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Crashfic / Blind Faith (G) - 37th Starburst Challenge
« Last post by KernilCrash on June 10, 2016, 11:04:39 AM »
Blind Faith

Starburst Challenge 37 (hosted by KernilCrash):  The “Leviathans By Braille” Challenge asked that the writers tackle describing a leviathan (any leviathan) using any of the senses except sight.

Time Frame:  Between one and two cycles after the end of Peacekeeper Wars.
Rating:  G.
Disclaimer:  The characters and universe of Farscape are the property of the Henson Co.  I have not made any profit off this tale, and I am giving the characters back the way I found them.
Deke-Disclaimer:  I am not fond of the nickname, Deke.  I stubbornly continue to use my own nickname for the kid.  When I refer to DJ, I am talking about D’Argo.
Test Drivers:  PKLibrarian and aeryncrichton.  Both of them hold my feet to the fire when it comes to making sure I am faithful to canon and get all the details right.  They rock.   

Genesis:  Once again, I am mashing two purposes into a single story.  In Phantasms, there is a reference to John getting injured as a result of falling off one of the walkways in Pilot's Den.  I have always wanted to go back and do a ‘filler’ to expand on that reference.  Here it is, together with my ‘Leviathans By Braille’ challenge story. 

Printer-friendly Word 6.0 version (32KB .zip file)

I hope you enjoy it. 

* * * * *


It began with the most normal of events:  John taking D’Argo to the Den so he could visit Pilot.  Their son had recently become enthralled by the fact that Pilot had four arms, as well as by the non-stop intricacies of running a leviathan.  Combined together with D’Argo’s short attention span, it sometimes took nine or ten visits to the Den each day to placate his new-found fascination.  They alternated willingly, sharing the treks between them based on who had the least to do at the moment when D’Argo announced that he once again needed to see Pilot.  They had quickly fallen into a routine, accepting that it was a phase and that the frequent trips through the tiers would come to an end the moment their son discovered a new obsession.     

“You're the one who warned me,” Aeryn Sun said to her husband.  “You told me I had to watch out.” 

John didn't answer.

“You were afraid I would underestimate how fast he could move.  You said no one believes it until they see it happen for the first time.  You warned me, you frelling bastard.  Why could you not follow your own advice?”  Anxiety curdled into anger, lacing her words with fury where she did not intend it.  “You warned me,” she repeated, placing emphasis on the first and last words. 

The problem had occurred when she finished stowing supplies in one of the cargo bays, and suddenly found herself standing in the middle of one of Moya’s corridors with nothing to do.  That type of moment occurred rarely enough that she had spun in a circle, half expecting someone to comm her with a request to start a meal, deal with laundry, find a missing toy, or any one of the myriad demands that raising a family aboard a leviathan placed upon her.  The comms had remained silent, and she had taken advantage of the respite by joining John and D’Argo in the Den for an all-too-rare ‘family outing’.     

“Hey!” John had called as she ducked through the open doorway.  “We're done here.  We were just coming to find you.”  He turned toward Pilot for no more than half a microt, just long enough to flap a casual wave in his direction before turning back to check on D’Argo.  That was all it took.

“Mama!” D’Argo screamed at the same time, and broke into the phenomenally fast run that he had developed only four days earlier, headed straight for one of the narrow walkways. 

John had warned her repeatedly. 

“He’s hit the Toddler-Moving-At-Warp-Factor-Ten stage,” he had mentioned several days earlier during Last Meal.  “You can’t take your eyes off him for a single microt.  He goes from zero to sixty in the blink of an eye.”

“No!  Stay there!” Aeryn yelled, already moving toward the other end of the walkway.  “FREEZE!” she yelled a second time, using the command that sometimes worked when nothing else did.   

D’Argo did not freeze. 

It all happened so fast. 

He tripped. 

“NO!” she cried again, this time verging on a scream. 

John had recovered from his momentary lapse of attention.  He was already moving, far faster than she had ever seen him move before, no more than a motra behind his son and microts too late.

“NO!” Aeryn yelled one more time, seeing what he intended to do.  This time the single word did emerge as a scream.  “NO!  Don't do it!” 

Her senses seemed to close in around her, slowing time and blocking out all but a few critical details.  Sound, smell, taste and touch were gone, spiraling in toward the center of her body, forming a ball of cold energy near her navel that seemed to feed every bit of focus into vision.  She had time to see the way John adjusted his stride in advance so his right foot came down on the edge of the floor, giving him something to push against; the way both arms came forward at the same moment, driving, reaching, lunging, flattening his entire body as though he were launching himself into flight; the way the muscles in his thigh strained against his pants, maximum effort expended, propelling him into empty space. 

Aeryn watched, horrified, as his fingers snagged D’Argo’s shirt, snared the wriggling, frantic little body, and saw how he sacrificed everything -- balance, control, the possibility that he might be able to grab onto the edge of the walkway -- by twisting in midair and flinging their child in her direction.  It was a gangling toss, a wild, two-handed scoop born of desperation, relying on the spin of his body, awkwardly flailing legs, and an excessive turn of his head in her direction.  It guaranteed that when gravity took over from momentum, he wouldn't be able to control any aspect of his fall. 

There was time for one more objection -- “No, John!” -- and then she was too busy catching D’Argo to watch as John, already starting to cartwheel, plummeted out of sight. 

   * * * * *

He dreamed that he was flying.  It was an odd dream, unlike any of the surrealistic visions of flying that he had dreamed since he was a child.  He remembered those other versions in much the same way that he dreamed them:  aimlessly shifting from one equally unrealistic moment to the next, unable to control the wanderings of his mind.  Most of them involved sunlight and familiar surroundings:  slow-motion soaring, Superman-like with arms outstretched, trying to exert enough mental force to clear the trees behind the house or the jungle gym at the local school yard.   

The new version involved darkness, a disorienting lack of gravity, and a sense of dread.  Inexplicably, those things did not frighten him.  Fear required energy, and he was too tired to worry about the aspects that should have alarmed him.  He dreamed of flying with a cold surface beneath his cheek, moist, musky air wafting across his face, and a faintly acrid smell filling his lungs.  He floated, not sure which way was up or down, with iron-copper wetness in his mouth and a sharp discomfort radiating from his head and neck.  Weightlessness triggered nausea, a sensation of drowning, and the first inkling that he needed to wake up.  Then the blackness expanded to fill the inside of his head, and he slept.
 

   * * * * *

Re’it gwaallec’tk. 

The first word was delivered on a shrill upswing with a sharp break in the middle.  The second required a long musical trill in the middle, followed by a back-of-the-throat chucking sounding that threatened to strangle her each time Aeryn whispered the small phrase to herself.  They chased each other around and around inside her head, repetition turning the sounds into a nonsensical cadence. 

Re’it gwaallec’tk. 

It meant ‘very bad’ in Diagnosan.

In many ways, they had been exceptionally lucky.  Pilot had announced, “Prepare for emergency starburst” almost before John’s body had come to rest on a walkway several tiers below the Den.  He had begun searching for a healing facility the instant John began his suicidal run toward the edge of the platform, and had located an entire enclave of diagnosans in under ten microts.  They had also been lucky that they had a force unit of luxans on board.  A quarter cycle earlier, Jothee had arranged to use Moya as a floating, migrating transfer station for luxan military personnel and supplies.  Moya’s abrupt departure had stranded more than half of the unit aboard the leviathan, including four of their medics. 

So there had been trained hands to throw together a hastily constructed platform with padding, blankets and straps; and to carry John to the converted maintenance bay that served as their medical clinic.  There had been drugs on board to stop some of the bleeding and prevent swelling.  They had stabilized the broken bones, treated him for shock, and checked for internal injuries while Jothee had flown one of the transport pods to the enclave and back as though it was a Prowler.  All of which meant that a diagnosan and his translator had been unceremoniously hustled on board Moya in just under four arns. 

If it hadn’t been for those factors, Aeryn was sure that John would have died where she found him, crumpled, battered, and bleeding, in the cold and the dark of the neural cavern.  She would have been unable to move him without aggravating his injuries, and would have been forced to sit by his side, waiting for the inevitable, while he died. 

Instead, the smashed leg had been clucked over several times and then repaired.  The pulverized bones in his shoulder had been mended, although not as quickly; the six broken ribs and the punctured lung healed and put back in working order.  Bruises began to fade, the frothy crimson-tinged breaths no longer gurgled and bubbled from between deathly pale lips, internal bleeding was stopped. 

And each time the diagnosan examined John’s skull, the verdict was the same. 

Re’it gwaallec’tk,” the diagnosan said once again. 

“Yes, very bad,” Aeryn said.  “I understood it the last ten times you said it.  How bad is very bad?  What exactly is wrong?”  She turned to the creature standing near the foot of the medbed, hoping for a better explanation than she had received the last several times she had asked the question. 

This diagnosan had brought along a kalvarian for his translator, which was beyond ludicrous.  The translator microbes did not exist that could handle Kalvari.  It was an impossibly complex language that overstressed the microbes to the point that they up and died if anyone tried to reprogram them to handle it.  Kalvarians were evolved marsupials with two tongues, several sets of vocal chords, and an additional speech organ that provided whistles and clicks similar to a diagnosan’s.  Perhaps that was why this healer had a kalvarian for a companion.  If so, it had been a poor choice.

The latest attempt at a translation did not go any better than all the rest.  The kalvarian’s version of whatever the diagnosan had said came through as pure gibberish. 

“You!”  Aeryn motioned toward the diagnosan’s furry companion with both hands, herding him toward the door.  “You are worse than useless.  Leave!  Go wait in the hangar bay.” 

From the pitch of his voice and number of squeals in the next sentence, Aeryn assumed the kalvarian was protesting.  She rested her hand on the butt of her pulse pistol and glared at the creature.  He stared back at her for several microts, let out a series of atonal, lethargic-sounding clicks, and then left the chamber. 

Aeryn looked toward the ceiling, and addressed the leviathan at large.  “Pilot?  Can either you or Moya translate Diagnosan?”

“We can do no better than an approximation,” Pilot answered over comms.  “Diagnosans have more than six million terms to describe the injuries and afflictions for hundreds of species.  Our data stores include no more than a small fraction of their vocabulary.”

“That should be enough.  I need an explanation, not an anatomy lesson.”  Aeryn spun to face the healer.  “What is very bad about John’s head?  He was awake and talking for a short time when we brought him up here.  What has happened since then?”

“Bleeding and swelling,” Pilot translated.  “There was” -- he paused for several microts while the diagnosan continued his musical twittering -- “damage to Crichton’s skull.  I believe he is referring to the outside, Aeryn.” 

“A fracture?” Aeryn asked.  “A skull fracture?” 
 
The diagnosan inclined his head, warbling out another stream of unintelligible information.
 
“Yes,” Pilot said once the diagnosan had finished speaking.  “He says that too much time passed between the injury and when he was able to begin treatment.  There was too much pressure inside Crichton’s skull for too long.  He believes there will be damage to his brain.” 

“How much damage?  What kind of damage?”

“He says he cannot be sure.  If Crichton’s brain is the same as a sebacean’s, then he will never regain consciousness.  If his brain is arranged differently, then --”  Pilot stopped.

Aeryn waited, assuming that Pilot was attempting to cope with a word in Diagnosan that refused to be translated into anything that either of them could understand.  After ten microts of silence, broken only by the subdued non-stop creak of Pilot operating slides and levers, she began to realize that he had run into a different problem.  This was reluctance, not a lack of comprehension. 

“Then what, Pilot?  If John’s brain is different from a sebacean’s, then what will happen?”

“Then he might regain consciousness, but if he does, he will be blind.  The diagnosan says that the visual centers of his brain have been destroyed.”

   * * * *

He dreamed of Aeryn.  They were sitting together.  He could not tell where they were; it was too dark to make out any landmarks.  He knew she was beside him was because he could hear her quiet breathing and smell the special scent that was Officer Aeryn Sun.  Wherever she went, a unique amalgam of fragrances floated behind her as though proclaiming to the entire universe, “Aeryn Sun has been here.”  It consisted of leather, chakan oil, the hair cleanser that she preferred, the smell that was simply Aeryn, and more recently, the complex aroma of ‘baby’.  He could always tell when she was nearby, even when the more overwhelming odor of a leviathan threatened to drown her out. 

He did it now, as if to prove that he would always be able to find her by smell alone.  He took in a deep breath, and began sorting through the thick influx of scents.  There was the mild tang of metal plating, a hint of citrus that meant they were close to one of the air scrubber vents, the less pleasant musky moistness that sometimes wafted up from the lake of bat dren on the lowest tier, a brief electric bite at the back of his throat that came from warm neural circuits, and Aeryn.  Breathing her in was like hot apple pie on a cold morning, like the smell of coffee drifting upstairs while he was still in bed; it was freshly laundered sheets that had been dried on a clothes line, the promise of rain on the wind, and the smell of the Christmas tree when it was first brought indoors. 

He meant to tell her that she smelled good.  He meant to tell her he loved her.  He meant to tell her that she was everything wonderful about his past, his present, and his future, all rolled into one.   

Aeryn’s disembodied voice floated out of the dark.  “You do not always have to be the hero.”

It was too close to an old accusation.  Every scent was lost to the salty sting that preceded tears, and in that moment Aeryn as good as disappeared.  He wanted tell her he was sorry.  He wanted to tell her that he loved her, and that he was there, in the dark, sitting beside her. 

He dreamed that he was sitting with Aeryn and that the dream would not let him speak.
   

   * * * *

Chiana edged into the chamber.  She stood without speaking for several microts before sliding forward another cautious motra.  “He’s lucky to be alive.”

“Where’s D’Argo?” Aeryn asked.  Sitting in one position so long was giving her a headache. She needed to move, to stretch, to engage in vigorous physical activity, and did not want to leave John’s side for the length of time that it took to visit the waste alcove.  She had been sitting beside his bed ever since they had moved him here more than twenty arns ago, waiting, watching, convinced that it was only a matter of time before he opened his eyes and said hello. 

“With the sergeants,” Chiana said.

Two of Jothee’s men had willingly taken over child care duties for the day.  Older than most of the rest of the soldiers in the unit, each of them had left a wife and several children behind when they had enlisted.  They saw their own children in D’Argo, and were delighted to put their parenting skills to use.  D’Argo had seldom gotten this much attention over the course of his short life, or his hands on as many tanktas as he had yanked over the last several arns.  D’Argo, at least, was having the time of his life.   

“Aeryn,” Chiana began again.  “You’re lucky he’s --”

“I know.  I saw the recordings.”

Several DRDs had been working in the neural plexus.  They had caught John’s bludgeoning descent on their scanners, shunted the signals to Moya, and Pilot had merged them into a single, nearly seamless record of every impact.

Aeryn had seen it only once, and then only so she would understand how much damage had been inflicted on John’s body.  Once had been more than enough.  She had watched with one hand firmly clamped over her mouth through the first hard, crunching impact against a walkway two tiers below the Den.  The ricochet had made things worse.  It changed John’s trajectory so he missed every solid surface for the next three tiers, picking up too much speed as a result.  It might have been better if he had hit every walkway, platform and outcropping on the way down.  At least that way he would not have been moving so fast. 

The second impact had done most of the damage.  Everything after that barely mattered.  The limp body had spun away from the platform, bounced off a walkway one tier beneath it, and finally came to rest near the Moya’s central neural housing eight tiers below the Den.  Only then, when the horrific ride was over, did Aeryn release the breath she had been holding in a single, extended, anguished sigh. 

“Aeryn, we can’t care for him here,” Chiana said.  “We need to find someplace that --”

“No, we don’t.”  Aeryn turned to face her.  “John is going to wake up, and when he does he is going to be able to see.”

“You don’t know that.”  Chiana moved a motra closer, looking wary.  “You can’t know that.” 

“I can and I do.  He’s not sebacean.  The diagnosan was wrong.”

“How?  How do you know?  Why are you so sure?”

Aeryn turned back to the unnaturally still figure lying on the bed.  She watched him for several microts, hoping for a twitch of a finger, or for the movement of his eyes beneath the closed eyelids, aching for some sign of normal, sleep-dulled awareness. 

“Why are you so sure?” Chiana repeated.

“Because I have no other choice.  I have to believe it.  Anything else leaves me with nothing.”  A lump formed in her throat, threatening to choke off any further explanation. 

Chiana skated across the final distance to the bed.  She hovered for a moment, made a move as though she was going to sit down on the foot of the bed, and then perched a thin hip on the edge of Aeryn’s seat instead.  Aeryn leaned her head on Chiana’s shoulder, finding solace in the warmth and presence of a sympathetic being.

“Hope?  Are you talking about hope?” Chiana said.

Aeryn rocked her head against the bony shoulder, unable to speak for several moments.  “Hope is not enough this time.”   

“What comes after hope?”

She had to think about it for a while, summoning up the certainty that was holding her together, and comparing that sensation against the types of words she might normally use in a situation like this one.  In the end, she chose a term she seldom used; a small word that felt unfamiliar on her tongue. 

“Faith.  I believe in John, and I believe in our future together.  I have faith that he is going to wake up.” 

Chiana got to her feet.  She stood looking down at the inert body on the bed.  “Faith is a wonderful theory, Aeryn, but what are you going to do if the diagnosan was right?” 

Aeryn closed her eyes, shutting out the possibility.  “He was wrong.  John is going to wake up, and he will not be blind.” 

   * * * * *

He was trying to watch a new channel.  Something called Aeryn-TV.  The sound was okay, but there was something wrong with the picture.  All he could get was a test pattern.   

They were playing oldies today.  It sounded like something out of Leave It To Beaver.  The plot involved a mother and a kid, several visitors to the house, and a lot of discussions about what they were having for dinner.  Typical 60’s stuff. 

The voices had a tendency to merge and wash over him in, like a distant half-heard conversation.  He let the syllables run together, not caring if they were swallowed up by the background rumbles and grumbles that never stopped, until there was nothing but the thrum of heavy machinery, the babbling of a child, and the woman’s voice.  Outdated programming or not, he loved this stuff. 

More noises emerged from the whole, evolving into a rhythmic cacophony that rose and fell in time with the full-body throb of his pulse.  The background theme was provided by a hushed susurrence, the way it might have sounded if some great beast were sleeping beside him.  Chirps and squeals provided counterpoint exclamations, moving from one side of where he existed to the next, accompanied by the quiet whine of their movements.  The faraway clatter of something mechanical, a muted gurgle of liquids surging through pipes, people talking, someone laughing, the slow rumble of a door closing:  He lay on his side, feeling no desire to move, and listened to the music of the leviathan.


   * * * * *

“Pilot, how much longer?” Aeryn called over the comms. 

“Ten arns, Aeryn.” 

She was running out of time.  In ten arns, Moya would reach the rendezvous point where they had abandoned half of Jothee’s force, and she would lose the two sergeants who were still quite happily taking care of D’Argo twenty arns out of every day.  The field medics would disembark as well, leaving her to deal with a young child and a comatose patient by herself.  Chiana had been right.  She could not care for John aboard Moya.       

“You have to wake up, John,” she said to the empty corridor.  “You have to wake up soon.  We are running out of time.” 

She would have two days, three at best, after the luxans departed.  After that, she would have to find some place that could provide the type of specialized care that John would need if he was going to survive.  Pilot had taken it upon himself to begin searching for such a place. 

Even if John did regain consciousness, there was still the matter of the diagnosan’s claims about his vision. 

Aeryn came to a stop in the junction of two passageways, trying to envision the challenge that this one tiny portion of Moya would represent to someone who could not see.  A leviathan’s corridors did not grow in straight or symmetrical lines.  Each tier was different, with hundreds of sectors, ladders, crawlways, and hatches, no two alike.  It had taken John nearly two cycles to learn his way around Moya the first time.  She could not imagine what it would be like if he had to do it again minus the benefit of sight.   

She closed her eyes, and tried it, moving forward cautiously until her outstretched fingers located an internal rib.  Hearing helped, as did the faint touch of air against bare skin.  She gradually became aware of the nearly sublimal rush of air through the hallways.  By turning left and right, testing for the source of the draft, she could align herself so the air was coming straight at her face.  Two long steps took her to the next rib.  This one was warmer than the last.  She ran her hand up the arcing curve and found a light. 

Lights were located every other rib.  She could tell where the center of the corridor was and when she was approaching a junction by how the air smelled and behaved.  Perhaps this would not be as difficult as she thought.  Perhaps, with enough time and patience, John could learn his way around the ship as well as he could with vision.

Aeryn stepped away from the rib in order to make sure she wasn’t going to trip over the bottom portion, aligned herself with the center of the hallway, and set out with determination.  Ten steps later, she walked straight into a wall.

“Closed door,” she mumbled, disgusted with herself.  “Frell.”  On the other hand, she had learned something new.  Leviathans tasted like a mouthful of blood.  She set out again, moving more cautiously. 

There were cargo containers, storage bins, and the odd power conduit to trip over, she realized too late.  The lights were hung at head level, and were wickedly sharp.  A pressure hatch felt much the same as a doorway, and not every chamber had a sensor to unlock it.  Much to her dismay and at the cost of several bruises, she discovered that the DRDs had a bad habit of yanking out several motras worth of neural cable to make a repair, and then leaving it strewn across the passageway until they were done.  She found a ladder leading down but not up, culminating with a bump on her head, and one doorway that swung opposite to all the others -- out, not in. 

It was impossible, she concluded after an arn’s worth of collisions.  They could always assign one or more DRDs as guides to lead him from one place to another, but if the diagnosan was right about John’s vision, he would never have full run of the ship again. 

And simply finding his way around Moya would never be enough.  She could not stand the thought of watching John fumble his way uncertainly from one section of the ship to the next, hands always outstretched.  The thought of seeing him that way twisted her intestines until they cramped and sapped the strength from her knees.  The John Crichton she had always known barged through Moya with grace, strength, and lithe energy.  When disaster struck, which happened too often, John was the one who pounded through the hallways at high speed as though nothing in the universe could stop him. 

Aeryn opened her eyes, automatically checking her location.  She was four tiers below Quarters, at the far aft end of Moya’s living spaces, one sector to treblin side of the main fore-aft corridor.  With her eyes open, she could reach their quarters in eighty microts, possibly less.  With her eyes closed, the trip might take several arns and she would probably get lost more than once. 

“You have to wake up now, John,” she said to the person lying eighty microts away.  “You’re out of time.  No more frelling around.  It has to be in the next few arns.” 

“Aeryn?”

Aeryn jumped.  Following so closely on her whispered message to John, Pilot’s query had startled her.  Aeryn checked her comms badge, wondering if Pilot had been listening to her erratic progress through the tier.  If so, there was a good chance he had learned several new terms -- all of it profanity. 

“Yes, Pilot?”

“I have located a … facility.  It is not too far from Hyneria, and it seems … quite nice.”  He sounded apologetic.

“Thank you, Pilot.”  Aeryn started to close the comms. 

“Would you like me to contact them?” Pilot said before she could finish the motion.

“No.  It won’t be necessary.”  She waited this time, assuming that Pilot wasn’t finished. 

“Are you sure?” he asked. 

“Yes.”  She thumbed the comms, cutting off any further discussion. 

Why was she so certain?  Chiana had asked her that question more than once.  Aeryn had not been able to explain.  Her certainty went beyond need or hope; and it had nothing to do with denial.  Her belief was a quiet, steady dynamo located at the base of her skull.  She could feel it there if she concentrated hard enough, putting out a strong but gentle energy field that resisted all attempts at penetration.  The dynamo worked hardest when the future seemed most bleak; it quieted to a background hum when she held D’Argo at night.  It sustained her, gave her strength to get up in the morning, and provided the energy she needed to sit by John’s side arn after arn.  It allowed her to laugh when she watched the sergeants playing with D’Argo, and kept her from crying when she woke in the middle of the night, cold and alone. 

Faith, she had told Chiana.  Faith without evidence, logic, or reason.  She had faith in John’s love for her, and that it would be enough to bring him back to her side. 
 
   * * * * *

He dreamed a new dream, one that he did not enjoy.  Moya had suffered a massive power failure.  All of the lights had gone out.  He fumbled his way along the corridor, fingers sliding over smooth biomechanoid plating, searching for Aeryn and DJ.  He bumped from rung to the next, climbing a giant’s ladder that had been turned on its side.  He ricocheted off open doorways, stumbled his way around projections, sieving the darkness with both hands, hunting for his family. 

Moya’s internal spaces were a hundred different shades of metallic on his tongue, always warning him a microt too late when he was about to run into something.  She reeked of aluminum when he approached a light, copper and brass for burnt conduits.  His saliva ran with lead near the ion backwash chamber, stainless steel at the open door to a hangar, cold forged iron when his route took him too close to the latent danger of a pressure hatch.

He came to an exhausted halt, mired in confusion, laid his forehead against Moya’s inner bulkhead, and found a contradiction.  She was simultaneously warm and cool against his skin.  Cool at first, then warming quickly as she responded to his touch.  The metal transferred the heat away as fast as it was generated -- cooling, warming, soft, hard, cold, hot, all at once. 

He wanted to tell Moya that she was a marvel, that she was beautiful in the way that only a sentient, space-going pollywog could, and that he loved her.  He wanted to tell her that he missed seeing her.  The message was never conveyed.  He could not remember how to use his voice. 

Aeryn was near, as was DJ.  He could smell them.  Freshly-bathed child, Aeryn’s hair, clean skin, leather, a whiff of something one of them had for dinner, all carried on a gust of ionized air from the atmospheric filtration unit.  He loved them so much.  He wanted to hold DJ.  He wanted to ask Aeryn if she would sit beside him so they could hold their child together and watch him fall asleep.  But he could not remember how to use his voice and he could not remember how to turn on the lights.
 

* * * * *

“We are out of time, John.” 

The luxans were leaving.  The last of their supplies had been transferred to their ships, the medics were gone, and the last of the enlisted troops were boarding their transports.  Everyone was either gone or in the process of leaving except the two sergeants, who were saying long and mournful goodbyes to their temporary foster son, and Jothee.

“Aeryn?” Chiana transmitted over the comms.  “They’re about to leave.  What do you want to do?”

“Can you watch D’Argo for an arn or two, Chi?  I’ll come get him in a little while.” 

“That’s not what I meant.  I was talking about … about the … the you know what.”

She was referring to the care facility that Pilot had located.  Her heart felt like it was about to stop beating.  “How long will it take to get there?” 

“Pilot says two solar days.” 

Logic said they had to set a course for the facility.  Faith in John and the aura of certainty that she had built up around her insisted that it would not be necessary.  The soldier demanded that she tell Pilot to plot a route to the facility.  The part of her that loved John Crichton could not allow it. 

“Aeryn?” Chiana said.

“Chiana, could you --” 

Admitting that they needed to start toward the care facility felt like she was giving up -- giving up on John, giving up on herself, giving up on their future together, and giving up on everything that she had ever believed in. 

“Would you like me to tell Pilot to head that way … you know, just sort of … sort of in that direction but not going there, once Jothee and the others leave?” 

Aeryn had to smile.  The request was so carefully phrased, delivered with such deliberate nonchalance, undoubtedly mindful of both an incandescent temper and the presence of a pulse pistol hanging in the corner of the chamber.  “Yes, that would be good.  Thank you, Chiana.” 

She turned her attention back toward the bed.

“I was counting on you,” she said to John.  “I believed in you.” 

He lay without moving, just as he had for the last several days.  When the luxan medics had carried him from the medbay and set him gently on his own bed, they had placed him on his right side, careful of the still-fragile area at the back of his skull.  There were cushions tucked in all around him, to ensure that he did not roll backward or forward off the bed.  His right leg -- the one that had been so badly broken -- was on the bottom where it received the most support and could lie easily.  Both hands were tucked in against his chest, as though he were clutching something or someone precious against his body.   

Aeryn could have drawn him from memory, if she knew how to draw.  She had spent the arns studying him, learning every detail, so that if he moved, if there was even the slightest change in his position, it would not go overlooked:  every line, every wrinkle, every detail of his lips, his throat, and his fingers; the way the thermal covers lay across his hips, how far they hung down the side of the bed, exactly how far one portion rose and fell with every breath.  And for the first time, she feared that this was the memory of John that she would carry through the cycles until her own death. 

“You bastard.  I believed in you,” she whispered to him.  Tears threatened, pressure building behind her eyes and clogging her nose.  She fought them back.  “It’s not too late, John.  There’s still time, but you have to do it now.  Do not let me down.”

John did not answer. 

Aeryn got to her feet, wandered around the cell several times, too tired to stretch muscles cramped by arns of sitting in one position, and then resumed her post beside the bed.  Her foot hit something metallic.  She bent down to retrieve the drinking flask that she had kicked under the bed, turned her head to check on John, and looked into his eyes.       

She had once been aboard a ship that had been subjected to a deliberate, preplanned hull breach.  One moment her surroundings had been as they should be -- gravity, atmospheric pressure, and lighting were normal -- and the next moment everything had disappeared in a single cataclysmic whoosh.  It was as though the outer skin of the ship itself had grown larger, inhaling nothingness to replace the normal atmosphere and setting everything inside adrift.  Her vacuum suit, which had clung slackly to her body moments earlier, had puffed out, leaving her suspended inside a momentarily too-large casing.  It had been a disorienting experience, ripping her loose from every familiar sensation and setting her adrift in a cloud of small metallic fragments with nothing but the light tug of her safety harness to remind her that she wasn't naked and abandoned. 

It felt like that now.  Shock tore away the ability to feel her clothes properly.  If she had been asked to move or hold something, Aeryn was certain she would find her hands and feet flapping uselessly at the end of arms and legs that had been stretched to ten or twenty motras in length.  Sound ceased to function, and for a brief interval, she couldn't remember how to form words. 

“Hi there,” she said in a whisper. 

John continued to stare.  It was a fixed gaze, showing no hint of comprehension or awareness.   

“John, are you awake?”

She received nothing but silence and an unwavering blank stare for an answer.  Aeryn turned away, unwilling to let John watch her cry even if he was not aware of his surroundings.   

“Am I late?” a weak voice rasped behind her. 

Moya underwent a second, more severe decompression.  This time Aeryn came close to falling off her seat.  When she recovered her balance and spun back toward the bed, she was surprised to find that everything in their quarters was still where it belonged … including her husband.  John’s head was wobbling slightly on the pillow, and he looked like he was about to fall asleep, but his eyes were locked firmly on her, and he was definitely conscious and processing information. 

“Almost.  You cut it pretty close.” 

“Where’s DJ?” he asked next.

“Running around somewhere,” she said. 

“Is he okay?”  His breathing was a laborious struggle.  It would take some time before the healed tissue and knitted bones returned to normal.  Until then, every movement would require conscious effort. 

“He's fine.  Not even a bruise.  I think he enjoyed it.”

A twitch at the side of his mouth might have been a tired smile.  “In that case, keep him out of the Den for a while.” 

“We are not going to have a repeat of this event.  The DRDs are rigging a force net below the Den.”  Aeryn moved from the hard-surfaced chair where she had spent so many arns over the past days, to the side of the bed.  John’s left hand moved toward her thigh.  She took it in hers and held on tight.

“What about me?  Am I okay?” John asked. 

“You'll live.  How do you feel?”

“I’ve got one hell of a headache, there are about eight of you sitting next to me, and if I don’t take a leak in the next sixty seconds, I'm going to have a very embarrassing accident.” 

Aeryn stared down at him for several microts, weighing what she knew about John’s injuries against the prospect of inventing an alternative to using the waste alcove.  “You can’t,” she said in the end.  “We’ll find another way.  Your leg --”

“No,” he said, interrupting.  “I have not wet the bed since I was five years old.  You do not mess with a winning streak like that.  Unless you have a thunder jug tucked under the bed, you had better give me a hand.”

Aeryn got to her feet and took several steps back, meaning to take away any offer of assistance out of range.  Instead of surrendering, John used the extra room to push himself upright and swing his legs over the side of the bed.  His upper body oscillated back and forth several times before he managed to get things under control. 

“You’ve got thirty microts to make up your mind.  If you don’t help me, I’ll try it on my own … and probably wind up flat on my face on the floor.  You choose.”

“You should not be on your feet.  John, if you fall and hit your head --” 

“Twenty microts.  Your choice.  You can either help me or watch me do a face plant.” 

She did not give in until he tried to get to his feet, and came very close to hitting his head on the floor, just as she had predicted.  It did not seem to matter to John that he could not stand up or walk on his own.  He dragged himself back on to the bed, spent several microts catching his breath, and was clearly going to try it again.  Only then, when she realized that her choices were bad and worse, did she tuck herself in under his arm and help him across the short distance to the waste alcove, lending him both strength and balance. 

The short journey exhausted him.  Perhaps that told him more about what his body had been through than any of Aeryn’s brief explanations, because once he was back in bed, he asked, “Just how bad was it?” 

She considered his question, the devastation that his body had endured even if he was not aware of it, and why he had made the sacrifice.  She debated whether to describe the damage:  a leg broken in four places, a shoulder so badly smashed that the diagnosan had been forced to examine the other one to figure out how to put it back together, six broken ribs, a collapsed lung, internal bleeding, and a skull fracture that nearly taken him away from her.  She weighed that knowledge against how angry she was with him for obstinately ignoring her and insisting that he hobble to the waste alcove, and suddenly found the two elements merging together instead of waging a battle for dominance.   

This was the John Crichton she had believed in so fiercely.  Pig-headed, opinionated, self-assured to the point of stupidity, and stubborn:  these were the qualities that had brought him back to her.  Not his compassion or the gentle side of his nature.  It was not the humorous, loving, peaceful side of John Crichton that had provided the solid foundation for her faith.  It was the mulish, impossible side of him that refused to give up and kept on fighting long after most sentient beings would have surrendered.   

“Watergate tapes?  Grassy knoll?  Jimmy Hoffa’s final resting place?” 

“What?” she asked. 

“I was wondering if the answer was a national secret.  How bad was it, Aeryn?  The question isn’t all that difficult.” 

Aeryn gazed at him in much the same way she had stared at him for arn after endless arn over the past several days.  The difference was not so much that he was looking back at her, but that she was no longer waiting.  The past days had been one long held breath, an internal suspension of time.  The timepiece of her life had begun ticking again.  She could breathe. 

John, on the other hand, was looking increasingly exhausted and befuddled.  There was a good chance that if she simply waited another few microts, he would fall asleep, which would eliminate the entire issue concerning an answer. 

She picked up one of his hands, pressed it to her check, and then kissed the back of his knuckles.  The back of his forefinger brushed gently against her cheek.  She could think of only one reply that would truly answer the question. 

“You’ll live.” 


* ~ * ~ * ~ *~ *


12
Crashfic / War Games (G) - 36th Starburst Challenge
« Last post by KernilCrash on June 10, 2016, 11:02:51 AM »
War Games

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Starburst Challenge 36 (hosted by AerialPuma):  The “Certain-Words-Required-Challenge” asked that we work five words into a story:  Abidjan, cephalometer, inconsiderable, pert, and sacrificed.    Four out of five melded into the story easily.  ‘Cephalometer’ called for a very large hammer.  (As in the saying, “If at first you don’t succeed, use a larger hammer.”)

Time Frame:  A short time after the end of Peacekeeper Wars, but only because of a single reference to Deke (aka Little D).  Aside from that, this could take place almost anywhere in the timeline.
Rating:  G.
Disclaimer:  The characters and universe of Farscape are the property of the Henson Co.  I have not made any profit off this tale, and I am giving the characters back the way I found them.
Test Driver:  PKLibrarian, as always.  She rocks when it comes to test driving a story and catching mistakes.

Printer Friendly Word 6.0 version (18KB .zip file)

Genesis:  About four years ago (oh my heavens, has it been that long?), in a story called The Changeling, I described John watching Aeryn and some other Peacekeepers playing cards, with a single reference to how he had tried to learn the game and had failed.  I have always wanted spend some more time messing about with the idea of John trying to learn this form of “pleasant recreational warfare”.  When AerialPuma posted her challenge, I knew the moment had come. 

This story does NOT match up perfectly with the scene in The Changeling; the continuity is not perfect.  It is a ‘ricochet’, not a prequel. 

I hope you enjoy it. 

* * * * *

He had agreed to try because he understood how much it meant to Aeryn.  The card game was not just an enjoyable way to waste a leisurely arn or two.  Quiet moments aboard Moya were all too rare; they did not need card games to fill their free time because there were never enough empty arns for boredom to become a problem.  The Peacekeeper game was important because it was a tie to Aeryn’s past, and John Crichton knew that.  It transported her back to a time when she was happy and content, surrounded by the familiar; it allowed her, for a brief length of time, to relive one small aspect of her childhood. 

He had been able to travel back to Earth for a short time.  That accidental trip had given him one last opportunity to revisit a lost life.  He had slept between clean white sheets; pulled on stiff, freshly washed jeans, knowing as he did that it might be the last time; wolfed down pizza and beer; inhaled the aroma of brewing coffee; and reveled in the scent of newly mown grass.  The list of small pleasures was endless.  Even now, more than a cycle later, he clung to those memories, treasuring each small taste, touch, scent, and sound, achingly aware that his chances of ever visiting Earth again lay somewhere in the range of ‘infinitesimal’.   

Aeryn would never be so lucky.  The day she had been declared irreversibly contaminated, her entire life had been torn away from her in an instant.  She had walked the corridors of a Command Carrier several times since then, but always as an outcast, reviled by everyone on board.  So he knew that the card game offered Aeryn not recreation but a crucial connection to her past.  He had seen the way she relaxed the microt she picked up the cards; how her body transmitted pleasure and familiarity.  There wasn’t anything he would not do if it meant seeing that shift on a regular basis -- not even if it meant volunteering to suffer one humiliating defeat after another. 

“You don’t want to,” Aeryn said, interrupting his thoughts. 

“No, that’s not it.”  He must have been staring down at the page of notes in front of him for longer than he thought. 

“What then?” she asked. 

“I was thinking that it shouldn’t be this hard.  I have a doctorate from MIT, for heaven’s sake!  I should be able to figure this out.  I learned how to play poker when I was six, and didn’t have any trouble with that.  I’m pretty good at chess.  I even figured out how to put Mouse Trap together without the instructions.  I shouldn’t be having this much trouble figuring out a frelling card game!” 

“It is not just a game,” Aeryn repeated for what might have been the hundredth time.  “It’s a …”

“… realistic representation of total war,” he said, finishing the overly simplified description that he had already heard too many times.  “I got that part the first time you said it.” 

The basics were simple.  The deck consisted of fourteen suits of increasing importance, each one representing either a Peacekeeper rank or ship.  Each suit had ten strengths, which recreated the concepts of companies, regiments, battalions, fighter squadrons, fleet size, and so on.  There were also five additional ‘wild’ cards, each of which came in a single strength.  Those five cards represented the unpredictable nature of battle, the unexpected or unknown elements that could transform an overwhelming victory into a military disaster in the blink of an eye. 

John had learned that much in the first fifty microts.  That wasn’t the problem.  What he was having difficulty grasping were the intricacies of the game:  how a strength one Command Carrier card could beat a strength ten ground troop card but only if the ground troops did not have sufficient air cover; or how some engagements could be won with just two cards on the table, and another time they could play all of their cards and not have a clear winner.  Despite having walked through more than a dozen practice hands with Aeryn explaining each of his options at every stage of the game, he was still having trouble remembering all the variables.  He had never had this much trouble learning anything, not even advanced physics. 
 
John came out of his reverie to discover that Aeryn was running through the rules one last time, explaining yet again how a card’s position on the table could affect the way it influenced the accumulated mass of cards beneath it.  She said something that he hadn’t understood the first ten or twenty times she had explained it.  He held up a hand, stopping Aeryn’s monologue long enough to make another note on his cheat sheet.

“Upside down to the person playing the card,” she said, adding onto what he had just written, “otherwise it’s too confusing if more than two people are playing.” 

“Wouldn’t this be easier if we used some kind of board to keep track of relative position?”  Aeryn’s machine-gun-fire style of delivery, coupled together with his frustration, was starting to give him a headache. 

“Combat situations are chaotic and fluid.  Remember that this was meant to be played with six or eight people divided into two teams.  By avoiding set positions for the cards, the game more closely approximates the confusion of an actual battle.” 

“You got the confusion part right.  I think my skull is shrinking.  If you stuck a cephalometer on me right now, you’d probably find that my brain is about to implode.  Couldn’t we play chess instead?  That’s about strategy and out-maneuvering your opponent.”  He didn’t mean it.  He knew how much this meant to Aeryn and that chess could not replace the missing parts of her life that she was trying to recreate for a short time.  But he had to try.  He hated losing. 

Aeryn began shuffling the cards.  “Chess is boring.  There are too many restrictions.  How many Prowlers do you know that only fly back and forth on a single heading, or only move forward one metra at a time?” 

“Not a good comparison, Aeryn.”  John made a few last minute notations on his crib sheet, and then stretched his shoulders.  “What the heck.  You kick my ass on a regular basis in real life.  I guess I shouldn’t get too bent out of shape if you do it with a card game as well.  Let ‘er rip.” 

It took several microts to deal out the cards and for each of them to get organized.  John was still sorting through his cards long after Aeryn had finished with hers, hampered by his frequent references to his notes and the fact that a hand consisted of fourteen cards, which was physically difficult to handle.  Eventually he got them arranged so he was satisfied, and sat staring at what he had been dealt, concentrating on keeping all expression off his face.  He had one of the five wild cards.  It was a whopper of a card that, if played correctly, ensured a victory.  But holding onto it until the right moment, recognizing that moment, and then playing it correctly was going to be a bigger challenge than countering anything Aeryn threw at him in the meantime.  He tried to envision how he would move his pieces if this were a chess game, searching for the key moves that would allow him to draw out Aeryn’s strongest cards and maneuver her into a position where his hole card could finish her off. 

After several microts of unproductive silence, Aeryn said, “You go first.”

“I know, I know.  I’m thinking.”  He wasn’t ready yet.  As always, the colors and patterns fanned out in his fist looked like confetti:  delightful and pretty, but otherwise meaningless.  Crichton fussed with his cards for a few microts hoping the extra time would produce some form of divine revelation.  When that didn’t work, he consulted the sheet of paper lying next to his elbow one last time to verify that he had the suits arranged from lowest to highest and then, still stalling, went back to staring at his cards. 

Aeryn let out a noise that sounded as though a sigh and a snort had collided in the back of her throat.  The message was clear.  His time was up. 

“Give me a microt.  I’m a beginner.”  After several false starts, he selected a card and laid it carefully in the middle of the table. 

“Are you sure that is how you want to begin?” Aeryn said.

He pulled it back a couple of denches, double-checking to make sure he had not misread the suit and strength.  “What’s wrong with it?” 

“Nothing,” she said, a little too quickly.  “Nothing at all.”  Aeryn began fingering one of her own cards.

“Hang on, hang on.”  He reached across the table and grabbed the top of her cards with his free hand in order to stop her.  “Remember me?  John Crichton, beginner card player?  Explain it to me.  What’s wrong with starting that way?” 

“If you were in command of an attack force about to enter into a battle against an unknown enemy, would you send out an entire regiment of untrained conscripts to spearhead the attack?” 

He was still thinking in terms of chess and of drawing out his opponent’s pieces, which meant that he was looking at the card as if it were a pawn; it was an asset that he did not want to lose, but it was more expendable than anything else he had available.  He pondered for several microts, then asked, “Do I get to change my mind?”

Aeryn nodded.  “You’re still learning.  That seems fair.”

John retrieved the card and tucked it back into the middle of his hand, trying to conceal that it was his lowest card.  It wouldn’t hurt to make her think he had even worse junk to be discarded.  After several more microts of agonizing, he placed a squadron of Marauders face up on the surface in front of him, and slowly pushed it forward until it was in the center of the table.

“Are you sure this time?” she asked.

He still had his finger on the card.  “Yeah.  That ought to be good enough to fight off a patrol or an initial feint from the bad guys.”  He lifted his finger, committing his squadron to the battle.   

“Good!”  Aeryn slapped down a minimal force of Vigilante cruisers, crushing his Marauders, and then set both cards off to the side near her left elbow.  “My victory.  Your turn.” 

John glared at her.  “You suckered me.  I could have sacrificed my cannon fodder to draw out the first of your forces, and you talked me out of it!” 

She looked as close to gleeful as he had ever seen her.  “Spreading disinformation through your enemy’s command is an important element in preparing for battle, John.  It’s your turn.” 

“I get it now,” he grumbled.  “You’re telling me that the battle extends beyond the edge of the table.  Fine.  In that case, from here on in there’s no more Mr. Nice-Guy.  You’re going down, woman.” 

Aeryn smiled at him.  “I’m still waiting.  It’s your turn.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.  Don’t be so eager to meet your Waterloo.”  A thought occurred to him.  He paused with the fingers of his right hand resting against the top edge of his cards.  “What happens if we run out of cards and have a stalemate?”

“We leave everything in the middle, deal another hand, and keep going until someone prevails,” Aeryn said.  “And I think you’re stalling.” 

“I’m not stalling, I’m learning.”  This time he opened with the one card that Aeryn knew for certain he had in his hand.  “Here comes the four of conscripts again,” he said as he flipped the card onto the table.  “Untrained, unhappy, unwilling conscripts.  An entire regiment of ensigns in red shirts.  Go ahead.  Kill them.” 

She did not take them.  Aeryn countered with a low strength Prowler card turned sideways.  Since it was not strong enough to overrun his regiment of conscripts, she was attempting to flank his position.  If her next card managed to get behind his conscripts, he would lose this engagement.  John added a low strength Marauder card to his position, also turned sideways to indicate that he was cutting off the flanking maneuver.  More Prowlers threatened to overwhelm his ground troops.  He brought up a single Vigilante supported by Marauders, hoping that the additional air cover would be enough to compensate for whatever Aeryn threw at him next.  Her tenth strength Prowler card was not enough to win but she did manage to neutralize most of the forces he had committed so far. 

He started to toss in a single battlecruiser, intending to merely stave off her assault, noticed the set of Aeryn’s mouth, and decided against playing it safe.  From the very first day he had met her, Officer Aeryn Sun had always preferred bold moves and hard slashing strikes, preferably preemptive ones.  Whatever was coming next, he needed to meet it with strength, not hesitation.

“Four of Battlecruisers,” he said, tossing his card on the mounting heap.

“Commandos, fifth strength.”

“One of Battlecruisers.”  He committed the single ship that he had held back, certain that it would be of little use later in the engagement.  Better to shore up his front lines now than throw it in when it was too late.

“Commandos, first strength.” 

“Oh yeah, that’s going to help against my battlecruisers.  What is that, like two guys and a bazooka?” he said, taunting her.

“It’s stronger than your conscripts,” she said, flicking a fingernail against the card at the bottom of the pile.  “Shut up and play cards.  This is war.”

“Fine.  Take that!”  The card, thrown with too much force, sailed past Aeryn and fluttered to the floor.  “It was a ten of Prowlers.”

She did not bother retrieving the wayward card.  “Command Carrier, strength two.” 

“Seven of Imperial storm troopers!” he yelled, slapping down another card.  He was gaining the upper hand.  His forces were on the offensive for the first time.

Aeryn peered at the card he had just played.  “Those are called shock troops.”   

“Whatever.  According to the picture, they’re guys in shiny armor.  Play!” 

“Shock troops, strength ten.” 

“Eight of storm troopers.”   

“High Command, third strength!”   

John had to consult his notes to figure out how a High Command card affected the battle.  It did not give Aeryn enough for a victory, but the addition of the High Command card on her side meant that his accumulated forces were in serious danger of being overrun.  He was in desperate need of high level reinforcements, and did not dare bring out his biggest guns yet.  Aeryn had too much left in her hand.  “Two of Command Carriers.”   

“Command Carrier, strength five!”

“Back at ya, strength ten!”  John slammed down his second highest card. 

“Tribunal!”  Aeryn sailed the card out onto the table. 

There it was.  The card he had been waiting to see.  If Aeryn had played a Tribunal, it was unlikely that she had anything bigger or badder to offer, not when defeat hung in the balance. 

“HA!  Gotchya!”  Jumping to his feet, he flung down the card he had been saving.  “Abidjan!  I win!” 

Aeryn seemed unfazed by his triumphant yell.  She smiled up at him, and then gently laid one more card on top of the pile.  “Pert.” 

The pronouncement was delivered too quietly and with too much confidence.  It told him he was in trouble.  “Pert?  What the frell is pert?  What does it matter if your troops are cuter and sassier than mine?” 

“That’s the name of the card.  Pert.  I win.” 

“No way.  You do not win!”  John dropped back into his chair with a crash.  “You told me the Abidjan was the ultimate bunker buster of all cards.  You said that it crushes everything and anything my opponent has played.  I just smashed every last one of your not inconsiderable fleet into space dust.  If you tossed out a Tribunal, you can’t have anything better than two or three water balloons left to throw at me.  That means I win.” 

“You are correct, the Abidjan is the strongest weapon card,” Aeryn said, nodding once.  “But the Pert is a reinforcement card.  It multiplies the strength of every one of my cards by ten, even if they’ve been destroyed, and brings all of those reinforcements into the battle at the same moment.  If you had held the Abidjan until I played the Pert, it would have destroyed everything underneath it, including the reinforcements.  To needlessly commit the Abidjan before verifying whether or not I’m holding the Pert is nothing short of suicidal.” 

Crichton stared glumly at the gaily-colored devastation scattered across the table. 

“What do you have left?” Aeryn asked after a dozen microts had passed in silence.

He sighed and flipped his two remaining cards onto the table.  “Two Prowlers and a partridge in a pear tree.”

“A what?”

“Never mind.  Nothing that will win a war.”  His gaze rose from the table to Aeryn’s eyes.  “You cheated.  When you taught me this game, you never told me about a Pert card.”

“I’m sure I did.”

“I’m sure you didn’t.  I would have remembered if there was a wormhole weapon in the deck.” 

Aeryn leaned across the table and tapped a symbol at the bottom of his sheet of notes.  “Right there.  That’s the symbol for the Pert.” 

The symbol was there, just as she said, with three question marks next to it.  He remembered writing each of the three question marks, and why he had written them.  The clues began to fall into place. 

“Yeah, you did mention it, and every time we started to discuss what the card did, you never finished.  The first time, you swore you heard Deke crying and asked me to check on him.  The second time,” he said, tapping the second question mark, “you suddenly needed to use the waste alcove and then you needed to get a snack and by then we had run out of free time and had to put the card lessons off for several days.  The third time old Perky Pert came up in the conversation, you claimed you had forgotten to do something for Pilot and went charging out of here like the starting gun had gone off for the 500 meter Olympic trials.  It was all deliberate.  You set me up!” he finished on a yell.

Aeryn treated him to yet another of her calm, self-satisfied smiles.  “The very first thing I taught you was that this game is about strategy, deception, positioning your opponent so you can take advantage of his weaknesses, and establishing military superiority.  Any tactic is justified when the stakes are either victory or total defeat.  You wrote it down.  You should have remembered to ask.” 

“Stakes,” he repeated, no longer interested in Pert cards or his recent loss.  The word had triggered an idea.  “You don’t like games unless the stakes are high.  You said that was part of the reason why you didn’t like chess.”

“Correct.  Along with …”

“… along with the fact that Prowlers don’t fly back and forth on diagonals,” he finished for her.  “Yeah, I remember that part, Aeryn.  Since you like all or nothing contests, we’re going to change the name of the game.  I’ve got one you’re going to love.  You will get to put everything on line.” 

He drew the entire massive deck of Peacekeeper cards toward him and began sorting through them.  Since each of the ten strengths was a different color, it was a simple matter to come up with four colors each of thirteen different ranks.  Aeryn watched without commenting while he counted to make sure he had fifty-two in his deck, idly shuffling the leftover cards and looking either mildly puzzled or slightly disconcerted.  Crichton couldn’t decide which.       

“Don’t worry,” he said once he finished counting and began shuffling.  “I’ll walk you through a few hands to get you going, and then I’ll go easy on you at first.”

“Good.”  Aeryn’s expression shifted toward relief.

“Just like you did with me.” 

The look of relief transformed into something less assured.  “What is this game called?”

John dealt out the cards and picked up his hand before answering. 

“Strip poker.” 


* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Thank you for reading!

Crash
:dk:

13
Crashfic / Heart Sounds (G) - 29th Starburst Challenge
« Last post by KernilCrash on June 10, 2016, 10:59:37 AM »
Heart Sounds

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Rating:  G.
Disclaimer:  The characters and universe of Farscape are the property of the Henson Co.  I have not made any profit off this little tale, other than enjoying putting it together.   
Time Frame:  Post-PKWars.
Test Driver:  I always regret this, but I have posted this story without first running it past a beta-reader.  All oversights, mistakes, and typogoophical errors are mine, and mine alone.

Starburst Challenge 29 (hosted by PK Giggles):  Take something we see in Farscape that has no lines and make it sentient.  Ever wondered what Winona thinks when John's holding her?  How about D'Argo's Qualta Blade?  Well here's your chance.  Take something -- either belonging to your favorite character or not -- and make it the central character.

* * * * *

My master is dead.

He was the only one who has ever suspected that I have a soul.

I served the father before him.  We fought together with courage, honor and distinction.  We survived the great battle of Gohrak Nrah, and when it was over we stood amidst the heaps of dead and dying, surrounded by the weary and weeping.   He drove me into the earth, knelt before me in the way I have seen some face an alter; he rested his forehead against my hilt, and offered up thanks to his gods that I had held true.  But he never directed his words toward me. 

The father’s father wielded me at the Siege of Rekmek.  For more than fifty days and nights, we fought alongside hundreds of valiant warriors, beating back wave after wave of attackers.  And when the gates were opened at last, admitting the relief battalions, he cradled me in his arms, murmured kind words about my service, and pressed his lips against my warm metal. 

I fought to the end with the one who came before him, the grandfather’s father.  He cursed the merciless invaders with his final breath; blood-dripping hands swung and thrust me into the advancing wall of enemy flesh with the last of his strength.  We went down together -- he to be trampled in the melee, I to clatter against stone, be kicked into a corner where I would rest until discovered the next day.  He cherished me in the same way as all of the others before him, but he never spoke to me as though I were alive. 

My master is dead.  I fear that no other will discover that I have a soul.

I would have preferred to die with him, spitting defiance in the face of the ones who came to kill him until we lay as one, two objects cold and lifeless on the ground.  I was sent away instead, thrust into the hands of one who knows nothing of fighting.  Despite the way she clutched me to her chest, my skin quickly grew cold as the sounds of my master’s final battle raged in the distance. 

I felt nothing but anguish and rage for a time, futilely railing against my fate.  She may have sensed some portion of the storm howling inside me, for the moment came when she raised me up high, drove me down with all her strength, and allowed me to smite the table.  Some would have shattered; some would not have succeeded in piercing the hard metal surface.  I focused my grief into strength, held fast, and never faltered.  I plunged deep.  The scar will remain there for all time, telling all who see it that there was one other who loved and cherished Ka D’Argo.

My master is dead.  I have been delivered into the hands of the son.

I will serve him well, as I did all those who came and went before him.  He is young, he is brave, and he shows signs of wisdom.  Perhaps with time he will learn to caress me with cloth and fingertips, and to talk to me, whispering promises of future valor and the glory that lies in store for the entire luxan race. 

The moment may come when he leans close, head turned, as though he expects to hear an answer. 

My master is dead.  I live to serve the son. 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 
14
Crashfic / First Rites (PG) - 12th Starburst Challenge
« Last post by KernilCrash on June 10, 2016, 10:58:45 AM »
First Rites

* * * * *

Starburst Challenge 12 (hosted by BetanSurvey on November 30, 2006):  Since we are coming up on a multitude of holidays, I figure that is an appropriate enough theme.  So:  the celebration of a holiday.  The catch:  If at all possible have the holiday be from anywhere other than Earth.  Or if you don’t feel up to making up holidays, how about an Earth holiday celebrated in a very nontraditional manner.  Even inadvertently nontraditional.  Please not too tragic and/or depressing -- at least give me a happy ending.   

Rating:  PG -- for a smattering of Earth-based profanity.
Disclaimer:  The characters and universe of Farscape are the property of the Henson Co.  I have not made any profit off this tale, and I’ll do my best to give the characters back the way I found them.     
Time Frame:  Future Fic.  Set approximately 11 years after the end of Peacekeeper Wars.
Test Driver:  PKLibrarian.

Printer Friendly Word 6.0 version (.zip file)

Note to the reader:  I am once again playing with the Sun-Crichton family that I first conjured up in Yesterdays and Tomorrows, and who have begun making regular appearances in many of my future fics.  John and Aeryn have three children now:  DJ (short for D’Argo Junior), age 11; Ian, 4, and a daughter, Malii’ya, who is 1. 

Since I'm running a magnificent TWO years late with this particular Starburst Challenge, I hope you find it worth the effort. ;) 

Thank you for reading.

Crash
:dk:


* * * * *

John Crichton’s day had started out badly, had relentlessly gotten worse with each passing arn, and had culminated in what he was convinced was a disaster.  When he weighed the sequence of events against just how bad he knew his life could get, the day’s events seemed insignificant:  no one had died or been injured, they had not been attacked by the latest in a long string of intergalactic bad guys wandering around this end of the universe, every member of the ship’s current complement was healthy and happy, and with one singular exception, Moya was operating at close to optimum.  Just the same, even after telling himself repeatedly that he was getting upset over something trivial, he could not remember feeling this desolate in a very long time.

“Pilot, are you absolutely sure there’s no sign of it?” he called over the comms. 

“You have asked this question numerous times in the last two arns, Commander,” Pilot answered.  “There has been no change in the results of our search.  I would have notified you immediately if something had showed up on the external scans.” 

John rested his hands on his hips, hung his head so he was staring at the toes of his boots, and wandered several steps further into the hangar bay.  He did not need to look up to envision the scenery before him.  The view was astonishingly anti-climatic considering the devastation it had inflicted on his emotions.  There were no tears in the bulkhead plating, no frayed power conduits showering sparks in every direction, no holes or dents or even scuffs in the flooring.  The huge cavern was merely empty, possibly as clean as the day Moya had been born.  He couldn’t remember ever seeing any of the leviathan’s hangar bays so gleamingly pristine.  If a stranger had wandered into the massive chamber at that moment, he couldn’t have been blamed if he assumed that every square dench of the hangar had been cleaned and polished by an army of DRDs numbering in the hundreds. 

Crichton spun around to face the huge doors leading to the maintenance bay.  “It could not have just disappeared, Pilot.  Did you check for --”

Pilot interrupted before Crichton could finish his request, repeating a list he had chanted more than half a dozen times in the last arn alone.  “Ceramics, biomechanoid components, unusual metallic echoes, atypical spectrum feedbacks, unusual energy variables, gravitational displacements,” the disembodied voice said.  “Yes, Commander, I have run several dozen scans, both short and long range, utilizing all of Moya’s external sensors, without success.  There is no sign of it.  And since we do not know which way it went, any search pattern we institute could just as easily take us in the wrong direction as the right one.  Moya and I are very sorry, but we are not inclined --”

“No.”  John waved one hand in the general direction of the Den, dismissing the remainder of Pilot’s explanation.  “No, you’re right.  It isn’t worth expending any of Moya’s time or energy hunting.  But damn it, Pilot, it couldn’t have just disappeared!!”  He went from a listless acceptance of the verdict to energized denial in the space of a microt.  “Even when my Mom threw out my Captain America collection when I was in high school, I managed to get them back.  Granted, following the garbage truck’s route for six blocks, and getting them to let me dig through the trash wasn’t the best way I can think of to spend an afternoon, and it took five days and about twenty showers before anyone was willing to stand downwind of me, but they were there!  All we have to do is calculate a probable trajectory, and backtrack --”

“Commander Crichton.”  The tone of disapproval in Pilot’s voice brought John’s desperate suggestions to a halt. 

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.  I get it.”  He scrubbed at his hair with one hand for several microts, other hand still propped on his hip, and then wandered back into the center of the hangar bay.  “I need to get over it.  It’s gone and I’m never getting it back.  Tell Moya I understand it wasn’t anything she could have prevented.”

“I will convey your message,” came the quiet, morose answer, and then the comms went silent. 

“Shit.”  Crichton kicked at thin air, which did nothing to relieve his frustration, and paced out another useless circuit of the hangar bay.  He knew there were other things he should be doing at that moment, and couldn’t get himself to leave.  “Shit, shit, shit, shit,” he chanted to the empty hangar bay.  “Someone please pinch me and tell me this did not happen!” 

The Farscape module was gone, swept into space by an as-yet unexplained malfunction that had decompressed the entire hangar bay in a single, explosive leviathan belch so large that everyone aboard her had felt and heard the resulting shockwave.  Also gone were an assortment of damaged cargo containers, a heap of discarded machinery, and a sakmar or two of useless detritus that had built up over the past several cycles.  The module had been parked in that particular hangar bay solely because -- despite all his objections otherwise -- Aeryn had insisted that it belonged with the rest of the garbage. 

John had spent half the afternoon telling himself that it was stupid to mourn the loss of an object he rarely touched anymore.  He had not flown the module since Ian was born except to move it from one of the more frequently used hangar bays to this one; and he had not bothered to even look at it in well over a cycle.  The part of his psyche in charge of acting like an adult was insisting that he should be thankful that Moya had not been injured by the explosive decompression.  The other portion of his brain was acting like a spoiled brat. 

“Get over it, John,” he said to himself.  “Just get over it!”     

But he couldn’t.  The module had been more than a beloved antique hotrod gathering dust in the corner of the garage.  It was a symbol of his past, a reminder of how he had gotten here and everything that he and Aeryn had been through during their first cycles together, good and bad.  There had been a horrendous half a cycle when DJ was five when Crichton had toyed with the idea of pursuing wormholes again.  He had spent a good portion of that interval longing to find a new route back to Earth; wishing he could go home for a visit, talk things over with his father, and possibly even leave his life in the Uncharted Territories behind.  That phase had eventually passed, however, and the module had sat in one spot, abandoned, ever since.  Grieving over the loss of an object he barely took notice of anymore felt childish and immature. 

“Well, maybe I feel like throwing a temper tantrum!” he yelled to the walls of the hangar bay.  “So there!”  John unleashed one last furious kick, turned, and walked away from the emptiness. 

It wasn’t just the loss of the module that had him acting like a heat-stressed sebacean.  The entire day had been one relatively insignificant disaster after another.  It had started the moment he had gotten out of the shower and discovered he was out of clean underwear.  He could have sworn there had been a tidy stack of shorts sitting on a shelf in his quarters when he stumbled past that spot on his way into the waste alcove; but when he emerged, dripping wet, that particular niche was empty.  The pair he had kicked into the corner had disappeared as well, no doubt hauled off toward the dirty clothes heap by one of the DRDs. 

Under normal circumstances he did not mind going commando.  There were times when it was an advantage.  It had taken just one pregnancy after the one that produced DJ for John to learn that when a female Peacekeeper was carrying a fetus in stasis, her hormones sometimes went berserk for a while.  In Aeryn’s case, her appetite for sex became nothing short of ravenous for the best part of a quarter cycle.  When Aeryn was in that stage of a pregnancy, the less he wore below the waist, the better.  If it weren’t for the children and a certain basic level of modesty, he would have considered it a reasonable expedient to walk around without any pants on at all.  He remembered a time when he could not imagine ever getting tired of having sex with Aeryn.  By the time they released the stasis on Malii’ya, he had gone so far as to ask Aeryn if sebaceans believed some form of contraception.

His current situation had none of those advantages, and a myriad of drawbacks.  Aeryn was not pregnant, which precluded frequent, wild, exuberant intercourse conducted anywhere they thought the children would not find them; and the pants he normally wore when he had nothing on underneath had disappeared along with his shorts.  The pair he was wearing were creased in uncomfortable places, stiff with age, and too tight.  The amount of chafe he had suffered in a single day was approaching ‘damaging’.  If he did not find his usual pants or some shorts by the end of the day, their recent discussions about birth control were going to become irrelevant. 

His day had not improved since the initial clothing debacle.  When he scuttled across the corridor to see if his supply of clean shorts had wound up in one of the boys’ rooms by mistake, the doors to the cell he shared with Aeryn had malfunctioned.  The grates had closed behind him and jammed shut, leaving him standing in the middle of the passageway wearing nothing but a towel.  Fortunately, DJ was at an age where every mechanical object aboard Moya was at risk of being dismantled.  There was an extensive array of tools strewn haphazardly around his cell.  One hundred microts later, John was safely inside his own quarters, although still without any shorts. 

The list of mishaps had continued to grow.  Both of his bootlaces had snapped, and he was out of replacements.  Every clean shirt in his quarters turned out to be either Aeryn’s or Ian’s.  Once he managed to find a thread-bare cast off that he had intended to turn into rags, and finished dressing, the doors to his cell were once again jammed shut, this time locking him inside.  In a combination of luck and laziness, he had left the tools he needed to free himself inside his own cell, instead of returning them to DJ’s.  By that time, Aeryn and the kids had finished First Meal, which meant that he had to eat breakfast alone.  An arn later, he ran into a slick of some nearly frictionless substance at the top of an incline in one of Moya’s corridors.  The result was an embarrassing but painless slide on his butt down to the next lower tier, culminating with a magnificent crash into a stack of more than a hundred small, rubbery containers.  Since no one had been in the corridor to witness his ignominious descent, he cleaned up the slick, restacked the containers, and made a mental note to mention the mysterious, viscous puddle to Pilot the next time he had a reason to visit the Den.   

Doors failed to open, his comms refused to work at the most inopportune moments, he could not find tools he thought he had put away, and what he thought was a container of the thick gelatinous grease they used to seal some of Moya’s internal pressure fittings had turned out to be a bucket of rotting fungus.  It wasn’t until he had already stuck his hand in the horrid mess that he realized it was the wrong color.  John assumed it was another of Ian’s so-called laboratory experiments, which the youngster tended to leave lying around the ship wherever and whenever he lost interest in his latest repulsive concoction, and did not give it another thought.

By the time Moya belched the module into the great unknown, he had spent the entire day coping with mysterious malfunctions, cleaning up messes left by his children, hunting for objects that had gone missing, and repairing door mechanisms that refused to work.  It was on days like this that he most often indulged in a highly infrequent spell of wishing he could return to Earth, even if only for a few hours.  He would have quite happily traded the entire day for an afternoon spent doing his taxes.     

“Can I go back to bed and start over?” John asked the walls.   

“John?  Where are you?” 

The voice, coming so close on the heels of his yelled query, startled him.  It took a moment to assemble a reply.  He called, “A couple junctions aft of the sluice chamber, Aeryn,” and decided not to explain that he was hunting for his underpants.  “What’s up?” 

“We’re about to sit down for Last Meal,” she said over the comms.  “Did you want to join us, or are you working on something?”

“I’m on my way!”  There was no aspect of his life aboard Moya that could lift his spirits as quickly as spending time with his entire family.  He could not have asked for a better way to restore his mood than joining Aeryn and the children at mealtime.   

It took no more than a hundred microts for him to make his way to the Center Chamber.  As expected, Aeryn had waited for him.  There were four meals laid out on the table in preparation for his arrival, but she and the boys had not begun eating yet.  DJ and Ian were keeping themselves busy by attempting to hang eating utensils from their noses, while Aeryn was just getting settled on her seat with Malii’ya tucked in against her side perched on one thigh.  John brushed a hurried, poorly aimed kiss across Aeryn’s cheek, leaning over her shoulder in order to reach his target, and then slid into his usual place at the center of the table. 

“Thanks.  I needed this.  It’s been one of those days,” he said as he tried to get comfortable.  His pants required two hard tugs on the crotch before they could be convinced to stop creasing in an extremely uncomfortable spot. 

“Problems?  I mean other than --”  Aeryn made a vague gesture with her hand that John interpreted to mean the module, not his below-the-table feud with his pants.  “You know,” she finished. 

“Just an all around crummy day.  Better now that I’m with the four of you though.”  He glanced around at his family, felt the day’s problems drain away the way fouled water disappears down a recently unclogged drain, and turned his attention to his dinner, hoping for some alien equivalent of meat and potatoes.  Aeryn knew that he preferred some combination of protein and a carbohydrate source at dinner.  He took it on faith that she knew how upset he was about losing the module, which meant there was a good chance she had prepared one of his favorites as a form of compensation. 

He wasn’t that lucky. 

His dinner was moving.

John stared down at a mound of what he had first assumed to be some kind of alien-produced whole wheat pasta coated with an outer-space equivalent of an herbed marinara sauce.  On closer examination, it was not nearly as appetizing as spaghetti, the speckles that he had originally though were herbs looked suspiciously like something that might have come out of the rear end of a worm, and the entire collection was surging, alternately expanding and contracting.  It took all of his willpower to keep from gagging. 

“Do you not want it?” Aeryn asked after several microts worth of silence. 

“It’s not that.  It’s just that …”  Some of the outermost strands of his dinner were engaged in a slow migration toward the edge of the plate.  He flipped one piece back into the middle before it could escape onto the table, took a deep breath, and forged into what he knew was highly dangerous territory.  “Aeryn, honey … it’s moving.”

“Is that a problem?” 

As he had feared, she sounded angry.  For a former soldier who still, on occasion, wolfed down cycles-old preserved battle rations like they were haute cuisine, Aeryn could be incredibly sensitive about food preparation.  Out of sight beneath the table, John thumped his thigh with a fist, hoping that his entire day would turn out to be a horrendous dream and he would wake up to find clean underwear where it belonged, a dusty and battered module sitting in the hangar bay, and something else on his plate. 

Another bit of ‘pasta’ made a break for freedom.  John herded it back toward its companions. 

“No, not a problem,” he said, striving for the type of careless tone that would defuse the impending dark-haired explosion seated less than a motra to his left.  “I just wasn’t really in the mood for gagh.” 

Gagh,” she repeated.  “I’ve never heard of gagh.  This isn’t gagh.”

“Klingon dish.  Always best when served fresh.”     
   
A furrow appeared between Aeryn’s eyebrows, warning him that his attempt at placating her had failed.  The possibility of a Sun-detonation was growing more likely with each passing microt.  “This is a delicacy that cannot be found anywhere other than in this sector of space, John.  I went to a lot of trouble to obtain some.  But if you don’t want it --”  She reached for his plate. 

“No!”  He pulled his dinner away from her outstretched hand.  “No, it’s fine, honey.  Really.  I’m always up for trying something new.  You know that.” 
 
One corner of Aeryn’s mouth twitched upward -- in irritation, John assumed -- and then she ducked her head to check on how Malii’ya was progressing with her own dinner of mashed vegetables and finely diced grolack. 

Matrimonial disaster barely averted, John took a firmer grip on his utensil and braced himself for what would have to come next if he wanted to maintain peace at the dinner table.  Knowing that his meal was a highly valued delicacy did not make it any more appetizing.  If anything, it had become more active while they were talking.  It now resembled a container full of freshly dug earthworms more suitable as fishing bait than as a meal.  John bit back a “yuck”, coaxed some of the lively food onto his utensil, and then glanced around at his family in order to determine if he was supposed to chew first or just toss them down while they were still squirming. 

No one else was eating.   

DJ was intent on keeping the perimeter of worms on his plate from expanding outward, fastidiously nudging individuals back into place one by one; and Ian was trying to tie several worms into a longer chain.  The knots were untying themselves as quickly as he could form new ones.  Aeryn was not eating either.  She was busy keeping the wriggling bits of her dinner out of Malii’ya’s reach.  As a matter of fact, the only person who seemed interested in putting a worm in her mouth was his 1-cycle-old daughter, which did not prove anything since she had recently reached an age where she would submit anything she could get her hands on to an investigatory taste test.

John looked back at his sons.  Both boys were watching him, eagerly waiting for something to happen.  When he noticed John looking at him, DJ’s expression shifted from glee to panic, and then to what might have been divine inspiration.  His right arm jerked convulsively to one side, knocking his utensil to the floor.  “Oops,” he said, and disappeared under the table. 

Ian was more blatant about it.  His eyes widened, he looked at his brother’s empty seat, and then he picked up his utensil and deliberately dropped it on the floor.  “Oops,” he said, and disappeared from sight as well.  Unattended, two collections of worms began a steady exodus outward from their respective plates.  Giggles emerged from beneath the table.   

John threw his own utensil down on the table, pushed his plate away from him, and turned to face Aeryn.  “Funny.  Very funny.  Boys, get back up here.  Fun’s over.” 

DJ and Ian reappeared, both red-faced and grinning.  Aeryn pushed her plate out into the middle of the table as well, putting it out of Malii’ya’s reach.  The toddler stretched, more interested in the lively food than her own meal. 

John took in a breath, preparing to quash a burst of anger, and found a wry form of mild amusement instead.  The three people old enough to enjoy the practical joke all appeared so pleased with themselves.  It was impossible to get mad when faced by that highly-delighted threesome.  They had teamed up on him in the same way that he and Aeryn had sometimes worked together to plan special events or surprises for the boys, and they had suckered him in beautifully.  Their satisfaction was well deserved.  And it was his own fault, really.  He was the one who had taught his family about surprise birthday parties, Christmas gifts, and Halloween pranks, although the dates for the holidays were at best an approximation.  If he was going to blame someone for the dinner-table prank, he would have to choose himself. 

John let out a deep breath that he hadn’t been aware he was holding, and felt the precursor to a grin tug at his mouth.  The day’s frustrations evaporated in the space of a microt.  He felt all the mishaps, malfunctions, and minor disasters retreat into nothingness, and for the first time since he got out of the shower earlier that morning, he started to relax. 

Then something occurred to him.  It felt as though someone flipped a large switch inside his head, illuminating a scene that up until then had been hidden in the shadows.  “This was you!” he said, pointing at DJ and Ian.  “The whole day!  All of it!”  Another of the day’s event shifted into place, became part of the larger whole.  “Where’s the module?  Please tell me that was another of your pranks.” 

“It’s in Maintenance Bay Four, Dad!” DJ said.  “It’s behind that stack of cargo containers in the corner.” 
 
“You moved it?”

DJ nodded vigorously.  “I was careful, Dad.  Honest!  Pilot helped and I was extra careful to make sure it didn’t get damaged.” 

“And that bucket of fungus this morning?”

“That was mine!” Ian yelled cheerfully. 

“And my clothes?”

By this time, both boys were bouncing up and down with excitement.  They poured out two simultaneous, thoroughly garbled tales of practical jokes and how they had enlisted Pilot in their schemes. 
   
John looked back and forth between his two sons as they babbled out their descriptions of what they had been doing all day, assessing their combined personalities and abilities.  Ian had not done much of the planning; that much was obvious.  His idea of ‘subtle’ was to dump an entire bucket of marjoules in his older brother’s bed, which was exactly what he had done a quarter cycle ago.  If Ian had plotted out the day’s events, every single practical joke would have been on the same level as the bucket full of fungus. 

Crichton’s gaze swung back to his first-born, who was still beaming over the fact that he had flown the module by himself without causing any damage and who was busy taking credit for thinking up most of the day’s mechanical malfunctions.  His mother’s son when it came to strategy and execution, DJ was more than capable of planning and pulling off most of the day’s pranks, but John was certain he would not have dared to include the deception involving the module if he was acting on his own.  From the time he was six, DJ had shown an adult-like reverence for his father’s space craft.  He would not have touched it, let alone moved and hidden it, without receiving permission first. 

“It was you,” John said, turning toward Aeryn.  “You’re the mastermind behind all of this.” 
     
Aeryn’s look of calm equanimity barely flickered.  One eyebrow twitched upward for half a microt, and then settled back into place.  “You’re forgetting that --”

“-- soldiers don’t have a sense of humor,” he finished for her.  “Uh huh.  Sure, Aeryn.”  He paused for a split microt before adding, “NOT!  As much as you’d like me to believe the boys were behind this, I sense a more skilled hand at subterfuge guiding them.  Left to themselves, their idea of being sneaky is to flush jellifan paste down the waste funnel, and then wait for Moya’s incinerator to ignite it.  No, you put them up to this.” 

“She didn't force us, Dad!  It was missions!” Ian blurted out.  “We got to do missions.” 

“Missions,” John repeated.  He was having some difficulty figuring out what a ‘mission’ to steal all his underwear would entail aside from his children running into his quarters, grabbing a pile of shorts, and fleeing before they were discovered. 

DJ took over, sounding even more excited than his younger brother.  He ticked off the elements on his fingers as he listed what sort of preparation had gone into their missions.  “You have to have adequate surveillance, knowledge of the target, chart a stealth approach, coordinate movement of your ground forces, and, if at all possible, you should have a diversion ready in case your opponent does something unexpected.”

“Missions,” John said again, this time nodding his understanding.  “You’re teaching them to run covert ops.” 

The muscles at the corners of Aeryn’s mouth were twitching.  “Someone has to teach them strategy and tactics.” 

“By stealing my underwear,” he said. 

She was having trouble keeping the smile under control.  Aeryn turned away from him for several moments, one hand clasped over her mouth.  When she turned back, her mouth had settled down, but her face was red, there were tears in her eyes, and her breathing was erratic. 

“Okay.  I admit it.  It was pretty funny.  Just tell me what I did to earn this.  Is this Intergalactic Bag-On-Dad Day or something?  What’s the event?”
 
Aeryn handed Malii’ya to John, then began clearing the table of wayward worms and retrieving their real dinner from the warmer unit, providing an explanation as she worked her way around the table.  “This morning we passed into a sector of space that we have never traveled through since I met you.” 

“And the only people who live here are practical jokers,” John said. 

Aeryn gave him the quiet smile that said he was being absurd.  “There is a tradition, hundreds of cycles old, that when a person passes through this sector for the first time, everyone else on board plays tricks on them.”

“A rite of passage,” John said, nodding.  “Like when sailors passed around Cape Horn for the first time.  How come I got to be the butt of all this hilarity?  Why not you?”

“I’ve been here before.” 

Aeryn put a fresh plate down in front of him.  This time it held sokrans and pronga sinew, two of his favorites.  It seemed that the practical jokes had come to an end.  “Why not the kids?  They would have loved it.”

“They are not adults,” she said, as if it were the most reasonable explanation in the universe.

John pointed his eating utensil first at DJ and then at Ian.  “Remember that for when you’re older.  Count on coming back this way when you’re grown up.”  The boys grinned at him and then at each other, obviously happy with the idea that they would be on the receiving end of the pranks some day. 

“Just answer me two questions,” John said. 

“I’ll try,” Aeryn said. 

“So I know where to bring the kids in a few cycles, what’s the name of this chunk of the galaxy?”

“This is the Realm of the Ha’abril.” 

“The Ha’abril,” John repeated slowly.  “So this first time rite of passage thing is called --”   He did not dare say it.

“-- the First of Ha’abril,” Aeryn finished for him.

John dropped his head into his hands and shook it from side to side several times.  Some things never changed no matter where you were in the universe.

“That was only one question,” Aeryn said.  “What was the other one?” 

He raised his head so he was looking at her.  “Aeryn, my love, my dearest wife … ”

“Yes?” she said.

“Where did you hide my damned underwear?”   


* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
15
Crashfic / Re: Past Tense (PG)
« Last post by KernilCrash on June 10, 2016, 10:57:47 AM »
Part 2

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. 

“What?” 

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?”

“Yes.”

“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. 

16
Crashfic / Past Tense (PG)
« Last post by KernilCrash on June 10, 2016, 10:56:24 AM »
Past Tense

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.

Printer Friendly Word 6.0 version (.zip file)

* * * * *

Part 1

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. 

* * * * *

17
Crashfic / Lady Aeryn and The Azshdagka (PG-13)
« Last post by KernilCrash on June 10, 2016, 10:53:18 AM »
Lady Aeryn and The Azshdagka

* * * * *

Rating:  PG-13, for a small amount of gruesomeness at the very end. 
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:  Sometime relatively soon after Different Destinations. 
Test Driver:  I was running late, so I abandoned good sense and posted this without running it past a betareader.  This is always a bad idea, and I suspect I will live to regret it.  I apologize in advance for the pitiful level of proofreading, as well as for what I suspect is highly questionable physics. 

Note to the reader:  This story was written specifically for the Terra Firma Renfaire (brought to us by Cyberlobster Productions).  But it is, ultimately, Farscape.  Keep that in mind when you reach the ending. 

          * * * * *

Markin the Storyteller ran his fingers through his beard several times.  It was an affectation he had picked up over the last cycle -- one he employed whenever he needed some time to think.  Today he was trying to decide how to begin this cycle’s festival narration.  In the front row, the youngest children sat packed shoulder-to-shoulder, eager eyes fixed on Markin.  The back row consisted of parents, and the oldsters who gathered each cycle to hear the telling of the tale because they had been there on the day it had happened and wanted to relive the excitement.  The adults stood with very little movement, occasionally ducking their heads to whisper to whoever was standing next to them, or shifting slightly to get a better view of their children.  The space in between the front and back rows was filled with the older children:  those who had taken part in the celebration before, and knew what would follow Markin’s recitation.  That segment of his audience was in constant movement, bodies bouncing and fidgeting with excitement. 

“What is today?” Markin asked after several moments of contemplation.  It was the standard beginning.  No reason to alter this portion, he decided.  They would be disappointed if the call and answer did not start as expected. 

“The first day of the Festival of Aeryn!” shouted several dozen young voices. 

“What do we celebrate?”

“Freedom!” the entire crowd, children and adults alike, yelled back.

Freedom from what?” he cried to the crowd. 

“Hunger, terror, and death!”

“Who do we thank for our freedom?”  Markin pointed to one of the smallest children in the front row. 

“Lady Aeryn!” the child’s clear, high voice answered. 

“And who else?”  He pointed to one of the children in the middle section of the crowd. 

The boy struck a pose, as though he were wielding a two-handed sword against a much larger opponent.  “Her servant, the valiant knight, D’Argo!”

“And who else?”  Markin chose a teenager who was old enough to know the correct answer. 

“Even the cowardly squire, Crichton, was called upon to play his part in the battle,” she called back in a rhythmic cadence.

“Very good.  Well done.” 

The packed hall fell silent.  Markin sipped from the cup someone had set down beside him, cleared his throat, and began the tale. 

“And so it was, four plus twenty cycles ago, that the Lady Aeryn, a woman as fierce as she was beautiful, having been cast out of her rightful kingdom and set to wandering in search of new lands, did come to our small village in search of a few days’ peace and restoration.  With her traveled two souls equally lost and dispossessed as the Lady Aeryn, the last remnants of her once magnificent royal entourage:  a brave and honorable knight bound to the lady not only by his oath to protect and serve her family but by a love for the lady that he kept well-hidden; and one lowly servant cringing and scraping in the hopes that he might continue to benefit from her generosity.”


          * * * * *


“This isn’t working the way I had hoped.”  Aeryn ran a disillusioned eye across the rain-soaked village, taking in the damp villagers, the sodden banners hanging limply from their support poles, and the steadily expanding puddles.  “We might as well leave.” 

“Perhaps John just needs more time,” D’Argo said.  “Pilot swears the rain will stop within the next arn or two.  He says the weather patterns are shifting.” 

“Any more time and we’ll have to carry him back to the transport pod.”  Aeryn ducked from beneath one set of dripping eaves, traversed the slimy expanse of street to the next building, and stepped back under cover.  If anything, the rain had increased in intensity since they had landed.  Despite Pilot’s assurances, it showed no sign of letting up. 

D’Argo arrived beside her at a run.  The building shook as he slammed into the wall.  “I hate rain,” he said, finishing with an annoyed hiss.  “And that wasn’t what I meant.” 

Aeryn didn’t bother to answer.  She knew what D’Argo meant.  He was referring to more than the few arns they had planned to spend on this under-developed, primarily agrarian planet.  He was talking about Crichton, and the fact that John was taking far longer to recover from the tragic deaths of the nurses on Jocacea than anyone aboard Moya ever would have predicted.  Even after allowing for the way John always wallowed in guilt over events that he could not have prevented, his depression this time was more severe than anything Aeryn had ever witnessed. 

“He still feels guilty,” D’Argo said.

Aeryn shook her head.  “It’s more than that, D’Argo.  He no longer trusts his own values, let alone his judgment.  He is questioning everything that makes John who he is, and it is tearing him apart.” 

“And how exactly was this” -- D’Argo waved a hand at the rain-drenched landscape -- “supposed to help?” 

“I have already explained that.  Twice,” Aeryn said. 

“I was hoping it would make more sense this time.”  D’Argo edged past her to lead the way.

Aeryn fell in behind him, automatically following in his footsteps while her thoughts drifted through the events of the last few solar days.  When Pilot had summoned her to the Den in order to show her the insignificant, sparsely populated planet orbiting a nondescript yellow star, she had hoped that the similarity to Earth might rekindle the enthusiasm John had once shown whenever they stumbled across anything that resembled his home.  She was searching for a way to remind John that his values were not as out of place in the Uncharted Territories as he had recently come to believe. 

A hasty reconnaissance had revealed that while the inhabitants were not technologically advanced, they did know of space travel and were not afraid of visitors from other planets.  Pilot had suggested a landmass that was transitioning from colder weather into warmer, which was less likely to cause a problem for her sebacean physiology, she and D’Argo had selected one of the villages at random, and then they had bullied John into joining them for a one day excursion.

They had emerged from the transport pod into the middle of a celebration.  Every township within several hundreds metras was rejoicing the end of winter and the impending start of the planting season.  Gaily colored flags and pennants flew from every rooftop and flag pole; musicians wandered along the packed-earth streets setting the villagers to dancing wherever they went.  There were games for adults and children, food vendors and providers of refreshments had set up shop out in the open, and a significant portion of the inhabitants were engaged in sporting events and contests. 

“Working off the winter ya-ya’s,” Crichton had said when they came across a group of men engaged in a mock battle.  “Blowing off steam after being cooped up for too long.” 

Microts later, Aeryn’s scheme had suffered its first setback.  John had spotted a brewer’s stall, taken the shortest route to the counter, and plonked himself down on one of the wooden seats.  Half an arn after that, the weather had shifted from weak, cloud-filtered sunshine to steady rain.  In the arns since then, John had spent every microt drinking and the village had turned into a quagmire. 

“Let’s collect John and get out of here,” Aeryn said to D’Argo.  “We’re wasting our time.” 

D’Argo let a breath out through his nose, sounding both amused and disgusted.  “We could wait an arn or two longer.  It would be interesting to learn how much of the local brew he can consume before falling off his seat.” 

Aeryn bounded over a small river coursing down the street, taking care not to slip in the mud on the far side, and stepped up onto a covered footway in front of a row of buildings.  “Do you really want to spend another arn in this place, D’Argo?” 

D’Argo surveyed their surroundings.  Aeryn followed the direction of his gaze, trying to see the landscape the way he might view it.  The revelry had not slackened despite the steady rain.  Villagers wandered from one spot to the next, most of them liberally spattered in mud to their knees or higher.  Children dashed about, dodging between the adults, slipping and falling frequently enough that most of them were coated from head to foot.  Fires fizzled and sputtered, food stuffs were either covered by sheets of waterproofed cloths or were afloat in their containers, all of the different varieties of cloth goods for sale looked similarly beaten down by the rain, and the penned livestock looked wetly depressed. 

D’Argo shook his head, flicking his own personal rain shower loose from his tanktas.  “I would rather unclog Moya’s amnexus system than stay here another microt.  Where is Crichton?”

“The last time I saw him, he was over there, talking with some of the locals.”  Aeryn pointed toward a refreshment stand that at least had a canopy over it.  While a good portion of the customers were standing out in the rain, a majority had managed to jam in under cover.  The thought of forcing her way into that crush of bodies summoned up an imagined bedlam of too many voices talking at once, the unique stench of close packed bodies dressed in damp clothing, and a sense of being trapped. 

“Comm him,” D’Argo said. 

“You’re assuming he’s still conscious.” 

“It’s better than trying to find him in … that.”  D’Argo gestured toward the crowd beneath the tent.

He had a good point.  Aeryn ducked down toward her comms and said, “John!” loudly.  There was no answer.  “Crichton!” she tried next. 

“Senseless,” D’Argo said. 

“All the time,” Aeryn said, allowing a small fraction of her irritation to leak into her response.  “Today he is also drunk.  Let’s go find him.” 

Before they could take a step, a deafening clang sounded from one of the nearby buildings.  The noise was loud enough to drown out every other sound in the marketplace.  Aeryn clapped her hands over her ears.  It didn’t help.  There was a moment of silence, followed by another of the reverberating clangs, and then another, quickly settling down into the rhythmic gong of a large bell.  All around them, the townspeople dropped whatever they were doing and started to run. 

Aeryn grabbed at one of the fleeing citizens.  “What is it?” she yelled over the clamor of the alarm.  “What --”

The man tore loose, leaving half his sleeve in her fist, and disappeared into the sheets of rain. 

“What the frell is happening?” D’Argo bellowed beside her.  He grabbed another male, this one younger and slighter than the one Aeryn had tried to stop.  “What is it?  Why is everyone running?” 

“The azshdagka wakes!” the man screamed.  “It is early!  The azshdagka comes!  You must run!  Run!”  He hammered at D’Argo’s grip with his free hand, yanked his arm free, and bolted in the same direction as the rest of the mob. 

Aeryn was scanning the streets for signs of an attack, her pulse pistol at the ready.  “What’s an azshdagka?  Did that translate for you?”

D’Argo had pulled his qualta blade from the scabbard and was converting it into a rifle.  “No, it didn’t.  How do you want to handle this?” 

“Reconnaissance, I think.  Very careful reconnaissance.  Whatever is causing this reaction, everyone is afraid of it.” 

The entire town was emptying in a hurry.  Doors bashed and slammed as residents gathered armfuls of belongings, and followed the crowds into the forest.  A small child stood in the middle of the square, abandoned, and screamed.  An old man hobbled out of an alley, scooped up the bawling youngster, gave Aeryn and D’Argo one wild-eyed look, and disappeared from sight.  Half a dozen men appeared towing a cart loaded with barrels.  With every bump and jostle, water sloshed out of the tops.  They bogged down in the mud for several moments, heaved hard, and broke free. 

“Drinking water,” D’Argo said softly into the silence.  “They expect to be gone for more than a day or two.” 

“Let’s get to the transport pod.”

“What about Crichton?”

Aeryn spun in a circle, scanning for any sign of John.  “He’s either passed out somewhere, or he went with everyone else.  We can’t wait.  Whatever is scaring these people is over there.”  She gestured in the direction of the recently plowed fields.

“That’s where we left the transport pod,” D’Argo said. 

“At the very least, we need to move it.  If there is no immediate danger, we can come back and find John.”

“And if there is immediate danger?” D’Argo asked.  “Are you saying you would abandon John here?” 

“No!  Of course not!  But we have a better chance of surviving whatever is frightening the villagers if we aren’t carrying John at the same time.  We don’t have time for this!  We need to find out what we are up against.  We need to come up with a plan.”  Aeryn shrugged her shoulders, loosening tense muscles, and then stepped down off the wooden sidewalk into the mud, headed toward the mysterious source of the widespread panic. 

D’Argo sloshed into the muck as well.  “I hate when you use that word.”

They passed between several of the buildings, emerged onto a rough packed-earth roadway just beyond the town, and headed toward where they had left the transport pod, scanning for anything unusual as they went along.  There was no sign of impending disaster, no invading hoard preparing to slaughter everything in its path, no voracious creatures stalking anything that moved.  As far as they could see, there was nothing unusual happening.  The scenery on either side of the roadway shifted from smaller gardens bounded by waist-high fences, presumably where families grew their vegetables, into the expansive fields where the town grew most of their grains.  Nothing happened. 

They were within sight of the transport pod before D’Argo drew to a halt.  “There is nothing here.  Nothing, Aeryn.” 

“Orbital attack?” she said, posing another possibility. 

They both looked up.  Aside from the dense moisture-laden clouds and the unending rain, there was nothing to see. 

“Aeryn!” John yelled from behind them.  “Move it!  Don’t stop.  Get to the transport pod!”  He arrived on the run, panting. 

“Where have you been?” 

“An old lady fell.  I was helping her.  Move it!  Keep moving.”  He was trying to herd her toward the transport pod. 

“Stop that!” she said, stepping away from him.  “There is nothing here.  You are drunk.”  She looked him over more closely.  His eyes were clear and he was steady on his feet.  There was nothing to suggest that he had spent the better part of the afternoon consuming alcohol.  “Why aren’t you drunk?” 

“I had a couple of beers, Aeryn!  That’s it.  These people brew beer.  I got to suck down my first Bud in three years, and until a few minutes ago, I had a nice little beer buzz going.  If you want proof, the breathalyzer test will have to wait.  Whatever is scaring the locals is underground.  We could be standing right on top of them.”  John pointed toward their feet.  “Can we run now and discuss this later?” 

“How do you know this?” Aeryn and D’Argo asked at the same time. 

“If you want to get to know the locals, you hang out at the nearest watering hole.”  He glanced at Aeryn’s and then D’Argo’s facial expressions and tried again.  “The village bar, for god’s sake!  No one likes to talk like bar flies.  They were practically falling over each other fighting to be the first to tell me about the critters that come out every spring once the rain softens the ground.  The rains were early this year.  A lot early.  This wasn’t supposed to happen yet.  Whatever is buried down there, they must be hibernating.  The people here haven’t figured that out, but it’s the only explanation.  They never got around to describing what a dashiki looks like --”

“Azshdagka!” Aeryn and D’Argo said together.

“Whatever!” John shouted.  “It has to be some kind of reptile or lizard that becomes dormant through the dry and cold seasons, and then emerges when the ground softens in the spring and food is available.  Can we please go now?  Or do you want to stick around to find out what kind of food it likes?” 

“There is no sign of --” Aeryn began.

“Aeryn!  Run now, argue later!”  John gave her small shove in the direction of the transport pod. 

“Too late,” D’Argo said.  He had his qualta rifle aimed in the general direction of the fields.   

The ground had begun to undulate.  For twenty motras ahead of them and to either side, the recently plowed and rain-soaked earth was heaving in erratic waves.  The roadway beneath their feet began to rock.  Pebbles ran sideways, came to a halt, and raced back again.  Fence posts toppled in every direction.  Small shrubs were migrating, and the sod areas running between the road and the fields were developing black loamy fissures. 

“Oh crap!”  Crichton began backing away.  “There must be hundreds of critters under there.” 

The center of the nearest field bellied upward.  A small hill formed.  Soft dirt avalanches tumbled down its sides.  The upthrust gained momentum.  The crest of the hill broke open, and something began to emerge.  It was the color of the earth -- dark browns and black intermingled with streaks of green -- and like the wooded hillsides it resembled, it was covered with slender growths jutting out in every direction.  The protuberances were alive; they wriggled and squirmed, reaching out, searching blindly.  There were several knobs near the summit that might have been eyes, a wide gash of a mouth, and six nostrils spaced out across the front of what she realized was a head.  Aeryn had an impression that there were more than four legs working in concert to free its bulk from the earth.  Any other details were masked by the thick layers of dirt clinging to its body.  It was a miniature mountain on the move, carrying with it any plants that had escaped the spring plowing and whatever subterranean denizens had been living in the ground above its nest. 

One massive forefoot broke clear.  It slammed down, creating a localized earthquake. 

“You said critters, not critter!” Aeryn yelled over the rumble.  “You never said anything about it being a single creature this big!  Did you not think it would be good for us to know that there was a creature that large” -- she gestured toward the emerging azshdagka -- “hiding nearby?”

“I thought they were talking about something the size of an elephant, Aeryn!” John yelled back.  “I figured it would take one shot, two at the most!  Blim blam, and you’ve got haunch of heffalump turning on the spit.  No one said anything about it being an azshdagkasaurus or about how it was the size of a B52!  Nobody said anything about it being one enormous monster!” 

“Who cares?” D’Argo shouted.  “It is coming this way.  I think we should run!” 

“No!  No, it isn’t.  Look!”  John grabbed D’Argo’s sleeve with one hand while pointing with the other.  “It’s headed straight for the livestock.  It’s hungry.  It just woke up from a long winter’s nap.” 

“Good.”  Aeryn began moving away from the village.  “We should be able to get to the transport pod and get out of here while it is focused on the animals.”   

“What about the townspeople, Aeryn?  This thing kills all their livestock each year, and destroys half the buildings.  They’re terrified of it.” 

“Then they should move … or kill it.” 

“They can’t move.  According to my good buddies at the bar, dashiki --”

“Azshdagka!” Aeryn and D’Argo said together.

“-- are indigenous to this area.  Every village has the same problem.  This thing shows up every spring and eats them out of house and home.  They don’t have the weapon or technology to kill something that big.” 

“May I point out that neither do we?” D’Argo said.  “Aeryn, can the Prowler’s weapons destroy that creature?” 

“I doubt it.  Wound it, yes.  Kill it?”  She gazed at the bulk of the azshdagka, trying to calculate how much firepower would be needed it order to damage it.  “Questionable.” 

“How about a shaped charge?” John asked. 

“Shaped charge?” Aeryn repeated, trying to decipher the term.  “Do you mean a targeted charge?”

She looked toward the town.  The lumbering azshdagka had reached the livestock pens.  Stout wooden fencing snapped like twigs beneath its weight, giving off gunshot-loud cracks.  The terrified animals bunched up in a corner, bleating out their terror.  One broke free, darting toward the opening.  A moment later, the rest followed, bolting toward what looked like freedom.  The azshdagka roared, driving back more than half, and then swept its head through the remaining stampedes.  The protruding whiskers turned out to be tentacles.  The azshdagka’s head came up, carrying with it ten of the wooly herd animals, each one tightly snared in a monster’s tentacle.  They were tossed into the creature’s maw one by one, after which the azshdagka went back for more. 

“Lots of explosive packed inside something made out of metal so all the force goes up into the belly of the monster,” John said, illustrating what he was describing with his hands.  “We set the charge up in the field, lure Godzilla over there on top of it, and then set it off.  If we do it right, we’ll blow a hole through its innards.” 

Aeryn stepped closer to him.  “Another of your causes, John?  Is this another of your plans to save everyone?” 

It jolted him.  She could see the abrupt shift in John’s eyes.  He went from having complete faith that his idea would work to questioning his judgment in the space of a single microt.  He looked toward the village and then toward the transport pod squatting in the distance. 

“You think we should leave,” he said after a moment’s contemplation. 

“I think we should leave while we’re all still alive,” she said.  “Attempting to blow up an azshdagka does not seem like the best way to do that.” 

John glanced back at the village.  Aeryn didn’t need to turn her head to know what was happening.  From the sounds drifting in their direction, she knew that the beast had finished with the first collection of livestock, and had moved on to the next set of pens.  A lengthier crashing and smashing of timber suggested that it was battering its way through a building in the process. 

“I thought your solution to most problems was to shoot something,” he said.

“Only when shooting will do any good,” she said.

John’s shoulders slumped.  “All right, Aeryn.  We’ll leave.”  He turned his back on the village and took a step in the direction of the transport pod.  “But I don’t want to have to listen to any more of your stories about how Peacekeepers used to defend the weak or helpless ever again.  You just proved that those days are gone forever.” 

The comment struck deep, lancing into a wound she hadn’t realized existed.  An emotional pain that she thought had died the moment they left orbit around Jocacea sprang back to life.  Guilt launched an attack on good sense.  What was fast shaping up to be a difficult decision for Aeryn was cut short before it had a chance to turn into a full out moral dilemma. 

John had stopped.  “I don’t want to ruin your day, but Godzilla is tired of the appetizers.  He’s decided to move on to the main course.”

“Us?” D’Argo said. 

“No.  It looks like he’s developed a craving from something a little heartier than flesh and bones.  He’s headed for the transport pod.” 

“Frell!”

The three crewmates stared at the lumbering behemoth headed in the direction of the parked transport pod. 

“It will take Moya half a cycle to grow a new one,” Aeryn said.  Losing the craft would not be a full-out disaster, but it would be a severe inconvenience.  “Why would a living creature want to eat a metal ship?” 

“Suffering from low iron and fresh out of Geritol, maybe?” John said.  “What do you say?  Is this worth trying to kill that thing, or do you want to comm Guido and Chiana and explain why one of them has to come get us in the other pod?” 

Aeryn did not want to take on a creature of this size -- not with John at her side.  D’Argo she trusted.  John got reckless when he was depressed.  There was a tiny knot of discomfort in the pit of her stomach that was connected to the fear that he would somehow try to make up for the mistakes he had made recently:  first by trusting Neeyala and then on Jocacea.  She was afraid that John would, on some subconscious level, consider his life a fair trade for the safety of the villagers, compensating for the lives his decisions had cost over the past quarter cycle. 

“Death wish?” she asked him quietly. 

His head snapped around.  He stared at her for several microts, his expression unreadable at first, followed by a gradual shift toward comprehension.  “I have the only reason I need to want to live, Aeryn, and it’s pretty damned close to me right now.” 

It was enough to banish her concern.  “Right.  What’s your plan?  A pulse chamber overload won’t be enough.” 

“Diversion first.”  He turned toward D’Argo.  “Big D!  You’re on.  See if you can distract that thing.  Draw it away from the transport without getting turned into Luxan MacNuggets.  While you’re doing that, we’re gonna rustle us up the biggest landmine known to mankind.” 

“Distract it?” D’Argo said.  “How do you suggest I distract something that large?  I might as well try to distract a mountain.” 

“I don’t know.  Think of something!  Run around behind it until you find the ass end of the critter, and then kick it in the miv --”

“Try the livestock,” Aeryn said before John could finish.  “There are more animals penned up in the marketplace.  Turn them loose.  It might prefer fresh meat over biomechanoid plating.”

D’Argo let out a hissing snarl, slammed his qualta blade into its sheath, and then set off toward the town at a run.

“What about us?” Aeryn asked. 

“We’re going to bag us some fireworks,” John said.  Motioning for Aeryn to follow him, he vaulted over a fence and began weaving through the smaller vegetable plots, headed for a spot just outside the village center, beyond the houses.  “The folks here were planning fireworks as part of their celebration.  Even if they’re basic black powder jobs, they should pack enough bang to do the job if we set it up right.” 

Off to their left, the qualta rifle fired several times.  A microt later, she could hear more of the distressed bleating of the livestock and D’Argo bellowing at the animals.  Aeryn spun around to check on the azshdagka.  It had come to a stop.  Its head was swinging from side to side, as if in indecision.  After several moments like that, it wheeled and headed toward the sounds of the animals. 

“D’Argo, it’s working,” she commed.  “It’s headed toward you.” 

She received an angry sounding luxan growl in response, followed by, “Have you ever walked through a livestock pen?  Do you have any idea what is on the ground here?”

“Remember to wipe your feet,” John said.  He came to a stop beside a section of ground that had been cleared of vegetation.  More than thirty cloth-wrapped packages were laid out in orderly rows.  “Perfect.  And they left a cart to carry them.” 

“We will need a casing of some sort,” Aeryn said.   

John maneuvered a small, two-wheeled handcart closer to the arrangement of fireworks, tossed two of the bundles into the wooden bed of the cart, and then gestured toward the remainder.  “I’ve already thought of that.  I know where we can find something the right size and shape.  Start loading these while I go get it.” 

“What are you going to use?”  Aeryn picked up one of the bundles, hefted it several times, and then placed it gently next to the two already in the cart.  “Will these explode?” 

“Shouldn’t.  Not without a spark.  If I’m wrong, you’ll be the first to know.”  He grinned at her, carelessly tossed one more firework into the cart, and then sprinted out of sight. 

“He’s having too much fun,” Aeryn whispered to herself.  She was bothered by John’s enthusiasm.  He was too pleased with his plan, too certain that it would work, too intent on his goal without demonstrating any of the caution or respect that a creature as large and dangerous as the azshdagka should have demanded.  Each time John became this single-minded, it normally ended in disaster. 

“I’m finished,” she commed, dusting off her hands.  “Now what?” 

“If you can move the cart, head back toward the fields.  If it’s too heavy, I’ll be there in a hundred microts.” 

“What are you doing?”  Aeryn could not remember seeing any object in any of the shops or visible from the town’s marketplace that would serve as a casing for the explosives.  The words were barely out of her lips when she got her answer.  There were six fast shots from a pulse weapon, followed by a metallic clamor that went on for ten full microts.  The noise was unmistakable.  John had shot down the town’s alarm bell. 

“John, I don’t know what you’re doing over there,” D’Argo said over the comms, “but you have drawn the attention of the azshdagka.  It’s heading for the buildings.” 

Another pulse weapon blast was followed by a dull metallic clatter.  “Scratch one clapper,” John said.  “That should help.”

“John, the azshdagka is headed in your direction,” D’Argo commed again. 

“Well, shoot it!  Or feed it!  Or sing it love songs, but get it away from the village.  Aeryn and I are going to need some time and some space.” 

“Feed it, he says,” D’Argo grumbled.  “Why don’t you come pat it?  Or better yet, offer yourself up as a snack!” 

“That comes next,” John called back.  “Aeryn, where are you?” 

“Almost back to the field.  John, you need to get out of there.  It has reached the buildings.”  The azshdagka tromped through the vegetable gardens, leaving a trail of smashed fencing in its wake, and slammed into the first of the houses.  It backed away, swung its head from side to side several times, and then forged forward.  One wall buckled midway up.  The azshdagka hit it again.  Another wall leaned outward.  The roof tilted to one side, poised there for several microts, and then the entire structure came crashing down.  The beast nosed at the heap of debris, found nothing there to interest it, and began wading through the wreckage of some family’s life. 

John appeared from between two of the buildings pulling another of the wooden handcarts, throwing all of his weight against the hand grips in order to keep the heavily laden cart moving.   “Good news is, it may be ugly and smell bad, but at least it’s slow,” he said over the comms. 

“Watch out!” Aeryn yelled.  There was no time for anything else.  She was too far away to do anything other than watch helplessly and hope that John would look in the correct direction.  One hundred motras away, the azshdagka turned with a speed it had not shown up to this point, and struck unerringly toward John.  The creature’s snout slammed into the ground less than a motra to one side of the cart bearing the bell.  A miniature black-clad figure threw itself to one side, narrowly missing the strike, and then scrambled beneath the questionable protection of the flimsy wooden cart.  The azshdagka’s head reared back, every one of its tentacles thrashing in a wild frenzy, preparing for another attack.

“D’ARGO!” John shouted over the comms.  “Get this thing off me!” 

In the distance, the qualta rifle fired.  Small pinpricks of light walked up the azshdagka’s backside, moving along its spine toward the back of its head.  The monster swung toward the irritation, made one abortive attempt swipe at where John was curled up beneath the cart, and then turned toward the fields and the sounds of the qualta rifle. 

Aeryn discovered that she was holding her breath.  When she saw John pop up into view unharmed, she started breathing again.  “Hurry!” she yelled across the distance between them. 

“Use the comms,” John transmitted in an almost-whisper.  “I have a hunch it’s following sounds.  Sound, touch, and smell.  I think it’s blind, Aeryn.”  He was grunting and panting, throwing all of his effort and body weight into keeping the heavily laden cart moving.  Aeryn ran to help him.  Together, they were able to accelerate to a run. 

“So all we have to do is be quiet and it will go away?”  The qualta rifle stopped firing.  D’Argo sounded furious.  “Why did you not suggest this sooner?” 

Beside her, John shook his head.  “Smell, big guy!  I said sound, touch, and smell.  The transport pod is biomechanoid like Moya.  It must smell like a snack, just like us.  Whoa!  Whoa, Aeryn!”  They skidded to a stop beside the cart full of fireworks.  “Heavy D, we’re going to need a couple hundred microts to get this set up.  Can you keep it off us for that long without getting gobbled up?” 

“I found more livestock,” D’Argo said.  “That should keep it busy for a while.” 

John muscled the bell out of the cart, and heaved it in on top of the fireworks.  “Chakan oil cartridges,” he said to Aeryn.  “Got any spares?” 

“No.  Just the one in my pulse pistol.” 

“Keep it.”  John dug in the pouch attached to his belt and came up with four.  “How far away can you hit one of these things … on the first try?  Absolutely for sure, no misses?”

“Twenty motras.  Fifteen would be better.” 

John wiped sweat away from his eyebrows with a thumb, and took a deep breath.  “Okay.  Chakan oil cartridges are the fuse.  Line them up end to end, pile the fireworks on top, cap them with the bell.  We lure Godzilla so he’s standing on top of them, and you shoot.”  He punctuated his description with both hands, illustrating the brief description with gestures.   

“That is insane!” Aeryn said.  “Do you know how many different things are wrong with that plan?” 

John ticked the items off on his fingers.  “We don’t know if the explosives will ignite.  We don’t know if the force of the explosion will go up, down, or get smothered by the bell.  We have no idea what the bell is made of, so it could just vaporize or turn into shrapnel, neither of which will help us.  Maneuvering Godzilla into the right place at the right time will be pure luck, and for all we know there could be another of those things underground just waiting for a wake up call, in which case we’ll be dealing with two of those monstrosities instead of one, doubling our fun.  Did I miss anything?” 

“The part about how you are out of your mind?” she said. 

“That’s a given, not an unknown.  Come on.” 

Everything seemed to move very quickly after that.  The fields were too soft for them to pull the cart to where John wanted to set up what he had begun to call a booby trap, so they began ferrying the fireworks out into the middle of the neatly plowed furrows one armful at a time.  John stomped a section of ground flat while Aeryn ran back and forth, and then arranged the chakan oil cartridge fuse and began building a pyramid of the cloth-wrapped bundles.  Half a metra away, the azshdagka was making quick work of the panicked livestock that D’Argo had set loose. 

“Go, go!” he said when Aeryn dumped the last of the oversized explosive cartridges next to his creation.  “You get ready to shoot.  I’ll finish.”   

“Be quick.  D’Argo is almost out of bait.”  Aeryn slogged her way through the mucky loam, headed for the roadway.  In quick snatches of conversations, they had agreed that the firmer footing there would provide the best chance at a hasty retreat if the azshdagka did not cooperate with their plan by straddling the explosives.  If John’s plan didn’t work, they would head join the villagers in the hills until either Rygel or Chiana came to rescue them. 

Just as she stumbled onto the packed surface, two things happened at once.  A small portion of the terrified herd that D’Argo had set loose stampeded toward where John had finished stacking the last of the fireworks; and John dropped the bell.  It let out one enormous clang as it landed.     

The azshdagka, already in pursuit of the animals, swerved to one side and headed straight for John. 

“Run!” Aeryn yelled. 

John slapped the bell into place, bent down long enough to dust some dirt off the one chakan oil cartridge that was visible, then put his head down, and sprinted away from the behemoth bearing down on him.  He chose to run between two of the furrows, moving parallel to the neatly spaced ridges of earth.  He could move faster that way, but he was in Aeryn’s line of fire.  She couldn’t shoot. 

“Go right!” Aeryn shouted.  “Your right!” 

He bounded across the long heaps of soil, tripped, scrambled up, and kept moving.  The azshdagka veered with him.  It was going to miss their makeshift demolitions.  Aeryn fired at the beast, hoping to draw it back.  It let out a roar that shook the ground, and continue to pursue John.  The qualta rifle was firing now.  Insignificant specks of light picked at the azshdagka’s side.  It slowed, hesitated, and then went after the fleeing Crichton again. 

John looked over his shoulder, saw that the creature was going to miss the explosives, and cut to his left. 

“No!” Aeryn yelled.  John’s route would draw the azshdagka directly across the bell poised in the middle of the field, but it also meant that he was shortening the distance between him and the monster.  Blind or not, the azshdagka seemed to sense that its prey had made a fatal mistake.  It accelerated, bearing down on John like a living avalanche. 

“Shoot!” John yelled over the comms. 

“You’re in the way!” 

“Shoot!”

“You’re too close!”  The azshdagka was two massive steps away from the bell, but it was too close to John.  It was almost on top of him. 

“For god’s sake, shoot, Aeryn!  SHOOT!” 

Aeryn fired.  For one brief moment -- less than a fraction of a microt -- she thought she had missed.  The pulse blast flew true; it passed behind the fast-moving black blur that was John, arrowed in beneath the azshdagka’s belly, and hit the ground at the base of the bell.  For a single instant in time, nothing happened.  Then there was a rippling, multiple concussion, the result of several charges going off in quick succession, and the bell simply disappeared.  Aeryn didn’t see what happened to it.  One microt it was there; the next it was gone. 

The azshdagka didn’t stop.  It lunged at John, who had changed directions and was headed toward Aeryn again.  The snout slammed into the soft dirt behind his heels.  A tentacle lashed out, caught John’s ankle.  He tore free, stumbled, and hit the ground rolling.  He came back up in a flurry of dirt, dodged to his right, and kept running.  The mountain of azshdagka went after him.  Aeryn began firing, aiming at anything on its head that looked sensitive.  A steady barrage from the qualta rifle was coming from her right.  None of it made any difference. 

“John, to your left.  Come this way!”  He was tiring.  She could see it in the way that it was taking more effort for him to wade through the soft, wet loam, and the way that his boots were barely clearing the soil with each successive step.  If he couldn’t put some distance between him and the azshdagka in the next few microts, there was only one way this could possibly end. 

The azshdagka slowed.  John tripped.  This time he went skidding face first into the dirt.  The monster was almost on top of him.  Aeryn kept firing.  She concentrated her attack on the knobs on its head that at one time might have been eyes.  The azshdagka lumbered to a stop.  It stood still, looking confused, less than three motras from where John lay sprawled in the soft earth.  Aeryn stopped firing.  She was concerned that if she drew the creature toward her, it would crush John.  She waited, pulse pistol at the ready, not certain what more she could do.  The azshdagka stood motionless in the middle of the field.  The only thing unusual about the creature’s behavior, other than its lack of interest in either John or the remaining livestock running around, was that its head was hanging close to the ground, and the bristling tentacles around its mouth weren’t moving. 

“Aeryn, what should we do?” D’Argo whispered over the comms.

“I don’t know.  Wait, I think.”  All she could see of John were his shoulders, which were heaving up and down as he tried to catch his breath; and his hands, which were clasped over his head.  He was face down between two furrows, no more than two azshdagka steps away from being trampled to death or eaten. 

The azshdagka stirred.  Small tendrils of smoke puffed out from between its lips; they curled lazily around its head.  It stretched its neck out to the full extent of its length, wheezed several times, and then belched out flames, smoke and sparks.  It hiccupped.  Belched again.  Black smoke laced with red, blue, green, and yellow fire flared out from between its lips.  The azshdagka sneezed several times, sending wild flurries of colorful fizzing explosions racing across the field, and then it blew up. 

The section of the field where the beast had been standing disappeared in an enormous cloud of dirt, dust, swirling colorful sparkles, and azshdagka bits. 

Aeryn’s knees buckled.  She grabbed at a fence post for support, and stared in disbelief at the roiling storm of debris still climbing upwards into the afternoon sky.  Numb fingers fumbled her pulse pistol into its holster, after which she took two uncertain steps across the grassy boundary next to the field.  D’Argo was suddenly beside her.  She did not remember him approaching.  At some point during the mayhem, it had stopped raining.  She had not noticed that either.  There were breaks in the clouds and blue sky overhead. 

“John?” he asked. 

“I don’t know.  He was … close,” she said.  “Too close, I think.” 

It began raining earth.  Dust, fine soil, and dirt clods of every dimension pattered down out of the sky.  Aeryn turned away, hunched over, shielding her eyes from the storm.  When she turned back, John was ambling toward them, appearing like a wraith from the heart of the earth-colored cloud, looking as if he was out for a relaxed stroll.  Aeryn turned away from him, put her back against a fence post, and slid down to the ground.  For the moment, sitting was safer than standing.  D’Argo collapsed beside her.  Ten microts later, John clambered over the fence, spent four microts ruffling dirt out of his hair, and then flopped down alongside his two companions. 

He was earth-colored from head to toe.  Every bit of skin and his clothes were coated with rich, nearly black soil.  The only breaks in the monotone were the whites of his eyes and the flash of his teeth when he grinned at them.   “I don’t know about the two of you, but I could use a beer.”


          * * * * *


“… which is how the valiant Lady Aeryn killed the azshdagka with a single shot from her mighty weapon,” Markin said, rolling into the final moments of his story, “thus saving the fleeing coward, Crichton.” 

He paused to take another drink, wetting his mouth for the finale.  “What did Lady Aeryn teach us on that historic day?” he said to the assembled children. 

“That the azshdagka can be killed,” the young ones shouted back.  “We do not have to be afraid!” 

“What did the valiant knight, D’Argo, teach us when he put himself in harm’s way to help his lady?” Markin asked. 

“Sacrifice will win the day!” came the chorus. 

“And what did we learn from Crichton?” he said, raising his voice to a strident cry. 

“That azshdagka are goooood eatin’!” everyone in the hall bellowed at the top of their lungs. 

“Excellent!”  Markin waved his hand at the huge double doors leading out into the marketplace.  “Go!  It is time for the festival to begin!” 

The children bounded to their feet and rushed the door, laughing and yelling with excitement.  The parents followed close behind, with the older adults trailing along in their wake.  Markin rose to his feet more slowly, giving his aging muscles time to adjust after sitting for so long.  He emerged into bright sunlight and cool air, perfect weather for the first day of the Festival of Aeryn and the strenuous activities that went with it.  Markin followed the crowd at his own pace, taking his time. There was no reason to hurry.  The celebration would not begin for at least half an arn. 

Lady Aeryn and her companions had taught them much more than the lessons of valor and freedom.  They had shown them that if they flooded the fields deliberately after the spring plowing by diverting water from a reservoir in the hills, that they could call forth the azshdagka at a time of their own choosing.  They could prepare in advance, fight it on their own terms.  Her servant, Crichton, while not much of a warrior, had taught them that the creature was nothing more than a very large cousin of the slithering water-and-earth creatures that the children liked to catch and turn into pets.  Understanding had banished fear. 

“Markin,” one of his peers greeted him as he arrived at the edge of the fields.  “How much longer, do you think?” 

“Four cycles, maybe five,” Markin said.  “There aren’t many left.” 

All that remained of the azshdagka were the eggs laid long ago by the queen that Lady Aeryn had destroyed.  With the matriarch gone, it was up to the hatchlings to fight their way to the surface in the pursuit of nourishment, instead of waiting for their mother to return to the nest bearing sustenance.  The first cycle had brought forth a dozen beasts near fully grown, three quarters the size of the creature that had terrorized the village for so many cycles.  The battle had been fearsome.  Many had died.  But at the end of the day, all the azshdagka lay slaughtered. 

They had spread the word to every village in the district, and from there across the entire landmass:  The azshdagka could be killed.  And in time, the tales of triumph eventually returned.  From one end of the continent to the other, with each cycle that passed, the azshdagka clawing their way out of the ground were becoming smaller.  Their days were numbered.     

“Here they come!” someone shouted. 

The azshdagka hatchlings began to emerge:  undersized, helpless, pitiful things mewling and squirming in the soft sunlight.  Limbless, without tentacles, barely half a motra in length, they were no longer the unstoppable enemy that Markin had faced in his younger days.  This was the last gasp of an entire species. 

The children of the village, laughing and screaming with excitement, ran into the fields and began beating the last of the azshdagka to death. 


* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * 


Thank you for reading,

KernilCrash
:dk:
Purveyor of Hallucinations


18
Crashfic / Blood Debt (G) - 19th Starburst Challenge
« Last post by KernilCrash on June 10, 2016, 10:52:13 AM »
Blood Debt

* * * * *

Rating:  PG.
Disclaimer:  The characters and universe of Farscape are the property of the Henson Co.  In other words:  Not mine, no profit.   
Time Frame:  Future Fic -- Approximately 2 cycles after PK Wars.
Test Driver:  As always, PKLibrarian took the story out for a quick spin ahead of time.  Any remaining errors, oversights, or abysmal spelling are entirely my fault.

Note:  For the non-U.S. citizens out there, FDIC stands for 'Federal Deposit Insurance Company'.  Why am I mentioning this?  :whistle:  Oh, no particular reason.  ;)

* * * * *


John Crichton uses his full body weight to shoulder several aliens to one side and then slides into the space he has opened up, abandoning good manners in favor of staying close to Aeryn.  He does not like their surroundings.  Under other circumstances, he might have been fascinated by the scenery; he might have lingered for arns or even days, and explored this place from one end to the other.  That sort of extensive, relaxed scrutiny will have to wait.  This is not the right time for gawking. 

They have tracked their quarry to a section of the planet that could pass for a sunnier, sandier version of a street scene from Blade Runner.  The streets are jammed from one side to the other with every variety of sentient being, all of them swirling over, under, around, and through an entire galaxy’s worth of paraphernalia, most of which is for sale.  Their pursuit has drawn them into the midst of the ultimate intergalactic flea market:  pedestrians, vendors, rickety looking sales stalls, advertisements in more than a dozen languages, permanent and temporary shops festooned with wares ranging from live animals to items that look as though they belong in an interstellar porn shop, street performers ranging from knee high to more than three motras tall, creatures that could just as easily be abandoned pets as sentient shoppers; and everywhere they turn, the type of repulsive detritus under foot that tends to build up any time thousands of living bodies are jammed together in a limited amount of space.  It is crowded, noisy, hot, and for two people in a hurry, it is confusing. 

It is also close to impossible to watch for an ambush.  This is dangerous. 

“We should turn back.  This is a bad idea.”  He catches the fast movement of Aeryn’s head shake out of the corner of his eye.  The rest of his attention remains on the constantly shifting crowds.  He watches for fast, unnatural movements -- anything that might be the beginnings of an attack. 

“This is the first time we have gotten close,” Aeryn says.  “Keep looking.  Pilot will let us know if she leaves the commerce sector.” 

“Will that be before or after one of us gets skewered from behind?” he says. 

A quiet electronic chirp interrupts before she can respond to his question, which is probably a good thing.  She is starting to look annoyed.  Aeryn bends down toward her comms.  John can’t hear the conversation over the din of the street noise, but he figures that Pilot must have had some new information because when she straightens up, Aeryn points to the right, toward an avenue branching off to one side.  “That way.” 

The good news is that once they get away from the main thoroughfare, there are fewer people and more open space.  The bad news is that the street is narrower, and there are small alleys branching off at irregular intervals, any one of which could offer concealment for a single being.  He tries again.  “Aeryn --”

She holds up a hand, silencing him.  “Keep looking.”

He has had Winona out of her holster ever since they first waded into the ocean of bodies.  Now he goes one step further.  John turns so he is facing away from Aeryn at an angle.  He can still see her out of the corner of his eye, but between the two of them, they have most of the street covered.  They sidle along back-to-back, a four-legged creature wary to the point of shooting anyone or anything that moves in an unexpected manner.  Two sets of eyes watch for signs of trouble.  None of the merchants seem to care or even notice that there are two well-armed individuals conducting a search of the marketplace. 

“Just tell me how the hell Pilot can pick out one body from the middle of this oversized Super Saver sale?” he asks over his shoulder.  “For all we know, we could be headed in the wrong direction!” 

Aeryn’s elbow nudges him in the side, steering him more to the right.  “Her bio-print is distinctive.  Pilot and Moya are certain it is her.  She is not far.” 

“Great.  We’re practically on top of her, and we’d be lucky if we could spot a fluorescent green elephant complete with a traveling kazoo band trundling through this crowd, let alone one human-sized badass.”  The buildings in this area are not as tall as the ones further back.  Crichton can’t decide if that is better or worse.  On one hand, he and Aeryn have a better view of the rooftops.  The flip side is that if anyone hostile is up there watching, they will have a better chance of hitting a target on the ground on the first try.  He starts to feel like a fish in a barrel. 

“When we catch up to her, don’t hesitate,” Aeryn says. 

“I won’t hesitate.”  It comes out a little too fast and with too much vehemence.  It sounds every bit as defensive as he feels. 

Aeryn picks up on it.  “You always hesitate.”

“No, I don’t.  Half the time, I don’t even stop to think.”

“True.  On the occasions when we need a solution that does not involve pointing guns at people, you don’t think.  You go straight to waving guns at everyone involved.  And when the moment comes when you need to pull the trigger, you stand there like a moon-dazed flumiff calf and do nothing.  You hesitate.” 

“This is different,” he says.  “I will not hesitate.”  He dares to take his eyes off the masses of people flooding around them long enough to look over his shoulder at Aeryn.  She is slightly closer to his left side because she claims that his wild shots always go to his right.  She says she is safer from him if she is on his left.  He wants to deny it … and isn’t sure she is wrong.  For whatever reason she chooses that side, it means that every time he glances in her direction, the first sight that greets him is the scar. 

He had hesitated the last time and it had nearly cost Aeryn her right eye.  The evidence of his indecision is a blazing, livid reminder.  Given enough time, it will disappear.  He won’t have to live with the constant reminder of what his reluctance almost cost them.  The medical treatment had been top notch; eventually there will be nothing more than a hair-thin line that he won’t be able to find unless he is searching for it.  But for now, the healing furrow starts at the edge of her eyebrow, slashes hard and fast toward the point of her cheekbone, and dives into her hairline just above her ear. 

“I won’t hesitate,” he says again, thinking of how close they had come to disaster.

“You always hesitate,” Aeryn says under her breath.

He understands that she’s not angry or blaming him.  Most of her attention is focused on the tidal force of bodies surging around and against them.  This is more of a mindless response to whatever he is saying.  It is Aeryn’s equivalent of a patronizingly vague ‘Yes, dear’.  If he shuts up, she will too.

“Do not,” he says anyway, deliberately opening himself up to a ‘Do so’ in return. 

Aeryn simply snorts. 

The comms chirp again.  Aeryn consults with Pilot for several microts, after which they continue moving in the same direction as before, only with more caution.  They are within twenty motras of their target, Pilot reports. 

They shuffle through a bottleneck formed by an array of food vendors and their feasting customers.  Crichton ignores the revolting smells, doesn’t bother to look at what is for sale as he so frequently does out of pure curiosity, and turns several degrees further to his left, so he can keep more of Aeryn in sight. 

“Don’t,” she says.  “You can feel me.  Keep your eyes on the buildings.” 

He dislikes not being able to see her.  Aeryn is right about relying on touch alone to keep track of her movements.  The pressure of her body against his delivers a multitude of signals:  her level of tension, whether she is alarmed by something she has seen, and which way she is about to move.  Just the same, he would prefer to have her in the edge of his vision.  He turns away from her anyway, following her instructions.  “This is all wrong.  One of us is going to get killed, Aeryn.” 

“Not if you do your part.  All you have to do is not hesitate.” 

He doesn’t bother answering her. 

They pass junk dealers, booksellers, and a recessed hovel in the mouth of an ally that is selling nothing but shiny cubes that look like toasters.  Clothing merchants wave everything from pants and tunics to undergarments in their faces, trying for a sale.  A weapons vendor tries to grab Aeryn’s pulse rifle while offering her something the size of a bazooka, she fends him off with a kick to his stomach, and they shuffle on through the dirt, the dust and the heat.  They detour around a fetid, reeking mound of trash almost four motras high.  The entire heap is alive with vermin.  The mass surges, emitting squeaks and rustles; multi-limbed rodents, lizards, and insects swarm above, around, and presumably inside it.  The entire mountain swells for a moment, grumbles volcano-like, then belches up a massive bubble of gas.  The scent of putrefaction washes over them.   

“God,” John says, burying his nose in his upper arm. 

“This would not be a good time to get sick,” Aeryn says, reminding him to remain vigilant. 

“Right.”  He adds a mouthful of stomach acid to the already foul trash heap, and then does a fast sweep from his far left all the way around to his right, checking to make sure he hasn’t missed anything.  “Remind me later that I need to puke.” 

“If you think it is absolutely necessary.” 

“I’ll let you know.” 

Their slow progress and the mindless banter continue.  Life, death, and commerce continue all around them, unaffected by the presence of two hunters.  Crichton watches, his attention momentarily fixed on one spot, as a group of more than forty half-naked bipeds, each one no taller than his knee, assembles on a corner.  They are all bald, although some show hints of a feathery growth on their heads, which suggests that the bare skulls are a result of shaving rather than a natural occurrence; and they are all wearing droopy yellow loincloths.  They mill about for several moments, eventually sort themselves out into four equal lines, and begin to sing.  They sound like well-harmonized wind chimes.  The soft, tinkling melody is both enchanting and haunting, simultaneously summoning up memories of summer days at home and a sense of dread. 

The little creatures begin reaching out to passersby as they sing, seeking donations. 

“Aeryn, look!  Mini-krishnas!” 

Aeryn is no longer against his back.  He has allowed himself to be distracted, and she has not stopped. 

“Aeryn!”  He yells it this time, spinning around, searching for her. 

She has not gone far.  Aeryn is less than two motras away, waiting for him with a frown of impatience already firmly in place.  John starts to say something, intent on chastising her for stepping even that short distance away from him.  This close to their target, any distance is dangerous, even for someone with Aeryn’s training.   

“Dammit, Aeryn!” 

A complex pattern of mottled blue and green streaks from right to left, arrowing straight for Aeryn’s unprotected back. 

“NO!”  He snaps off a shot, forgets to lead far enough ahead, and misses by a full motra.  The figure slams into Aeryn, throwing her headfirst into a wall.  The hollow thonk of Aeryn’s skull slamming up against cerro-ceramic carries clearly across the short distance to where John is standing.  The way her body collapses into the loose dirt near the base of the building tells the rest of the story.  She is down for the count:  unconscious, and defenseless.

“Natira!  It’s me you want, not her!” he bellows, hoping to distract Aeryn’s attacker.  His next shot goes wide as well.  This one sails too far to the left, ricochets off the side of a building, and scorches a path within a dench or two of Natira’s head.  It has the effect he wanted.  She turns toward him. 

“Human,” she croons through her fangs.  “I have missed you.” 

“Not nearly enough,” he says, and lunges across the short gap between them, driving his shoulder into her midsection. 

It is Natira’s turn to go flying through the air -- in her case backwards.  She twists in midair, lands easily on all fours.  No concussion here.  A crouched, heavily armored opponent waits for the next attack.  He has managed to heave her two motras further away from Aeryn, however, which is what he was hoping for when he rushed her.   

They freeze, engaging in a split-microt standoff, giving him a moment to examine the person who has made no less than eight attacks on his family over the past two cycles.  Each time, her target has been Moya and Pilot, Aeryn, D’Argo, or all three.  Not once has she attacked him.  He understands the significance.  Natira wants to harm the people that make his life worth living.   

The passage of time has not been kind to her.  Her once iridescent blue carapace has turned lackluster and dull.  It is liberally tinged with streaks of brown, there is an irregular patch of black on her abdomen that looks spongy, and there are chips missing all along the edges of the plates.  The once brilliant white fangs have yellowed; one incisor is missing.  Tufts of what looks like moss peek out from the joints between her exoskeletal plates, as if she has either spent too much time hiding in dark damp places, or has been infected by some sort of internal algal parasite that is working its way outward.  She snarls at him, and gathers her feet beneath her body, preparing for another leap.

John swings Winona up … and hesitates. 

“Fool!”  She is on him before he can pull the trigger.  Winona spins off to one side, batted out of his hand by a hard-shelled swat.  She knocks him over backwards, knees him in the gut, knocking the wind out of him, and makes her first stab toward his eyes.  “I will have your blue eyes this time, human.  And then, while you are howling like the animal that you are, I will kill your mate.” 

He whips his head from one side to the other, barely avoiding the lancing strikes toward his eyes.  Her spike drives into the dirt beside his ear.  He gets one hand free.  The other one is pinned beneath her knee.  The next stab pierces the sleeve of his jacket, missing his wrist by less than a quarter of a dench.  Strike, parry.  Recoil.  She impales his hand.  He yells something -- he isn’t sure what -- and tries to heave her off.  Natira yanks her spike free in a spray of blood and tries again.  He doesn’t move fast or far enough.  Sharp-tipped blue shell screams along bone, rips free.  More blood.  He’ll have a scar to match Aeryn’s.

“Why?  Just tell me why?” he yells, hoping to buy some time. 

“You ruined my life,” she says through a spray of saliva. 

She feints left, drives right.  He manages to grab the spike, tries to rip it loose from her head.  It is blood-slick from piercing his hand.  It slips free.  “I didn’t ruin your life!  I saved it.  If it weren’t for me, Scorpius would have turned you into seafood delight, lady!”

“That would have been preferable to my current existence,” she yells back at him, battering at his head and arm with both hands. 

He does his best to fend her off, aware that each slap, driven by an insane level of fury, is tearing shreds of leather off the sleeve of his jacket.  If this keeps up, she will be down to flesh and blood in a matter of microts.  “I’m not your keeper,” he says between blows.  “What you did with your life is not my fault!”

Clawed fingers slap his arm further to one side.  A hand dives in to grasp him by the jaw.  His head is forced back into the dirt.  She can drive her spike into the underside of his throat now, if she decides she wants to kill him, or just squeeze tight and rip his throat out.  He squirms, throws his free hand out to the side, hoping to find Winona.  He can’t win this battle without a weapon or some help from an ally.  Natira is too strong, too fast … too well armored.  What little he can see of the street is empty.  Every merchant, shopper, and bystander has long since fled. 

What he really needs is Aeryn. 

Natira leans close.  Four of her head spikes curve downward in a creepily delicate manner.  They stroke his cheeks, each one moving at a different pace.  It is like being caressed by an oversized spider that is sizing him up as a meal.  He shudders with revulsion, and keeps fumbling with his free hand, searching for anything that might serve as a weapon. 

She doesn’t seem to notice his reaction or his flailing attempts to locate Winona.  Natira is focused on revenge.  “You are responsible.  You destroyed my depository.  Do you have any idea how much trouble that caused me?” 

“FDIC wouldn’t cover you?”  He struggles to force the words past the grip on his windpipe. 

“My customers were not the forgiving type.”  The main spike, the one that does all the damage, taps him between the eyes several times.  “They wanted compensation for their losses, Crichton.  Full compensation.  There was no business too insignificant, no venture too small for me to buy into without one of them noticing and coming after me.” 

Her head eases from one side to the other several times, contemplating her victim.  She moves closer.  Her tongue strokes the left side of his neck from his collar bone to beneath his ear.  He can feel his pulse banging away against the light pressure.  Her teeth are less than an eighth of an inch from his carotid artery.  He strains against her weight, hoping for a moment’s lapse on her part, and concentrates on not showing any fear.  “Witness relocation has been known to totally suck.” 

“My life turned to dren the moment I set you free, Crichton.  I have nothing!”  She hisses the last word into his ear.  “You will feel what it is like to have nothing.”

Natira’s hostility is not the product of anger or revenge, Crichton realizes.  This is the thin boundary that marries obsession to insanity.  Somewhere in the midst of the cycles of deprivation following the destruction of her shadow depository, she had become fixated on him as the cause of her misery.  There will be no talking his way out of this situation, no reasoning with the feral creature crouched over his body.  The best he can hope for is to buy some more time, and watch for an opportunity to create an advantage. 

“Been there, done that,” he gurgles.  “You’re a few cycles too late.”  He tries to get his free hand between their bodies, hoping to throw her off.  She catches it, pins it to the ground. 

“You have a wife.  You have a child.  I am going to take them away from you.  After I have your blue eyes.”  The central spike drives in again -- fast, unforgiving, without warning. 

He heaves hard with his entire body, shifting her weight to one side, and tears his hand out from under her knee.  Skin rips.  He ignores it, and gets a better grip on the spike this time, above the coating of blood and closer to one of the joints.  Natira does the wrong thing.  She tries to pull free.  It is like yanking a leg off a lobster, only messier.  Fluids spray in every direction. 

Natira lets out a screeching howl that is equal parts pain and anger.  “Keep your eyes, Crichton!  This way you can watch as your woman dies,” she screams. 

She knees him in the stomach, tries once for his groin, hits his thigh instead, and then scrambles away on all fours, headed toward Aeryn.  John flips over, grabs for her ankles, misses, and goes sprawling.  He comes up spitting dust, lunges after her, and misses again.  Natira is moving too fast.  He can’t catch her in time.  All he can see of Aeryn are her boots and legs.  They haven’t moved.  She is still unconscious.  Natira is almost on top of her. 

“AERYN!!”   

An energy blast comes out of nowhere.  It takes Natira square in the back of the head.  She goes down, fumbles at empty air for a moment, and then claws her way back onto her hands and knees.  Another blast, this time from a different angle.  She lets out a screech, clasps both hands to one side of her face.  Another shot smashes both of her hands.  They drop to in front of her chest.  Another blast, again square in the face.  She keels over backwards, floundering, blinded, still moving but without direction or intent.  Two more shots come out of nowhere.  They are aimed to blind, not kill.  Natira will never see again. 

John staggers to his feet, takes two limping steps to one side to pick up Winona, and then detours around Natira with caution.  She is rolling around, stricken, trying to right herself and having little luck, no longer a threat.  He is more concerned about Aeryn.  She is upright, sitting half sprawled against the side of the building, looking dazed and confused. 

He kneels down beside her.  “How you doin’?” 

It takes her several tries and a few microts to focus on his face.  “A bit --”  She makes a circular gesture, indicating that she is either dizzy or confused … or more likely both.  “How about you?  You’ve got a … a …”  She finishes the sentence by pointing toward the side of his face, indicating the bleeding gouge running from his cheekbone to above his ear.

“I decided to spring for a matched set.  I was jealous of yours.”  He takes a moment to wipe blood out of his ear.  His hearing on that side clears.  It has been annoying him. 

Aeryn’s eyes cross and uncross several times, then shift from his face to a point behind him.  “Blood trackers.”

“What?”  He rubs his ear first, finds nothing there, and then turns to look at Natira, trying to make sense of Aeryn’s comment.  Natira has managed to make it onto her knees, and is now hunched over her burnt and bleeding hands, emitting small whines and mewling cries of pain.   

“Blood trackers,” Aeryn repeats.  She nudges his shoulder, indicating that he should look in a different direction.  “Vorcarians.” 

John pivots on his knees.  Half a dozen vorcarians are emerging from alleyways on both side of the street.  They are wary, ducking down often, sniffing the air obsessively, checking in all directions before moving into the open.  All six are close to the same size and same age; three males and three females if he is interpreting their clothing correctly; with one common attribute that shocks him close to speechlessness.  “Aeryn … they’re kids!  They’re all kids!” 

“Young, yes,” Aeryn says.  “I’m not sure vorcarians are ever children.”

“You know what I mean.” 

“Yes, I do.  Help me up.” 

He helps her to her feet, steadies her when she wobbles, then guides her out into the sunlight.  Six energy weapons swing in their direction. 

The vorcarian youngster closest to Natira steps forward, showing that he is the leader of the pack.  He growls, “We claim bounty.”  It is the voice of an adolescent.  He is doing his best to sound threatening.  The occasional squawks and breaks in the growl aren’t helping.  “Do you yield?” 

“There is no bounty on Natira,” John says. 

“There is a blood debt owed, and you had lost dominance.  We claim bounty.  Do you yield?” the young one asks again. 

Aeryn squeezes John’s hand to get his attention, and then nods.  “We yield … on one condition,” he says, addressing the entire pack. 

“Condition,” the vorcarian teenager says, cocking his head.  “What is a … condition?” 

“It means I want some information before I yield our claim on her.  I want to ask a question.” 

The youngster retreats several steps, backing into the small cluster of vorcarians waiting behind him.  He ducks his head, both his eyes and his weapon steady on John and Aeryn, and consults with the others.  The growls, yips, and snarls go on for several microts.  “What is your question?” he calls. 

“Who are you?  What blood debt are you paying?” 

“If I answer this … condition,” the vorcarian says, “you will not interfere with our claim of bounty?” 

“You’re welcome to her.” 

Natira’s head comes up.  She turns in Crichton’s direction.  “No!  You can’t let them take me!   Crichton!  Don’t let them!”

“Shut up, you … you bitch!” another of the young vorcarians yells.  He makes a run toward Natira, stamping his feet and thrusting his weapon in her direction, a complex mixture of boldness and fear.  “You killed our father!  We have come to claim the blood debt!” 

All the clues start to merge into an answer.  A portion of it does not make sense, however.  “Your father,” John says.  “Your father was --” 

“Rorf,” the lead male says. 

John takes a step back, so he is beside Aeryn.  He lowers his voice.  “They’re too old to be Rorf’s.  That was” -- he does some quick math in his head -- “what?  Seven cycles ago?” 

“Short life span,” she says.  “They mature quickly, die young.” 

“Natira didn’t kill Rorf.  She only blinded him in one eye,” he says in a whisper. 

Aeryn turns so she is facing away from the whimpering captive and the six blood trackers.  “If you tell them that, they will go after Scorpius.”

“And they will die,” he says.

“Undoubtedly.”  Aeryn’s eyes slide out of focus; she staggers, nearly dropping to her knees. 

He catches her under one arm and pulls her back up, steadying her when she stumbles a second time.  “Screw the rest of the details.  They can have her.  I want to get you back to Moya and the medical scanner.”

“I’m fine.” 

“Right, Aeryn.  You don’t have a concussion, and I never hesitate.”  John turns back toward the collection of small yips, growls, and eager snufflings, fully prepared to turn over custody of Natira to the family of blood trackers.

The pack has closed in around their prisoner.  They are taking turns poking her with their weapons.  One of the females leaps in close, nips at a shoulder, and darts away.  Another creeps close, nicks her with a knife and scampers out of range.  The rest of the group throw back their heads and howl their approval.  Crichton’s stomach squirms.  The scene reminds him of a pack of jackals toying with a bleeding, bewildered water buffalo before going in for the kill.  The eventual outcome will undoubtedly be the same. 

He hesitates.  Aeryn gives the back of his shoulder a shove.  “Take her,” he says after one more microt worth of indecision. 

Natira is dragged to her feet and herded away.  Crichton’s last sight of her is one of a thoroughly cowed, defeated figure stumbling along in the midst of the cavorting, gleeful vocarians.  The sound of their victory continues to echo off the sides of the buildings long after they have disappeared from view. 

A simple statement from Aeryn drags John back from a stunned contemplation of what the next few arns hold in store for Natira.  “I have a headache.” 

“I’m not surprised.  You hit hard enough that I wasn’t sure who was going to fold first -- you or the building.”  He gestures in the general direction of the transport pod, inviting her to lead the way.  If she is in front of him, he can watch for signs of a more serious head injury.  She hit the wall hard enough that he is worried about a skull fracture. 

They trudge along in silence, passing quickly from the unnatural silence of the still-deserted scene of the short battle, into the bedlam of the main avenue, and from there into the relative peace of the footpath leading to the landing pads. 

“What were you planning to do?” Aeryn asks once they are alone again. 

John lengthens his stride to move up alongside her.  “When?” 

“When you weren’t going to let them take Natira.” 

Aeryn sounds furious.  She also sounds as though she feels sick.  He tries to placate her.  This is not the time or place for one of their full bore, knock-down-drag-out arguments.  “I don’t know.  I hadn’t made up my mind.” 

She turns on him, smacks him on the shoulder with the palm of her hand.  “Yes, you had.  You weren’t going to let them take her.  You wanted to save her!” 

“For god’s sake, Aeryn!  They are going to eat her!  Tell me they aren’t going to turn her into a meal before nightfall!”

She steps in front of him so quickly he has to do some tricky footwork to avoid running her over.  “I can’t tell you that because you’re right.  Yes!  They’re going to eat her, John.  What did you want to do about it?  Bring her back to Moya, nurse her back to health, and ask her to live with us?”  Aeryn makes a furious gesture toward the right side of her face, indicating the hard, fast slashing scar, then points at his own still-oozing wound, and raises her eyebrows as far as he has ever seen them travel.  The unspoken question is asking him if he is willing to let that sort of thing happen again. 

“No.  It’s just --”

“Just what?” she asks after several microts pass in silence. 

“Nuthin’.  Forget I said anything.” 

“You don’t like cruelty,” she says.  “You don’t want her to suffer.”

He shrugs, uncertain how to explain what he feels. 

Aeryn waits for a large group of chattering females to pass by, and then resumes course toward the transport pod.  “You don’t have to worry, John.  She won’t suffer,” she says.  “Vorcarians don’t eat live prey.  They have evolved to the point where they prefer to butcher and cook their meat.” 

He comes to a stop, stunned, for several microts, then has to hurry in order to catch up.  “That’s not a whole hell of a lot of comfort, Aeryn!” 

“It is all you are going to get.” 

After that contribution to the conversation, silence feels good for a while.  He listens to the quiet whisper of Aeryn’s leather pants, the creak of her boots, and the occasional slap of her overcoat as it flaps in the breeze; and holds a brief, internal celebration that they are both essentially unharmed, and that the threat to his family has been eliminated.  After several dozen microts of peace and quiet, a different kind of reaction starts to gnaw at him.  It involves guilt.  He opens his mouth, intending to say something; then closes it.  Some things are better left unsaid.

“What?” Aeryn asks. 

“Nothing.” 

“What?’ she says again, in a more demanding tone.

He confesses.  “I had a chance to shoot her, and I hesitated.”

“I thought you might have.”  Aeryn’s stride doesn’t falter.  She turns the corner onto the landing area, ducks under the wing of a parked spacecraft, and angles toward the transport pod squatting in the distance. 

“Why aren’t you ripping my head off right now?” John asks.  “You’ve been yammering at me all day not to hesitate.” 

Aeryn steps into the shade offered by one of the parked ships, and turns to face him.  “You hate to kill.  After everything we have been through over the past several cycles and all the time you have spent here, you still can’t stand to kill anyone.”  She steps close, cradles his face in both hands, wipes away a smear of blood with her thumb, and then kisses him.  “It is one of the reasons why I love you so much.” 

John gets in a kiss of his own before she has a chance to pull away.  “If you love me so much, then why do you always spend a month busting my chops whenever I have trouble pulling the trigger?” 

“Because each time it happens, I have to face the possibility that some day it will get you killed.  I will gladly live the rest of my life without ever seeing that wonderful, gentle part of you again if it means you will not die because you hesitated.”  She waits, looking relaxed, giving him no indication that she is in a hurry to return to Moya, or needs to do anything about her headache. 

John gestures for her to resume the rest of their journey back to the transport pod.  Aeryn links her arm into his and steps into the sunlight.   

“So you give me a hard time because you love me,” he says.

“Yes.” 

“Sounds kind of like a marriage.” 

“If you say so,” she says.

They reach the transport pod.  John triggers the hatch, and motions for Aeryn to go first.  “I can live with that.”

“That is all I want.” 


* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

19
Crashfic / Delirium (G) - 3rd Annual Terra Firma Beach Bash Fic
« Last post by KernilCrash on June 10, 2016, 10:51:33 AM »
Delirium

* * * * *

Rating:  G.
Disclaimer:  No ownership, no profit.  Written purely for fun … and because the Youses Muses Gang held a pulse pistol to my head.  I offer the most profound apologies to you, the readers; to the Henson Company; and to MGM, for what I am about to do.
Time Frame/Spoilers:  Your choice.  Most likely some time after PKWars, but that isn’t definite.  No spoilers.
Test Driver:  PKLibrarian took the story for a quick spin ahead of time, but I have to take full responsibility for this one.  It was written quickly, and received an abysmal level of editing.  (I always regret this.  You would think I would learn my lesson.)

Genesis:  Written for the 3rd Annual Terra Firma Beach Bash ‘Lost Weekend’ Challenge.  I hadn’t intended to write anything, due primarily to a lack of interest on the part of the Youses Muses.  But then I was playing with some screen captures, and the Youses Muses Gang, in a display of their often warped sense of humor, decided they wanted to tell a story. 

* * * * *


John eased through the doors to the cell one cautious step at a time.  He stood just inside them, listening for several microts, before whispering, “Aeryn?  You awake?”   

The motionless hump under the thermal sheet let out an extended mumble.  John decided that the conglomeration of syllables might have been “Leave me alone”.  On the other hand, it could have just as easily been “Let me die” … or “Frell off”, for that matter.  He grinned, relieved that Aeryn was finally awake even if she didn’t sound like she wanted his company, and crossed the distance to the bed without any of his previous attempts at stealth.

“Welcome back,” he said.  “Can you sit up and drink something?”

A wild snarl of dark hair appeared from underneath the covers.  Bleary eyes surveyed the cell, stared at John for several microts without much in the way of comprehension, and finally focused on the large drinking flask in his hand.  “I think so.”  When he made a move to help her sit up, she did not try to avoid it, as she so frequently did.  She went so far as to grab on to his shoulders, and then allowed him do the rest of the work.  “How long has it been?”

He edged one hip onto the bed, using his own body to provide a stable backrest for her weaving body.  Once he had her propped up, he guided the container into her trembling hands.  “Best part of three solar days.”

“Three days.  It felt like an arn or two.”  She leaned to one side and turned her head to check on his expression, very nearly losing her balance in the process.  “You must have been worried.”

“Worried doesn’t begin to describe it.  You scared the living hell out of me, woman.  All I could concentrate on was how you told me that you never get sick.”

“That was when I was getting regular inoculations.  This must have been a disease new to the Peacekeepers in the last few cycles.” 

“Well, don’t do that again,” he said, giving her a gentle hug.  “I was about ready to have Pilot start searching for a Peacekeeper ship or planetary installation.  If your fever hadn’t broken last night, you’d be looking at big turkeys on the wall by now.” 

Aeryn took several sips from the flask, paused long enough to make sure her stomach wasn’t going to rebel, and then sucked down the remainder.  “More,” she said, thrusting it into his hands. 

He got up in stages, stopping frequently to make sure she wasn’t going to topple over.  “Don’t fall on the floor.” 

“As if I would.”

“You weren’t around to see yourself the last few days.”  He remained where he was, poised by the side of the bed, until he was certain she wasn’t going to lose her balance, and then made the short trek to get more water.

“You could have found a diagnosan,” she said once he had returned and had his arms around her again. 

“Not when it comes to your health,” he said, putting the emphasis on ‘your’.  “The Peacekeepers know more about what modifications have been made to your body and how to keep your engine tuned and running smooth than anyone else at this end of the galaxy.  You’re Formula One technology, Aeryn, you need top notch attention.  There’s no way I’d void the warrantee on your chassis by taking you to the nearest backyard grease monkey.” 

Aeryn’s response was to let her head rest on his shoulder, and to lean back into his embrace.  The silence stretched out.  Neither of them felt compelled to break it.  Aeryn had emptied the flask a second time and handed it to John for another refill before anyone spoke.  “Have you had any sleep?” she asked.

“A few hours this morning.  Until then, I was too worried about you,” he confessed.  “You were out of your mind from the fever.  Wherever you went, it must have been a wild trip though.  You were spouting the strangest stuff I’ve ever heard come out of your mouth.” 

Aeryn let out a small guttural exclamation and rocked her head back and forth against his shoulder.

“Not wild?  Or no dreams?” he asked.

“Different than wild.  Strange dreams.  Very strange dreams.  I was on Earth, in a military command of some sort.” 

“Soldier.  That makes sense,” John said. 

“I wasn’t a soldier.”  Aeryn shuffled forward to put some space between them, and then turned so she could watch his reaction.  “It’s very muddled, but I believe I was a goddess of some sort, or” -- she went silent for several microts -- “or an ex-goddess.  I was also a thief, if that makes any sense.  Or I might have been a tralk.  The way I was throwing myself at some of the men was more the way a tralk would behave.  You were there.  You were an officer in your military.  You were still a pilot, but you were very stuffy, very” -- she drew herself up very straight and went rigid, demonstrating what she was trying to express -- “with your hair up to here.”  She used both hands to push the hair on the sides of John’s head upward so he looked as though he had shaved it off to above his ears.  “It was confusing.  We were explorers, except we were at war part of the time.  I must have been thinking about you because there were wormholes that weren’t really wormholes, and whenever we went through one of the not-wormholes, everyone we met died.”

“Sounds frightening,” he said. 

“Mostly it was boring.  Whoever we were fighting did not frighten me.  I remember thinking that they didn’t seem real.  The entire situation made less and less sense the longer it continued.  You weren’t interested in any of the women.  As far as I could tell, you weren’t interested in sex at all.” 

“Okay, now you’re describing a horrible nightmare.” 

She smiled at him, and went on.  “I was interested in -- What is that word you use for someone with glasses who is only interested in books?”

“Geek?” John said.

“That’s the word!  I was interested in a geek.  I thought he was terribly sexy and exciting.” 

“You may not have thought this was frightening, but you’re scaring the crap out of me,” John said.

Aeryn examined the smile and the relaxed body half-sprawled beside her, and then turned around so she could sit with his arms around her again.  He gathered her in without needing to be told that was what she wanted.  “So how did it end?” he asked.

She shrugged against him.  “It just did.  The last thing I remember about the dream was wanting to use one of the fake wormhole things to get home to you.”   

“You must have found one.  You’re here.”  He kissed the side of her forehead.  “And you don’t have a fever any more, which makes me extremely happy.”

Aeryn caught one of his hands in both of hers, turned it palm up, and kissed it.  “What would make me very happy right now are a shower and a dentic.  I must have spent most of those three days sweating.  I'm sticky and I smell.”  She accepted a guiding hand while she got to her feet, stood still for a moment to make sure she had her balance, and then made her way slowly to the doorway leading into the waste alcove.  She paused there, one hand on the wall, and watched him. 

“What?” John asked when it became apparent that she was waiting for something. 

“I was thinking that I’ve been ill.  I believe it would be wise to have someone in the shower with me in case I suffer a relapse.” 

Crichton bounded off the bed, stumbled in his haste, and still managed to shed most of his clothes and make it into the shower before her. 

“I have been sick,” Aeryn said, laughing at him.  “I doubt I’m up to anything more than a shower before going back to bed.  All I want is someone to wash my back and to be there if I lose my balance.” 

John lobbed the last of his clothing out the door before helping her out of her loose shirt and shorts.  “Can I lust after your body while I wash your back?”

“Certainly,” she said, and then added, “Your sex drive seems to be intact.” 

“Don’t confuse me with that wimp in your dream.  I’m a red-blooded American male.  Ready for action 24 hours a day.” 

Aeryn stepped close, waited until he put his arms around her, and then put all of her strength into hugging him.  “It’s good to know I am home.” 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
20
Crashfic / Re: Foot Falls (PG) - 11th Starburst Challenge
« Last post by KernilCrash on June 10, 2016, 10:50:50 AM »
The boys are already asleep.  You find them in DJ’s bed, a rarity in itself since DJ seldom allows Ian in his room to start with; add on the fact that Ian is sprawled on top of DJ’s chest, suggesting that they went to bed hugging each other, and you realize you underestimated the extent of their anxiety.  You consider letting them sleep.  No one aboard Moya has been getting enough rest.  Too many nights find everyone, including the boys, awake and wandering, apparently lost within Moya’s silent look-alike corridors.  You decide against leaving them.  If they wake later, and you aren’t there, they might panic.

“Move over,” you whisper.  Ian’s thumb slides into his mouth.  Aside from that he doesn’t stir.  DJ mumbles something unintelligible, and worms his way toward the edge of the bed without opening his eyes, moving awkwardly beneath the weight of his little brother.  You shuffle in next to them, burrow an arm under DJ’s shoulders, and pull both of them halfway onto your body. 

“Mom?” he whispers, sounding more alert.

“Braca is here,” you tell him.  “He kept his promise.” 

He spends some time rubbing his eyes with the heel of one hand.  The muted light filtering in from the passageway catches the glint of tears.  “Is it going to work?” he asks.

You stare up at the smoothly arced ceiling, and wonder the same thing.  The diagnosans chirrup and nod with satisfaction.  The hynerian in charge of all research spends his time looking smugly delighted.  Rygel swears that Scorpius’ blood is the answer to stopping the contagion for once and for all.  And you lie with your two sons, asking yourself one question over and over again until it blends into a nonsensical cadence.  You do not understand half of what they describe; more than a third of the terms they use come through untranslated.  John continues to lose ground to the virus with each passing arn, and you don’t have a good answer for your son. 

“Mom, is this going to cure Dad?” he asks again.

“I hope so,” you murmur, and kiss the top of his head.

The arns pass in slow motion.  DJ goes back to sleep, still gently crying even after he drifts off.  You ease out from under their combined weight, watch them for a while, and then leave them to their dreams.  It is nighttime aboard Moya -- at least in this part of the ship.  The hallways are a gloomy collection of shadows; there is no whine of DRDs to wake sleeping children.  Elsewhere, the lights are bright, equipment is running at full capacity, and a man fights for his life. 

You start to reach for your comms, intending to call Rygel to ask what is going on.  Your hand hovers for several microts then drops to your side without activating the small bronze badge.  For all you know, they could be in the middle of a crisis -- one interruption away from total disaster.  Rygel will let you know the instant he has any news.  He has promised.

You drift from chamber to chamber, from one tier to the next.  At one point you find yourself in your quarters, holding Winona.  You don’t remember how you got here.  You set her down with care, decide to go to bed, and float on out through the open doorway.  The Center Chamber is empty.  There is no sign of the devastation that occurred there, no hint of the event that turned your life upside down. 

 “Pilot,” you call, intending to ask how long it has been.

“No word yet,” he answers right away. 

“Thank you.”  You have forgotten to check the time.  No matter.  It refuses to pass at a normal pace anyway.

Braca has chosen a cell on Tier One.  The doors are closed.  He has discovered the old trick of hanging thermal sheets for privacy.  Perhaps he is sleeping. 

You stand outside, wondering what galaxies or landscapes he might be traversing in his dreams, whether he longs for surroundings that are familiar.  Does he miss the steady mechanical hum that permeates most spaces aboard a Command Carrier?  Do Moya’s forever varying grumbles make him uneasy, as they did you so many cycles ago?  Does he wake and turn over several times every arn, trying to find a comfortable position on the leviathan-grown bed, and ache to be back where he belongs?  No matter, you decide.  There is no going back. 

Four DRDs stop what they are doing to watch you pass by.  Their eyestalks follow your progress.  The robots look strangely apologetic. 

More golden hallways.  The calming, sustained rumbles of Moya.  One cell after another.  No one to tell you that all will be well.  Moya cannot replace what has been lost; she cannot take John’s place.  You listen to her sounds, and decide that those things do not matter.  Her presence is enough.  You know she is keeping track of your journey, watching over you even if she is helpless to demonstrate her love or provide you with reassurance.  She provides silent solace.  Moya asks nothing of you.  The absence of demands is a relief.   

You mean to check on the children, and end up in the Den instead.  Pilot is awake.  What is it like, you wonder, to never sleep? 

“Nothing yet,” he says as you cross the narrow bridge. 

You decide you don’t want to know how long it has been since Rygel took the samples to the maintenance bay that has been transformed into the leviathan equivalent of a medical sector.  “Is Braca’s ship gone?” you ask instead.

“Yes,” he says.  “There is no trace of it.”

You remember that there is a reason why you came here.  “Pilot, I never thanked you.” 

He lowers the front edge of the great curving shell, and peers out at you from beneath.  You can’t decide if it is pleasure or embarrassment. 

Words can never express how you feel.  You owe Pilot your gratitude several times over.  It had been Pilot who had sent out the emergency summons to Hyneria while you were still guiding John’s stumbling staggering rapidly deteriorating body toward the maintenance bay and the cryo-equipment.  It was Pilot who had calculated the starburst that had emerged almost on top of the cluster of hynerian ships carrying the Dominar and his medical research team.  When you came up with a wild plan to save John, it was Pilot who, without telling you what he was doing, spent two solar days filtering through the endless stream of Peacekeeper communications in search of Braca.  He pieced together the hints, the enigmatic communiqués, the fragmented transmissions; questing, sifting through the slow galactic migration of electronically generated energies with Moya’s long-range sensors, using his own expansive intelligence to piece together all the small clues until he could determine the current duty location of a single disgraced Peacekeeper officer. 

At that point he had consulted you, and together you had come up with a message.  It was Pilot, however, who had decided to shift from the gentle handling of nuances and innuendo to a fast brutal stab of energy and encryption.  Utilizing every trick that he and Moya had ever learned from Talyn, Pilot had rammed a single, heavily compressed signal through the Peacekeeper communications shield straight into Braca’s personal quarters, bypassing every single alert system along the way. 

“John owes you his life.”

Pilot looks grief-stricken.  The praise does not please him.  He turns his attention to his controls for a moment.  You close your eyes, suddenly feeling very tired.  Moya seems to be performing aerobatics.  The floor beneath your feet shifts with each swooping maneuver. 

“Perhaps you should try to get some sleep, Aeryn,” Pilot says. 

It sounds like a good idea.  You lie down next to the slanting wall surrounding his station, curl up, and go to sleep with the music of the DRDs in your ears.  You are in the spot where you and John have sat in each others arms more than a hundred times over the past cycles.  When you press your cheek to the floor, you can almost feel him.  In the strange space suspended halfway between waking and sleep, you are certain that the warmth from his body still lingers there, just beyond your ability to detect it.  For the first time in days, you sleep soundly. 

Eons pass.  You wake, leave the Den, later remember that Pilot was talking to you when you left.  You decide to go work on the Prowler.  It will give you something to do.  You wind up on the tier with the maintenance bay instead, no more than ten motras from where they have John.  You stand very still, barely breathing, and listen.  All is quiet.  No sounds make it past the closed door.  An arn passes, then two.  The corridors are silent.  You wonder if you would be able to hear him if he cried out, either in pain or calling for you.  There is no way to know.

You turn away, wondering how much longer. 

Braca is there, half hidden behind one of Moya’s ribs at the far end of the tier.

“If I find out you have been down here again, I will kill you.”  He doesn’t move.  “Pilot will let me know if you are on this tier,” you say.

He looks at the DRDs gathered near your feet and retreats. 

Either microts or arns have passed.  You no longer know how many of each.  The boys are awake.  They find you on Command.  You are sitting crossed-legged on the strategy table, staring out the forward view portal when they wander in.  DJ is carrying a flask of water and a sheave of kressa bread.  It is what you use to soothe their stomachs when they are sick.  Ian’s shirt is on backwards.  Both are in their bare feet.  You beckon to Ian, get him turned around in his shirt, and then give them both a hug and kiss.  Ian clambers up beside you.  He lies down with his head in your lap. 

“You should eat,” DJ says, handing you the bread. 

“I’m not hungry.” 

“Mom?” he asks.

“What?” 

“You’re scaring us.”     

Your perception of him shifts.  This is one of those rare moments when you see him the way you would someone else’s child.  A small boy stands before you, lonely and lost.  His hair is standing on end, his shirt is on inside-out, he has obviously been crying, and he looks desperately frightened.  Your first son is normally so self-sufficient, you sometimes forget that he is a young child.  Saying you’re sorry isn’t nearly enough to make it up to him.  “Come here,” you say, and lift an arm so he can slide in against you.  He does his best to merge his body into yours.   

You try to explain.  “I don’t wait well.” 

He has already started to relax.  “Is that like when Dad says you’re not good at nice?”

You almost laugh.  “I said that to him a very long time ago, before you were born.”   

“Tell us,” Ian says in his small-child lisp.  “Tell us a story about you and Daddy.”

You tell them about how once upon a time you were not good at nice, about the first day you met a peculiar astronaut and threw him from one side of a cell to the other; about pantak jabs, and your efforts to teach the strange person how to shoot, of monsters and evil villains; and about falling in love.  They ask questions even though they know the answers, giggle when you make fun of their father, and laugh at the parts you make up to describe how two people behave when they are very much in love.  They take you backwards and forwards in time, through the bittersweet moments and the shining delights.  Somewhere in the midst of your journey from past to present, DJ gets you to eat.  Ian falls asleep in your lap. 

You find peace there, in the timeless place where the warmth and weight of your two sons rests against your body, where their dependence on you and the love they give in return keeps you stable.  You draw stamina from the promise of what the future will bring as they grow, from the way they resemble John, and from their youthful resilience.  There is no longer any need to talk.  You take turns dozing, occasionally shift positions when their weight starts to drag on one portion of your body, and together the three of you watch the slow wheel and turn of the galaxies.  Ian nuzzles closer without waking.  DJ holds onto you, both of his arms wrapped around your waist, you rest your head against his, and for a short time, you can sleep. 

“Aeryn.”  Rygel’s voice jolts you awake.  DJ and Ian both sit up at the same time.  DJ doesn’t seem to be breathing.  Ian looks upset and confused.   

“Yes,” you call back. 

There is a two microt delay before the next portion of Rygel’s message.  It feels more like two arns.  It is long enough that your heart has time to stop beating.  You hug the boys tightly, thinking that for their sakes, you must not cry. 

“Crichton is alive.  He will recover.” 

You feel DJ take a deep breath at the same time you do.  He starts to shake.  You kiss his forehead, tuck his head in against your shoulder, hug him fiercely, and say to Rygel, “Can I see him?”

“It would be better if you waited a few arns,” he says. 

Rygel hasn’t said ‘No’.  As far as you are concerned, that is a yes.  “I’m on my way down.” 

“Aeryn.”  He sounds uncertain.  It is an unfamiliar sound coming from Rygel.

“What?”

This time the delay lasts almost ten microts.  “Are your sons with you?” 

“Yes.  They are both listening.” 

He sounds more assured when he answers, his usual domineering self.  You aren’t fooled by the shift.  The message is clear.  He is hiding something from the boys.  “Tell them their father is going to be fine.  I’ll meet you outside the maintenance bay.” 
 
You urge Ian to move away from you, and begin to slide toward the edge of the strategy table.  “Will you be all right on your own for a little while?” you ask DJ.  “Do you want to go up and wait with Pilot?” 

“Can’t we come with you?”  He checks with Ian, receives a vigorous nod of agreement.  “We want to see Dad, too.” 
 
“He will want to see you too, but he’s been very sick.”  You search for a better excuse.  For once, you wish you knew how to lie to your children. 

“We should wait until he’s feeling better,” he finishes while you are still fumbling about for an explanation.  “He’ll need to rest.  We can see him once he’s had time to get better.”  The self-assured person is back, confidence fully restored.

“I am very, very proud of you,” you say.  He blushes the same shade of red as his father.  “Would you feel better if you waited with Pilot?  Or do you want to go back to Quarters or stay here?”   

He doesn’t answer your question.  His attention, as well as Ian’s, is fixed on the forward view portal.  “Mom!  Look!”

The star field taking up the entire front section of Command is spinning as though someone has wound a string around its outer rim and given it a vigorous pull.  The constellations come to a stop, and then disappear from view as Moya noses upward into the night sky and rolls over on her back.  Galaxies rush from one edge of the view portal to the other and back again, nebulas spiral crazily, gas clouds dance and gyrate, and in the far distance, the spark of a faraway supernova performs dainty pirouettes.  Moya is dancing.  She continues to shift between the fast spins along her central axis that make the stars in the view portal appear to whirl in a carefully choreographed spiral, and the playful acrobatics and end-for-end tumbles. 

“We’re not the only ones who are happy to hear that your father is going to be all right,” you say to DJ and Ian. 

“Moya’s playing!” Ian says.  He has one finger in his mouth.

“Yes, she is.  Why don’t you stay here and watch.” 

“We’ll be okay,” DJ says.  “We’ll wait for you here.” 

You leave them when you would much rather stay.  Now that the crisis is over, you want to sit on the floor with your children, hug them with an exuberance you seldom display, and let your emotions run wild.  But Rygel’s reticence needs to be addressed.  He said that John will recover, which means that something else must have gone wrong.  You wonder if this means the disease is once again loose on Moya. 

You cover the distance in record time.  Rygel is waiting, as promised. 

“What’s wrong?  Is it John?  Is it the virus?” 

He makes placating motions with both hands.  “Nothing.  He is going to be fine.  Calm down.”

“I am calm!”  Your voice echoes in your memory.  You did not sound calm at all.  You sounded deranged.  “I am becoming calmer,” you say on the second try.  “What went wrong?”

“Nothing,” he insists.  “It’s just that --”  He squirms in his seat.  “We were fighting an extremely aggressive variant of dermifolica.  Worse than most.”

You let the breath you had been holding out in one long sigh.  “You’re worried about how he looks!” 

“Yes.  Perhaps --”  Rygel spends several microts fidgeting.  You have never seen him this off balance.  It is uncharacteristic of the overly self-assured monarch.  After another interval of indecision, he makes up his mind.  “I believe it would be best if you wait one or two solar days before you see him.”

There is a soft internal thud in the pit of your stomach.  After the endless arns of fear, uncertainty, and waiting, every single microt of which was accompanied by the nausea-producing cramps that had taken up permanent residence in your midsection, the new sensation is pleasant by comparison.  Several moments pass before you manage to assign an emotion to the physical reaction. 

Surprise. 

Even then, you’re not sure if it is surprise that Rygel would care enough to keep you from entering the chamber, or surprise that he has forgotten.  Either way, whatever expression has shown up on your face, it has obviously gone astray.  The throne sled is backing away in a hurry, and Rygel seems to be trying to merge himself into the cushions.  You take a deep breath, and then attempt to produce a wry smile.  It is difficult to tell how it turns out; the muscles around your mouth feel as though they have forgotten how to form a cheerful expression.  “Has it really been that long?” you ask. 

The retreat comes to a stop.  He peers at you intently, his earbrows performing a slow upward extension that moves at the same pace as his comprehension.  “Yes,” he drawls.  “I had almost forgotten.”

“Forgotten,” you prompt him, asking for more.

“That the two of you are fahrbot,” he says.

Fahrbot over each other, he means.  Rygel has forgotten that nothing could keep you away from John’s side now that the crisis is over; how there isn’t anything in the universe that could repulse you enough to keep you away, provided your presence in that converted maintenance bay won’t jeopardize his survival. 

But Rygel has a point.  It would be best if you didn’t actually flinch, or worse yet, vomit, when you walk in.  “How bad is it?” 

“They came very close to losing him more than once,” Rygel says.  “Crichton is even uglier than usual.” 

The laugh bursts out of you without warning.  One short, sharp bark, followed by a pause, and then another.  The reaction continues, increasing in frequency until they begin to merge into a single entity.  Rygel looks startled for an instant, and then joins in.  The relief continues to bubble upward, dissolving the worry, the heartache, the almost-tears that you’ve kept hidden since the moment John collapsed, and turning every bit of the tension into uncontrollable giggles.  Rygel moves closer, great guffaws bending him double in his throne chair, earbrows flexing up and down in time with the rest of his body.  The two of you cling to each other, laughing yourselves silly, staggering from one side of the corridor to the other, banging from one support rib to the next.  And throughout it all, you know it is a warped, twisted form of crying.  You are sobbing out your worry in raucous laughter.  You know it for what it is, and can’t get it to stop. 

“John is not ugly,” you gasp at last. 

“You’re right.  You’re right,” Rygel says, struggling for air.  “Crichton is not ugly.”  He pauses before adding, “And neither is a Ligonian swamp slug.” 

That sets it off again, worse than before.  It takes both of you dozens of microts to get the misplaced hilarity under control.  “I’m going to tell him you said that,” you say once you can breathe again. 

“Good.  Make sure you explain that it is a compliment.  Unless you’re a Ligonian slug.” 

“Go.”  You shove the floating chair in the direction of Command.  “Go tell the boys that John looks like a hideous, poisonous swamp creature.  It will make them laugh.  They could also use some reassurance, Rygel, and for some reason no one can explain to me, they trust you.  So while you’re making them laugh, make them feel better, too.”

He gives you one of his most fatuous smiles, the one that lets you know he is pleased that you recognize the depth of his abilities when it comes to dealing with sentient beings, and turns his throne sled toward Command. 

You stay where you are for over three hundred microts, dry-mouthed and excited, hesitant and elated.  Your entire body vibrates with the uncomfortable whining buzz of exhaustion.  The various elements combine to form an uncomfortable skin-crawling sensation that runs from your ankles to the back of your neck.  Your hands and feet, for some reason, remain unaffected.  You rub your face several times, pull your hair back and refasten it so it is neat, and cannot get your feet to move. 

“Checklist complete, pilot ready,” you say, as though giving the command for an accelerated Prowler launch.  It works.  Old habits flourish for the single microt necessary to put you into motion.  A hand that looks exactly like yours triggers the door mechanism.  You don’t remember the rest of your arm moving.  You move through the open doorway as though floating, with no recollection of your feet hitting the floor, and you are inside the maintenance bay infirmary for the first time in two solar days.

You scan the large chamber, searching for John.  It is filled with arcane-looking diagnostic equipment, lab material, shining implements that make you uneasy, and a hoard of tall and small personnel.  Ten or twelve hynerians specialists waddle about, aquatic feet slapping messily through puddles of spilled cryo-fluid.  Their heads barely reach to the knees of the towering diagnosans.  It is noisy, confusing, the lights are too bright, and the entire chamber is permeated by a stench that reminds you of an abattoir your squad had stumbled into during a search and destroy mission.  Taken as a whole, it makes you feel like you have wandered into the wrong chamber.  Retreat might be an attractive option if your goal wasn’t to find John Crichton. 

One of the diagnosans turns in your direction.  It warbles an unintelligible question.

“Where?” is all you are able to ask. 

The wall of bodies parts in the middle. 

John is there.  Alive.  Not frozen. 

Your footsteps seem to echo as you traverse the interminable distance between the door and the medbed.  Perhaps something has happened to Moya’s atmospherics in the last few microts that allows the sound waves to rebound in unusual patterns.  For each footfall, you are sure you are hearing your boot hit the floor four times over.  Or maybe it is shock.  Every other noise in the chamber is muffled.  You know the medical experts are talking; you can see their lips moving.  One of them drops an instrument that should hit the floor with a resounding clatter.  The machines that have been working steadily over the past several days to keep John alive are all still moving.  But the only noise that has the power to infiltrate the buffer of silence cocooning your body is the reverberating thud of your boot soles.

The air pressure returns to normal the moment you come to a stop.  After the brief silence, the chaotic din is painful.  Metal rings against metal.  The hynerians’ medical jargon is a babbling, burbling aggravation; the diagnosans’ high-pitched sing-song language enough to drive you to murder.  Even Moya’s perpetual grumbles are annoying.  You think this is what it might be like if you had been deaf your entire life, and had suddenly been given hearing.  Silence would be preferable.   

You push the anger away, aware that the stress of the past days is making you short tempered, and take the final two steps necessary to reach the side of the bed.  Rygel was right.  John looks worse than you’ve ever seen him.  You have seen John Crichton sick, shot, bitten, beaten, frozen, fevered, injured, and on the verge of death, and none of it had looked this bad.  There isn’t much of his body that you are able to see, but what is visible is hideous.  The medicians have him buried up to his ears under thick insulating layers; he is ringed by heat-generating thermal lamps.  That part you expected.  After so many days spent in cryo-stasis, it will take some time before John’s body begins to produce any significant amount of heat on its own.  Until then, they will have to rely on blankets and heat lamps to keep him warm. 

What you weren’t prepared for is his constant struggle to breathe, the endless coughing, the restless shifting beneath the covers that tells you how uncomfortable he is, and the extensive tattered devastation left behind by the virus.  Rygel’s skin sloughing had been mild by comparison.

You lick your lips, take a deep breath, and try to say something.  Nothing emerges.  On the third try, you manage a whispered, “Hey.”   

Cloudy white eyes turn in your direction.  The blue is more memory than an underlying hint of their original color.  You knew that the dermifolica had developed a taste for human corneas.  It had shown up on the scanners the fourth day he was in stasis.  “Hey,” John rasps.  The single syllable exhausts him. 

You move closer.  His eyes make an adjustment.  Reason says that he can’t possibly see through the damage.  You assume he is following the sounds.  “I’m right here, beside you.” 

“I know.”  He spends some time catching his breath.  “I see shapes.”  It is a longer sentence, so it takes him longer to recover.

“What kinds of shapes?” you ask while you wait. 

He smiles.  “Gorgeous shape.  Shapely shape.”  You wait through a bout of coughing, sensing that he wants to say more.  “Aeryn shape,” he adds eventually.   

A lump under the blanket moves.  You decide it might be his hand making an attempt to reach in your direction.  You capture the lump with both hands, stilling his efforts to move.  He needs every bit of energy he can muster. 

“Gonna be okay,” he says.  “They say so.”   He struggles for breath.  “Everything.  It will all … heal.  All.  Promise.” 

He spends some time catching his breath, alternately coughing out pink-tinged frothy dregs of cryo-fluid and fighting to still his chattering teeth.  You wait patiently.  You have the one thing you need.  There is no need to hurry.   

“Heard … you,” he stammers through a fast staccato of teeth rattling against teeth. 

You pull the covers up around his ears, rearrange them compulsively so they hug as much of his neck and the sides of his head as possible while you search for the right way to reply.  It is difficult to hang on to the thermal layers.  Your fingers don’t operate the way they are supposed to; they are numb from the shock.  Of all the things you had imagined him saying, this was not on the list. 

“You were in stasis.  You were dreaming.” 

“No.”  His headshake is as erratic as his breathing.  “Heard you.  It helped.” 

He is thanking you.  The person who kept fighting to live well beyond the point when most beings would have given up and let themselves die is thanking you for the time you spent sitting beside a chilled container holding the frozen body of the man you love far beyond all logical explanation.  The hynerian scientists have explained more than once:  John Crichton should not have survived.  His body had sustained too much damage before entering stasis:  too many of his blood vessels had collapsed, too many organs had shut down, his lung capacity had dropped to almost zero.  They had never seen anything like it.  No patient has ever clung to the will to live like this human, they say. 

It is you who owe John a lifetime worth of gratitude.  You owe him the entire future that you thought was over the night he collapsed on the Center Chamber floor.  You had fought to save him; he had fought harder to survive.  The best you can come up with is, “You didn’t give up.”

He shakes his head, leaving small bits of himself on the pillow with each small motion, and once again expresses the depth of his love for you, one erratic, spasmodic pulse of air at a time.  “Never.  You.  The kids.  Never.”

The tears arrive then:  unstoppable, undeniable, unquenchable.  You don’t try to hide them.  For the first time in twelve solar days, you let go.  You stay on your feet, rubbing the hummock of insulated layers that covers his hand and spouting all sorts of meaningless comments in order to let him know you are there; you stand up straight the way a soldier was once taught to, and you let yourself cry. 


* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *


Thank you to Sunshine for coming up with the challenge that brought this story into existence. 

Thank you, everyone else, for reading.  You are the best. 

Crash
:dk:
Purveyor of Hallucinations
 
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