The Changeling - Part 4

The Marauder settled onto the hangar bay’s deck plates with a multi-tonal clank and the familiar creaking that
was the shock absorbing pistons of the landing struts compressing under the weight of the hull armor.  Aeryn
didn’t bother with the usual shutdown procedures.  A fast slap against the emergency breaker cut the primary
energy circuit, and she was halfway to the belly hatch before the whine of the power cells could begin to fade.

“Pilot, get us out of here as fast as Moya can manage,” she called over her comms, and triggered the hatch
release with another unforgiving slam of her fist.  The stress of the past several days, kept well contained until
the instant that John’s rescue was complete, was demanding to be let out.  The Marauder’s heavily reinforced
components positively begged for abuse.  

“Come on, you frelling thing!” she yelled at the slow-moving hatch.  “Open!”  A resounding kick did nothing to
hasten the process.  It did, however, relieve some of her tension.  She considered shooting the mechanism.  
That might feel even better than kicking the door.  

“We are already underway, Aeryn.”  Aside from an overly calm tone of voice, Pilot’s reply contained nothing to
suggest he had overheard her frustrated outburst.  

Aeryn took a firm grip on her temper.  This was not the appropriate moment to bark at either Pilot or Moya.  The
leviathan had driven herself to the point of total exhaustion in order to reach the planet before the incoming
combined Scarran-Peacekeeper fleet.  High Command and the Scarran delegate cared little for the handful of
Peacekeepers and a single human they had been told were hiding in the ruins.  The commanders of the small
task force would not have delayed the bombardment for a single microt if they had gotten here first.  Pilot and
Moya had spared nothing in their efforts to reach the planet in time for a fast, stealthy rescue mission.    

“Ninety arns until Moya is rested enough to starburst?” Aeryn asked.  

“Possibly more,” Pilot answered.  “I have shut down all non-essential systems in an effort to hasten the
process.  We are doing our best, but she is very tired.”  

Aeryn paused inside the Marauder just long enough to finish the conversation.  “No rush, Pilot.  All she needs
to do is get clear of the system before they start the attack.  After that she can rest as long as she needs.  
Thank Moya for me.  We never would have gotten here in time without her effort.”

Without bothering to wait for an answer, she lowered herself gingerly through the belly hatch, hung for the extra
microt necessary in order to give recently healed muscles time to adjust to the extension, and then dropped the
remaining distance to the hangar floor.  It took her an extra two microts to straighten up, and by that time
Chiana and Jothee were already leading John down the steps of Jothee’s ship.  

Aeryn’s eager stride faltered.  

They had tried to warn her.  Between more critical communications, Jothee had included the message that
John’s time on the planet hadn’t been an easy one, and Chiana had gone out of her way to mention that he
was nearly blind.  That was all they had been able to tell her before Moya’s sensors had detected the lead
Command Carrier maneuvering to enter the solar system and they had scrambled to get out of the way of the
incoming force.  The arrival of the hastily assembled fleet left her with little to do but pilot the Marauder and
worry about how badly John had been injured.  She had put the time to use by trying to prepare herself
mentally and emotionally for the sight of festering wounds, hideous scars, or even a missing limb.

John stumbled off the last step and nearly collapsed.  Chiana and Jothee caught him, and helped him regain
his feet.  Throughout it all, John’s left hand remained firmly clasped over his eyes.    

Chiana glanced toward Aeryn and explained, “He was underground most of the time.  He can’t stand the light.”  

“Pilot?” Aeryn called.  She had meant to ask Pilot to reduce the light levels to a quarter their normal setting.  
Before she could finish the request, John began staggering as badly as a patient in the last stages of Gillurian
brain rot, and he pulled away from his two guides.  His knees buckled, and this time he wound up sprawled
face-first on the floor.  He lay still for no more than half a microt, then fought his way up onto his knees and
stayed there, hunched over and squinting through his fingers, searching for something.  

“Aeryn?” he called in a hoarse whisper.  

The shock and hesitation evaporated.  She was beside him in a split-microt, ignoring the dirt, the smell, the
beard, and the filthy, matted hair.  There were no obvious gaping wounds, no visible sign of infection, no
missing parts.  He had two arms, two legs, two undamaged blue eyes blinking and watering in the mild light of
the maintenance bay, ten fingers, and although he was swaying as badly as if Moya’s gravity bladders had torn
loose from their moorings, John was intact.

She searched for the right way to greet him.  “Hey.”  

“Aeryn?” he asked, ignoring the second half of the ritual greeting.  Both of his hands were reaching out,
searching for her.  “Aeryn?”  

“Right here.”  She grabbed one of the flailing hands and guided it to her cheek.  “I’m right here.”  

He let out an agonized sounding shriek, one that sounded like it was being produced by the last bit of air being
expelled from his lungs, and pulled her into a two-armed grasp.  Desperation clutched at her with grimy fingers.  
She leaned into the embrace willingly, happy to be in John Crichton’s arms no matter how dirt encrusted and
stinking they might be.  

“Pilot?” she called again.  This time she finished the request to lower the light levels.  Most of the maintenance
bay disappeared into barely lit gloom.  “Is that better?” she asked John.  

“You were dead,” he mumbled into her shoulder.  “You were dead.  I was sure you were dead.  You and Little D
died.”  He began to shake.  She held him more tightly, trying to stop the shudders.    

“No.  I was only wounded.”  She glared at Chiana and Jothee.  “Why didn’t you tell him?”

“We did.  He didn’t believe us,” they answered together.  Their voices overlapped, providing both halves of the
message at the same time.  

“I killed you.  My plan got you killed,” John gasped.  He had his eyes open now.  It looked as though they hurt in
spite of the dimmed light, but he definitely could see.  He was looking at her the way a person looks at an
imaginary wraith:  as though she would disappear if he blinked.

Aeryn wiped a muddy-looking streak of moisture from his cheek.  “Your plan worked.  I got hit, but we made it
out just as you said.”  She looked up at Chiana and Jothee again.  “What happened?  What went wrong?  Why
didn’t he know?”  

Chiana shrugged and knelt down beside where Crichton was now sprawled half in and half out of Aeryn’s lap.  
“We didn’t have time to find out.  All he told us is that Arlan and the others are dead.”

Aeryn gave him a small shake, as though the jostling could straighten out the details.  “John, we were picked
up.”

“The wreckage is still there.  The transport pod was blown to bits,” he continued to argue.

“Jothee’s men picked us up in a shielded ship.  They told your group that.  The message was acknowledged.  
They landed where the ship would block the firing coming from the charrids, and pulled all of us inside.  All of
us.  Everyone made it.  They took off just as the transport pod was hit.  Your group received the transmission!”  

“The comms sergeant died a few arns after we reached the tunnels.  I never saw him again after … after I saw
you … get killed,” John whispered.  

The idea that John had spent his days thinking she was dead and that he was stranded on the planet, possibly
without any chance of being rescued, was creating a strange form of frantic desperation.  Just as John kept
insisting she was dead despite the living, breathing evidence to the contrary, she was consumed with the need
to convince him that he should have known she had survived.  “Arlan was wearing a command link.  Arlan had
to know.  Jothee’s men made sure that you knew we got out safely, so you would know to hang on until we
could return with a stronger force to rescue you.”  

John’s next few sentences banished the last of her disbelief.  “Arlan was the one who told me that the transport
pod had been hit.  And the comms were being scrambled.  We didn’t receive any transmissions.  They came in
after us, Aeryn.  Everyone else died by the end of the first day.  Arlan hung on for two days, and then he died
too.”  He clung to her more fiercely.  “Everyone died.  I thought you had died.  I knew that Pilot and Moya
wouldn’t stay if they thought everyone was dead, and I was certain that everyone else died.”   

She did her best to match the strength of his embrace, holding him as tightly as he was holding on to her.  
“Listen to me, John.  When I got hit, the others formed a perimeter around me and held the charrids off until the
luxans could get there and pull us out.  They were already on their way, so it only took a few microts.  They
landed between us and the charrid lines, took us on board, and then came back here instead of rescuing you
because I was so badly injured.  Do you understand?  They put my injuries ahead of returning to pick you up
because everyone trusted that you would find a way to survive.”  

“Why didn’t you come today?” he asked suddenly.  “Why didn’t you come to get me?”

“I haven’t healed enough to move fast.  I can’t fight.  I would have been a liability.  If it weren’t for that, they
never would have been able to talk me into flying a defensive patrol for Moya instead of coming with Jothee.  
Never.  If it weren’t for that, I would have been there.”

He nodded twice, accepting the explanation without a complaint, and then changed the subject again.  “D’Argo.  
Where’s the squirt?  Where’s the little D?  Is he all right?  He was underneath you.”  He began to push himself
out of her embrace, looking distraught.  The result of his efforts was a short-lived attempt to get to his feet that
ended with John toppling to one side.  

“The last time I checked, he was with Rygel and Pilot in the Den.  He’s fine.  When I fell, I went down at an
angle.”  She slid forward and pulled his head and shoulders into her lap again, using the embrace to still his
attempts to get up.  “It’s the last thing I remember:  thinking that I had to turn so I didn’t land on top of him.  He’s
happy, healthy, and he’s grown so much you won’t believe it.”  

John had gone back to clinging to her as though she would simply wink out of existence if he let go.  Aeryn
rubbed the back of his head, ignoring the unpleasant slide of greasy hair beneath her hand, and hung on to
him tightly with her other arm.  Her grasp around his chest and shoulders revealed a problem that was far more
serious than the layers of dirt and the mud-caked clothing.  The body that rested inside her one-armed grasp
and that lay across her legs didn’t feel the way it was supposed to.  He wasn’t heavy enough.  Grimacing with
anticipated distaste, she slid a hand inside his jacket and quested along his stomach, back, and ribs, searching
for the flesh and muscle that should be there.  John didn’t respond to the fast, cursory examination.  His head
remained buried against her stomach, probably as much to shield his eyes as to seek out tactile evidence of
her presence.  Her investigation located more layers of leather beneath the outer jacket, creating the illusion of
a healthy physique, and not nearly enough body mass.  

Aeryn looked up at her two companions who were hovering anxiously over them.  “What did he have to eat
down there?”

“Frell all for all we know,” Chiana said.  “We never got inside the ruins, so we don’t know for sure.  Why?”

“He’s nothing but bone.  There’s nothing left of him,” Aeryn said.  

“We tried to give him something to eat --” Chiana began.

“-- the inside of my ship reeks now,” Jothee finished.  “No one warned me that Crichton’s species could do
anything that repulsive.”  

“He puked it back up,” Chiana said, clarifying what happened.  “I was impressed.  I’ve never seen anyone puke
that far.”  

Aeryn went on hugging John, using her free hand to search for other signs of injury.  His frantic, distressed
movements had come to a stop.  If it hadn’t been for the strength of his grip around the middle of her body and
the deep, irregular breaths coming from him, she might have assumed he had fallen asleep.  Instead, what was
occurring in John’s body seemed more like letdown from an unsustainable level of tension or emotional upset.  
He was relaxing more with each breath, at the same time showing some signs that he was reassembling some
self-control.  She looked down at the head buried in her lap, fingered a few strands of grime-stiffened hair away
from what she could see of John’s face, and then turned her attention back to the question of the overly thin
body.  

“They had combat rations with them,” she said.  “If the others are dead, he should have had enough to make it
through in better shape than this.”

Jothee sank down on one knee, one hand clamped over his nose.  “Were the rations distributed equally?”  

“No,” Aeryn said, feeling the first tinge of despair.  “There was no time to share it out.  Two of Arlan’s men had
the entire food supply.”  

Jothee shook his head, and stood up.    

The rest of the answer was obvious from condition of the body half-lying on the floor and still holding on to her
like she was the only thing keeping him from floating off into space.  John was several stages beyond thin.  He
was within a few days, possibly within a matter of arns of starving to death.  It resolved the question of what to
do next.  “When sebaceans have been starved, they need a special diet at first.  John should be able to
tolerate the same foods and supplements that we can.  Moya’s medical datastores will have the information we
need.”  

“Then we get him some food first,” Chiana asked, “no matter how bad he smells?”  

“Food has to come first.  He’s too thin.”  She spoke to the skeleton clothed in tattered leather and rags.  “Come
on, John.  On your feet.”

He lifted his head, peered around the maintenance bay for several microts with a dull-eyed expression that
Aeryn thought might be the result of the type of exhaustion that follows a heavy shock, and then he obediently
levered himself up onto his knees.  “What?” he asked once they had him standing upright.  

“Food,” she explained succinctly.  “What did you have to eat down there?”  

His eyes flickered toward her and then away.  “A few things.  Fast food, chinese takeout.”   

His gaze came to rest on the doorway leading out of the maintenance bay.  The beginnings of a frown replaced
the deliberately vague look that had accompanied his uninformative answer.  Aeryn turned to see what was
causing the shift.  A small crowd had formed near the door.  Most of the remaining Peacekeepers from Arlan’s
unit had gathered there, accompanied by several of the luxans and Yn’dlath.  Every set of eyes was fixed on
Crichton, some with avid, fascinated interest, the remainder merely showing curiosity or concern.  John
responded by dropping his head until his chin was resting on his chest and letting out a slow, nearly inaudible
sigh.  The signals were unmistakable.  Whether it was because he was hungry or tired or just worn out, he
wasn’t prepared to deal with a mob of people, not even if they were there to offer some form of kindness.

Catching Chiana’s eye, Aeryn nodded her head toward the spectators.   “Ask them to leave,” she said.

“They’re just worried about Crichton,” the nebari said.  “They want to know if he’s all right.”

“I understand that.  Ask them to give him some time to adjust.”  

“I’ll do it,” Jothee said, volunteering.  Microts later he was talking to the assembled group by the doorway,
shaking his head and gesturing toward the corridor.

“I’m okay,” John said.  “They don’t have to leave.”  

His body language and his reticence were saying something entirely different, however.  Every time John had
been reunited with either Moya or his friends in the past, he had been joyfully exuberant no matter what the
circumstances.  Even when he had returned to Moya to the unpleasant discovery that Scorpius was on board,
he had still been emitting energetic spikes of confidence amidst his understandable caution.  This homecoming
was turning into an exception to the rule, and the relief on his face when the crowd wandered away only
strengthened the impression that something life-altering had happened to him while he was stranded on the
planet.  

“Ready?” she asked.  

John nodded and headed toward the door, moving with some enthusiasm even if his course was slightly erratic
due to the fact that he still had one hand shielding his eyes.  “I’ll have an extra large pizza with the works, don’t
hold the fish, and a pitcher of beer.”

She did her best to play along with the absurd request.  “You can have that tomorrow for First Meal.”

“What do I get today?”

She turned the question back on him, trying to determine whether he really felt hungry or if it was an act.  “What
do you feel like eating?”

John considered it for the length of time it took them to travel from the maintenance bay to the primary corridor
leading forward along Moya’s central axis.  By the time he answered, he was looking moderately nauseous.  
“Nothing we’ve got on board,” he admitted.  “Cornflakes maybe, or some of my Mom’s pancakes.  Anything else
is gonna wind up in the same place as whatever Chiana and Jothee gave me.”

He stumbled, staggered to one side, and almost fell.  Aeryn snared his arm and pulled him back on course.  
Once they were moving again, she said, “We know how to fix that.  It may take a few days though.”  

There was no witty reply to her comment.  This time his response was a tired-looking nod that looked more like
a spiritless surrender than an agreeable acquiescence.  They fell silent after that, simply walking together
several motras behind Chiana and Jothee, with Aeryn providing the occasional steadying hand to compensate
for John’s increasingly rare losses of balance.  He gradually straightened up and began taking longer strides,
forcing Aeryn to wonder whether he had been forced to scramble about hunched over the entire time.  There
would be plenty of time to find out in the days to come, Aeryn decided.  With a few exceptions, all having to do
with his physical condition, the questions could wait until he had been given some time to settle into his normal,
often chaotic existence aboard Moya.  

Halfway to the Center Chamber, just as Aeryn was starting to relax, something new began happening to John.  
At first she feared it was some sort of starvation-generated seizure.  As it progressed, however, it began to
resemble something she had heard about during her cycles as a Peacekeeper.  First, he came to a shambling,
erratic stop and let his hand drop away from his eyes.  Squinting, he looked from one end of the corridor to the
other, and then staggered to one side and ran his hand down one of Moya’s bronze-plated ribs.  He patted the
metalloid surface several times, and then rested his forehead against the wall and closed his eyes, as though in
silent communion with the leviathan.  After several microts of standing like that, he turned his back to Moya’s
bulkhead, slid down until he was sitting with his knees tucked up against his chest, and began to shake.  

“I feel sick,” he said.  “I feel awful.”  He wrapped his arms around his midsection, dropped his forehead onto his
knees, and continued to tremble.  

“What the frell?” Chiana asked in a half-whisper.  “What’s wrong with him now?”

“Battle shock,” Jothee answered before Aeryn could say anything.  

“He hasn’t been in a battle!” Chiana said.

“It’s just a term for the syndrome,” Jothee snapped back at her.  “It’s an acclimation disorder.”

Aeryn was standing over John, one hand on his shoulder to let him know she was beside him, concentrating on
his symptoms while devoting a small fraction of her attention to the escalating argument going on behind her.  

“What’s battle shock?” John asked without raising his head.  

“Do you feel like being back on Moya is a dream?” Aeryn asked.

John nodded jerkily.  “Everything seems … wrong.  It’s … I feel … upset … or like I’m about to have a
coronary.”  He rubbed his chest with a fist for emphasis.  “I feel like I’m having an anxiety attack built for a
budong.”

“You weren’t given enough time to adjust.  It sometimes happens when troops are pulled off the front line and
returned to barracks without an adjustment period.”  

She had never actually seen the phenomenon because the Peacekeepers had been careful never to rotate
ground combat units back to the Command Carrier too fast.  Troops who had been in combat for more than
thirty planetary days were always moved to interim quarters where they could unwind and work off some of the
residual adrenalin in the company of their fellow soldiers.  Clean uniforms free of the smell of war were issued.  
They had an opportunity to bathe, eat, and sleep, usually within earshot of the battle, all of which eased their
transition.  Only then, when the first critical adjustments were completed, were they transported back to the
relative peace and quiet of their ships.  John had not been afforded even a single portion of that process.  His
transition had taken place in a matter of arns.  After allowing for the amount of time he had spent asleep or
unconscious aboard Jothee’s ship, by his perspective the transition had taken under an arn.  It wasn’t
surprising that he was having difficulties coping with his surroundings, no matter how familiar they might be.

“I’m home.  I’m safe.  You and the pollywog are alive.  I’m being a big sissy,” he whispered.  

“Three arns ago you were living in a place where you had to devote every waking microt to the struggle to stay
alive, without any expectation that we would be coming back to get you.”  Aeryn tugged gently on one of his
arms, urging him to get up.  “There’s nothing to do at this point except keep going.  Sitting here won’t help,
John.  Let’s go.”

“Give me a microt.”  

She wanted to give him all the time in the universe.  She wanted to ask the others to leave them alone, and for
the two of them to sit in this spot for arns.  It would have been nice to just talk for a while, maybe let him take a
nap with his head resting on her legs, and then wake him gently and guide him to the Center Chamber when he
was feeling less unsettled.  But none of that would help him readjust to the familiar surroundings of their
leviathan home.  For the moment, she needed to be strong for him.  

“No,” she said.  “Get up now, John.  Eating will help, and then we’ll get you to your quarters and you can sleep
for a while.  That’s the best thing for it.”  When he didn’t move, she pulled on his arm harder and tried again.  
“Sitting here won’t make you feel better.  Get up.”    

This time John clambered awkwardly to his feet, took several deep breaths, and resumed the short journey
toward the Center Chamber.  Aeryn trailed along several steps behind him, dropping back in response to
Chiana’s beckoning hand signal.

“What the frell is wrong with him?” Chiana asked.  “Brain-worm patients are more intelligent than he’s acting
right now.  He was better than this the whole time he was on Jothee’s ship.”  

Aeryn ran off a fast list of the obvious problems.  “Starved, exhausted, half-blind from the lights, confused,
surprised to find out I’m alive, equally shocked to discover that he’s going to live.  I think that’s enough to
explain it.”  She slowed, dropping back several more steps.  “John is going to need time to adjust.  It might be
best to let him decide when he is ready to do certain things.”  

“Like what?” Chiana whispered.  “I hope you’re not going to say bathe.”  

“Yes, even bathing.  Once he’s eaten, if he wants to sleep first, we should let him sleep.”

Chiana stopped walking.  “What if he’s injured inside all of that dren, Aeryn?  For all you know he could be sick
or have some sort of creeping fatal body rot!”

Aeryn motioned for Chiana to keep moving.  John and Jothee were about to disappear around a corner several
motras ahead.  She considered the problem for the length of time it took them to catch up to within two motras
of the two males, finally deciding, “The medical scanner should be able to pick anything like that up even
through all the clothes and dirt.”

“Food, scan, sleep, stink,” Chiana summed up cheerfully.

Aeryn wrinkled her nose.  “You need to move stink further up on your list.”  

“But he’s alive.”  Chiana veered to one side long enough to bump lightly against Aeryn shoulder to shoulder.  
“And he’s going to be okay.”  

“Yes, he is,” Aeryn said quietly, and smiled at the beaming nebari walking alongside her.  “You know.”

“I know what?”  Chiana spun to face her, bounding along sideways.  “You mean I know you had gone just about
totally fahrbot worrying about him?  Like you think no one else noticed that you came close to shooting every
single living person on board, including Pilot, during the trip back here?”  

“You more than once,” Aeryn said, still smiling at Chiana.    

“I might have noticed that various parts of my body came close to getting shot off a few times.”  Chiana stopped
laughing all at once, suddenly looking mournful.  “I know … I know that I might have acted the same way if we
had been going back to get D’Argo.”  

Aeryn stopped walking.  “I’m sorry, Chiana.  I’m sorry it wasn’t D’Argo that you were bringing back to Moya.”      

“No, you’re not.  You’re glad it’s Crichton … and so am I.  I’m glad he’s alive.”  She nudged Aeryn into motion.  
“Go be with him.  Go on.  Love him.”  She made one last encouraging motion, turned, and loped off in the
opposite direction.  

Aeryn watched the gangly figure disappear around the corner of the corridor, summed up the rapid retreat and
the jerking, angular movements, and knew that Chiana was handling her grief in the only way she knew how:  
by physically running away.  She would start by finding a dark, secluded access shaft empty of DRDs.  Once
hidden, she would yell, kick, and cry out her anguish without having to worry about interruptions or anyone
commenting on her breakdown.  Aeryn nodded once in the direction Chiana had taken, admitting only to herself
and the now empty corridor that Chiana was right.  She was glad that John had survived, and that it wasn’t
D’Argo that Jothee and Chiana had gone to retrieve.  

“Aeryn?”  

The soft query drew her out of a reverie that had taken her on a brief mental visit to the pain-filled days aboard
the Command Carrier when she had alternated between wishing that D’Argo had been there to keep her
company, a warrior who would understand her instinct to be strong at a time when she was physically weakest,
and wishing that he had been alive in order to go with John.  John and D’Argo together had always seemed
unassailable.  Until the instant when she had knelt in front of D’Argo on Qujaga and seen the resigned
acceptance in his eyes, she would have said that the pair could come through any disaster intact as long as
they were together.  

“I’m coming,” she said, turning toward the man who continued to defy the odds by surviving one unimaginable
hardship after another.  He was standing at the junction of two corridors, body half hidden by one of Moya’s
ribs, looking uncertain.  “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.  Just waiting for you.”  

She couldn’t always tell when John was skirting the truth, but when she knew, she was always certain, and there
was no doubt in her mind that he was lying to her now.  Something was bothering him, and it wasn’t anything as
simple as the lingering belief that she had died.  The furtive glances to make sure she was beside him had
faded within a few microts of leaving the maintenance bay.  They had been replaced by the familiar, fractional
tilt of his head that meant a small portion of his attention was always trained on her, always aware of where she
was and what she was doing.  He had adjusted quickly to the realization that she was once again a part of his
life.  This was something else.  

“How are you doing?” she asked.  It hadn’t been more than two hundred microts since he had gotten to his feet
and started walking again.  She didn’t expect to hear that he was feeling any better.  All she wanted was for
John to start talking.  Despite her own certainty that it would take time for him to adjust, this quiet, hesitant
person was both unfamiliar and worrisome.     

He paused in an intersection of two corridors, looked around him, and then slowly turned in the correct direction
for the Center Chamber.  “It feels strange,” he said.

Aeryn waited, hoping that there would be more.  They were within sight of the doorway to the Center Chamber
before he said anything else.  When he spoke, his tone of voice made it sound like a guilt-ridden admission of
one of his more spectacular blunders than another explanation of the heartbreak he had suffered through for
so many days.  

“Aeryn, I thought you were dead.”  

She took one of his hands in hers and squeezed tight.  “I know.  But I’m here now, and I’m real.”

He nodded jerkily several times, worrying a corner of his lower lip between his teeth, and managed to look both
furtive and reassured at the same time.  Even after allowing for fatigue, confusion, and starvation, every one of
the signals said that he wasn’t telling her something important.  She tugged him to a stop and tried again, using
a question that wasn’t so bluntly direct that it would put him on the defensive.  “What do you need?”  

He smiled.  It was another of the not-quite-right reactions.  There was the familiar flash of his teeth, the obvious
relief that she was alive, and yet his eyes lacked the joyful gleam that should have been there.  John was
putting on no more than a competent act, falling well short of what it would take to fool her.  His answer,
although loving, wasn’t enough to convince her that she had gotten it wrong.  “You.  As long as I have you, I’ll
be fine.”

She let it go, gesturing for him to lead the way into the Center Chamber, and felt as sick to her stomach as John
reportedly had been aboard Jothee’s ship.  The logical side of her mind said that the medical scans might turn
up some physiological cause for whatever was going on, and that with some food and rest John might revert to
his usual cheerful, frequently incomprehensible behaviors.  It was the part of her that loved him that was saying
something far worse than starvation and loneliness had happened to John, and that finding out what had
changed might turn into one of the greatest challenges of her life.   


                                                                          * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Part 3                                                                                                                                                                                                 Part 5
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