Measure Of Devotion - Chapter 4

If someone had taken an old-fashioned clothes wringer and run one of his wild wormhole rollercoaster rides
through it more than once, compressing the journey into a fraction of its former self, it might have felt similar to
what happened when the anomaly hit.  Nothing of the chaotic ride was missing from the experience.  All the
light, all the motion, commotion, and confusion, and every bit of the noise were bundled into a well-packaged
five microt event, encased in a burst of pain that Crichton had never experienced in a wormhole, and then it
had seemingly been set adrift in space to wait for the opportunity to run over the module.  

The blessing was that it was over in a matter of microts.  The drawback was that the elongated instant was one
of the worst he had ever lived through -- Aurora Chair included.  The moment he realized that they were in for
an impact of some sort, Crichton grabbed for Aeryn and tried to get his feet jammed in place to keep both of
them from being thrown around.  The ride was over before he could get a decent grip on her.  The serenity that
followed was almost worse than the confusion, if only because of the impression it lent that the preceding few
microts had never happened.    

John released his grip on Aeryn and pressed both hands against his forehead.  He had developed a headache
fit for a budong, and the rest of his body was working hard to convince him that it was absolutely essential that
he vomit.  “Oh … god.  We got …”

Aeryn had her head resting against the side view port and both arms were wrapped around her midsection.  As
John watched, she turned and pressed her cheek against the chilled plexiglass, obviously deriving some relief
from the cold.  He thought of how the smooth, icy surface would feel against his aching head and was mildly
jealous.  The view port on the other side of the cockpit was available, except it would require moving Aeryn out
of his lap to reach it, and he did not have the strength or willpower to do that quite yet.  

“We hit something,” Aeryn said in a weak moan.  

“More like …”  John took several slow breaths in an attempt to convince his stomach to leave its contents where
they belonged, and tried again.  “More like something ran us over.  I feel like road kill.”  

“John?” she said in an unfamiliar, guttural squawk.

The voice alarmed him.  He leaned close to see what was wrong.  “What?”

Without bothering to turn her head, she pushed him away with one hand.  “I’m going to vomit.  I just wanted to
let you know ahead of time.”    

”There’s one thing you need to know before you blow chunks in here.”   

“You had better make it quick.”

“If you puke, I’m gonna puke, and I ate about three times as much as you did this morning.  And it’s not going to
be any of that low grade mostly digested puke either.  Mine is going to be --”

Aeryn’s hand fumbled at his face for a microt.  Cool moist fingers located his nose and eyes by touch before
finally clamping themselves firmly over his mouth, cutting off the description of what might be contained in his
stomach.  “Stop,” she ordered in a half-choked voice.  “Enough.  I get it.”  

“I thought you deserved fair warning.”  

Aeryn rolled her head far enough to one side so she could look at him.  When she spoke, her voice still
emanated from the back of her throat, as though she might have had her tongue clamped between her back
teeth, but she did not sound as shaky as she had a microt earlier.  “I don’t feel sick anymore.”  

“Didn’t think so.”  John swallowed several times, finding each successive effort more difficult than the last, and
spent some time praying that he could hold up -- or perhaps ‘down’ was a better term in this particular instance
-- his portion of the implied agreement.  Focusing his attention on something other than his roiling stomach
seemed like a good idea.  “’kay.  Where are we in relation to Moya?”  

Aeryn flapped a hand toward the darkened navigational displays, and turned to face the window again.  Not a
single screen was working.  John waggled the controls.  Nothing happened.  Reaching carefully behind him --
carefully because it meant twisting around to his left, and twisting meant putting strain on his stomach -- he tried
resetting the power breakers.  The module remained lifeless.  

“Herby,” he said on an involuntary belch, “you alive?  Time to wake up.”  When he rapped the yellow shell of
the DRD with his knuckles, he received an answering chirp.  It was weak, as though perhaps the DRD felt just
as sick as everyone else aboard the module, but it was a chirp.  

“What’s the matter?” Aeryn asked.

“Guppy’s dead.  The DRD isn’t.  Power cells may have been zapped.”  

Aeryn added a quiet burp to the proceedings and straightened up.  Despite a pale face and a clammy sheen to
her skin, she was starting to look more alert.  “Our --”  She gulped, looked panic stricken, and then sat with her
eyes closed for several microts before continuing.  “If it is just the power supply, then our personal comms may
still work.”

John leaned over and spoke toward the comms badge on his belt.  “Pilot? … Can anybody out there hear us?  
Pilot?  Pilot, pick up the phone!”  There was no answer.  “These must be toasted as well.”  

“Why hasn’t Pilot deployed the docking web?” she said.  

“Maybe they got fried too.  Power cells and comms are biomechanoid; a DRD is purely mechanical.  Hopefully
Moya was far enough away that she didn’t get as badly crisped as we are.”  

“Do we have maneuvering thrusters?” she asked.

“Dead.  Hang on.  Don’t move.”  John squirmed around until he was facing the back of the cockpit, and worked
his way over the back of the seat until it was digging into his stomach.  “Oh god, this is so dangerous.”  The
pressure against his gut was doing little to quell his nausea.  

“If you puke, I puke,” Aeryn said behind him.  

“Not gonna hurl, not gonna hurl, not gonna hurl.”  Continuing the optimistic chant, he leaned down until his
upper body was inverted, and groped under the seat for the spare fuel cells.  Fifteen microts after his fingers
brushed across the hidden objects, he was safely upright, the fuel cell had been snapped into the appropriate
socket, and the module’s systems were coming back to life one by one.  John slid into place next to Aeryn with
the dead one in his hand.  He examined it for several moments, looking for signs of damage.  Without a
diagnostic unit there was no way to tell what was wrong with it.  

Aeryn said, “The one we were using could have shorted out, or it may have been drained by whatever hit us.”

“Guess so.  No sign of electrical charring.  Probably sucked dry.”  John tossed the useless item over his
shoulder, ignoring the battering clatter of its unguided trajectory, and turned his inquisitive look toward her.  
“How you doing?  You yanked yourself around pretty hard a little while ago.  Any damage?  Did you reopen any
of the wounds?”  

Aeryn shook her head and raised the hem of her shirt as proof that she was all right, revealing the top two
puncture wounds.  They bent over her midsection together, checking to make sure that all was well.  “Outside
looks as good as ever,” John said, leaning in close for a careful scrutiny of her stomach.  His comment earned
him a small pat on the head.  It might have been a low-powered substitute for a slap, he decided.  “How are
things on the inside?”

“A little sore, that’s all.”  

“Sore as in sore, or sore like a severed paraphoral nerve isn’t a serious injury?”  

“Sore as in sore.  Stop fussing over me, John.  Let’s get back to Moya so we can figure out what to do about
this energy thing that’s in Moya’s path.”  Aeryn yanked her shirt down into place and spent several microts
tugging her clothes back into place and closing various fasteners.  

John followed her example, wrestling pants, jacket, and overcoat back into something resembling order.  Once
they were both squared away, he slithered to one side and then tucked his hip in under the edge of Aeryn’s
butt and shimmied his way into the pilot’s seat.  As soon as he was settled with the harness fastened around
him, he placed a hand on her hip, and guided her into his lap for the short flight back.  He concentrated on
getting the engines engaged while Aeryn adjusted the navigational displays and punched the circuit to bring
the comms back to life.  The cockpit was quiet except for their quiet instructions to each other and the hushed
clattering of switches being thrown.  

The stillness was broken by a sharp, “Where is she?” from Aeryn.  

“Where’s who?”  It was a dumb question.  There was only one ‘she’ in the universe that Aeryn could be
referring to, but it seemed like the only thing to say when presented with ‘where is she?’

“Moya.  She’s gone.”  

John gave the controls several brief sideward nudges, letting them settle back to their neutral position in
between each small shove.  The steering thrusters fired in response, coaxing the module into a slow
counterclockwise drift.  Stars began to ease from left to right.  Aeryn was right; there was no sign of Moya.  He
offered a theory, somehow knowing he was clutching at straws even as he spoke, and yet unwilling to give in to
the obvious answer without at least a small fight.  “Maybe she starburst out of here while we were getting
toasted by that whatever that was.”  

Aeryn was more aggressive about finding their missing leviathan home.  She was realigning the module’s
sensors, hunting for some sign that Moya had been there or the direction she had taken.  “There’s no sign of
the residual energy that gets left behind when a leviathan starbursts.  Did we lose consciousness at any point?  
If we were knocked out for even a short time, it could have given her time to move away under standard
thrust.”  She bent closer to the limited number of displays that John had been able to install in the module’s
crowded instrument panel, looking for some indication of the missing ship.

“Aeryn,” John said.  

There was a tight feeling building in the center of his chest that had nothing to do with his fading nausea.  It
had to do with power supplies, air reserves, and his folly in letting Aeryn come with him in the module.  It had to
do with her life and the life she carried inside her, and a fate that he had faced more than once and fervently
had not wanted to share with anyone else.  And the uncomfortable pressure behind his sternum was a product
of knowing that a great cosmic joke had been played on him for the fourth time in his life, and this time he had
brought Aeryn along for the unpleasant ride.  

“Aeryn!” he said again.  “Stop.  It’s a waste of time.”

“Looking for Moya is not --”  The nimble fingers stopped their fast dance across the sensor controls, and she
twisted to look over her shoulder at him.  Realization began turning to anger before John’s eyes.  She shook
her head.  “We didn’t.  Tell me we aren’t.”

“Down the frelling storm drain again.  It’s not Moya who has gone missing; it’s us.  Take a look out there and tell
me what looks familiar.”  

Aeryn leaned to the side, nose brushing against the thick plexiglass in an attempt to make out some details of
the surrounding starfield.  “I don’t recognize a single system.  Crichton, you idiot!  You said this wasn’t a frelling
wormhole!”

“It wasn’t!  It isn’t!  I still don’t know what it was, but it was not a wormhole!  I know wormholes, and that was not a
wormhole!”  He rapped a knuckle against the viewport in time with his shout.  “Wormholes are tunnels through
time and space, kind of like a big alimentary tract that spits me out like a bear dumping its load in the middle of
an interstellar forest!  In case you did not get a chance to notice, there was no tunnel to that thing.”

“I could not help but notice.  But if that was not a wormhole, then where the frell are we?”  Aeryn returned to her
futile examination of the sensor data.

“I … don’t … KNOW!” he shouted at her from a distance of barely four denches.  Each word was emphasized
with a frustrated wave of his hands.  “I never know where I am when I come out of a wormhole, and don’t even
ask me to tell you what the date is when I surf one of those things!  And this was not a wormhole!  You cannot
expect me to know where the mystery sphincter of the galaxy deposited us this time.”  

“So … we’re lost.”   

“Welcome to my universe, Aeryn.  There seems to be some evil god out there who gets his or her jollies by
doing this to me whenever I give it half a chance.”  John blew a long breath out through pursed lips, felt the
pent up anger and frustration sail away with the air, and began to calm down.  “I’m just sorry I dragged you
along for the ride this time.”  

Aeryn’s hand dropped away from the sensor controls and she stared down at her feet.  The bowed head and
slumped body spelled out defeat.  “No, it’s not your fault that I’m here.  I would not have let you off Moya by
yourself.  Maybe if you had been alone, this would not have happened.”  

She was referring to the activities that had distracted them for the critical few microts that would have allowed
them to escape the energy anomaly instead of being enveloped by it.  John wrapped his arms around her and
pulled her in against his chest.  “The way I remember it, you wanted to talk.  I was the one who wanted to neck.  
I’m the one who frelled this up … again.  I thought bad things were supposed to happen in threes, not fours.”  

“Three?”  Aeryn turned to peer over her shoulder at him.  “I thought there were only two.”

“Two wormholes.  Three times getting stranded.  The first wormhole, then the time Moya bugged out and I
wound up huntin’ Godzilla-sized water roaches on Acquara, and then the time Moya went down the storm
drain.”  

“You weren’t stranded the first time.”

“Good point.  Just big ass, major league type lost.”  

Agreement and partnership were restored as quickly as they had been disrupted.  The brief interval of strife
was put aside, and they sat in easy companionship, Aeryn leaning back against John, enfolded in his arms.  
Together they watched the slow drift of unfamiliar stars outside the module, contemplating their predicament in
silence.  

“It’s going to get cold in here if we don’t find some atmosphere to bounce off of once or twice,” John said finally.  
He freed a hand and felt around alongside the seat, finally locating their gloves after several microts of
searching.  He handed Aeryn’s to her, and then went back to sitting with his arms around her, making no effort
to put his on.  “Or maybe all we need is a little friction inside the module.  That would heat things up.”

She ignored his second suggestion.  “What do we do now?  You’re the expert on this lost stuff.”  Aeryn waved a
hand in the general direction of their surroundings.  “Where do we go?”  

“Dunno.  You got anything on sensors that looks like signs of civilization or at least a breathable atmosphere?”  

“No.  Nothing.  All I have is …”  Aeryn bent forward, studying a readout carefully.  

“Is what?”  John tried to peer around her.  Shifting from right to left did not help.  He could not spot whatever
she had found on the sensors.  “Is what, Aeryn?”    

“Starburst energy.”  Without bothering to ask for his input or permission, Aeryn grabbed the controls, jammed
the throttles wide open, and yanked the module around in a steep turn.  When she spoke again, the quietly
triumphant tone had shifted to a softly voiced mumble that carried a hint of derision.  “Genius wormhole expert.  
Crichton, someone needs to teach you some basic interstellar navigation.  We were only separated from Moya
by enough distance that we could not pick her up on the sensors.”

“Hey, it wasn’t a wormhole.  How should I know we only got flung half way across this sector of space?”  It was a
half-hearted complaint, voiced in a distracted murmur as John concentrated on making adjustments to the
power supply and navigational displays, leaving Aeryn free to concentrate on flying.    

Aeryn tossed her head to one side, dismissing his excuse, and for a moment John was magically transported
back in time to the day when he had regained consciousness in the back of the Prowler and had been
dismissed with the same fast movement of the dark-haired head.  He half expected a sharp ‘tsk’ to follow the
sideways jerk.  It did not.  She remained every bit as focused on flying as she had that day almost four cycles
ago.  None of the gentle chiding bothered him though.  When Aeryn was truly annoyed, she kept it bottled up
inside until she was ready to explode, and then unleashed a sharp, aggressive, often cryptic attack.  Receiving
a light toasting for being this badly mistaken about their location in time and space was Aeryn’s equivalent of a
relieved pat on the cheek.   

Something about the reported readings began to nag at him, whispering to his subconscious that there was a
problem they had overlooked.  “Was that an incoming starburst or outgoing?”  The energy dispersion
signatures were vastly different.  

“Incoming.”  

“How did she find us?”

“Moya has better long range sensors than the ones you installed in this … this …”  

It did not matter that Aeryn's voice faded into silence or that he could not see the expression on her face.  Even
from behind her, John could tell that she was still searching for a word to describe the module, almost certainly
a derogatory one.  “Don’t start bustin’ on the module again, Aeryn.  I know what you think of it.  That’s not a
good enough answer.  How could Moya spot us at a distance that required starburst to come get us?”

“You can ask Pilot yourself in another few microts.  We’re coming up on her fast.”  She flipped the comms
channel open.

John slapped it closed before she could make a transmission, leaned forward so his chest was pressing hard
against her back, and pointed, extending his arm past her right ear.  “Take a closer look, babe.  That’s not
Moya.”  

“Of course, it’s Moya.  What other leviathan would be this far into …”  Aeryn pulled the throttles back and let the
module coast on momentum.  After a microt’s examination of the ship floating ahead of them, she was agreeing
with John.  “That’s not Moya.  That’s --”

“--big,” John said slowly, making the small word last for almost two microts.  “That’s --”

“--really big,” Aeryn finished for him.  “It’s got to be at least twice the size of Moya.”  

“More than that.  It’s more like triple her size.”  He was quiet for several microts before asking, “Aeryn, have you
ever seen a leviathan that big?”

She shook her head emphatically.  “I was in a convoy that captured a fully grown male that had grown to
maturity in the wild without a control collar.  It was a little larger than half again the size of Moya.  I’ve never
seen one like this.  John, I’ve never even heard of them getting this large.”  

The leviathan looming in the forward windshield was a behemoth among a species of giants.  It remained
rounded and sleek, just as a creature born to swim the emptiness of interstellar space ought to be, but with
easily noticed differences from what they were accustomed to seeing.  Where Moya consisted of graceful
curves and long sweeping arcs, this was a creature of bulging massive flanks and a gargantuan dorsal
protrusion.  It was as though the ship had been originally grown with great reinforced ramparts and flying
buttresses, after which some god, apparently dissatisfied with the resulting angular surfaces, had rubbed its
thumb over the still-malleable clay of the leviathan’s body and smoothed the sharp edges into humped
afterthought additions.  

If Moya’s tail-booms were kite streamers seemingly added on for beauty and balance, then this creature’s
booms were thick-hewn, muscle-bound structures essential to its propulsion.  It was black-hulled and matte-
finished:  a great lumbering shadow trudging through space greedily sucking in stray beams of light and
hoarding them instead of performing the magical Moya-trick of transmuting silvery starlight into gold and
sending it gleefully on its way in a new form.  The scattered pinpoints of light coming from view portals mapped
out invisible joints and grooves along the hull, just as they did on Moya; but on this beast, those tiny beacons,
telling a tale of life and warmth within, only served to emphasize the absence of light being reflected by the
creature’s exterior.  

Aeryn broke the hush that had fallen over the module’s cockpit.  “What do you want to do?”

“Check for comms traffic.”  John flipped the appropriate toggle.  “Let’s see if we can figure out who is on board.  
It would be nice to know if we would be walking into a nest of bad guys.”  

Aeryn nodded but also offered a different opinion.  “That ship may be our only chance of surviving, John.  If it
starbursts while we’re sitting out here waiting to hear something, there’s nothing else close enough for us to
reach with our current supply of air.”  

“And if its name is Rohvu, Sr., then freezing to death or suffocating are better choices, Aeryn.  Just give it a
couple of microts.  It won’t be able to starburst right away.”

“Moya can’t starburst twice in a short period of time,” Aeryn countered, “but as you just said, that’s not Moya.”  

“It’s still a leviathan.  It’ll need to recover before it can blast out of here.  We’ve got a little time.  Is it doing
anything other than sitting there?”

“It looks like a smaller ship has docked with it … fighter craft size or maybe a courier ship of some sort.  There
hasn’t been any movement since the hangar doors closed.  It’s just sitting there.”  

“Then we can hang out and spy on it for a little bit,” John said.    

They waited, huddling together in the increasingly chilly cockpit.  The comms remained stalwartly silent.  There
was not so much as a crackle of static to suggest that anyone was alive on board the monster leviathan.  

“What do you think?” Crichton asked after a quarter arn.  

“I think I’m getting cold and I’m tired of sitting here doing nothing.”  

Crichton flipped several switches.  “You’ve got maximum draw on the power cells in case we have to boogie out
of here in a rush.  Hetch drive is warmed up and ready to go.  Any last thoughts before we barge in without
knocking?”  

“I love you,” Aeryn said quietly.  

“Love you, too.”  John hugged her, remaining mindful of things like the buckles on his safety harness that would
dig into her back and recently impaled midsections.  After several moments of sitting like that, he released her
and straightened up.  “Damn the torpedoes.  Full speed ahead.”  

Aeryn pushed the controls forward.  “As usual.”  

For all their expectations of disaster, the approach to the mysterious leviathan was uneventful.  Coasting in on
nothing more than momentum from the module’s maneuvering thrusters, they were greeted by no
transmissions, no alarmed queries about their identity, and more importantly, no docking web.  Every hangar
door on the treblin side of the leviathan remained closed.  Aeryn guided the module up and over the top of the
floating beast to check the hamman side hangars.  

“Someone is home and knows we’re coming for a visit,” John said, pointing.  Near the rear flank, a hangar door
was sliding open.  It looked as much like a maw opening to devour them as it did a welcoming gesture for a pair
of lost space travelers.  

“The hangar doors are deliberate,” Aeryn said.  “They want us in a particular spot.”

“Best not to disappoint them.  You know how cranky the neighbors get if they think we’re being snobbish.”  

She nodded once and took them in, guiding the small craft skillfully through the snaking approach that was
normally handled by a docking web.  

Aeryn’s task was made even more difficult than usual due to the absence of light inside the leviathan.  As with
the exterior surfaces, the interior bulkheads were a light-absorbing matte black.  From what little John could
make out, they resembled thick, forge-hardened wrought iron plating.  The arching support columns wore the
same overlapping scales that Moya did, but without any of the bronzed and gleaming grace.  There were no
crawling motes of light streaming along the energy conduits to light their way or enchant their eyes.  Instead,
barely visible gnarled patterns made their way up the walls as though the plating had grown over the conduits,
leaving only a lumpish wandering trace of where they lay beneath.

“By the grace of Cholak,” Aeryn breathed as they emerged into the hangar bay.  The cavern was not just huge;
it was gargantuan.  The small amounts of light that managed to penetrate this far inside hinted of an infinite
expanse, as though the module was being sucked into an intestinal black hole.  The occasional mote of
illumination glimmered off distant darkly gleaming walls, beckoning the eye further and further into the
blackness and imparting disorientation in the process.  It was the module’s sensors that told the full extent of
the story.  As with everything else about the leviathan, this massive chamber was fully three times as large as
Moya’s largest hangar, perhaps even more.   

“Jonah was a frelling amateur.  This is the Cecille B. DeMille extravaganza version of getting swallowed by a
whale,” John said, sounding every bit as awestruck as Aeryn.  

Aeryn calmly ignored his indecipherable comparisons and made one of her own.  “A Vigilante would fit in here.  
Possibly two.”

“Do you have a visual reference?” he asked, returning to the hazardous task of setting the module down in the
darkness of the unlit hangar bay.  As if in response to his question, a lane of lights flush mounted into the floor
suddenly came on.  

“Yes,” Aeryn answered.  

John’s attention snapped from the runway that had appeared just as they needed it to the inside of the module
where he could see a reflection of Aeryn against the windshield.  The curved plexiglass was distorting her
image, which made it difficult to be absolutely sure, and the muted, yellowish landing lights outside the module
were doing strange things to the shadows and highlights on Aeryn’s face, but he could have sworn she was
smiling.  “Are you making funnies at a time like this?” he asked.

Aeryn ducked her head, apparently concentrating on some of the readouts in preparation for landing.  “You
asked me a question, John.  I answered it.”

He was preparing to challenge her again when the module set down with a quiet thump.  Aeryn was and always
would be far more expert at piloting spacecraft than he could ever hope to become.  He could have flown the
module into Moya’s hangar without a docking web; he had done it more than once.  But Aeryn had navigated
the ups and downs and twists of this approach with almost no visual guidance.  A well-timed tease, if that’s what
it was, seemed like a small price to pay for a smooth, uneventful landing.  

He persisted anyway, if only because he enjoyed the thought that Aeryn might be developing a sense of
humor.  “I think that was a joke.”  

“This is hardly the time for jokes.”

“Yeah, I know.  That’s what makes it even more amazing.  Pressure outside is Earth-normal.”  He did not bother
responding to the quiet snort he received in response to the standard he had used, and went on with his
report, referring to the readouts tucked into one corner of the instrument panel.  “Oxygen levels are the same
as Moya.  We won’t croak from the air.”  

Aeryn triggered the canopy release and stood up.  “No welcoming committee … yet.  Pulse pistols.”  

A jab of her hand emphasized that she was referring to their weapons, which had been so casually tossed into
the back of the module a short time earlier.  They were not given a chance to retrieve them.  Before either
Aeryn or John could lean over the pilot’s seat to sort out the tangle of belts, tie-down straps, holsters, and
weapons, the door to the maintenance bay slid open and a squad of armed soldiers bolted through the
opening.  

“Holy crap,” John breathed.  “We aren’t in Kansas any more, Toto.”   

Every member of the party surrounding the module had a weapon of some sort aimed at the small spacecraft
and its two momentarily frozen occupants.  That part was no surprise.  But the group that spread out until it was
ranged across the hangar bay was a conglomeration of almost every species John had run into over the
preceding four cycles.  Almost half the squad was made up of delvians; there were several sheyang, two
hynerians -- each one flying what looked like a cross between a miniature fighter jet and a hovercraft -- half a
dozen sebaceans, one nebari, and half a dozen other species.  They were all dressed in what looked like a
basic, unadorned uniform consisting of a one-piece black jumpsuit, the only variations being those that allowed
for differences in physiology.  Lacking badges, rank insignia, or similarity of features, the group looked like a
bunch of interstellar recruits doing their best to present a united defensive front without the benefit of any
training.  

One of the male delvians took two steps forward and jerked the muzzle of his weapon first at John and Aeryn
and then down at the floor.  “Get down,” he yelled.

“Sir?” one of the sebaceans began.

“Shut up.  I can see it,” the delvian said, and then issued what was clearly an order to a subordinate.  “He’s in
his quarters.  Tell him what we’ve found and ask him to come down here.”  

The sebacean hesitated, looking confused.  

The delvian explained, “I don’t want to attempt to describe everything over the comms.  Brief him.”  

“Sir!”  The sebacean subordinate snapped a fast nod in the delvian’s direction, and left the hangar bay at a
run.  

Crichton raised both hands to chest level, doing his best to look unthreatening.  “Don’t shoot us.  We’re just --”

“Get down!  Now!” the delvian ordered.  He spared a hand long enough to indicate several members of the
squad, and then nodded toward the module.  “Search them for weapons and check their ship.”  

“Better do as we’re ordered,” Aeryn said under her breath.  “Until we figure out what’s going on.”

“You first, buttercup.”  John stepped to one side, giving her room to swing her legs over the side of the module.  
Grabbing both of Aeryn’s wrists, he lowered her carefully to the hangar floor, mindful of her recent injuries and
how miserable an abrupt landing might feel.  His own descent was a fast slide down the curved side of the
fuselage, ending with a small stagger to one side that brought him nose-to-muzzle with a weapon.  Crichton
raised both hands and backed up until he bumped into Aeryn.  “No threat.  No need to shoot me.”  

“Buttercup?” Aeryn asked in a flat, monotone whisper once the weapon-wielding guard backed away.  

“It was either that or honeycakes.  Blame it on the stress of having guns pointed at us,” he said.  

“Poor excuse.  You should be used to this by now.”  

“Good point.”  Without lowering his hands from where he still had them raised to shoulder height, Crichton
pointed one index finger in the direction of the single nebari in the hangar and the weapon that individual was
carrying.  “What the frell is that thing?”  

“No idea.”  

“Any guess what it does?”

“I’m a soldier, John, not a mind reader,” she hissed back.  

The person in question held what looked like a cross between an anemic bag-pipe and a Rip Van Winkle style
blunderbuss.  The portion tucked under his arm was rigid, bulbous, and covered in plating that might have
been leviathan in origin:  an oblong metalloid gourd.  From there it narrowed into the beginnings of a rifle
barrel, only to widen again so that the business end of the construct -- the portion facing John and Aeryn --
resembled a wide-mouthed clarinet more than it did a lethal weapon.  The manner in which it was being wielded
left no doubt about the nature of the object, however.  Weapon it was, although how it worked and its effects
remained in question.

The weapons held by the remainder of the group ringing John and Aeryn were less peculiar looking than the
nebari’s bagpipe-blunderbuss, but they were also no more familiar despite a more standard arrangement of
stock, trigger assembly, and barrel.  Crichton was in the midst of reflecting that the weapons held a passing
resemblance to an AK-47 -- based on what looked like a curved energy chamber protruding from the bottom of
the weapon -- when he was distracted by Aeryn’s next comment.

“They’re well trained,” she whispered.  “Alert, focused, relaxed, and they’re responding entirely to body
signals.”  

“Pros,” John said.  

“More like exceptionally experienced amateurs.  Too many of their methods are non-standard.”  

“Non-standard to a Peacekeeper,” he said.  

Aeryn turned her head and stared at him.  One corner of her mouth twitched upward for a half-microt before
settling down again.  

He scrambled to recover from what he had just been informed was a gross verbal blunder.  “And if a
Peacekeeper doesn’t recognize it then it’s not standard military protocol because you guys have seen it all.”

“You’re finally catching on.”   

The entire exchange had taken less than forty microts.  In that time, the half-dozen soldiers who had responded
to the delvian’s orders had searched John and Aeryn for hidden weapons, relieved Aeryn of a boot knife, and
rummaged through the cockpit of the module, coming up with both pulse pistols as well as the rifle she had
stowed in a storage compartment.  The DRD was brought out as well, examined by several of the squad, and
then placed on the floor.  The drone let out a burst of clattering squeaks and then scurried over to join its
owners.  Once safely positioned behind John’s feet, it peered around his ankles, watching the activities in the
hangar with furtive interest.    

“Just a knife?” John asked Aeryn.  “No cannon hidden under your overcoat?”

She glared at him for several microts before answering.  “They all needed maintenance or I would have brought
one.”  

“Stop talking!” the delvian ordered.  

“Let us explain why we’re --” John began.  

Responding to another subtle signal from the delvian, one of the sheyang waddled forward and placed the
muzzle of his weapon against Aeryn’s temple.  “No more talking,” the soldier ordered.

Fury, frustration, and guilt combined to form a level of recklessness that Crichton could only just barely hammer
into submission:  fury over the fact that they were using a threat to Aeryn’s life to control both of them,
frustration that no one in the hangar would let him explain that they were harmless, and guilt because it was his
fault that they were lost and here in the first place.  John’s foot rose in preparation for taking a step toward
Aeryn, and then eased back to the floor when the muzzle pressed harder against the side of her head.  He
jammed his molars down on his tongue until it hurt, the only way he could be sure not to blurt something out,
and fought down a second, more intense surge of anger.  Aeryn’s eyes were fixed on his, warning him that this
moment was every bit as perilous as he suspected.  They were a single syllable away from disaster.  

“Stand down,” the delvian ordered after a full ten microts of silence, and then added another of the enigmatic
comments.  “He’s on the tier.”   

The sheyang backed away from Aeryn.  John let his breath out in an extended sigh, and looked toward the
delvian.  Impassive, solid blue eyes met his squarely, and he got a slow shake of the head, warning him to
remain silent.  Everyone stopped moving.  The hangar was silent except for a bass-noted, non-stop grumble
emanating from the walls.  What he was hearing was this leviathan’s life sounds, John realized, and wanted to
say something to Aeryn about it.  He spent the microts paying attention to the heavy thrum coming from every
surface instead.  Even the floors were transmitting a constant, unquenchable symphony of different wavelength
vibrations through the soles of his boots.  It was a song of the unimaginable level of power that would be
necessary in order to accelerate a leviathan of this size to light speed velocities.  

Once again, John came dangerously close to making a comment to Aeryn.  This time it would have concerned
what the energy and starburst chambers must look like, and whether the central neural plexus would span the
entire height of the leviathan, as it did on Moya.  He was saved from any more close calls by the arrival of
another sebacean.  The moment he strode through the doors separating the hangar from its associated
maintenance bay it was immediately apparent that this was the person the crew had been waiting for.  No one
snapped to attention.  It was nothing that overt.  It was simply a case of everyone in the hangar suddenly
becoming more alert and shifting a portion of their attention to the new arrival.  

For all his apparent importance, he was magnificently unimpressive.  Dressed in the same black coverall as
everyone else, he was shorter than Crichton by three or four denches, tended toward wiry rather than
muscular, and he was easily the smallest person in the hangar with the possible exception of Aeryn and the two
hynerians.  A shock of disheveled sandy brown hair topped off the otherwise unremarkable presentation,
creating an unavoidable impression that he had been asleep until very recently.    

The sebacean made a beeline for the module, ignoring both the leviathan’s uninvited visitors and the gaggle of
its regular crew.  Hands propped on his hips, he circled the small craft twice, stopping several times to examine
various details.  Several fingers trailed across the faded ‘United States of America’ on the side, shifted into an
entire palm to drift across the American flag, and ended by patting the IASA emblem several times.  Inspection
completed, he turned to face John and Aeryn.   

Greenish-gray eyes flickered over Crichton, lingering barely long enough to inspect him before they jumped to
Aeryn.  He stared at her for nearly twenty microts, his thoughts hidden behind a thoroughly blank stare, and
then turned in a circle, taking in the view of the hangar bay, the parked module, and waiting complement of
uniformed personnel.  

“Kill them,” he said abruptly.  “And jettison the bodies before our next starburst.”  

“NO!  We’re no danger to you!”  John lunged toward the sebacean, thinking of little other than Aeryn and
whether he could reach her in time to save both her and the baby.  

For an instant, he thought Einstein had put in appearance.  

Time slowed to a nightmarish crawl.  All sound disappeared except for the percussive thud of his pulse,
measuring out a scant two microts between the instant the guards made the first move necessary to carry out
the sebacean’s order and the moment when Crichton’s world came to an end.  

Tha--

Instead of turning toward the module, which would provide some cover from the weapons, Aeryn’s head began
a slow-motion swing toward him, her eyes widening in shock and her mouth already open to say something.  He
had time to watch how her hair shifted on her shoulders, several strands floating wraithlike through the air from
the force of her movement, and how one lock trailed in the opposite direction, curling protectively under her
chin as though it could shield her neck from harm.  

--thump

Pivoting toward her, redirecting the momentum he had already generated in order to throw himself between her
and the weapons that were being aimed at them, the deck plates sent an unpleasant vibration through his boot
soles to his feet.  If he could have heard anything other than the pounding of his heart, there might have been
the hair-raising squeal of rubber on metal to mark the force of his turn.  

Tha--  

The sebacean’s head turned toward his men.  His hand began a slow journey upward, motioning toward the
crew, perhaps exhorting them to fire more quickly.  Crichton’s stomach felt as though he had swallowed an
entire block of ice:  cramped and aching, making it hard to move fast enough to save Aeryn.  He watched the
finely honed soldier’s reflexes go into motion.  Her weight shifted toward the module, completing the transition
from standing to moving much faster than he could have managed, and John knew it was already far too late
for her to get behind cover.  

--thump

No one had pulled a trigger yet.  He was close enough to Aeryn that he thought he might be able to knock her
down and then fall on top of her so he could protect her body with his own.  The hangar bay resonated with the
crack of an energy discharge from one of the weapons, he did not see where the shot went, and so far neither
of them was hit.  Somewhere a light year or two beyond his single-minded focus on Aeryn’s survival, John could
hear the sebacean shouting to his men, and just as he barreled into Aeryn, he knew that there was something
horribly wrong with the words coming out of the man’s mouth.  

Tha--

The nebari’s gourd-gun made a sloppy farting noise that would have been more at home coming from a pie-
wielding clown at the circus than from a blunderbuss wielded by a space-going alien, John shouldered Aeryn
out of the way, flinging her two motras across the hangar in his haste, and then something incredibly painful
enveloped his entire body, and the universe disappeared.


                                                                          * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chapter 3                                                                                                                                                                                   Chapter 5
Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11  

Chapter 12  

Chapter 13  

Chapter 14  

Chapter 15  

Chapter 16  

Chapter 17  

Chapter 18  

Chapter 19  

Chapter 20