Category: Alternate Universe.
Disclaimer: I do not own (nor am I ever likely to) the characters or universe of Farscape. I wish I did, because
they’d be plotting out Season 9, and there’d be a ‘Farscape Channel’. I have not profited from writing this
story, except to prevent the Youses Muses Gang from turning me into Purina Budong Chow. (They’re very
short tempered when they’re waiting for me to record the story they want me to relay to everyone.)
Spoilers/Time Frame: No spoilers, no specific time frame. Just plain old Farscape.
Note to the reader: This time around, I think you really need to read the preceding story, 'In Need Of
Sunlight', in order to understand what is going on in this one. It picks up right after that one left off.
HOWEVER, In Need Of Sunlight has a high-R/low NC-17 rating for the second part (the ‘Addendum’). It has
what I’ve jokingly begun referring to as Smut-Lite, so if you would prefer NOT to get into that sort of stuff, you
can stop reading when you get to the Addendum, and you’ll have all the information necessary for this tale to
Hope you enjoy it,
* * * * *
Waking to find she was already sitting up -- sweating, heart hammering away like a recoilless defense cannon,
skin buzzing with leftover tension -- was always a bad way to start the day. Aeryn Sun took a deep breath,
closed her eyes, and devoted several microts to battening down her emotions. Working herself into a frenzy of
desperation wasn’t going to help them find John. Another day of careful searching, doing everything possible
to make sure that no one on the planet discovers that the blind ‘sebacean’ is of value, will require every bit of
patience she can muster.
Then she remembered.
They had found him. He was all right. Battered, half-starved, and exhausted beyond anything she’d seen
except after the Gammak Base, but basically unharmed. The painful clenched knot in her stomach loosened,
released its strangling grip on the rest of her intestines, and she began breathing more easily. Aeryn turned,
reaching for where she knew John was lying sound asleep -- and found nothing but empty bed. There wasn’t
even a vestige of warmth to suggest he had been there.
The second lurch of shock was far worse than the one that had woken her. The first had been the product of a
dream; this was the continuation of a waking nightmare. For one microt, it had felt real. She had been certain
that they had located John, the antidote had worked, and he had fallen asleep beneath her, the quiet whoosh
of his breathing lulling her into a hypnotic state where she could finally fall into the first deep sleep in days.
Now she wasn’t so sure. Two sets of images were tangled into a sleep-dazed knot, one that she was having
trouble sorting out. A quick scan of the cell showed no sign of him, hinting that the less pleasant version was
the correct one.
“No,” she whispered. She rolled over, across the barren section where John belonged, and swung her feet
over the side of the bed. “Oh, Cholak save me.” They had found John after all. All the proof she needed to
convince her of that event was amply provided by her own body, and every bit of uncertainty melted away in an
split-microt. She ached. It was the quiet, pleasant morning-after discomfort of tired, over-stretched muscles,
interspersed with sharper pangs testifying to the knobs and protrusions on the shower wall and the desperation-
induced frenzy of their evening’s activities.
Aeryn got up slowly, fighting her way upright with muscles that hadn’t been given enough food or rest over the
past several days, muscles that also testified she hadn’t been asleep for more than a few arns. She reached
over her shoulder to gently finger a sore spot near her spine. “Frelling leviathan,” she whispered to the quiet
chamber. The raw area was the reason she had asked John to move from the shower to some place less
abrasive and unyielding. Her fingers found and caressed another abused area. This one was at the top of her
shoulder near her throat. Her shirt would never cover it; it was too high on her neck. “Frelling Crichton,” she
cursed the source of the small injury.
Saying his name reminded her why she was awake at that arn. Aeryn slid into the loose-fitting shirt and pants
she preferred as nighttime wear, and ducked cautiously through the shimmering drapes that provided marginal
privacy to the chamber’s occupants. As she expected, the cell doors were open, undoubtedly left that way by
John in an attempt to not wake her. The corridor outside their quarters was empty and silent. That wasn’t
unusual. The current crew roster of six was not large enough to ever fill the tiers with noise and movement, not
even when they were at their busiest. But this was the pervading silence of mid-sleep-cycle -- ‘nighttime’ as
John insisted on calling it. Aeryn glanced left and right, made a guess at where he might have gone, and
headed for the Center Chamber.
She found him right where she expected. John was lounging with his back against the wall, turned so he could
look out the portals, working his way through one of several trays of food arranged haphazardly on the table.
He greeted her by dropping his feet to the floor and deftly popping several protruding bits of food into his
mouth with a finger. “Hey. Didn’t mean to wake you,” he slurred through the mouthful.
“You didn’t. I woke on my own.” Aeryn slid onto a seat next to him and then devoted several microts to
surveying the array of dishes. “This looks like more than your usual midnight snack.”
“I was too hungry to sleep. I came down here to get a fistful of munchies. Once I got started, I couldn’t seem
stop. Call me ‘garbage disposal’.” He waved a small dish in her direction, inviting her to join in.
She caught the flailing crockery, peered inside to see what he was working on, and snared one of the
delicacies. They sat silently for the time it took her to crack the carapace between her teeth and extract the
meat. Aeryn plucked the container out of his hands, reserving the last few for herself. “Hedrian beetles. You
John responded by dragging a different dish closer and starting in on a congealed mass of leftover stew. “I was
dying for some protein. You keep saying there isn’t any food this side of Jupiter higher in protein than those
ugly little varmints.”
“So you’ve finally learned to like them.”
“No. They still taste like steamed inner tubes to me.” He watched her crack another of the multi-legged like
creatures, and shook his head. “I can’t believe you actually enjoy those things. It’s like eating a cockroach.”
“You like the fried Kolfrinian eels,” she said, pointing down the table to a platter of the crunchy strips. “Now
there’s a disgusting food. Those things squirm when they’re alive. They’re more like worms than --”
“Don’t ruin it! Aside from your steamed rubber bugs, it’s the only type of meat on this table that doesn’t taste
like chicken, Aeryn.” He punctuated his sentence by pointing at the last beetle in her dish, then stretched to
one side and snared a fistful of the fried eels. “Don’t screw it up by reminding me what these look like before
they’re cooked. For now, I can pretend they’re onion rings.” Crichton eyed one of the strips for a moment,
then added, “only straightened out a bit,” and tossed it in his mouth.
Aeryn finished the last of her snack, pushed the empty dish to one side, and checked the contents of a large
flask. She poured herself a raslak and leaned back where she could watch John more easily. He paused to
look at her, eyebrows raised in silent inquiry.
“Keep eating. You need it,” she said.
“That’s not what I was thinking.” He leaned closer, tilting his head to look at something.
John’s proximity gave her a chance to look at him more closely without feeling as if she was conducting some
sort of Peacekeeper inspection. It gave her an opportunity to note the gaunt hollows that she wouldn’t have
predicted would appear in just five short days, signs of how little he’d managed to find to eat; to spot the
lingering dusky streaks of dirt embedded in his skin that his vigorous scrubbing hadn’t removed; and to register
the pinkish tinge to his eyes, evidence of the antidote that would continue to circulate through his body for
several more days.
John glanced up to find her staring at him. “Everything okay?”
She brushed a knuckle against the lower lid of one of his eyes, carrying away a smear of moisture, then turned
her hand so he could see it. If gathered in greater amounts, as when his eyes had been streaming after the
injection of the antidote, his tears were a dark red.
“I know. If I concentrate on it, the colors I’m seeing are a little off.” John grinned more widely. “Want to see
what happens when I --”
“No! You’ve shared that with me twice already. It’s a lovely color, John.” After his initial shock had worn off,
he’d been delighted with the change being produced by the interaction of the antidote’s enzymes and his renal
organ. She decided it was a good time to change the subject. “What has got you so fascinated?”
He lightly fingered the spot on her neck that she had found before leaving their quarters. “You need to be
more careful around wild animals. Something bit you.”
“You bit me!” Aeryn checked the doorway, inexplicably convinced that she would find the rest of the crew
standing there listening. “How many times have I asked you not to do that? At least not where it shows.”
“I got carried away,” he said. John shrugged and nonchalantly popped several more strips of fried eel into his
mouth. “I’m not the only one.”
It brought her up short, stilling her next objection before it could be given voice. “What is that supposed to
mean?” she demanded. Something stirred inside her stomach and chest, something irrational and angry. She
fought it down and tried to concentrate on what he was doing. John was on his feet, turning his back toward
her. He lifted his shirt, revealing the spattered, darkening pockmarks left behind by fingers that had grabbed
too tight, the artwork of a grip that had clutched so frantically at his back and shoulders that it had left the
quick-fading superficial bruises.
She was supposed to blush and laugh it off; especially since there was no one in the chamber to see what they
had done to each other in their exuberance. Relief at having him back, safe and unharmed by the toxin, was
supposed to override any mild embarrassment and turn it into laughter and more teasing. None of those things
happened. Aeryn fought it, trying to control whatever was happening, only to lose ground to an inexplicable,
all-encompassing fury. John yanked his shirt down, and turned around with his foolish grin already in place,
ready to parry her next humorous attack with his own special brand of silliness. She knew she had to get away
before she exploded and said something that would lead to days of misunderstanding and shared pain. Aeryn
slammed her raslak down, and spun out of her seat, wanting only to get away from him. But John was on his
feet, and caught her easily before she could bolt.
“Hey, I didn’t mean anything by it. Aeryn, what the hell is going on?”
“Let me go!” She slapped at his hands, trying to get loose without hurting him. “Just leave me the frell alone!”
He ducked his head, taking most of the half-hearted blows on his shoulders and arm where they wouldn’t do
any damage. “No! Stop it. Just tell -- Aeryn, cut it out!” He spun her around, over-powering her more easily
than he should have been able to, and wrapped both arms around her, ending the brief spat. She bucked and
yanked anyway, driven by something she didn’t recognize. John tightened his embrace, lifted both of her feet
off the ground, and hung on.
“What was that all about?” he asked when she stopped struggling. He lowered her feet to the ground.
“Let me go,” she said. It came out flat and harsh. She could hear for herself the complete absence of emotion
in her voice and, for a moment, was carried back to her early days with Crichton when feelings were a greater
threat than the strange alien human who had destroyed the only life she had ever known. She tried again,
more softly. “Please, let me go. I’m sorry.”
John retained a light grip on her arm, making sure she couldn’t leave. “Sit down,” he said, managing to make it
sound like a request rather than a demand. He waited while she chose a seat across the table from him, and
then plunked her raslak down in front of her. John returned to his half-reclined spot against the wall, his
intense gaze the only hint that anything unusual had happened. He pulled a platter toward him, plucked out
half a dozen rice balls, tossed one into the air and caught it in his mouth.
“Drink,” he ordered around the mouthful.
“I don’t need any more to drink.” It had to be fatigue and what little raslak she had already consumed that had
combined to make her act so irrationally. There was no other explanation for her behavior. One moment she
had felt nothing but love and relief that he was safe, thinking of how the poison had robbed him of everything
necessary for survival on his own, and the next microt she had been acting like an emotionally overcharged
“You need something.” His murmur teetered perfectly on the edge of being audible: just loud enough so she
could hear it, and yet quiet enough that he could argue he hadn’t meant her to make out the words. Aeryn bit
her lip and turned away from him.
She turned when he didn’t continue. John was resting his head on his hand, slowly rolling the five remaining
rice balls around on the table in front of him.
“I don’t know what set that off. I said I’m sorry.”
“I don’t have the energy to cope with this. I’m tired, Aeryn, and in case it doesn’t show, that crap you injected
into me hasn’t quit. I’m on fire from cranium to crotch, and it’s not a real pleasant sensation. I don’t mind
because it’s better than doing the three blind mice act, but I don’t have what it takes to dig through to whatever
is bothering you.” He slid down until his head rested on his folded arms and looked up at her from his slumped
“Then don’t. For once in your life, let it go. There’s no regulation that says we have to resolve every one of
these things as they happen. Let it go, John.” Aeryn skirted the table to resume the seat she’d taken earlier,
and began rubbing his back. “We should go back to bed. You need sleep.”
“Aeryn, you went from the glowing warrior princess on the white stallion thundering in to save the injured hero
to the flipped-out expert in avoidance in under five microts flat --”
“Crichton,” she warned. Less than half of his sentence had made any sense to her. Even after allowing for his
exhaustion, that was approaching a record.
“You went from smiling and joking to full shutdown mode in record time, Aeryn. Don’t sit there and tell me
nothing is bugging you. I’ll understand if you’re pissed at me for managing to get into that mess. I still don’t
understand what that guy used on me. There’s no way I would know what to avoid the next time around.” He
sat up, fingered one of the discarded rice balls, and tossed it toward the waste funnel. It missed and fell to the
floor with a quiet moist-sounding smack.
“I’m not angry with you.” Aeryn laid her head on his shoulder and leaned into him, renewing her familiarity with
the solid feel of his body. “That wasn’t it.”
“I don’t know. I give you my word of honor; I don’t know why I got so angry. It was simply there before I knew
what was happening -- unfocussed and uncontrollable. I didn’t want you to have to deal with this. That’s why I
tried to leave.” She rubbed his back again, a simple up-down motion along his spine. She could feel the
quivering muscles of fatigue, some of them knotting under the simple strain of staying awake. “Let’s go back to
bed. We can figure this out later.”
His stomach chose that moment to growl, delivering a clear message into the suddenly silent chamber. “I’m not
going to be able to sleep until I get some more to eat. I’d only just gotten started when you arrived. Talk to me
while I munch.”
“I don’t want to talk about --”
“Then don’t. Tell me about something else.” Crichton nudged her, asking her to sit up, and pulled a different
container toward him. He sniffed at the contents, shook his head, and exchanged it for a different one.
Aeryn tossed the discarded rice balls one by one into the center of the waste funnel. John’s snort of disbelief
at the accuracy of her aim finished what his relaxed unspoken forgiveness had begun. The guilt surrounding
her irrational behavior melted away, leaving the earlier lightheartedness in its wake. “Like what?”
“I don’t know.”
His shrug was a hair too nonchalant. It was the carefully constructed façade that John used whenever he had a
particular goal in mind and wasn’t ready to reveal it. She knew better than to attack him head on. Finding out
what he was up to required a subtle approach. Distracting him with something else was always an effective
start. “You want me to talk, tell me what to talk about.”
“What happened after the fight? Last thing I remember is getting hit with something wet. Tell me what that stuff
is, and how to avoid it next time.”
Aeryn sighed, made herself more comfortable, and tried to dredge the facts out of her memory. Concocting the
antidote several days earlier had required that she recreate a dimly remembered training lecture on how to
counteract the poisonous substance. The briefing on how to create the poison itself, which had occurred
cycles ago when she was a sub-officer, was even more deeply buried. No one had paid much attention beyond
what was necessary to complete the evaluation at the end of the instructional unit. Sebaceans were too
susceptible to the toxin; no soldier in her right mind would ever attempt to formulate it without a full lab and a
“Aeryn?” John nudged her, bringing her back from those days of comradery and shared competition. Those
were predominantly good memories, filled with pride and a sense of accomplishment, and yet as she returned
to the reality of Moya’s Center Chamber, Aeryn was shocked to find that she was on the verge of another angry
“Give me a microt,” she snapped. He turned away, clearly smothering whatever response came most naturally
to him. “It was a long time ago. I need some time to remember what I was taught.”
“Fine.” John stuck his nose into a flask and slurped noisily at the contents for a few moments.
“It’s a toxin that interacts with the victim’s own body fluids --”
“Thanks. I figured that much out on my own.”
It was John at his worst, making things difficult for her just when she needed patience. The desire to go back to
bed and leave him to his extensive snack expanded to the point that it overrode her anger. She managed to
remain relatively calm, challenging him with, “Do you want to know about the toxin or not?”
“It’s made by distilling watruka sap. The process separates out the lethal toxins, leaving behind a compound
that creates blockages of some sort in the victim’s synapses. Some species carry it around for no other reason
than to disable someone in a fight, just like someone did to you. The toxins accumulate primarily in the brain,
but it affects the entire body.”
“I remember that my feet always seemed numb,” John interjected.
“It was cold out. They probably were.” He glared at her and she relented. “Some of that would have been the
poison, but it was cold at night. You’re lucky your feet didn’t freeze.”
He nodded and kept munching. “So the antidote dissolves all that crap.”
“Most species have the right combination of chemicals or whatever in their bodies to do it on their own. As far
as I know -- As far as I was taught, sebaceans are the only species that can’t recover without some sort of
“Sebaceans and humans,” John corrected.
It happened again. Anger, or something closely related to it, flared up, making it hard to respond to his
mindless comment reasonably. Aeryn turned to look out the portals. If she got up and left, he would know that
something was bothering her, and would almost certainly come after her, badgering her to talk about it. But if
she stayed, she was just as certain to lash out with a hurtful comment. She searched for something else to talk
about, something close enough to the topic of the poison that John wouldn’t object to the change in subject, but
far enough away that she might calm down before it was too late.
“What do you remember about the barfight?” she asked.
“Fists, yelling, chaos, nothing -- in that order,” he answered.
Aeryn took a slow breath and began telling him what it had been like from her perspective.
* * * * *
Behind her, the yelling and smashing eased from a full-out din to a level she would have described as merely
deafening. Aeryn ducked a wildly thrown punch, backhanded her opponent into a corner, and then, using the
momentum to spin her around, turned to see how Chiana was faring. She wasn’t fighting … exactly. Chiana
was using a different selection of talents keep from getting harmed in the midst of the riot. The nebari’s
sinuous, sexually suggestive motions had two males transfixed. The pair was standing motionless, open-
mouthed, staring at the slender, devious enchantress.
“You think you might like some of this?” Chiana’s customary purr was elevated to a growl in order to be heard
over the bedlam. Her hands stroked the inside of her thighs. Both nodded eagerly, for the moment rendered
oblivious to the chaos around them. “Well, try some of this first!” she yelled, and kicked one and then the other
squarely in the mivonks.
A flickering motion to one side drew Aeryn’s attention away from the howling, suffering victims on the floor and
the laughing figure standing over them. She had her pulse pistol out of its holster and aimed between the eyes
of the male approaching from her right before he could begin to slow his angry rush. “That … is a very bad
idea,” she said. He backpedaled furiously, slipped, and wound up scrambling away from her on hands and
For a few moments, the two women stood in a clear area of the floor, as though resting in the eye of a storm,
dozens of individual fights raging all around them. Aeryn had enough time to spot Noranti perched on the bar,
smashing bottles over the head of anyone who got close enough to her to receive her hard-swung benediction,
and to locate D’Argo near the door. The luxan was grabbing one brawler at a time by the scruff of the neck and
whatever other piece of anatomy he could latch onto, and heaving them out the door. Although his efforts
weren’t doing anything to stop the fighting, he was gradually clearing the building. Although Crichton was
nowhere in sight, she wasn’t worried about him. She could hear one of his never-ending streams of mindless
comments off to one side.
“Look out!” Chiana yelled.
Aeryn instinctively dodged to one side. A lifetime of training took over before she had a chance to locate the
threat; all that mattered, drilled into her by brutal repetition, was that she not remain in the spot she had been
occupying a microt earlier. One of the ladder-like racks used to hold bottles of raslak smashed down on the
floor beside her, wielded by yet another of the brawling bar patrons. Aeryn spun away from him, one heavily
booted foot lashed out with the momentum of her turn, and her attacker went sprawling under the feet of
another pair of combatants.
She lost track of time and effort, lost track of everything except knuckles, elbows, knees, and feet. For a time
there was nothing but block and parry, evade wildly thrown punches, try to offer a little help to Chiana whenever
their respective fights took them closer to each other, and watch out for surprise attacks from behind her. It
was a glorious waltz of flowing energy -- a well-conditioned body doing what it had been bred and trained to do.
It came to an end all at once. The madness stopped as abruptly as it had begun, leaving her kneeling on one
hapless male with her pulse pistol grinding into his forehead.
“Are we done now?” she demanded of him. He nodded with difficulty, straining against the pressure of the
weapon pressing against his head. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, yes, yes!” he insisted. “All done. No more fighting.”
“Aeryn!” D’Argo’s alarmed bellow broke into the suspended moment. “Aeryn, where are you?” D’Argo waded
through the mass of panting, dazed brawlers, Chiana trailing anxiously in his wake. Already-staggering bodies
were tossed to either side, propelled by a frantic luxan.
Aeryn released the frightened being lying beneath her and got to her feet. “I’m right here. What’s the matter?”
“Can you not smell it?” he demanded. “Are you sure you’re not affected?”
She sniffed cautiously. “Smell what? I can’t smell much of anything except unwashed bodies.”
“Grefalkic.” He gave it the luxan name. “That frelling poison made by refining --”
“The sap from a watruka plant,” Chiana finished for him. “Someone in here was using it. We’ve found at least
six people who got hit with it.”
“It wasn’t me. There aren’t any other --” She had meant to say ‘sebaceans in here’, addressing D’Argo’s
obvious concern over the more permanent effects the poison had on her species. The planet was a spacing
center, devoted almost entirely to the production and maintenance of spacecraft, which meant that every major
population center was awash in hundreds of different sentient, space-going species. There were blessedly few
sebaceans mixed in, and they hadn’t spotted a single Peacekeeper in the three planetary days they’d been
“Crichton!” she said, realizing that there was one other person at risk. Over the cycles, his human physiology
had repeatedly proved to be all too similar to sebaceans. “Where’s John?”
“CRICHTON!” D’Argo bellowed over the quiet hubbub of the crowded room. There was no answering cry.
“CRICHTON!” D’Argo began bulldozing his way across the room toward the corner where she had last seen
John fighting, repeating his loud summons while tossing startled patrons out of his way.
“Frell!” Aeryn began a quieter but no less anxious scan of the huge room, searching for someone specific: the
last person she’d had time to see fighting with John. It had been very near the end of the chaotic brawl, and
very likely the last person he had been forced to fight.
Chiana trailed along behind Aeryn. “Maybe he knows what to do. Maybe he’s just curled up somewhere
waiting for us to find him.”
“If he got hit with it, then he probably can’t understand anything but English at this point, Chiana. And he is
almost certainly blind and confused. We have to find him quickly, before he wanders off. Only Cholak knows
where he might wind up on this planet if we don’t track him down quickly.” She spotted the person she was
looking for, a thick-bodied female Saultarian. Aeryn was on her in an instant, ramming the taller, heavier
female up against the wall with her pulse pistol jammed up against the yellow-skinned throat. “Search her. See
if she has more,” she ordered Chiana.
“Here it is. This tralk is the one who used it,” the nebari answered almost immediately. Slim, gray fingers
plucked half a dozen small vials out of the female’s belt.
“Where is the sebacean male you used this on?” Aeryn demanded. “Where was he taken?”
“Thrown out the back door,” came the half-strangled answer. “With the other unconscious bodies. Always
done that way. His problem if he loses a fight.”
“Frell!” Aeryn spun away, the object of her brutal attentions already forgotten. “Chiana --”
“On my way.” The slender body slipped away through the crowd before Aeryn could ask her to start hunting for
“Keep your comms open!” Aeryn yelled after her. She waited long enough to catch the yelled
acknowledgement then began searching for the rest of the crew.
D’Argo was near the bar, snarling at one of the refreshment house’s owners. Rygel floated alongside the
hapless proprietor, wielding a Charrid ractor knife. The justifiably frightened man was shaking his head, eyes
darting back and forth between the two equally unpleasant threats, and pointing emphatically toward the rear of
the building where Chiana had just disappeared out the door. Noranti, on the other hand, was kneeling beside
one of the more battered patrons of the bar, mumbling small assurances and examining a gash in his scalp. As
Aeryn watched from across the room, the old woman blew one of her powders into the patient’s face. His eyes
rolled back in his head, and he keeled over backward. The crack of his skull hitting the floor suggested that, as
usual, the traskan’s cure would be worse than his original injury.
“Much better,” Noranti crooned. “No more pain, no pain at all.” She gathered her skirts and stepped carefully
past half a dozen similarly unconscious bodies, headed for another moaning, bleeding
“Noranti!” Aeryn called, stopping the woman before she could administer to the next unknowing victim. “I’ve got
a job for you, and it’s important. Get over here.”
“Busy, busy, busy,” came the distracted answer. “There are many to tend to, much to do. I can’t be bothered
“Get over here!” Aeryn ordered more loudly, spacing out her words for emphasis. She drew her pulse pistol,
considering shooting at Noranti if only to get her attention. “You have a far more important task to tend to, old
“Aeryn, we need to find John.” D’Argo was standing by her side, the noise of his approach smothered under
the clatter of chairs and tables being righted. Several of the establishment’s employees were gathering
damaged furniture and hauling it toward a back room. It looked like they’d had a lot of practice with this sort of
event. “They threw him out the back of the building.”
“I know. Chiana is already checking there.” Aeryn darted forward, grabbed Noranti by the back of her neck,
and dragged her squawking and complaining back to where D’Argo was waiting impatiently. “Listen to me, you
wrinkled old bag!” Aeryn snarled at her. “You are going to go to the commerce area near the landing port, and
you are going to find and purchase five things. Do you hear me?”
“A cure?” D’Argo asked.
“Yes.” Aeryn closed her eyes and concentrated on a long-ago lecture about how to reverse the toxin.
“Howler’s root, oil of velkum, three quats of chakan accelerant, powdered raw jellifan, and … and … Frell!”
“Relax, you can remember it,” D’Argo encouraged her. “Relax and let it come to you.”
“Howler’s, velkum, accelerant, jellifan,” she chanted quietly, raising one finger for each item.
“Oh no. You would never want to mix those together,” Noranti interjected. “Horrible taste, terrible. Very
unpleasant flavor, not to mention the damage to the cooker. Highly volatile in the presence of heat. Let me
“Roasted Klarian husks, finely ground,” Aeryn finished abruptly. The pulse pistol was out again, its muzzle
hovering a mere dench away from Noranti’s third eye. “You will buy those five items, package them, take them
to the transport pod, and comm one of us to take you back to Moya. When you get there you will leave all five
items in the maintenance bay. You will not cook them. You will not taste them. You will not turn them into a
stew or a soup or any other of your hideous recipes. Do you understand?” The final three words of her
speech were barked out with slow deliberation.
Rygel, hovering beside D’Argo, interrupted before Noranti could answer the angry demands. “You can’t
possibly be suggesting that we feed a mixture of those ingredients to Crichton. He’ll either scream his way to a
horrible, agonizing death or spontaneously combust after the first swallow. Not even Crichton deserves a fate
“Do you understand?” Aeryn repeated to Noranti, ignoring the hynerian.
“Yes. Of course. The most simple-minded of souls can remember that.”
The pulse pistol was jammed into its holster with excessive energy. “We’re wasting time we should be spending
looking for John. Remember -- Howler’s, velkum, chakan accelerant, jellifan, and Klarian husks.” She watched
Noranti for some sign that she had memorized the list. “Have you got that? It’s for Crichton, for an antidote.”
“Yes, for Crichton. I’ll take care of it right away.” Noranti spun toward the front door in a swirl of skirts and a
gusting billow of odor from her unwashed body ‘juices’. The three remaining crewmembers turned away as
one, nearly identical grimaces in place despite their disparate features. A wandering dialogue, barely audible,
drifted in her wake. “Perhaps if poured over some Ellidrian kelp salad. Yes, of course, that would offset the
acidic properties. It would need a garnish to overcome the more volatile --”
The entire population of the bar turned, startled stares looking for the source of the sizzling pulse weapon
blast. Aeryn’s pistol was back in its holster before anyone could move or make a noise. Noranti, frozen in her
tracks, bent forward and peered back at the threesome through the hole that had been burned through her
skirt. It passed through an unknown number of layers, front and back, several denches above the level of her
presumably wrinkled knees.
“Buy, transport, unload, and leave it the frell alone!” Aeryn yelled at the old woman, “or the next time I will aim
“Buy, transport, unload, and don’t touch it again,” Noranti agreed, still looking at them upside down through the
hole in her skirts. “Yes, I can see the wisdom in that. Yes.” She straightened up, gave the stunned occupants
of the building a haughty, three-eyed stare, and hurried out the front door.
“We are wasting time,” Aeryn repeated. “We have to find --”
“No sign of him anywhere out there,” Chiana interrupted. She slid to a stop next to D’Argo. “I checked
everywhere in the alley, and for a hundred motras in both directions along the street.”
“Are there slavers of any sort on this planet?” Rygel asked. “Perhaps he’s been abducted.”
D’Argo motioned for the others to lead the way toward the door. “Not that I’ve heard of since we landed. It’s
more likely that John has just wandered off. We’ll split up and start hunting. Ask the merchants if they’ve seen
“Sebacean. Remember to ask if they’ve seen a blind sebacean,” Aeryn added. “And deaf. He won’t be able to
understand anyone, so they’re going to think there’s something wrong with his hearing.”
Chiana paused outside the door, scanning the alley in both directions. “Maybe grefalkic isn’t as bad for
humans. Maybe … maybe he can understand what people are saying, or maybe it will wear off after a while.
Maybe humans are different than sebaceans.” When no one answered her, she turned around to face her
three crewmates. “What did I say?”
“You of all people, Chiana,” D’Argo said in a disbelieving tone. “When have we ever beaten the odds or simply
been lucky enough to have things go our way?”
“I was trying to --”
Aeryn broke into the impending argument. “Enough! We don’t have the time to waste on this. Chiana, Rygel,
head that way. When the street crosses another one, split up and check in both directions. The most natural
thing will be for him to stay along a wall, using it for guidance. John will be running on little more than instinct by
this time, not reason. So try to do things …” She searched for a word.
“--as if we were stupid?” Rygel asked, finishing her sentence.
“Yes. Go! D’Argo and I will check in the other direction. Comm us if you find anything.” She waved them on
their way, watched until they disappeared into the street, then turned the other way, deeper into the alley
running behind the refreshment house.
“Chiana said she already checked here,” D’Argo said. Despite his objection, he trailed along willingly,
periodically sniffing the air. “You’re looking for something.”
“I’m looking for anything that might help us. A boot print, an impression of his hand in the mud -- any sign that
he was here or which way he went. We can’t assume he automatically headed out of the alley. He may have
stumbled back here first, and then made his way out. Can you smell him? Anything of him at all?”
“No. All I can smell is dirt, garbage, and something incredibly rotten. It’s nothing but dren in here!” Together,
working in relaxed but urgent partnership, they checked the entire alley for tracks or any other evidence that
Crichton had been there. “Nothing,” D’Argo summarized their results. “How the hezmana could he wander
away from here so quickly? It couldn’t have been more than five hundred microts from the time he was tossed
out the door to when Chiana came out to look for him.”
Aeryn shrugged. It was useless conjecture. All that mattered at this point was that John had disappeared, and
with every passing arn it would become more difficult to find him. She offered a small explanation anyway,
understanding that D’Argo’s comment had been generated more by anxiety than true disbelief. “It doesn’t
knock you out for very long. Two hundred microts at most. We have no idea what else was going on out here
when he regained consciousness. If there was more fighting out here, he may have tried to get away from the
She paused at the mouth of the narrow alley, closed her eyes, and tried to imagine herself in John’s situation.
The sounds and smells of the street merged into a single bludgeoning confusion of input. The scream and
boom of ships coming and going at the nearby landing port periodically drowned out the never-ending
cacophony of traffic on the street. She could make out the deep whoosh of the ground effect vehicles,
grumbling engine noises, and the higher pitched whine of electric drive units. Voices -- shouting, talking,
laughing, with the occasional angry bellow mixed as a counterpoint -- merged into a single stream of sounds
that would make no sense at all to someone who had lost his translator microbes. It would be nothing better
than complete bedlam.
“Where next?” D’Argo asked, interrupting her sightless surveillance of the street.
“Let’s try that way,” she said, pointing. There was a sound in that direction that reminded her of Moya. When
she opened her eyes, it turned out to be a manufacturing plant, belching out thick, foul billows of soot.
Magically, transformed by the sight and knowledge of what she had really been listening to, what had sounded
like breathy leviathan-type rumblings was transmuted into the rhythmic growling of machinery. With sight it
made sense. Divorced of that input, sounds cloaked their true nature, mocking any attempt to analyze them.
“Over there,” she repeated, and led the way toward the one spot she might have been drawn to if she were in
* * * * *
Aeryn’s narration came to a stop. She sat staring out the view portal, seeing the bustling confusion on the
planet rather than the slow wheel of stars outside the leviathan, Crichton’s presence beside her forgotten for a
“It sounds like you know a little about what it was like.”
When she turned to look at him, John was studying the contents of a container with what could have been
exaggerated interest -- or he might have just been looking for something more to eat. Aeryn spent several
microts trying to decide if his comment was idle chatter or if he was asking a specific question, then dismissed
the entire conjecture as a waste of time. Her first reaction had been another flash of the inexplicable anger,
aimed primarily at John. But he wasn’t a threat. She knew that. It had been nothing more than an observation,
“Yes.” Her jaw clamped shut of its own accord, cutting off any further explanation.
“So you’ve been hit with this … what did you call it?”
“The luxan term is grefalkic. You’ll probably have more success with that than the Sebacean word for it.”
Although Crichton had managed to learn a fair amount of rudimentary Sebacean over the past several cycles,
certain terms continued to defy his attempts to pronounce them. The language’s prevalent consonants weren’t
the problem; it was the throat-snapping clicks and unvoiced glottals that he claimed would choke him to death.
He normally capped his complaints by professing that he considered Hynerian, with its babbling tangle of nearly
identical phonemes, an easier language to speak.
“So you’ve run into this grefalkic before,” he repeated. For once, he hadn’t bothered to butcher the word into
one of his inexplicable human variations.
“We were warned about it in training.”
“And taught how to make the antidote, right? You knew how to do that.”
Aeryn nodded and explained, “Sebaceans need to know how to reverse the effects. Other species don’t have
Crichton padded over to the refrigeration unit, moving silently on bare feet, and rummaged around inside for
several microts. “Cold barkan?” he asked, holding up a large container of the baked grain-loaf. Aeryn shook
her head. He brought it back to the table anyway, and began putting together the closest version to an Earth
sandwich he’d been able to come up with over the past few cycles.
“We’re out of tuna,” she said, teasing him.
John glanced at her, grinned, and went back to his food preparation. “This works out to something a little like
chicken loaf on whole grain.”
He settled back with his fistful of food and propped his feet up on the seat next to her, wiggling his toes for
several microts with what she thought might be nothing more than pleasure at being back aboard Moya. Aeryn
bent over his ankles, checking the infected wound. “Looks better already,” she told him.
“Aeryn, have you ever been poisoned by grefalkic?”
His tone was every bit as carefully nonchalant as his first question about her knowledge of the toxin. This time
she knew it was deliberate. John was being cautious, but he was probing. Aeryn turned away from him,
considering her options. Retreat, evade, parry, deception, frontal assault. It had been a very stressful five
days since they had begun their search for him, and she was tired. She didn’t have the energy to fence with
him. “Yes. A long time ago.”
John refilled her drinking flask, pushed it across the table toward her, and then asked a question she hadn’t
anticipated. “How did you guys find me? If it took you five days, it must have been a problem.”
It took her a moment to realign her thoughts. She’d been searching for some sort of half-explanation, half-
evasion about her experience with the toxin, and the fast change in direction, not to mention the raslak she had
consumed, left her floundering for several microts. “It took us a full planetary day to figure out which way you
had gone,” she began, picking up the tale where she had left off. “We decided that the fighting must have
spilled out into the alley and that you were trying to get away from the confusion. Do you remember any of
“Hell, Aeryn, I don’t even remember when or how I lost my damned boots. How far away from the refreshment
house was I when you found me?”
“Not far. A little less than a metra, but you managed to get across one of the busiest travel routes in the city
without getting run over by any sort of vehicle. That threw us off. We were looking closer to where you started,
thinking there wasn’t any way you could have gotten that far away in that particular direction.” In the space of a
single microt, all the frustration and anxiety of that first day returned, treating her to an uninvited and unwanted
encore. She had been concerned for his safety beyond the ability to act rationally, and it had been D’Argo who
had taken over command of the tiny search party while she obediently followed orders -- moving from shop to
shop, asking after a blind, drunken sebacean.
“I’m okay, Aeryn.” The small statement drew her away from the emotion-laden recollection. “It wasn’t a lot of
fun, but on the Crichton-scale of disasters, it only rates about a two. Having the same thing happen when we
had Scorpy on our asses would have scored closer to an eight. This was a stupid accident, nothing more.”
“It could have --” Aeryn turned away and poured herself more raslak. She didn’t need any more to drink. The
intoxicant had already loosened her tongue beyond good sense, but it gave her a reason to turn her back on
John. She was far too late. He hadn’t missed the slip.
“It could have what, Aeryn? What haven’t you told me about my little foray into Zombie-land?”
Enough of his sentence translated that she was able to figure out what he was saying. “Somby land?” she
asked anyway, hoping to divert him away from her unspoken concern.
“The land of the living brain-dead, staggering about aimlessly, stinking to high heaven, not knowing where I was
going next. Don’t try to distract me. Answer the question. What are you keeping from me? What don’t I
* * * * *
The wall of the building, well baked after several arns sitting in the afternoon sun, was warm against her back
where she leaned against it. Aeryn stretched for a microt, checked down the walkway in front of the merchants’
stalls to see if D’Argo was anywhere in sight, and then sank down to sit on her heels. Two and a half solar days
of searching had yielded nothing more than half a dozen vague descriptions of a beggar that may or may not
have been John. Inquiring in every business within half a metra of the refreshment house had only managed to
draw the interest of every local vendor looking to make a profit. Their bluntly direct method of looking for John
had come to an abrupt halt after no more than twelve arns. D’Argo and Chiana had arrived just in time to keep
her from shooting a merchant who refused to talk to her until she paid for his questionably reliable information,
and that was when they realized that their method was creating a new and unexpected hazard. They were
letting too many people know that John was of value to someone.
Now, to safeguard Crichton, wherever he was, they were resorting to a less overt hunt -- relying on overheard
conversations, vague hints or references about beggars or vagrants, in order to track him. Chiana was having
the most luck, sliding in and out of businesses unnoticed or plying a ship’s crew with drinks until it was safe to
ask about wandering bipedal humanoids dressed in black leather.
“Nothing,” D’Argo said. He dropped to one knee and shook his head.
“That food vendor said someone stole some of his produce. That might have --”
“Rygel overheard him complaining about it this afternoon. It was some of the children. The vendor caught
them at it. It wasn’t Crichton.”
“Frell! This is taking too long. No sighting of him, no definite leads, nothing at all.” She got to her feet and
began pacing restlessly, nervous energy bubbling up where microts earlier there had been only fatigue. “We
need to work further from the refreshment house.”
“We need to consider that someone may have found him and has either taken him off-planet or is keeping him
hidden until we are ready to pay an enormous amount of currency for him, Aeryn. We have to --”
“No! I won’t give up until we find him,” she snapped. “But it has to be soon. If we don’t, it is possible --”
Rygel’s voice burst over the comms. “I see him! Get over here. Hurry.”
The pair was off and running in a split-microt, headed for the portion of the street where they knew Rygel had
been searching earlier. “Where, Rygel? Where are we headed?” Aeryn called as they ran.
“Across the main throughway, turn away from the space port. Hurry. I can’t get there in time and I’m going to
“Go over the traffic!” D’Argo bellowed.
“I am, you luxan lunkhead. But I only caught a glimpse of him and he’s headed away from me. Shut up and
With Aeryn leading, her anxiety allowing her to outdistance D’Argo’s long legs, they ran into traffic without
regard for the speeding ground vehicles or the ground-effect trolleys that roared by in an unbroken stream.
The refreshment house where the brawl had taken place faced out onto the primary route leading from the
landing fields to the sprawl of the business district. Traffic ran day and night, ranging vertically from the surface
up to one hundred motras in altitude, each driver seemingly intent on beating every other vehicle to his
destination. Pedestrians who valued their lives took one of the tunnels spaced along the street in order to
cross from one side to the other. The sudden appearance of a sebacean and a luxan in the midst of all the
fast-moving chaos threw the traffic into a screeching, howling tangle of last microt avoidance and near-
collisions. The pair ignored the vehicular mayhem they had created and kept running.
“Where?” Aeryn called once they were back on a walkway. “Rygel, where is he?”
“I see you. Keep coming the way you’re headed. I’ve lost sight of him but he has to be close.” The comms
went silent for several microts and Aeryn tried to run faster. Shoving startled vendors and patrons aside, she
bullied her way through the crowd, watching for any sign of black clothing. Rygel’s voice continued the
instructions. “Count off six more alleys and then start hunting. He’s here somewhere. I had him in sight ten
microts ago. He can’t have gotten far.”
“You lost him?” D’Argo bellowed. “How could you let him get away?”
Rygel’s answering snarl was every bit as short-tempered and exasperated as D’Argo’s challenge. The two
days of fruitless hunting had everyone ready to explode at the smallest slight. “I didn’t let him do anything.
Shut up and start looking.”
“Leave it,” Aeryn ordered. “Leave Rygel alone and look for John.” She finished counting off the sixth alley as
the hynerian had instructed, motioned D’Argo past her, and turned to her left to begin the latest search.
Six arns later, weary and hungry, they gathered in a huddle just inside one of the myriad narrow alleyways.
Aeryn and Chiana sat with their backs against a wall with D’Argo and Noranti standing over them. Rygel floated
a motra to one side at waist height, slumped exhaustedly in his throne sled. Two arns after Rygel’s initial
sighting, they had commed Chiana -- who had returned to Moya several arns earlier to get some rest after
nearly fainting from exhaustion -- and recalled both her and Noranti to the planet to help with the hunt. Even
with five of them working an intricate Peacekeeper-designed search pattern, they hadn’t turned up so much as
a glimpse of Crichton or black clothing. Somehow, he had disappeared when they had been within a few
motras of him.
“You’re sure it was Crichton?” D’Argo asked Rygel. It was a question that had been asked ten or twenty times
over the preceding six arns. The Dominar didn’t bother answering this time.
“He could be listening to us right now and not understand a word we’re saying,” Chiana said, spinning around
to survey their surroundings. “He could be just out of sight and we wouldn’t know it.”
Aeryn grabbed on to D’Argo’s offered hand and pulled herself to her feet. “We’ll start over and widen the
pattern. Work in pairs this time to make sure we didn’t miss anything. I’ll work alone as the anchor point.
Standard unaugmented tri-axial sweep.” She took a step toward the street then had to stop when everything
around her got darker. Despite being the middle of the night, the street was even busier than during daylight
arns, and all but the farthest depths of the alleys were brightly illuminated by the lights shining down from the
tops of the buildings. Nighttime hadn’t slowed or impeded their efforts the slightest bit. Until now.
“Aeryn, you need to rest.” D’Argo’s voice seemed to come from a spot two or three hundred metras beyond
where he was standing behind her.
“No. Not until we find John.” She took two deep breaths and the light levels returned to normal. She knew that
it was fatigue and hunger causing the bizarre shift in her environment, and she didn’t care. Food and sleep
could wait until they found Crichton.
D’Argo caught her by one arm. “You haven’t had any sleep in two days and you’ve barely eaten enough to
keep a flibisk alive. Go back to Moya and rest. We’ll start the new sweep without you. Rygel can act as
anchor. He can get a better viewpoint anyway.”
“No!” She pulled free and took a step toward the street. “All of us need to hunt. We need to find him fast. It’s
taking too long.” The floodlights were suffering from a lack of energy again. Everything suddenly turned dim
and gray, and sounds became muffled. Even Chiana’s higher-pitched voice chiming in with D’Argo’s protests
sounded far away and indistinct. Aeryn took several deep breaths, concentrated on ignoring the exhaustion
beating at her, and the world regained its usual vibrancy.
“He’s close, Aeryn. We know he hasn’t been taken captive by someone and he’s alive. We’ll find him soon.”
D’Argo tried a second time to keep her from moving out into the crowds.
She yanked her arm free and nearly fell down. She was tired and hungry, and worst of all, she was starting to
panic. Aeryn fought the uncontrolled sensation down by force, only to have tears threaten instead. The two
equally unwelcome reactions battled for dominance, one taking hold whenever she concentrated on the other
long enough to quell either fear or tears. “No! We can’t take our time. We have to hurry. We have to … we
have to find him tonight.”
“Not tonight,” D’Argo said. “And you are going to get some rest one way or another.”
Concentrating hard on where deciding where to start the next sweep of the street, she barely acknowledged the
stinging slap against the side of her neck. Too late she realized what he had done to her, leaving her no time
to turn with a denial, a vicious accusation of betrayal, or even a threat of physical harm when she regained
consciousness. The haze of fatigue that had darkened her surroundings earlier turned to a darker black,
Aeryn had a split microt to reflect that this was what John had undoubtedly felt after being hit by the grefalkic,
and then everything was gone.
* * * * *
Aeryn took a sip of raslack and waited for John to say something. He hadn’t moved except to reach for more
food from time to time, and was still sitting with his back against the wall and his feet up on a seat. She had
turned to face away from him halfway through the account, and couldn’t seem to begin the small movement that
would allow her to check on his expression. Behind her, a larger container struck a metal flask, the distinctive
ring letting her know that he was pouring himself more to drink.
“I don’t remember ever having the privilege of watching D’Argo tongue you,” he said at last. “Wish I could have
been there to watch that!”
Aeryn nodded and waited for him to ask the obvious question. Once again she had stopped just short of
answering the question he had asked before her latest installment of the story. John was being patient with
her, and yet she knew from experience that his patience was far from limitless.
“You gonna make me ask?” he said after an additional ten microt silence.
“Ask why you were starting to flip out at the end of the second day when you knew I was somewhere close.
What haven’t you told me about this grefalkic stuff, Aeryn? What have you been keeping secret from me and
everyone else on board?”
Aeryn kept her back turned, finding it easier to stare at an empty wall on the far side of the Center Chamber
than to turn and look at John. “It happens very rarely, but sometimes it becomes permanent,” she confessed,
and then waited for the explosion. Nothing happened. She turned far enough to peek at him covertly out of the
corner of her eye, expecting to find fury waiting for her. John was calmly sipping his drink, picking at the
remains of his pronga-on-barkan sandwich, no hint of anger in sight.
“How does that work?” he asked. “What determines if it becomes permanent?”
“Genetics. The amount of time it’s in the body. No one is really sure. There’s no way of predicting it. All I
know is that the longer a sebacean goes without getting the antidote, the greater the chances it can’t be
John nodded, peeked at her from under his eyebrows, and went back to nibbling on the last bits of his
sandwich. “The antidote wouldn’t have worked at all?”
“I don’t have all the answers, John. I’d love to be able to give you every bit of the chemistry involved, all the
elements that go into determining whether it could have ever become irreversible in a human, and what you
could have expected if the antidote didn’t work completely, but I’m not a frelling scientist, and I don’t know much
more than how to make the frelling antidote!” She was on her feet without remembering getting up, moving to
leave the chamber before she even realized she was angry again. It was as though someone out of sight was
flipping a switch on and off, triggering reactions that she didn’t understand and couldn’t control.
“Aeryn!” John objected. “What the frell is going on? I wasn’t accusing you of anything. I’m just trying to
understand what the past few days were like for you. Stop beating me up because you had a lousy five days!
It wasn’t a vacation in the Caribbean for me either.”
“As if you had it bad!” she yelled at him. “You don’t even remember most of the past five days! How would you
even know what it was like?” The anger tumbled out of the spot where she had been keeping it contained. It
felt good to let it loose, to let it flow free, full of exuberant energy. “We were searching non-stop day and night
while you were wandering around bumping into walls and somehow managing to hide from us. If you weren’t so
good at running away and finding undetectable places to cower, we probably would have found you the first
day!” She slammed her empty drinking flask down on the table, the harsh whanging blow punctuating her
furious accusation, and started to get up in order to leave.
Crichton beat her to it. He swept the remaining dishes off the table without regard for their contents, vaulted
over it in one strong, graceful movement, and was halfway to the door before the clanging and crashing of
falling containers came to an end. “Screw this! I’m calling it a night,” he snapped as he crossed the remaining
distance to the doorway. “You want to throw a Class A hissy fit, pick on someone else, Aeryn. I don’t need this
‘my day was worse than your day’ bullshit. You think you had it so bad, next time you can play the part of the
brainless moron who gets to spend several days bashing around in knee deep garbage and sleeping in a
frelling hole in a wall.”
He spun away from her and took two more longs steps into the corridor. Aeryn started to fire an equally angry
frustrated retort at him, then stopped long enough to look at John before answering. His thin t-shirt and loose-
fitting black shorts offered little camouflage to obscure the signals being given off by his body. Shoulders
carried high and stiffly spoke not of his anger, but of the hurt he had just suffered; the tightened muscles in his
upper back and arms were the telltale clues that he was both angry and frustrated. And the pattern of purplish
blackening splotches littering his arms and bare legs told of abuse that he hadn’t yet had time to describe to
her … provided he even remembered what caused them. John started to turn to the left, looked to his right,
took one step in that direction, and then stood still, inadvertently letting her know that he didn’t want to leave
and wasn’t prepared to come back.
“Wait,” she said. The anger drained away as quickly as it had arrived. “Wait, John. I didn’t mean it.”
“I know.” His progress back into the Center Chamber was made up of one slow, indecisive step after another.
John stopped near the door, as far away from her as he could get without leaving the chamber, moved to one
side, and sank down to sit on the floor with his back against the wall. “You’re acting like a fruit loop, Aeryn --”
“Bonkers. Batty, wacko, wingnut, off your rocker. Any of those translate?”
“Most of them.” She got up and headed for the door.
John was on his feet and blocking her way before she could make it to the corridor. “My turn. That wasn’t nice
either. Don’t leave. Not this way; not angry.”
Aeryn turned away from him, facing to one side, and didn’t say anything.
He stepped out of her way, relenting. “Maybe you were right. We should get some rest and talk about the rest
of this tomorrow.” He returned to his spot on the floor, propped his arms on his knees, and sat hunched over,
looking as though he intended to spend the rest of the night there.
The idea of leaving was tempting. The idea of shunting the hurtful words off to the side, going to sleep, and
dealing with it some other time beckoned to her, urging her to forget all that they had said to each other this
night and start a new day as if it had never occurred. But they had done that all too often, and it never worked
the way they intended. The small slights always remained, lying in wait to send their next conversation awry. It
had happened every other time they had decided to put off a much-needed confrontation; there was no reason
to believe it would work any differently this time.
She wandered into the center of the chamber, nudged an overturned plate with her foot, and said, “Tell me
where you were hiding.”
“What?” John looked up from his spot on the floor, eyes bleary with fatigue, and she almost changed her mind
in favor of getting some sleep first. The past outcomes of some of their unfinished arguments sprang to mind
though -- moments filled with anguish, loneliness, and heartache -- and she pushed forward.
“We saw you twice and lost you both times. Where were you hiding? That alley where we eventually caught up
to you -- we searched it end to end twice and couldn’t find you.”
“There was a hole of some sort in the wall at the end. If I curled up tight I could just fit in. It was cramped, but
that way I stayed relatively warm until morning and no one bothered me.” John surveyed the mess he had
made on the floor when he had cleared off the table. “We should ask Pilot to send some DRDs down to clean
“Call him later. When we’re done in here.” Aeryn retrieved two clean drinking flasks and a larger container of
raslak from the storage bins, and picked her way through the debris field to join him. She handed him the cups
and the raslak, then slid down to sit beside him. “I was afraid we were going to lose you a third time. The
second time you went in there, we tried everything we could think of to find you. D’Argo tried to track you by
smell, but he couldn’t make out anything but rotting garbage --”
“That was probably me,” John interjected, smiling sheepishly at her. “The Big D was right on target, he just
didn’t know I smelled like a sewer by that time.”
“Do you have any idea how you managed to get across the street without getting run over by the traffic?”
He handed her a flask of raslak, poured one for himself while he considered her question, and finally shook his
head. “No. There isn’t a whole lot in my data banks about the first four days. You were right about that part of
it, Aeryn.” John treated her to a series of flickering, sidelong glances, as if leaving his eyes on her for too long
would set off another disagreement. “Any clue why I went in that particular direction?”
Aeryn leaned her head back against the wall and looked up at the ceiling, thinking about the bludgeoning
confusion, the disorientation of blindness, helplessness, and the inability to put complex pieces of sensory input
into any sort of meaningful order. The unpleasant, squirming crawl of anxiety, her constant companion over the
past five days, drifted from her stomach to the base of her spine, trying to goad her into an irritable reply. She
fought it down and concentrated on John’s question.
“There was a green-space not too far from where we found you. I’d have to guess that you found that
John was nodding in agreement. “Sitting in the sun, wanting to be left alone. I remember that part.”
“But we don’t know how you got there in the first place, or why you were drawn in that direction. It was nearly
half a metra away from the bar. You couldn’t have heard or smelled it, and unless you understood someone
who was talking about it, you couldn’t have known it was there.”
“Someone speaking Sebacean, maybe?” he theorized.
“Perhaps. We didn’t see any sebaceans while we were hunting for you, though. We ran across a few interions
--” She was ready for John’s headshake, fully aware that he hadn’t learned more than a few phrases in Interion
while Jool was on board. “-- no nebari, no luxans and no hynerians,” she finished.
“We’ll probably never know,” he said, summing up the futility of their idle conjecture. “Aeryn --”
“What?” she asked when he didn’t continue.
John got to his feet and picked his way through the spilled food to the warmer. He rummaged around inside for
several microts, eventually returning to his seat on the floor carrying a serving dish full of sokrans. Aeryn
shook her head at his silent offer to share.
“I eat, you talk,” he slurred around a crunching mouthful. “I’m hungry.”
“You’ve been eating for almost two solid arns. How can you still be hungry?”
“Mimph maigik uf foh fife nyays,” he mumbled through a cheek-bulging load of sokrans.
“Crichton,” she warned in a low growl.
John chewed, swallowed, and repeated, “I’m making up for five days of not eating!”
Aeryn sighed, using the long breath to consider what his unasked question might have been about, put it out of
her mind, and then resumed her story. She chose to skip over two exasperating days of fruitless searching and
picked up the saga on the afternoon of the fifth day.
* * * * *
“Nothing,” Chiana reported from the end of the street where she was patrolling.
“There’s a very unusual odor coming from a merchant’s shop across the way. Most enticing …” Noranti
commed. Once again, she had allowed her questionable ability to pay attention to wander away from her
assigned role in the evening’s search.
“Wrinkles, if you don’t pay attention and do what Aeryn told you to do, I’ll come over there and shoot you
myself,” Chiana transmitted back to the traskan. “And if you frell this up tonight, I’ll will get D’Argo to hold you
down while I bathe every last layer of your precious juices off you!”
The hideous threat worked. “No sign of Crichton,” Noranti confirmed, sounding more a great deal more
Aeryn knew that if the circumstances had been different, the exchange would have generated at least a smile
and possibly a quiet laugh on her part. Tonight, she was only grateful that Chiana had taken care of the
problem for her. “D’Argo, what’s your status?” she said into her comms.
“We landed five hundred microts ago. We’ll be in position in another sixty microts.”
Everyone was rested and had eaten within the last two arns, ready for an entire night of what John probably
would have referred to as ‘hide-and-go-seek’, if it became necessary. When the search had stretched into its
third day, exhaustion and hunger had forced her to concede that they needed to take turns rotating back to
Moya to eat and sleep. She had spent one such relief period in the maintenance bay painstakingly mixing the
antidote, three DRDs watching closely and recording every move in case someone else had to formulate it
again some day in the future.
She hadn’t been the only person to use her rest periods for something other than sleep. Rygel had been the
one to suggest bringing an injector of translator microbes back to the planet, instead of an entire DRD, and
Chiana had contributed when she asked how long a human could go without food before he started to starve.
After that, everyone had begun to pitch in ideas revolving around Crichton’s eventual rescue. The assembled
supply kit, neatly stowed in a shoulder-satchel, bumped against Aeryn’s hip as she moved along the street at a
fast walk. She ran through the list of items repeatedly as she scanned the crowds looking for one familiar form.
She carried two supplies of the antidote, drinking water, a meal-replacement caloric supplement, and several
injectors carrying translator microbes, a painkiller in case Crichton had an unexpectedly severe reaction to the
cure, and a knock-out shot in case things went really wrong. Towels, and a set of wrist binders in case they
had to subdue him, completed the contents of the kit. They’d had two entire days since they first spotted John
to discuss it. She couldn’t think of anything else that they might need.
“We’re in place. Rygel is up at roof level,” D’Argo checked in. “What do you think? Is this going to work?”
Aeryn didn’t bother answering. There was no way of knowing if their latest method of finding him was going to
work any better than everything else they had tried over the past several days. Their second sighting of John
had been within motras of where they had seen him the first time, and it had been at the same time of day --
just before sunset. They were hoping that he had a hideaway of some sort that he was returning to each night,
like an animal heading for its den. Instead of chasing him, they were going to try to cordon the area and cut
him off before he could hide.
“Sun is going down,” Chiana called, stating the obvious.
It was nerves. Aeryn knew because she was battling against her own nervousness to keep from saying
something equally useless. She ached to release the mad churning of undirected energy that was increasing
with every passing microt.
“Stay sharp,” she said, and then cursed herself silently. The mindless, unnecessary comment had slipped out
even as she was lecturing herself not to do that sort of thing. She waited for Rygel’s customary, sarcastic
response to her order. It never came. Everyone was acting erratically. The five-day supply of exasperation
had taken its toll on the entire crew. There was a tendency to blow up at the smallest slights, and somehow
ignore the types of things that should rightfully anger them.
Chiana’s voice interrupted her musings over the quirks of her crewmates. “I might have something.”
“What?” D’Argo called, overlain by Rygel’s, “You see him?” Aeryn refrained from asking her own, stress-filled
question, and put her energy into running toward the end of the street where Chiana was stationed.
“Give me a microt, it’s crowded down here!”
They had spread out across an eighty-motra length of the walkway, betting the entire night’s search on the
questionable assumption that John would return to the same spot every evening. Chiana and Noranti were at
either end of the section they had chosen to watch, Aeryn and D’Argo were patrolling segments a third of the
way in from either end, and Rygel was assigned a spot in the center of the group. The hynerian was cruising
back and forth high above the heads of the pedestrians, watching both the alley where they had lost sight of
John both times, and an area spanning two alleys to either side of it.
“D’Argo, I’m headed toward Chiana. Collapse your area toward the center. Rygel, swing further toward me,”
Aeryn commanded, directing the patrols even as she tried to watch the swirling patterns of bodies for anything
that looked out of place. She was scanning for an odd walk, a lurching body, a stumble, any sort of fumbling
progress that might be a blind person.
“Head back, head back!” Chiana commed. “It wasn’t him. It was some dren-faced old soldier in a black
Aeryn cursed and reversed course, momentarily blocked by a solid pack of customers waiting to get into an
entertainment house. She shoved and elbowed her way through the mash of bodies, issuing orders for Rygel
and D’Argo to return to their previous spots. A trail of oaths followed her slow progress, along with complaints
about her rough handling of various bits of anatomy. The grumbling increased to an angry roar, and she
almost missed Rygel’s deep-voiced growl of triumph.
“He’s in the alley. I see him. I’m going down to keep him in sight! Hurry! HURRY!”
Aeryn swore as the shoulder-satchel snagged on someone’s arm, ignored the sharp snap and yowl of pain as
she yanked it free with all her strength, shoved a bystander out of her way with her shoulder, starting an
avalanche of bodies, and broke free of the packed mass of the crowd. The walkway ahead of her was
miraculously clear. She broke into a run, eyes focused on the entrance to the narrow passageway where
they’d lost John the last two times, ignoring the cries of surprise that trailed in an expanding wake behind her.
“Someone’s attacking him. Hurry up!” Rygel commed.
“Protect him, you green-skinned, nose-less coward!” D’Argo bellowed.
“Prubackto!” Rygel’s barked profanity was followed by the sharp sizzling crack of the tiny pulse pistol that
Aeryn knew he kept hidden in his robes, and she accelerated, rounding the corner into the alley no more than
half a motra ahead of D’Argo.
“Where is he?” The demand came out in a breathless, anxious shriek that sounded deranged even to her
ears. “What happened?”
“There.” Rygel punctuated his comment with a sharp stabbing motion with one stubby finger, pointing
downward at a dark bundle on the ground near the wall. “There, curled up.”
Aeryn crossed the last two motras at a halting stumbling walk, hands shaking as violently as if she were in the
last stages of heat delirium. Behind her, nearly forgotten in the stomach-lurching moment of seeing John
again, D’Argo was calling to Chiana and Noranti to take up positions at the mouth of the alley, telling them to
keep any passersby out of the narrow enclosure until they were done helping John. She wanted to thank him,
to let him know that it was sound defensive reasoning, and couldn’t take enough of her attention away from the
huddled man in front of her long enough to say anything.
“Was he hurt?” she asked, going down on her knees beside John.
“I don’t believe so. Just knocked about. It didn’t look as though he was injured in the attack.”
Rygel descended to waist level and looked on with concern as she tried to get John to unwind. What little she
could see of Crichton’s hair was standing on end, spiky with encrusted layers of filth, and every bit of exposed
skin was blackened from ground-in dirt. It was obvious that it hadn’t been an easy or pleasant five days for
him. “Frell,” she grunted, yanking at his arms and shoulders, trying to pull him up. He curled up even tighter.
“Sit up,” she said in English. Although John didn’t move, it felt as though he relaxed the slightest bit.
D’Argo knelt beside her and together they tried again. “Sit up.” Slowly, like a man only half-awake, John
relaxed his tightly compacted ball and let them lever him into a sitting position, his back resting against D’Argo’s
lower legs. Aeryn looked up at the luxan, checking to make sure he could hold Crichton on his own, received a
brief nod, and burrowed into her satchel.
“Is that the antidote?” Rygel asked when the first injector appeared.
“Microbes first,” she explained. “I want him to understand what we’re saying as soon as possible.”
“Won’t the poison just suffocate them again?”
“No, not if I inject him right away. It takes a one or two hundred microts for the microbes to die. This will work.”
She double-checked to make sure she had the correct injector, and then jammed it quickly against the closest
patch of bare skin she could find. She counted off five microts, giving it time to work, and then asked, ““Those
were translator microbes, John. Can you understand me?”
“Yeah,” he said, blinked several times, and didn’t offer anything more.
He was swaying in D’Argo’s grasp, looking bewildered and exhausted. The normally lively blue eyes remained
fixed on the ground between his feet, gazing vacantly into an infinite distance, little comprehension present.
The entire effect was accentuated by a disconcerting slack-jawed look of dazed confusion. Aeryn’s stomach
clenched and cramped at the thought that the antidote might not work. She didn’t give the doubt time to
conjure images of a lifetime spent with a mentally crippled Crichton. The emptied injector clattered against a
wall, carelessly tossed to one side, and Aeryn dug into the kit for the antidote.
“You don’t propose to inject him with that concoction, do you?” Rygel challenged in an incredulous shriek.
“Drinking it would be bad enough. Drinking it would only result in screaming agony, but injecting --”
D’Argo answered before Aeryn could turn on the hynerian. “She knows what she’s doing, Rygel. Shut up and
let her take care of John.”
“Didn’t you hear what is in it? It has chakan accelerant!” the shocked Dominar continued. “You know what that
does if you get it on your skin, and she’s going --”
“What’s going on in there?” Chiana commed. “You’re making a lot of noise. It’s drawing attention.”
“Shut up, Rygel!” Aeryn and D’Argo yelled together.
“Look at him,” Aeryn continued more quietly. “This is confusing him. Now shut up and let me do this!” John’s
head was swaying from side to side, mouth gaping open dumbly, and he had begun to tug against D’Argo’s
light grip on his shoulders, trying to roll away from the person holding him upright. “D’Argo, hold him,” she
ordered. Crichton had managed to get one shoulder loose.
D’Argo grabbed on tighter, and John began to fight harder, squirming and beating ineffectively at the feet
behind him. Aeryn dodged forward and grabbed his chin, trying to get his attention and stop the frantic
struggles. She yanked his face upward, forced herself to stare into the sightless eyes, and prayed that the
poison-addled mind behind them would understand what she was telling him.
“Listen to me. Listen!” He tried to pull away and she grabbed his jaw tighter. “Listen to me. Concentrate on
breathing, nothing else. This is going to hurt, but it will fix everything. Just breathe, John. It will be over
quickly.” He didn’t look any less confused, but he did stop fighting, showing that he might have understood
some small portion of what was said. Aeryn released him and nodded to D’Argo. The warrior’s hands grabbed
on to Crichton’s shoulders even more firmly, fingers sinking deep into the befouled leather of his coat, and
pressed down, pinning John on the ground. Aeryn took a deep breath, as though her own inhalation could
prepare John for what was about to happen, and injected him.
He sat without moving for the space of two microts, then hunched forward with a small cry of pain and gagged,
saliva and tears beginning to streaming in nearly equal quantities, his entire upper body shuddering from what
was happening internally. “Breathe,” she reminded him. His shoulders surged under D’Argo’s grasp, moving
upward as though the outward motion could help the lungs inside pull in a breath. Air shrieked through his
throat, and he coughed, gagged, and took in another agonized breath.
“Lean him forward,” she said more quietly. Together they tipped him forward, switching from the imprisoning
embrace to holding him with more compassion, stilling the violent tremors.
“Should anything be happening aside from this slobbering?” Rygel asked. He had maneuvered his sled down
to ground level near Crichton’s feet and was watching the streams of tears, mucus, and saliva drip to the
ground with distaste. “You’ve managed to make an admirable mess, but is it working?”
John was bucking beneath their hands, fighting for air with muscles that only knew how to force it out of his
lungs. Aeryn issued the reminder. “Breathe. It should start to ease in a microt.” He sucked in a single less
distressed breath, let it back out on a thick run of spit, and hauled in another one.
“Aeryn, is it working?” D’Argo asked more moderately than Rygel’s anxious demands.
“I don’t know. It should have started to take effect by now.” But John’s tears and saliva were running clear, and
she knew that was wrong. “Breathe,” she coached again. It was obvious that the pain wasn’t letting up; John
was in as much discomfort as when she’d first injected him and there was no sign of change. She breathed in
when he managed to draw in some air, exhaled when he coughed and gagged out a breath, and was light-
headed from lack of oxygen and fear.
It wasn’t working. The antidote wasn’t working the way it was supposed to.
John rasped out another moaning breath and spat weakly, more of an energetic drool than a spit, and the
messy wad of saliva was tinged with purple. Ignoring the trails of tears and other fluids, Aeryn slapped his
mouth shut on the next exhalation, forcing him to breathe through his nose. The revolting slither that came with
it was a muted orange.
Crichton yanked his chin free and gasped, “What the frell was that?” It held all the outrage and awareness that
she would normally expect from John Crichton.
“Antidote. Give it a few more microts. Hang on.”
She let D’Argo hold him and fumbled about in the kit with hands that had temporarily gone numb, grabbing and
dropping a container of water several times before managing to close her fingers around it. A towel came out
more easily, by which time Crichton was crying blood-red tears, adding to the multi-colored puddle on the
ground between his knees. The shaking and shuddering eased and then gradually stopped. She leaned close
to him in order to wipe away his tears, and remembered with painful clarity how her first return to sanity and
awareness had been the reassurance of a cool cloth passing over her face.
John continued to stare blankly at the ground between his feet, panting in the aftermath of the antidote. She
couldn’t tell if his stare was blindness or shock, and couldn’t bring herself to ask. The uncontrollable feelings
returned in a rush, doing their best to drown her: fear, anguish, sorrow, and guilt that they hadn’t found him
sooner. They might have taken too long to get to him. She had been able to see right away. John wasn’t
looking around the way she would have expected after regaining his sight.
It took several tries before she could produce two small words. “How’s that?”
Waiting for his answer felt as though she were the one who had just had the antidote injected into her veins,
suddenly unable to breathe, chest muscles frozen by a discomfort every bit as agonizing as what he had just
endured. He didn’t move for a moment, and Aeryn was sure that her heart stopped for an equal amount of
time, resuming its customary rhythm only after he took a deeper breath and sat up straighter. John turned his
head, the last dregs of tears streaking brightly down his cheeks, looked directly into her eyes, awareness and
sight both blindingly present, and uttered more of his usual nonsense.
* * * * *
“But soft, what light in yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Aeryn is the sun,” he repeated. “That’s
Shakespeare, from a play called Romeo and Juliet. It’s great stuff. Calling it nonsense is a crime punishable by
At some point during her description of those last few agonizing moments, they had moved closer together.
Aeryn couldn’t remember if it had been him or her or both of them that had eased to the side until she sat
leaning against him with his arm resting comfortably around her shoulders … and decided that it didn’t matter.
He had finished the sokrans, pushed the bowl to one side, and was idly twirling his empty cup around with his
free hand. The chamber was silent except for Moya’s ever-present rumbles and the slow steady thud of his
“Bad few days,” John said.
“For both of us.” She felt better for having stayed and finished the story, for not storming off angry to spend
the night alone in one of the myriad empty cells. He was safe and well and was sitting alongside her, keeping
her warm, and that was what mattered most. Aeryn leaned her head against his shoulder and let out a long
sigh. It felt as if every bit of anxiety of the past several days emptied out of her along with the spent breath,
taking any remaining energy with it.
“I’d like you to tell me one more thing,” John whispered.
“Tell me about the time you got poisoned with grefalkic.”
His arm tightened around her shoulders, stopping her from getting up before she could make the first startled
move. All the fear was back in an instant, snapping back as though permanently tethered to her soul and
merely waiting for an opportunity to return. It wasn’t fear for John. It was something with less form, more vague
and all pervading, and harder to fight down. It was nausea and chill inducing terror, muscle-quivering fright --
all emotions that she didn’t know how battle back into their respective cages.
“No! I don’t want to talk about it.” She tried to get up a second time, and John held her tight, devoting both
arms to a secure but non-threatening hug.
“You’ve been acting Cracker Jacks all night, Aeryn. I’ve only seen you this freaked out once or twice, and it’s
always had something to do with your past. I’ve been trying to keep you talking in the hopes that it would come
out on its own, but you’ve --”
“You’ve been tricking me!” she realized, seeing his small encouragements to talk in a new light. She managed
to get one hand up far enough to grab one of his and ripped it loose, pressing against a nerve in order to get
him to let go. He yelped in pain, yanked free, and tried to grab her again. A fast jab below his waist, more feint
than intent to hurt, brought both of his hands down to protect his groin, and she was free. John recovered fast
and grabbed her before she could scramble to her feet. He got an arm around her waist and dragged her back
into a hug, desperately fending off elbows and knees.
“I haven’t been tricking you. Stop trying to emasculate me, and listen. You’re doing it again, Aeryn! Look at
yourself. You’re going nuts over nothing.”
It broke through her anger, stopping her long enough for John to snare her legs and swing them around so she
was sitting in his lap, upper body lightly encircled by his arms. Aeryn thought back to the moment he was
asking her about, and found the source of all her inexplicable emotions: the anger, the anxiety, the fear, it was
all there waiting for her as if it had happened arns ago instead of cycles.
“I wasn’t tricking you. I figured if I kept you talking long enough, you might get around to admitting what was
driving you nuts. But you’ve managed to avoid it every time.” He raised his eyebrows, inviting her to comment.
When she didn’t answer he continued. “Just give me the basics, Aeryn. Just tell me how it happened.”
Aeryn concentrated on what had been going on for several arns, instead of the answer he wanted from her,
and some of the unruly emotions faded to the point that she could get them under control. “It was a trick.
You’ve been doing it the whole time we’ve been sitting here.”
“I was not trying to trick you,” he repeated, delivering the words with a full microt delay between each one. “It’s
something my mother used to do to me when I was upset. She would get me talking about something else and
pay attention to all the things I wouldn’t say. By listening to what wasn’t coming out, she’d figure out what was
really bothering me.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” she objected.
“That’s nothing new where I’m concerned. Anyway, either I stink at this, or you’re better at stonewalling than I
was, because I still haven’t figured out the entire answer, Aeryn. You’re going to have to explain it to me. What
the frell is going on? What went on when you got poisoned that is making you Looney Tunes every time we get
near the subject?”
She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, forcing the muscles in her shoulders and back to relax. John
waited silently through the time it took her to choose a place to begin. “There’s an elite regiment within the
“The Black Ghosts,” John said.
“No. More elite than the Black Ghosts. More highly trained and more deadly.” His eyebrows climbed with each
addition to her description, provoking the beginning of a smile and a lessening of the tight sensation in her
chest. “Very few outside the Peacekeepers know they exist. The training is very difficult; the entry
qualifications are even more grueling. Less than one in fifty of the applicants are accepted.”
“Undercover psychopaths?” he asked, encouraging her to continue.
“The Lukik’!ko are … I think you would call them shock troops.” She thought about the description for several
microts, comparing it to what she knew of John’s life and his world, attempting to put it into terms that he could
understand. “It would be like an entire regiment of that Darth Vadar character of yours, only if he were
younger. They are brought in when a situation is beyond recovery. The most indefensible positions, vastly
outnumbered by the enemy, it doesn’t matter how hopeless; the Lukik’!ko will fight to the last man in an attempt
to reclaim victory. They have never failed, John. Never.”
John ducked his head and rubbed the tip of his nose lightly against her shoulder, silently considering her
description. “Sounds like a suicide squad.”
“No. It is valor and dedication to a single ideal of overcoming impossible odds. They are fierce fighters.”
“I’m not sure there’s a difference, but we can argue about that some other time. They’re major league nasty
bastards. I get it. What’s ‘Lucky-Go’?”
“Lukik’!ko,” she repeated slowly for him, inserting the glottal click with deliberate emphasis so he could hear
where it belonged. “It’s a small carnivore about this big,” -- she gestured with her hands -- “very ferocious,
completely untamable. If caged, they die.”
“Sounds a lot like a weasel,” he said. “So, you what? Served time with in this Weasel Unit? Traded in your
Prowler for a chance to get your head blown off?”
He was angry. She didn’t need to look at his face to know; she could feel it in his body. If she weren’t sitting in
his lap, she suspected he’d be on his feet by now, striding about restlessly, shouting out his emotions. Their
roles were abruptly reversed. Aeryn waited, giving him time to work through it and get himself under control.
Hard experience told her that the most innocuous remark would almost certainly set off a violent response.
“So what happened?” he asked more calmly after more than a hundred microts had passed. “You wound up
back in the Pleisars, not the Weasels. I thought failing an exercise got you dead.”
“Not for something this rigorous.” John waited through her hesitation, resorting to a gentle squeeze with his
arms when she didn’t continue. “I tried to passed the evaluations, but I wasn’t accepted anyway.”
“Tell me about it?” he prodded.
This time it took even longer before she could get herself to produce the first word. “The -- They spend days
drilling the candidates through a skills evaluation course; I think you call it an obstacle course. Live-fire traps,
explosive devices, obstacles, pit-traps, zero-gravity sections -- everything you could imagine encountering in a
battle engagement. Candidates are drilled through the same course day after day until they know it by heart.
Toward the end of training, the level of difficulty drops because all the elements remain the same. None of us
questioned it, because we thought we were being timed. We thought they were looking for speed and
Noise, heat, the stench of smoke … hot metal beneath her gloved hands … feeling for her weapon without
knowing what she was doing or why … fumbling forward into more confusion, more sounds, more chaos …
moving forward because she had to move forward.
“Ssshhh.” John was breathing the soothing sound into her ear and she was trembling from head to toe. “It’s all
right. You’re here with me. I’ve got you.”
Aeryn sat up straighter and tensed her muscles until the trembling stopped. It was weak. It annoyed her. “I’m
“And for the final evaluation, what did they do?”
“We ran the course.”
“Tell me. Tell me step-by-step, Aeryn. You got ready. All your equipment was squared away Peacekeeper
perfect; you made sure your weapon was clean, loaded, and working as well as the day it was issued to you,
and then what?”
The first obstacle is in sight, no more than three motras away. A running start will put her over the head-height
barricade in under three microts, the canister to her right will explode as she goes over the top, and then she
has to remember to drop and roll when she hits the ground on the far side to avoid the crossfire. After that it
will be nothing but drilled habit, moving from one bit of cover to the next as she has been rigorously trained. It’s
easy. All she has to do is keeping moving.
“Ready,” the officer orders, and she steps up to the line.
Something wet slaps her in the face, rivulets drip off her chin and everything goes black. She wakes to roaring
bedlam, a bizarre form of confused insanity, and unyielding darkness.
John was comforting her, as he had time and again over the cycles, holding her, stroking her hair and crooning
small assurances until the worse of the hammering sobs died away. Fighting the tears only served to set them
off again, bringing more of the unstoppable shaking with them. The outburst didn’t seem to bother John. He
pulled her more securely against his chest and didn’t say anything of consequence until she sighed and wiped
away her tears.
“You were scared?” he asked.
“I was … terrified!” she blurted out without intending to confess that she’d been frightened to the point that she
could barely function. “It was so confusing. Nothing made any sense no matter how hard I tried to figure out
what was going on. I c-c-couldn’t see, and the noises didn’t make any sense, and every time I tried to figure out
where I was or what to do, things just kept getting worse. I was … so scared.”
“Cold-blooded bastards. What the frell was that supposed to prove anyway? That you were conditioned to die
willingly? And your own officers did that to you without warning.” He shook his head and held her tighter. He
was furious again. His body was trembling almost as violently as hers, only the source of his reaction was fury
on her behalf. She’d seen it too many times to mistake it now.
His anger had a magical effect. It unlocked all the ugly, frightening memories from that experience, and let
them drain away in an instant, leaving blessed calm behind. She continued to shake, and could feel the scars
from the cycles-old terror deep within, but for the first time in over ten cycles, they no longer had the power to
cause pain. Aeryn was able to explain more calmly when she continued.
“They wanted to know which of the candidates could continue to operate on pure training and instinct. You’ve
never been in a full-scale battle, John. You have no idea how confusing it can get at times. The Lukik’!ko are
expected to handle far worse.”
“It’s not reasonable, it’s psychotic, Aeryn. Those were your commanding officers. You were trained to trust
them and follow orders without thinking --”
“Which you think is a ridiculous idea,” she interrupted.
“Only because that kind of mindless obedience caused one of the greatest abominations of my planet’s entire
history,” he countered. “But that’s not the point. Whether for good or bad, you were trained to trust them, and
they poisoned you with that crap and then shoveled you into one of those strategy readiness horror house
exercises you enjoy so much. That’s just wrong, Aeryn. It’s a betrayal and it doesn’t achieve anything.” John
rested his cheek against her head for a moment and gave her a gentle squeeze. “The whole time you were
searching for me, your subconscious was trying to cope with this, and you kept trying to squash it. I suppose
we should consider ourselves lucky you didn’t kill someone. You didn’t shoot anyone did you?”
“My primary concern was that you might be scared and hungry!” She tried to pull loose. “I thought you might
be frightened! I was probably silly to be worried about you.” Another half-hearted attempt to push herself out
of his lap was no more successful than the first.
“Oh, my gorgeous, lethal control freak,” he laughed, hanging on to her. “When this happened to you, you kept
trying to make sense of the world, trying to put it back into the neat regiment little squares the way you’d been
trained. Right?” He waited for her nod. “Tell me something. Confused, unable to make sense of what’s going
on, incapable of understanding what people are saying -- What does that sound like to you?”
Aeryn turned inside his embrace so she could look into the mischievous eyes. She might have missed it
completely if it weren’t for his cheerful, mildly mocking tone. As it was, it took her several microts to realize who
-- not what -- he was describing. “You, for the entire first cycle that you were here.”
“It was terrifying for you. I’ve had advanced training in being absolutely baffled by my surroundings, Aeryn. I
was confused, but mostly I wanted everyone to just leave me alone long enough to find a place where I could
get warm.” He freed an arm from its task of hugging her and slid it under her knees, then with an extended
grunt, got to his feet, still holding her in his arms.
“Are we going somewhere?”
“Back to bed. I’m full and we could both use some sleep.”
“I can walk,” she protested.
“I know. I kind of like this though.” He boosted her, shifting her weight to a more comfortable position.
Aeryn looped both arms around his neck and let him do this ridiculous thing, watching his face instead of their
route through the corridors. She had time to think of their arns of quiet conversation, and of John’s mildly
sneaky method of trying to aim her toward the source of so much anxiety. It hadn’t been deceitful … exactly. It
had been more of a feint, trying to draw her into a position she didn’t want to occupy, like a counterattack
designed to get an enemy to move into a strategically indefensible position. Seeing it in that light made it all
right. It made it typically John.
“Why did you get rejected?” he asked suddenly. “You finished the course, right?”
Aeryn hadn’t given much thought to that question at the time, and even less in the cycles since. She had
received her orders to return to the Pleisars, and had obeyed, grateful that the evaluation was one she could
fail without incurring disciplinary action. The failure might have occurred while she was crawling and flailing her
way through the chaos, or it may have been her reaction once she’d dragged herself out of the last segment of
the course. She’d done better than most. A majority of her squad-mates hadn’t finished the course at all. A
few had been killed by live-fire, and the rest had been retrieved by the sub-officers assigned to evaluate their
efforts. A single candidate had not recovered from the effects of the poison. He had been ‘retired’ from service
with honors -- a euphemism for the harsher truth of ‘executed due to permanent damage from a deliberate
She didn’t have a good answer. After several more microts of hesitation, she answered, “We don’t get told the
reason why. We get orders to return to our old unit.” John’s arms tightened around her. “That bothers you?”
He peered at her from an eye-straining distance of six denches. “No, I was thinking that if you had passed, we
probably never would have met. I’d be carrying some other luscious ex-Prowler pilot through Moya’s corridors
right now, never knowing what I missed.”
Aeryn pulled herself across the short intervening space and gave him a brief kiss. “And I’m sure you would
have been very happy with him, too.”
“Oh, funny stuff. Hysterical.” The broad grin belied the mock-gruff tone of his voice. “With my luck, it would be
The next few stretches through the gleaming leviathan passageways were traveled to the accompaniment of
quiet chuckles and snickers from both of them.
One more question occurred to her. “What is that play you mentioned? The one that has that line you
“It’s called Romeo and Juliet. Guy and girl meet, fall in love, families hate each other, they don’t care. Greatest
love story ever told. Bad ending, but that doesn’t matter.”
“Greatest?” Aeryn asked, using tone of voice to challenge his judgment.
“Yep. We’re talking self-sacrifice, passion, balconies, sneaking around in the middle of the night, heartache,
good looking guy, beautiful lady for him to fall in love with, the works. And it’s from Earth, which is to say that it
has a head start over anything dreamed up around here. Greatest love story in the universe.” He grinned at
her, and turned the corner into the corridor leading to their quarters.
“Second greatest,” Aeryn said quietly, leaning close.
He pulled his head away from her so he could look into her eyes, his chest expanding beneath her weight to
begin what she suspected would be an objection, and didn’t answer. John looked at her more closely, started
to say something a second time, and stopped again. Aeryn smiled at him.
“Second greatest,” he agreed, let out a diabolical-sounding laugh that promised more sore and abused
muscles by morning, and completed the journey to their quarters at a run.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *