Rating: G. Disclaimer: The characters and universe of Farscape are not mine. If they were, we’d have a Farscape Channel playing nothing but angst and action 365 days a year. And just for the record, I have not made a profit off this little tale. Time Frame: AU Future Fic. This takes place approximately 24 cycles after the end of PK Wars. Test Driver: PKLibrarian.
Note to the Reader: This story is a continuation of the Sun-Crichton-Sun family that I conjured up in Yesterdays and Tomorrows. It helps to read that story first, if only to become familiar with the names and relative ages of the children, but it’s not critical.
* * * * *
Somewhere in the distance there was an explosion. The muffled thump and the tremors reached John Crichton’s cell at the same time, hushed grumbles synchronized to the vibrations being transmitted through the floor. The marriage of sound and shockwave confirmed that the blasts were close. He felt it in his diaphragm first: the shivering, pulsing reverberations that hovered somewhere between a comforting internal massage and a ticklish sensation that moved quickly to the base of his spine and from there into his chest. An accelerating crescendo followed the initial salvo, rattling the walls and setting a slow rainfall of dust into motion. The pounding went on for more than ten microts, gaining strength with each impact, until he could make out each individual concussion in the pit of his stomach.
The sounds were unmistakable: Aerial bombardment from a fast moving spacecraft. Someone was attacking the base.
Crichton struggled up onto his elbows. Ignoring the surges of pain coming from the lower half of his body, he levered his head and shoulders up as high as he could and kept his eyes trained on the small view hole in the door. A flash of brilliant light warned him that the assault had moved inside the underground complex. He dropped to the floor, clasped his arms over his head, elbows pressed tightly against his ears, and managed not to scream when the entire room bounced and shook, taking his entire body along for the ride. What the jolts did to his legs defied description in any of the several languages he could speak.
The dust had not finished settling to the floor and the walls still seemed to be wobbling from the detonations when a different sort of noise made its way past the imperfect dampener of his forearms. “Dad? DAD!! Where the frell are you?”
“DJ!” John yelled back. “Third door down!”
The next explosion blew the door clean off its hinges. When John raised his head this time, DJ was kneeling beside him.
“Let’s go. Time’s a wastin’,” his son said. “Bad guys are going to rally pretty quick.”
John shook his head. “My legs are broken.”
Grimacing, DJ jammed his pulse pistol into its holster. “If you have to scream, try not to do it right next to my ear.”
“Do my best.” Trying not to think about what the next few microts were going to do to his smashed legs, he reached for DJ’s shoulders. “Don’t warn me. Just do it fast.”
DJ didn’t bother to answer. In three fast moves he flipped John over, yanked him up into a sitting position, and then hauled him roughly from the floor, got his shoulder into his father’s stomach and straightened up.
The scream made it as far as the back of Crichton’s throat. The only reason it did not progress beyond his clenched teeth was because he passed out before the pain could bully him into unclamping his jaw. He remained half-conscious long enough to grab on to DJ’s midsection, lending as much help as he could to the young man’s efforts to lift his taller, heavier father, but he could feel the first fringes of shock starting to carry his surroundings far away before he was even off the floor. When DJ grabbed on to his left leg precisely where one of the bones was broken, John’s vision blurred, went dark, and then quit on him altogether.
Consciousness returned on a burst of pain every bit as unpleasant as the one that had triggered his departure. John opened his eyes at the exact moment that DJ dumped him into the co-pilot’s seat aboard the transport pod. Both of Crichton’s feet hit the floor at the same time, a jolt shot from his heels to the top of his head, and this time he couldn’t prevent a few noises from getting loose.
DJ flipped a length of cord around John’s chest, wrapped it around the back of the seat and pulled it tight, holding him in place. “Sorry,” was all he offered in way of an apology for the rough handling.
“S’aright,” John mumbled. The darkness inside his head was trying for an encore. It made it difficult to talk or keep track of what was going on. “Just get me out of here.”
“Done.” DJ’s fingers bounced across the transport pod’s controls. “I need your help, Dad. You have to tell me where to find Moya.”
“What?” The mist creeping in around the edges of his vision receded, pushed back by surprise. Shock occasionally had its benefits. For once, it helped clear his head instead of confusing him even further. “What did you say?”
“Moya. Where is she? You have to show me the coordinates.” DJ was beside him again, guiding his hands to the nav controls. “Adjust those and we can go.”
John gazed at the holo-display shimmering in front of him, and didn’t move. There were three puzzles to be solved, and he wasn’t sure which to tackle first.
To start things off, he couldn’t remember where to find Moya. A confused, poorly directed train of thought, reminiscent of what it felt like to be fall-down drunk, insisted that he should know where to find their space- faring home. Unfortunately, the harder he tried to remember, the more confused he became. The second quandary cropped up after he had expended several futile microts trying to come up with a set of nav coordinates. That was when he discovered that he couldn’t remember what cycle it was, where he had been prior to being taken prisoner, who had taken him captive, or where DJ might have been recently that would explain why he didn’t know the way home.
The final difficulty he ran into was that he suddenly didn’t trust his own son. That was followed in short order by an unshakeable conviction that he shouldn’t reveal where Moya was waiting for him … assuming he managed to remember her location in the first place.
“I can’t remember,” he said, trying to buy some time. “Just get out of here and we’ll figure it out once we’re safe.”
“We can’t waste our time going in the wrong direction.” DJ put John’s hands back on the nav controls. “If we have to backtrack, we could wind up running into the bad guys. Show me which way to go, Dad.”
“Who are the bad guys?” John asked.
“Tell me where to find Moya. Tell me before they come in here and kill us.”
“D’Argo,” John said slowly, emphasizing each syllable. “Start the engines and get us out of here.”
Instead of doing as he was told, DJ adjusted the displays, bringing up a star chart. “Is she this way? Is this where she’s waiting for us?”
From the time DJ was a toddler, calling his son by his given name had been a signal to the boy that he had exceeded his parents’ patience and needed to either follow orders or risk being punished. By the time he was eight cycles old, he had learned that if either his mother or father called him D’Argo that his best and frequently his only choice was to stop whatever he was doing and follow orders. By the time he was fifteen, it had been transformed into something of a joke, and shortly after he turned seventeen he had resorted to addressing his father as ‘John Robert’ in an attempt to alert him that one of their enemies had managed to board Moya.
John was certain of very little at that particular moment, but he was positive of one single fact: the person leaning over him was not his son. He stared at the flickering holo-displays, trying to make sense of the situation. His memory provided little in the way of assistance. In the end, he trusted his instincts. “If you don’t know where to find Moya, then I guess we’ll just sit here until we’re both old and gray, junior.”
Flash of light inside his head, blinding him. Burst of pain so fierce it seemed impossible that it was coming from his own nervous system. The universe convulsed, rearranging time and history.
Regaining consciousness upside down wasn’t just confusing, it was downright nauseating. DJ’s shoulder ramming into his gut with every step wasn’t helping the situation one little bit. Crichton swallowed the sourness that was trying to get out of his stomach, and did his best to focus on what had happened in the interval since he blacked out. “How long?” he asked.
“Not long,” DJ said. “Few microts. We’re almost there.”
By craning his neck to one side, John could make out an upside down version of a portion of the corridor ahead of them. Five motras ahead, Ian was poised at the opening to a large chamber. A hangar of some sort, John assumed. His younger son was bouncing in place, head swiveling back and forth as though in time to a metronome gone berserk. “Hurry up! Hurry up!” he called, and then sprinted out of sight.
“Transport pod?” John asked.
“No. Uncle D’Argo let us use his ship.”
John frowned. There was something wrong with what DJ had just told him, but he was having trouble organizing his thoughts. Whatever was out of place eluded him, squirting out of his grasp each time he was on the verge of closing mental fingers around the furtive bit of information.
“Dad, concentrate.” DJ had him strapped into the co-pilot’s seat, and was starting the engines. There was no memory of crossing the hangar or the short climb up Lo’la’s rear-facing stairs. “Tell me how to find Moya.”
One small piece of a rapidly expanding puzzle snapped into place. “We just went through this. I told you I don’t remember where she’s waiting.”
Ian knelt down in the cramped space between the two seats. “We haven’t done this before, Dad. You were hallucinating. Was I there before?”
“No. No, you weren’t.”
“That’s how you can tell that you imagined it. Dad, please. You’ve got to help us get out of here before they come after us. Tell us the coordinates to get to Moya.”
John stared at Ian for several moments then shifted his gaze to DJ, who was waiting with his fingers poised above the glowing touch pads of the navigation console. A piece of his past snuck loose, providing the critical key to figuring out what was going on. “You never learned to read Luxan,” he said finally. “Neither one of you managed to even finish the alphabet.”
Flash of light. Burst of pain.
Ian dumped him into the front seat of the module, managing to generate a scream this time.
“Hurry, Dad.” Ian shimmied in behind John and triggered the canopy mechanism. “Get us the hell out of here.” He managed to remember something important. “Screw you, Casper. We’re not going anywhere. You’re not real.”
Malii’ya had come alone. No explanation why. She wasn’t strong enough to lift him. Formless, faceless attackers caught them long before they managed to get to the hangar.
He couldn’t drag himself across the floor in time to shield her body with his own. His daughter died in tears, frightened, outstretched fingers a full motra from his, begging him to save her.
Flash. Pain. Heartache. Anguish replayed again and again.
“Let’s go. Time’s a wastin’,” DJ said. “Bad guys are going to rally pretty quick.”
John shook his head, trying to dispel the sense that this had happened before. The déjà vu was so pronounced it was making his skin crawl. “My legs are broken.”
DJ slung the pulse rifle out of the way behind him. “If you have to scream, try not to do it right next to my ear.”
“Do my best.” Ignoring what the next few microts were going to do to his smashed legs, he reached for DJ’s shoulders. “Don’t warn me. Just … Wait.”
“We don’t have time!” DJ stopped what he was doing anyway. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
John didn’t know precisely what was wrong. All he knew was that someone was missing from his surroundings. DJ had to … someone had to … there was someone else he needed to worry about. “DJ,” he said slowly, “where is --” He came close to remembering.
Flash of light. Burst of pain. The universe sucked him in, rearranged his reality, spat him out.
John Crichton regained consciousness back where he started: face down on the filthy floor of a metal-walled cell, with two broken legs and no memory how he had gotten there.
The expletive helped, as did hearing the sound of his voice. Together they gave him something tangible to grab on to, a starting point from which he could begin to reassemble his past. The fact that he knew how to speak and knew that the word ‘frell’ wasn’t part of his native language meant that there was something useful left of his brain. Recall was ready and waiting if he could only remember how to use it. Resting his head on his forearms, he closed his eyes and let the fragmented pieces of his memory float into place. Forcing it didn’t work; digging for information only pushed the few useful bits deeper, robbing him of the few shreds of recall that made any sense.
His captors wanted some information from him. That part was easy. It was always about information.
They had been screwing with his head. Again, easy to figure out. The bad guys always screwed with his head. This time it had been going on long enough that his dreams had begun to warp and twist as badly as the hallucinations they were inflicting on him. Sleeping or awake, dreaming or the helpless pawn of an enemy he couldn’t remember seeing, it barely mattered. His family had broken down the door to his cell more times than he cared to count, each time taking him only as far as a ship in an underground hangar bay before demanding that he tell them … something.
His memories ended there. It was part of the game they were playing. If they let him remember what they were trying to trick him into telling them, he could prepare defenses. A false memory, a trick, a lie: None of those were possible if he didn’t know what he was supposed to be lying about.
He latched on to another piece of information.
In the ultimate irony of all ironies, they were using a neural transponder to control him. Thirty or forty generations worth of development beyond the circuitry that Crais had used to command Talyn, the chunk of hardware embedded in the back of his neck had long since ceased to be anything that could be considered beneficial. The potential for controlling the entire nervous system of a living, breathing subject had been too great to leave it in the hands of the scientists and the dreamers. The neural backlash Crais had encountered so many cycles ago was mild compared to what could be done to a person if someone else was in control of every single neural impulse.
He knew better than to reach toward the back of his neck. Any attempt to break free or thwart what they were doing to him would be dealt with in the most gruesome way imaginable. They had taught him that lesson all too well. No one had needed to touch him to break his legs. It hadn’t involved anything as primitive as metal bars, baseball bats, or being hit. After he had come very close to escaping one night, they had left him alone in his cell, gone to wherever the controls were located, and used his own musculature to snap the bones for them. The pain had been insignificant compared to the sense of helplessness and the horror once he realized what they were doing to him.
“God.” The memory of that hideous half-arn was enough to make him every bit as sick as he had been in the aftermath of the actual event. Crichton gagged, close to vomiting. “Fuckers,” he panted when the worst of the nausea had receded. The seldom used word was like an incantation, summoning up decades-old memories of a time when he couldn’t even imagine being imprisoned, let alone brutalized and mind-frelled in this fashion. Those days were long gone. Events similar to this one were part of his every day life; despite all his precautions, they occurred with frightening frequency.
John let his body sag back against the floor, tried to get comfortable –- a nearly impossible task considering broken bones, exhausted body, and the unforgiving surface beneath him -- and set about trying to fill in some more of the emptiness that had invaded the inside of his head. It was more of what they were doing with the neural transponder. They were blocking certain memories; deliberately cutting him off from the portions that would help him understand who had grabbed him and what they were after. He could tell when he came up against one of the barricades they had erected inside his mind. It was no different than running full tilt into an invisible wall: unexpected, shockingly abrupt, and thoroughly inexplicable the first several times it happened. But the blockages were not airtight. Small, apparently innocuous facts, often related to his family, kept sneaking out. It was part of the process. They couldn’t build a believable hallucination without tapping into his memories, and the moment they did that, the extra details crept loose.
He had begun to suspect that knowing about the transponder was one of those mistakes. By the time the first theories about what was happening had begun to burble out of the quagmire inside his head, the confusion resulting from the extensive amnesia had taken him to the brink of a breakdown. Since mental dissolution would have served his captors’ purpose, he had concluded that remembering the insertion of the transponder had been one of the unintentional ‘leaks’, rather than a deliberate gift of memory to keep him sane.
Another tiny bit of information crept through one of the fissures in the dam.
“Twenty-four,” John said out loud. DJ was twenty-four cycles old now.
Or perhaps they had made that up, just like so many other false facts.
No, that part was correct, John decided. He remembered the day DJ had declared that twenty-two was too old to still be living at home, and had left Moya to make his own way in the universe.
Or perhaps they had made that up as well. He didn’t remember when or why DJ had come back.
As far as mind frells went, this was a good one. On a scale of one to ten, this one rated somewhere around a fourteen. He wasn’t sure what was real and what was imagined; what was dreamtime and what was transponder-generated hallucination. Giving them what they wanted couldn’t lie too far away if they had him this fouled up. Chances were better than even that he wouldn’t even know what it was when he told them what they wanted to know.
Once again, the familiar bit of mild profanity anchored him, reminded him that there was still some remnant of John Crichton intact inside the container full of jumbled fragments. He would hold on as long as he could, clinging to the belief that he really did have three children and that they would never give up trying to rescue him, going so far as to mortgage Moya if that’s what it took.
Somewhere in the distance, there was an explosion. Bits of dust and debris rattled down all around him, wafting a hazy, gritty blanket of detritus across his prone body. “Great,” John said to the empty room. “Fan-frelling- tastic! Here we go again.”
On cue, the sound of pulse weapons fire moved into the corridor leading to the cellblock, crawling toward where he lay with monotonous familiarity.
“Shoot out the lock,” he said, “and knock down the door.” A moment later, the door burst open.
This time DJ looked to be in his mid-twenties. One time early in the process, probably before his unknown captors had mined enough information from his skull to create a believable image, they had screwed up this part of the hallucination completely. A twelve-cycle-old DJ had led the assault, with a five-cycle-old Ian on his heels and toddler Malii’ya trotting along at the rear towing both her snuggly blanket and a pulse rifle bigger than she was. Since that hideously distorted edition of a rescue had ended with the blood of all three children spattered liberally across the walls of the cell, it had been the most horrifying version he had been forced to live through so far.
That was the night he had tried to escape, only to suffer through the sickening consequences of failure. It was also the last time he had run to the hangar, imagined or otherwise, on his own two feet.
“Do it!” DJ yelled down the hall.
Flash of light inside his head, temporarily blinding him. Burst of pain fully four times as painful as anything they’ve done to him so far, flooding outward from a spot at the base of his skull, threatening to tear his body apart.
Over the cycles, he had been subjected to more varieties of pain than he ever would have guessed existed. Few were as bad as this. If someone had managed to incinerate each individual cell in his body separately and simultaneously, it might have approached the surge of agony that coursed from his spine to his extremities. It was a slow blossoming bubble that made him forget about his legs for one or two microts, stopped his breathing for as long as it lasted, and left a tingling, peculiarly blunted sensation in its wake. It was as though his body was emitting white noise, making it difficult to experience his environment. The good news was that the residual hum wiped out the leftover ache that normally lingered after any kind of intense pain.
“Sorry.” DJ was kneeling alongside him. “We didn’t know that would happen. I’m sorry.”
Crichton swallowed. His throat hurt. “Did I scream?” he rasped. A tenuous memory concerning the preceding few microts edged its way out of his subconscious. There had been … something … a smell, a touch … a sound perhaps … that was supposed to have registered on his senses. It had been woven into his bellow of pain and the louder crack and boom coming from the far end of the corridor. His quest for the elusive item was interrupted by DJ’s voice.
“Yes. Sorry,” DJ apologized again. “We blew the control station.”
John started to say something about hallucinations and children who weren’t really there. He stopped. “They’re after Moya,” he said instead.
His memory had returned. Everything was there, unadulterated, clear and laid out in reassuring patterns that made sense for the first time in days. He knew who had imprisoned him and what they were after. He remembered the ages of his children, every single one of their birthdays, and even the day he had sucker punched a cocky, arrogant twenty-cycle-old DJ who thought he had learned enough about unarmed combat to go up against his father. DJ had begun his education in dirty tricks that day.
The bad guys this time were inept bounty hunters hoping to collect an out-of-date reward that had been rescinded more than eight cycles ago. They hadn’t believed that the Pathfinder beacon had been removed from Moya’s hull, or that the Pathfinders had retrieved the research information that Neeyala and her crew had been so desperate to return to their government, and had gone their own way, no longer interested in a single leviathan or the people living aboard her. Armed with nothing more than an outdated promise of riches and a room full of neural transponder technology gone bad, they had set their sights on capturing Moya and getting rich quick.
Or maybe that was what his captors wanted him to think. This might be nothing more than a new spin on the theme: Provide him with a better facsimile of his son, drag him to the hangar one more time, and then hope that he’ll show them the coordinates where their gentle, sentient home would be waiting. From his lousy vantage point on the floor, John tried to scan the cell, hoping for some proof that this rescue was different from all the others.
That was when he made an unpleasant discovery. If this was a different version of the same old trick, they had added a nasty twist into the latest chapter. “DJ, I can’t move.” He was paralyzed from the neck down.
“Frell! We hoped that wouldn’t happen!” DJ was on his feet and headed for the door. “Don’t go away.”
That felt real. DJ saying idiotic things like ‘Don’t go away’ when he couldn’t lift a finger was depressingly accurate.
Fatherhood in outer space had turned into a twenty-four-cycle litany of absurd moments. This was nothing but the icing on a cake made up of the sublimely ridiculous. Raising three children aboard a leviathan had consisted of one ludicrous situation after another: the time they had run out of anything that could be used as diapers for more than ten solar days, children getting lost in access shafts not fit for a hobbit let alone a grown human, injuries without doctors, scores of childhood illnesses no Earthling had ever heard of, and the night Moya’s gravity bladders had decided to fail just as he was giving a then infant Ian a bath. Lying helplessly on the floor of a prison cell while DJ spouted nonsense barely rated a footnote.
He closed his eyes, using the peaceful interval to organize his thoughts, seeking some hint that would reveal whether this was real or a higher caliber trick. A hand on his shoulder startled him. He had managed to doze off while he was waiting.
DJ crouched down where John could see him. “We’ll fix this in a couple of microts. Hang loose.”
That was a good sign, John decided. This was the first rescue that didn’t feature DJ in a god-awful rush.
Or maybe the bad guys had finally gotten it right.
“Malii’ya! Move it!” DJ yelled, startling John.
“Thirty microts!” a higher-pitched voice called back.
The floor shook. Dust floated down from the ceiling. From the quantity of smoke that was drifting into the room, there was a good chance that some portion of the complex was now on fire. DJ still wasn’t moving though. He stayed where he was, kneeling beside John with one hand resting lightly on his father’s shoulder, fingers rubbing a slow, reassuring pattern.
“What’s going on?” John asked.
“We’re Crichtons,” DJ said. “We’re blowing things up.”
“I know that part. Why aren’t we leaving?”
“Mia’s got the medical scanner. We thought it would be nice to make sure we’re not going to rip out your spinal cord along with the transponder when we yank it out.”
“Thanks a bunch. I appreciate the effort.”
“No problem. We’ll have you out of here in a jiffy.”
John’s stomach felt as though everything inside had turned to warm jelly: loose, vaguely comforting, and impossible to keep contained. The sensation spread to the base of his spine; relief flooded outward, robbing him of what little strength he had managed to summon up over the past moments. He closed his eyes for several microts, using the quiet interval to get his emotions under control. When he opened them, someone else was kneeling beside DJ.
Slender and athletic, her body showing the first hints of the impending transition to womanhood, Malii’ya bent over one of the compact transportable medical scanners, scowling at the readout and gnawing on her lower lip.
“Hey, Pun’kin,” John greeted her.
A troubled, uncertain glance flicked toward him. “Hi, Daddy.” She gave him a tremulous smile, one that was nine-tenths an attempt not to burst into tears and one tenth the unadulterated Crichton stubbornness not to give in to her emotions when there was something more important to be done, and then turned her attention back to trembling fingers that were trying to adjust the scanner.
She was only fourteen, John remembered. That was not old enough to be involved in this kind of rescue and its associated danger and mayhem. His daughter deserved to be lounging on a couch, a phone grafted to her ear, chattering endlessly about boys, not breaking down doors and ducking weapons fire. If he needed proof that she was too young for this role, her use of ‘Daddy’ was all he required. She had given up that particular word by the time she was eight. For a brief time she had called him ‘Father’, which he had hated because it sounded too formal, and then settled on ‘Dad’ as a sufficiently mature sounding manner of addressing her parent. Malii’ya never regressed to ‘Daddy’ unless she was approaching a complete emotional meltdown.
As though she had read his thoughts, Malii’ya let the scanner rest on her thighs, closed her eyes, and let out a shuddering sob.
Before John could assemble some sort of fatherly reassurance that he was certain would make things better instead of worse, DJ stepped in. “Deep breath, Mia. You only have to keep it together a little longer. You can do it, kiddo.”
She took the deep breath as instructed, let it out slowly, gave her older brother a nod, then bent over the equipment and tried again. Whatever alterations she was making to the scanner’s programming went more quickly for the deep sigh and the encouragement. No more than five microts passed before she nodded in satisfaction and leaned forward toward John’s upper body. The quiet chirp of the scanner began orbiting the back of his head.
“Good,” DJ said. It was half statement and half question.
“Yes,” she answered.
They didn’t bother to warn John. One moment he was lying quite contentedly with the most reasonable facsimile of his children he had hallucinated so far taking care of him, and the next moment DJ was holding him down with all of his weight and Malii’ya’s strong, slender fingers were digging into the back of his neck. There was an explosion of white and silver sparks in his vision that could have originated from either inside and outside of his head, and it felt as though they had torn his entire spinal column from his body after all.
“God,” he gasped when he could breathe again. “You couldn’t have warned me?”
DJ was rolling him onto his back. Having his limited view of the world revolve in that manner wasn’t helping him make sense of what was going on. “Would you have wanted to know ahead of time that it was going to be that bad?” DJ asked.
“Good point. You’ve been waiting to do that to me since you were about fifteen, haven’t you?”
“Since I was twelve. No disrespect intended, Dad, but could you please shut up and concentrate on getting out of here without getting your entire supply of progeny shot to hell?”
“’kay. What’s next?”
“How’s your body feeling? Wiggle the fingers, you old codger. Show me you’re in one piece.” DJ took one of John’s hands in his own, alternately straightening the fingers and then curling them into a fist. After four tries, John managed a slow, clumsy repetition on his own. The paralysis and the white noise coming from his body had been damaged transponder circuitry, not a fried nervous system. His prospects of escaping alive were improving.
“That’ll have to do. We’re in a hurry. Upsy-daisy. On your feet.” DJ got behind him and levered him into a sitting position. “Don’t sit there like a lump. Move!”
“Can’t. They broke my legs,” John said.
“No, they didn’t. It’s more of what they did with the transponder. Look.” DJ crouched down beside him, one hand on John’s shoulder to keep him from toppling over, and ran a hand down each leg, finishing with a careful but vigorous waggle of John’s feet. The expected burst of agony and the nauseating vibration of broken bones grinding against each other never arrived. His legs were fine.
“Bastards tricked me,” John said, and reached for DJ’s shoulder, seeking support. “Help me up.”
Knowing that his legs were undamaged and that they should function normally wasn’t enough. His captors had done too good a job of convincing his brain that his legs would not bear his weight. Not even DJ tucked in under one arm and putting all his strength into getting John upright was enough to get him to his feet.
“IAN!” DJ yelled when their third try only resulted in both of them winding up in a tangled heap.
Ian appeared on the run. Thick-bodied and muscular where his older brother tended toward a wiry leanness, it was only during the past cycle that he had become comfortable with his own strength, accepting the role of brute force to compliment DJ’s faster, frequently more graceful movements. Between them the two young men got John so he was sitting up, placed his feet flat on the floor, and hauled him to his feet.
“Come on, Dad!” Ian yelled when John’s knees started to buckle. “Stand up! You gotta walk, or we can’t get out of here. Stand up, dammit!”
“I am standing! Stop badgering me, boy!
“You are not standing!” DJ yelled into his other ear. “We’re doing all the work … as usual! Come on! We’re taking too long.”
John concentrated on how the floor was supposed to feel beneath the soles of his feet, put all of his strength into keeping his knees straight, and suddenly Ian was pulling away and headed for the door, once again at a run. “See? Standing!” John said triumphantly.
“For all of ten microts,” DJ fired right back at him. “In about sixty microts, you’re going to have to walk on your own, so get your dren together in a hurry.”
“One little rescue and all of a sudden you’re uppity as hell.” Together they staggered toward the door.
The closer he drew to that unattainable goal, the more John began to feel like this rescue was real, not a product of the transponder or a creation of his overly-abused mind. The cell walls hadn’t morphed into new surroundings even once since the door had flown open, and everything else remained stolidly consistent with the idea that this was an honest-to-god rescue laid on by his children. That final thought triggered a memory, one that had never intruded on any of the dreams or hallucinations thus far.
The furtive thought he had been chasing right after they had destroyed the control room slammed home. It had to do with a higher-pitched scream that had accompanied his bellow of pain. He had heard it, but had been too befuddled for it to make sense or even register on his consciousness. The fact that he had been able to overlook it at all had him on the verge of a full bore panic.
“Aeryn! DJ, where’s your mother? She was with me when they grabbed us!” John clutched at the edge of the door, trying to pull free of DJ’s supportive grasp. “Where’s Aeryn? We’ve got to find Aeryn!”
“Relax.” DJ turned him forcefully to the right, guiding him into the corridor. “Who do you think Ian and Malii’ya have been looking after in between helping you? If you want to see her, then lift your stupid foot over that bit of rubble, and then look up.”
John did as he was told, fighting with his own musculature to make it past a four-dench-high chunk of ceiling that had fallen in, and then raised his head. Aeryn was there, standing to one side of the smoke-filled hallway, propped up against a wall with Ian on one side of her and Malii’ya on the other, looking in John’s direction.
The corridor was filled with smoke, the sweet stench of ignited chakan oil, and a thick haze of dust; his three children were smeared with soot, dirt, and sweat; he could hear the beginning of another series of concussions headed their way; and for an instant it was as though he was alone with Aeryn, surrounded by nothing but fresh air and silence. She was haggard, looked as exhausted as he felt, she had a black eye, and there were tiny trickles of blood creeping from the back of her neck. And as far as John was concerned, she was as beautiful as the first day he had met her. For a microt, all the noise and confusion seemed to shift outward, leaving the two of them in a protective bubble. His entire existence became the gray-blue eyes and the look of relief on her face.
Aeryn had changed very little in the thirty cycles since they had met. Motherhood had altered the contours of her body in subtle ways, and raising three children in a universe that rarely gave them a full cycle’s worth of peace had bestowed upon her an impenetrable ability to remain calm even in the most chaotic situations. Still very much the soldier at heart, still regimented, organized, and implacably logical when ordered thinking was needed, she was graceful, gorgeous, and loving, having long since learned how to wear her emotions as comfortably as she wore a pulse pistol. Aeryn remained his anchor, and it was at times like this, when her presence tugged the universe back into alignment for him, that John most frequently felt that he could pass out from an excess of loving her.
Aeryn released the moment, returning them to the bedlam and the acrid smoke that bit at the back of his throat. “You’re late … as usual,” she said.