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Whiter Shade, A

by Shaye

DISCLAIMER: Mr. Kemper, sir, may I please be your minion?


SPOILERS: through UR

NOTES: Written for the "Write it Backwards" challenge at The Bordello. The story ends sometime after Unrealized Reality. Where the story begins is up to you. The quotes at the beginning of each section are from poems by Sylvia Plath. In order: "Edge," "Lady Lazarus," and "Daddy." Huge thanks go to Anna, who harassed me for this story until I took it as an offer for beta, and to Sarah, who held my hand during the early stages of this story waaaaay back when.

3: "She seems to be saying, 'we have come so far, it is over.'"

You wake the third morning, and you're no longer dreaming of Aeryn, or of love, or of wormholes. These things have been taken from you too often.

You're dreaming of genocide.

There are no happily-ever-afters in your universe.

Maybe, in some ways, you would have rather been the other guy. Died in the arms of your girl after saving the universe. It wasn't a happy ending, but it was a solid one. There are worse fates.

Like endlessly trudging toward some unseeable horizon. Like having a dead man's memories scattered like buckshot through your mind, in a way that is creepy and unexplainable. You know all about the creepy and unexplainable. You are intimately familiar with it. You've been in bed with it for so long now, it has ceased to make your skin crawl. Or so you tell yourself.

Aeryn left, showed you she didn't trust you with her secret. Half a cycle later, you told her she could not have your heart. The irony is not lost on you. This knowledge changes nothing.

She still cannot have your heart, but it's cold, and you're bent on survival. She can have your body, and you can have hers, but this is not a love story. There is no ever after.

Once upon a time, there were two people who crash landed on an alien world.

It wasn't the first time. As for the last...well, that's a surprise. As it should be.

Aeryn woke first. She shouted, shook you firmly by the shoulders. You did not wake. She forced the door of the stolen transport and swore loudly when a blast of cold air hit her. Flakes of soft snow drifted into the craft.

She slapped you across the face. "Crichton, wake up!"

The sting seemed to rouse you slightly, so she hit you again. You don't remember this, of course.

And so on, and so on.

You needed shelter. The two of you fought over which direction to hike. It was understandable, when a finite number of possibilities seemed overwhelming. Three hundred sixty degrees, some of them surely below zero.

Finally, you struck out into the woods. Through a hypothermic haze, you said they were lovely, dark and deep. She shook her head and supported your weight.

Starlight shone down on you, silvery and soft through the scattering of clouds still dropping snow. You were surrounded by trees, gruesome-looking black monsters with no leaves. It was a juxtaposition neither of you noticed.

"The snow should cover our tracks," Aeryn noted.

It seemed like arns that you hiked, when finally, out of the snowfall, she made out the shape of a humble structure. Shelter.

Though your holster was empty, you automatically groped for a weapon at your hip as she broke into the small cabin. It didn't look like any cabin you'd seen before, but you knew this part well enough. You said something about witches and stoking the oven. She was lighting a fire as you fell unconscious and slept for a good ten arns. She watched you all through the night, her lips drawn into a thin, taut line.

At dawn, Aeryn finally lay down beside you, where she drifted off to sleep with her head on your shoulder.

Boy meets girl. Girl kicks boy's ass. And so on, and so on, until they were reduced to this.

You woke much later to the howling of the wind. It was coming in through the cracks in the boards of the cabin, bringing along small flurries of snow. The fire had burned out long ago and left the room frigid. You quickly made a new fire.

Aeryn stirred, roused by the sounds of kindling and sparks. She sat up slowly on the shabby bed, turning weary eyes on you. Her voice was barely audible. "I was afraid I'd lost you."

You turned quickly at her voice. "Well, I don't know but that you almost did." The air in the room was still well below freezing, and it dropped further with the words you spoke.

It felt like you should have said less than you did.

You slide home between her thighs. Your body knows every inch of hers, and most of it by proxy. In a place in the back of your mind, it's not so much like having sex as it is like watching a home-made porn movie. His memories, and your experience. Your limbs shake with the desire for Noranti's clever drugs.

But Aeryn's warm, inside of her and pressed against her and it's so cold outside. The shaking is easily masked, and she doesn't notice.

Your climax is a blinding white-out, a little like love and a lot like panic. Your only coherent thought is that, after all, you don't want to be the other guy. If this is as close to heroism as you're going to get, you don't want it. You don't want every touch of her body to be colored by this strange double vision.

You aren't sure you want it at all anymore, but if you and Aeryn fall in love, or fall in love again, you want it to be from the beginning.

"You're going to have to trust me," she says, and you let her have the wheel. You're driving the Thunderbird down the main street of Dam-Ba-Da, only it looks more like Annapolis. In fact, that's the house you lived in on your tenth birthday. It was by no means home, except in the vestigial sense that Mom had put up all the pictures and the closets smelled of Grandma Crichton's old linens, which came in three fresh varieties of mothball.

Scorpius is in the backseat doing a parade wave. Elbow, elbow, wrist, wrist. He's a pro. This surprises you less than it should.

And then you realize the Annapolis house has changed, been renovated into something you hardly recognize anymore. It's larger and rounder, and there's no yard but the blackness of space surrounding it. In fact, it's not the Annapolis house at all, it's a Command Carrier.

It explodes.

Aeryn stands in front of you with her hands and face covered in blood, and you can't tell if it's hers or someone else's. There are bodies scattered across the floor of Moya's Command, Scarran and Nebari and countless other species. "You did the right thing, John." She gestures behind you, out the view screen. The panorama from here is awesome; a giant, hypnotic wormhole surrounded by the charred remains of God knows how many planets. She creeps up behind and wraps her arms around you, smears blood all over you in the process. "Think of how many species they'd have killed before it was over." She turns your face to hers with a sticky hand. "You're the last of your kind, John. And so am I."

You think of the Ancients, and wonder if it's possible to turn their own gift against them.

"You should have trusted me," she murmurs, turning to you in her sleep on a miserable ice planet, and you want to echo her words into her own ear. You want to, but this entire experiment is a perversion of everything you love. Maybe if you didn't love her, none of this would ever have happened.

2: "Dying is an art, like everything else."

You wake the second morning, and realize that you're not dreaming about regrets. You're dreaming about love. Love, and wholesale destruction.

You don't dream of Aeryn anymore, not with her laying impassively beside you in a grimy prison cell. You don't dream about oceans and warm sand, root beer floats, snow cones, soft slippery wisps of pleasant things.

You dream of corpses.

You dream about Earth's sun peeled layer from layer by a dozen wormholes, swallowing steel mammoths in the expanding Scarran-Sebacean war. The sun dies finally after the battle has passed. Its diminished mass no longer creates enough gravity to hold the solar system together, and the planets spiral slowly outward. Earth is not the focus of the battle, but a casual byblow, hanging on by a thread. It turns cold and brittle, freezes once and for all time. The last Ice Age.

They all die, because they did not have interstellar flight.

You don't dream of Aeryn anymore. You see only the false and fragile beauty of corpses the color of Dresden china. Sebacean faces could be human faces, and if you've killed one race, you've killed two.

You wake with beads of sweat turning to ice on your brow. An emotion stirs in your gut, and it's suddenly so clear, clearer than the traces of black marks which adorned your wrists and your thighs all those months ago. You can't let it happen. You won't. There's enough blood on your hands already. You nearly had wormholes figured out on the command carrier. You cracked them finally on Elack. There's no reason you can't do it again.

You'll have to be careful.

Once upon a time, you know how those stories go. Once upon a time, there was a girl, there was a boy. There was danger in the hands of an enemy, or an equipment malfunction, or plain bad luck. And so on, and so on...

You know how those stories go, because they are yours.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far from your home, a certain species was given the ability to unlock the power of the wormhole. You see now that nothing is new in the universe, that things only move in circles so vast the path seems like a straight line.

The fury of the unrighteous came down swiftly on two stranded travelers, and their unwilling hosts were not, suffice it to say, quite happy with their new guests. These guests, you see, happened to hold the power of the wormhole somewhere in the silences that stretched between them. As if one word could crack a spark and send them both spiraling along forever.

They were brought before the queen, so beautiful and so terrifying in her lust for power, for more time, for blood.

It was some comfort to the travelers to realize that they still knew how to work together, to formulate a plan and put it into action in the time it took to exchange a glance. They were formidable in their own right, you see.

Escape was, of course, a foregone conclusion. That's how stories like these play out. They stole an atmosphere-bound transport, which was shot out of the sky. They plummeted to the ground in a spectacular display of smoke and fire.

Thus enter our heroes. You know them. They might well be you. They might well be.

You remember, like in a haze at dawn, being invited to DK's house one summer. Little Johnny, young and trusting and naive, sitting through dinner with DK's parents and his terrifying grandmother. She couldn't talk right. DK said, she couldn't talk right anymore.

You were, maybe, seven or eight.

DK's grandmother had a scar running across her cheek that was still an angry red, even though her skin had gone old and soft. And when she reached out for the butter, you saw a flash of blue ink in a death march up her arm.

Later, when the two of you were playing outside, the sunset gritty and orange, you made a joke about "your grandmother's tattoo."

That was the only time DK ever hit you.

And you said, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I didn't understand.

You would sometimes feel, much later, like you were still making up for that mistake.

  1. "The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna, are not very pure or true."

You wake the first morning with sweat frozen in a delicate crystal matrix over your entire body. You're not dreaming of wormholes or of culpability. You're dreaming of Aeryn.

There was once a brave and beautiful princess who grew up to become a wise and dignified queen. Her people had been given a rare gift many thousands of cycles ago, and they guarded it jealously.

The believed themselves the only beings shrewd and intelligent enough to use the gift wisely. They disdained any who discovered a form of it on their own, believing the new technology to be inferior to their gift, and vulgar in application. They believed that the slow decline of their planet's prosperity was due to natural occurrences, scientific fact. Cosmic flux. Their histories told of a time when their Space was Blessed, not Tormented.

Many cycles ago, their planet had been lush and green, the kind of place where warm breezes rustled the leaves all year long. Now it was mostly dead.

Truth is often stranger than fiction. And therefore not to be believed.

Some began to worship the gift-givers as gods, and the few who held it became priests. Their people would be delivered in due time. That was, after all, the purpose of the gift. It could reverse their fortunes. Some said it could reverse the very progression of time.

Then they heard your name. John Crichton, on everyone's lips. They learned you had been given their gift. The people learned the priests had not been in possession of it for some time. So long that, on other planets, their gift was merely the stuff of legend.

You shattered their idyll, just by existing.

And then one day, you delivered yourself and Aeryn right into their hands.

Aeryn's face is masked in finely woven cloth, fine as her skin, and she wears the mask day to day. She is mourning, covering her face in her mourning, you think, and wonder when she'll give up her widow's walk and let you see her face again.

The only part you're allowed to see are her eyes, and not even those all the time. Her eyes are crystal; sharp, glittering with untold lies. Her eyes frighten you, because while the rest of her face is blank, one droop of her heavy eyelids can make your stomach churn.

You see worlds in her eyes. Civilizations rising and being destroyed, crushed in one gesture by the equations rattling around your brain. Everyone in the Uncharted Territories is teetering on the edge of massacre. Everyone wants to wipe the stars clean of their foes rather than step back for one moment, step back and try to make sense of the universe.

You stopped trying to make sense of it long ago, maybe before you ended up on Moya. And yet, you're not willing to give up the hope that it might all fall into place one day.

None of you are saints, and what you've done is merely the lesser of many evils. But anything, anything is better than letting worlds disintegrate on a whim. Because it's on your hands, and your hands are stained with enough blood already.

And every once in a while, you can see Aeryn peering at you from behind her skintight mask, but you can't tell if she's pondering the planes of your body or the twisted causeways of your mind.

In some ways, you're not trying to right your wrongs. You're trying to right the wrongs of your entire planet, aching with regret as you remember sitting in a containment cell on Earth, hearing the accusal in Aeryn's voice. Not even Peacekeepers. They were going to go to Earth, Aeryn and the other guy, and you've finally seen what a phenomenally stupid idea that would be. You resisted it for a long time, but it doesn't make it any less true.

You think, briefly, of the millennia encompassed by Sebacean history. Space-bound by the time of Christ. It must be a survival instinct that they are taught to disregard it. You don't think you could possibly bear the weight of that much history.

As it is, you sometimes have a vision of yourself, of the gods punishing you, unleashing their fury at you for bringing worlds beyond back to your own. You hold on your shoulders the accomplishments of men like your father; you hold on your shoulders the burden of accountability and the burden of proof.

You walk a tightrope of stars, and they are like crushed glass under your feet. And you keep sinking and sinking and sinking.

You cannot fault her sense of self-preservation, and you cannot fault her honor. But you cannot abide her deal with Scorpius, and you cannot see a way around this impasse. It's part of a larger problem, the key figure in an essential equation. You spend your nights searching for the last set of variables.

You're not looking for the right answers. You're looking for the right questions.


the end

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