Rating: PG. Disclaimer: The characters and universe of Farscape are the property of the Henson Co. I have not made any profit off this little tale … with the possible exception of having a ton of fun writing it. Time Frame: Approximately 20 years before Premiere, and 12 cycles after PK Wars. Test Drivers: PKLibrarian and Atana. I was in desperate need of help with kids’ voices on this one, and received it from both PKLibrarian and Atana. They rock.
Note to the reader: Once again, I am playing with the Sun-Crichton family that appeared for the first time in Yesterdays and Tomorrows; and who have elbowed themselves into my fics (frequently armed with pulse weapons) periodically since then. John and Aeryn have three children: D’Argo (DJ) who is twelve-cycles-old in this story; Ian, who is five; and a daughter, Maali’ya, who is about two.
* * * * *
He was getting too big to pull this particular trick anymore. John Crichton lay down on his belly and began the slow cautious squirm from the door of his bedroom along the full length of the hallway, headed toward the railing near the top of the stairs. As recently as six months ago, he had been able to stay out of sight as long as he kept his chin firmly pressed against the polished wooden floor. Now, several weeks shy of his tenth birthday and almost two inches taller, that didn’t work any longer. He had to make sure his head remained behind the post standing between his bedroom door and the downstairs entryway if he wanted to make sure he was not spotted by the combatants on the first floor.
His father was yelling.
“NASA does not select candidates who have to run home every other week to check on what kinds of stunts their children have been pulling in school! This is a critical segment of the selection process, Leslie. Everyone in this house, with the possible exception of John, knows that.”
“It’s my fault,” his mother said. “I wasn’t here when his principal called.”
His mother was using her peace-making voice, the one she used whenever she was trying to get someone to calm down. She had taken several steps toward the den, effectively moving out of sight. John eased forward several inches. It wasn’t enough to bring her into view, so he edged back again, sacrificing the improved vantage point in favor of not being discovered. One of the metal rivets on his jeans rasped across the floor. He froze, suddenly clammy with sweat, queasy at the thought that his parents might have heard the noise.
“The girls had to go to the dentist,” his father went on without any hesitation. “John heard you say that you would be out today when we were talking during breakfast, and he couldn’t stay out of trouble for one day. If I didn’t know better, I’d say it was deliberate.”
“John probably wasn’t --” his mother started.
“Stop defending him! He’s old enough to know better.”
“He gets bored,” his mother said, this time with more force. “He can’t help it. It isn’t his fault that his mind starts to wander. Doesn’t that tell you something?”
“It tells me that he should pay more attention to his teachers.”
His father moved into sight, pacing from one side of the front hallway to the other. John ducked his head, frighteningly aware that if he could see his father, then his father could see him. If he was discovered, the punishment for spying on his parents would make school detention feel like a brief, pleasant vacation from the things he would rather be doing in the afternoon. His mother’s footsteps moved from the den to the bottom of the stairs. John went on breathing in the scent of recently polished wood and didn’t move a muscle.
“Jack,” his mother said, reverting to a less forceful tone, “maybe we should sit down with him and explain why he’s having so much trouble in school.”
“No. We’ve been through this a thousand times. He’s already lazy enough. Nothing we have done has changed that. If we tell him the truth, we will never get him to do any work at all. For god’s sake, Leslie, when is the last time you saw that boy do any homework?”
“He told me he does it in his other subjects --” she began.
“-- when he should be paying attention to what is going on in class, instead of writing down the first answer that pops into his head.”
The voices moved away and to one side. John risked a look, reminding himself to raise his head gradually. A fast motion seen out of the corner of the eye was a sure way of drawing attention to his eavesdropping. Excruciatingly slow movements were the best. He was safe though. His parents had migrated into the den for the moment. They were entirely out of sight.
“His grades aren’t worse than his friends’,” his mother said, sounding hesitant. “They’re better than everyone else’s, in fact.”
His father’s voice rose to yell again. “His grades are an embarrassment! You would think that boy doesn’t have a single functioning brain cell in his entire head.”
John squirmed forward, hoping for at least a partial glimpse of his parents. They helped by moving closer to the door of the den. He could see their faces now, which was worth the extra risk.
His mother was staring at the floor, not at his father, signaling surrender before she ever started the sentence. “His teachers feel --”
“Don’t blame his teachers! Annapolis has the best school system for miles around. We chose to live in Annapolis for that reason. If he can’t learn here, then we might as well give up on him!”
John made the first move to get up. He hated when his father yelled at his mother. He hated it even more when she surrendered, stood without saying a word and let his father get away with it, as she was doing now. John wasn’t sure what he was going to do; all he knew was that for once in his life, he was going to stop his father from making his mother look so unhappy.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” his father said in a calmer tone. “It is not your fault, Leslie. I know that.”
John froze with his chest three inches off the floor. He took in the sight of his father’s arm around his mother’s shoulders, the way she was leaning into his body, and sank back down. The silence stretched out. He closed his eyes and waited, well aware of what his parents were doing. He had seen it enough times that he didn’t need to look to know what was going on downstairs. They were leaning against each other, very likely with their eyes closed, silently making up for the harsh words and angry comments.
“We have to do something,” his mother said after several minutes had passed. “It’s almost as bad as last year. He still isn’t learning anything at school, Jack.”
The tone of his mother’s voice, followed by a brief but cautious peek confirmed John’s worst fears. His parents had made up; they were a team again, no longer at odds with each other even if they weren’t in total agreement. If he was discovered now, there would be no sympathetic defense on his behalf from his mother. Whatever punishment was handed out would be severe. John considered a retreat to the safety of his room. The distance was too great, he decided. His chances of making it the entire length of the hallway without getting caught were too slim. Better to wait it out, even if he felt as though his heart was going to crawl right out of his chest at any moment.
Below him, his parents were still holding each other. After several more seconds of silence, his father sighed, rubbed his free hand over his face, and then nodded. “Set up another meeting with his teachers. It has to be a weekend or an evening, though. If I miss another exercise or briefing, they’ll shift me to Mission Support. I can’t let that happen, Leslie. I’ve worked too hard to make it this far.”
“I’ll take care of it,” his mother said. “They’ve been very good about working around your schedule.”
“I have to get back.” He took a step toward the front door.
“Stay home,” she said. “Talk to John. Explain why we’re so worried.”
“I have to go back. If I put in a few extra hours, it might make up for missing part of the day. I’m too close to being bounced from the next launch. If they don’t send me to Houston in the next two weeks, it means I’m out. I have to do something to show them I’m the best candidate.” He gave her a quick kiss, and opened the front door. “Don’t bother holding dinner.”
“I’ll leave something in the fridge for you.” She was following him, sending all the unmistakable signals that she intended to walk with him as far as the car.
John closed his eyes, held his breath, and waited. Each of the times he had gotten caught spying on his parents, it had been at this exact moment. It was too natural for them to glance back inside the house as they started to step through the door, too much a habit to scan behind them for anything they might have left behind or forgotten.
The door closed. The house was silent.
John squirmed around so he was sitting cross-legged with his back against the wall, and dropped his head into both hands, feeling guilty, angry, frustrated, and thoroughly miserable -- guilty that he had caused his mother so much trouble, angry at his father, and frustrated to the point of wanting to kick a hole in the wall because not one person had been willing to listen to his side of the story or even asked why he had done it.
“It shouldn’t have worked,” he said into the quiet of the almost empty house.
“What shouldn’t have worked?”
John’s head came up so fast it bounced off the wall behind him. His sister, Olivia, was sitting in the doorway of her bedroom, sucking on a Tootsie Pop and observing him as though he had grown an extra head. He frowned at her. “Go away, Olive Oil!”
“It’s my house, too. I can sit here all I want. And if you don’t stop calling me that, I’ll tell on you. I’ll tell Mommy and Daddy you were spying.” She drew the final word out into both a taunt and a threat.
“Go ahead. I don’t care. Dad already hates me. It can’t get any worse.”
Olivia examined her Tootsie Pop for several seconds before tucking it back into her cheek. “What did you do bad this time?” she slurred around the obstruction.
“Nothing you could understand. Go away!”
She stuck a red-streaked tongue out at him. “I can ‘stand anything you can ‘stand! And I already know. I heard what you did. Daddy said you made half the rooms at school all wet.”
“I know. I was there, remember? Leave me alone.” John crossed his arms on top of his knees, rested his forehead on his arms, and stared down at his sneakers. He was afraid he was going to cry, and he didn’t want his little sister to see. The last thing he needed was to have to put up with Livvie chanting ‘Cry baby’ at him for the next several weeks.
“Why were you bad?” she asked him. “Daddy was so mad I got scared, and Mummy looked like she was going to cry.”
John went on sitting with his head buried in his arms while he debated whether to answer her. Livvie was the first person -- the only person -- who had asked him for an explanation. But she was only seven, still several months shy of her eighth birthday. She barely knew what the sprinklers in the classrooms were for, let alone how they functioned. Then again, neither did his classmates, which had a lot to do with how the entire mess got started. After several seconds of silence, however, it no longer mattered that Livvie was only seven, or that she was his little sister. All that mattered was that his entire body ached for someone to listen to him and to understand that he hadn’t meant to cause a problem. Before he knew what was happening, the words were tumbling out of him as though they were alive, with a will of their own.
“It wasn’t my fault! It was because some of the guys in my class were shooting their mouths off like they were some kind of big shot know-it-alls. They were telling everyone how they could set off the sprinklers by flushing all the toilets in the school at the same time, going on and on about how they could close down the school for a day, and how no one would be able to prove who did it because it would take so many of them to make it happen, so they would get away with it. And all the other kids just sat there and believed them.”
“So you proofed it to them?”
John looked up at his sister. “Yes! I mean no! That’s the whole thing! It shouldn’t have worked. I told them they were wrong. I explained how the system works, and how there were valves to keep that sort of thing from happening, and they laughed at me. They said I didn’t know anything about it and that I was stupid.”
Livvie crunched a majority of the Tootsie Pop off the stick. “Is that why you were bad? Because they laughed at you?”
“No! I didn’t mean to be bad. The sprinklers shouldn’t have gone off. The change in water pressure shouldn’t have made a difference.”
Even as he said it, the unbearable truth settled down on him, pressing on his shoulders, constricting his chest, and making it hard to swallow or talk. He had been wrong. He didn’t know as much as he thought he did. If he had stayed in his seat, and kept his mouth shut, the rest of the afternoon would have been every bit as uninteresting and boring as every other day at school. Instead, it had turned into a monstrosity of a disaster. Just thinking about it made him feel sick.
His next words emerged in a whisper. “I guess Dad is right. I’m stupid.”
“Johnny Smarty-Pants is stupid!” Olivia agreed too happily. “I tell you that all the time.”
“I mean I’m for real stupid. That’s what Dad says. You were listening. He thinks I’m stupid.” He had never realized that his parents had chosen to live in Annapolis because of the schools; or that he had needed special attention in order to learn. The realization was an unpleasant one. Tears threatened. He rubbed his eyes with the heel of his hand. “I’m stupid.”
Olivia was examining the now barren, soggy Tootsie Pop stick as though if she stared at it long enough, the candy might grow back. As she did, her expression slowly shifted from glee to what John thought might be sadness -- whether it was over his current problems or the fact that her lollipop was gone, he wasn’t certain -- and eventually to confusion. She cocked her head to one side, still looking puzzled. “But Johnny, you got to skip all of a grade! All the kids at school say that stupids get held back. They say stupids don’t get to skip.”
In all the confusion, chaos, panic, and hurt feelings, he had forgotten about that. Dumfounded, John watched his sister -- who was apparently untroubled by the mystery -- wander off toward her bedroom. He used the time to weigh what she had just said against what he had heard his parents saying moments earlier, doing his best to reason his way through the contradictions. It might have been easier to ignore what his parents had been saying about him if his father ever treated him like he was smart; or if the school library, the cafeteria, and half a dozen classrooms hadn’t been soaked by the sprinkler system that afternoon; or if the Fire Department hadn’t shown up and evacuated the entire building. He had been so sure that he knew what he was doing, in the same way that he had never questioned whether he was stupid or smart.
None of the pieces fit together. Answers eluded him, reinforcing the possibility that his father was right and that seven-year-old Livvie was wrong.
The front door opened, putting an end to any thoughts of tracking down his sister in order to prod some more comments out of her. John rolled to his feet, and crossed the distance to the window at the end of the hallway in six long silent strides. The route was well known; the location of every creaky board or floor joint memorized and easily avoided.
“John?” his mother called.
He didn’t want to talk to her, not even if it meant getting some answers about what he had overheard. He didn’t want to hear the disappointment in her voice, or look into her eyes and know that earlier that day he had almost made her cry. He didn’t want to remember his father’s voice saying that he was an embarrassment, that he couldn’t learn, and that he didn’t have a functioning brain cell in his head. John crawled out the window onto the porch roof, leaped for the branch of the huge maple that served as his escape route whenever he needed to get away from his father, and two minutes later was running along the brush-filled alley that led along the backs of the houses on his street. Perhaps if he ran long enough, then maybe, if he was lucky, for a short time he could forget that the great Jack Crichton had a son who was stupid.
* * * * *
Crichton came to a halt in the center of the tier’s primary fore-aft corridor. He stood there for several microts, doing nothing more than waggling his head from left to right, trying to ease some of the aching tension that was turning his neck and shoulder muscles into a persistent misery. Stretching didn’t help; it only served to emphasize that the thought of getting through the next arn was generating more anxiety than the arn he had just survived. After several futile attempts to relax, he turned in a circle, surveying his surroundings.
A thick grayish-white haze drifted in slow-motion patterns from the ceiling to roughly chest level, obscuring the more intricate details of Moya’s internal spaces. Scorch-blackened interior plating hung loose; damaged bulkheads oozed rivulets of water and several other less pleasant fluids; and every junction box exuded smoke-signal tales of internal devastation. In every direction, the corridors were festooned with charred cabling and leviathan-grown wiring. The blackened ribbons hung from overhead panels, were draped over the protruding light fixtures, and wove chaotic patterns along the floor, as though the entire freshman class of some alien university had chosen to trash Moya’s hallways with burnt wiring instead of toilet paper.
“Pilot,” he called in the general direction of his comms badge. “Confirmed. This tier is as bad as all the rest.” To his right, a chunk of insulating material was smoldering, putting out more of the noxious white smoke. He kicked it apart, extinguishing most of the fire, then stamped out the few remaining embers. The movement seemed to free him from the reluctance that had brought him to a stop in the middle of the junction. Once in motion, he was able to keep moving again.
“How is Moya doing?” he asked as he worked his way aft.
“She is very happy to be alive, as am I,” Pilot replied. “The damage, while extensive, is preferable to the alternative.”
The alternative was total destruction. By all rights, Moya and everyone aboard her should have been dead. For one frantic arn, it had looked as though their combined futures would end with a charred leviathan hulk drifting aimlessly through the eternal night of interstellar space, carrying the long-dead bodies of those who had lived, laughed, fought, quarreled, and brought new life into existence aboard her. The fact that they were all still alive and -- with the exception of the damage to Moya -- were unharmed was nothing short of miraculous.
“Yeah, color me surprised right along with you and Moya. I thought we were all goners, too, Pilot.” John wiped a trickle of sweat away from the corner of his eye. “Environmentals are totally frelled on this tier, just like everywhere else. It’s a hot August day in Florida down here -- hazy, hot, and humid.”
“The DRDs should have the air recirculation system repaired in approximately thirty arns,” Pilot said. “Tier One is the only tier still open to space. Internal bulkheads are holding. No one was injured. It could have been much worse.”
“We were very lucky,” Aeryn’s voice chimed in after Pilot’s.
“You don’t have to tell me that.” Crichton rounded the turn into a lesser-used passageway, headed toward Moya’s treblin-side outer hull area. “How are you doin’?” he asked as he made his way around a heap of debris.
“The temperature in the Den is under control, John. I should be all right as long as I stay here until the atmospheric regulators for the rest of Moya are repaired.” There was a slight pause before she added, “This is the third time you have asked that.”
“Blame it on nerves. After what we just went through, I think I’m entitled to be a little wigged out for a day or two. What about the munchkins, have they calmed down yet?”
“Ian is attempting to catch one of the DRDs, probably with the intention of dismantling it, which means it isn’t letting him near it. Malii’ya is sleeping.”
“Kids,” he said in a whisper, shaking his head.
He had not intended for Aeryn to overhear the single syllable commentary on the resiliency of small children. “Nothin’ important,” he called back to her. “We should finish this later. I’m almost there.”
“I’ll be here,” Aeryn replied, and then the comms went silent.
John turned into a short side corridor, and came to a stop. The passageway and the adjoining chambers, like all the rest of Moya, were filled with the smoke-haze of blown neural circuits and burnt conduits, as well as an impressive amount of debris considering that it was one of the least damaged sections of the leviathan. There were no major power systems running through the bulkheads or support struts in this particular area, which meant that it had not been subjected to the energy surge that had crippled so many of Moya’s systems. If Crichton had been asked to choose the safest place to hide after what had just occurred aboard the ship, this sector would have been at the top of his list.
Taking in a deep breath of acrid, smoke-laden air, he bellowed, “D’Argo Sun Crichton! You haul your ass out here in the next ten microts, boy, or you will be the sorriest excuse for a human being anyone has ever seen on this end of the universe!”
The loud summons was answered by silence.
“You got five microts left, buster!” John yelled. “If you think playing possum is going to convince me you’re not here, think again! You were spotted by a DRD, and Pilot has managed to get the internal sensors for a good chunk of this sector back online. You know how much I hate crawling through maintenance shafts! If I have to come in there, grab you by the scruff of the neck, and drag you out of that tunnel, you are going to spend the rest of your natural life span restricted to quarters! You have got four microts left! Three … two …”
“Coming,” a voice said. “Don’t have a budong. I’m coming.”
One of the smaller maintenance shafts disgorged a pair of boots, followed by a pair of slightly-too-large leather pants, a dirt streaked and bedraggled looking t-shirt, and finally the shoulders and head of their twelve-cycle- old son. DJ made a lengthy production out of getting to his feet, dusting off his clothes, and straightening his hair before finally turning to face his father.
Crichton waited patiently, seeing too much of himself in his son to get angry. He remembered behaving much the same way in the moments before a confrontation with his father, and knew that DJ’s stomach was undoubtedly knotted to the point of cramping by a combination of fear, anger, and uncertainty. In most ways, the person standing in front of him was the epitome of stubborn, truculent, teenaged rebellion. With his head raised, jaw clenched, and his shoulders and back held ramrod straight and rigid, every muscle fiber in DJ’s body seemed to be shouting out defiance. John ignored those overt, easily read signals. He was more interested in the way DJ’s hands were shaking slightly, in the way he kept shifting his weight from one foot to the other, and how his eyes seemed incapable of meeting John’s squarely. Those were the clues that told the true tale of what was going on inside DJ.
Twenty microts crawled by in silence. DJ’s shoulders dropped half a dench and he stopped fidgeting.
“Energy or ion?” John asked.
“Energy.” DJ looked startled by his own answer, as if he hadn’t meant to speak and the word had gotten loose on its own.
“That’s about twenty light-years beyond where you are in physics,” John said. “Where did you get the idea?”
Jaw muscles clenched for a moment then eased. DJ shrugged. “The research facility the last time we were on Hyneria. Rygel’s scientists are working on a new type of energy shield. They showed me what they’ve developed so far.” His eyes met John’s for the first time, searching for something. Whatever he found there encouraged him to continue. “They’re having trouble with the power source though. They need lots of a specific type of highly energized particle to make it work.”
“The type found in starburst energy,” John said, cutting the explanation short.
“Yes.” DJ’s eyes skittered off to one side. They found something interesting to stare at and stayed there.
John took in another huge breath and then let it out slowly, contemplating how to proceed. DJ had saved Moya and everyone aboard her. It did not matter that the thought of DJ playing around with Moya’s power cables scared him silly, or that the fear was working hard to get him to do something violent and rash. As much as he wanted to burn off some of his anxiety in a frenzy of shouting, there was no way he could yell at his son for saving everyone’s life. In addition, there were some difficult things he needed to explain to DJ, and starting out by screaming at the kid wasn’t a good way to begin. He replayed the afternoon’s near-disaster in his mind, searching for some key moment that would help him launch a discussion that he and Aeryn had agreed could not wait any longer.
What had started out as an almost boring, atypically peaceful day aboard the leviathan had shifted into their more standard routine of screaming chaos and near disaster when they had been jumped by a small squadron of renegade scarran ships. For the past several cycles, a growing fleet of pirated craft had been preying on scarran and charrid vessels inside the Scarran Empire. More heavily armed than even the scarran military’s standard fleet ships, crewed by a newly emerged, exceedingly aggressive caste that the scarran leaders insisted were genetic throwbacks, the raiders used fast, slashing, hit-and-run tactics that seldom left any survivors. Over the past quarter cycle, an increasing number of attacks had occurred in Peacekeeper controlled space. The attack on Moya had been the first of its kind to take place inside the Hynerian Empire.
The leviathan had been surrounded before anyone was even aware that there were ships nearby. While Aeryn staged what they knew was a futile attempt at negotiating their way out of the trap, John and Pilot had frantically tried to figure out a way for Moya to leap into starburst without generating the telltale energy signature that they were certain would initiate a full out, fatal attack. Both diplomacy and brainstorming had failed. The first barrage, carrying more than enough firepower to kill Moya and everyone on board, had already been unleashed when an impenetrable energy shield had sprung into existence around her … accompanied by a hull-rattling, deafening boom from inside the starburst chamber and the first snarling crackle of overloaded energy transfer circuits.
The shield had held long enough to fend off more than a dozen salvos; the scarran outcasts, surprised and dismayed to discover that they could not harm a supposedly defenseless leviathan, had departed in a storm of threats to return with larger weapons; and John had helped Pilot guide Moya into the first slingshot maneuver she had performed in more than fifteen cycles. They were currently half a parsec from where they had been attacked, moving steadily away at a little over Hetch One while every DRD on board, including a few that were only partly functional, labored furiously to restore Moya’s critical systems.
The problem wasn’t the unexpected creation of the defense shield, or the damage to Moya. The problem was that DJ hadn’t bothered to tell anyone what he was doing while he was rewiring critical portions of Moya’s internal energy management system, compounded by the fact that this was not the first time he had made these kinds of alterations to Moya without asking permission.
John stared up at the ceiling and rubbed both hands over his face, using the motion to wipe away grime and sweat while trying to massage an answer loose. He knew what he needed to say; he just didn’t know how to start.
DJ stood his ground, looking more belligerent with each passing moment. He, too, was soaked with sweat, and was getting wetter and soggier by the microt. Crichton spared a moment to offer up thanks to the randomness of genetics that all three of his children had inherited his human tolerance for heat. DJ and Malii’ya had a sebacean paraphoral nerve, and Ian had inherited his mother’s incendiary temper, each of which presented a hazard that the children would have to manage as they grew; but he was happy to deal with those problems if it meant he would never have to face the impossible, heartbreaking dilemma of a child trapped in the living death.
It was there, in that moment of reflecting on the benefits of DJ’s human heritage, that John found his starting point. It wasn’t a large opening, it had almost nothing to do with what he really needed to discuss, but it offered him a way to begin.
“How many languages do you speak?” John asked.
DJ looked confused by the abrupt change in subject. “Nine … maybe ten.”
“Probably more like twelve,” John said. “Tell me the word for ‘No’ in at least six of those.”
Wariness and caution disappeared, replaced by the more familiar barely contained anger. “You know what they are.”
“No, I don’t. I can understand them thanks to translator microbes, but even after all the cycles I’ve spent living on this end of the universe, I still can’t speak a fraction of the languages that you take for granted. I can barely make myself understood in Sebacean, every time I try Hynerian it gives me the hiccups, and I do not care to discuss my attempts at Luxan and Nebari.”
DJ took several steps away from John, the rigid set to his shoulders and jerky movements shouting out his frustration and resentment. He stood with his back turned for several microts, then spun around to face his father and reeled off twelve different terms in a single breath.
“Now tell me what they mean,” John said.
“They mean that I’m not supposed to mess with Moya’s systems without telling you first because if I don’t get it right, I could wind up killing everyone on board,” DJ chanted in an almost perfect imitation of John’s voice. “No means no.”
Crichton dropped down onto one knee so he was closer to eye level with his young son. “DJ … D’Argo …”
“I prefer DJ. D’Argo is the name of some dead guy that you and Mom still miss.”
John gave him a single down-up nod, acknowledging the preference. “DJ, you’re fairly smart. You already know that, right?”
It disarmed him. A portion of the explosive self-assurance drained away, displaced by embarrassment. “Yeah. Sort of.”
“What if I told you that you are smarter than me, your mother, Pilot, and Moya all rolled into one?”
The object of the flattery squirmed, first one shoulder and then the other performing a brief undulation halfway to a shrug. “I’m not that smart. You’re making things up.”
“You’re right. I’m making things up,” John admitted. He paused for two microts before changing tacks. “How smart are you, DJ?”
Another squirm, another shrug gone awry. “I don’t know. Kind of smart, I guess.”
“Kind of smart?” John asked, challenging him.
“Pretty smart, maybe.”
“Smart enough to understand what the scientists on Hyneria were talking about and figure out how to make it work with Moya’s system, right?”
“Yeah.” DJ’s expression lightened. Hints of energy and cheerfulness appeared. “As soon as I saw what they were doing, I knew Moya could do it, Dad! Most of the circuitry is already there. It doesn’t take all that much!” The sudden spike in enthusiasm crested, began to fall. “Except --”
“Except her energy transfer systems couldn’t handle the load for very long, and you blew out more than half of her electrical systems,” John finished for him.
Head hanging so his chin almost touched his chest, DJ nodded.
John took in a breath and let it out slowly, trying to get the buzzing nervousness in his stomach to die down. There was an enormous risk in what he was about to tell his son. If DJ took it the wrong way, and didn’t listen to the important parts of what he was about to say, the repercussions could turn out to be more than he and Aeryn could handle on their own.
“DJ, that’s more than pretty damned smart. That’s smarter than almost anyone I’ve ever met.” He stopped, waiting until DJ’s head came up and his son was looking at him. “It’s pretty damned smart, but you aren’t going to survive long if you don’t learn how to control the ideas that your brain is turning out. There is a reason why we want you to check with us first. It’s not just because we’re your parents and that’s the sort of things parents do. It’s because you don’t always engage that brain of yours before you leap into action. Thinking and coming up with new ideas is a good thing. Thinking before you act and really truly understanding that not everyone can figure out the things you think are easy is even more important.”
He paused again, hoping for some sign that he was getting through to DJ. When nothing happened, he asked, “Do you understand what I’m trying to tell you?”
“You’re saying I could have fried myself messing around with Moya’s starburst circuits.”
“Not bad, but I’m looking for more than that,” John said, trying to coax his son into further comprehension.
“If you’re talking about checking with you first, there wasn’t time!” DJ said, raising his voice.
“Yes, there was.”
DJ kicked a piece of debris down the hallway, venting frustration. “You and Mom were too busy!”
“There was time,” John insisted, concentrating on sounding calm. “There was time to tell me you had a way of saving Moya, and that it was risky. I didn’t need you to describe every single step, but you needed to explain what you were going to do.” John held up a finger, forestalling an objection. “You need to prove to us that you’ve thought things all the way through before we start trusting you with decisions on your own.”
DJ zigzagged an erratic course to one side. He stood with his back turned to his father, fingers picking at a loose bit of bulkhead plating while he considered what he was being told. “So you’re saying that I should have told you what I wanted to do, and told you it would scorch half of Moya’s conduits?”
“Yes.” John waited, breath held, praying that DJ had finally figured out what they had been attempting to teach him ever since the day they realized they had a small genius charging about the ship on tiny toddler feet.
The focus of John’s attention shifted position and stance several times, transmitting indecision, then wandered back to where John was still down on one knee in the middle of the corridor. “You want me to tell you the parts that aren’t going to work out so good?”
“But --” Another squirm, another signal that the child wanted to say something and was afraid his father would become angry.
“Spit it out,” John said.
It emerged in an insecure whisper. “But sometimes you don’t get it. Sometimes, you’re --” He stopped again, this time looking both embarrassed and frightened.
“-- too stupid,” John said. The sides of DJ’s neck and his ears turned bright red. The rest of the boy’s body continued to transmit increasing levels of unhappiness. “DJ, just because you’re smarter than everyone else within shouting distance doesn’t make the rest of the universe stupid. All it proves is that you haven’t figured out how to make everyone else understand what you’re seeing inside your head. It means that you” -- he poked his son in the middle of the chest with one finger -- “have to try harder. Not us. You have to figure out how to explain it better.”
DJ looked as though he was on the verge of tears. He took several steps to one side, turned in a circle, and then slammed one foot against the floor. “But it’s so simple! It’s easy! And no one else gets it! I explain it over and over again, and no one understands!”
“Yes, you explain it again. What you don’t do is explain it better or in a different way. Repeating the same words louder each time you go through it doesn’t help. All you’re doing is making the explanation noisier.”
“But I tell you how it works the first time! Repeating it isn’t going to make a difference.” DJ stomped around in a circle. The almost-tears materialized into actual crying. “You don’t get it! Mom doesn’t get it! Pilot doesn’t get it! No one gets it!”
“And even though we’re the ones who don’t understand, it makes you feel like you’re the idiot,” John said into the echoing silence that followed DJ’s anguished outburst. “It makes you feel like there’s something wrong with you, not us.”
“Yes! Like I’m a freak!” DJ smeared the tears away with the heel of his hand. “I don’t want to be different! If this is what it feels like to be smart, then I don’t want to be smart. I want to be like everyone else. I hate being a freak!”
John dropped down onto both knees and then eased back so he was sitting on his feet. It brought him down to a level where he had to look up to meet his son’s eyes, and made it easier not to lean forward to hug his crying child. He felt chilled and sick to his stomach because of what he was doing to his son, and did not dare upset the learning process he had set in motion. He rested his hands on his thighs to keep himself from reaching out, and forged on.
“DJ, your mother and I have spent more time arguing about how and when to talk to you about this than we have spent arguing about everything else combined.”
Unexpectedly, the confession helped ease the growing tension. DJ’s reddened eyes widened. The expression was half a damp, bleary-eyed parody of shock and half genuine surprise. “That’s an awful lot of arguing, Dad.”
“Yes, it is, Mr. Smartass. How about you sit down and shut up for a moment, and spend some time thinking about what I’m trying to tell you instead of mouthing off.”
DJ flopped down into a sloppy cross-legged heap on the floor. He spent some time drying his face, let out a slightly shaky sigh, and then looked up at John, staring into his eyes for the first time since he had crawled out of the maintenance shaft, perhaps seeking answers there. John decided it was progress, and tried to focus on maintaining the trust embodied in that steady gaze.
“DJ, your mother and I have argued about this because it might be the most important thing we have ever talked about. We want you to grow up happy and comfortable with what’s going on between your ears. You aren’t the smartest person at this end of the universe, kiddo, but you’re way out in front of a huge chunk of the population. You have got to learn how to handle that, how not to feel like a freak when other people think you’re strange just because you learn fast, and how not to overestimate yourself. That last part is what I’m trying to work on right now because it’s the part that is going to keep you from getting yourself killed. Just because you’re smart doesn’t mean you aren’t going to do incredibly stupid things from time to time. You’re my son, after all.”
DJ looked less miserable. “Sometimes Mom calls you an idiot.”
“That’s only because she loves me.” DJ didn’t look convinced by the explanation. John tried again. “She wouldn’t call me that if she believed it.” Now his son looked confused. John tried a third time. “She says that when she knows I haven’t thought something all the way through.”
DJ’s expression brightened. “So, if this” -- he waved a hand toward the lingering haze of smoke drifting near the ceiling -- “hadn’t worked, you would have called me an idiot.”
“Exactly, except that we would be dead now, so I wouldn’t be calling you anything at all.” John clambered to his feet. “You’ve got one hell of a brain taking up the space inside your skull, DJ. That’s not going to do you a single bit of good if you don’t remember to turn it on first, and it means even less if you don’t take the time to think things all the way through. All it means is that you learn things quicker than everyone else.” John paused, watching DJ’s reactions, and then repeated his last sentence. “All it means is that you learn quicker than everyone else.”
Sullen impatience reappeared. “I heard you the first time.”
“I know you did. I said it again because I have a hunch you didn’t understand the point I’m trying to make. DJ, learning things fast doesn’t have a single thing in the universe to do with using knowledge in a smart way,” John said. “The two are not necessarily connected. It’s up to you to take the first one and turn it into the second. Can you figure out how to do that? I want you to think it through. Don’t just fire off one of your usual flippant answers. What’s the difference between the two?”
DJ got to his feet as well. He wandered down to where the small corridor they were standing in met the larger passageway, stood in the junction for several microts staring off to his right, then slowly walked back to where John was waiting for him. “Does it have something to do with how I treat other people?”
John held back a sigh of relief. “Yes. Not entirely, but that’s a big chunk of it.”
The twelve-cycle-old child gnawed on his lower lip, considering the challenge lying ahead of him. “It sounds complicated.”
“Few things in life will be harder.”
“Do you get it right all the time, Dad?”
John stared into DJ’s eyes for a full five microts before answering. “No. I screw up too often. I want you to do better than me, which means that I am going to be all over you like Rygel on a platter of marjoules until I think you’ve reached that point.”
For what might have been the first time in his life, DJ looked pleased by a statement that had, up until that moment, always been wielded as a parental threat. The promise of the hovering presence of his father seemed to satisfy him. “Okay,” he said, nodding. “I’ll try harder. So what happens now?”
“I want you to start by taking some food and water up to the Den for your mother, and I want you to apologize to her for the damage you caused.” John waved a finger back and forth, arresting any potential objections. “I know you saved everyone’s life, including Moya’s. I don’t care about that right now. Apologize to your mother, and since she’s probably going to be stuck in the Den for at least a solar day, I suggest you make it a first class apology. Remember that she’s armed.”
DJ subsided. “Got it. Apologize to Mom. Is that all?”
“No, it isn’t,” John said. “You created this god-awful mess, so you are going to help Pilot with the repairs.”
DJ glowered, and opened his mouth, showing all the classic signs that the unique genetic melding of Crichton stubbornness and Sun volatility was about to put in an appearance.
“Can it, mister!” John said, raising his voice. “Shut your mouth and open your ears! Three quarters of Moya’s diagnostics have gone up in smoke. Pilot has very little idea what’s damaged, and even less of an idea how you managed to cause it with so few modifications, so you stay up there and keep explaining things to him until he understands what you did to get Moya into her current state. No temper tantrums when he doesn’t understand; no throwing a fit when he asks you to clarify something more than once. Do not underestimate Pilot, and don’t talk down to him. If he doesn’t understand what you did, then this time it really is because you haven’t explained it well enough. You may have to learn a thing or two from him about Moya’s systems in order to describe what you did, so you’re going to have to spend as much time listening as talking. Got me?”
DJ glared at his father for several microts, then subsided. His shoulders dropped from where they were tucked up close to his ears in preparation for battle, he let out the breath he was holding, and after one more brief hesitation, he threw a sloppy salute in John’s direction, making a respectable, if slightly forced, attempt at humor. “Yes, sir. Got you, sir.”
“Good. Go.” John sent him on his way with a feigned kick to his butt.
Crichton waited, barely breathing, until the slender figure disappeared around the corner, then backed up so his rump touched the walls, and bent over, hands propped on his knees for stability and his head hanging down so his chin rested on his chest. He stayed that way until the sound of DJ’s footsteps had faded completely.
“He’s gone,” he said.
“What about you? Are you still breathing?” Aeryn replied over the comms.
“Yes,” he said. “Barely.”
“What about your heart?”
“It stopped a couple of times. He looked so hurt and confused, Aeryn. I came close to telling him to just forget everything I’d said and hugging him.”
“You handled it well,” she said, “almost as though you had a similar conversation with your own father at some point in your life.”
“You know I never did. My dad chose a different approach, and wound up convincing me that I was the village idiot. Just because I misunderstood what was going on doesn’t change how I felt about myself.”
“You have told me that several times. I still find it hard to believe.”
John spent several microts rubbing his forehead, considering Aeryn’s comment and thinking about her own upbringing. “You’re not exactly the dimmest bulb in the pack either, Aeryn. Would you have broken out of the box the Peacekeepers built around you if two totally besotted men hadn’t blurted out that you were capable of being more than some mindless, obedient, grunt?”
“I don’t know. Possibly not.”
“Definitely not. You never would have come with me that first day, and you know it. You would be dead now, wasted in the midst of a senseless battle over some insignificant piece of territory that no one cares about anymore. Both of us needed some help breaking down the walls that other people had been built up around us. I don’t want DJ to have to go through that.”
Aeryn didn’t respond to the insistent statement. There was six microt silence, followed by a return to their original subject. “You know I would have taken care of this if the situation were reversed.”
“I know. I don’t mind that I wound up in the right time and the right place to do it. I think it turned out better this way. I’ve got the man to man, father to growing son thing going for me. He’ll drop and give you fifty a lot faster than he would for me, but he’ll take this more seriously if its coming from his old man. And we couldn’t wait any longer. He was getting too big for his britches. What happened today is exactly why we had to do this sooner instead of later.”
“He might have straightened out on his own,” she said.
John stared down the corridor, seeing a modest suburban house and the polish hardwood floor of an upstairs hallway instead of one bronze-plated corridor stretching the length of a leviathan, hearing two voices arguing instead of the discordant grumbles and clatters of damaged biomechanoid systems. “No. We agreed. He’ll be better off if he understands what he’s carrying between his ears and starts thinking about what that means. He’ll be happier if he understands why he’s different than other people.”
“I had better close the comms. He will be here soon.”
“’kay,” he said. “I’ll be up in a little bit.”
“Love you.” The comms chirped once, and went silent.
John straightened up, eyes still fixed on a spot light years away from the one small passageway where he stood, for all practical intents and purposes, suspended in space. Time and distance hadn’t changed anything. The crawl of years had not blunted the emotions. The hurt and the longing persisted, every bit as intense as when he had experienced them for the first time. The outcome was the same as well. He was angry.
He stepped away from the wall, still gazing into his past. “You screwed up, Dad. You screwed up, and I paid for it for years. I’m not going to make the same mistake with DJ.”
He would make an entirely different set of mistakes instead. It was a natural part of parenting. He and Aeryn sometimes joked about it when they were lying awake in bed late at night. They would come up with ridiculous scenarios, tales of children gone bad as a result of their lousy parenting, and then they would laugh together, hug each other in the dark, and fall asleep hoping that their predictions would never come true. But the one thing they had both agreed upon was that they would never strip DJ of his exceptional gift. They would never imprison the incandescent imagination; never weigh down the blindingly bright intelligence with misconceptions or misunderstandings.
Their son would grow up dreaming and then making those dreams come true. Their son would fly free.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
NOTE: In the first half of the story, John is correct. The school sprinklers should not have gone off. A “wet” fire sprinkler system of that era would not activate due a sudden drop and then surge in the water pressure unless there was a malfunction in the individual sprinkler heads.