The Changeling - Part 3

He wakes quickly and without the usual avalanche of intense, pre-waking dreams.  It is a relief to make the
transition without being forced to live through the horrors one more time.  He rolls over, feeling to the side with
one hand to make sure he isn’t going to fall down a hole, and receives one hell of a surprise.  His fingers locate
metal, not rock.  When he opens his eyes to check on his surroundings, the mental shock is displaced by
physical agony.  A shaft of liquid fire drives into the center of his brain, incinerating the front of his skull on the
way in.  Once inside his head, it no longer resembles pain.  It becomes a living entity inhabiting a space he
can’t touch with his hands, filling the interior of his head from ear to ear with a blazing inferno that he is
convinced is intended to drive him insane.  A noise comes out of him that is a confused merging of a sob and
a scream.    

“What’s wrong?  What’s the matter?” someone asks.

Startled by the noise, he rolls away from it, only to slam into something hard, irregularly shaped, and
unyielding.  The smaller discomfort of the impact makes him forget to keep his eyes closed.  The pain is worse
than before.  He bites off a yowl half way through, rolls face down on the deck, and buries his head in his arm.  
It’s too much.  Between the change in his surroundings, the pain, the blindness, the noise and confusion, he
feels as though he has been dumped into someone else’s body without the benefit of an operator’s manual.  
The end result is that he is on the verge of getting sick.  Except his stomach is empty and he suspects that
vomiting is only going to make his head hurt worse, so he swallows hard against the unpleasant pressure,
fighting his stomach back down where it belongs.

The voice speaks to him again.  It drains away a portion of the chaos, replacing it with a small measure of
sanity.  “Crichton, what the frell are you doing?”

“Chiana,” he mumbles into the sleeve of his coat, remembering his visitors and the abrupt end to the
conversation they had been holding in the rain.  

Things are looking up mentally.  Physically, nothing has improved.  He tries to crawl away from the pain.  Not
being able to see where he’s going turns it into a blundering, confused journey.  The discomfort follows him
wherever he goes, burrowing into his head until every movement becomes a pulsing torture.  Lying still is awful,
moving is worse, trying to find out where he is and what’s going on is unbearable.  He hitches his way slowly to
one side, one hand firmly clasped over his eyes while the other one strains to drag his body along, and again
comes up against a barricade.  A floundering exploration with his hand tells him what his eyes cannot.  He is
jammed in against a row of seats.  

Throughout it all, Chiana is grabbing at his shoulders, his arm, and his back in succession, trying to control his
movements.  Her attempts at helping him only manages to make things more confusing.  The constantly shifting
pressure of her hands, darting from one portion of his body to the next without warning, makes him feel as
though he is being attacked by a flock of animated mittens.  It is both distracting and disorienting just at the
moment when he needs clarity the most.  

“What’s the matter?  Where are you hurt?” she yells, beginning to sound as panicked as he feels.  

“My eyes,” he gasps, followed by another screech of pain.  “What the hell have you done to my eyes?”  

“Nothing!  We haven’t touched you except to drag your sorry, smelly butt onto the ship.  Stop rolling around like
a half squashed banta bug and hold still so I can look at you!  Hold still!”  

Her fingers are cool and gentle against his cheeks.  They turn his face upward toward the source of her voice
and brush lightly against his closed eyelids.  After several microts the touches disappear.  He hears her moving
around until she is behind him, and wonders where she’s going.  Without warning, two hands clamp something
soft over his eyes.  It startles him to the point that he jumps, momentarily dislodging both her hands and
whatever she is holding, but the important thing is that most of the light is gone.  It is dark, as it should be.  
The worst of the agony recedes.  

“How’s that?” she asks.  

“Better,” he rasps through a throat that has gone dry from the pain.  A trickle of ice cold sweat creeps down the
back of his neck.  He is chilled, sweating, shaking, and exhausted all at once.  “That’s better.”  

“I was trapped in the dark once, for five solar days.  I remember what it was like when they let us out, and that
was only for a short time.  Hold this.  Sit up and hold this.”  She rescues whatever it is that he has just dropped,
replaces it over his eyes, and then tugs him upright.  “Were you in the dark the whole time?”   

“Uh huh.”  He sneaks a peek past the padding, wanting nothing more than to see a friendly face for the first
time in how long he can’t remember, and has to bite down on his lip to prevent himself from crying out.  Logic
says that Chiana is right, and this is nothing more than the outcome of spending all that time in the dark.  Logic
doesn’t help when it feels like someone is driving a ten-dench needle straight through each of his eyes.  He
starts to roll away from her, intending to bury his head in his arm again, seeking out the position that is dark
and peaceful.  

Before he can get very far, she yanks him back.  “Serves you right for trying to open them.  Cut it out and hold
this until I can get it to stay in place.”  Her touch is more compassionate than her tone.  She guides his hands
one at a time to the rectangular wad of material and presses against them until he gets the idea.  “I’ll be right
back.  Got it?”  

He nods and concentrates on remembering to press something against his eyes.  But something odd starts to
happen while he’s waiting for Chiana to return.  Whatever it is, it makes it hard to pay attention to what his
hands are doing, or whether he’s even upright.  It begins when he notices how the soft cloth she has placed in
his hands smells like Moya’s amnexus fluid, builds momentum when he starts to think what it will be like to walk
the leviathan’s hushed corridors again, and gathers more power and velocity when he considers that he will
soon be able to eat whenever he wants, sleep on a soft bed, and will not have to spend every waking microt
wondering how much longer he can survive.  

He operates his body remotely, sitting safe and warm in a control room several motras distant from where John
Crichton’s dirt caked body slops about when Chiana tries to get him to sit up straight.  The mechanisms
required in order to make the arms and legs function feel unfamiliar.  He dredges up a moment from his
childhood:  trying to draw a diagonal line with an Etch-A-Sketch.  He remembers how both hands had to work in
perfect concert, moving at exactly the same pace, and how if his attention wavered for even an instant, the line
would take off in unwanted directions.  Controlling his mind and body is like that.  He tries to focus his thoughts,
concentrating on where he is and why it is taking so long for them to reach Moya, and starts to keel over to one
side.  When he pours all his efforts into staying upright, as Chiana has repeatedly asked him, his thoughts
begin to run together like chalk paintings dissolving in the rain.  The blues, greens, and purples of his life swirl
and mix, interspersed with the yellows and reds of death and loss, until he can’t remember what is real and what
is wishful thinking.  

Chiana’s voice fades into the distance.  He knows she is talking to Jothee; he can still make out her voice.  It is
the words themselves that are losing their substance, sliding together until he can’t make heads or tails of the
syllables.  Then gravity takes a vacation.  Up and down lose all meaning, along with most of the other directions
that he normally uses to make sense of his universe.  After that, it doesn’t take long for the rest of his
surroundings to slide very far away.  

“Crichton, sit up,” Chiana says.  It jolts him back to a state that resembles awareness.  

“Chi,” is all he can think of to say to her.  

“You’re a mess,” she says, but it isn’t lacking in kindness.  

He spends a few microts thinking that maybe the small insults are her way of saying he could use some help
from a friend.  “Pip.”  

“Yeah, your favorite traveling companion and all that dren.  I know.  Next time you want me to travel with you, I
want you to promise you’ll bathe more often.”  She pulls one of his hands away from the padding covering his
eyes and slaps it against the side of his head instead.  “Hold that there for a microt while I get this in place.”

He remains marginally awake and aware, a human packed carefully into a vacuum bottle where nothing can
disturb his drifting mental state.  He is able to register that Chiana is spending dozens of microts fussing with
lengths of cloth in order to get the padding tied in place over his eyes, and can’t figure out how to say anything
about it or express his appreciation.  When they bring him some food and water, and demand that he eats, he
knows that he chews and swallows the way someone watches a movie and knows that the people on the screen
are eating.  When the food comes right back up again, there is nothing he can do to warn Chiana, or to stop it,
or even to keep it from getting on himself.  He floats -- muzzy-headed, warm, and comfortable -- content to let
Chiana and Jothee take care of everything.  They drag him away from the mess he has made, dump him onto a
pallet of foam padding, and leave him to dream.

He knows that they are taking him back to Moya.  There they will teach him how to resume a former existence.  
With some coaching he will learn to get up in the morning, to shave and to dress, and to once again walk
through the corridors in a mockery of the life he once led.  Chiana and the others will be cloyingly solicitous.  
They will hover over him until he remembers how to eat and to smile and be cheery; they will watch carefully to
make sure he learns how to live again.  

But no amount of time can restore the person who operated the slides and levers of his soul.  That part of his
life is gone forever.  The gleaming hallways will forever ring with the silences of what is missing.  And some day,
when the others are no longer paying attention, having long since assumed that he is fully recovered, he will
find a way to get himself killed.  He would never do it intentionally.  But he knows that eventually, without
actually meaning to, he’ll make the most god-awful rotten decision, and he will be able to join Aeryn at last.  

His friends will grieve over his cold body, and remark on the unfortunate set of circumstances that led to the
horrible event.  No one will blame him.  It was a bad plan, they will say.  It was doomed to fail.  Whoever is left
aboard Moya will pronounce it lousy luck, an unexpected turn of events, “It was fate,” they will say.  He will be
the only person who knows, acknowledging it in that last flashing instant between life and death, that it was a
trick of his subconscious, fulfilling his unspoken desire to be with his family.  

Turning away from that morbid prediction of a prematurely truncated future, he sinks into a half-waking state
that he decides is similar to how it feels to be in a womb; he is safe, there are people looking after him, and
there is nothing to do except lie still and let his tears soak into the fabric covering his eyes.  Chiana comes to
check on him from time to time, often adjusting the covers they have placed over him or fussing with the
makeshift bandages protecting his eyes, always murmuring small comforting phrases.  He appreciates her
kindness, and does his best not to wish that she would leave him alone.    

He surfaces from the latest in a series of short naps.  Individual words begin to emerge from the hushed
background murmur that is always there whenever he wakes.  Terms such as bombardment, starburst, orbit,
entry vector, and velocity swarm around him, accompanied by chatter about someone who can’t see, stealth
trajectories, and the need to avoid a particular segment of space because something threatening is
approaching from that direction.  A higher pitched voice keeps insisting that there is something wrong with
someone’s tongue.  

“Pip?” he asks after a while.  

A fast rustle approaches from a direction he would have considered ‘up’, except that he is lying down.  She
might be coming from the front of the ship.  “Yeah, Crichton?”

“Is there a war goin’ on?”  Some of what they were talking about in the background fits together to suggest that
a planet is going to be unlivable in the near future.  He is concerned about wormholes and destroyed solar

“Not yet and not for long, old man.  That’s why we have to hurry.”  

He wonders if it is the answer that doesn’t make any sense, or if there is something wrong with the inside of his
head.  “Is there a problem?” he asks, hoping to get a better answer than the last one.

“No, not much of one anyway.  We’re going to have you back on Moya in another arn, Crichton.  Why don’t you
take it easy?  Get some sleep.”

Although her reply is kind and compassionate for a change, it isn’t really any more of an answer than the one
before it.  Chiana smart-mouthing at him is more informative than the pleasantries.  He decides to try one more
time.  After that, chances are that he is going to pass out anyway.  Despite having just woken, he feels like he
has just run the IASA obstacle course … a hundred times.  He asks, “What’s everyone worried about?”  

There are several small thumps next to him that he thinks might be the sort of sound that a slender, female
body might make if it were to suddenly flop down on the deck plates near his head.  Her first comment isn’t any
more enlightening than all the rest.  “You stink, Crichton, you know that?”  

“I know,” he mumbles.  “You already told me.”

“It’s bad enough that I figure I’ve earned the right to tell you more than once.”  She sneezes several times, and
then finally provides an explanation.  “There’s a sort of a fleet coming in to pound the dren out of the charrids.  
Pilot and Moya want to get the frell out of here before it starts, just in case all hezmana breaks loose.  They say
they’re tired of getting shot at.  Can’t really blame them.”  She lets out a fast, high-pitched Chiana-laugh, and
he nearly dissolves into tears at the sound simply because it’s so ordinary and familiar.  

Chiana rattles on, providing a few explanations, unaware of the effect her voice is having on him.  She dodges
from one fact to the next in a confusing, verbal version of pinball:  she bounces off Moya’s current location at
the edge of the solar system where the charrid scans won’t find her, ricochets past the fact that the charrid
invasion force is intended for Hyneria, and then charts out a pinging, chiming, musically erratic path through
why it is taking so long to return to Moya and how worried everyone has been about him.

“Wait.  Slow down,” he says finally.  He feels as though his head is the pinball, and he has smacked into one
bumper too many.  “We don’t have hetch drive while the ship is cloaked?” he asks.  

“Hetch three is the best we can do until we’re clear of the charrid patrols, or else they’ll be able to pick up our
motion,” she says.  “Because of some sort of spatial disturbance thing, Jothee says.”

“Six arns,” he says, remembering Chiana’s lousy math on the planet.  “That’s why Pilot had to give you so much
time to come pick me up.”  

“Except we had trouble finding you, so we’re running late.  We’re going as fast as we can without risking them
spotting either us or figuring out that Moya is hiding nearby.”  

The conversation is forcing him to relearn how to think.  For too many days his brain has been allowed to run in
neutral, finding its own course through the miserable but familiar existence of sleep, eat, drink, and hunt
charrids.  Putting Chiana’s explanations into a form he can understand is creating an almost physical level of
discomfort.  He rubs the side of his head with one hand, and sorts out the pieces that don’t make any sense.  
Most of the confusion has to do with the planet and the charrid invasion of the Hynerian Empire.

“What about the eidelons?” he asks eventually.

“There aren’t enough to go around.  Not yet anyway.  They couldn’t spare anyone aside from Yn’dlath to help
solve this mess, and one eidelon isn’t enough to fix it, so the scarrans and the Peacekeepers have teamed up
to take care of it the old-fashioned way.  They’re going to pound the dren out of the charrids.  Once the orbital
bombardment is over, there won’t be enough body parts left to put a single one of those weasel-toothed,
wedge-headed feck faces back together again.”

“Peacekeepers and scarrans?  Working together?” he asks.

“Neither side gains anything if the charrids attack Hyneria, so they’re happy to grind them back down to being
nice little obedient servicers.  And … well, after the war neither side has enough ships close enough to this
system to take care of this on their own.  They’ll work together just long enough to keep the charrids from
getting their hands on the Hynerian fleet.”

“Power plays,” he says.  

“That’s right.  You’re not entirely brain zapped, are you?”

“Wouldn’t count on it.”  

Despite Chiana’s encouraging assessment, he’s feeling pretty comprehensively stupid.  The only reason he is
able to figure it out is because it is a classic maneuver.  He assumes that the charrids see the armistice as an
opportunity to move up a rung or two in the galactic pecking order, which would explain why they had been so
intent on making sure that the secret of their invasion force never made it off the planet.  At last he
understands why the charrids had put so much effort into trying to dig one measly human out of the ruins, and
why they had been so intent on killing the entire landing party, women and children included.  The charrids had
known that if the two big boys on the block caught wind of their plan to get control of the Hynerian navy, their
bid for power would be squashed quickly and without mercy … just as it will be.  Neither the scarrans nor the
Peacekeepers are going to take a chance on moving to third string while the charrids take over second, so they
have joined together to slap down the upstart.  

There’s a piece missing, however.  It takes a bit of thought to figure it out.  “Where’s Rygel?”

“On board Moya,” Chiana says.  “He refused to leave until we found out if you were alive.”  

He weaves that element into the larger picture and gets a different result.  “Hail the returning monarch.”  

“Not brain zapped at all.  I had to threaten to damage Rygel’s mivonks before he would explain it to me.”  

The charrids are waiting for the triumphant return of the rightful occupant of the Hynerian throne before
launching their attack.  Their best chance for a fast, easy victory will be at the moment when the Royal Hynerian
Navy assembles in one spot to honor the Dominar’s return and the entire empire turns its collective attention on
the celebration.  The charrids didn’t want to attack until Rygel returned, and Rygel refused to return until he
determined the fate of a single human trapped on the planet where the invasion force was assembled.  It had
turned into an inadvertent stalemate.  

The facts continue to mutate, casting another conclusion in a new light.  Rygel isn’t being quite as selfless as it
had appeared at first glance.  By being patient, and waiting the extra days before resuming his throne, the wily
ruler of over six hundred billion subjects is getting the Scarran Empire and the Peacekeepers to do his fighting
for him.  The combined force will smash the charrid invasion force, break its fleet, and Rygel gets to proclaim a
victory without putting so much as a single Hynerian ship at risk.  

“Smart little bastard,” he says on a yawn, and starts to drift off.  “Nap.  I’m pooped.”

“I keep telling Jothee he got the tonguing wrong.  It’s supposed to be automatic, but it may have been too much
for you because you’re so weak.  D’Argo … D’Argo would have gotten it right, Crichton.  D’Argo would have
known that he needed to be careful.”  

He knows he should say something to Chiana about the quiet little hiccup in her voice after she said D’Argo’s
name the first time.  He should tell her that he finally understands the totality of loss and the depth of the
heartache that comes from a loved one’s death, and that he knows about having the most important part of
your life ripped away from you just as things are getting good for a change.  There are dozens of small
revelations he could share with her in an effort to ease her grief, most of them having to do with how the
smallest things can summon smiles and tears simultaneously.  But it is dark inside whatever she has used to
cover his eyes, and Jothee’s ship is dry and warm, and mostly quiet -- all of which is the same as his sleeping
place after it warms up in the late afternoon.   And the way he keeps falling asleep despite all efforts to stay
awake seems to support Chiana’s theory that he hasn’t recovered from the tonguing.    

He squirms into a more comfortable position lying on the deck plates, rests his head on his arm, and lets the
exhaustion carry him to a drifting, almost dreaming state where he is aware of very little other than the quiet
whine the control skeleture makes whenever Jothee moves, the roar of the engines, and the distant,
unintelligible chatter of Chiana’s and Jothee’s voices.

Then, abruptly, just as he is beginning to think he really has been rescued, he is back on the sun-scorched
plain, and he isn’t sure any more.  Powdery dirt puffs out from under his boots with every step; miniature dust
clouds rise up to coat his clothes and skin with flour-fine grit.  The sun hammers against his head and
shoulders, doing its best to turn him into the same inconsequential sand as everything else on this planet.  

He looks down.  The bones are there, half buried in the sand.  Once again, he tries to lift them, this time
knowing that it will be his last opportunity to bring them back to Moya.  They crumble in his hands.  The bones
turn to nothingness, spilling from his fingers faster than he can try to catch them.  He lunges forward,
desperate, trying to save the skulls, and they melt into the sand.  The wind howls across the plain, turning the
entire landscape to swirling dust devils, and they are gone forever.  For the first time since he began visiting
this place, he considers lying down in the dirt and allowing himself to blow away as well.  At least that way they
would all be together for eternity, his dust mixing together with theirs until they are indistinguishable.   

He is making the first move to lie down when a pair of boots scrunches toward him across parched gravel and
sand.  The sound stops him.  He gets to his feet slowly and turns to face her.  Aeryn is just as beautiful as the
first day he met her, just as beautiful as every other time he has faced her in his dreams.  As always, she is
dressed in a black t-shirt and her hair hangs free, drifting across her shoulders when she leans to one side in
order to shift Little D to a more comfortable position in the crook of her arm.  

Aeryn tilts her head to one side in the familiar movement, smiles at him, and speaks.  She has learned a new
piece of dialogue.  

“I’m no more than fifteen microts behind you.  There won’t be enough time for Pilot to redeploy the docking web
after you land.  I’ll bring the Marauder in manually.”  

He wakes with a start, his heart pounding as wildly as if he had just experienced a particularly violent
nightmare.  The voice had seemed to come from somewhere outside of his dream.  He is struggling to get to
his knees and is yelling her name before he can stop to think about the futility of calling out to someone who is

“Aeryn?  AERYN!!”  

His cry goes unanswered.  

He lowers himself to the deck, and spends several useless microts wishing he was back on the planet waiting
for the destruction to begin.  Dust to dust.  He would be with her until the end of time, their molecules mixed
together in the midst of the searing destruction that will soon rain down from orbit.

The rustle that is Chiana returns to sit beside him.  A sympathetic hand rubs the back of his shoulder for
several microts.  “She had already closed her comms by the time you yelled, but you won’t have to wait much
longer to see her.  She’ll be on board Moya two microts after we land.”

Halfway through Chiana’s explanation, a whirlwind swoops into his brain and sucks him up.  It is a confusing
cacophony made up of darkness and cold, of physical hunger and the spiritual emptiness of hate that eases
only when he feeds on the deaths of others, and of the bleakness that comes from wishing for his own death.  
With just a few words from Chiana, he is ripped loose from the single fact that has guided every one of his days
on the planet, and is thrown into a mental maelstrom that he is powerless to control.  The sounds of a thousand
unpleasant memories combine into a chaotic howling that threatens to burst his skull.  He flounders, distantly
aware that he has managed to make it to his hands and knees, and that he is shaking and sick from the onset
of shock.  

Chiana goes on yelling into his ear, doing her best to tell him something important.  He can’t make out the
words over the roaring inside his head.  Listening doesn’t work.  He tries speaking instead.  He tries to tell her
that someone has made a mistake of galactic proportions.  “Aeryn and the baby died.  My plan killed them.  
They’re dead because of me.”

“No, they aren’t,” she says, still shouting so he can hear her over the chaos in his head.  “They’re both alive.  
Frell, Crichton!  Why didn’t you tell us sooner that you thought they were dead?  We could have let you talk to
Aeryn by now!”  

He remains on his hands and knees, head hanging down between his arms, and tries to convince himself that
it’s true.  It’s easy to accept that he’s going home to Moya, that Rygel, Chiana, and everyone else is alive and
well, and that in a matter of a few hundred microts he will once again be standing in the same bronze-walled
maintenance bay where his out-of-control, frequently unbelievable life in the Uncharted Territories first began.  
The only part he can’t accept is that his wife and son will be there to greet him.  When he envisions stepping
down out of Jothee’s ship, the space they should occupy in the maintenance bay remains empty.  It’s easier to
believe that he’ll find his father standing there talking about a trout than it is to recreate Aeryn’s quiet smile and
the gray-blue eyes that always hold just a little something extra whenever she looks at him.  

“No!” he cries, convinced that Chiana is just trying to ease the shock.  “I killed them.”  

“Fahrbot,” she whispers close to his head.  One microt later Chiana’s fingers begin unfastening the cloth that is
protecting his eyes.  She pauses long enough to give his shoulder a tiny shove, very nearly knocking him over
in the process.  “If she’s dead, then there’s a ghost living on Moya because a few arns ago she threatened to
shoot the soft parts of my backside if I didn’t come back with you in one piece, Crichton.”  

Increasing amounts of light begin filtering through the wrappings.  He lets out a gasp and pulls away from her
light touch.  “What the hell are you doing, Chiana?”

“I know you, Crichton.  You’re not going to believe anything we tell you until the proof is standing right in front of
you and you can see it with your own two eyes.  If you start getting used to the light now, you may be able to
see by the time we land.”  

                                                                                                      * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Part 2                                                                                                                                                                                                Part 4
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