The Changeling - Part 5

Aeryn stood at the corner of the corridor leading to Quarters, her body half hidden by one of Moya’s internal
ribs, watching John.  He was on the bed in exactly the same position she had left him several arns earlier:  lying
on his side, curled into a loose ball, staring blankly across the cell without any indication that he was paying
attention to his surroundings or that he might be lost in thought.  There was no movement other than the slow
rise and fall of his chest and a periodic blink.  There were none of the signs she had come to associate with
John’s occasionally intense, introspective fugues.  This was closer to the catatonia he had suffered after
closing down the wormhole weapon except that he was awake and was capable of movement.  And because his
current state involved a conscious choice on John’s part, it was far more disturbing.  

At first there had been good reason for the depth of his disinterest and lethargy.  Every shred of information
they had managed to locate concerning sebacean physiology and starvation had predicted it.  A fast but
thorough medical scan the day he had returned to Moya had revealed that John wasn’t as close to death as
Aeryn had first feared, but he had been close, stripped down to the last remaining reserves necessary to keep
his body alive and functioning normally.  It had required several days on a special diet before they could get the
post-meal vomiting to stop and coax his digestive tract into tolerating solid food.  Moya’s datastores had
supplied a list of easily digested nutritional supplements, most of which were readily available, and a regimen of
nothing more demanding than eating and sleeping for the first five or six solar days.

John had followed their orders like a zombie … up to a certain point.  He had swallowed the thick nutrient
mixtures whenever a flask was put in his hand, eaten whatever was put in front of him when ordered, washed
down sleep tablets without an argument, and had cooperated whenever they took him back to the maintenance
bay with the medical scanner to confirm that he was beginning to process food normally and had begun to gain
weight.  What he hadn’t done was allow anyone to undress him, wash, or talk about what had happened on the
planet.  The closest they had come was getting him to remove his boots and socks, and his jacket.  The first
two had come off under a threat of having it done by force when the medical scanner had picked up a
flourishing growth of fungus on his feet.  The jacket he had allowed Aeryn to peel off the first night, only to
reveal another one underneath that he hadn’t been willing to remove.  

Since then, John had steadfastly refused to undress any further.  Twelve solar days had passed since he had
stumbled off Jothee’s ship, and he remained unshaved, unwashed, and unkempt.  Aside from his first round of
frantic questions while lying on the hangar floor he had showed no interest in anything that was going on
aboard Moya, and to just to top it all off, as Chiana had phrased it, he was starting to ferment.  The smell was
getting worse almost by the arn.    

After several more microts of watching the motionless body lying in their quarters, Aeryn shook her head and
made her way back to the intersection of corridors where Chiana, Jothee, and Rygel were waiting for her.  “No
change,” she said, retrieving little D’Argo from Chiana’s arms.  “He’s lying there staring, the same as every
other day.”

“Try the baby again,” Rygel said, pointing toward D’Argo.  “It worked the other time, after he created that
abomination of a weapon.”  

“She’s tried that twice already, wart!”  Chiana took a half-hearted swing at the Dominar’s head.  “Crichton let
him cry for two arns straight without showing any sign that he gave a care in the universe that the narl was
screaming in his ear.”  She punctuated the statement with a flick of a finger against the most sensitive portion of
Rygel’s earbrow.    

“Chiana’s right,” Aeryn said.  “John doesn’t seem to care what happens to anyone, least of all himself.”  

“Haul Yn’dlath back up here and tell him to try again,” Chiana suggested.  

Aeryn shook her head.  “Eidelons aren’t mind readers.  Unless John will talk to him so he can get an idea what
is motivating John’s behavior, there’s nothing Yn’dlath can do to influence him.  The person we really need right
now is Zhaan.  She could figure out what’s troubling him.”  

That silenced the little group for several microts while they all gloomily considered the cycles-old loss of a family
member.  “Blue-butted mystic,” Rygel said in a quiet, morose grumble.  

Aeryn concentrated on the baby for a brief interval, talking to him and leaning close to allow the tiny hands to
explore her nose and mouth.  It was the small moments like this that had done the most to banish the insecurity
stemming from the simultaneous disappearance of both his mother and father, and to convince him that she
would not abandon him again.  Twenty one solar days had passed between the day she had been shot and the
first time she had been allowed to sit up and hold him.  Aeryn had spent most of that interval unconscious or in
a drug-induced stasis.  According to everyone on board Moya, D’Argo had spent a considerable portion of it
crying.  

“Aeryn?”  

Chiana’s voice summoned her away from the imagined distress of an infant who had been deprived of the love
of both of his parents at the same time, and back to the more immediate problem of what to do about John.  “I’m
thinking,” she said.  

“I’m willing to tongue Crichton,” Jothee said.  “You could at least wash him.  It wouldn’t do anything to improve
his personality, but at least some of the rest of us wouldn’t mind being on the same tier.”

Aeryn discarded the possibility as quickly as she had all the others.  “We have to get John to want to do it
himself.  He’s stubborn.  Forcing or tricking him is only going to make things worse.  Look at what happened last
time.”  

She didn’t have to tell them.  Everyone standing in the junction of corridors knew what had happened when
they had tried force.  John had managed to evade a ‘cleaning crew’ consisting of Aeryn, two luxans, and
several of the Peacekeepers, after which he had disappeared into the labyrinth of Moya’s innards.  It had taken
the DRDs two solar days worth of searching to locate him.  They had found him curled up in a ball, sleeping in a
lightless corner near the bottom of the central neural plexus, and if they hadn’t caught up to him while he was
asleep, there was no telling how long John could have stayed hidden.  

“And you think your plan is the way to do get him to care about himself again,” Chiana said.  “It’s a terrible
plan.  What if he does what you tell him to do?”

“I don’t believe he’ll go through with it,” Aeryn said.  “Either way, I think it’s worth the risk.  We can’t wait any
longer.  It has got to be tonight.”  Aeryn handed D’Argo to Rygel.  The baby giggled happily, snared one
drooping mustache in a tiny fist and began sucking on it.  

“And if he runs and hides again?  What then?” Rygel asked.  His response to D’Argo tugging on his whiskers
was to tilt his head to one side, putting more of the mustache within the baby’s reach.  

Aeryn smiled at the sight of the Hynerian ruler allowing himself to be mauled by her son, shook her head slightly
at the pair, and then concentrated on the problem of what to do about Crichton.  “Pilot has DRDs stationed at
every route off this tier, even the maintenance shafts.  Although there’s a chance John can lose them, it’s a
small one.”  

“I say it’s better to let Jothee tongue him, and deal with what’s bothering him later,” Chiana said.  

Aeryn wandered several steps toward Quarters, weighing the various alternatives and their relative costs for
what felt like the hundredth time.  Behind her, everyone waited silently.  “No,” she said after several microts of
deliberation.  “I need to know what’s bothering him, and I want to know tonight.  We’ve tried to be patient.  The
time has come to try something else.”  

“Frontal assault.  Typical Peacekeeper,” Rygel said.  

“When all else fails --” Aeryn began.

“-- blow a hole in the front door and go in shooting,” Chiana finished for her, laughing.  

“That’s not exactly how they phrased it in our training.”  Aeryn shifted her attention from the still grinning nebari
to her son.  She caressed his head, smoothing down the fine, dark hair.  “Rygel, perhaps I should leave him
with someone else.”  

“Someone else?”  Rygel’s voice started as a low grumble, rising in both pitch and volume as he continued, “Are
you implying that someone could take better care of this little one than I have?”  

“No, Rygel, that’s not what --” Aeryn tried to interject.

“Tell me, who took care of the baby while you were lying in a stasis chamber close to death?”

“You did, Rygel, but --”

“And who located the food supplement that would keep the child from starving while your body was either too
badly injured or too full of drugs to nurse him?”

“You did, Rygel.  And I will always --”

“And who does he love even more than his own parents, and has vowed to provide him with a safe home and
the finest education available in the --”

“Yes, Rygel!” she said more loudly, drowning out his lengthening spiel.  “You’ve taken as good care of him as
either John or I could have managed, and I can never repay you for that.  I wasn’t questioning whether you
would take good care of him.  I was trying to suggest that watching over him one more night was too much to
ask of you since you’ve spent so much time looking after him recently.”  

“Never,” Rygel said.  “I carried him as long as you did, Aeryn.  My body nourished him during the most critical
phase of his development.  He’s as much mine as he is yours and Crichton’s, and don’t you ever forget that.”  
The throne sled spun to one side, putting the Dominar’s body between Aeryn and her son, emphasizing his
emotional claim on the baby.

“How could she forget?  You only remind her ten or twelve times every solar day!” Chiana said.  “And if you ask
me, I think the reason you like him so much is because he’s the only person aboard Moya who isn’t bigger than
you!  Now let Aeryn say goodnight to the narl so we can all get out of here and away from that horrible stench
coming from their quarters!”  

Grumbling over the insults, Rygel nevertheless steered his floating chair back toward Aeryn and obediently
relinquished D’Argo for one more round of cuddling and goodnight kisses.  Thirty microts later, Chiana, Jothee,
and Rygel, who was once again carrying the baby, had disappeared around the corner at the far end of the
passageway.  Aeryn was left standing alone, free to concentrate on John and whatever was causing his
withdrawal.  

She remained where she was for nearly a quarter arn while she organized her thoughts, reviewed the verbal
battle plan she had formed, and locked down her emotions.  The upcoming confrontation would require
strength and a carefully applied level of brutality, not tears or other signs of weakness.  

The man she had unwillingly left behind on the charrid-infested planet was gone.  That person had been
confident to the point of arrogance, brash, and so committed to her welfare that he had eagerly put his own life
at risk as long as it meant she would survive.  Chiana and Jothee had brought someone else back to Moya.  
The person sprawled on their bed cared about nothing.  If left to himself, he would starve to death, never taking
his eyes off the far wall while his body melted away.  

Based on some of his cryptic comments over the past few solar days, she had formed a theory about the
source of his depression.  She had seen John in this sort of sullen, withdrawn, internally agonized state more
than once, although never so severe, and the reason behind it had involved the same moral dilemma every
time.  But telling him what was wrong wouldn’t resolve what she suspected was an intense internal struggle.  
Only John could fix this.  He would have to find both the problem and the answer himself, and make a conscious
decision to return to his life.

Finally, she took a deep breath, did her best to ignore the nervous cramping in her stomach that she had never
experienced until well after the day she met the peculiar alien named John Crichton, and entered their
quarters.  The stranger barely acknowledged her presence.  

“Get out.”

John flicked a glance in her direction, swung his legs over the side of the bed, and obediently headed for the
nearest doorway.  

“And take all your dren with you.”  Scooping up an armful of his clothes, she hurled them into the corridor.  
“Don’t just move next door either.  Get off this tier.  You reek.  Even Rygel can’t stand the smell.  Jothee and
his men have already moved several tiers away from this one, but the rest of us refuse to move just because
you’re too lazy to bathe.  Tier One should be far enough away that we don’t have to cope with the smell.”  

John’s chess set and several other items clattered into the corridor next.  She didn’t know what she had
grabbed.  What she was doing frightened her so much she didn’t dare concentrate on anything except the next
few stages of her plan and how worried she was that it wouldn’t work out the way she hoped.

John walked halfway back to the shelves lining the inner wall of the cell, stared around at the accumulated
clutter of five cycles worth of living aboard Moya, and looked bewildered.  He started toward a stack of clothes,
and then drew to a stop.  “These are my quarters.”

“These used to be our quarters.  Now they’re mine.  Get out.”

He turned in a circle.  “I’ve lived here since the first day I came aboard Moya.”

“I live here now.  It was ours together for a short time; now it’s mine.  You stink and you’re useless, so you’re the
one who is going to leave.”  Without bothering to check whether she was grabbing her possessions or John’s,
she gathered a double armful of items and heaved them out the open doorway.  There was an expanding
carpet of clothing and other objects building up in the corridor.  Several DRDs were wending their way through
the obstacles, examining each one with interest and sorting out anything that had broken before moving on to
the next.   

John frowned.  It was the closest thing to an emotion she had seen in more than ten solar days.  She would
have preferred a grin, but any reaction from him was preferable to the silent, sullen walking corpse who showed
no interest in life.  Aeryn moved along the shelves grabbing whatever came to hand easily, firing a hailstorm of
objects into the corridor.  This time much of it was hers.  It didn’t matter.  She spotted one of the toys John had
brought back from Earth, the coiled metal object that served no purpose, and scooped it up.

“NO!”  John lunged for it.  “It’s impossible to unknot a Slinky when it gets tangled!”  

Aeryn sidestepped his grab and deliberately hurled it so it would ricochet off the edge of the doorway, intent on
maximum damage.  The metal made a whispering ‘zing’ as it slithered and rattled an erratic, snaking course out
of sight.  The eyestalks of several DRDs swiveled to watch its progress.  

“Dammit!  Cut it out, Aeryn!”  

He was angry.  She was getting somewhere.  Aeryn persevered, hoping that the burst of energy might be the
start of something more permanent, not just a hiccup in the enduring apathy.  Several pairs of his socks and
her own coat flew out the door.  She looked around for something else to jettison, using the break to yell at
him.  “Get out!  Either shower and shave or get out!”

John watched the latest collection of projectiles sail out into the corridor, and then, all at once, the anger was
gone.  In its place was the same pervading lack of energy that had controlled him for the past days, and an
expression that Aeryn thought might be guilt … over what she wasn’t sure.  

“Choose.  Now,” she said, hoping to provoke another, more energetic response.

“Aeryn, I still --”  He took a step toward her, reaching out with both arms as if to hug her.  

“No!  Don’t tell me you love me unless you intend to prove it.”  She shoved him away with a forceful two-handed
thrust.  

“Aeryn!”  This time it was a protest.

“It took us fourteen solar days to get back here from the Command Carrier.  Fourteen, John.  Do you
understand?”

He remained where he had come to rest after the stumbling recovery from her push, looking more bewildered
and beaten down than she could remember ever seeing him, and didn’t answer.  

Long ago John had explained to her how his species had evolved from a non-sentient, lower life form.  She had
never truly believed what he had told her, not until she looked at the filthy figure standing in the middle of their
quarters frozen in place by a combination of confusion and hurt.  With his hair and beard matted and stiff with
dirt and other filth that she didn’t want to guess at, exposed skin turned a grubby brownish-gray by the same
unidentifiable, repulsive layers, and encased in a crackling, stinking carapace of cloth, leather, and yet more
layers of dirt, John Crichton had been transformed into some sort of man-animal lacking the reason and
willpower to take control of his life.  The dull, disinterested look in his eyes finished the effect, leaving Aeryn
feeling as though she had walked into a cage holding some dim-witted semi-sentient creature suitable for
nothing better than backbreaking, menial labor.  

“John, do you understand what I’m trying to tell you?” she repeated.  

After several microts worth of thought, he shook his head.  “No.”  

“I spent fourteen solar days not knowing whether you were alive or dead, fourteen solar days of having to face
the possibility that you might have died during the initial diversion and retreat, or had been killed in the time it
took the other to find medical help for me.  I spent those days preparing myself for the possibility that you were
dead.  I cannot go through that again.”  

He performed a slow, clumsy pirouette, looking at the walls, the floor, the open doors, everything but her.  “I’m
not dead,” he said once he had finished his revolution.  

“Not yet.  If you’re going to let yourself die, then do it somewhere else.  I will not watch you die this soon after
getting you back.”  She let the fear of losing him run free, allowing it to curl and warp into something other than
concern.  It vaporized, caught flame, roared into energetic life, and exploded into an aching, painful form of
anger.  Stepping close enough that she gagged on the sour stench of him, she hit him in the chest with both
hands, this time with all her strength.  It propelled him backwards, stumbling, into the corridor.  

“Get out!  Go up to Tier Two where Pilot has shut down all the subsystems, find a dark hole to crawl into, and
die, John.  I refuse to watch!”  

“Aeryn … don’t … ”  The objection was as listless and confused as every other comment he had made over the
past few microts.  

“Don’t what?”

“Don’t stop loving me.”  He began to fold in on himself, both forearms wrapped around his chest as though
shielding a mortal wound.  “You are all I have left.  Without you … there’s nothing.”

She was nearly sick to her stomach with what she was doing to him, and couldn’t think of any other way to get
John to break out of the self-destructive state he had sunk into.  Watching him curl around an internal,
unfocussed pain that she understood even if she had never felt it herself, she wanted to go to him, hold him,
and speak words of compassion and her undying love for him.  But none of that would bring John Crichton back
to her.  Coddling and cajoling hadn’t worked.  It was time for something more brutal.  

“Then don’t stop loving me!”  She threw it back as a snarling challenge, not as an endearment.  

“I haven’t.”  

Aeryn crossed the distance between them in three fast steps, grabbed him by the front of his jacket, and flung
him into the waste alcove.  John tripped, went down on one knee, and skidded to a sprawling stop near the
shower partition. She hauled him up and thrust him toward the mirror.  “Look at yourself!  This isn’t love for me.  
This is weakness.  This is being spineless.  This is turning away from who you are and everything we mean to
each other.”  

“Cut it out!”  John pulled loose and staggered to one side.  “You don’t understand.”

“Then explain it to me.”  Her head spun dizzily for a moment, filled to overflowing with more than a dozen
different hopes and fears, each one revolving around the possibility that John might finally break out of his
overwhelming self-loathing and finally begin to recover from whatever was causing his depression.  

“You were dead.  I saw you get hit.  I knew it here.”  He thumped the center of his chest.  “I knew it the same
way I know that I love you:  with every fiber of my heart.”    

“I wasn’t.  It was close, but I didn’t die.  You’ve known that for several days now.”  

He spun around in a circle, managing to appear trapped even though he was standing in the middle of an
uncluttered expanse of floor.  “You can’t …”  John broke off, looking confused and guilty.  

“I can’t what, John?  I can’t understand?” she asked, spacing the words out for emphasis.  “I don’t know how it
feels to watch someone you love die right in front of your eyes?  I don’t know how empty it leaves you?  How
hopeless?  How full of pain?  Is that what you were going to say?”

“It wasn’t the same,” he said.  

“No,” she said, over agreeably, and then shifted to unveiled sarcasm.  “I wasn’t lost or confused after watching
you die.  I didn’t try to shut off all my feelings in the hope that if I stopped feeling all emotion that I might stop
feeling the pain as well.  I didn’t leave everything that was familiar and comforting and go in search of a way of
life that could only lead to more death and more killing.  It was entirely different, John.  I don’t know the first
thing about what you went through.”

“That’s not …”  He made a frustrated gesture that involved his entire upper body.  “Damn it, that’s not what I
mean.”   

“Tell me what you mean, John.  Make me understand how what happened to you is any different than what I
went through or what Chiana felt when D’Argo died.”

Aeryn watched as the combination of John’s lingering depression and his newfound frustration began to
combine into a new level of anger, and was only mildly surprised to discover that it pleased her.  She would
have preferred to trigger a more positive emotion, but at least John was on his feet and fighting back, which
was more than anyone had gotten out of him over the last twelve solar days.  

It continued to mount without any further goading from her.  After two more increasingly erratic circuits of the
cell, John veered to one side long enough to grab one of his notebooks and then flung it out the door to join
the rest of the litter in the corridor.  Several items of clothing went next, followed by the shattering impact from a
picture of his family he had brought back from Earth.  He went down the line of shelves, hurling one thing after
another with increasing fury, until he reached the standing rack where his overcoat and his pulse pistol were
hanging.  The weapon came out of the holster with a wrenching snatch, and he spun around, his arm coming
back for another throw.

“It’ll go off!” she yelled, already bolting for cover.  “Unload it first!”  

John jerked to a stop, looked down at Winona long enough to remove the chakan oil cartridge, and then made
a slow survey of their quarters.  From the way he was holding the pulse pistol, she thought he might be looking
for a place to set it down.  

She was wrong.  

To the accompaniment of a drawn out, wordless howl, he hurled the weapon out the cell door with so much
force that he lost his balance.  He tumbled forward onto his hands and knees, scrambled for a moment, and
then bounded back to his feet, already headed toward the shelves lining the walls of their quarters.  A new
barrage of items went sailing out the door, this time gathered almost entirely from what had become “her side”
of the storage units.    

It took several battering impacts against the tier walls before she realized what he was grabbing.  Weapons.  
John was throwing weapons.  Every weapon, power pack, sheath, holster, cleaning tool, and maintenance kit
was flung into the corridor with ever-increasing levels of fury.  Anything even vaguely associated with a weapon
or capable of being used as a weapon went clattering and banging into the passageway, until there was
nothing left to throw.  John spun around so he faced the middle of the room.  Panting slightly, looking marginally
deranged, he surveyed the cell, clearly searching for something else to add to the mess.  

“Tell me,” Aeryn said into the silence.

His answer was short and emphatic.  “No.”  

She moved closer to him.  “Tell me.  Tell me what happened that has you” -- she gestured toward his addition
to the extensive mess lying outside the cell doors -- “acting like this.  Tell me.”  She took another step toward
him.  “I will never stop loving you, no matter what.”  

“No.”

“Tell me.”  Aeryn stepped close enough to touch him.  She ran her thumb across his cheekbone, stared into his
eyes, and tried one more time.  “Tell me.  Please.  I want to understand.”    

He backed away from her, shoulders high with frustration, muscles jerking and quivering from head to foot, his
entire body in motion even though he wasn’t going anywhere.  It went on for more then ten microts before he
jammed his hands onto his hips, spun around to look out the door one more time, and finally faced her.  The
answer, when it came, didn’t surprise her.  It was what she had suspected.

“I … killed people!”   

“You’ve killed before.  I know you hate it.  We’ve been through this more than once.”  

“NO!” he yelled.  “That’s just it.  I … I …”  He spun away and headed into the corridor at a half-run.

Revelation hit.  It had taken half an arn to beat their way through to it, but at last the source of the self-loathing
was out in the open.  “You enjoyed it!”

In the space of two steps he slowed to a walk, allowing the momentum to carrying him across the corridor to the
far wall.  His voice, when he spoke, barely carried the short distance back to where Aeryn stood inside the cell.  
“I didn’t just enjoy it.”

“You came to love it,” she said.  “It felt good.”

Turning around, he yelled at her, “Yes!  I loved it.  It felt great!”  He swept a foot through the heap of stuff in the
hallway, reached down, and came up with a sheathed long blade.  It was one of hers.  Measuring half a motra
from the tip to the butt of the hilt, designed for close-quarters killing, and honed down to a sharpness that would
slice through bone without a pause, it was identical to the one John had been carrying when he came back
aboard Moya.  The only thing missing was the dried dirt and blood that had been embedded in the joints and
grooves of the knife John had been in a hurry to throw away.  He yanked this one out of its scabbard, tossed
the black sheath away, and strode back into the cell.  There was an unpleasant crazed gleam in his eyes when
he waved the weapon in her direction.  

“You know what’s best?” he asked.  “If you get it just right, if you let the edge ride up along the collar of their
armor so it slides in between the top of the chest plate and the lower edge of their helmet, and then pull really
hard” -- John imitated the process, ending with a fast slicing motion -- “their head comes clean off.  Charrid
heads aren’t fastened on as well as some other species.  It’s easy, Aeryn.  You just” -- he repeated the motion,
light glinting off the fast moving blade -- “and it comes right off.  I wanted to take them home with me at the end
of the night, and line them up.  If I’d had a bag to carry them in, I would have!  I could have practiced drop kicks
with them, or dribbled them around like soccer balls, or practiced foul shots.  It would have been … fun.”

The last word came out shakily.  John stared at the knife in his hand for several microts, and then let it drop to
the floor and backed away from it, wiping an already dirty hand on filthy pants.  “I dreamed of different ways to
kill them,” he said through clenched teeth, “so many different ways.  But there’s only one way to get through
their armor, so I never got to try any of them out.”  He looked around the chamber, no longer the willing,
enthusiastic killer, and shivered.  “I killed so many of them.”

Aeryn took several steps toward him, stopping when it looked like he might bolt.  “John, when we were young –-”

“We being Peacekeepers,” he said, interrupting.  

“Yes.  Peacekeepers,” she said.  “As junior cadets, we were taught that there is a particular form of freedom
that is invoked when you choose to kill another being.  Not when you do it because you’re ordered, but
because you want to kill.  They taught us that choosing to kill unlocks potentials that you won’t even know exist
until the first time you kill someone with your bare hands.  It is as though all the laws of the universe bend to
your will.  You make the rules.  You determine who lives and who dies.  You become something more than what
you were before you learned to kill.”  

“They were wrong,” John’s mumbled voice said.  

“They were wrong about most of it.  What they were right about is that killing is addictive.  For the length of time
it takes to kill someone, you are in control of life and death.  You become a god.”

“I didn’t turn into a god.  I became an animal.  And it felt … right.”  He looked into her eyes.  “I looked forward to
going out at night and killing them!  The heavier the rain, the thicker the mud, the more I liked it.  If they fought
back, that was even better.  A slow death was better than a quick kill.  I would have killed them with my bare
hands if I could have.  I would have ripped their hearts out.”

This part she hadn’t anticipated.  John’s self-loathing whenever he was forced to kill was thoroughly familiar.  
The pronouncement of the degree of the alteration was unexpected.  She held his stare, searching for an
answer, until he broke away and wandered over to sit on the bed.  In the end, it was his physical appearance
that provided some guidance in how to handle the problem.  It was the transformation from the John Crichton
she had first met nearly five cycles ago into this bestial, stinking remnant of a sentient being that provided an
insight that she hoped might hold the answer to this problem.  

“John.”  She waited until he looked up at her.  “Do you remember what you told me the first day we met?”  It was
an easy question with a well-known answer.

“You can be more,” he said listlessly.  

Aeryn went to kneel in front of him, breathing carefully through her mouth so she wouldn’t be distracted by the
smell.  “And,” she prompted.

“And you’ve changed.  You’re not that person anymore.”  His eyes remained fixed on the floor between his
feet.  

“John, in order to change I was forced to find portions of myself that I didn’t even know existed.  You forced me
to find those parts.”  She waited for a nod before continuing.  “You’ve been forced to find parts of yourself that
you didn’t know were inside you.  But in your case, in order to survive here, you have been forced to find and
use parts of your personality that you don’t like.”  

There was no response.  She tried again.  “You have sunk to where I began.”

“This isn’t the same, Aeryn.”

“No, it’s not.  It’s not the same because you know that you can be more than a mindless killer.  You’re starting
with an advantage that I didn’t have.”  

He swung his head from side to side, a slow-motion headshake.  “I’m not even me anymore.”  

“How do you mean?”    

“Do you remember Lieutenant Hassan?” he asked.  “And Larraq?”

“Clearly,” she said.

“I couldn’t sleep for nights after I killed them.  Telling myself that it was the only way to stop the virus, and that it
was about survival didn’t help.  I couldn’t sleep or eat for days.”  He stared past her.  “Over the past … God, I
don’t even know how long I was down there.”  

“Forty-eight solar days,” she said quietly.  

“The only reason to sleep was so I’d have enough energy to go out and kill and kill and kill, and then kill some
more.  I’m just as bad as every cold-blooded murderer I’ve despised on this end of the universe.  I’m no
different from Scorpius or Grayza or Maldis or any other of the dozen or so raving psychopaths we’ve stumbled
across the past few cycles.  I’ve turned into everything I hate.  What the hell have I become over the past five
cycles that I could do something like that?  What kind of father can I be if I can turn a mindless, psychotic
monster without even realizing what I’m doing?  You and the little D deserve someone better than Jack the
Ripper, Ted Bundy, and Vlad the Impaler all rolled into one.”  

She moved closer, reaching up to push some of the hair away from his eyes.  “It’s not true.  Stop and look at
yourself for a microt.”

John stared at his hands, looked down at his body, and then shook his head.  “You lost me.”  

“Someone who is a killer at heart doesn’t sit around tearing himself apart afterward.  A killer goes on killing:  
without remorse, without second thoughts, without guilt, without ever looking back to mourn his victims.  I was
once such a person.  You never have been and never will be.”

He shook his head, still fully enthralled by his own guilt and the depths to which he had sunk.  

“If I could put cycles of training behind me, then you can put this behind you.  You already know that you are
much more than this.  What you did down on that planet doesn’t have to control the rest of your life.”

“Like it’s going to go away, Aeryn?”  He let out a small snort of disbelief.  

The need to hug him grew to nearly uncontrollable levels.  There was an uncomfortable snarl of love,
understanding, and fear building in her chest wrapped around the possibility that John would never move
beyond this guilt-ridden, apathetic state, and the sensation was making it hard to think.  One microt there was
half a dozen additional arguments lined up in her mind, small verbal demolition charges standing ready to be
set off in a particular sequence, intended to demolish the high, restrictive walls John had built to imprison the
best parts of himself, and the next microt they were gone.  It took a single, nauseating lurch of her stomach to
scatter her carefully marshaled thoughts.  In the end, finding nothing adequate to say, she resorted to a
physical response.  Aeryn got to her feet and smacked him in the shoulder with one hand, very nearly
propelling him backwards off the bed.  

“Then give up,” she said, resuming the harsh, unsympathetic tones.  “But you don’t get to do it here.  Get out.”  

He looked around the cell, worrying his lower lip between his teeth.  “It’s not just me I’m thinking of,” he said
after an extended silence.  “Kids need a father who can teach them right from wrong.”  

“You don’t get to worry about that anymore.  You are useless to us as long as you are like this.  If you can’t pull
yourself together, then I’ll raise D’Argo alone.”  She didn’t mean it.  The idea of going through the cycles
attempting to raise a small child on her own scared her to the point of not being able to breathe.  But reason
wasn’t working.  The only comments that seemed to break through John’s depression were threats.  

“Why are you doing this to me?”  It was as much a plea for her to stop as it was a question, and he seemed to
be on the verge of tears as he asked, “Why?”

The anguish in his voice broke through the last of her defenses.  Tears, desperation, and honesty all tumbled
loose at the same instant.  “Because I love you, and I cannot stand idly and watch you slowly wither away.  If
you don’t stop this you are going to die.  You can’t ask me to watch that happen!”  

John had his head in his hands now, slowly rocking it from side to side.  She knelt down in front of him and
placed her hands on his knees.  It took three tries before she could get the next few words to come out.

“Do you love Aeryn Sun?”

His head came up so fast she could hear the vertebrae in his neck make a quiet crackling.  An initial look of
hurt faded quickly, turning into guilt.  “You know I do.”  

“Then don’t do this to me.  Don’t walk away from me because you can’t face what you’ve done.  Don’t do to me
what I did to you.  You’re stronger than I was, and I’m not going anywhere this time.”  When he didn’t respond,
she added, “Please … choose to live.”  

“You mean everything to me.  You and D’Argo,” he added.    

“I know that.  I also know that you would never have done this if it weren’t for me.  This is partly my fault for
letting you love me so much.”

“Let me … love you so much,” he repeated slowly.  “Nothing you’ve ever done could stop me from loving you.”

She ran her knuckles down his cheek, staring into the tear-blurred eyes, and whispered to him, trying to reach
him with gentleness instead of bludgeoning him with demands.  “If that’s true, then love me enough to end this.  
Stop lying here like a corpse.  Wash.  Eat because you want to live instead of because one of us orders you to
eat.”  

He stared at her for more than a dozen microts, then dropped his head and rubbed his forehead with the heel
of one hand.  It went on for so long Aeryn was convinced that she had lost.  Her arsenal was empty.  Every
round of logic had been expended, every emotional landmine tripped, every small demolition charge set off.  If
her final plea wasn’t enough to convince him, Aeryn didn’t know how she was going to get John Crichton back.  

The declaration of her victory, when it came, was so well disguised she didn’t recognize it at first.  

“I stink,” John said.   

It was the first time in twelve solar days that he had shown any interest in his hygiene.  Aeryn had to take
several breaths before she was sure she could keep her voice steady long enough to answer him.  “Would you
like to get cleaned up?”  

With his head still hanging, eyes fixed on his bare feet, John nodded.  

“Come on.  I’ll give you a hand.  But I want a promise from you,” she said.

He glanced at her, looked toward the chaotic heap of their possessions covering several square motras of the
corridor floor, and then back at her.  “What?”  

“I want you to promise that you will stop this.”  With a nod of her head she indicated the bed where he had been
lying listlessly for the past twelve solar days.  “You have to promise to work at it.  You have to try.”

John’s idea of ‘trying’ was the equivalent of any other person vowing that they would put every bit of their
energy into the effort.  If he promised her that he would try, there would be no half-measures, no abortive
attempts to recover from his depression.  He would spend every free microt working his way through it, delving
into his own emotions, sorting them out, rationalizing, until he was one again cheerfully barging through life,
albeit more aware of the depths to which he could sink if he ever chose to let himself go there again.  The ever-
present, hovering specter of his past actions would prevent a repetition of the recent events though.  She was
certain of that.  He would learn from what he had done, commit himself to never allowing it to happen again, and
he would move on.  

John rubbed a hand over his face, ran a thumb and forefinger across his eyes, and then nodded.  When he
spoke, it was in the guttural, slurred voice that meant he was fighting hard not to cry.  “It may take a while.”  

“I don’t care how long it takes.”  Her transformation from an uncaring soldier who despised compassion to the
person who knew how to handle a full gamut of emotions had taken several cycles.  John’s journey deserved no
less.  

“All right,” he said.  “I promise.”

There were no words to express her relief.  If he had been cleaner, she would have kissed him.  Aeryn spent a
microt considering whether she could ignore the layers of grime long enough to provide a physical testimony of
how much she loved him, and was saved from having to make a decision.  Before she could move or speak,
John’s shoulders slumped, he let out a long breath, and he delivered one additional accusation against
himself.  “I should have been stronger.”

Aeryn sat down next to him.  “You kept your promise to stay alive.  That was enough.”

His voice cracked and slid into silence when he tried to answer.  John shook his head, cleared his throat, and
tried again.  “You always tell me to meet my fears with strength.  I should have been stronger.”    

Final condemnation delivered, John began to crumble physically, an outward response to whatever inner
destruction he was experiencing.  His head went first, tilting toward her and making a slow descent.  His body
followed and she let him come, guiding him and shuffling over to make some room so that he could lie on his
side with his head in her lap.  His legs and body came next, continuing the full-body contraction.  It didn’t stop
until he was curled up on the bed, nestled in against her, one hand resting lightly on her leg as though he still
required additional proof that she wasn’t going to disappear.  It was a show of weakness and insecurity that she
rarely witnessed from John Crichton, and it revealed the extent of the damage he had inflicted on himself.   

There were things she could have told him that might have helped.  She could have talked to him about
learning to love, and how loss took on new meaning once the lesson was learned; or about how easy it was to
kill when nothing mattered except living long enough to win the next fight; or how what John would consider
moral behavior sometimes went astray when all the other trappings of civilization were stripped away by armed
conflict.  John had learned to cope with the reality of what it took to survive in a violent universe, but despite
what had just happened to him, he still hadn’t faced the fact that most of the rules concerning what he believed
to be civilized behavior broke down once the fighting broke out.

There were some thoughts about how much she had needed John to come back to her alive, and that she
didn’t care what he had done as long it meant he survived.  And there was a poorly constructed argument
drifting around in the back of her mind that had to do with how much D’Argo would need his father over the
cycles to come, not as some hero, but as an example of what it took to survive one day after another until he
had lived the best life he could manage.  But in the time it took her to sort out the one thing that mattered most,
John had put both his hands over his eyes and was letting out the slow, overly-controlled breaths that meant he
was crying.  

So she remained silent and waited, using touch to let him know that nothing was going to change how much she
loved him.  She was prepared to wait as long as it took.  They had been through worse.  John was alive, he had
given her his word, and they were together.  That was all that mattered.    


                                                               * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
<<  Life Lessons  <<                                                                  Fanfiction Index                                      >>  Yesterdays and Tomorrows  >>
<<  Life Lessons  <<                                                                                                                                      >>  Yesterdays and Tomorrows  >>