Author Topic: Body Shop (PG-13) - Starburst Challenge 49  (Read 617 times)

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Offline KernilCrash

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Body Shop (PG-13) - Starburst Challenge 49
« on: June 10, 2016, 11:11:06 AM »
Body Shop

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Starburst Challenge 49 (hosted by Michael1812):  "It's life, Jim, but not as we know it."  Have the Moyans encounter new life in whatever form it may be.  Preferably unconventional.  The new form of life must be unknown, never encountered, and weird (what else?).  You must also include in some form plastic surgery, in the sense of alterations. You may also introduce either a subspecies of a known species or a new branch of this same species.

Rating:  PG-13, for some adult-level innuendo.
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.
Spoilers/Time Frame:  This story takes place approximately 9 cycles after PK Wars.  It does not contain any comics-canon.  If you are reading the comics, then consider this AU.  John and Aeryn have two children now:  D’Argo and Ian, ages 9 and 2. 
Deke-Disclaimer:  I am not fond of the nickname Deke, which was provided in the comics.  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, shester, and Nette.  Shester and Nette got their first glimpse of my standard posting-anxiety.  PKLibrarian provided an outstanding suggestion for improvement.  Thank you, ladies!   

Printer Friendly Version (36KB .zip file opens to a Word .doc file)

I hope you enjoy it. 

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The city did not look like anything John Crichton might have imagined.  When Pilot reported that he had located a planet-sized asteroid dedicated entirely to healers, medical practitioners, and the various industries to support them, Crichton had refrained from making any assumptions about how the metropolitan areas might look.  More than a dozen cycles at this end of the universe had taught him not to make that mistake.  Very few of the planets he had visited had resembled anything that a person from Earth had dreamed up. 

Just the same, he had expected a basic level of hygiene and order.  The presence of medical specialists and healers seemed to imply that the urban areas might in some way resemble Earth-style hospitals or health clinics, at least as far as cleanliness was concerned.  In the two solar days it had taken to reach the asteroid, he had toyed briefly with the idea of blindingly white skyscrapers gleaming in the sun, immaculate inside and out; or of sprawling, holistic, oriental-looking complexes where indoors and outdoors flowed seamlessly from one to the other, tapping into the natural healing energies of the planet. 

What he had not envisioned was a post-apolcalyptic version of Whoville … on steroids.

If an architect had chosen to stretch the wackily rotund, brightly-colored Seuss houses upwards for thirty or forty stories until the sky was no longer visible, the result would have been similar to Crichton’s current surroundings.  The next step would be to cram the buildings in so densely that the streets were a scant two motras wide, reducing the avenues and thoroughfares to cramped, achingly cold, sunless canyons.  Once that was accomplished, every surface needed to be coated with a thick layer of grease, grime, dirt, mold, and trash; laundry had to be hung out to dry on every cable, railing and protuberance; and personal possessions had to be stored haphazardly on balconies, in corners, and so they clogged the narrow alleyways branching off from the wider avenues. 

The only thing left to complete the scene would be people.  Hoards and scores of people, all chattering, yelling, bellowing, screeching, warbling, trilling, or yammering in whatever noise passed for speech.  The pedestrian spaces were overrun by every species that John Crichton had encountered in the Uncharted Territories and three times as many that he had never seen before.  Progress through the streets was a series of collisions, ricocheting from one person to the next, shoving oncoming traffic out of the way or being thrust to one side in return. 

If that were not enough, there did not seem to be a straight line on the entire chunk of rock.  Buildings curved, curled, bulged, bowed, and rippled, both horizontally and vertically.  Doorways, windows, streets, and alleys were wreathed with dingy, battered scrollwork.  Railings bobbed and weaved, and roof lines -- on the rare occasion when they were visible -- looked as though they were either melting or on the verge of caving in.  All of which made navigation a challenge.

John took several long strides to catch up to the person walking in front of him.  He said, “How much farther?” close to Aeryn’s right ear. 

She held up two fingers. 

“Two what?” he yelled over the din of the crowd.  “Buildings, intersections, or two more days of fighting through this mob?”

Aeryn gestured vaguely ahead and to their right.  “Intersections.”

“Are you going to be able to find your way out of here later?” Aeryn’s ability to memorize a route -- either from a map ahead of time or as she traveled it on foot -- never failed to astonish him.  But these were unusual circumstances.  There were no constant reference points, no shadows to suggest a direction of travel, no visual cues in the distance to get them back on track if they got lost. 

“Pilot will be able to guide us,” Aeryn said over her shoulder.

She was just as lost as he was.  If she knew where she was and could get back to the transport pod on her own, she would have said yes.   

“Are you sure this is the right place to come for this?” he asked.  “It doesn’t look like --”

Aeryn stopped walking and turned to face him.  “Like what?”

“Like anything having to do with good health, Aeryn.  This asteroid is the ultimate butt hole of the universe!  Short of a rotting budong full of acid-spewing pustules, we have never been any place worse.  The only thing we’re likely to pick up here is a case of space ebola.”

Aeryn rested her hand on the butt of her pulse pistol, which meant that she was either impatient or irritated or, if he was really unlucky, both.  “We talked this over,” she said. 

“I know, I know.  And it’s taken half a cycle just to find this place.  We agreed that we can’t wait any longer.  It’s too risky.  We agreed that we had to get this done sooner, not later.  Too much depends on it.  I remember the conversation.”  He turned from one side to the other several times, surveying their surroundings, then shook his head.

“But --” she said, prompting him.

“But … good god, Aeryn!  This place is revolting.  It makes Aunty Entity’s Bartertown look like the garden spot of the universe.  Your life or DJ’s or Ian’s could depend on what we’re here to buy.  Are you sure this is the right place for this shopping trip?”

She looked from one end of the street to the other, much as he had moments earlier, and then tilted her head to one side, acknowledging his concern.  “Let’s at least take a look at the building before we decide.  We have come this far.  We might as well take the time to make sure it is as bad as it looks.” 

He gestured over her shoulder, indicating that she should lead the way, and they resumed their battering, jostling journey.  John fixed his eyes on Aeryn’s back, concentrated on staying within one long lunge of being able to catch up to her, and used the free time to think about what had brought them to this asteroid. 

The last cycle and a half had been a difficult one.  Not catastrophic, as some of their cycles had been; merely difficult in terms of medical problems, accidents, and the constant struggle to keep the entire family healthy.  No one had died.  The children had come through the interval without any lasting mental or physical damage, and their lives had finally settled back into as normal a routine as their lives ever got.  But there had been some exceedingly close calls, and they had decided to avoid a repeat of as many of the crises as possible. 

It had started out mildly.  A bump, a bruise, a bloody nose.  All normal for growing children.  Then a cycle and a half ago, DJ had broken his arm.  Ian had contracted an illness that had eerily resembled mumps.  Since John had never had the disease as a child, he had retreated into a self-imposed exile just in case the disease had managed to travel light years across space, leaving Aeryn to cope with a frighteningly sick child.  John was next.  He had pulled a groin muscle that stubbornly refused to heal for close to half a cycle.  Aeryn was too close to a hangar bay when a pressure hatch failed.  Considering how bad it could have been, the consequences were minor:  her left ear had been irreparably damaged, and she was now deaf on that side. 

They had barely recovered from Aeryn’s injury when DJ had come down with appendicitis.  All three of the Sun-Crichton males now had scars on their abdomens.  They had decided to undergo two instances of preventive surgery -- in addition to the surgery to save DJ -- in order to make sure that specific emergency never occurred again.  Aeryn, it turned out, did not have an appendix.  She did have a paraphoral nerve, however, which meant that when Ian contracted a relatively minor disease that had the side effect of causing paraphoral inflammation, Aeryn had been infected as well and had nearly died. 

The series of near-disasters had ended with a freak accident -- a spontaneous chakan oil ignition.  The cartridge had exploded four microts after he had slapped it into Winona, venting all the force out through receptacle located in the butt of the pistol.  The cost had been relatively minor:  the last two fingers on his left hand.  Initially, he had not even noticed that they were gone.  There had been the shock and chaos to deal with first.  He had been focused on making sure the ricochet had not hit anyone and that Moya was not injured.  It was not until Aeryn said, “You’re bleeding” that he had looked down and realized that two of his fingers were missing, gone forever.  There was nothing left to reattach.  They had simply disappeared, vaporized by the explosion. 

Once again, the outcome could have been much worse.  John had been reminding himself of that ever since it happened.  If the cartridge had exploded while it was in storage, it could have caused a leviathan-sized catastrophe.  The discharge could have hit one of the boys or Aeryn.  It could have killed anyone on board.  If it had gone off as he was inserting it, he undoubtedly would have lost his right hand.  Several degrees closer to his body, and it might have struck one of his legs.  Two fingers were a small price to pay considering how bad it could have been.  It had become mantra that he sometimes repeated to himself as frequently as ten or twelve times a day. 

The reminders and the repetition did not help.  He missed those fingers with an intensity that had not faded in the half cycle since he lost them.  Functionally, he seldom noticed that they were missing.  He could still grab things securely, manipulate tools and small objects, and the amputation had been so rapid and thorough that there was no residual pain.  It was the loss of his ring finger that bothered him.  Two cycles after he and Aeryn had been married, John had come across a merchant selling rings engraved with a pattern that resembled his grandmother’s wedding band.  He had bought two of the rings immediately -- one for him and one for Aeryn.  He had worn his ring day and night for seven cycles, and now he would never wear it again.  Not properly.  Not in the way that signified how much he loved Aeryn. 

At moments like this, he did not care that no one else had been hurt or that someone could have died.  All that mattered was that he wanted one of his missing fingers back. 

“You’re moping again.” 

Aeryn had dropped back so she was walking alongside him to his left.  It was one of the very few concessions she had made to her hearing loss.  Whenever she walked beside him, she was always on his left, even though it put her pulse pistol between them where it would be more difficult to get it clear of both their bodies.  He understood how difficult it had been for her to make that adjustment.  It would go against her very nature, violating at least one of her oldest, most deeply seated instincts.   

He slid his arm through hers and pulled her close.  “I am not moping.  I’m an adult.  Adults don’t mope.”

“You were moping.”

“I was not.  I was justifiably depressed over the loss of an object with enormous sentimental value.”

Aeryn placed a finger in her left ear -- the deaf one -- and waggled it several times.  “My microbes translated that as ‘I was moping’.” 

He couldn’t help himself.  He laughed.  “I was not moping.  I was just wishing --”  Completing the sentence was a waste of time.  He had said it too many times over the past half-cycle. 

“-- that you hadn’t lost your fingers.”  Aeryn placed her free hand against the center of his chest and rubbed lightly.  His ring was there, hidden under his shirt, hung from a chain around his neck.  Perversely, the ring itself had survived.  It had been seared by the blast, warped slightly and discolored by the heat, but it had come through the accident with very little damage.

“Wear it on your right hand,” she said.

They had gone over this several dozen times.  John said it anyway.  “It means something entirely different when it’s on my right hand.”

“Not to me,” she said.  “I’ll know what it means.”

He shook his head.  “It’s just not the same if it’s on my right hand, Aeryn.”

“You have explained that more than once.  It’s silly.  The ring is what matters, not where you wear it.” 

“Call me old fashioned.  I can’t do it.  Putting it on my right hand means we’re not together.  I would look down at it, and it would drive me nuts.”

Aeryn smiled.  It was a subdued smile, a mild upward twitch at the corners of her mouth while her eyes and a majority of her attention remained fixated on their surroundings. 

“More nuts than usual,” John said. 

Her smile broadened. 

“You’re hilarious.  Come on.  Let’s get back to the reason why we’re here.”  He looped an arm over her shoulder and they finished their journey in that way, as one entity, shoving their way through the crowds as a single unit.

It did not take them long to reach their destination. 

“This is it.”  Aeryn tugged him to a stop in front of a doorway flanked by two enormous heaps of rotting trash. 

“It just gets better and better.”  He reached past her to wave his hand across a glowing sensor.  A moment later they were inside.  The door slid closed behind them with a sibilant whoosh of air, thudding solidly into place, and the noise from the street came to an abrupt stop.  The interior of the building was cool, clean, and quiet.

“Better,” he said again, this time with approval.   

Aeryn looked over her shoulder at him.  “I assume that means you don’t want to turn back.”   

He gave her a small nudge forward.  “Don’t be a smart ass, lady.  Lead on.  You’re better at figuring out places like this than I am.”

“I’m better at every--”

“Don’t go there,” he said quickly, cutting her off before she could finish.  “Just lead the way.”  He gave her another, more vigorous nudge toward the interior of the building. 

“Was that surrender?” she asked over her shoulder.

“Temporary armistice.  We can argue it out later.” 

A narrow hallway five motras in length opened out onto a single, large, circular room taking up most of the interior space of the building.  The chamber was dimly but adequately lit.  There was enough light to illuminate the entire space and to allow visitors to make out the far side of the room, while the shadows and half-lit gloom created an aura of peace and tranquility.  It was quiet, serene, and positively disorienting after having survived the bedlam that lay outside the building.

The center of the room was empty except for a clear cylinder that Crichton guessed to be forty feet in diameter and several stories in height.  Outside that was bare floor space wide enough for three or four people to walk side-by-side around the perimeter of the room; followed by bare walls.  The wall was interrupted at regular intervals by narrow hallways similar to the one through which they had entered, chopping the outer ring of the building into evenly spaced segments.  There was no sign of a receptionist or any workers, no sign of the industry they had expected to find here.  There were only the empty hallways and the transparent cylinder.

Aeryn took a step to the right.  “Wait here.”

“Stick together,” John countered immediately. 

She gestured behind him.  “All of the hallways look the same.  Stay here so we know which one is the exit.” 

John watched her wander slowly around the outer perimeter of the room.  After several dozen microts the urge to conduct his own investigation became more than he could resist.  He slipped out of his coat, dropped it on the floor to mark where they had come in, and began his own examination of the large chamber, starting with the clear cylinder. 

It was not empty, as he had initially assumed.  As he got closer and his eyes began to adjust to the muted light, he could make out a cloud of polka dots hovering ten feet above his head and extending upward until they disappeared into the shadows.  The polka dots shifted, performed a peculiar migration that was eerily familiar, and then transformed into irregular splotches.  The spots grew rings, turned into multihued leopard’s rosettes suspended in a deep purple transparent background, then realigned themselves into columns and turned into stripes.  The stripes thickened, narrowed, changed color several times, and were replaced by strings of glowing luminescent dots.  The dots increased in size, faded, and turned back into polka dots.   

“Cool chandelier,” he said after watching the sequence several times, and resumed his circuit of the room.  He met Aeryn on the far side.  “Find anything?”

“Not much.  I tried a few of the corridors.  There were doors in some of them, but they were all closed and locked.  No sign of personnel.”

“No doorbell?”

“Not unless that thing is a door bell.”  She pointed toward the huge cylinder. 

John stepped over to it and rapped it twice with his knuckles.  He intended it as a joke.  He expected the flat, dull thunk of knuckles against thick plexiglass.  What he triggered instead was a deep, complex, sonorous tone that filled and refilled the entire building with a harmonious vibration.  It went on for several microts, dying down until there was nothing left but a tickling buzz against their skin.  Then that dwindled away as well.  The entire process took more than fifteen microts.

“Oops.”  John stepped away from the cylinder.

“At least it worked,” Aeryn said.  A third of the way around the room, an individual had emerged from one of the lookalike hallways and was coming toward them.

“A diagnosan.”  John looked at the creature more closely.  There was something wrong with the dimensions.  He blinked several times in an effort to get the perspective to correct itself.  “Not a diagnosan.  What is that?”

The individual approaching them had an oversized head similar to diagnosan’s, the same nasal slits and elongated fingers, and in most ways resembled the healers they had encountered over the cycles.  The major difference was that it was less than half the usual height.  It also lacked the musculature of a full-size diagnosan.  The limbs on this being were spindly.

“Dwarf?” John asked in a whisper.  “Midgetnosan?”

“Subspecies,” Aeryn said in an equally hushed voice.  “They’re called nyrxos.  They cannot intuit disease.  They often serve in some kind of support function.” 

The nyrxo came to a stop two motras away from the couple.  “How to help?” it warbled in the familiar high-pitched diagnosan trill.   

“You can synthesize tissue,” Aeryn said.

“Assured.”

“Sebacean paraphoral tissue,” she said.

“Assured.  Most simple.” 

John handed over three small chips containing tissue samples.  “We need twelve of each.  Frozen.   Don’t mix them together.  Three individuals, twelve tissue grafts for each person.”

This was why they were on the asteroid.  Aeryn had come too close to death from the paraphoral infection she had contracted from Ian. They had been lucky twice in their lifetimes.  The first time, John had managed to get the graft for Aeryn at enormous cost to himself.  The second time, her immune system had managed to fight off the infection.  Just barely.  The need for a stock of tissue grafts was too critical to ignore; the benefits of having a ready supply on board Moya too great.  They had been searching for a non-Peacekeeper facility capable of synthesizing the tissue grafts for half a cycle. 

“Most simple,” the nyrxo said again, nodding its overly large head. 

“How long will it take and how much will it cost?” John asked.  The technology required to synthesize the tissue was relatively simple; the need for this specific type of nerve tissue, and therefore the availability other than at Peacekeeper installations, was exceedingly rare.  This was not going to be cheap. 

“Arn.  Perhaps less,” it said, and then quoted a price that was very close to what they had theorized it might cost -- more than they wanted to pay but less than the sum they had brought with them.

John looked to Aeryn for her input.  She nodded.  There would be no bargaining.  They wanted the tissue too badly. 

He handed over the money.  “Do it.  We’ll wait.” 

The nyrxo inclined its head in a short bow, and departed, disappearing into a different hallway than where it had appeared.  Headed for the appropriate technicians and fabrication lab, John assumed. 

“We have an arn to kill.  Any suggestions?” he asked. 

“There are some pictures over there.”  Aeryn pointed to the far side of the hall.  “You might find some of those interesting.”  She set off around the outer circumference of the room.

He trailed along behind her.  “Pictures?  What kind of pictures?”

“I believe they are examples of some of the work they do here.”  She began peering down each hallway, hunting for the correct one.  “Pilot said they perform a number of highly advanced genetic procedures.  Synthesizing tissue is a minor portion of the business.”

“This doesn’t sound good.  I’m not going to lose my lunch am I?”

“No.  I think you’ll like these.”  Aeryn paused for the sixth time, took an extra step into the narrow corridor to make sure it was the right one, and then beckoned to him.  “In here.” 

She was correct.  The holographs seemed to be a showcase of the types of genetic manipulation or anatomical augmentation that the building’s inhabitants were capable of performing.  A wide range of species, genders, and procedures were on display, ranging from minor adjustments to major physical overhauls. 

“Oh my heavens,” John said, peering at a picture of what had started out as a bipedal anthropoid female, possibly a sebacean.  “She must a believer in quantity over quality.”

“I thought you might like that one.” 

“No way.  Two is enough to keep this southern boy happy.  Any more than that and I don’t know where to put my hands.  I get nervous and confused.”  He moved along the line, examining the various results, not always entirely certain what were normally-occurring genetics and what features were improvements.  “Okay, this is more my style.  How about you have this done?  We’ve got plenty of money left over.  We can pay for it.” 

Aeryn moved back to see what he was pointing at.  “There wouldn’t be room for you in our bed.  The three of us would take up all the space.” 

“We could get a bigger bed,” he said. 

“We could stick with a smaller me.”

“Think of the money we could save on pillows,” John said.  “I could rest my head on one of those.”

“Think of the money you could spend sleeping somewhere else.”

“Party pooper.  Where’s your sense of adventure?”

Aeryn was drifting down the line of photographs, working her way methodically through the entire collection.  She stopped near the far end.  “Okay.  I’ll have it done.”

John’s head snapped around.  “What?  Are you serious?”

“Completely serious.  I’ll have that done if you’ll have this done.”  She pointed. 

He took two bounding, delighted steps toward her and bent in close to get a good look.  “Good god.” 

They both burst out laughing. 

“Where do you suppose he buys his pants?” Aeryn asked.

“Do you know of a species that has three legs?  Maybe he gets them there.” 

John jammed both fists down as far as they would go into his front pockets, pushed hard against the front of his pants, and peered down at the resulting hummock.  “No way.  No frelling way.  Hope you’re not too disappointed.” 

“I’ve always considered you adequate.  I guess I can live with things the way they are.”  She patted the bulge in his pants where he still had his fists thrust into his crotch, stepped around him, and headed back into the central room. 

“Adequate?” John took his hands out of his pockets.  “Just adequate?”

The nyrxo was waiting at the end of the hallway.  “Other services?” it asked.  “Something you see and like?”

“No.  No, thank you,” John said, shaking his head.  “Nothing we like.  We were just window shopping.  There’s nothing in there that we need.”

“Repairs?” the nyrxo asked.  “Defects repaired?  Much can be accomplished.” 

John continued to shake his head.  Aeryn grabbed his shoulder.  Her fingers dug in deep.  “Repairs?” she said.  “What kind of repairs can you do?”

“Many types.  Most,” the nyrxo said. 

“That doesn’t help,” she said.  “Can you repair injuries?  Replace things that have been lost?”

“Many types,” the nyrxo repeated.

“This?  Can you fix this?”  Aeryn grabbed John’s left hand and held it out for the nyrxo to examine.  “There should be five fingers, like mine.  Can you replace the missing fingers?”

The nyrxo peered at John’s hand, front and back, and examined the smooth plane at the end of his palm where the missing digits belonged.  “Other,” he said, gesturing toward John’s right hand.  “Severed or defect?”

“Severed.  Blown into nothingness by an explosion,” John said.

“Assuredly.  Most simple,” the nyrxo said after several more microts of the gentle, probing examination. 

“She has a damaged ear,” John said.  “What about that?  It’s an injury.  A decompression injury.  The right one is okay.  The left needs to be repaired.”

“Most simple.  A quarter-arn each.”

“Seriously?”  The shout echoed around the room.  John cleared his throat and tried it again, more quietly.  He had not meant to yell.  “A quarter of an arn?  That’s all it takes?”

Aeryn had not forgotten that the solution might not be that straightforward and simple.  “Price?”

The nyrxo quoted an amount ten times what they had agreed to pay for the paraphoral tissue.  John’s stomach clenched.  There was no way they could afford that much for what were not life threatening injuries.   For five glorious microts, he had believed that he would get his fingers back.  The dream evaporated as quickly as it had sprung into life. 

Aeryn had not given up.  “Too much.”  She offered a tenth of the fee they had already paid. 

The nyrxo looked as though it was about to cry.  “Theft.  You attempt theft,” it chirruped, and cut its price in half.

They went back and forth for a quarter of an arn, sparring, battling, making offer and counteroffer, while John’s hopes rose and fell in time with the bargaining.  Finally, Aeryn walked away from John and the nyrxo, stood staring at a blank wall for several hundred microts, came back and offered the precise amount that they still carried with them.  It represented the entire surplus they had brought with them in order to purchase the synthesized paraphoral tissue.  It was a make-or-break offer. 

The nyrxo gazed at her for ten long microts, and then bowed its head.  “Accepted.”

John began digging the currency out of his pockets, handing the assortment of credit chips, coins, and markers to Aeryn as he retrieved them.  “How does this work?” he asked while he searched for the last of the money.  “My fingers are gone.  Do you grow new ones in a lab and then reattach them?  Do we have to come back?”

The genetic structure of their bodies would be adjusted to trigger regrowth, the nyrxo explained.  The missing or damaged anatomy would repair on its own.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa.”  John jumped in front of Aeryn to prevent her from handing over the currency.  “How does that work?  All I want are two fingers.  I don’t want all the missing bits of my body growing back all of a sudden.  I just went through the joy of having my appendix removed by a Hynerian surgeon who had no idea what he was looking for when he opened me up.  You would not believe the nightmares I’ve had about that bit of medical malpractice.  The last thing I need is for pink, shiny and useless to grow back.”

The nyrxo delivered an explanation laced with untranslatable terms.   

John turned to face Aeryn so the nyrxo was behind him.  It provided a measure of privacy so long as they kept their voices low.  “I got the part about how the regrowth will be pinpointed.  The therapy includes creating a target so the cells will only respond in that part of the body.  Did you get any of that last chunk?  It was mostly gibberish to me.”

Aeryn rubbed her right ear, the one that had done all the work.  “It sounded as though he said that the machine was listening, so it would know where to apply the target.  I assumed he meant that it would be programmed, and that my microbes translated it incorrectly.” 

“What do you think?”

“You mean should we risk it?” she said.

“Yeah.  It sounds like we could be buying either a miracle cure or swamp land in Florida.  I want to believe in the cure, Aeryn.  I really do.  But with our track record, the safe money is on alligators and mud.” 

Aeryn stared over his shoulder at the waiting nyrxo for several microts, then turned her attention back to John.  “We may never get another chance to heal these injuries.  Pilot said that this group has a good reputation.  Everything he learned about them says that they are able to do what they claim they can and that they charge reasonable rates for their services.”

“That sounded like a yes.”  Excitement squirmed in his stomach.  He had wanted to say yes from the first moment.  If the proposed procedure had affected only him, he already would have agreed.  There were two people’s health to consider, however, and their decision would affect at least twice that many.  They had DJ and Ian to think about, as well as how their lives would be disrupted if the genetic repairs did not function as promised.

Aeryn took her time before answering.  “I do not believe Pilot would have told us about them or brought us here unless he trusted that they would synthesize the paraphoral tissue correctly.  He would not risk our lives if he did not feel that these people were trustworthy.”

“That sounded like a yes,” John said.

Her eyes looked squarely into his.  “Yes.  I think it is worth the risk.  And --”  She looked uncertain.

“And?” he said.

“And I would like to be able to hear.  Sometimes I miss things, John.  Important things.  It isn’t safe, and it annoys me when I cannot hear clearly.” 

It was the first time Aeryn had admitted that her hearing loss bothered her.  He had suspected that Aeryn had not adjusted as easily or as completely as her lack of complaints had implied.  She was too volatile whenever she missed a portion of a conversation or found out that she had not heard one of the boys calling to her; her temper was too short where her hearing was concerned.  This was the first time since the accident that she had mentioned her feelings, and now that she had, she looked embarrassed.

He took her hand in his and held on tight for a few moments.  “Let’s get it fixed then.” 

“I would like that.”

John spun around.  “Fire up your machine, Darwin.  Mission Control has given us a green light!  Where do we go, who do we see, what do we do?” 

The currency was handed over, Aeryn shrugged out of her leather coat, and they both shed their pulse weapons.  “Now what?” John said. 

The nyrxo touched what appeared to be a small defect in the wall, a finger-sized depression to the right of one of the hallways.  A small door retracted into the wall revealing a set of indicators and controls.  The lights illuminating the central room dimmed even further and the contents of the central cylinder sprang into view.  It did not contain modern art or an alien chandelier, as John had assumed.  It held a living creature.

It was huge and amorphous, it was primarily transparent, and it undulated and changed colors.  It explained why some of the migrations of spots and dots he had watched earlier had looked strangely familiar:  they were on the surface of a living creature.  His subconscious had recognized the behavior of the patterns even if he had not been consciously aware of what he was observing.  The stripes and spots had been following mathematical rules laid out by the skins of whales, porpoises, manta rays and jellyfish.  A childhood of watching Jacques Cousteau had taught his subconscious a series of laws concerning the movements of those decorations.  His adult brain had been too caught up in assumptions to pay attention.   

The creature was bulb-shaped and elastic -- widest in the middle, narrower at the bottom and top, and constantly changing dimensions.  It towered over them, close to forty feet tall and roughly twenty feet across at its widest point.  Crichton could make out several of its internal organs, dim semi-translucent structures jostling loosely inside a quietly luminescent outer skin.  A ghostly fist of pulsing fibers he translated into a heart.  He found the central nervous system, hanging top to bottom like a feather made of ice.  An oblong bubble a third of the way from the top might have been a stomach.   

It descended.  More details came into view.

“It’s watching us.” John said to Aeryn. 

“Eyes?  Where?”

“On top.  At the base of the … whatever those are.  Are those tentacles or really bad hair?”

“Tentacles, I think.” 

The eyes were two enormous white globes perched haphazardly on top of the pod-shaped body.  There were no eyelids or coverings, giving it a permanent startled expression.  Above the eyes was a cluster of thick, undulating appendages.   Whether they were functional tentacles that could grasp and manipulate or useless floating growths, Crichton did not care to guess. 

The unintelligible part of the nyrxo’s explanation suddenly made sense.  “The machine was listening.” 

“This is the machine,” Aeryn said.  “It’s been listening all along.  Ever since we walked in.” 

“So it knows what we want fixed.  Got it.”  John looked over his shoulder at the nyrxo.  “What do we do?  What happens now?”  It was obvious that the creature in the tank had something to do with the repairs. The question was how it was involved in the process.

The nyrxo touched another control on the wall panel.  A section of the cylinder disappeared.  It appeared to melt, revealing a doorway. 

“Stand in center.  The ki’irkarik” -- he indicated the enormous floating beast -- “will descend.  You will be there.”  He pointed to a cylindrical organ within the creature’s body.  “Relax.  Stand.  It will sample.  Correct defect.  It will rise.  You exit.  Done.” 

John stared in disbelief at the nyrxo for several microts, looked up at the creature in the tank, glanced toward Aeryn, and then looked back at the ki’irkarik.  “No … frelling … way.”

Aeryn bumped him with her shoulder.  “You first.” 

“You have got to be kidding me.  Aeryn, do you realize what that is?  What that … that tube inside its body is?”

“John, I do not care what the opening is for and neither should you.  The question you need to answer is do you want your fingers back?” 

“Of course I want them back!  I’ve been whining about it for half a cycle!  That’s not the point!  Look at what he’s saying we have to do.” 

“If you want your fingers back, stop arguing and get in there.”

“Aeryn, look at that thing.  Just stop being logical and reasonable for a moment and look at it.  The head is up there, at the top of its body.  If the head is at the top, then the opening at the bottom has got to be its --”  He hesitated, searching for a polite term.  “You’re telling me that to perform this medical miracle, I have to climb inside a critter’s exhaust pipe?” 

“It’s an alien.  There is no sign of a mouth.  You have no way of knowing whether this creature even excretes through an opening in its body.  We have paid for this.  Get in there!  Think of it as a not particularly pleasant medical procedure, and get in there.”  She turned him around and shoved him toward the door.

“Okay, okay.  I’m going.”  He made it two steps before spinning back to face her.  “Aeryn, it’s the back end of a living creature!  The garbage chute.  The sewer discharge.  The effluvium exit, the stink hole.  I don’t care how much money we have paid, I am not going to crawl inside --”

“John!”  She grabbed his left hand in both of hers and waved it in front of his eyes.  “Do you want your fingers back?”  She used his own hand to slap the middle of his chest where the ring hung on its chain.  “Do you want to wear this on your left hand again?”

“Yes.  Of course!  You know I do.  That’s not the point!”

“The point is that you need to shut up and get in there.  I understand what you’re saying, John.  I understand basic anatomy.  We have waste funnels aboard Moya.  I know what they are for.  What you need to understand is that none of this matters.  The only thing you need to think about is that if you want your fingers back, you have to go inside there.”

“All right, all right.  I’m going, I’m going.”  He approached the doorway in the side of the cylinder.  “Clothes on or off?” he asked the nyrxo. 

“On.  All as normal.” 

“Will I need to hold my breath?”

“Breathe.  All as normal.  Stand there.”  He pointed toward a mark on the floor in the center of the huge tank.

John took several deep breaths, rubbed his right thumb over the scarred ridge along his left palm several times, and then moved forward until he stood half in and half out of the ki’irkarik’s tank.  “Wait a second!  Why do I have to go first?  If you’re so okay with this, why don’t you go first?” 

Aeryn was right behind him.  She had followed him, anticipating his last minute hesitation and that she would have to coax him inside.  “For a very simple reason.  I don’t want to crawl inside some creature’s eema any more than you do.  I am not going in there until I have seen you do it first.” 

She smiled, gave him a quick kiss, and then gently pushed him through the door.  John did not resist.  He allowed it to happen, knowing that he would end up inside sooner or later.  He looked back at her.  “The things I do for you.”

“The things I do for you.  Don’t forget that I go next,” she said.  Then the cylinder wall solidified behind him, sealing him in. 

He wanted to take his time and investigate; he wanted to edge slowly around outermost section of the tank and examine the ki’irkarik as closely as possible before going to stand on the mark in the middle of the floor.  Crichton wanted time to figure out if the tubular structure inside the creature’s body was the tail end of a digestive tract, as he feared, or served some other purpose.  If the circumstances were different, he would have asked for it to be fed and watched what happened to the snack before agreeing to go through with the genetic procedure.  At the very least, he would have preferred to take some air samples from inside the internal organ to find out exactly what he was getting himself into -- both literally and figuratively. 

All of which was impossible because Aeryn was waiting -- Aeryn and Pilot and the boys and everyone else on board Moya; and Moya herself who was expending energy in order to stay in one place relative to the asteroid.  She could not just park herself in orbit and relax.  The asteroid was not large enough; it did not have enough mass.  He had to get on with it, if not for him then for everyone else. 

“Wake up, John.  Let this all be a dream.  A very bad, very twisted dream.  Worse than usual.”  He rubbed the scars on his left hand one more time, finding strength and purpose in what had become an unconscious habit, and then moved out into the center of the tank to stand on the mark.  “Bring it on.  Slide that big bubba down over my head.”             

As it turned out, he could have relaxed and saved himself the nervous energy.  The process was almost pleasant.  If it hadn’t been for his theories about alien anatomy, he might even have enjoyed it.  The ki’irkarik descended, engulfing John in the internal compartment.  There was room to spare, it was easy to breathe, and it did not smell bad.  He had been in college dorm rooms that had less free space and were far more repulsive.  The walls were smooth, moist without being slick, and resilient.  It was like standing in an organically grown telephone booth. 

After several microts, the compartment filled with mist, gradually thickening to a dense fog.  John swept one hand a short distance, expecting to encounter moisture.  He encountered resistance.  He was not standing in a cloud; he was being surrounded by a finely spun spider’s web.  They began to attach themselves wherever they encountered skin:  grabbing on, testing, tasting.  Probing. 

“Oh crap!” 

He clamped his mouth shut, closed his eyes, and tried to breathe shallowly.  This was how the ki’irkarik did its work.  It was sampling his DNA, examining his genetic structure and making the changes as he stood there, unhurt, engulfed in the creature’s innards.  He spread the three fingers on his left hand wide, silently trying to make the ki’irkarik understand that this was what needed to be repaired; here was where it needed to concentrate.  Not up his nose.  Not in his ears.  Not anywhere else. 

Tiny tickling tendrils drifted across his eyelids, caressed his cheeks, explored the back of his neck, and were gone.  The tide of touches receded.  Ghostly, ethereal waves worked down his arms until only one part of his body remained in the ki’irkarik’s clutches.  His left hand.  John opened his eyes so he could watch, half expecting the missing fingers to appear, built up out of barely visible thread-like beginnings, solidifying, turning into flesh in a matter of microts.  None of that happened.  The ki’irkarik hung on to his hand for eight or ninety microts, then the filaments disappeared and the great beast ascended to the top of its tank. 

The rest of their visit was anti-climatic after that.  The door to the cylinder opened.  He stepped out, Aeryn handed him a cryo-container containing the three dozen paraphoral tissue samples they had purchased, and then he watched her walk calmly to stand on the mark in the center of the ki’irkarik’s enclosure.  She was enveloped, the mist first surrounded her, collected around her left ear, and then she was striding through the doorway to rejoin him. 

“One last question,” John said, looking behind him for the nyrxo.  The small attendant was gone.  “Damn!”

“Problem?”  Aeryn was already buckling her pulse pistol into place.

“I was going to ask how long it would take for this to work.”

She handed his coat and his pulse pistol.  “You could try the door bell again.” 

John looked up at where the ki’irkarik bobbed and undulated near the top of its tank, thought about what the gong-like reverberations might have sounded like to a creature residing inside the huge cylinder, and decided against it.  “Not worth it.  We’ll find out soon enough.”

He shrugged into his coat and then held Aeryn’s for her while she slid into it in a single graceful, sinuous movement.  It was moments like this that he missed wearing his ring the most, moments when Aeryn performed some small, mundane task and turned it into an exquisite moment of coordination and beauty.  These were the times when he wanted to proclaim to the world through the wearing of a metal band that he belonged to her and she belonged to him; that they were one, joined forever, and that her strength, beauty, humor and wisdom enriched his life and asked in turn that he become a better man. 

“You’ve got that look on your face.”  Aeryn rubbed her left ear, driving a thumb hard against the outer area.

“What look?” 

“That ‘I want to throw you on the floor and make love to you right here and now’ look.”  She picked up the cryo-container while he strapped on his pulse pistol, then they looked around them to make sure they had not forgotten everything, and headed for the door.   

“You mean the ‘I’m stupid in love with you’ look?”

“That’s the one.”

“Is that a bad thing?” he asked.  He rubbed his left hand, digging hard with his fingers, trying to ease an itch. 

“No.  I just wanted you to know I saw it.”  She turned around long enough to give him a quick, glancing kiss that landed somewhere near the point of his jaw.  “Thank you.”

They stopped just short of the door.  Once they stepped through, it would be difficult to hold a conversation until they reached the transport pod.  The noise on the street would make all but the most critical communication a waste of time and effort.

“One last thing,” he said to her.  “We never tell the kids about this.  About the critter, I mean. Right?”

“And put up with a variety of childish butt-head jokes for the rest of our lives?  I’m a soldier, John, not a complete idiot.”

He gave her a light shove, encouraging her to go through the door, then braced himself and followed.  It was as bad as he remembered.  Possibly worse.  The number of people had increased, boosting the amount of noise exponentially and turning navigation into a nightmare.  John stayed close to Aeryn’s back, matching her step, aggressively preventing anyone from cutting between them.  He was not concerned about getting lost.  If he got separated from Aeryn, he would hunker down, and rely on her and Pilot to find him.  This was expedience.  By staying close, he increased the odds that they would arrive at the transport pod together, and would not waste any time getting off the asteroid.  He wanted to be gone as quickly as possible. 

The other benefit was that it gave him time to think.  Staying right on Aeryn’s heels was an unthinking process once he was tucked in tight with his stride matched to hers.  He had time to wonder about the ki’irkarik:  whether it was fully sentient, whether it was happy, sad, imprisoned, or bored, or whether it was just one member of a species that made a living performing intricate genetic manipulation.  He thought about his family, and about how they would no longer have to worry about paraphoral injuries, thanks to the contents of the cryo-container.  There was time to ponder about the presence of so many different species on this rock, the amount of filth and deterioration in the city, and to wonder how an asteroid dedicated to health industries could wind up looking like this one.

He rubbed his left hand, driving his thumb in against the truncated bones, trying to stop what was turning into a permanent itch.  A moment later, a different kind of itch sprang into life.  A mental one.  Aeryn was rubbing her ear for the fifth or sixth time since they left the building.  She was pressing her thumb into the hollow beneath her ear, massaging vigorously in much the same way that he was rubbing his hand.  John ran his right thumb over the scars again, this time paying more attention, probing, exploring.  There were two small, hard hummocks where for half a cycle there had been an unnaturally smooth surface.  The lumps were barely discernable.  John rubbed them again to make sure.  He had not been mistaken.  They were definitely there.

After that, he had a new set of questions to consider as he followed close on Aeryn’s heels.  He spent some of the time wondering how long it would take for those two small bumps to grow back into fingers, and about how the reconstruction would progress.  He thought about what he would tell the boys when they noticed, assembling tales that were not outright lies but that did not involve an enormous creature’s back side. 

Best of all, he strode along and watch Aeryn rub her ear.  The sight generated dreams about the days and nights to come, about whispers late at night, hushed laughter in the dark; and about how when he spoke from his heart, Aeryn would not miss a word.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *


Thank you for reading! 

Crash
:dk:
Happiness is not a destination.  It is a method of life. -- Burton Hills
Life is not about waiting for the storms to pass.  It's about learning to dance in the rain. -- Vivian Greene