Title: Written On a Thumbnail
Rating: R for language and violence. Consider yourself warned: this is a bumpy ride.
Spoilers: Through "Scratch & Sniff" only.
Summary: Humpty Dumpty took a big fall. John, John, Aeryn, Harvey, fights, flights, captures, and desperate choices.
Distribution: Please let me know, and keep my headers attached. When posting is complete the entire story will be archived at Leviathan and my website, http://cofax.freeservers.com.
Disclaimer: Just taking them out for a spin; I'll return them only a little worse for wear.
Notes: This story is finished and is being posted one section per day as the final edits are made. Please note that this story spins off from canon just after "Scratch & Sniff", and never comes back. In this little universe, "Infinite Possibilities" and the ensuing episodes have not happened. Other notes at end.
Feedback makes me do the wacky: please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written on a Thumbnail
"Motion or change, and identity or rest, are the first and second secrets of nature: Motion and Rest. The whole code of her laws may be written on the thumbnail, or the signet of a ring." - Ralph Waldo Emerson.
I used to feel like I was falling.
Every once in a while I would look up from splicing cables together thirty feet below Pilot, or wake to the sound of D'Argo rattling the hilt of his blade against my door, or see Chiana slicing green and purple spotted fruit into careful rounds, and I would blink, and none of it would make sense. I'd lose my sense of balance, and the world would begin to swim around me. As if gravity stopped working for a moment, and I was falling through a psychedelic rabbit-hole. Nothing made sense: not Moya's warm curves, not D'Argo's amusement, not the inhuman beauty of Chiana's face. It was just a mass of colors and shapes with no meaning to me. And then I would find my footing, and it would all fall back into place, my eyes and my inner ear functioning together again.
And then, after the Chair, I stopped fighting it. I stopped trying to compare any of it, any of life out here, to "normal". It wasn't what I had expected, it wasn't what my brain had been bred to deal with, and I'd been screwed over six ways from Sunday -- but you know what? I may have piss poor vision, and I won't live 800 cycles, but humans are adaptable beggars. So I adapted; I rode the flow; I made my life be what it was and not what I thought it should be.
And for a while, that seemed to work.
I'm not into existential dilemmas; I always left those to DK. But what do I do now that I've got this life, and I'm dealing with some crazy stuff, but I'm dealing, and I have friends and a gun and a coat -- and all of a sudden there's someone else in the room? And *he's* got the gun and the coat and the girl?
I feel like I'm falling all the time now.
*Part 1: Raven in the Storm*
"Commander Crichton!" Pilot's voice comes out of nowhere, and the knight goes flying. Chiana snickers, I glare and take a swipe at her ear. She dodges it easily.
"Yeah, Pilot?" I drop to my knees and scrounge for the knight under the table. It took me a long time to make this set and I don't want to lose any of the pieces.
It's about midmorning, I guess, if Moya has mornings. Morning for me, at any rate. Absent emergencies, there's only two or three of us awake at any one time nowadays. We can't leave Jool in command by herself yet, so Chi, D'Argo, and I are taking shifts round the clock. I'm actually on duty but there's not much going on and Pip stuck around to cook. She hates what I make, anyway. Not much call for grits and eggs in the Uncharteds, and what they call "eggs" don't cut it anyhow.
So there's a pile of dirty dishes in the galley and I'm trying to teach Chiana how to play chess. Pilot, thankfully, is mostly over the snit-fit he threw at LoMo. It's an ordinary day, if it can be considered ordinary without Zhaan, or Rygel, or even Stark. And most definitely without Aeryn.
I haven't seen Aeryn in over two months. I don't keep track of it that closely. Seventy-two days according to Pilot.
"Moya has detected a Peacekeeper signal!"
I run out the door, down the hall, up the ramp, down the hall to Command, yelling first for D'Argo and then quizzing Pilot over the comms. By the time I get to Command D'Argo's there, still pulling his robe over his shoulders, and that cleaver is in his hands. I wonder sometimes if he sleeps with it. Chiana would know, but hell if I'm gonna ask.
"So it's not moving?" I skid to a stop next to D'Argo. One of these days I'm going to calculate how many miles of hallway Moya has. Maybe we can start an annual marathon. Winner gets two packets of foodcubes and a spare pulse rifle.
Chiana comes in as Pilot pulls up a holographic image of the immediate area; the Peacekeeper ship, if that's what it is, is at the limit of Moya's senses.
"No, Commander. It's holding position, but I'm certain that Moya has been detected."
D'Argo grunts at the hologram, and taps the controls to enlarge the image. Chi pokes her head over his shoulder and stares at it wide-eyed, then dances away when he shrugs irritably.
"Then what are we waiting for -- let's get the frell out of here!"
I shrug; can't argue Nebari pragmatism. "Fine by me. Pilot, there any reason *not* to Starburst away?"
His see-through head waggles. "None that I am aware of, Commander."
D'Argo has been staring at the image in the hologram for several seconds now. "D? You got a problem?" And when doesn't he have problems these days?
He grunts, then frowns. "Simply that that is a *very* small Peacekeeper ship. Not one I would expect to see alone this far out in the Uncharted Territories."
"But?" I wave him on. "That it?"
He growls at me but nods. So it's alone. Big deal. Maybe they're lost. Or maybe they're not alone. There's no good reason to investigate; the last time I wanted to discover the whys of the situation I got myself cloned. Once bitten -- I roll my eyes and turn back to the clamshell.
"Fine. Pilot, let's blow this popsicle stand." I don't want to give any of these guys a chance to collar us.
Pilot's in no mood to take any chances either: he starts hitting controls immediately. "Prepare to Starburst." And Moya leaps; I stagger against the console, and there's a wail from the comms as Jool is thrown from her bed. Chiana snickers.
Just an ordinary morning on Moya.
Ten hours later, and seven light-cycles away, we encounter another Peacekeeper patrol. It scans us, knows we're there, does nothing. We run anyway.
A day later, twenty-three light-cycles off at a random tangent, another one.
How are they finding us? You can't follow someone through Starburst. But they're tracking us. Fuck, they're *herding* us.
When I was a kid I used to watch those nature programs on PBS; one of them showed some African tribesmen hunting gazelle on foot. They'd spread out, and approach the gazelle, which would sprint away, and then the hunters would jog after the gazelle, which would dash away again, maybe not as far this time. The hunters would never stop, and sometimes they'd go for days. But they'd always run down the gazelle eventually, taking turns tracking their prey. Planning and stamina wins out over speed if you give it enough time.
Now Moya's the gazelle; and there's nothing we can do to escape. It lasts for days, running, hiding, sheltering among asteroids and in cold cometary belts far from any star. But they always find us. We've never felt our vulnerability more, as Moya runs herself ragged to avoid even a two-man scout vehicle. It's shift on and shift off, grabbing three arns of sleep at time, tearing through Pilot's navigation data to find somewhere, anywhere to go. No one will protect us from the Peacekeepers; no planet can hide us; and we can't keep running at this pace.
It ends twelve days after it started. Moya maneuvered desperately enough to avoid being driven into Peacekeeper space. Instead, we come out of Starburst for the last time a long way from any inhabited system, to find ourselves surrounded by Peacekeeper ships anyway.
I haven't seen this many in one place since we blew the hell out of that Gammak base. Moya tries to turn away, but she's exhausted and we don't have a snowball's chance.
The Vigilante on the monitor gets larger and larger, and Moya groans, and I'm slapping controls on the panel like it'll make any difference at all, and D'Argo's yelling something -- and then there's a bolt of lightning spearing at us, and everything just goes kablooey.
You can barely see to the other side of the hangar bay in the dim light, and the air is getting thin. Cables swing from the ceiling and there's some kind of fluid sprayed across the floor. There's a couple of DRDs trying to clean up, but it's like this damned near everywhere. Poor Moya.
D'Argo crouches behind a barrel of cesium fuel on one side of the main hangar door; I'm on the other side. We'd raced through the lower tiers to the storage room where most of the weapons were kept, and pulled several extra pulse rifles each. Problem is, most of them have been in storage since Moya was freed three cycles ago. Few of them have much charge left.
Still, they're weapons. And I'll use sticks and stones before I let Scorpius take me again.
We left the girls upstairs, trying to help Pilot get some kind of control --any kind of control -- back. I saw what the immobilizer pulse did to Talyn, but this is crap on toast. Moya's drive is down for the count, and I can't hear the constant shoosh of the air circulators. She's a big ship. There's enough air. We'll be okay for a while. At least the gravity bladders weren't punctured: a firefight in free fall would suck.
She'll be okay.
Be okay, Moya.
Talyn's not coming. We sent the message days ago -- who knows if they even got it, or understood it. Maybe they're already dead, maybe the retrieval squad caught up with them.
*Quite possible, John. Peacekeeper retrieval squads have a great deal of . . . incentive. They're probably all dead now. Wouldn't it be better to surrender?*
*Shut up, Harv.* I can't listen to this. I'm not going to see Moya collared, D'Argo chained, and my brain taken apart in millimeter-thick slices. I can think of better ways to die.
For once D'Argo agrees with me: we meet them as they come, and we take as many with us as we can. It's all we can do.
So we wait.
And we wait.
No movement in the docking bay. It has to have been nearly an arn. Peacekeepers are punctual bastards; they probably even make the trains run on time. So where are they? They gonna starve us out?
Moya lurches. D'Argo staggers sideways and only just keeps his Qualta blade from hitting the floor.
"Pilot! What's going on?"
"I -- I don't know, Ka D'Argo. It's very hard to tell, with Moya so injured --but we've lost the pressure seal in several outer chambers--" He pauses, and when he speaks again, he sounds less frazzled. "We have an incoming message from the Peacekeepers."
"Well?" snaps D'Argo. "Let's hear it!"
It's a woman's voice. "Renegades and criminals. Your Leviathan is paralyzed, and has been injected with repnart gas. Leave the ship within 500 microts and you will be picked up for processing. If you do not surrender, you will be paralyzed by the gas and then die. Painfully."
There's a brief pause, and Pilot says, "That's the entire message."
I look at D'Argo; he's paled as much as he can with that perpetual tan of his. "D, what's rep--what?"
He swears viciously in Luxan, swings around, his blade singing through the air, and smashes the toaster I'd been assembling on the workbench. When the pieces hit the floor he kicks them across the bay, then raises the blade again.
I grab his arm, hang on when he snarls at me. "Wooah, big man-- that's cesium!"
Give him a minute, he'll snap out of it, and he does. He shakes me off, and looks around the bay. The DRDs didn't even notice: they're still cleaning up the fluid on the floors, splicing cables. At least they still have power.
"Repnart gas. You don't want to die that way, John." He raises his arms to slide the blade back into its sheath. "If they used repnart gas, they won't come in. They won't have to."
I look around. We have a bunch of weapons that do us no good if the bastards won't come in range; a paralyzed ship; and a compromised ventilation system. What if they were lying, and they are coming in anyway? Can we risk leaving the hangar bay to find out?
Okay, time to re-evaluate. "Pilot! What's the situation? Are they right?"
"Yes, Commander. Moya has been harpooned, and gas is being distributed through most of the upper tiers forward of my den. My control of her systems is very limited after the immobilizer pulse, and I do not think I can purge the air. And -- and I am susceptible to repnart gas."
Oh, man. This is bad. Maybe we can stop it, close the doors and purge the air manually, before it gets too far. I slap my gun back into place and head out of the bay. I don't get very far before hearing Chiana's voice.
"Frell, what's that! It's moving!"
"Chiana!" D'Argo followed me, and we run down the hallway towards the ramp to the upper tiers. "What is it? Where are you?"
She doesn't answer. We turn a corner, race up a ramp, turn another corner. As I swing around the corner, pivoting off the wall with my left hand, I catch a glimpse of something moving off to the right. Something metallic, about the size of a fast-pitch softball, and spewing neon green gas like a jammed-open can of spray paint. "Shit! D'Argo, look!" One of the DRDs approaches it, pincers outstretched, and the little metal ball bounces over it without stopping. DRDs aren't going to be any help here.
Then I see another ball, and another one. They gather in a little pack at the far end of the corridor, and then split up, one heading right toward us, the other two bouncing through the hallways like a grounder through Bill Buckner's knees.
While I scramble to pull my gun, D'Argo grabs my arm and yanks me up the ramp. "Can't we shoot them?"
"No, there's dozens of bezner balls all through the ship by now. We're going to die." He doesn't stop moving. "So we have to find the girls and kill them before the gas does."
"Jesus! NO!" Killed enough friends accidentally since I got here.
He yanks me around in front of him. "I've seen people die from repnart gas poisoning, John. First your muscles lock so you can't move. Then you bleed from your pores until you die. I will *not* die that way."
Gas poisoning. Gas chambers. We're three tiers below and still several hundred yards aft of the den. Maybe -- "Chiana! You with Jool?"
Her voice is strained but controlled. "Yeah, we're in the upper maintenance bay. There's a couple of those balls in Command. You got a plan?"
D'Argo and I come out of the ramp, turn the corner, and see three balls rolling down the ramp toward us from above. Crap. D'Argo points up the hallway branching off this tier: two more are down there, and there's a dense cloud of smoke moving rapidly this way. We can't go any higher, and we can't work around. There aren't any access panels in the ramps, either. We are trapped, with no way to access the upper maintenance bays or Pilot's den.
I shake my head, spin around, and run back down the ramp. "Not much of one, but it should keep you guys alive. I want you and Jool to lock yourselves in the pressure chambers in cargo bay four. You know the ones."
"Frell, not those again!"
"Pip, it's that or you *die*. You got another option, I'd like to hear it." This is ugly. I turn off my comms. "D'Argo, how long does that stuff last in the atmosphere? Could they survive it?"
He shakes his head, eyes solemn. Guy may have a hair-trigger temper but he comes through in the clinch. "The gas goes inert after three hours but no one ever survives that long. And Pilot can't survive either vacuum or repnart gas."
"Crap." I turn my comms back on. "Okay, okay, we need another plan. Pilot can't fit into any of the suits, and there's no guarantee the gas won't penetrate the den."
"John," Jool's voice comes over the comms; breathless, but not screaming. For once. "There is breathing apparatus in the medical bay."
Thank you god. "Can you get one to Pilot in time?" We come down another tier; I skid on some fluid and D'Argo yanks me up. We keep running.
"Me?" Trust Jool to drop the altruism as soon as it becomes a problem. But I hear a scuffle and then a squeal that nearly melts my comms.
"We can do it!" says Chi. That's my girl. "What are you gonna do?" One more tier down and no bezner balls this far down yet.
I glance over my shoulder at D'Argo pounding down the hall behind me. We're nearly back at the hangar bay where we started. His eyes meet mine as we come through the door. He's already figured out what we have to do.
I was ready to die to keep from being captured, when it looked like we were all going to die anyway. But the gas goes inert in three hours, and the guys they want are me and D'Argo anyway. If there's a chance the girls and Pilot and maybe even Moya can be saved, we gotta take it. Even if it means risking Scorpius's dubious hospitality.
"We're going to make you some time."
Time, time, time the avenger. What we are probably going to do, is die. Badly.
Deja vu all over again; me and D'Argo off to give the universe the finger. Except this time I don't think we're getting any last-minute rescue. Aeryn's not here, and her Prowler's long gone. And D'Argo lost my good-luck charm. I wonder sometimes, what Yuri Gagarin would say, if he knew his puzzle ring is in orbit about a blackened moon in the Uncharted Territories.
It's all Pilot can do to get the hangar open for us, and the pod grazes against the bay doors like DK on a beer run. I played for scissors, so D'Argo is driving.
As arranged, Pilot vents two of the outer tiers as we clear the bay, and the grenade I left on the terrace goes off. Perfect timing: Moya looks like she's just decompressed explosively. Her lights dim, and I bite my lip. They have to buy the fakeout, have to believe she's completely out of commission, so they don't need to search her. It's our job to lead them away so Moya can slide into hiding behind the gas giant without anyone noticing.
We come out of Moya's shadow and turn into the clear.
"Frell." D'Argo barely whispers.
The command carrier hangs there before us in the sunlight, surrounded by a swarm of Prowlers. There's no way we can even hope to escape them; there isn't a habitable planet for a couple of light-cycles, and even on a good day a pod will only get to Hetch 5.
"Frelled, screwed, shafted, shagged, nailed, and fucked-over," I agree.
D'Argo laughs harshly and guides the pod on a sharp course away from the carrier, putting one of the gas giant's moons between us and Moya. When she's a couple hundred metras behind us, a squadron detaches from the Carrier and heads our way. They're almost on top of us, and we're just that much farther from Moya, when I hit the comms. "Yo, Scorpy! What's the deal, man? I thought you didn't care about the prisoners!"
But it's not Scorpius who answers. It's the same woman, her voice less cultured than Scorpy's. "Scorpius may not, but I certainly do. Our sensors indicate that you have the Luxan prisoner on board the transport pod. Surrender peacefully and you will not be harmed."
D'Argo's got the pod moving as fast as it can; the Prowlers are following us, and I can see the carrier itself begin to turn. They do still want us more than Moya.
"What, like I should believe you? Just how stupid do you think we are? Cause if we surrender, you're not gonna give us hot chocolate and cookies -- " Keep 'em talking, keep moving, just another few minutes and the moon's orbit will hide Moya from the carrier's sensors. Out of sight, out of mind: there's no one else on Moya they want, and she looks too badly damaged even for transport now. Let them think she's dead, drifting, let the girls have enough air to breathe --
The pod swerves suddenly, and a Prowler streaks past. D'Argo says something untranslatable about the pilot.
Dunno who this gal is, but Scorpius has got to be there too. No way he'd let anyone else get their hands on the one and only John Crichton. Well, so far as they know, I'm the one and only. "C'mon, Scorpy, you gonna let this broad kill us? You don't want to see all that valuable wormhole data go poof, do ya?"
"Power down the pod and surrender." Still not Scorpy, dammit. There's a brief pause. Suddenly her voice reverberates, as if we're hearing her over a loudspeaker. "You were directed to surrender and you refused. Open fire on the transport pod."
"Goddammit, Scorpy! You're supposed to want us alive!"
Another Prowler goes by, and this one takes out the treblin-side stabilizer with one shot. Frelling well-trained xenophobic racist assholes. The pod tilts sideways, and we begin to spin on the pod's long axis. We get hit again, and the gravity goes.
"D'Argo? You ever think the universe is out to shaft us?"
No seatbelts. I slam against the ceiling, bounce away, narrowly miss clocking my head on the edge of the console. D'Argo's hanging onto the controls, but can't do much with the stabilizer gone. I manage to grab the back of my chair and pull myself closer to the console.
"I *know* it is."
Three trips in the shuttle -- you'd think I could handle zero-gee by now. But hitting the ceiling was a bad idea, and I can't seem to focus on anything long enough to calm down my inner ears. Free fall is hell on the gag reflex.
*Don't barf don't barf don't barf*
"Frell!" D'Argo yells, and slams both hands down on the controls. Of course, with no gravity, this sends him shooting across the cabin; I realize, too late, that turning my head to watch him is a bad idea. I lose the fight with my digestive tract, and breakfast spews all over the comms console. The bits that don't stick to the console form perfect globes that disperse through the pod like stars rushing outward from the big bang.
D'Argo howls -- I can't tell what he says but I expect it has something to do with what I had for breakfast. I'm suddenly filled with pity for DK; I never forgave him for ralphing all over my Mustang the summer after our freshman year. "Crichton!"
Harvey snickers, and I turn to see D'Argo batting at a vomit-ball like it's a badminton birdie, and that does it to me again. I'm too busy being miserable for the next twenty seconds to even notice the Marauder before it hits us hard. All I see is the floor rushing up to meet me.
*G'night, John-boy --*
*Part 2: Stranger in my Driver's Seat*
The lights in the galley are dim; hardly anyone is awake right now, but I'm hungry. I left Aeryn sprawled in our bunk, her hair catching glints of starlight from the window, and came to find something to eat.
Sparky ate nearly everything we had while Talyn was playing chicken with a star, but there are a few crackers in one of the cabinets. Kinda stale, and a little dusty, but not too bad with some hot sauce on them. I've got an assembly-line of crackers and hot sauce going, interrupted with regular hits of Crais' lipnot juice (which survived the binge only because it gives Rygel indigestion), when his Imperial Majesty comes floating through the door.
"Oh!" he says, and jerks a little, so his thronesled bobs. "I -- I didn't realize anyone would be up at this hour."
"Relax, Buckwheat. I'm just having a midnight snack. But you better not be telling me you're hungry."
If a frog could blush, I think he would. "No, no -- I'm just -- that is, Stark snores like a gelded zamnok. And I was thirsty."
I wave a hand at the refrigeration unit. "Well, we got water, and some flat fellip nectar, and lipnot juice. What'll you have, it's on the house." Sex makes me expansive; *good* sex makes me downright generous.
"Water, then," he says, with a bit more of his old spunk. I don't think I've seen Rygel as, well, humble, as he's been since the business with Mookie the leviathan-slayer. Been a nice change of pace, but it gives me the willies. It's unnatural.
I pour him a cup, and we sit for a bit, me chomping on my crackers and downing the last bottle of lipnot juice; him sipping occasionally and not looking at me.
"Crichton," he says eventually, "do you ever think about the other you? The one we left on Moya?"
"Not if I can avoid it." Just the thought of that guy makes me twitchy in all the wrong places. Jool has to be wrong. Because if she's right, what happens when we're back in the same room? "You don't know, Sparky, what it's like --to have the guy in the mirror suddenly talking back to you. It's freaky."
He nods, and his earbrows drop level suddenly. "I'm sure it is. But there's something that occurred to me the other day, and I wanted to --"
But I never do find out what Rygel wanted to do, or say. Because there's a step at the door, and Aeryn walks into the galley wearing nothing but a blanket. Her hair is loose around her shoulders, her eyes blurry with sleep. But there's half a smile on her face, and when she sees Rygel she doesn't blush, or pull the blanket higher.
"I got cold," she says, and her eyes lock on mine. She grins wickedly and my blood shocks through me, every nerve crackling. It's been weeks now, and every day it gets better.
I leave the crackers on the table for Sparky to finish.
This cell is a lot more comfortable than the last one I was in. I don't remember anything between passing out in a hail of vomit, and waking. My head aches but I've had worse hangovers after tequila night at Jay's. The cell isn't large but it has a toilet in one corner behind a translucent screen, a seat in another corner, and hard mat about four inches off the floor. Light is provided by square sconces set deep into the high ceiling. There's nothing movable in the room other than the single soft blanket on the bed; nothing I could use as a weapon on myself or anyone else. Everything is a dull dark green but the cream bed-covering. There's no sign of D'Argo.
Of course, they've taken my weapons and my clothes. I'm wearing soft grey pajamas but my feet are cold without socks; I curl them up onto the bed and stay there for a long time. Eventually a door I didn't know was there opens and a pair of linebackers in Peacekeeper colors pull me out into the hallway. One of them holds a gun on me while the other cuffs me; then they shove me down the hall. Someday I'll get captured by an alien I outweigh.
The two linebackers muscle me into a small, sparsely-decorated room and wedge me into a vee-shaped chair. As I sink into it, a metallic bar clamps me in place. It's not uncomfortable, and I can still move my arms, hands, and head. But I can't get out of the chair.
The linebackers move to the rear wall and stand at parade-rest, their faces fixed. They haven't said a word since they pulled me out of my cell. It's hard to think of Aeryn as one of them -- but the one on the left is a woman, dark-haired and young.
This room's a lot nicer than mine: there's a soft grey carpet on the floor, and a framed piece of art on the rear wall behind a black desk the size of Delaware. Rygel once told me that Crais had Hynerian heads on display in his quarters; whoever this is has more cultured tastes. The painting looks like a landscape, but not of any planet I recognize.
I hear a click and the door behind me opens. Here we go. *Harv, shake a leg, we're on!*
I play it cool as a woman walks past me and sits down in a comfortable chair behind the desk.
"You the concierge? I'd like to request some more towels in my room -- the maid service keeps swiping them."
She touches a few controls on the desk before looking up at me. Not young; I still haven't figured out how Sebaceans age, but if she were human she'd be in her mid-50s, maybe. Older than Crais, at least. Short spiky blond hair, a heavy tan, light eyes. Her standard red and black uniform is cut more casually than Crais', but I saw a pulse-pistol as she walked in. I don't recognize any of her insignia, and Harvey doesn't enlighten me.
"You certainly look Sebacean," she says, and of course it's the woman I'd heard over the comms. I'm beginning to wonder if Scorpy's actually here at all. "But these medical reports indicate otherwise."
I don't say anything. *Everyone* knows I'm not Sebacean.
She goes on after a moment, glancing up only occasionally from the datapad in her hands. "Do you know why you're here?"
"Because you wanted my grandma's recipe for southern pecan pie?" I'm really too tired and sore to get creative.
She leans back in her chair and scratches her ear, a thoughtful expression on her face. "They say you have an unusual attitude. But I'm not very interested in you. You're just a minor annoyance, albeit one that's plagued us for close to three cycles."
Ouch, a step down from 'John Crichton, terror of the Spacelanes' to 'minor annoyance'. I shrug anyway. "Bout time my reputation caused problems for somebody else."
"You and your fellow renegades have embarrassed us at a time when we can least afford it. The Uncharted Territories are in flux; the Scarrans and the Nebari have plans which do not promise health or long life to the region. Peacekeepers bring order, not death. But your escapades, and those of Captain Crais --" here her voice took on a layer of disdain over the mission-briefing tone, "-- have cost us lives, equipment, and political capital."
"And what, you want an apology? Not gonna happen, babe."
"Indeed. Now ordinarily we would simply kill you out of hand," she states. "However Scorpius has been most insistent you be taken alive. I'd like to find out why."
She pauses, and takes a drink from a matte black cup sitting in the center of the desk. "It is intriguing that for all his loyalty, and your apparent antipathy to Peacekeepers, both of you have survived your many encounters." She looks up at me sharply, her expression intent.
I can't help but laugh at the implication. "You think we're a *team*? That we're in on something together? Jesus, lady, if you believe that, you're even more ignorant than I am! I wish that freak had never been born!"
"Whereas he is quite concerned for your well-being. I expect that appealing to your altruism will not gain me the information I need to resolve this situation. Very well. I need you to tell me where the Leviathan hybrid Talyn is, and Captain Bialar Crais."
So she's after Talyn after all. I wonder what happened to the retrieval squad. I shrug; as usual, I don't know anything useful, but nobody ever believes me.
Her face hardens a little more. "As I expected. But do you think there is anything you know that our interrogation techniques cannot reveal? I do not need an Aurora Chair to strip your mind."
She's really kinda pretty, in a tough way. Looks like a ski-patroller I met once in Colorado. All bone, muscle, and experience. But not kind -- there's no compassion in that face. I look away; I don't want to be tortured but I can't give up Talyn. I don't think I know anything that would help find him anyway. And Aeryn would never forgive me.
There's a pause of a few moments, and then she nods to someone behind me. One of the linebackers comes up behind me. I crane away, but I'm bound to the chair and I feel something touch my neck. An injector, I realize, as I feel the sting of whatever it is entering my bloodstream.
This is not good. I don't react the same as Sebaceans do to a lot of their drugs: fellip nectar just gives me gas, but Tarsian weed ramped me up so much I nearly had a coronary before Zhaan figured out how to neutralize it. Hope this bitch knows what she's doing -- I really don't feel like choking to death on my own vomit because some over-enthusiastic interrogator got the keys to the drug cabinet.
Seems okay, though. No pain, all my organs seem to be in the same place --"place--" Woah. What's that -- "that--"
"Fuckin' A. It's like, I can think out loud!"
*John! Shut UP!*
"No can do, Harv." The world's gone happy shades of greens and blues. The woman moves closer, sits on the top of the desk. This stuff's good. And fast.
"What are you?"
Stupid question. "Scientist! Strings, slingshots -- been up in the shuttle three times--" I shake three fingers toward her -- "scientist! Astronaut!" Then I remember, I have to answer the question.
"But now I'm a trouble-maker. Refugee, renegade, runaway. Killer." It's so sad.
"Killer?" she prompts.
I nod, keep on nodding. "Killed a lot of people since I got here. Killed those people on the Gammak base, killed Gilina, killed Hassan, killed Aeryn, killed Zhaan."
"Zhaan? The murderer Pau Zotah Zhaan is dead?"
Snicker. "Extra, Extra! Old news! Zhaan's been dead for months! Where you been?" She taps on a data pad in her hand, updating the files, I guess. Well, that news won't hurt Zhaan any.
"Where is the Leviathan gunship called Talyn?" The world is beginning to spin counter-clockwise, as if there's a drain under my chair.
"Dunno." It's hard, but I manage not to say anything more.
"Where is Captain Bialar Crais?"
"Dunno." This stuff is hitting me hard; if it weren't for the bar across my lap I'd be sliding under the chair. It's getting harder to think or speak.
Now she frowns, and taps something else on the data pad. "When was the last time you encountered the Scarran half-breed Scorpius?"
A thought is twitching madly on the edge of my brain but somehow I manage not to think it. Scorpius, not Harvey. Not asking about Harvey. "Ummm, ice planet. Where Aeryn died."
"When was this?" Her face is just a blur now. I sag sideways. One of the linebackers boffs me hard across the back of my head but I just bob a bit. Doesn't hurt at all.
" 'Fore Zhaan died. 'Bout a cycle ago. Took the chip and left my brain cracked open like a clamshell!"
"What was on this chip?"
"Wormhole data. Mother-frelling bastard. Needs a new dentist -- "
The back of the chair is so soft, and my head is so heavy. And away we go. I can hear her voice again, but the words don't mean anything.
"Give him to Lieutenant Teefal. When he's done, let the half-breed have him. Brute force may succeed where subtler methods fail."
I'm so sleepy.
Purple fruit, green-and-purple fruit, that yellow rice Aeryn likes but that gives Rygel gas, and yeah, there it is, the green grain everyone eats and nobody particularly enjoys, but that keeps forever. The pastel suns reflect off the ceramic counter of the produce booth as I fish in my pocket for a handful of currency.
"Commander Crichton." Crais on the comms. Lovely. Probably wants -- well, hell, I don't even *know* what he wants.
"Yuh-huh?" Just another visit to the mall of the Uncharted Territories: in this case a half-assed excuse for a commerce planet, off the major shipping lanes and a good eighteen light-cycles from the last place we saw any Peacekeepers. Obscurity is good, but these guys have squat for supplies. I point to a big bag of grain, hold up two fingers to the shopkeeper. He turns his furry green head sideways, and four tentacles wave gently from the star-shaped bundle in the center of his face. I toss three of the local coins on the table and sling the bag over my shoulder. Rygel is four booths down, negotiating for fresh vegetables, although he's supposed to be getting threekay wire.
"You and Dominar Rygel must return to Talyn at once."
"What's up? We still got a few more stops, but we can be done in an arn--" Despite this, I head over to Rygel.
Aeryn breaks in, her voice strained. "No, John, we have to leave now. We've received a signal and Talyn will break orbit with or without you --"
Shit. Moya. "Got it -- we'll be there as soon as we can get off the ground. C'mon, Buckwheat, the bus is leaving--" I grab the sled and yank him towards the port entranceway.
"Yotza! I wasn't done, Crichton! He -- she -- they had grelnik roots there!" The thronesled is piled with packages like a doug fir on Christmas morning; I hope there's something in there the rest of us can eat.
"You can get all Julia Child later, Sparky. Moya's in trouble, and we gotta hit the road."
"Oh," he says, faintly, and wraps his arms around the packages to keep them from toppling off the sled. He's mostly silent for the rest of the trip through the port back to our docking pad. He's groused about conditions on Talyn since we left Kanvia, but I never realized he might be missing Moya for more than just his space and his stuff. Every once in a while I misjudge the little cold-hearted bastard.
I take the pod up to Talyn fast enough to make Rygel complain, but the bay doors close behind us before we even touch down, and Talyn goes into Starburst as the chamber pressurizes. We're lucky he waited as long as he did, and I know damned well it was only because Aeryn insisted; Crais doesn't like me or Rygel enough to risk Talyn's temper for us.
Talyn's still a lot smaller than Moya and it only takes a few minutes to get up to the bridge. Aeryn's in the center of the room, in "talk Talyn down" mode, while Crais is messing around at the navigation console. Neither of them look at me. Stark is nowhere to be seen, and I hope he stays that way. Tense situations and Stark mix about as well as my dog Hubble and the Jeffreys' cat did.
"No, Talyn, we must be cautious!" Crais pleads with the air. I'd give a lot for Talyn to have a face -- okay, mostly so I could pop him one once in a while, but also because it's just easier to talk to someone if you know they're paying attention to you. For all I can tell, Talyn is analyzing the cost of Hummel figurines on Delvia, rather than listening to Crais.
Aeryn chimes in. "Talyn, listen to Crais. If this information is correct, you have to be very careful." I've always thought it was kinda weird the way Aeryn likes to stand in the center of the bridge to talk to Talyn -- like he's gonna hear her better from there? But, hey, I named my gun. I'm in no position to talk.
"Yo, Crais, Aeryn, what's the deal?" I swing past Aeryn, running a hand down her arm; a smile pulls at the corners of her mouth but she twitches out of the way. She hates it when I do that in front of Crais. Of course, that's why I like to do it -- I know it drives him nuts. On the other hand, it also pisses Talyn off, which may not be the smartest thing to do.
Crais doesn't respond but Aeryn does. "We think Moya is being hunted by Peacekeepers, John. She's been running for days but she can't seem to shake them, even in Starburst."
"Well, shit. Is this another retrieval squad?"
Crais turns away from the console; the image of the immediate stellar neighborhood hangs glowing behind him. It's just like an episode of Star Trek. Except without the nice clean uniforms and the replicators and the transporters and the unlimited resources. Oh, wait, no, we got all those out here -- they just belong to the bad guys.
Crais shakes his head and his braid cuts through the hologram. "It's possible it's another retrieval squad. But we're not sure, the message is very --cryptic."
"What'd Pilot say?"
"I'll call it up." Aeryn accesses the message from the communications console. A familiar face appears over the rippling starfield effect of Starburst.
But it's not Pilot, it's me. Not me. The other guy, the one who stayed on Moya. The one who lost the toss.
He looks pretty tired, and he's wearing the green shirt Aeryn gave him. Well, okay, that's fair -- since I took all three black shirts with me when I left. Probably should have left him a couple.
"Yo, Talyn. How you doin', guys? Listen, we got some issues here. Some old friends are in the neighborhood, and it's like they got a pack of psychic bloodhounds. And, uh, they fielded a full team -- fullbacks, linebackers, the whole nine yards. It's been nearly two weeks and we're out of options. Pilot's got a fix on where we're heading, but we're gonna need the varsity on the field soon. And oh, yeah -- I think Harvey's boss is the QB."
That was allusive enough to baffle anyone in the UTs, I guess -- except maybe for Aeryn, who knows me too well, and Harvey himself.
*Speak of the devil, John --*
*Stuff it, Harvey. We'll talk later.*
"Where'd this come from? And where's Pilot's data?"
"Pilot's data was coded in the signal itself. The message was held in stasis by the offworld messenging system at the commerce planet we just left; it had been there for six solar days." Crais manipulates the hologram and the image enlarges to reveal a single system. He points to a spot on the outskirts of the system, barely within the star's gravitational pull. "This is where Pilot believes they are headed."
Six days. Those guys are screwed.
"OK, so they've got a team tracking them somehow -- multiple ships, some of them heavy duty. Maybe a command carrier. And they think Scorpy's involved." I nibble on a hangnail on my thumb. How the *hell* are we going to deal with this?
"A command carrier?" Aeryn's eyes widen and she shakes her head. I know what she's thinking. Talyn's a lot stronger than he used to be, and he's almost fully recovered from the immobilizer pulse, but a command carrier is far more than he can take on. We can't ask him to, even for Mamma Moya. On the other hand, sometimes Talyn gets his own ideas; I wouldn't put it past him to risk us all to save Moya. Boy loves his mother.
Crap. I move past Aeryn and take a look at Crais' hologram. We'll come out of Starburst about .25 light-cycles from Moya's position, far enough away to give us a chance to look around. Smart -- that must have been Aeryn's idea. We're well outside Peacekeeper space, but not all that far from the Scarran border. Which could make life a little too interesting.
Scarrans. Peacekeepers. And Talyn, a boy with no judgment at all.
Clusterfuck is too mild a word for this.
Jesus frelling Christ on a skateboard! Ow my head! Ow, my body too. I peel my shirt away from my chest and peer down. Looks like a drag-queen in spiked heels went tap-dancing on my abs. I don't remember much of it, though. Something about a gorilla-sized lieutenant in a room full of very sharp things. Ouch. I don't think I said anything that made any sense: small mercies.
*Finally.* Harvey lounges on the chair across the cell. This time he's dressed in a leather bomber jacket and green khaki pants, with a pilot's cap on his head.
*Harv, not "Hogan's Heroes" again.* He loves Nazis but recognizes that Hogan is the hero. It's a paradox he hasn't managed to resolve yet, although I hear him thinking about it sometimes when I'm trying to sleep.
*We don't have a lot of time, John. They'll interrogate you again and you must be prepared.*
I drop my head back on the mat. I haven't had a hangover this bad since Spring Break my junior year. I spent a full day sleeping and barfing in the bathroom of the Motel 6 on Route 1, while DK hung out on the beach. I look longingly at the water spigot across the room, but it's too far to move.
*So they'll interrogate me. Big deal.* It's not like I have much to hide. So many people have been into my head, there's a six-lane highway into my cerebellum. I ought to start charging fees --so far I've been the only one paying the toll.
*John! Pay Attention!* --Crack!-- a swizzle-stick slaps down on the floor next to the bed, and I look up to see Harvey's changed into an SS uniform. Lovely.
*Fine. What exactly is the problem, Harv? Other than we're stuck on a Command Carrier with a very tough woman who's determined to pick my brains? That D'Argo is probably dead and Moya back in a control collar? That the girls are -- hell, I don't even want to know.* I'm not going to think about Talyn, Crais, Aeryn -- and the other guy.
Harvey crouches down next to me, shoves his face close to mine. His eyes glitter; I think he's just a little over the edge now, since Scorpy abandoned him and he realized he was never getting out. Takes one to know one. We've both been screwed over by our alter-egos.
*She's after him, John. You can use this!*
But there's no time to ask -- Harvey evaporates as the door slides open. Two grunts, different ones this time, enter the room and stand on either side of the door. Damn. If I weren't flat on my back with Paul Bunyan's own migraine, I could have tried to make a break for it. One more session with that stuff, whatever it was, and my brains'll be baba ghanoush.
It's not another interrogation session, though. Instead someone else comes through the door, and it's two years of nightmares come to life.
Because it's dear old Braca. And if Braca's here, then the devil himself can't be far away.
*Part 3: Land of the Bottom Line*
Of course I needle the guy. Braca's easy; he's still embarrassed about getting cold-cocked at the Depository. After my second crack about the Henchman's Guide he's had enough and has me gagged, none too gently. Peacekeepers aren't known for gentle.
Down three hallways, up a few levels on an elevator, around a corner, and into a lab. A lab is a lab is a lab. Techs of various species, lots of terminals, lots of activity. Some holographic imaging systems in the center. And there, off in the corner talking to a white pig-faced fella, is my dear pal Scorpius.
I stop moving. I can't help it -- it's complete instinct.
My breath gets shallow and fast, and my peripheral vision disappears. Harvey's talking to me, and Braca's goons are yanking on me, and all I can think of is Getting. Out. Of. The. Room.
But I can't. They've got me by the arms and the legs, and my hands are cuffed. They haul me twisting and turning through the lab. I'm wrenching at my bonds, howling through the gag. I get in a couple of good kicks. I even knock down Braca. But it's not enough and they drag me down a short flight of steps and into another room.
Where there is an Aurora Chair. It's not the same set up; it doesn't have the big turntable, and the room's a lot smaller. But it's definitely an Aurora Chair. They leave the door open, and as they strap me into the Chair -- I think I might actually be whimpering now -- I can see Scorpius, still talking to the pig-faced tech. Scorpius says something, and smiles, and I can just see the tech nearly piss his pants.
Some things never change.
Now he's done with the tech, and he walks through the door, closing it behind him. The light in here is brighter than the light outside, and Scorpy reflects off the windows, a blurred black smear in the corner of my eye. The walls are dark grey with a red stripe below the ceiling. I know there's a decorator's term for that but interior design was never my thing. I'm not making a sound, and I look everywhere in the room but at Scorpius. There are a couple of techs at the controls, and one of the linebackers who brought me to see the blonde.
But Scorpy can't handle being ignored. Braca spins the chair to face the monster directly. I can't move my head, and I won't give Scorpius the satisfaction of closing my eyes. He leans forward and favors me with a gentle smile; his gums and lips are as unattractive as ever.
"Well, John. Here we are again. And, once again, you're going to tell me everything you know about wormholes." He nods to Braca, and the little bastard removes the gag.
I'm way past terrified. I remember the Chair some nights, and it's enough to keep me awake pacing Moya's floors, visiting Pilot, reprogramming the DRDs to steal Chiana's underwear. I will say anything, do anything, to pass on the chance to get reaquainted with this piece of furniture.
"Oh, we are *not* going there again! We have *been* there and *done* that already, Scorp! I don't know anything! Peel me down to my bones -- ain't nothin' left you didn't already get!"
"You are welcome to believe that, John. But courtesy of the chip, I know better. You're going to share your knowledge with me, and help save us all."
He steps away and nods to Braca. And the Chair begins to turn.
God knows, I love to hear myself talk, but after a while, even I get bored with the screaming.
"Dead, dead, they're all dead --" Stark's dithering and wailing again. I don't know if he's gotten worse since Zhaan died, or if I'm just imagining everything was better then. Before Zhaan died, before Aeryn died. But I'd have to keep looking further and further back, to find a time when Moya didn't stink of our desperation and her fear -- eventually I'm back at high school graduation and terrified Dad will find out what I did to the Mustang. There never was a golden age, kids.
"Stark." Aeryn places her pulse pistol, very carefully, on the table in front of her. He shuts up. Gotta love a woman of few words.
We're in the galley; it's the only room on Talyn with a table large enough for all of us. Like the rest of the damned ship, the primary decor motif is scarlet. I'm so tired of everything being red and black. Moya's nearly monochromatic, but brown and gold are a hell of a lot easier on the psyche.
Crais leans across the table toward Stark. "Moya is *not* dead, she's merely disabled. Talyn has targeted her with a narrow-beam comms signal on an electromagnetic wavelength. If anyone on board is still alive, they should be able to reconfigure their system and respond. However there will be a noticeable delay as the signals carry back and forth."
We're at the outer edge of the system. Moya's there, hanging stable in orbit around the moon of a gas giant. She's apparently alone, but Talyn's not fooled. There's evidence of a significant number of ships in the area recently, although we can't spot any now. They're probably on the other side of that giant. Right now we're running in the shadow of a tiny planet at the very edge of the system, so we figure we're safe. Not even Peacekeepers can scan through a billion tons of rock and metal to find us.
For the moment all we can do is wait to see if Moya or Pilot responds. Stark and Rygel start doing their Felix and Oscar routine again -- or is it Ernie and Bert? -- and Crais kicks them out of the galley before going off to check on Talyn's drexim levels. He's very careful about the fluid levels these days. I roll my eyes and look at Aeryn, who's just sitting at the table, tapping her fingers on her pistol. Her eyes are hooded, and she won't look at me.
She's been quiet since we got the original message from Moya. The other guy looked kinda bad, pretty worn. I wonder -- I don't want to, but I wonder what it would be like, Moya half-empty, no Zhaan, no Aeryn. Knowing that Aeryn's with someone else. Chiana and D'Argo can fill a room, but there's a lot of empty space on Moya. A lot of ways to get lost inside your own head.
We don't talk about him. Aeryn's brought him up once or twice but I don't answer and she lets it go. I don't know what she thinks about him; I'm afraid to ask. If Jool's right, if we're really the same . . . what happens when we're back in the same room?
If he's me, he loves her too. Some nights, I wake up and think I should feel bad about that. But she's warm under the blankets, and she'll mutter something and pull me back down to her. It's too good to last.
"Whattaya think?" I ask, and drop into the chair next to her.
She frowns a little, and I lean into her, nuzzle her ear while she thinks. She twitches, not hard enough to pull away, and then sighs, and leans her weight against me.
"I think we don't have enough information yet. I think your twin would have resisted being captured again." But that's not all she thinks. I pull away and look at her; she shakes her head. She looks worried.
"And?" I prod.
"And this is Moya. We cannot abandon her, John." Is that what she thinks? That we've abandoned Moya?
"We'll save her. I'll come up with a plan." God knows what.
She grins. "Oh, a Crichton plan. Because those *always* work perfectly."
"Well, they work! They just need a little finesse on the details. Better than going in the front door guns blasting, Sunshine."
"You shouldn't complain; blasting through the front door has saved your ass more than once, John."
Don't I know it. Nothing beats a girlfriend with a gun.
Everyone gathers on the bridge to hear Pilot's response to our message. Whatever happened on Moya, it's bad. Pilot looks distraught, he's waving his arms around, and Chiana and Jool look battered. Chi's got a huge purple bruise across the left side of her face.
Pilot's barely coherent: all he can say is "It's a trap! It's a trap!" Ok, fine, we got that, Pilot. What we need is data. Damn this tape-delay anyway. Thankfully, Chiana takes over.
"Moya's in bad shape. They hit her with an immobilizer pulse, and all the systems went frelnik. No propulsion, and even the environmentals are frelled. Then they shot her full of repnart gas --" at that Stark wails but Crais slaps a hand over his mouth so we can hear the rest. "--go and John were trapped in the hangar bay. So the princess and I got some breathing masks to Pilot, and hid in the pressure chambers. John and D'Argo went out in a transport pod to distract them -- "
Oh, no. No, no, no, no -- bad idea, guys, what were you thinking?
But of course, they were thinking what I would be thinking. Save the girls and Pilot, go out with a bang. It's the frelling Gammak base all over again.
"-- and then whoever it was started shooting. It wasn't Scorpius, John said --and that was it. That was, uh, three solar days ago. Then the command carrier went behind the gas giant." So that's why we haven't spotted it.
Chi stops, cocks her head -- man, I've missed her -- and peers at me, like she can spot me, with all that space in the way. "Can you guys help? Pilot, well, he's still not doing so good, and Moya's in a lot of pain. We're pretty much frelled if we don't get some help in the next 50 arns. I hope you're all okay but we, we really need some air and water. That -- I guess that's all." The screen goes dim.
There's a long pause. I don't remember the last time I saw Pilot that overwhelmed, or Pip that serious.
"So, what's the word, people?" I have a germ of an idea, but we need a lot more information before we do anything.
"It's hopeless. Moya's dead, they're all dead, let's get the frell out of here." Rygel's standard position, but it seems kinda half-hearted. Maybe the little jerk has grown a soul; unlikely, but then who knows? Anything is possible -- like that old story about the condemned prisoner who promised to teach the king's horse to fly in a year. In a year, the king could die, the horse could die, the horse could learn to fly. Maybe someday Rygel will learn to fly.
"Your opinion is noted, Dominar," says Crais. "But we must find out if we can do anything for Moya before giving up."
"We can assume that Command Carrier is definitely waiting around for us. I'm thinking Moya's the spinner, and *we* are the ten-pound trophy bass." They all stare at me blankly.
*Why do you do this, John? You're certainly capable of speaking a language they can understand -- why don't you?*
*Because it's all I got left, Harve. It's all I got.*
"Moya's the bait for a trap -- she's gotta be. I mean, any other Leviathan, she'd be collared and on her way for use as a transport, right?" Aeryn thins her lips and nods. I suddenly realize what's been bothering her. She's worried about -- me. I'm still here, but I'm also there, and I'm dead, or captured, or drifting in a damaged pod. Kaarvok may have been straight out of a late-night second class horror movie, but he sure did know how to frell up a guy's life.
Crais nods. "Yes, Crichton is probably right. Defeating the retrieval squadron may have merely encouraged High Command to send a full task force after us."
"All of us," Aeryn says. "They want us *all* now. Talyn, Crais, John, me, Rygel, and D'Argo."
Rygel snickers. "They're probably still hunting for Zhaan! Well they can't have her, and they won't have *me*!"
"No Zhaan, no Zhaan, Zhaan is safe, yes, safe, but Talyn and John and John --it's very dangerous. Too dangerous! But John is captured! Oh, this is bad." Thank you Stark for that insightful assessment. I'd give a lot to have D'Argo here: I'd trade in the lot of them for the big guy. Between Crais's plotting, Rygel's self-interest, and Stark's general freakishness, we're really short on common sense.
"Yes, Zhaan is safe, and Moya is safe for now," Aeryn notes, "but John and D'Argo are not." She pauses for a moment, then looks sharply at Crais. "Talyn has intelligence capabilities. Can he tap into the Command Carrier's internal networks? Find out whether John and D'Argo are still alive?"
So they're alive after all. Talyn can't get all the way in; there's some serious security on the files, especially on his, mine, whatever. The file marked Crichton. But we get some useful data. They're alive, they're being interrogated, and they're being held on Decca Level of the command carrier.
I know Aeryn is with me; I try not to think about why. I expect an argument from the others, but it's over fast. Stark's hung up on saving me -- the other me, at any rate, and Rygel's easily overruled. Crais, now Crais is interesting. Crais is trapped; because Talyn won't leave Moya. And Crais won't leave Talyn. And we need a distraction before Talyn can get to Moya to help her. Round and round and round we go and where it stops nobody knows.
He's been in Scorpius' hands for three days. I was only in the Chair for two. By day three my mind would have been jello.
The mat is cold -- they took away the blanket after I tried to strangle Braca with it. I hope they leave me alone for an hour or so. I've lost track of how many sessions there have been with Scorpy, or with the blonde bitch and her star interrogation team. I don't know how long it's been since we were captured. I think I remember eating a few times: food cubes, of course. Two days, maybe.
*Four, John. It's been four days.* I ignore him. If I can hold out just a little longer, then --
But what, then? Another round in the Chair. It's been back and forth between Scorpius with the Chair and the blonde with the hard-on for Crais. When the drugs don't work, she tries torture. Now I try to keep my weight off my left side; I think they cracked some ribs last time. They're pretty stingy on the medical care, too, which is not a good sign.
She keeps asking about Crais. "Where is Captain Crais? What does he mean to do with the Leviathan gunship? When did you see him last?" I keep answering that I don't know, because I don't. But I wonder. We've had no word from them since we left Kanvia, and that was nearly three months ago. In three months' time they could all have died.
Maybe the retrieval squad killed them but was too damaged to report back. Maybe they ran afoul of pirates, or caught that Nebari illness, or got sucked into a wormhole. Maybe Talyn was killed and they're starving on some planet somewhere. Talyn would have come for Moya, even if Crais couldn't be bothered. And there's been nothing. I'd like to think Aeryn would come for me, but --
D'Argo must be dead by now. Unless they're torturing him too, trying to find Crais and Talyn. D'Argo and the Peacekeepers go way back; I don't know if that means they'd kill him on sight or keep him around as an example. I want to worry about D'Argo on the Chair. But I can't.
I lie here on my mat, and I shiver. I try to think, because it's better than feeling my body, even though I can't think very well anyway. It's hard to track, and I keep spacing out . . . My brain feels like roadkill, but my body feels worse. I'm shuddering with cold or fever, and I think some of the untreated sores on my back are infected. Every once in a while I zone out, and come to with my muscles spasming. I'm trying not to think about brain damage.
The Sebacean homeworld must be larger than Earth, or have more heavy metals. I feel heavier here. I hadn't noticed it on Moya; I wonder if maybe they adjust the gravity upwards for the detention level. One more way to grind me down.
Neither of them have figured out the two secrets I have. About the other guy, and about Harvey. Why would they think to ask?
You'd think Scorpius would have caught on by now, but he's only looking for wormhole data. We've been over and over the same parts of my brain so often I can feel my synapses frying. He's missing something -- the same something Linfer was missing. All of his test pilots come back liquefied. What's black and white and red all over? A skunk in a blender.
He knows about Linfer, of course; that was the first thing that came up. And he knows she gave us her data before she left. But I didn't have time to translate most of it yet into English and Arabic numerals, much less analyze it. All I could tell him was that Linfer ended up just like all his other test subjects.
And the bitch -- well, she's looking for Crais. And Talyn. Also Rygel, weirdly enough. And every once in a while I get the sense she's got it in for Scorpius himself. I could be wrong.
*You're not wrong, John.* Harvey's perched on top of the screen next to the toilet. No costume today, just his standard black leather. I look away; better the blank wall than Scorpius. I thought once that Harvey had desensitized me to Scorpius; I was wrong. Jesus, it's cold in here. I curl in on myself and rub my arms with my hands. It doesn't help much. The shudders don't stop, and my eyes keep tearing up.
"What's she want?" My voice is scratchy, my throat raw. I swallow painfully, and remember the cell must be bugged.
*Scorpius has been working on the wormhole project for over five years now. This research has cost High Command hundreds of lives, untold amounts of money, and a great deal of embarrassment. It's possible she has been sent to shut him down.*
I scratch my head and a clump of hair lands on the mat next to me. It's a good thing there isn't a mirror in the cell: some of the drugs are having unexpected side-effects.
If it's true that she is out to get Scorpius, there ought to be a way to help her with that. But it's so hard to focus. Everything hurts. I put my head down on the mat. They haven't let me sleep more than an hour or two at a time since I was captured.
*John. John. JOHN!*
*What NOW, Harv?*
*You're dying, John.* My phantom squats down in front of me, his arms balanced on his knees. His brows are drawn down, his mouth thin; it's an unfamiliar expression.
*Yeah, well, you try being interrogated by the Master and Margarita there and see how you like it.* I turn my head away. Either I'm dizzy or the grav generators have gone out. I'm not dying. I'm not. But there's blood on the mat and I think it's from my ears. I can't stop shaking.
*I don't want to die, John, and I don't think you do either.*
*When I was five I wanted Santa to bring me a little brother. Didn't work then, either.*
*I think, if you let me, I can save you. Us.*
I cock my head and look at him carefully. He's nervous. This isn't something he really wants to do. *What would you do?*
*I would integrate myself into your--*
"--- NO!" I wrench myself upright and away from Harvey. *No frelling way. We've been down that route before, Harv, and I am not going back.*
*This is different. You're weak, John, and getting weaker. And so am I. I can't take control of your body anymore -- the best part of my strength was in the chip. But if we add my will to yours, we could hold out longer. Maybe even escape.*
Escape. I look around the green cell. We're on a command carrier, surrounded by thousands of soldiers who would as soon shoot me as ask my name. I can barely stand up, much less fight my way out of this cell. Moya is dead or dying, Talyn is lost or dead, and D'Argo must be dead by now or transferred to another prison transport. Where is there to escape to?
*You been watchin' too much tv, Harv.* I roll over and bury my head in my arms.
I know what he wants. And I can't think about it because it would mean giving up. Because Aeryn loves me, John Crichton from North Carolina by way of MIT and IASA, not some Creature-Double-Feature mutant -- a spliced together Scarran-Sebacean and human personality. I'd be able to give Spock a run for his money on divided loyalties.
How could I go home with Scorpius inside me?
*But it wouldn't be like that, John. We would be one personality, with your traits much the stronger. I'm just an echo of Scorpius -- you are here physically.* Sly bastard, listening in when I don't want him.
But I roll back over. He's nowhere to be seen. I say it out loud. "And what about Aeryn?"
*John. Do you really think they're still alive? They've been out of touch for months; and surely if they could have come they would have, by now.*
-- or maybe -- I can't complete the thought.
*I'm sure she would have come for you.* But Harvey's lying, I can feel it. If they're alive, she has me anyway. She's a Peacekeeper, she's practical. Why would she would risk everything for a Xerox?
I know it sounds too much like James Bond, but being tortured is really pretty boring after a while. We're not learning anything new here, folks.
Scorpy hasn't given up yet -- even though he should know he can't force comprehension out of me. I have no conscious control over the Ancients' data, and right now I couldn't begin to understand the information Scorpius has. I need a week of sleep, a truckload of aspirin, and about twelve hours of chiropracty before I can even think again.
He doesn't see this, though. He's beginning to panic. Today -- this evening, morning, whatever the hell time of day it is -- he's ranting around the lab, emoting more than I've ever seen him before. I think Harvey's right. Scorpy's on a clock.
*I'm always right, John.* It's harder to ignore him than it used to be. I think it's a byproduct of the Chair.
Braca finishes strapping me in, and tightens the restraints an extra notch with a glare; he still hasn't forgiven me for the bruises on his throat. Little asshole. If I ever get my hands free I might even kill him first.
Scorpius enters the room and Braca leaps to attention. "Sir!" Looks like that dog on the old record label, listening to the record player. "His Master's Voice." Christ, Braca, you're a poor excuse for a man.
But right behind Scorpius is the blonde bitch.
"Slumming?" I snark, but they all ignore me. She looks around with an indifferent expression on her face, and nods at Braca when he salutes her compulsively.
"Sub-Auditor Supay," purrs Scorpius, and nods respectfully to her. Now this *is* interesting.
*Jackpot, as you would say, John. A Sub-Auditor outranks anyone below flag rank. This is most intriguing.*
Supay doesn't seem impressed with Scorpius' suave moves. Instead she stalks around the lab, examines the controls of the Chair in great detail, even tugs at the fastenings holding me in place, before turning back to Scorpius. I might as well not be there at all for all the attention any of them are giving me. If not for the constant pain, I'd consider a nap.
"Scorpius," she says, finally, tapping her hand on the butt of her pistol. "High Command has given you a great deal of leeway on your two related projects. But it has been five days now, and the gunship has not arrived as you predicted. And we are too close to Scarran territory to linger here."
The desperation is clear on Scorpius' face -- if the idea to catch Talyn by way of Moya was his, then he's in the shit up to his ugly eyeballs. "I'm sure that the gunship will be arriving, Sub-auditor. My interrogations of Crichton indicate a strong attachment between the gunship and its mother--"
She waves a hand and cuts him off. Cool; I didn't think anyone could cut Scorpy off. "This project has failed despite your reassurances. The battle group is being dispersed to other duties. In --" she looks at a chronometer on the wall, "ten arns I will be leaving, to make my report to High Command. I will take both prisoners with me at that time for further interrogation."
"Ten arns!" Braca blurts, and then pales. No one pays any attention to him.
Scorpy opens his mouth a few times, and finally chokes out, "Ten arns. Yes, Sub-auditor. It will be as you say."
She looks once more around the room, her eyes passing over me as if we hadn't spent hours and hours together, determining exactly the limits of my knowledge, and the location of my pain threshold. Her lips thin, and she catches Scorpius' eye once more at the doorway. "It will be my recommendation that High Command examine very closely the costs and benefits of the wormhole project, Scorpius. There are other avenues, other weapons technologies available to us. If you do not produce working technology soon, it may be decided that these resources would be better used elsewhere."
And with that bombshell she's gone.
"Scorpy, old buddy, she shut you *down*! You are so doomed! You're goin' down, down, down --"
But I'm the only one in the room who feels like having a party. "Lieutenant Braca," Scorpius says. He's regained his composure fast -- behind the leather his face has his usual disdainful expression. "We are running out of time. We must move quickly."
Braca's eyes are wide, his expression horrified. "But sir! That-- you've come so far!"
"Indeed. The sub-auditor does not share your appreciation." He turns away slowly, towards the controls of the Chair. "We have ten arns to learn everything Crichton knows about everything."
If Braca were standing any straighter, he'd have a post up his ass. "Sir, you have my complete support. What can I do to assist you?"
"We're going to scrape out every iota of information in Crichton's brain, Braca. The answer must be there." Then his voice breaks into that horrific Scarran growl: "I want it ALL."
Scorpius waves most of the techs out of the room and starts manipulating controls. I grit my teeth in anticipation as I see the dial go higher and higher and then --
--then the Chair begins to turn and I can taste the bile rising in my mouth and I think I'm going to vomit --
-- oh, here we go --
-- jesus mary and joseph it hurts! --
-- the hospital room is all white and she's nearly as pale and she clings to my hand as I leave her and I imagine I can hear her crying all the way down the hallway --
-- oh god not this again not this I can't *do* this again fuck fuck --
-- Scorpy I'm going to kill you and your little dog too --
-- now it's MIT again and that's easier and DK wants pizza and I want wings and we settle on a Mediterranean place in Central Square with live music and we start talking friction again over the hummus and then it's 2 am and we're oblivious to the music and surrounded by empty bottles and we have the germ of a theory --
-- god shit fuck it hurts oh fuck --
-- the fever is raging through her and all she can do is fight it it's all she's ever been able to do and I have to do something to stop it to save her like she's saved us so many times but she can't hear that and I want to *kill* someone and I will, I'll kill anyone to save her --
-- god he's turning the knob and --
-- Oh, god, Aeryn, help me --
There are voices around me, overlapping but loud like a Halloween party at midnight -- "synaptic collapse" -- "synergistic interactions" -- "too deep, too fast, he can't" -- "alien biochemistry" -- "subconscious blockage" -- "not Sebacean, sir!"
I used to go skydiving in college. There's a moment, when you're falling and you haven't pulled the cord, and it's all so quiet, and you think life should be like this all the time, you're so still and the air is rushing past ---
Having your psyche dissolve in the Aurora Chair is nothing like that.
You fall screaming and the ground leaps up to meet you and you're grabbing for the cord and it's not there and you want to say "goodbye" and "I'm sorry" and "I love you" but no one's there except for Harvey and then you hit the ground.
And you stop.
*Part 4: Jailbirds in the Big House*
We're a long way from the primary of this system, and it's an old, dim lady. If I were a better astronomer I could say what stage it's in; but all I know is that it doesn't cast a lot of light through the hammond-side windows.
Aeryn's warm in the blanket next to me; she's always been good at taking her rest where she can get it. And we need some rest: we've been running flat out for about 40 arns straight, and there won't be any timeouts once we hit the carrier. So we're resting while Rygel and Stark make some repairs to the Marauder and clue the girls in on the plan. Things have to happen fast -- Moya is running out of time.
We're taking the Marauder to the carrier in a few arns.
It was Aeryn's idea, start to finish. I'd tried to come up with another way, but we ran out of options. Crais didn't really believe we could do the job, but he wasn't at the monastery, or at the Depository. He'd seen the wreckage afterwards, but not the team in action. Even if the team is down to just me and Aeryn. He had good reason to doubt; he knows I'm no soldier, and Aeryn's a long way from the Peacekeepers now.
He thinks differently now. There's a startled respect in his eyes -- not something I ever wanted to see. Respect from Crais was never high on the wish list.
It went down fast and ugly. Talyn lured the scout in with a leviathan distress call and then let them have it with the cannon, jamming their transmissions all the while. Then the three of us went in. We were already committed by the time I realized there was no preventing a bloodbath. The only question was whose blood it would be. There were six people on that ship.
I keep telling myself I'm a scientist; but I stopped listening a long time ago. I do what I have to, same as she does; and if it doesn't keep her awake --well, who's to say I'm better off?
I roll over to look at her, and run my hand down the side of her face. She smiles, but doesn't wake. The window above the bunk shows a thin starfield and the edge of the planetoid we're hiding behind.
I should be sleeping, while Stark cleans the carnage out of the Marauder; I need to be fresh for this.
But I'm just staring at the stars and even with Aeryn beside me, I'm cold.
*John. Can you hear me?*
*Yeah. Where are we? It's dark.*
*We're in your memory. A camping trip in Maine.*
*Hope it's not raining. I hate sleeping in a wet tent.*
*We don't have much time, John.*
*Time for what?*
*Time before you die. Your psyche is collapsing under the strain of the interrogation. Between the drugs and the torture and the Chair, you were on --what's your phrase? -- thin ice already. Now Scorpius has no concern for preserving you for future research. He wants the data, and he's killing you to get it.*
*So I'm dying? Right now?*
*Yes. I fear your brain is turning to jello.*
*She's not coming, John. No one is coming.*
. . .
*Yeah, I heard you the first time, Harv.*
*Take my hand, John.*
There's a light, and we're not in Maine anymore. I remember this. When I was about nineteen I passed a wreck in the mountains. The cops had only just arrived, and they were working to get the guy out of the car. But his pickup was crumpled like paper, the rear end hanging off the railing over a drop of hundreds of feet to the river below. Glass was shattered all across the road. As I drove by I could see his head leaning against the one unbroken window, blood streaming down his face.
Harvey's getting pretty creative with his scenarios. I'm trapped in the pickup, and I know that if I stay there I'm going to die. I can feel the truck sway; it's going to slide backwards off the cliff any moment. But I can't get out without help. I need someone to pull me free.
At my side is an EMT -- then he looks up, and it's Harvey, white latex gloves covering his black leather, goggles on his eyes. His gloves are bloody, and he holds one hand out to me.
*John. It's time.*
If I stay I'll die. If I take his hand I admit she's not coming for me.
I'm not stupid; I know how dangerous the Uncharted Territories are. I want to hope, but Harvey's right -- Aeryn is probably dead. And that hurts -- it hurts more than the Chair.
But I still want -- oh god -- I want to go home. I need to go home. I need a sky that's the right color, and girls in bikinis, and music that doesn't sound like a dying llama, and sweet christ I want to see my Dad again before I die.
Is it too much to ask, to go home? To want to live?
I take his hand.
"Marauder KT22, you are cleared for docking."
It goes off without a hitch. Which scares the shit out of me. Talyn fast-talked the carrier's automated docking system into clearing us, and only after we were within its defenses did he upload the data about the "Scarran presence" in the system. The carrier's comms traffic goes through the roof by the time the Marauder clears the airlock.
Here we go. I glance over at Aeryn, but she already has her helmet down. I know what she'd look like anyway: closed and intent. I hope to hell she's right about faceplates during battle stations, otherwise we are so screwed. No way Crais or I could walk onto a command carrier, especially this one, and not be recognized.
Crais brings us in, not too neatly, since we're supposed to be badly damaged, and lands us at the end of a row of Marauders. There's a lot of activity in the docking bay, and the only person who seems to notice us is a tech at a console. Aeryn pops the hatch and drops out onto the deck, her pulse rifle across her back. I take a deep breath, close my helmet, and follow her.
I've never been on a carrier before, and it's hard to get a sense of the scale of the thing. It's a lot bigger than Moya: I think she could fit inside the docking bay itself. Dozens of ships -- Marauders, Prowlers, Vigilantes, as well as other classes I don't recognize -- line the bay. Dollies and little golf carts move up and down the rows, carrying staff and equipment. The walls and floors are all dull grey, pierced with gratings, and the noise is oddly stifled.
Suddenly I see six commandos, helmets closed, weapons in hand, heading right for us. My hand goes for Winona but then they're trotting past us to load into a Marauder two slots down. Three Prowlers lift off, and two Marauders follow in quick succession. They're taking the Scarran threat seriously. Good, keep 'em occupied.
Crais drops onto the deck and closes the hatch. "Let's go," he says. I hope the encryption on Talyn's comms holds. But there are no guarantees they won't pick up the signals, so our only protection is to use them seldom.
I follow Aeryn as she leads us out of the bay, weaving between cables and dollies full of equipment, and guides us into a small and utilitarian corridor running towards the bow of the ship. If the information Talyn got was accurate, and they haven't been moved, D'Argo and the other guy are stashed about two levels below the bridge, in a medium-security area. I hope they can still walk; according to Talyn, they're still alive, but there's no information on their medical conditions.
We don't have a lot of time, maybe an arn before the carrier's command staff figures out that there aren't any Scarrans in the area. We have to get in, find them, and get out fast.
Aeryn walks smoothly, without hesitation -- and she should have none. She grew up on a ship like this. With these people. No carpets, no pictures, no laughter that I can hear. It's a military installation, not a home. I can't imagine children here. I keep my hand off Winona with an effort. In their glossy helmets Aeryn and Crais could be any of the thousands of commandos on this ship. It'd be easy to lose them in a crowd.
I feel like we're crawling to the top of a roller-coaster; once we crest the rise, gravity will take over and it'll be a hell of a ride to the bottom. When I was a kid I loved roller-coasters. Now life is too frelling exciting for a manufactured adrenaline-rush.
We move fast and silent, and I'm whispering prayers inside, because even the poor asshole who thinks he's me doesn't deserve to die in this place, alone but for Scorpius. And if there's no way to save him, well, I know what I would want, and at least I can make sure he won't die alone.
"Sir, his life-signs are stabilizing!"
Amazing, I survived. I hurt, but that's to be expected. I'm on my back, and the floor is hard and cold beneath me. Opening my eyes, I try to focus on the dark figures dancing and swooping around the room. One of them must be Scorpius, but I can't locate him.
"Are they. It's of no importance. As he claimed, there was little of any value in his ramshackle mind. Give the body to the sub-auditor, Braca. I doubt there is anything more to be learned from Crichton, but she's welcome to try." His voice is spiteful.
I'm not prepared for the wave of rage that washes over me at the sound of his voice. I'm too weak to move but my breath catches and my fists clench against the slick floor. I would claw his ugly eyes out of their sockets barehanded if I could reach him.
After a moment the killing rage eases but the fury remains, a constant warmth in the back of my mind. Where did that come from? Even when Crais stole Talyn I don't remember feeling like that.
I ignore the voices around me and let my eyes drift closed. It's quiet now inside -- I can't hear Harvey anymore. And that's because I *am* Harvey. I remember -- god! -- I *remember* killing Aeryn, the first time Crichton/I was on the Chair, the horror at realizing the chip had been removed but I was still trapped in this frelled-up disorganized brain. But I also remember loving Aeryn, designing the Farscape module, growing up in North Carolina.
The anger is a stew of disappointment, fear, horror of abandonment. I hadn't realized how much Harvey hated Scorpius for abandoning him.
Someone picks me up, forces me to stand; I stumble but they keep me upright. I ignore them, still occupied with examining the changes inside. It's different but the same. I still feel like me. Well, mostly, I think. Harvey had said things wouldn't change much, but Harvey said lots of things I now know were lies. There's only one voice inside my head now, though, and I can't even begin to say what a relief that is. It's quiet again.
What's changed is that everything has more depth. More layers. I open my eyes and see one of my guards. In one sense it's just a Peacekeeper, a bad guy in black. But it's also a comrade, a relative, maybe an aide. I have to concentrate or my vision, my senses, switch back and forth suddenly and I get dizzy.
It'll take a while to get used to it. But there's no time. They're giving me to Supay, and if I end up at High Command I'll never get away.
My three guards drag me down the hall; it looks like they're taking me back to my cell when an alarm goes off. I can recognize the klaxon now: the pattern is the speedy rata-tat that means Scarrans are in the area. One of my three guards peels off, but the other two don't react, they just keep moving me along at the same brisk pace. Down the hall, around the corner, to the lift back to the detention cells. I try to move my feet; by the time we reach the lift I can walk a little, if not steadily. But the world is still canted off-center.
For all the time I've been on the carrier, the detention level has been completely quiet. It's one of the reasons I decided D'Argo was dead. As we come out of the lift, though, I hear someone howling.
I may not be exactly who I was, but I know that voice. And I know what's coming.
Scarrans out in the system didn't prepare my guards for Luxans inside the ship. D'Argo times it well -- as he comes barreling around the corner I howl myself, and wrench hard to the right, kicking out at the guard on the left. Rage is good fuel, and the guards don't expect any fight from someone who was passed out on the floor a thousand microts ago.
I get lucky. My foot hits his pistol, and knocks it out of his hands. The guard on the right I crush against the wall before she has a chance to bring her gun up. Having my hands cuffed together doesn't make it easy but I smash her head against the floor about half a dozen times before she goes limp. I look up to see D'Argo has broken the neck of the other guard.
Sebaceans think weapons will solve everything. So short-sighted.
Well, hell. They're not in their cells. Now what? At least Princess Leia had the decency to stay where she was supposed to for *her* rescue.
We can't linger in the detention center; Crais leads us down the hall and around the corner, into a section with a lower security level. We gather in an alcove; Aeryn and I watch the corridor while Crais tries to access the computer systems. But according to the computer, they should be in their cells. Something's hinky here.
Crais shuts down the terminal. "Where would they be?"
I chew on that. This is Scorpius' carrier. If I were Scorpius . . .
*He'll have him in the Chair, John.*
Harvey's been awful quiet this trip. Just as well. But he's right. If Scorpius has me, then he's picking my brain. Into tiny little pieces.
"We need to find Scorpy's lab -- that's where he'll be."
Crais nods, uncertainly, then frowns. "What about Ka D'Argo?"
"Damned if I know. Would they keep him alive?" I look at Aeryn.
She shakes her head. "I don't know." Meaning, "probably not."
"Well, first we find the one we're pretty sure is still alive."
"This is a *stupid* idea, John! We need to find the escape pods, not Scorpius' laboratory!" D'Argo heaves the last body into the access passageway and closes the door as quietly as he can. He's doing pretty well; better than I am, anyway. They'd tortured him in a de facto manner but never really put him to the question. Peacekeeper racism blinds them to the most obvious sources of information sometimes.
I'm leaning against the wall; it's about all I can do to stay in one position, and I'm not entirely sure which way is up. The gravity seems to be changing by the microt, but D'Argo hasn't complained so I don't mention it. We're in a side passage that I don't think gets much traffic. Useful, having the memories of a Peacekeeper, even a freak like Scorpius.
"Scorpius's lab is where the data is, D'Argo. Besides, there aren't any pods on this level." I push off the wall and, leaning on D'Argo, point down the hall towards a little-used hatchway to the upper levels.
So I'm lying; how's he going to know?
I am a lucky man. Well, maybe not; if I were lucky I wouldn't be here at all. I would have my own brain back, and I'd be casting for bonefish off Key West with Dad.
But Scorpius's lab was almost empty of workers; we must be on the swing shift. The two techs who were running models on the main banks are now sleeping the sleep of the overworked and underpaid in a closet. Now if only I can get *something* from the computer to give me a head start on Scorpius. No, screw that -- something to get me *home*. Home is where the heart is, home is where you hang your hat, home is where when you go there, they have to take you in .. .
I try not to think about the slowly growing sense that my reactions are off, that maybe Harvey was stronger than he let on. I'm alive, and D'Argo's alive, and we've escaped; everything else is off-topic.
We can't have much time before our escape is discovered, and we still have to figure out a way off this monster ship. I shouldn't be here. But I hunch over the console, tapping controls like I know what I'm doing. The data's the thing. The thing, the thing --
D'Argo's anxious in the other room, holding that chair-leg like a baseball bat. We've both got guns but the internal sensors would detect a pulse blast. "Aren't you *done* yet?"
"No!" It's no good. Harvey knew more about PK computers than I expected; within minutes I'm deep in the carrier's systems, but all the files and research directories are locked. If I were home I'd find passwords on sticky notes next to the terminals, but here there's a chip scanner built into the console. No chip, no data.
"The techs had chips -- " I start to say, and then the alarms start to hoot. The intercom says something garbled about a security breach. Our escape has been discovered. Between that and the Scarran alert, security is going to be doubled. We were lucky enough to make it to the lab without being spotted.
D'Argo's already at the door. "John! Now! I do *not* want to die here!" Like I do? But I need that data. I swear, slap my hand on the console before struggling to my feet.
But we're too late. We're out of time. Two commandos swing through the doorway fast, one of them slamming D'Argo to the floor with the butt of a rifle. I've got two pulse rifles trained on me before I'm halfway out of my chair.
*Part 5: Prom Night in Pigtown*
Well, fuck me sideways with a chainsaw: not only did the bastard survive, he actually escaped! And just when I thought the Peacekeepers might have made my life simpler for me.
I'm *so* tempted to play this for laughs, but Aeryn flips up her faceplate immediately.
His face . . . wow. Now I know what I looked like when she came through that cell door two cycles ago. "You're alive." He sounds surprised. That shocked hope is there for just a moment, and then his eyes narrow and he looks at me. "Crais?"
I flip my faceplate up. "Crais is watching the hall. How'd you get out?"
Aeryn gives D'Argo a hand up, but the two of us, me and -- hell, his name's John -- John, we're just staring at each other. He looks like he's been run over by a UPS truck. The whites of his eyes aren't: they're red with burst capillaries, and he's got the shakes. He's not wearing the green shirt anymore; instead it's grey pajamas, and he's barefoot. Took me a while to find boots that fit; he's gotta be pissed about losing them. His face hardens after a moment, and he looks away.
"D'Argo got lucky --"
"It was *not* luck. It was skill. And I was not the one who . . ." The big guy frowns at John, who cuts him off.
"That's irrelevant. Listen, do any of you know how to hack this system? I need --"
"-- to see what Scorpy's up to," I finish for him. John nods, fast and unhappy, his face the same color as his shirt, and Aeryn blinks at me. This is too weird. Then he shakes his head and starts messing with the controls on the console in front of him.
"No, I mean, I do, but I need to check the data against what we got from Linfer --" Huh? Who's Linfer? He's got wormhole data?
D'Argo growls, and strides over to the console to grab his arm. "John, we do not have time! Let's go!"
"NO!" John snarls, and tries to wrench away from D'Argo. But as he turns his knee gives way and he collapses to the floor, D'Argo just barely stopping his head from hitting the edge of the console.
"Well, frell you, Crichton! I am *not* getting recaptured for your wormhole obsession!" D'Argo drops him roughly into the chair and stalks away.
I look at Aeryn; she's unsettled, her lips thin. But she approaches John, peers into his face. "Crichton, we don't have time. We have to go before they figure out the Scarrans aren't real -- " She puts up a hand to touch his face where a livid bruise is rising, and he yanks his head away. He's shuddering, his hands clenched on the console in front of him.
"Aeryn," he says, facing away from her. " Don't. Just . . . don't. "
She shakes her head and looks back at me. What's going on here? But we don't have the time to give John post-torture counseling. We have to get out of here before we're discovered. I cock my head at the corridor. "Send in Crais, give us 200 microts. 'Kay?"
She nods, puts a hand towards his shoulder, then draws it back, and slips out the door. The overhead lights are dim; why is the lab empty? This is Scorpy's headquarters. He should have people here round the clock.
Crais comes in with the same question. "Where are all the techs?" He blinks at the sight of John in the chair and me in the doorway. I don't think he ever saw the two of us in the same place before we split up. Quite the trip, Bialar, ain't it? Two annoying humans who don't trust you as far as we can throw you. Two, two, two, for the price of one.
"There's a sub-auditor here from High Command," says John. He raises a shaky hand, taps at something on the console and gets a constipated beep. "Supay is shutting Scorpius down for wasting resources."
"Supay?" Crais raises a brow. "Kethna Supay?"
John nods. "Cold, but smart as hell. Hard to stall. You know her?"
"Great," groans D'Argo. "More old friends."
Crais shakes his head. "Not a friend, no. I knew of her; she's extremely competent. If she's here, our chances of escape have decreased markedly."
Oh, that's just *fine*. I am in no mood to hang around. I wave Crais over to the console. "Can you get us into this using the codes Talyn gave us? Even just enough to get some quick and dirty downloads?"
"I believe so," he says, and moves up to the console. John shifts aside with a grimace. Still no love lost there. I've gotten used to Crais; I don't trust him, but I can usually tell which way he'll jump. But I've had three months to adjust.
Within moments Crais is downloading data. With a physical connection, Talyn's hacked every code on the frelling ship. Good thing he uses his powers for good. John grabs each chip as they come out, but drops one when he can't close his swollen fingers on it.
Jesus. I nudge John on the shoulder, distracting him from the console. D'Argo is at the doorway again, although Aeryn is keeping watch from the hallway. John looks up irritably. "Did he put you in the Chair?"
"Oh, yeah. A brand new one, a compact model. But I beat him anyway." He snickers, and I go cold. Is this what I was like? Then he drops his eyes to my holster. His eyes narrow, and I know he's seen Winona. Too bad. Live with it, dude. Lots has changed since we left, and you ain't gonna like most of it.
There isn't much choice about our exit strategy. Aeryn, Crais, and I are in uniform, while John and D'Argo are dressed as prisoners. I toss a set of restraints to John, half expecting him to ask me if I'm kind of short for a Stormtrooper. But he doesn't.
It would be nice to have *someone* around who gets my jokes.
Before we leave Aeryn pulls a tiny medical kit from her pack and turns to John. "We don't have time to treat you properly, so I'm just going to give you some painkillers and a stimulant. Will that be enough to keep you going?"
John's still in the chair, turning the cuffs over and over in his lap. "Absolutely, Officer Sun. All I need in the world is a painkiller and some stimulants." But he says it to his hands.
While Aeryn's messing with John, I have Crais download and dump all of Scorpius's files he can find. We may not be able to stop the wormhole project, but we might be able to throw a wrench in the works for a while. They've probably got off-site backups of all the data, though; that's what I would do. Still, every little bit helps.
Aeryn's commando meds seems to be enough; within a few dozen microts John's up on his feet. He can't stay upright very well, but as long as we're moving he seems to be able to keep up.
The sirens come back on as we move out of the lab, Crais in front, the two "prisoners" in the middle, and Aeryn and I bringing up the rear. The sounds fill the hallways, beating at the base of my skull through the helmet -- then I realize it's not the siren but footfalls behind me. I spin, but the squad of commandos sprints by with hardly a glance in our direction.
I trigger my comms. "What is it?"
Crais doesn't turn. "Scarrans."
Scarrans? But Talyn's faked Scarran alert went out over an arn ago, before we landed. Why are they freaking now? I switch my comms over to the command channel, and it's clear they think something big is going down. Talyn must have really pulled out the stops. Commands, counter-commands, Marauders and Prowlers being called out, Frag cannon firing --
And then the hallway heels over sideways, like Mr. Farley's sailboat on the Chesapeake the summer I was twelve, and we all go skidding off to the side --treblin-side, my brain reminds me -- and slam up against the wall. More shouting over the Peacekeeper comms.
Aeryn pulls me up, and I touch my helmet to hers for a microt. I can't see her face through the faceplate but it doesn't matter. "I love you."
"I love you too," she says back, a hint of humor-the-human in her voice.
Before she pulls away, I add, "But I'd love you a lot more if you could get us off this frelling boat in one piece," and she snorts. When she straightens, her hand keeps hold of mine for a long moment. I settle Winona and turn to see John staring at us. He can't have heard us. He doesn't say anything, and I wave my hand for him to step out next to D'Argo.
Walking is harder now; I think the gravity's gone wonky. I switch back to our encrypted channel.
"-- going. We have to get out now. Talyn will be there to meet us."
"Aeryn, what is it?"
But John answers me, twisting his head awkwardly over his shoulder while his hands are bound in front. "That's the alarm for boarding parties. Must be a dreadnought out there." He laughs again, his voice harsh, tearing. "You're going to die here, Crichton." I can't tell whether he's talking to me or to himself.
That's right, John doesn't know about Talyn's little distracto-rama. Except now this place is going nuts, and it's going to be really difficult to slip out unobserved. And how does John know what a boarding alarm sounds like, anyway?
Crais and Aeryn lead us through another doorway and down a poorly-lit secondary hallway. Eventually we find a doorway; after a long moment while Crais checks the hallway, we re-emerge into one of the main corridors of the carrier. The carrier is just like the Gammak base -- the corridors are square, metallic, and pragmatic. Doors are set at irregular intervals into the walls, most with small signs marked with angular Sebacean text.
John whispers, "We're in crew quarters."
Aeryn waves us forward and it's so hard not to run for the docking bay now, but there are occasional parties of Peacekeepers going by and all we need is for someone to stop us here, demand authorizations. I keep a hand close to Winona.
John's not doing well; he moves stiffly, and when there isn't anyone else around, D'Argo gives him an arm for support. There are dull brown patches of dried blood on his clothes, and deep sores on his wrists around the loose restraints. I recognize the pattern. But he keeps moving.
There's a lot of noise up ahead; we're coming up to a major junction. I think I recognize the layout from the plans we saw on Talyn. If I'm right, we're not too far from the docking bay. We may get out of this after all.
We step around the corner, moving smooth and calm, just some guards escorting some prisoners -- and a volley of pulses sears the air in front of us. There's fire coming from both sides, and we just miss walking into the middle of it.
"Back!" Aeryn snaps, swinging down the pulse rifle, and we all dodge backwards into the pitiful shelter of the hall we just left, Aeryn and Crais firing all the way.
I crane over D'Argo's shoulder as we pull back, trying to see who is firing from the left. Whoever they are, they're absorbing a lot of fire from a squad of Peacekeeper commandos on the right. And they're using something I don't recognize: their returning shots have a meatier, deeper sound than the chakan-fueled pistols Peacekeepers use.
D'Argo dodges around me, and I stick my head around the corner for one last glimpse before Aeryn yanks me back. Holy *shit*. Those are *Scarrans* clustered in the doorway of the docking bay!
Scarrans! Not nice faked Scarrans provided by Talyn sweet-talking the carrier's sensors, but bigass real Scarrans with bigass real guns. Where the hell did they come from?
Aeryn lets off a few more shots to cover us. We pull back a little farther, but we can't stay in this corridor: there's no cover if the Scarrans advance even a few yards from their position. I look around quickly, but John is there before me.
"Here," John says, and yanks open an access panel I hadn't even seen was there. The entrance is barely large enough for me, much less D'Argo.
"I cannot fit through that," D points out, but then a pistol bolt ricochets down the hall. He fits, somehow. The rest of us squeeze in after him, Crais pulling the panel door closed behind us.
The passageway is dark and cramped, and smells vaguely of sewage. What a wonderful smell he's discovered. There's almost no light or room: I'm pressed close between D'Argo and Crais.
"Crais," Aeryn grits from behind me. "What the frell is going on out there?" Question of the hour.
Crais moves behind me; he must be gripping the transponder to increase the connection. "I'm trying to discern that -- Talyn has been masking his signal, in order to avoid detection. But I think -- " his voice cuts off, and his body stiffens.
There's a few long moments of silence. Then a gasp, and then he speaks again. "Talyn, no! No, that was *not* wise -- why didn't you -- no, no -- We'll have to discuss it later. Yes, that's good, do that -- yes, that's right."
He's quiet for a long moment after that. "Well? What's the word from our boy?"
"Talyn . . . Talyn decided that the semblance of Scarrans in the system would be an insufficient diversion. So he -- he made it real."
He made it *real*?
I turn around as much as I can in these cramped quarters. "He *called the Scarrans*? That tin-plated knowitall jackass! We aren't in enough trouble, he had to make our lives even *more* interesting? So how does he think we're going to get off this boat, if Scarrans are swarming like yellowjackets at a church picnic?"
"John, Crais has little direct control over Talyn." Aeryn's voice moves several feet away in the narrow passageway. She's still so protective of Talyn. I can't believe Crais had no idea Talyn was planning something. He should have known.
"She's right, Crichton. Talyn can hide things from me. He's done it before, as you know." Yeah, sure, but this risks Moya too. But I let it go; first, we get out of here. Then I can find Talyn's mivonks and disconnect them, since he's obviously thinking with them instead of his tiny little brain.
Aeryn is still for a moment, obviously thinking. "There's nothing we can do about it from here. Let's get moving." She pulls a small flashlight from her belt and shines it around. The accessways here are bigger than those on Moya, but not by much. At least most of us can stand upright, although D'Argo's hunched over and already rubbing his head.
Aeryn leads us down the passage in the same general direction we were going before. The hallway runs away into the darkness ahead, punctuated by ducts, vents, and the occasional small opening. We have to do some careful maneuvering; at one point D'Argo gets stuck between two vents and I have to push him from behind. As we step carefully along, dodging loose wiring, we hear the sounds of a running fight in the main passages of the ship. The sound of pulse-fire is sometimes right beside us and then fades away as we keep moving.
After some time, during which the sewage smell never quite dissipates, we come out into a small junction where everyone can gather. One hall cuts sharp left, the other leads on straight ahead.
"Yes, this is correct," John says. "If we follow this one straight ahead, we can circle around and come in to the lower docking bay from the treblin-side maintenance bays instead of the main entrance."
I blink. I don't know that much about command carrier design. How the hell does *he* know that?
Aeryn nods. "Fine. This way".
"Just a sec," I say. "First there's something we have to clear up."
John is standing between me and D'Argo, hunched a little over his left side, as if some ribs are bruised. I don't care. I spin him against the wall in the dark, and put Winona up against his ear, pressing cold into his cheek. His body stiffens, and he gasps a little, but doesn't say anything.
"Would the real John Crichton please stand up?"
D'Argo grabs Crichton's arm and yanks Winona down almost immediately, and then holds me up as my knees give out for a moment. The smell of the chakan oil stays with me. It brings back memories: people in orange tunics and D'Argo smiling like Rainman; Tauza slapping me across the room as I fumble the assembly of a pulse-pistol for the second time; standing in the middle of a firefight screaming wordlessly at myself.
"What? What is it?" Crais hisses.
I can't see Aeryn's face: only her hands are lit by her flashlight, but I'm sure she'll follow Crichton's lead. He's got her in his pocket now, after all. They think I haven't noticed how their body language has changed. How they move together now, even more than we used to. How they smell of sex underneath the sweat and fear. Everything's changed now.
Crichton shrugs off D'Argo's hands, and keeps Winona on me. "He's not me anymore. He's different."
"He's been in the Aurora Chair for days. You changed in the Chair." Aeryn's voice is pointed.
"I didn't learn about the design of command carriers while I was screaming in the chair. I didn't learn about Peacekeeper tactics." His eyes are hard: logic be damned, he can smell the differences between us now.
I'm swaying, only upright because I'm propped against the wall, but I'm not about to let him win it all without a fight.
"Doesn't Harvey ever tell *you* anything, Crichton? Or is he just along for the ride, the devil at your shoulder that you ignore until he dangles wormholes in front of you?" Ah, that caught them -- he hisses, and I see the light jerk. So Aeryn still worries about the wormhole obsession. Good to know.
"This isn't Harvey. Harvey doesn't volunteer information. Harvey *wants* us to be captured." The light isn't very good, but I can see the thoughts spinning through his head, pulled from every bad episode of Star Trek I ever saw. Shapechangers, telepathy, another chip... His hand tightens on the gun. I might as well save him the effort.
"Fine," I say. "I'll tell you. But not until you put Winona away." It's hard; I know that I hated Scorpius so much once I'd have happily killed myself to spite him. But now, Scorpius' memories are my own, and I'd rather not be killed for that. It's not the *memories* that are the problem, anyway. Crichton drops his chin, hesitates, and holsters Winona with a click. Then he crosses his arms, gets that look on his face I've worn so many times. Arrogant bastard.
"I was on the Chair, and I was dying." Aeryn moves suddenly; the light catches her face, and I see her eyes, dark and fixed on me, and I have to look away. Too fucking late, Officer Sun. "Scorpius was under a deadline and he didn't care if he killed me to get what he needed. So -- so Harvey had a plan. And it worked."
I let out a breath, take another one. D'Argo nods, slowly. He's smarter than you'd think, for a Luxan. "We -- merged. It was enough to keep me alive, and sane. Well, mostly," I add with a snort.
Crichton's not laughing. He takes a step back, as far as the cramped passageway will allow, and just stares at me. He looks nauseated. It occurs to me that Scarrans aren't subject to reverse peristalsis. Poor design, to be unable to purge something poisonous.
"Merged." Crais repeats the word. "So what are you, now?"
I cock my head: time to gloss the truth a little. "I don't really know yet. There hasn't been much time for meditation. I'm still John Crichton, but I remember being Scorpius, and Harvey. I have a lot of their memories, which is useful, if occasionally unpleasant. And Scorpius spent a lot of years on a carrier identical to this one."
"Fine," Aeryn snaps. "Then guide us." Ever the pragmatist, she is. Survival comes first: we'll deal with the wreckage later.
I can barely walk, but if that's how it has to be, I'll manage. I can trust D'Argo to keep me moving. The painkillers keep the worst of it under control but the stimulants are playing hell with my balance.
I straighten up, but Crichton raises a hand, the other resting on Winona. "Woah there, partner. Aeryn, even if this is true, he's part Scorpy now. Why would he help us?"
Was I really this stubborn? "Why wouldn't I? Do you think Scorpius would care one way or another? He'd probably put me back in the Chair to see how I did it." I *can* get us out of here, and what I need to do, I can't do from a prison cell.
Which dodges the question nicely, I think -- until I catch a sideways glance from Crais. I've always underestimated him; when he keeps his lizard-brain under control he's an excellent strategist. But Crichton's always been able to push his buttons, and adding Aeryn into the equation just complicates matters. I wonder if anyone else is blinded by that torch he's carrying. But he says nothing, and Crichton just shrugs, and turns away.
So we begin to move again through the passageways, more of the same, although we've finally left the sewage behind. D'Argo lets out a huff of relief when we pass into a new sector where the air recyclers appear to be working better. That famous Luxan nose isn't always an advantage.
After about an arn of quiet creeping we drop down two levels and come out into an access hall off the treblin-side maintenance bay. There's no movement down the hall, and the door into the bay is shut. I motion for the others to gather around, and keep my voice low.
"We'll have to cross this bay, then we can get into the docking bay from the maintenance access port. We'll be pretty close to the Marauders there. But I don't know how many people will be in the maintenance bay. Maybe none. Maybe dozens."
D'Argo shifts his weight and locks his hands together. He looks awkward and unfamiliar in the grey pajamas the Peacekeepers gave us, his big feet splayed flat on the floor. "I need a weapon. It is no longer a benefit to pretend we are prisoners, and I need a gun."
"And not just him," I add. Crichton's lips twist, but Aeryn nods. The small pack on her back supplies two non-regulation pulse-pistols with full cartridges. I let myself smile a little as I check the charge and sight along it. It feels good to have a gun in my hand. It doesn't shake, well, not too much. I don't look at Crichton, and instead move along the corridor to the door into the maintenance bay.
The door isn't locked; I glance back to see Crais and D'Argo right behind me. But Crichton and Aeryn aren't coming yet. They're just facing each other, their right hands locked together, fingers entwined. After about ten heartbeats he frees his hand, brings it up to trace the line of her jaw with the back of his fingers. She leans into it, then pulls back and drops her rifle to her hip.
He turns to looks right at me as he pulls his gloves back on, and his eyes narrow; I nod carefully. That was a show for me, at least in part. Fine. He can't begin to understand what I feel. If they'd come just four arns sooner --but it's too late now. Aeryn doesn't look at me, but instead takes up her position next to Crais. Crichton shoulders past Crais to step up to the door next to me.
"We'll take the first Marauder we find," announces Crichton. Aeryn nods, Crais doesn't object, which is interesting, and D'Argo quirks a smile at me before running a careful hand down his braids. I force a smile in response -- I'll miss the big guy -- and breathe in and out a few times. The three in uniform drop their faceplates, becoming once more anonymous commandos.
We can do this.
I slap the door control, and swing through it, aiming right as Crichton comes through next to me and looks to the other side. There's a squawk off to the left and someone in brown steps out from behind a disassembled Prowler. Crichton fires, and a body drops to the floor. There's no other movement. Poor fool probably thought we were his relief.
The maintenance bay is much larger than Moya's, but nearly empty. Two Prowlers are suspended from the ceiling, tools and parts scattered below them as if the repairs had been interrupted. The room smells of oil, exhaust, and blood. I step along the wall towards the entry to the docking bay: the main hatch is closed, but there are three bodies crumpled in front of the smaller entryway. Again, brown -- Techs. I don't cross to check the bodies, we don't have time, and Scarrans are excellent shots anyway.
Crichton waves the rest of the group in. Aeryn looks around fast, but it's Crais who crosses to the bodies to check pulses, then shakes his head. Huh.
We gather in front of the entrance into the docking bay. Again, Crichton and I are in front. I shouldn't be: my reflexes are shot and I'm beginning to see double. The painkillers are wearing off and it's harder to track now. But just because he won the toss doesn't mean he gets everything. Someone is going to pay. And it's too late to punish Harvey for lying to me.
Crichton hits the door control with a gloved fist. And things get very busy very fast.
Because I forgot that Scarrans always, always leave a squad to guard their retreat.
*Part 6: Armed With a Broken Heart*
The world explodes into pulse fire.
John rolls through the door, slips on a patch of oil in his bare and bloody feet, and lands sprawled behind a maintenance cart. I do the same on the other side. After a few moments during which the weapons fire dies down, I pop my head around the edge and try to get a sense of what's going on. It's not good.
I start saying a rosary, but it's not the one Cat Sullivan tried to teach me in fourth grade. Shit fuck damn shit fuck damn shit fuck damn.
The docking bay is a long rectangular chamber, at least two hundred yards deep and fifty wide. About a dozen ships, Marauders and Prowlers mostly, are lined up along the sides of the chamber, and the center is left open for floor traffic and maneuvering room. The ceiling is very high, maybe another hundred yards above, and there are mezzanines along the walls.
The door we came through is about two thirds of the way down the docking bay, closer to the outside doors. When you take a ship out of the docking bay, first you enter a monster airlock, itself about fifty by fifty by fifty yards. Then you get to exit into space after about a 30-microt cycle. It wasn't a problem coming onto the carrier, but getting stuck in that airlock on the way out had been on my mind all day.
I hadn't figured on getting pinned down before we even got to the airlock, especially not by *Scarrans*. There's an entire squad -- looks like about 12 of them -- settled in on and around a ship of unfamiliar design in the middle of the bay. It's not between us and the closest Marauder, but they're high enough that they've got a commanding view of the entire space.
And we've been spotted, I realize, as Aeryn comes through the door, and barely dodges a blast from some big-headed heat freak. I let off a couple of shots to cover her -- and she goes right, ends up snug next to John behind the maintenance cart. Me, I get Crais a few moments later, and D'Argo finds some cover behind a tech console about ten feet away.
The nearest three ship are Prowlers, which won't fit us all. There's a Marauder thirty yards away, but there's almost no cover.
Well, this just sucks. It looks like the airlock doors have been blown; the air is getting a little thin, but the recyclers are still working. If we were any closer to the airlock this could be a problem. Well, for everyone but D'Argo.
"Got any ideas, mister original thinker?" John snarks at me. He's moved fast enough when he had to, but I can see blood smearing on the metal floor beneath him. His face is strained, grey, and I can see the shudders from here. When it first happened, looking at him shook me, knocked me off my balance. Was I where I was, or where he was? I don't feel that now, looking at him. No one's likely to mistake either of us for the other for a very long time.
"What, you wanna live forever?" I'm only half joking. I do not see a way out of this at the moment. There's apparently a squad of Peacekeepers up the main entrance of the bay; every once in a while the Scarrans fire a few shots that way. It's not enough of a distraction to get us all across to that Marauder.
"Crichton!" hisses D'Argo, and points across the bay. While Crais covers me, I sneak my head around the edge of the cart, and look cautiously in that direction. The lights are beginning to flicker now, but it's clear there's some movement over there.
Squinting, I see about half a dozen people on the far side of the bay, at least one of whom isn't Sebacean, but some white-skinned hairless race. Looks sort of like a pig. He's carrying a large parcel, and keeps bobbing his head like some kind of water bird. They move quietly, though, and stick to the shadows; the Scarrans haven't noticed them yet.
And then a figure in glossy black melts out of a doorway to join them. I nearly put out my back wrenching myself around into cover again.
It's Scorpius, of course -- I'd recognize that Evil Overlord outfit anywhere. I take a few breaths; just seeing him makes my heart race. Aeryn frowns at me inquiringly. "Scorpius!" I stage-whisper, and John's head whips around.
"Scorpius? Here?" There's a hunger on his face I don't recognize.
"Good," he says. "I'm going to kill him." And he pulls out his gun, and rolls onto his feet. He's just going to walk out there, right into the Scarrans' line of fire. As if nothing matters but Scorpius.
But John's been on the Chair for days: maybe nothing does.
"Wait!" Aeryn grabs for his arm, to hold him back -- and all hell breaks loose again.
*Boom.* There's a sudden explosion from the main entrance, where the Peacekeepers are trapped. It looks like they've got reinforcements, and a squad is moving on the Scarrans in the center of the room. Pulse bolts are flying everywhere like shotgun pellets on the first day of duck season.
The Scarrans are firing fast and heavy, pulse fire grinding through the air, deadening our ears. But most of them are facing the Peacekeepers advancing through the wreckage that was a squadron of Prowlers three arns ago. In other words, they're not paying much attention to us.
Now would be a very good time to run for one of those Marauders. Aeryn's got the same idea, and she waves John and Crais forward, dashing up the bay towards the nearest ship.
But John doesn't follow her. Instead, while I'm leaning over the console, ready to cover Aeryn and the others, he heads the other direction. He's going to work his way around to the other side of the bay and go after Scorpius. Dammit.
Aeryn and Crais are almost to the Marauder; D'Argo's hunched as small as he can get behind a bin full of cabling. John's twenty yards in the other direction, and edging his way out into the bay behind a Prowler. He's tracking bloody footprints behind him. He doesn't look back at us; his attention is focused on Scorpius and his team as they quietly load a ship with an assortment of boxes and equipment.
Scorpy's leaving town, but John's not about to let him go gently into that good night. John pauses in the last yard of cover before the wide opening in the middle of the bay. He has his gun in his hand, but there's no way he could reach Scorpius from where he is -- there are two ships in the way. And a twenty-yard gap he'd have to cross, in front of the Scarran guns. Shit! I'd love to kill Scorpy too but this is our best chance to bust out of here.
There's a scuffle to my right, and I glance sideways to see D'Argo break from cover and race toward the Marauder. Crais and Aeryn are in the open hatchway of the Marauder, crouching in the cover of the door. But they can't cover D'Argo from that angle; and I wasn't paying close enough attention. As he breaks into the open, a Scarran spots him. I see the gun begin to move, and it's too fast -- I can't get Winona up quickly enough. The pulse-bolt takes him in the torso and he falls hard.
*Frell*. I look left. John's edging closer to the nose of the Prowler; I don't think he even saw D'Argo fall. Then I look right, and Aeryn's out of the Marauder, with Crais next to her. I send off a volley of quick shots, distracting the Scarrans from the rescue. Aeryn and Crais manage to hook D'Argo's feet and drag him up the steps into the Marauder. I wince as his head thunks against the floor, but at least he's out of immediate danger.
Now what? They need me in the Marauder. But Aeryn sticks her head out the door and looks right at me. Before I hear her over the comms, I know exactly what she's going to say. "Go after him, John. We'll cover you." We came all this way for him -- she's not going home without him. She can't bring herself to look at him, but she won't abandon the poor bastard.
All right, fine. I'll risk my life for someone who isn't even entirely human anymore. And she's right; regardless of what he's become, we can't leave him here. I drop down behind the console and duck forward, moving in short dashes after John. There's fire everywhere now, and I glance up to see that John has somehow made it across the bay. He's pressed up against the side of a Prowler. Scorpius is only thirty feet away, on the other side of a dolly full of supplies.
John checks his gun, looks around wildly, and spots me across from him. He gives a grin and a jaunty wave. Moron.
Double moron. He's going to throw himself around the corner and take a shot at Scorpy; but Scorpy's standing right next to a rack of stacked cesium fuel canisters. If John hits that the entire bay will go up like a rocket, and us with it. But he can't see it, and by the time he does he'll be firing.
"Aeryn!" I hiss into my comms. "I need a diversion! Something big!"
"You got it," she responds. Within microts there's a roar as the Marauder's engines fire up. I grab the moment, and skid across the bay to John. I slam into the Prowler next to him, hard enough to knock the wind out of me.
"Bout time you made it," he grins. His eyes are bright, his pupils dilated; he looks like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. I've got my faceplate down but I can still tell he reeks of blood, sweat, and desperation. "But you can't have him, Crichton -- he's *mine*." He doesn't wait for an answer, and instead stands up, swinging around to aim over the nose of the Prowler.
"Shit, no!" Launching myself upwards, I knock his arm sideways and the bolt skitters over the top of the supply-bin instead. One of the Peacekeepers around Scorpius looks up, and it's Braca -- he sees us both. He knocks Scorpius into cover behind the hatch of the ship.
John snarls, and clocks me with his elbow, but I've still got my faceplate down, so instead of breaking my nose he just shakes me off. We do not have time to screw around here, but John isn't willing to leave. I pull myself back up to my feet but now he's got his gun on *me*. Frell. Peacekeeper armor is good but it won't repel a pulse blast at eight inches.
"You -- you don't know--" he starts, his voice in a deep register I've never even tried to use. "Harvey lied, Crichton! He's still here! He lied, and I have to kill Scorpius --" His voice rises toward hysteria, and then the firing around us suddenly stops.
I take a quick glance over my shoulder; the reason for the silence is clear. Aeryn's got the Marauder off the ground, and as I watch, the guns on either side of the Marauder's nose slide out of their ports and come to bear on the Scarrans.
Damn, those are big guns. Not cannons, but big enough to blow the hell out of this bay. "Uh, babe? What are you doing?"
"Giving you some cover. Now, you get John and let's get the frell out of here."
I nod, and turn back to John, but he's still got the pistol on me. The guy's a mess. His goofy pajamas are torn and stained, his feet are bleeding: there's not an inch of him that doesn't look worn to the bone.
We're so close he heard what Aeryn said. "She -- she still -- " He shakes his head. "Doesn't matter. I don't want your *fucking* pity. I want my life back!"
I know better than to move; I know what I'm like when I'm on the knife-edge of reason. His hand is shaking, and he wraps the left one around the right to stabilize it. Give him a reason to shoot me, and I'm pretty sure he will. I've got his gun and his girl, don't I? Gotta redirect him.
"It's not pity, John." I want to say she loves him too but I can't bring myself to say it, even when he's holding a gun on me. I glance over his shoulder at Scorpius' team. Braca has his gun in his hand, and is edging closer to us, keeping an eye on the Marauder hovering in the middle of the bay. Scorpius is nowhere to be seen; I wonder if he even realizes we're here. "You really want us all to die here? Because Aeryn's not leaving without you --"
Braca gets a little closer, and then stops as one of the guns swings lazily towards him. That's my girl. But we're running out of time.
John shakes his head wildly. "Someone has to pay! If not him then --" but Aeryn fires at the Scarrans, and his concentration is shaken by the thundering boom. We *so* don't have time for this; I roll my body to the left and knock the gun out of his slack hands. He scrambles to recover it but I don't wait for that, and instead smack him twice in the temple with my armored elbow. He goes down as if he's been tongued.
"Aeryn! Let's get the hell outta Dodge!" I grab John by his pajamas and drag him out into the middle of the bay, under Aeryn's watchful eyes. She fires twice more at the Scarrans, turning their ship into a pile of scrap. They're not much of a threat anymore. But Scorpy's team is shooting at us now, and that squad of commandos, now approaching fast down the bay, may have figured out we're not friendlies.
The Marauder descends to just a yard off the floor, and the hatch opens. Crais helps me pull John's unconscious body in, and closes the door just as bolts start splattering against the hull from above. Someone on the mezzanine finally figured out we were a problem. But we're inside, and pulse blasts can't do much to a Marauder.
Crais bolts the hatch and leaps to the weapons console. I should keep an eye on John and D'Argo but instead I scramble over them and follow Crais. The bridge only has three seats, but it's still a helluva lot more comfortable than a Prowler. "How we doin?"
"We've been in tighter spots," Aeryn says, her eyes on the controls. She brings the ship up fast and spins it to face the big bay doors. They're mostly closed, although there's a gap where they were damaged by the Scarrans when they battered their way in.
"Crais?" Aeryn's voice is strained.
"On your mark," he responds. I look at the console and realize Crais has targeted the cesium canisters next to Scorpius' Vigilante. Oh, boy.
"Three--" she says, and fires the treblin-side gun, full strength, at the bay doors. The bolt slams into the metal and curls it like paper under a blowtorch. The airlock wasn't designed to withstand fire from inside, and gives way easily.
"Two --" she says, and the Marauder begins to move, gaining velocity with unsettling speed. The bay doors approach us, still glowing and wilting as they shrivel. Through the opening I can see the stars -- the outer airlock doors are blown as well.
"One!" She punches the Marauder, and we leap forward into the airlock. As we clear the doors, Crais places one careful shot back into the docking bay.
Take three canisters of cesium fuel, mix with oxygen and an ignition source --you get one hell of an explosion. The bay is blown to kingdom come, and anyone within a hundred yards of that fuel tank is tiny little bits of charred flesh.
Goddamn, but that crazy goth bastard better be dead. Nobody coulda survived that.
Of course, we're far from home free. We're in the middle of a battle between a Scarran dreadnought and the Peacekeeper command carrier. There are Scarran fighters and Peacekeeper Prowlers and Marauders all around, swinging by in crazy arcs, firing in tight pulses at each other. The carrier's getting hammered. I can see pieces of the great ring beginning to buckle.
This is Aeryn's world, even more than the halls and hatchways of the command carrier. She brings us in tight at the end of a squadron of Marauders that just launched from one of the other docking bays. "They may have reported us before we got out," she says, her attention focused on the control console, "but we may have time to get some distance--"
"Or not," I point out, as a passing Prowler takes a shot at us. Aeryn sees it before they even fire, and rolls us out of the way with a tiny shift of her hands. Man, she's good.
"Where's Talyn?" she asks Crais, as she peels us away and ducks through the cloud of debris left by an exploding brain. Scarrans are picking off escape pods like sharks in a fishtank.
Crais pauses to warn off a Marauder that comes too near. "When the Scarrans arrived in the system, Talyn took advantage of the distraction to join Moya. They are hidden in the deep craters of a moon of the gas giant, and Talyn is giving Moya what help he can. He says -- " here he pauses for a moment, "--he says Stark and Rygel are working with Chiana and Joolushko to effect repairs to Moya."
We break away from the last of the Peacekeeper squadrons. Aeryn says, "Frell this," and puts the Marauder into a series of maneuvers that strain the grav generators to the max. Within minutes we've dropped all our pursuit behind, and we're in the cold, dim outer reaches of the system before the Scarrans realize we're leaving.
We made it. Now let's see if we can survive the aftermath. We're so often harder on each other than our enemies are.
*Part 7: The One That Got Away*
I awake to the realization I'm cold. But as I become aware of that, someone pulls a blanket over me and rests a hand on my cheek. The skin is soft; it's unlikely to be Aeryn, for a number of reasons.
Everything hurts: my head, my feet, my chest. But it's glossed over by the drifting numbness of one of Zhaan's more powerful painkillers. I lever my lids up to see Jool's bright eyes looking at me with unfamiliar compassion.
"Jool," I say, and cough. She lifts my head and gives me a little water. I'm in the medical bay on Moya.
So I'm alive. They got me out after all. I don't remember much of the last hours on the carrier: it's a haze of pain and dizziness and the slow horrified realization that Harvey had lied to me. I wait for the expected wash of anger, but all I feel is unease. I didn't really hope to survive the escape, and I owe Crichton my life. I'm less resentful of that than I expected to be.
But now I have to live. I'm not sure I know how. I'm not entirely sure I want to. Harvey lied. He lied, and I'm here, and I'm him too. He's *not gone*, he's just part of me. I can feel the rage and the casual malice coiled inside, the condescension waiting behind my teeth, the assumption of superiority filtering the very light in the room. I'm never getting rid of Scorpius now.
The irony is almost enough to make me laugh. If the cavalry had arrived just a little sooner; if Supay had had just a little more time; if Scorpius had been just a little less desperate, or a little more angry. But it didn't work out that way, and here I am instead.
I've seen enough of the roof of this room over the past few years, so I roll my head to the side. The bed against the other wall is occupied as well. D'Argo is asleep or unconscious; the number and variety of medical equipment on the table next to him indicates he's in worse shape than I am.
Jool smoothes my hair and steps away to putter about the bay, cleaning and sorting equipment, but blissfully silent. Her black leather bustle occasionally jostles one of the rolling carts. "Jool," I say again, and wave a hand towards D'Argo. "What -- what happened to D'Argo?"
Her hands stop moving and her expression sombers. "He was shot during your escape. He should recover but it will take some time."
"But he will improve?" It seems important.
"He'd better," says a voice at the door. "Someone has been into my belongings, and I expect full restitution!" Rygel enters the room and hovers at head-height. He looks uneasily around, his gaze skittering off Jool, D'Argo, the medical equipment.
It's weirdly good to see the little guy. "Dominar! How generous of you to favor us with your presence!" I didn't actually miss him, after all, but the atmosphere on Moya without Rygel was -- off. Without Rygel as a target we turn on each other too easily.
"Yes, well, don't get up, Crichton. Good to see you too, I suppose." He grumbles a bit but brings his thronesled closer to the bed. He peers at my face, then sits back. "Badly injured, were you?"
"Yes, he was," snaps Jool. "John was tortured for days, broke several ribs, sustained severe lacerations on his feet, hands, and back, and many of the wounds are infected. He's also concussed, and I expect he has brain damage but we don't have the facilities here to address that."
She shoves the thronesled away and hands me a cup of something green. I try to put it down but she wraps my hands around it and glares at me. It's disgusting.
"You mean he didn't have brain damage when he left here?" Yet another voice, and Chiana ducks under the sled to sit on the bed. She jostles my feet, and I wince. Nebari tralk -- no. I don't say that. I'm John now, I'm John. John.
"According to you folks, I had brain damage when I *got* here, Pip." She giggles.
"But it's more than brain damage, too, isn't it?" asks Rygel, and he's got that sly tone in his voice that I've never liked. "Something changed."
I grit my teeth. I don't want to know who told them all. But it's clear they know: Chiana slides off the bed, cocks her head and swivels her shoulders. The old behaviors, the ones that signal she's unhappy, uncertain.
"Crichton? That true?"
Chiana remembers Scorpius too clearly. And I can't lie to her, not even now. "Yeah, Pip, it's true. Things are different inside my head now."
"Different how?" She cuts to the chase, as always. Rygel leans forward in his chair.
There's no good way to say this, no way to tell them that will make it sound all right. "I have Scorpius's memories. Part of his personality, too. I can read Scarran and Sebacean, I know all about Peacekeeper politics and command structures, I can build an Aurora Chair from spare parts in the cargo bay, and I know sixteen different ways to kill a Scarran using only kitchen ware."
Chiana can't pale; but she draws her head away. "What -- what happened to Crichton?"
I let out a breath. "I'm still here, Chi. It's just . . . there aren't two separate people in my head anymore. Just one person, with two sets of memories."
She nods, but doesn't look like she accepts the distinction. The Nebari have never appreciated ambiguity. It may take some time for her to adjust.
I turn to Jool, instead, putting on a cheerful expression. "So what's been going on here?" I ask. "Things back to normal?"
"Mostly," she says, with a glance at D'Argo. "After the others went to the Command Carrier after you, a Scarran dreadnought showed up. That distracted the Peacekeepers enough for Talyn to come find us. He towed Moya deep into this asteroid belt, and Rygel and Stark came over to help. Pilot's mostly recovered now, but Moya's can't Starburst yet."
"And we received precious little thanks for our efforts, either, let me tell you," grouses Rygel. Jool leans up and plants a kiss on his cheek, and he grumbles, but looks a little pleased nonetheless.
"So what's the plan now?" I feel restless; I need information, even if I can barely move.
"The plan is to leave this system as soon as we can, in case the Peacekeepers come back. The other plan, " adds Jool, and flaps her hands at Chiana and Rygel, "is for you to get some more sleep. You're not going anywhere for a while. The others can come visiting again later." Jool's not a nurse, she's a guard-dog.
Chiana rolls her eyes, but leaves the bay, not without a doubtful backward glance. Rygel soars out as if he's on an imperial parade. I flop back onto the pillow, and stare at the ceiling.
Some arns later, I think, I'm woken by another touch on my face.
This time I know it's Aeryn even before I open my eyes: something about the honesty of the hand that traces the contusion on my cheekbone. As if I am something she has a right to.
She sits on the stool Jool uses to reach the top shelf of Zhaan's pharmacopoeia, her feet propped high on the rungs. One hand dangles loose between her knees while the other traces the lines of my face. She doesn't stop even when she sees I'm awake.
D'Argo is snoring softly, the rumble in counterpoint to Moya's all-encompassing hum. We are lit only by a dull blue lamp on the table nearest the door. Jool left it for a nightlight but my dreams are no worse in the dark. There's a blue cast to Aeryn's features as a result; she looks like something from one of those French art films Alex used to love. She's changed since she left; I can see a new openness in her face, a happiness in repose I've never seen before. He did this, while I was getting drunk and rolled, and fighting with D'Argo and Pilot, and having my brain filleted by Scorpius.
I've always considered Aeryn stunning by human standards, but Scorpius and Harvey never looked at her with those eyes. So she is now both the woman I love, and a Sebacean Peacekeeper, lethal member of my mother's species. It's a dichotomy that I'm having some difficulty resolving.
Aeryn stands up and reaches a tentative hand to the blanket drawn up to my chest. She looks uneasy: Harvey killed her once, killed her cheerfully, with the throwaway arrogance that was everything I hated about Scorpius. Her breath settles, though, and she draws my blanket down, to reveal the mess Supay left. Supay and her team enjoyed discovering the different geography of the human nervous system. I'd thought, once, that Aeryn would -- I cut that thought off; it hurts, even now. Harvey didn't care, but I still do.
After staring at the wreckage for a few microts, Aeryn starts to touch me. She skims her hands over my neck, chest, arms, belly, her callused fingers raising goosebumps, setting my nerves quivering. She touches the older scars she knows from his body, the proof of our shared history, and documents the newer ones: the line below my rib from a Charrid on Cabri Station, the scar on my shoulder from that business in the Bearrat Nebula. The really new damage she leaves alone, running her hands around the many bandages and patches Jool applied.
My body doesn't care about Harvey; my body remembers what this means, begins to respond, despite the drugs and my lingering exhaustion. She skips my crotch, moves on to my legs and feet, her fingers surer now, mapping me, comparing me to the other. But a stray finger touches a raw burn on my hip; I hiss, and my incipient erection wilts.
"Aeryn." Still flat on my back, I catch her hand in one of mine. "It hurts."
"Yes," she agrees solemnly. "It does." She drops back onto the stool, props her elbows on her knees, and gives me a faint grin. "Look what happens when I leave you alone, Crichton."
"Yeah, but you should see the other guy -- " I roll my head toward her, try to scare up a laugh and wince instead. Damned ribs. Stupid joke anyway.
She shifts on the stool, and I think that visiting hours are just about over. Instead she leans forward and kisses me. I free my left hand, smooth it over her tightly bound hair; her weight is supported by her hands propped against the bed. I haven't forgotten what she tastes like, how cool her lips are --but it's different now. She's smoother, subtler; as if she knows just how to kiss me. She's been practicing.
After a few more moments she pulls away, frowning. She loves John Crichton, and she'll keep looking for him in me, expecting the human responses that are no longer quite instinctive. She'll compare me with the other guy, and find me wanting, and she'll grieve for what's not her fault.
I roll my head back to stare at the ceiling, which is dark and hard and sharp, too. "It doesn't work, Aeryn."
She stands up suddenly, shoves the stool away with a squeak across the floor. D'Argo mutters in his sleep, and then falls silent again. "Why? Why doesn't it work?" But she doesn't disagree. Instead she stares at me challengingly, her feet apart, her face twisted in grief, as if I could fix this, if I tried hard enough. As if there were a way out of this hole.
If I died she would mourn me, and even now I don't want to cause her that kind of pain. If I stay she'll come to hate me, for choosing to survive by embracing her enemy. I may be tainted now, but I don't think I could survive having Aeryn hate me.
Someone once told me that in some cultures a widow was required to marry her late husband's brother. But even merging with Harvey isn't enough to make me willing to share with myself. The thought is bitter in my mouth.
"Because they broke me," I finally answer. And there's nothing she can say to that.
When she leaves, I'm whispering nursery rhymes to myself in the blue dimness.
Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall. Humpty Dumpty took a big fall. And all the king's horses and all the king's men Couldn't put Humpty Dumpty together again.
We slipped out of the system as soon as we could, limped away with Talyn's help, and hid ourselves deep in an asteroid field three light-cycles away. It's been four days now, while John and D heal and the rest of us work like dogs getting Moya back into shape. There was nothing left but debris where the carrier was; Crais thinks the dreadnought destroyed it.
A dreadnought is twice the size of a carrier, and thousands of people live on a carrier, some of them children. Aeryn grew up on a carrier. She and Crais both say the damage we did to the docking bay wasn't enough to make any difference; if the carrier could have run, it would have, but perhaps the Scarrans had them trapped. There's no way to know if anyone got away. All because Talyn decided he had a better idea. It's going to take me a while to forgive him, but he's not the first to have a good plan go into the toilet.
Moya still can't Starburst but at least now she can get to an inhabited system where we can find some supplies. More chromextin and irescentent fluid. That immobilizer pulse did a hell of a lot of damage to her, even more than to Talyn. Poor girl.
I pat her wall as I walk down the hall towards the medical bay, and imagine I can hear the hum in the wall change pitch. It's good to be back home, even under these circumstances. It's pretty late; most of the rest are asleep, but Aeryn took the Marauder out on a scouting run a couple of arns ago, and I still have a job to do.
One I need a very small audience for.
Thankfully Jool is gone, and D'Argo looks like he's asleep. The lights in the medical bay are low, but John lies on his side, scribbling in a notebook. I know he's been doing a lot of work with the data we got from Scorpy's lab, but I've been too busy working on Moya to give him any help. I want to sit down and hear what he's got so far. But not tonight.
He looks up at me as I lean in through the door. I put my finger to my lips and cock my head towards the hallway. He purses his lips, then nods. I step back, and a moment later he limps into the hallway, wearing some brown drawstring pants Chi found in the upper tiers, and a stained T-shirt.
"What is it?" he asks with a frown.
I answer as I lead him slowly down the hall toward quarters. "I've been thinking about how you guys got captured. About what it would take for Peacekeepers to be able to track you from place to place."
"Because you can't follow a leviathan in Starburst." It's not a question. His eyes are narrowed as he follows this train of thought, and then they flash open between one step and the next. Eureka. "How did I miss that?"
I laugh grimly; that was exactly my response. "Other things on your mind? Come on, let's go have us a little chat."
Rygel is asleep, flat on his royal back in a large bed, surrounded by trinkets, blankets, and bits of food. I'd think he was having a party but this is what his quarters usually look like. He hated Talyn's DRDs because they cleaned up after him. Moya's know better.
John stays in the hallway and I step carefully into the chamber. Sparky's got good ears; he mumbles something and begins to stir as I approach the bed, so I spring forward and whip the bedclothes around him, trapping him in a jumble of blanket.
"Wha-- what -- Hey! Criiiichton! What are you doing!" His voice is muffled by the bedclothes: I know better than to let his mouth anywhere near me. I bundle him under my arm and rejoin John in the hallway.
"Shut up, Sparky," I hiss, "or I'll drop you on your head. We're going to have a little talk, you and us. Okay?"
The response is unintelligible to my microbes, but there is a hiss as of gas releasing. I make sure to breathe shallowly and say nothing until we get to Pilot's den.
"Commander," says Pilot in some surprise as we approach. He looks in perplexity from one of me to the other. Is this the first time he's seen us both in the flesh?
"Good evening, Pilot," John says, and pulls himself up painfully onto the console. I hold out the wriggling bundle of blanket and unroll it in midair, so his Eminence lands on his ass on the floor in front of Pilot.
"Crichton! I'm going to kill you! I'm going to kill *both* of you! You won't --" I lift the blanket threateningly and his voice dies away. He struggles over onto his feet and stands unsteadily.
Pilot's shocked. "Commander! What have you--"
John puts up a hand. "Don't be concerned for Rygel, Pilot. Although he should be concerned for himself, shouldn't he?" And he stares intently at the little toad, who draws in a sharp breath and looks around for support.
No help here, Sparky. You crossed the line.
"I -- I don't know what you're talking about, Crichton." Ah, he's going to try to bluff it out.
"Nice try, Buckwheat," I say, "but we've got the proof. You think you left no trail, but it's all there. Scorpy keeps comprehensive records."
Pilot's head draws back and his eyes narrow. "Scorpius? What has Dominar Rygel to do with Scorpius?"
"Rygel turned us in, didn't you, old friend? Old buddy?" The bile is rising.
"No, no, I didn't -- I wouldn't -- " Despite his impressive brain and fierce personality, Rygel's such a little guy at the end of the day. And he knows it. He looks from me to John to Pilot and back, the anxiety on his face growing with every microt. If I hadn't seen John huddled in the docking bay, bloody feet and all, desperate to kill Scorpius; or D'Argo, blood pooling black under him on the floor of the Marauder; or Moya, poor defenseless Moya, crippled and in pain -- well, maybe I would have had a little more sympathy.
"Dominar *Rygel* turned us in?" Pilot's voice has taken on an edge I haven't heard since the day he nearly killed Aeryn.
"He gave the frequency of Neeyala's beacon to Scorpius, didn't you, Dominar?" says John flatly. It isn't a question. His hands are clenched together around his knees, and his face is pale. Of all of us, John might have the most right to revenge here. Moya and D'Argo will recover, but John won't. Ever.
Pilot growls, his eyes flashing, and Rygel takes an uncertain step backwards. But there isn't much more "backwards" here in the den; one more step and he's into the abyss. It's a long drop to the lower tiers for a Dominar without his thronesled.
"No, I -- you must be mistaken -- I wouldn't -- "
"Bullshit, Sparky." I pull the chip from my pocket. Crais had given it to me this morning after he'd found one particular file in the data we'd stolen from Scorpy. "This has the message with the frequency, the proposal, and Scorpius' very accurate profile of the probable sender. Did you think you were dealing with an amateur? This is *Scorpius*, Rygel! Jesus, how could you be so *stupid*!"
That pricks him; a challenge to his ego will always get a rise out of Rygel. "I'm not stupid! But we were trapped, and it was all *your* fault, Crichton! The Peacekeepers would have forgotten the rest of us by now if it weren't for you and that damned wormhole yotz in your brain! Why shouldn't I cut a deal for us!" His earbrows are lowered, his voice fast and vicious. "After all, we had *two* of you! No one would even miss you!"
Two of us. I blink at John, whose face is dangerously composed. I can't control mine, though, and I begin to snicker helplessly.
"My god, Rygel, you figured it was all right because we had a *spare*?"
Pilot doesn't get the joke.
It takes a while to recover from that, and to hash out the probable repercussions. John thinks that Scorpius wouldn't have shared the knowledge widely, but I'm less convinced or more paranoid. Pilot and I decide the next major project will be figuring out how to remove or mask Neeyala's beacon. It's something we should have addressed a while ago anyway.
As for Rygel, well, we've got him pinned like a beetle on a board. He's lucky Pilot doesn't have the DRDs chuck him out an airlock, and agrees to damn near anything we ask. Besides, he knows he's shish kebab if we let a word of this slip to Aeryn or D'Argo. So he's going to be the perfect shipmate. His entire take from the Depository -- what's left of it -- will go towards supplies for Moya. He will work cheerfully and hard to help fix the damaged systems. And he has lost unrestricted access to communications; Pilot will be monitoring him very closely indeed.
He doesn't have a lot of options; if he doesn't agree he's off the ship, abandoned in this sparsely-populated sector of the Territories with no resources and no way to get home. But he's not gracious about it; I don't think he even realizes what a terrible betrayal it was. Not of me, or of John, but of Moya.
Still, nice to know some things just don't change. My boy Sparky is always thinking of the bottom line.
John finds me on my back poking at Talyn's innards, helping Crais re-wire the electrical systems. Talyn got kinda beat up taking on the Marauder, and we've all pretty much had it with his fragile wiring. So we're laying in some new cabling that we think should last longer than what he's had to date. What this means is that Crais sits on the bridge and I tell him when a system needs to be tested. Pays to be captain, I suppose.
John squats down next to me and peers upward, as I struggle to pull some wiring through a balky conduit. "Need any help?"
"Not really," I respond, and with a final tug, pull myself out from underneath the access panel. I look up at him and frown. He's wearing a loose blue shirt that hangs out over his pants, which are the same battered khakis I wore through the wormhole. I stopped wearing them after the Chair -- I told myself it was because they stained too easily; but I'm not that good at lying to myself anymore.
"New fashion statement?"
He shrugs. "I was tired of black." He's looking healthier. Not as grey, and most of the physical damage is healed, Jool tells me, though the other damage will take longer. But he's dropped some weight, and Aeryn tells me he smells different now. I don't ask for the details.
I nod. Scorpius never wore anything but black. I can't think of anything else to say. We were once the same person; and now we're not. And I got the life he wanted -- well, no. I got the girl he wanted. Everything else is up for negotiation.
But I realize, looking at his face, he's not here to negotiate. "You're leaving." Mama Crichton didn't raise no stupid boys.
He laughs shortly and looks around at Talyn, at the bloody walls and curved halls, just different enough from Moya. "Yes, I'm leaving." There's a bitter tone to everything he says now, but he keeps the rage I saw in the docking bay buried deep. I don't ask about that either.
"I -- I wish --" I stop. I don't know what I wish. I wish I'd never come through the wormhole? Mostly, except for Aeryn. I wish I'd never been stupid enough to be twinned? Maybe, except then I'd have bled out on the table in the medical bay. I wish we'd gotten to him sooner.
"Regret is so -- human an emotion. Let it go, John."
I shudder. The tone is condescending, as if he's not human anymore. I wonder -- and then I stop thinking about it. I'll never have to make that choice.
"Where will you go?"
"I'm going to try to go home." He sounds cautiously optimistic.
I look up in surprise.
"I still have Linfer's data, and Scorpius's too, now. With that and the module I think I might be able to --"
The module? Grabbing the console, I wrench myself to my feet. "Oh, no you don't!"
John doesn't get angry, though. Instead he just shakes his head. "Don't you think it's fair? One of us gets this life, one gets a chance at the other."
"What's fair got to do with it? You think this is second grade? It's not my fault you got shafted by Scorpy." I stay the renegade so he gets to go home? No. No fucking way.
He raises an eyebrow. "Oh? You think High Command will think it's a coincidence that a command carrier sent out after Moya came back in tiny pieces? They'll be after her now even more than ever. You just going to abandon her?"
Bastard. He knows I can't. He also knows I won't risk leading the Peacekeepers to Earth. He seems to have no such qualms.
"You've got it all figured out, don't you?" I ask, leaning back against the wall and crossing my arms.
"No, I don't have everything figured out," John exclaims, flinging his arms wide in a gesture that's both strange and familiar. "I'm not *him*, but I'm not -- I'm not you anymore either. I just know I can't stay here. I want to go home."
I get that. After we got back to Moya, and began to put the pieces back together, Aeryn and I stayed on Talyn. It wasn't something we actually talked about. But John had my old quarters on Moya, and it seemed like rubbing his face in it if I were to move into Aeryn's room with her. So we didn't move, and instead every morning we came across in our suits, swinging along the tether between the two ships like Tarzan and Jane. Although I don't think Jane ever mastered a pantak jab.
But now, I don't know what's going to happen. I'm pretty sure Scorpius is dead. Maybe. But John's right. The Peacekeepers will still be after us. We didn't mean to set off an interstellar incident with the Scarrans, but it happened. We're probably numero uno on their most wanted list. Which means more retrieval squads, as soon as we show up in populated territory again.
So we're back on the run. I suppose we could split up again, but I miss Moya. Moya, and Pilot's snarky attitude, and Chiana's energy, and D'Argo's support. Once, I'd told Crais I missed human male companionship, but after a quarter-cycle on Talyn, I realize I owe D'Argo an apology.
But I still want to go home. I look at John. "I miss Dad, and the beach, and that Ella Fitzgerald collection --"
John shakes his head. "You want to explain to Dad how he got *two* sons? Then we really would end up at Area 51."
I crack a laugh. It's true.
But not to go home, ever? I can't stop him, wouldn't if I could. But I won't give up the hope of going home myself, and taking Aeryn with me. I don't tell him that, though. Let him go, let him try.
Later, when things are more settled, when I know I won't bring a Peacekeeper fleet down on Earth behind me -- then we'll see. He may be in for a surprise one day.
Besides, I don't know that Earth is ready for a man who remembers growing up as two separate people, and who can build an Aurora Chair out of spare parts. How much will he have to hide, and how long before it's just too small a place for him? He should know better, but I recognize the need to lick his wounds in a safe and quiet place. And Moya isn't his home anymore.
"You know enough to just go?" I ask.
He shakes his head. "No. First I need to find some place off the beaten track, away from anyone looking for John Crichton. It will take a while to do the work, to find the right kind of star."
"If you make it, are you gonna tell him about--" I tap my temple.
"Nah. He doesn't need to know. He wouldn't believe it anyway."
Probably true. Dad's going to have a hard enough time believing I'm -- John's -- alive after all this time. Harvey's out of the question, and he's never going to hear about the Chair.
"Crichton!" Crais' voice over the comms. "Are you up to segment four yet?"
"No, not yet! Hang on!" I look up at John, and we both whisper "asshole", and snicker, before I duck back under the console.
I don't think I like this guy much. But it's not like it was before we left. I don't resent his very existence anymore. We're not that much alike now. I wonder what he's gained -- but I won't risk losing what I have to find out.
I nearly pity him; I never really thought I'd go home alone.
"Well?" I ask, and cock a fist from my position on my back.
He grins and makes a fist as well.
"One-- two-- three!"
I throw scissors; he throws rock. But I don't think I lost.
There isn't much I want to take, but I do want the chess set. I'm in my quarters, packing it up, when Aeryn comes in.
"Coward," she says from the door. Her voice is toneless, as if she were commenting on the weather.
I had half expected this, but my shoulders hunch anyway. Then I keep wrapping chess pieces into a length of cloth Pip found for me. I'm learning to control the inappropriate responses, picking my way carefully back to John. It takes a lot of effort sometimes, not to lash out, not to release the rage Harvey left me. My phantom with his Pandora's box of hope and spite.
"Maybe," I say after a moment. "I prefer to think of it as cutting my losses." It's weird. When I was Scorpius I wasn't attracted to Sebacean women, but difficult as she was, Officer Sun had impressed Harvey. So now I carry John's tangled helpless longing, and Harvey's frustrated respect. And my own resentments at her choices and failures. Which makes it that much harder to turn and look at her.
She stands in the doorway, one hand hooked through the grating, the other at her side. Her hair is back in a ponytail but wisps fly free around her face. Instead of the black vest I liked so much she's wearing a green zip-front shirt. It's the first time I've seen her in anything but black in nearly two cycles. The expression on her face is an odd combination of relief and anger.
She stares at me for a long time, then finally crosses to the bed and sits down on the rumpled blankets. "You know I never meant -- " She looks unhappy.
I cut her off. "It was luck. He was closer to the door."
She nods, but she's still distressed. After a moment, "What is it like now, for you?"
Three cycles now, and this woman never ceases to amaze me. No one else would have come to me in the medical bay, tested me the only way she could. No one else would have risked everything to rescue a man she already had beside her.
But I can't answer her, not the way she wants. Instead I shrug, and pick up the black queen. "Different. I feel like I didn't lose anything, and what I gained will keep me alive a little longer."
I'm lying, and she knows it; but what I lost I'd lost before this second round in the Chair. It was too late for me the moment he went with her on Talyn and left me stewing on Moya. She lets it go, and just watches me pack. For a moment, I consider telling her just how well integrated Harvey is into Crichton's psyche, how he would comment on my dreams (and the occasional fantasy) about her. How no matter how private she thinks they are, there is always a third person in the room with them.
She has a right to know. I know how much she hates Harvey.
But it's not worth it. She doesn't need to know, and if she does, Crichton will tell her. Harvey can do no harm.
I slip away without any good-byes. Even Aeryn, though she knew it would happen. I'll miss them all; more than they will miss me, which is not at all.
Of course, I have to talk to Pilot to take the module out. He seems unsurprised. "Moya and I both wish you well, Commander Crichton. We hope you may find your home again."
"Thanks, Pilot. Please tell Moya that her courage and generosity has been far more than I ever deserved." Which doesn't come close to saying what I owe the both of them, but they know what I mean.
"I will do so. Best of luck to you."
The comms channel goes silent for a moment, and I think I'm about to get away with it. But as the docking web sets me free and the module bursts through the bay doors, a voice comes over the channel.
It's a low voice, husky, with a hint of tears in it. A voice I'll hear in my dreams until I die.
"You know -- you know if we could have saved you -- " She stops, starts again. "Come back to us someday, if you can. Be well, John." She is gone, and I close my eyes as if I can see her face. It means a lot that she didn't say good-bye. I didn't think this would hurt so much.
I'm the one who gets to go home, after all.
"Hey, buddy." Crichton always has to have the last word. "If you make it, give my best to DK, wouldya? And have a beer at Jay's for me." His voice is thick; I think he's only now seeing what he's losing by this deal.
But it's too late to back out, and I lay in a vector on the coordinates Pilot gave me, for a star with some regular solar flare activity. There's a lot to be done before I get home, but I can taste the margaritas now.
"I'll tell DK you said he was a needle-nosed moron who couldn't find his ass with a protractor. Take care of yourself, John. And -- look after them." I'm not who I was, but I can't go without a backward glance.
"With my life."
"Right. Crichton out." I'm going to be John Crichton again.
If I had a rear-view mirror, Moya would be dwindling to a tiny speck already.
I've stopped falling. It's time to start climbing again.
*Epilogue: That's How Legends Are Made*
Winter in Berkeley is cool and rainy. The sun sets early and rises late, and the high point of the day for many residents is often the first cup of coffee. Many houses are poorly insulated; the damp chill crawls in through the single-paned windows, up from the basements, under the old wooden bungalow doors.
The old brown bungalow in the Berkeley flats is no exception. The two inhabitants, a post-doctoral student and an associate professor, together make barely enough to cover the rent on the three-bedroom house; heat is out of the question. On this February night both housemates are sleeping, bundled deep under piles of blankets. The single cat sleeps next to her owner in one bedroom, and an ancient Labrador lies curled in the hallway outside another room.
It's a weeknight, nearly 3 AM, and even this busy neighborhood is quiet. A motorcycle races past on San Pablo a few blocks away, and then silence descends once more. The dog groans, farts, rolls over. His owner mumbles something and buries himself deeper under the covers. Several minutes pass.
The telephone rings.
"Oh, hell." It's David Kern's telephone; the other line rings only in Jeannine's room.
DK flips back the blankets and shambles to the door, wincing at the cold floor. Milo doesn't stir -- he knows it's not time for his morning walk yet. The phone is on the wall between the living room and the kitchen: DK snags it and brings it to his ear, yawning. Probably a wrong number, they usually are at this hour.
It's not a wrong number. The voice on the line is neither hesitant nor apologetic. "Doctor David Kern? Formerly of IASA, now of Lawrence Berkeley Lab?"
DK blinks, takes the phone away from his ear and looks at it, as if there is something written on it that will explain things for him. "Um, yeah, this is he. Him. Me."
"Doctor Kern, This is Captain Jack McFerren from Vandenberg Air Force Base. I think you need to get down here right away."
This story was outlined in December 2001, and the first draft was completed well before I saw the final four episodes of Season 3. As a result, any small similarities a reader may find between certain elements in this story and certain elements of the last few episodes of Season 3 are coincidental. I chose to retain the bulk of the story as it was and not rewrite it to reflect information gained later because it's an alternate universe story anyway. There's a point at which a writer has to stop checking herself against canon and let the story stand on its own. And so I have, and I hope you enjoyed it.
The chapter headings are song titles by John Gorka, from his brilliant 1990 album "Land of the Bottom Line", available from High Street Records. Go buy it now.
Oh, where to start? First, I need to thank Vehemently, for the obsession, and Melymbrosia, for the tapes. Also Huzzlewhat, Maayan, Makiko, and the Ultimates Board gang for some excellent discussions about John, the twinning, and identity issues. Even if I didn't have much to say, I learned a lot reading the arguments. Next I get to thank Vehemently, Melymbrosia, Nestra, and Marasmus, for allowing me to babble at them endlessly about this story for the past three months. Vehemently in particular has nursed this story along from the very beginning, and helped me brainstorm on lots of knotty issues -- but any place where the logic falls apart is definitely *my* fault and not hers.
Extensive and truly helpful beta was provided by Vehemently, Melymbrosia, Fialka, and Marasmus. I can't even begin to thank them adequately. They encouraged me, supported me, offered brilliant suggestions, challenged my logic and my m-dashes, and held my hand when I quailed.
Feedback most gratefully received at email@example.com. If you liked it, if you hated it, if it's the best thing since chopped liver -- let me know.
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