The Changeling - Part 2

It is a fitful sleep, full of brief vivid dreams sprinkled with half-waking moments that are often more confusing
than what he sees while he is asleep.  He thinks and dreams at the same time, one sliding into the next,
carrying bits and pieces of his thoughts into the distorted universe of dreamland and transporting the skewed
memories back into waking until he’s not sure where each one begins or ends.  In one of his more lucid
moments he knows why it is happening.  He is wet, chilled to the bone and shivering so violently that it is making
him nauseous.  It is the involuntary tremors that continue to pull him out of the rapidly shifting, surreal visits to
his past, repeatedly spilling him back into the harsh truth of a lumpy layer of clothing beneath him, unrelenting
dark, and a body that can no longer summon enough energy to stay warm.  Seven or eight stale foodcubes
wolfed down while kneeling over a dying charrid are not enough to fuel his body for an entire day.  His den will
not warm until late afternoon.  Until that happens, the best he can do is burrow under several layers of jackets,
curl up like a hibernating chipmunk, and do his best sleep away the arns.

Mostly he dreams of food:  sliding from one remembered feast to another, jumping from Thanksgivings when he
had stuffed himself with his mother’s cooking until he was sure he was going to explode, to bizarre multi-cultural
meals in the Center Chamber that went on for arns amidst camaraderie and chatter; from the simple pleasure
of peanut butter eaten straight out of the jar, onward through a half-consciously assembled menu of sokrans,
pizza, fried grohlak, and his mother’s beef stew, all of it washed down with the easy, delightful slide of chilled
milk.  His stomach grumbles, letting him know he’s awake, and then he sinks into another dreamed recreation of
a celebratory meal when the table had been in danger of collapsing under the weight of the food.  

His father comes to sit beside him in his rock-walled hovel at one point, scrambling awkwardly over the lip of
stone and spilled sand, hampered by the bag from McDonald’s he is carrying in one hand.  The smell of the
french fries is a siren’s call, hearkening back to a life he cannot hope to resume.  It is the rich fatty smell of a
fryer vat heart attack, of mouth wateringly empty calories, and of sitting in the car digging through paper-
wrapped bundles in a sack, squabbling over who ordered what.  It is the remembered odor of a simpler time
when his stomach was always full and choosing between life and death was a philosophical abstract.  There is
no hardship associated with the hot starchy fragrance:  no loss, no aching need for someone who is gone
forever, no hatred, and no desire to kill just to bolster his desire to live.  It is from a time when the simple
pleasure of going for a walk beneath open skies and sunlight didn’t mean losing everyone he loves.     

Jolting awake, he licks his lips, swallows hard against the emptiness in his stomach, and tries to ignore the way
his entire body aches for food.  It’s a low level variety of torture.  Every cell screams quietly for sustenance.  If
he didn’t have other things to think about the constant discomfort would quickly consume him.  But there are
greater agonies to occupy his mind.  Hunger can be ignored as long as he has hatred on which to center his
attention.  

“Frelling charrids,” Rygel says suddenly, floating alongside him.  “You can’t trust those despicable creatures.  
I’m not going with you.  If they claim to be a defense garrison, then they’re lying.  The force on that planet is ten
times larger than a standing garrison requires.”  

“Yn’dlath is satisfied,” he hears himself saying.  They are standing at the entrance to the hangar bay waiting for
the rest of the group to arrive.  “If someone as paranoid as an eidelon says it’s safe, then it’s probably safe.”

“Probably safe,” Sparky repeats in his most scathing Dominar’s drawl.  “Probably isn’t the same thing as
definitely.  Yn’dlath is young, and he’s inexperienced.  If you are determined to walk straight into what I know is
a trap, then at least leave the baby with me.”

Aeryn pauses with one foot on the lowest step of the transport pod stairs, and turns to look at them, one
eyebrow twitching upward in curiosity.  The baby is resting comfortably in the crook of her arm, carried with all
the familiarity of a pulse rifle.  She has adapted to the idiosyncrasies of motherhood with a speed that leaves
him reeling.  Little fazes her.  Diapers, breast feeding, waking repeatedly in the middle of the night, a brief bout
of colic that Aeryn diagnosed as too much of a particular spice in her own diet:  everything is taken in stride the
same way she approaches impending battles.  Motherhood is nothing more than another campaign to be
plotted out in advance and executed with a minimum of fuss.  

Her relaxed stride crosses the six motras between them.  “Rygel, we asked the charrids about the extra troops,”
she says, repeating what has already been discussed a number of times.  “The planet was a marshalling point
for their forces.  They had just finished assembling a battle group here when the armistice was signed.”  

“Lies,” Rygel grumbles.  “What about the sensor anomalies Pilot was picking up?  What about those?  No one
has explained that yet.”  

They stand silently for several moments because Rygel is right.  The anomalies haven’t been fully explained.  
Finally Aeryn says, “The readings are consistent with a force barrier, as they claim.”  She doesn’t sound
entirely convinced.  

Rygel refuses to give up.  “This planet is thousands of metras from where the fighting took place.  It is a
strategically insignificant collection of irradiated mud and foul weather.  There is no reason for them to have
erected a defensive barrier that only protects against ground assaults unless they are hiding something.  It is
all lies, and you won’t know why they are lying until it is too late.”  

Arlan strolls by, most of his attention trained on inspecting the pulse rifle he is carrying.  He swerves over to
where they are standing long enough to toss in his opinion.  Every species in the sector is still a bit jumpy at
this stage, the Peacekeeper officer points out.  It is too soon after the signing of the armistice for the
inhabitants of every planet to be acting as though they expect the peace to last.  The charrids are no different
than anyone else.  If they’re acting a bit furtive or suspicious, it is because they are acting like every other race
at this end of the galaxy.  He reminds them that Yn’dlath has spent most of the day meditating, testing whatever
psychic ripples it is that he relies on for his special insight, and has declared both the planet and surrounding
solar system safe.    

The fact that Moya and those on board her are on a mission of peace get tossed into the mix at some point.  
Everyone knows it’s irrelevant, and yet it keeps coming up, gradually influencing their opinions.  Aside from the
small contingent of Peacekeepers, the leviathan carries only a handful of luxans, Yn’dlath, and a cargo bay full
of message beacons to be dropped off on every inhabited planet between Arnessk and Hyneria.  Under
contract to the newly formed Eidelon Council of Priests, their job is to spread word of the armistice across this
section of the galaxy.  It has taken a quarter cycle of jumping from one planet to the next in order to reach this
particular spot on the outer rim of the Hynerian Empire, stopping at each world just long enough for Yn’dlath to
work his magic.  They are no more than fifteen solar days worth of planet hopping from Hyneria itself, and the
entire trip has taken place without a hint of violence.  

The dream-debate continues, seldom making any sense.  Bits and pieces of the original discussion whirl
around, clash, reform into surreally absurd combinations that carry even less logic than the actual argument,
and once again they reach the worst possible conclusion.  Lulled into complacency by Arlan’s and Yn’dlath’s
assurances that all is well, blinded by the seductive idea that the peace can be maintained by a handful of
eidelons, they ignore Rygel’s insistent claims of duplicity on the part of the charrids and decide to take Little D
with them rather than entrust him to someone else’s care.  

It will be the worst decision of their lives.  

He wants to change how it happened.  He strains against the grip of sleep to convince Aeryn to leave the baby
behind.  That’s all that he needs.  It is futile to try to get her to stay aboard Moya; there is no way he can
prevent her from coming with him.  And it isn’t necessary to go to that extreme anyway.  He is sure that
everything will work out differently if she doesn’t take D’Argo down to the planet.  She will be able to run faster if
she isn’t carrying the extra weight and has both hands free.  Little D will be safe and happy aboard Moya with
Chiana, Rygel, and Pilot to watch over him.  Aeryn won’t die.  D’Argo won’t die.  

All he has to do is say the correct words and he will have a reason to live.  All he has to do is speak, saying
whatever is necessary to convince her that they were wrong the first time around.  

Aeryn smiles over her shoulder at him, and runs up the steps to the transport pod still carrying the baby.  

“No,” he cries at last into the mud-caked leather beneath his head.  “Don’t go.”  The plea comes far too late to
save her, and then he is asleep again.    

He dives over the top of the barricade, nearly brains himself on a large boulder, hits the sand in an ungainly
sprawl and slams shoulder-first into a sand-dusted rock.  His lungs and his legs are on fire from the desperate,
slogging run across the sand.  Aeryn is half a motra to one side, hunched over, protecting the baby; she had
beaten him to cover by no less than one hundred microts.  She didn’t seem to have any difficulty running on the
soft, shifting surface.  He wonders if it’s a Peacekeeper training thing or if he’s pitifully out of shape.  He hears
an odd whine and crack in the distance.  The noise means that the charrid artillery is loosing another salvo.  

“Incoming!  Hit the deck!”  He flings himself on top of Aeryn, doing his best to protect her and the baby without
crushing them.

“Look out!” someone yells a split second before Arlan comes sailing over the top of the stone, still firing even
as he leaps for cover.  The black uniform tucks into a compact ball, hits the ground rolling.  The remainder of
the squad follows in quick succession, in some cases landing on each other.  No one complains about getting
squashed.  Everyone is too busy burrowing down into the sand, hands and arms over their heads.  They have
no alternative except to ride out the deafening impacts and the hail of blasted stone and scorched sand.  

Ears ringing, he looks up.  Everyone is there and is unharmed.  They have all escaped from what was
supposed to be a brief, peaceful ceremony with the commanders of the garrison.  Yn’dlath looks bewildered by
the turn of events and the chaos raging around them, as though he thinks he should have been able to stop it
from occurring.  

“That was a frelling magnificent plan!” one of the luxans yells over the accelerating crash of small weapons fire.  
“Will someone tell me why we retreated away from the transport pod?”

“Because they were between us and it, and if we had tried rushing them we would have gotten our asses shot
off?” he shouts back.  Another salvo slams into the hillside behind them.  Everyone ducks.  “Was that the right
answer?  Do I get a gold star?” he asks when they raise their heads.  

The luxan glares at him the same way D’Argo always did whenever he didn’t know whether to burst out laughing
or shoot him.  “That was very nice!  Now tell me how we’re going get out of here?”

Before he can put together an equally sarcastic response, Aeryn’s elbow digs into his ribs, a forceful reminder
that he’s still lying on top of her.  She shoves him to one side and sits up.  She checks on the baby first, and
then quickly dissembles her pulse pistol and blows the dirt and grit out of the pulse chamber, calm and focused
in the midst of total chaos.  “Contact Pilot.  Have him send down some of the others in a luxan ship to get us
out.”  

“All channels are being jammed,” the comms sergeant says.  “I can’t tell if I’m getting through.  We need to plan
on getting out on our own or not at all.”  

“I vote for getting out on our own,” Arlan says, deliberately misinterpreting the sergeant’s final comment.  He
grins broadly, snaps several shots in the direction of the charrid lines, and then ducks down again.  “What do
you think?”

“Not at all has a certain attraction,” Aeryn yells back in cheerful sarcasm.  “Lots of sun, beautiful scenery,
pleasant neighbors.  John likes planets.  We could build a home and stay here forever.”  

They are going to stay here forever, but not in the manner she meant.  

Up on the surface it is late afternoon.  The heat has made its way down through the layers of sand and stone,
and he wakes to the unpleasant moist grasp of half-dried leather and oven-hot air.  He kicks off the layers of
clothing he uses for covers, squirms his way onto his back, and sprawls with his arms and legs outstretched,
basking in the heat.  If it were this warm all the time, he might be tempted to stay below ground until he starved
to death.  The days and nights would merge into an unending stream of happier moments from his past, of what
might have been if only they had not made one critical, moronic decision, and of the remembered days of
laughter and love.  He would lie on his back while his body wasted away, treading forward and back in time
through his life, until a final breath slid out of him, and he joined Aeryn in reality as well as in his dreams.

But it never stays warm.  In a few arns the sun will set, the ground will begin to cool, and the increasingly cold
drizzle will insinuate its way into his lair.  So for now he stares into the dark, eyes fixed on a stone ceiling he has
never seen, and drifts, in the end making the transition from waking to sleep so smoothly that it tricks him into
thinking the repetitive vision is real this time.

The charrids have left, gone who knows where.  He can tread his way openly across the sun-baked plain
without worry.  Powdery dirt puffs out from under his boots with every step; miniature dust clouds rising up to
coat his clothes and skin with flour-fine grit.  From boot soles to mid-thigh he is encased in a tenuous shell of
light brown; parched soil showers down as fast as it roils up, dirt replacing dirt with each footfall.  The sun is
equally merciless.  It hammers against his head and shoulders, doing its best to turn him into the same
inconsequential sand as everything else on this planet.  He smears the heel of a hand across his face, wiping
away the crawling streams of sweat, and comes away with a fistful of dust instead of moisture.  He is losing
substance already.  If he doesn’t hurry, he is going to crumble into the landscape before he can reach them.  

He looks down at the ground in front of his feet.  The bones are there, half buried in the sand.  One tall, one
small, the larger skeleton curled protectively around the tiny one that lies tucked in beneath its ribcage.  He
tries to lift them, and they crumble in his hands.  One at a time the bones turn to nothingness, spilling from his
fingers faster than he can move to catch them.  He lunges forward in desperation, trying to at least save the
skulls so he will have something to remember them by, and they melt into the sand.  

The wind howls across the barren expanse, crying out a mournful keening of loss and emptiness.  It turns the
entire landscape to swirling dust clouds, and the desiccated remnants of his family are gone forever.

Sand rattles against his chest.  He turns his head away from the tiny stinging fusillade, shielding his eyes.  
That is the moment when he remembers that this is a dream.  He visits this spot almost every day in his sleep,
treading the same ground each time, never coming up with anything more than a fistful of air and an ache in
his chest that would be more than enough to kill him if he were awake.  When he ducks his head to the side,
taking his eyes off the indentation where Aeryn’s body has lain for so many days, that’s when he knows he is
dreaming.  If he were awake, nothing as insignificant as a little windborne sand could convince him to tear his
gaze away from that rapidly fading mark.  

A pair of boots scrunches across parched gravel and sand.  He rises to his feet and turns to face her, waiting
for her to speak.  Dream or no dream, at least he will get to hear her voice.  Aeryn is as beautiful as the first
day he met her.  Death has been kind to her.  Today she is dressed in the black t-shirt instead of a long
sleeved shirt, and her hair hangs free, drifting across her shoulders in dark heavy waves when she leans to
one side in order to shift the baby to a more comfortable position in the crook of her arm.  Aeryn smiles at him,
and speaks.  She says the same words every time; the dialogue never varies.  She stretches out her free hand,
inviting him to place his hand in hers, and says, “Time to come home, John.  Come with us.”

When he reaches for her, she’s gone.  

He wakes scrabbling for Aeryn’s hand, eager to feel the strength and warmth of her grip one more time, trying
to grasp the phantom touch before it fades along with the comforting embrace of sleep.  It’s a rotten way to
wake up.  He rolls over once, draws his knees up to his chest so he’ll fit out the opening, and tumbles out of the
sleeping hollow, hitting the stone floor of the passageway with a breath-jarring jolt.  His skin tingles unpleasantly
in the aftermath of the dream; it’s a nauseating crawling sensation that feels as if his clothes are infested with
millions of bugs.  Between the light-headed disorientation that comes from waking too abruptly, the buzzing
headache that never seems to go away unless he finds something to eat, and an overall weariness of living, he
feels like absolute crap.  

He crouches, one arm on a knee, chin resting on his forearm, and stares into the nothingness that is his home.  
A furtive remnant of his dream lingers, tracing an eerie chill down the back of his neck and his spine.  It refuses
to be banished even though he’s awake.  If he closes his eyes and concentrates, he can feel her kneeling
beside him, hidden in the dark.  This sort of thing has happened plenty of times in the past, but never with such
intensity.  When he holds his breath, he can almost hear the soft whoosh of her breathing that he had become
accustomed to hearing in the middle of the night.  He never tired of waking to find her snuggled in against his
back, one arm draped across his ribs, the warm air of her exhalations tickling the back of his neck.  He would lie
awake for arns, simply listening, feeling, and reveling in the fact that they were together at last.

Tonight he can’t stop himself.  “Aeryn?” he whispers into the echoing emptiness of the ruins.  He receives the
answer that logic and reason tell him to expect.  Silence.  

“Aeryn?” he calls more loudly, and the response is the same.  It gets out of control after that.  He is on his feet
without any memory of when or how he got up, moving forward without caution, yelling her name again and
again, as if decibels alone could bring her back.  “AERYN!” he screams finally, using up an entire lungful of air
on the desperate plea, and then sinks down, huddles in on himself as protection against the blackness, and
listens to the echoes of his own voice fading into the distance.

For the first time since it happened, he feels as though she truly is gone.  His mind has been playing its own
little devious game until now, veering away from the truth, only peeking at the bleakness that will never end,
and then leading him off into a semi-dazed existence where he doesn’t have to face that she is never coming
back.  The grief has been real, the knowledge of the loss clear and sharp, and yet he has been holding a
portion of himself back, leaving the equivalent of a small child cowering in a closet, convinced that there will be
no such thing as monsters provided he doesn’t open the door.  

The door is open; the truth more unbearable than any of the dozen or so monsters he has faced over the past
cycles.  He rocks forward until his forehead rests against the stone floor, finding solace in the touch of the
unforgiving surface.  It is restful like that, hunched over in the dark, folded in on himself so that the empty
hollow in his gut no longer feels like an intestinal black hole.  He could easily stay there forever, listening to the
tiny pings and grumbles of the settling structure, until he becomes as much a permanent fixture as everything
else underground.    

A scent infiltrates its way along the floor, driven forward on a snaking river of cooler air.  The metallic tang of
individual rain drops splashing onto hot pavement catches at the back of his throat.  Like the dreamed
fragrance of french fries, this is a smell from his past.  It brings with it the far away thunder grumble of an
oncoming storm, the hiss and roar of wind tossed leaves, and the slapping wood-on-wood crack of the porch
door as his mother steps out to call for him to come in.  

Somewhere close by it is raining.  

He gets to his feet in slow, tired stages, hands pushing on his knees like his grandfather used to do when he
had been sitting for too long, and considers his options.  It will take one or two arns before the underground
seepage begins.  There is time to get to the lowest level and search for a scuttling, fast-moving meal.  He
needs the protein if he intends to go on.  But tonight, it doesn’t seem worth it.  Instead, he heads for the one
place that against all logic brings him some peace of mind.

He takes the shortest route down to the third level, picking his way cautiously through the rubble littering the
steeply sloped ramp.  He strides with more confidence once he’s on level ground, taking full advantage of the
rare opportunity to walk upright like a human.  His fingers trail along the right wall, keeping track of the
openings with an ease born of familiarity.  When the sixth hallway branches off, he slows, moving forward with
more care, counts off another eight steps, and then drops to his hands and knees and inches forward until he
reaches the edge of what he thinks of as the Bottomless Pit.  

This is his graveyard.  Arlan and his men rest far below.  He had been in a rush when he had stripped them of
their clothing and everything else that might be of use, and had tumbled them into the depths.  They had made
the freefall descent without the benediction of a service or any sort of heart-felt last words.  There are over a
dozen charrids down there as well, killed during the first days when they had tried sending patrols in after him.  
Body armor, pulse weapons, and scanning equipment hadn’t worked well in the tight confines of the tunnels,
and their search lights had only served to warn him that they were coming.  He had found the best hiding
places during those desperate days, sliding out to grab the rare straggler, learning to use a knife because it
was silent.

At first he hadn’t wanted to dump the charrids in the same hole as Arlan and the others.  It seemed sacrilegious
in some way.  But in the end, when he couldn’t find a second hole that was deep enough to swallow the dozen
or so bodies, he had come to see it as a tribute to the soldiers who had died in the diversion meant to save
Aeryn and the others.  Each time he comes here, he makes an effort to remember each of the honored dead
one at a time, taking time to envision their faces, providing the only memorial they will ever receive.  He does it
again, counting them off on his fingers so he won’t overlook anyone.  

The first two soldiers had gone down before any of the group had reached the entrance to the tunnel.  Number
three was the wounded man Arlan and the comms sergeant had been dragging between them.  He had died
shortly after Arlan had dropped him in order to haul a screaming, struggling human away from the sight of his
dead family.  Four was the comms sergeant, who had been crushed under tons of rock during the third
bombardment on the tunnel entrances.  The last two enlisted men had fought on tenaciously despite the
ridiculous odds, using up every last bit of ammunition in an effort to keep the charrids out.  In the end they had
resorted to knives and bare hands, only to be overwhelmed by a wave of armored bodies.  

And finally, there was Arlan.  He had hung on until the end of the second day, dying slowly of the wounds he
had sustained while dragging a senseless civilian past the dead body of one of his own men.  

“I’m sorry,” he whispers toward where Arlan’s body lies rotting at the bottom of the pit.  “You should have done
your job instead of saving me.”  Clubbed into unconsciousness by the barrel of Arlan’s pulse pistol, he had
survived the carnage because he had missed the worst of the battle.  He had awakened to find himself stuffed
into a small alcove, two dead charrids in the passageway beyond, and with Arlan sitting propped against a wall
nearby, well on his way to dying.    

Against every one of his hard-learned prejudices and expectations, he had liked the Peacekeeper captain very
much.  The first time he caught himself seeking out Arlan’s company, he had blamed on the recent loss of his
best friend.  Arlan was basically human, he had told himself; it was male companionship that drew him to Arlan
the same way he had once wound up sitting outside Crais’ cell.  The days had passed in increasingly
comfortable camaraderie, however, and the time had come when he had been forced to admit that he liked
Arlan for his sense of humor, his intelligence, and the relaxed manner in which he wielded his authority.  That
was the day he had begun thinking of Arlan as his friend.  

It had modified the way he viewed all Peacekeepers.  He still hated the repressive military regime and the
decadent, autocratic ruling authority.  But after living side by side with the group assigned to accompany
Yn’dlath, seeing the pride they took in resuming their traditional role as true peace keepers, he had finally
begun to see the individuals inside the look-alike clothing.  Regimented, emotionally repressed, trained to follow
orders without question, they had shown him that they could still be decent people if given half a chance.  

He rests his cheek on his arm, shifts his hips to one side so the rounded outcrop of rock isn’t digging into his
pelvis, and remembers.  It is quiet.  The scent drifting up from the rotting bodies has begun to remind him of
charcoal seared steaks on the grill.  He derives solace from their silent company, even if they are out of his
reach.  He closes his eyes for an instant, and suddenly he is back where he belongs, striding through bronze-
walled curving corridors, breathing clean, well-filtered air in the gentle yellowish light.

Laughter echoes toward him as he approaches the treblin side cells on Tier Eight.  With the exception of one
higher pitched voice, the chuckles are all male, deeper rumbles providing a bass background to the lighter
melody of a triumphant outburst from Aeryn.  He turns the corner already certain what he will find.  They are
playing the card game again, the one he can’t seem to master.  Arlan, Aeryn, the comms sergeant, and three
others sit at the table in Arlan’s quarters; five others are hovering over the players, watching with cheerful, avid
interest.  Aeryn loses the next hand as he approaches the group, flings down the last of her cards in disgust
and laughs again, accepting the loss easily.  

A burst of jealousy twists his stomach into an aching, hardened knot.  Aeryn never laughs so often or so readily
when she’s with him.  Then she looks up from the game as he comes to a stop behind Arlan and the jealousy is
gone.  Aeryn doesn’t look at anyone else in the universe the way she looks at him.  

“I hope you’re kickin’ their butts,” he says, trying to make up for the flash of envy.  Even after several lessons
and being walked through more than a dozen hands, he still can’t figure out who is winning and losing.  The
deck they use has fourteen suits, each one representative of a Peacekeeper rank.  To them the heap of cards
in the middle looks like an alphabet spelling out a tale of pleasant recreational warfare.  To him it looks like a
pile of oversized confetti.

Arlan answers the question.  “She’s killing us,” he says while gathering in the cards to deal another hand.

“Do you need me?” Aeryn asks.  All of her attention is focused on him.  That won’t change unless he releases
her in some way.  

“Nope.  All’s quiet.  The drool factory is sleeping for once.  I just came up to see what’s going on.”  

She nods, satisfied, and lowers her eyes to see what she’s been dealt.  He watches one of her eyebrows twitch
and knows instantly that she has a whopper of a hand.  No one else at the table seems to notice the telltale
reaction.  He wanders around to stand behind her, still trying to make some sense out of this game.  It is over
before he can begin to decipher what is going on.  Aeryn is gleefully ruthless.  The rest of the players take their
defeat like soldiers, which is to say that there are lots of groans and bitching.  Arlan tosses his cards in the air,
capitulating long before the hand is over.  

The cards flutter down in lively patterns, turning into butterflies mid-descent.  They swarm around him, battering
lightly at his head and arms, and he wakes.  

The butterflies turn out to be water drops.  It’s raining below ground.  

It’s time to go.  He has charrids to kill.  

The enormous mound of rubble at the far end of the corridor takes him up two levels, hands and feet finding
their way from block to block easily after so many nights’ practice.  Sand and rock fragments grind sourly under
his boots; the sound catches at his inner ear and makes the saliva run fast in his mouth, imitating hunger.  He
ignores it, doubles back toward the center of the labyrinth until he finds the stairway, and then bounds up three
more levels before cutting across to what he thinks might once have been a kitchen.  From there he slithers
down a vertical access shaft to the level below.  This route only works on the way out.  In the morning he will
use an entirely different series of intricate twists and turns to get home.  

By the time he reaches the Waiting Spot, the torrent coming from the ceiling is already at full volume.  He’s
running behind schedule.  He’ll have to hurry.  

Just the same, he takes his time approaching the surface, stopping often to listen.  From this point to his exit
takes him along a straight, unobstructed passageway.  He was late getting in this morning, slowed down by
fatigue and hunger.  By the time he had finally wormed his way through the opening and crawled into the safety
of his lair, he had been pushing the absolute limit of safety.  If they have managed to track him to the fissure
that is concealed behind several massive blocks of stone, they may be waiting for him with anything from a
Brindiss hound to a sonic ascendancy cannon.  There is nothing they won’t do if it means they can bring the
nocturnal attacks to an end.  

All is quiet.  He eases forward to the mouth of the corridor, stops to listen one more time, and then lowers
himself to the floor of the cave-like entry way, still wary.  He crouches low, listening, twitching, on the verge of
bolting into his tunnel.  

Something is different.  

He sniffs, testing for the sour scent of charrids.  There is only the musty smell of moist earth, underlain by the
metallic bite of wet stone giving off the day’s heat to the steady rain.  He listens with his eyes closed, trying to
pick out a break in the overall hissing pattern that might be caused by water dripping off armor.  The night is
quiet except for the steady background thrum of the rain and the counterpoint spatters from the nightly
streamlet that gushes through a crack in the overhanging rock.  He eases forward on his hands and toes, every
muscle tense, peering into the dark, still sniffing.  Although he can’t assign a reason to his suspicion, something
doesn’t feel right.  

“Crichton.”  

After so many days of hearing no one’s voice but his own, the whispered greeting falls on his ears with all the
force of a shout.  There is no thought, no time to reason out what the two syllables mean.  He whirls and dives
for the black-on-black route to safety.  

“Wait, it’s me!  We came to get you.  Crichton!”  

The speaker manages to grab one boot before he disappears completely.  She hauls with her entire body, and
manages to drag the lower half of his body out of the tunnel.  The part of his brain in charge of survival
screams at him to kick at her in order to get loose.  The rest of him can’t bring himself to kick a woman.  Her
hands shift to a better grip on his ankle, she heaves a second time, and she dumps him onto the mound of wet
earth beneath the entrance to his refuge.  Propping himself up on an elbow, he looks up at the barely visible
person standing over him.  Thin limbs and angularly cocked joints form a constantly shifting, lively geometric
pattern against the night sky.

“Chi.”  The syllable feels strange in his mouth.  He repeats the motion several times, and then tries it again.  
“Chiana.”

“Hey, old man.”  She crouches down next to him.  “We’ve been comming you for arns to let you know we were
coming to pick you up.  Why the frell didn’t you answer?”  

“Comms,” he says slowly.  “Comms can be traced.”

“Pilot figured out a way to encrypt the frequency so they can’t pick it up.”  A hand plucks at his arm.  “Get up.  
We’re in a hurry.”  

He stays where he is, lying in the dirt, and thinks about comms and frequencies and tracking systems, and
Chiana’s presence in this particular spot.  “How did you find me?” he asks, feeling the first squirming sensation
of alarm in the pit of his stomach.  If Chiana could find him, the charrids might not be far behind.  “How did you
know to come to this spot?”  

She points toward her altered eyes with two fingers of one hand, indicating the elongated pupils.  “We had
almost given up.  But I can see things now.  Remember?  I can see right through solid objects.  You know that.  
We were about to leave when I saw you headed this way.”

“Yeah,” he says after a long pause.  He had forgotten about her eyes.  

Chiana’s white hair moves from one side to another in a ghostly fashion, not quite luminescent in the stray
beams of light that make their way into his foyer.  She is peering at him, cocking her head to one side and then
the other, the motions familiar despite the strange surroundings.  “You have to comm the others and tell them
to get up here quick!  We have to hurry.  Where are the others?”  Chiana creeps closer.  “Where are your
comms?  You’re not wearing them.”

His comms badge is at the bottom of the Bottomless Pit along with the dead.  It had been consigned to the one
spot from which he could never retrieve it on the day he had found himself hunched over the small bit of metal
and circuitry, pleading into a deactivated device for Moya or the Peacekeepers or for anyone at all to come get
him.  He still doesn’t remembered pulling it off his belt.  It had been pure luck that he hadn’t activated it.  The
charrids would have homed in on it and descended on him in full force if he had.  So he had thrown it down the
hole, the only way he could think of to compensate for his weakness.  

“Gone.”  He isn’t sure which one of Chiana’s questions he’s answering.  It doesn’t matter.  The single word
works for both.  

“Which?”

“All of them.”

Chiana nods twice, a pair of fast up and down movements against the stars.  She accepts the losses far more
easily than he can.  “Then let’s go.  Hurry.”  

“No.  Leave me.”  His life is here now.  There is nothing for him back there except memories that are too
agonizing to contemplate.  

“Are you totally fahrbot?” she screeches in a whisper.  “You can’t stay here.  Come on!  We have to leave.  
Pilot gave us six arns to get in here, find you, and get out.  We’ve used up six and a half already.  We have to
leave, Crichton!”  

“Six arns?” he asks.  Anything short of a rowboat should be able to make it from Moya to the surface and back
in under two arns.  

“I’ll explain that later.”  She plucks at his sleeve, a small tug of encouragement.  “Come on.”

There is a confusing, disorienting moment after that, consisting of thoughts of what it would be like to return to
Moya, to walk through her gently gleaming tiers, and to enter a particular cell and find no one there.  There
would be possessions, weapons, distinctly feminine pieces of clothing; toys, blankets, and the dozens of items
that said that an infant had once resided there along with its mother.  The hurt is every bit as intense as it had
been on the day he had lost them; the passage of time and the scores of dead have done nothing to diminish
the pain.  He shakes his head and begins easing toward his tunnel.  “Go away.”

Before he can reach safety, someone moves out of the darker shadows to one side.  He rolls over twice to get
away from the new threat, coming to an abrupt stop only because his back slaps up against a rock with a hard
smack.  The dark blob passes through a bit of pale, rain diffused starlight, revealing the outline of braids,
tanktas, and the gleaming hilt of a weapon strapped to the person’s back.  

“D’Argo?  D … D’Argo?”  The ground seems to shift under him then, and the past days compress into a blur of
hate and vengeance that lacks the pleasant taste of sanity.  If D’Argo isn’t dead, then maybe he was wrong
about everything else.  He waits for the universe to undergo some sort of surreal contortions, after which
everything will start to make sense.  Nothing happens except that he feels increasingly sick and confused.  
“D’Argo?”

A familiar voice says, “Hardly.  My father was twice the warrior I ever will be, Crichton.”

“Jothee.  Why … what …?”  He stops to think about how Chiana got here, and comes up with a reason for
Jothee’s presence.  “Cloaked ship.”  

“Don’t start thinking that I’m going to spend the rest of my life following you around and taking on every one of
your hopeless causes the way my father did.  This is a one time favor in his honor, and only because Chiana
asked me to help.”  

He starts a slow migration back toward his hole, pants scuffing quietly over the wet ground while he keeps one
eye on Jothee.  Reason has returned.  There is no disorientation left.  His quest is once again securely fixed
before him.  He will go on punishing the ones who took away the only things that mattered to him.  

“Get on your feet, Crichton.”  Jothee takes a step forward.  “We’re in a hurry!”  

It is doubtful that the young luxan can see him in the dark; he shakes his head anyway, if only to emphasize his
resolve to himself.  “Sorry to ruin your big moment of self sacrifice, Junior, but take a hike.”  

Jothee takes another step forward.  “We don’t have time to argue.”

Smell isn’t affected by the dark.  The realization hits too late.  He spins onto his hands and feet, aims straight
for the welcoming maw of the tunnel, drives forward like a lineman when the ball is snapped, and is a full
microt too late.  In an eerily familiar replay of his very first arn aboard Moya, the familiar slapping sting nails
him square in the back of the neck.  The moment he has been seeking for so many days finally comes.  
Unconscious enfolds him, shutting out all the guilt and grief in a way that not even sleep can provide.  His only
regret as he collapses face first into the dirt is that it will not last forever.  


                                                                          * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Part 1                                                                                                                                                                                                 Part 3
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