Measure Of Devotion - Chapter 7

John and Aeryn stood without speaking for several moments, simply watching the now empty ladder leading
up-tier and the flow of personnel moving through the corridor.  After their rapid journey from the undersized
prison cell to the hangar bay, the shocking revelation that they were in a different reality, and the frequently
uninformative conversation with Grissom, the moment of relative calm was positively disorienting.  The mental
state that settled over Aeryn reminded her of the silence that followed arns of maximum thrust on a command
carrier -- a surcease of noise and vibration that left everyone feeling as though some essential element of their
lives was missing, that the only way to bring their environment back into balance would be to restore the
constant, often annoying, rumblings.  

Beside her, John took in a deep breath, ran one hand through his hair several times, and let out a long sigh.  
“You okay?” he said.  

“No,” she said.  

Aeryn was bothered by Grissom’s fast dismissal of so many of their questions, as well as by his willingness to
give them what amounted to free run of the ship.  Less than two arns earlier, they had come within microts of
being executed and then had been imprisoned, suspected of being enemy infiltrators.  Now they commanded a
small amount of trust and were free to roam about the ship.  The abrupt reversal did not feel right.  There were
too many unknowns, too many tidbits of knowledge that refused to fit together, too much that did not make
sense.  She felt as though her entire universe had been turned halfway inside out and then twisted into a
shape that her senses and her brain had not been designed to comprehend.  

She knew why she felt this way.  Not enough of what was going on around them fit into her experience of how
things were supposed to function.  Each time they learned something that should have restored their
comprehension of their surroundings, some facet of the information was either missing or defied logic.  
Understanding why she felt this way did not help.  In the end, the situation was unsettling and it was making her
feel sick.  

John put an arm around her shoulders and gave her a gentle sideward hug.  It helped.  The embrace steadied
her, gave her something tangible to anchor her when she felt as though she was on the verge of being hurled
into the cold emptiness of space where nothing could survive; it grounded her at a moment when she felt on the
brink of total dissipation.  

“How about you?” she said.  “How are you doing?”

“I’ve had better days.”  He looked up and down the corridor, and continued standing there, where Grissom had
left them.  A rare lull in the traffic left them in a temporarily deserted portion of the corridor.  The privacy did not
last long.  The never-ending torrent of chattering personnel resumed, subjecting the two motionless individuals
to a gentle, unintentional battering.  It also stripped away any hope of conducting a private conversation.  The
best they could do was not draw any attention by doing anything as overt as withdrawing into a corner and
hope that no one made a point of stopping in order to listen to the entire exchange.  

Moving closer, John lowered his voice.  She had to lean close enough that his lips were brushing against her
ear to hear what he was saying.  “Hours, Aeryn.  Kaillin said hours not arns.”   

“I caught that.”  There had also been Grissom’s use of the terms port and starboard, which she did not need to
mention to John, and the mystery of how Grissom had known that Kaillin was looking for him.  “Is there any
possibility that humans in this reality are telepathic?” she asked.  

She felt as much as saw John’s answering shrug.  “Anything’s possible,” he said.  “But if he’s telepathic, why
didn’t he know who and what we are from the start?  Why all the questions and suspicion?  And what’s going on
with the magical mystery comms?”  

“They would not require comms if they’re telepathic.”

“I could buy that if it was only Grissom and the delvians.  But everyone on board, Aeryn?  They’ve got more
than a dozen different species wandering around this tub.  I don’t buy that they’re all telepathic.  Aside from
that, can you imagine the racket inside their heads?  No one would be able to think straight with all that mental
noise.”  He shook his head several times, each side-to-side swing more emphatic than the one before it.  “No.  
I’ve seen people wearing comms badges, and Kaillin mentioned comms when we were in the hangar.  There
has to be some other explanation.”

Aeryn stepped away from John and made several slow revolutions, surveying their surroundings while she
considered all the unanswered questions and the absence of reasonable explanations.  “When it comes to
useful information, we’re worse off than when we first landed here.”    

“The more we learn, the fewer answers we have.  It’s not supposed to work that way,” John said.  

“When does anything work the way we expect?”  

“Never.  What’s your best guess?  Why are our hosts being so cagey?”  

Aeryn held up three fingers, and then wandered a motra to one side in order to peer down the access shaft,
this time paying more attention to the flickering shadows being cast by the personnel moving about on each of
the lower tiers.  The rapidly shifting patterns of light and dark offered no enlightenment.  All it confirmed were
the two things they already knew for sure:  that the leviathan was carrying more people than a ship this size was
designed to hold; and that the lights were whiter and brighter than Moya’s in order to compensate for the black
walls, which in turn cast better defined, more distinct shadows.  In some instances, she was able to determine
what species were passing by the shaft on the tiers below based on their shadows alone.  

She straightened up, propped a hip on the low protective wall surrounding the access shaft and contemplated
the bustling corridor, absentmindedly making note of all the different species and the number of personnel on
board the ship.  From everything they had seen so far, the leviathan was crammed to capacity with troops.  She
spent a single microt wondering if they had resorted to using biomechanical areas such as the central neural
plexus and the maintenance tunnels to house personnel before turning her attention back to their current
predicament.  

“We need accurate, first-hand information.”

Crichton stepped closer.  “Are you suggesting a little two-person reconnaissance?  Me and you skulking about
hand in hand?”

“We have three arns at most.”  

“Snoop first, move the module later,” he said, making it a suggestion.

Aeryn considered the question for several microts, weighing the various benefits of each choice against the
possible drawbacks.  The lack of reliable intelligence made it difficult to assemble any theories or assumptions.  
They did not know enough about this vessel for her to predict what sort of response they could expect if the
crew discovered that their two visitors were wandering around unescorted.  Her best option was to assemble
their meager supply of irrefutable observations, imagine how things would be handled aboard the command
carrier where she had grown up instead of aboard the monstrous leviathan surrounding them, and assume that
the neo-military group here would react in a manner similar to Peacekeeper Security.  

“No,” she said, stepping past John.  “If your module isn’t where they want it, it will alert them that we aren’t
where we are supposed to be.  If they are concerned about security --”

“Which they seem to be,” John interjected.

“-- which they seem to be,” she said, nodding, “then they should send out a squad to find and restrain us.  I
want a better look at that hangar before that happens.”

“In order to figure out what kind of drills they might be running in there,” John said.  

“They’re running battle drills.  There is no other reasonable explanation.”  

“You’re hoping for a clue of some sort,” he said.  

“The location of any damage, scoring on the walls or the floor, certain types of maintenance equipment --” she
began.

“-- should give us some idea of what sort of ships have been in there,” John finished.  He stepped to one side,
waving her forward.  “Excellent thinking, Sherlock.  Lead on.  Aside from knowing that the butt-end of the ship is
that way” -- he pointed over his shoulder with his thumb -- “I’m totally lost.”  

She glanced in both directions, considering the time limitations they had just discussed, and then, with a jerk of
her head to indicate that John should follow, Aeryn set off toward the front of the leviathan.  

It took John two long strides to catch up and fall in beside her.  “Honey?” he started out in an excessively sweet
whisper, “You’re going the wrong way.”   

There was no fast urge to anger as there so frequently was when he questioned her actions; John’s tone of
voice had taken care of that.  The carefully delivered statement was nothing more than his way of asking where
they were headed.  “I said we should move your ship first.  I didn’t say we had to take the most direct route to
get there.”  She slid her hand into his and hung on tight.  “We need more information.  This is one way to get
it.”    

Aeryn concentrated on their route through the ship, using small nudges and tugs to keep John on course while
he took advantage of his first opportunity to examine their surroundings.  He was using the same method of
guidance, only in reverse:  a squeeze on her hand let her know that he wanted to slow down; a light pressure
toward her body informed her that he was done looking and they could speed up; gentle twists left or right were
a silent request to change sides of the corridor when he wanted to get a better look at some bit of machinery or
a particular chamber.

They lingered for several microts outside a common area that was four or five times larger than Moya’s Center
Chamber.  The cavernous room was jammed with more of the multi-species, black uniformed ship’s personnel --
most of them eating, all of them talking.  A cacophony of languages washed over the two observers, temporarily
overwhelming Aeryn’s microbes.  Words broke down into their component sounds, shifting from a dozen
chattering conversations into a flood of senseless noise for several microts at a time, and then sorted
themselves out into reasonable patterns before once again descending into linguistic chaos.  

She moved closer to the doorway, caught up not in the scenery before them, but in the revelation of what
John’s first arn aboard Moya must have been like.  The effect faded quickly.  Her microbes, in their frequently
inexplicable manner, managed to compensate for the linguistic mayhem being thrown their way, and the racket
quickly sorted itself into the familiar bedlam that resulted anytime there were several dozen separate
conversations being held at the same time in one place.  Aeryn turned to check on John, struck for the second
time in a matter of microts by an insight into his first day in the Uncharted Territories.

“What am I missing?” he said, noticing that her attention was focused on him.  

“Nothing.  I was overlooking something for a while.  It’s clearer now.”  She squeezed his hand to let him know it
was nothing of consequence before turning her attention back to the crowd in the large chamber before them.  
The smell of food cooking wafted out into the corridor on a billow of warm air.  The noise, the warmth, the
chattering, and the odors combined into a single impression of an exceedingly large family sitting down to
dinner.  

Beside her, John’s stomach grumbled.  “Let’s keep moving,” he said.  

They paused even longer outside a small manufacturing center similar to the ones she had seen earlier,
moving on when all of the heads inside began turning in their direction.   

“They were building weapons,” John said in a whisper.  They were attempting to make their way through an
exceptionally busy corridor.  There were black-uniformed personnel everywhere, some of them standing
three and four deep along the sides of the passage, others elbowing their way through the throngs muttering
non-stop apologies for the frequently rough, inadvertent physical contact.  

“Nothing I’m familiar with.  Those weren’t pulse weapons.”  

John linked his arm into hers, the only way they could ensure that they would stay close to each other.  “There
are no Peacekeepers in this universe,” he said, “therefore no tannot being turned into chakan oil and no pulse
weapons.  From the looks of it, no one else got around to developing the technology.”    

Aeryn pulled him to a stop.  Two nebari females nearly ran into them.  The gray-skinned pair grumbled out a
string of curses at the suddenly motionless obstruction in their path before continuing on their way.  

“What’s the matter?” John said.  

He was standing close, once again with one arm resting lightly across her shoulders.  It seemed to be as much
to prevent them from getting jostled apart as it was to keep their conversation private.  Whatever the reason, it
felt nice.  She tore her thoughts away from the comforting warmth and pressure of his body where it pressed
against hers and refocused her attention on the revelation that had just struck her.  

“John, have you seen a luxan yet?”  

His eyes took on the vague, middle distance stare that meant he was reviewing everything he had seen since
they left the closet-sized cell where they had been briefly imprisoned.  “No,” he said after several microts worth
of contemplation.  “I’ve seen sheyang, delvians, nebari, sebaceans --”

Aeryn added to the rapidly expanding list.  “-- plenty of hynerians, there were diagnosans in the medbay, I
spotted several vocarians, and I heard what I’m sure was a halosian while you were unconscious.  I passed a
group that might have been tavleks.  It was difficult to tell.  They aren’t as --”  She stopped, searching for a way
to express what she had seen.

“Not as chewed up here?” John said.  

“Correct.”  

“Still using the gauntlet though?”

“Yes.  That’s why I assumed they were tavleks.”  

“No luxans aboard, then.”  Light pressure from his arm turned her to the left.  They started walking again.  John
stayed close, tucked in alongside her with his arm draped across her shoulders.  “They’ve chosen not to join
this force,” he said, tossing out an initial theory for their consideration.

“This is a resistance force, not an alliance,” she threw back.  “Everyone on board this ship has banded together
against --”

“-- a vastly superior enemy,” John finished for her.  He was silent for several dozen microts before proposing
another possibility.  “Luxans are on the other side of this fight.  Either they’re the enemy, or they’re part of an
alliance with the bad guys.”   He did not sound like he believed it; he sounded as though he was suggesting it
just to eliminate it from the list of alternatives.  

Aeryn spent several microts comparing what she had seen with his speculation.  Just as John’s tone had
suggested, what little they had seen did not support the idea.  “Most of the species from this portion of the
Uncharted Territories are on board this ship.  They all act similar to how they do in our universe.”  

“Hynerians are still short and ugly.  Delvians make the rest of look like beginners on the road to evolution.  It
doesn’t track that the luxans would be that much difference,” John said.  “Okay, so they’ve been wiped out by
the local bad asses.  If we assume that everyone in this reality lives in the same zipcode as our universe, then
the luxans would be the first species to get flattened if the invasion steamroller was being driven by --”  

“-- the scarrans,” they said together.  

“That would explain who defeated the nebari two hundred cycles ago,” Aeryn said, fitting more of the puzzle
together.  Envisioning various territories and alliances jostled loose another clue.  “We have not seen any
illonics or scorvians on board either.”

“Because they were located in the same general chunk of real estate as the luxans and they were next door
neighbors with the nebari” John said, catching on immediately.  “Everyone in that area has been wiped out or
enslaved, and with no Peacekeepers around, there’s no one left who can stand up to the scarrans, which
means that the mysterious light bright show we got sucked through has to be a weapon.  They would not be
wasting their time with pure science if they’re faced off against the scarrans with no military to back them up.”  

He stopped walking.  “We need to find Grissom.  We need to get off this boat mucho pronto.”

“Does that mean right away?” Aeryn asked.

“Yes, as in before we find ourselves stuck on the losing side of a war.”  

The idea of coming face to face with scarrans so soon after escaping from them generated an unpleasant
cramping pang in the pit of her stomach.  She did her best to ignore the sensation, concentrating on their
current predicament instead of where it might lead if everything went wrong.  

“Should we bother moving the module?”

John looked left and right.  Anyone else might have assumed he was choosing which direction to go.  Aeryn
knew he was looking far beyond their immediate surroundings.  He was considering their limited number of
options, what few facts they had managed to assemble, and all the possible outcomes.  His head tilted to one
side, signaling a shift from indecision to a conclusion.  “If we don’t get it out of their way in time, I would not put it
past Kaillin to just dump it into space.  He strikes me as a jettison first, ask questions later kind of guy.”

“We move it,” Aeryn said.  “Come on.”  

She set off at a half run, paying more attention to their route through the ship than to what was going on
around them.  John stayed right on her heels where there was little chance that they would get separated.  
Aeryn could feel him back there without bothering to look, knew when he had gotten held up by a jam of
personnel, when he had managed to catch up, and adjusted her pace each time.  They reached one of the
largest of the vertical shafts, dropped down two tiers as they had been instructed, and then began cutting
cross-ship, moving aft and hamman side as the corridors and junctions permitted.  

Their progress toward the hangar was interrupted only once. They were making their way through a relatively
uncrowded corridor -- which meant that there was a narrow aisle down the center of the passageway that was
miraculously clear of feet, bodies, and equipment -- when everyone who was standing up suddenly dropped to
the floor.  One moment at least two thirds of the personnel were upright; four microts later, every single
individual within sight was sprawled flat on the floor or on top of other bodies.  There wasn’t a head higher than
half a motra for as far as Aeryn could see.  

“What is this, the intergalactic version of Dead Bug?” John yelled to the hallway in general.  

As far as Aeryn was concerned, the reason for the widespread collapse was not important.  The only thing that
mattered was that several dozen members of a military unit had all done the same thing at the same time.  It
could mean only one thing.  They needed to copy everyone else.  She shoved John toward a sliver of
unoccupied floor.  “Get down!”

“Move it!” several voices called simultaneously.  “Quick!”  

John continued to hesitate, still looking for an explanation for the peculiar behavior.  Before Aeryn could kick his
legs out from under him, several of the black uniformed personnel lunged forward, grabbed both of the ship’s
visitors, and flung them to the floor.  “Stay down!” one of the prone soldiers said.  “The Air Force is coming
through.”  

John had come to rest somewhere on the far side of a small heap of sebaceans, out of sight from where she
found herself in the midst of a struggle to extricate herself from a tangle of arms and legs that might have been
amusing under any other circumstances.  Not being able to see him did not deprive her of the treat of
envisioning the expression on his face during his next exclamation, however.  The disbelief in his voice more
than compensated for the lack of visual cues.  She could imagine every one of his physical reactions right down
to his body language and hand gestures.   

“Air Force?” he demanded.  “What Air Force?  We’re inside a frelling space ship!”  

Any answer -- assuming that someone in the corridor had bothered to provide one -- was lost beneath the
shriek of what sounded like atmospheric thrust engines in the distance.  Aeryn yanked her left arm out from
under someone’s rump, wriggled around so she was facing in the direction of the rapidly approaching
cacophony, and peered cautiously over the shoulder of the person next to her.  What had started out as a
distant echoing scream of machinery and compressed air had shifted into a painfully loud howl.  

“Stay down,” someone behind her yelled, pressing down on Aeryn’s shoulder.  “There won’t be much room to
spare.”

“What is it?  What’s making the noise?” Aeryn bellowed back.

“The Royal Hynerian Air Force.  Look out!”  

All along the passageway, the heaped masses of bodies did their best to flatten themselves against the floor,
shrinking in upon themselves, squirming into corners and the few unoccupied areas of space on the deck.  On
the far side of the corridor, one slender individual was worming her way through a DRD hatch, fleeing the
passageway entirely.  

Fifteen motras from where Aeryn was doing her best to make herself part of the floor, what appeared to be a
miniature atmospheric fighter rounded the corner tipped up on one wing.  It came within drenches of one of the
internal ribs, veered away, straightened out, and accelerated down the passageway … upside down.  The
howling increased.  The rest of the squadron burst into view, jostling for airspace, weaving crazily as the pilots
jockeyed for position, some right side up, others inverted.  The pilots were yelling to each other, cheering,
cursing, exhorting each other to move faster, take the turns tighter, be bolder, to get out of the way!  Aeryn was
certain she heard one pilot yelling at another to shift his arse to one side so there would be room to pass by.  

The bedlam lasted for twenty microts.  Then they were gone.  In the aftermath, the silence was so intense, it
was painful.  Aeryn placed one hand against the deck, preparing to get to her feet.

“No, no, no!” someone called.  A fist grabbed at her arm, yanking her back toward the floor.  “There are four
squadrons on board,” the voice said.  “The other three --”

The explanation was lost as the other three squadrons converged on a single intersection from three different
directions.  From the yells and bellows, Aeryn concluded that this was a competition.  Each of the three trailing
squadrons was intent on arriving in the hangar bay in second place, risking a catastrophic collision inside the
leviathan if it meant they would not come in last.  

The mechanized stampede went on long enough this time that she was able to cobble together a series of
glimpses into a single impression of the aircraft passing overhead.  They were not as large as Aeryn had
initially thought.  They were three or four times the size of Rygel’s throne sled at most, which meant that if they
had been traveling slower and in single file, there would have been plenty of room in the passageways for them
to pass without being in danger of a collision.  And they were not atmospheric aircraft after all, although they
had wings.  The ability of the ships to remain aloft while tipped up on their side testified to that.  They had
cockpits with clear domed enclosures, many of which had been open, and the stubby wings and the fuselage
bristled with attachment points -- to carry armaments, she assumed.  

The mayhem disappeared around a corner at the end of the tier, the last fighter traveling faster than all the rest
in an attempt to catch up, and once again silence reigned in the corridor.  All around her, people began
untangling themselves from the piles of bodies and getting to their feet.  Aeryn closed her eyes for a moment,
suddenly exhausted, and made no attempt to get up.  The fatigue was an unpleasant leftover from her torture
by the scarrans.  It came and went without warning, as though some capricious personal diety was flipping a
power switch on and off.  It tended to strike without warning, often when she was feeling her best, it never lasted
long, and it was debilitating until it passed.  If she relaxed, she would be asleep in less than three microts.  It
was extremely annoying and in their present surroundings, it was dangerous.  

“You okay?”  

She opened her eyes.  John was squatting beside her.

“Fine.”  She offered him one of her hands, allowing him to pull her to her feet.  

“Batteries are running low,” he said quietly.  It was a statement, not a question.  

Aeryn took a deep breath, let it out slowly, waiting for a wave of lightheadedness to pass, and finally gave him a
single nod.  “I get --”

“-- tired,” John said before she could bring herself to admit it.  “It is going to take time for your body to recover,
Aeryn.  You can’t fight this.  The only way to beat it is to give in to it.”  

“We do not have time for me to be weak.  Right now, we need to get moving again.”  

For once, John did not argue.  He grimaced, as if to say that she might have a point, and gestured in the
direction of the hangar bay, indicating that she should take the lead.  They could not move, however.  The
corridor was clogged solid with people getting to their feet, looking for their possessions, and sorting
themselves into the groups they had been in before the hynerian ships had come through.  It was going to take
several microts to reestablish any kind of order and with it room for people to walk.  

“How many of those do you lose inside the ship?” John said to the crowd around them, taking advantage of the
temporary blockage.  “How many crash doing that sort of thing?”

“None so far,” someone said.

“Hynerians have fast reflexes,” said another voice.  “Faster than any species except the delvians.”

“And they’re totally fearless,” someone else chimed in.  

“More like totally insane, if you ask me,” John said.  

A nebari standing next to John looked at him for several microts and then shrugged.  “Fearless.  Insane.  
Around here, with what we’re about to do, there might not be much difference between the two.”  

Aeryn did not like the comment or the implied acceptance that the lives of everyone on board might be forfeit.  
Too much of the last four cycles had been lived that way.  Since the moment she had first laid eyes on John
Crichton, there had been too many moments when fearlessness or insanity had dictated their actions.  John’s
solution in too many situations was to put his life or the lives of others at risk.  The plan they had come up with
to rescue Scorpius from Katratzi had been bad enough.  Once again, John had insisted that only he could fulfill
the role that faced the greatest danger.  He was right, but at least with that plan they understood the various
factions involved and how they interacted; they had people they could rely on, and knew which forces could be
manipulated into taking their side, even if only temporarily and for their own gain.  There were too many
unknowns in this universe, and no friends or allies.  She had to get John out of here while they were both in one
piece -- before they found themselves, out of necessity, putting together a plan for survival that she was certain
would ultimately result in his death.  

The clog of personnel standing in the middle of the corridor began to break up.  Some personnel headed off in
various directions, resuming journeys that had been interrupted by the fly-by; others began settling into groups,
making themselves as comfortable as possible in the cramped, crowded conditions.  Aeryn shoved the
sickening thoughts of death and loss to the back of her mind, exiling them to a place where she could ignore
them, and began picking her way past bodies and feet, resuming their journey toward the hangar bay.  

“Space or atmospheric?” John said from behind her.

It took her several microts to figure out what he was asking.  “Both, I think.  My guess is that they are used as
aerial assault craft.  They’re not large enough to be effective fighters.”  

John remained silent while they threaded their way through and around several groups who, from what Aeryn
could see, were gambling or playing other games to while away the arns.  “Air cover for a ground assault?” he
said once they could walk closer together again.

“That doesn’t make sense,” she said.  “It implies an offensive maneuver.”  

“Not what you would expect out of a resistance force.”  

A furtive thought having something to do with strategy, military maneuvers, and vastly outnumbered forces
flitted about in the back of her head for an instant and then was gone.  Aeryn slowed, trying to divert more
attention to the phantom idea.  It had been generated by John’s comment about the ground assault.  She
replayed his sentence in her mind several times, trying to trigger the sequence it had set loose the first time.     

“Watch it.”  John snared her elbow and tugged her to one side of the corridor, breaking her reverie.  

Ahead of them, everyone was doing the same thing, clearing a path for six individuals coming the other way.  
They were huge, taller than every other species that Aeryn had seen so far aboard the ship and broad
enough that even travelling single file they were having trouble making their way through the crowded
corridors.  There were tendrils, horns, fleshy spikes jutting from their skulls, and thick mats of coarse hair, all of
which added to the impression of size.  They sported tattoos and intricately patterned scars on their faces and
arms, and the one in front was missing an eye.  They moved with malevolent aggression, a threat of impending
violence in every step, every glance, every small twitch or shift of their bodies.  Weapons clattered and clanked,
armor-reinforced clothing made a grinding metallic growl as they passed by, and they left a swath of silence in
their wake.      

Everyone stood silently, not daring to move, until they disappeared from sight.  Only then, when the group was
gone, did sound and movement resume.  Aeryn glanced up and down the passageway, reorienting herself, and
then resumed their journey toward the hangar bay.       

“What, in the name of all that is ugly, were those?” John said.  He was half a step behind her and slightly to her
right, glancing back over his shoulder.    

“Grizzolians.  Fierce fighters.  This command is fortunate to have them as part of their forces.”  

The moment she said it, she knew there was something wrong with both her statement and her conclusion.  A
warning claxon blaring two drenches from her ear could not have created more alarm than what was going on in
her mind at that instant.  Aeryn reconsidered the significance of the grizzolians’ presence aboard the leviathan,
weighing what she knew of them against what little they had learned so far about this reality.  

“This is not good,” she said after twenty microts of contemplation.

“How do you mean?” John said.

“At no time in their history have grizzolians entered into an alliance with another species.  They are isolationists,
John.  Extremely xenophobic.  They cannot stand being around other species.  They have never entered into
an alliance, even when it meant the difference between victory and defeat.  If they are here, part of this force,
working together with this many different species, then the situation here is even worse than we thought.”

It took her several microts to realize that Crichton had stopped.  By that time, she was twelve steps ahead of
him.  She stopped and waited for him to catch up.  “What’s the matter?”  

“Aeryn, we are stuck in an unrealized reality, cut off from Moya and our friends, with no idea where to find a
wormhole to get home or who to ask for directions, and once again we are up against the scarrans.  If we’re
right, and when it comes to bad news we usually are, no species in this hunk of space has a military force
capable of even slowing the scarran advance.”

“Your point?” she asked.

“Do you really think that having grizzolians on board could make this situation any worse than it already is?”  

She stared at him for several microts, using the time to allow all of the implications to sink in.  “You might be
right.”  

“Might be?”

“Fine.  I stand corrected.  Unless we get captured by the scarrans, it can’t get any worse than this.”  

John blinked twice, as though someone had rapped him over the head two times very quickly.  
“Congratulations.”  

“For what?”

“You win.  You managed to think of something worse.  That possibility hadn’t occurred to me yet.”  

“John --” she began, intending to say something to the effect that death would be preferable to being taken
prisoner by the scarrans again.  

He shook his head, cutting her off.  “You don’t have to say it.  I feel the same way.”  

She wanted to say more.  She wanted to put the recently buried thoughts into words, to tell him how badly she
wanted to find a way back to Moya, where she could relax and feel safe, even if it only lasted the one or two
solar days it would take to reach Katratzi.  

“I know,” he said.  “I wish we had never gone out in the module.  I wish I could take it back, Aeryn.  I would do
anything to get a cosmic-sized do-over and be able to take it all back.”  

Somehow, he had known what she was thinking.  It made the unpleasant possibilities more tangible.  Knowing
that John felt the same way she did freed her fears from their brief imprisonment, and gave them more weight
and certainty.  His sentences reignited the sick feeling in her stomach and disintegrated the flimsy walls she
had hastily erected to keep the thoughts from distracting her from what was important.   

She stepped close, and leaned in against him.  John’s arms enfolded her, for the second time in an arn
restoring some small measure of peace and sanity to her universe.  The feel of his body against hers gave her
the strength to batten down the runaway emotions, to reassert control over her thoughts and feelings, and to
steel herself for whatever the days ahead would bring.  

“Next time, I shoot you in the leg,” she said into his chest.

“Deal.  In fact, if you don’t, I’ll do it myself.”  

“I am going to hold you to that.”  She indulged herself by allowing an additional ten microts of weakness,
counting them off in her head, then straightened up and pulled loose from his arms.  “Come on.  We’re almost
there. The hangar bay is around that corner.”

They arrived just in time.  John led the way into the hangar bay, already angling to one side, toward where the
module was parked, to discover that a drama similar to their arrival was playing out.  The DRD they had
brought with them was surrounded, spinning about in a futile attempt to escape a rapidly tightening cordon,
emitting a steady stream of distressed squeals and chirrups.  The circle around it consisted of a dozen black
metallic spheres, each one bearing a tiny laser and two glowering red-lit protrusions near the top.  

“What the --?” John said the moment he spotted the heavily out-numbered yellow drone.

“DRDs,” Aeryn said.  “Those are this ship’s DRDs, and --”

“-- they don’t like visitors!”  John accelerated to a full-out run.  “Hey!  Leave him alone!”

The instant John called out, every laser and every pair of visual receptors turned in his direction.  The circle
broke apart, milled about in a well-choreographed pattern for two microts, and before John had crossed half the
distance to the besieged DRD, a well-armed glowering phalanx was advancing toward the running human
instead.  He yelped and reversed course, nearly falling in his haste to begin a retreat.  The single yellow DRD,
forgotten for the moment, let out a screech of relief and headed for John’s module at maximum speed.  

“We come in peace!  We’re the good guys!” John yelled over his shoulder, still in retreat.  “We’re here to move
our ship.  Check with Grissom!”  He skidded to a stop next to Aeryn, panting slightly, watching the approaching
squadron of black DRDs warily.  “Check with Pilot!” he called when the small fleet showed no sign of slowing.  
“We’re not a threat!”  

The formation rumbled to a halt.  Twelve DRDs glared at the wary pair of biological beings for close to ten
microts.  Then, without any warning, all of the weapons retreated out of sight, the visual receptors sank into the
spherical housing until there was nothing but a gleaming slit left in view, and the robotic defense force rolled off
in twelve separate directions.  

Aeryn turned so she could look at John squarely.  “You are on a leviathan that you know is headed into a war,
and you threaten the DRDs.  You are making stupid a habit.”   

“It’s what I do best. Why should I give it up now?”  

“Let’s go.  It’s taken us too long to get down here.  We need to find Grissom and get off this ship.”  

John gave her a boost up to where she could get her foot into one of the indented steps on the side of the
module.  He waited while she rummaged around in the back seat, retrieving and untangling their pulse pistols
and holsters, then he scooped up the yellow DRD, which continued to look both relieved and overjoyed to see
them, and handed it to her.  “Can’t leave Herbie behind.”  

Aeryn handed John his pulse pistol in return.  “Do I want to understand the name Herbie?”

“Probably not.”  He fastened the holster’s buckles, shifted it several times until the weight of the pulse pistol
settled comfortably into place, and then scrambled up into the cockpit.  He paused there, facing the wrong way,
watching her fasten the holster tie-downs.

When he continued to stare at her without speaking even after she had finished, she asked, “What?”

“Options.  Do we have any other options?  Do we want to cut and run?”

“You’re asking me?  You’re supposed to be the expert when it comes to all this traveling between universes
dren.”

John did not move, and his expression did not change.  There was no indication that they were in a hurry … or
that he was even thinking, for that matter.

“Can we get back to Moya?” she said, hoping that it would kick loose whatever information John was seeking.  
“If we leave this ship, can you find a wormhole and get us home?”  

“No, not unless this ship’s pilot can help us find a wormhole.  The module doesn’t have enough to range for us
to hunt blindly.  We don’t even know where we are, let alone which way we should go to find the closest
wormhole.  We need to find a wormhole nexus or get a fix on our location so I can figure out where one might
be located.”  

“Then we need to stay with this ship long enough to talk to the pilot, at the very least,” Aeryn said.  “Yes?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Then let’s go.  The sooner we move the module, the sooner we find Grissom and the ship’s pilot, and the
sooner we find out how to get back to Moya.”  Aeryn folded herself into the cramped confines of the rear seat,
buckled the harness, and began the start-up sequence.  

John remained frozen for an additional two or three microts, then shook himself once, as though shaking off an
alien substance that had been causing his hesitation.  A moment later, he too was strapped in, the canopy was
sealed, and the module was lifting off.  Sixty microts later, they had arced up and over the leviathan, entered a
different hangar bay, and were coasting to a stop beside Grissom’s module.  

“Any idea where the Den is located on this ship?” John asked as he slid down the side of the module.  

Aeryn vaulted over the edge of the cockpit and landed beside him.  “I thought we wanted to find Grissom first.”

“I changed my mind.  Screw Grissom, his merry men, and whatever they are up to.  Our first concern is getting
away from this universe as fast as possible, and that means talking to Pilot.  I say the Den should be our first
stop, and after that we make like shepherds and get the flock out of here.”  

“I agree,” Aeryn said.  “This way.”  She set out at a run.  

The journey to the Den turned out to be simpler and faster than their trek to the hangar bay.  Aeryn led John
toward the center of the ship, until she was certain they were close to the central neural plexus, then found a
ladder and began to climb.  Most of the corridors were as crowded as all of the others they had traversed, but
she had noted earlier that all of the traffic on each ladder was moving in a single direction, either up or down.  
Once they began their ascent, there were no traffic jams to slow their progress.  

“Try here,” Aeryn said, stepping off the ladder.  “I believe we are on the correct tier.”

John stepped around her, and took the lead.  “Some day you have to tell me how you can navigate around this
ship like you grew up on it.”

“Superior breeding, John.”  She nudged him in the correct direction.  “There. Try that door opening.”

He waved a hand across the door sensor, stepped back while it opened, and then ducked inside.  Aeryn caught
a quick glimpse of the view ahead before she moved forward to follow him.  She had gotten it right.  She could
see several bridges leading to Pilot’s station; the thick, heavily reinforced primary neural conduit in the center
of the cavern; and best of all, Grissom was there, hunkered down on his heels, undoubtedly talking to the ship’s
pilot.  Then Aeryn stepped through the doorway and her view was blocked by John, who had begun to sprint
the moment he spotted Grissom.   

“You bastard!  You shanghaied us right into the middle of a … Whoa!”  

John came to a skidding stop.  Aeryn danced in place for a split-microt, putting all of her coordination and
attention into not running into him.  She regained her balance, and waited for him to move.  

He stayed where he was, blocking both her view and her access to the bridge, and said, “Oh my heavens.”

“What?” she said.  “You’re in the way, John.  Move!”  Allowing her impatience to take over, Aeryn shouldered
him roughly to one side and then stepped forward, intending to cross to the pilot’s center island.  The moment
she stepped around John and saw what he was looking at, she froze in place, just as John had.  

“That’s … impossible,” she said, floundering to find the right words.  “Leviathans can’t … they aren’t designed
to do that.”  

John waved a hand toward the island suspended above the central neural plexus.  “Tell that to them!”  

At the far end of the familiar, narrow walkway spanning the leviathan’s neural abyss, Grissom squatted on the
outer bulwarks of the pilot’s consoles, one hand resting familiarly on the cranial shell of a standard-sized
leviathan pilot.  Grissom was in much the same position where both Aeryn and John had perched beside Pilot
on dozens or possibly hundreds of occasions.  There was nothing surprising or remarkable about that.  If the
cavern had not been more than double the height of Moya’s and had not been clad in the same matte black
material as the rest of the ship, it could have easily been their own Pilot residing within the reinforced walls
surrounding his station.  It was what lay suspended one tier below their feet that brought Aeryn to a shocked,
speechless halt.  

Evenly spaced around the plexus, each one located halfway between the outer rim of the cavern and the center
so they were visible from Pilot’s central platform, were four more pilots -- each installed in its own station and
busily attentive to their respective readouts and controls.    

The ship had five pilots.  


                                                                           * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chapter 6                                                                                                                                                                                   Chapter 8
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