Child Of The Night - Chapter 19

There had been progress, Aeryn reflected.  They had played a slow and gentle game of touching John without
warning over the past sixty solar days, and it was finally paying off.  She watched Chiana ease in next to
Crichton and bump him out of the way with her hip.  He laughed and nudged her back, pushing against her with
both his hip and his shoulder until he could return to his survey of the navigational display.  If that had
happened even twenty days earlier, John would have been halfway across the chamber, arms wrapped
defensively around his ribs.  

Once again, it had taken time and patience.  Everyone had agreed to be careful about making physical contact
with John until he was ready to accept it, and they had embarked on the gradual process of teaching his
subconscious that it was all right to be touched.  John’s nightmares had returned at first, but they lacked the
ferocity of his earlier visions, and had faded away in a matter of days.  Since then there had been a slow,
carefully plotted escalation of light touches, nudges and finally embraces.  Crichton had started the process a
tangled bundle of jumps and starts, but had slowly learned to trust the caring hands again.  

Aeryn left her seat at the strategy table and went to stand behind him.  She flung one arm across his shoulders
and leaned against him as he bent over the console, deliberately making full body contact.  He slid an arm
around her waist and pulled her closer, not a tense muscle or shudder in evidence.

“You’re looking pretty good,” she said into his ear.  

He glanced at her.  The grin that she had always thought looked so silly appeared.  It did not look silly any
longer.  It was a welcome sight.  

“I’m feeling pretty good for a change.”  He watched Chiana leave the room.  Once the nebari was gone, he
looked back at Aeryn.  “Come with me tonight?”  

It was only the third time he had asked her that in the past thirty solar days, and the first two invitations had only
resulted in a bad night’s sleep as his subconscious kept telling him that she was a danger to him.  

“Are you sure?”  

“Yes.  This is not a test.  I’d really like you to sleep with me tonight.”  He straightened and turned, concern on
his face.  “But I don’t want to … I mean, if you don’t want to just … it’s okay.  But I don’t want to …”  John
blushed.  “Oh crap.  I mean …”

“I understand, John,” she assured him, stemming his confused explanation.  “Just sleeping will be fine.  That’s

“Thanks, Aeryn.”  

“At least for now.”  

Her addition caught him by surprise, generating a flashing glimmer of panic.  It was quickly replaced by
something closer to avarice, and he pulled her against him more firmly.   

                                                                              * * * * *

They had located a mixed-industry commerce planet where they were told they could pick up a variety of
supplies, meeting all their needs, and everyone was eager to get off Moya for a few arns worth of fresh air.  
Aeryn waited by the steps to the transport pod.  Chiana, Jool, and Rygel were already inside.  She could hear
their bickering all the way from her spot at the bottom of the stairs.  They were waiting for D’Argo and John, and
she was beginning to wonder if there had been a last minute retreat by Crichton.

More than two hundred solar days had passed since they had brought John’s senseless body back from the
scarran stronghold, and Aeryn could no longer detect any differences in his behavior or physical condition
other than his futile struggle to regain interest in their private physical relationship.

Aeryn suspected that there were still one or two hidden details that John would never reveal to anyone -- not
even to her -- and that meant they would always face the occasional illogical reaction that would occur without
any apparent reason or warning.  She wondered if she was about to see one of them now.  She paced back
and forth from the stairs of the transport to the hangar doors, using the movement to burn off nervous energy.  
When she had proposed this trip off Moya, she had hoped that John had regained enough of his old
confidence that he would show up.  

She was about to go looking for him when the two men hurried into the hangar bay, arguing vigorously.  John
was gesticulating wildly, yelling at D’Argo as he strode across the chamber.  The skirts of his black overcoat
swirled around his legs as he rushed to get ahead of the luxan, all the while yelling loudly in an attempt to
drown out D’Argo’s deeper voice.  He was wearing his pulse pistol for only the second time since that horrible
day when she had picked it out of the dirt.  They had found Winona at the spot where he had been
overwhelmed by the rush of scarrans, the weapon lying abandoned, a lonely commentary concerning the fate
of its owner.  Aeryn had stood in the long slanting rays of a setting sun, turning the weapon over in her hands,
and she had felt as bleak as when the other one had lay dying before her.

Aeryn was yanked away from those despair-laden memories by the sound of John’s voice.  “We’re ready,” he
shouted ahead.  “Sorry we took so long.  It was D’Argo’s fault.”  His casual gesture made it clear that his
accusation was not entirely true, and he wore a mischievous grin that she had not seen in more than half a

“What are the two of you arguing about now?”  

They both started accusing each other at the same time, a tangle of voices backed up by aggressive postures
and more wild gestures from both of them.  She watched John’s energetic movements, the enthusiastic
participation in the pointless squabble and saw all the strength and confidence that had been missing for so
long.  He turned toward her, leaving D’Argo still bellowing his point of view, and came toward where she waited
at the bottom of the steps.  

“What are you looking so happy about?” he asked.

She climbed the first two steps leading into the transport pods, then turned and looked down at him.  “You.”  

She did not wait for a reply.  Aeryn ran lightly up the steps, noted the way they bounced and jerked out of time
with her own weight, and knew that John was right behind her.  She anticipated his next move.  When he tried to
get past her the first time, she dodged from one side of the narrow hatch to the other and cut him off.  When he
tried to slide past her second time, heading for the pilot’s seat, she checked him hard with her hip, sending him
stumbling across the cabin.  

“Five minute penalty for boarding!” he yelled, and vaulted into the second seat.  

Energy, vitality, enthusiasm, and joy sat beside her, concentrating on waking up the power cells and bringing
up the first of the cockpit displays.  There was only one thing missing that he needed in order to become John
Crichton again.  Aeryn wondered if it would take a process as painstakingly tedious as the one that had allowed
him to be touched again; or if there was some way to shorten this final stage of his recovery.  While there was a
certain attraction to the idea of spending thirty, fifty, or even one hundred solar days convincing his body that it
was interested in sex, she was not certain she was prepared to cope with another round of anger, depression,
and frustration.  

The outer hatch clanged shut behind them, D’Argo dropped onto the seat beside Chiana, and then John was
calling off the first item on the checklist to start the engines and there was no time left to think of such things.  

                                                                              * * * * *

They had trouble receiving permission to land at any of the larger commercial centers because the planet they
had chosen to visit was swarming with military troops.  Every medium or large sized city was overflowing with
uniformed personnel.  They stayed in wide orbit for almost an arn, discussing the potential risks of continuing
down to the planet without knowing whose troops had taken over the planet or why.  After an extended debate,
Jool -- the only person aboard the transport pod who was not being actively sought by the Peacekeepers --
took over at the comms.  She managed to contact an official from the orbital control facility, and proceeded to
bicker and argue with him for more than a quarter arn in an attempt to wheedle more information out of him
about the troops and why they were there.  

“Give up,” D’Argo said quietly when yet another of Jool’s oblique questions failed to draw out any useful
information.  “Let’s go back to Moya.”  

“Two words, big guy,” John whispered over Jool’s chatter.  “Cabin fever.  If I don’t get off Cecil the Spacegoing
Sea Serpent for a few arns, I am going to go stark raving bonkers.  We’re already here.  Give her a few more
microts.  We’ve got nothing to lose but our time.”

“That and our freedom if those troops are mercenaries contracted to the Peacekeepers,” D’Argo said more

Jool spun around to face them.  “Could you two show the slightest comprehension of good manners by not
making it thoroughly impossible to hear this officer’s responses?” she said in a petulant whine.  “Don’t either of
your species possess the concept of etiquette … or intelligent, polite behavior?”

It turned out to be the key that unlocked the orbital officer’s cooperation.  His last transmission had been just as
evasive, just as unhelpful as all the rest.  The one following Jool’s outburst provided most of the information
they had been seeking.  The troops on the planet had nothing to do with Peacekeepers, and they were there
on leave.  There was no war.

Aeryn turned toward John, raised her eyebrows in both inquiry and astonishment, and whispered, “What just

He spread his hands, shrugged and shook his head.  

“Trap, maybe?” Chiana asked from behind them.  

“Don’t know.  Something sure changed,” John said.  He gestured toward the pod’s controls arranged beside
Aeryn’s elbow.  “Power up, just in case we need to boogie.”

Aeryn held up a hand, signaling that they should wait.  “Listen.”

Jool and the official were engaged in fast, literate repartee.  Veiled references to literary and scientific sources,
quotations, and word play fired back and forth; she laughed, fended off a light-hearted attack from the person
on the far end of the transmission, and launched a verbal salvo of her own.  He threw it back at her, along more
information about the soldiers swarming the planet.  

“He’s flirting with her,” John whispered in disbelief.  “That’s why --”

“Yes, John.  I get it,” Aeryn said.  “I understand the concept of flirting.”

The troops, it turned out, were mercenaries seeking nothing more than rest and recreation between
campaigns.  The entire force of one of the largest privately run armies in the sector had been gathered there in
order to reorganize in preparation for a large-scale deployment.  According to the orbital control officer, the
only threat created by their presence was the danger of being crushed between a mass of thirsty troops and
the bar.  

“Jool,” D’Argo began.

The interon turned and skewered D’Argo with a furious green-eyed glare that seemed to say that if he
interrupted her again, it would be at the risk of his own life.  He closed his mouth, and subsided onto his seat.  

“But you are interested in landing here, not in my prattle” the official’s voice said.  “If you care to accept my
suggestion, there is a smaller enclave on the northern continent that has not been entirely overrun by troops.  
The town has been reserved for the command ranks and their support staff.  Their officers and technical
specialists have gathered there for meetings, to make decisions about pay and promotions, and for briefings.  
Since there are not as many rank and file soldiers, there is a little room left at the landing port, and the
refreshment houses have not been completely dismantled by brawling enlisted morons.”  A familiar level of
distain for the intellectually non-elite flooded from the communications equipment.  

“Send us the entry vectors for that landing site,” Aeryn said, raising her voice in order to drown out Jool’s
answer.  The data appeared on the transport’s holographic readouts.  Before she could reach to do it herself,
John’s fingers flowed over the nav panel next to him, converting the information into a projected flight path and
adjusting the displays in preparation for a descent.

“Finish up, Jool,” John said.  

“I don’t suppose you could join us,” Jool began in a wheedling tone.  

A long laugh flowed from the speaker.  “I regret, sweet lady, that joining you is impossible.  I am a planetary
orbital control officer.  Ask someone about my profession once you have landed, and you will understand why I
cannot meet you in person … as pleasurable as that experience undoubtedly would have been.  It has been a
rare delight conversing with you, and I hope we stumble across each other’s transmissions some time in the
future.”  He chuckled again, and the comms channel went silent.  

“What the heck was that all about?” Crichton asked.  “He seemed way too amused by something at the end.”

“Trap?” Chiana suggested for the second time.

“It doesn’t look that way,” Aeryn said.  “Every scan indicates exactly what he was describing.  There are no
signs of fighting, other than what might be the occasional brawl, no clusters of weapons energy, no sensor
scans coming from their ships, and the personnel are not dispersed in tactical formations.”

“Good to go, then,” John said, making it a question.

“Good to go,” Aeryn agreed.  “Beginning descent.”

Jool pouted and flounced toward one of the bench seats along the sides of the transport pod’s cockpit.

“Cheer up, Red,” John said.  “I sure there will be someone just as nice down there, even if not as brainy and
literate as Victor Vector back there.  Have a few drinks, let your hair dow-- … uh, let yourself relax for a few
arns, and rub elbows with us less intelligent types.  We’re not so bad once you get to know us.”

Jool’s green eyes seemed to glow with anger for a microt, threatening a screaming metal-melting outburst, but
in the end she turned away from Crichton, stared out the forward view portal, and sank into a silent sulk.  

They were directed to a landing spot at a small port outside the town the officer had recommended.  Aeryn flew
a fast, aggressive approach through the swarms of airborne craft, setting the pod down a little faster than
usual, but with all of her usual finesse.  The ground flashed by, details reduced to a blur as they arced in on a
smooth carefully planned vector; she yanked the craft level at the last microt, and used the residual energy
instead of the braking jets to finish the deceleration.  The pod settled onto the designated pad with none of the
usual billows of dirt and dust.  

“That was showing off,” John said.  

An emotion that Aeryn had not felt in close to a cycle sprang to renewed life:  Irritation resulting from one of
John’s typically thoughtless comments.  She knew he hadn’t meant anything by it.  That knowledge did not do
anything to smother the instinctive reaction.

He flicked a glance in her direction, did a double take, and hastily added, “But it was an exceptional way of
showing off, and an appropriate way for us to arrive.  Good job.  Could not have done it better myself … ever.  
Never ever.  Not in a month of Sundays.”

The tension that had begun to build between her shoulder blades faded away.  Her jaw unclenched.  “Better,”
she said.

“Better than getting shot,” Chiana said on a laugh.  

“You betcha,” John said.  “Let’s go.  I could use a drink more than ever.  A near death experience always does
that to me.”

He stepped aside to let Aeryn go first, waving her past him when they approached the hatch at the same time,
and then followed closely behind, one hand resting lightly on her shoulder.  There wasn’t any anger:  no
resentment, no lingering hurt feelings.  There was her and there was John’s hovering presence, and that was
all that mattered.    

A transport system whisked them into the center of the township.  They stepped out of the ground effect vehicle
to find themselves in the midst of an ocean of military personnel.  Every street and building was seething with
gray uniforms.  

“He calls this not totally overrun?” Jool exclaimed in dismay.  

“Someone forgot to tell us that today is Monochrome Mardi Gras.  If I had known, I would have dressed up,”
John said.  

“We’ll never find a place to get a drink!” Chiana said.  

Aeryn surveyed the mass of soldiers clogging the thoroughfare, and said, “Split up into pairs, stay on this
street, and check every refreshment house.  If we can’t find one here, we can join up at the far end, move over
one sector, and try again.”  

They responded to Aeryn’s suggestion by breaking up into the familiar, expected pairings.  John took a step
around D’Argo to join Aeryn, Chiana and Jool battled wordlessly for a microt to see who would go with D’Argo,
the loser moved over beside Rygel’s throne sled, and then each pair moved off in a different direction.  

Aeryn set off along one side of the broad thoroughfare, glancing into one establishment after another, only to
realize that she had already lost John.  She turned back, half expecting him to be gone in the same way he had
disappeared earlier that cycle.  He wasn’t.  He was ten steps behind her, peering into the open door of one of
the refreshment houses.  

She waited, trying to be patient.

“What did I miss?” she asked when he caught up to her.

“Nothing.  I was just looking at some of the critters.”

“What creatures?” she asked.  

“Some of these guys,” he said, indicating the uniformed personnel all around them.  “Like that one.”  He jerked
his head at an eight-limbed being wearing a breathing rig.  “I was trying to imagine what it would be like to go
through the rest of my life wearing a mask or a helmet, and thanking my lucky stars that I wound up aboard

It was the type of insight that she seldom stopped to consider.  It was perfect example of how John’s mind
worked.  Aeryn devoted several microts to examining the individuals within the mobs of soldiers flowing around
them, noting that a dominant proportion were bipedal anthropoids.  She shrugged once, assuming that it had
something to do with mobility, the ability to handle standardized weapons, and intelligence, and then motioned
to John that they should move on.  

They were two refreshment houses from the end of the street before she spotted a break in the otherwise
solidly packed buildings.  She paused, giving the crowd inside time to shift, which eventually provided a better

“How we doin’?”  John moved closer, looking over her shoulder.  

“I can see a table with only three people at it.  Go get the others while I convince them to move on.”  

“How are you going to --”  

She turned to look at him.  

“Never mind, never mind.  Forget I even started to ask.  You’re going to glare them off.”

“One of these days, if you work hard enough at it, you might start to catch on.  Find the others,” she said.

She kept her eye on him as he started back the way they had come.  Only when he spotted D’Argo entering a
building and went after him, moving deeper into the crowds of soldiers, did she turn her attention back to the
partially occupied table and the task of making room for herself and her five crewmates.  Aeryn moved into the
establishment cautiously at first, scanning the interior to make sure she had not overlooked any details that
might indicate the presence of a threat; then began shoving her way through the crowd, moving steadily toward
where she had seen some empty seats.  

Three officers were sitting at a large table.  They were huddled together over an array of flimsy transparent
schematics and holographic readout devices that took up most of the table’s surface.  As she got closer, she
could see that the two officers sitting to either side were deferring to the man in the center as they consulted
the mass of information.  This was a senior officer with two subordinates.  She needed to concentrate on the
officer in the center.  He would be the least likely to give way to an implied threat.

Aeryn rested her hand on the butt of her pulse pistol and started to tap into her years of Peacekeeper training,
seeking the arrogant aggressiveness that she had learned unsettled most individuals to the point of choosing
retreat over all other options.  

The middle officer glanced up, flicked a look of bored indifference toward the figure in black leather standing
nearby, and went back to what he was doing.  

“Sir,” one of the other officers said.  This one was fidgeting under her stare.  

The commander looked up.  This time he spent more time examining the person who was attempting to herd
him away from his table with nothing more than a fierce look.  His jaw dropped.  “Officer Sun!”  He slid off his
seat and moved around the table to greet her.  The other two officers got to their feet as well, following their
commander’s example.  

“What are you doing here?” he said.  His eyes narrowed slightly. “I hope you’re not here to work out a contract.  
We’re on a mandatory stand-down for at least another ten planetary days.”

Aeryn recovered from her surprise, hurriedly smothering the haughtiness she had just summoned up.  “No,
we’re only going to be here for a few arns.”  She could not remember the mercenary officer’s name; she had
been too focused on other things the last time they had met.  He motioned for her to join him, and waited until
she was seated before taking his place again.  One jerk of his head was enough for the two subordinates, who
gathered up the sheaves of data transparencies and holograph emitters, and disappeared into the crowd.  
Aeryn used the microts to run through her memories of the contract negotiations with the mercenary hierarchy,
desperately searching for the officer’s name.  

“Commander Tellart,” he said, sensing her lack of recall.  “Of course it was captain the last time we saw each
other.  I think you should know that your engagement got me my promotion.  I owe you a drink for that alone.”  
He waved at someone behind her, beckoning.  

“I would like to wait.  The rest of my --”  She tried to pick a more military sounding term for their group,
envisioning the odd collection that her companions always presented, and gave up.  “The rest of my friends
should be here in a microt.”  She turned to see who had come to a stop next to her.  A summoned trooper
stood at attention, waiting patiently for his orders.  

Tellart motioned him away.  “Stay close.”  The soldier nodded and drifted off to a table nearby, standing and
chatting with his comrades while keeping his commander in sight.

Aeryn heard them coming before they entered the building.  Chiana and Jool were bickering again, the shrill
duet rising stridently above the uproar inside the building, and she could hear John’s voice as if it was on a
private channel.  His deeper tones could not cut through the background noise the way Jool’s high-pitched
shriek always did, but she could still make out his voice whenever he responded to D’Argo’s bass rumble.  As
soon as the quintet stepped through the door, Rygel’s steady griping became audible as well.  She turned and
watched the strange little group approach, a colorful cluster wading through the surging tides of gray.  

Aeryn looked around at the soldiers, each of them standing with the same confident bearing that she had
known as a Peacekeeper, their superiority tested and confirmed in battle.  That was the life she had been born
to pursue:  one among many, a single element in a larger whole.  Then she watched the five individuals laugh
and argue their way toward her, and felt strangely proud of them.  They looked in her direction, saw her
companion, and were instantly wary.  She realized that they, too, had been tested in battle, and had shown
more courage and tenacity than most of the soldiers around her would ever experience or demonstrate.  

John’s grin faded to a thinner, more reserved smile.  He was watching the officer sitting across from Aeryn
carefully as he crossed the last two motras separating him from the table and slid onto the seat beside her with
a proprietary air.  His gaze never left Tellart -- the unknown factor -- and yet Aeryn could feel that his attention
was focused on her.  He was being protective but was also waiting for some sort of signal from her to direct his
reactions.  John’s body shrieked of caution, but also of confidence.  He was moving with assurance, giving off
none of the signs of insecurity that had ruled him for so long.  

She caught his hand under the table, and squeezed tight, hoping he would know that her need for contact was
the result of pride in him, not an attempt at reassurance.  

D’Argo finished snarling a luxan curse at Rygel and finally turned his attention to the face above the uniform.  
He fumbled for something to say, just as surprised as Aeryn had been.  

She provided the information she had not been able to recall on her own.  “Formerly Captain Tellart, since
promoted to commander.”  

D’Argo inclined his head in greeting and sank onto a seat.  

“Ka D’Argo, good to see that you are still well,” Tellart said.  He looked at the rest of the group.  “I never had
the chance to meet the rest of your --”  He hesitated over the last word, not sure what to call them.  

“Mob,” John filled in for him.  “Gaggle, pack, herd, horde.  Pick one.”

Aeryn gestured at each of them and offered their names, watching Tellart as he nodded in time with the
introductions.  She knew he was evaluating their appearance, possible talents and abilities as fighters, and was
categorizing them in his memory.  She knew because it was what she would be doing if she were meeting them
for the first time.  She saved John for last, watching the officer’s reaction even more closely as she directed his
attention toward what he would assume was another sebacean.  He inspected Crichton the same way he had
the other four, his gaze lingering for an extra moment on the pulse pistol strapped to John’s thigh, and then
simply gave him the same nodded greeting as all the others.  

Aeryn turned toward John.  “Commander Tellart was the officer in charge of the force we hired to break into the
scarran facility.”  She watched him carefully in case he had one of his more violent reactions to the overly
simplified explanation.  John’s gaze focused more sharply on her for a microt; then he turned back toward
Tellart, examining the officer with more interest, and waited.  Everyone at the table seemed to be waiting for

Tellart became wary, uncomfortable with the expressions facing him.  He studied Crichton a second time,
focusing on the person that Aeryn had saved for last in the introductions and who had required an explanation,
however brief, of their history together.  “You joined Officer Sun’s force recently?” he asked, searching for a

“No, we’ve been working together for almost four cycles now,” John replied.  

Tellart’s gaze flicked between John and Aeryn.  “I’m surprised you didn’t bring all of your fighters with you that
day.  Your captured man seemed important to you.”  He paused, still looking uncomfortable.  “I’ve always
regretted the way that worked out.  We completed the mission we contracted to perform, but I don’t like that we
weren’t successful in rescuing the person we went after.”

John plunked an elbow on the table and rested his chin on his hand, staring at Tellart.  He was grinning openly
now, which disconcerted the officer even more.  

“John was there that day, and it did not turn out as badly as you might think, Commander.”  Aeryn stifled a start
as John’s hand pulled loose of hers and then settled on her leg under the table, rubbing her thigh near her
knee.  She grabbed his hand with both of hers, and hung on, trying to concentrate on the slow sparring with the
man who had so strongly recommended killing John to put him out of his misery.  

Tellart finally shook his head, giving up.  “I do not understand, Officer Sun.  Only you and Ka D’Argo fought with
us that day.  I would have noticed if anyone else was with my troops.”  

“He was not with your troops, Commander,” D’Argo said.  “He was already there.”  

“You had advance intelligence?  You did not make any of that available to us.”  Tellart was instantly angry.  “I
lost good soldiers that day!”

John looked at Aeryn and raised his eyebrows.  “Give him a break, Aeryn.  This is cruel.”  

“What was cruel was that he would not listen to us and wanted to give up on you.”  

Tellart finally got it.  “For the love of  … You’re him?”  He considered for a minute, recovering his composure,
then shook his head.  “No, Officer Sun.  You should not have attempted to fool me.  No one survives that
machine of theirs.  No one.”

“Someone does, Captain Tell-tale.”  John was still grinning.  “And I’ve got the nightmares to prove it.”  The
mercenary officer continued to shake his head.  “Fine.  I don’t need to prove it to you.  Can we get some
drinks?  I’m dying for one of those fruity jobs that come in the coconut with the little parasols sticking out of it.”    

“I want to prove it, John.”  D’Argo’s rumble arrested Crichton’s move to get up.  “He wanted to put a pulse blast
through your head --”

“Might have been an improvement,” Rygel said, and then yelped and ducked a swat from Chiana.  

“-- and would have if we hadn’t insisted on bringing you back to Moya,” D’Argo finished as though he had not
been interrupted.    

“I’d love to have you prove it, Big Guy, but there are no marks this time.”  John held his hands out in front of
him, looking down his body as he quickly reviewed his ordeal.  “No visible scars, no burns, no eviscerations.  
Sorry, I can’t give you any proof other than the fact that I tend to puke at the sight of a lizard.”  He looked
around at the group sitting at the table, and grinned.  “Anyone got an iguana handy?  We could give it a try.”  

“Wait!” Aeryn and Jool spoke simultaneously.  

“There is a scar,” Jool said, “but it’s not from what the scarrans did to you, Crichton.  It’s from afterwards.  We
never told you about that.”  

Crichton looked mildly ill.  Aeryn tugged lightly on his hand under the table to get his attention and shook her
head.  “It’s nothing bad, I promise.  “Near the door?” she asked Jool.  

Jool nodded.  

“Come with us,” Aeryn said to Tellart.  She tugged John to his feet.  “We need better light.”  

She led the way to the open door where the late afternoon sunlight spilled into the room and turned John so
one side of his body was facing out the door.  He resisted for a single instant when she placed her fingers on
the underside of his chin and nudged upward, then allowed her to guide his movements.  Even with the late day
light illuminating every small detail of his throat, it took several tries to find what she was seeking.  

“There!”  She left one finger on his neck to mark the spot and stepped aside so Tellart could move forward.  
John waited patiently as the officer peered closely at his neck and throat.

“What are you looking at?” he finally asked.  

“Needle marks,” Tellart said.  “A lot of tiny needle scars all in the same spot.  Drinks are on me!” he finished,
bellowing over the roar of voices.  The entire crowd turned to look at him.  Several of the soldiers cheered.  
“Oh, for the love of Cholak!  Not you, you mass of hyperactive, sub-intelligenced, overly trained excuses for
fighters!  I’m buying these people drinks!”  There was a wave of groans and jeers as his men cheerfully turned
away from him, and he moved toward the bar through an alley that opened before him as if by magic.  

“What needles, Aeryn?”  John had not moved.  He was standing patiently by the door, waiting for her.   

“You were so badly damaged, we couldn’t touch you unless you were cut off from your own nervous system.  
Tellart’s medtechs gave us a supply of drugs that took care of that until we could get you to the delvians.”  

“And you had to skewer me in the throat?  Ick.”  He stroked the skin there several times, then shivered slightly.  

Aeryn started to turn away, thinking that the conversation was over and that it was long past time they both had
a drink.  John didn’t move.  He snagged her vest with a single finger, and tugged.  He was giving her a choice,
she realized.  If she truly did not wish to discuss it any further, all she had to do was pull away.  If she allowed
the tenuous restraint to pull her back to the doorway, it would be her choice.  She took the single step that
returned her to John’s side.

“What haven’t you told me?” he asked.  

She shook her head, not certain how to explain what was generating the snarl of remembered anguish in her
stomach, or whether she could make John understand what it had been like for her.  

He stared at her for more than ten microts.  “A supply,” he said.  “How big a supply?”


“Enough,” he repeated, and thought about it some more.  “How many did you have left when we got to the
delvian’s moon, Aeryn?”  

She stared out the door, her eyes turned away from him but not seeing the flood of traffic in the sunlight either.  
The memories were so clearly etched into her memory; it felt like it had taken place just one day earlier.  
Watching John sweat, mutter, and suffer, not knowing whether she had made the correct decision, the
uncertainty over whether they had enough of the drugs to last until they reached the delvians:  it felt as though
it had all happened just that morning.  


“One,” she said.  “We had one left, and we used that one to get you from Moya down to the sanctuary.”

He let out a quick breath, a gusty statement of understanding and sympathy.  “What would have happened if
you had run out?”

She could not look at him right away.  It took several microts to tear her gaze away from the past and refocus
on John.  

“Aeryn?” he asked again.

“We would have been forced to listen to you screaming for however long it took.  Arns, solar days.”     

John cupped her cheek in his hand, and stared into her eyes.  There was understanding in that unwavering
gaze, comprehension of the strength it had required and what it cost her to take the greatest risk of their
combined lives.  “Kiss?” he asked in a whisper.

He was asking if she minded the ultimate public expression of their love for each other.  She wanted to say yes.  
She wanted to let him know that there wasn’t anything she would not do with him, be it in private or in front of
hundreds or even thousands of people … and could not bring herself to give him permission.  It made her feel
too vulnerable.  Revealing that much of what mattered most to her in front of so many people ran contrary to
everything she had been taught while growing up.  She could not turn it off.  

“It’s okay,” John said.  “I know.”  He caught one of her hands in his and brushed a kiss across her palm.

“You know what?” she asked, wondering how much of what she had been thinking he had been able to read in
her eyes.  

“That you want to and can’t.  Not yet.”  

“Not yet,” she said, confirming that the day would come when she would be able to do what he had just asked.  

“That’s good enough for me.  Come on.  I’m dying for a brewski.”

As they approached the table, a rising shriek of indignation began to drown out every other noise in the

“Jool,” Aeryn said, identifying the source of the ear-splitting whine.

“Can’t be trouble.  It’s not melting the fixtures,” John added.  

It was not danger.  Based on the iridescent hue of her hair and the level of hilarity at the table, this was
embarrassment.  Tellart was laughing hard.  The other three at the table were in complete hysterics.  

“What’s going on?”  Aeryn asked.

“What did we miss?” John said at the same time.

“Jool’s friend,” Chiana gasped, “the one on the comms channel --” She dissolved into more giggles, very nearly
falling out of her chair and leaving the explanation unfinished in the process.  

D’Argo had one hand clasped to his chest, suggesting that he was not getting enough air, while the other one
pounded steadily on the table.  The furniture was crackling under the assault, threatening imminent failure.  
Rygel was no more help than the other two.  He was wheezing through an attack of the intons, possibly getting
worse with each additional microt.  

“Feeling a little left out?” John asked.

“Yes.  You?”

“Clueless.  But that’s normal for me.”

They turned toward Tellart, looking to the stranger in the group for a coherent answer.   

“She asked why the orbital control officers couldn’t come out here.  She explained that she wanted to meet the
guy she had talked to on the communications channel,” he said.  

Jool’s screamed objections began to rise again.    

“The control officers aren’t people.  The control facilities are run by artificial intelligence computers.”  Tellart
began laughing almost as hard as the rest of the group.  This time, the laughter managed to drown out Jool’s
wail of embarrassment.  

                                                                          *  ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chapter 18                                                                                                                                                                              Chapter 20
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