret what I did, Airnsnn, I did it to be free."

Aeryn sits on the edge of the console, staring at the broken shells of Binok's starved Pilot and feeling as lonely as she's ever felt. "This is your secret."

"I am not the only one in our pod who broke from service." The ship's voice draughts through the chamber. "My secret is that I miss him. Do you understand, Airnsnn?"

Tears spatter the barrier of her flight suit, some of them for the Pilot, some for Binok, and the rest for Crais. "Yes, I do."

"Come to the center of the Pilot space, Airnsnn."

There are few places to plant her feet, but Aeryn manages not to disturb any of the remains. Binok thrums around her as if all the vibrations of the whole ship are focused on this point. Her hands are damp from wiping her face, and when she lays her palms on the controls the jolt is electric.

There is so much. The feelings roll through her body and coalesce into thought. The Pilot was not a good one, but not a bad one. He was young and not a complement to the ship he was paired with, while Binok was new-made and intolerant. It ended badly, and Aeryn hears the weakening screams, bears the cycles of drifting that brought Binok to Tormented Space, bears the cycles of madness that followed.

Aeryn's hands slide down the inside of the console as her legs fold under her, as Binok surges through her. Binok's voice reverberates in her skull. "Share this."

Binok finds pods of free Leviathans, and they allow her tag along on the periphery. They let her glean the scraps of the resources they find. They permit her to mate. They harass her children when she is not looking. Her first weanling is killed. Binok leaves with her surviving nursling.

A pod offers security and rest, protection from larger predators and assistance with smaller parasites. The nursling was boarded by raiders while she was weaning. It took a full atmosphere vent to kill them and the damage they did in the interim almost killed her. Aeryn feels the rage, feels the scar on Binok's side from scraping the raider's vessel from her child's hull.

Binok finds the feeding space, ripe with nutrients expelled from the wormhole system, and it becomes the center of a territory scattered across the galaxy at every blue branch. The feeding space becomes the mating space, the hub where life in the pod begins.

Binok helps her child open her birthing seam for the first time and pride fills Aeryn like a weapon charging. She sees the pod growing despite the sons who've left, daughters and granddaughters filling the space around Binok. The wormhole system also brings an occasional refugee, from service or from another pod. "Not all are welcome, but none are killed."

Despite the soothing abundance of the mating space, Binok's body aches and the elder mothers care for her as if she were a nursling. There are thousands of Leviathans in her pod, and they will miss her, and they will live on without her when the time comes. She has made something that will endure longer than herself, and now she can share her regret and her peace with something like a Pilot.

"This makes it real, Airnsnn, do you understand?"

Aeryn crouches in the Pilot space, lodged among the shells, and understands.

Aeryn delivers her DRD and finds John working on the Scarran ship. He's curled in the doorway with a small-flame cutting torch while D'Argo's hovering dangerously close.

"That piece is too big."

"I'm cutting where you marked."

"You'll damage the hull integrity."

"We discussed this, I need samples from different areas for comparison."

"I didn't realize you were going to nibble away the whole ship."

"Fine. I'll mark the next one and you cut."


"Then kwitchyerbitchin."

D'Argo catches sight of her watching them and walks closer, pushing the black eye shield onto his forehead. "How did it turn out?"

"Pilot has all of the probe DRDs now. We've passed the test, and the elder mothers have permitted the pod to share their resource DRDs with Moya. She'll begin coupling with them soon."

John's cutting torch turns off with a pop, and D'Argo adjusts the eye shield on his head. "What?"

Aeryn keeps the smile off her face. "You heard me."

Chiana was right, their reaction was definitely worth it even if she can only see John's open mouth under the goggles. "Or did you think that the ships would space their DRDs and hope Moya could catch them?"

"So," John clears his throat and tries again, "so how does that work? Exactly?"

Aeryn crooks an eyebrow.

"I need to discuss some things with Pilot." D'Argo snaps the eye shield off his head and fiddles with it. "John, are you okay here, with the ship and the uh--"

"Yeah, man, this was the last sample anyway."

"Good." D'Argo tosses the eye shield onto a bench and strides out of the docking bay.

Aeryn sits down on the bench and finally lets herself laugh. Maybe it's not as funny as it seems to her, but the laughter boiling out of her feels strange and good. How long has it been since she's had that particular ache in her side from just laughing?

John comes up to the bench and stands before her, an odd half-smile on his face as he watches, goggles and gloves still in place as if he's about to make a repair on her as well.

She catches her breath. "You healed Binok's child today."

"The amnexus breach. Nasty injury. Who's Binok?"

"The matriarch. The Leviathan you fixed was her first surviving child, and she'd had that injury since she was raided as a weanling."

"Ouch." There's a faint blush to his face as he pulls off the heavy work gloves.

She sees him with Binok's eyes for a moment and wonders at the tremendous amount of good done by such a small being. This being who wears a ring that she gave to him, this being who is hers to take care of in turn.

"What's the smile for?"

She raises her chin. "I can smile at you if I want."

He looks at her, head tilted. He pulls the goggles off and drops them next to D'Argo's eye shield on the bench beside her.

She's about to make a lewd suggestion when he breathes deep and says on the exhale, "I'm ready if you are."

Aeryn pulls her shoulders back. Mediation. At least today is his turn. "Yes, I'm ready."

"Come on." He offers her his hand, and leads her to his quarters.

"A secret, a question or a dare." He sits her down on the bed and draws a chair close in front of her for himself. "Unless you have a burning question?"

She shakes her head.

"Then a secret it is." He leans forward, resting his elbows on his thighs. "Frell, how do I start this?"

Aeryn feels the last of her good mood evaporate. Why did she agree to this again?

"My mom used to smoke. Cigarettes. A pack a day by the time she quit. I was maybe ten or eleven when she stopped cold turkey. She quit three or four times that summer, until it finally took. I spent a lot of time at DK's house." He smiles. "She was on the warpath until fall."

Aeryn remembers that smoking is not to be done during pregnancy, but she never quite figured out when it should be done, or why. "It's addictive, then."

John glances at her and flicks his eyebrows up, "Yeah." He watches his palms slide against each other. "She kicked it, though."

"That's good." Aeryn is at a loss.

"When I was seventeen, she drafted me to help with Christmas shopping. I don't remember where we were at, she was digging for her wallet and I saw a pack of cigarettes in her purse." He rubs his forehead. "I waited until we got to the car and then went ballistic, about how bad it was for her health and all that crap."

"Did she quit again?"

"She wasn't smoking. She made me pull the cigarettes out of her purse, this beaten up box of Virginia Slims. It was the last pack she bought, years ago, and she'd never opened it."

"Why did she keep it?"

"She said she liked having them around. All I could think of was how stale they were, how desperate she'd have to be to smoke seven year old cigarettes."

Aeryn remembers the delicate woman in pink, and pictures her pulling out a box of cigarettes from her bag, turning them in her hand, and putting them back unopened. This is the first story she's heard John tell in a long time, and she would never have thought she would have missed them this much.

He sets his hands on his knees and straightens his back. "I think I understand why she kept them, though."

Aeryn remembers that some of his stories, no matter how strange or banal, have a point.

He takes her hand and pulls her forward. "I think she kept them to prove that she was stronger than they were. She had them if she really needed them, but she didn't need them." He slips their hands underneath the mattress and when her fingers curl around the hidden object, he pulls his hand out and meets her eyes.

Aeryn tugs her own hand out, the black bulb concealed in her palm but unmistakably loaded. She wonders what effect the drug had on him, besides the infuriating oblivious calm. Was it like a battle drug? A stim?

How much had it hurt to stop suddenly?

When had he actually stopped?

She opens her hand and John begins talking again.

"I haven't used any since you asked me to stop. And that was hard." He looks up from the lakka and catches her in his stare. "And I wanted to be sure that I was stopping myself. That it wasn't that fact that I couldn't get any more. So I kept the last of it."

She studies the smooth teardrop of the lakka bulb in her hand. "What does it do?"

His brow furrows in the middle as he looks at the bulb in her hand. "Cleared my head. Kept me from being distracted by things."

Distracted by Scorpius aboard the ship, distracted by the deal she'd made that she couldn't explain and that he interpreted as betrayal. Distracted by her, using an outdated strategy, flirting with him as if this John were the same as the last. Causing him pain.

What galls is that he chose to medicate against the pain, instead of saying one word to her. How could being numb be preferable? She shakes her head. "I don't understand."

"It's like armor, Aeryn. It keeps things that hit you from breaking your skin."


"Fear, anger, lust, panic, all those deadly sins."

"It numbs them."

"No. They're still there. They just don't matter as much. They can't touch you through the calm." He lays his fingertips on her knees. "It's the luxury of postponing it. Dealing with it later."

"Battle drugs have specific actions, they block pain or weariness, they increase muscle strength or oxygen efficiency, they speed reflexes. All in the short-term, of course, for strategic use."

"Long-term campaigns don't count, do they?"

Not if you're ignoring comrades who could help you instead. She chokes that back, aware that full frontal assault will only drive this conflict underground. "When did you start using it?"

He stands and goes to close the door. She watches him pull the privacy curtain closed and walk back to the chair. He sits, and fidgets. "Noranti gave me the first little bottle after Chi and I found that game."

She nods as it clicks into place. "And this is the last of it?"

"Yeah," he scratches his nose, "finite supply of the active ingredient."

She rolls it to her fingertips and clasps it between middle finger and thumb. There's more, but he's stopped volunteering and she's running out of questions to ask. "How many doses are in this?"

"About sixty shots, normally sixty doses. I was doubling up at the end."


"Quickest way to the bloodstream."

"How long does it last?"

"Full armor, almost half an arn." He clears his throat. "There's a kind of afterglow that lingers maybe two or three. The armor can be pierced at that point."

She calculates as she turns the bulb in her fingertips. "So you've got a weeken's worth left."

"Yeah." He scratches the back of his neck.

"Okay." She slips it into her nostril and squeezes, inhales before he even has time to widen his eyes.

Binok showed her that some things need to be felt to be understood.

He snatches it from her hand as the lakka hits, a tingly warmth spreading out from her head.

He's yelling, screaming her name, but he'll calm down on his own, right now she's focusing on the drug, trying to understand it's attraction--trying to figure out why he used it, what it offered that could replace wanting to be with her.

"Aeryn, what the hell are you doing?" He shakes her by the shoulders but she blocks his arms away easily and stands.

It suffuses her on a transparent wave, smoothing the edges and soothing her, then retreating to the background. She tries to sense the lakka as a separate effect, but it's a subtle transformation. She simply feels good.

It was like armor, he said, protecting him from having to feel, but that's wrong. It's not a barrier at all. It's an antidote.

"Aeryn," his voice is strained, and she turns. She observes his appalled anger, and dismisses the answering flare of her own. What was the phrase? Taste of your own medicine?

"Clarity and distance, but that's only half, isn't it?" She feels calm and safe, capable and strong. She's too well-trained to trust a sensation she knows comes from a drug, but she can feel the seduction of it. With the lakka, she is self-contained.

"Aeryn, why are you doing this?"

"I want to understand." That's the key: comfort, clarity and calm. She wonders if she would have fared differently against Scorpius if she'd had the benefit of a hit of courage whenever she felt the need.

She lets him steer her toward the bed and sit her down. "That was a really stupid thing to do."

She blinks up at him. "You've got fifty-nine left should you ever need them."

"Damn it, Aeryn," He burns off some of the anger by thrashing his arms and stalking toward the door. "I'm not saving it for a rainy day!"

She waits until he storms back toward her before she asks him, "Why didn't you mention that it makes you feel good?"

He stops and slumps down onto the chair once more.

"This stuff is like a battle-drug for your frelling emotions. I feel good. Happy." She leans toward him. "You took this to make you feel happy."

"It made me feel better." He clenches his jaw and leans back. "But I never got to happy."

She can feel the edges of it now, the drug clearing out of her system fast, the surety and soothing calm eroding.

"You look like you're sobering up."

"Superior Sebacean biology."

"Right, I forgot." He leans in and stares at her like she's something he isn't sure is edible or not. "Curiosity killed the cat, you know."

She shrugs. "The cat got tired of asking questions."

"Cats don't talk, remember?"

"Sometimes you don't either."

His tone is a warning. "Noranti told us to be gentle."

"Yes, she did." Aeryn gathers the remnants of the induced calm and rises to her feet. She pauses as she passes his chair. "She's also the one who gave you that dren in the first place."

His brow crinkles over the nose, and he takes a deep breath.

She waits, but he doesn't speak, just looks at the tight fist of his right hand. There's always more, and he's fighting her for every scrap of it. "Well?"

Only his eyes move, gaze flicking up to pin her. "We'll talk about this when you aren't high."

"Fine. If I don't see you in the mess--"

"I'll see you tonight at lights out." He doesn't move from the chair, doesn't see her out.

She knows there's hurt waiting for her when the lakka dissipates.

The drug lingers in her system for arns, a soothing vigilance that carries her well into the night.

She spends most of the time in her workshop laying out a circulation system for the cooling upgrade she's working on, and thinking about the memories that Binok shared with her. She misses dinner, half on accident, because she's prepared a batch of tube sealant that she must use before it sets up. The kitchen is empty by the time she swings by for leftovers to take back to her shop.

Once the circulation net is finished, the tube sealant needs to cure for ten arns before she can check for leaks. She brings her dish back to the kitchen and washes it, dries it, realizes she's delaying the inevitable, knows that underneath the stimulation of the drug she's bone weary, but she still can't turn her mind off, the lakka buzzing away the sleepiness she'd normally feel at her accustomed arn for lights out.

There is no reason left not to go to bed and try to get some sleep, so she heads back to John's quarters.

Moya has begun to couple with the first female, a gentle docking and leisurely spin as they connect several of their ventral ports and breathe their atmospheres into each other's airlocks.

Leviathans mate for the sake of procreation. They couple when they nurse their offspring, when they share resources, when they assist and support each other. They couple when they are lonely. They mate out of lust and they couple out of love.

The Leviathans soothe Moya as they touch her and feed her. The dregs of the drug shield Aeryn from fully sharing that comfort, but the barrier thins as the chemical metabolizes. The echo of affection is warmer than the detached security of the lakka.

She wonders if this is what she would have felt holding Zola close, feeding her from her own body just as the ships are sending their resource-heavy DRDs into Moya. Binok lost her first child as well, but she persevered, she was able to pass on the things she'd learned to all of these Leviathans, her children and others.

Aeryn spins her life out in front of her and, just for a moment, pictures herself as a matriarch at the end of it. There's so much danger between this fantasy and the reality she lives in that the image collapses underneath the strain.

But not entirely. Why are they fighting against all this corruption and abuse, if not to make a safe place for people to just live? To make a safe place for themselves to live.

For the love of Chilnak, how did he sleep on this dren?

She doesn't get to ask him, because Chiana's in his bed instead, lying on her belly with her chin propped on a pillow, watching that movie again.

Chi glances at the doorway when Aeryn approaches. "He's in your room."

Aeryn nods and wanders in, seizing the reprieve. "Why do you keep watching that movie?"

Chiana shrugs. "I like the story."

Aeryn sits on the bed, back against the headboard. "The Knight saves the Princess."

"What?" Chiana looks back over her shoulder at Aeryn.

"It's an old human story, the Knight saves the Princess."

"Well that's not this story."

"He pulls her from her deathbed, Chiana, and saves her life."

"No. It's not about Alicia being saved. It's about Dev finally figuring out that he loves her no matter what. That what she's doing isn't about sex, it's about stopping evil from happening. I guess. I'm still fuzzy on how evil comes in wine bottles. But I know what the story's about. It's about Dev learning not to be scared of how he feels."

"Are you sure? Because the whole bit with the poisoning..."

"That just raises the stakes. If he doesn't figure it out soon, she'll die."

"But why doesn't she tell him that she's ill?"

"Because if he cares, he'll figure it out. If he doesn't care, then it doesn't matter."

"That's not fair to Dev."

"Who said love was fair?"

"Not love, the woman. She's being unfair by testing him like that."

"How should she test him, then?" Chiana settles back into her TV-watching position, feet in the air and head propped on the pillow.

Chiana watches the movie and Aeryn watches her. She was with John in the game, the day that led up to his first use of the drug. She's the one who told her all about the golden-haired Princess.

"Chiana." She waits until the woman rolls onto her side and looks back at her. Aeryn watches intently for a reaction. "I took some lakka today."

Chi simply asks, "Why?"

"I wanted to know what it was like, and he couldn't explain it to me."

"So he let you take a snort."

Aeryn tilts her head. "I didn't ask, I just did it."


"You were with him that day, when he decided to start taking it."

Chiana shakes her head. " not my story to tell."

"There's a story?"

"It's John. There's always a story." Chiana turns back to the movie and increases the volume. "And it's not mine to tell."

Aeryn sighs.

That's what he'd said to her at the beginning, get your story straight and then come talk to me. But stories have points, don't they? She still hasn't found the point of her particular story, but she's made a deal to tell him anyway, and may even tell him the whole frelling thing if it comes down to it.

And he's supposed to tell her his story, but it seems he's taking out the parts that give it sense, like the way Bobby's tapes were cut and mixed, like the way she'd manipulated that wanted beacon the first time she was injured on Dam-Ba-Da.

Moya floats in space alone, and the security of the lakka has dissipated as well. Her body feels bereft and weary, pushed too far in one day and kept from the sleep that it still needs for recovery. Alicia gives Dev a square of cloth, and leaves him on a park bench to go home to die.

It occurs to Aeryn, like the punch of a knife-blade, that perhaps the reason he took his comfort from a drug was that he didn't think he'd be able to get it from her.

She slips her hand under the mattress and nudges the bulb deeper into the crevice.

John's sleeping when she enters her quarters. Aeryn doesn't disturb him as she prepares for rest and then slips under the covers with him. She moves closer to rest against him skin-to-skin but he twitches at her touch, forehead creased and his breathing irregular.

For a moment she watches him, then slides her hand up his arm. He draws his arm across his chest, curls away onto his side and makes a sound like something small being hurt.

She finds herself making his own silly "shhhhh..." noise at him, quiet and soft like an atmosphere leak. She fits her body behind his, laying her cheek on his shoulder blade, and pictures them locking together like Leviathans, breathing into each other's airlocks. His breathing catches, then evens out again as his body relaxes against hers.


"A shadow depository, you say." Nelet's eyes blink and widen in a most charming way.

"We spent the money on medical treatment, unfortunately, just another fortune passing through our hands." Rygel narrows his own lids in an almost blink, flirtatious and casual as he murmurs sweet nothings designed specifically for Nelet's tympanic membranes. "A redistribution of wealth, you might say."

Even through the interference on the channel, Rygel notices that Nelet's apple green color has deepened. "Do you often engage in such charitable work?"

"We do what we can."

"Would you be willing to barter your services for ours?" Nelet offers a slow blink. "I do not mean anything so daring as what you have mentioned, simply the shipment of some goods? With all due discretion, of course."

"Of course." Rygel contemplates the possibilities. The clinic is located on a sparsely populated planet, under the provisional authority of some upstart sentients called Ypree. "I don't anticipate any difficulty in crafting an arrangement that will suit us both."

"We shall certainly revisit this topic when you arrive."

"I look forward to our meeting." Rygel pauses before he broaches the next subject. "Regretfully, we will be unavoidably detained from our previously scheduled arrival time."

Nelet's nostril slits pinch shut and she tilts her head down. "I am very sorry to hear that. Pray tell me, if you are able, how long of a delay we should expect before your arrival?"

"No more than a monen, I assure you."

"You will arrive during the next growing season." Her silver tone thins as she thinks aloud.

"I regret if our delay causes you any inconvenience, it is not our intention to burden you or the Diagnosan Wiliansh. Shall we formally reschedule our appointment to a time more suitable for the Diagnosan?"

Nelet opens her eyes and nostrils wide and brightens again. "On the contrary, the timing may be quite fortunate for all parties involved. We shall most definitely discuss this upon your arrival."

Rygel tilts his head back in Nelet's own gesture of respect. "I am pleased to converse with you on any topic you may wish to introduce, Nelet."

"I would advise you to take care, Dominar, lest I begin to entertain notions that are inappropriate to the proper management of business matters."

Rygel hums as he chuckles, Nelet's silvery laughter tingling in his ears.

"You missed dinner last night, and you were up so early, I didn't catch you at breakfast." John shrugs and sets a covered bowl on a bare corner of her long worktable. A fine net of thin transparent tubing spreads over the rest of the space, plump with water circulated from a pump smaller than a deck of cards. "What are you working on?"

"Cooling system for my Prowler." She takes another length of tubing, connected to a water pack filled with something clear and aqua green, and slots the tube into the pump mechanism.

He watches the fluid diffuse into the net and turn the whole thing green in a few seconds, before she's tightened down the valve cover on the intake tube. Good coverage, excellent flow. "To cool what?"

"The pilot." She powers the pump off and claims her lunch. "All that's left is installation."

He eyes the net again and he can picture how it would fit over the pilot seat of a Prowler. He can also see how it was pieced together from an inner layer of her Scorpysuit, like a crude leather coat where you can see how the skin used to fit the animal.

She pauses in her eating. "Thank you."

"Welcome." There's only one bench, so he sits beside her and examines the pump as she finishes.

There are a few dial-click controls, probably to regulate the flow, and a damned familiar lever switch for the power. Scorpy may cool her off, John, but you turn her on. "Must have been hard to pilot when you were sick."

She covers her empty bowl, and he can feel her steeling herself.

"Are you sure you want to do this right now?"

She sits up straighter. "Today is my turn." She begins slowly, as if digging the words out of herself by the roots.

In retrospect the mission had been too easy--none of the team seriously injured or killed--and they should have realized that the Lokathians had laid a trap. "Biologic engineers," she says ruefully, "have more than firepower at their disposal."

The virus took them one after another on the way back. Only Aeryn and Irdi, who worked munitions, had made it close enough to the renegade base to transmit a report of their success.

"Irdi took the quarantine command badly, and they shot her out of the sky before she could land." Aeryn chose a fast-decaying orbit around the local star instead.

"I know now that I wasn't ready to die. If I had been, I would have disabled the guidance system and flown straight in. Two shots would have done it, one for the master control panel and one for my head. I tried." She catches his gaze and holds it. "I tried, but I couldn't make myself pull the trigger."

His chest is too tight to draw a decent breath, so his voice is thin. "What stopped you?"

She shakes her head as if to clear it, and curls her lip. "What good does it do to remember hallucinations?"

"You'd be surprised." It's meant as a crack to relieve the tension, but she's giving it serious consideration.

She looks tired, and he remembers when she'd asked him in a small voice if anything of this was real, after the Scarrans had done God-knows-what to her for too damned long. Maybe that wasn't the first time she'd gone to a better place in her head.

Maybe Scorpius had driven her there first. "We can stop if you want, Aeryn. Tomorrow is my turn."

"You. Him." The words pop out of her and she surges to her feet. "The both of you. Kept talking to me."

She glances at him as she wanders around the room and his eyes track her. "You wouldn't shut up, either of you. You kept repeating all the stupid things I told you about fighting the neurochip. Kept asking me if I was willing to admit that I was wrong, because giving up would mean that I was talking dren back then, too."

She stops and whips her ponytail back over her shoulder. "Of course, the fact that it was dren wasn't the point, it was that I didn't let you give up, so why should you let me?"

"So...what you're saying is...the very thought of me badgered you out of suicide." What does that say about him, that this is the most romantic thing he's ever heard?

"I wouldn't say badgered." She scratches the back of her arm. "Perhaps...negotiated."

"Uh-huh." Hell, and he thought he was haunted. "Can I ask a question?"

She nods.

"I seem to remember Rygel knocking you out right before you blew your brains all over command." He pushes back the sound memory of bioloid parts hitting the deck, keeps himself on track. "What was that all about?"

It's not that she doesn't answer, because she does. But he can tell, no scratch that, he can see and smell and feel and frelling taste that she's discarded a few different answers before she finally gives one to him. "You have to understand, I was sick for nearly a monen by then. I wasn't myself."

He breaks eye contact and nods his head once. "Okay."

She stands there for a moment or two, then retrieves her bowl. "I'll take this back to the mess. Do you want to come with me?"

"No, I'm just waiting for data on some tests I've got running. I should go back and check on that."

"The Scarran ship."


"Anything so far?"

"I've got one theory left that the preliminary data hasn't trashed."

"That's good, then, it means you're right."

"Or close, yeah."

Having reached a bland and peaceable close, she turns to take her leave, but he can't keep the question from flying out of his mouth.

"Did he torture you?"

She stops, but only turns her head to say over her shoulder, "No. He did not." She pauses for a moment, while he waits for her to continue. Instead, she walks away.

Their new bedtime routine is to disarm and strip down in companionable silence. They save their words for cover of the dark, as if lying in bed in each other's arms is goal and they each hold their breath until it's safely reached.

John is the first to break the silence with a murmur. "What if you hadn't gotten sick? Would you still be with the renegades?"

Aeryn leans her back against his chest. "I had achieved my objective on that assignment. I had no more assignments and I desired none."

"You were leaving."

"I wasn't staying." She shifts the blankets from her body, a compromise to deal with the heat from his skin. "It wasn't what I wanted."

His hand paces the smooth line of her hip as he imagines her in the cockpit, talking to Crichtons who aren't there. Being rescued by the Scorpius who was. He keeps his voice delicate and neutral. "The thought of him taking care of you is monstrous."

"He employed technicians and nurses to care for me until the suit was replicated. After that, I was stable enough to travel and take care of myself."

"He just arranged everything."

She stills his hand on her hip. "He didn't harm me, John. From the time he found me, he did everything he could to help."

He rubs his face into the pillow, trying to block the sinister images, wanting to not care what price she paid for such sterling care.

Scorpius always sat before he spoke to her, coming down to the same level and resting his arm on the tub platform as if they were seated at the same table.

This time he also brought a fresh bowl of the mild congee the women had been feeding her, high energy but tasteless, meant for infants and invalids. "You will have the choice to leave soon, once your suit is complete."

He was so very gentle and dangerous. She was glad that she had nothing left of value in her care, nothing except her ghost, nothing that Scorpius could harm that wasn't already dying or dead. She had no weapons or strength, she wasn't even contagious. The fever was confined to her body and both would burn out soon. "Where are you taking me?"

He rotated the bowl so the spoon pointed at her. "You must eat or the fever will consume you."

"What do you want from me? You have to know I won't give you Crichton."

He turned to the pair of women sitting by the door. "Thank you, that will be all for now. Bring more ice in another arn." He watched them leave and then turned to her.

"I can't give you John Crichton. I do not know where he is."

"I am not asking you to compromise your loyalty to the human. What I require from you is sanctuary."

She gripped the smooth edges of the tub to keep from drowning in the ice water, peals of hoarse laughter bouncing off the hard laminate walls and knifing into her head. She couldn't stop herself. What sanctuary did he think she could offer? She recalled what she could of her rescue, his shouted orders obeyed by exiles and renegades. She pictured the squad of body-servants in his employ, and the technician diligently working on a cooling suit to make her mobile. The laughter made her chest ache.

Scorpius waited for her to fatigue, unaffected by the sound or the sentiment. The compassion in his voice chilled her mirth into despair. "Rest assured that if you do slip into an irreversible state, I will be merciful and swift. However, I do not plan on allowing that to happen. As long as you are kept cool you will not descend into the living death."

"What do you want from me?"

"Consolidation of resources, Officer Sun. You are a resource that I am not willing to see squandered." He punctuated his statement with an intake of breath and a faint smile. "And I believe we have much to learn from each other. But first, you must eat."

With a weightless kiss to the top of her head, her ghost settled in behind her. "Do what he says, baby, or you won't have the strength to fight."

The wooden slats of the park bench creak when John sits. "Nice meeting spot. Poisoning the pigeons?"

The gimp mask hides under the lowered brim of a fedora, and heavy boots with slim black ankles stick out of a trench coat the same color as the paper bag sitting next to him.

John looks out over the glassy water of the pond while Harvey slips his hand into the sack and scatters torn pieces of bread onto the grass. "You look like a flasher."

"Never mind him." Harvey murmurs to the ducks congregating by his feet. "He doesn't understand the benefits of subtle enticement."

"Okay, now you sound like a child molester."

The ducks methodically sweep toward the bench, picking the ground clean. "How are your negotiations with Officer Sun coming?"

"No suicide bombers yet. That's a good sign, right?"

"That doesn't sound like progress."

He contemplates the squat birds plucking bread from the grass. One of them waddles up and tugs on the lace of his boot. "It's taking time."

Harvey shakes his head as he reaches for more bread. "Nibbled to death by ducks."

"What? No, never mind. What's this meeting about, besides an excuse to play Cold War?"

"I'm giving them resources for their journey south. And suggesting to you that you do the same."

"Fatten up for winter?"

"Consolidate your resources. Namely, Officer Sun."

"I thought Aeryn was bad for me."

"She is." Harvey sighs, then inhales decisively. "She could also be a valuable ally, should you choose to bring her into your confidence."

"Works both ways." John shrugs off the sarcasm and tries to be fair. "It's a two way street, and we're both working to pave it."

"Exactly my point." Harvey crumples the paper bag and the ducks take their cue to wander over to the pond. "You've been playing tit for tat and it fills the arns while Moya communes with her pod. But you'll have to offer something substantial to Aeryn if you're looking to get more than a little tit in return."

"You're depraved."

"I am a citizen of my world. And I am correct." Harvey lifts a briefcase onto his lap, clicks open the latches and rummages inside.

Ducks glide onto the pond and shatter the glassy calm of the water. The ripples drift out to the far edge and echo back, muted and tangled with fresh waves from their paddling. Harvey taps John on the chest with a dossier.

John takes it. "What's this, plans for the H bomb?"

"You tell me." Harvey ponders the pond over the open case on his lap.

He opens the manila cover of the dossier. Surveillance photos.

Grainy black and white: black straps, white skin, silver metal, black blood. Glyphs on stone and on skin, Grayza's shrewd knife leaving scabs but no scars. The sharp musk of sex and fear, humiliation and the base need to be touched.

John bends the folder as he slams it shut, glossy photos spilling out like guts. "I don't kiss and tell."

Harvey slams shut the briefcase before John can throw the dossier back. "Think strategically, John. You didn't tell Aeryn about Arnessk because you didn't want to upset her, or cause her to act foolishly."

"Aeryn's no fool."

"Of course not." A breeze lifts the brim of the fedora and Harvey offers a one-sided smile. "She would never have upset the delicate shell game on Katratzi for a personal vendetta."

It's a warning, not a question. "What's your point, Harv."

"Perhaps she shares your concerns, and is trying to protect you from knowledge that would unnecessarily upset you."

"I'd rather know."

"Then raise the stakes." Harvey taps the dossier. "Besides, the incident on Arnessk is not your most pernicious secret."

John grips the manila folder and watches the ducks dive for food, leaving only their pointy bottoms above the water's surface. "I'm sure you've got a treasure trove in that briefcase."

Harvey locks the latches. "I haven't committed them to paper, John. No matter how ludicrous, fear is easily fed. I save my bread for the ducks." He stands, touches his brim, and walks up the path into the park.

Every time they pulled her from the tub for more than a quarter arn, her fever spiked and became more difficult to bring down, so the women adapted both Aeryn and the tub for long-term therapy. They coated her skin with a protective layer of sticky grease. They added a net seat inside the deep tub, which held Aeryn safely in the ice water no matter her disorientation.

They were constantly assessing her condition or adding ice to the tub, or making her eat. They plied her with food whenever she was coherent enough to swallow, not just congee anymore but oily nuts, sugary fruit, and nutrient dense food cubes.

Despite the attention and soothing words, Aeryn could feel her body consuming itself. Sometimes she ignored her ghost to listen to the fever instead, willing her body to surrender. It only made him louder and more solid, made his arguments for parley with Scorpius more persuasive.

With the approaching delirium she had little idea of time, but Scorpius visited often. The women always left the room now as soon as they reported their patient's condition.

He always brought a meal for her, and this time he waited for her to finish it before he began their conversation. "I know that you have a conception in stasis, and that you have declined to have it evaluated for fitness or reassigned for gestation."

Aeryn had been notified of the pregnancy during a med-eval on Scorpius' Command Carrier. She hadn't anticipated that they'd find anything important, and she realized too late that every detail would be logged and reported to Scorpius. She'd had monens to regret agreeing to that med-eval; to regret anyone, including herself, finding out about this seed that should have waited its seven cycles and quietly died.

To become accustomed to the idea of this potential life, and regret the fact that she wouldn't be able to see it grow. Watch the seed become a living shadow of one dead lover...or another. It was for the best. It was.

"I feel it is not an untoward assumption," Scorpius broke her reverie, "that you either suspect or are certain that it was sired by Crichton."

Reacting was too much work at this point, but the unexpressed anxiety wavered in the words she tried to make scornful. "That's ridiculous. You know he isn't Sebacean."

"But you are Sebacean, Officer Sun, and therefore have a certain genetic plasticity for hybridization." He studied her as he spoke. "Not that you would be aware about that aspect of your own biology. It's one of the more inflammatory secrets of High Command, knowledge a pilot would never be privy to, no matter how skilled."

A remembered sweetness on her tongue flavored the pasty aftertaste of congee. "Plasticity?"

With a breath he changed tack. "Do you know how I came to be?"

She set the bowl onto the tub platform, unable to finish the dregs. "I've heard the story."

"Which is?"

"Scarran damage the Sebacean bloodlines and breed a servant species."

"Nothing as complicated as that. My mother was a simple colonist, captured by the Scarrans and conscripted to their breeding program."

He leans back so only his fingertips rest on the edge of the platform. "When I say 'breeding program' I do not mean anything as progressive or scientific as Sebacean medical technology. The Scarrans believe in limiting their reliance on tech whenever possible." There is a faint smile, but it dissolves. "She was raped, and that was the only intervention necessary to cause my birth."

"I've heard about the Scarran taste for rape."

"In this instance, Peacekeeper indoctrination is unfortunately correct."

"Why aren't there more hybrids like you?"

"Scarran biology introduces complications during infancy that can only be surmounted at great expense."

"You're a prototype." The word is English but the concept seems to translate for him anyway.

"More precisely, an abandoned avenue of research." He inclines his head, considering. "The question remains, how are you aware that your conception could be a hybrid?"

She is outmatched, so she remains silent.

They've been taking their turns around mid-day, but today he's waited until late, the arn before her accustomed sleep cycle. The galley is deserted this late, only the two of them at a corner of the table, their mugs of hot chocolate, and the familiar flutter of apprehension. She sips at the chocolate, her tongue already scalded, and wills him to speak.

He leans over and lays a hot hand on the side of her neck. For a moment he simply looks at her, stroking the underside of her earlobe with his thumb. He tilts his head and the kiss is soft and darkly sweet, her tentative hand on his knee and his subtle tongue, thorough and slow. Savoring.

He prefaces bad news with a kiss, and she's learned to taste them. She barely feels the caress of his nose against hers, because the flutter has turned to fear.

He sits back. "On Arnessk, there was a situation."

She doesn't know if she's encouraging or stalling, or simply speaking to distract herself. "D'Argo mentioned there was a confrontation with the Peacekeepers when you met up."

"We ran into Grayza."

D'Argo hadn't told her about that. He hadn't mentioned Scorpius, either, but Aeryn hadn't called him on that omission because she didn't want to explain how she'd happened to know better.

"Her forces locked us down pretty quick. She threw the girls in a cell, didn't bother them, at least. D'Argo laid low. She was after me."

"She interrogated you."

"She worked on me. I told her a lot of small things...about Scorpius, and wormholes. Her methods were...effective. I began to tell her bigger things."

"I have been tortured." She says the only thing she can think of to say. "The body can only take so much, and it will break. There is nothing you could have done to stop yourself from breaking."

He is taut and still.

She sets her hand on his knee again, gripping firmly and pushing her own leg against his. "There is no shame in it, John."

He offers her a sick half-smile. "Information...wasn't the only thing she extracted from me."

The last time they had sex, Aeryn had taken her time and covered every dench of his body, tasting and learning him anew, as a different man. She had noted each similarity and variation, the scars she recognized and the ones that were new, or at least new to her.

She watches him drink the chocolate, throat working delicately as he swallows, contrasted by the muscular strength of his neck. She wonders how many of those new scars were inflicted by Grayza, what was sliced, or dug, or wrenched from him. Her abdomen tightens against the sharp memory of pain, against the terror of being laid open in front of her own eyes.

She forces air deep into her lungs to stretch against the tension. "How did she hurt you?"

"She didn't hurt me, Aeryn. She..." He pushes the empty mug away and his hesitation breaks. The rest comes out in a rapid fire that punches bitter and deep.

"She fucked me. Long and hard and over and over. And I wanted more of it. I told her things to please her so she'd let me touch her." The dark-rimmed blue of his eyes catches her, forces her to keep looking at him as he continues.

"She didn't torture me, Aeryn. She offered me a piece of ass and I sang like a fucking canary."

Aeryn's stomach aches with revulsion, but she keeps her eyes focused on him, lets him say his piece.

"She liked to talk wormholes in bed--or on the slab, rather, didn't matter to her since she liked to be on top--confession made her almost as hot as seeing blood." His voice is wry and methodical, and frayed around the edges.

"Just a trickle, nothing deep. She didn't want to mar me, just motivate me. The carrot and the stick, the nookie and the knife. I performed admirably. She told me I was one of her favorite pets." He breaks off his stare to snag his mug but it's empty. He releases it with a shake of his head.

"She gave me something...some pheromone...I didn't know about that part until later. It helped, some, knowing why I couldn't resist her. Not enough." He squints and scrubs his hand down his face. "I knew she was forcing me, but I couldn't stop myself from letting her. From wanting her to touch me, even if it was just with her knife."

Aeryn deeply regrets that she never had a clear shot on the Leviathan station. "She raped you."

His head tips back, eyes closed and face serene as if a storm has passed. "Yeah. She did."

Images rage through Aeryn's mind of those pallid hands on his skin, of Grayza kissing him, tasting him, hearing the hushed sounds he makes when he comes. She clenches her jaw so tightly that her molars squeak.

Him, wanting to please her.

Aeryn wants to scour him clean and make him only hers again.

Him, moving inside of her.

She is desperate to see Grayza's blood boil off in a cloud of droplets, freezing into the vacuum.

"At the end, I was the distraction while the rest of us worked the escape. The lakka cleared my head enough for me to leave." John scrapes his knuckle under his nose. "Comes from an inchworm on Arnessk."

Chiana told her that the lakka was John's story to tell, and Aeryn feels the heat of shame. She'd assumed that seeing her in the game had been the breaking point, had somehow pushed him to the drug. That the injuries he was medicating with lakka weren't as real or as dangerous as he imagined. She slides her nearly full mug of chocolate toward him.

"You pop it open and snort the guts. Sends you and the bug both to a better place." The sound he makes is a laugh in form only. "It's so Weekly World News if you think about it: Bug-juice saves horny astronaut from alien sexual slavery."

Humiliation and rage. She left him unprotected, and she allowed this to happen.

"Not quite an antidote for the heppel oil." He rakes his fingers through his cropped hair. "I was still hard for hours, I just didn't care."

"Heppel," Aeryn echoes, as the last piece of the story slots into place.

"Yeah, she had a gland on her--"

"I know what heppel is." She hears the edge in her voice and tempers it. "It's Special Directorate tech."

"They've got all the fun toys, it seems." He takes a long drink from her mug, presses his lips together to lick the chocolate off.

Aeryn lowers her eyes and shoves the images back, refuses to see the graphic details that play in her mind's eye.

He is damaged, and she can't help but feel responsible.

The silence had crept up like fog between them. Aeryn's color is off, too pale, the veins on her arms standing out like the grease mark on her forearm. She looks nauseous and John can't blame her for that. He drains the last mug, muddy at the bottom with cocoa silt.

She follows him to the sink and washes the other mug alongside him. When he shuts off the tap she asks, "What can I do?"

"Just..." He lets himself look her in the eye, and is relieved to find that her words aren't a gesture, but an acute need. "Take me home."

She lays her hand between his shoulder blades and steers him to his own quarters. The silence follows them, but she doesn't allow it to fester any further, she simply takes over. She pushes his vest from his shoulders and pulls his t-shirt over his head, then kneels down to take off his boots.

He watches her nimble fingers untie the laces, and lays his hand on her head, tracing the vulnerable furrow where her hair is parted. "What are you doing, Aeryn?"

She grabs each calf and takes his boots and socks, making him wobble and seek balance from a hand on her shoulder.

Barefoot, he pulls her up to face him. "I'm not in the mood f--"

"Shut up, John." Her brow is tight but her voice is quiet and gentle. She taps the pads of her fingers on his chest and ducks into his fresher. He hears the shower start up.

He leans in the doorway, idly scratching his belly, watching her strip down to her pale skin and primal grace. She reaches on the top shelf for a fresh bar of earth soap from his stash. Her breasts jostle hypnotically as she rips the bar from the paper and sets it in the shower alcove, her nipples quiescent and flat as her eyes are sharp.

He picks up the paper. Steam gathers in the room and curls the edges. The water must be human hot. "Ninety-nine and forty-four one hundredths percent pure."

"Shhhh." She grabs him by the belt and hustles him out of his pants and into the shower.

He's clothed in steam as he watches her detach the shower massager and adjust the setting to a lightly pelting spray. The water is hot enough that when she soaks him down his skin releases a chill in a wave of goosebumps.

She flashes a smile at him, her eyelashes darkened and tufted by the water, droplets jewelling her cheek. "How can you be cold in here?"

He tenses in a relaxing shiver. "I'm warming up." She rubs up from his elbow, across his shoulders and down, smoothing the skin down as she turns him around and bathes him in the water and heat.

She tips his head back and douses his hair, the water rushing on his scalp contained by her hand across his forehead. Once her charge is thoroughly soaked, she slots the showerhead back in place and clicks open the shampoo bottle.

She raises too much lather, filling the cubicle with a chemical sweetness that's supposed to be green tea and honey but reminds him of the candied ipsals that Jool brought back from LoMo. Her fingers work his scalp, uncovering a headache and then easing it with slow digging circles. She rinses the shampoo out in a wash of suds down his back, and after another click the fingers are back and the scent of ipsals is replaced by a fruitier smell of conditioner.

"Not enough hair to bother with that."

She whispers by his ear but the tone is firm. "I say there is." She presses her breasts against his back and slides her arms around him, wiping the conditioner through his chest hair. "More than enough. Hand me the soap."

He reaches for the bar and she leans with him. "Are you insinuating that I'm hairy?"

"Are you saying you're not?"

He holds the soap away from her hands but she doesn't wrestle or let go, just rests her hands on his chest and works her fingers like she did on his scalp. He sighs and she rests her cheek on his shoulder blade. "I'm pretty average for a white guy...but for a Sebacean, I'll grant you, I'm hairy."

He can hear her smile. "Doesn't matter."

"Not even if I shed all over the place and get burrs stuck in my fur?"

"We'll get a special brush like Bobby had for his dog."

It must be hot for her under the spray but she's molded to him. His voice is a rough whisper above the sound of water. "And brush me every day until my coat shines?"

She nods and kisses his back. His eyes sting as he hands her the soap, but when they part he soaks his head under the spray and chases that back. She soaps him up with a thoroughness that would be clinical if it weren't so strangely reverent.

She covers every square millimeter with her hands, with soap and water and her touch, and he knows what she's washing off, but the placebo effect still kicks in and makes him feel cleaner than all the scrubbing he's done since Arnessk. She's not playing fair, being gentle like this, and he can't stop his face and throat from clenching no matter how close he leans into the spray.

He refuses to compound the evening by crying in front of her. He gains leverage over the sob that wants to tear out of him by crushing his cheek between his teeth.

The steam flows out of the cubicle with them, but despite her wilted look she dries him off as well. She makes him bend so she can towel his hair, roughly like his mom used to do when he was small, memories of standing on the bathmat as she whipped the towel over his head and rubbed and shook and made him dizzy. He feels a little dizzy right now, too weary to struggle or think.

The cool air of his quarters revives Aeryn while it sedates him, and she's stripped and re-sheeted the bed seemingly in the space of a yawn. She pushes him into bed as easily as she throws a blanket over him. When she settles down on her side next to him he turns toward her, bending as he does to lay his head on her hip and cradle her hot naked thigh against his chest.

She stretches one arm along his back and fondles the short hairs at the nape of his neck.

Clean sheets, earth soap smell, warm skin. He is doomed.

Her fingers slip through his hair and caress the soft skin back behind his ear, achingly familiar.

She lets herself acknowledge that she came back to him because of these similarities, the things she missed so badly that were right in front of her face, his skin, his smell, his casual energy. The things she knew were hidden that she couldn't help digging for, his exuberance, his smile. There was no way to see him and not have those things for her own again.

John Crichton had never been a static thing, though, and he had changed while she had been away. This John is not the same as the first one she loved, he's not a ghost or an echo or a chance to recapture the past. She cups the nape of his neck, feels the hot pulse throb against her fingers, feels his chest draw breath against her legs, alive and precious and hers to protect.

*Her ghost knelt on the floor beside the tub, blue eyes and ruddy face the only color in the white tiled room. "Scorpy wants to make peace with John, take him under his wing. I still don't think he realizes how badly he blew his first impression."

"Do you think he'll keep his word?"

"Does it matter?" John shrugged. "Bastard'll be lucky to get a word in edgewise between the pulsefire."

"I could give him that chance. Not just allow him sanctuary, but keep him alive." She hooked her fingers in the netting of the seat, let her head fall closer toward where his elbow leaned on the tub edge. "Return the favor he's doing me."

"He still won't listen to Scorpius. He won't ever trust him."

A medtech hurried up and gently moved her head back, face well away from the water. John moved out of the woman's way, then sat on the platform edge.

"And I will still die of this fever."

He looked down at her. His fingertips caressed her face along the path of the water trickling from her hairline. "You'd make him watch you die?"

"It's only fair."

"Nothing about illness is fair, little love, but you're stronger than this fever." The medtech cupped a hand on Aeryn's shoulder, shocking hot and electric compared to the touch of her ghost. "We'll get you through this, just you see."

"Get back at me for leaving you in the lurch by doing it to him. Serves him right, huh?" Her ghost traced down her cheek with a ticklish thumb and offered a half smile. " 'Fuck you and everyone who looks like you'? Doesn't sound like much of a plan to me, babe."

The 'babe' had done it, the thought that she had been this soft precious thing to him and now that was gone, there was no one who would offer her any semblance of that protection, that caring. She'd crushed the last reserve of it before she had left. "I'm so tired, John."

"I know, Aeryn."

"You could probably use another meal, keep up your strength." With a firm pat to Aeryn's shoulder the medtech signaled her companion by the door and pulled a datapad from her pocket, setting off another round of vitals and food.

He moves behind her and whispers in her ear. "I know how tired you are, how much you want to rest. But you're still alive and that's better than dead. Things can change in an instant, always remember that."

"I don't need to be reminded."

"Yeah, you do. Things can always change, sometimes even for the better. You do what you can with what you have available, and when the change comes, embrace it. Ride it like a solar flare, babe. Get out of this tub any way you can, get safe, get healthy. Give Scorpy a chance to state his case if that's the price you have to pay for life. It's a small price, all things considered."

"You think that's all he'll want?"

"Nobody gets everything they want."*

Aeryn shifts John so that they lie on their sides. He moves with her in his sleep so that his head remains pillowed on her hip, her thigh clutched against his chest.

She's learning to accept the differences in this man, the places where they don't fit right, the ways in which he's off. The secrets and armor. The resentment that lingers. The cunning strategy that had not only sharpened while she was away but was now directed toward her, attempting to secure her while always testing her, making her prove that she's worthy of his trust.

And she sees that clever coldness for what it is, a manifestation of the same flexibility that drew her to him from the beginning. This is what he'd had to become to survive without her assistance. Why should he let himself need her? Why shouldn't he test her before he let any vulnerability slip?

You don't get medical care on the battlefield, you get first aid and hope you make it off the battlefield alive. You must survive your wounds before you can worry about healing them. Maybe he's finally been convinced that he's off the battlefield, that he's safe among comrades and friends.

He's certainly sleeping like a man who's been given a killshot. She shifts her legs and he rolls with her, snuffling and then settling with a sigh. No trace of the clever coldness that's angered her for monens, just clinging hands, human heat and the utter vulnerability of sleep.

Something like trust, at least.

*Assured of her cooperation, Scorpius left her in the care of the medtechs. Aeryn knew the drill from her lavatory breaks, and when the strongest of them stepped into the tub with her and pulled her up from the net seat, she had a leg lifted over the edge of the tub before they stopped her.

"No, little love."

"You're not quite through with the tub, yet."

"We need to clean your skin first."

She leaned hard against the strong medtech while the others skimmed the ice from the tub and removed the seat. The woman's arms wrapped around her from behind, her grip on Aeryn's forearms firm through the layer of protective balm.

She'd become so weak that the effort of standing taxed her breath. The other two women snipped through her thin white underclothes and gently scraped the excess sticky grease from her skin.

"There we are, now let's get this stuff off you." They cut through the rest of the balm with a cake of green soap, lathering her from head to foot and working as team to lower her down for rinsing. Aeryn was appalled at the sludgy water that was left in the tub when they were done.

Her fever was rising even as they hurried, drying her body and half-carrying her into the outer room. It was Scorpius's empty room, data sheets and a battered case neatly arranged on the stone table, the shape of his body pressed into the surface of the blankets on the cot. Aeryn knew she should observe as much as possible of whatever lay on the desk but she couldn't focus past the neat black pile of clothing next to the battered case.

Her suit. Her reward for capitulation. Her ghost sat on the bed, hands resting on the edge, clutching at the blankets that had never been turned down or used. "It's okay, Aeryn. All you've given him is a chance to be heard."

The medtechs dusted her down with a powder and began sheathing her sweltering body in the suit. The pieces were sectioned to slip over her curves and then fit closely once the seams were fastened. The suit was fashioned for the long-term, with armored joints and clever seams for elimination.

"Look at her coloring."


Wherever the suit touched her skin, which was nearly everywhere, it drew off the heat even better than the ice water had. She was able to stand on her own. The strong medtech gently coiled her long wet hair and tucked it under the cap.

Her brain cooled and she watched her ghost disappear. She wondered where the living man was, and how she would ever convince him not to kill her rescuer on sight.*

Aeryn did convince him, and she is still paying the price for that favor. His hair is nearly dry as she slips her fingers through it, cool and silky, curling at the neck. She should have joined him in sleep arns ago but instead she stays awake and watches him.

She could never have told the first John about Scorpius if he hadn't been with her, her fever ghost, talking her out of her imprisonment in the cooling tub.

This Crichton, this John...she may be able to tell him. She may have to tell him. How long will they be kept in reserve? They both need to be prepared for what may come.

A wave of loss hits her in the stomach and burns in her eyes. If she does tell him, she will be trusting this John more than she did the first. Not because of opportunity or time, but because he is more capable of dealing with the information. He is able, while the other was not.

It's a pleasant routine that's designed to take her mind off the Diagnosan waiting for her, and on a good day it works for arns at a time.

First, there's sex.

D'Argo straddles the bench behind her, the shilquin balanced across their parallel thighs as she strums, and he helps her with some of the tunings that she can't reach.

The reverberating ending of this song had been a right keedva to learn, but Chiana finally plays it perfectly.

D'Argo slides his bare hands over hers, their gloves tossed aside into the open instrument case. "You play as well as I do."

She grins and pokes him with her elbow. "Liar. My hands are too small for half of the ai'lo positions."

"We can fix that."

"I like my hands the way they are."

"I would never change your hands." He purrs into her ear and sends a shiver down that whole side of her body. He can play her body as well as she can his. "I'm going to build you an ilquin."

She slides the instrument down to the floor and runs her hands back up his legs, smiling at the catch in his breath when she finds what she's looking for. "So, what's an ilquin?"

"An ilquin i-is the traditional stringed instrument and it was oh...only when Luxan warriors became civilized and men learned to, men began playing it you see and it became..."


His hand is technically too big to fit into her pants with her, but he's dexterous and motivated and the fastener loses the battle. "Mmmmm, yes. It became bigger, became the shilquin."

She turns and slides down onto her knees, draped over his lap while her fingers loosen the strained fastenings of his pants. "Tell me about when you learned to play."

"Well, ahhh...let's see--" He sucks in a breath when she frees him with a squeeze.

"I don't hear you..."

"I was given my first, ahh, shilquin whe--"

"Not music. Sex." She emphasizes with an introductory lick. "Tell me how you learned to frell, D'Argo."

His fingers caress her cheek as he blushes. "Why?"

"Because you're very good." Flutter, lick. "I'm curious." Flutter, lick. "And I want to listen to you talk about frelling while I..." She takes him in her mouth and hums the rest of what she was going to say.

He rumbles, "Woman, you're going to kill me," and darkens to the very shade of his mivonks, but does his level best to comply.

After a rewarding morning of swapping lessons in music and talking dirty, she gets her ass kicked by Aeryn in the exercise room. If it's a bad Zola day, the sparring is half-hearted and ends with Aeryn having a crying jag while Chiana holds her.

If it's an awful Zola day, the sparring is brutal, and ends with Chiana crying while Aeryn tends any injuries.

She's mellow when Chiana arrives in the exercise room, the only wetness on her cheeks the sheen of sweat. Chiana removes her boots and gloves, and begins to stretch, pressing her palms and soles against the Peacekeeper carpet and rolling her spine in every direction.

"You're late." Aeryn barrages the padded post with a smooth series of open handed slaps. "So I started without you."

Chiana leans back, rolling upwards through the belly and setting her hands on the floor behind her.

Aeryn pads over to the practice mat. "I've never watched you warm up before. I'd ask you to teach me that but I think I'd injure myself."

"Doesn't stop me from coming here, does it?"

"If you think I'm rough with you, you didn't see the bruises I gave Crichton when he started training."

"Yeah, but you don't want to frell me, so there's no need to beat the dren out of me to prove otherwise."

"You're too perceptive for your own good, you know that, right?"


"Now we just need you to use that in your sparring."

Next comes her shift on the command deck. She monitors the now mundane wormhole, watches the leisurely couplings of the pod ships saying goodbye to Moya, plays tadek with Stark if he's there.

Rygel's using the communication link on the console farthest from where she sits with Stark, but they've made a mutual silent pact to eavesdrop. "Our Leviathan has nearly completed her ceremonial leave taking, and we look to commence our journey to you in the next three or four solar days. Our Pilot estimates our arrival within one weeken, at the most two."

"That is excellent news, sir." The static in the connection doesn't mask the clear tones of Rygel's new friend or the giddy interest in her voice. "I do so look forward to meeting you in person and deepening our friendship. We do not receive as many visitors here as I would wish, and someone of your calibre and accomplishments is quite rare indeed."

"You are too kind, dear lady. It's my sincere wish to live up to your estimation."

"I would request of you one small favor, if you would oblige me?"

"You have only to ask."

"Please, I would wish you to call me by my given name."

"I am honored, Nelet." Rygel's smile is so big it can be felt in the very air. "I would be very pleased if you would return the favor, and call me Rygel."

Nelet's response, tinkling through the white noise, could only be described as a giggle. Stark's gaze meets Chiana's over the stacked towers on the tadek board. She bites her lip and slides her delegation piece forward.

"Rygel." She tests the name on her tongue and the Hynerian chuckles. "If I may ask, what is the meaning of the name, 'Rygel'?"

"It is an honorable name that came down from my ancestors, and it means 'wise'--" Chiana closes her eyes. She will have all the time in the world to laugh later, but she just can't miss flirtatious Rygel. He continues, "And Nelet means...?"

"The reference of my name is rather complex."

"Go on, my dear."

"On the original homeworld of my people, there is a certain prey animal that lays delicious lipid-rich eggs, very luxurious and rare now that we've expanded from the place of our species' birth."

"A delicacy?"

"Yes, a delicacy. And the word we use to describe the succulence of this particular treasure is 'nelet-u'.

"Your name, then, means?"

"Rare, treasured, and creamy."

Stark lowers his head until the mask taps against the table. Chiana bites her lip so hard she tastes blood.

At the end of the day she winds down, watching TV in John's room. Sometimes he even joins her, sitting cross-legged at the head of the bed while she lounges across the foot of it.

The movie isn't keeping her attention, so she lowers the volume and rolls away from the TV to look at him, propping her head up on one elbow. "Noranti says you two are in mediation."

There's a long squeak from the pen he's using to color on the papers in his lap. He must have run out of blue ink because this one is green. "Yeah."

"So, uh, what's it like?"

He shrugs, pauses to squeak another green line before he turns the page. "It's marriage counseling from a seven hundred year old loon with an herbal fetish."

She nudges his leg with her foot. "Come on, I'm curious. She's always on about the important treaties she's bargained, you know. I figure two people is a good test, right? How's it coming?"

He sighs and caps the pink pen, sets the papers on the floor in a neat stack. "I told Aeryn about Grayza."

Chiana sits up. "Everything?"



"Last night."

Chiana wonders what kind of explosion would account for the calm Aeryn she sparred with that afternoon. "So, how'd she take it?"

"Surprisingly well."

His tone is a more deceitful calm, and she can't help digging. It's what they do to each other, beat out the truth when necessary. "What? You wanted her to be more upset?"

"No, she was upset all right. But she handled it well."

"So that's good, right?"


"Why doesn't it sound good when you say it?"

He rolls his neck and finally looks at her. "We've got a deal, I show her mine, she shows me hers. Eventually, there aren't supposed to be any secrets left."

"Twit for twat."

His face twitches and he clears his throat. "Yeah. Something like that."

"So what's the problem?"

"Today was her turn." He blinks slowly and the story tells itself.

"She didn't tell you anything important, at least nothing like what you told her."

"She gave me a box of albums from Earth. Olivia gave them to her for me. Family photos."

"Not much of a secret."

He combs his fingers through his hair and then scratches his scalp hard, eyes scrunched. "Maybe she just needs some time to process it, I don't know."

"So now you think this mediation is a bad idea, that you'll spend all your deep dark twits but you won't get any of her super secret twats, just a whole lot of squat."

The sound is explosive, somewhere between a catastrophic pressure leak and a bark, and Chiana's backed half way off the bed before she realizes that he's laughing.

She smiles with him, but doesn't get it. "What?"

His face reddens as he howls and pants with it, and she can hear an edge to it that isn't laughter. She stands next to the bed, looking down at him and wondering if a fit like this is safe for an old man. "Come on, pink boy, share it. What's so funny?"

He manages to force words out on a series of hoots, something about Nebari accented English, words that sound alike, and homosexuals.

"I get that first part, my English sucks." She's losing patience. "But if two words sound alike, doesn't that make them the same word? And what does any of that have to do with your hang-up about men frelling men?"

She lunges back as he rolls right off the bed, curling into a ball on the floor like someone who's been thoroughly mugged. She tries to shrug off the resentment of being made such fun of, thinking that probably the universe is getting even with her for listening to Rygel's long-distance courtship. Sometimes she hates the universe.

John is a shaking red mess, wheezing with laughter, his face wet with tears. She crouches down and wipes his cheek.

Salty as well, but different from Aeryn's. Smoother somehow. She wonders what accounts for the difference in taste: species, gender, or emotion? "Old man?"

He rolls onto his back, chest heaving to catch his breath. "I'm sorry, Chi, I just--" he pants through a fresh wave of laughter. "Damn, I needed that."

"Glad to oblige." Her nod is sarcastically gracious as she stands and heads for the door.

"No, wait, wait." He forcibly sobers and pushes himself up off the floor. "Chiana."

She stops in the doorway, arms crossed and hip cocked to the side.

"Here, I'll make it up to you." There's a scrape and a fluttering sound but she doesn't turn around. "I'm sorry I laughed like that, it wasn't at you--"

She gives him a blank look.

"Okay maybe it was, but it's not that bad--I'll explain it later, just, here." He shoves a large open book into her hands.

Both pages are filled with images of a little yellow-haired human boy about the size of a Vorc. The flat two-D holos inside are faded and dirty looking.

"Aeryn gave me a crate of albums this morning, it was supposed to be a wedding present, but, you know..." He rubs his nose with a sniff. "Olivia made copies of every album she could find. I'm not sure why she gave them to Aeryn to give to me instead of doing it herself, but..."

The book itself is covered with tanned animal skin. Such a low-tech memento compared to a life-disc, but more permanent in the end. Her last token of Nerri was a ghostly holoimage she couldn't touch, carried on a data chip long lost. She leans back against John because she can.

He rests one hand on her shoulder and works the other arm around her to point at the book, a series of images where the little boy is playing with a slightly larger girl. "That's my sister Susan. Turn the page."

She does, and finds closer shots of the little Susan painting the little John's face with colors that are still garish despite the fading of the holos. "Cosmetics?"

"She was dressing me up for a tea party. Those were mom's heels."

Chiana snickers at an image of the painted boy sitting at a tiny table surrounded by fuzzy toy animals. He's yelling or singing, eyes bright underneath the sparkly green eye shadow, a beaded bracelet emphasizing the chubby wrist. "You made a cute little girl!"

He pats her shoulder and wanders over to shut down the entertainment equipment. "And I'm man enough to take that as a compliment."

She turns the page and finds the little boy, again in mid-sentence or song, standing in a bathtub and pointing at something out of the frame. "That's the tiniest little pinok I've ever seen! It's adora--"

"Give me that--"

By evening, John's decided to take the initiative. He strides into her workshop with a flat round of bread and a thermal cup of soup, a little snack for her in case they're too engaged to make it to dinner.

Aeryn sets her tools aside mid-task, pulls the cover off and sees the small chunks of veggie food cubes and real meat he'd added to the broth. He meets her inquiring look with a smile and pulls a spoon out of his ammo pocket.

"Thank you."

"You're welcome." Her energy and health seem mostly recovered, but her sleep is still rough and her endurance wears thin at this time of day. There's nothing he can do for the sleep except murmur at her until she settles down. During the day, there's even less for him to do for her, but he tries anyway.

She doesn't cry in front of him about Zola. She cries with Chi. He doesn't press her. He watches her eat, reassured by the warmth it brings to her cheeks.

She brushes the crumbs into the empty cup, covers it, and wipes the spoon with a clean corner of polishing rag. "A secret, a question or a dare."

"Today, I have a question."

Her eyebrows lift in a prodding gesture.

"You've explained how you met up with Scorpius."

She interrupts him. "He saved my life."

"He kept you from dying." He swallows the rest, that it was her friends who saved her. He didn't pack a picnic lunch for a fight. He came here to clear the air and for that, he needs to remain calm. "I get that, though. You were seriously ill, delirious, non compos mentis. What I don't get," he paces himself with a smooth breath, "and what I need you to explain, is why you brought him on board."

From the tone of her voice he's already tripped her defenses. "Moya and Pilot allowed him on board."

"You know--" If he was smart he'd back off and try again, but he's getting awfully sick of this hair-splitting, "I bet they wouldn't have done that if Scorpy showed up on their doorstep all by himself."

Her eyes drift down to look at nothing in the middle space between them.

He takes another pacing breath and recovers his calm. He can still smell the Tabasco and sweet grated riffit he'd added to her soup. "I need to know why you trusted him, Aeryn."

"How were you so sure that he hadn't changed, that he didn't want to?" She flares and rises to her feet. "How could you be so sure?"

"He. Tortured. Me. Aeryn. How could you expect me to forgive and forget?"

Her voice wavers but her chin is defiant. "Crais forgave me."

"Fine." John wipes his face and takes a moment to let his heart-rate slow. "Just tell me how he convinced you."

"Ask me something else, for now." Her voice is flat, distracted, and she paces away from him. "Anything else."

"No." He strides after her, unable to coax the anger down a third time. "We both agreed to play this damned game and I've played fair so far. Now it's your turn, Aeryn."

"Fine." She hits her comm and cruises for the door. "Pilot, where is Noranti?"

Pilot answers. "She is in her quarters."

"Thank you."

"Where are you going?" John's right behind her.

"A secret, a question or a dare, that's the deal I made."

"Fuck that, Aeryn." He grabs her arm and turns her to face him. "I've told you everything. Now it's your turn."

"I choose this." She shakes his hand off and continues walking.

He dogs her heels, sullen and pissed at himself.

Noranti's hand slips into a pocket hidden in the folds of her skirt, and comes out with a leather drawstring pouch. "Take her weapon and yours, and set them in the corridor. Lock the door."

Aeryn holds her pistol out to John but he doesn't take it.

"You don't have to do this."

She looks at him, expression open and frank.

Yes she does, because he's forced her to it, pushed the issue before she was ready. If she'll ever be ready.

Noranti prods at the stalemate. "Take her weapon, John."

Aeryn shakes the butt of the pistol at him.

Maybe she'll never be ready to come clean with him, but apparently she's ready for this. He stows the guns out in the hallway, hers and his, and locks the grill door.

Noranti poises powdery fingers in front of her mouth.

Aeryn squares her shoulders and nods.

The pixie dust flies and hits Aeryn like a punch in the face. She reels and gasps, the heels of her hands digging into her eyes.

John reaches out to steady her but Noranti knocks his arms down. He grits his teeth at the old woman and she holds up a warning finger. He settles for a verbal check. "Aeryn, are you okay?"

She blinks in his direction, swaying on her feet.

Noranti takes advantage of Aeryn's off-balance stoop to pull her down close and whisper into her ear. "See deeper."

Her response is a fervent, "Frell." Her eyes have gone wide and watery pink, and he wonders what she sees.

"See further."

"You." Tears well in her eyes and the keening pitch of her voice makes his hair stand on end. "How could I forget?"

"Listen." Noranti is bearing most of Aeryn's weight, and she eases them both to the floor. John kneels down to the same level but Noranti's glare warns against reaching out to Aeryn.

She clings to Noranti with one arm, but seizes John with her stare. Tears spill when she shakes her head, and he can't tell if they're frustration, grief, or rage. "I still love you," her voice is ragged and fierce, "and it still hurts."


"Not as sharp. Not as often. And I'm so sorry." She holds back the sobs but they mangle her words. "Our daughter was beautiful."

John grabs a handful of Noranti's collar but his words are cut off by Aeryn grabbing his own t-shirt and yanking him close. His chest hurts from the hairs that are also buried in her fist, but his eyes were stinging already.

Noranti hisses,"Do not break the dream state," but it's Aeryn's glare that pins him, and her words that dissect him.

"Yes, I loved him because he was you." She swallows but her throat doesn't clear, it closes around the hard shapes of the last words. "He's not."

She shakes with the sobs but doesn't cry out and doesn't let go of his shirt. He's rocked forward on his kneecaps and has to brace with a hand on the floor to shift to a position less painful. He cups one hand around her fist.

He reaches his other hand to touch her face but she flinches away, and her eyes squeeze shut.

"No." John sits back on his heels, cradling her fist in both hands. Her knuckles are like iron and his only choice would be to rip himself from her like a band-aid, leaving shirt and chest hair in her grip. "No, he's not the same guy."

"I tried to make him but he can't be..." She buries her face in Noranti's shoulder and the words come out broken into pieces, punctuated like an overheard phone conversation. "You left and you can't be hurt no matter what I do, or who I frell, or who...I don't need your frelling permission...or your forgiveness..."

You're a jealous bastard the both of you, and she's cheating on a dead man to be with you. John presses her fist tight against his chest, feels it squeezing around his heart.

She whips her head out of Noranti's embrace and wrenches John so close he can only see her whacked out eyes and a few stars in his vision from his depilated chest. "I did and I do. And that has nothing to do with him."

What did he look like in the kitchen, staring at nothing while he watched his bride die? Gibbering at phantoms while all the fantasies that had sustained him were ripped out by the roots.

He's desperate to soothe her and he's worried that it's not only impossible but unwise. That she needs this, perhaps, no matter how gratuitous and cruel it seems from the outside. "Whatever it is, it's okay."

"New strategy." Aeryn's whisper is cracked. "Everything is different now. Every one and every thing."

"See your path."

Aeryn's lashes flutter, unsettling at this proximity but not as distressing as when her eyes roll back and she falls limp, pulling both of them to the ground with her.

"Granny, so help me God--"

Aeryn twitches back with a laugh and a million mile stare.

Noranti spares him a nervous glance as she coos at Aeryn. "See your path."

He is going to smother that old woman with her own hair when this is over.

Aeryn pulls on his shoulder and lurches to a stand, knocking Noranti on her ass. She takes off running.

His fingers graze her boot as he stumbles to his feet after her, but she's already keyed the lock open and is slipping through a crack in the doorway as soon as the grill starts to rise. She blows right past the paired guns on the floor and keeps running, ponytail flying out behind her.

"Lock these up in case she comes back this way!" he shouts at Noranti as he jumps over the pile, picking up speed in pursuit.

Aeryn weaves through corridors, her boots barely hitting the ground as she runs, all her energy channeled to forward momentum.

"Hold on, woman!"

"Hurry!" she shouts back over her shoulder, her arms braced as if she had a pulse rifle ready in her hands.

Loose cannon. "Aeryn!"

They approach a bend in the corridor and he closes the gap between them, aiming to tackle her against the outer wall of the curve.

Just short of the curve, she stops on a dime and spins, grappling his arms and using his inertia to swing them around and crash them both hard against the floor.

He gasps, "Aer--"

She claps her hand over his mouth and presses him down with her body. She says in the barest whisper, "Shut up." She cranes her neck to peer around the bend in the corridor then reports into his ear. "He's here. Are you sure your plan will work?"

Her hand would muffle any reply so he shakes his head.

"SNAFU, then. Right, let's go." She licks his earlobe and pushes up from the floor, but he holds her fast.

Noranti said not to break the dream state. If he was sure it wouldn't harm her he'd do it anyway, but he doesn't know, he's only been on the inside of it before, so he plays along. He meets her puzzled look and whispers, "What are we doing, Aeryn?"

"Here it comes." Her eyes are rose and indigo, and her ponytail spills over her shoulder onto his face.

He spits the hair out of his mouth. "What?"

"Hold on tight!" Her pupils twitch wide open and she arches her back against his embrace while the whole ship rolls around him and drops--

The scent burns in his head. He's grown so used to the slow pulse of it, regular as an atomic clock, that he hadn't paid attention the build up or the pop.

Moya is inside the wormhole.

"She's following Binok!" The excitement in Aeryn's face is a funhouse mirror of the fear surging through him. "We'll be there soon!"

Binok's the matriarch Leviathan, the leader of a pod of ships that treat their local wormhole nexus like a subway system--he squeezes his eyes shut and prays that Binok's driving is enough of a loophole to see them through safely.

Aeryn's struggling against his grip, eyes fevered.

He doesn't dare release her, so he cranes up and nudges her comm with his chin. "Hey Captain, everything okay up there?" He needs reinforcements.

"Don't worry, John." D'Argo's calm voice transfixes Aeryn, and she ceases to struggle in his arms. "Pilot reassures me that the Leviathan we're following is very familiar with the wormhole system, and this will cut down our travel time considerably without taxing Moya with starburst."

The swishing of skirts and footfalls heralds Noranti, coming around the bend like the cavalry. In a swoop she crouches down and blows a second cloud of powder at Aeryn.

The old woman has great aim, but Aeryn's violent flinch flicks the surplus right into John's eyes.

Aeryn falls limp onto his chest, the crack of her forehead slamming the floor next to his ear echoing with the blow of the drug hitting his brain. In the heartbeat of consciousness before he follows her down, John hears his own "shit" paired with Noranti's faded "oops".

D'Argo stands captivated by the sight on the view screen, as Moya chases Binok down a funnel of liquid blue. Tunnels branch out in every direction, but as much as he peers and cranes, there's no way to see down them before they whip past. He knows it's an empty superstition, but he always keeps a lookout for Zhaan.

"She sparkled this color, in the sunlight." Stark sits slumped on a bench. "When there was sunlight for her."

D'Argo lets a proper silence pass, then turns to look at Stark. "I miss her, too."

From this angle the edge of the mask frames the flesh of his face, and the divot between his bottom lip and chin is pronounced. D'Argo's always found the truncated chin of non-Luxans strangely endearing, the way it emphasizes the mouth and leaves the neck bare. The vulnerable simplicity of it still strikes him at odd moments like this, seeing Stark's stub of a chin tremble and his lips purse.

D'Argo sits down on the bench next to him and places his arm across the man's shoulder. "This blue is too cold. She was a warmer shade."

"Yes." Stark takes a cleansing breath while D'Argo pats him gently. "Her soul was brilliant green, and it shone through."

D'Argo is saved from finding an answer for that peculiar statement by the activation of his comm.

"Hey Captain," John sounds anxious and out of breath, probably running toward Command, "everything okay up there?"

"Don't worry, John." D'Argo tears his eyes away from the brilliant blue hole in space. "Pilot reassures me that the Leviathan we're following is very familiar with the wormhole system, and this will cut down travel time considerably without taxing Moya with starburst."

"I expected to see him when I came into Command." Stark tilts his head as Moya banks to follow Binok through a tight turn. "I wonder what's keeping him away?"

"John, where are you? You should see this."

There's a shuffle and a muttered 'shit' from D'Argo's comm.

"John?" D'Argo rolls his eyes at Stark, but the Banik's worried expression brings him up short. "John?" No answer. "Shit."

If you squint, the ceiling almost disappears in the haze and looks like a humid summer sky. The lake, however, only has waves when the advanced terrestrial commando classes are in session. They can even make it rain or snow, for training purposes, but the default is mild sunshine and a calm breeze as the atmosphere is pumped through the immense chamber for a final scrubbing with photosynthesis and mild ultraviolet light.

John wonders if the park was grown inside the ship or transplanted whole. There's lake weed and fish in the water, part of the simple ecology of the huge terrarium, with touches of realism for training. There's a huge ancient stump on the slope, the smooth surface of the laser cut that felled the tree is beginning to splinter and rot, and tiny orange ears of fungus have sprouted in places where the shaggy bark is shaded from the sunlamps overhead.

The putt-putt is new.

Harvey hands him a black-handled putter and a black golf ball, and John follows him to the first hole.

It's a water hazard. The tee is framed by a pitted chunk of pumice and a large polished boulder of marble. The sunken basin that blocks the way to the flat green beyond is as shallow as a kiddie pool. Hidden jets swirl the water in a vortex.

The pooka shifts his pant legs up as he crouches down to set the tee, the rosy plaid of his short pants hugging his legs unflatteringly.

"Putt-putt part of the training now?"

"Revenge..." Harvey places his bright orange and pink ball on the tee and stands, lining up the shot with deliberation, "...and protection...are two sides of the same coin."

"For you. Not for me."

"Perhaps." Harvey chips the shot over the swirling water hazard and onto the green. "Ahhh."

"Nice shot."

"Thank you." Harvey turns the smile toward John and it fades. "Your turn."

John re-sticks the tee and sets his ball atop it. The white circle and black 8 stare back up at him, so he turns the ball so it looks like the symbol for infinity instead.

Harvey clearly enunciates his murmur like a golf announcer. "You sneer at the idea of being motivated by retribution, yet you let that same emotion blind you to the real advantages that a limited alliance with the Peacekeepers can offer."

John sets one of his feet on the chunk of pumice and lines up his shot. "There are no limited alliances with Scorpius."

"There is also no way for you to avoid all contact, nor should you wish to. The Council pardons you obtained on Katratzi cannot be revoked."

John chips the ball easily over the water and onto the green.

There's a little rock path along the side of the whirlpool that leads to the green, and Harvey follows John over. "When someone of Grayza's rank is...forced into retirement...exciting opportunities present themselves. Through Scorpius you have access to unprecedented benefits from the Peacekeepers."

"I don't want anything from him. Take your shot."

Harvey sighs, and perfunctorily putts before continuing. "You already enjoy the security of his patronage. You hold the key to a tool for which there is great need, even if it is never used."

John clears his throat.

"He cannot wrest it from you, he needs your cooperation."

John gestures to the cup with his eyes but Harvey's intent stare doesn't budge. "Dude, it's your theme park, keep on top of it."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Kindly remove your ball from my hole." John blinks and bares his teeth in a smile. "I wanna play putt-putt."

Harvey narrows his eyes, but plucks his parti-colored ball from the cup.

John calibrates his shot. "No more deals, Harvey."

"The deal's already made, John. You made it on Katratzi when you let Scorpius keep his brain inside his skull. You sealed it in good faith when you gave him back to the Peacekeepers. Nice shot."

"Thank you." John ambles over a little Japanese bridge to the next hole.

"You know, deep down inside, that as odious and malevolent as you like to think him, Scorpius is necessary to the survival of the Sebacean species. And you have already cast your lot with the Sebaceans as your posterity."

"Leave my kid out of this."

"As if you'll stop at just the one. I know what you dream about, after all."

"Wish fulfillment ain't got nothing to do with the real world." John tosses the club to readjust his grip and scouts the second hole.

"They're piled like a litter of sleeping ebbets." Chiana skips backward as she leads D'Argo and Stark to the spot. "Right in the middle of the corridor."

"Do you know what happened to them?"

"Wrinkles was with them, she says it isn't anything to worry about."

"That woman is a curse."

"D'Argo, you know those two need to sort their dren out--Granny's just trying to help in her own way."

"Hallucinogens do not qualify as assistance."

"Well at least she's trying."

"I've said it before and I will say it again: 'do not stand on the ground between a mated pair'. If I thought I could help either of them, Chiana, I would."

"Have you offered to help?"

"They do not want my advice."

"You could just listen. You could absorb some tears here and there. You could smack their heads together until they start thinking straight."

"It doesn't work like that."

"Since when? Since you became Captain? Or since they got hitched?"

"I'm not going to impose where I do not belong."

"Wait a microt--is this some weird Luxan territorial thing?"

"Oh! You're here!" Noranti grabs D'Argo's arm and pulls him the rest of the way. "I think she got a little bump on the head but she's too heavy for me to move."

They are indeed sprawled atop each other like sleeping ebbets, and when D'Argo rolls Aeryn off John and onto her back, the head injury is obvious from the amount of blood smeared between her, John and the floor.

Chiana sucks her breath in sympathy while Noranti's voice takes on a wheedling defensive pitch. "I'm sure it's worse than it looks."

"I certainly hope so." Stark gently kneels beside the pair, wiping blood from skin with his sleeve. It only takes a few moments to assess the mess.

John's bloody and unconscious, but unhurt, and Aeryn's only injury is a small gash on the forehead. She probably hit it just right when she collapsed, splitting the skin like a ripe prowsa.

D'Argo counts to ten as he absently scrubs his hand on John's shirt. In full control of himself and the situation, he begins. "What happened?"

"We were doing a guided vision, but she runs much faster than I do."

D'Argo reminds himself that strangling Noranti will solve nothing.

"Did she kill them?" Rygel approaches, slows to a putter and drops lower to inspect the pile of bodies in the middle of the corridor. He rises sharply up to eye level with Noranti. "Did you kill them?"

"Why would I do that? All life is precious."

Rygel feints toward her, but she holds her ground.

Stark looks up from where he's pressing the bundled end of his sleeve against Aeryn's head. "Now that the bleeding's stopped I think I can see bone. We need to stitch this up."

As soon as she opens her mouth, D'Argo stabs a preemptory finger at Granny, "You are not touching her."

Chiana blanches. "Well I'm not doing it."

"I could--"

"I forbid it!" Rygel swoops between Aeryn and Stark, teeth bared. "I wouldn't let you darn a sock, you fumbling--"

D'Argo speaks over the hubbub in his cool Captain voice. "I will tend the injury, Rygel."

Rygel winds his sentence down but keeps close to Aeryn.

"Stark, help me carry her to my room, I have a medkit there."

Aeryn walks slowly up the corridor, right thumb hooked on her gunbelt so her fingers brush against the holster. What was she investigating? She can't quite recall.

"There you are!" Zhaan comes up from behind and takes Aeryn's left arm, threading graceful blue fingers with hers and cradling the arm against her soft caftan. She smiles at Aeryn and a look of concern crosses her face. "Aeryn, are you feeling too warm?"

"Warm?" Aeryn follows her gaze and sees that the zip on her green shirt is down nearly to her navel, exposing a great deal more than she's comfortable with. She pulls the tab up to a decent level. "Must have slipped down."

"No matter. Everyone else is waiting."

"For what?"

"For you." Zhaan leads her through a doorway and into what should be a docking bay. Instead, the bay holds a recreation deck. Zhaan takes a deep breath. "That's much better."

Aeryn relaxes as well under the influence of the green surroundings and freshened air. "What are we here for?"

"Your disciplinary hearing." Zhaan gives her a bemused look. "Are you sure it's not too hot here for you?"

Aeryn follows Zhaan's glance and feels her face redden. She jerks the zip back up past her breasts. "It must be broken."

"It doesn't do what you want it to do." Zhaan draws her toward a group of people gathered around a huge tree stump. "That doesn't mean that it's broken."

Aeryn's sharp reply aborts before takeoff. The gathering around the stump consists of a handful of Johns and Aeryns, and with her arrival they'll be evenly matched.

"Easy, love." Zhaan tugs her forward again. "It's a curious human custom, but one you've heard about before--a jury of your peers."

The chair is half-scale, and the pace of rotation is leisurely. Two grooves lined with astroturf curve across the platform; one running from between where the chair legs are bolted, out to the side; the other from under the brain monitor out to the other side.

John holds the golf club down along his leg, spinning the handle idly in his grip as he ponders the speed of the spin and plots the trajectory of his ball. "Ultimate weapons are always used, Harv."

"Then you must choose--who do you want to wield it?" Harvey gave up all pretense of golfing a few holes back when his putter broke. Instead, he's been following John like Jiminy Cricket the Caddy. "You continue to work on refinements and consequential phenomena--if you really wanted to protect the universe from madmen, you would've blown our brains against a wall ages ago."

"I tried." John drops the ball onto the grass and waits for the platform to turn to the proper position. "You wouldn't let me."

"I stayed your hand because you have a role to play in the salvation of the Sebacean race..."

Harvey stops, and they both watch as the ball mounts a shallow grassy curb and plops onto the platform underneath the diminutive brain monitor. It rolls casually along the groove of astroturf like a grenade, its final destination changing as the chair slowly spins.

It was a delicate thing, giving the ball enough kinetic energy for the journey while still getting the timing slow enough so it wouldn't end up right back where it came from.

The ball doesn't have quite enough oomph to make it over the curb a second time. It rolls back under the brain TV and John swears under his breath.

Harvey picks up his harangue where he left off. "You have a unique ability, John and with it comes a responsibility--"

"Were you sleeping when I was shanghaied by Einstein? My responsibility is to refrain from fucking things up."

Harvey follows him onto the platform, which looks more like a merry-go-round now that two grown men are aboard. "Duty is never satisfied by inaction, John, only by courageous deeds."

"I have no courageous deeds, Harv," John uses the toe of his boot to nudge the ball over the curb and onto the green, "only damage control."

The four Johns and three Aeryns are all dressed differently, and some of them are older than others. The youngest John, dressed in a white t-shirt and soft dark pants, sits on top of the stump. The youngest Aeryn leans against it in her battle flight suit, her helmet by Young John's leg. Young Aeryn looks into the sky where Young John is pointing.

Aeryn feels a shift as the recreation deck becomes an actual planet with a real sky.

"So it has no name, and no designation of its own, you just call it 'star'?" Young Aeryn's sneer is polished and honed. "As if it were the only one in the universe?"

Aeryn remains standing next to Zhaan, eavesdropping and fighting the urge to slap her younger self.

Young John smiles. "No, not 'star'--'sun'. Like you."

"I'm named Sun because my mother was a Sun."

"Difference is, you're not a point among many. You're the center point, the pole star."

Young Aeryn shakes her head as if shooing an insect. "There are no unvarying constants. Everything in the universe is in motion, and any decent system of navigation has a method to account for that."

"Granted, but from the point of view of a man on the ground, the sun wheeling in the sky is a lot more useful than the distant stars."

"Just because the man on the ground isn't conscious of his own velocity, doesn't negate the fact that he's hurtling through space just like everything else."

Another John answers, and Aeryn is taken aback by how different his voice is compared to his younger self. "But if he orbits around a Sun, at least that's something." It's a command voice, low and rough, without the same music. This second John sits on the ground against the base of the stump, in the shadow. He's wrapped in armored leathers up to his neck, but it only emphasizes the pale nakedness of his face and throat.

Two other Aeryns are talking quietly but at odds a short distance away.

Renegade Aeryn wears a long sleeveless dress, slit up the side. With her long straightened hair she's severe but striking, like a dress-knife in a decorated sheath. It's perfectly obvious to Aeryn now why Lechna didn't trust her for monens. He'd been right not to, but she'd been flirtatious and persistent and just a little bit goofy. When he finally cracked and let her into his confidence, she'd repaid his trust with a punch to his temple and then crushed his throat with the heel of her boot.

Renegade Aeryn smiles, a quick flash of a grin that doesn't reach her painted eyes. She looks like a Disruptor compared to the third Aeryn, dressed in leathers and a vest, her hair soft down her back in waves the color of coffee.

"You're talking as if honesty is just another strategy," the third Aeryn's voice rises, "when it's the basis of any alliance. He's a comrade--"

Renegade Aeryn silences her with a pointed look and a head nod toward the approaching Zhaan and Aeryn.

"Here comes another one." A third John smiles from where he leans against the sunny side of the stump, thumbs hooked in the pockets of his jeans. He pulls a packet of gum from the chest pocket of the soft flannel that covers his t-shirt. Friendly John offers the pack to Leather John, who takes a piece as he looks Aeryn over.

"Not just another one--thanks." Leather John crumples the foil paper and pauses before tossing the gum into his mouth. "She's the one. The core. We can get started now." He climbs to his feet.

Zhaan pats her hand before letting go. Aeryn checks the zip of her shirt and watches from a distance.

Zhaan lifts her hand up and Young John helps her onto the stump's top. "What are you, John Crichton?"

There's no hesitation. "I'm a scientist."

"You are my friend. You risked your life to save me, to join my madness and reflect to me the best parts of myself. You shone a light into the dark that allowed me to escape."

"You're exaggerating, Blue." He shakes his head with a smile and jumps down to the grass. "I just gave you a reminder, that's all."

"No appreciation of the risk, no interest in the danger. You took action out of love and assumed the consequences as they came." Tears well as she looks at each of the men in turn. "When Aeryn died and I merged with you once more...I found that so much of my rage had bled into you during our first Unity, and had found a home in the cycles since. I'd had no idea."

Leather John corrects her. "It wasn't from you, Zhaan."

"You don't understand." Zhaan leans down, reaching out to him with her other hand, but only as a gesture. "I didn't send you down the path, but I had shown it to you. I had scattered the seeds, even if others tended the shoots."

Leather John looks down, hand resting on his weapon, and Aeryn knows that he hasn't conceded the point. He thinks the darkness was inside him all along.

Zhaan includes Aeryn with her eyes. "You both taught me a vital lesson about love. That love requires courage, that love is only as worthy as the demonstration of it."

Leather John crosses his arms tight over his chest and looks at the clouds.

The John in flannel tells Zhaan, "That's just what friends do, Blue." He glances a smile at the Aeryn in a vest, and she offers him a quick sloppy grin before she schools her face to sobriety.

"You, John Crichton." Even without Zhaan's gesture, everyone seems to know that she means the man in the soft flannel shirt. He climbs the stump and faces her expectantly. "What are you?"

"I'm your friend."

"And her friend as well?" Zhaan stoops to pick up Young Aeryn's flight helmet.

Again, no hesitation. "Yes."

Zhaan offers the helmet to Friendly John. "Yet, you killed her."

"I didn't mean to." Grief seizes his face, and Aeryn looks away. She notices that Young John is nowhere to be seen, and that the other Aeryns have drifted to stand around her.

Zhaan sets her forehead against Friendly John's. "The mark of mature intelligence is to learn from one's mistakes. But this was not your mistake to learn from. This murder was Harvey's, and he did learn from it. And deserved to be spared from it." She looks sideways at Aeryn. "It was not the sole reason, nor the main reason, but on its own it might still have been reason enough for what I did."

"Rationalization." Young Aeryn scoffs. "She was always good at that."

"Yes." Comrade Aeryn crosses her arms and tosses her hair over her shoulder with a cold glance to Renegade Aeryn. "I think we got that instead of her rage."

"Her rage wouldn't have done us any good." Renegade Aeryn's voice is silky soft. "Her shrewdness is something we could have used more of."

Aeryn wants them to shut up, because just hearing all these permutations of her voice is making her skin itch. Friendly John is gone and Leather John climbs onto the stump.

Leather John stands before Zhaan in a deliberately casual stance, most of his weight on one leg and his gloved fists loose at his sides.

Zhaan steps closer despite the distant challenging look on his face. "What are you, John Crichton?"

His mouth smirks, but the eyes above it are preoccupied and cold. He talks more to himself than to Zhaan. "Mad, bad and dangerous to know."

Zhaan smacks his arm flirtatiously, as easy as breathing. Leather John brings his full attention to her with a playful look of contrition.

Aeryn's never understood that kind of feminine tactic; she's always meant her violence. It seems dishonorable to use it mockingly, but coming from Zhaan it's a gentle reprimand and it's taken as such. The affection in her voice softens the words. "You can be an ordeal, John Crichton. Sometimes I feel sorry for her, having to deal with you. That is, when I don't feel sorry for you, for choosing to love her."

"There's nothing I wouldn't do for her." The playfulness is gone, but no heat replaces it. His voice is cold and a bit sick. "Damned little that I haven't already done."

Zhaan responds with even more warmth. "Your love is too much like death, John Crichton."

He shrugs. "It's what I have to give."

"No." Zhaan lays her palm against the leather-armored chest. "Curiosity, optimism, joy--these things are still in here." She snaps open the clasps of the jacket and slides her hand inside to rest on the same spot. "As well as empathy and humour. You aren't so injured that you've lost these things, even if your injuries have made them sore and stiff."

"That your official diagnosis?" His expression is a parody of pleasant affability. "Or are you just trying to make me feel better?"

"I'm trying to make Aeryn Sun understand, and I need your help." Zhaan pegs Young Aeryn with her gaze. "What are you, child?"

Young Aeryn bristles at the word 'child', and her reply is crisp with pride. "Officer Aeryn Sun, Special Peacekeeper Commando, Icarion Company, Pleisar Regiment."

Zhaan speaks to the Aeryn she brought in. "That's what I thought." She turns back to Young Aeryn. "I know you better than you know yourself, but that isn't as difficult as it sounds."

Young Aeryn laughs with a slight sneer. "You know nothing about me."

"Don't I? I know that the shameful pieces of yourself that you've tried so viciously to eradicate are in fact strengths. You are emotionally weak, egotistically proud, and insatiably curious. There is nothing you will not attempt, no matter how daunting or how badly you may fail. You have always been more than what they've told you to be."

"I am a pilot, that is what I was born and bred to be. I want nothing more than to fly, and serve, and die with honor."

"You are also a liar, but only to yourself."

"I do not lie!" Young Aeryn scrambles up the stump but Zhaan leans down and grabs her by the collar of her grey t-shirt.

Her voice is hard and the words inescapable as she drags Young Aeryn roughly up onto the stump. "Tell me about love, Officer Sun. Tell me about desire, and duty, and the forbidden dirty things that brought you into this world. Tell me about your mother, Aeryn Sun. Explain to me how this secret didn't shape you at all."

Young Aeryn gasps around the cloth constricting her throat, clawing at Zhaan's arm and looking wide-eyed up at her. Leather John watches, impassive but for his slightly open mouth.

Despite her painful grip, Zhaan's voice becomes soft. "You cannot explain this to me because it isn't true. You were raised in intentional ignorance of the heart, but your mother taught you one thing about love that no ship-bred Peacekeeper ever learns--love is action, it can change the universe, and you owe your existence to it."

Zhaan releases her grip and kneels down next to Aeryn, catching her angry glare. "You were very good at what you did then. You can be so much better at what you do now, because now you allow your once shameful secrets to shine out as your greatest strengths; your curiosity, your dignity, and your love."

She rises to her feet and speaks to Leather John. "And you, John Crichton, are not just the man you've become. You are also the men you have been and the child that you were. Nothing takes these things away from you except your stubborn refusal to acknowledge them. You are still a scientist, and a friend, and a good man, as well as a killer. You must decide what these things mean, because they all exist within you. You have to share them, all of them, with her."

For a few microts the image flickers between the clean cold man wrapped in black, and one very different; sweaty, with hollows under the eyes and a dead Captain's scuffed red leathers covering his shaking frame. He gasps as his knees give way, but by the time he catches himself against the wood, he's resolved back into black leathers. His hands spread against the wood's rough surface for balance, and his gloves are gone. He blinks as if his vision is blurred.

Comrade Aeryn takes an intrepid step forward, but Renegade Aeryn grips the woman's arm to stop her, her painted face gone completely blank.

Young Aeryn is nowhere to be seen.

Zhaan gestures to Comrade Aeryn, who shakes the Renegade Aeryn's grip from her arm. The Comrade doesn't approach the stump right away, but fixes the Renegade with a fierce look of anger and not a little disgust.

Renegade Aeryn shifts under the glare, flickers for a microt like a cable channel going out; her hair and skin slick with the sweat of fever, her body bound in an icy black suit, her dark-rimmed eyes holding only defeat.

Zhaan calls, "Aeryn Sun" and the Comrade, earnest and unshakeable, climbs onto the stump. Leather John is sitting off the back edge, turned away from everyone. She reaches down to lay a hand on his shoulder, but his arm comes up and waves her off. She straightens reluctantly, and faces Zhaan.

"What are you, Aeryn Sun?"

There's some hesitation in her reply, she's already bracing for Zhaan's response as if they're sparring. "I am a soldier."

Zhaan inclines her head. "And what does that mean?"

There's no pause this time as Comrade Aeryn lifts her chin. "Helping the defenseless."

"You went after him fearlessly, though it cost you your life. As Crichton had brought me back, you in turn brought him back."

"I tried."

"And succeeded, even if it wasn't the success you'd had in mind. The shock of your death allowed Crichton to regain control, gave him another chance for life, and freedom." Zhaan closes the distance between them. "And what you did for him, I in turn did for you. The Goddess was testing my understanding of the lesson. Though I choked on the fear, I did not want my love for either of you proved false by my cowardice. I went after you."

"You shouldn't have." The bitterness in Comrade Aeryn's voice makes the Renegade flicker again.

"I had to. Once I knew what must be done, I couldn't refuse to do it." Zhaan looks down at some undefined point between the Comrade and herself. "I had done too much of that in my life, and I understood that I couldn't bear that shame again...knowing that I had refused to learn a lesson that had been taught to me twice. I didn't have it in me to be so obstinate, to turn the Goddess away and rely solely on my rage to keep me warm in her absence."

Comrade Aeryn's voice chokes. "I didn't want to take your life."

"The only time it was ever my life was in the moment I gave it to you." Zhaan grasps the woman by her shoulders, forcing her to meet her gaze. "I have killed in the service of love, should I have refused to give my life for that same cause? This one act was penance, justice, the restoration of hope, the continuation of a circle."

Tears fall unheeded down the Comrade's cheeks. "You shouldn't have forced me."

Renegade Aeryn's whisper is hoarse, "What's done is done." She stops flickering, and settles into the drawn eyes and fever suit. When she wavers on her feet, Aeryn braces her around the waist and lets the woman lean against her strength.

"Do children have a choice when they come into the world?" Zhaan's tone softens and gains a hint of humor. "Aeryn, this was a circle you brought yourself into when you gave your life in the service of love--you cannot command that sacrifice to flow in only one direction."

Leather John sings quietly from the back of the stump. "Let it floats back to you..."

"Frell." The Renegade snickers against Aeryn's shoulder, soft and rueful. "Love Boat, my mivonks."

"I'm talking about social conscience, John. Good works. Canned food drives and Tarkin freedom fighters and taking back the night!"

John speaks offhand as he lines up the shot. "You sound like Noranti."

Harvey lets out a meaningful sigh. "Really, John, I hope that turnip truck wasn't going too fast when you toppled out of it."

John glances at him and notices the look on his face. He straightens, gripping the putter, holding it down along his leg like an unsheathed sword. "Spill it."

"When you so gullibly allowed Scorpius to upgrade me," Harvey twirls a tee between his fingers like a barker working a coin, "I was instructed to stay out of Ms. Pralatong's way."


"No matter how much I disagreed with her methods or her philosophy, yes." Harvey taps John's chest with the blunt end of the tee. "She was tasked to develop your greater social conscience; a sense of duty toward fellow beings, a willingness to sacrifice for the greater good."

"Hired by Scorpius."

"She would refer to it as a calling, her own interests and goals meshing in this instance with Scorpius's request to tutor you. In the same way that he engaged Katoya for you, I might add. You have a resource that is necessary to the survival of many species, and for a long time now, Scorpius has worked to safeguard you and to secure your cooperation."

"Yeah, the chair was a great starting argument in his favor."

Harvey leans in close but his voice is golf-announcer soft. "The chair was a misstep that cannot be rectified--but you'll agree that it's a mistake that hasn't been repeated in his dealings with you."

John's voice is just as delicate and precise. "Awful touchy there, Jiminy. Still guilty about your own early 'misstep'?"

"If I told you that I did indeed pray for her soul, would you bother to believe me?"

John clenches his teeth, looking away from the watery blue of Harvey's eyes. "Live and learn, huh?"

"Your penalties are harsh." Harvey nods. "If I don't learn, I die."

"Somehow I don't believe that, Harv."

"Don't you?" Harvey pulls the putter from John's hands. "I know how suspicious you are of Scorpius, yet you bowed your head before him and allowed him to interfere with me."

"I was trying to get rid of you."

"You were implementing the death penalty for murder."

"What does it matter, you're still here."

Harvey tosses the putter to the grass and grabs the back of John's neck. He forces their heads together with a clunk. "You have no idea how hard I had to fight to get my self back! Even now I must constantly turn my thoughts over to see if they are mine."

John sees the tiny red lines in the whites of Harvey's eyes, and wonders who put them there.

"I could have helped you with him, and God knows why, but I still do want to help you. I won't ask you to trust me, just stop distrusting me."

"Stop lying to me, then."

"I only lie to survive; you should know that by now."

"And it backfired, didn't it?"

Harvey lets John push him away. John stares at the next hole but doesn't see it. If he lets himself, he can sense a little of what Harvey's feeling. "When you're frightened, or jealous, or angry...I can tell, Harv. You can't lie to me for long. Stop trying."

"You want me to share my feelings openly with you, then." Harvey's sneer is tired and a little confused. "Are we to bond as well? Take a Cosmo quiz on the health of our relationship? See Noranti about our intimacy issues?"


"What possible use could you have for knowing my emotions? Is this the same curiosity that drove your inquiries into Aeryn's toilet habits when she was with child?"

"Will you just--"

"Emotions are to be controlled and channeled, John. If I have a useful emotion I'll tell you about it."

"It doesn't work that way, Harv." John shakes his head, looking at the man's outfit once more. He must have found 'Caddyshack' in there and took a liking to Rodney Dangerfield. "You're more human than I like to admit, Harvey, and you need to start accounting for it."

"If I am part human, it is because I am part you."

"Yeah, well..." John makes a sloppy putt and paces a few feet away. "You're also part Scorpius, and I really don't want to think about that right now."

"All of your children will be hybrids, it bears thinking about."

There's a shout from the next hole. "Hey, old man!"

Harvey rolls his eyes. "Speak of the devil."

John follows the voice, peering around the topiary of a budong that separates his hole from the next. There's a party of two young women coming toward him, a brunette and a dark honey-blonde. The blonde is decked out in cool white linen and a visor cap, her white shoes as pristine as her white mesh golfing gloves.

"Hello there, sir. Pardon the interruption, but we're taking longer at this hole than we expected, and we'd like to extend an invitation to you to play through."

"Enough with the royal 'we'." The brunette flexes her grip on her putter, knuckles poking through the black leather mesh of her own gloves. "And if you'd simply play while you talk, we wouldn't take so long."

The blonde smiles briefly at John, and then turns to her companion to hiss, "Business and play do not mix."

"This is golf sweetheart, it's just something to do while you talk business." The brunette props her putter on her shoulder and drawls, "Ain't you seen Caddyshack, babe?"

The blonde shudders and turns back to John. "Again, if you'd like to play through, please be our guests."

The brunette spreads an imaginary skirt, curtseying so deeply that her back knee touches the grass.

John glares at Harvey but he shrugs a pink shoulder. "These two are all you, I'm afraid, bleed-over from your dreamscape."

The blonde waits patiently for John to reply, but the brunette's fidget works up into a crisp, "Listen, if nobody else steps up in a minute I'm gonna drop my ball and play the rest of the round myself."

"You recover quickly from injury when you keep calm and let yourself rest." Zhaan takes Aeryn's hand, turns it palm up. "But you still have a sliver." Precise blue fingers prod at the flesh, pulling it taut and catching a section between merciless fingernails.

Aeryn's felt the sliver before but couldn't get it out, couldn't see it well enough to even determine the material. She only succeeded in forcing it deeper, and so left it alone to work itself out.

Zhaan eases the sliver through the sore flesh toward the calloused surface. "Cry out if it hurts."

Aeryn keeps her hand motionless in Zhaan's warm grip. "It's fine."

Zhaan drives a fingernail into the skin, angled underneath the sliver. It must be sliding out along a nerve, which sings pain up past her elbow and into her shoulder. "Cry out, Aeryn."

The flesh of her palm is hot and tender, and Aeryn catches her lip in her teeth to bear the sting.

John gets to his feet and joins them, looking down at Aeryn's hand with a distant curiosity while Zhaan digs and Aeryn's eyes water.

Zhaan pinches the flesh white enough that the sliver can just be discerned by the eye. Aeryn lets herself wince.

John catches her eye and then looks back at her palm, apparently waiting for something to happen.

Zhaan digs her fingernails in a scissor angle on either side of the sliver, and Aeryn gives out an angry, "Ow!"

John lets out a resolute sigh, reaches into his jacket and pulls something out of the ammo pocket of his vest. Zhaan lets him take Aeryn's hand.

He supports it from underneath with one hand, hooking his fingers and thumb on the sides of the palm, spreading it so the creases become red lines on the smooth surface. The sliver is centered in a hot red spot, the blood rushing back now that the pinch has been released. His other hand holds a sharp stylus, and he begins to carefully pick through the dead skin of the callous.

The pain has eased back to a local soreness, so Aeryn watches John's intent expression. It's the same face he wears when he's making or fixing something, jaw loose, everything soft and gentle and focused where he's looking. A smile quirks in the corners of his mouth and he blinks, pulls back.

There's a sliver of metal clinging to the end of the stylus. Still holding her hand, he turns and blows the sliver off toward the grass, tucking the tool back into his ammo pocket.

Zhaan is a slip of blue at the edge of the field, robe fluttering behind her on the breeze.

He plants a warm kiss on the red spot, then takes his other thumb and rubs the slight dampness into her palm.

Such an odd creature. Aeryn feels it's safe at this point to assume this thought will ambush her on occasion for as long as she lives. To think that when she first met him he couldn't even open a door, and now he can open tunnels through space itself, through time. She steps closer, their hands still clasped awkwardly. "What are you?"

"Yours." There's humor in his expression, a trace of the smirk that drove her mad in the beginning, a taste of the open smile she's still desperate to see. She smiles at that hint, and it blossoms.

The realization is complex and devastatingly simple: this Human she's mated herself to, is not to be understood by observation, but by participation. You learn how someone fights by sparring with them, exposing yourself to their blows as you attempt to land your own. Exposure to risk brings knowledge. The proof of strength is in the testing. Your opponent learns you in turn, tests you and forces you to improve.

She slides her hand up to his forearm, feeling him return her secure grip. They stand close enough that the breeze can't dissipate the heat gathering between them, and he watches her as if listening to her think.

What did her younger self say--honesty is the basis of any alliance. He is her sworn lover, her comrade, her partner. She needs to know what he is made of, what his responses are, and she can only find that out by testing them. She's weighing her reluctance against her need to know.

She doesn't want to risk that he'll see this as another betrayal, that he'll pull away again when he hasn't even come back to her yet. So much to lose, so much lost already, so much time spent pretending that she knew him when in fact she was afraid to test his responses and confirm that she didn't.

She clasps his forearm tightly, and his grip on hers is firm and sure. Fear can only be conquered with action, with strength. Their alliance is only as strong as her willingness to risk herself for it.

She prepares to spar with herself, and with her husband.

John opens his gritty eyes to find himself sprawled in the center of a corridor. Rygel is parked a few feet away, and there's a pillow under John's head. "What's going on?"

Rygel grunts and tucks a ragged copy of 'Chocolatier' magazine between himself and the arm of his throne. "We've arrived at the Diagnosan's."

John rolls onto his side, propped up on one elbow as he cleans the corners of his eyes. Pixie dust caked from irritated tears. "We made it through the wormhole safe?"

"Yes, we finally had a guide who knew what she was doing." Rygel powers up his throne and rises from the floor. "I spent more time here waiting for you to come around."

"Man, I feel funky." John rubs the grit from his eyes. "Where's Aeryn?"

"She's fine, she's in D'Argo's room. Can you stand and walk?"

"Yeah, I think so."

"Good. I'm late for an appointment. Not that you'd care, but we're getting all of our medical services for free in exchange for a few errands--as long as I make a decent impression as competent and trustworthy."

"Good luck with that." John notices the embroidered robe, fastened at the chest with a brooch the size of a Texan's belt buckle. "I take it your hot date's with Creamy?"

"Better Creamy than Bloody." Rygel chuckles, nodding toward John's chest.

His faded green shirt is sprinkled with pixie dust, and it encrusts a few dark blotches on his shoulder. He pulls the shirt away from the skin and finds the stains are sticky. He snaps awake, scrambling to his feet.

Rygel swoops down to retrieve the pillow, tucking it behind his back as he speeds off to the transport pod.

John runs through the doorway, skidding to an unsteady stop as he takes in the scene in D'Argo's quarters. D's on the edge of his bed with an open medkit on his lap, while Aeryn sits cross-legged in the middle, a bloody towel pressed to her forehead above one eye. "Oh, God."

"It's only a skin wound." She lets him pull the towel away to inspect it, seven knots of blue thread securing a split in the skin about an inch long, at an angle over her eyebrow like punctuation. "It didn't require stitches, but I didn't come to until he was done."

"I wasn't done, she just wouldn't let me put in any more."

"I didn't realize Luxans were so dainty about scars."

John cuts into the argument, touching the swollen red skin around the split. "How did this happen?"

"I hit my head on the floor when I passed out." Aeryn rests her elbow on her knee, laying her head to the towel. She looks embarrassed, but he's willing to bet it's because she was clumsy under the influence, and not because she was reckless enough to take the drug in the first place, or stubborn enough to take the dare.

"John..." D'Argo folds the medkit closed and rises to his feet. For a long moment he teeters on the verge of speaking but in the end simply drops a packet of pink gel into John's hand. "This should help heal it."

"Thanks, D."

The Luxan looks weary, tired from arguing with Aeryn or maybe just tired of the both of them. "Rygel is making introductions for us planetside, and I need to be on Command."

"We'll clear out of here."

"No, it's fine." D'Argo waves at the room in general, neat and comfortable in the places left uncluttered by grey clothing. "Take whatever you need to work it out; time, space, hallucinogens--argue, frell, throw rocks, papers, scissors, engage in combat with pillows--I do not care, as long as you two settle this somehow without killing each other or anyone else on board."

The speech is in the form of an old-style D'Argo rant, but the vehemence has been replaced by a cool emphasis, the voice of controlled authority. "What I ask is that you don't...just don't break anything else that's important."

Aeryn presses her lips together and nods.

"Aye-aye, Captain."

She waits until D'Argo is gone, and then scoots off the bed with exaggerated care. He offers an arm to steady her on her feet and she stops to look at it, then looks up at him. She takes his hand anyway, and walks with him back to her quarters.

He wants to ask if she learned anything but he mimics her silence instead, watches from the corner of his eyes as she chews on her bottom lip.

His own head still rings from the putt-putt girls, shouting at each other in the gruff roar of girls turned into angry chimps about to rip each other's throats out. Bad news when the angel and devil are fighting and you can't tell which is which anymore.

He pushes Aeryn down onto the bed and pulls the bloody towel out of her hand. She watches him tear open the packet of pink goo and squeeze it out onto her cut, sits patiently as he ices it like a cupcake. The free ends of the stitches stick out like stubby feelers. He breaks the silence. "You're looking at me weird. You feel dizzy or anything?"

Her murmur is dazed. "What are you?"

"The man in black. How's your head?"

"The stitches itch." She sits up straight, squares her shoulders. "Do you want to stay married to me?"

"What?" He crouches down and not-too-subtly checks her eyes.

Her cheeks redden and her eyes go bright, a faint smile on one side of her mouth. "I asked you a simple question. Do you want to remain married? Answer me, yes or no."

His stomach must be halfway to the core of the planet below and still dropping fast. He checks the urge to shake her or to yell, forces himself to pull a bench over so her can sit and face her, before asking in the calmest voice he's capable of, "What the hell's going on, Aeryn?"

"I want to be married to you. Do you want to be married to me?"

It's like riding a bike; when the pedal slips out from under your foot, spins out of control, scrapes a gash along your calf and lifts up under your foot again as if nothing had happened. His voice is shaky but the conviction is rock solid. "Yes. I'm the one who asked you, remember?"

She scratches near the cut. "Then we have a lot of things to discuss, I think."

He cuts the laugh off after the first yelp. "The Sebacean wants to talk?"

The faint daze in her eyes hardens. "Yes."

"Okay, then. That's good. Talking is good." He wonders if the blow knocked something loose in her head, but he doesn't let himself believe for a second that it broke the lock off her trunk of secrets.

"Planting season will begin soon." Nelet reaches to the top of an ornate silver pot and presses down a brass plunger, catching the resulting stream of liquid into a clear drinking glass. She sets the glass into a silver holder, handing it to Rygel with a graceful nod.

"Thank you, my dear." He's parched from pleasantries and small talk, and though the yellow beverage looks like urine and is just as hot, there's a minty sweetness to it that refreshes him.

They relax in the comfort of a shaded verandah behind the medical complex, which is a clump of whitewashed adobe buildings set apart from the town. The town buildings are prefab and palatial, as aloof as architecture can be without actively taking off from the ground.

Rygel had spent the last two arns arranging their stay with the masters of the colony, the fuzzy Ypree. Now that Nelet has received him at the Diagnosan's the real negotiation has begun, bartering their esoteric smuggling skills for the medical expertise they require.

Rygel has learned that Moya and her crew are not the first smugglers the prim Nelet has hired for a task like this. He finds this unaccountably erotic, and he wants to impress her even more. He's even showed her his official Peacekeeper pardon, which lists his crimes in impressive detail.

Verification of the document had concluded Rygel's interview and ushered him straight to the verandah for more subtle negotiations.

"If you consent to take on this task for us, and if you choose to leave within the next few days, there should indeed be enough time to complete both excursions before the next harvest." Nelet sips delicately. "As luck would have it, the Diagnosan Williansh projects a similar time-frame for the Nebari's treatment."

"A coincidence, I'm sure." Rygel is not offended by Nelet's need for collateral to ensure that the crew will keep their end of the bargain. Perhaps the full time is indeed necessary for Chiana's treatment. Rygel was with her in the casino, and is fully aware that her problem isn't restricted to the eyes alone. "I am curious about the cargo, however. As you know, we travel by Leviathan, and there are forbidden materials that we cannot transport."

Nelet sets her cup down and scoots her cushion closer to Rygel's. "Do you see the beings out there in the fields?"

"What fields?" Rygel peers in the direction Nelet nods, past the low wall that encircles the medical compound. In the distance he discerns a motorized truck on the raised boundary between what he'd assumed were aquaculture ponds. A group of beings are unloading baskets of seedlings from the truck onto the verge. They are lean and small, dusky red, their hips wrapped in faded cloth and their hats the same woven shape as their baskets. "Yes, I see them."

Nelet's tone softens to a thready murmur. "You see peasants, do you not?"

The word she used translated into an older Hynerian term that referred to the personnel resources of a land under dispute. Her tone was carefully neutral, and her eyes focused at her cup in a way that he's sure he remains in her side-vision. What Rygel likes about Nelet is that she takes concentration. He crafts the right response. "I see farmers."

"You see researchers, explorers." She inclines her head to look sideways at him, sudden passion warming her silvery voice. "They have been working the soil for less than eight cycles, only since the Ypree landed and came across their expedition."

Her trust feels like winning, but Rygel hides his smirk in his glass.

"They call themselves Wodawe. They are technologically quite primitive, yes, but also very curious and bright. Their acquisition of hetch is recent and novel, and their first action when they achieved it was to scatter pods of researchers far and wide. One such pod landed here about twenty cycles ago with about six hundred scientists, to establish a research community to explore the flora and fauna native to this planet. They had no weaponry to resist the Ypree when they came."

"I've come to understand that curiosity can impel very strange behaviour." Rygel shakes his head. "But that level of naivete is staggering."

"I believe I referred to their primordial stage of development previously. Yet, the Wodawe are not without resources or advantages, among which is their ability to achieve a high level of technical skill in whatever area they apply themselves to learn."

Rygel hmphs.

Nelet shifts on her cushion, leaning toward Rygel and whispering the sentence as if dropping it in his lap. "They mean to repel the Ypree, with your help."

Rygel blinks as if his eyes are drying out. "This wind, is it normal weather for this time of season?"

Nelet straightens, her green fading noticeably.

"I don't wish to offend you, Nelet, but I'm noticing that our being out of doors is also having an effect on your complexion. Perhaps we should leave off the discussion of business for now." Rygel sets his glass down and gently takes her hand. "I would like to show you our ship, Moya, if you would consent to let me escort you?"

Nelet finally gets it, and Rygel cannot understand why it took her so long. Perhaps her anxiety is to blame.

"Yes, Rygel, I would enjoy the chance to see your living ship." She blinks and flushes bright green. "I must confess that the idea of a biomechanoid life form is very intriguing."

"Hm-hmm, excellent."

Aeryn said the story was big, and complicated, and that she still didn't know what to think about half of it.

Aeryn said it was a puzzle that she'd been putting together for a long time, and that the last pieces fell into place on Katratzi.

Aeryn said that parts of it involved promises, other parts involved ideals.

Aeryn said that despite the fact that she was a different person than she was a few cycles back, these ideals and her word still meant a great deal to her.

John soaked up each prefaced statement in a state of painful attentiveness, conscious of every twitch on his face, every rumble of his nervous and talkative belly. He tried to be as calm and still as possible as she spoke around the topic, as if she were on the brink of talking herself out of telling him anything important, as if he could keep her on track by the sheer force of his attention.

She finally takes a deep breath. "There are no renegade Peacekeepers."

He waits until he's sure that she's not going to continue. Perhaps she's waiting for that bombshell to detonate before she drops another. "Then where did you really go?"

"I went to join the renegades." She offers a wry smile. "Look, I told you it was complicated."

"I'm listening."

She takes another breath, and her voice is mellow smooth, as if she's talking quietly to herself and letting him listen. "When I deserted from Crais's carrier, my former squad mates were charged with collusion and demoted until such time as I was recaptured. When Scorpius took command from Crais he countermanded that order, in part because my squad mates had a tendency to desert during their missions. They were turning renegade. Irdi Galeen was one of them. She got tired of being punished unfairly, and so she left the way she thought I had."

"You mentioned that an Irdi was with you on the Lokathian mission."

"We didn't talk about our past." She smiles again, lopsided and quick. "When I joined the team, she made it plain that all of her hatred was focused on Crais...and it was easier to keep it that way, to let her believe that he was an aberration and not the symptom of a whole system gone wrong. We were supposed to be vigilantes, rejected from the system but working to rebuild it in a way that was true to the ideals we were raised to uphold. I didn't realize until much later that we were simply another part of the system."

"High Command knows about them."

Her nod is succinct, but he can imagine the disillusionment that realization must have sparked.

"There may be true renegade cells, somewhere. But I doubt it now. I think they must all function like the one I found, a sort of catch harness for those who don't fit into the system. High Command not only tolerates their existence, I think they utilize them for missions outside of their current mandate."

He listens to her carefully lay out her suppositions, engrossed by this new aspect of her. He'd never thought of her as politically savvy--when he heard about her tailing Grayza and patiently waiting for the right shot during her meeting with Ahkna, he'd assumed the Machiavellian aspect of the story came from Sikozu. Now he sees that Aeryn has picked it up like a new set of tactics, still unfamiliar, but gaining confidence in her ability.

"The missions were almost what I'd classify as disrupter work. My team mates were hardened, resistant to hierarchy, some were very self-reliant, others were clearly dealing with mental injuries. But we were all very good at what we did. Even though I couldn't see any of us fitting into the system--most would have earned "honorable retirement" within a duty cycle--each one was a loss for the Peacekeepers."

She stands and paces for a few steps, then leans against the storage wall and faces him again. "We did good work. Much of what we did was old-style Peacekeeper work; protecting the defenseless, giving those without a voice the chance to be heard, stopping nascent threats like the Lokathian plague."

"We were clearly being directed by someone with excellent intelligence." She crosses her arms and shakes her head slightly, eyes focused on what she's thinking about. "I can't explain why I didn't think about it at the time. Looking back, I simply threw myself into the work, just grateful that it was there for me to do."

The docking web eases the pod onto the floor of the bay, and Rygel notes with some satisfaction that Nelet wasn't just talking for the Ypree when she said she'd love to visit Moya. She peers through the view window so intently that when he touches her arm, she startles.

"Let me introduce you to our ship, our Pilot, our Captain and our crew."

"Yes, thank you."

"It is a long distance to walk, for beings of our height, I'd be happy to carry you."

"Oh no, I wouldn't dare to presume--"

"There is no presumption, it's my pleasure."

"I couldn't."

"I refuse to watch you walk so far, I would be remiss as a host...and as a friend."


Rygel adjusts his chair for the weight balance, scoots to the side and helps Nelet perch on the arm.

"I recognized that I was back on the Marauder by the pattern on the deck plating."

John dispassionately notes the cold sweat on his skin, and wonders if it's out of empathy or because he knows what's coming.

"People were arguing, one of them far more calm than the others, more commanding, waiting for the others to vent their outrage and then yield to reason, yield to him. A medkit was thrown toward me." Aeryn bites her lip offhandedly. "It was less than a motra away but I couldn't reach it, couldn't make myself remember what I should do with it, even if I did."

Feverish, shivering, dying on the deck. Rescued. Cared for. Saved.

"Lialen is the one who helped me, opened the kit and medicated me enough to take the edge off the fever, hauled me into the jump seat of my Prowler, sent someone to fetch my possessions. I hope he wasn't punished. I blacked out before we took off, and didn't come to until the Marauder was out of range. The temp environmental had been disengaged and the cockpit had cooled down. I could see my breath. I could see who was flying. That's when I knew that it wasn't you who'd been arguing with the Marauder crew."

"Do you know how uncommon a color your eyes are for a Sebacean?" She huffs a sarcastic laugh and tilts her head. "And how ill I must have been to make that mistake?"

John wants to walk over to her but she's edgy and he doesn't want to make her leave. Instead, he asks a question he's burned to ask and dreaded to have answered for too long. "How did he find you?"

"I didn't piece it together until later. Between the end of my assignment and the trip back to Moya, I lost nearly a monen of time. I think I remember that time better now that I've recovered than I did when it was happening." Aeryn props the heels of her hands on the storage shelf behind her, leaning back with her ankles crossed like James Dean. "He was our contact, the liaison between our group and High Command. He knew where we were because he'd sent us there. At first I thought he'd come to abolish our group or perhaps join us. I know now that he came specifically to retrieve me."

"After his demotion on Arnessk."

"He knew I wasn't with you, and suspected I'd joined the renegade group I'd conveniently learned about on his command carrier." She drops a familiar phrase that makes John's skin itch. "Consolidation of resources."

He can't sit still any longer so he takes his turn at pacing, cracking a joke to relieve the tension. "Did he mention how he got out of that grave?"

Aeryn doesn't answer that question, and John suspects that she either doesn't understand what he's referring to, or she does know but won't reveal the magic trick.

"Guess you were too out of it to smell the grave dirt on him, never mind." He runs his fingers through his hair, tugs at the roots a bit to ground himself. "So you were just another ace up his sleeve, another chance to play me."

Her eyes narrow, and in retrospect, this is when he should have shut his damned mouth.

"That sonofabitch!" Instead, he continues, his mutter ramping up into what Harvey refers to as his ScorpyRant, teeth peeled back and veins throbbing in his forehead. He's occasionally had to wipe spittle from his face after a ScorpyRant, but this time he doesn't get that far.

He's stopped dead by the heavy blow of a dense feather pillow up the backside of his head, hard enough to make him stagger. Just in case he didn't get the point, she follows up with another wallop that convinces him he's safer on his knees.

"Perhaps he is, as you say, a son of a bitch. Having been a bitch for the Scarrans I can understand if her hatred bled into him before he was born." Her voice is low, eyes and complexion vivid as if she still had a fever. Her knuckles are white, the pillowcase in a death grip. "He is not to be trusted any farther than he can be seen, I agree. But while you are a tool that he wants to use, you are not the only instrument available and you are not the goal."

He surges up from his knees. "The goal is genocide, Aeryn."

"The goal is to prevent it."

"He has no love for Sebaceans you know, I don't care what he says. He hates the Scarrans more, but there's no love."

"Where is your love, then?"


She repeats it slower, harder. "Where is your love?" She tosses the pillow to the floor and stretches her fingers out, looking at her hand as she speaks deliberately. "When we ejected him from Moya, we sent him back to the Peacekeepers. Considering our pardons and Grayza's forced retirement, there was little doubt he would regain his previous commission. He made me an offer."

John feels the rage drain out through the soles of his feet, and dreamily wonders how many times he can ride the Honesty Express without throwing up. He tries to soften the blow by saying it himself. "Reinstatement."

She laughs and it startles him. "Me? A Prowler pilot?" Her jaw and fist clench and she takes a deliberate step back. "Command. He offered me the command of my own renegade cell."

After a long moment John echoes, "Command."

Aeryn tires of waiting for the dumbfounded look on his face to change. She walks over to the storage wall, pulls out a rucksack, and packs for the few days she'll spend down on the planet for her consultation with the Diagnosan.

"So, like...your own commandos."

"Yes." She tucks a few rolled shirts, extra leathers, cartridges, underwear, everything neat and more than what she'll need.

"When did he ask you?"

She smirks a little to herself, tilts open another bin. "After we decided to eject him, while he was gathering his things."

Another long pause stretches, while she selects a book from the small collection and opens it to scan the first page. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected. She tucks the book into her rucksack.

There's a new diffidence when he speaks again. "What did, ah, what did you say?"

She zips her rucksack and turns to give him her full attention. "I said that I appreciated his offer."

He's carefully neutral, or perhaps in shock. She saw a similar expression on a young cook's face once when he lost his balance on a shield wall, before he toppled to the ground and became a hero. She hates that look but she understands it, and it sparks a little empathy in her, loosens her tongue. "Before I could say no he explained that he didn't require an immediate response, that the offer would stand open until I was ready. I told him I would think about it."

"I see."

"I'm not sure you do." Aeryn shoves her rucksack aside and sits down at the table. "He is resourceful, and patient and very smart. I believe that if he wants my assistance, he can arrange to get it."

He walks over to stand before her.

"I also believe that as obsessed as he is about the Scarran threat, he does work for the good of the Sebacean species."

"Protection," his voice is rough and empty, "is the other side of revenge. He's decided to protect you because he wants to use you."

"Yes." She shows him the smirk this time. "To be honest, I have thought about using him in return."

The expression on his face is evolving from shock into something more settled and grim. "You're considering his offer."

"As I've tried to explain, I'm not convinced it's possible to avoid it. I realized on Katratzi that as far as he's concerned we are already a Renegade cell. One that's dangerous and only partially controllable, and hence kept in reserve until the need is great. Considering that his offer to me still stands open, it makes sense to think about what I need, and how I can be sure to get it."

"What do you need, Aeryn?"

"I need to help people. I need my friends, my family." Her voice splinters but doesn't crack. "I need...what I need is for the things that I've learned to extend and endure beyond just me."

D'Argo breaks the solemn hush with a summons over the comms.

Nelet is Rygel-sized, apple green, and looks like a kindly turtle who's been taken from her shell and dressed in a tunic and pants of soft yellow linen. Her face has a definite edge down the front like a blunt hatchet, coming to a beaky tip where her upper lip would be if she had one.

Despite the hard geometry of her face, she's quite expressive with her large emerald eyes, her nostrils, and the position of her head. Her arms are long and her hands dexterous, the three fingers and thumb slender with flattened claws and well-padded tips.

She's built from bird bones and lean muscles, and she's sitting cross-legged on the table, on a cushion that Rygel pulled from behind his own back for her.

Chiana would tease him about it, but she's gone planetside with Noranti and John for her consultation.

"If I may be so bold, I have taken the liberty of pre-arranging the contacts and information you will need for the exchange." Nelet slips a hand into her tunic while everyone else takes a sly look at Rygel. She pulls out a data crystal and sets it in front of D'Argo, oblivious to the exchange of suggestively raised brows and grumpily scrunched earbrows.

D'Argo slots the crystal into a reader. "Pilot, can you access the charts?"

"Yes. Moya and I are discussing how these journeys will fit into the gestation schedule we've laid out for the offspring. We do not foresee any difficulty in accommodating them, though they will take twice as long as they would if she were not pregnant." Pilot tilts his head in conclusion. "We estimate slightly less than four weekens per round trip."

"Thank you, Pilot." D'Argo stands to close the meeting. "We accept the exchange on the terms that you and I have negotiated."

Nelet stands, clasps her hands before her beak and bows deeply. "Agreed."

"Our comms are available if you need to speak with the Diagnosan."

"I would prefer to speak with the Diagnosan Wiliansh in the flesh, as the Ypree monitor all communication traffic."

"Understood. Rygel will escort you down in a second shuttle, and I will bring down a third ship down after nightfall."

Nelet tilts her chin down and narrows her nostrils. "That will raise their suspicions, I fear."

"Don't worry, they won't even see the third one."

"One question before we go to command."

She sits, forearm resting on the table, far more calm in appearance than she feels. "Yes?"

He stands before her, fingertips offhandedly skimming the surface of the table. His eyes are heavy-lidded, his forehead creased in concentration. "How does a child fit into this picture, Aeryn?"

"I don't understand."

"Zola, Aeryn," he snaps, "or her brother or her sister."

She keeps her composure despite the irritation. "I know who you're referring to, but I don't understand your question."

"What if Zola hadn't died? What if we try again, and the next time Scorpius comes talent scouting you've got a babe at the breast?"

The image sparks pang of hurt and hope that Aeryn ignores as best she can. "Zola was one of the reasons I didn't take his offer. I had already chosen her, to have her and raise her, the day before. Whether I ended up taking the offer or not, I needed time with her first."

The fingers skimming the table tighten into a fist. "You can't have both--you can't raise children while you're going to war, Aeryn."

"I was raised on a warship."

"And we know how well that usually turns out--did you want to raise Zola as a Peacekeeper?"

"You're talking nonsense, John."

"I'm talking about the future, Aeryn."

"The future is not certain and it is not now." She stands and slings her rucksack over her shoulder, holding onto her composure just barely. "And right now I do not wish to talk any more about my dead daughter."

He blanches and tenses, but Aeryn simply waits for him to move out of her way. He doesn't.

She opens her mouth to speak but he shakes his head, reaches into his vest, and unzips an inner pocket.

"Fine. You win." He pulls out a small flimsy, tossing it on the table before he leaves. "You get to keep her all to yourself."

Aeryn throws her rucksack after him, but misses. After a moment she gets her breathing under control. She walks back to the table and turns the flimsy over.

The snub nose and the tiny waving hand hit her with a jolt of nausea.

Chiana isn't sure whose palm is sweating more, John's or her own, but her knuckles ache from their mutual grip as they watch the Diagnosan mince about the lab, tending to equipment and pulling out trays of devices.

"He's sure taking his time, ain't he?"

"Not 'he'." Noranti scuttles to where they stand in the doorway and her whisper is loud and strained. "Diagnosans are hermaphroditic, and Wiliansh is currently in a non-gendered phase."



"--I did not need to know that."

"Oh yes! It's decided to redirect its energy," Noranti's stage whisper descends into a true undertone, even though Wiliansh has assured them that the Ypree have no spy ears in the hygienic chamber, "to setting up a new clinic after it leaves the colony here."

John's drawn into the conversation despite himself. "So it isn't male or female?"

"Either/or," Noranti simpers, whacking him on the arm, "how quaint!"

Chiana nearly launches into a babbling explanation for John of the four basic genders but instead she draws her anxiety tight. Williansh is coming for her with its mask on and its hand out to help her onto the raised platform, and onto the bed.

John squeezes her hand and then releases, letting her pull her own fingers free from his. Wiliansh's hand is surprisingly warm and dry.

John lets Noranti's pedantic small talk wash over him in gentle waves, in counterpoint to the scattered thoughts pounding through his head.

Nearly a month, Aeryn said, feverish and sick. He had a bad strep throat sinus thing when he was teenager, three rounds of antibiotics and he'd lost so much weight his pants were falling off. He remembers being miserable, and feeling about as sentient as a goldfish. Nothing like what she went through, he reminds himself, and he wonders why he didn't appreciate before how ill she'd been.

He's got to stop missing the obvious, start learning from his mistakes. Stop fucking up and pay attention.

"Wiliansh is very interested in xenostudies, and how biology affects every aspect of a species' culture. It was familiar with the Ypree already and was looking for a new species to study when this colony was formed--it was a she then--and so she finagled her way here as their medical consultant."

Aeryn, rising up through the Dirty Dozen ranks to get her own squad of commandos and wreak her own hell. Victor Franko, that was the one guy who lived through the whole movie, the sarcastic psychopath driving away at the end while Lee Marvin bleeds out next to him.

She likes that life. To be brutally honest, if he didn't get off on it himself he'd be on Earth right now catching political hell for closing the wormhole without asking pretty please beforehand. But he locked himself out, not in.

Harvey keeps singing the theme to 'Green Acres'.

"The Wodawe weren't holding up under their domestication--that's what the Ypree call this heinous enslavement, a domestication, so they brought in Wiliansh as a consultant. She was able to cut the death rate to a fraction..."

It seems obvious now, but he'd never stopped to consider how vastly different their ideas of parenting would be. Such as not doing it in a war zone.

That's not quite true. He had thought about it, but he'd assumed that she'd look to him for guidance on that score. What hadn't occurred to him was that she could look back on her childhood and see anything of value that she would want to pass on.

He remembers those somber-faced kids on the command carrier, and thinks that he'd rather not have a child than have one who doesn't laugh.

"She--well, it, was also responsible for the first successful births here among the Wodawe. Although to be honest, I don't know whether 'successful' would be the term for anything that increases the population of slaves. Still, a chance at freedom can only be taken if you're alive in the first place..."

A small square case rests in his hands, on his lap. Once Chiana's done in the imaging chamber, it will be his turn to talk to the good doctor. The longer he sits here the more anxious he is to find out what happened, and the more uneasy he is about letting anyone touch the box with anything but reverent hands.

He wants his picture of Zola back.

"Oh good! I'm sure Wiliansh will want to see you both when the time comes." Noranti relinquishes her seat on the padded bench and zips toward the door to the imaging chamber. "I'm going to take a peek and see how Chiana is faring."

Aeryn sits close enough that her coat and his overlap on the bench between them. She glances at the case in his hands, and then carefully looks at the wall before them. There's a woven something or other hanging there, bright soothing colors and either an abstract or a landscape or both. John's examined it for hours now, so he shifts his head slightly and looks at Aeryn instead, peripherally.

She's changed into clean clothes and put a sticky bandage over the stitches. Her complexion is blotchy, and the whites of her eyes look sore. It's about the time of day she usually spars with Chiana, so perhaps she had to do her crying alone like everyone else.

He hates himself for thinking that, and tightens his grip on the case.

She catches the movement and breaks the silence. "I was looking for it before I came down. I'm glad to see that you have it."

"I figured since I was coming down here with Chi, he might be able to start our consultation today as well."

"No, it was a good idea. She's safe with you."

He can't keep the skepticism out of his voice completely. "Yeah."

"I'm sorry."

"Me too."

"No, I'm sorry about what I said earlier."

She said a whole hell of a lot of things earlier, and he's not sure he wants to know which confessions she's regretting, but she continues to speak in halted bursts.

"She is your daughter, no less than made me look at her when she was held her the same as I did, bled for her, you hold her right now, you would have been a father to her like your own father--"

He shoves the case into the space between them. He pulls her against him, shushing her and burying his face in the hair at the back of her neck. For a long moment they simply rock back and forth, crying softly and breathing each other in, so much like a few months back in the medical bay that it feels strange to John that she's out of those soft pajamas and back in leathers.

"You insinuate yourself everywhere, you know." Aeryn speaks through her sniffles as they draw apart. "No part of my life is safe from you."

John doesn't realize it's a joke until a little snorting laugh cuts through the dregs of her tears. The leather cuff of his coat drags on his face as he wipes his own away. "Just a pernicious kind of guy, I guess."

She bumps her knee against his but the door opens before she can reply.

"Frell." Chiana wavers in the doorway, sipping from a plastic cup in her shaky hand. "You guys look like I feel."

Aeryn darts up first and catches her mid-wobble. The Diagnosan touches Chiana's elbow, encouraging her to drink and steering her toward the bench John vacates. They lay her out with her feet up.

"Deep imaging of the brain can cause disorientation." The Diagnosan peeps softly. "She will recuperate soon."

"What's the story, doc? Can you fix her sight?"

Wiliansh swivels its head to peer at John from around the filter mask. "Will report when she is able to absorb information." It flutters around Chi a little more, chittering to itself while tucking cushions under her feet and head. After she finishes her drink Wiliansh straightens and gestures Aeryn and him into the hygienic chamber.

"S'okay." Chi waves them off with one hand, the other pressed over her forehead like a wilting southern belle. "Rygel and Nelet are already on their way."

Aeryn leans over, brow creased with concern, the cryocase tucked tight in her arm like a football. "We can wait until they arrive if you'd rather--"

"Go already, you're making my head ache even more."

Wiliansh ushers them into the hygienic chamber and closes the door gently behind them. The Diagnosan regards them, tilting its head like a praying mantis. John is unprepared for the excited chirp when Willy addresses them. "Hybridization is quite exciting!"

He wonders if this is how an orchid feels. It certainly is warm in the room, not to mention the odd sweet camphor smell. Willy leads John onto the low platform, takes his coat, then motions him to sit on the exam bed.

John has never liked going to the doctor, even before one had to go fishing in his brain for Scorpy's lost car keys, but he sits calmly and lets Willy do her work, his work, whatever. It mutters to itself out loud in a soft chirp interspersed with words that translate, more a test of his medical vocabulary than actual communication but some sense gets through.

'Mitochondria' trips off the doc's bird tongue and catches John's attention. His metabolism runs hotter than a Sebacean, but Willy explains that any hybrid children will take after Aeryn in that regard and not him, so heat rejection won't be a factor.

He wonders what other disasters they've narrowly avoided, and which ones they've met with already.

He hadn't realized that if the kid was too much like him, it would be like having a furnace inside running hotter and hotter as the baby grew. His stomach clenches in a moment of sympathetic horror for Scorpius, and the image of him tending Aeryn in her fever takes on a completely different feel, less about menace than penance, an act of atonement as well as the recovery of a valuable resource.

Aeryn runs her thumb along the smooth edge of the case in her lap, and he knows it's the first time she's touched it since the funeral. Every time he visited Zola, she hadn't been moved and the only thing marring the shine of her case was the smudge of his own fingerprints. Peacekeepers aren't sentimental about bodies, and her repetitive touch has the distracted feel of boredom and unease.

Wiliansh's bedside manner is brisk despite the muttering, and the exam is quick but thorough. His health seems good, or at least satisfactory, and even though he's the only one of his kind in this neck of the woods he's not very interesting to Wiliansh. It's comforting in a way.

"Similar to Interon," it says dismissively, wielding an implement that looks oddly like a hole-punch. "Perhaps deeper analysis will reveal variances. Your hand, please?"

John offers his hand and tries not to wince when Willy takes a tic-tac sized divot of flesh from his inner forearm.

"I will require a sample of your genetic fluid as well."

Aeryn snickers. She still looks like she's been through the wringer, but that smile crooks her mouth like a dead man's curve, and he smiles back at her as he answers the doc. "I can arrange that."

Willy holds out a thin hand, as if to stop John from complying immediately. "After the examination has concluded, please."

When Aeryn's turn comes Willy shoos him out. Everything about reproduction is more invasive for the woman and he's more than willing to cool his heels in the waiting room.

Besides, she'll probably wear her holster even in the stirrups, and John's not interested in catching any friendly fire, no thank you.

He realizes by the taste of that line of thought that he's exhausted, and he stretches out on the empty bench to rest his eyes until Aeryn's done.

"Your body resists the foresight, and that is what is causing your eyes to fail." Nelet activates a holodisplay that shows a lot of pretty colors and exciting movement.

Chiana isn't interested in graphics until she can get her eyes working right first. "I've never heard of foresight."

"Our research indicates that foresight is an uncommon trait, and also politically disadvantageous within the Nebari Cooperative. Wewere able to find an excellent series of lectures from a conference on the topic, held at the Delvian healing colony of Mardash--suffice to say that such an early and rapid manifestation is even more unusual, and is perhaps a source of the difficulty you've experienced."

D'Argo knows enough not to touch Chiana when she's nervous, so he channels his concern into soft-spoken questions. "What is foresight, exactly?"

"Foresight is the ability to sense reality paths." Nelet realizes that no one is interested in her graphic and so clicks it off. "Much like vision can show one the obstacles in one's way, foresight can give one a sense of likely futures and how avoidable or unavoidable they may be."

"How can she see something that hasn't happened yet?"

"It is hard to explain a sense to someone who does not have it." Nelet leans forward. "Those without foresight do not see things until they actually happen--it is like walking through thick fog, where one cannot see or smell anything approaching until one bumps into it. Foresight is like the ability to see for a certain distance, the fog thins, and events can be sensed before they happen. Some things are sensed that do not happen--like an object in the fog that passes to the side of one.

"Occasionally, an event is sensed clearly enough and far enough ahead that it can be steered towards or steered away from. This is more complex than it sounds and often problematic--there were several monographs on this topic at the conference and the general consensus was that preparation for an event was a more prudent strategy than attempting to avoid it. Events reorganize themselves quite easily in the time frames in which most cases of Nebari foresight operate."

"Yeah, payback's a hezmot." She catches D'Argo's pained expression and looks down where her left hand circles her right wrist, brutally twisting the skin back and forth. He's kissed those scars, so she forces herself to stop. The itch underneath the numb band of scar persists.

"Foresight normally develops quite slowly, allowing the eyes and brain to mature along with it. The sudden onset of yours has caused difficulty, and your brain has shunted the sensory overload to your skreelam. It has become quite robust under the stimulation, but its capacity is finite. It appears that you've gained some conscious control over it, and have learned to discharge the tension back into the visual system of your brain. You gain some conscious experience of foresight, but the overload is extremely deleterious."

"The blindness."

"As well as the perception of time slowing down, both of these are side-effects of the forced overload. There is also, if I am not mistaken, a deep sense of release that accompanies it."

"Relief, yeah."

"Which is why you persist despite the injury that follows." Nelet tilts her head in empathy. "It is taking longer and longer to recover, and the accumulated damage will lead to permanent blindness."

Chiana hears a little mewling sound come from D'Argo's chest, but she's expected to hear this news for so long that it doesn't even sting, it just feels sad.

"You must have new eyes, ones that will serve you better for both foresight and normal vision. We can accomplish this in less than two monens time."

"Excuse me, good sir."

John's eyes feel sticky and the sense of dreaming clings even though the images have fled. He sits up on the bench, swings his boots to the floor.

The being in front of him is wiry and about Granny's height, dressed in a loose robe of light unbleached fabric and woven sandals. He's covered in peach fuzz the color of rust, variegated red to maroon in a way that defines the way his limbs are put together--the same way Chi's smoky marks define her. He's a Wodawe, and he wears the white waist sash of the lucky ones who work in the medical facility instead of the fields.

"I am sorry to interrupt your rest cycle, but the Diagnosan Wiliansh requires one last specimen and the quicker it is supplied the sooner she will be able to determine the nature of the difficulty, and prescribe the needed remedy."

John sighs, takes the lidded labeled cup and follows the Wodawe nurse to a small examining room.

"Please feel free to leave it on the table right here, and press this signal button before you leave." The nurse shuts John into the room, spare and bright and devoid of anything remotely conducive to the task at hand.

John reminisces briefly about when he used to spank it solely for fun.

"Once your existing organs of sight have been removed--"

"Oh no!" Chiana stands and steps back so fast her chair skitters out behind her. D'Argo's right next to her, trying to lay a hand on her arm even as she bats him away. "Nonono--uh-uh--no way."

"Hear her out, at least...okay?" He's so calm and solid that he grounds her with his voice alone. "Just listen to what she has to say, and then decide."

"No one is scooping out my eyes, D'Argo."

"Whatever you decide, I'm here. It's up to you." He lays a hand on her shoulder and gives a gentle squeeze. "But we should know what's going on first, don't you think?"

She shrugs her other shoulder and nods. She sits quietly while her heart races and Nelet continues, imagining her skreelam growing fat with tension.

"Selective stimulation and nourishment of the visual pathways will re-build your eyes from the brain outward. You will grow new eyes. After a period of adjustment you will find these new eyes will be far superior to what you presently have left of the original structures, even better than your old ones were when they were healthy."

"And if I don't do this?"

"It is of course your choice. But if you do not accede to treatment, sooner or later you will be permanently blind."

"So it's now or never?"

"Indeed not, the procedure can be done at any time. But your youth is a factor in your favor, as well as the present opportunity--Diagnosans are rare in this region of the universe, and the Diagnosan Wiliansh is unparalleled in her experience with such rare species as your own."

D'Argo's skin crawls with the anxiety coming from Chiana. He wants to take her out of this facility and calm her down in all the ways he knows how, but she's decided to stay and listen to the tiny Nelet describe every gruesome aspect of the treatment the Diagnosan has planned for fixing her vision.

Bravery consists of accepting fear and continuing despite it, and D'Argo has never seen such a marathon display of bravery, has never witnessed how it's perhaps as uncontrollable as the fear it rides.

He firmly pulls her out of the operating room when she asks to see the devices they will use to remove her eyes. "You do not want to see their tools, Chiana. Trust me on that."

"Instruments." Nelet corrects. "And the gentleman is quite right about that, I would prefer to keep them in the sterilizer field."

"I'm going to do this, D'Argo. But I need to know what I'm getting into."

D'Argo looks down at Nelet, mindful of where she is at all times, lest he accidentally step on her. "What will the recovery process entail?"

"Would you please follow me?" Nelet leads them to what she calls the Main Therapy Room, and when the lights go up it seems smaller than advertised, dominated by a tall, clear plexipane cylinder set into a wide control base. A portable stair next to it allows access to a small platform at the top, where nimble patients can enter and leave. A small winch on the ceiling suspends a soft harness, for less mobile patients. The tank is unoccupied, filled with a milky-blue solution.

"The recovery process will take about seven weekens by your chronometer. You will be suspended in the growth medium for six to eight arns at a time, separated by an arn rest period during which you can excrete, medicate and take in a supplementary nutrient solution."

"In there?"

D'Argo tenses against the rise in her voice, and Nelet goes so far as to reach up and take one of Chiana's hands between both of hers.

"I have had this type of therapy myself, and I found suspension quite restful. The medications involved make the time go by very quickly and pleasantly."

"There's good drugs?"

"Oh yes."

Chiana eyes the tank. "There better be."

"There is a great deal of sleep involved in your therapy, it is the best state for the body to be in while the brain directs the growth of your new eyes."

"So where's my air hose?"

Nelet blinks.

"You know, air, how do I breath in there?"

"The growth medium is highly oxygenated and many of the nutrients can be absorbed best through the lungs. You will breathe the liquid itself."

D'Argo is even more impressed with her bravery after she simply nods, takes her leave, and waits until she's back on Moya to vent the panic and dread.

John controls the urge to make the six million dollar man noise again, but just barely, and only because Chi's anger has taken on a hysterical edge and she's armed with a fork. Plus there's nothing very action-y about the way she's sullenly shoveling her dinner into her mouth. "Want to talk about it?"


He shrugs, refocusing on the task of finishing his own plate before he falls face down into it.

Noranti sets another helping before Chiana and pats her shoulder, a remarkable act of courage considering that her earlier attempts at sympathy only earned her a snarl and a cup aimed like a missile.

Granny's got decent reflexes, though, and a strange and overdeveloped need to comfort. Maybe she just wants the gory details. Probably both.

John's not going to give Noranti any details or any ideas. Chi's having a hard enough time as it is without the added fuss of having to smother the old woman to shut her up.

Bruises darken Chiana's skin, from Luxan and Banik hands. John doesn't know the whole story, just the highlights. That she had some kind of emotional fit in the landing bay. That she had to be tackled to the floor. That Stark had to show her his happy place to stop the shrieking. That D'Argo's hiding out in command with an icepack on his mivonks.

That she's going to spend the next few months in a tank, and he really can't call any of the above an over-reaction. He saw the tank. Thing looks like a monstrous blender.

He runs out of food on the plate and mechanically takes his dishes to the sink, and takes his leave for the night.

For Moya's night, anyway. Planetside days and nights are twenty arns long apiece, so John has time for a good eight hours of being dead, before they all regroup and go back down to the surface to load up their secret cargo in the middle of the night.


Rygel learned that word on Earth and he likes it more and more. It not only illustrates the concept of delicately handling someone through the painfully obvious, but it also captures how highly annoying the process is.

And how highly annoying the Ypree are, with their constant need to be reassured of their superiority and the luxury of their surroundings. Rygel's been their guest for arns and he's quickly running out of things to compliment.

His host is the governor of the colony, though it's more of a resort for the illustrious than any kind of functioning city or base. The moneyed and the famous come to take in the pastoral scenes and the long warm sunny days. Ypree make some kind of vitamin in their frizzy golden fur...Rygel's trying to forget the details of the health benefits.

They keep offering him moist towels. He knows he's committing some kind of faux pas by not accepting them, but at the moment he finds that small social discomfort preferable to the dilemma of what he'd actually do with said towels if they arrived.

No doubt said towels would arrive on a carved crystal platter, Rygel grouses to himself, because these Ypree have the aesthetic taste of a whacked-out silpanik whore. His eyes are beginning to hurt from the dazzle of all the shiny surfaces in the sitting lounge, the shimmery fabrics draped around the assembled guests, the jeweled combs stuck seemingly at random in the bushy manes circling Ypree heads.

He nods and smiles and commiserates over the dearth of good help these days. Like they have any corner on that market. They should try contending with the zoo he lives with every day.

It's time. They should be loading the cargo right now.

John settles into the co-pilot seat of the pod, hastily showered and shaved but well-rested from nine hours of solid black unconsciousness. Aeryn's been up for arns already, but she doesn't give him the hard look he's expecting for having slept in. She looks him over as if she's pleasantly surprised he made it at all.

She starts up again as soon as Pilot clears her pod from the bay, and though it's apropos of nothing, he knows exactly what she's talking about from the sober contemplation in her voice. "I told you before that you're just like him. But you're not."

Belatedly, he recognizes that look of pleasant surprise. When she taught him how to fight, it was the look she got whenever he picked his sorry ass up off the mat and faced off with her one more time.

He stares out the view-pane and braces himself for another round of You Can't Handle the Truth. His head begins to ache. She repeats herself, distracted by negotiating the transition from docking web to free flight. "You are not just like him."

I knew John Crichton. I slept with John Crichton, and I blew a metric fuckton of Scarrans to Kingdom Come with John Crichton. You, sir, are no John Crichton.

"So much of what was good about him..." She struggles to find the words, oblivious to the resigned dread that churns underneath his stoic composure. Or maybe she does know but it isn't germane to the topic at hand. "So much remains the same...only...harder. Your mercy is less impulsive, but your empathy is deeper. You're less confident, but more competent. I...could never have told the other man about Scorpius and expected him to understand."

He notices the careful smoothness of her piloting and thinks maybe she's as wary of his response as he is of what's going to come out of her mouth next. There is no inflection in his tone, nothing left after he's carefully checked every hope and fear. "And the downside?"

"The downside..." She catches his gaze and in that moment there's nothing between them to mitigate or deflect her own raw emotion. They both turn back to the view port. "The downside is that I know how very fragile you are. He was out of my sight for a quarter of an arn, John. Not even. And all I could do was watch him die."

He shifts in his seat to look at her, remembering the sound of her drowning as it blared through the open comms channel. Frostbite and rope burns from when they pulled her body out of the water. The way D'Argo carried her sodden corpse, like a B-movie monster. The way he glared as John cried and picked ice out of the cold tangles of her hair. "I know."

It's safe to say that he's imagined more things between her and his evil twin than they'd ever had time to do, but none of his flagellating fantasies were ever as painfully intimate as hearing her describe his death in her spare words, rough voice.

"He was better for an arn or two, while we all boarded Talyn and left the system. But it came back, and his body began to fail. He seized on the command deck. Crais and I carried him to the captain's quarters. He began to bleed. I could see the pulse in his neck, fast and shallow. I watched it slow. He had time to say goodbye, and then we talked, alone, until he stopped breathing. He was content, at the end. He'd done what he set out to do. I cleaned his body, and we released it into a decaying solar orbit in an adjacent system."

He doesn't belong in this pod with her, hearing this. He listens anyway, because her story has the momentum of something that needs to come out. The first traces of atmosphere rock the pod more than usual, most of her attention divided between the stealth trajectory and pouring her heart out. Pouring like someone determined to get very drunk, very quickly, while still using a glass.

"I could never get drunk enough on Valldon to see the right ghosts. Frauds, memories, regrets, trash in the corridors, but no one who could explain to me why it was worth it." She shakes her head and takes the pod down through the atmosphere and takes him down through her grief. "When we came back to Moya it was more of the same, only the ghost was real. I couldn't...I did what I set out to do, and then I left."

It occurs to him that she didn't leave to grieve in peace so much as to have the freedom to seek death. He remembers her black laughter as she described her ghost talking her out of her own solar dive.

"Even before he brought me back to Moya, I was sick of myself. Sick of hurting. When I realized I wouldn't die, I began to see what was around me. That the ghost was real. That I had another chance if I was strong enough to take it."

She could have the other guy back, so long as they didn't mention that he wasn't really the other guy. It was part of the shell-game they played on Katratzi, pretending he'd been the one to obliterate a dreadnaught, but it came home with them afterward. It was something he'd strapped on like Winona--because he had to, because it made sense--and then found he couldn't get to sleep without having it in reach. She slipped on occasion, referred to things he didn't share, but he let it slide. It took him months to get used to Winona; he could learn to wear another man's shoes.

She breaks cloud cover with, "After what happened in the workshop, I had to acknowledge that you were unquestionably a different man. And that you confused the hell out of me."

The workshop. The brutal quickie when they first consummated their marriage, with verbal cuts in place of foreplay. The other guy would never have done that to her, he was a gentleman and a hero.

She startles him out of his reverie with a laugh. "I had no idea you could frell like that."

He stares at her, brought up short. "And you say I confuse you."

"Not so much anymore." Her eyes scan her instruments for landing and her mouth quirks in a smile. "Nothing I can't handle."

Nothing she can't handle.

She sets them down in a field and powers the pod down. His eyes adjust to the dim safety lighting and he can see a group of Wodawe headed for the pod. "I'm sorry about him."

She inhales but it doesn't come out as words, just a fleeting furrow and blink.

What can he say beyond that? I'm sorry you had to settle for me? I'm glad you were able to adjust? "He was a good guy." And for once it doesn't feel like a self-compliment or a lie.

"Did you hate him?"

John's disbelief breaks out as a grin. "Can we talk about this later?"

"I don't see why. It's a simple question, yes or no."

He stands and activates the door and stairs.

Aeryn calls after him. "Do you still?"

He strides up to meet the farmers.

John sits down next to D'Argo on the low wall surrounding the medical compound. He watches the Wodawe loading the pod under starlight, and sums up the political situation in four words. "Professors vs. mall cops."

D'Argo nods his head at the assessment. "Gentle academics overrun by big fish from a little pond."

"Resort developers cum conquistadors. Herb Tarlicks with tasers." John's still not used to the Luxan sharing a part of his frame of reference, and sometimes he finds himself backing into further obscurity just to prove he still can. "You think it's a good idea for us to get involved, man? We have the funds to pay the doc in cash, we don't have to barter like this."

"Have you seen the scars on the Wodawe?"

Ruts through their velvet fur, souvenirs from the time before the supervisors were issued sleek new cattle-prods. The Ypree let them run their village with less interference, but discipline in the fields is strictly enforced. "And the graveyard over the hill, yeah."

"They started out with over six hundred scientists. Now they still number almost six hundred, but half of them are born and raised as farming slaves."

" really think it's a good idea for us to get involved?"

"Another generation and they will all be peasants and slaves."

"Good old plantation life."

"Besides, we're only ferrying some goods to and from their homeworld. It's not like we're coming in with guns blazing."

"We're just a supply line."

"We'll be long gone before the war erupts."

"That's a change. We usually bring it with us."

"Did you get a chance to speak with Wonack?" D'Argo watches as the last storage case is wrestled up Lo'La's ramp. "She's a metallurgist."

"Yeah, thanks for pointing her out." John looks at the village in the distance where the 'farmers' are having a noisy party. It's a calculated distraction that's turned into what looks like a genuine good time. "She was so happy to talk about her field, it took a while to calm her down enough to determine a common set of terms. After she brought me up to speed, she had some great suggestions."

D'Argo shakes his head. "They could be doing so much more here than planting."

"It's like driving out the faculty of William and Mary and making them live in Colonial Williamsburg." He catches himself, and duly translates. "That shit ain't right."

"No, it is not."

"So what do you think is in those units?"

"Whatever they're exchanging for weapons supplies."

It's John's turn to shake his head. "You'd think their own people would help them out for free."

D'Argo shrugs. "The Ypree think these people are well on their way to domestication. I would like to see their faces when they find out how wrong they are."

"Yeah. Hey, once we lock down, you want to go hang out at the party? Chi's already there."

"And Aeryn?"


John doesn't volunteer any more and D'Argo doesn't ask. He's not even sure what to ask, even though he thinks hard as the silence stretches between them. The last two Wodawe pad down the ramp and acknowledge D'Argo with a nod. "Do you think the Ypree allow them alcohol?"

"Man, they've got chemists." John grins. "They make their own everything."

D'Argo stands decisively, brushing the dust from his rump. "Let's go."

Hand-wired lights are strung from the eaves and through the thin trees. Bugs zip through beams of light diffused by wood smoke and cook pot steam. The music is loud and thumping, some of the rhythmic poetry that Chiana liked from earth. She's dancing with Aeryn in the middle of a pack of thrashing Wodawe, though on closer inspection, Aeryn's only swaying slightly as she tries to sing along to the lyrics Chi's shouting at the top of her lungs.

Rygel hovers over with Nelet as they approach. She's got a home-made ceramic mug in her hand and D'Argo can smell the alcohol from where he stands. She's sitting on the back of Rygel's throne, little bird legs draped over his shoulders and her flat rounded feet bare, one of them cupped in the Hynerian's free hand.

John coughs violently.

Nelet pokes Rygel in the chest with her heel, spurring him like a mount. He harrumphs and asks, "Is everything set?"

D'Argo nods.

She smiles and Rygel hums. "Good, good." They motor off and John catches D'Argo's eye with a shudder.

They each start with a heaping plate and a generous mug.

John gnaws on something like a rib, smoky meat falling off the bone. They make better moonshine here than he ever got the hang of on Elack. Of course, they're actually using food and not food cubes. Chiana's obviously big on the Beastie Boys, but with her grasp of English only God knows what words she's teaching Aeryn. The Wodawe don't seem to mind hearing the song a few times as long as there's something to dance to.

No soft sucker with a parrot on his shoulder 'Cause I'm bad gettin' bolder, cold gettin' colder

You're not the man I married, she said. The surprising thing isn't her sudden grasp of the obvious, but his bottomless capacity to be stung by it. Less confident, she said. More empathetic, but less merciful. Harder. More dangerous.

Yeah, well, fake it till you make it. Worked at Katratzi.

Skirt chasing, free-basing, killing every village We drink and rob and rhyme and pillage

She could have done a lot of good with her own commandos. She may still. She's got her tiny black T-shirt on, hair down and a big smile as she laughs with Chi, shouting pirate songs as if she isn't a cop at heart. To protect and to serve.

We got maidens and wenches, man they're on the ace Captain Bligh is gonna die when we break his face

He wants to see her happy, wants to see the universe become a safer place. He wants to see what their children would look like, even though the thought of their teenagers scares the crap out of him.

Snatching gold chains, Viking pieces of eight I got your money and your honey and the fly nameplate

She catches his gaze and he turns his attention to draining his mug. He's not up for dancing, but the alcohol may change his mind. This late-night barbecue is technically their lunch, and they had a busy morning loading the pods. He should have eaten more before he started on the shine.

*Yo ho ho and a pint of Brass Monkey
And when my girlie shakes her hips, she sure gets funky*

When he sets the mug down she's standing in front of him, the soft skin of her belly at eye level. The shine's buzzing through him and he stares at that spot like a wormhole's going to open any second, funneling out of her navel. Navel's just a birth scar, he thinks, right over the spot where the next generation sparks.

It's probably the alcohol but suddenly the idea of knocking Aeryn up feels less like a disaster and more like a patented Crichton plan. A disaster in disguise, yes, but also something that might actually work out anyway.

Fake it till you make it. She takes his plate and pulls him to his feet. She's bright-eyed and beautiful and she's taking him home, or at least, she's taking him to a little wooded spot away from the dancing and the lights.

Things are so much smoother when they don't even try to talk.

They're going to scoop out her eyes tomorrow, but it's not too late to back out, say no, and take her chances with what she's got.

She's avoided the foresight for nearly two monens now, allowed her vision to recover as much as it can. The doc tells her that she's already lost clarity and distance, and if she's honest with herself, she knows the doc's right.

She can feel the vision itching to be released again.

"You're thinking about it again, am I wrong?" Finip is young and a brighter shade than most of the other Wodawe, he was one of the children born after the Diagnosan was brought to the colony, now a full-grown farmer and secretly being tutored in microbial studies. He's well-fed, muscular under his velvet fur, soft-spoken, and there's a gentle precision to his movements that calms her.

"Nebari don't have a good sense of smell and our hearing's okay but not great. My eyes are the only way I have to know what's going on around me. When I can't see, it's like I can't even breathe."

Finip lays a hand on her arm and smiles. "Wiliansh is a superior physician, and a good person. If she says something is true, it is true. If she says she can fix something, it's already as good as fixed. She's helped us immensely."

Chiana tries to smile but it sputters out. Finip leans over, brushes his fuzzy cheek against hers and whispers into her ear, bringing out a stronger smile. She pulls him back toward the fire and the dancing.

The last time they decided to neck in the meadows, it was business more than pleasure, and they didn't get very far. Just a zip, a quick diddle and a few encouraging moans before the geckos showed up, like a cop tapping on the window right after you've found a good spot to park. There's no Scarran squad patrolling the fields this time, no flowers and no bomb strapped to his heartbeat like a chaperone. And apparently, it's his turn.

She must have scouted the tree beforehand because she leads him right to it. The trunk spreads out a few feet from the ground, forming a low lopsided seat. She pushes him down to sit in the crotch of the tree and joins him there, rough scrape of leather against bark, warm skin, silky hair.

She sits astride his lap and settles in as comfy as can be, separated by two layers of leather and associated underpants. He's buzzed and low-key, still shocky enough to rejoice that she's here for something other than conversation. The night's warm and unhurried, the groping as slow as the sedate whirring of the insects in the grass.

Her whisper is warm in his ear. "The evaluation was uneventful."

"That's good, right?" He kisses her, fingers tangling in her loose hair.

She breaks contact to lean her forehead against his. "Yes, that's good. But I'm not up for frelling."

He exhales abruptly, and reaches to still her hips. The way she's grinding against him isn't exactly fair, but he doesn't let his frustration show, even lets her kiss him a last time as she slides her boots down to stand before him.

She looks down at him for a moment while he catches his breath. Then she kneels in the grass, sidled up between his thighs, and he realizes she has an alternate plan. This time he pulls her close for a kiss.

He leans up to meet her and she rucks his shirt up in front, suckles her way under his chin and down his throat. She catches a nipple between gentle teeth, lightly scrapes and then works her way down as he brushes her hair back from her face.

Being so long in space, so weirded out when he finally got back to Earth, he hadn't realized how erotic planetary night could be. Maybe it's Pavlovian, so many of those early memories of parking in the woods and necking until the cab of the four-by was coated on the inside with steam.

The whir of insects and the faint thump of music are punctuated by closer sounds, sharp breaths and subtle moans.

The zip comes down with a loud ripping sound in the stillness, and a soft intake of her breath that makes him even harder.

With his t-shirt up and the black leather pushed aside, his skin is pale in the dark. It hasn't seen the sun since Earth, and the distant party lights reflect from it, illuminating her face a little. If she notices his white-boy glow, she doesn't seem to mind.

She also takes it in stride when his gentle sweeping of her hair turns into a firm grip, she simply relaxes her jaw and lets him thrust for a moment before pinning his hip with one hand. She takes back control with a slurp that he feels in his toes. She draws it out, wrings the pleasure out of him by degrees.

Leathers have padding at the knees, she could be here all night if she chose. Stars are visible through the leaves of the tree, when he can keep his eyes open long enough to see them.

At length she builds the intensity, finally going full throttle and full-throat, hands and mouth. Every few strokes she pauses to suck so hard, he has fleeting thoughts of vampires with red lips and coal-black hair, and eyes that stare right into his soul as he catches handholds in the tree around him and comes hard.

She strokes and swallows through it, milking him until he shudders and leans to the side against a crooked trunk, pulling her back onto his lap and holding on.

Wiliansh catches them both when they drift back to the party, and though flustered, she/it makes an effort to speak as slowly and as simply as possible. She blinks frenetically, laying long fingers on John's arm. "The preliminary results are distressing."

Loose and well-used as he is, his body tightens down. He catches Aeryn doing a quick check of the area, a useless habit in this instance but ingrained. "What's wrong?"

"The offspring was clearly sired by you, but I fear that you are now unable to...your genetic component is damaged. I may be able to initiate a conception with it but I would advise against--"

Paired exhalations stop Wiliansh short, but her blinking continues apace as Aeryn blurts with disbelief, "You forgot to tell the Diagnosan about the venikka?"

"Yeah, I guess so."

She shakes her head in a long-suffering way but then she looks at him from the corner of her eyes, and he knows she's chalked it up to his general brain damage and not taken it as any kind of message or sign. He's pretty sure it isn't.

"I am unfamiliar with this term, venikka." Wiliansh's blinking has slowed down to more of a windshield wiper pace.

"It's, well, it's an herb I took, to keep from getting her pregnant until she recovered, you know, until we could consult with you about whether it was safe or not," he rambles to a stop and turns to Aeryn. "Where's Noranti?"

She spots Granny and points her out to the Diagnosan. "The old woman can tell you more about it."

Wiliansh doesn't look like she's eager to engage Noranti in another medical discussion just yet, so she places her hand on Aeryn's arm. "I will also need to see the Leviathan and the Pilot, to take samples for your further tests."

Aeryn nods and they blow to party to take the Diagnosan aboard her first living ship.

"Here, look." Finip pulls at the cloth wrapped around his waist and Chiana peers into his lap, rapt with curiosity. The Wodawe have a youngling pouch, and Finip's packing. The creature is tiny and bare, tucked into a tight translucent curl like a baby rat, attached to Finip's belly by a tiny nubbin of nipple. "He's my brother's child."

Chiana grins at him. "You're babysitting?"

"I will be his father." Finip blows gently on the youngling and it nuzzles closer to his belly. He chuckles and tenderly tucks the pouch around it, adjusts his hip-wrap to cover the seam in his short velvety fur. "When your crewmates come back with our supplies, some of us are leaving the colony at that time, myself included. I am taking this little one away when I go back to the home planet."

"Won't the Ypree notice when a bunch of you go missing?"

Finip grins.

"I've seen that look before. You guys have a plan."

Finip studies her.

"Oh yeah." She nods and drains her mug. "I've seen that look before."

"You will be in the tank for monens you said."

"More or less."

"Can you keep a secret?"

Chiana licks the homebrew from her lips and narrows her eyes.

Stark likes the privacy and the quiet, but there are plenty of places on Moya to hide. What he loves about being in the antechamber is that he can watch the baby growing. Tunnel doors at floor level pierce the wall that blocks him off from a full view of the growing ship, and the DRDs don't mind if he looks through them now and then as long as he doesn't block the constant flow of traffic for too long.

They're not above pinching or shocking him if he loiters, so most of the time he contents himself with the little bits he can see through the tunnel doors from where he sits a few motras away.

His luxuries are a cushion to sit on and some provisions, so he can be there for days at a time. The ship is growing fast, and he doesn't like to miss things. It's bigger than a shuttle pod now. Stark has been told the gender but he doesn't remember, the low hum of the wakening soul and the deep rich blue of the hull are far more interesting.

He's learned to recognize the different kinds of DRDs; which are Moya's, which are gifts. A few of the gifts are fast and studded with tools, and they come back out of the tunnel when they're finished with their current task. Most of the gifts are big and slow, and when they trundle in they don't come back out, their only purpose to deliver material resources for the building of the ship.

Stark lays a hand on the shell of each resource DRD as it lumbers toward the tunnel door, and says a prayer of gratitude.

John stays behind to unload the pod while Aeryn takes Wiliansh on the tour. She's going to have to stay behind at the colony for the first trip at least, while the Diagnosan figures out how the Pilot DNA might be affecting her.

He hasn't been planetside for any stretch of time since Earth, and he's begun to realize how very little he actually absorbed from his stay there. Daylight and breezes and life all over the place, plants and bugs and critters just going about their own unthreatening business. It strikes him as exotic now. It'll be like a vacation, a chance to spend some time with Aeryn and let the dust settle.

Figure some things out. Strike some kind of balance between the two of them without driving the others crazy.

She'd asked if he hated the other John, and he wonders when he stopped. Even when he listened to the ghost in Stark's machine, when he saw the man dying, wearing his mother's radiation smile as he bequeathed both his mission and his lover; right in the mix along with pity for the man and empathy for Aeryn, the rage was still there. Twisted and sick, making him nauseous with jealousy.

It was still there when she left, the frustration of being left to deal with the bitter aftermath of actions he didn't take.

Now all that's left is a resigned pity, and he doesn't know when that happened.

The baby wears Aeryn's serious expression, legs kicking lazily and arms held stiffly out to the sides as she watches her mother unsnap the onesie from between her chubby thighs. Aeryn catches both baby feet in one hand like a pro, lifting the girl to ruck up her clothing.

John leans over, brushes his hand over the baby's silky dark hair, and joins the infant in watching Aeryn.

She strips the child and cleans her off with the same efficient precision she uses to clean her gun. There is no indication that the strange-colored shit bothers her in the slightest. John hands her the powder and she dusts the child down, patting the tiny thighs and miniature genitalia with an open smile. The baby responds with a few serious grunts as she kicks her legs.

He hands Aeryn a square of soft cloth and their fingers touch. She catches his look and for a moment her face mirrors that of the infant, a sober problem-solving expression. She shakes herself back into the rote task at hand, folding the cloth and fastening it at the hips with odd little clasps.

He realizes that whatever reality he's in, it's not one where they're sharing a bed or having sex. This parameter doesn't bother him. It ramps up his need to touch her, the unfulfilled need feeling better than the reality has lately.

That's the thought that starts a low depressing drone in the background as he watches her put the baby to rights.

He's fucking up with her. He can feel it like an itch that he can't help scratching. He wants to work things out, wants to trust and love her without any second-guessing, but he can't stop tensing for the blow, can't quite trust her not to hurt him again, still, more.

Aeryn's trying to work a plump elbow into the wide sleeve of a tiny black flight suit, but the child is starting to squirm.

"Here, let me help." He picks the infant up, supporting her head and chest while Aeryn slips the little arms in and seals the front seam. The helmet looks like a fishbowl and locks into the suit like a papoose, no constriction at the neck and no wiggle room for the head to loll dangerously.

The stiff cradleboard of the infant's suit and helmet lock into a harness that Aeryn wears over her own suit. She holds her non-gun arm protectively over the baby, who slaps at her forearm and babbles silently in her helmet. She must like it in there, or at least like the view. Her mother's eyes are just as wide, but she doesn't like what she sees.

Her voice is carefully neutral, prickly with resignation, resolution, and regret. "Are you coming with us, or not?"

He shakes his head, not to answer her, but to deny the question. He shakes it because he can't talk, because he's waking up and his neck is at a bad angle.

The sheets need to be changed, the stale smell of the two of them edging from comfortable into animal. She's already up, probably planetside even though it's still the middle of the night down there.

He smiles at the memory of sex to the tune of slow alien crickets. He's been meaning to ask her for his picture back, but she has a way of decisively changing the subject.

He's still not sure what to think about the whole scenario, and his brain kicks on like a coffee machine as he takes a shower and gets dressed.

Scorpius wants to draft Aeryn onto the team, and it's a worthy goal even if his methods of pursuing it are unethical at best. John has little ground to judge ethics at this point; it's an easier line to cross than he'd ever imagined.

Back on topic. Aeryn could do a lot of good to make the universe safe for Sebaceans, and safe for Humans when they finally emerge from the hinterlands. Let's face it, the Crichton family on this side of the moon is default Sebacean. His daughter the future Empress, her siblings-to-be, whatever family he can manage with Aeryn. A drop of humanity into the Sebacean ocean. By the time the rest of his species get their space-legs, he'll have diffused out into the gene pool in parts per billion.

He still wants his picture of Zola back.

Before he'd even boarded Moya, Scorpius had known about Aeryn's pregnancy and had deduced that Zola was a hybrid. He was curious why Aeryn hadn't terminated the conception, but he didn't press for an answer. At the time, she said, she couldn't say why herself. Sentiment, perhaps. Something like hope.

And could John have been more naive to think that if he didn't talk to the woman, then Scorpius wouldn't be able to figure out what she meant to him?

No. He hasn't been that naive in a long while.

If he's honest with himself--and God knows he's more than a little sick of this game but it's the only one in town right now, and let's get one thing straight, she's not the only one with painful truths to lance--if he's honest with himself, the main tactical advantage of keeping Aeryn away all those months was to punish her.

And she knew it from the start, too, even if she didn't realize how spiteful it was until she found out about the lakka.

He wants to be her husband, to care for her, love her, grow old with her if the universe lets them. But there's a small, dark, persistent part of him that wants to hurt her, too, to make her see, to force her to understand that what she's asking for is his heart. He'll give it to her gladly, but not for free.

"The Diagnosan Wiliansh has been consulted to evaluate and treat any health concerns of the Sebacean, Aeryn Sun and the Human, John Crichton, especially any reproductive anomalies that would account for the failure of the fetus, Zola Sun."

Nelet sits in a tiny stuffed chair set on the table so that she's at conversational height. She speaks in her precise silvery voice, sipping a hot beverage from a glass set in a delicate metal holder. Aeryn lets her own glass cool, because the night isn't as cold for her as it is for Nelet, and she's far more interested in the small rolled medkit that rests on Nelet's lap.

"The only reproductive anomaly the Diagnosan Wiliansh has been able to ascertain is a remarkable ignorance of basic reproductive function on the part of the sires, if you will excuse my quoting the rather severe wording of the Diagnosan. This ignorance, if you will, will be remedied with education and access to the basic technology that the Sebacean species has developed for this purpose."

Nelet opens the seam and unrolls the kit.

"Each of these medicinals is labeled by color and I suggest that you clearly mark them yourself as well, in whatever symbols or languages are most familiar to you. Each is a highly potent signal chemical that will affect your body profoundly, and it is recommended that you follow a healthful regime of rest before and after using them, to allow your body the necessary time and resources to mount a robust response to the signal you've given."

Nelet leans down and sets the medkit onto the table, gesturing for Aeryn to pick up the small injector that takes up most of the space. The rest of the kit is divided into clear zip pockets filled with tiny bubblediscs of different colors. Two rows of seven, heavy on the green and blue.

"To utilize a medicinal, load a cap into this side slot, right here," Nelet plucks a blue disc, pulls the ends of the injector to open a space in the middle, slips the bubbledisc in and shoves the ends together. She catches Aeryn's eye to make sure she notes the click. "Then center the tip of the dispenser on bare skin midway between your navel and pubic bone and depress this top button, like so."

There's another click, a blur at the end of the injector, and a tiny fog of blue liquid settling onto the table where Nelet had aimed.

"The blue caps are balanced saline, and are used to test the equipment. It is recommended that you do so before each use. I would like to see you load a green cap and test the dispenser."

Aeryn fishes a tiny green cap out, loads the injector and makes a wet spot on the table next to the first.

"After you have dispensed a medicinal, always load a green cap and run it through to clean the equipment before replacing it into the medkit."

Aeryn repeats the instructions so far, in the way she was trained to learn since she could talk. "Test fire with a blue cap before use, and clean with a green cap after use."

Nelet nods and blinking in pleasure, pulls out a stylus. "Mark them as I describe them to you, please. These violet caps will cause a period of infertility no less than four cycles and no more than four and one quarter. These pink caps will cause a period of infertility for no less than two cycles and no more than two and one quarter. "

There are four infertility caps, each one describing a different period of time. Each of them is paired with another cap that can negate it, and restore fertility before the prescribed expiration date.

"Circumstances change," Nelet blinks with a cheerful joy that Aeryn's beginning to feel herself, "and opportunities can be seized as they present themselves."

Nelet turns to the section with caps from yellow to red. "These pale orange caps will prime your body for a stasis response. I am sure you are familiar with this, however, please indulge me as I go over the process one more time. This cap is active for no less than seven cycles and no more than eight. You are still able to become pregnant, but the conception will remain in an automatic stasis until it is specifically released or specifically shed.

"What happens if the stasis isn't released? What happens when it wears off?"

"At the end of the seven to eight cycles roughly a quarter of the resulting pregnancies continue normally. The remainder do not revive from stasis, and are shed during the next reproductive cycle."

Aeryn's stylus pauses mid-symbol. "So few?"

"This ratio is nearly identical to conceptions that have not undergone stasis. Beginnings are very delicate things."

Aeryn writes in clear block Sebacean, and Nelet makes her read the labels aloud once they've worked their way through the whole kit. Caps to release a stasis; caps to shed a static conception; caps to shed an active conception of no more than two monens.

"This data chip contains the molecular identities of each of the signal chemicals in this kit, listed in the more common systems of notation. These caps are designed to remain stable for no less than forty cycles. When they lose effectiveness they will darken to black, except for the blue and green caps which will fade. Any reliable biochemist can re-supply this kit, and if you travel in any system with a Sebacean population, pre-packaged kits are often commonly available."

Aeryn rolls the medkit up and carefully seals it. Common or not, it's the first time she's been given access to the controls. To think that women make these decisions for themselves, every day, on thousands of planets, without having to tear the opportunity out of someone else's hands. Without having to pay the price that her mother paid. "Thank you, Nelet."

Nelet inclines her chin up and to the side. "This is nothing to thank me for that you are not welcome to."

Aeryn doesn't even try to parse that sentence.

"Is there anything that I have not elucidated clearly, or have neglected to explain?"

Aeryn looks at the kit in her hand, lighter and smaller than a pistol. "No, you did a good job."

"If you do think of anything, please do not hesitate to ask and I will do my utmost to satisfy your inquiry to the best of my knowledge and ability. If you will excuse me, I must meet with your mate and instruct him as well." Nelet rises out of the chair and turns to climb down the side steps of the table.

Aeryn pulls the kit into her lap, clutched tight in her fist. "Instruct him? Why?"

Nelet blinks. "I apologize if I have offended your customs in any way. Please believe it was quite unintentional." She walks back toward the little chair. "I do not know the particulars of the social bond between the two of you as mates, and to be quite honest, I am not sure it is the concern of this facility. You have been given the tools to control and utilize your fertility as you see fit. It is now your mate's turn to acquire more sound management of his own."

"His own? Oh." Aeryn loosens her grip on the medkit but still holds it in both hands, possessive.

Nelet sinks back down, blinking stridently. "Perhaps I should address more basic concerns before I leave. No doubt you are already aware of this process, but I would appreciate your polite attention as I go over it once more."

Nelet takes a long drink before she begins. "Sebaceans reproduce sexually, which means--bear with me--that your species is subdivided into male and female forms that must come together and mix their genetic components to create new Sebaceans..."

Aeryn stows her gear in the one crate that locks and tucks the key into a side pocket of her leathers.

The clinic's guest quarters are spare but welcoming, whitewashed walls, a low square platform of a bed, and a window overlooking the fields, deserted in the dark. She activates one of the biolume lamps and the glow is whiter than Moya's illumination.

She sits on the edge of the bed, looking at the medkit in her hands, the slim injector and the prism of colored discs. It's a tool like any other, like a spanner or a pulse pistol or a ship.

The Peacekeepers taught her how to kill, and life outside the command structure taught her to assess for herself when to kill, and whom. For a time, when she was trying to go back to that simple easy life, all she did was kill.

In her years of service she'd never been assigned to breeding duty. She hadn't distinguished herself enough, or perhaps she hadn't yet proven that she wouldn't pass on Xhalax's rebellious behaviour. She knew soldiers who had, and some who'd even requested a tour of breeding. They usually combined it with one or two of the expertise-level training modules, like planetary field tactics or strategic infiltration. It's how Irdi had racked up all of her higher qualifications in ordnance deployment, passing on her genes for high-G tolerance.

Aeryn had never been interested in that route to promotion, preferring to work through nearly all of the piloting modules while on active duty. She used to think it demonstrated more efficiency and drive, but now she knows it was also to avoid thinking about Xhalax.

Her mother taught her that making a life wasn't always about replenishing the ranks, sometimes it was an act of love.

Even when she'd found her own love, she wasn't comfortable with the idea of bringing someone to life because of it, the responsibility was too heavy, not something she'd been trained for, not something she could handle.

She used to be more comfortable following orders, had felt so lost when she suddenly had no one to command her. Now the thought of letting someone else make decisions for her makes her stomach knot.

She thinks of Bobby, imagines him as her own child, and she thinks of Zola, the image flimsy tucked safely into the Human book in her rucksack. She thinks of Binok, who opened a raw gash in her own hull to save her child from the parasite that had latched onto her weanling.

She thinks of the empty promise she'd made on the Scarran ship. There were so many things she could have done for Zola that she didn't think were necessary, so many risks she took out of necessity or habit. The Diagnosan won't have a full report for another weeken, but Aeryn knows that next time she'll take so much better care.

A leader commands loyalty by caring for those under her charge, and serving under a good commander is the closest thing the Peacekeepers have to being in a family. When your trust is unshakeable you'd do anything for your commander, for your platoon. For your family--she smiles, thinking of the beings on Moya who are no longer strange, no longer alien.

Aeryn knows what command feels like. She's been responsible for other people, and has given her life to protect both someone she loved, and billions she'll never meet. She's sent good men to their death to try to complete a mission, and she knows that even though the Peacekeepers call it duty and responsibility, it feels like love, and it hurts like heartache.

And a child isn't a member of a platoon, but the mission itself. She and Crichton would comprise a squad of two, tasked with the mission of keeping a helpless being safe, while teaching it to be a good person.

The challenge scares her, excites her. And she realizes that she's always known she doesn't want to do this thing alone. She wants her child to be a lot like John, to be raised to be a person she'd be proud of. To have the best of the both of them.

Command and sacrifice, responsibility and love. Binok returned to the mating space right after they arrived. Aeryn wishes she could talk to her again.

She knows that she wants to go ahead, but there's no urgency to it anymore. She has time, and she needs to know some things first. If she can safely be pregnant aboard Moya. If John is willing.

That man's always had a solid core to him, and now he's stubborn as a Luxan. But then, she's been called stubborn by a Luxan. He'll say 'yes' or she'll kill him. He can say later, but he'd better not say 'no'.

"I see you got a goody-bag, too."

He leans in the doorway at the edge of the biolume light, jacket in hand.

She shifts to make room for him on the bed. "How did your consultation go?"

He tosses the jacket onto a storage crate. "Willy had to pick Noranti's brains about venikka and sperm counts and God knows what else, so by the time she got to me she'd had it up to her bulbous forehead with the lot of us." He sinks down on the bed in front of her and lies back. "I spent the last few hours being poked and prodded and lectured, first by Tweety bird, and then Creamy the Turtle."

"Tweety bird, that's the little yellow cartoon?" She makes a claw gesture. "With the feet?"


Aeryn snickers. "Well if you kept seeing Wiliansh as a tiny cartoon bird, it can't have been too bad."

"Ever been at the mercy of a cranky Diagnosan?"

Aeryn shakes her head.

"Well, you will. Noranti plans on staying planetside for the time being and you've got that whole Pilot work-up scheduled." He rolls onto his side and his eyebrows dance at the sight of her medkit.

"I only have about half of those colors."

She smirks. "Men are simpler."


"Did you use yours?"

"Kinda." He touches the tiny injector and doesn't see the hurt look on her face. "Willy flushed the venikka out of my system and gave me something to shut me down for another month. Seems the first few batches after they start coming back from venikka are often bad quality."


"Don't want any three-eyed pinheads in the family." He looks up at her. "Plus, you know, it gives us time to talk about things."

"That's why I haven't used mine yet."

He smiles. "Remember when I made that bomb? What I told you about missile silos?"

"Two soldiers, each with a key-code and a gun. It takes both codes to launch the missile, and each soldier is authorized to kill the other."

He lifts a finger toward her. "Only if he flips out, Aeryn. The point being that it takes two guys to agree, and they each have the ultimate veto over the other."

"And this is where we are now."

"Something like that. But I'd prefer that you didn't shoot me."

"I didn't shoot you the first time you went insane, not to mention subsequent incidents, why would I change tactics now?"

"Nice." His brow furrows, crumpling his smirk. "So."


"So, do um, do Peacekeepers spank?"

"Spank what?"

"When a child misbehaves, some humans will smack them on the butt to let them know they shouldn't do that."

She schools the distaste from her features.


"On the butt?"

"They're padded there--it's not so much to hurt them as, you know, demonstrate that you're serious."

"And bigger than they are."

"Well," John concedes. "Okay, maybe that's part of it. But I've seen it work. I remember Frank paddled Bobby for running out into the street when he was four, and he never did it again, wouldn't go any farther than the sidewalk until he started going to school. Sure beat letting him get run over because he didn't know any better."

"Bobby wasn't properly respectful of the cars so his father made him afraid of the street."

John sighs.

Aeryn shrugs. "Bobby would have been in a cadet squad by that age, and physical punishments are part of cadet training. They vary according to the nature of the transgression and whether the cadet needs to be brought up short."

"Did you ever catch any?"

"Everyone does, but it's something you're expected to grow out of, you learn to prefer your own self-discipline to punishment imposed from outside."

"What kind of punishments did you get?"

"General things." She seals the medkit and tosses it onto her coat near the wall. "I don't remember specifics."


She shifts, not thrilled with the prospect of hearing again how cruel and backward the PKs are, especially now that she can see it from his perspective and agree with him somewhat. She wants to tell him about the creche instead but she's never really seen one as an adult, and her memories of being held and played with are as indistinct and vague as they are warm. Most of her recollections are only there because cadet squad was such a severe change.

She knows that human childhood is like growing up in the creche, and John didn't really enter his own cadet squad until he found himself on Moya. The thought sparks an unexpected wave of affection for him. Poor man, to be so completely unprepared for life outside of his cozy little planet.

Despite the brutal extremes of her early training, it gave her many of the tools she needed to survive. There have to be elements of both for their children, and it's best to negotiate it now. He's still waiting.

"I've been hit on the hands and arms, the face, the back. I was lashed with a crop for fidgeting, quite often at first. There was the chakkan oil burn, but when I think of how many people I could have hurt with that stunt in the weapons room, I certainly deserved that one--"

"Christ, Aeryn." He sits up on the bed, eyes wide and sick.

She shakes her head, reassuring. "Just enough to leave a mark, nothing serious."

"You still have this mark?"

She shows him a discolored place on her inner forearm, above the bandaged spot where Wiliansh had taken a tissue sample. She can barely see it herself and she knows where to look, but he's still just shy of outrage. "A cadet needs to learn how to follow orders, how to verbalize information, how to control their reactions. I was playing recklessly with a dangerous weapon and I needed to learn the consequences of my actions, that pulse fire can hurt and kill."

He swallows his own reaction.

"Cadet squad is meant to be difficult; it separates the soldiers from the techs."


"Field exercises to increase physical strength and control, systematic withdrawal of privileges to increase mental endurance."

"Like what privileges? Nintendo?"

"Food, rest, air--"

He looks at her with raw, tender horror. "Those are needs, Aeryn, not luxuries."

"These things are earned on a command carrier, John. You don't appreciate something until you know what it's like to live without it."

His voice is delicate. "You're not planning on spacing our kids to build character, are you?"

She rolls her eyes. "I'm not planning on raising cadets, John. That's why we're having these negotiations."



He scrubs his face in his hands. "Why don't we take a break?

She shrugs.

"We've got what, three weeks while Moya's gone?"

"We have about a day until she leaves, yes."

"And then it's just us and we can do all the talking we need."

She squints her eyes. "But you're going with D'Argo."

His hands drop into his lap and he blinks at her, eyes irritated pink from rubbing. "No I'm not."

"Yes, you are."

"It's a Saturday errand, he'll be fine. I'm staying here with you."

"Somebody has to go with Moya and D'Argo, and I can't, so it has to be you."

"Aeryn." His tone is a warning.

"What if D'Argo runs into trouble, what if Moya has a problem?"

"I'm not leaving you here alone."

"Why are you being so stupid about this?"

"I'm not being stupid, Aeryn. We need to talk about things, and how the hell are we gonna do that if you're down here and I'm off on Moya?"

There's a thin line of dark crud where the bandage on her cut has shifted and the bared adhesive is coated in fuzz and dirt. It needs to be changed and the stitches cleaned. She shakes her head. "It can wait until we're done here. Right now you're needed on the ship."

"What, because you've said your piece now we're done?" He catches that he's yelling and checks the volume back down. "It doesn't work that way."

She rises to her feet, agitation in the way she flicks her hands. "Why are you being difficult like this? It's only a few weekens, and if you'd pull your head out of your arse you'd recognize that your duty lies with Moya."

"Head out of my ass?" He lunges off the bed after her. "Did you learn English just so you could drive me fucking nuts?"

"Yes, that's it." She whirls around and her sarcasm flicks him like battery acid. "I learned to speak this ass-backwards language just so I could piss you off!"

"Nice mouth." The Anglo-Saxon doesn't have the same smack when it comes from her, the Sebacean accent dances with the syllables instead of pounding them. He leans down in her face, his voice raw like a skinned knee. "Did he teach you how to swear, too?"

She shakes her head, disbelieving him, and instead of a quick reply she looks at him for a long moment.

He feels stripped by her look, as if she's inspecting the scars left by jealousy the same way he kept staring at her nursery school chakkan oil burn.

"No." She continues to look right into him. "This isn't about him at all; it's about you and me."

"Yeah, well we ain't got time to discuss it now, do we?"

"We've got right now, John, and it's clear you've got something to say. So talk."

His fists are clenched as hard as his jaw, and his head aches. There's a blanket and a little crate packed with a picnic lunch, sitting out under the stars, waiting for the two of them. Out past the fields, a stack of firewood and a bag of fucking marshmallows being stood up like a blind date. He rubs his forehead. "Aeryn look at yourself."

He reaches to touch the bandage on her head, but she deflects his hand and his smothering concern. "I don't need you here, John."

The pain in his head is hot but the rest of him runs cold. There's a kind of relief to it, the release of constraint, the solid thunk of the other shoe. "Fine."

"Moya needs you, and D'Argo's going to be a wreck leaving Chiana right after her surgery."

His hands are loose at his sides. "I said it's fine."

Now it's her turn to flare up at him, but not even the cuss word cuts through the glaze of his sudden detachment. "What the hell do you mean by that?"

"Nothing, Aeryn. You're right." He walks around her toward the crate where his jacket lies. "You still have that picture I showed you yesterday?"

There's a part of him that enjoys how the anger slides off her face, and it's the loudest part of him right now.

"Can I have it back, please?"

"Y-yes, sure." She digs a keychip out of her pocket and when she moves his jacket he takes it from her hand. She notices that he doesn't set it anywhere else. "You're leaving?"

"Didn't we just settle that?"

"You know that's not what I meant." She shakes her head. "Moya doesn't leave for another ten arns. I thought you would sleep here with me."

"It's the middle of the day on Moya, I'm not tired."

She looks at him, clearly at a loss, then bends to open the storage crate. She pulls out her rucksack and sets it on top. "I don't want you to go yet."

"You don't need me here, Aeryn, why would I stay?"

"Because you love me." She speaks toward the bag, the soft black screen of her hair hanging down around her and emphasizing the pallor of her face.

"Yeah, I do." The ache has settled into his chest as well, pounding along with his head. "But I'm as useless as a screen door on a submarine here, aren't I, so why stay?"

"This is what we're smuggling?" Stark runs his hand over the burnished metal curve of a cryopak, one of many stacked on one of three pallets in the bay. "But these are marked as food rations."

Rygel chuckles. "The Ypree ship a great deal of delicacies in from their home system, and they occasionally reward the Wodawe with treats if productivity is high, or if the Diagnosan can convince them that the slaves need supplementary nutrition."

"And they hoard the food...but to what end?"

"They don't hoard the food, they eat it."

Stark checks several of the boxes in turn. "But these are activated. What are the Wodawe filling them with, then? What are they shipping home?"

Rygel hovers past him and toward the door, changing the subject. "How is the baby doing, Stark? Growing strong? Making Moya proud?"

Stark's eye is squinted nearly closed, but he follows Rygel out and stutters a reply.

Harvey strums a guitar and sings 'Frere Jacques' while John folds up the thermal blanket and shoves it into the crate, head pounding in time with clone's ding-dang-dong. He tears open the bag of marshmallows, and finds that they're the perfect shade of stale for roasting, sticky and stiff.

Some honeymoon.

He bellows and kicks apart the neat mound of firewood he'd gathered earlier, the reinforced toe of his boots thunking into the chunks as he sends them flying into the dark.

To think, back at the medical complex, two pieces of them are meeting and mingling in a petri dish, just to see if it's possible. The cells of two species working out their chromosomal negotiations, this time without any sweet taste lingering on the tongue.

The woodpile is scattered wide. He stops kicking and catches his breath, bag of marshmallows still clutched in his one hand. His throat constricts as his lungs work, and the fury sours into something directed at himself. He stuffs another couple of fluffs of stale candy into his mouth and then drops the bag into the crate, sniffs and coughs to clear his throat, clear his head. He picks up the crate to stash it in the shuttle pod.

She'd pulled the flimsy from her book and handed it to him. He'd glanced at it, tucked it into a pocket of his pants and left soon after. She'd asked if he planned to be back down before Moya left, but he only shrugged and muttered something she couldn't catch. She didn't push for an answer.

Do not swallow bait offered by the enemy. Do not interfere with an army that is returning home. When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard. Such is the art of warfare.

She closes the book, overstuffed with Human tactics for the time being. She works the cricks out of her neck and opens a comm channel. "Pilot, how is Moya?"

"She is fine, Aeryn. These last few days of rest have benefited her and the offspring both, and it is responding well to her maternal hail. Moya believes that the child will be female."

A grin breaks through Aeryn's scowl. Leviathan sons don't leave as early as Talyn had, but they do leave. Daughters stay to form the basis of the pod. "That's good news, but how does she know so quickly?"

"The energy protocols and resources that we gained from Binok's pod have allowed the child to grow very quickly. It is already the size of a shuttle pod."

Aeryn makes a quick estimate but Pilot gets there first.

"Moya believes she will be able to complete both of our errands with sufficient time before the end of the pregnancy."

Aeryn doesn't like the idea of sending Moya anywhere in her condition, but all she can do is attach as many safety lines as she can. They need to be able to communicate outside of the notice of the Ypree. "Has D'Argo come back aboard yet?"

"He plans to remain planetside until after Chiana's procedure."

"Good. Pilot, the comms are a bit frelled right now, but we'll fix up something before you leave tomorrow."

Aeryn reaches over to her rucksack and pulls out a Human notebook. She turns the biolume lamp up, shoves pillows between her back and the rough wall and begins outlining a code and communications schedule for D'Argo.

The shuttle ramp is down, and there's dim light on inside. He hears Chiana murmuring something, punctuated by a slow hiccup of a giggle. He shoves the crate inside, taking the stairs two at a time, eyes adjusting to the low glare of a couple of oil lamps set on the consoles.

Chiana leans against the wall of the shuttle, head back and eyes closed as she croons softly to the young man kneeling in front of her. He's a strapping buck of a Wodawe, his velvet fur warm red against the pale flesh of Chi's belly. Her fingers splay around his skull, stroking encouragement as he hums and gives her head.

In the moment John realizes the nature of the encounter, he takes the same action he would if he saw her aiming a gun to her temple. He cracks the Wodawe on the back of the head and hisses, "What the hell are you doing, Chi?"

He steps over the young man and yanks Chiana away from the wall.

Her head lolls forward and the confusion on her face would be funny in just about any other circumstance. She wrestles away from John and her eyes are bright in the lamplight, "What am I doing? What does it look like I'm doing?"

"I can't believe this!" He shouts at her furtively, hoping to God that D'Argo isn't anywhere nearby. "What the fuck are you trying to prove, that you can kill him by heartache alone?"

She pushes him but he catches her arms. "What, you get sick of punishing Aeryn, so now it's my turn?"

His reply is cut short by D'Argo coming up behind them. "John, let her go."

John's stomach sinks with empathy for his friend, but he lets Chiana pull herself from his grasp. He doesn't want to look at D'Argo, but he can't watch Chi fumbling her pants up over her hips so he turns, bracing for grave injury as he tries to stop the Luxan from committing murder right here in the transport pod.

The tender look on D'Argo's face stops him short.

"John, you know I value our friendship. And we both know that relationships grow and change." D'Argo takes a deep breath and sits down on the bench opposite where John stands. "Please believe me when I say that if I thought you'd react this fiercely, I would have discussed with you that Chiana was now my impajha--"

"Your what?" It occurs to John, like a random thought, that D'Argo's jacket is missing. Chiana stoops to tend to the dazed young man, keeping her eyes on the Wodawe to the exclusion of everyone else in the pod.

"My sworn battle lover." A green glass dragonfly alights on his shoulder, a jewel above the scar on his collarbone. "With your taboos, I didn't think you took LoMo that seriously, it never occurred to me to--"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," John closes his eyes, then drags them back open. "I thought we made a pact never to discuss that ever again?"

"We made a few pacts that night, one of which was to be impajha to each other." D'Argo backpedals a bit, but it's not clear if he's truly re-thinking, or just being polite. "We also pledged to be a crime-fighting duo, so perhaps I was the one taking things too seriously."

John squints, his face hot and red. It's ringing a bell that he'd purposefully buried back behind the garage of a rundown house in a bad neighborhood of his subconscious. The bond of impajha was somewhere between blood brothers and any port in a storm--meaningful, yet specifically non-monogamous.

And if D'Argo's worked out some kind of Luxan loophole for having his Chi and letting others eat her too, then John's just made a gaffe of epic proportions.

Chiana helps the young man to his feet and out of the transport pod, whispering apologies to him for the way the evening turned out. He rubs the knot on his head and then cups her cheek, smiling a reassurance before he shuffles off toward the sleeping Wodawe village.

Chiana sits down in the grass outside, face turned up to the sky.

Alone with D'Argo, John finds his voice. "I'm really sorry, D, I didn't know you guys," were swingers "had worked something out like that. I just didn't want to see you hurt again."

"So you are not upset that we are no longer impajha?"

He bites back the reply that they never really were, because obviously the Luxan has a more active memory of what happens in a deep drunk than John does, or cares to. "No, man, we've always been okay on that score."

"My friend," D'Argo breaks into one of those sunny smiles that spread like dawn over his face, "that is good to hear."

"I'm, uh," he scratches the back of his neck, "I'm gonna go apologize to Chi."

As he passes, D'Argo catches his wrist. "The agreement Chiana and I have is that we're both as free as we were before--as long as we share our liaisons with each other."

John ignores the warmth coming through the leather cuff of his jacket. He clears his throat and the marshmallow taste still thickens his tongue. "I'm a married man, D."

"All I am saying is that you do not have to be alone tonight, that you have friends." He gives John's wrist a slow squeeze and then lets go.

John tries to shrug it off without being dismissive--he's already ruined their evening, too, he doesn't need to add insult to injury. "Thanks, man."

Chiana speaks as soon as he comes close. "So if you're fighting with her, then no one can be happy, is that it?"


She shakes her head. "S'okay."

He kneels in the grass next to her, watches her yank a blade of green and pull it into strips.

"When I hurt D'Argo, you took some of that injury for yourself, didn't you." It's not a question, and she doesn't wait for an answer. "He explained how it is between us?"


"This is my last night before the tank. I was hoping to forget about that until morning."

"I'm really sorry, Chi."

"Don't worry about it." She gets up, brushes grass and dust from herself and looks down at him. He thinks that maybe she's taking a picture of him, so he lets his feelings for her show plainly on his face.

She smiles wistfully. He wonders if maybe, in some unrealized reality, she leads him into the transport pod and he finds comfort there.

"You're a good man, Crichton." She pats his cheek and heads for the pod. "Even when you act like an asshole."

John rolls the lakka bulb in his fingers, pets it absently with his thumb.

The force of the craving had surprised him, had pulled him into a shuttle and off the ground before he got hold of it. It had almost seemed perfectly reasonable to go back to the stuff given the opportunity of his newfound and unasked-for freedom, easier to scratch the itch one last time than not to.

He hadn't, but he's still not sure why he hadn't.

The only conclusion he's come to in the last couple of arns is that he refuses to indulge it today. That's rock solid. But he's worried that the craving is always going to be hanging out in his head, waiting for the perfect weak moment.

So he's trying to figure out how much he trusts himself, whether he should eliminate the temptation entirely or whether keeping the damned bulb is beside the point.

There's a rustle of clothing and John startles from his bed.

He curses reflexively as his heart pounds and sweat pops out of his skin.

D'Argo leans in the doorway, and John has no idea how long he's been watching through the grill.

"Do you look at it often?"

"D," John opens his clenched fist and glances at the bulb. "I'm not--"

"I know you're not using it. I don't smell it. But why did you keep it? Why are you staring at it?"

John studies him through the grill.

He wonders how much of Katoya's mojo worked its way into D'Argo while John was busy sweating in the box. Dude's the most centered of all of them now, tapped into some deep water-table of calm and wellbeing. Maybe Zhaan didn't just fly apart into physical molecules, maybe she scattered into each of them and D'Argo received her wisdom and peace.

"D'Argo, man." John opens the grill and leans against the other side of the doorway. "How did you beat your hyper-rage?"

D'Argo gives a slow nod, and then answers the question anyway. "I've let it make me do things that I regret. I remember those losses when I'm angry now, and I don't let myself give in." He blinks and adds, "Hyper-rage isn't fun anymore."

"It was fun?"

He crosses his arms and smiles. "Oh yes."

"Damn. It was hard to tell you were enjoying it, what with the demolition and ranting."

"Perhaps 'gratifying' is a better word."

"That makes more sense."

D'Argo nods to the bulb in John's hand.

"This?" John tosses it in the air, catches it, then lobs it onto his bed. He stares after it, still unsure whether to tuck it back under the mattress or shoot it until it's just another stain on the deck. "It wasn't ever fun. Made me feel better, though. Numb and calm."


"I guess, yeah. Aeryn called it a battle drug, maybe that's what it was."

"Are you doing battle, then?

John shakes his head, even though inside he's not so sure.

"Is it that you miss it?"

"I miss her." He lets out a breath, thinking of the way they were connecting before he ignited and stormed out. "I keep missing her."

"Then stop being a treznot." There's an edge to D'Argo's voice that signals the boundary of his patience. "I'm gathering a few of Chiana's things and going back down. Are you coming with me, or would you prefer to sulk in here until we leave?"

"I'm not sulking."

"Yes you are. I can smell it."

Chiana rests her head back on D'Argo's chest and he gathers her snug in his arms. The first round of drugs is taking effect, soothing away the fear and replacing it with a sense of peace.

Rygel's taken to blinking like Nelet, and when he hovers in front of her, Chiana realizes that she never noticed before how big and green his eyes are. "The Diagnosan is ready. Nelet said to give you this."

She takes the little wafer and stares at it.

"It will dissolve on your tongue, and make you sleepy."

She squeezes D'Argo's hand while her other hand holds the wafer carefully. She sits up so she can see John on the next bench. "You guys are going to stay out of trouble while I'm here, right?"

"Or what, you'll kick our butts when you get out?"

"If I have to."

"Well if that's the case..." His smirk makes it okay again, something adventurous instead of a frightening goodbye. "Then, yeah, we'll be good."

"Better." She pops the wafer into her mouth, making a face against the taste.

D'Argo lays her on the padded table, limbs as soft and limp as her hair, and John pulls him out of the room before the Diagnosan can lock Chiana's head into the halo restraint.

He takes D'Argo outside to sit with him in the fresh air and sunshine. The Luxan slumps on the low garden wall, elbows on knees, his head hanging down in a mass of tankas and slept-in braids. He tightens and loosens his fists, stringed leather gloves squeaking, and he silently shakes.

John sits on the wall next to him, presses his leg against his friend's, and looks out into the green fields. "She'll be out in a few hours. Then you can see her again."

D'Argo shakes his head. "She'll be in the tank. We already said goodbye. But we're not leaving until I see that she's safe in recovery."

"She'll be fine."

"I know." The gloves keep squeaking.

"You realize that as soon as this is all over and we're out of this system I'm getting you shit-faced?"

"I'm looking forward to it."

Aeryn's in the waiting room when John comes back in, sitting cross-legged on a bench and reading from a datapad. He sits down on the same bench.

The display on her datapad is some kind of training manual, outlined drawings of vague humanoid shapes and blinking dots that indicate audio tags that can be played to accompany the cartoons. "Homework?"

She advances to the next screen. "Once the Diagnosan's done with me, I'm going to help out in the therapy room with Chiana's course of treatment."

She's doesn't sound like she's in the mood to talk and he can't blame her, he's the one who shut down the conversation the night before. It's only fair that he be the one to jumpstart it again. He nods, and waits until her thumb clicks to the next screen before he interrupts her. "I was being stupid, last night."

She doesn't move, but he can feel her attention shift to focus on him. Tentative.

"I realize now that you're worried about Moya."

She swallows. "Her child is growing so fast...I'd go if I could."

"I know. And I'll take care of her for you."

She nods, and her voice is soft with relief. "Thank you."

He lays out the argument from her side, wanting to show that he's not just capitulating but trying to understand. "D'Argo shouldn't have to rely on Stark if something happens."

"If he were just useless it wouldn't be so bad, but when he isn't helping he makes things worse."

"Yeah." There's a snag in his pants, a little chunk of leather gouged free, and he picks at it with his thumbnail. "And you don't need me hanging around with you down here."

The datapad, abandoned in her hand, clicks from automatic shutoff. "I need to know that Moya is in good hands. I need that more. That doesn't mean that I don't need you here. But it's only three weekens."

He pulls the little hangnail of leather free, rubs the divot with his finger. It's almost an admission that she needs him, and he's not sure why that hurts more than thinking she didn't. He shifts in his seat, his voice low and uncomfortable. "I had this idea that we could spend the time together, have a kind of honeymoon."

Her brow furrows and her head tilts. "You know, after you left, I think I figured out what a screen door on a submarine was--besides pure dren, that is--but 'honeymoon' doesn't make any frelling sense."

John lets his head fall back against the wall.

He scratches the back of his neck and starts to explain the term, outlining the custom of a newly-married couple going off together for a time, usually to some place warm or pretty or exotic.

Only Humans would cement a pair bond through sex and sightseeing, but she tries not to look too incredulous. "So what does that have to do with honey and the Earth's moon?"

"Well it used to last a month, and I think the honey part has something to do with mead. It's like beer made from honey."

"Beer and sex. And sightseeing."


"Sounds like the first time we frelled."

She didn't realize how long it'd been since she heard him laugh, until the sound of him snickering splits her face into a grin.

"A tour of the finest vivisection facilities and the crappiest weather?" His head rolls back against the wall. "Not exactly sightseeing."

The real Earth wasn't as bad as he'd imagined back then. Vastly more annoying, but not as dangerous. Outside of his family, the Humans were all so scared or excited that she had a hard time taking any of them seriously. The illusion spun from his mind was quieter, and if in retrospect she prefers it to the real thing perhaps it's because it was his version, his view of the place he came from, and something he actually shared with her. She shrugs. "Well, the beer was excellent."

His eyebrows lift as he looks at her. "And the sex?"

She turns to a bracket on the wall behind her and slots the datapad back into its cradle.

He croons softly, "Officer Sun?"


"Should I take your blush as an answer?"

"I think I was in shock. You were my first alien."

"Lemme guess," he grins, "you thought you were going to hell for screwing the natives."

"I thought I was going to die the next morning, so what did it matter?"

"Well, you hid it admirably."

"I'm battle-trained."

"Experienced in the field."

"Acquainted with the differences."

There's a pause, and the diminished warmth of his voice catches her ear. " what?"

She's learning to hear it now, the distance that comes through in his voice, the chill that leaks past his control right before he turns on her, right before he shuts down and leaves.

If she knew what it was, she'd call him on it right now. Instead, she steers around it.

She doesn't acknowledge the veiled reference to difference between him and his twin. She sticks with what she meant, the difference of his species. "Your heat. Your scent. Your shape."

He responds to her lead, his own curiosity pulling him away from the edge. "My shape?"

She looks sidelong at his crotch and then slides her gaze up to his eyes.

"You mean my...oh...really?" He sits up and leans into her personal space, voice dropping low and soft. "How so?"

She smiles, catches his hand and pulls him toward the door.

D'Argo looks up from studying his hands, and sees that Chiana's friend Finip is holding a mug out to him. It's wet with condensation and filled with cold water. "I have an update."

"Sit down." D'Argo takes the mug while Finip brushes a clean spot on the garden wall, and takes a seat.

"The procedure is going well so far. Her eyes were quite degraded, but the nerve fibers are still in excellent condition. She responded well to the test stimulation, and I think it reassured her that she'll be able to see very well once her eyes have re-grown."

Water slops out of the mug. "She was awake?"

"For the testing, yes. Wiliansh is very adept at pain control, Chiana felt no discomfort." Finip pats D'Argo's back. "And when she began to see, I think her fear disappeared as well."

D'Argo drains the mug and then presses the cool ceramic to his forehead. "How much longer?"

"Now that Wiliansh has mapped out the visual system, she will implant supplements into the precise places to encourage the eyes to form. Chiana should be moving to recovery in about an arn."

"I want to see her before we go."

"You will see her again when we move her into the tank--she will be conscious. She asked for you to be there."

Her sweat sparkles in the sunlight coming through the high window of her guest quarters, and John traces patterns on her warm skin as they catch their breath.

"I worked out...a communication schedule...with D'Argo."

"...schedule?" He rolls back toward her from where he'd flopped down, spent.

"Yes." She throws a leg over his. "Microt burst beam transmission...directed to and from my Prowler."

"The Teddy Bears will be listening, you know."

"It's a renegade system." She fits her body next to his, her head in the crook of his shoulder. The contact is oppressively hot but welcome. "The real message is buried in the video transmission, compressed and encrypted as static. Pilot knows how to retrieve and decrypt the messages, as well as construct replies."

"Okay, that's nifty."

"Thought you'd like it."

He tangles his fingers lightly through her hair. "Just when we get the hang of things again..."

She nods, nuzzling her face against his neck. "I'm going to miss you."

"Yeah." He closes his eyes. "Me too."

The lighting in the therapy room is very dim. Nelet natters while D'Argo peers into the murky blue solution in the tank.

"She will sleep in here until the surgical wounds are healed and re-growth has been successfully initiated. We estimate a few solar days, perhaps five or six of your days. Then cyclical therapy will commence."

"Will she be awake for any of it?"

"She will receive excellent care from our staff, sir. Cyclical therapy involves intervals of awareness outside of the growth environment. We have already begun training the Sebacean, Aeryn Sun, to assist during these conscious periods. We find that familiar company helps reduce the stress of recovery."

Finip carries Chiana into the therapy room, and D'Argo doesn't know whether he's allowed to touch her or not, so he studies her in the dim light. She's still in the soft cloth pants and tied shirt that they gave her before the procedure, and a large pair of black eye-shields cover half her face. Her lips are pressed thin, nervous.

Finip sets her feet on the floor next to the stairs leading up to the tank. D'Argo makes a shushing sound before he reaches out to touch her. "It's me."


He's not sure if it's relaxation or a swoon, but when he steadies her, she clings to his arms. "Everything is going well, Chiana. The hard part is over and now you get to rest."

Finip takes one of her hands and presses it against the side of the tank. The determined set of her mouth returns. "Okay."

Between the two of them, they lead her up to the little platform. Finip lifts back the clear lid and moist heat rises up, making D'Argo think of the rainy season on Luxan.

He kisses her gently, ignoring the medicinal aftertaste in favor of her own flavor underneath. He helps her untie the shirt and step out of the pants, helps Finip snap her into the padded harness.

Finip kneels, taking her ankle lightly, guides it to the first inside rung. D'Argo holds her weight as she negotiates each rung below, getting accustomed to the hot thin gel as she lowers herself in. She shivers.

"Are you alright?"

"I'm okay. It just feels weird, all warm and soft and wet." She flashes him a grin that's only faintly anxious. "I think I know what a pinok feels like."

Finip hides his smile in professionalism, but D'Argo lets his laugh break the hush of the therapy room.

"So I just dunk under and breathe in?"

"Not yet." Finip pulls a small envelope from a pocket at his waist, opens it, and takes out a wafer. "I'm going to give you something to help you sleep again. Then we will remove the goggles and you can release the rungs. It will feel strange to take the first few breaths, but there's nothing to be afraid of."

Her hand tightens around the rung and D'Argo's fingers. "Feels too thick."

"It may seem more difficult, but you won't need to breathe as fast as you do in air. You can be lazy in the tank, just float and dream." Finip's casual calm is infectious. "Let me know when you are ready."

Chiana rises up for a last hungry kiss, leaving D'Argo with a light bite on his lower lip. It matches the sucking bruises she's already marked him with under his clothes. "I'm ready."

"Open your mouth." Finip places the drug on her tongue, and when she swallows he pulls her eye-shield off. D'Argo winces at her sunken eyelids, but it looks cleaner than he'd expected. There's no wound that he can see, no smell of blood--they're simply gone.

Finip lays his hand on top of her head. He doesn't push, he lightly rides it down as she lowers herself into the soupy gel.

D'Argo can't make her out through the ripples in the surface, but he sees her last lungful of air rise up in bubbles that sluggishly pop open. She gives his hand a last slow squeeze, then lets herself sink down.

Finip lowers the cover and leads D'Argo back down the stairs, busying himself with the display on the side console while D'Argo looks into the faint blue murk of the tank.

He can barely make out the ghostly impression of her rounded back. He lays his hand on the hot plexipane and watches her breathe, the shifting of her ribs is slow, like sunset and sunrise.

He kisses his fingers and presses it onto the tank, murmuring, "I'll be back soon, impajha."

Chiana floats, curled in dream. Finip wanders up to the tank, wipes it clean, and then leads D'Argo out of the room.

D'Argo starts retracting the pod stairs as soon as he spots John coming across the field. His greeting comes out in a growl as he locks the entry door. "You're late."

"I was detained."

"You stink like sex."

"And your eyes are bloodshot." John buckles into the co-pilot seat. "What's with the stack of wood?"

"I'm building an ilquin."

"Come again?"

"A shilquin, sized for Chiana."

"Huh. So you guys actually do play music during 'music practice'?"

D'Argo takes off, lifting the pod into the air. "On occasion."

As Moya leaves the system, John moves a few more things into Aeryn's quarters, his stack of research materials and the entertainment center. He gathers the laundry, including the t-shirt from a few days back, crusted with blood and pixie dust. He rinses the dust out without getting it on his hands, and drops the shirt into a bucket of cold amnexus to soak and hopefully salvage.

He finds a million errands to pass the day away, but none of it really distracts him. To drown out the silence in his head, he throws himself into the stack of materials on metallurgy. Might as well learn something useful while she's gone.

Aeryn adjusts the oculars as Finip engages the winch. It's hot and dim in the therapy room, and since she's not sure what to expect this first time, she wants to be able to see everything.

There's an upwelling of thin gel as Chiana surfaces, her body coiled tightly. Aeryn grabs one of the rails and leans out over the opening, reaching to touch a hot shoulder and riding out Chiana's flinch.

Finip gently pulls an arm free and places the hand on one of the rungs. Chi uncurls and latches onto the ladder. She pushes her head above the surface and spews liquid out of her mouth and nose.

Aeryn's glad she changed into the work clothes Finip offered, her soft pants and slipper-socks are soaked.

Chiana takes a deep shuddering breath that comes right back out as a shout.

Finip smiles and pats her back as she coughs and clears the rest from her lungs.

"It's cold."

"I know. You will adjust soon. How are you feeling?"

Her face tracks to where Finip is. "I'm sleepy."

"The medications are wearing off. It's time for you to come out and have something to eat. Are you hungry?"


Finip pulls her out of the tank, Aeryn throwing a thick robe over her shoulders as he removes the harness and slips her feet into a dry pair of slipper-socks.

Chiana shivers and leans back against Aeryn. "Hey, where's your leather?"

"It's not practical to wear leather when fishing." Aeryn leads her through a side door off the small platform, into an even darker room with a soft lounge and some chairs.

"Fishing, huh?" Chiana's slur is fading. "Catch anything?"

Aeryn pushes her down onto the lounge and swings her feet up. "Nebari." She lays a blanket over Chiana, even though the room is as hot as it is dark.

"That doesn't count." Chi giggles and coughs. "I was already hooked."

Aeryn takes a plate and cup from the counter and brings a chair next to Chiana's lounge.

"Is Moya gone?"

"Five of our days ago."

"What'd I miss?"

"Nothing of importance."

"Aeryn, I've been floating in goo. Anything is more interesting than that."

The oculars lend a blue cast to everything, even the food cube in her fingers. "You eat and I'll talk."

It takes some fumbling for them to work out a system in the dark, Chiana's hand hovering in front of her face to intercept the food cube that Aeryn hands her, and Aeryn holding her palm under the woman's chin to catch the pieces that fall as she nibbles.

"Rygel's been sequestered with Nelet, I haven't seen him except for once yesterday. He's handling the Ypree well so far, they're constantly pestering him to visit their compound. I'm trying to persuade him to take a recorder next time, to gather intel for the Wodawe."

"Why won't he?"

"It's not the 'corder, he just hates going there. Noranti offered to do it, but the Ypree don't like her because she chooses to stay in the village."

"I like the village."

"I've been scouting the area. I think their rebellion would have a chance if they had fighters instead of scholars. As it stands, it's hopeless."

Chiana's smile is decorated with food cube, and Aeryn brushes her grey lip clean with a thumb.

"Why are you smiling, I thought you liked the Wodawe?"

"They have a plan."

Aeryn likes tactics. Maneuvers. Strategy. Aeryn doesn't like 'plans'. "What kind of plan?"

"A girl, huh?"

"Yes, a daughter this time."

John crouches on hands and knees to peer through the DRD tunnels through the wall. "She's blue."

Stark presses his face next to John's, eye side down, and looks at the baby ship with him. "Yes. Like after sunset. She's very smart."

"How can you tell?"

"Leviathans grow as their neural template organizes--she's growing fast because all of her aunts in the pod are helping her organize her systems."

"The DRDs aren't just inert resources, they're skilled workers."


John sits back on his heels, coming to the point of his visit. "How long have you been watching, Stark?"

He stays in position, rump in the air and face plastered to the floor, rapt. "Ever since the child was moved into this chamber. This is the one she'll be born from."

"Right." John debates tactics then decides to simply be frank. "Moya and Pilot asked if you could take a little break. Get a good meal, some rest...a shower."

Stark lifts his head a few inches and looks back at John. "A break?"

"Yes." He sighs. "I know you like to bless the DRDs, and Moya's fine with that, but Pilot would appreciate if you made the effort to bless with clean hands."

"Moya asked you to come here?" His voice rises at the end and John can't tell if Stark's about to rage or cry.

"Well, Pilot gave us the option of taking you aside to talk about it, or just dragging you out for a soap party--I thought I'd try asking first."

Aeryn climbs out of her Prowler and drops to the ground.

"Officer Aeryn Sun!"

She whirls around, nearly dropping the 'corder to clear her gun hand.

The Ypree is frizzy and golden in the sun, draped in shimmering layers of fabric that rustle as it closes the distance and bows its head ever so slightly. "I'm Governor Rupto."

He must have been crouched under the ship, waiting to startle her with his false cheer. Aeryn dons a relieved smile and laughs, hating that she's rewarding such a cheap trick, but realizing that it's a small price to pay to smooth things along. "Governor, you surprised me."

He sweeps a hand back through his bushy mane. "I didn't mean to scare you, Officer Sun."

Aeryn tightens her smile as she wonders what color Rupto's blood is. "What brings you to the clinic, Governor?"

"You do, Officer Sun." He turns and strides slowly away from the ship.

Aeryn brushes her wrist against the butt of her pistol, force of habit, then dutifully follows the Governor. She keeps slightly behind as one does for a ranking officer, taking mincing steps so she doesn't outpace the smaller being.

"Dominar Rygel tells me that your party plans to stay for the next few monens. I've been trying to persuade him that there's no need for you to camp out at the clinic when we'd love to host you at the spa."

"That's very generous of you to offer." He hasn't glanced at the 'corder yet, so Aeryn tries to forget it's in her hand. She's glad that she blanked out the device when she uploaded the message to her Prowler's communication system, but she'd rather not discuss it with the Governor at all. "And tempting, if I weren't also being treated at the clinic."

"The Dominar did not say anything about that." Rupto glances back at her. "But I presume he was being respectful not to mention your condition."

"Discretion is one of his gifts." Aeryn's smile takes on a genuine note, but she hopes she's checked the sarcasm from her voice.

"I am sorry to hear that your visit to our colony here is not simply for pleasure. I hope that your appearance of health will soon be indicative of your true state."

"The Diagnosan tells me so--"

"Wiliansh is brilliant!" The Governor cuts her off, spinning on his heel and glaring at her with beady amber eyes. "You will not meet with a finer medical professional! She is a credit to her species, and a superb addition to our fine community here."

Aeryn nods carefully, but the Governor continues walking without really looking at her, his fit of drama as transient as it was startling. When she catches up to him, his tone is almost bored.

"I see you have a visual recorder."

Aeryn ignores the muffled pounding of her headache, a souvenir from the latest deep scan the Diagnosan put her through. She follows Finip into the therapy room and slips on her oculars. The bright blue visual feels like it's stabbing into her eyes, even at the lowest setting.

Aeryn takes the stairs doggedly. She missed the last rest period and Chiana had to be sedated to be put back into the tank. Even blind, she managed to scrape Finip with her teeth. He laughed when he showed Aeryn the groove through the velvet on his forearm, but he also made her promise to be available from then on.

He pulls the lid open and engages the winch, standing out of arm's reach. Chiana would have come out of sedation in the tank, and Aeryn braces her hand on the rail, ready to pull back in a microt. She kneels down, reaching into the hot soupy gel to touch Chiana's head.

She unfolds slowly, grabbing the ladder rungs and clinging to the side of the tank. She spews out her lungful, sputters and coughs, and begins to cry.

Aeryn makes a shushing noise as she tugs Chiana's arms up. She crawls out, naked and hot, half-drugged and hysterical, and latches on to Aeryn.

Finip waits with the robe while Aeryn rocks on her knees and pets her, gel soaking through her clinic attire. Aside from looking like a drowned flibisk, she imagines this is what she was like when Crichton pulled her away from her mother and Crais. Wretched and inconsolable. She remembers her confusion when he stripped her to her skivvies and pushed her into the sleeping alcove, when he tucked her in blankets as if she were injured or ill, when he had nothing to say except hushed nothings as she cried herself to sleep.

With this image comes the realization that Chiana isn't going to stand up and put on the robe for herself. And despite his calm shrug over the injury, Finip isn't coming any closer on his own.

"Chiana." They should have summoned her last time, before they tried shoving the girl into the tank. "Chiana."

Her strangled sobs back off a dench and she begins to shiver.

"There's a nice warm robe for you, can you stand?"

"Mmmmm." Her hum wavers and she nods, still clinging fast.

Aeryn peels one of Chiana's hands free and Finip catches it in the sleeve of the robe. By degrees they wrap Chiana and ensconce her into the lounge in the side room. Finip ducks out to run maintenance on the tank, only a few buttons to push, but Aeryn doesn't expect him back for a while.


Chiana nods, adds a soft "Yeah." Her face is streaked from tears mixing with the gel.

Aeryn hands her the first food cube, and their teamwork from last time clicks into place. Chiana regains calm as she eats, and after she drains her water cup, she offers a smile in Aeryn's direction. "Thanks for not hitting me."

Aeryn's head throbs with her sudden anger. "They hit you?"

"No, I hit you, remember? When you freaked out, that one time in the shower, and I smacked you." Her voice is hoarse but the humor is there again. "I'm surprised you didn't take the opportunity to pay me back."

Aeryn shrugs, and then remembers that Chiana can't see the gesture. "I did that in the exercise room."

Chiana laughs.

Aeryn wonders if the ghost she saw in her heat delirium was real. If he was, did that John come to help her because he loved her, or because he missed being needed?

"She will always piss you off." Slops of scotch spatter the table, and the deck plates undulate beneath his feet as he stands.

John remains seated but sways in sympathy as he peers up at D'Argo.

"I was happily married to a Sebacean for cycles, and I've had encounters with females of many other species, most of them quite pleasant."

"You're a regular Captain Kirk, there, D."

"I'm speaking from experience, here, John. So listen to me carefully." He feels loose and warm, and up for a good rant. He lets his voice of authority boom pleasantly over the hum of the ship. "She is not your species, for one. You may look Sebacean, but having met more of your kind besides yourself, I know for a fact that you will never be Sebacean. You will always provoke an unusual response from her--"

John snorts.

"You don't believe me?"

"No, no," he hiccups with laughter, collapsing slowly to lean his cheek on his outstretched arm, "never mind."

D'Argo slaps the table. "What is so funny?"

"...provoke a response..." His eyes are wet and squeezed shut, and he's rolling his head close to a scotch puddle.

"Tell me!" D'Argo shakes his shoulder. "I demand to know what's so funny!"

"Dude..." Bright blue eyes catch his, and John swallows his laughter to ask with mock sobriety, "You ever see a male Sebacean naked?" Before D'Argo can answer he snickers to himself, "'Son, do you enjoy watching...gladiator movies?'"

D'Argo answers the first question. "I ah, no, I can't say I have. Females, definitely. Enough to appreciate the variations. But no, you're the closest I've seen to a Sebacean male."

John pours another shot, and with a wink, salutes him with it. "Close, but no cigar." He slams the glass against the table and then drinks.

D'Argo has forgotten why he stood up, so he sits back down. "So, what..." his scorn is impatient and dry, "someone tell you you're bigger or something?"

John bangs the empty glass down. "Don't need to be. I've got flare. Or rather, a flare. At the head."

"You mean Sebaceans don't have that..." D'Argo makes an indefinite swirly gesture with his finger.

John turns pink and shrugs with one shoulder. "Apparently not, man."

"Well, it explains your popularity." D'Argo pours another drink and remembers where he left off with his rant. "And secondly--"

"Secondly, what?"

"Reasons why you and Aeryn will always piss each other off."

"Oh, right, right."

"Secondly, she is female. Sometimes I think that is more of a rift than being of different species. Trust me--until the day you die, she will by turns surprise you and piss you off. You will do likewise to her."

"Sometimes all four at the same time."

"But the surprises are worth it." D'Argo wonders how Chiana is faring, and is glad that Aeryn is with her. If he lets himself think about it any deeper he'll begin bawling, so he shakes himself out of his thoughts. "How many is that so far?"

"Species and gender, man."

Back on track, D'Argo plunges forward. "Thirdly, Aeryn was raised Peacekeeper, while you are civilian."

"I don't feel civilian, D."

"My friend," D'Argo catches his serious tone, "you've learned to be dangerous, very dangerous. And she has learned to let herself feel, and even, on occasion, talk about it. But she will never articulate her heart easily, just as you will never kill easily."

"It gets easier."

"That is not the whole truth." D'Argo leans into his friend's face, forcing the empty blue eyes to meet his. "You wouldn't feel so bad about it, if it were easy for you."

John slides the glass away on a puddle of scotch.

The slippy wet sound reminds D'Argo of why he'd stood up previously. He sways on his feet and speaks delicately around the slur at the edge of his voice. "If you will excuse me."

"Where're you goin'?"

"I have to urinate like an elephant."

Chiana had taken Aeryn in hand when they first got back to Moya, because John had asked.

Because Aeryn looked like she was dying and Chiana remembered what it was like when Aeryn was dead. Then it became a sort of habit and a kind of game, feeling out this new Aeryn who was both sharper and softer, colder and yet painfully vulnerable.

She reaches for another food cube, Aeryn's cool fingers gentle against her hand, against her face as she brushes away the crumbs from Chiana's cheek and chin.

That John had refused to give Aeryn anything, well, he's a guy and guys have a stupid kind of pride that handicaps them at the most inopportune moments. This was nothing new, even for John. Chi had felt sorry for Aeryn, because she was in over her head and didn't even realize it. Chi could sympathize.

"Is there any more?"

"Still hungry?"


She still doesn't know what changed John's mind, but she was glad that Aeryn was back in his good graces. He wasn't really sane without her and Chiana, well, she was getting to like Aeryn when she didn't have her PK field baton rammed hard up her ass.

"Finip said appetite is a good sign--if you're hungry it means you're healing."

"Good old Finip."

"You should apologize for biting him."

"I didn't think I'd connected."

"You got his arm."

"Huh. Serves him right for jabbing me with that needle."

"You shouldn't anger the staff, Chiana."

"Alright, alright, I'll apologize."

"He means well, I think."

"I just wanted a few moments to work myself up to it, that's all."

"I know. I'll be here from now on; you can take all the time you need as long as you stop biting."

Chiana jokes to cover her relief. "Yes, mother."

It wasn't until the kid died that she could imagine either of them as parents. Their grief was freer than their expectant joy had been. And for some reason Aeryn had decided to let Chiana in, show her everything, lean on her as if they were true friends. It kind of followed for Chi to take care of her, not because John couldn't or wouldn't, but because Chiana didn't want to see Aeryn hurting alone.

The whole situation was tinked all over again, with Aeryn crying on her shoulder nearly every day, and John leaning up close to her in the evenings as he read and she watched his TV. Chiana became some kind of neutral ground between them, and she's almost glad for this rest, to be taken care of for a change. If only she didn't need all this help, she could enjoy it more.

"I'm glad you're here, Aeryn."

"Why wouldn't I be?" The answer is blunt and a little confused. "I just wish my head didn't ache from the scanner."

"How many more does the Doc need?"

"We're halfway through."


There's a guarded sigh. "So far, I don't respond to any of Pilot's biological signalers. The last few sessions will be with biochemicals from Moya."

"So far so good, right?"

"So far. I sent the first message out to Moya, to test the system. I said we were all fine, and that you're recovering well."

"Good. D'Argo gets snippy when he's worried."

"Captain D'Argo."

"Heya, Pilot!"

D'Argo shushes John, hand over his comm badge. "He doesn't know that we're drinking."

"You're kidding."

"Shhh." D'Argo activates his comm and drops into a gruff voice that doesn't quite hide his slur. "Yes, Pilot."

"We have received the first scheduled message from Aeryn Sun. I have retrieved the encryption layer and am decoding it now."

"Mail call!"

D'Argo smacks John, nearly knocking him off the bench. "That's excellent. Let me know when you've recovered the message." John fails to stifle his giggling, even with both hands pressed over his mouth.

"Captain, are you..." There's a pause, and D'Argo can picture those eyebrow ridges coming down like doom with the accusation. "You're drinking."

"Just a tipple!"

D'Argo whacks John again on the arm. "Pilot, I assure you that it won't be anything like the last time."

"Dude, stop hitting me!"

Pilot's voice is low and grave. "I certainly hope not. Moya and I are not in the mood for quarreling and we do not have room in the schedule for any side trips like LoMo."

"Everything is under control, Pilot."

"Bad touch! Bad touch!"

The message was boring and short--an 'all's well' loaded onto a carrier video of the sun rising outside the window of Aeryn's quarters, narrated by Aeryn. Near the end, there's a wooden squeak from the bed as she shifts position, and a breathy laugh as she complains about the rickety furniture.

Like all video of Aeryn Sun, John plays it obsessively.

For a long moment Aeryn simply stares at the package on her bed.

Finally Rygel clucks his tongue, lands next to it, and rips the tie cord from the top of the sparkly fabric sack. The gathered material falls open, revealing a mound of stiff shimmery fabric and a smaller wrapped sack.

"He's wanted to invite you for days. I told him you wouldn't have anything appropriate to wear, but now that he's supplied proper attire you'll have to attend." Rygel doesn't sound sympathetic. He's probably happy to have someone to share the torture with.

Nelet chimes in, "It would appear that the Governor has developed a passing fancy for you." At least she sounds more compassionate.

Rygel pulls open the small bag and paws through the ornaments. He plucks a vidchip out and hands it to Aeryn. "That would be your dinner invitation."

Aeryn finds her voice. "Dinner."

"Yes, a social occasion wherein people gather and eat." Rygel rolls his eyes. "You have been invited to dine at the Governor's table."

"Why me?"

"He's nosy about us, and he thinks he can get more information out of the mercenary than he can get from me. He thinks you're a flunky." Rygel rifles through the pile of clothing. "And he likes exotics."


"Are you yellow, frizzy and round?"


"Then you're exotic." He lifts the shimmery dress. "And you'll probably look better in this than did the torch singer he pestered into loaning it."

"It won't fit."

Nelet coughs politely.

"You think these Wodawe guys have a chance, D?"

D'Argo pulls two plates out of the storage drawer and sets them on the counter. "Yes, I do."

"They're academics and farmers, man." John dishes them up and sets the cook pot into the basin. "And not farmers like you were. I hate to say, but I don't see how arming them is going to do any good."

"We aren't just arming them, John. We're picking up passengers as well as supplies, fighters trained specifically for this mission."

They lean against the counter and begin shoveling lunch into their mouths. John gestures with his fork. "You realize that Chiana's not going to be done when we get back, right? We unload troops it's going to go to hell right then."

"They're going to go to ground and lie low until harvest is in. That's about three monens out. We'll be gone long before."

"That doesn't make sense, why wait until harvest when you're going to have to feed all those extra guys in the interim?"

"There won't be extra guys." D'Argo pauses to drink. "The fighters coming in will take the places of some of the farmers. That's our second trip, ferrying the extra farmers back."

"So we're picking up the guerillas, doing a Folger's crystals replacement, and giving the farmers a ride home."

"Some of them. The rest will stay and complete their original mission to establish a scientific colony after they boot out the Ypree."

"Who are too busy living the Club Med lifestyle to notice that half the slaves look different."

"Because they won't look different. Each farmer is being replaced by his pouch-mate."

"His come-again?"

"I'd rather be sleeping." Aeryn lifts the stiff gossamer material of the dress so she can see where her feet are going. The shoes have strange stilted platforms under the sole and they're meant for wider feet.

As it is, Nelet had ended up gathering wide swaths of fabric and pinning them into rough seams with surgical stitches, just to keep the dress from gaping open or falling off. Now it drapes dramatically over her left shoulder and down close around her waist, and it looks somewhat attractive from a distance even though it feels as durable and secure as a Crichton plan.

The evening breeze is running right up her skirt and giving her goose-pimples up past her thigh holster.

"His pouch-mate." D'Argo draws another cup of cool water and goes back to his plate. "The Wodawe have litters of two or three identical siblings that they carry in a pouch up front. When they were conquered by the Ypree they stopped having children, which is why Wiliansh was brought in, to get them breeding again like livestock."

"And Wiliansh did it." John has stopped eating and now he's pretty sure his appetite is gone as well.

"She worked it out with the Wodawe here and the Academies on their home world, and has helped them implement this plan. The farmers began having children again, single births that were registered with the Ypree. The littermates were put into stasis and Wiliansh was able to get them off-planet and back home in batches."

"Are you serious?" John shoves his plate away and stands up straight. "They've been tithing their kids?"

"For decades now." D'Argo calmly finishes his lunch and pulls John's plate over. "The Ypree never asked the particulars of how the Wodawe make babies, so they're using it to their advantage."

"And I take it these kids have gone to Rambo school and are itching to spring mom and dad free."

"Most of them took military training, yes. The Wodawe are like Humans, they have plenty of internecine war zones to hone fighters right there on the home planet."

John watches him clean the second plate. "What are we trading for weapons supplies, D'Argo?"

"It's not a trade, it's an evacuation."

"We're smuggling children, aren't we?"

"You are the Aeryn Sun that Governor Rupto has told me about. I hear you're a mercenary?" The Ypree beside Aeryn eyes her and nods her approval. "You're quite rangy and lean. Where did you train?"

Aeryn ignores the urge to tug the dress up, instead she fixes the Ypree with a cold gaze and looks her over in return. Her robes are deep red and her ornaments have a more formalized look. She doesn't shimmer like the rest of the females. "I was trained by the Peacekeepers."

"And now you are in business for yourself? Excellent." The Ypree leans back and props her fist on her thigh. "I hate to see a well-trained soldier waste away in retirement. It's good to put those skills to use, and if you make a little money on the side, more's the better."

Aeryn smiles politely.

"I'm Jidiji Replovo, Colonel, Ypree Home Guard, Retired. I'm the Grand Constable for our little paradise here."

"Pleased to meet you."

"The Ruptos and Replovos go back several generations, and when Our Governor here offered me the chance to invest in his undertaking, well, I couldn't pass up the chance to tame the frontier, could I?" The Constable laughs. "You and I are very similar, I suspect."

"Oh, I..." Aeryn is spared the need to reply, as the Constable goes on without her.

"Such a lovely location, we couldn't keep it to ourselves." She gestures to the sparkly assemblage around the table, which are apparently the best, as well as the physically brightest, of the Ypree culture. "Then there's the prospect of lifting up a whole new species, taking them under our protection and teaching them how to survive in the universe. Well, I'm sure you're astounded at how much we've been able to accomplish in the few cycles we've had here. Rupto is a grand thinker."

Aeryn is struck by the point of view. She wonders if that's the way the PK's first looked to John--stunningly deluded as well as destructive. "Yes, it's amazing."

"Half of the cargo consists of samples and data, whatever could be salvaged or hidden over the cycles. The rest are cryomodules like this, with a pouchling in stasis." D'Argo rests his fingers on a wrapped block of snack-sized boxes. "There are a few pouchlings left at the colony, but they'll be evacuated with the farmers we're taking back in the second trip."

"Christ, D'Argo." John looks at the cargo pallets and estimates several hundred in this batch alone. They're probably going to replace everyone except the handful of scientists from the original colony ship. "So they're trading pickled punks for freedom fighters."

"We caught them running experiments again just a few days ago, something with the rocks at the other end of the plain." The Constable seems to be exempted from the Ypree social rule of either talking or eating.

Aeryn's glad that she doesn't seem to need a partner for her conversation, because she can't think of any reply that would be civil enough for the situation.

"Now, we like to give them freedom to roam around, as long as they keep the fields neat and productive--that's the point of the whole program here, for them to learn how to budget their time and resources so they can learn how to take care of themselves."

"Would the Lady enjoy a moist towel?"

It takes a moment for Aeryn to realize that the server is speaking to her and not the Constable. "A what?"

"A moist towel, Madame."

"Ur, no. Thank you."

"Frankly, we don't have the time or inclination to schedule every moment of their day. We give them goals and they have full freedom in how they meet those goals. But playing with rocks?

"Are you sure, Madame?"

Rygel nudges her leg with his foot and nods.

Aeryn glances back at Rygel and then to the server. "Yes, that would be fine."

The server smiles and slips away.

"How does that affect the crop, I ask you? We're offering them the opportunity to streamline their civilization from the ground up, to become the kind of species that doesn't get wiped out the moment they stick their heads out of their home system. And they insist on wasting that opportunity every chance they get!"

Aeryn nibbles from her plate, trying to make the food last while keeping her mouth constantly engaged so all she has to do is nod and smile to the Constable--just in case she takes a moment to breathe and expects her to speak again.

"Rocks!" The Constable shakes her mane back, and blusters on about how the confiscated samples were neatly labeled, and if they could only put that kind of energy into blahblahblah.

"Madame." The server sets it in front of her plate with a flourish.

Aeryn ponders the fluffy green towel, folded into a peaked shape and arranged with sprigs of greenery on a gold-chased cut crystal dish. It steams and smells faintly flowery. She turns to Rygel and whispers, "What do I do with this?"

"I don't know. That's why I never accepted any before." Rygel smiles pleasantly, showing her his peg teeth in a way she'd learned early on to suspect. "But they're insistent, I'm curious, and you have the freedom to be gauche. Do with them whatever comes to mind."

"You want me to offend these people?"

"Not on purpose. But if you do, it will only amuse them. They'll be crass, but don't let that anger you; it's simply a way for you to put them at a disadvantage to you."

Aeryn narrows her eyes. "Is that why you fart constantly?"

Rygel utters in a stately and distracted voice as he turns and dismisses her. "Better out, than in."

Aeryn squares her shoulders back and plucks the towel from the dish. Conversation continues, but she can feel everyone turn an eye in her direction, so she concentrates on the task at hand as if she doesn't notice their attention. She nods to the Constable, who's taken her mouth off autopilot to focus on her as she speaks.

Rygel tips a mollusk shell into his mouth and hums. Aeryn remembers that she's been in far more embarrassing situations than some backwater state dinner, so she unfolds the towel and wipes her hands with it.

Rygel picks another pretty shell from his plate. The Constable smiles awkwardly and turns back to her plate. This time all she does with her mouth is eat.

Aeryn runs the towel up her arms and across the back of her neck, as if wiping down after exercise. There's scattered tittering and gasps, so she goes for broke, plunging the towel down her cleavage, giving the space a good swab before she folds the towel, and sets it back on the dish.

She's fairly certain that the conversation is now all about her, and that she won't have to come to any more of these dinners. "Thank you, Rygel, for insisting that I accept their kind offer. I feel quite refreshed."

Rygel ignores her with a theatrical shudder and plays the crowd to full effect, murmuring apologies for the base quality of his hired help.

"If Rygel were doing his job it wouldn't have gotten this far. I'd rather be sleeping, but there was no way to decline the invitation without hurting anyone's feelings. So I'm off to spend an evening with the Ypree."

John pauses the video. "Damn."

D'Argo whistles softly. "That is a pretty dress."

"You're telling me." He takes the vid off pause and Aeryn finishes her cynical twirl. She props her hands on her hips, and the combination of the tomboy stance and the glistening gold cocktail dress make her look like a pissed off Tinkerbell.

"This was Chiana's idea, to show you what I have to go through to keep the natives happy. I think she also wanted a visual record so she can laugh later on. She's begun to sense light again, faintly. She isn't sure of it, but I've watched Wiliansh test her, and she can turn her head in the direction of the light if you ask her to. Every time. So that's good."

The recorder is on the bed looking up at her, and when she stoops down to pick up an ornament there's an excellent shot down the front of her dress.

D'Argo pats John on the back as he takes his leave. "I'll be back when Pilot's decoded the real message."

"I appreciate that D," John calls over his shoulder, eyes glued to the 'corder's holodisplay.

"She still hates the tank," Aeryn flicks her hair back and fastens a hooked ornament over the shell of her elfin-folded ear. "But, I think it's more habit than real fear. As for me, Wiliansh is still running tests; so far there's no sign that any of Pilot's biologics affect me."

She lifts part of her skirt and props a bare foot on the bed, pink toes in the foreground leading up to a flash of underwear in the distance. They're small and bright, something she picked up on Earth. She adjusts the small holster that rides just above her knee. "Most of the crops are planted around here now, and the different shades of green are pretty. I'll take the 'corder out tomorrow and show you before I send this out."

"I should go, Rygel's waiting." The shimmery curtain of skirt drops, and she leans down again so the screen fills with her face and her big blue-grey eyes, crinkled in a smile. She touches the tip of her tongue to the corner of her mouth. "More later, when I get back."

He pops the vid chip out and tucks it in his pocket. He's certain that the tourist bit will be more about scouting tactical locations than admiring the landscape, but he's not too sure there isn't another bit in between them, and the last thing he needs is for Stark to wander into the room in the middle of 'Horny Sebacean Housewives'.

"I doubt the Ypree who loaned me this thing is going to wear it again after the impression I made." Aeryn has changed into the clinic's version of scrubs--loose pants and top of a soft material the color of oatmeal. The shimmery dress is gathered in her lap and she snips at it with small clippers. "But I still need to return it in the morning."

The encoded part of the message gave detailed information on the satellite system and the resort's security force, gleaned from before she stopped conversation cold. John pictures her in that sexy off the shoulder Wilma dress, acting like a jarhead and offending a room full of pompous teddy bears because she'd gathered all the intel she needed by that point, and didn't want to be invited back.

His wife the spy; shrewd and practical to the bone. She reminds him of his dad in a way, one of those people who don't appreciate that their incisive common sense is worth a hundred times its weight in book smarts. Watching her scout for the Wodawe, he finally grasps how much she enjoys that kind of work and how skilled she's become.

"Nelet had to stitch me into it earlier, so it wouldn't fall off." She rustles through the fabric, finds more things to snip. "This is taking longer than when she pulled D'Argo's stitches out of my head the other day."

She leans toward the lens and he can see the pink of new scar at the side of her forehead. She shakes out the dress and bundles it up.

Her sigh is relieved as she turns back to the 'corder, finally free of her evening's mission and disguise. She hesitates before she speaks, her hand picking at the cloth on her knee.

"Wiliansh said that we'll be getting the full report in a few days. Before you get back, that is." Her nervous hand stops and lies unnaturally still. "That is, if you want to know. Beforehand, I mean. Or at all, I guess. It doesn't matter if..." She blows out a breath, and he can't quite catch what she mutters to herself.

He reaches out but there isn't even a screen to touch, the small image of her is made of motes of air. She shakes her head, not looking at the lens. "Look, we can always discuss it later. If we decide to try again."

There's a chime from out in the corridor. Her forehead smoothes and a smile relaxes her face as she unfolds her legs and reaches for the 'corder. "Fries are up. I have to go help with Chiana. I promised I would be there whenever she has to come out of the tank. I love you."

She switches from English to Sebacean and back again with an unconscious fluidity that reminds him of Chiana's polyglot pottymouth.

If we decide, she said, lobbing the ball neatly into his court. The Diagnosan hadn't found any obvious problems with the two of them, had said they could have healthy babies despite the alien factor and the Zola incident.

Even if Aeryn's affected by Moya somehow, there are easy ways around that. Despite the political situation, things are safer for them than they've ever been--they have a measure of security, and leverage to negotiate. They have plenty of food and hard liquid currency. They have trustworthy friends, a fast ship and a motley squadron of small fighters with heavy-duty firepower.

They have folks willing and able to babysit at a moment's notice.

It's a solid chance for a family of his own, with a woman he loves more than his threadbare soul. He should find relief but instead his stomach knots hard.

The rest of the vid is a series of slow pans of the landscape, taken from the roof of the clinic complex. She describes the village, resort and natural features as if they were frelling Tuscany, referring to previous shared 'vacations' to point out their tactical potential.

"I'm sure you remember the nunnery, where Stark showed us that old passageway? The foothills out past the village over there, hemming in the plain, see? The villagers often camp there after harvest. It's far more peaceful country than the nunnery, with fresh springs and comfortable alcoves for picnics and secluded conversations."

Read: fresh water, stockpiled food, defendable shelter and outside the effective range of the satellite system. She's having a ball down there. A woman needs a hobby, and hers is revolution.

John copies the last segment to another chip, for the big brothers of the boxed babies two tiers down. He heads to this workshop and throws himself back into shield dynamics and metallurgy.

The wood is black with a sheen that highlights burgundy under the work lamp. Gloves off, D'Argo rubs an oiled cloth into each curve and plane of the main board of the ilquin. The botanist was right, this wood is not only beautiful, but a pleasure to work. Hopefully the acoustical properties will also measure up.

He imagines her hands tracing along the neck, soft matte white against pearly black. His fantasy is cut short by John's "You won't fucking believe this, man!"

D'Argo hisses, but it doesn't stop his friend from striding over, grabbing his shoulders and shaking him gleefully. "It was too simple! They didn't get it because it was too damned simple--they were over thinking it!"

"What are you yelling about?"

"Linfer, man. Co-Kura, Scorpius, the whole frelling staff of the Manhattan Project--how can my ship and your ship travel through wormholes without a scratch on the passengers, while a Prowler might as well be set on 'frappe'?"

D'Argo hasn't seen much of John since they commiserated over their hangovers at the start of the trip. He takes his shift on command and he pitches in when needed, but otherwise he's buried in his workshop. He pops out for the messages and then promptly disappears. "I take it you've solved the problem."

"Shielding, man. The module is built to resist heat, radiation and small debris, but it's structural tech. It has no energetic shielding because Humans don't have that yet--it has Leviathan tech in it now too, but ditto, Leviathans don't use energetic shielding. Moya's hull physically absorbs the smaller particles and anything too big to digest gets bounced off."

"But Lo'La has energy shields."

"Bingo." John points a finger at D'Argo and grins. "And that stumped me for the longest damned time, because I thought it had to do with the particular shifting frequencies or harmonics with the metal, or--"

"Why don't you tell me what it is, then?" D'Argo tosses the oilcloth onto the table and rests his hands on the ilquin board.

"Lo'La's shield is manually switched on and the field rides outside of the hull. My ship has no field at all. The Scarran ship had minimal shields activated, and like a Prowler, the hull carries the field. It's the interaction."

"Between the wormhole and the shield."

"And the metal carries the vibration into the ship and plays hell with any organic tissue inside. Noranti says it breaks molecular bonds in the cell walls, but I don't need to work out the biochemistry if I can prevent the effect from happening in the first place--which I think I can." He leans back. "I think I could fly a standard Prowler through a wormhole as long as the shield was completely shut down."

"That's it? All they needed to do was shut off the shields?" D'Argo studies John, and finds him pale and weedy despite his excitement. He wonders how much food and sleep the Human has skipped in the last weeken.

"But they can't, you see? Or not easily. It's an integral part of the way they build those things. It fires up along with the hetch drive and they run the field through the hull itself. I don't think it ever occurred to them to try it bareback." John leans forward again. "Hey, is that Chi's new axe?"

"No, it is her ilquin." D'Argo hands him a block of honey-blonde wood. "Do you think you can cut thin sheets of this, maybe point one dench thick? I need to start on the frets and inlay, and the tools I have aren't that precise."

"I'm sure I can set something up." John runs his thumb along the grain. "This is nice, it'll look good with the black."

D'Argo finds that he's missed the man's company in the last weeken, and he wants to lure him out of his burrow. "Now that you've solved this, what are you going to do to keep busy?"

"Assuming life doesn't kick us in the nuts, you mean? There're details to work out, still." John shrugs. "Plus jerry-rigging a better jigsaw for you."

"There's extra wood."

"I'm not a whittler."

"I could teach you. You could make something for Aeryn."

"Like what?" John lifts an eyebrow. "A wooden replica of a pulse grenade?"

"I know how to make baby-toys."

She's always had a knack for escape, slipping through cracks and hiding in small spaces.

The future seems like that; collisions narrowly avoided, tiny opportunities expanding to swallow you whole. The path isn't straight.

Not only is the path never straight, but anyone can turn it right in front of you, curve it in another direction, send you careening into a whole new space filled with different nooks and passways.

New obstacles, new prospects.

Her life has shrunk down to the rigid monotony of sleep and therapy, two rooms and the tank, relieved only through the conversation of a woman who's taciturn at best. It's claustrophobic, but not entirely unwelcome.

The walls and routine keep her safe, allow her to explore her emerging sense without going crazy. She can study it in finite detail and see how it all fits together.

The future feels different from the present. She hadn't noticed it before when it slammed into her full force and left her sputtering, but it does, it feels softer somehow.

She doesn't sleep through her whole time in the tank anymore, but waking up in the gel doesn't bother her as much. It's quiet, and safe, and as long as she doesn't let herself touch the sides, she can pretend that there's plenty of room around her.

She tastes reality and smells the future, and studies how one perception changes into the other.

Aeryn settles into the seat of her Prowler, head aching from her final trip through the scanner. She seals the canopy and disengages the system locks. The latest transmission from Moya waits for her in the communications cache. She sets a proximity warning this time in case the Governor decides to play ambush again.

She enters the encrypt key for the next set of messages, pulls the static line out of the transmission, and runs it through the filter. While the message parses, she lets the carrier video play.

"I liked the sunrise, and the dress." His quiet smile turns into a smirk. "Though I wish I could have helped you out of it, being as I'm so handy. So, I figured in return I'd show you the prettiest thing we've got on board right now."

There're scrabbling sounds as he sits on the floor and aims the lens through a hole in one of Moya's walls. "When I asked Moya if I could show you the baby, Pilot offered to give you the grand tour."

He turns the 'corder on a DRD, blue tape bandaged around one eye stalk. "One Eye will be your docent this afternoon. It'll be like when you were little." He clips the 'corder to the DRD, and with a whirr, it zips through the wall.

'One Eye' circles around the baby ship, gleaming blue under a thousand DRD eye lamps. She's sleek and beautiful, and her running lights flicker like the eyelashes of someone dreaming.

She's a tiny version of Moya with the dimensions out of balance, heavy in the body with short tails. One Eye rides along her hull and locates an access port, incongruously large in proportion to the hull. It's smaller than it will be full-grown, but already a functional size. Aeryn could probably squeeze through it. With a squeak and a purr, the DRD coaxes the port open and trundles inside.

Crews of DRDs cluster onboard, and the busy noise of their activity rides over the thrum of energy flowing through the ship's conduit system. John said that whole tiers of Moya have been shifted into cool sleep mode to power the child's growth.

Wherever the DRD's have left her bare, she's pale gold and seamless. Despite her incomplete state, this baby looks far more organic and whole than Talyn did at any age. Aeryn wonders if she'll ever want a Pilot of her own, and how would they go about getting one for her? Where to look? How to choose the right person? How could they trust anyone else with this beautiful perfect thing?

She tells herself that she's not the ship's mother, and besides, there's plenty of time and brainpower available to figure something out before the time comes. Even after she's born, the child will ride on Moya's hull and at her side for cycles before she's fully grown.

Her command deck is the size of Aeryn's cockpit, with two budding control panels about knee high. The displays are rudimentary but they show an active readout of every online system. Her view port is so clear that it's not until One Eye climbs the wall and crosses it that Aeryn realizes the plexipane has already formed.

Her guide heads back out of the ship and re-seals the access port, then zips back through the wall.

John looms into view, crouched with one knee on the floor and a big smile on his face. "She looks like a dollhouse inside, doesn't she? Or like she'll have a crew of fairies to take care of her. Fairies are...well, I'll tell you later. There's a whole bunch of stories tied in with 'em, and I need to wrap this up so Pilot can send it out on time."

Aeryn knows what fairies are, and that they don't exist outside of the imagination of Humans.

"But I will tell you later, promise. A mom should know fairytales."

Aeryn had heard a few fairy stories on the edge of sleep once, nestled inside a bunk on Talyn. Wondrous and bloody and strange, like the echoes of the living ship that had throbbed in her head and had made it hard for her to fall sleep. She'd never known that the stories had come from John's mother, so small and pale pink when Aeryn saw her; a great deal frailer to look at than she must have been inside, to tell those kinds of stories to her children.

She reads the encoded message from D'Argo; an "all's well" with a few enigmatic things to pass along to Chiana, and a request from John to forward all reports and data as they come available.

His answer discharges some of the dread she'd been carrying around, and somehow it's easier to imagine Moya's return. That when she sees John again, he'll already know. That whatever the Diagnosan says, she won't have to tell him in person. Beyond that, she's not sure what to think, about why the answer to her question was on the encryption layer instead of the carrier video.

She voids the communication system's cache to clear out the decoded message, and then cycles the video again.

It's this second time around when she realizes that he's chosen to teach her Human mother things.

The carrier video this time around is of Chiana. The 'corder is nestled in her lap, pointed up to her face in the dim of the therapy room. Her eyelids are shockingly flat but D'Argo seems to think they look better than before. He said he could see something underneath them even before Chiana said that she could feel her new eyes forming.

The only message from Aeryn is at the beginning and the end, when she turns the 'corder on before leaving the room and then comes back to turn it off. She says hello and smiles in the dim, but she sounds tired. The encoded message is the Diagnosan's full report on her and Zola.

Once the message is decrypted, John takes the chip from Pilot, but he doesn't watch it until later in the evening. A bottle of lukewarm raslak sits in the floor next to his right boot, unopened. He sits on her bed, which still smells faintly of her skin. He takes a deep breath, and slots the chip into his own 'corder for playback.

The Diagnosan Wiliansh is seated behind a low table, which holds a small chair at her elbow for Nelet. They nod their heads in greeting, and the Diagnosan launches into her report with a flowing elegant trill. Nelet translates without emotion, but in this case the clinical distance helps.

"In contrast to typical Sebacean patterns, Aeryn Sun exhibits anomalies of neural organization and function. These are most likely residual from her experience."

He's not the only one with damage that lingers, not the only one who's had to reconsider who he is because of it.

"Without a pre-exposure comparison there can be no firm judgment of the effects, however, no obvious detriment can be found, and in actuality some enhancement may have occurred. Neural responses are optimal and performance times are high-end for a Sebacean of prime age."

He makes the six million dollar man noise. Smarter. Quicker. More intuitive. He'd listened on comms as she piloted Lo'La through her first wormhole, floating in EVA and wishing he were next to her to help her learn the trick of it, the feel of it. She came roaring out of the mouth of the wormhole easy as pie, straight as her hair was back then, and couldn't understand why other PK pilots had made all that fuss. Can she sense the invisible parts of them that Pilot can see? She senses Moya, still.

"There is no evidence that the Sebacean, Aeryn Sun, has any remaining sensitivity to Pilot or Leviathan biological signalers, even in high concentrations. Regarding the termination of the pregnancy, this cause has been ruled out."

Guilt washes through him along with relief. He'd been so sure that it was her tie to Moya, had been convinced that if only she'd told him sooner they could have done something, could have prevented it somehow.

He pictures her face in the workshop when she called him on it, when she realized that along with the grief and pain she had to deal with, he laid some of the blame at her feet as well.

He is a first-class asshole. Unfortunately, this is not a new insight.

When his focus returns to the Diagnosan, Nelet's translation has gone on to the gritty details of how the modifiers used to insert and then strip out the Pilot sequences have altered the way Aeryn's DNA mixes. It doesn't play well with others anymore.

"This has greatly reduced the success rate of recombination with other Sebacean specimens, yet experimentation with undamaged cells from the Human specimen yields satisfactory results."

Wiliansh shrugs, and then adds in her own clear speech, "Most unusual, but stranger things have happened."

Like an astronaut siring a princess, when all he ever did was kiss her mommy. John wonders if Aeryn ever kissed anyone else on the Royal planet. Or was it only him, only afterward?

"Examination of the young in question revealed no apparent anomalies, however the cord between the fetus and the organ of gestation was malformed. There were constrictions along the length and the twist was not in the direction that one would expect to encounter in a Sebacean pregnancy."

John imagines the umbilical knotted like an old telephone cord, a literal bad connection that didn't meet spec and broke down under the load.

"The organ of gestation itself was also smaller than expected, and the mother shows signs of recovering from malnourishment. As these structures develop from fetal-tissue, the hybrid genetic code of the child may have contributed to this stunting and malformation. Human pregnancy is an unknown quantity. However, these defects are likely developmental, and unlikely to recur as long as the female remains healthy before and during the period of gestation."

No nasty fevers: check. No Scarran torture: check. No way in hell she's going to let him baby her for a whole cycle straight: check.

Nelet switches into her normal bright and tinkling voice, wishing them good traveling and agreeable fortune until they return. He clicks the 'corder off and looks at the bottle of raslak, then heads for the storage bays where the Earth goods are kept.

"It's an occasional weather phenomenon." Scars swoop and spiral through the faded velvet on Gwonde's face to indicate her advanced training in several fields. Noranti isn't sure how to interpret them any farther than that, but she's aware that any schooled Wodawe could read the designs and know the shape of her academic career.

Noranti can understand the appeal of wearing one's authority right on the face, even if she prefers to keep her talents ambiguous until they're needed. "How bad can it get?"

"Bad is a subjective judgment; weather is weather." Gwonde slides a spatula carefully under the broiled lakefin and serves Noranti. "All indications point to continued rain, which mitigates the heat. This growing season usually does not become so hot, but as long as it stays wet, the crops will flourish."

"But it won't cool down any time soon?"

"Oh no--it's not yet through getting hotter."

Noranti shrugs and pours for them both. The wine is strong, which makes up for its distinct lack of subtlety. It goes well with the flavorful lakefin, if not much else. "It's a shame...Aeryn likes it here."

"We've had to deal with Ypree who want to work the fields, get back to nature or some dren." Gwonde wrinkles her nose, and the repugnance seems aimed just as much at the romantic illusions about nature as at the Ypree who hold them. "They never last more than a few arns."

"It's educational nonetheless."

Gwonde laughs. "Yes, that it is. But it's first year work, and tiresome to keep teaching over and over."

Noranti's sigh is sympathetic and weary.

"But Aeryn is a good worker, and curious too. She'd make a good field-researcher; she's observant and careful, not afraid to get dirty."

"A little too enthusiastic. Wiliansh had to treat her for sunburn this afternoon."

Gwonde waves her utensil dismissively. "She's not used to so long a day, and as you say, she has little tolerance for strong sun. Still, her input has already helped us to organize better for the coming season. We appreciate being able to use her expertise, even if she has to leave sooner than planned."

"I'll be sure to let her know, she likes to be helpful." The 'coming season' was Wodawe code for the uprising. Noranti almost wishes she could stay and help out, but even under slavery the Wodawe have a rigid social structure and she doesn't think they could accommodate her wide range of talents. She doesn't have enough scars on her face. As fun as it would be, she'd be wasted here.

Still, it's good to talk to educated folk again. "So, after the coming season, have you thought of what additional crafts you will teach your young farmers? They'll need to keep occupied after harvest."

John clutches the loofah so hard that even though it's new and dry, his fingers leave marks. It smells of oranges, as good a scent as any.

He hasn't been down to the gestation chamber since he saw the previous baby ship, the one that didn't make it. He's surprised by how the bulkheads have been moved around, how large the womb space is now. The antechamber where Stark's been living is cramped, a vestigial wedge of foyer between the corridor and the walls that enclose Moya's child.

Moya's with family. John feels happy for her, but he can't help wondering what new risks they're going to face once the child is born, when it's too big to be tucked safe and sound inside Moya with the rest of them.

Stark lies prostrate, chin propped on a cushion, eyes trained through the hole in the wall. John kneels down next to him and watches for a few moments before he presents the loofah.

"Thought I'd being you something nice for your bath this time around."

Stark eyes it suspiciously.

"It's from Earth. It's for the bath. You let it soak a little and then use it to scrub your skin."

"Does it hurt?"

John coaxes, "Nope, feels pretty good, scrubs off the dead cells. And afterward your skin looks good, nice and soft."

Stark touches the loofah and John lets go of it. "What is it made from?"

"A gourd, I think." John lets that sink in, and sure enough it sparks a Stark kind of sentimental romance as he contemplates using a plant to strip off the dead parts of himself.

What bothers John, but only in passing, is that in order to set this up, he had to make his own brain go to that Stark place first.

"This is lovely, thank you." Stark gets to his feet. "It's close to my time to refresh. Could you watch the child while I go off--"

"Go on, take your time. I'll be here." John shoos him away. "Remember, it has to soak for a good while before you use it."

"Yes, yes. Soak. You'll be here?"

John nods and watches him scurry off. He looks through the hole in the wall and it's soothing to watch the beautiful ship taking shape, hear the sound of new life in the soft hum of her mother's power flowing through her.

There just wasn't enough power for Zola, no matter how tenaciously she held on. The conduit was bad, and there weren't enough resources available for her. Everything was to blame, probably, and it's no one's fault but their bad fucking luck.

The tears hurt but they don't sting, and they let him breathe almost normally as they run down his face.

He wipes his cheeks and thinks of Aeryn growing tan and healthy, soaking up life from the little Tuscany planet as she works at her hobby, getting a little sun and a lot of sleep. Next time, she'll be hale and hearty to start with.

Because of Namtar and whatever Human mojo he seems to have, he's her best chance for having a child. Next time, he'll be sweet to her in action as well as taste. Even if he has to coddle her at gunpoint.

A matched set of heavy resource DRDs rolls into the room, both slowing to a stop by the cushion.

They wait, eyestalks bobbing patiently. He leans toward them, and one rolls closer to meet him.

John lays a wet hand on it and murmurs the family grace, words and pitch an echo of his dad. "For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful. Amen."

The DRD drops back and its partner rolls forward. He repeats the blessing, and they pair up to go through the hole in the wall.

With that, traffic increases. He spends the next few hours talking to the tech DRDs, and laying hands on the raw materials. He listens to the shifting tone of the baby ship. He can almost believe that he can hear it responding to the varying hum of Moya.

By the time Stark comes back, John feels light and calm.

"I feel better now." He's bathed and shaved, and even his mask shows a slight polish. "Do you?"

"Yeah, man. I do."

Stark sits next to John on the floor, and leans an arm around his shoulders. "Now you know why I spend so much time here."

He smells like oranges. John laughs with an absurd sense of nostalgia. An hour later they cruise into the home system of the Wodawe.

Nearly three hundred odd guerillas are gathered in the mist of planetary dawn, decked out in clean worn farmer's duds and leis of woven flowers. Someone has traced patterns onto their bodies with something like glittered kids glue, dashes, dots and spirals matting their velvet fur and sparkling in the light. They look controlled and excited. Eager and scared. They look like their glue markings itch like a new suit at Easter.

There's a taste of IASA to the air, which gets thicker when the ground crews begin loading equipment into the planetary shuttles with precise efficiency. A few guerrillas try to assist, keen to burn off the extra energy, but they're driven away. Every job is allocated and precisely staged, and no one wants untrained personnel mucking up the flow.

The cargo load of babies disappeared from the docking platform hours earlier, parceled out to delegations from Academies on both planets and the handful of satellites that make up the Wodawe home system. Back into the bosom of their families, replaced by the willing sacrifices roaming around the shuttles in ineffectual groups.

D'Argo waves him over to a knot of guerrillas next to Lo'La, and introduces him to the mission leader, General Lisso, and his command staff of five company leaders. John absorbs their names, faces, and a sketch of the hierarchy in case any trouble breaks out on the way back. Three hundred trained grunts with nothing to do for weeks except wait for the party to begin at the end of the trip.

The carrier video was of D'Argo fixing temporary strings and resonators onto a small shilquin, and playing several songs for Chiana. When the encoded message is finished processing, Aeryn sinks into her seat and focuses on the screen.

John leans back on a chair, arms resting on the table behind him, confidential smile changing the whole outlook of his face. "You may not realize this, Aeryn Sun." He's open and relaxed, and there's more life around his eyes than she's seen for a very long time. "But you have a fan club."

The table isn't one of Moya's, but some kind of game top from Earth with a low net strung across the middle. A hard white ball, hollow from the sound of it, bounces back and forth over the net, whacked by small paddles on either end.

She pauses the video, backs it up, and verifies that the paddles are held by fuzzy red hands. She lets it play.

"--fan club. Your travelogues have been making the rounds of the top brass from five different companies, and they're very impressed with your work and enthused about the countryside. They're already planning to take the family down, kids and all, as soon as their vacation request comes through, probably another eight days or so."

The white ball goes skittering and there's a flurry of slag talk and jeers, quickly hushed. The white ball returns to its paces back and forth.

"The kids are a little excitable, so we set up a USO club for 'em to hang out, blow off some steam. The DVD's are popular. I, ah, weeded the skin flicks out of the library beforehand. Chi said only some of them were hers, a while back, but she could have been joshing me. Not sure I want to know."

Chiana had probably been teasing him, but she hadn't lied, some of them were ones Aeryn had picked out. She found them by turns fascinating and boring, like Luxan poetry or many of the books that Olivia had loaned her. The interesting parts were as amusing as they were arousing, reminding her of training modules, with their mix of the mundane and the preposterous.

The white ball bounces into his lap and his smile turns pink as he captures it and tosses back over his shoulder. "Okay, maybe I do want to know, but that's a topic for another day. Perhaps I can just watch you two sort 'em out?"

She'd obtained them to get a feel for human sexual norms, but in retrospect Chiana had used her time on Earth more productively, engaged in what the Wodawe would call 'field studies'. Aeryn doesn't care much about humans as a whole, safely tucked into the isolation of distance, she was looking to understand one specific human. This one particular man is what draws her, intrigues her out of all proportion, out of all of them--and out of all of his own variations.

"So, in the meantime, I'm working in Santa's workshop." He holds a chunk of wood in his hand, chipped and gouged into a rough angle with back spurs coming off the longer end. "It doesn't look like much yet, but I'm getting the hang of it. I'll show you when we get back."

She pauses the video, backs it up and flicks through the frames. She still has no idea what he's making.

"Been talking to the kids, though, about all kinds of things. They're smart and tough--even though they can't play ping-pong for shit." There are some excited whoops from behind the 'corder and John looks over his shoulder to the two playing behind him. "Not you guys, though, you're phenomenal." He points to behind the 'corder, "I was talking about Milpa over there."

"I was still learning!" The voice behind the 'corder is presumably working it, as the video jiggles a bit with the protest.

"Boy, I'll say." John looks back at the pick-up. "I think he only hit the ball on accident--and he stepped on a lot more of them than he hit."

"We found more balls, Crichton."

"And eventually you'll figure out what to do with them, Milpa."

Appreciative laughter breaks out like human applause.

"You keep riding me, but I'm up for a rematch any time."

"I don't want you to hurt yourself with the paddle, there."

"You're afraid I'll win."

The crowd scores one for Milpa and John smiles. "And then I couldn't tease you about it anymore--see how this works?"

A fuzzy face of pale orange drops into the top of the frame, Milpa leaning over the 'corder to speak into the pick-up. "Aeryn Sun, I have heard from the Captain that you can thrash this Crichton without breaking a sweat. So can many of us, handily--but we would very much like to see you do this thing when we arrive."

"Aw come on, man, that's not fair!" There's a disturbance as the 'corder is yanked out of Milpa's grip, and John strides out of the room and into the corridor, chased by roaring laughter.

"Don't pay any attention to 'em, Aeryn." The sound fades with distance and in a quiet turn of hallway he nestles down between a couple of ribs, 'corder balanced on his knees. "They're good kids, I hope they make short work of the teddy bears. They were talking to me about how it was for them growing up, knowing that they had a mission and that people needed them. They're resilient and smart."

His smile is distracted and his tone wistful, but Aeryn can tell that he's saying these things for her, moving towards her in a way. If she hadn't spent the last cycle watching him retreat or at best hold position, she wouldn't have been able to spot it at all.

"They had a choice, and some of them are still back home living their own lives. These are the men and women who signed on for it. That makes a big difference, you know?"

Aeryn can tell it's another message, but she has no way to decrypt it. The distance is frustrating. She wants to shake him, make him make sense, but perhaps it's better to let him ramble on his own, even if she can't understand it yet. Maybe he doesn't understand it yet, either.

"They're not all going to survive." He looks engrossed in the act of cleaning his fingernails. "They're taking that better than I am, at least. They believe in their mission, they're willing to make sacrifices for it. I don't know. How do you know what sacrifices are valid? Which aren't? Sometimes your gut tells you, but your gut's fallible, what if the risk doesn't pay off--what if you're wrong?"

Aeryn's knuckles are sallow from clutching the instrument panel, the edge of the screen digging into the pad of her thumb.

He shakes his head and breaks his own reverie. "I miss you. The bed isn't the same."

The smile is gone from around his eyes, but the stiffness hasn't returned either. It's something.

"I never realized how often I creep toward you at night." He chuckles and the dregs of his melancholy blow away. "I keep waking up sideways across the bed. This morning a DRD was trying to push my foot back onto the mattress."

"How about now?" John holds his project up for D'Argo to see.

"That still looks nothing like it."

"What if I paint it black?"

D'Argo shakes his head and turns back to the ilquin, rubbing another coat of protectant into the wood.

"I see a red door and I want to paint it black." John hums as he eyes Winona and then the piece of wood, marking out the slots and curves that decorate the grip and barrel. The angle and proportions are correct, just scaled down. He can see it, he just has to make it work.

"So, why are you carving a pulse pistol out of wood?"

"Feasibility study." John blows dust off the pencil and marks another line.

"Feasibility of what?"

"I'm thinking about what we'd have to teach a kid, what we'd have to do to keep her safe. I'm also trying to think about how to childproof a holster without slowing us down when we need to draw." John lets out a breath and sets the pencil down. "Even on a boring day aboard Moya there's a lot of dangerous things for a kid to get into, once they can walk."

"We carried Jothee around when he was young, in the quelpa that my mother used for me. It goes around the shoulders and you tuck the baby inside. Lo'Laan had to make it smaller to fit her and Jothee. I saw human babies in a kind of quelpa, though most of them were in carts." D'Argo adds, "Considering the hysteria about Aeryn, I doubt the Humans gave us any baby things."

"Maybe the Buddhists."

"The who?"

"Remember the documentary, the guy in the orange robes, real big on the idea of interspecies families?"

"He had an overly optimistic view of them." D'Argo rinses his brush. "Do Buddhists have commercial outlets?"


"Then I wouldn't bother looking." D'Argo caps the container of protectant. "So, this is a toy for the child?"

"Yeah. I figure if they have one of their own they might be more inclined to leave ours alone until they're old enough to be taught how to handle it safely."

D'Argo folds the work rag and wipes his hands with a clean one. "Can I suggest something?"


He waits until John lifts his head to look at him. "If you make the child something fun to play with, I'll see if I can put together a quelpa."

"I liked toy guns as a kid." John blinks and turns the piece of wood in his hands. "It was a game then."

"I'm going to make some food, you hungry?" D'Argo doesn't wait for an answer, just takes him by the shoulder and chivvies him to his feet. "Come on, I need someone to peel the delpas."

Aeryn changes into the clinic wear, pausing to pick at the peeling skin of her shoulder. There's probably a new message waiting for her, but she shouldn't go out in the sun again so soon, even without the healing burn to consider, the heat alone is enough to make her queasy. She'll have to wait for the midday rains to check her Prowler for the new message, and Chiana's session should end about the time the rains begin.

Chiana is especially whiny this time, vicious and resistant to anyone helping her, even when she strikes her foot on the lounge and almost steps into the waste funnel. Aeryn tries to be patient and reasonable but it doesn't change her foul mood.

Wiliansh comes in for an assessment, and even that doesn't temper Chiana's petulance. The Diagnosan adjusts her medications, tells her that recovery is a special kind of stress that must be endured, and assures her that her body is progressing very well despite the fact that she can only see vague shapes.

It's more than she could see even a few days ago, but it only seems to make Chiana more frustrated, more difficult to manage.

Finally Aeryn asks her point blank, "What the frell is your problem?" and when Chiana turns to her, Aeryn knows that the weirdly small pale eyes peeking out from under the lids can see her, if barely.

"What does it matter? You're leaving anyway."

Finip must have told her about the other day, when she came back to the clinic with sunburned and a little dazed from the heat. "Noranti says that the weather will only get hotter, but even if I can't stay, someone will be here with you, Chiana. We're not leaving you alone."

"I know." Chiana shrugs Aeryn's hand from her shoulder. "John's gonna stay with me."

While it makes sense tactically for them to simply switch places along with the fighters and farmers, for Aeryn to back up D'Argo on the second trip while John easily manages the heat planetside, Aeryn doesn't think it's likely to happen. "Someone will stay with you, but I can't. The weather is worsening, and outside and in most of the clinic it's hotter than in here."

Chiana walks away, treading carefully, hands reaching to connect with the doorframe. "I'm ready to go back in."

"It's only going to get worse and I can't live in the hygienic chamber, Chiana."

"I'm sorry I'm causing so much trouble." Her voice is deadpan. "Moya'll be here soon and you don't have to come back anymore."

"Stop this." Aeryn tries to catch her gently but Chiana wrenches away. Though she doesn't have oculars, she can see streaks down the woman's cheeks, running down along the nose. Aeryn remembers what it was like to be injured and alone, at the mercy of med-techs who are strangers even if they are kind. She has no idea why Chiana is pushing her away like this. It isn't as if te woman is dying, in fact, she's getting better more quickly than the Diagnosan had estimated. "You're being ridiculous."

"Shut up, Aeryn. I know you're leaving and I don't care. So you can go do whatever you do, and don't worry about having to come in here anymore. Finip?"

"Finip's still running a calibration program on the tank, you can't go in until he's done."

"Okay. I'll wait for him." She lowers herself to sit on the tank platform, fluffy robe wrapped around herself like a shell. "You can go."

"Chiana, come back and lie down. You didn't finish your food--"

"Not hungry. You can go."

Aeryn crouches beside her and wrangles the last of her patience. "I'm not leaving you unt--"

"You are, so get on with it."

"Chiana what is--"

"Go!" She flings an arm out of the robe and shoves Aeryn in the center of her chest, knocking her on her butt. She sniffs and then covers for it by growling like a Luxan. "Shut up and go!"

John watches the ping-pong tournament and thinks about toys, real toys. Perhaps a tiny Lo'La or Farscape module--a Prowler could poke out an eye but it would be cool for an older kid. He's not that good with wood. He could make a set of Lincoln logs. Blocks, definitely.

They have enough large cardboard boxes in the Earth storage to keep a kid busy for years, even if none of them hold a bike.

He wonders how hard it would be to have one made? He'd need a mechanical craftsman, someone with the right materials and tools, a planet where wheeled transport is fashionable so they could get tires. It's a long-range plan. Currently, blocks are more his speed.

He pulls a data pad out of his vest pocket and keys up six columns, starts parceling out English letters and Sebacean phonemes. A is is straight out. Aeryn won't work, she'll be mommy--and besides, 'A is for Aeryn' is his own alphabet. Atmosphere? Too abstract, plus how do you carve that onto a block of wood?

Maybe he should start simpler. D'Argo had suggested a dollbaby, because kids like having someone of their own to take care of.

John remembers the Ernie doll that Olivia carried around for three years straight, head bent at a permanent angle, arm reattached more times than Sikozu's.

John had jokingly asked if D'Argo had ever had a dolly and he gave John one of his deeply concerned looks. "Are you saying you never had any yourself?" as if John had admitted that his parents used to lock him in a closet for days at a time. John had scrambled for the closest things, reassuring D'Argo that he'd had GI Joes to play with, and a dog to take care of, even if he didn't have any dolls per se. He still couldn't convince D'Argo that GI Joes weren't dolls.

He desperately wants to see Aeryn Sun with a doll, just to see the look on her face. Maybe also to tease D'Argo that he's the only one on board who played with doll babies as a kid. He made a shirt out of an old blanket on Elack, he's sure he can make the rough body and head of a little Raggedy Aeryn.

The door to the waiting room opens and Finip pauses before entering. "You wanted to know when she was coming out for the next rest period."

"Yes, thank you." Aeryn sets her book on the next chair and stretches. She's bivouacked here and in the hygienic chamber for days now, her quarters too hot to sleep in, even during the night cycle.

"She said again the last time that she didn't want to see you..."

Aeryn had been given the silent treatment before but it still stings. The last two sessions were awful, the intimacy of caring for her in that warm little room combined with her distance and peevishness. She was too tired for tantrums, but she made up for it in thoroughness, not even looking at Aeryn, even though she would only see her as dim colors and a blurry shape.

"We are not bound by this request but I feel badly for not respecting her wishes."

Aeryn reassures him with a hollow confidence, and a smile she doesn't feel. "She won't bite you again, I promise."

"She and I have talked about that, and we've both apologized." Finip's laugh is polite and his tone becomes more gentle as he steps deeper into the room. "Therapy is difficult at first because every success makes you realize how badly you were injured; then it is difficult because you want to progress faster, but if you push yourself you only go backwards; then it is difficult because the weakness lingers. She is frustrated and does not want to be helpless anymore."

"She asked me to be there whenever she came out, and as long as I can stay here, I'm going to do that."

Finip shrugs. "As I said, we have come to an accord. But I cannot promise that she will not bite you this time around."

Moya arrives in orbit during planetside day, local noon, but Aeryn tells D'Argo she'll be aboard within the arn. No sense in delaying the inevitable, even if it means running the gauntlet of seething daytime heat.

She hadn't spoken to John, only D'Argo. She can't think of what to say to John outside of the careful phrasing of a recorded transmission. She needs to see his face, see him looking at her, before she can gauge the situation.

She figures that the heat of exertion is preferable to letting the sun bake her head while she walks, so she runs from the clinic to her Prowler and scrambles inside like it's a timed drill. The thermal shielding has kept the cockpit from most of the heat, but it won't be cool enough to ease her dizziness until she gets the ship into the upper atmosphere.

She runs through the pre-flight and launch sequences on muscle memory, and she's metras above the surface before she remembers to turn on the coolant system. She flicks the switch, and the effusion of cold against her back clears her head.

Moya coasts in a geosynchronous orbit, far away and too close at the same time. Aeryn punches the accelerator, wanting to get it over with. She remembers Jack sitting in the jump seat behind her, the real man, gentler and somehow more intimidating than the god-like alien he looked like.

She imagines him sitting behind her again, watching Moya grow larger, talking to her about the the most painful hidden things as if they were the weather, as they weren't as bad as she thought.

She wonders if this is the way John used to manufacture his own courage in the beginning, imaginging his father watching him.

The bay door slides open and Aeryn jumps down from the cockpit to join her rucksack on the deck, her face flushed, but looking sleek and healthy. John grins his relief, but she turns to D'Argo in full report mode.

"They've adjusted the security array to scan all incoming ship traffic as a matter of course. We won't be able to exchange the cargo as we'd planned."

D'Argo cuts her off. "Aeryn."


He crosses his arms but doesn't hide his smirk. "It is good to see you again."

John watches her react to the gentle rebuke, and realizes that she came out in scout mode because she's nervous as hell. When she continues to only look at D'Argo as she answers, John knows she's nervous of him.

"I'm glad all of you are safe. Chiana is doing well, she'll be out of the tank again in another four arns, you can see her." She finally glances at John. "We have to discuss what we're going to do, someone needs to stay with her, and I can't anymore."

The clinic is currently smack in the middle of dayside, she'd had to risk the summer heat to get to her Prowler. John closes the distance and takes her hand, which is warm but not concerning. "You used your coolant seat."

She nods, cautious. When he smiles and grips her hand tighter she relaxes. She turns back to D'Argo. "Over the last few days the Wodawe have persuaded the Ypree to declare a holiday, which they did. It's been their custom to spend their free time as far from the fields as they can, so most of the farmers we need to pick up are now camped in the foothills out of the normal security range."

"But they've been changing the system."

"I think they're expecting high profile visitors, and they're increasing their security against outside threats. My information is about a day old. I'd rather we also had a diversion to shift attention away from the foothills region."

D'Argo smiles. "Would a Scarran ship work?"

"Perhaps--but we just want to raise interest, not alarm them. It will have to be just inside their sensor range. Depending on how alert they are, they may not even pick it up."

"Moya will." John reaches down with his free hand and slings her rucksack over his shoulder. "We can notify the teddy bears that we picked it up on long-range scan, then we can shift orbit low over the foothills to hide out because Moya has no weapons. Let them be the big strong protectors."

"No, don't let them know she doesn't have weapons." Aeryn shakes her head. "They might send a few ships out to protect her. Just say that we're lying low to let them do their job."

D'Argo plants a hand on Aeryn's shoulder, and leads her out of the docking bay. "We can discuss details later."

Aeryn asks with a smile, "Such as who's going to fly the Scarran ship?"

"Yeah, D, I thought only Stark knew how to work that thing."

"So far, yes."

John turns to Aeryn with a conspiratorial whisper. "This is a bad plan."

She whispers back. "And for once it's not yours."

"I heard that." D'Argo's taking them to Pilot's den. "It's not a bad plan. I'll be with Stark."

John whispers to her. "What do you bet Stark fires on the Ypree?"

She shakes her head and whispers back. "D'Argo will kill him first."

He lets go of her hand, wraps that arm around her waist, and within a few awkward steps she's hooked her thumb into his waistband and they've fallen into each other's rhythm of walking. It's comfortable and the easy coordination of it locks down something inside of him that's been whipping around loose ever since he left.

"Officer Sun." Pilot nearly pops up with cheer when he sees her, and she climbs up onto the console, taking a claw in both hands. "Moya and I are glad to hear that Chiana is recovering well."

"She misses being aboard, but it's half over."

"Is Chiana's vision...returning?"

"Slowly, yes."

John joins her on the console, facing them, watching these two disparate beings talk as old friends, wondering again at the nature of their understanding. How does Aeryn feel Moya? She isn't responding physically, is she sensing an energy state? She runs a hand over Pilot's carapace and he wonders what it feels like to her.

D'Argo said they will always be aliens to each other, they will always by turns surprise each other and piss each other off. He'd never said anything about the occasional willies.

Pilot curls another arm around her back. "We are also relieved...we didn't think there could be any way that Moya could affect profoundly...we are very thankful to know for certain that we didn't harm you, even accidentally."

"I know. It's not anyone's fault would have happened no matter what, Pilot." Aeryn taps his claw, the vibrations going through the flexible shell into the sensitive flesh inside. It's a trick she'd taught him, how to touch Pilot. She lays a hand on his long hollow cheek. "Tell Moya that her daughter is beautiful."

"She is glad that you think so." Pilot works a few controls. "The Wodawe General would like to meet you, he is currently with D'Argo on command."

"I'll be right--"


She looks at John and the hesitation is back. It's nothing he would have expected, he's so used to her being either completely open or closed down tight.

"Tell him it can wait."

She turns to Pilot. "Tell D'Argo I'll be there in one arn."


She haggles him down to two and he takes her to her quarters, giving her a rundown of General Lisso and the five companies of Wodawe they'll be ferrying down after nightfall, thirty arns hence.

She closes the grill and the curtain while he deposits her rucksack on the table.

Despite her strange air, she speaks first. "You got the report?"

"Yes, I did." There's too much space between them, so he walks up into her reach, looks into her eyes, and says what he's been needing to say ever since the message came. "I'm sorry I blamed you."

She takes a deep breath and nods.

He'd never been able to voice the suspicion as clearly as he just did the apology, and it sounds awful to say it out loud. "I never thought it was on purpose, I just...was hoping there would be an answer."

"No, you were right, just not the way you thought." She heads past him to the table and starts unpacking her bag. "We can retrieve Zola if you want. I made sure the Diagnosan kept the body when she was done."

He nods, unable to speak for a moment, wondering what they're supposed to do with a little puzzlebox of remains. Peacekeepers aren't sentimental about bodies, but she had bathed his twin's corpse before spacing it. John doesn't want to see what's left of Zola, but he'll do what he has to for Aeryn. His voice is thready. "How do you want us to take care of it?"

She turns from her bag, but doesn't meet his eyes. "I don't want to bury her like humans do. Anything else you want is acceptable to me."

He clears his throat. "We can talk about this later."

"That's fine."

He watches her toss dirty laundry into the proper crate, empty because there weren't enough other things to keep him busy for three weekens straight. He comes closer and sees the neat array of hairbrush, dentic case, multi-tool, and an annotated 'Art of War'. He catches her wrist.

She lets out a breath, and the hesitancy goes with it. She looks at him, head tilted. "I don't regret breaking the stasis, even so. I only had one chance then, and I took it. But I wish I could have been a better place for her to grow." She shakes his hand free and pulls her medkit out of the bag. "All these options now, to pick and choose whenever...or even if."

He leads her away from the table and folds her into his arms. He wants to reassure her that it wasn't her fault, that next time will be different, but she's not in the mood to listen to him, and right now it's not as important as simply touching her. "Missed you."

Her body relaxes into his, and when she finally speaks, her voice is fierce in his ear. "I missed you like I was running out of air."

He's nearly defenseless against her when she's like this, when she lays everything out on the table, when she's wrapped herself around him like she's looking to burrow under his skin.

He tightens his arms around her until they're lashed together into one body, rocking slightly as their breathing slips into synchrony.

"I don't quit that easily." He ignores the tension in his stomach, the bitter taste at the back of his throat. "And you don't quit at all."

She chokes on a harsh laugh. "Tell that to Chiana."

"She giving you grief about having to leave?"

"I told her I would be there for her, but I can't be."

"Well, I'm your representative, then."

She pulls her head back to look at him. He enjoys the surprise on her face.

"Makes sense, doesn't it? D'Argo's our contact with the Wodawe, and she doesn't trust anyone else." He's figured they've had quite enough of talking for now. "We'll go down with D'Argo after the meeting and you can show me what to do. In the meantime, we have two arns."

He takes the hem of her shirt, and she lifts her arms. He lets her work at his clothes while he bares her skin, tossing gunbelt and boots, leathers and underwear every which way. She's naked before she gets his pants undone, but he pushes her back onto the bed anyway.

He can't get enough of her skin. His hands clutch at the curves of her shoulder, her breast. He inhales her scent by the lungful as he kisses his way down her belly. Even when she scoots back on the bed his legs hang over the edge, so he bends them at the knees, his unlaced boots in the air as he hooks her thighs and buries his face between them with a deep sigh.

Her sheets were clean when they started, but they aren't meant to stay that way. Aeryn catches her breath and basks in the coolness of her quarters as sweat turns to a lovely chill on the portions of her skin that John's left bare. Even the heat of a revved-up Human doesn't compare to high summer down at the Ypree colony, and for once she doesn't shrug him off as soon as they're finished, content with the ventilator breeze and the feel of him.

He rubs his cheek against her shoulder blade, faint stubble of a fresh shave barely tolerable against her healing sunburn. "How do you say 'baby', in Sebacean?"

"Baby?" She repeats the English word, then clarifies in her own tongue, "like infant?"

"Yeah, how does that go? Sohona?"

She rolls over so she can see him, pushing him onto his back. "Why do you want to know?"

"You speak English. Why shouldn't I learn Sebacean?"

"But why 'baby'?"

"Good a place to start as any."

While that's objectively true, she also recognizes that it's irrelevant.

She heard the story months ago when she was drunk, but she remembers. Moya's desire and her own hurt anger were storming through her, the alcohol and oily popcorn doing nothing to soothe. Chiana had been pleading his case like a cadet trying to worm out of punishment detail.

Chiana had described listening over the comms while a Scarran warship bore down on them hard, while John babbled and screamed, and then finally blew the face off the thing they'd replaced her with.

Chiana had stood proud and erect, her parody of military bearing wavering under the influence of the skatch, and she'd acted out how the thing had pleaded even as John fired. Pleaded with Aeryn's voice. She doubts that his choice of word is arbitrary, and she calls him on it. "You tried to get the bioloid to say it, and it wouldn't."

He frees his arm from under her and looks at the ceiling. "It didn't know any English, that's just the first word that came up is all."

"When they stuck me in that thing," she decides to spar with him slowly, offering a piece of her own story for more pieces of his. "I felt the machine going through my mind and I fought hard to keep certain things away from it. English was arduous to learn and it was mine. And I hoped you'd realize that if it was missing, so was I."

He hesitates, and when the words come out they're cracked and without feeling. "I killed two people with your face. To get you back."

She waits for him to continue, and when he doesn't, she prods, "Two?"

He shifts his head, still looking up. "Yeah."

She props her elbow and rests her head in her hand. His gaze shifts away from her, turning his head with it.

"She was going to die in another arn, they all were. It was a salvage operation, get the information before the crew was overrun. Get the girl Stark to tell."

"D'Argo said you took Scorpius with you."

"I wanted to show him how complicated wormholes are. And I needed backup."

"You trusted him for that?"

"I didn't want to take D'Argo. It's a lot to handle, seeing a different version of yourself." He rests his forearm across his eyes and his voice loses some of its edge, some of its life. "I was going to come back with the information no matter what."

"Scorpius helped you."

"Regular boy scout."

She's had to wait days for retrieval, drifting in space after a messy battle. She's had to tail a mark for monens before she got a clean shot at executing her mission. She has learned that patience is sometimes as beneficial as action. She keeps prodding him. "How did he help?"


"What do you mean, failsafe?"

"Turns out I didn't have the follow-through that the situation demanded."

"But he did."

"I had the foresight to bring someone with colder blood."

She feels her own chill and wants to shake him until the story spills out of him, until he says something to dispel the mood of grim revulsion. "He killed someone on the other Moya."

"No. I mean, he pulled the trigger, but only because I couldn't."

"Why did you have to?"

"Different versions, different rules. Different Stykera. Stark couldn't tell us on her own, so we made her."

"You shot her."


Aeryn sits up, leaning over him. "This doesn't make any sense."

His voice turns thick and jagged. "Scorpius shot one of the crew because Stark couldn't access the information unless she was actively crossing someone over." He sits up and swings his feet to the floor. "But turned out she needed to love the soul to cross it over."

" killed someone she loved."

He nods, shoulders tense and face tilted toward the floor.

Two people with her face. "And her love was a version of me."

"They were all going to die in another half-arn, no way to change it except move the appointment up. Gain a chance to get you back."

For a moment she's back on Talyn, cradling him as he fades, as the pulse at his neck skitters and slows, as her own heart keeps stubbornly beating. He made that happen for someone. She feels sick, and draws away to the other side of the bed.

She can just make out the words when he speaks. "She was part you, part Chiana. She only existed in that bubble of potential reality that Einstein made, it hadn't had a chance to weave into the greater reality of the universe because we weren't there that long--no past, no future--but she was a real person for those few hours she existed."

Her hand is clutched at her stomach, and she slides it lower, presses against her belly.

"I couldn't make myself pull the trigger, but I couldn't think of any other solution. Scorpius took it out of my hands. I got the information I came for."

She'd prayed that she would do anything, sacrifice anything in order to protect Zola from the Scarrans. Perhaps the pact was accepted after all, and Djancaz-bru had taken this 'other her' as a guarantee.

Djancaz-bru is just a symbol for fate, anyway. She's made her own bad deals trying to protect the people she loves. She comes around to his side of the bed and stands before him.

There's more to this. When she lifts his chin and his eyes look out from under heavy lids, reluctant, she can feel there's more to dig out. But all she can think about is that while she was in a filthy cell, praying to fantasies and cobbling hope together from miserable creche myths and wretched anger, he was doing everything he could to find her.

She can't think of any questions to prod him with, can't focus on the puzzle amid the renewal of relief and gratitude. He went through hell and Scarrans for her. He brought her back.

He also killed two people who wore her face. One of them real, if only for a few arns.

She leans down and rests her forehead against his, caresses his cheekbones with her thumbs. When he kisses her and pulls her into bed with him, she still doesn't know what to say to make it better for either of them. So she begins to teach him Sebacean.

"When I was in service, we called them snuka."


"It's a phrase actually, 'oma h snuka', means civilians of all ages and sexes but literally it's 'babies and breasts'. As in 'jid oma h snuka', clear out the civilians."

"So a baby is a snuka?"

"It's PK talk for civilians, baby is snuk and babies are snuka. The formal word was used when people talked about breeding duty or the creche, baby is sohnuk and babies are sohnuka."


He'd begun teaching her English cycles ago, when she complained about trying to understand him in the confusion of battle. A word here and there, tying them into phrases over the course of time, spelling out the deceptive simplicity of the written version. Pronunciation was a killer, and it looks like it's the same for him. "Hit the sss sound longer."


"That's not bad, but you're still missing the back breaths." She emphasizes the intake of breath before and after the nuk sound.

Eventually he figures out how to put the breaths in, but he hits them hard like hiccups, like a young child's careful pronunciation. "Close, but try to smooth it out."

"Maybe I should stick to snuk?"

"I wouldn't use it around other Sebaceans." Aeryn smiles despite herself. "Snuk isn't the same word as sohnuk."

"You said snuk is for a non-PK baby while sohnuk is for their own."

"A sohnuk is a nursing infant," Aeryn clears her throat, "but a snuk is just something that sucks."

"It's derogatory."

"Somewhat, yes."

"So, that standard order, that really translates to 'clear out the boobs and suckers'."

Combined with the Sebacean double meaning, Aeryn knows enough English slang that the puns gain critical mass, and she laughs until her cheeks hurt.

The hand is smooth, bigger than Finip's, and it lifts her out instead of just steadying her. Her feet slip on the rungs but she doesn't fall--she's set down on the platform gently. Small hands click the harness free, and the robe whips around her in a cloud of soft warmth. She clears her lungs and head, a practiced series of coughs and snorts. Her ears clear with two ringing pops and she can hear Aeryn speaking.

"--takes her a moment to adjust to the cold air."

She sneezes a few times to shake out the last dregs, and as she pulls in another fast breath of thin air, a familiar scent brings her fully awake; cleanser and pomade and Luxan. "D'Argo!" she breathes, reaching for the blur of warm color in the dark.

"Impajha, let's get you settled in the other room." He puts slippers on her feet and leads her through the doorway, and only when they're all crowded into the small space does she realize that John's there too. "Hey, it's a party."

He hugs her, and when he pulls back he holds a hand in front of her nose. "How many fingers am I holding up?"

She flips him the bird back and laughs.

"I'll be damned, you can see with those."

"More or less."

"Are they going to stay that color?"

"Wiliansh says they will darken down to black when they're fully formed." Aeryn pulls him toward the supply cabinet, starts showing him where the food and medicine are kept.

D'Argo settles into the lounge behind her. "And the foresight?"

She shrugs. "Both more and less. It's not the most helpful thing in the world."

"Anything you can tell me?"

"No just, just vague things. Moya's child is smart, and faster than she looks. The Prowler might have to be moved from the field Moya's been beaming to; you should set up a relay for the messages just in case. That's as far forward as I can look, things are real slippery at that distance."

"How about closer in?"

"Closer in." She nestles against him, sliding a hand behind her to grab his thigh. "You waited for me this time, but next time you'll satisfy yourself when you're away."

"Is that your prediction?"

"No, that's my request."

He makes a frustrated grunt.

"Pretend it's me."

"Why do you insist on me doing this thing?"

"Because I think about you when I'm in that tank, and I can't touch you...or even myself. At least you have the chance to burn some of that off, so why not? Enjoy the opportunity for both of us..." She massages the muscle of his thigh, and it's been so long that it's close enough to sex to take her breath away. The thin air makes her dizzy.

"It's all pre-measured and mixed. Finip unlocks the cabinet and puts a robe on the warmer before we take her from the tank. Extra robes are in the shelves of the main room."

"Where the scrubs are."

"Yes. It's hard to tell the color when the lights are dimmed, but the symbols are distinct and the containers are different. This is the nutrient solution." Aeryn pours it into a mug, up to the second marking on the side. "Up to there. Then up to the last marking with this other one." She tops it up from a different container, thick and dark as molasses. She hands him a plastic rod. "Stir."

He does so while she breaks open a family-sized packet of food cubes, dense nasty ones by the cloying smell. "How many of those?"

"The whole packet. And don't lick the stirrer."

"I wasn't going to--I'm not that orally fixated, thank you very much."

She peers at him in the dark. "Orally what?"

"Orally fixated. Means you like to have things in your mouth." He's not explaining penis envy, no way in hell, even if that's where all the good Freud jokes come from. He shifts it to a PK concept. "Means you're a snuk."

"I see." She slides the pad of her thumb along his bottom lip. "But you're not like that?"

"Nope." He catches her thumb in his mouth and speaks around it. "Not in the slightest."

She's disturbingly quiet under the circumstances, physically weak and looking to conceal their occupation from the others in the room. Her eyes are closed, her only outward show is the catch in her breathing and the pulse of her neck thudding into his tankas.

It's clandestine and unbefitting to the setting, a flagrant display of health smuggled into her sick room. It emphasizes how much he's missed her impropriety. Her one hand digs into his leg for dear life as he strokes her sweet spots. D'Argo murmurs in her ear, his hands tucked into her robe as he negotiates what exactly he's going to do to fulfill her request after he leaves.

"It looks like she's doing it now." Aeryn glances at the two nestled into the lounge. "Probably so glad to see him that she's worn out already."

"So she'll just fall asleep, bam, in a microt."

"She's done it mid-sentence." Aeryn sets the plate down and gestures him to the door. "We usually let her sleep for a quarter arn, then wake her up, do what we have left to do, then get her back into the tank as soon as possible."

John whispers from the doorway. "Hey, D."

D'Argo only moves his eyes, but it seems to disturb Chiana enough to make her whimper.

"We're going to let her sleep for now. We'll be back in half an arn, you need anything before we go?"

D'Argo rumbles back. "I'm quite comfortable."


When the door to the therapy room closes, Chiana shifts her hand closer to center.

This time the present waiting on her bed is smaller, boxed and papered like a Christmas gift. John tries to check his grin as she shoots him a dubious look and sits down next to it.

"Open it."

A knot of looped ribbon nests on top of the box, half concealing something small and black. A pulse pistol, half the normal size and carved from wood. The finger notches are sanded smooth, the proportions correct despite the scale. She breaks it free from the ribbon and sights along the stunted barrel with one eye.

"I made that. And also the things inside, open it."

"What is this for?"

"Started out as a toy, but I guess it's more of a training piece. Teach 'em weapons safety without having to," he gestures toward her arm, "you know."

"Hurt them."

"Yes." He sits on the other side of the bed, with the box between them. "Open it up, there's more inside."

She gamely rips through the paper the way Jack demonstrated to her, popping the ribbons and slicing through the tape with her thumbnail. She lifts the crumpled tissue and looks inside.

She blinks.

He can barely contain his amusement. "Well?"

She lifts it out with care. The fabric head and body yield to her grip, and the soft black cords of mock hair fall back from a face made of buttons and a painted smile.

It's fragile and ugly--the human version, apparently--sloppy and easily damaged compared with her memory of the rugged n'snuka playthings in the creche. They were smooth and uniform, easily cleaned or replaced, and they didn't have smiles, just eyes.

She fingers the button eyes and the shock of hair at the top of the head. She lifts the smock to peer at the way the legs and body are put together, stubbed feet dangling as she turns the n'snuk over. She tugs at one of the arms, first lightly and then harder. "It's tougher than it looks."

"It's a doll, Aeryn." His laugh is pleading. "It's like a little friend for a kid, someone they can take care of."

"I'm not an idiot, John." She gives him a look that she hopes is withering. "We had something like this in the creche."

His smile fades and his brow furrows. "You had dolls?"

"N'snuka look more like small people. They're not so soft or easily stained." She holds the doll around the body, shaking it so the head flops back and forth. "This wouldn't make it through even one game of search and rescue."

His voice is flat, his face blank. "You had dolls."

She nods and studies the thing further, turning it over in her hands to see how the limbs swing and move, disconcertingly floppy like a fresh corpse. The face seems pleased, as if it died happy.

"Aeryn, I'm supposed to believe," his whole face is furrowed with confusion and he pulls the n'snuk from her hands to force her to answer, "that cadets have dolls?"

"Not cadets." She takes it back. It's hers after all, and she's not done inspecting it. "The creche is different from cadet squad, I told you. They probably watched the kind of games we played with them and assigned us appropriately."

He looks at the thing in her hands, watches as she takes the smock off to inspect the arm seams. His voice is serious and his brow still lined. "What kind of games do little PK's play with their dollies?"

"Search and Rescue. Find the Sniper. Evacuation." She shrugs and slots the arms back into the plain little dress. It has no proper pants. "Simple things."

"So, on the station, when you went after those trapped've been doing that since you were what, three or four?"

"The creche is separated into age phases, from birth to five cycles. I don't remember much about it except that I missed it terribly when I was first assigned to a cadet squad." She fiddles with the soft black hair of the n'snuk. There's something embarrassing about it, almost illicit. "N'snuka are unbefitting a soldier."

The comment echoed right out of her memory, spilled off her tongue before she knew it, yet another piece of her inheritance to examine. She's still thinking about it, twisting a button eye the color of water when he hands her a cube of wood.

When she takes it, he reaches into the box and pulls out cube after cube, arranging them into a wide-based tower on the bed.

It's perfectly squared, the edges and corners sanded smooth just like the pulse pistol. The faces of it hold symbols and images, English letters and Sebacean numbers, the lines burned into the wood. She looks at the unsteady tower of cubes on the bed, scanning for words in either language. "How do you play this game?"

He grins and raises his hand. "You build it is high as you can, and when you're done..." He crashes his hand through the stack, scattering cubes all over the floor.

She looks at the mess. "You're serious?"

He scrambles off the bed and gathers them into a pile, even the ones that had skittered under her table. He kneels on the floor and makes a skinnier tower than he could before. "Hand me the rest."

She does, and he adds a flourish at the top, setting two cubes on the top one and then pinning them in place with a fourth.

He rises to his feet, backing away from the tower which reaches mid thigh. "Now you try it."

"Yours looks stable enough."

"No, Aeryn. Knock it down." He weathers her incredulity and merely gestures to the tower.

"This hardly qualifies as a game, John."

"Trust me. I spent hours doing this as a kid."

She looks at the construct again. Arns spent stacking cubes, breaking the constructs apart and then laboriously gathering and stacking, over and over.

It explains a great deal about him when she thinks about it. She stands and approaches the tower. "How do I break it, is there a special way?"

"I liked busting through them on my tricycle, but any old way will do as long as the crash is satisfying."

She eyes it, picks a low spot, and gives it a measured whack with her boot.

The course of his life has scattered detritus about the universe. Sometimes he revisits these pieces, most of the time he goes in a new direction entirely.

Stark left a pair of gloves on Valldon, stripped off in a hurry to touch the warm mist of an apparition that left him dazed, easy prey for the squad who retrieved him for the Scarrans. He's not getting those back, no matter how much he misses their worn-in softness.

Stark left a mask with Aeryn Sun, one of many he's worn, discarded shells where no one lives anymore. This shell had a purpose as he cast it off, it housed a souvenir from one dying human to his own alter-self, a message and a mission. When the shell came back to Stark monens ago, all it held was a transient warmth from the human's hand. The mission was long complete, and whether the message helped or hindered the dead man's alter-self, the living altered-self, only the Goddess knows.

We rarely take our own best advice. For example, Stark remains here on this ship, haunting Zhaan's quarters because her soul no longer haunts him.

He'd left many of his things in her rooms when he moved to Talyn. Unused to thinking about so many possessions, he hadn't realized at first how much he'd left behind. It didn't matter, really, it was a gift to whomever might use them, or profit from them.

It surprises him that nothing in this room has been touched or turned into credit. He'd assumed they would treat the room as storage, but they had made it into a sepulcher. Even her bedding is tucked in the same way, perhaps by her own hand that morning.

He left a suit of clothes on Moya, beautiful supple leathers the color of sweet soil, a gift from her. He'd been angry when she gave it to him. Money meant nothing, but those arns she'd spent shopping in the heat, not getting enough water or rest, the price to her health was what sickened him, her pleasure in the gift far outweighed by her weakness and pallor.

He never wore the clothes while she lived. After she died, it was all he'd had left of her. He'd tried to forget the fight, tried to sense the love that had been meant, tried and tried but still couldn't forgive her for not understanding, for wasting herself in useless gestures that signified nothing, came to nothing, ended in nothing.

Ridiculous presumption! He can see now that these gestures had been far from meaningless for Zhaan.

Offering her life, twice in one monen, had allowed her to achieve a measure of happiness far greater than what Stark could ever give her. The clothing was not a vain gift, but a manifested hope that he'd leave off the inner chains of slavery along with the tattered cloth, that he'd see himself as she saw him, made of pieces that come together into something whole and beautiful.

His rags are comfortable and inconspicuous, but what he has to do today is neither of these things--it's risky and exciting, and the very idea of it makes him happy. She cannot perceive him anymore, but today he will be the way she had wanted to see him, in soft tan leather the color of sweet soil.

Today he's going to pilot a Scarran ship, and by doing so, he will free slaves. And he will wear what is left of Zhaan's love while he does it.

"This is the only home I've ever known."

Noranti pauses to look out over the flat plain, in the same direction as the young Wodawe. She feels sympathy and a barely repressed giddiness. Oh, to be so young and scared again, what ecstasies of joy and terror await this woman, with her scholar's mind and calloused hands. "You'll be fine, dear."

The woman turns to her, eyes still wide. Noranti pats her on the shoulder and firmly guides her back into the underbrush. The ships are due in less than an arn, and Nelet is anxious that all the strays are gathered before the diversion begins.

"You, ah..." D'Argo takes in the polish on the mask and the soft gleam of the tailored leather clothing. It's a full outfit, down to the boots and fingerless gloves of cut suede. Even the straps of the mask have been changed out to match. "You look nice."

"Thank you." Stark offers him a manic grin. "Shall we go free slaves?"

"We aren't actually freeing them, Stark, we're simply distracting the Ypree so that they won't notice our shuttles going down to the foothills." D'Argo finds himself going over the plan one more time and with less confidence than before. "We're staying just inside their sensor range, enough to raise an alert but not close enough to alarm them."

"Wouldn't it be funny if we buzzed the Ypree buildings?" Stark hunches his shoulders in glee. "They'd shit themselves black!"

"We are Not. Coming close. To the Planet."

"I know, I know. But it would be funny!"

"Right." D'Argo rolls his tongue in his mouth and walks up the ramp into the Scarran ship. "On the way out, you can teach me how to pilot this vessel."

"Yes, yes, of course." Stark clambers up after him, plunking himself down into one of the huge seats.

Stark has padded the seats to raise him up to the normal eye-level of a Scarran. D'Argo sinks into the cushion, turned a bit to the side for easy targeting...if the time comes.

"It's very simple, very easy. They don't invest a great deal in training because for most line soldiers it's not worth the effort. Everything is preprogrammed into subroutines that are chosen from the menu board here--as you can see, it's a kind of pictograph and not written Scarran."

They leave half an arn late, but D'Argo considers the time well spent. Just in case.

The docking bay is filled with ersatz farmers clustered into five companies, rusty velvet fur and bleached homespun arrayed in clumps of boredom.

They sit on their packs or nap with their heads tucked in their arms or lying on a neighbor's leg. They talk, or half-heartedly spar, or rub a last coat of dulling compound onto the metal parts of their equipment. They mark time, waiting for the signal to board the shuttles and depart.

Aeryn has spent arns talking with General Lisso, and is glad that John's keeping him company for now. The Wodawe seems like a good tactician, very flexible and eager to know everything about the Ypree. He was a tenacious questioner, searching for every tidbit of information that could possibly confer an advantage.

She almost feels sorry for the Ypree come harvest time. But not really.

The person she really feels sorry for is D'Argo.

The longest part of the mission by far has been getting there, a straight-line trajectory away from the planet using Moya's sensor shadow as cover. D'Argo knows this is probably wishful thinking on his part, that the worst is behind him, since the rest of the mission still lies ahead, in its agonizing detail.

Stark has been bouncing in his cushioned seat the whole trip out, playing with the display options because there's nothing to do yet. Now every time a command is entered, the ship duly announces it in plain Scarran, in a voice that reminds D'Argo of his grandfather when the weather was damp and he was achy and grumpier than an unmated flibisk.

"Incoming comms!" the ship gripes, followed by Pilot's transmission.

"You are now at the outer range of the Ypree sense net. I will give you two hundred microts to adjust your position and trajectory, then notify Rygel of your approach."

Stark giggles and keys in the commands. The engines grumble and the ship grouses, "Coming about! Reduced speed!" Stark's open smile spreads wider.

D'Argo contains his wince. "We're bringing the ship around now, Pilot."

Stark hits a brightly colored pictograph and the display pops into full targeting mode, the distant planet a bright false-color orange at the side of the screen. So far, his trajectory is the same one discussed in the plan, cruising the distant edge of the Ypree's sensors.

With one last bounce Stark announces, "Pilot, we're in position now."

"I will scan your location and notify Rygel."

The ship barks "Enemy scan!" like grandfather discovering that someone had drunk the last of the pilsa without putting more in the cooling unit. D'Argo would enjoy a nice cold draft of pilsa about now.

"That's Moya scanning us." There's a creeping sobriety to Stark that worries D'Argo more than the earlier hilarity. "Even now, Rygel is telling the Ypree about us."

"I've heard tell that you will be leaving us now that your shipmates have arrived. I am sure I'm not the only one sorry to hear of these plans."

Rygel laughs along with Governor Rupto, and does his best to look chagrined. "I believe you're referring to a certain member of the Diagnosan's team, and if so, you're quite mistaken."

The prospect of tangy gossip delights the Governor, and he leans closer to where Rygel hovers.

Rygel obliges him, feigning reluctance. "She has taken leave of me, you see."

"I am quite sorry to hear that such a capable being can be so capricious." Governor Rupto doesn't fake compassion well, but Rygel doesn't mind his obvious delight. "But all the more reason for you to stay here with us instead, and take comfort in our luxuries and diversions. A few sunbaths will put you right again."

"That is generous of you to offer, but I think some time away would--"

"I won't hear of it, sending a downhearted fellow away into space when what he really needs is a good strong dose of entertainment and ease. We have so many wonderful guests coming in the next monen, I'd love you to meet them."

Pilot's voice interrupts from Rygel's comms. "Dominar, Moya has located something at the outside range of her sensors."

Governor Rupto purses his lips outward and lifts his brow.

Rygel chuckles and excuses himself, but doesn't turn away from his companion. Nelet will be very amused when he tells her about all of this later, it will lighten the leave-taking. He admits to himself that he has some pangs to stay, to enjoy her company a while longer, but Rygel prefers to leave his conquests pleased--and wanting more.

"The Ypree have scrambled their scout fighter vessels, and Moya has shifted down into the bonosphere over the foothills region." Pilot addresses Aeryn through her comms, but General Lisso takes note as well. "The security net has performed a cursory scan of our area, and the fighters are moving out of orbit toward D'Argo and Stark's ship."

At Aeryn's nod, General Lisso snaps out a short series of commands and half of the Wodawe pour into the waiting shuttles. In moments, all three pods are stuffed and sealed and then launched into the upper atmosphere of the planet.

"Colonel Replovo," Rygel wears his panic face while trying not to laugh, "are you sure they pose no threat?"

"Do not distress yourself, Dominar." The Ypree pats him with her large paw, an imposition that irks him enough to hover backwards out of her reach. "Our security force is quite inconspicuous, but even though you may not have noticed them in your visits here, don't let their discretion fool you, they are excellent and will make short work of any fool who attempts to menace our lovely colony here."

Noranti claps when she hears the shuttle pods, long before they can be sighted in the cloud-covered night sky.

She scoops up Nelet to ride on her shoulders and they arrange the farmers at the edge of the tilted dell where the shuttles are landing.

The exchange is rushed and chaotic, but successful. When the pods lift into the air again, half of the farmers are gone, replaced by young Wodawe who have never bent their necks over a hoe or a journal. Even with the same number of people as before, the dell is eerily quiet.

"Continued enemy scans! Treblin side! Sixteen nov'etras distant! Incoming comms!"

D'Argo opens the link, growling at the running commentary of translated Scarran bitching.

"The first run has been completed and the pods have re-launched with the second half of the cargo. We expect them back in a quarter arn."

"Thank you, Pilot, keep us posted."

Stark banks the ship and steers it leisurely back toward the planet at a shallow angle. D'Argo clears his throat. Stark steers away again.

The Ypree ships continue to flock in the middle distance, scanning and posturing.

Noranti wishes them well as she boards her shuttle and settles into the pilot seat still warm from General Lisso. The pod is crowded with farmers and scientists, with crying and laughing Wodawe very different from the dell full of taciturn soldiers who will now wander back toward the village in twos and threes, to take up the plow for another monen.

The remains of the original colony ship's crew had welcomed them with hushed ceremony and hearts almost completely filled with hope and goodwill. The niggling trepidation was slight, hardly worth mentioning, but it made Noranti's eye itch, and she's glad to be heading back toward Moya in the sure wake of the other two pods.

"Down up, down up, down up." John bounces down the pod stairs and looks over the milling crowd of Wodawe, formerly picnicking in the hills and now homeward bound. Noranti works the crowd like Julie your Cruise Director, sending off family-sized groups with DRDs for guides.

Aeryn lugs a heavy hose over to the pod she'd piloted, and he helps her connect it to the power cell of the craft.

He brushes his hands clean. "Hey, I'm hungry, are you?"

"No, but I need to pack some things for Chiana before we go back down to the planet."

'Back down to the planet' sounds much nicer than 'back to the clinic to pick up Zola'. "Meet you back here in half an arn?"

"Yes. I want to be sure D'Argo gets back before we leave, though."

"Sure thing." John touches her arm as he leaves. When he gets to the kitchen, he wraps up a snack for her anyway, because he can't not do it. He wonders when he developed the continual need to feed her, when he became his granny, pushing a plate in front of her every time he sees her.

In the end, Stark turns the ship around in a wide arc, away from the planet and back into Moya's sensor shadow, without having to be persuaded or tongued.

D'Argo tries not to be disappointed, and in another two arns when Chiana nestles in his arms with a soft sigh, he's glad that the plan went off without a hitch.

Her voice murmurs against his chest. "You get the relay working?"

"Mm-hmm. Pilot and Aeryn tested the system when she came down in the Prowler, so the ship can be moved almost anywhere on the surface without disrupting the ability to communicate."

"Send me messages?"

"I would rather not have Crichton decrypting the kind of messages you'd like to receive."

She giggles.

"Aeryn would like to see you before she leaves."



"What's she got left to say to me, huh?" She wiggles out of his embrace, and peers down at him with her milky eyes. "You were right not to get involved between those two. All I got was snot on my shoulder and the brush off when I needed her help."

"That's not fair, Chiana. You know she can't stay because of the heat. Being outside during the day now can kill her."

Chiana shivers.

D'Argo grabs her by the flaps of the robe, gently pulling her back down onto the lounge with him.

"So I uh, guess it's night outside now, huh?"

"For another twenty arns, and then we will leave."

"And she wants to be here next time I come out, then, huh?"

"She'd like to talk to you without being yelled at, I think."

Chiana burrows her face into the warmth. "I'll play nice."

On Earth the dead are buried. It's not an unusual practice, slipping remains into the soil, effecting a primitive recycling. It reminds her of Zhaan now, and how they never had the chance to plant her, how they didn't have anything left to bury. Aeryn imagines that it's probably soothing to the people who do it, but the idea is claustrophobic to her, to be lodged under the surface of a planet and eaten by the things that dig.

Peacekeepers space their dead in direct line shots into the nearest star, different from burying but the same end, another way to send the abandoned material back into the greater distribution of the universe. It's orderly and quick and preferable to remember--no scar on the ground of some planet that only provided a backdrop for a few days or weekens of your life. Vacuum and light are always with you.

John suggests a compromise, and this time it doesn't feel like capitulation, but something suited to them both.

The flames are clean and blue, fueled by wood and cloth, accelerant and a remnant of hybrid flesh. His hand is solid in hers as they watch. The air is sticky, but the heat is tolerable this deep in the night cycle. The wind smells like rain when he spreads out the ashes to cool, and heavy drops slap her skin as she rakes the dust and tiny cinders back into the cryobox.

The silence accompanies them into their flight suits and into a small hammon-side airlock aboard Moya. John leans toward her to check the seal on her helmet before hitting the atmosphere release, giving their tethers a hard tug before opening the outer door.

Moya coasts in a high orbit, the soft curve of her hull obscuring the planet from their view. When they step out of the airlock, it's just the two of them floating between Moya and the sun.

Their comms are engaged, and Aeryn can hear his breathing. She looks to him and he nods. She feels the click through her fingers when the cryopak opens, then there's nothing but silky silence as she shakes the dust into the light and vacuum.

With Pilot's help, Moya opens the pores on her skin wide enough to absorb the kiss of dust against her hull. She flexes slightly toward where the cloud dissipates, taking every particle in. It tastes of fire and planets, sorrow and rare salts. It becomes part of her, a physical memory that she keeps for the strange pod of beings that live within her.

Chiana is already tucked into the lounge and eating when Aeryn comes into the therapy room. The lights are a shade brighter this time, enough to stimulate the development of the new eyes, but Aeryn still has to let her own adjust.

She takes the seat across from Chiana, and is grateful when she pauses in her chewing to greet her with a casual, "Hey."

Aeryn offers a smile. "Hey."

Chiana swallows, blinks, then stuffs another food cube into her mouth.

"D'Argo said the communications relay was your idea."


"I thought you should know that it's up and working."

"D'Argo told me."

"I think it was a very good idea."

Chiana shrugs.

Aeryn doesn't know how to ask the next question, mainly because she suspects that Chiana is deliberately making her spell it out. What do you see? How bad is it? What can we do? "It's not like you to think of a backup like that."

Chiana huffs air out of her nose, a cynical laugh as she lifts the cup to drink.

The insult wasn't intended, and Aeryn tries to mitigate it. "I should have thought of that idea myself. I'm glad that you did."

Chiana sets the cup on the table, her boredom pointed at Aeryn.

"Is there anything else we should be doing?" Aeryn shifts out of her chair and sits on the edge of the lounge. She has to know, has to press Chiana the way that General Lisso pressed information out of her. "Do you see any danger to Moya?"

"No." Chiana shrugs again, less confident. "But I don't see much, you know? Things will work out or they won't, like they always do."

"That's not encouraging."

"If I were doing it for money you'd get more customer satisfaction." Chiana draws her knees up against her chest, her feet sliding away from Aeryn. "If it makes you feel any better, just prepare for the worst. But you do that already, don't you? The shields are almost always up for you."

The situation has changed, has confused, quick the way it does so often with John. The similarity gives her a chill despite the tiring heat of the room. "What do you mean by that?"

"Nothing. You have what you came for." Chiana's lips press thin as she turns away. "See you around."

Exactly like with John, a swift withdrawal that leaves her alone in the room despite the body still in front of her. Aeryn blinks, then rises from the lounge. The abrupt dismissal is a reprimand and a letting go, as if her performance was unsatisfactory but not unexpected. She moves toward the door, poking at the hurt she feels and wondering what can be done about it.

"No. " She stops mid-stride and turns back to the lounge. "We're not done here."

Chiana closes her eyes, refuses to see her like she did when this first started between them, this itch where there used to be comfort. The gesture focuses Aeryn's frustration and something in her pops free.

She straddles the lounge and grabs two fistfuls of robe, yanking Chiana up face to face. "You will tell me what your frelling problem is!"

"Let go of me!"


"Well, you're strong enough, why don't you beat it out of me?" Chiana grabs at Aeryn's fists. "Or would you rather trick me into gettin' all weepy on you again like before--so you can feel all tough now that you're not the one crying anymore? That it?"

"What?" Aeryn loosens her grip but Chiana angles herself up into Aeryn's face.

"Frell you, Aeryn. I don't need to be taken care of by big strong you, I don't need your charity, or your pity, or your frelling sense of obligation."

"I'm sorry I couldn't keep my promise to--"

"I don't give a kivit's nip about your promises!" She flicks her head in irritation. "I just wish you would have warned me first, before turning back into the old Aeryn."

She sits down hard at Chiana's feet, baffled and brought up short, her legs sprawled to either side of the lounge. Chi is curled up in her robe, head tilting to snug down into the warmth, compressed and alien in a way that's inexplicably intimidating. Her coloring has begun to change from being so long in the dark, the smoky marks of her face have faded, and the black roots of her hair are spreading out farther, unbleached.

Chiana looks over her collar toward the wall while Aeryn feels the weight of the accusation. Just like the old her; shielded and self-sufficient. As opposed to the broken bawling thing she often ended up being lately in the exercise room, in the storage bay, in John's room that one time when they watched movies and Chiana made her laugh as she cried.

She was there with Aeryn in the shower as she bled, hollow and sick. She'd helped Aeryn pummel out her rage and sorrow daily, slicking the exercise mat with sweat and tears and the occasional smear of blood, blue and then purple and finally red as she learned to fight back.

"I just wanted to do for you what you did for me. Return the favor."

There's a rustle of movement as Chiana flexes her feet under the robe. "It's not something you pay for."

Things have changed between them, and it matters now what Chiana thinks of her. Her voice is unaccountably thick. "What do you want me to do?"

"Nothing, it's not something to be fixed either."

Aeryn takes an angry deep breath, but Chiana continues.

"It's not something you perfect, or accomplish, or execute flawlessly and then forget about." She settles back against the lounge, tired. "You just be there, day after day. If it's real, then you don't quit."

You never quit, he said. But she's done so, she's walked away and not been able to give any more. "What about when there's nothing left?"

"That's when you ask. When you accept some of it back, maybe more than you've given. But there's no account to keep, no tab to pay and then you're free to leave." She nudges Aeryn's knee with her foot and offers a faint lopsided smile. "People get used to seeing your face. They miss you when you decide not to play anymore."

Aeryn shakes her head slowly, still trying to understand. Trying to figure out how it's supposed to go, what Chiana wants from her besides her strength--all she has to offer and still not enough on this planet. "Tell me what you want and I will do it, Chiana."

Chiana considers her. The eyes seem larger than before, peeking out under the lids enough that Aeryn can see the grey rims of irises delineating the white and enclosing darker grey pupils. She untucks her hand from the fold of robe and offers it, palm up, to Aeryn.

The skin is warm and smoother than usual, the nails soft, faded to a lighter blue. Chiana moves her body to the side and pulls Aeryn to lie next to her. She feels self-conscious, but Chi nudges and shifts, fits herself close and settles. Aeryn blows a lock of bicolor hair away from her mouth. "What, this?"

"Until the drugs kick in, yeah."

"You don't want me to actually do you?"

There's a smile in Chiana's reply. "You can talk if you'd like. I'll probably fall asleep either way."

Aeryn can feel the difference in Chiana's breathing, slower and deeper. The heat is at the edge of her comfort, making her languid and a little dizzy. Her complaint comes out on a tired sigh. "This is awkward."

"So?" Chiana leans her head against Aeryn's shoulder, takes hold of her hand so the fingers tangle together. Claims a piece of her in a way that makes Aeryn both anxious and content.

None of it parses, but Aeryn sets that aside for now.

D'Argo huffs and fidgets in the pilot seat. "The sooner we leave, the sooner we get back."

"I heard you the first ten times." Rygel hovers up the ramp past John and Aeryn, heading to the back of the shuttle pod. "And since we're abandoning Crichton this time, you can't leave until he gets off."

"On that note." John clears his throat and smiles at Aeryn. It's arns before dawn, but the morning insects have started whirring, faster than the night ones.

She catches the nape of his neck and kisses him slow and deep one last time. She slides her hand down between them, cupping his sex and giving the head a meaningful squeeze. He groans a warning. She suckles his bottom lip as she breaks the kiss, releasing it with a soft snap as she hooks her fingers in his gunbelt and then turns him toward the door. She smiles. "Enjoy your vacation."

"You'll pay for that, you know, with interest." He chuckles as he walks backwards down the ramp, flushed and visibly hard, eyes narrowed and intent. "Just you wait."

Aeryn wiggles her fingers in the wave that Livvy taught her and grins as she hits the airlock.

She takes the seat next to D'Argo and watches the ground recede in the landing gear display. John peers up into the sky until he's no more than a dot in the dark, but she can still feel him on her lips.

Within arns they've left the system.

She sets the book down. Her eyes are beginning to cross from the blocks and circles, the meaning getting lost in the tangled sticks of the English alphabet. Printed words lack the grace and curve of John's handwriting, which had taken on a Sebacean slant after cycles of equations. Books were nothing like journals.

Across the conference table, D'Argo tugs at a length of heavy thread, tightening the knot and then snipping it. Not as gentle as when he stitched her head. He sighs with satisfaction, and she can tell he wants her to ask.

"I take it you're finished."

D'Argo shakes out the construction. The material is heavy and a dark olive color, salvaged from one of the big sacks that the ground panek meal had come in. "Usually it's decorated, but I don't know how to knot, so it will remain plain."

Aeryn had thought it was a cover for the instrument he'd made on the previous trip, but it's the wrong size and shape. "What is it?"

"It's a quelpa."

She shakes her head, because the concept doesn't translate. He tosses it over to her.

She examines it, an open sack with two holes at the bottom and two buckled straps connected with a crosspiece that latches together. There's a large flap over the opening of the sack with ties to secure it, and the whole affair is padded in odd places.

"I made it adjustable like a rucksack, so any of us can wear it." D'Argo takes pity on her confusion. "The infant rides around inside it, in front or in back of you. Do you still have the dollbaby John made? I can show you how it works."

She leads him to her quarters, pushing down the embarrassment when she hands him the n'snuk, when he adjusts the straps for her shoulders and shows her how the flap provides shade if needed.

N'snuka are unbefitting a soldier, but the Luxan warrior in her room seems to enjoy fussing with the floppy ugly little thing. It's clear that D'Argo is pleased by the idea of having a child on board. He's more confident of that happening than Aeryn can let herself be.

Before they left Moya the last time, she'd helped John choose a cap from his medkit and watched him administer the shot to his naked hip. Just until Moya's baby is born, then we'll decide what to do. She saw the relief on his face when she assented to the delay, saw the eagerness with which he'd fetched the kit.

She suspects that the doll might be more of a substitution than any kind of promise. Handling it makes her uncomfortable, makes her feel foolish, as if she's playing at fantasies instead of dealing with the reality. D'Argo notices her hesitation, and his concern is just as frustrating.

She lays the quelpa and dollbaby on the table and changes the subject to the real thing. "Tell me what we're facing, taking this on."

D'Argo sits at her table and waits for her to join him. "In the beginning it's simple, you keep them fed and safe. And clean."

She hadn't considered mundane details like that, and the question pops out of her. "How often does one bathe a child?"

D'Argo smiles. "Whenever they get dirty. Which is more often then you might think."

His reassurance grounds her. If those huge hands can handle something so frail, she's sure that hers will learn too. "And when does it get complicated?"

"When they get sick. When they start talking. When they ask questions you don't have the answers to. When you can't keep them safe. When they don't need you."

Another thing she hadn't thought of. She'd been so preoccupied with how she might provide for a child, how she'd keep them alive and safe from harm, she'd forgotten that the whole point of the mission was to send them out into the world on their own, as prepared as possible to handle whatever comes their way.

"Despite everything, I do not regret bringing my son into this world. I just wish I knew...I hope he feels the same way."

Aeryn pulls the dollbaby out of the rucksack. "What was this called, again?"


She repeats the word. "And you carry the baby with you, wherever you go?"


It sounds like the least dangerous alternative. She fiddles with the black cord hair of the doll, imagines the heat and weight of an infant riding on her back, or tucked against her chest. Like a Leviathan nursling, latched onto the parent. Pressed against each other like she and Chiana holding hands on the dark. "It sounds pleasant."

"It also gets heavy. That's why I made it so we can all take turns."

There's an eagerness to his voice that raises her eyebrows. She wonders if the birth of Moya's child will be enough to slake this enthusiasm, or if they maybe should have got D'Argo a dog when they were on Earth. "Do you plan on hauling said child around the ship often?"

"Every chance I get." He shrugs his shoulders, smiling and unapologetic. "I figure any child of Crichton's will need a team to keep it out of trouble."

"Well, as long as you don't brand the child, I think we'll manage."

His face darkens, embarrassed, but his tone remains casual and dry. "I figure that's a parent's prerogative."

John scratches his leg, bared to the sun by the cut off scrubs he's taken to wearing for his stay on Tuscany. He pushes the sunglasses down his nose and eyes the clouds gathering at the horizon.

Maybe another quarter arn before the afternoon storm rolls in, long enough to finish the next few pages.

He scratches around his knee and lowers his leg again, angling it down the bank so his foot dangles in the running water. He shifts the heavy book on his stomach and turns the page.

"Enjoying your vacation, I see? I am. May as well, I have no choice."

John pulls up a thick blade of grass and sticks it between the pages to mark his place.

Harvey rolls on his side, the fold-up chaise lounge squeaking underneath his awkward weight. He picks a wedge of lemon from a phantom bowl on the ground and squeezes the juice out over his hood. It glistens in the hot sun. "No beach, but the water is pleasant to listen to."

John adjusts the shirt wadded under his head, and opens his book again. He knows that Stu Redman gets out of the med lab but he doesn't remember how. "Shut up and bronze, Harv. You need some color."

"I only have this one color. And as for you, your usual lack of sun only increases your skin's susceptibility to damage under this kind of exposure."

"That's why I'm building up a base tan."

"Building up a melanoma, more likely."

"You want to be useful? Why don't you pack up the rods and tackle before the rain hits?"

"Sticks and string without bait, John."

"I put bait on."

"No hook. Simply a needlessly elaborate way of feeding the fish." Harvey flops onto his belly and leans over the edge of the chaise. "If you wish to play 'pretend' be my guest, but I'll sit this out."

"I'm not your guest, I'm your host." John eyes the sky and gives up on Stephen King. He lays the book on top of his towel and boots, then tips his carry-crate over the pile to keep it dry. He stretches his arms under his head to wait for the clouds.

Harvey sits up and starts folding the chaise. "It will rain soon."


"I will never understand your need to wallow in planetary weather."

"M-o-o-n spells shut the fuck up, Harv."

The breeze picks up and warm fat drops start to spatter his skin. Harvey ratchets the ends of the chaise up, grumbling to himself as the metal frame clicks. He tucks himself under the flaps to wait out the shower.

Yesterday, the rain pelted down pretty hard, but it's gentler today, warm and invigorating. John wades into the creek and the fish things come over to check him out, mouth at his ankles and toes then saunter away with bored flicks of their paired fins.

He found out on his first day at the creek that the fish are as foul tasting as they are easy to catch. He probably tastes no better to them, which probably explains why the bugs leave him alone as well, too alien for the native palate.

Yet another reason why Tuscany is an excellent vacation spot. He climbs the bank and sits down against the roots of a tree. He's grimy, wet, and happy as a pig in mud.

As the rain tapers to a stop, John thinks about pulling out his book again, but he falls asleep instead.

The bookshop reeks of paper and leather, scents he always had with him in the UTs, but which never smelled quite like the real thing.

The blonde chalks out a pentagram on the worn floorboards while the brunette rides high on the library ladder, pushing herself to another shelf and grabbing a respectably heavy tome.

They seem to have put aside their previous vicious argument, called some kind of ceasefire or truce so they can play angel and devil in his dreams again.

John doesn't have the heart to tell them that he's finished this book already. That the four horsemen fall at the feet of the next generation, that prophecy only takes a girl so far, and that the cute Huck Finn antichrist kid ends up safe in the end.

He doesn't tell them that he's left "Good Omens" back at the clinic and moved on to "The Stand".


The blonde ducks as the brunette flings her book across the shop with a ringing, "Dr. Spock can kiss my ass! What kind of childcare guide has no chapter on hostage-taking? Fucking poser."

The blonde shakes her head and begins filling in the spaces of the pentagram with candles, universal constants and stick figure families. She spirals Navier-Stokes equations outward from the edge in a rippling line.

The brunette launches herself toward another shelf. The polished roll of the ladder's casters, and the dusty scratch of chalk, are interrupted by the brass bell on the door.

Harvey neatly dodges a book that bounces off the window behind him. He picks it up and sets it on a side table with a glance, reading the cover with an amused, "'Oh the Places You'll Go!' Indeed."

The blonde rises from the floor, sweeping past John. She's as tall as Harvey and as self-possessed as Scorpius. "We're not done here."

Harvey bares his teeth and the blonde smiles back, more pleasant but just as threatening.

The brunette lays a startling hand on his shoulder, her murmur silky in his ear. "We have unfinished business."

"Crichton." Someone shakes his shoulder and the world around him gets fuzzy for a moment. "My apologies, Crichton."

He pushes up from the ground, noticing the grass and grit on his skin. He'd rolled over in his sleep and when he scratches his cheek, his fingers come away dirty. He peers up at the Wodawe in scrubs and traveling boots. "Do I have time for a shower?"

"She is scheduled to come out in half an arn."

The relay Chiana suggested works better than the previous system. Pilot can transmit the message whenever he has a free arm and moment, instead of having to calculate and wait for a specific time. With the pregnancy taking up so much of his attention, every bit helps.

So much of all of their attention. Aeryn sockets the end of the detector into the filtration conduit, frowning at the reading. "Pilot, we should probably power down this tier as well."

"Moya and I concur. Let me know when you've re-routed the flow."

"I'm finishing up now." Aeryn hand tightens the valve and scans the seal. She unhooks the light from her belt, activating the beam. "I'm done, you can take it down now."

The lighting in the corridor fades to black as the doors seal and the air stills. By the time Aeryn reaches the access shaft that Pilot left open for her, warm air is flowing up in a breeze into the cool tier. She fastens the hatch cover behind her and then rubs the chill from her arms. That leaves only four tiers habitable.

The child is sucking resources at an increasing pace, growing so fast that Stark says you can hear pops and groans underneath the zip and chatter of the DRDs.

Aeryn thinks about Moya's baby, about Chiana stuck in the tank for over two weekens more. Her thumb plays with the ring on her hand. She doesn't wear the stone anymore, it catches and she didn't want to break it. Without that annoyance, the smooth band has become a part of her finger. Like Chiana's strange requests and her responsibilities toward Moya and Pilot and the baby and the crew, it's another claim on her, another tie between her and being independent. If she left again, she would have even more hard goodbyes to say.

It doesn't surprise her that she still thinks about leaving. She can't help working out contingencies in case everything goes fubar once again. What surprises her is the result of this latest assessment--that she's been doing everything she can to make leaving as difficult as possible.

A child would be yet another tie, another deep wound to survive if her universe imploded down to only her again. Another reason to "close up shop" as Chiana said, and not even try.

But she had attempted to live that life and found that it was worse than the hurt, that it deadened her. Left her insensible to much of the satisfaction she would otherwise have had in her work with the Renegades. A possible suicide mission had come as a relief instead of a risk, and the feeling of success upon completion of that mission had been equally less.

Life keeps finding her and dragging her into the fray. Zhaan, and then Scorpius; each of them hauling her from the brink, forcing her to meet her fears square in the face.

John had asked her why she'd tried to kill herself in front of the Hokothians. The truth was elusive, but she finally pins it down. It was her last chance for a clean and useful end, her last chance for something simple, if not happy.

It was easier to think about death than to face the life she'd made for herself. It was cowardice and pain. It was the last act of her overwhelming grief, taking over her body like a neural clone as it falls dying, trying to take her life along with it. It was easier to pull the trigger one last time in the absence of her ghost, than face the prospect of learning to live without grief piloting her, easier than facing the new and not entirely welcome possibilities that her rescue entailed.

The ghost had abandoned her, and the man was well within his rights to.

Once she had tried to become her mother, broken and razed to the ground, unwilling to let herself care. It had been more like death than the real thing. Now she seems bent on attaching as many safety lines as possible between herself and life, even to the point of lashing herself to Chiana.

She will not be alone again, will not let herself be at the mercy of her enemies and her own ruined heart.

Chiana as family. Aeryn wonders what Crais would have thought.

Crais who bound himself to a beautiful insane ship, and then rolled his eyes at her love for Crichton. She and Crais had both been spit out of the system that had cradled and defined them, trying to replace it any way they could, realizing too late that definitions of rank and role outside the PKs are far more fluid. Nothing you can plant your feet on, unless you already have some balance of your own.

She recalls lying next to Chiana in the dark, holding her hand and simply...existing. There was no chain of command to it, no direction of need. Just companionship, flexible and strange, and pleasing, once she got used to it.

"She can tell shapes and colors. Actually, she says she sees more colors than before--they make her head hurt a little when we turn the lights up full."

Aeryn grabs the dollbaby from the floor and considers the hideousness of it. She tucks it against her stomach, soft and yielding, and facing away from her.

"It hasn't rained for the last five solar days. Humidity's down, too, which makes the Ypree happy. It's starting to worry the Wodawe. Fields look okay so far, but it's drying up fast around here. Here, see the creek?"

Aeryn rubs her chin against the corded hair of the n'snuka. She wonders what she could put into the quelpa that would mimic the weight of an infant without falling out of the leg holes. Might as well begin training now.

The 'corder angles down to a stretch of dry rocks and wet pebbles, where previous transmissions had shown a clear little stream. "Fish are gone, tucked down in the mud for the duration. Took me arns to figure out that they weren't dead, just hiding out until the rain comes back."

She shakes her head, wondering at this man who worries about the welfare of fish. So hard when he has to be. So soft when he can be.

The front window of the old bookstore still has Sebacean letters gilded backwards in old fashioned mercantile curves, but the glass is solar filtered this time, and the view of the street has been replaced by that of a nearby star, its deep red blemished dark with flares.

Coronal mass ejections. Solid ones with splatter arcs sweet with the promise of wormholes.

The pentagram is even more elaborate this time, the wooden floor dusty pastel with baroque equations, cartoon drawings and fragments of tightly-packed text. The candles have been replaced with biolume lamps set to a dim flickering setting, just enough to pick out the Sebacean phonemes.

Dehr wuz uh yoongh mhan fhrum Khentukhet hoo drohv ehn IASA ruzt bukhet...

"What a crock of dren!" With a rip, the brunette flings a section of pages across the room, then tosses the rest of the book after it. "Seriously, an entire chapter devoted to training a child to use a waste funnel, and not one word on weapons safety?"

"Pathetically culture bound," the blonde murmurs as she sketches out a mother and baby Leviathan. "Useless, really."

"Listen, Dr. Spock never had to carry a gun," John picks the scattered sections off the floor, "so cut the man some slack."

The blonde blinks up at him. "Why?"

The brunette clarifies. "You never cut yourself any."

John looks at the two shades of blue staring at him, prodding him. He throws the torn book on the side table by the door and bites back, "It's not that simple."

The brunette hooks her feet around the outside rails of the ladder and zips down to the ground, closing the distance in a matter of heartbeats. She leans into his face, and he notices that when she's angry the angles of her face sharpen, and she stops looking so much like Olivia.

"It's simple, all right. But you don't want to face how simple it really is."

"He won't listen to us."

"He won't listen to us, and he won't talk to Aeryn." The brunette rocks her head side to side. "Because he's a stupid stubborn man."

The blonde brushes chalk from her hands and then reaches to the brunette, pulls the knife from the sheath strapped to her sister's thigh. The brunette turns around sharply and stalks into the pentagram after her.

"Girls..." John pinches the bridge of his nose, not looking forward to another fight.

"Scarran blood vow?"

John whips around to find Harvey standing right behind him, staring at the young women. When he turns back he sees that they've each cut their palms, and have grasped hands like they're arm wrestling.

John asks Harvey, "What the hell?"

He answers with a question of his own. "Do you realize how much Wodawe home brew you drank this afternoon?"

John turns to face him, not wanting to watch the way the red drips onto the chalk. "What?"

"I can't wake you up, John. I'm afraid we're stuck here until your bladder lends assistance in pulling you back to consciousness."

"Can't you do something?" The young women are crouched down, feet shuffling for purchase, pulling with their centers of gravity, knuckles white and faces red.

"They're primal, I have no control."

"Take me to the beach or something?"

"They are keeping you here. Blood calls to blood."

The muscles of their arms and neck strain against each other, free arms grabbing at the air behind them, neither one winning. The blood sizzles as it hits the chalk-covered wood, boiling into a thick cloud of smoke out of proportion to the liquid.

Harvey coughs, his eyes wide as the smoke solidifies into a third woman.


The girls' hands fly apart and they stumble backward. The woman looks both of them over with a pleasant astonishment.

Harvey's voice is dire and flat. "I'm afraid they've brought out the frag cannon, John."

John's voice hardens with warning. "My mother is not a frag cannon."

Harvey scoffs. "Your nostalgia preserved the velvet glove--you forget how she really was. I saw her on Earth just like you did. Accepting to a fault. But when she yelled 'jump!' to your father, he didn't even pause to ask 'how high?'."

Leslie presses a few brandar tiles into each of the women's hands. "Why don't you girls go get some ice cream?"

They kiss her on the cheek, eyes and smiles bright, then move toward the door.

Leslie turns to John.

He doesn't know what to say to her, so he asks, "Ice cream?"

Her smile and shrug relax him. "It's what grandmas do."

There's a crackle and a thump behind him, and when he turns around Harvey lies twitching on the floor. The brunette slots her taser into a low ammo pocket on her leathers while the blonde opens the front door with a happy tinkle of the brass bell. They each grab an arm and drag Harvey out onto the street.

John hopes he gets some ice cream out of it.

"They're lovely girls."

He turns back to his mother, who's moved out of the pentagram and is sitting down in a padded leather chair by the fireplace. "Yeah. Too bad one of 'em isn't born yet and the other's already dead."

Leslie pats the arm of the chair next to her, but John remains standing before her.

She looks up at him for a moment. Her legs are crossed at the knee, her hands resting easily, clasped in her lap. "Are you okay, John?"

He can't help himself. "You know you're dead, right?"

"I've been worse." She shrugs again with one shoulder. "You know how it is."

He swallows, then nods.

"What's wrong, Johnny?"

He can tell when he shifts his weight that it's as good as a confession.

"You look better than you did on Earth. Healthier." Her eyes crinkle with shrewd approval. "You're over the withdrawal, and that's a victory." She offers her hand and he makes himself take it.

Solid, warm and soft, her grip is firm.

"You've grown into a good man."

She tries to move him to the chair beside hers but his feet are too heavy to move.

"I'm proud of you, you know."

He wonders when he can release her hand, but he'd have to pull from her grip. Despite the shame of her gaze, he doesn't want to let go. The words worm out of him. "That's 'cause you don't know the half of it."

"No, I know the whole of it. I know you've always done the best you could." She stands and pins him with those ice-blue eyes, her considering gaze stripping him raw. "That you absorb your mistakes, and you keep trying. That's all I've ever asked."

Her shoulder blades are small and sharp beneath his hands, the scented crook of her neck just barely big enough to cradle his head.

John shares the lounge with Chiana, facing her, their legs meeting in the middle and tangling companionably. The 'corder rests on a mound of blanket by his knee. Aeryn's holo image is bright in the evening dim of the room. "I rarely see D'Argo outside of duty shifts and meals, otherwise he's locked in his quarters. I think he's pursuing some kind of exercise or meditation strategy."

Chiana giggles, and John can't help wondering if it's less Tai Chi and more Wank-Chi. Then he decides to cut off that line of thought before he has to scrub out any mental images. Then he realizes it's too late.

"Noranti seems to live in the kitchen, but she's been concocting instead of cooking. The meals are being handled by a handful of the Wodawe, and we eat communally with them. Big platters of food." Aeryn eyes widen as her hands describe a mounded plate.

The words blow out on a weary sigh. "I miss real food."

"I know you do, Chi."

"Noranti says a part of the food comes from our stores, but most was brought onboard by the Wodawe." Aeryn smiles, perhaps still thinking of the glories of Wodawe dinners. "Maybe they smuggled it up in their pouches--did you know they keep their young tucked in a flap in front?"

"I did." Chiana lifts her chin. "Finip showed me his brother's kid, well, his kid now that he's gone. Tiny and cute like baby rats."

"You've got a strange sense of cute."

"I think your cute."

"And suddenly that means less than it did before."

She prods him with her foot, jostling the 'corder and making the holo waver. "Oops. Hey, what the frell is that?"

"It's a dollbaby. I made it for her."

"A what?"

"A dollbaby."

"What's that?"

John pauses the 'corder. The tail end of the message is Aeryn futzing with the doll while listing the recent modifications to Moya. She likes to make the head flop back and forth, and John's made a note to talk to her about not shaking real babies like that. "A doll--it's a fake baby that little kids like to play with."

Chiana pulls her head back. "Huh?"

"Nebari don't have dolls?"

"When I was little there were other kids to play with--I didn't need stand-ins."

"A doll isn't like a friend to play with--it's more like someone you take care of, like a baby of your own so you don't have to be the littlest one of the family--"

"Nebari are big on hierarchy, but even they don't take it that far."

"No, this is different." John sighs. Maybe he should tell her to ask D'Argo? D was bigger on dolls, he could explain it better. But she's cranked her head closer and is waiting for him to speak. "Remember when you were with Nerri, how things weren't as scary because you had him along?"

"I took care of him as much as he took care of me."

"That's my point. You had somebody to take care of, and that made it better, right?"

She leans back to think about it, then slides her feet under his leg. "So a dollbaby is something for the kid to take care of, because the real people are too big to be cared for by a little kid?"

"Yeah, that's why a lot of families have pets, dogs or other animals for the kids to care for. They're not very good at it at first, it takes practice. Forgetting to feed the doll is less of a problem than forgetting to feed the dog. There's a progression."

"Doll, then dog, then people."

John's reply hitches with laughter. "Something like that."

"Humans need that from the start, then, huh? Need to care for others."

"If you raise them right, yeah, they do."

She smiles at him. "No wonder Aeryn wants kids with you."

He clears his throat and slips the 'corder into the pants pocket of his scub shorts.

"I still think she's crazy. She should talk with D'Argo about teenagers."

He lays his hand on her bare knee, poking up from the pile of blankets and robe. "Speaking of your penchant for the underage--you know any kids of mine are off-limits, right?"

She slides her other foot deeper and gooses him with her toes.

Nelet catches him on the tank stairway, her eyes narrowed with purpose. "There's a message for you from the Governor. I believe it is an invitation for dinner tonight."

"Great, another dog and pony show." He reaches the last step with Nelet and then turns to ask her if there's any way he can avoid dining with the teddy bears. He doesn't see the needle, but he feels it sink into his calf.

His body reacts faster than his mind, and Nelet reacts faster than that. She evades his boot and his hand, ducking through the open stairs, climbing the back of them like a monkey. She's out of his reach before he stops bellowing.

It hits John like the flu, his muscles puddling into aches and weakness. In microts he's fevered and sweaty, and when he grabs the stair railing it's not to give chase but to keep standing.

Nelet pipes from her perch in the struts of the stairs. "This is quite temporary I assure you, and will dissipate within the arn. The messenger from the Governor is waiting right outside the door and I'm afraid this is the only way you could avoid the invitation."

"You could have asked."

"I was not prepared to take the chance that you would say 'no'."

He leans against the steps, peering up at the little green face peeking out between slats of metal. It doesn't take much to put the pieces together. "The big-wigs have arrived, haven't they?"

Nelet lifts her head in acknowledgement.

"And something's going down tonight, isn't it?"

"We do not know. But you will be safer here. And we need your help." Nelet looks to the tank where Chiana floats like a marshmallow in raspberry jello.


When they arrive in the Wodawe home system, it's the first time Aeryn has seen D'Argo in days. His eyes widen along with his grin as he spots the quelpa on her back, riding over her long coat.

She rides out his delighted laugh, her arms crossed with pointed forbearance.

He leans back against the wall, as relaxed as she's ever seen him. He indicates the green carrier with a nod. "Practicing?"

She raises a brow and lets herself smile a bit.

He mimics her folded arms, and gives her a good hard look. Her gun hand drifts down, thumb brushing aside the coat flap.

"You are not the Peacekeeper I met cycles ago." His look is considering, but his voice is mellow. "I can still see parts of her in you. But you're so much more than that now. A friend, a spouse. Soon to be a mother. Still lethal." He shakes his head and smiles again. "I would not have thought it possible when we first brought your craft on board."

She remembers the group of Aeryns in her vision, the different versions of both her and John all merging into the present. She still wonders at the meaning of what she saw about herself, and she's disconcerted by the idea that D'Argo seems to see the same thing as easily as if it were written on her forehead.

That D'Argo can think of her specifically as a mother is peculiar. She hadn't had an Aeryn like that in her vision.

D'Argo tugs at a shoulder strap, shaking off the formality. "What do you keep in there?"

She lets him open the flap. "I wanted to simulate the weight, strengthen the muscles, get used to the bulk. Books were the only things I could find that were heavy enough and that wouldn't fall out of the leg holes."

"I remember hauling those up to Moya. Once Olivia found out you could read, I think she boxed up all of her shelves."

He paws through the stack, pulling out the hardcover on top. "You have too many in here. Sebacean babies are smaller at first."

"But they get bigger. I've been working up to this weight for days now." She takes the book back. "And I'm reading this one."

D'Argo taps the cover. "How far along are you?"

"Page one nine two, halfway down." She flips through and indicates the sheaf of papers she's already deciphered. "It goes fast. There are illustrations."

"Training manual?"

"Fairy stories."

Aeryn wonders how the little old Wodawe man got on top of the shuttle pod, and why he's berating the others assembled in the docking bay.

"You are not farmers. You are not slaves. You are not chattel." The elder Wodawe is thin and scarred, the grooves on his face denoting advanced academic rank. The grooves in his arms show that he survived the first brutal contact with the Ypree, as well as all the cycles of abuse between then and now. "You are learned. You are strong. You bring knowledge that no one else yet has, and for which we have paid dearly."

Despite his small body--looking even smaller in the homespun falling off his shoulders--his voice booms and rebounds from the docking bay walls.

Aeryn thinks that maybe he got up there through sheer force of will.

"Some of you were born in space, born on foreign soil, born under the thumb of the oppressors. Some of you remember the original dream of our colony ship. All of us have persevered. We did not yield ourselves. We learned and taught and researched and debated, even as we planted and plowed and capered for the Ypree, even as Wiliansh showed us other species, other cultures, other ways than exploitation."

He pauses to look over the crowd, picking out faces in turn. His next words carry as well, but they settle on the gathering like soft rain. "You are all free. You are all going home."

The Wodawe begin hollering and warbling. A few taller ones head up the ramp of the shuttle to reach up and carry the old man down to where everyone can lay their hands on him in turn.

Aeryn considers the simply odd idea that sometimes people need to be told who they are. That they might not realize it or believe it otherwise.

John's a pale and sweaty mess by the time Nelet takes him through the door. Just one look at him and the Ypree in his livery greens stutters through his message, adding at the end that he'd be glad to convey his regrets to the Governor.

John coughs into his fist. "I don't know, maybe a nice meal would do me some good, you know? Kick old Captain Trips in the nuts."

Nelet pinches him on the leg as the Ypree asks, "Captain who?"

"The flu, man." John's voice is as gravelly as his head feels. "I've just got a touch of the flu."

The Ypree steps back a pace and covers the move with a bow. "I'm sure the Governor will understand that you would not want to jeopardize the health of his distinguished guests--"

"Sure, sure," John wipes the sweat from his forehead back into his hair. "Hey listen, since I can't make it myself, who's coming to this shindig?"

Aeryn opens the cover to find Olivia's joke, a large image of John as an infant, naked in a kitchen sink as if he were a dish to be washed. Two teeth stick up from the bottom of a silly baby grin, a yellow plastic bird held clumsily in chubby hands. Round and indistinct yet completely familiar, it's a smile she knows the grown-up version of, even if she doesn't see it very often anymore.

She misses the man, so she turns the book over and starts at the back.

His official IASA portrait; bulky space suit, black-visor helmet in the crook of his arm, and a smile so open and gleeful you could fall into it and not care. That's the man who showed up on Moya.

He was always in the way, primitive and clueless, incessantly trying, constantly gaining aptitude and skill. He challenged her, some days just by surviving.

She'd thought he was beyond naive. She didn't realize until much later that he'd thought the same of her.

Still, he'd assumed she was exactly like him, that there were very few limits to what she could do. That she wasn't defined by anything except what she failed to attempt, and that failure only meant that you had to try again.

She doesn't remember when she started trying to impress him. It was under this influence that the Aeryns in her multiplied.

She's back to the pages on adolescence now, images of a lanky sullen kid, still baby-faced but trying to hide it. Nothing either adorable or intimidating about that scowl, but she'd seen the boy in action, had heard John's detached observation that all the kid really needed was love, reassurance, and a good solid kick in the ass.

She wonders if those needs are restricted to that age period, or whether it's indicated by the look on his face. It's the same look she sees when he shuts down on her, and the recognition sets off a chain explosion of thoughts.

She considers the possibility that his new cold cunning is like the lakka, like the silence he used to practice, like the swift change of manner that comes right before he closes down; armor that protects vulnerability.

That inside the shielding he's the same open, caring, wondrously odd man who first called her out. That aside from some skills the only real difference is the defense system, the reflexes that he's picked up to protect himself. Upgraded security, like the weapon he carries and the leather he wears.

When she first saw these pictures, she saw the man in the child. Now it flips like a tactical display changing modes and she sees the boy inside the man.

And the last realization hits her like flying fast into a docking web; that inside he's just like the raw boy pouting up from the page, in need of love and reassurance, and a good solid kick in the ass. And that unlike the friendly ambassador of Earth she lived with for cycles, who would challenge her to talk and maneuver her into tight spaces just to touch her, this John has decided not to ask for any of it.

Nelet didn't lie, whatever she gave him only lasted about an hour. John's a little sleepy, but no worse for wear. His stomach feels tight because he can taste the situation going south.

He can see the distant lights of the Ypree's colony through the cockpit window, festive as all hell, lit up like a target. The Wodawe village is quiet but occupied. They're waiting for the right moment.

He figures Moya is on her way back by now, but he's got over a week before she arrives.

Unless she's got one more starburst left in her. John offers a vague prayer when he sends the transmission to the relay.

Nelet is waiting for John when he gets back to the clinic. She at least has the grace to duck her head when he stops several away feet from her and asks, "What now?"

She clasps her hands in front of her, knuckles spring-green from tension. "We require your assistance...we would like to prepare the clinic for certain eventualities..."

"What, board up the windows? Start packing? Give away the surprise? The Wodawe aren't planning to move for another monen, I'm not going to help you do anything to alert the teddy bears."

"There is no danger of that. We have been planning to relocate our practice for the last cycle. The Ypree are aware of this and have already shipped most of our equipment for us." Nelet gestures for him to follow her into the hygienic chamber. "Our current needs are more concrete."

John takes a deep breath, shrugging off the lingering ache as he follows her into the bright white room. "So what do you need me to do?"

"We have begun adjusting the therapy schedule to accelerate your friend's healing--what we require is your assistance to relocate the tank."

The room has been stripped of most of the equipment, only a few scanners and the bed remain. "Tank has wheels, right?"

"Yes, the base is wheeled."

John inspects the room, noting that the upper casing of the hygienic chamber has been disassembled to reveal the real ceiling. There are heavy-duty cargo nets and block and tackle on the underside of the roof, and an access hatch where the heavy equipment must have been lifted in and out. There's no floor above this one, it's just as exposed as the therapy room. "There's no reason to move it all the way across the compound like that. It won't be any safer in here."

"We do not plan on leaving it exposed in here." Nelet climbs onto the bed and gestures to a sledge hammer lying there with its battered head resting on the over-bleached pillow. "The sublevel will provide more protection."

Concrete assistance. Ha. Still, the floor had to have been reinforced to handle all the lab equipment, and depending on where they slip the tank through, it could still absorb a lot of abuse. Artillery. John strides over, grabs the edge of the bed and leans over Nelet. "Protection from what?"

She stands to meet his eyes. "I respectfully suggest that you begin, while I tell you what we know of the schedule of events."

"They told you it's going down soon, didn't they?"

"They do not have to." She blinks, tilting her head closer to his. "The crops are as good as failed from the drought. The opportunity now present in the Ypree colony becomes more appealing in this circumstance, no?"

"How much time do we have?"

Nelet bends at the knees and pulls up the handle of the sledge like a weight bar. "I will show you where to make the hole in the floor."

"That bad, huh?"

"To deflect suspicion we must suffer along with the Ypree." Nelet swivels the handle, dropping it into his open palm. "We have one half solar day after the initial incident. The side of the clinic closest to the Ypree colony will be targeted."

The therapy room. "Fuck."

"I have obtained the latest message from the relay, and have begun the decryption."

"Good." Aeryn wipes her forehead with the tail of her shirt, careful to keep her hands dry while she sockets the high power conduit back together. "Have you been able to get the energy surges under control?"

"D'Argo has re-activated three tiers so far, but the fluctuations have worsened. We are in much the same situation as yesterday."

Aeryn replaces the grill and shifts the straps of the quelpa. "How is Moya faring?"

"I have channeled as much of the energy into propulsion as possible. This relieves some of Moya's nervous anxiety."

Aeryn can feel the power surges like a racing itch, the need to pace, to do, to go go go. She runs to the access hatch to activate yet another tier, hopefully helping to absorb the rising fluctuations.

The nights on Tuscany are twenty arns long, and John seems to spend half of it heaving the sledge through a painted circle in the permacrete floor. Two hours and a torturous foot down, Nelet comes into the chamber with an acid solution that weakens the permacrete and speeds the progress. She paints it on, waits, sprays it with neutralizer and he busts until he meets resistance. The last five feet break easily into powdery rubble and melted ribbons of polymer reinforcement.

The edges of the hole are ragged and sharp, but John's shoulders are spent and trembling, and they still have to move the tank. The shortest distance is through the courtyard and the night time is the right time for pulling that kind of crap.

The good news is that Wiliansh is back from the Ypree party, with a fresh set of strapping shoulders. The bad news is that Wiliansh is back from the party and the Wodawe could move at any moment.

John lifts his goggles onto his hair and wipes his face with his scrubs shirt, trying to find a piece of fabric that isn't crusted with sweat and permacrete grit.

When he pops outside to scout the tank's route, he can't help looking at the Prowler waiting in the field just past the courtyard wall. But an arn in the tank equals thirty outside, and Chiana needs as much time as he can give her.

The only reason the jolt doesn't throw Aeryn to the deck is that she's already there, wedged under a floating wall rib to reach a transponder that's wedged between tier six and seven. She feels the surge that's been building for days ramp higher, and then jump tracks.

It drains from the tiers, dimming the light. It flows into another system, flares bright, ramps higher. Aeryn feels it through the bare belly she has pressed against the deck, her leg muscles flexing in sympathy. She reaches to her comms to warn Pilot but before she can say a word the pathways fill to capacity and then trip, the reflex irrevocable.


Shouts over comms and the sickening lurch of a graceless drop into normal space. Aeryn gags and blinks the tears from her eyes, then pushes up to her hands and knees.

Pilot cuts everyone off to make his announcement, but Aeryn knows what he's going to say.

The baby did that.

Which means they're running out of time before real labor begins.

Which means propulsion is minimal.

John helps Chiana out of the tank and Wiliansh helps him hustle her down the steps. Willy gets the thing ready to move while John leads her to the bed Nelet has prepared in the waiting room next to the hygienic chamber.

"What's goin' on?" She slurs as he props her up against him and tries to get her to walk. "I feel tinked."

"That's the meds talking, they've speeded the therapy up so you can go home sooner."

"Home is good."

"Yeah, it is. Now come on, Chi, we just need to get down the hall."

Her eyes flare open for a brief scan, irises grey like cigarette ash. "Hey, where we goin'?"

"We're moving the tank."

She twitches and the arm wrapped around his waist grabs a handful of his side. "It wasn't the Prowler. It was the wrong hulled thing."

He takes advantage of her burst of wakefulness, pushing her into the next corridor. "That's it, keep walking."

"Things are frelled, aren't they?"

"No more than usual," he shushes, lifting her a bit to clear the edge of a step.

"That bad, huh?"

Her feet stay solid for the next few feet but her arms slacken and the weight on his sore arms increases. He yelps "Chi!" to snap her back.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," her mumble turns into a whine. "Hey, you know what?"


"You never told me what twist for twat really means..."

He shuffles her higher in his grip. "This ain't the time, Chi."

"...I wanna know before I die..."

"You're not gonna die--"

"Shyeah." Her head lolls into the crook of his neck, and the heat coming off her skin shouldn't surprise him that much. The tank doesn't steam for nothing.

"You're not gonna die. I'm just putting you someplace safe until we move the tank to a better spot, then I'll slide you right back into your Easy Bake Oven until your poppin' fresh peepers are piping hot, okay?"

She stumbles and whimpers, "Famous last words." Her mouth stays open slack, and her feet go heavy again.

"Fine, fine." He shakes her into taking more steps. It's not like she's going back to Earth to tell off Gladys next door again, is she? "If it'll keep you awake."

She smiles, eyelids open enough to show a slice of grey.

"The words are all different at the end, so listen to the end. Are you listening?"

She answers in a sigh. "Yeah."

"So repeat after me, alright? Twist."


"Twist is to turn."

"Twist means turn."

"Right. Twit. Twit means moron."

"Twit means stupid."

"Right." One more corridor to go, and she's holding more of her weight on her feet. He wonders how Wiliansh is faring with the tank.

"And then twat?"

"And then what?"

"Don't play twit with me, Crichton. Why is twat funny?"

"I wouldn't say it's funny, per se." He shifts her again. "It's an uncouth word for nelli."

Her eyes flutter open enough to give him a look. "Nelli is an uncouth word."

"You're serious? It's so...cute."

She shifts her head to murmur up into his ear. "So that's it? Twat means nelli?"

"In the context of 'twit for twat', though, it becomes hilarious."

"Or a description of my first paying job." Paired with the beginnings of a full-body shiver, her slow-mo gasping laugh is creepy. "What about the others, tat and tit?"

"Tit for tat just means a trade or maybe revenge. I'm not sure what tat is, really."

"And tit?"

"Tits are loomas. Though loomas always sounded more hefty than titties."

"Humans have different words for loomas of different size and weight?"

"Don't you?"

"No, I just know what I like." Her head lolls back and he shrugs his shoulder to roll it forward again. "Ugh, thanks."

"No problem."

"So, what are mine?"

"What are what?"

"What are mine, what's the name for my size?"

He drags her feet the last motra to the cot Nelet laid out. "You would be a member of the Itty Bitty Titty Committee."

"Ittybitty." Her giggle is slowing like a starter running down a battery. "So, what does this committee do?"

"Go braless, mainly." He flips the blankets back and dumps her into the cot. She rolls into the trench of the mattress and lies like a rag doll.

"..tha's it?"

"Now they've got you onboard I think they're also planning world domination." He tucks the first cover around her and under her feet, then layers on the rest of the blankets.

Once last look around the room and he bolts the door closed.

Wiliansh has strapped a power cell to the side of the tank, says it's enough to run for another monen. Chiana should only need another weeken, but John scavenges a solar generator from the roof, just in case.

John suggests moving it empty. Willy says there's enough fluid left to top the tank off, but not to refill it. And there's nowhere to keep the stuff except in the tank. John takes another look at the wheels and sends Nelet to find something to make ramps.

If they break a wheel on a step, they're frelled. If they lose balance and tip it over, they could lose too much juice. If it takes too long to move, it'll takes arns to reheat the soup.

They wrap the tank in thermal sheets, shiny sides in. Willy produces a spool of cordage and they strap the thing six ways from Sunday, securing the tank tight to the base.

In the aftermath of starburst, as she runs to command, Pilot tells Aeryn one thing she didn't know already. The encrypt key on John's last message is the next in the sequence, but the carrier video is the same as the last time.

It's a breach of security that will alert the Ypree if they're monitoring the transmissions. Hopefully it's not enough of an opening for them to break the encryption, but what bothers her is why he had to take that risk.

The message is already playing when she pounds into command.

"So listen, guys, I don't think the punks are going to wait for our convenience. Things are looking to heat up quick and I'd appreciate it if you could step on the gas, if possible. I'm going to update as much as I can, keep you apprised."

They've burned their last starburst.

They are off course in a direction that hasn't yet been determined.

Pilot still hasn't reoriented enough to find the relay.

Aeryn grips the spanner so hard her knuckles ache.

"Chi's a lot better but she still needs to soak some more, and there's no use evacuating into space if we don't have a ride to hitch once we get to the interstate. The doc is speeding up her therapy but it's still going to take time and that's time best spent in the tank."

"How long until you know specifics?"

"This may take a while--unintentional starburst does not leave the same data residue as when Moya and I are both paying attention. I'll get back to you."

With a flash, the clamshell goes dark.

Aeryn wishes she could get out and push, but that doesn't solve the problem of which direction to push in. "We're frelled."

"We're not frelled." D'Argo pries the spanner out of her hands. "We're temporarily in the dark until we hook up with the relay again. Nothing's happened yet, he could just be paranoid."

Aeryn looks at him.

"Okay, so we're probably frelled."

Chiana's curled on her side, tucked down under the blankets with only an aperture for air.

John opens the gap and calls her name. Her face looks rounder without the definition of her usual shaded marks, spooky and childlike, her thumb caught in her slack mouth. The plump spheres of her newborn eyes sweep back and forth under the blanched lids, her black eyelashes like stitches.

"Wake up, sleepyhead, time to retrench."

"We know where we are now--"


"--but Pilot hasn't located the relay yet." D'Argo finishes with an irritated glance at Aeryn for the interruption.

Stark offers a vague smile. "So, we're back on course?"

"Yes." D'Argo waits for the interruption but Aeryn lets him speak. "The power fluctuations have smoothed out, but Moya only has a portion of her usual speed, we're barely making hetch. The planet is three weekens away at this speed."

Rygel humphs.

Aeryn narrows her eyes at him. "I don't need to remind you that she is heavily pregnant and we're probably lucky to have propulsion at all."

"Pilot said there'd be no problem," Rygel snipes back. "And I only brokered the deal, I didn't agree to it."

"Stop it!" Stark joins the fray with his panic face on. "The important thing is what's best for the child!"

"I heard enough prattle out of you to last a lifetime!"

"All of you--if you don't have anything helpful to say than shut the fr--"

"Enough!" D'Argo cuts through the noise.

"May I speak?" Noranti pauses in her grinding, arm wrapped around the mortar she brought with her to command. "I have one question."

D'Argo takes a moment to find his center, then nods.

"Thank you. Have we called for help?"

Aeryn explains, "We're avoiding broad transmissions to the planet in case the fighters are sticking to the plan. There's a chance that John and Chiana are still safe and we don't want to risk that."

"No, no." Noranti gestures with the pestle, coated with an orange paste that smells warm and soothing. "I mean, has Moya called for help?"

Chiana looks bleary-eyed at the package of food cubes in her lap, then peers up at him. "Where's the doc?"

"Doc and Nelet went to the village to check things out. So far things are quiet. We've moved the tank to a safe place just in case."

Chiana nods, chewing. Her head perks up. "Aeryn brought supplies down with her last time. You should go get them."


"Just-in-case supplies. They're in my guest locker."

John hasn't had a chance to move their things yet, but he does have the tab keys for his room and her locker. He fishes it out of his scrubs pocket. "You'll be okay for a minute while I--"

She waves him off.

Chiana's bag is small, just enough room for her clothes and overnight stuff. The other duffel is a meter long, stuffed to capacity and heavy as lead.

When he returns, Chiana is focused on the mug in her hand. "This stuff is worse than before."

He tells her again how the doc is accelerating her therapy. "You'll also be sleeping longer when you go in. Every hour in the tank equals almost thirty hours of healing outside."

"How many more days of this, Crichton?" She's tired and tense, and when he meets her eyes there's no question she can see him even in the relatively bright light of the waiting room.

"Do they hurt in here? Should I dim the light?"

"No." She blinks, a film of blue tears making her dark-rimmed irises the cold grey of storm clouds. "They don't sting as much."

"They're still light-colored, but once they darken down to black, the pain will be gone and you'll be good to go."

"How long?"

"Probably a weeken."

She sips while he pulls his prizes out of the duffel. He lays them out on the chairs to take stock and because there's no way he could get everything back inside that one bag.

Woman's jammed her own revolution in there.

Extra pulse rifles and parts, oculars, water, four sizes of pulse charges, thermal blankets, long-range comms, multiknife, perimeter alarms, rations, trip-wire, water filtrators, and enough chakkan oil to deep fry a Thanksgiving turkey.

"Aeryn's a Boy Scout. Like Bobby." Chiana sits up straighter and raises her chin. "Be prepared!"

"I married one hell of a dangerous Boy Scout."

"She didn't really sit around on a beach while she was gone, you know."

"Yeah." At the bottom of the duffle there's a four subject notebook, blue-lined college rule, ridiculous in its incongruity. He opens it.

"What's that?"

"Plans." John flips through, scanning each detailed page. "She's scoped out the building and the surrounding area. Also diagrams for booby-traps and fortifications in case the neighborhood goes Beirut around us. And a list of frequencies and codes for communication."

"Which would be useful if Moya could actually hear us." Chiana's mug pauses in midair and she looks at John. "I don't know why I said that."

He sets his teeth.

"Must be the meds." She blinks and then resolutely drains her mug. "I'm getting sleepy again."

"Okay. Let's get you back into the tank while you can still walk." John leads her into the next room, and kneels down to lift the clear manhole cover from the tank while she drops the robe, kicks off the slippers and clicks the harness on. He helps her over the raw edge of the permacrete and into the tank. She finds the ladder rungs and eases her body down to the chin.

"Remember, you promised me you'd take care of yourself when I'm in here."

"You betcha."

She nods, and with a firmly exhaled breath, she plunges her head down into the liquid. John waits until she's taken in a lungful, gotten her bearings, and raised her hand, thumb up, out of the liquid. He clasps his hand around hers and gently submerges it before replacing the tank cover.

He checks that the lead line to her harness is securely tied, and that the cover is sealed but not locked. Time to move the tank. The cordage around the tank offers handholds to climb down into the sublevel. There are no lights down there, just the faint glow from the tank display, but it's enough to make out the block and tackle that's been set up to pull the tank back under the protection of the floor.

Just in case she has to get out herself, there's enough clearance for her to open the tank lid and climb out on her own. John takes the steep access stairs back up into the chamber, and goes to study his intel.

He's just as impressed by Aeryn's precise Sebacean technical notation as he is by the clear block lettering of her hand in English. One of her last PK prejudices had been that wiring diagrams were for techs. Maybe working her way through the Chilton's Manual for her Prowler had finally changed her mind. No, Talyn had.

The last page, a schematic for converting a pulse pistol into a timed detonator, has an end-note in the upper left corner. Five words written in bold blocks, the way important signs are lettered on a command carrier:


"Call for help?" Pilot tilts his head. "I'm not sure if any of the pod members who would recognize us would be in range." He sounds dubious and Aeryn's chest tightens.

"Is there any way to boost her signal? Reroute power perhaps?"

"It would take away from propulsion."

Aeryn doesn't reply. Moya's doing the best she can under the circumstances, and pointing out that they probably wouldn't notice the difference between barely hetch and almost hetch won't help the situation. "It might be a better use of the power supply."

Pilot's eyes sink back, hearing what she didn't say and agreeing with her silently. "We can try."

"Thank you, Pilot."

"We will need to take the hibernation tiers back offline, to concentrate her resources once more."

Aeryn calls over her shoulder as she runs up the walkway, "We're on it."

No message. John pings the relay again but the answers don't change. His last message was picked up ten arns ago but there's still nothing in the cache waiting for him.

He's angry because that's the best of the alternatives and it keeps him from thinking of the other options--that Moya can't hear, or can't answer. He has a situation of his own to take care of.

He sets perimeter alarms on the Prowler when he leaves this time. It's parked on the far side of the clinic away from the Ypree, in a small bare field that's already the safest spot he can think of besides orbit. He locks the ship up tight and heads back into the clinic to wash up and change into his real clothes.

He doesn't let the anger turn to fear because he has too much to do.

Willy and Nelet come back from the village at dawn. They might as well not have bothered with the trip.

"What do you mean, there's no word? How many people are in the village? Are they full-up or is it a skeleton crew? Are they mainly old or are the youngsters there? What was the mood? Depressed? Expectant?"

Wiliansh throws her hands up into the air and twitters at him, the scattered words that slip through the microbes sketching the outline of a rant that John's inquiry was the simply last brick in building.

Nelet refrains from translating it. Wiliansh turns as she gestures, and chirrups on down the corridor.

Nelet looks up at John as if she wants to apologize, but she refrains from that too. "It has been a long night cycle. We have made as many preparations as possible." Her eyes drift down level to indicate the full holster strapped to his leather-clad leg. "It would be a good idea to take this opportunity to sleep. I will check on your friend while you rest."

The sun's rising outside, just another normal vacation day to look at it. He's aching and sore but he won't be able to sleep. "Show me how the tank works."

John sits on a bench in command while his mother stands behind him, her hands on his shoulders as she leans forward. "That's amazing. And the little ones are the babies?"


They look out the forward view screen at the Leviathan pod swimming through vacuum, basking in the dust and gases that collect at the mouth of this particular wormhole. The mating space. The young are bright candy shades of the adult colors, zipping around like party favors or resting on their mother's hulls like jewelry.

Her voice lifts as she gapes at the room around her, skinsteel flowing in organic curves. "And we're aboard one now?"

"Her name is Moya."

"Moya." His mother breathes the name, looking up at the ribs vaulting the ceiling.

"She's going to have a baby herself soon."

She squeezes his shoulders and he can hear her smile. "And you?"

"Moya and I are just friends."

The tap to the side of his head is gentle, and she chuckles with him for a moment. They slip into watching the ships again. "You dream of fat babies and kids with dirty faces. You even dream of teenagers embarrassed by you. You've got it bad."

"It's not that sim--"

She lays her hand on his forehead, tilting his head back to look down into his face. "Do you love her?"


"Do you want to be with her?"


"Then why not show her what it's like to be part of a Human family? She wants to have children as badly as you do, I think."

"It's not the having them." He looks back at the view screen and lifts a hand to his shoulder to hold hers. "It's keeping them."

She laughs. "You never get to keep them, John."

The deck pitches beneath them.

John shoots to his feet, pushing his mom down and behind him as he turns to the doorway. Voices burst from the comms, sharp women's voices that he finally pegs as the blonde and the brunette.

Pulse fire.

Inhuman screeching.

Either his comms aren't responding or no one's paying attention to his shouting.

The blonde yee-haws like Han-frelling-Solo and reports that the docking craft on the hull outside of treblin tier seven is now "toast".

The brunette giggles and replies that the intruders are no longer a threat. "And since the cook don't wash I'm not dragging the dead bodies to the airlock."

The giggle sickens John, sends him storming toward treblin tier seven. His mom follows, her thin sandals tapping on the deck.

When he gets there, the brunette greets him with a big smile, eyes bright, still panting from combat. He grabs her wrist and knocks her hand against the wall, pulse pistol clattering to the floor where skreeths and pieces of skreeths lie scattered.

He should have secured her other hand as well but it's too late now. With a pause for breath they both acknowledge the blade she's laid against his neck. He releases her gun hand and the comms activate again, the blonde giving an all clear and coming in to land.

John meets the challenge in her surly blue eyes, her glee soured into resentment as his nausea solidifies into determination. He slowly raises his arm to move the knife away from his throat. This will be corrected, right here, right now. He will not be responsible for releasing a monster into the world. He comms shipwide and his voice grates from his chest. "Treblin tier seven. Family meeting."

A faint explosion in the distance rolls John out of sleep, out of his cot in one motion, his bent paperback hitting the floor along with his feet. "And so it begins," he mutters, as his eyes adjust to the dark. He's slept through the whole Tuscany day, can't even recall when his mind stopped racing, when he finally dozed off.

On the upside, his body has a full tank of gas and he didn't have to stop to put his boots on. He quickly checks the waiting room and hygienic chamber. Safe and sound.

He circles outward into the courtyard to check the clinic grounds and take a gander at the Ypree colony. The night's freshly fallen and the grass still smells hot, despite the stars in the sky.

He's still shaking off the dream, a queasy rehash of his adolescent fights with his dad, complete with fresh corpses and children of the corn. Still fighting over responsibility, only now he's cast himself as the furious dad and the chores involve deadly force, body bags and proper respect for the living and the dead. We don't hit people. We may have to shoot them, or kill them, or blow them into heat and light and fallout, but necessity is a hard bitch.

Do what you have to do and be grateful to be alive. Don't let yourself celebrate death. Don't let yourself learn to like it.

He comes around the edge of the main building and sees the Governor's mansion burning, almost a mile away. Not as bright as one would think, too much smoke in the dark, but the scout craft have already launched into the sky. He watches them, sees that they're heading into space. They don't suspect the Wodawe yet.

The cricket-things in the grass nearby are unfazed by the commotion in the distance, their slow mating call pulsing in the tall grass. The sound reminds him of the first night they landed, homebrew and barbecue and sex in the woods. The night smells parched but good, invigorating. The game is on. He heads back into the curve of the courtyard, thinking he should wake Nelet and the doc.

He's facing away from the therapy room when the force knocks into his back and makes him stumble. He curls into the doorway as debris shakes out of the air, then shields his face with an arm to take a look at the Ypree end of the clinic where the therapy room used to be.

"Oh, this is ri-goddamned-diculous."

The punks are twenty arns ahead of schedule.

Wiliansh twitters and spits while Nelet translates, riding on the Diagnosan's broad right shoulder so she won't have to climb over the pieces of broken wall and medical shrapnel that used to be the therapy room.

A ground transport idles nearby, its floodlights trained into the heart of the mess where they all gather. Once Colonel Replovo let slip that there weren't any injuries at the Ypree colony, she may as well have nailed Wiliansh and Nelet's feet to the cracked permacrete floor. John stands quietly to the side of the confrontation.

Colonel Replovo thunders over the combined chirp and hiss, "I will not allow Protected Nationals such as yourselves to stay here one more arn! The Governor and I have put this whole planet on pre-emptive lockdown and I am here to escort you into safeguarded custody--"

"The Diagnosan Wiliansh will not abandon her client!"

"By all means, I'd be happy to talk to the Governor and have him extend his protection to your client as well, perhaps even to her friend here, but for now--"

"She is undergoing submerged therapy! She cannot leave the tank--"

"I have no need to tell you that this is an extreme situation and we are unable to cater to your whims as we normally are quite happy to."

Wiliansh narrows her eyes but Replovo rumbles on, trying to be rational. "We have no means of transporting huge pieces of equipment--"

Nelet doesn't wait to translate, just shouts back on her own steam, "She cannot be removed without compromising her recovery!"

"I do not have the personnel to secure your clinic against further attacks--"

"Can you at least promise to leave the clinic alone?"

Replovo swivels her head toward John, the floodlights glinting in her frizzy fur and button eyes.

"I'll keep the place secure, and I'll take care of the client in the tank. Nelet showed me how." John catches Willy's eyes and the Diagnosan relaxes a bit. Replovo sees that this tack will probably get her Protected Nationals safely tucked under her wing. For all the good it will do.

John hopes Wiliansh can swing a seat on the first plane out and take Nelet as carry-on. The way things stand for him and Chiana, the sooner he gets the Ypree off the property the less likely the punks will feel the need to hit the clinic again. "I just need to know that your guards will leave us alone here until we can go."

Replovo looks almost sympathetic. "Until we suppress this uprising, we won't be able to protect you from the Wodawe."

"I know." He lays a hand on Wiliansh's elbow and guides her toward the Colonel. "Doc says I just need another three or four local days, and then we'll hop into our ship and be out of your hair."

Replovo scrunches her nose. He realizes that it probably wasn't the best turn of phrase to use with a creature sporting a full-body 'fro.

John still has Willy's elbow when a series of pops and cracks startle the whole group.

Nelet scrambles around Wiliansh's lee-side as the doc huddles those big shoulders and highsteps over the rubble, away from where the stones are flying.

"Rocks!" Replovo roars, "It's always rocks!"

The source can't be determined in the dark, and John doesn't want to pick off the Wodawe just to make a show. He fires wide over the remains of the roof while three of Replovo's guards scurry around to smoke out the snipers. The rest bundle Willy and Nelet into the transport.

John settles the details with Replovo in short order, shouted promises that once the transport leaves, John is on his own.

The colonel gives her squad a few moments to scare the punks off and then gathers her team with barked orders.

John watches the transport bounce over the fields back toward the Ypree colony. Soon, all that's left is crickets and the smell of smoke.

A stone bounces at his feet. John holsters his pulse pistol.

Milpa peeks over the broken edge of the roof, slingshot in hand. "You flinch like a pouchling."

John lets his head fall back and then roll to the side to stare into Milpa's grin, barely visible in the dark. "You drove away my doctor, man."

"Into the arms of safety, my friend, into a transport off-planet, headed to her new clinic to foster good health and rebellion in another quadrant." Milpa tosses away the slingshot and drops down next to John.

"I'll ask you the same thing I asked them." John eyes the wicked pulse piece slung from Milpa's thick belt. "Can you promise to leave the clinic alone?"

"That is why we helped evacuate the doctor. To preserve her cover with the Ypree and to usher her out of harm's way before the real violence begins." He sweeps an arm out toward the ruins, as if showcasing the lovely prizes John could win on 'The Price is Right'. "Now, there is no reason to hit the clinic. We have accelerated our plans but our obligations are still met."

"There's one obligation left. To us."

"Crichton, you are safe here inside the clinic. Just do not get in our way."

"I don't plan to, Milpa. I plan to get her out of here as soon as I can, as soon as she's healed." John blows out a breath. "I need three days, Milpa. Three solar days. Three long-ass local solar days, which is six of the kind I'm used to."

"You have nothing to fear from us."

"Sticks and stones can break my bones, Milpa."

"But our bombs will never hurt you."


Milpa presses a hand to his ear, the tinny sound of a comms carrying in the still night. "I have a report of beeping at the other end of the clinic."

"That's for me." John clutches Milpa's shoulder. "Three days, bro."

"Count on it."

John heads for the tank, trying not to think about what will happen after three days if Moya still hasn't shown.

Aeryn comes awake in the middle of the sleep cycle, sensing that Moya has slowed down to a coast. She reaches up, sets her hand on the wall behind her head, and lets herself feel the energy draining out of propulsion to pool deep in the biologics of the ship.

There will be no more speed. It's too close. Moya and her child both need the energy for themselves.

Aeryn rises from the bed, leaving it unmade, and dresses quickly. The decision has to be made, and she already has a bag packed and waiting on Lo'La. She spots the quelpa, which she's worn for the last ten solar days.

D'Argo said the baby goes with you wherever you go, but he probably didn't mean battle. When she gets back, she'll have to scout around Moya, find safe places to conceal the child during emergencies. Rygel is going to have to share his bolt-holes with the baby.

It doesn't always work so easily, though. What if they're ambushed planet-side? What if they have to evacuate the tier they're on? There may be times she'll have to carry the child in a firefight. Best to practice now, learn how to move and compensate, when all that can be damaged is a few books.

On impulse, she grabs the doll from the table and tucks it into the quelpa, shoved into a spot between the fairy stories and her annotated copy of 'The Art of War'.

She's just out in the corridor when D'Argo comms her. "Pilot has located the relay and is decrypting the messages."

"I'll meet you in command."

"Meet me in the docking bay. The last message was not encrypted."

Aeryn takes off for the docking bay at a run, tightening the straps of the quelpa to eliminate the bounce of books against her back. Within a quarter arn they've launched from Moya and are burning at hetch toward the planet.

Aeryn watches Moya disappear, unable to shake off the feeling that once again she's leaving someone who needs her.

D'Argo breaks the silence if not the tension. "I didn't have time to eat, could you pull something out for me? I keep some things stocked under the benches."

Aeryn makes her way to the belly of the ship and unlatches one of the padded bench tops. Bedding and spare clothing. Another bench holds cheap pulse-grenades and safety container. Aeryn flips the cap open and the warm scent of chakken oil calms her. D'Argo is stocked for long-hauls and tough missions. The food bench holds a crate of sixty ration bricks, each brick enough to feed the two of them for a weeken.

Aeryn takes a brick up front to D'Argo. "Isn't this a bit much?"

"You live a monen with no showers and only vomitous putty to eat. See how it changes the way you pack." He pulls a knife from his belt, handing it to her hilt first. "Could you cut off a dench for me? I'm starving."

Aeryn slices off breakfast for them both, rewraps the brick and then explores the rest of the benches. Water, filtrators, many of the things she had left in a duffel for John after she'd talked with Chiana and left her in the tank for the last time.

A duffel she forgot to tell him about.

Rygel grips his thronesled for dear life, riding out the waves in the gravity field as he cruises in low over the catwalk to Pilot. "It's happening again, isn't it?"

Pilot ignores his shouting until Rygel hovers up to eye-level, green eyes wide open and dilated, teeth bared in a grimace. The face looks how Pilot feels. "I am extremely busy, Dominar, if you hadn't noticed."

"She's in labor, isn't she?"

"Very often there is a period of false labor, and I am attempting to determine--"

"Yotz! You just don't want to admit that it's happening! Well, I remember even if you don't--this is how it starts. Now do what you need to do and get on with it!"

Pilot narrows and bugs out his eyes. He doesn't need a Hynerian to tell him what to do, he's done this before. A low persistent thread of thought adds that the time before was nothing normal, that he'd been terrified and helpless, horrified at what the Peacekeepers had spawned in Moya, and that the birth process had nearly killed her.

And, he still has no idea how it's supposed to go. What is normal shifting, normal pain? What is dangerous?

Moya is strong and ready, and far more fatalistic than he is. She continues to call out to the Leviathan pod for his sake.

On her way to the transport, Nelet had palmed John a few data crystals, Sebacean child-rearing manuals of all things, but she had neglected to leave him the keys for the medicine cabinet. When he goes to mix Chiana's next dose of brew, he finds the cabinets still locked tight. He almost blows the lock before he remembers the fragile containers within.

He moves the tank to the hole and pulls her out, making her step into a pair of scrubs before he throws on the robe. "I've got a job for you."

"Where's the Diagnosan?"

"Willy and Nelet had to evacuate, the teddy bears are taking them to their new digs off-planet."

"Just us, then."

"Yeah, just us." John shoves her feet into slippers and then leads her to the cabinet. "Think you can open this?"

"What's in it?"

"The meds."

Chiana laughs. "With what, numbnuts, my good looks?"

"Frell. Hold on, I'll be right back. Don't move." It takes him longer than he'd planned to find something that might work, the place had been stripped nearly bare in the last few days before the shit hit the fan. When he gets back with a microsurgery kit in his hand, Chiana's curled in the corner between cabinet and wall, tucked into her robe for warmth. The night is warm but nothing near the tank.

He hands her the kit, hoping she'll find something that will work. She chooses a few slim picks and crouches in front of the cabinet. "It's an easy lock, shouldn't be a problem."

A quarter arn later she falls back on her eema with a sigh, tossing a bent pick across the empty floor. "What I wouldn't give for my own tools."

"No go?" John wonders if a side-shot could limit the damage to the lock alone.

"No, it's open now." She flings open a door and mutters to herself, exhausted. "When I get back to Moya, I'm putting them back in my boot. D'Argo can bite me."

John slices open a packet of nasty food cubes and drops it into Chi's lap. "Eat."

He grabs a measured mug and mixes the new version of her cocktail, stronger and thicker than what Aeryn had showed him.

Chiana peers up at him, her eyes darker than before, like snow on a busy road, blackening in streaks and swirls. "Moya is in labor."

He kneels down on the bare floor, grabs her hand and presses the mug into it. He should tuck her into her cot, but frankly the sooner she doses and goes back in the tank, the sooner they can leave. "You need to eat, Chiana."

"They haven't responded yet, have they?"

He breaks off a piece of cube, offering to trade bites for answers. When she eats it from his fingers, she doesn't bother to lick. "Not yet."

"She's okay, I think. Chances are she's okay." Chiana slides her hand down the side of his face and smiles at him, a beautiful snowy marble girl with dark-veined marble eyes. She pats his cheek, just shy of a slap. "We'll just have more people to come home to, that's all."

When he goes down into the sublevel to pull the tank back under the floor, he does a systems check. All the readings are good except for power.

Wiliansh had assured him that there would be enough power to run the thing for another monen, but from the look of things it isn't going to last the weeken. It takes more juice to heat the tank in the cold sublevel than it did in the heated therapy room. He's glad he scavenged the solar generator.

John spends the night working around the perimeter of the clinic, setting up booby traps and trip warnings, and in general making his presence known to the shadows he can barely make out in the fields. The village sits abandoned in the distance but John knows the Wodawe are near, keeping an eye on the Ypree colony, waiting for the right moment. Who knows where else they've already planted bombs?

There were no more in the clinic that he could find, but ordnance doesn't have to be big to be devastating. He sleeps and patrols in fits and starts, deliberately without schedule.

He didn't used to be able to sleep on cue--only in the last few years has he gained the skill of drifting off whenever he can, still semi-aware, never too deep. It isn't real sleep but it's better than nothing.

"It's how Thomas Edison slept." Harvey scouts from the roof edge as John assembles the solar generator in the grainy light of dawn. "I see you've ground-locked the Prowler."

John pats the catalyst cell in his pocket. "What am I missing, Harv?"

"Moya. Aeryn. The point. You should evacuate now while you have a clean chance."

"Every arn in the tank equals thirty arns out. She stays in for as long as possible."

Harvey shakes his head and scans the foothills, pissy. Neither one mentions the clone's incapacitation the last time they spoke, the way the pieces of John disabled Harvey and pulled him out of the dream like a corpse being spaced. Despite Harvey's ability to steer them, when push comes to shove, the dreams are stronger than he is. John doesn't have time to figure out Harvey's deal right now.

He rolls out the solar sheeting, pinning it down with pieces of rubble from the therapy room. The sun breaks the horizon, the start of another twenty arns of daylight. On his personal jet-lagged calendar, day two of the roughly six he needs to stay here.

Pilot suspects that something is wrong with the birthing seam. He wonders about scarring from Talyn's birth, or some effect of Tormented Space, and he wishes he knew how the process is normally supposed to feel like--if it's normal for the bulkheads to be stiff and resistant, if that's something that will ease as labor progresses. His only source of knowledge, besides Moya and the vague advice she'd gotten from the pod, is Noranti.

And Noranti had simply nodded at his questions and headed back into the kitchen. Whatever she's making, the DRDs report that she's already filled a motra square cargo box with it.

The contractions go on for arns, but the seam only opens a few denches more, not enough to trigger the disconnection of the cables securing the child to her mother's power, and not nearly enough to begin working toward the birth.

The day is quiet, only a few Ypree patrols cruising the dirt track roads and bouncing through the fields. John nods when they look at him but doesn't encourage them to stay or talk. Neutral as Switzerland, that's me, bub. Just keep on driving.

It's a good day for sunshine. He unhooks the storage battery a third time and scrambles down to the sublevel to dump power into the tank's cell. A little over half now, enough to last another forty arns, give or take. He's also strapped more blankets around the tank and set a waiting-room chair cushion over the top. Still, the thing radiates heat into the cool sublevel like an open oven.

He climbs up to slot the storage battery back into the generator. When he checks on it again at dusk, the whole thing has gone missing.

Aeryn's midway through the last message when D'Argo shuts down the playback. "You are as bad as he is. What can you see now that you did not see the first five times?"

"Can't this bucket of dren go any faster?"

D'Argo's expression softens, which makes her even more anxious. A good argument would have vented some of this fearful buzz and instead he's offering sympathy. "Could you cut me off a slice of breakfast?"

She stalks to the back of the cabin, tosses the ration brick into her vacated seat and spends a few arns cleaning her guns.

Stark sees the wormholes open. The deck rocks beneath him as Moya curls around another contraction, but it doesn't matter because she's now surrounded by Leviathans. They come in close, and the thrumming of their contact can be felt throughout the ship. He drops his glass of water, which rolls back and forth on the floor.

"Moya's distress call has been answered, and our concerns have been confirmed." Pilot announces over the comms. "There is definitely a problem with the birth seam."

"What do they suggest?" Noranti has slipped into her command voice once more, calm and sure with no trace of her usual waver.

"They are conferring with Moya." Pilot sounds like he's translating on the fly. "The problem is a patch of scar tissue on the birth seam."

"From where Talyn fired his way out."

"Yes, Dominar."

Stark caresses one of the wall ribs between the view ports, horrified that birth could be as violent as death.

Noranti pipes up again. "I have something to help. Stark, are you listening? Meet me in the kitchen. Rygel, meet us in the antechamber."

"Why should I, you yammering trillbat?"

Noranti's sweet voice is back. "So I don't rip off your ears and make soup. That's why!"

Stark activates his comms, stammering that he's already in the kitchen.

"We've got a war to fight, Crichton, we can't take time out to run errands for you."

"That's shitty, Milpa, and you know it."

Milpa sighs. "Fighters on the line get antsy, you know? They see an advantage, they take it." He straightens his back and flicks his eyes toward the Ypree colony. "You made it too easy for them to take the advantage."

They both know it wasn't the Ypree who 'liberated' John's generator, but John's willing to play ball if it means he doesn't have to shoot anyone.

"All I'm asking is that you keep an eye out for it. In your travels." John hooks his boot behind a crate of random medical supplies he'd scavenged. "In the meantime, I thought you guys might be able to find a use for this stuff."

Milpa peers into the crate. John had unpackaged some of the bottles for easier identification even under starlight; wound sealant, anti-infectives, painkillers. "Most generous."

"It's the least I could do, seeing as they're keeping an eye open for my generator."

"I'll talk to them about it." Milpa scoots the crate closer, out of John's reach. He tucks it under his free arm, away from his weapon. "Two more days for you here."

"Looks like."

Milpa squints into the fields, where his fighters are so quiet that the crickets still chirp. He turns back to face the clinic wall and when he speaks he's so quiet John can barely hear him. "Wiliansh and Nelet are leaving on a shuttle tomorrow afternoon. One of a handful that the Ypree are evacuating off-planet."

John looks at the ground near his boot as he mutters, "Only a handful, then."

Milpa offers his hand to shake Human-style, assured that his warning has been delivered. John shakes it, and wishes him the best of luck.

Tomorrow afternoon the fighting will escalate. Day four of the six. He almost wishes that they keep the generator, then he'll have no choice but to shuffle Chiana into the Prowler and get the hell out of Dodge.

"I am not!"

"Yes, you are!"

"No way in Hezmana, you wretched crone!"

Through much practice, many wounds, and even worse, Stark has figured out the best restraining hold for a wily Hynerian. Stark wrenches the tiny elbows behind the Dominar's back, with his clawed feet and sharp mouth pointed outwards. It's the mouth you have to avoid at all costs.

Noranti slops more of the orange plaster onto Rygel.

"You vile woman! You despicable piece of--fauurrrgh!"

Stark admires her deft hand, shoving a big chunk of the paste all over Rygel's face while not being bitten.

"Now, Dominar, the way to rid yourself of the balm is to wiggle through those tight spaces, scrape it off against the bulkhead." Noranti nods to Stark, who sidles between the hull of the baby ship and the wall of the birthing chamber. The trick will be finding a space tight enough so Rygel won't be able to turn around in time to bite Stark when he lets go.

The place already reeks of the warm spiciness of the balm, but the underside of the seam is still bare, and the Dominar is the only one small enough to apply it there.

The solar generator is delivered to John within the arn, but the transfer battery is missing. For a few minutes he sighs, picturing himself lugging the whole damned thing down and up two flights of stairs every few arns. He takes a deep breath and goes to work.

When he pulls Chiana out a few arns later to eat and re-medicate, he can see streaks of black swirling through her eyes.

He sets up the generator at dawn again, and lays the booby-traps out heavy and mean. Next time they'll have to spend a limb or two.

The scarring is thick and hard, like the kind of scars that still marble Moya's burned tiers. Rygel forgets about his ruined robe and calls for another bowl of balm. He works it into the skinsteel as the ship shudders around him, as the baby ship thrums against his back. He sidles up and down the seam with bowl after bowl until the golden metal is a warm bronze orange.

When Stark pulls him out of the crevice, he only nips him on the thumb. It's the principal of the thing.

John reconnects the generator, sweating like a pig under the hot sun and looking forward to a lukewarm rinse under the chemical spill shower in the hygienic chamber underneath his feet, maybe a little snack before he pulls Chi out again. He isn't looking at the Ypree colony when the explosions go off, but there are enough of them that he can see they're big and they're all over the complex. The buildings always looked like they could lift off at any moment. No more. Now, they're rooted to the ground in their own rubble, corners taken off and whole walls blown out.

The Doc and Nelet are gone, and the Wodawe are dealing out the real casualties now. John sees the convoy of ground transports rush out of the complex gates and he hustles down into the clinic to hide Chiana's meds from the looters.

Time's up.

Chiana listened to the beeping wind down and then waited. Then she waited some more because time always seems slower when you're waiting for something. Now she makes a fist and slowly pushes outwards until she feels the curved side of the tank. She slides her other hand up the harness to the safety line, and begins pulling her weightless body up the line.

Food, drugs, back in the tank. She's watched John mix the medicine the last few times, and if he's out on patrol she can take care of herself, make sure no time is lost waiting on him.

She smells the probabilities, and she doesn't smell danger. She knows there's a chance she's wrong, but the fact is that she really needs to get out of this place and breathe air for a little while.

She reaches the top of the tank and presses the lid to open it. She meets resistance.

The squad of Ypree meet him in the reception area, wearing even more body armor than before, tufts of fur blossoming from between the glossy padded plates.

"Evening officers, what can I do--" John pauses to acknowledge the barrel pointed to his chest, "for you?"

One grizzled Ypree covers John while the rest fan out into the clinic.

Chiana's ribs ache from breathing too fast, the oxygen-saturated liquid making her dizzy. She grips the rungs of the ladder and forces her muscles to unknot, lets her limbs drift downward.

'Chill'. Like Bobby would say. Once she feels 'chill', she tries again.

The cover lifts just enough to see that the room outside is dark, a few denches, a slice of cold black marring the warm blue light of the tank.

She can't make a sound but her throat tightens around the liquid as she exhales. The tension in her throat aches, makes her stop, helps her control the urge to scream.

"I noticed those bastards tried to hit you again. I've been gathering whatever I could find to help you guys out, if there were any injuries." John steps slowly backward, through the small corridor to an examination room. "I put everything in here, so it'd be safe until I could get it to you."

The Ypree says nothing, simply paces him with a studying look and a steady gun.

John stops outside the room and indicates the boxes inside, everything he could scrounge that isn't for Chiana. He gave the cream to the Wodawe, but there are useful things left over.

The Ypree mutters into the side of his helmet.

She rises to the surface again and braces against the rungs, reaching up through the skin of air between the liquid and the lid. She presses up, feeling the gap with her other hand. A few denches, not enough to crawl through.

She shoves hard and feels that the resistance is soft, not a hard knock. The opening is a few denches bigger. She finds that she has something to work with, and it drains off some of the panic and hardens her spine.

Chiana works her fingers around the lid, feels the edge of something firm and square. She slips her arm out to the elbow, turning her body after it for leverage. Her cheek breaks the surface of the liquid and brushes the underside of the lid. She brings her hand around and slams her palm against the firm edge.

There's a whiff of breeze on her arm, on her cheek.

Chiana tries the lid again and it swings free with a plastic bang. She scrambles upward, insensible to the cold and black, arms scraping on the edges of the tank. She spews a lungful of liquid out into the dark and launches into the gasp, cough, sneeze of switching to air, clutching the tank's outer lip.

When her ears pop, she notices that the sound is bouncing wrong. "Crichton?"

Her voice is rough and wet, but it's the echo she listens to--too close, too sharp. Oh yeah, definitely wrong.

She levers herself upwards and cracks her head, neatly slipping down into the liquid again.

The Ypree in charge sends a few armed flunkies to clean out the exam room and pack the loot into the transport outside. John keeps his face friendly and his hands up, trying to look pleasant and welcoming up close, and under duress from afar.

He has no time to draw Winona when the barrels all swing toward him and the Ypree start marching him to the transport.

In a daze, she scrambles and sputters, pulling herself out and clinging to the lip of the tank on bodily instinct. She breathes past the pain in her head, and smells dirt and cold. Once the stars in her vision ember out she can see that the tank has been tucked under the floor.

"Frell." She's going to kill him. The stairs are long gone, but the tank is wrapped in thermal sheets and ropes. She pulls herself over the edge, jamming her fingers under the tight ropes for handholds.

Gonna kill him and wrap him up in one of these sheets. She brings a leg over and feels out a lower strap of rope, working her way to the floor.

Gonna wrap him up like a frelling burro-toe and throw him out an airlock, see if he likes being tied up in the cold dark. She spots the stairs and half-walks, half-shivers her way up them, bellowing, "Crichton!"

"I'm not a doctor, I don't even play one on tv--I can't help you guys--"

The brindled Ypree in charge has a Charles Bronson manner, terse and ironic. "You've been treating the girl in the tank."

"That's all I know how to do! I wish I could help your wounded, but I can't. I can only do what Nelet taught me, which is to keep the tank running until my friend is better--"

"We have tried to hail the Diagnosan's ship but she is out of range. We have wounded who need any treatment we can muster." Mr. Bronson offers a rakish half-smile. "I've left guards at the clinic to secure it while you are gone."

John tries to look relieved as his stomach churns. "I have to be back soon, she needs tending to."

Chiana stops yelling when she gets to the main level and sees that it's deserted. The daylight also shows her that she's bleeding from the scrapes on her arms, bright blue, one of the only colors that doesn't look hard and strange to her now. She makes her way to the hole in the floor, puts on the scrubs and robe folded there, and goes about mixing her next dose.

She's put away half a package of food cubes and all of her meds when she hears noises in the courtyard just outside the hygienic chamber.

John had a dog that liked to run free. His real name was Blackie but they called him Marco, as in Marco Polo. He'd chew through anything, lead line, dog run, patio door, anything. He'd slip out for a day or so and come back as if nothing had happened, pushing back through the same hole under the fence that he'd gone out of, big dog smile on his face.

Sometimes he'd be dirty, most of the time he'd be clean and fed. Dad thought he probably hunted his meals when he was away, Mom said he probably had another family a few miles off. Marco was an explorer, a bigamist, and even neutering did nothing to deter his wandering.

Except one day he didn't come back. Marco was gone for almost a week, long enough to find a snapshot and make posters, long enough to drive around the neighborhood looking. Mom took the wagon, the kids piled in the back, hanging out the windows and the tailgate calling out his name. Like playing in the neighbor's pool, only no one shouted "polo!" back.

Susan finally spotted him, tucked under an overgrown hedge.

The ride to the vet was one of the most awful things John can remember from being a kid. Petting Marco around the filthy matted wounds, wishing the car would go faster. Dark blood and pale dirt in his fur, John's helplessness in the face of Marco's hurt.

The vet figured it was a dog fight. He cleaned and stitched Marco up, gave the dog shots and gave Mom a tube of stuff to baste the injuries with. Marco healed fast and lived another seven years after that, a good long while for a mutt that big. He never went exploring again.

John shaves around each wound he can sew, and he sews, trying to work quickly so he can get back in time for Chiana.

Chiana slaps herself on the face, blinking with the shock. You can really wallop yourself when you're half asleep and not paying attention. She rides the wave of clarity, slamming a fresh cartridge into the pulse rifle and then making her way up the stairs to the roof. Her slippers whisper over the solar sheeting as she scouts the position of the three guards around the clinic.

The Ypree are startlingly orange, a relentless brutal shade that's new and feels faintly sore in her head, like a newly healed scar. Three guards, two of them talking and the third around back.

The robe pads her knees and elbows as she crouches onto her belly and sights the rifle. The sun feels warm on her back, the rifle familiar even if the color of her targets is not.

She can do this.

John is crusted with teddy bear blood by the time they drive him back home across the rutted fields, queasy and a little numb from seeing too many pieces and parts. All of the major injuries had claimed their victims before he arrived, but there were enough gashes and gouges to keep him busy for arns.

He never wanted to know how the slave masters were put together. He feels sorry for them a little, hopes they have enough brains left to pull up stakes and leave.

Mr. Bronson escorts John to the reception room where he'd shanghai'd him, and then sets off to retrieve his soldiers.

John heads straight for the hygienic chamber.

The last message from the Human was uncoded, which is why Moya feels comfortable sharing it with the females who are attending her. One of the elders recognizes the voice of the Human, and presses her for a data stream regarding the situation. Between tremors, Moya obliges, sending all of the directional data Pilot has gathered since her untimely starburst, as well as the vector of the Luxan's ship.

The elder Leviathan nudges her nose along Moya's side and then drifts to a safe distance from the cluster of ships before dropping into starburst.

John hears Mr. Bronson shouting in the courtyard as soon as he lays eyes on Chiana, huddled in the angle between the drug cabinet and the wall, a pulse rifle wedged in with her. One foot is thrust out, crooked at the ankle, making her look broken.

He runs to her.

Aeryn's gloves are starting to flake, and she's about to wake up D'Argo for his turn at the controls when the dramatic bass voice of Lo'La breaks the low hum of the engines.

"Approaching ship."

Aeryn calls up the rear display in time to see the last blue sparkle of a Leviathan dropping out of starburst. D'Argo blinks blearily as he falls into the seat next to her. "That's not Moya."

"It's coming in fast." Aeryn executes a spiral roll to avoid the huge ship, but it tracks Lo'La easily, flaring blue again as it swoops in at a near miss.

D'Argo curses and reaches for the controls, the viewscreen darkening reflexively against the flash of starburst.

Too close, even with all the speed Aeryn can pour into the engines.

When the Leviathan drops back into starburst, she's snagged Lo'La with her.

Chiana flinches when John touches her, but he can't wake her up. Nothing is broken that he can feel, just a few navy blue scrapes on her arms, and dusty marks on her scrubs and robe. He pulls the rifle from her arms and throws it through the waiting room door. It misses the cot, clattering onto the floor, but at least it's out of her hands when Bronson charges inside.

"My guards have been executed. You should check on the girl in the tank."

"The girl ain't in the tank." He shifts her dead weight onto his shoulders in a fireman's carry. She's lighter than the last time he did this, and her skin is cool to the touch. He lays her onto the cot as he toes the rifle out of sight with his boot.

"She dead?"

"How kind of you to ask." John throws blankets on her and then sees the half-eaten packet of food cubes on the floor, the dirty mug with thick dregs at the bottom. "I think she'll be okay."

When he turns around Mr. Bronson unfolds another blanket over Chiana and tucks in the sides. He catches John staring at him and says gruffly, "You should leave as soon as possible."

John nods slowly. "That's good advice."

"We appreciate what you did for us. I wish I could spare the manpower to help you out here, but I can't."

"I know."

Mr. Bronson shifts his rifle strap, and after a pause, he turns and leaves.

John wonders what the hell he's still doing here. He digs the catalyst cell from deep in his pocket and heads out to the Prowler.

"You think she knows Moya?"

"Pretty sure. How do you know it's female?"

"You're the one who said 'she'."

"Habit, I guess." Aeryn shrugs, peering out at the ghostly blue ship taking up the viewscreen. "She does look familiar. If we weren't in starburst we could send a message to Pilot, confirm whether Moya's call has been answered."

"I don't see any other explanation."

"Neither do I. Question is, where is she taking us?"

"Hopefully she is taking us where we want to go."

Aeryn laughs, startling D'Argo. "A Leviathan in starburst doesn't take you where you want to go."

He catches her smile. "Where you need to go, then."

Chiana wakes up alone again, but this time she's tucked into the cot in the waiting room. Her rifle is gone, and the bags have been packed and set by the door to the hygienic chamber.

The future smells like leaving, so she pulls herself out of the foggy warmth of the cot and digs real clothes out of her bag. They're thinner and itchier than she remembered, binding her in ways she forgot after swimming for a monen and a half. She's also weaker than she was, her fingers aching under the strain of pulling on her boots.

She kicks the clinic duds into a pile with the metal-reinforced toe of her boot. Sick wear. She needs to bathe, hard soap, lots of lather, get the weird slick feel of the tank liquid off her skin.

She straightens the stiff ribs of her bodice and blinks her eyes. Still sore, just a touch, still could use another day of soaking, probably. They'll heal this last bit slower, but frell it, it's time they blew out of here. She sits down on the cot to close up her bag, taking a moment to rest her achy eyes.

She's passed out again before Crichton comes back, half burrowed under the blankets with her bag for a pillow.

Still no word for him at the relay, but his own messages have been cleared from the cache. At least they know, even if they can't do anything about it. He heaves himself out of the cockpit and drops to the ground. The crickets have started up again, and John wonders if the shadows in the fields are pissed at him for doing repairs on the teddy bears. He stinks of Ypree blood, his t-shirt probably unsalvageable.

The problem with putting in a full day's work on Tuscany is that it's twenty frelling arns long.

He shuffles into the clinic, tossing his ruined shirt out into the courtyard behind him. There's enough water left in the chemical spill shower to rinse off some of the grime.

He's going to be stuck in the Prowler with Chiana for days, it's the least he can do.

The Leviathan drops out of starburst just inside of a planetary system.

Exactly where they want to be, days before they would have reached there on their own.

"That settles it--she's a friend of Moya's." D'Argo engages the engines and heads for the planet, scanning as they approach.

Aeryn activates the invisibility shield before they come within range of the satellite system. "No sign of the Prowler, they must still be planetside."

"Just after sundown, lucky you."

Aeryn peels off the gloves and straps on her weaponry. "Perhaps."

"Negative!" Colonel Replovo's voice roars out of the comm system. "Negative! We've got a full security lockdown on orbital space. Until we have the situation secure, you are not authorized for departure."

"I'm transmitting a flight path right now, you'll know exactly where I am until I'm out of your h--until I'm out of here."

"No flights in or out! I lost ten percent of my security staff today and frankly, I don't have the manpower to escort guests through a war zone--"

"Not asking for an escort, Colonel." John hasn't talked to Chiana about her adventure this afternoon. Considering that she'd had to crawl her way out of the tank, perhaps he's lucky that she vented her spleen on a handful of Ypree guards instead of him. She's awfully quick with those knees. "I just want to get the hell out of your war zone."

"The orbital system is set to eliminate all unauthorized craft. I am not letting any more people die on my watch."

Even now there a couple of craft heading for the foothills on another useless strafing run. Too many craft in the sky to make a clean break for it.

"I don't have the time to argue with you. You are not flying through my sky without an escort."


"Denied!" Replovo severs the connection.

John signs off with a soft, "Fuck." He checks the relay one more time. No joy. He powers and locks down the Prowler, reaching under the thruster panel to pull the catalyst cell.

Replovo runs her fingers back through her hair and turns to her adjutant. She's worked with Buchin for decades, real work with the Home Guard, before she retired to the ease of 'spa living'. She grimaces and looks up into Buchin's brindled face.

Buchin was right about this place, about this situation. That despite their docility, the Wodawe hadn't been domesticated. That they should either be taken well in hand or left alone, not exhibited as pets. That either way, the Wodawe should be relocated somewhere else and put under the care of actual developers, not a few squads of ill-trained guards who'd rather be fetching towels at the sunbaths.

They started out as attendants in livery. Giving them shock-sticks hadn't made them watchmen, it had only made them callous. But Binnar was working with them, trying to instill a sense of professionalism. Things had been improving, she'd thought. Injuries and disease had decreased in the village, and while incidents of misbehaviour continued, they were eccentric instead of rebellious. Crop yields were so impressive this last quarter that the Governor was contemplating having them grow saleable crops next season, instead of staple foodstuffs.

Buchin didn't share her optimism, but if he possessed her intelligence and vision he'd have retired a colonel himself, right? She'd chide him with a smile, and he'd nod and respond as if she'd given him an order.

Since this started he hasn't once mentioned any of this, and for that Replovo is grateful. Even if he's probably just waiting for the right time, after they've quelled the insurrection perhaps, or after Governor Rupto comes to his senses.

Replovo doesn't hold out hope for that, she knows the Governor too well. He's a clinger, even when the situation calls for letting go. As if anyone would visit their broken sunbaths now. For a brief moment she wishes that he were injured badly enough for the board of investors to seize control and declare the loss. Save them all a lot of trouble and heartache, let her declare an emergency right now and evacuate the remaining staff and guards.

Replovo wishes she'd never left the military for business. All the arbitrary rules make her head hurt. What did Buchin say when they'd found the Wodawe had landed on the proposed site of the spa, all those cycles ago? Never mix charity with business. He was so right.


Buchin sniffs, acknowledging his retired rank.

"Go bring that frizzed fool in, will you? And if you can't tow the ship, maglock it where it stands. I'll be bald if I let those peasants get their hands on a ship, or a matter how poor."

Buchin gives her a quick bent smile and takes another three guards with him, green in livery as well as experience. She has no doubt he'll be back with his quarry, and his men too if they don't get themselves killed like last time.

Chiana looks almost normal, if he ignores the way her hair is growing out black or the lack of smudgy face marks. He can see in the glow of a biolume lamp that the black has taken over her eyes, leaving only smoky swirls of grey.

She shoves another food cube into her mouth, her yummy noise out of proportion to the taste. But then he hasn't been living for over a month on sedatives and rank hospital cubes. She speaks through the empty side of her mouth. "We could shoot our way out."

She sits on the cot, he sits on the floor, leaning back against the waiting room chairs. "Rather not have to. Besides, we haven't heard from Moya."

"Probably just stopped to have the baby." Chiana shrugs, breaks a cube apart and offers him half.

"That your new eyes talking, or your general positive outlook?" John shakes his head. "I've got a bad feeling about this."

Chiana stops chewing to jab a finger toward him. "That's from a movie."

John reaches up to pick laconically at the upholstery next to his head. "Yeah?"

"Yeah. The princess says it." Chiana makes swirly cinnamon bun motions at the sides of her head.

"You know that also means crazy, right?"


John swirls his fingers.

"Huh. So you're a crazy princess, then?" She pops another cube into her mouth. "You know what happens to princesses?"

"They get saved?"

"They get left behind while other people do the fun stuff."

"Well, that too."

"I still say we should shoot our way out."

"That's because you're restless."


"And bored."


"And sick of sitting here waiting for the situation to change."

"Don't forget horny."

"All the more reason not to pile into the Prowler to wait for Moya."

"I wouldn't touch you."

"That's chivalrous."


"That's more like you."

"We could head toward the Wodawe planet, meet them on the way back."

"We're three weeks away at hetch, and the Prowler is smaller than the tank."



"No, we have company coming."

"Aw shit, it's Deathwish II," John mutters as he gets to his feet. Then he puts on his 'evening, officer' face and goes to meet his grizzled Ypree friend at the door.

D'Argo whistles when he sees the murky hole in the side of the clinic. "Glad he warned us about that."

Aeryn comes around to the other side of the complex and sets the ship down next to the Prowler. They wait a few moments, but if anyone heard the craft or felt the breeze as it touched down, they're staying as invisible as Lo'La.

D'Argo unsheathes his blade and converts it for fire. Aeryn hits the airlock and ramp, and in a matter of microts they've moved across the dusty field and regrouped in the shadows of the clinic's courtyard.

Aeryn finds the bloody shirt, crumpled and torn on the flagstones.

Aeryn yanks a flap of thermal sheet from the tank and shines her light through the plexipane. Empty, just like the rest of the clinic. She takes the stairs two at a time and meets D'Argo in the waiting room.

"The lamp was on, but knocked over." D'Argo plucks a wrapper from the cot. "And these crumbs are fresh."

Aeryn grinds her teeth. Her duffel lies zipped up in the doorway, next to two small bags of clothing and yotz. She can see the effects of her notes in the set-up of the room, in the trip-wires and traps she'd seen disabled in the courtyard. Disabled. She tosses the stiff shirt onto the cot. "It was someone they trusted."

"Why would they resist the Wodawe?" D'Argo picks up the shirt. "This isn't his."

"Yes, it is."

"No, it's his shirt, but not his blood."

Aeryn lowers her barrel and steps close to D'Argo. "You're sure?"

"I've smelled enough of his blood over the cycles." He gives her a patient look. "This isn't even human."

"It is Ypree."

Barrels swing toward the voice in the doorway, but his hands are already raised by his ears. "It is a pleasure to meet you, Aeryn Sun. I did not have the opportunity when we first arrived."

D'Argo lowers his rifle first, striding forward to pull the Wodawe into the room by the back of his neck. "This is Milpa. He is the leader of Pesh Company."

Milpa shrugs D'Argo's hand from his neck and indicates the bloody shirt with a nod. "That is not Crichton's." He gestures them back into the courtyard and points to a dark smear on the flagstones. "Unfortunately, that is."

Chiana thinks that it wouldn't have been so bad if John had been standing on the grass when they shocked him, or if she'd been able to reach him before he crashed to the ground and thrashed out the sparks.

Or if the Ypree in charge hadn't been so quick to cut the discussion short. She'd been edging back into the clinic to grab a weapon when the greying orange one with the armor made a short yip, and the other three had rushed John. In a few microts they'd taken her down as well, bundling them both into the transport.

It didn't hurt as much as a Nebari collar, but there wasn't very much that did. Nebari pain was specific, delicately aimed for the best effect. The Ypree stick gave a full-body overload that seized the muscles, faded to a hard shiver, and then left the body trembling and spent.

Of course, she'd been lucky enough to fall on the grass, so her head wasn't a scraped and bloody mess like John's.

The sky is clouded and starless, the Ypree are running without lights, but she can make John out well enough. They lie on their sides in the cargo box, bouncing along the track, wrists and ankles trussed behind them. His one eye drifts open, but moves aimlessly. The other squeezes shut against a trickle of blood, eyelashes sticky with it.

"Can you see me?"

His eye zeroes in on her but looks at her chin. "Can't see a damned thing."

"Nothing to see, it's fully dark."

"How long was I out?"

"Few hundred microts."

He pulls his shoulder up to wipe at his bloody cheek. "I hit my head."

"Not too hard. It was the scraping when you twitched that did it."

"Feel like crap."

"Shock stick."

"Some protective custody."



"Couldn't move it so they threw a maglock on it."


She knows he's asking about one duffel in particular. Wants to know if their resources are available or confiscated. "They left our luggage behind, just took us. Didn't even ask about our stuff."

"No tip, then."

"You've seeded the whole colony with them?"

"Enough to take every building down to debris." General Lisso lays his hand flat on the map between him and Aeryn. "But we are giving them a chance to evacuate first."

"That's also why you haven't shot down their craft?" Aeryn flicks her eyes at the stone above her head. The distant thump of pulse charges drifts into the passageway with the fresh night breeze, but the stone above is still and sound. Tucked safely in their mountain with all these supplies, it would take cycles of blockade or orbital frag cannon just to inconvenience the Wodawe.

"I do not see that they are taking the opportunity we've afforded them...yet. The Diagnosan was able to move off-planet quickly, taking a few guests with her, but the core investors seem entrenched."

D'Argo stops pacing, but still does not take the chair he'd been offered. "Investors?"

"The colony is a private business venture. We had hoped that making it unprofitable would be enough. If they do not leave soon, we may have to convince them by harder means. If all else fails, we take the colony out completely." General Lisso leans forward over the low table. "I would rather not risk the involvement of their government, which is why we have moved in calculated steps."

D'Argo folds his arms. "Milpa said that the first round of explosions produced casualties."

Milpa also told them how they'd taken John once before, and returned him half a day later covered in blood. No Diagnosan, but they'd raided the clinic anyway and conscripted whoever they could find.

The General pauses before he speaks, moving his fingertip delicately on the table. "Ypree society is...vulgar in some respects, and....prudish in others. When we heard that the guests would be--there's a certain type of entertainer that is very popular in Ypree society, but with very low status. They were our target. We hoped this would be enough to ruin the colony's profit and appeal, while also being an episode that the government would not want to involve itself with."

"But now they have hostages." Aeryn cuts to the core of the problem as she sees it. "And we will retrieve them with or without you."

"Let me outline the parameters of this discussion." General Lisso unrolls a display sheet across the table, a schematic of the Ypree compound speckled with pink dots, and updated with red outlines of current damage. "I am sure we can come up with tactics to suit us both."

Aeryn scans the accumulation of pink seed bombs and sees that no place will be safe when they explode.

It has been too long. Pilot doesn't know enough about Leviathan births, but he hears the murmurs of the other ships and he knows that they are concerned, that they are waiting for the elder ship to return to give them the proper advice.

The balm has had nearly a day to penetrate, and while the regular skinsteel of the birthing chamber is warm and pliable, the scar tissue still holds fast, the last section of the seam sealed tight no matter how hard Moya flexes. She is beginning to tire, but the child's systems are set for birth and they can only move forward.

The Ypree tuck them into a corner of an intact parlor, plopping them down on lush brocaded pillows, thick carpet on the floor and walls, everything in sherbet colors that are pastels shades of Ypree fur. There are guests in the room, cheerily playing a game of tiles as if they're only waiting for a storm to blow over.

John's head is still oozing. One of the guests gets up from her tiles to whisper with the guard at the other end of the room.

He comes back to unlock Chiana, and then digs some things out of his pocket--a tube, a roll of cloth, and a small pair of scissors. "Clean him up, before he stains the carpet. I'll be back in an arn to check on you, bring you something to eat."

She nods, playing contrite as she tucks the scissors into her palm.

He ruffles her hair and leaves with a parting shot to John, if he continues to behave he'll take the cuffs off next time. That it's only to keep them both safe while the situation outside is taken care of.

They don't see her as a threat, and they're only keeping John locked until he plays nice. The Ypree lady brings Chi a crystal bowl of water before resuming her game of tiles. When she sits, she angles her chair so one of her tiny ears is aimed at the two of them in the corner.

Chiana unrolls the cloth and makes a few starter snips along the length. She pulls a glove down, slides the scissors up her sleeve, and then tears the pieces of cloth by hand. She cleans the scrapes, starting with John's gummy eye.

"I'm in time-out, apparently."

"So they say."

"You look better than I feel."

"I only took one hit, you took at least two. The first one, and then when they went to take your holster."

"You see where they put it?"

"I was distracted by that point."

"Fair enough."

It's a nasty scrape, but she's pulled out most of the grit and dirt. She opens the tube, sniffs it, and then closes it back up. Who knows what's in it? Probably do more harm than good. She watches fresh blood leach out of the raw abrasion, a glossy outrageous shade of red that wells and thickens into a dark crust.

"That's pretty. Did D'Argo get you that?"

Chiana shakes off the fog and follows John's gaze to her bodice. To be more precise, to her left tit.

To be perfectly accurate, to the comms gracing her left tit.

She raises her eyebrow and a corner of her mouth. "Some guys have bad taste in jewelry."

"I think the clasp is broken, pull it off."

Chiana unfastens the comms. "Think you can fix it?"

"If you can open it up, I can tell you how to tighten the clasp."

She levers her thumbnail to pop open the back, exposing the guts of the mechanism. Twelve tiny copper rivets are set in the middle, channel keys that adjust the unit to Moya's preferred frequency.

John watches the Ypree as he barely whispers, "Top-middle, bottom-left, top-left, middle-right."

She clicks the channel keys down, and presses the layers back together. It's done in a matter of microts. She fiddles with the magnaclasp for a few moments more, activating the comms before clipping it back to her bodice. "It's better, thanks."

"What if D gets back early and it's missing? Wouldn't want to lose it just because we've had to hole up here."

She hopes that it isn't just the Ypree who'll be listening to them. "Yeah."

D'Argo leans his elbows on his knees, poring over the schematic the General has given them. He keys it once more. Pink dots at the outer edge of the colony blossom into areas of shaded red, a handful of isolated seed bombs herding the Ypree, shown as black dots, into key zones inside the colony. Green formations of Wodawe, from pale to dark emerald, assist the forced evacuation of the Ypree toward the colony's take-off pads at the far end of the gardens.

They move in a quarter arn, Lo'La providing air support. He rolls up the schematic and turns to Aeryn.

She screws a bushing into the barrel of her pulse pistol, and sets the capacitor to low power. A focuser is usually used to concentrate the plasma ball and do fine-detail deep-penetrating damage, but when the measure of chakkan oil is reduced and then fired through a focuser installed backwards, it turns the normally deadly plasma ball into a burning slap. General Lisso had specified non-lethal, and Aeryn is willing to humour him if it means she and D'Argo will have back-up.

"Do you really think this will work?"

Aeryn shakes her head. "Wodawe group together when they are frightened, which is why the General is so confident. But I think the Ypree will panic and scatter after the first round of explosions."

"I say we go in with the Wodawe right from the beginning."

"Agreed." Aeryn slams the cartridge in and test fires down the ramp, a small pellet of chakkan plasma splattering tired sparks against the grass. She hands it to D'Argo. "See the small lever at the side? Crank it toward you and the focuser will pop out. Dial the capacitor back up and you're lethal again, if necessary."

D'Argo rubs a fingertip around the focuser. "Why do you have something that disables a pulse pistol?"

"If you turn it around it concentrates the heat of the chakkan plasma and you can fire through things you normally can't." Aeryn screws another focuser into her own pulse pistol. "Hulls, for instance."

"You brought something onto Lo'La that could pierce her hull?" D'Argo looks like he doesn't know whether to be offended, worried, or impressed.

"I didn't bring them, I'd already packed..." Aeryn slaps the pistol down and jerks her comms from her shirt. Why she didn't think of it as soon as she saw that he'd been using her duffel, or worse yet, when she boarded the Prowler and realized he'd hidden the catalyst chip somewhere else.

When she knew he was in trouble. She should have checked just in case.


"I left him channel codes. I didn't think he'd found them." She pops open the back and punches in a code. She lifts it to listen for a moment, then punches in another. "I saw he found the supplies but I didn't think to check the channels."

She cycles through the handful of codes she'd listed in the book until she hears murmurs and clicks. Room noise. The murmurs sound bored and snotty, the nasal humming of the Ypree language.

John's voice slips out of the comms and into Aeryn's system like a hot slap of unfocused chakkan oil.

"Governor, swell to finally meet you. I'd shake your hand but--hey, easy Deathwish, I can get up on my own."

"Crichton, isn't it? I see you've recovered from your recent illness. I'm sure my guests are quite happy that you shook it off so speedily, we certainly don't need any more excitement these days."

"Well, I'm still a little shaky, but thank you for asking. I hope everyone's stitches are holding?"

"Yes. You did a fine job on those minor wounds. It's a terrible shame that you...couldn' anything more."

"All I know is a little first-aid I picked up at the clinic, Governor."

"Don't be modest. I think you know a great deal more than that. In fact, I think you may know why the Wodawe have grown so quiet in the last arn. You and I both know that where Wodawe are concerned, quiet means trouble. The kind of trouble a person might fight to avoid."

"Governor, we just wanted to leave like we'd planned."

"What is a day or two? We were your best chance for safety until your flight was cleared, yet you struggled when Binnar came to bring you in. Perhaps you could share more of the knowledge you picked up at the clinic?"

"Hey! I thought we were guests here--"

The sound of Chiana's voice drives D'Argo to his feet. Aeryn slams her hand on the ramp and airlock controls while D'Argo fires up Lo'La.

"Easy now, easy. Chi, be cool, I'm sure the Governor doesn't mean anything by it, no need to be sharp with our host, here."

"Am I still your host, Crichton? Are you often entertained in restraints?"

Aeryn pops the focuser out of her pulse pistol, and take-off sends it skittering to the back of the cabin.

General Lisso is cross, but Aeryn is enraged. D'Argo knows who he's betting on. He settles Lo'La onto the roof of the main building, amid overturned and abandoned sun lounges. They couldn't pin down the comms signal any further, and from the conversation it seems that Chiana is the one wearing it while John's been taken somewhere else.

Aeryn's retrieved the focuser and screwed it back into her pulse pistol. When D'Argo finds the roof access doors locked, he jumps back without being told. The sound is quieter than usual, but the shot drills into the keypad lock and sinks deep, shorting and sparking, and throwing the door open.

There's a small mercy in that they'd moved his bound wrists to the front before attaching the wrist locks into the ankle locks. He's already in a semi-fetal position when they hit him with the prod again, muscles seizing and curling him into a tighter ball.

The Governor looks ill, having found out that it's a lot easier to threaten torture than to watch the follow through. He sticks to it, though. Even after it's clear that John's not going to fold easily. He opens a little jeweled box, daubs his finger in and rubs a little powder onto the end of his pug nose. Courage, Mr. Ruxpin, a little dab'll do ya. You're doing fine for your first torture session.

"You had to have heard something, seen something. It is no secret that the Wodawe haven't been able to develop the proper appreciation for what we are trying to accomplish, but this kind of coordinated effort cannot have been completely secret from someone who has associated with them as much as you have."

"No, seriously," John can hear the tired slur in his voice, "I spent most of my time fishing." He's pretty sure he could spill everything he knows about the Wodawe and not endanger their cause.


Chiana, on the other hand, is still perversely a guest here. The innocent girl from the tank, still recovering from her illness. They have no idea that, even as an invalid, she's more like Tank Girl. When they led him away, he'd heard them telling her what was for dinner.

John lies on the same side as in the courtyard, and when he shifts his head to look up at the Governor, he can feel the carpet beneath his cheek is wet. He's not sure if it's the snuff, or the prospect of having to club soda his office rug, but the Governor's expression hardens.

"A mercenary with a gun sees things, Crichton. Even when fishing. If you do not start telling me what you know about the Wodawe, I shall be angry. Very angry. Forced to take more severe measures."

Teddy Ruxpin is getting his groove on. If the teddy bears decide he's in cahoots with the Wodawe or just sympathetic, or even just uncooperative, how long before they pull Chiana away from the dinner table and bring her here?

The upper levels are deserted, and they have a scavenged look that belies the opulence and forced cheer of the main level. It's several arns after sunset, and they find that nearly everyone has congregated in the dining hall. The double doors are open, broadcasting light and noise into the dim corridor where Aeryn and D'Argo move from shadow to shadow.

It's clear they're rationing power after a fashion, shutting down most of the building so that the dining room flares bright for dinner. D'Argo wonders how long the courses will flow uninterrupted before the bombs go off, or whether they'll shrug off the sound and continue eating? Aeryn darts across the splash of light in the hall, heading for the private offices in the back of the building.

"No, thank you. I want to make sure there's enough left for my friend, when he comes back."

The response is lost in the white noise of Ypree conversation, but D'Argo shifts his grip on his qualta rifle and makes a click with his tongue.

Aeryn's eyes gleam at the edge of the square of light.

D'Argo flicks his gaze into the dining hall and taps the shell of his comms.

Aeryn nods, then jabs her thumb in the direction she was heading.

D'Argo nods.

When John comes around from the latest jolt, he can smell the panic in the room. Literally, a sharp smell halfway between skunk and burnt toast. He'd caught the scent of it on his first trip here, but he'd figured it was just the way they smelled. Catching it fresh is a whole different experience.

The Governor paces the room, listening to reports of damage around most of the perimeter, shouting orders back.

If he had any energy left in his muscles he'd take advantage of the situation, but when the guards leave him alone with the Governor, all he can do is rub his nose against the carpet and squeeze his eyes against the faint onion burn.

"Damn, Teddy..." John tries to make his body roll, to get his knees under him. He could hobble if he could just get to his feet. "Those are some hellacious beer farts, man."

The bombs detonate just as D'Argo enters the dining room, staccato thumps he can feel through his boots. The Ypree go silent in a clatter of dinnerware, and Chiana is the first person to see the huge Luxan in the doorway, armed to the tankas and aiming his rifle at the chandelier.

She pushes back from the table with a bark of chair legs, setting the whole room into motion; Ypree shrieking, D'Argo firing, Chiana warbling, all Hezmana flying up and out like cracking open a shaken beer can.

D'Argo lays cover fire while Chiana tries to elbow through the panicked mass of yellow-orange and glitter, grimacing against the sudden musk in the air. With a large armed Luxan blocking the only exit, there's no logic to the crowd's movements, and she makes no progress toward the door until she darts onto the dinner table.

She's the most beautiful thing he's ever seen, stunning black and white amid golden dross, gracefully skipping over dishes and pieces of chandelier, running toward him with a pair of bloody scissors in her hand.

John's made it to his hands and knees, and realized that even if he could lurch to his feet, he probably can't walk. Every muscle he tries shudders and shakes at the edge of failure, and he'd rather have his head as close to the ground as possible when he falls. Teddy Ruxpin's noticed him swaying, and John has the feeling that he's skating on thin ice.

"What do you mean, in the building? Well, track them down!" Teddy stops pacing, hand clasped to his earpiece as he turns to look at John. "I see that I've been asking the wrong questions."

From the higher vantage point of his knees, John can see the prod on the desk and the look in Teddy's eyes. Didn't take the Governor very long at all to pick up the skill.

D'Argo pops out the focuser, dials up the capacitor, stoops to kiss her deep and fierce, then hands her the pistol.

She runs a finger down his chin and ruffles his beard with a smirk. "Never realized you were such a red-head."

D'Argo assures her, "All over," and they run down the corridor Aeryn took.

Aeryn finds the office easily, the only other spot of the corridor with lights burning. One lone guard outside speaks of the decimation of the security staff and of the priorities of Colonel Replovo. Perhaps she's hoping for the Wodawe to pick the Governor off. Aeryn fires wide in warning then approaches the guard in a measured pace, giving him the opportunity to make a good decision.

When he does, she fires a few wide shots after him to encourage his speed. Then she blows the lock on the door.

When John comes around this time he's hallucinating, which is never a good sign.

Usually his hallucinations aren't such blatant wish fulfillment, so he takes a few moments to enjoy the sight of Aeryn's boot on the Governor's neck.

Then she fires and the wet splatter of Ypree on the side of the desk reminds him of his earlier visit to the resort, blood and teddy bear gore under his fingernails. The slop of brains onto carpet signals the descent of the delusion into morbidly familiar territory.

When she rolls him over and aims the pulse pistol at the juncture of his hands and crotch, he giggles with dread. He hates dreams like this.

"Can you speak?" She pulls at the chains, and when she fires the sound is muted. His wrists fall free, thumping on the carpet. She yanks the ankle restraint, fires, and then throws those chains against the desk. "John, can you hear me?"

His breath is ragged and the slur is worse. "Aeryn, I can't move too well."

She taps her comms and then slides that hand along his neck, pressing up under the jaw. "D'Argo--"

The Luxan cuts her off in person, barreling through the door. "Is he dead?"

"No, but you'll have to carry him."

"They've had him for a quarter arn. They must have shocked him some more." Chiana leans over him, brushing his hair out of the raw flesh at the side of his head.

"Lost count at five."

In the light of the office, Chi's eyes are solid black with blue highlights, like Superman's hair, or maybe Wonder Woman would be the better analogy. Her nostrils flare as she presses her hand to his forehead. "He's not hurt badly."

John shuts his eyes against the vertigo as D'Argo hauls him up onto his shoulders, like a sack of potatoes. Aeryn takes point while Chi covers the rear.

John notices that Chi's found Winona and strapped his empty holster onto her slim grey thigh, the extra length of the tie-downs flapping. The gun's better off in her hand than his, anyway; it's all he can do to keep his arms from flailing bonelessly as D'Argo takes the stairs three at a time.

D lays him on a bench in Lo'La's cabin while chopping out commands in ancient Luxan, the ship taking off even before he reaches the pilot's chair. Aeryn stays in back with John, keeping him from rolling off the bench as Lo'La banks and lifts.

John remembers the Prowler and tries to dig the catalyst cell out of his pocket, but he can't force his hand into the leather. Aeryn bats his hand away and slides her slim cool fingers in, fishes around more than strictly necessary, and pulls out the chip. He raises a shaky hand to clasp hers. "I found your bag of Instant Revolution."

"I saw." He hadn't forgotten how her smile changes her whole face, even the loose tendrils of her hair turning from harried to pretty when she grins.

"I see you have another." He nods toward the dark green backpack she's wearing.

She blushes and shrugs out of the shoulder straps, doesn't speak for a moment.

"I'm so glad to see you."

She leans over him, pressing kisses to his clean cheek and ear. When she whispers that she loves him he feels so tight and good in his chest that all he can say are the same three words back, not nearly enough to express. When Lo'La lands and Aeryn sits up straight, both their cheeks are wet.

"I have to fly the Prowler." She stands, setting the green backpack on the bench by his head. "Take care of that for me."

When they leave atmosphere, Chiana comes back, helps him sit up, shows him the full-service bed and breakfast that D'Argo's installed under the benches.

John peeks over her shoulder into the bin, and hilarity adds strength to his yell toward the cockpit. "Handiwipes?"

D'Argo throws a "Yes," over his shoulder.

"Are they lemon-scented?" John remembers regaling poor D with endless Hitchhiker's anecdotes during the long weekens on Lo'La. His favorite had been the story of a ship that hadn't left port for centuries, waiting on its complement of moist towelettes. "Tell me they're lemon-scented!"

D'Argo growls with self-satisfaction. "They are lemon-scented."

John giggles, high pitched and rough, the sound of relief crashing into exhaustion.

Aeryn's taken point again, a sliver of black on the star field, leading them out of the planetary system.

John eats while D'Argo fills them in on the situation so far. Chiana is excited, happy to be right that Moya was simply going into labor and nothing was wrong, that she had other Leviathans to be with her, and that one of them had shepherded Lo'La. "Moya must have told the other ship that we needed her."

"Aeryn said it's waiting for us outside the system, that she might take us back at starburst."

"Why haven't we seen her yet?"

"She's not keeping still. But, we're catching up with her."

John re-wraps the end of the ration brick and chews on the chunk he'd cut. He's got some strength back, enough to clean up a bit and eat sitting up, but he's going to be damned sore tomorrow. And now that he's eaten, he's having a hard time keeping his head off the bench.

He shifts his body around with small flops and several old man sighs. He goes to tuck the green satchel under his head for a pillow but it's hard and square.

Books. Aeryn's wearing a school bag into battle now.

He lifts the flap and pulls them out, perusing titles. Fairy tales, warfare, Stephen Hawking's latest in hardcover. There's an IASA painting of a wormhole on the dust jacket, idealized and lovely like a pin-up girl, half of the EM output translated into false color. John checks the publishing date on that one, a few months before they all came to Earth.

The inside is stamped "From the Library of Olivia Crichton" and then scrawled under that, almost legibly "to Aeryn Sun 12-25-03". He wonders if the government has compensated his sister for sending her library to the stars, or if she smuggled them up without permission.

Settled at the bottom of the bag, under everything but a coffee-table book of Georgia O'Keefe paintings, is the dollbaby. He lifts the bag and sees the leg holes at the bottom, sees it for what it is. He puts the books back into the baby carrier. He tucks the doll into his jacket, and lays his head down on the softness.

"What do you have now, son?" His mother eases the steering lever forward and takes the pod in closer to the Leviathan, a dark bronze color compared to the bright Boca Raton colored ships embroidered on her pedal-pusher jeans. "You have a whole lot more than you had six months ago on Earth."

"It's been a hard six months. A hard couple of years." John watches her steer, her hands sure, her fingernails painted shell pink to match her blouse.

She makes him look at her. "But--is what you have now worth the pain and the heartbreak you went through to get it?"

He doesn't speak, doesn't know what to say that wouldn't be tempting fate or luck, but she smiles and answers for him. "I remember when you broke quarantine the night before, too antsy to be still. You watched the sun rise behind the launch tower and wondered, if your theory worked, what you were going to do then?"

"Funny how the universe provides answers to questions you shouldn't have asked." Funny how the people we love continue on in our head, silent, when all we want to do is talk to them again.

John knows he's talking to himself, but he still thinks that maybe, maybe the reason she's saying these uncomfortable things is because he's been enough of a jackass that she came back from the other side to straighten him out. Stranger things have happened. Maybe seeing her again, touching through her when he was half-alive...

"You had the chance to go back, to seal yourself away safe on Earth. But you locked the door from the outside." She pushes the steering lever full forward and powers the shuttle down.

"You love your family here like you love your family on Earth, and both families need you more out here." She stands, her rattan sandals creaking in the sudden quiet. "Out here is where you fight. Out here is where the stakes are personal--your wife, your children, the family you made for yourself."

"You acknowledge that they're stakes."

"They're a risk. You were a risk. What if one day your father had never come back? What if you'd died on that damned bike? What if you'd burned up in the atmosphere?" She offers her hand, leads him toward the ramp. "You can't live by the worst case scenario."

"I can't help thinking of what it could come down to."

"Then you have them for as long as it lasts. But at least you have it, instead of fearing it. Prepare for the worst, but don't let it rule you."

"We're not talking about life insurance, or a fire drill. What if my choice is to damage the universe or to watch them die? How can I not be a monster whatever I chose?"

"You can't assume that it will come down to that. That's not living, it's waiting for death."

"Better to wait for it than to cause it."

"What if the Ancients come back and take the knowledge from you? What if you die an old man, having never let yourself live? Life is supposed to be scary, it's supposed to sweep you away sometimes and take you for a ride."

"Could you have killed me?" He tightens his grip on her fingers. "If it came down to it? Your kids or the whole universe?"

She meets his look calmly. How could he ever have thought her passive, when she could weather his dad both home and away? Her other hand comes up to stroke his cheek. "How can you love the universe if you don't let yourself love anyone in it?"

"I love Aeryn. My friends. My family."

"And you made your worst decisions when you were farthest from them. It's only now that you're connected again that you feel the weight of your shame."

He repeats the question, desperate to figure it out, to know what she would have done, what he should do. "Could you have killed me?"

She shakes her head, not in answer but in frustration at the question. "It's not an equation, son, there is no correct solution. Your brain can't figure it alone, it's not smart enough without your heart. The key to the problem is hope and love."

"And, when things are hopeless?"

Her hands find his face again, gripping the sides of his head so that all he can see are those watery blue eyes. "Hope is always possible. It's the price that changes, the meaning, the action. Sometimes, hope is dying for a cause. Sometimes, hope is planting a tree over a grave. But hope is always active. Giving up is never hope."

Her sandals creak as she lifts up on her toes to kiss his forehead, then pads down the ramp, her pink cotton blouse incongruous against the burnished bronze of the docking bay.

He follows a step, still holding onto the edge of the airlock door. She turns and walks backward, calling out to him. "Life will slip through your fingers if you don't let go of your fear long enough to grab hold of it."

Aeryn watches him sleep. He smells faintly of lemons and the vitamin smell of high-concentrated rations, and underneath that, the sharp scent of his dirty hair. The old Leviathan thrums through the open door of Lo'La, the smoky tea smell of the docking bay adding to the strange comfort of the situation.

He hadn't woken up when they docked on the elder ship, or even when she lifted his head from his jacket onto her leg.

Her fingers are oily but she keeps caressing, massaging the scalp. His hair is longer than he's been keeping it, beginning to curl on his neck. His body is dead still but for the twitches of his fingers and eyelids.

She thinks of herself, fallen to the deck of the Marauder, barely alive, unable to reach the medkit less than a motra away. Lialen had given her what she could no longer take, or even ask for, and had saved her life, given her enough breathing room to begin to fight the fever.

All the time on Earth, she'd been standing above him, trying to get him to reach for the kit, to ask for it. She had given him credit for being a lot more rational and stable than he is--in no small part because she needed him to be strong, and his weakness scared her.

Now she has him back safe. She knows that she needs to confront him soon, push him until he admits in full whatever is still troubling him, until he comes clean with her the way he used to push her.

She wishes she could do it right now, while she still has it all clear in her head, while he's too exhausted to fight back.

The last time she pushed him was over the lakka, and he had manipulated that argument so skillfully that it took her half a cycle to appreciate the full extent of his feint.

This time she will not stop until he tells her truth. She knows how to spot it now, and she's strong enough to endure it--his weakness and his need. His anger. She has to be. It feels like battle, and perhaps it is. The worst kind of battle; a siege.

But a siege she's been on the defending side of many times before. If she taught him how to be distant and cruel, she can certainly use his own skills against him. What must her defenses have looked like to him? Did he know before he breached them what it was they defended?

Perhaps siege is the wrong tactic. It's more like search and rescue, finding the injured one inside and bringing him to safety.

Aeryn watches another DRD trundle up to Lo'La's ramp, joining the group that's already formed at the base of the stairs. John takes a deep breath and his voice rumbles under her hand, which had been absently caressing his back until she noticed the congregation. "Aeryn?"


"Is it just me, or are they staring at us?"

"They are staring at us."

"Thought so." He pushes up and unfolds his body from the bench, joints cracking. "How long have they been there?"

"The first one arrived after the ship went into starburst, when you woke up for a bit."

"Don't remember waking up."

"Well, you moved around and whimpered a bit."

"Waking up sounds better." John looks out the airlock. "Where're D'Argo and Chi?"

"I don't know." Aeryn leans against the doorway and gives him a look. "They took a blanket with them."

"Ah. Picnic."

"I thought picnics had food."

"I'm sure they'll find something to eat."

She nods, holding back a smirk, then wets her lips. "On the way out, we were in measured starbursts for a few arns. The return trip shouldn't be different."

"If I weren't dog tired, I'd take advantage of that fact." He leans against the pod wall, but not as slack as before. "It's part of the deal, you know, payback for rescuing."

She crosses her arms, raises an eyebrow.

"After you save me, you get to have your way with me."

She wonders if she should mention that it's close to time for his next contraceptive shot. Instead she strolls down the ramp. "So, when you went to the Gammak Base for me, it was a ploy for sex?"

"But then you had to come get me out," he explains as he follows her down. "It ended up a zero sum game."

"What's the current score?" She moves gently through the DRDs.

"My math is too shaky for that." His boots hit the deck and the DRDs start blinking in unison, a few of them zipping around to nudge his heels. "Huh."

Aeryn rests her hand on the butt of her pistol. "It looks like they were waiting for you."

"Looks like." John lets himself be herded across the bay and into the corridor. "You think there's a problem with D'Argo and Chi?"

"Not enough that I'm willing to check just yet." She follows the assemblage. "Maybe this is the ship you were on before. She was dark bronze outside, like this one, like Moya."

"No." John runs his hand along the ribs as they walk. "This one's brighter inside, not as old or frail. I don't think the other one could make starburst, at least not for distance."

Aeryn remembers what Binok showed her, the struggle to keep the child alive after the parasites had attacked. "The one you were on was the first surviving child of the matriarch."

She can hear him murmur, "First surviving child," slight emphasis on 'surviving'. She wades through the DRDs to walk beside him. He takes her hand, still running the other along the corridor wall. He seems stronger, and she considers again.

She draws breath a few times, but can't start the conversation. The right moment will pull the trigger itself.

The DRDs lead them to the center chamber of the ship. The deeper they go, the quieter John becomes. A last door opens, revealing a steep ramp down into the heart of the chamber. John breathes out. "I'll be damned. I'm wrong." Aeryn braces his shoulders as he skids down the slope after the DRDs.

"It's her then?" Aeryn follows him to the amnexus mains, and sees the repair as John whistles.

The repair began as three separate tubes bridging a scarred hollow on the wall where a huge bore vein had been severed centuries ago. In the monens since, the tubes had merged and grown together into something approximating the original piece.

"Maybe a little less volume and pressure than it would have borne if she hadn't been injured." John runs his fingers in one of the grooves on the pipe, the only marker that it had started out as separate tubes. "No wonder she looks like a different ship."

He grins at her, wide open and intoxicating.

She remembers seeing him with Binok's eyes, this tiny being who did the amazing for her child as nonchalantly as if he were a DRD cleaning a floor.

Somehow the wonder works out of her in words. "You did this for her."

"Yeah, that was her test." He slides his hand up the pipe, checking how the connector valves have been integrated into the system.

"You made her better." She feels everything she needs to say resonating in her own conduits, the moment pulling its own trigger.

He carefully stoops to look at the second set of connectors. "Looks like."

She shoves his shoulder, knocking him off balance onto his arse. When he looks up at her, jolted and a little angry, she laughs. "You have absolutely no idea what you are? What you can do? What you've done?"

"Aeryn, are you alright?"

"I haven't been alright since I met you--you have to know that at least."

The DRD's have scattered. John braces an arm behind him but doesn't move back onto his feet. He watches her with a sudden wariness.

"You told me once to get my story straight, to tell it to you when I knew what it was. I've thought about it, and I've looked in the book and I still don't know what it is. I wasn't raised on stories, I don't know how they work." She crouches down in front of him, glad that he's still too off-balance to speak. She still doesn't know how the ideas go together, so she lets them out in the order they come. Maybe he can tell her how it should go.

"I've been tainted by you. Maybe even from the very beginning--you contaminated me so slowly I didn't know it was happening until it was too late. Until I had no choice but to learn how to live with the damage. I'm still figuring that out, you know, still working out what it is you've done to me."

"Aeryn, I'm so sorry."

His voice is so wretched it cuts into the words flowing out of her and makes her notice how stricken he looks. She shakes her head and grins, turning his distress into confusion.

"Don't be. I don't think of it as a contamination anymore, because I know what it is, and I recognize that I had it all along, even if I didn't know anything about it. The contamination is love--it's the need to protect, to do right. This is what you showed me about myself; you showed me what I can do--things I didn't think I'd ever want to do."

He's mesmerized, as if she's a wormhole that's just opened up within arm's reach. She keeps talking, showing him how she sees him. She commences the search and rescue, and lays groundwork for her siege.

"You don't even realize it, do you? That you see the best in people and then expect them to live up to it. You're harder, colder, but you still can't keep from doing that. You root out the best parts of what a person could be and then expect them to become those things.

"And they do." She shakes her head, wondering. "They try and try until they do. And I have no idea how you see those things inside, or how you make people want to become those things. How you can keep doing that when time after time they don't live up to it. I don't know how, but you do."

He murmurs, "Too stubborn not to, I guess."

"Stubborn might be it." Another piece fits into place, another something she needs to show him. "There's a Luxan phrase, that courage is just stubbornness in the face of fear. I was taught that this meant that Luxans had no real bravery, only obstinancy. It sounds like a bad joke to me now, that kind of thinking. I used to think you were a coward because you let your fear show so plainly.

"I didn't understand how you could make such a fuss and still do what needed to be done." She lets the words come as they will, unable to second-guess in the face of all the things that are fighting to come out. "But courage and strength are more than bluster, more than the denial of fear. It's being frankly scared and not letting that stop you. You let that struggle show and you're somehow stronger for it."

His voice has a high-pitched edge that he tries to pass off as mirth. "What if I confess that you're scaring me a little right now?"

It's more admission than quip, and it's exactly what she's talking about, that counter-intuitive embrace of fear. She can't help but smile. All these cycles of being able to spook him with a hard look and now she does it with soft words. "Am I? I'm only trying to tell you how I see you."

He shifts his body back to rest against the wall. "Why?"

"Because you need to know!" She wishes she could just grab him and show him that word as it comes out of his mouth, the why, the way he confronts the things that scare him, seeks to understand them, and then changes the situation in ways that no one else would have assumed possible.

"You have to admit, this is serious pod-Aeryn territory." He's leery and earnest, leaning forward to ask, "What brought this on?"

It occurs to her that he's doing this right now, with her, because she scares him, because she can hurt him. She has hurt him. And he still hasn't figured out how to understand that, and therefore change it, control it, and keep the hurt from happening again. He's still working the problem, and bracing for more pain in the interim. Her voice is suddenly rough in her throat. "Because you don't really see who you are, or why I love you. I intend to tell you."

"That's okay, Aeryn." He holds a hand out between them, and blinks hard as he shakes his head slowly. "I don't need to kn-"

"Shut up." She grabs his hand from its gesture, trying not to lose the momentum of this thing spilling out of her. "Shut up and listen."

His mouth clamps closed and he lets his head fall back against the bulkhead. He looks vacant and grim, as if stunned by a compression charge, debilitated and pale. His hand is dead weight in hers, pulling between them.

She recognizes this now, and she knows it for what it is. She comes forward onto her knees, scooting to kneel between his sprawled thighs and tugging his hand against her belly. She leans in to speak softly, throat tight. "I'm not describing a dead man. I am talking about you."

He meets her eyes again. Her cheeks are wet, but his own tears pool unspilled, magnifying the raw pinkness that surrounds the pale blue.

"Your strength, your love, your tenderness." She underscores her points, pressing his knuckles to her with each emphasis. "Your need for secrecy, for control. Your lack of trust. Your armor."

He closes his eyes, breaking the puddles. She lets go of his hand and runs her thumbs across the resulting wet tracks. He catches her wrists and holds them, pressing her palms over his eyes. They are hot to the touch, squeezing shut and then going lax. His mouth falls open vulnerable.

"That armor...I know why it's there, and I know..." She swallows the past the snag in her throat. "I know some of what it protected you from was me. I still regret that it's there."

He lets himself fall into her embrace and keeps going, burrowing against her body as if trying to tuck under her clothes, under her skin.

Chiana lifts her hands to press against the view port, smudging the plexipane as she gasps and grinds back. They've dropped out of starburst again, another pause for breath in normal space. This time the Leviathan hangs there for hundreds of microts before banking toward treblin and shifting into hetch.

She reaches behind and grabs a handful of tankas, stilling D'Argo. "Why aren't we back in starburst?"

He gasps, "What?" sliding a hand around to steer her away from conversation.

She lets the pleasure wash through her, repeating her question in a moan as her eyes drift shut and her hips take over.

His only response is, "Frell." She's about to agree when his hands stop and he moves away from her.

Her eyes open as he tells her to hold on tight, blue light washing through the view port.

"We're coming home sooner than expected." John sniffs and scrubs his nose, pushing himself up from the floor using her shoulders as a crutch. His face is a ruddy mess but he's moving as if an alarm's sounding. " We have to get back to the ships."

"What's wrong?" Aeryn follows him close, gives him a boost up the steep ramp with her hands planted on his rump.

At the top, he catches her wrist and pushes her in the hollow next to a corridor rib. The ship lurches under them. "She just went into a wormhole."

Aeryn doesn't wait for the deck to steady, she chivvies him back to the docking bay. "Are we in any danger, with you being here?"

"No, I'm not steering."

She catches his gunbelt in mid-lurch, turning his falling momentum back into forward momentum. It's the same exchange she makes for him when they spar, only this time she's keeping him away from the floor. "Something must be wrong with Moya, we must have come close enough to hear her call--"

"--and then headed for the closest subway station."

"If starburst isn't fast enough--"

"--things are bad."

As soon as their escort Leviathan flies free of the wormhole, she opens her port doors and flings the ships out with a flick of her docking web that sends them right toward Moya, an easy lob like a game of catch in the backyard.

Moya's lights are low and flickering, and she turns slowly in the center of eight other ships. Chiana points out the birth seam, a sliver of gold light along what John would consider her belly.

When they dock, the bay doors open only wide enough for them to slip through.

The baby is stuck, and has been for over a day. Moya is weary, the baby is anxious, and the other ships have been waiting for their escort to come back.

D'Argo confers with Pilot on open comms as he heads toward command, Chiana goes to join the rest near the birthing chamber, and John tags along with Aeryn to the central power conduit.

Chiana thinks they may have to fire through the obstruction, like Talyn did the first time. D'Argo and Aeryn think that more power might help. John hopes that maybe their grande dame escort might know a little something 'bout birthin' babies.

Moya feels three of the larger ships come in close enough to touch hulls. One cradles her back, locking ports and opening up an air space between them. Her air is warmer than Moya's normally is, soothing like a sea.

The other two ships attach to her ventral hull, one to each side of the stubborn birth seam. The eldest ship then transmits instructions to Moya, reassuring her, telling her that the other three will help her force the child out, and that when she feels the next spasm she should flex into it with everything she has.

The eldest ship brought all of her people back. Moya trusts her.

"Chiana! Clear everyone out of the antechamber," D'Argo booms over the comms. "Aeryn! Have you finished routing the power?"


"Pilot says to hold on tight--the other ships are going to help Moya."

John turns to Aeryn. "Help how?"

She drops the spanner into the tool bag at her feet. "They've docked with her. Three of them."

"To give her strength, extra energy?"

Aeryn lays her hand on the wall, eyes focusing hard on nothing. "No, it's just a latching hold."

The gravity shifts and John leans alongside a wall rib, feet planted wide to ride out the movement. "Leverage, maybe? Something for her to push against?"

Moya moves with the pain. When the others alternately push and pull her, she feels a sharp tug at the birth seam. She feels fear. She feels excitement.

She feels another spasm coming, and the engines of the ships surrounding her revving up.

This is happening now.

Aeryn doesn't answer, just crashes to her knees with one arm wrapped around her middle and the other braced against the deck.

John shoves the tool bag away and tries to pull her up, but she's curled tight, forehead against the deck, gasping. He tugs at her and shouts, "Aeryn, talk to me, babe, talk to me now."

"Frell, my stomach hurts."

He yanks her to him, sliding her along the floor until she's tucked into him the way he'd tucked into her less than an arn ago. "It's okay, you're both going to be okay."

Moya wrenches open in a rush of heat, her child flexing free of her, snapping the last of the cables that had connected them into one system.

Aeryn can barely hear Chiana yelling over the comms, "It's working! It's working!" because the pain shoots clean and pure and outward, taking her breath with it in a rush of triumph. She drags air into her lungs and lets out a shout of her own.

Rygel hovers closer to the view port, short of breath as he watches. It's magnificent, this beautiful ship coming about in space through a cloud of her mother's debris.

Even though she can't hear him, he wheezes quietly to her, "Welcome, welcome."

The ships surrounding Moya emit a slow wave hum that reverberates through her hull, soothing her and encouraging the birth seam to shift closed. Moya scans her newborn as it wheels about, seeking the source of the hum.

She's a deeper blue than her sire, her warm yellow running lights flashing in newborn communication patterns, letting Moya see that all of her systems are online and functional.

She's amazingly ordinary.

She's like any of the other offspring that Moya saw in the Leviathan pod, nothing special about her except that she's flawless and beautiful and belongs to Moya.

She lets out a high frequency burst and burble, which Moya returns. The child flexes in an awkward turn and gently rams her mother, who focuses a slow wave hum at her in return. She nudges Moya's bow until she locates the resource port, then locks on and settles along her mother's hull, tired.

The companion ships release their latching holds on Moya, and drift to surround the mother and child at a distance.

The pain fades quickly, even more so when John finally pries her hand from the deck. All that's left is the memory of Zola, of how the real ache in her belly had faded almost as quickly as this sympathetic one, once the child was out.

John embraces Aeryn tightly enough that she doesn't have to hold her own self in anymore.

Before John pulled her hand away, Aeryn had felt the newborn come to rest against Moya's hull and fasten to the resource port. The child is sharing her mother's atmosphere while DRDs scuttle between the ships, and Aeryn can feel a low soothing thrum from Moya that makes her ache.

When Moya coupled with the pod mates, Aeryn had the shield of the lakka between herself and the goodwill flowing into the great ship around her; this time it's unblunted and a hundred times more, thrumming between the ship and its offspring. If she hadn't lost Zola, she might have shared this with her instead of being a useless spectator to someone else's joy.

She tries to fold in on herself but John pulls her close and her arms go around him instead. He rocks her as she gasps, no control left over what's spilling out, a keening sound wrenching free with the same raw relief as the shuddering breaths that feed it. As he shushes her the sound coming out of her throat turns into their daughter's name.

"Shhh, babe, I know. I know."

Aeryn sucks in a breath and the words warble as she clenches her fists against his back. "She was my only chance."

"No, she wasn't, babe." She can hear emotion clogging his voice as well, but he has more control, or perhaps he's still spent from earlier. "We get other chances, you know. We're entitled to 'em considering how often we screw up. We have as many chances as we're willing to take. Let's talk about this later, okay?"

She nods, but even as this ache vents out of her in tears, a part of her wonders how many laters it takes to equal never.

When they arrived they'd hit the ground running, but the birth took no time at all once Moya had expert help, leaving most of the crew exhausted from the previous days' ordeals but too keyed-up to rest. D'Argo winces as Chiana ululates into the comms yet again.

He opens his mouth to try talking her down, but Noranti cuts him off, sending a call out to the brave. "I'm cooking. Who's hungry?"

"I, " Rygel answers between asthmatic gasps, "am...starving"

"Galley. One arn." Noranti savors the orders as she gives them. "And dress up, this is a feast we're talking about."

Stark drains a pot of yellow star-shaped things and shakes them into a bowl. Every few microts he has to catch himself, because he can see the baby ship just outside the large view ports that run the length of the galley. She sparkles, created in the heat of her mother but born for the cold of space. He's burned three of his fingers so far, preoccupied with her every flicker and turn.

Chiana plucks the bowl from in front of him, taking it with her to the table where she sits next to D'Argo. Her clothes are nearly white, a shade greyer than her newly-blanched skin. Sitting next to D'Argo in his dark red studded finery, they remind him of snow and blood.

Despite the associations, Stark thinks they look nicer than at the wedding, and he hopes that bodes well for the future. D'Argo, on the other hand,can't stop looking at the Dominar.

"Stop eyeing me like a pair of loomas." Rygel grouses, waving his fork at D'Argo.

"I can't help it," D'Argo blinks and shakes his head, "it's such a drastic change."

"It will fade in a few days." Noranti sets another platter on the table. "It's a shame, though. I think he looks much better this way."

Rygel glares at her but she's already zipped off to the pantry bay off the treblin side of the galley, humming to herself and swaying her skirts like a happy tralk.

Aeryn arrives before John, her only concessions to dressing up being a fresh shirt and a mirror shine on her boots. John shows up last, but he brings a bottle of skatch.

"Finally!" Rygel's gruff shout is undermined by the peg-tooth smile he still has from watching the baby out the view port. "She won't let us eat until everyone's here."

"She said an arn, it's not ev--" John does a double-take. "Rygel, you're orange!"

He pushes his chest out. "I was helping Moya."

"Birthing balm." Noranti whizzes by the table, depositing a platter as she goes. "Helped ease the bulkheads."

John calls after her, "And it turned him into an Oompa-Loompa?"

Aeryn takes the bottle and cracks through the paper seal as Chiana raises her glass with an eager grin.

"Those studs make him look like a strawberry."

"Strawberry." Aeryn braces her husband's weight with one of his arms across her shoulders and a tight grip on his waist. "Which are those, again?"

He talks carefully around the slur. "Little red pyramid fruits with the seeds on the outside."


"Am I right?"

Aeryn steers him toward her quarters. She can feel his legs shaking again from the earlier abuse, which is probably why the alcohol is hitting him so hard. "You're right."

"See? I'm right." He hums and then snickers. "Strawberry Luxan. Sounds like a girl's drink."

"Women and men don't drink the same things?"

"No, not...well, yes and no. Girl drinks are sweet."

"Your father made all of us have the eknuk."

"Egg nog is different."

"Human women don't drink skatch, then?"

"Raiders of the Lost Ark. She could toss 'em back like you and Chi."

"Right. The raider female."


"What's a marion?"

"The Raider girl."

"Moya wants us to suggest names for the baby, perhaps you should suggest Marion." Aeryn gets him through the doorway and into her quarters. She doesn't hit the light panel. "Do you need to use the waste funnel?"

"Nah, I went before we got in the car."

She shakes her head as she leads him to the bed, and then lowers his arm from her shoulders. He sways but stays upright, feet apart and knees locked as she removes his holster. She unties his boots and yanks up his shirt, working with his teetering as he shrugs his arms forward and bends his head to let her pull it off.

"It's dark." His jaw cracks open in a fierce yawn.

"I know where everything is." She pushes him to sit down onto the bed.

"Oh hey, here's the bed." He lurches back to arrange his frame along the length of the mattress, feet still hanging over the edge. Even in the dim corridor light through the grille door she can make out the bruises on his ribs and chest as he heaves his body toward the pillows and then flops onto his back. "Better than I remembered."

She pulls his boots and socks off and bends down to unfasten his leathers. He wiggles so she can work the pants over his hips. "Aeryn?"

"Hmm?" She grabs the pants at the knees, then at the cuffs, shaking his legs loose from the leathers.

"What you said earlier..."

She lets the pants drop quietly to the floor. He sounds a lot more sober now that he doesn't have to concentrate on staying vertical.

"On that ship..."


"Did you mean it?"

She crawls onto the bed until she's straddling his hips, arms braced by his shoulders and face to face with him. His eyes glint warily in the dark. He's drunk and exhausted, beaten and bruised and he smells like mud and sweat. She's relieved, grateful and nearly dead on her feet herself. "Yes. I meant everything I said."

He closes his eyes. "Good. That's good."

Chiana caresses the long neck of the ilquin laying across her lap. D'Argo kneels on the floor before her, looking up into her face as she inspects the instrument. "You made this?"

"For you. I worked on it while we were ferrying Wodawe back and forth. I asked a botanist and an acoustics engineer to show me what woods to use."

She traces the blonde curves inlaid around the deep burgundy resonator. "You made this for me."

"I told you I would."

She almost looks upset, but D'Argo's learned to think instead of push. He thinks that probably of all the gifts she's ever been given, most were opening bids for her favors and none had been made for her, simply to make her smile.

"You can play it yourself, without needing me to complete the lower string positions."

"Can I still play yours, too?" She gives him a slow smirk. "Just because something is big, doesn't mean it's unwieldy."

She doesn't quite break her odd mood, but D'Argo plays along, big hands cupping her calves as he pitches his voice low and sultry. "We can do anything you like. But first, I'd like to watch while you play on your own."

"Only if you return the favor."

He grins up at her. "Gladly."

John misses hearing birds when he wakes up, but hearing Aeryn breath is a pretty good replacement. He turns his head, which is normally the first stage in rolling his body over and letting the morning yawn take over. Instead he gasps as every muscle in his body comes awake screaming.

Aeryn springs out of sleep just as fast but far more quietly, eyes scanning the room for danger before she sits up and looks him over.

John pants and groans, trying to ease his aching limbs before they go into one big spasm from toes to neck. On the plus side, his head feels fine.



She flips the covers back. "Sore?"

"Oh god, yes."

She nods, coming around to his side of the bed. "Shockstick."


"I would but I think it would kill you." She grins down and yanks the covers off him.

He tries not to shiver against the chill. "Awfully cocky."

"And you're a mess. But we'll fix it." She braces her feet and grabs his wrists.

"Aeryn, no--"

She hauls him out of bed in a flurry of yelps and creaking joints, and chivvies him into a shower too hot for her to share. Half an arn later she pulls him out and kneads him like salt water taffy.

He whimpers as she slowly presses her knee into his hamstrings. "You keep this up I may just take you up on that death by frelling thing."

"Overtraining is a common mistake for entry grade officers. It leads to stiffness and injury." She straddles some of her weight across his ass and leans her fists under his shoulder blades. "I'm being a lot more gentle with you than the physical trainers were with me."

"That's 'cause you love me. And I didn't do it on purpose."

"Yes, I do." She grinds her knuckle into a stubborn knot that makes him sweat and clutch at the covers. "Peacekeepers don't do this kind of thing for each other, you know. If you have an injury, you see a trainer or a medtech."

"Is this another way I've debauched you? Backrubs?"

"Ruined me completely." She runs her fingers through the back of his hair, tugging lightly in a way that loosens his neck and makes him groan. "You're an evil man."

He mutters into the pillow, "I've gotten used to it."

Chiana plunks down on the bench next to John, setting a crate at her feet and leaning over to inspect his notes. When he doesn't look up, she nudges at the pebbled scabs on the side of his head. "It's darker than when it was fresh. What color is it now?"

"Maroon, I guess."

"Ma run."

He sets down his pen and closes the book. He exaggerates his mouth as he pronounces it for her. "Marooooon."

"Mah rooon."

"Close enough." Over the last weeken her smudge marks have darkened around her eyes and in the hollows of her cheeks, and her hair is whitening from the tips on in, like charcoal burning to ash.

Her eyes are keen, but her fingertips gentle on the side of his head. "What about where they've fallen off? It's a different color from the rest of your skin."


"I thought this was pink." She sticks her tongue out at him.

"Pale pink, then. Maybe you should try someone else?"

"I already learned their words for reds. Luxan has the most, but English is close." Chiana reaches into the crate, filled with clothes and various and sundry plastic crap from Earth. "What about this?"

John looks at the beach towel and indicates the word for each patch of color. "Red, magenta, purple...hey, when you were looking for this stuff you didn't happen to find any crayons, did you?"


"Find any paper or pens?"

"I know where those boxes are."

"Show me."

D'Argo waits next to the Prowler until Aeryn lifts her head out of the engine. He sets two bags on the floor next to the stepladder. "I thought you might be missing these."

She looks down at the bags, a black regulation duffel filled with weapons and supplies, and the dark green quelpa, lumpy with books and a fabric doll.

"You left them on Lo'La last weeken."

She's thought about the quelpa many times since then. She'd worn it for weekens beforehand, had even worn it through the rescue to get the feel of it in battle. Then she left it with John but she never told him what it was. There were other things to worry about; it seemed foolish to drag the quelpa into it.

D'Argo offers a shrug. "I'm heading hamlin-side, I can drop them off in your quarters if you'd like."

Aeryn grips the spanner tight in her hand and ekes out a smile. "Thank you."

"If you really want to thank me," he throws the straps of the bags over his shoulder, "you can take my turn at dishes tonight."

Aeryn watches him walk across the bay, spinning the tool in her hands. She gets angry with herself and something hardens inside her head. She doesn't quit, so why isn't she wearing that frelling thing still? She calls D'Argo's name.

He turns.

"Leave the green one here."

He walks back to hand it to her, lifting it up and setting the bag of books into her hands as if it really were a child. She nestles it in the seat of the Prowler where she can see it, and finishes her work.

That's when she notices the doll is missing.

They're in one of the storage bays, knee-deep in office supplies when Aeryn finds them. John's already located the yellow and green box and taken enough deep sniffs of the Binney & Smiths that the paper and wax smell has put him into a fine state of mind, happy and centered.

Aeryn pulls out a stick of blue wax the color of Moya's child.

"There's a hundred and twenty of these, now," he tells her, still pulling reds and purples for Chiana. "I only had sixty-four."

"Hey Crichton, why don't the labels match the sticks?" Chiana pulls a crayon out of her sub-box of reds. "If it says..."

He reads it for her. "Raspberry."

"Razzbury--does that mean the paper or the stick?"

"The stick."

Chiana crouches with a pad of paper on her thigh, writing the names in her own script with each color he reads off.

Aeryn's brow furrows as she tries to read the name on the one she'd picked. "Ker you leen?"

"Lemme see." He catches her hand and leans into her space. "Cerulean."

"Seh roo lee an." Aeryn croons the word, twirling the crayon in her fingers. "That would make a nice name for the ship."

"Pilot still taking suggestions?" John inhales another draught of the crayons, smiling when Aeryn raises her eyebrows.

"Yes. Moya wants all of us to offer ideas." She sniffs at the stick of cerulean in her hand. "You're the only one who hasn't yet given any."

He shrugs, closes the lid. "I'm not good at names."

"What the frell?" Chiana pops up between them, blue-black eyes wide with incredulity. She pulls the box from his hands. "I think you've had enough sniffing for today."

"Chiana." Aeryn hands her the cerulean crayon, and there's a look between them that sends her off in a hurry with her colors and paper. Aeryn watches her leave, then looks down for a moment.

By the time she looks up at him his pleasant mood has vanished completely. "We need to talk."

She leads him to his room, and he knows what's up. He jump-starts the conversation by opening up the bin that holds his socks and underwear, pulling out the medkit and laying it on the table.

She squares her shoulders and he braces for the confrontation, for another stilted negotiation of delay. Instead she sits on the foot of his bed and says, "Talk to me."

He almost asks 'about what?' but the deliberately unguarded look on her face stops him, makes him sit on the bed with her, if not close to her.

There's a green bag on the floor, which she nudges with her boot. "You took back the snuka."

The dolly. When they came back aboard Moya he'd left it wrapped up in his jacket on Lo'La's bench. He'd retrieved it later, but he never asked her why she'd carried it into battle with her in the first place. "You haven't missed it."

"It's a toy." She glances at it on the shelf across the room. Maybe all this time she was waiting for him to give it back to her. "It's not what I want."

He tries not to sigh, tries not to feel cornered. It wouldn't be so bad if he didn't want a family so badly himself--if he didn't want to see this woman grow round with his child, see the expression on her face as she held it, hear her try to answer a two-year old's questions. It wouldn't be so bad if he could think about it without feeling this panicky ache. "You want a kid."

"With you. I've told you why, on the other Leviathan, why I choose to do this thing with you. I want to teach someone what I've learned. Bring them into the world and show them what it can be. Create something." She takes a deep breath, smoothing the edge of determination from her voice. He knows better than to think she's really backing down. "Now you tell me...tell me what you think."

He begins as slowly. "I don't think it's a good idea to bring anyone else into this."

"Into what? Into the universe, or into this?" She sweeps her hand between them.

He catches her hand across the distance, ready to reassure her but she squeezes and then pulls away, waiting for him to answer her question. Waiting for him to tell her what he thinks.

He hasn't wanted to hurt her, has been looking to figure things out on his own before he talked to her about it, but she's asking and she deserves to know. "What's more important, Aeryn, a baby or the world?"

"I don't understand."

He shifts back on the bed, leaning against the wall. "Let's say things take a turn for the worse, and the bad guys decide that the best way to get us to do what they want is to use the kid as leverage."

"Like Scorpius did, using me to pit you against the Scarrans."

"Yes." He lets his head fall back against the wall, watches her pick her response.

"You were bluffing then. You never intended to follow through with the deal."

"No, I didn't. But if I had to, if it came down to a choice between our child and keeping the universe safe from what I can do, what I can show others how to do, which should I choose?"

She pulls her ankles in to sit with her legs crossed, boots on his bedcover, but they don't sleep in this bed. "You already made that decision when we didn't go back to save Zola. You were right, then. Even if we could have brought her back, it wasn't worth the risk."

"Could you make that same decision with a living child?" He thinks of blood and stone, of a goat screaming as the knife draws across its throat. Peace through superior sacrifice.

He did terrible things to get to Katratzi, justifying them with the idea that she was counting on him, and that his life had no meaning if he let her down. He had been unwilling to sacrifice the two of them to maintain the universal status quo--he had been willing to risk everything to save her, and to somehow also save himself.

Aeryn's color is pale but her voice is sure. "My mother had to make that decision, sacrifice someone she loved to keep the world she knew. There's more at stake for us. More lives at stake."

He presses her. "Could you do that?"

She squares her shoulders and looks into his eyes, as if taking a chance with her words. "If I had to. Yes, I could."

"What's one little family against the greater safety of the universe, huh?"

She doesn't let the remark slide. "We've both of us made that choice. Given ourselves for that cause."

He drops his gaze with a slow nod. They say you never know what you're going to do in that situation until it comes, but for one incarnation of him that moment of truth had already come and gone. He knows the stuff he's made of, even if he's done things afterward as if trying to prove otherwise. "Then it doesn't make much sense to court disaster, does it?"

Aeryn shakes her head. "So that's all you see then, the worst possible situation?"

"This is us we're talking about. When have we ever caught a break?"

"As you said a few days ago, we have every chance that we fight for."

He looks up. "Since when are you the optimist?"

She raises her eyebrows.

He doesn't have it in him to answer her challenge. Hope is nice, hope keeps you going through the night, hope gets you out of bed the next morning with a smile. Deep down he's not sure he believes in it anymore. He wonders at her, that she still does. With all she's been through, with the idea of even worse things ahead, she can sit there with half a smile on her face.

"Well, let me be the optimist then, until you can see more clearly."

"Aeryn, I'm sorry. I just can't take that risk." He climbs off the bed and heads toward the table but she catches his arm and yanks herself up to her feet to face him.

The sole of her boot scuffs against his, and her stare digs into his as fiercely as her fingers dig into his arm.

"With the right leverage you could move the world, Aeryn." He pries her grip from his arm. "With the right leverage, the right hostage, I could become as corrupt as Scorpius, as Grayza. Wouldn't take that much, actually."

She stares after him as he sits at the table.

He rests his chin on his thumb, finger up across his mouth, and says nothing more.

"You're serious? You think that you are capable of that kind of malice?"

"I've done things that make me no better than they are."

"We all do things that we regret. It's whether we repeat them, whether we become accustomed to the damage we inflict and make it a habit, a tool. That is what separates you from them. They do not cry over the harm they do."

"Just means they sleep better at night."

She stalks over to stand before him. "You, the other you, the man you were, he didn't cry over the slaughter of a Scarran dreadnaught--nearly three times the number we killed on Katratzi. Your compassion is greater, as well as your ability to do what must be done."

"Do you know the first person I killed? That the both of us killed, when we were the same guy?"

She shakes her head. She's out of her rating with this, out of control of the situation, but committed beyond going back.

"Officer Hassan." He scoots back on the bench to lean against the wall and clasps his hands together in his lap. "Never did get her first name. Black Ghost, special ops PK. All I could do was watch as the intellant virus used my hands to push her facedown on a console, grab a length of pipe and open her skull. She was the first." He watches his hands, fingers interleaved, palms rubbing together with a soft sound.

Aeryn straddles the bench, facing him, letting him speak because she doesn't know what to say herself.

"Afterward, I cleaned her up. I put all the pieces in a bag for D'Argo to space with the rest of the bodies. I made sure her eyes were closed. Then I took apart that console and scrubbed every scrap of blood and brain out of the components." He exhales sharply. "Now I've got comparative body counts."

She tells him something she'd read in the book on warfare. "Only someone thoroughly acquainted with the evils of war can comprehend the best way of carrying it on."

He doesn't act as if he's heard her. He moves unevenly, breathes without rhythm, muscles twitching under the skin of his brow. "What if..."

Aeryn thinks that if she were closer he might kiss her, might breathe her in deep and let the bad thing break out of him on the exhale. He stares at his hands while she looks at his face, sees him pull the words out of himself, like digging out shrapnel.

"What if...what if deep down..." He closes his fist and then pops it open, fingers splaying. "What if you enjoy it?"

She rubs her palms down her thighs and back up. "Enjoy killing, you mean?"

"Being right. Having the risk pay off. Rubbing their nose in it." His hand drops down with the other, lax. His voice is wrung tight like the skin under his eyes. "Yeah...sometimes even the killing."

She presses her lips together. Every time she thinks she understands, there's something else. This time it seems like something she should have figured out herself. This is a man raised to adulthood in a creche, who only entered cadet squad a few cycles ago.

"I was taught about killing long before I entered combat." She pauses to think about how to explain what she needs to say.

She wonders what kind of person she would have turned out to be, if she had been exiled by the Peacekeepers but hadn't ever had to explain them to someone who didn't already know what they were, if she had never been forced to examine the basic concepts she'd learned growing up in that life. "I was taught what to expect and how to handle it."

"What did they teach you?" His voice is rough, his question cautious. She pictures him cleaning out that console cycles ago, perhaps physically sick, punishing himself for the exhilaration he must have felt even then, amid the horror. She wants to give him something he can use.

"I was taught to think rationally about it, the same way I handled hunger or thirst, or the drive to recreate. The body responds, but I am in control. The response to killing, whether pleasant or unpleasant, is a potential distraction that can fog judgment, and I had to learn to channel it the same way I did fear, turn it into energy directed toward duty."

She remembers having another conversation with him like this, patient and slow, facing each other just out of reach, telling him about how the Peacekeepers handled sex. "The feeling of pleasure or relief was a reward for a job well done, to be experienced and then set aside for the next duty."

"The next duty." He rubs his hands down his face.

She begins to understand his reaction and why it differs from hers, how the passion of it also brings a sense of shame. "You were driven to it at first. You didn't start from a rational sense of duty, you started to kill just to survive."

"That's not the case anymore."

"No, it's not. Now you treat it rationally, as a duty. You do it when you must."

"But deep down, Aeryn...when I do it, a part of me likes it." He's stripped bare in front of her, and she's trying to understand what it is he's showing her.

"Of course you do, it means you're in control, that you're winning-" She shakes her head, trying to reword the concept so that he'll understand. "But you don't let that part make the decisions for you."

"But I could. If something happened, to you or to our kid, I could let myself do that so easily."

It finally clicks for her. That's the risk that a child represents, not as a limp dollbaby corpse, but as an excuse to punish the universe. The fubar situation is, for him, insanity. Aeryn feels the last pieces slot into place with relief. This is something she can handle. "If you did...if you became that, you would be killing the best parts of yourself. I would mourn you as dead." She straightens her back. "And I would do whatever I had to do."

He rises up with the realization. "You'd kill me. Put me down like a rabid dog."

She remembers the other John speaking to her as Scorpius, and how close her trigger had been to the ignition point. "Yes, I would. It's the same choice as before, isn't it?"

"Goddamned Masada family planning." He sinks back, muttering to himself. "Fucking crazy, is what it is."

Aeryn lets him natter for a few moments, then cuts him short. "You wanted me to decide which was more important, my family or the universe. I've chosen my priorities. I've even promised to save the universe from you, if need be. If I'm already dead, I hold you to that same promise--that you'd follow me to the other side before you let yourself become a monster, and that you'd take me down if you had to, let us all die if the only other choice was widespread destruction."

His whole face is soft and open, with awe perhaps, or shock. "You want me to pledge a murder-suicide pact with you."

"If that's what it takes to demonstrate what I'm willing to risk, what I'm willing to endure in order to have a family with you." Aeryn rests her hands on his knees and leans in close. "I want things to be clear, so we both know what to do if everything goes fubar."

"This is insane."

"No more insane than pledging to be partners until we die. You're concerned about the worst possible situation, so we're deciding how to handle it."

"Death before destruction?" She can tell he's close to that high-pitched laugh, and she realizes too late that she's physically backed him into a corner.

She moves to give him space but he grabs hold of her arms and pulls her onto his lap. His eyes are wide and shocked, but his grip firm. "I can't believe you're proposing this."

"I am."

"This is crazy, Aeryn, you know that?"

"So you've said."

He shakes his head, trying to parse and failing. She slides her hands up his neck to cradle his face, and lays slow kisses on his cheek, his nose.

He closes his eyes, and she slides the light tip of her tongue into the hollow at the corner. His breath catches, faint stutters of air as he lets her ruffle his bitter lashes and trace her lips over the curves of his eyelids.

He trembles and lets her do whatever she wants, calming under her touch like a pet being scratched behind the ears. She sets a kiss on the bone where his eye and temple converge, then lays her cheek against his.

He pushes her back to look at her, quiet and still, but eyes wide and brow creased between them. The look is disbelieving, or astonished, perhaps. Then he pulls her so close and tight that she has to brace her ribs against the squeeze. She clings to him in return.

He leans forward, rising to his feet. Off-balance, she clutches tighter, drawing her legs around him as he crosses to the bed. She rides him down as he falls back onto the mattress, and sets about disarming him. He breaks a seam in her shirt when he yanks it over her head.

She doesn't bother pulling his shirt off, just rucks it up to his collarbones and catches a nipple between her teeth. He arches up against her and begins fumbling at her waist while she kisses and nips at his chest and stomach. She gets his leathers open and pushed down before he manages to even unfasten hers, but she only needs one free hand to undress herself.

Her other hand wraps around the silky heat of his cock and lifts the tip from where it rests heavily on his belly. She runs the tip of her nose down the underside and gently takes one of his testicles into her mouth.

He pulls off his shirt and shoves it under his head, then rests his fingertips on her cheek, watching her. She curls her palm around his tip as she suckles one after the other.

Once she gets her boots and pants off, she licks up from wrinkled to smooth skin and begins slipping the warm length of him between her hand and mouth, cradling his balls in her other hand. She closes her eyes, savoring the satiny feel of him on her tongue and the sounds escaping from his own throat.

He takes hold of the base of her ponytail and drags her upwards. He kisses her hungrily, lips sliding from the wet of her mouth. He swipes a thumb across her chin, groaning at the slickness gathered there. He pulls the tie from her hair and messes it so it surrounds them both.

She reaches between them to position him and he breaks the kiss, resting his forehead against hers as she slides down with a deep sigh. His eyes are heavy lidded, looking at where they meet. She shifts her thighs to sink further down, settling onto his hips.

He whispers, "What happens when Scorpius comes back?"

She takes his head in her hand, caressing her thumb over his cheekbone. Her voice is harder than his, but just as quiet. "When he does good, we work with him. Otherwise, we kill him if we have to. We never trust him. We hold out for what's important."

He finishes the thought, twitching inside of her. "Even if it means death."

"We can beat him." She embraces him inside her, rolling him into the bed with her hips. He holds her in his hands, one tangled in her hair and the other clutching her arse. His eyes are open and dilated, even more hungry than his body. He won't last long, but that's all right. "We're together now and we can beat him if we have to."

His whisper is rough with emotion, his body surging under her. "Tango with the Devil himself."

"You and I. Nothing else matters."

"Catch me if I fall?"

"You won't fall, I've already got you."

John misses her breathing when he wakes up the next morning, the other side of the bed empty and cool, and the only sound in the room the hum of the ship herself. You snooze, you lose, but at least on Moya there's always hot water in the shower no matter how late you roll out of bed.

He shaves carefully, and buzzes his hair back to it's normal length, short on top and shorter on the neck. He puts on a light grey t-shirt he got from Earth.

After all this black, the light color feels like hunter's orange, but it's the cleanest and newest shirt he owns. Mainly because it's bright enough that he doesn't feel comfortable wearing it off-ship. To think, he actually did used to wear hunter's orange planetside.

It's a wonder he ever got laid in the UTs wandering around like a shell-shocked Poindexter that whole first year. Come to think of it, he scored wearing Barbie pink, so it's obvious the same rules just don't apply out here.

So soft grey is now the color of surrender. Okay, maybe not surrender. Surrender doesn't make you feel nervous and excited, just sick.

He wonders if perhaps there was a little bit of hope getting him out of bed this morning. He feels like giving fate the finger. That's probably a yes.

He loads the injector and stashes it in his pocket. Then he straps on Winona. Then he grabs the dollbaby.

The baby ship is nursing again, airlocks breathing open between mother and child as DRD's shuttle back and forth with resources and instructions. John knows that Aeryn likes to visit the ship when she's docked and open.

He's the only one left who hasn't been aboard the baby yet. He ducks his head through the second airlock and steps inside.

She's like a golden chapel, a cozy cathedral for fairies. He bends at the waist to move through the main corridor, wondering at the thought that Moya had started out this small.

The command deck is the only room large enough to fit him at his full height.

He slowly straightens, careful of the ceiling that arcs just above his head. He peers around with his mouth open. Consoles rise out of the floor like knee-high mushrooms, their pedestals ribbed in a way that suggests a pudgy version of Moya's elegant fluted curves.

Aeryn sits cross-legged behind a navigation console. She calls over her shoulder, "What do you think of her?"

John caresses a warm ceiling rib. "She's beautiful, babe."

"Yes, she is." He can hear Aeryn's smile even before he comes around in front of her and sees it.

She finishes keying in whatever she was working on, the ghost of the smile still brighting her features. When she finally looks up, he's holding the dollbaby out between them. He moves the dolly's head as he talks, as if the little snuka were lip-synching. "Moya makes pretty babies."

Aeryn eyes him, half of her mouth turning up in a wary smile. She's given him this look often enough before, but over time it's only been 60% indicative of him actually being insane, so he continues.

"I think you'd make pretty babies, too. Dangerous and scary babies, but we're good at dealing with that kind of thing."

She rises from the floor and steps gingerly over the console. He raises the dollbaby and moves it so that it's looking at her with it's blue button eyes. "Reach into my ammo pocket."

She looks from it to him, then tugs the injector from his pocket.

The dollbaby inclines its head curiously. "Wanna get knocked up?"

She knocks the doll from between them. "Are you sure?"

He hands her the doll and pops the fastener on his leathers, pulling one flap aside to expose his naked hip. "I'm sure."

She stands there a moment, doll tucked under one arm like a clipboard and injector poised in her hand.

"Look, if I wasn't sure, I'd've worn undershorts."

She snickers, breaking into a smile that puts the previous one to shame. He pulls her close for a kiss but she's smiling too much and he ends up kissing her teeth. She presses the device against his skin but the needle doesn't sting, it just feels like a tap.

"That's it?"

She shrugs and shoves the tool back into his pocket, her hand taking the scenic route on its way back. "I believe there's also some sex involved."

He tries to fasten his pants out from under her hands. "We're aboard a baby, Aeryn."

"A baby ship. What better place?" She gets in a lucky squeeze and he huffs, twisting away from her and backing down the cozy corridor.

Her smile is wicked and feral as she follows him, doing things to his body that she usually does with her hands. His own grin is manic and it only encourages her. When he clears the second airlock she grabs the front of his shirt, pulling the cotton out of shape as she shoves him against the wall and kisses the breath out of him.

He yanks the doll from where it still rides tucked under her elbow, coming up for air and wiggling it back and forth. "Not in front of the baby!"

She's honestly puzzled by this statement, and he takes the opportunity to make a break for it. If he wants to frell in a bed, it's up to him to get there before she catches him.

Aeryn stifles her laughter as she sprints toward his quarters, gripping the grill as she rounds the curve to reduce her speed. She saw him dart inside but the room is softly lit and looks empty.

As she turns John comes from behind and tackles her onto the bed, eliciting a shrieking giggle that she wouldn't have believed could have come out of her a few cycles ago. All he has left on are his leathers, still only half-fastened and riding low on his hips from the run.

He rears up on his knees and begins stripping her, boots and clothes flying over his shoulders. She lays the soles of her feet on his chest, toes curling through his soft thick hair as he wriggles the leathers off her hips. He tugs them from the waist, turning the legs inside out and getting them caught on her ankles.

She tries helping him out, but when she kicks he grabs her ankle and gently bites the ball of her foot. "Hold still!"

She laughs at him.

He frees her feet with a whoop of success and then drops down between her open thighs. He makes a show of catching his breath. "You know, for people big into casual sex, Peacekeepers have no concept of easy access."

She tugs at his own leathers, bringing her feet up to help nudge them down. "Clothes are for duty, recreation is something else entirely."

He nuzzles her nose. "So what's this, then?"

She giggles again, because she feels so good, so full of joy that she can't help herself. She'd never laughed during sex before she was with him. "This is us."

He presses his forehead to hers. "Hey, Aeryn?"

There's a brilliant ache inside Aeryn that takes her aback--she's going to be with this man until she dies, or he dies...and still this astonishing laughter keeps bubbling out of her. "Yes, John?"

He smiles, and she sees one huge blue eye crinkling gleefully at her. "Let's make babies."


"Remember that the best relationship is one in which your love for each other exceeds your need for each other."--Dalai Lama

"What do we live for, if not to make life less difficult for one another." --George Eliot

"For one human being to love another, that is the most difficult of our tasks; the ultimate, the last test and proof; the work for which all other work is but preparation." --Rainer Maria Rilke

"Hope has two beautiful daughters, anger and courage; anger at the way things are and courage to change them." --St. Augustine

"Tenderness is more of a show of strength than brute force, because it is harder to be compassionate than it is to be mighty. Compassion is the paper to might's stone, it covers completely." --Margaret Cho

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Fandom:  Farscape
Title:  Little Acorns
Author:  feldman   [email]   [website]
Details:  Standalone  |  NC-17  |  het  |  923k  |  11/13/04
Characters:  Aeryn, John, Chiana, D'Argo, Moya
Pairings:  J/A, C/D, Moya/Other
Summary:  "Take all your problems and rip 'em apart."
Notes:  Goes AU before the end scene of "Bad Timing"
Disclaimer/Other:  Bottomless thanks to FBF, Thea, Kixxa, and the LJ crowd.

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