Time and Again - Part One.
By Jess Pallas.
Feedback; Go on then! E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Archiving; If you like it, take it. But please, let me know first.
Rating: Not sure what the standard is but I'd guess at PG and General. No naughtiness (sorry shippers) but there are a few fights.
Spoilers; Nothing major. References to TWWW, EFG, HOTR and DMS.
Summary: Moya is invaded by a race with a grudge against Pilot's species.
"And maybe they will." Aeryn's voice was cold. "Do you want to take that risk?"
"None of us want to risk it Aeryn," he said wearily, "But what other choice have we got? The only commerce planet within lightcycles of here is sitting on the other side of that beacon. We're running low on food. We'll be down to chewing on each other soon and I for one don't want to find out if Sparky tastes as bad as he smells!"
"Much as I hate to agree with Crichton, he is correct," Rygel imposed loftily, choosing to ignore John's remark as he glided forward on his thronesled. "We need to reach that planet. We're down to our last haunches of Keva!"
"And who's fault is that?" D'Argo muttered under his breath. Rygel shot him a dirty look but didn't rise to the bait.
"I'm sure the Rani won't chose to attack us," he continued, "And even if they do…." He paused. "It isn't as though they threatened all of us…"
Aeryn was across the Command in microts, fire burning in her eyes. Only D'Argo's reflex grab kept her from ripping Rygel apart on the spot.
"You be so callous as to sacrifice his life for food after all he's done for us? You obnoxious little slug!"
"Easy, Aeryn," he said calmingly. "Let's not fight amongst ourselves, huh? That ain't gonna solve the problem."
Reluctantly Aeryn stepped back. D'Argo released her waist warily but she made no further lunges, settling for an icy glare at Rygel that could have felled armies. The Hynerian almost instinctively shrunk back.
John was gazing pensively out of the front portal at the beacon, it's lazy spin belying it's threatening nature.
"This isn't our call," he said abruptly. "We aren't the ones facing death threats here and we've no right to go making the decisions."
He turned to the clamshell. "Pilot?"
"I have heard of the Rani," he confessed. "Few amongst my species haven't. Their hatred of us is legendary."
"What makes the Rani despise your people enough to threaten slow death to any they catch?" Zhaan was watching the clamshell with concern.
Pilot sighed. "I don't know exactly. I had always believed the Rani a myth until now. But it is said in stories that they worship leviathans as sky gods but consider us parasites who dominate and imprison them. It is believed they desire to free their gods from our invasion."
"Don't they realise the leviathans need you guys?" John asked curiously.
"I doubt it. I imagine if my kind tried to tell them, they would simply be ignored."
"Like the Draks," John muttered under his breath. "Nobody listens to the parasite."
He caught the indignant look on Pilot's face and raised his hands apologetically. "I don't mean you are a parasite, Pilot! I was just….Forget it! Look, we still have a decision to make here. Do we go on or not? It's up to you."
"Why should he be the one to decide?" Rygel declared indignantly. "It's not as though he's going to starve to death! And he won't have to deal with Zhaan in bud!"
"But he is the one who could die!" Aeryn snapped. "Shut up, Rygel!"
Pilot sighed again. "I am afraid," he admitted. "But I cannot risk you all for the sake of something that may not even happen. We will continue."
John smiled. "Thanks Pilot. Keep the scanner out wide, huh? I'd like plenty of warning if the Rani decide to drop by."
"You're not the only one," Pilot muttered nervously. The imager shimmered and he was gone. The others exchanged glances as Moya glided slowly passed the beacon and entered Rani patrolled space. John stared out at the innocent looking stars.
"Once more into the breech, dear friends," he murmured.
Meeting only blank looks, he sighed and turned his attention to the controls.
The next few arns passed without incident. The crew maintained a constant watch in command, backing up Pilot with the reassurance of their presence. They could do little to assist the navigator but having someone on constant call seemed to calm his nerves somewhat. But still, he remained obviously ill at ease, saying little, preferring to concentrate on his work. Aeryn had observed him carefully throughout her watch and gradually she became convinced that there was something he wasn't telling them. There was nothing specifically different about his behaviour – a slight edge to his voice and expression that wouldn't have even been noticeable to someone who knew him less well , but to her implied that he was hiding something. She couldn't fathom why or what it might be but it concerned her for what ever it was, was clearly adding to his discomfort. So when Chiana arrived to relieve her, she chose to ignore her weariness and made her way down to the Den.
"Officer Sun," he acknowledged. "Is something the matter?"
"I was about to ask you the same question," Aeryn watched his face carefully, searching for answers. "Pilot, you've not been yourself ever since we found that warning beacon. I know you must be afraid, but I think I know you well enough to see that's not all that's wrong. There's more to these Rani than you've told us, isn't there?"
For a moment, she thought he was going to deny it. But then his head bowed and he looked away, his expression distressed. Aeryn waiting patiently, knowing better than to rush him. He would explain in his own good time.
"It's just a story," he ventured at last with a distinct
reluctance. "When tales of the Rani are told amongst my people, they are told
in fearful tones. They are more myth than truth, stories to frighten the
gullible and young amongst my kind – or so I always thought." He paused and
took a deep breath. " But if the stories are true, then you should know what is
Pilot looked up; his eyes were haunted with fear. "If that is true – if they can control Moya and override my commands – then I have no way to defend myself. I am helpless. I will have no option but to sit here in the dark and wait for my death to come."
He was terrified, Aeryn realised. Defenceless as he seemed at times, his ability to manipulate Moya and the DRDs had always given him a measure of protection. Take that away and he had nothing. He couldn't even run.
"Now you listen to me," she said, her voice low but determined. "You will never be in danger as long as I'm aboard this ship. The Rani can't control me. I promise you Pilot, I won't let you get hurt, by the Rani or anyone else!"
He smiled at her but it was half-hearted at best. "Thank you, Aeryn Sun. I just wish I could believe that was true."
Chiana was bored. The grey-skinned Nebari ran her fingers lazily across the controls as she gazed with a distinct lack of interest at the starry tableau displayed on the forward portal. This was a magra-farbot waste of time. She had done every scan, checked every readout and had found all of nothing. There were no Rani. There wasn't anything but the commerce planet, almost a solar day's travel ahead. All around them were the stars and the empty void of space, no threat to anyone, let alone Moya. She was beginning to think that the beacon was a hoax or out of date, that the Rani – if they even existed – had long ago left the area. Was there any point in her even being up there? She had better things to do than reassure the nerves of a paranoid pilot!
"What the frell?" The Nebari exclaimed. She scrambled up from her slouch, hitting the console with rapid fingers to double check the reading. There had to be a mistake! But instead, her check only told her it was true. Moya was open to space.
"Pilot, why'd you open the hanger?" she called out, turning quickly to the clamshell.
There was no response.
"Pilot!" she shouted again. Fear was rising inside of her chest. Again, her plea was met with silence. The imager stayed dark, reflecting the ominous edge that had fallen over the command. She noticed for the first time that the lights had dimmed and Moya's sounds had become oddly hushed. Chiana took a deep breath. This was not good.
Breathing hard, grey skin beaded with sweat, she flung herself around a corner and collided head on with someone solid. Both tumbled to the ground in a heap of arms and legs, a flash of pale skin and black leather. The rifle went flying – struggling free, Chiana scrambled for it desperately. She would not be taken! A hand gripped at her wrist; she panicked and kicked out instinctively and with a great deal of force. Her foot met bone with a crunch.
"Owww! Hey, Pip, take it easy! Where's the fire?"
"John! Thank frell!" The words came out in a garbled rush. "The comms are down and there's someone in the Docking bay! I called Pilot but he didn't answer! I think we're being boarded!"
John came straight to his feet, limping slightly as he gingerly rubbed his shin.
"How the Hell did they get on board without being detected?"
"I don't know! They just appeared out of nowhere!"
Heavy footsteps sounded behind them; Nebari and Human wheeled as one, weapons extended. D'Argo stared at them, hesitating a moment as they lowered their guns with a joint sigh of relief, before striding imperiously over.
"What the frell is going on?" he demanded, towering over his ship-mates. "What's wrong with the comms? And why are you two so nervous?"
"Chi thinks we've been boarded." John set out at a fast walk. Chiana and D'Argo exchanged a glance and fell in behind him.
"Rani?" D'Argo asked brusquely. He was already reaching for his Qualta blade.
"Could be. If it is, they'll be heading for Pilot's. D'Argo, you get down to his chamber, protect him from these lunatics. Pip, you're with me. Lets go check out what we're dealing with."
Alarmed, she reached for her comm.
"Pilot, are you there?"
There was no answer. The device hissed spitefully, turning back her pleas. Beyond the door, she could hear the whispered hum of voices.
There was no time to seek help. Zhaan hurried over to the work bench where one of Aeryn's pulse rifles lay. The Priestess snatched it up and ducked behind the bench bracing the gun before her as she pointed the muzzle at the sealed entry, readying herself for what might come. She would not let Moya be boarded. They would not pass her!
"Pilot? Can you hear me? John? D'Argo? Is anyone there?"
She had to reach him. He was their target. They would care nothing for the crew. They had a job to do, a parasite to kill. And to do that, they would make sure he was defenceless and isolated.
Devastation littered the maintenance bay. Zhaan's carefully stored collection of herbs and potions had been smashed to smithereens, a rainbow arch of shattered glass and coloured liquid that trickled lazily across the floor. The work bench had been toppled, the rifles and pistols lain on it ripped apart with disturbing ferocity, their pieces scattered far and wide. John and Chiana paused in the doorway, their eyes wide in shock at what lay before them. What kind of people would do this?
"I think we have a direct hit on the maintenance bay by Hurricane Rani," John muttered under his breath. He took a step forward, his boot crunching on broken glass and skidding slightly.
"You think it's the Rani?" Chiana followed him reluctantly, her eyes darting nervously from corner to corner. "Why would they do this? I though they were just out for Pilot!"
"Yeah, and they want an easy ride." He pointed with the barrel of his gun. "Take out the guns. No protection. Take out the medicines. No fixing the damage."
"Aw, Hell!" He rushed forward, Chiana a step behind. Zhaan lay immobile on the floor. Quickly John knelt at her side, checking her vital signs as best he could, not entirely certain where the vitals of a sentient plant would be.
"Is she dead?" Chiana's voice had a shrill pitch.
"I don't think so." John leaned forward, examining the Pa'us neck. A small red mark blemished the blue skin. A bad feeling had lodged in his chest. How had they got on board so easily?
"They didn't just take our medicine, they took our healer too." He rose quickly. " Pip, you stay here, guard Zhaan. I gotta get to the Den."
He turned on his heel, pistol braced, just in time to see the door the maintenance bay slam shut.
When D'Argo reached the Den, he found the entrance was sealed tight. He stabbed at the lock for a moment but it stubbornly refused to release. The Luxan paused, drinking in the situation. It was possible that Pilot had sealed the doors himself when he detected the invasion, thinking to protect himself from what might come. But then a flicker of yellow caught his eye; a pair of DRDs sitting at the corner. Both were still and lifeless.
There was no answer. The warrior pressed one ear to the door, listening carefully but he could hear nothing but Moya's irregular pulsing.
"Frell!" His patience evaporated. D'Argo braced his Qualta blade and began hacking angrily at the lock, tentacles flailing mace like around his head. But his effort proved fruitless. Exhausted, the Luxan paused. This was getting him nowhere. He needed a saw.
But even as he turned, Aeryn appeared at a run around the corner, pulse pistol gripped in her fist. She spotted him at the same instant and skidded to a halt.
"What's happening?" she gasped. "Is Pilot all right?"
"I don't know. The door has been sealed somehow." D'Argo moved towards her, casting around the corridor. He didn't know what was happening behind that door, but he was certain it wasn't good. They had to get inside.
"We need something to cut…" he began but Aeryn interrupted sharply.
"We don't have time for that!" She grabbed his arm and half-dragged the big Luxan up the corridor. "There's another way in! Come on!"
Ahead, a small grill opened out onto the vaulted chamber. Aeryn paused, keeping back out of any possible line of sight, and listened. Below there were footsteps, movement, a clinking that she couldn't identify and the low growl of unfamiliar voices. The peacekeeper tensed. Her instincts had been proved right. But this was one occasion she would have liked to have been wrong.
"Rani," D'Argo's low voice contained an unmistakable menace. He took a tighter grip on his Qualta blade, his eyes burning fiercely. "They will pay for this intrusion!"
"Let's hope that's all they have to pay for."
"I don't hear Pilot," D'Argo whispered grimly.
Aeryn nodded. "That's what worries me. Come on."
She motioned him closer with a jerk of her head. Silently
she ducked down, slinking beneath the grate to rise, back to the wall on the
The Rani themselves milled about him amid clusters of
lifeless DRDs. They were a tall race, with vivid scarlet hair and orange-red
skin, their mouths protruding like the muzzle of a cat.
The peacekeeper felt a rush of relief. He was still alive. That was something. But she didn't fancy the odds. A quick count told her that twelve Rani stood scattered around the chamber. An apprehension that was almost fear like rose within her.
With an indifference that was almost studied, the Rani with the syringe-gun turned and leaned forward, the point of the needle arcing dangerously towards Pilot's neck. Pilot tried to pull back but the second Rani gripped his head sharply and held him ruthlessly in place.
Silence filled the maintenance bay. John sat wearily, back against the toppled work bench as he rested his head in his hands, muttering over and over again at his own stupidity. Beside him Zhaan was a blue shadow, still unconscious from the effects of the Rani drug. A clatter and shrill squeal of frustration came from the direction of the door – Chiana had spent the entire of however long they'd been there attacking the lock with whatever she could find, entirely without success. The thief had not taken their incarceration well; in a burst of fury, she sent the useless tool flying across the room to bounce off the equally immovable hanger. With a huff, the young Nebari folded her arms and slumped to the floor, her back against the door, her expression a mix of the same frustration and anger that currently resided in John.
"So what now?"
John looked at the grey-skinned adolescent with weary eyes.
"I dunno Pip. Any bright ideas?"
"From her? You'll be waiting a while! You two should try using your brains for once!"
John and Chiana started as one, astonishment written on their features as a nearby vent grate clattered to the floor. A small green face peered out, with a distinctly smug expression.
"But, oh no, as usual, it's up to me to save the day!"
"Guido!" John exclaimed, scrambling to his feet. "I never thought I'd ever be this happy to see you!"
"Way to go, Ryge!" Chiana had already hurried over. She knelt and examined the vent. Almost at once her face fell.
"This frelling's hole's too small! We can't get out this way!" She reached out and clouted Rygel across the head. "Thanks for nothing, slug boy!"
"Any chance you could open the door?"
"What's in it for me?"
"Rygel!" John and Chiana shouted as one and the Hynerian drew back.
"All right, all right, I'll do it! But remember, you two owe me!"
With that, the tiny green dominar withdrew and vanished back into the darkness. Chiana watched him go with an expression of distaste.
"Little toad!" she muttered.
John placed a hand on her shoulder. "Leave him be. If he can break us out, I ain't complaining. I've had enough of Leviathan Alcatraz for one day."
He stood and walked away staring at the wall. Hurry it up, Sparky! He thought to himself. Hell knows what's going on out there!
The needle dart whistled past, missing her ear by inches. Aeryn twisted, dodged and opened fire, felling her assailant in a haze of pulse fire. Behind her, she could hear D'Argo, roaring in anger as he laid about him with his Qualta blade, but she had no time to turn and check on his progress. Three Rani were down already – the two who had been closest to Pilot, felled by her initial volley and the third she had taken out moments before. Glancing back, she saw D'Argo add two more to their tally, as a sweeping blow from his sword sent a pair of crimson heads tumbling into the void. Aeryn barely had time to note their passing, her breath coming in short gasps as the adrenalin of combat set her veins on fire. Beyond the red haze of Rani faces, she caught a glimpse of Pilot, his orange eyes wide with a strange combination of fear and hope. But then he was gone, lost behind a looming assailant. Aeryn blocked his blow with her arm, ducked under and swept his legs from under him, sending him tumbling off the walkway into oblivion. A companion rushed to avenge him but Aeryn knocked his gun aside almost contemptuously, grabbing his arm as she hauled him into range of her fist.
"Aeryn! Look out!"
Where was the fourth?
An angry red haze showered Aeryn's vision. Her pulse pistol snapped up almost of it's own accord, her finger half-squeezed on the trigger….
Strong arms gripped her around the neck
The world seemed to freeze, to hang in that terrible instant forever. A chilling numbness filled Aeryn's body. For a moment, she seemed to float in an unreal world, away from her body and emotions. But then the burning fire of fury swept through her like a storm. She heard herself screaming as she snatched her hand free, reality moving in a strange and vivid slow motion as she swivelled and slammed the flat of her hand into her attackers face. He staggered back, stumbling over his unconscious counterpart and she followed up quickly with a devastating kick that sent him sailing down into the darkness. She twisted, pulse pistol raised and fixed upon the Rani with the empty syringe-gun, who gazed at the dark haired wrath before him with fearful eyes. He had no time to dodge. Her blast sent him flying backwards to collapse lifeless in a smoking heap.
Aeryn rushed forward, discarding her pistol in her haste as she scrambled onto the console and knelt beside her friend, ripping away the gag and cradling his huge head gently in her arms. His breathing was ragged and shallow, his eyes now closed. D'Argo appeared beside her, hacking away the restrictive chains with his Qualta blade, before kneeling quickly beside her. In one hand, he held the empty syringe-gun.
"What was that?" he said, staring at Pilot with fear and concern.
"Aeryn, are you all right?" He received no answer. "Aeryn!"
"I'm fine," she snapped, her mind suddenly clear. "But I'm not the one we need to worry about here!" She met his eyes fiercely. "You have to find Zhaan, bring her here, now! If this is poison, she could be his only hope!"
She glared as he hesitated. "Move it, D'Argo!"
"Aeryn." he gasped weakly. "I feel…."
"I know." She rested her head against his. "Don't talk. Save your strength. You'll be fine, just focus, try to stay with me. Zhaan's on her way."
Pilot nodded weakly. He shifted his head and winced.
"Don't move!" she admonished sharply. He looked up at her and tried to smile.
"You've been a good friend, Aeryn," he said softly. "To me and to Moya. Thank you for trying to help me."
"I told you not to talk," she managed, looking away to hide the glistening tears that welled up in her eyes.
END OF PART ONE.