Phantasms - continued

“This is not my fault for once,” John said.  “They’re your kids.”  

“If they are mine, why does everyone call them Crichtons?”

“It’s a smear campaign to make me look bad.”  

Ian rolled his eyes and looked toward DJ.  “I don’t suppose we could just leave them here?”

DJ was easing out from under John’s arm, stopping frequently to make sure his father wasn’t going to fall
down.  He paused with one hand under John’s elbow.  “Went to a lot of trouble to get this far.  Seems like a
shame to waste all the currency we spent on munitions.”

Behind them, Malii’ya said, “We’re behind schedule.  Stop with the jokes and let’s get out of here.”  

Aeryn devoted three precious microts to hugging her daughter.  “How far behind are we?”  

“Almost two hundred microts,” Malii’ya said.  

“Coordinated air cover?” John asked.

DJ and Ian nodded in tandem, similar features bobbing up and down at the same pace.  “Kharli,” DJ explained
simply.

“Tell us the plan,” Aeryn said, demanding a hasty briefing.

Ian, suddenly serious, spat out the abbreviated details.  “We lured almost half of them away with a false sighting
of Moya.  Came in under cover fire, killed most of the ones who stayed behind to guard you.  They got a
message out before we could destroy their communications and the first group came back.  Kharli has them cut
off from the hangar entrance.  There are at least two, possibly as many as six left alive inside the building.”

Another explosion rocked the entire corridor.  Everyone ducked, waiting out the aftershocks.    

“Blowin’ things up during a rescue makes Kharli a Crichton by default,” John said.  He looked squarely at DJ,
eyebrows raised, inviting a specific answer.  “If you don’t marry that woman soon, I will.”  

“We’re working on it,” was all he got for a reply.  

John crossed the final motra separating him from Aeryn, steadied himself against the wall with one arm, and
hugged her with the other.  “Missed you,” he said quietly.    

Aeryn was recovering faster than he was.  She managed to hug him with both arms.  “We need to hurry,” she
said into his ear.  

“Back to life as usual for the Sun-Crichton clan.”  

“Weapons?”  Ian’s one word question was delivered gently, in the same tone of voice he had used as a child
when interrupting one of his parents’ rare opportunities to simply sit and talk with each other.  

“Yes,” Aeryn said, already reaching toward an offered pulse pistol.

“No,” John said at the same time.  

Ian froze, momentarily confused by the contradiction.  

“Yes,” John clarified, “give it to your mother.  I’ll hold her up while she shoots things.”

“I am quite capable of standing up on my own.”  But Aeryn was leaning heavily on John’s arm as she hurriedly
checked the weapon and reinserted the chakan oil cartridge, and when the small group turned toward the
hangar, she didn’t shrug him away from her side the way she normally would.  John took it as a sign that he
hadn’t misinterpreted the trembling he had felt when he hugged her or the extra microts it had taken Aeryn’s
shaking hands to fit the cartridge into the butt of the weapon.  Assuming that her proximity implied approval, he
looped the fingers of his right hand into her belt, making it easier to hang on to her, steadied himself by
keeping his left arm against the wall, and fixed his attention on DJ.  He didn’t need to watch Aeryn.  Her
movements would let him know if he needed to change what he was doing.    

DJ strode to the head of the small line.  “Mia?” he said.

“Ready.”  She brushed past John and Aeryn, taking up a position behind and slightly to one side of DJ.  “I’m
okay.”  

John watched his youngest child without speaking, wanting desperately to tuck her under his left arm and
shepherd her safely out of the complex.  Despite all his cycles living in this portion of the universe and Aeryn’s
frequent reminders that a woman could be every bit as deadly in a fight as a man, the part of his soul that still
belonged to Earth screamed out that Malii’ya was too young and innocent to be taking part in this battle.  Ian
was seventeen, just old enough that it didn’t seem indecent that he was shooting at people, and he was male.  
Malii’ya was his little girl.  

John bit his tongue and remained silent, achingly aware that he couldn’t protect her forever.  His silence gave
him time to note her fast assured movements, the ease with which she handled the pulse rifle she was carrying,
and how much she looked like Aeryn.  Gone were the impending tears and the trembling hands.  His teenage
daughter had been shaken to the point of calling him Daddy not by the assault on the installation, but by the
sight of her parents lying paralyzed and brutalized on the floor.  Presented with a weapon and a battle plan,
things she had been trained to handle since she was old enough to walk, she had reverted to the confident,
brilliant young woman who took delight in frequently outsmarting her older brothers.  

John turned his head to look at Aeryn, intending to say something about how proud he was of their children.  
He didn’t need to.  She was looking at him, watching his reaction.  

“Want to have three more?” he asked instead.

Aeryn bestowed her special smile on him, the one that said she would quite happily do anything he wanted …
and would subject him to her subtle teasing the entire time that she did.  “Right now?  Or could we wait until we
get out of here?”  

“We’d better get moving,” Ian said from his position at the rear.  “They’re at it again.  If we don’t move, they’re
gonna start kissing right here in the middle of the corridor.”  

“Insolent pup,” John said over his shoulder.  

Whatever Ian had planned for a comeback was cut short.  DJ raised one hand, signaling for silence.  A vague
look in his eyes and the way he had his head tilted to one side said that all of his attention was centered on the
miniature battle comms he had tucked behind one ear.  “Kharli is starting her next run in … four, three, two …”

It sounded as though the impacts were headed straight for their position.  Ducking down, if only to keep the
dust and fragments of ceiling from raining into their eyes, the Sun-Crichton family moved at a run from the
relative safety of the corridor, into a wider tunnel, and from there into the hangar.  

It was a trek John hoped he never had to repeat.  He was tired, feeling battered far in excess of what he had
actually endured, and his brain continued to believe that his legs had recently been broken.  Every step was a
triumph of faith over the expectation that he was going to fall down.  Aeryn seemed to be having similar
problems.  

“Broken legs?” he asked during a moment when they had lurched into each other.  

Inexplicably, an expression that resembled guilt flickered across her face.  “My back.”  

Broken legs, broken back:  the end result was the same.  Aeryn would be struggling to ignore a sensation that
was half instinct and half hard-learned lesson.  John tightened his grip on her, made a mental note to ask her
later about the flash of guilt, and stumbled along as fast as he could manage.  

They found the surviving bounty hunters.  Four males, each from a different species but all looking equally
disreputable, attempted an ambush the moment DJ made his initial, cautious foray through the doorway to the
hangar.  John remained focused on getting his legs to work correctly and making sure Aeryn didn’t fall down.  
She allowed him hold her up and provided enough firepower for the both of them, snapping out “Left!” or
“Right!” as the situation demanded, and finally “Get down!” when the two of them came under fire.  His memory
of the short battle was limited to peripheral glimpses of three athletic figures moving in easy, coordinated
partnership to single out and eliminate the ambushers one by one, and an aching amalgam of effort, sweat,
and the peculiar discomfort resulting from forcing uncooperative muscles to move.  Fortunately it took no more
than two hundred microts to silence the weapons.

“All clear!” DJ’s voice rang out.  It was echoed by Ian, then Malii’ya, then more quietly by Aeryn.  

It wasn’t until then, when all the shooting had stopped, that John got his first good look at the hangar.  The
scenery was identical to what had appeared in every one of the artificially induced hallucinations.  A cavernous
door at the far end of the building stood wide open, providing a view of scrubby bushes and an eye-wateringly
greenish sky.  Heaps of disorganized clutter, which could have just as easily been either trash or supplies, lined
the walls.  Cracks in the floor had turned the surface into a jumbled, uneven mosaic, and sticky-looking layers
of grime crept wetly up every wall, here and there reaching all the way to the ceiling.  It would have been difficult
to find a more repulsive location in which to be imprisoned.  

It wasn’t the squalor that caught Crichton’s interest.  It was the ship squatting near the hangar doors that held
his attention, hull transformed into a beetle-like iridescent greenish-black by the sunlight.  “The Winnebago!” he
blurted.  

“What else would we bring?” Ian said.  “Shut up and keep moving … please.”  The last word was tacked on as
an afterthought, as though Ian had suddenly remembered who he was talking to and that his tone might not
have been appropriate.  “This isn’t over yet, Dad.  Just keep moving.”  

What John liked to call the Winnebago was a Marauder they had managed to get their hands on when DJ was
still a baby.  Heavily armored, far in excess of what a Marauder normally carried for defensive plating, and
bristling with weapons, it was the only ship they ever considered using if they wanted to take a trip away from
Moya with the children in tow.  The inside had been just as extensively altered as the exterior.  It featured bunks
to sleep five, storage areas for toys and clothes as well as weapons, a galley, enough room for ten days worth
of provisions, and a fully-functional waste alcove.  

It simply wasn’t what John had expected his children to bring for a getaway car.  

They made the journey across the wide open hangar without incident.  It was when they reached the Marauder’
s stairs that they hit another snag.  Aeryn stopped, tugging John to a halt beside her.  “We have a problem,”
she said.

“That was way too easy.”  

“Mom, Dad --” Ian started.

“Give us a moment,” Aeryn snapped at him.  

Ian nodded automatically, and stepped away, taking up a guard post between his parents and the cluster of
doorways leading from the maze of underground rooms into the hangar.    

“Could be that the kids are just better with plans than we are,” John said.

“They’re Crichtons.”

“Right,” he said, not bothering to argue the point this time around.  “So this could just be another mind frell
trick.  They’re still messing with our heads.  I’m dreaming you.”  

Aeryn looked both relieved and increasingly anxious.  “Or the other way around,” she said.  “You might be
another one of my hallucinations.  What do we do?”

“We don’t give the kids any directions to Moya.  They have to get there on their own,” he said.  Problem solved
as far as he was concerned, John started up the steps.  “Ian!” he called, motioning to the young man.    

Aeryn pulled him to a stop.  “What if we look out the view screen and see the star field as we approach Moya?  
How do we know that’s not what they’re after?  John, what if all they need is for me to see the nav controls --”

“--with the coordinates set in,” he finished for her.  “I know.”  

“Would you two please move it?” Ian said, trying to herd them into the ship.  “Everything has gone too
smoothly.  It’s time for our plan to go to dren, and we’d really like to have both of you on board before that
happens!”  

“Gotta play it out as if it’s real,” John said to Aeryn.

“Stay out of the cockpit,” she said, nodding.  

“You can do whatever you want once you’re on board,” Ian added into the conversation, “as long as you make
it sometime today!”  

They stumbled and staggered their way up the stairs with Ian right on their heels.  Stepping inside, they found
DJ already strapped into the pilot’s seat, Mia beside him, in the midst of completing the start up sequence.  Ian
brushed past his parents, snapped his pulse rifle into the rack in the weapons locker, and then hurried back to
finish securing the hatch.  Not one of the three paid John and Aeryn the least bit of attention.  John clung to
Aeryn’s shoulders and didn’t know whether to laugh or start crying from relief and the fear that it would all
change.

“Where do you want us?” Aeryn asked.  John held his breath, half afraid of the answer.  

DJ twisted around in his seat, looked them over from top to bottom, and said, “You both look as though you’re
about to fall down.  We’ve got this covered.  Go crash in your quarters.”  

John very nearly did fall down at that point, this time from unadulterated relief.  The only thing that kept him on
his feet was the feel of Aeryn’s body alongside his undergoing a similar downward shift.  It wasn’t a stumble or a
loss of balance; if he had been asked to describe what he had felt, he might have said that they had both
suffered a momentary loss of muscular tension.  If the Marauder’s gravity plates had suffered a brief
malfunction, increasing the amount of force being exerted on their bodies for a split-microt, it might have had
the sort of influence on them he had just felt.  

The arm Aeryn had wrapped around his waist tugged at him, encouraging him to turn away from the forward
view screen and the instrumentation, to turn his back on the final stages of the rescue and to stumble and
ricochet their way down the tight confines of the ship’s central corridor until they reached the doorway to their
miniscule bedroom.  

“You first,” she said, pulling free of his embrace.  

Jamming the equivalent of an entire household capable of sustaining two adults and three children into a
Marauder had been accomplished at the expense of free space.  Their bunk, like all the others aboard the ship,
was similar to an old fashioned berth in a railroad sleeping car, only larger.  Hemmed in on three sides by
storage lockers and the ship’s outer bulkhead, with additional storage space above it reducing the headroom to
little more than a motra and a half, it was more modernized cave than an expansive well-cushioned sleeping
area for two.  It was a well-lit, snug little hole with remote readouts from the navigational equipment and internal
monitors built in to the underside of the low ceiling, allowing them to keep an eye on what was going on both
inside and outside the ship at all times -- a space-hopping parent’s dream.  They had spent many an arn
lounging there during longer trips, often with the kids bouncing about, scattering toys or food crumbs across
the mattress.  

Cozy as it was, the tight confines meant there was only one route in and out of the bed.  Whoever laid down
first could not get out without clambering over the other person.  The ‘inside’ spot near the bulkhead had
always been John’s.  His claim on that spot hadn’t been a ploy to avoid getting up in the middle of the night
when the children were small.  That aspect of parenting had worked the other way around.  Since he had never
developed the finely tuned parent’s radar to sense when one of the children was sick or upset, he had relied on
frequent middle of the night patrols to make sure that all was well.  

Aeryn was the one who always knew instantaneously if something wasn’t right.  He had never decided whether
she was relying on some form of Peacekeeper training attuned to a new purpose or if it was the mother’s
instinctual awareness of her children’s health and well-being.  Aeryn herself had never been able to explain it.  
As far as John was concerned, all he needed to know was that if he woke in the middle of the night and Aeryn
was not next to him in the bed, it meant he needed to get up and find out what was wrong.

His preference had something to do with not being vulnerable.  Even with multiple layers of armor plating
surrounding him, he had always slept better tucked in where it would be difficult for anyone hostile to get at
him.  At first he had felt guilty about claiming that side of the bed.  By all rights, he should have wanted Aeryn in
the more protected spot, especially when she was pregnant.  But Aeryn had assured him repeatedly that she
didn’t care where she slept just as long as he didn’t wake her when he was getting in and out of bed, to the
point of backing it up with the occasionally well-placed knee if he was being particularly clumsy, and eventually
his sense of guilt had subsided.  

John slithered into his spot without questioning the traditional arrangement, squirmed around until he was on
his back, and then motioned for Aeryn to join him.  One microt later she was beside him, lying so she was half
on and half off one side of his body, with his arm wrapped around her shoulders.  They sighed as one and
started to relax.  

The reprieve from chaos did not last long.  “Hang on to something!” Ian’s voice called from the direction of the
cockpit.  “Might be a little bumpy for a few microts.  They’re a bit ticked off and it looks like they’re going to
throw us a going away party.”   

John jammed himself into the angle formed by the bed and the bulkhead, braced himself with one arm and a
foot, and wrapped his free arm around Aeryn.  “Hang on to something,” he said, repeating Ian’s yelled
instructions.  “I’ll hang on to you.”    

“And I’ll hang on to you,” she said, and kissed him.   

In another world, possibly in another universe, there might have been some wild lurches by the Marauder,
accompanied by a series of insane fluctuations in both velocity and the ship’s orientation; there might have
been a dozen or more deafening impacts that reverberated throughout the metal-hulled craft, or the booming
crack of the Marauder’s main cannon; there might have been three voices calling to each other, shouting out
range and bearing information, and the howl of engines being pushed to their limit.  But if someone had asked
him about it later, John Crichton would have said it was all a product of a lunatic’s deluded imagination.  He
knew that those microts had been filled with the touch and taste of Aeryn Sun, with the steady rhythm of her
heart beating beneath his right hand, the firm reassuring pressure of her arms holding him tightly around his
shoulders, and the weight of her body lying on top of his.

The kiss grew in fervor and intensity, fast turning into an expanding need to prove in the most physical manner
possible that they were free, more or less unharmed, and safely away from their captors.  They were
interrupted before John could suggest that a thorough inspection of Aeryn’s body for injuries might be in order.  

“That’s not the kind of hang on to something we were talking about,” Ian said.  

Aeryn shifted far enough to one side that she could look toward the corridor without straining her neck. Other
than the small adjustment, she remained where she was, lying half on top of John with her arms wrapped
around him.  “You should have been more specific,” she said.  

Ian was in the doorway, his left shoulder propped against the door opening, right hand resting on the butt of his
holstered pulse pistol.  He was a study in enforced calm, managing to appear simultaneously tired and elated;
both on the verge of an exhausted collapse and ready to explode with excitement.  “You need anything?” he
asked.  “Medical treatment?  Food, water … privacy?”  

“This is enough,” Aeryn said, gesturing toward their quarters.  

“How about you?” John asked, diagnosing the mixed signals Ian was giving off.  “How are the adrenalin levels?”

Ian’s ever-present grin shifted into a mildly abashed version of his usual carefree smile.  “I don’t know whether
to have a heart attack or go run around the ship four or five hundred times.”  

“The three of you are all right?  No holes in anyone?” Aeryn asked next.

“The only people with holes in them are you two.”  He took the one step necessary to move to the side of their
bed, and sat down gingerly, as if it might sag and break under his added weight.  “You’re both really okay?” he
asked.  

All at once there was a small boy sitting there instead of a highly capable, often brash teenager.  The physical
strength disappeared for the moment, to be replaced by bumbling uncertainty, reminiscent of the stage Ian had
gone through when his body had turned into his worst enemy.  Adolescence had been hard on him, taking
away the sturdy, stocky little body that had carried him through dozens of childhood mishaps unscathed, and
replacing it seemingly overnight with a gangling skeleton that he hadn’t known how to control.  He had barely
adjusted to being as tall as his father when his musculature had begun to catch up with his height.  Genetics
and an athletic lifestyle had combined to bestow on him a degree of power and strength that had scared him at
first.  It had taken the better part of two cycles for him to become comfortable with the powerful physique that
would carry him through the rest of his life.  

For the moment though, he reverted to the awkward, pre-teenaged Ian who was never quite sure where to put
his arms and legs.  

John reached toward him with his free hand.  “We’re going to be fine.  Come here.”

Ian got to his feet instead.  He backed away from their bed, his expression shifting rapidly between
embarrassment, happiness, relief, a painful lack of confidence, and half a dozen other emotions. Caught
between the opposing desires to be reassured by his parents and the need to stand on his own, his feet
performed a slow, aimless shuffle, physically shifting back and forth at the same rate that he shifted mentally
between his past and his future.  In the end, he came to rest where he had begun:  leaning on the door
opening, one hand propped on his pulse pistol.  The child faded away before their eyes, leaving the emerging
adult in his place.  “I’m okay,” he said finally.  “We were just … pretty worried.”  

“You did well,” Aeryn said.  “All three of you.  I’m proud of you.”  The quietly delivered praise achieved what the
offer of a hug could not.  The normally indomitable grin reappeared, accompanied by a pleased blush, and a
moment later Ian disappeared toward the front of the ship.  

Malii’ya appeared in the doorway next.  She showed none of Ian’s reluctance to be reassured with hugs or
other forms of parental affection.  Stopping just long enough to make sure her presence wouldn’t aggravate
their fatigue or any injuries she wasn’t aware of, she made it from the edge of the bed to a spot between her
parents in one fast lunge.  “I was so scared,” her muffled voice said into John’s shoulder.  “DJ said we’d get you
back.  I wanted to believe him.”  

“You did believe him.  You came to rescue us,” John said.  

She rocked her head back and forth against his shoulder, her face still hidden.  “No, I didn’t.  Not really.  But I
had to go along with his plan, or … or else --”  

“--or else accept that we were gone forever,” John finished for his daughter.  The motion of her head switched
from sideways to up and down:  a nod.  John rubbed her back, remembering the aching emptiness that came
from losing a parent.  Having both disappear at the same time would have been nearly unbearable.  For a
moment he could have sworn his nervous system had fused with his daughter’s.  All of the fear, the loss, the
emptiness, and the uncertainty that she must have felt were there, just as Malii’ya must have felt them,
combining to form an aching knot in the pit of his stomach.  

He wanted her to be an infant again, not so he could experience the explosively giddy type of love he had felt
every time he had held Malii’ya in his arms, but so he could enfold her one more time, providing an all-
encompassing form of physical assurance that he could no longer provide to a fast growing fourteen-cycle old.  
He gave her a one-armed hug instead, and kissed the top of her head.  “We’re fine, honey.  You and your
brothers did a Class A job of rescuing.”  

It seemed that hugs from both of her parents and several microts of proximity were all Malii’ya required in order
to complete her recovery.  She left the way she had arrived:  on the fly, ponytail streaming behind her, her
emotions out in the open for all to see.  

“DJ next,” Aeryn said.  

John spent several moments making himself more comfortable before answering:  stuffing another pillow behind
his head, squirming sideways until he was once again tucked in under a portion of Aeryn’s body, loosening the
waist of his pants.  “He’ll give us some time,” he said once he was settled.  He peered down at where Aeryn was
snuggled in against his side.  A slow crawl of crimson caught his attention.  “You’re bleeding.  Let me see.”  

Aeryn let out an overly long sigh before levering herself up on one elbow and twisting toward the side of the
bed so her back was turned to him.  John fingered her hair to one side, carefully exposing the back of her
neck.  The lacerations were deep, as expected, but the transponder had come out cleanly.  There was no sign
of tearing, and all but one of the punctures had stopped bleeding.  

Once he had confirmed that the damage was minimal, Aeryn did the same thing for him.  Her fingers lingered
long enough, performing more than a cursory exploration, that John began to suspect that he might need some
minor amount of first aid … if not full-fledged medical attention.  But when she finally straightened up, all Aeryn
said was, “You’ll live.”

“That’s what you said to me the time I fell off the walkway in the Den.”  

“Your point?” she said.   

He had known her long enough that he could spot the smirk hiding behind the look of placid curiosity.  “The
point is that I broke my leg in four places, had six broken ribs, a smashed shoulder, and a collapsed lung!”  

The smirk gathered some energy.  It was fast turning into one of the barely contained grins that, even after
more than twenty cycles of being together, remained Aeryn’s equivalent of busting a gut laughing.  “And you
lived.  My original assessment was correct.”  

The laughter was closer to the surface now.  She was having trouble keeping it contained.  John decided it
might be safe to broach a different topic.  He shifted to one side, putting a little more room between their bodies
so he could watch her reaction without straining, and rubbed her back several times.  “Tell me about that look
you gave me when I asked if they’d broken your legs.”  

The guilt returned in full force, more intense than before.  Aeryn propped an elbow on the mattress next to his
shoulder and stared down at him, suddenly serious.  The answer emerged in a whisper.  “I tried to escape.”  

“So did I.  They caught me before I made it half way to the hangar.  That’s normal.  Our plans usually go to dren
a lot faster than that.  What’s the problem?”  

“I would have left without you.”

John understood immediately.  It wasn’t guilt after all.  It was the same squirming uncertainty that he had been
experiencing ever since he remembered that Aeryn even existed.  He didn’t like that he had forgotten her, or
that she had been absent from each one of the hallucinations he had experienced.  He was even more
concerned that Aeryn had reappeared in both his life and his consciousness at the precise moment that the
apparently real rescue had begun.  The portion of his brain that was relieved to be safely aboard the family RV
wanted to believe that it was more of the trickery he had endured.  The more cautious side of his brain -- the
portion that had done its best to keep his family safe for the past two and a half decades -- was doing its best to
convince him that some of the pieces still didn’t add up.  

What bothered him most was that they had been able to prevent him from remembering Aeryn at all.  Every one
of the small pieces of his life that he had been able to salvage in spite of the transponder’s interference should
have included Aeryn.  He could think of no benefit other than an added layer of trickery … something held in
reserve until they were ready to tear down the last of his defenses.  He didn’t need to lay it all out for her; she
was the one who had realized there was a problem first.  After several additional moments of unproductive
thinking, all he said to Aeryn was, “There has to be a reason why they blocked our memories of each other.”   

“Yes.”  Aeryn’s anxiety deepened.  “Did I really try to escape or was that another trick?”

The question came as a shock.  That particular possibility hadn’t occurred to him.  The punishment for trying to
escape, although only imagined, had been so horrific he hadn’t stopped to consider whether the actual attempt
to break free had been yet another transponder generated falsehood.  John replayed that night’s events in his
head, trying to pick out some moment or sight that would provide proof that it had been real.

Aeryn said, “I don’t remember getting from where they had me locked up to the hangar.”   

“Maybe you were too busy figuring out the next part of the escape,” he said, proposing one reason for the gap
in her memory.  

“That’s what I thought at first.  What if --”  She went silent, looking frustrated and worried.   

John didn’t bother finishing the truncated sentence.  He was too busy working out all the various ‘what ifs’ that
had sprung into existence the moment Aeryn had posed her first question.  What if the bounty hunters weren’t
as inept as he had thought?  What if Aeryn hadn’t been captured at all, and he was only imagining her
presence?  What if all the bungled attempts to convince him that he was escaping were only to lull him into a
false sense of security, preparing him for the final, devastatingly realistic presentation?  What if they had held
the image of Aeryn back until this final stage because it would have the desired effect of breaking down the last
of his disbelief?  What if they weren’t after Moya at all?  What if that bit of information was another aspect of the
mental sleight of hand, and they were really after Aeryn … or his children?  

“Is this real?” Aeryn asked, yanking his spiraling thoughts directly to the most important ‘what if’ of all.  

“Fifty microts ago, I would have said yes.”   

“John, I’m worried.  I don’t know what to believe anymore.”  

He hugged her with one arm, stared up at the lifeless consoles that normally showed where they were and what
the children were doing, and felt sick to his stomach.  It had all felt so real, especially when DJ hadn’t wanted
any help guiding them home.  It had taken very little to tear his confidence to shreds.    

A small noise from the doorway interrupted his increasingly bleak assessment of what few facts he could trust.  
John looked to his right.  DJ was standing just inside the room, looking at his parents quizzically.  “I overheard
the last part of the conversation,” he said.  “What do you need?  What would help?”  Unlike Ian’s offer to fetch
water or food, DJ was offering them something far more critical.  He was offering a route back to certainty.    

John and Aeryn looked at each other for several microts.  “We won’t go to Command for a few days,” John
started.  

“Or the Den.  Anywhere with nav readouts or star sightings will have to be off limits until we are absolutely
sure,” Aeryn continued.  “We won’t use any of the quarters along the outer section of the ship.”    

“You’ll want to stay out of the Center Chamber or any other area with view portals,” DJ added.  “For how long?”

“Until we’re sure.”    

DJ nodded several times, studying the toes of his boots and idly scratching a spot near his right ear.  “You can’t
tell that this is real?”  

“It all felt real for a while,” John said.  “Then your mother screwed it up by being smarter than me.”  

“As usual,” DJ tagged on, grinning.  He watched his parents for several moments, the smile easing into
something less gleeful but longer lasting.  “Why don’t --” he started, then shook his head.  

“Why don’t we what?” John asked.  “Your ideas are usually good ones, DJ.  Spit it out.”

“Why don’t you stay in here” -- his gesture indicated that he was referring to the entire RV -- “until you’re
certain?  We topped off all the supplies before we left, just in case we needed to hide for a while, and we can
hook the power and waste systems into Moya’s.  You wouldn’t have to worry about accidentally looking out a
view portal, there are no nav displays, the ‘bago will be parked inside the hangar bay, so you won’t be able to
look out and see any stars.  You could just” -- DJ shrugged -- “take a vacation.”   

Aeryn’s arm tightened around John’s upper body, transmitting approval.  “We haven’t had one of those in a
while,” he said.  “Vegging out for a few solar days might be nice.”  

The decision was made in less than three microts.  “Do it,” Aeryn said to DJ.  “How much longer before we
reach Moya?”  

DJ’s grin broadened.  “I won’t tell you.  You might use it to figure out where she’s waiting for us.”  Then, like Ian
and Maali’ya before him, he disappeared toward the cockpit.  

“What do you think?” Aeryn asked.  “Are you real or another one of my hallucinations?”  

John wrapped both arms around her, pulled her up onto his chest, and gave her a quick kiss.  “Let’s say, just
for the sake of argument, that you, the kids, the rescue, the Winnebago, DJ’s suggestion, and you and I
sprawled here are all hallucinations designed to get some information out of me.”  

“All right, it’s all a hallucination,” Aeryn said agreeably.  “We’ll work out later whether you’re hallucinating me or
I’m hallucinating you.  What is your point?”  

The point he intended to make had to do with Aeryn’s proximity, the promise of seclusion, being cut off from all
the normal insanity of their everyday lives, and most of all, having Aeryn by his side while he wallowed in
several days’ worth of enforced relaxation.  But instead of attempting to explain what was going on inside his
head, he kissed her.  There were no interruptions this time.  The embrace deepened, intensified, assumed a
moderate degree of desperation, as if to say that this was the route back to certainty, that this was the single
activity that could banish the trauma of the past several days and restore what the repeated trickery and
physical abuse had taken away from them.  

Aeryn shifted against his body.  She drove one knee between his legs and moved further on top of him,
insinuating her way closer.  It wasn’t so much foreplay as it was the best they had to offer at the moment.  
Neither one of them had the energy to carry through on where the kiss was leading.  John knew for certain that
he didn’t, and he could feel that Aeryn was too tired as well.  The well-toned physique resting inside his hug felt
the way it had each time she had finished giving birth:  she was exuding elation, pride that she had survived an
intense physical ordeal, and thorough exhaustion.

“You never finished,” she whispered.  “What was your point?”

“My point is, if this is their version of torture, if it’s their way of forcing us into giving up some information --”  
John paused for another kiss, the one briefer and less intense than before.  

“Yes?” Aeryn prompted.  She had already begun to smile, obviously suspecting what was about to follow.  

John fumbled at the controls mounted above their bed, searching for a specific switch.  A microt later the door
to their quarters slid shut.  “-- then bring it on!”  


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